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Kiley O'Dell wasn't at all what Nicolò expected.
But then, neither did he expect the tidal wave of desire that slammed through him, rendering him deaf and blind to everything but the woman standing in the doorway of her suite at Le Premier. He saw her mouth move, but the sound refused to penetrate the roaring that filled his ears, a roaring that demanded he take this woman and make her his. To put his mark on her in every way possible. To possess her and bind her to him until neither of them could escape.
No. He dropped his head and fought the sensation, fought for all he was worth. He flat-out refused to accept this feeling, flinching from the very real possibility that it might signify the start of The Inferno.
No. Way. In. Hell.
This woman spelled trouble from the top of her dainty red head to the tips of her tiny red-coated toenails. And he refused to allow trouble into his life, his bed, or his heart. No matter what it took, he'd put an end to this sensation. It couldn't possibly be that difficult. It only required a single, simple solution. All he had to do was figure out what that solution was and The Inferno would pass him by.
Lifting his head, he took a second to study Kiley O'Dell, using every scrap of creative skill at his disposal to search for a way out of his latest predicament. But nothing came to him and he simply stood and stared at her.
Her name suited her. She stood no taller than a minute, with a taut, lithe figure that packed just enough curves in just the right places to tempt a man to explore every inch of that creamy white skin. She wore her hair long and it fell in heavy strawberry-blond curls to the middle of her back. She alsopossessed the most stunning pair of pale green eyes he'd ever seen, eyes that dominated her triangular-shaped face.
"Mr. Dante?" she asked, clearly repeating herself. Her cultured voice contained a low, musical quality that fell easily on the ears. "Is there something wrong?"
He shoved the single word from between clenched teeth. Did she have any idea how hard he struggled to act with a modicum of propriety while instinct clawed at him, urging him to snatch her up in his arms and carry her off to the nearest bedroom?
Possibly, since a hint of wariness crept into her regard and a pulse kicked to life in the hollow of her throat, betraying her instinctive response to him. A response not all that unlike his own, if he didn't miss his guess. A streak of color highlighted her arching cheekbones and he could almost smell the whiff of desire that perfumed the air between them. Oh, yeah, this wasn't good.
She recovered far swifter than he. "I'm Kiley O'Dell. Thank you for taking the time to see me."
Everything about her appeared quick and decisive, from the sharp once-over she gave him to the way her gaze leapt from him, to the hallway, and then over her shoulder to the spacious hotel room. He couldn't help but wonder if that last glance was a final check to make sure she'd properly set the scene for their encounter.
"Come on in," she said, stepping to one side.
She didn't bother offering her hand, which suited him just fine. Considering the overwhelming hunger her appearance aroused it would be downright foolhardy to touch this woman. Not with The Inferno currently on the rampage, cutting a swathe of destruction through the Dante males.
Not that he believed in The Inferno. Hell, no. He hadn't when Primo first told the tale. Nor when Sev and Marco tried to convince him they'd both experienced it the first time they'd touched their future wives. And he damn sure didn't intend to start believing in The Inferno now. Not even with this desperate need filling every empty space inside him with a want so huge he could barely contain it all.
"Would you like something to drink?" Kiley tossed the question over her shoulder while she crossed the plush carpet. She moved with a hip-swinging stride that drew his gaze to her pert, rounded backside lovingly outlined by a pair of trim black slacks. He caught back a groan. Was it deliberate or another aspect of the stage she'd set for their meeting? "I have sodas," she continued. "Or something stronger if you feel the need."
Whiskey. He'd kill for a double shot of single-malt. "I'm fine, thanks."
"Do you want to talk first or get straight down to business?"
"What's there to talk about?"
That had her turning around. A crooked smile tilted her mouth, giving her an almost gamine appearance. "We could take a stab at making this a friendly get-together. You know, exchange the usual pleasantries people do when they first meet."
Okay, he'd play along. "Like?"
"Like Tell me what you do at Dantes, Nicolò."
"I solve problems."
Laughter gleamed in those odd green eyes, turning them spring-leaf bright. "And I'm your current problem?"
"I don't know." He lifted an eyebrow. "Are you?"
She shrugged. "Time will tell."
She folded her arms across her chest and leaned her hip against the back of a richly upholstered divan. She took her time, studying him at her leisure. Searching for a weakness? he couldn't help but wonder. If so, she'd have a long, fruitless time of it. The moment stretched, thin and sharp as razor wire. She broke first.
"It's your turn," she prompted gently.
"My turn what?"
"To ask a question." She released a tiny sigh. "That's how this works, you see. When you're getting to know someone, you exchange pleasant chitchat in order to ease the tension."
"Are you tense?"
"You're kidding, right? You don't feel it?" She punctuated her questions with her hands, their movement through the air as brisk as everything else about her, yet graceful for all that. "Hell, Dante, it's thick enough to scoop out of the air and dish up for dessert."
So she felt it, too. It wasn't just his imagination. "Is that what you suggest? That we move straight to dessert?"
"Is that your way of resolving our problems?" she countered. Heat and awareness broke from her in splashy waves, building on his own. "Do you really think you can seduce my share of the mine out from under me? Is that your creative solution to this particular problem?"
"Good. I'm relieved to hear that."
"Because you don't have a share of the mine." He took a step closer to her, just to gauge her reaction. She didn't move, but he could see the slight tautening of the muscles across her shoulders and the momentary widening of her eyes before she forced herself to relax. Gotcha. She was good at this little game she played, but he was better. "Since you don't own any part of the mine, getting you into bed won't make any difference to the eventual disposition of your claim."
To his surprise, she laughed, the sound light and unfettered. "I'm so glad we have that out of the way."
"Funny. It still feels like it's right here between us."
