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She was a nervous wreck.
Shayla Charleston stood in the luxurious bathroom at the San Francisco headquarters of Dantes, one of the world's premier jewelry empires, and regarded herself in the mirror. To her relief her nerves didn't show, and once she got through tonight this would all be over. Not only that, but tomorrow she'd turn twenty-five and maybe, just maybe, fulfill each of the three goals she had set for herself.
Goal number one: Pay back her grandmother. Shayla had worked like a dog these past three years to reimburse Grandmother Charleston for the cost of her college education, an education her grandmother had scrimped and saved for, even at the risk of allowing their home to decay around their ears. Though her grandmother had hoped Shayla would resurrect the family business, she hadn't inherited the talent or the ability. But she could and would represent the family interests when she met with members of the Dante clan tomorrow. If she were very lucky, that meeting would provide her grandmother with badly needed financial security, something Shayla would do anything to ensure, no matter how difficult.
Goal number two: Get the job of her dreams. Shayla smiled broadly. Check, check and double check. The minute she escaped her meeting with the Dantes, she'd climb on a plane headed straight for Europe, where she'd begin her job as a translator for the highly reclusive international businessman, Derek Algier. The job would take her to some of the most beautiful and exotic countries in the world and she flat-out could not wait.
Goal number three: Tomorrow, before she assumed her new responsibilities, Shayla wanted to be swept off her feet and experience a mad, impetuous romance. Just this once. One night of passion before she reverted to her more reserved, dependable nature. Was that too much to ask?
She pressed an anxious hand to her stomach. But first, she had a party to crash.
The door to the restroom opened and several women entered. Everyone exchanged polite smiles and one of the women gave Shayla's gown an envious glance. It relieved her mind since it confirmed that the alterations she'd made to her mother's designer gownone left over from the Charlestons' glory dayswere invisible to even the most discerning eye.
Even better, a quick, assessing glance in the mirror assured her that her makeup looked exactly right, as did her hair. Considering the lighting conditions and scratched mirror in the cheap little motel room she'd rented, all she could afford at this point, it was a miracle that she'd managed to pull it together as well as she had. No question about it, she exuded wealth and privilege, something the Charlestons hadn't experienced in a full decade thanks to the Dantes.
Now to do a little reconnaissance in anticipation of tomorrow's meeting. If she could get a feel for some of the prime players, she just might gain an edge in their negotiations, something she badly needed considering how out of her depth she was. She reached for her vintage beaded handbag and the list buried inside, dismayed to discover that the clasp had once again popped open when she'd set it on the counter.
The bag had also been her mother's, another echo from the past that whispered of genteel elegance and casual prosperity. She wouldn't have minded the broken clasp except for one not-so-minor detail.
The items she carried inside were worth millions.
She couldn't afford to lose the precious bundle. Unlike her college education, she'd never be able to repay her grandmother for the loss. Reaching inside, Shayla tucked the leather pouch into the deepest corner of the bagnot that it was terribly deep. Then she extracted the list her grandmother had given her and scanned the names one last time, committing them to memory.
Primo Dante, the family patriarch and founder of the Dantes jewelry empire, now retired. Severo Dante, CEO and chairman of the board. Then there were the twins. Marco handled international sales and relations. She doubted she'd meet him. Lazzaro was their chief financial officer. Guaranteed he'd sit in on the meeting. That was the best intel her grandmother had to offer and that her own research could turn up, which would have to do.
Satisfied that she had the names down pat, Shayla refolded the paper and tucked it into her handbag. She double-checked to make certain she secured the clasp good and tight. Taking a deep breath, she examined her appearance one final time and nodded. She could only hope she'd fit in.
Exiting the restroom, she scanned the guests waiting in the foyer outside of the reception. This would be the most difficult part, and most traumatic for someone of her nature. Security stood at the doorway collecting invitations. She waited until a large, laughing crowd descended and attached herself to one side, slipping past during the momentary confusion. And just like that, she crashed the Dantes' reception. She hastened across the threshold and focused. First business. Check out the Dantes on her list.
