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Francesca Sommers ran a critical eye over the sumptuous ballroom in Nob Hill's exclusive five-star hotel, Le Premier, and struggled to suppress a severe case of nerves. In a little over twenty-four hours she'd have her very first showing. She couldn't believe her good fortune, both in being offered the opportunity to work with Tina and Kurt Fontaine, as well as having her designs among those featured at Timeless Heirlooms' spring show.
As though sensing Francesca's nervousness, Tina came up beside her and slipped an arm around her waist. "You can stop worrying right now," she said. "You'll see. Your pieces will be the hit of the evening. Not to take anything away from Cliff or Deborah's talent and skillthey're both good designersit's your collection that will take everyone's breath away. It offers the perfect blend of romantic elegance and timeless appeal that are hallmarks of my company."
Francesca relaxed ever so slightly, smiling in delight at the compliment. "Are you sure you don't mean old-fashioned?" she asked with a laugh.
Tina lifted a dark eyebrow, which gave her exotic features an imperious cast. "Period pieces are a Fontaine specialty. We're at the leading edge of the resurgence in popularity for jewelry like this. You'll see. Tomorrow night's showing will put us over the top."
Francesca shook her head. "Catching Juliet Bloom's eye will put us over the top. I don't suppose she's responded to our invitation?"
"Her agent contacted us. She's still out of the country wrapping her latest film. But her agency's sending a representative. And I've learned that Juliet's next movie is another period piece. If this rep likes what she sees " Tina lifted ashoulder. "We've all done the best we can. The rest is up to fate, as well as those stunning pieces you've designed."
Kurt entered the room and Tina murmured an excuse before joining her husband. Francesca pretended to give her full attention to the various displays currently under construction, but in reality she studied her employers with an intense yearning.
As the brilliant and creative owner of Timeless Heir-looms, Tina couldn't be more different from her husband of nearly thirty years. Small, dark and vivacious, she hurtled through her days, whereas Kurt took life in stride. He also qualified as one of the most strikingly handsome men Francesca had ever met, towering over Tina, his Nordic appearance the polar opposite of his wife's.
Although he held the title of director of operations for TH, his real job consisted of supporting Tina and keeping the nuts and bolts of the business end of the company running smoothly. With his calm, reassuring demeanor, he excelled at both, even during stressful and frantic periods such as this.
Francesca gripped her hands together. Right now Timeless Heirlooms desperately needed Kurt's soothing touch. Despite the Fontaines' attempts to keep everyone in the dark, rumors had reached Francesca of their financial difficulties. They were counting on heror rather, her designsto help them recover their footing in the volatile world of jewelry sales. In response, she'd thrown herself, heart and soul, into her job, giving the Fontaines every ounce of her talent and skill. But would that be enough?
For as long as Francesca could remember, she'd wanted to work for one of Dantes' subsidiaries, mainly because it offered an unparalleled opportunity to advance her career and bring her designs to life. But when the Fontaines bought out TH, a far different reason drew her to apply to them for a job, instead of Dantes. A reason she kept tucked close to her heart.
It gave her the opportunity to get to know her father.
Sev's plans for the evening of the Fontaines' show seemed perfect right up until he saw her.
For some inexplicable reason, she drew his gaze the moment he walked into the ballroom and the impact from that one look struck with all the power and sizzle of a lightning bolt flung from on high. Every business plan, every thought about taking over TH, of tracking down this new designer and acquiring him for Dantes, leaked from Sev's brain and puddled at his feet. In its place one imperative remained.
Get. The. Woman.
She stood in the midst of a group of people, a tall, golden swan surrounded by sparrows. Everything about her spoke of old-time grace and elegance, the very embodiment of Timeless Heirlooms' mottojewelry that mates past with present. He knew many beautiful women, but something about this one captivated him on a visceral level. Unremitting desire entangled him in an unbreakable web and refused to let go no matter how hard he struggled to break the bond.
For a split second Sev forgot why he'd come or what he hoped to accomplish. Instead, he felt compelled to follow that primal tug. He would have, too, if Marco hadn't grabbed his arm.
"Hey, where are you going? The Fontaines are in the other direction." He glanced toward the section of the room that held Sev's attention and grinned in sudden understanding. "Bella, yes?"
"Yes." The single wordone riddled with desirebetrayed him and Sev shook his head in an effort to clear it. What the hell was happening to him? He never lost focus like this. Nothing ever came between him and business. Nothing. Not even a drop-dead gorgeous woman whose very presence sang with all the promise and allure of a Greek Siren.
Marco straightened his suit jacket. "Since my assignment is to mingle with the guests while you see what information the Fontaines are willing to cough up, I believe the lady in question is on my list." He clapped his brother on the back. "Looks like you're out of luck, Sev."
The mere thought of his brother getting anywhere close to this particular woman had Sev seeing red. Marco, the charmer. Marco, who could entice any and all women into his bed with a single look. Marco, who had never met a woman he hadn't enjoyed to the fullest, before discarding. Marco, with his golden swan.
A faint roaring filled Sev's ears, a noise that deafened him to everything but one increasingly urgent demand. Get. The. Woman. "Not her," he ordered. It amazed him that he could still speak coherently, considering the compulsion that infected him and drove him to react in ways in complete and utter contrast to his normal character. "Stay away from her."
