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Michael North awakened with a violent start in the middle of the night.
His first thought was for the safety of the exquisite woman curled trustingly against him. She was warm and soft, beguilingly beautiful in the moonlight with her dark golden hair spilling across his pillow. He wanted to touch that hair and kiss her lips again, wanted it so much he had to clench his hands.
Ironically, he'd enjoyed his evening with her more than he'd enjoyed being with anyone in a very long time.
Maybe that was why his gut twisted as he experienced an uncustomary pang of conscience. After all, he'd seduced her for very deliberate, self-serving reasons.
Careful not to disturb her, he sat up and brushed a lock of thick black hair out of his eyes. Everything he'd done tonightthe seductive dinner at her failing bistro, the lovemaking in his penthouse, all the shared laughter and smileshad been a lie.
He'd set her up so he could protect his naive younger brother.
But at some point Michael had forgotten about Will. His dinner date with Bree had begun with champagne served in sparkling flutes at Chez Z, the intimate French bistro she'd inherited from her famous brother, Johnny Z. She loved to cook and to eat, and Michael had loved watching her indulge.
She'd blushed when she'd drunk champagne. She'd sighed when she'd licked chocolate off her fingertips, and his. The wet, warm tip of her tongue against his flesh had almost been as good as having sex with her. Almost.
He'd loved the sound of her laughter, the glow of her cheeks when she teased him, the flash of intelligence in her slanting eyes when she'd made him feel clever and her wildness in bed. When had he had such a good time with anybody?
Surprisingly, Bree had given him more pleasure and tenderness and amusement during their evening than he'd ever imagined possible.
Because, first, she wasn't his usual type. He went for cool, sophisticated glamour, for sleek, slim blondes who made heads turn and other men envy him. Bree was lush and earthy and wanton. She loved color and baubles and cheap scarves and probably didn't bother to carry a comb in her purse.
And second, Bree Oliver, for all her seeming innocence and charms, was a gold digger. She'd targeted his foolish brother, thinking Will was the chump she needed to keep Chez Z from going into bankruptcy.
For Will's sake, Michael had to finish her off. No matter how much he'd enjoyed being with her or how fabulous she'd been in bed, she deserved it.
If only Michael had been as smart five years ago when he'd fallen for Anya Parris. But, no, like a fool, when Anya had lied about being pregnant, he'd married her. He'd suffered through a hellish marriage that had included infidelity, scandal and a very public divorce.
Never again would Michael forget the cynical truth about the North wealth. It attracted women who pretended a genuine interest in him when all they wanted was the use of his penthouse, his ranch, his helicopters, his private jets, his invitations to the right clubs, the best restaurants and the A-list parties. Unlike his brother, Michael wasn't above enjoying the women his money lured, but only for brief intervals.
Never again would he believe any woman wanted more from him than his luxurious lifestyle. Never again would he make the mistake of forming a serious attachment. Unfortunately Will, who'd had a more indulged childhood than Michael, was too trusting for his own good. It was up to Michael to save Will from Bree.
Soft summer moonlight turned the high ceilings of his loft and his large bed to shades of silver and gray. Bree's body felt warm; treacherously so as she nestled closer against him. Her cheap silver bangles and necklaces on the bedside table glittered. Her colorful, filmy clothes and scarves lay in tangles on the floor beside her sandals where he'd stripped her while she'd swayed to music, laughing.
The cozy heat of her satin-soft body lured him. He wanted to stay beside her, to see the shy warmth of her sweetly crooked smile and the flirtatious glow that lit her amber eyes every time he kissed her.
No, he had to finish her offnoweven if her sweet strawberry scent filled his nostrils and made him weak with the craving to bury his lips in her thick, satiny hair, to kiss her throat, to taste her mouth and other parts of her sexy, feminine anatomy just one more time.
Intoxicated by her soft, sensual allure, he lingered in the bed beside her, torturing himself as he savored her warmth and remembered all the ways they'd made love.
She'd been so silky and tight the first time, like a velvet glove. When he'd pushed eagerly inside, holding her against the wall, she'd cried out. But when he'd stopped out of concern for her, she'd pressed her palms into the small of his spine and pleaded with him to stayto stay forever if that was possible. Slowly her small body had accommodated itself to him. Driving into her, the pleasure of each stroke had been so total in its visceral thrill that fierce pleasure unlike any he had ever known had saturated every cell in his body.
She'd been a damn good actress, playing at virginal innocence, enticing him, then surrendering like a wanton. She'd nearly undone him. She'd almost made him believe that he alone, not his fortune, was special to her.
"Who knew?" she'd whispered with him sheathed inside her. "I like it. No, I love it." Then she'd stroked his cheek lovingly, her eyes shining with wonder. "I'm glad it's you. I never thought it would be half so nice. I always wanted to date someone as handsome and smart as you. I I just never thought anybody like you would look at a girl like me."
It had been nice for him, too, being with her. More than nice.
His world could be so cold, and she seemed so sweet. For one forbidden moment, when she'd kissed him as if she'd wanted to consume him, he'd lost himself in the searing hot, torrid welcome of her body. He'd almost forgotten to protect himself.
Every time he'd made love to her, even with a condom, the sex had gotten better. And each time afterward when she'd clung to him, she'd seemed sweeter. Whatever this thing was between them, it had shaken him to the core.
Hell, just thinking about her and what she'd done to him made him hard again, even as he lay beside her icily plotting his next step.
"Will said you were cold and uptight," she'd whispered.
He hadn't liked her comparing him to Will, but with every kiss and unassuming glance her power over him had increased. A connection to her built deep inside him and morphed into something that felt more than physical.
What had been going on?
Her mysterious white-hot appeal had fueled a compulsion that no other woman had ever aroused in him. She'd made him ravenous. Together their writhing bodies had burned and soared. His out-of-control excitement had felt addictive, tempting him to forget everything he knew about women like her. She'd provided some deeply needed comfort he hadn't known he'd craved until he'd experienced it in her arms. He had never known a real home, or felt at home with anyone, not even with the Norths, who'd given him their name and had claimed him as family. Not until tonight with her.
She was dangerous. He had to rid himself of her quickly.
If he stalled for even one more night, she might have him totally in her power. He might even sink his own money into her bistro.
If he invested enough, would she favor him over Will?
Hell, he had the money. A part of him wanted her to prefer him to all others.
He swore. Such thoughts could derail him from his purpose. Just as he was about to throw off the covers and escape her so he could get his head straight, she whimpered. Clutching at his arms, she seemed to expect him to protect her from some mysterious terror.
His heart throbbed. Oh, God.
Her voice was feminine, helpless. When her feather-light fingertips brushed his skin, he burned, aching for her all over again. No way could he resist her plea.
How old was she? Twenty-five? