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Nicole faltered when Serafino sat up, leaning on his elbows, and watched her. She'd faced celebrities and players, but somehow this man had more presence than anybody else she'd ever met. And that was saying something.
She recovered by trying to describe him for the article she'd write later. As I approached villa owner and handsome playboy Domenici Serafino ... No, too bland. Besides, "handsome" didn't begin to describe him. Powerful, devilish, darkly sensual, that sounded better. And he reminded her of a bear in a way. Wearing only a swimsuit, his chest darkly shadowed with hair the same near-black as that on his head, he looked like a bear of the dangerous variety, not the tame, golden-furred, cuddly ones lovers gave to each other, maybe with a red velvet heart clutched between its paws. If Domenici Serafino held a heart, it would be the pulsing, bleeding kind. The man looked barely civilized.
She couldn't see his eyes behind the dark sunglasses, but she felt the intensity of his gaze. Or maybe that was the sun pounding down on her back. She prayed she wouldn't suffer too much for her reckless decision to go without a cover-up. She'd made sure to bring her camera and her notebook. Those were far more important.
She tried hard not to stare at his crotch and the impressive bulge that filled the front of his swim shorts. She managed a couple of comprehensive glances, and she was sure he wasn't erect, or semierect, but still, he filled the only garment he wore impressively.
Not a celebrity himself, he'd become one because of the women he'd dated and the men he hung out with. And his own spectacular looks. Nobody could overlook Domenici Serafino. He toweredover most people, his broad body frequently clad in Armani and Hugo Boss or chinos and soft shirts. The photographers loved him.
Much to his embarrassment, or so he claimed.
Nicole snorted. Yeah, right. But he rarely gave interviews, never spilled any secrets about the people his company catered to by providing apartments in cities and secluded villas in the world's beauty spots. Added to that, every property he handled gave away a complimentary week's stay to a charity, usually a children's charity. At peak times of the year sometimes.
An interview with this man would give her flagging career the boost it needed. A more lasting connection would be even better. But she wasn't shooting for that right away. Just the interview. She'd use the techniques she'd honed over years as one of the world's best gossip journalists: ask questions first and get permission later; but her boss and ex, Gary, wouldn't like it if he knew she meant to take any refusal seriously. She could hear his voice in her head: "Just get the goods, Nicole. The dirtier the better. Nice spicy stuff. Then, just before you leave, tell him where you work. He won't play along at first, but you're guaranteed to charm him into something."
That depended. Nicole had her own code of ethics and that included keeping her word, assessing her subjects to see if they played the game, and not sleeping with them just to get information.
Gary thought she slept with all of them. She'd led him to think it when they split. Which caused her something of a dilemma, because if this guy asked, she probably would. And it wouldn't have anything to do with journalism.
Ever since she'd seen his picture, ironically in the celebrity gossip magazine where she now worked, she'd had a secret yearning to meet this man in the flesh. He'd even featured in some of her favorite fantasies, the ones she used her BOB to help along. She'd always loved the tied-up and fucked ones, where a big, strong man did what he wanted to her, and she had no say in what he did. Not Dom/sub games, but maybe along those lines. For her fantasies, Domenici Serafino was just about perfect. Big, strong, nothing delicate or gentle about him, just a big brute of a man. Her favorite.
Thinking of those fantasies right now was probably not a good idea. Her bikini didn't cover a lot.
Walking up the beach toward where he lay waiting turned into a bit of a marathon, and by the time she reached him, she was out of breath. She'd thought she managed to hide it pretty well before his head lowered a little, his gaze obviously going to her boobs where her heavy breathing made them move.
"Very nice." He paused and took another deliberate look, his eyes behind those dark glasses scorching her skin. "You're a big improvement on Omar Sharif."
It took her a moment to realize what he meant. Although her Italian was fluent, it was still a foreign language to her, and she had to mentally check her translation. But Omar Sharif was Omar Sharif in any language. Lawrence of Arabia, when Omar Sharif had taken at least ten minutes to ride up to where Peter O'Toole waited for him. One of the best entrances in cinematic history. She hoped hers was as good, but she doubted it.
Domenici sat up and leaned his elbows on his knees. At least she had somewhere else to look. His mouth firmed into a hard line. "Well, now you can turn around and go back the way you came, and I get to look at your tush instead of your tits and decide which view I like best. Thanks for the show."
He lifted his head and confronted her. The blank stare was somehow worse than if she could see his eyes properly. But she felt a tension about him, something in the set of his shoulders or the way he braced his feet firmly against the soft sand of the beach.
"I'm sorry. I just walked, and then I didn't realize where I was."
"You're on a private beach. My beach to be exact. You can leave the way you came."
Shit. This man dated some of the most beautiful women in the world, so how could she compete? She spent her time on the other side of the camera, interviewing. She could dress for success, but she'd never bothered with the pinned and tucked world of celebrity. It took too much time. She was fine, nothing to be ashamed of, but next to the buffed-up, toned-down, cosmetically enhanced bodies of women who had the leisure and the expense to indulge themselves, she didn't stand a chance, and for once in her life, she actually cared about that. He probably went for big boobs and tiny waists. If her waist was small, it was a mixture of genetic luck and a twenty-minute run most days, not hours in the gym and another few hours at the plastic surgeon's.
Not that she wanted that. She just wanted him. Or had, until the sheer power and presence of the man had overwhelmed her. And the sheen of ice that somehow covered him, despite the heat of the day.
"I'm sorry. I-I should go." Admitting defeat to Gary somehow seemed better than facing this man. Gary's sarcasm and threats of dismissal were part of her life, and she always gave as good as she got.
But not like this. He didn't want her here, every line of his taut, muscular body told her that. And he knew what she was doing here. "I must have taken a wrong turn somewhere."
"Yes, you must have." His mouth straightened. "I've seen you before, haven't I?"
She shrugged and winced. Whoops. Maybe stripping down to a bikini hadn't been the best of ideas, but while she wouldn't sleep with anyone for information, she had no objection to teasing a little. Even if she wasn't exactly supermodel material, she could still strut her stuff.
She hadn't been prepared for the sheer presence of the man, powerfully affecting her so much she felt her crotch dampen when his heated stare traveled over her. And she'd thought to flirt the information out of him? She must have been mad. But even worse, her thoughts went straight past flirtation to something much hotter.
She lifted her sunglasses, and he did the same. She and met his level stare, squinting a little against the light of the sun. "Nicole Cipriani from Gossip magazine. I just thought I'd ask for an interview. Your terms. Name the time and place."
He regarded her for a moment without speaking, making her squirm inwardly. "I appreciate the straightforward approach. That'll get you further than any other way." His dark eyes swept up and down her barely clad body, and she felt every touch. "Okay, I'll think about it. Give me your number."
She pulled a card out of her bag, reminding herself not to babble. She hadn't been this nervous for years. "Thanks. I'd appreciate it. I thought something like a tour of the villa, a few harmless stories about the people who've stayed here. You know, summer filler stuff." That would be a start. Afterward, she could try to get more out of him. But she had the feeling he didn't let his secrets out easily. "I'll leave you to your newspaper."
Before her wild thoughts of being naked, tied to his bed, overwhelmed her, she turned away and took a few steps back in the direction from which she'd come. It seemed a lot farther away now.
She halted, but waited a moment before turning around. She felt his presence around her, rather than hearing him rise from his nest on the sand.
He frowned down at her. "Did you walk here with no cover-up?"
"It doesn't matter; I'll be fine."
"Oh, it matters."
A shower of loose sand scattered around her with sudden force as the heavy weight of a cloth covered her shoulders. "What...?" She spun around to face him, only to wince as something scraped against her sore flesh. Shit. She'd hoped her hair would be enough to shield her for the half hour she'd need to walk here from the beach outside her hotel. She hadn't realized the day would be so hot, so she had not slathered herself in sunscreen before she set out.
He stood so close she could have touched him, tunneled her fingers into the black curls covering his chest, but his expression didn't invite touch. He scowled down at her. "What were you thinking?" He waved a hand toward the cloudless sky. "This is the hottest day of the year so far." With a sound halfway between a growl and a huff, he turned away. "Come with me. You can't go back like this."
If she'd realized a touch of sunburn would get her in, she'd have stayed in the sun another half hour. Stopping only to sweep up his belongings--a spray bottle of lotion, a cell phone, and a newspaper--he led the way to the house overlooking this stretch of the beach.
The villa, painted a shade of dusky pink popular on this little island, had a small garden leading to a yard with a hot tub half sunk into the stone-flagged surface. Nicole marveled at how well the other half lived. Crammed into a high-rise hotel farther up the coast, Nicole had thought her double-bedded room comfortable enough, but this was something else.
The coolness of the air-conditioned house swept over her like a welcome breeze as he led her through the large, country-style kitchen and then an open-plan living area to the stairs at the end. He glanced back to see her still following him, and at his scorching stare, she knew immediately where she wanted to go with him.
Straight to the bedroom.
And that was where he took her. To a room decorated mostly in white, with a terracotta tiled floor, dominated by a huge white-draped bed with gauzy curtains swagged above it, like the resting place of a fairytale princess. No sign of cupboards or chests of drawers, only a full-length mirror along one wall and two small plinths on either side of the bed.