Marco still didn't get it. "You're not playing fair," he protested. "Why don't we let the lady decide who she prefers?"
Sev simply turned and looked at his brother. "Not her," he repeated.
Marco held up his hands, the humor fading from his expression. "Fine, fine. But if she approaches me, I'm not sending her away. Not even for you."
Sev's hands collapsed into fists and it took every ounce of effort to keep from using one of them to rearrange Marco's featuresarresting features that attracted women to him with lifelong ease, not to mention unparalleled success. "If she approaches you, send her over to me."
Marco frowned. "Have you met this woman before? Do you have a history with her? You know I don't poach my brothers' women. Not unless your relationship's over." His smile glimmered again. "I don't suppose it's over by any chance?"
"It's not over. In fact, it hasn't started." His gaze fixed on his quarry. "Yet. I'm just staking my claim. Now are we clear, or do I have to spell it out with my fists?"
"No, it's not clear. Stake your claim? Spell it out with fists?" Marco's frown deepened. "Have you lost your mind? When have you ever spoken about a woman like that? What's gotten into you?"
Sev drew in a slow breath, fighting to clear his head, with only limited success. What had gotten into him? Marco was right. He never reacted like this over a woman. Nothing and no one came ahead of business. But another glance in the blonde's direction caused the desire to erupt in messy waves of molten heat. It filled him with a whispered demand to go to her. To seduce her. To take her and make her his, no matter who or what stood in his way. It overshadowed all else, rooting into his very soul and sending out powerful tentacles that latched on to every part of him and refused to let go.
"Hey! Wake up, big brother." Marco snapped his fingers in front of Sev's nose, concern bleeding into his voice and expression. "I'll tell you what. Why don't we check out the new designs before we get to work? See what we're up against."
"Good idea," Sev managed to say.
Despite the arm his brother dropped on Sev's shoulder, it took every ounce of self-control at his command to turn his back on the blonde and walk away. With every step, he could feel the quicksand of need sucking at his feet and legs. It didn't matter how much distance he put between them, he could still sense her on every level, and that awareness unsettled him more than he cared to admit.
They found the spring collection staged on sweeps of raw silk and took their time studying the pieces. Models also roamed the ballroom, their beauty enhanced by the glitter of diamonds and colored gems. Marco flirted with the models, while Sev assessed the displays. He kept hoping the blonde might gravitate this way. Since she wore one of the premier sets, he assumed she must be a model, as well, especially with her height and regal bearing. But she kept her distance and he couldn't decide whether to be relieved or annoyed.
Marco ended his conversation with a leggy redhead wearing a solid three million dollars worth of high quality stones and returned to Sev's side. "I don't get it. Nothing I've seen so far is enough to save Timeless from going under," he said in an undertone. "It's all the same old thing."
"No, not all of it. Not this, for instance."
Sev paused by a display unique in its simplicity. Not that the jewelry needed a fancy backdrop to make it stand out. The pieces spoke for themselves. White gold, diamonds and jet formed a sweeping pattern as elegant and sophisticated as any in recent memory. And yet, an air of romance permeated each item, a promise that by gifting this necklace, or this ring, or this bracelet, the recipient would receive a tangible expression of utter love and devotion.
An image of the blonde wearing the gems flashed through his mind. He could see the delicate strands of the necklace encircling her neck, the graceful length accentuated by the simple drop earrings. It would look perfect on her, particularly when complemented by acres of pale, creamy skin and a simple black silk sheath.
"Aw, hell. This is the first I've seen of this designer's work. It's just the sort of collection I had in mind for Dantes' expansion," Marco said. "We are so screwed."
In more ways than one. If Sev didn't get his mind back on business, he might as well kiss Timeless Heir-looms goodbye. "Find out who designed these and get the information to Lazz and Nic," he instructed his brother. "I'll go talk to the Fontaines. Maybe I'll learn something helpful."
Or maybe he should head for the kitchen, grab a bucket of ice and pour it over his head in the hope of dousing the heat rampaging through his system. Dammit to hell! What had that blonde done to him and how had she done it?
Marco grimaced. "Whatever you learn better be helpful, because I have a feeling they no longer need to sell TH."
Unfortunately, Sev had a nasty feeling his brother was right. Still, his conversation with the Fontaines elicited a few interesting facts. They had, indeed, hired three new designers for the express purpose of revitalizing TH. And they had some big deal in the offing, all very hush-hush. Whatever the deal, the Fontaines were convinced it would catapult them into the big times.
Yet, Sev caught a hint of desperation Tina couldn't quite conceal, which told him all he needed to know. Despite tonight's success, they were still vulnerable. He just needed to uncover the source of that vulnerability and exploit it. He headed for the far end of the room where French doors opened onto a shadowed balcony with a stunning view of San Francisco. The light breeze held a final nip of winter's chill, but he found it a welcome relief after the perfumed warmth of the ballroom. Removing his cell phone from his jacket pocket, he flipped it open and pressed the button for voice activation.
"Lazz," he said.
A few seconds later the call went through. "Sev?" A rapid clicking bled through the line, indicating his brother was typing as he spoke. Ever the multitasker. "I just spoke to Marco."