It was her turn to take a step closer, to push at the electrical current sizzling between them like a live wire. "Shall we get it out of the way, Dante?" she dared. "It would be easy enough."
She reached for the first button of her blouse and thumbed it through the hole. Then a second. And a third. The deep V of her neckline revealed an intricate heart-shaped locket on a thin silver chain. Then he caught a flash of vibrant red, a sharp note of color trapped between the milky whiteness of her skin and the unrelenting blackness of her blouse. Before he could stop himself his attention dropped from her breasts to her low-riding slacks. Did she wear a matching bra and panties set? Did she conceal hellfire and brimstone beneath the pitch-black of her clothes?
He slowly looked up, his gaze clashing with hers. How long would it take him to find out? Judging by the hungry expression on her face, not long at all. Her fingers hovered above the final two buttons.
His voice sounded as though it had been put through a shredder. He deliberately took the final step that separated them. Only the merest breath of space held them apart, that space awash with turmoil. Desire roiled there, along with mistrust and suspicion. It was a desire he intended to destroy, while nurturing the mistrust and suspicion.
"Finish it," he repeated. "And show me your true colors."
She jerked back. Where before her movements flowed, now they stuttered. Color stained her face and turned her eyes evergreen dark with horrified disbelief. She fumbled in her effort to rebutton her blouse, jamming the wrong buttons into the wrong holes.
"What the hell was I thinking?" she muttered. The question seemed aimed at herself rather than at him. She shook her head as though to clear it before demanding, "What are you doing to me, Dante?"
"You're the one doing the striptease, lady. Don't blame me if I expect you to put up or shut up. Now do you have proof to back up your claim that you own part of Dantes' mine, or is that what you were in the process of showing me?"
He'd rattled her, something he suspected didn't often happen with the self-possessed Ms. O'Dell. "You feel it, too," she insisted quietly. "Don't try and tell me I'm imagining things."
"And yet, I'm not the one taking off my clothes."
To his surprise, amusement rippled past the heat and turmoil and gentled the flames. "Too true, Dante. I'll have to watch my step with you. It would appear you bring out the wanton in me, though who knew there was any wanton in there to begin with." She shook her head in disgust. "Live and learn."
Taking a deep breath, she circumvented the divan she'd been leaning against earlier and gestured toward the coffee table in front of it, one littered with papers. She waved him toward a second divan, situated opposite the first.
"So, let's get down to business. You want proof. Here's my proof." She picked up her first batch of papers and shoved them across the table toward him. "My grandfather was Cameron O'Dell. He and his brother, Seamus, were the original owners of the fire diamond mine that your grandfather, Primo Dante, eventually purchased. I've just given you copies of my grandfather's birth certificate, his death certificate and a deed showing that he was a legitimate half-owner of the mine."
Nicolò leafed through the papers. "My understanding is he died before the sale to Primo was finalized."
"True. But that would have merely transferred his share of ownership to any surviving childrenmy father, to be specific." Kiley tossed another document in his direction. "Here's a copy of Grandfather's will confirming that fact."
"Do you have your father's birth certificate proving he was born before Cameron died?"
Another piece of paper came sailing across the table. "Right here." She rested her elbows on her knees and leaned forward. Her locket swung out from beneath her misbuttoned blouse. It was a curious piece of jewelry, thick and chunky, consisting of fragments of silver that had been laced together to form the heart. "Your grandfather may have paid off Seamus, but my great-uncle didn't have the right to sell my father's share of the fire diamond mine, despite what he may have claimed."
Nicolò took his time studying the documentation even though he suspected he'd find everything in perfect order. A con artist would have made certain of that. What he hoped to uncover while he pretended to read was the slip in logic. It didn't take much thought to key in on it.
"Why has your family waited so long to bring this matter to our attention?" he finally asked. "Why didn't you file a lawsuit decades ago in order to get your fair share?"
"I didn't know that I might be an owner. As for my father " A hint of some painful memory came and went in her eyes. "I can't ask him that question since he died when I was little more than a baby."
Nicolò allowed a hint of sympathy to show. "You were raised by your mother?"
"What difference does that make?" she asked in sharp retort.
He lifted an eyebrow. For some reason what he intended as a throwaway question had provoked an unguarded response, and clearly a defensive one, which made it all the more interesting. It told him a lot. Without even intending to, he'd hit a hot button with her. It showed him how tight a control she kept over her words and emotional responses. Until now.
"You were the one who suggested we get to know each other better. That's what I'm doing." He pushed a little harder. "Tell me about her. What's her name? How did she make ends meet after your father died?"
Kiley's mouth tightened. "I think you're stalling."
He shrugged. "Believe what you want. I'm just trying to figure out whether she's in on this little scam or if you came up with it all by yourself."
"It's no scam."
"So you say. But I suspect Seamus will tell a far different story."
Her movements slowed, fluttering to stillness like a bird settling to its nest. It was a "tell," an unconscious look or movementor lack thereofthat betrayed a lie. He'd always had an innate ability to pick up on them, a prime reason his brothers refused to play poker with him. He could always tell when they were bluffing, just as he could with Kiley.
She moistened her lips with the tip of her tongue, a second, more obvious "tell." "Seamus?" she repeated.
Nicolò took a stab in the dark. "According to Primo, he's still alive." He offered an expansive smile. "Tell you what. Why don't you sit tight for the next few days and enjoy the amenities Le Premier has to offer, while I track him down? I'm sure he can clear up this confusion in no time."
"Give me my papers." The words escaped, raw and harsh.
Without a word he gathered them and passed them across the width of the coffee table to her. Their fingertips touched during the exchange, just the merest glancing brush of skin against skin. A brief flash of electricity burst between them, sizzling for an instant, but not quite catching. Nicolò shot to his feet.
"What the hell are you trying to pull?" he demanded.