Then maybe she'd find the perfect man, a man who'd make tonight the most special of her life.
Draco Dante noticed her the instant she stepped into the room. Noticed her, and wanted her with a fierceness that nearly brought him to his knees. He felt the visceral tug of attraction and didn't resist. Of course, at that point he didn't fully appreciate the ramifications of what was happening. Or if he did, he assumed on some level that he could fight free from its hold whenever he wanted. He didn't realize The Inferno had set its hooks in him and was reeling him toward his doom. He still believed himself in control of his own destiny.
Until that night he'd never believed in The Inferno. Never believed in the family legendor curse, as some considered it. In his opinion it was ludicrous to think that a man could identify his soul mate with a simple touch. Ridiculous to believe that there even were such things as soul mates. Resisted with all his might the possibility that there was one woman out there meant just for him and only one. He'd heard the stories over the years. Watched as one by one, cousin and brother had fallen to its insidious influence. But whatever this was, whatever hit him when he first set eyes on this woman stole every thought from his head save one.
Take the woman.
At a guess she stood a full five foot eight and had a wealth of hair knotted at her nape, the ebony color a perfect complement to her ink-blotch eyes. Though her curves weren't voluptuous they were impressive enough to capture the attention of most of the men in the room. Or maybe it was the way she displayed them, in a ruby-red halter dress that hugged her breasts and nipped in at her narrow waist before pouring over shapely hips and a deliciously rounded backside.
She stepped across the threshold and moved with graceful purpose toward a corner display out of the main flow of traffic.
He headed toward her, cutting off the competition with a neat sidestep. She stood in front of one of the Eternity wedding band displays, riveted by the rings, her full attention focused on them. "Beautiful, aren't they?" he said.
She continued to study the display, effectively ignoring him. "Stunning," she murmured.
"I believe this is the part where we're supposed to introduce ourselves," he prompted with a smile.
"No, thanks," she said with a quick, reserved glance and shifted to move around him.
That's when he made his mistake. Before she could escape, he reached out and caught her hand in his. "Wait"
It hit with all the heat and power of a lightning bolt, stunning him. The sizzle, the inner sparks, the arc of want and desire, like someone had forced his entire body into a light socket and then amped up the juice. It all cascaded through him in an unending torrent. It wasn't that it hurt, it just surprised him. Worse, it horrified him because he had a hideous feeling he'd just confirmed his worst suspicions.
She pulled back from him. "What was that?" she demanded, her brows snapping together. "What did you just do to me?"
"Son of a" He shook his head to clear it. "I think I just Infernoed you."
"Well, don't do it again. I didn't like it." With that, she turned her back on him and disappeared into the crowd.
It took Draco an instant to react. Not certain whether to swear or laughmaybe bothhe went after the woman. He caught up with her near another display.
He stood at her side, not that she took any notice. "Are you telling me that you only felt a shock when we touched? It wasn't anything more than that?"
Her attention remained fixed on the gems as though they held the answer to all of life's mysteries. "Was I supposed to feel something more?"
"The way I've heard it yes."
She turned her head and regarded him with a curious stare. Her eyes were large and tilted at the edges, and filled with something sad and ageless. They were also stunning in their ability to convey her every emotion. And right now they conveyed a clear message: Go. Away. "I have no idea what you're talking about."
Why was it that the one woman he wanted more than any other wouldn't give him the time of day? If it weren't so frustrating, it would be funny. "Maybe we could start over.
She whirled to confront him, the skirt of her dress flaring around her, the hem catching at his legs as though eager to embrace him. She pressed her fingertips to his lips. "No names," she whispered urgently. "I'm crashing the party and if I get caught, you can honestly say you don't know who I am. That way you won't get into trouble, too."
Aw, hell. He didn't dare admit he was a Dante now. "Are you here to steal something?"
Astonishment mingled with shock. No way could she have faked that look. "No, of course not."
"That's good." Very good. "How about first names? People do exchange them, you know, even when they're crashing parties." Because of his position as Dantes' head gemologist, he was extremely careful to keep his rather unusual name out of the spotlight, so she shouldn't connect it with the Dante family.
She caught her lower lip between her teeth and the top of his head almost came off. More than anything he wanted that sweet, succulent lip captured between his own teeth. "I guess that can't hurt," she conceded. "I'm Shayla."
"Draco," he said. "Draco-with-no-last-name."
"Oh, dear." She offered a teasing smile. "Did your parents dislike you?"
"What, Draco?" He returned her smile with a rueful one of his own. "It's a family name. My mother's maiden name. I also had it long before Harry Potter came out, in case you were wondering."
"It means dragon, doesn't it?"
A hint of hesitation flowed across her expression. "And are you?"
"A dragon?" He pondered the idea. "I can be when it's important to me. If someone takes what I consider mine."
"Then I'll have to make sure I avoid taking anything you value."
"Always a wise move."
He decided to experiment and shifted closer to see how Shayla would respond. Her reaction was so subtle, he almost missed it. But it was there. It was definitely there. The thick fringe of her eyelashes flickered ever so slightly and tension swept across her shoulders. It didn't make sense to him. Why hide it? If it were anything similar to what he felt right this minute, she should be falling all over him.
The Infernoassuming it really was The Inferno, and he still had his doubts about thatclouded rational thought, driving a man to find a way to touch the woman he craved, to inhale her. To carry her off and bury himself in her until neither of them could move or think or breathe.
"Why are you fighting it?" he asked in an undertone.
This time she couldn't hide the lie and he didn't waste time arguing. Before she realized his intention, he caught her hand in his. Heat flared between them, more intense this time, pouring into his veins like effervescent champagne. Every beat of his heart drove it further and deeper, strengthening the connection until it threatened to overpower him.
He whispered her name into the few inches of space separating them, filling the sound with every ounce of the desire he felt. Her lips parted and her breathing quickened. She swayed, yielding ever so slightly. He caught the subtle fragrance of her perfume, crisp and spicy with a dash of sultry thrown in. Somehow he suspected the scent epitomized the woman.
"What have you done to me?"
She asked the question with such bewilderment that he flinched. "I'm sorry. It isn't something I can control."
"I don't have time for this right now. Make it stop."
Draco didn't insult her with prevarication. "I wouldn't even if I could. I want you, sweetheart. And I think you want me, too."
She closed her eyes and he wondered if she were fighting the tug, that relentless, unyielding pull. Not that she could win this particular battle. At least No one ever had. "I have something else I need to take care of first," she whispered.
He moved in, erasing those few inches that separated them, just close enough so hips and thighs brushed. Just enough so he felt the soft crush of her breasts against his chest. Just enough so his mouth hovered within a whisper of her lips. "Whatever you're here for can wait. This can't."
She looked at him, enchanting him with an open display of pleasure and desire. She utterly captivated him. She was swift to smile, swifter to laugh, her movements like quicksilver, filled with energy, yet as graceful as a dancer's. He wanted all that grace and energy in his bed. Wanted that magical sparkle for himself. Like a dragon hoarding his treasure, came the whimsical thought. "I've never done this before. Never lost control or acted so impulsively," she admitted.
"I'm wish I could say the same. Tell me you're not going to fight what we're feeling."
Her mouth quivered on the verge of a smile. "I'm not sure I could."
He bent his head and feathered a kiss along her jawline. "That makes two of us. So, instead of crashing this very boring party, why don't you sneak away with me? I promise I won't bore you."
She shuddered in reaction. Then her smile blossomed and the soft sound of her laughter made it clear that whatever connection they'd forged during these brief moments together had won out. The day had already been an interesting one. First, he'd received a phone call from his brother's ex-investigator, Juice, with news that another fire diamond had been found the fourth of six that had been stolen from Draco in a clever swindle a full decade before. This new information gave him one more opportunity to find the person behind the con.