It had a virginal appearance she doubted it deserved, considering who was currently living there and who had been there in the past. Her real targets. The celebrities who stayed here and at the other places owned by Serafino and Co. Not even a fancy name to attract customers, because they didn't need one. Serafino's never advertised, but its villas and apartments were rarely empty. Word of mouth proved far more effective than the most expensive TV advertisement.
The towel scratched her back. It must be full of sand to irritate like this. When she moved her shoulders to ease them, she cried out at the shot of pain.
He turned back to her immediately, but instead of whisking the towel off her, he lifted it carefully. She could see his face in the full-length mirror opposite them and his concern when he frowned and bit his lip. Unfortunately, she also saw how reddened her shoulders were.
"I might be able to help you; I think we've caught it early." Not to her way of thinking he hadn't. He frowned down at her. "Okay, come with me."
He opened the next door, and she drank in the sight. A huge bathroom, bigger than the whole ground floor of her condo back home, lay spread before her. She lagged behind, trying to memorize the sight for a later written description, while he headed for the large tub in the center of the room, flicked a switch to send the faucets pouring, and then continued past the tub to a walk-in shower.
The air-conditioning kept the temperature cool but not chilly, and the textured ceramic tiles underfoot gave her a good grip on the floor. The room's porcelain fittings were a cool ivory with what she suspected were precious metal decorations. "These aren't real gold, are they?" she asked, unable to keep quiet any longer. Too vulgar, her mother would say, and in this case, she agreed with her parent.
He chuckled low in his throat, the sexiest chuckle she'd ever heard. "Gold plated. The kind of people who stay here like a bit of ostentation. The refurb will be pink marble or something like that."
"People with no taste stay here?"
"Yes." She loved that he didn't bother to argue with her. "They want flashy stuff. They don't necessarily live with this kind of flash every day, though."
She knew differently. "I've been inside some of the homes of the rich and famous. I've seen more than gold-plated faucets."
He chuckled. "Come here. We need to cool your skin down fast." She glanced at the shower and he frowned. "No. Too rough for the way your skin is right now."
She walked across to him, and when he held his hand out to her, she slipped her own into it. Almost friendly.
Ostensibly, it was to help her into the bath, but the contact sizzled through her with the velocity of electricity. She drew her hand back, shocked, and stared at him to find him gazing at her, dark eyes wide, mouth slightly open, white teeth gleaming like a predator's.
It lasted less than an instant, but she'd remember that split-second moment of recognition forever. As if they'd known each other before, but forgotten, only to recall it in an instant out of time.
Of course, it could be anything. Even static. She could no longer deny how much she wanted him. Just because he was tall, dark, and handsome. For no other reason.
Nicole forced herself not to show any more vulnerability and reached for his hand again. This time she avoided his eyes when she gingerly stepped into the tub.
She heard his quick intake of breath when he got a good look at her back.
"Hell, that doesn't look good. Sink right down under the water. Let it get to your shoulders."
There was room in this tub for her to duck down, so she slid under until the lukewarm water lapped her chin. Domenici kept the water flowing until the tub was almost full. "Wait there," he ordered.
At least he hadn't asked her to take her clothes off. Although if he had, she probably would have done it.
She looked at her bag where she'd dumped it by the door. In it lay her camera and little minidisc recorder, as well as an MP3 recorder. She should really go over to it and hit Record, but the relief of sitting in the cool water had her melting. In any case, the bag was too far away. He'd see the wet trail, and she'd lose the small amount of trust she'd won. Just as well she had a great memory, and if she got a few quotes from him, she could intersperse them with some photos and make an article, although she knew Gary wanted more.
At the moment, she didn't care. Courtesy of her mother's family, her fluent Italian got her the job here, away from the States. Very few of her relatives had set foot in Italy, but they considered themselves denizens of the Old Country for all that. And Sicily was where most hailed from.
She leaned back and closed her eyes, reveling in the cool touch of water against her skin. A feeling of being watched came over her, and she opened her eyes to find Serafino's gaze disconcertingly fixed on her. He was smiling.
He carried a pile of clean towels, in a cream shade slightly darker than the bathroom fittings. They looked good against his tanned skin. He still wore his bathing costume; not as brief or as blatant as a Speedo, but it didn't need to be for her to see and admire his superbly toned body.
Their gazes met and touched, as intimate as a caress on her naked flesh. "How are you feeling?"
"Not as hot. I hadn't realized quite how bad the sun was."
"What were you thinking?"
Here it came. "About you."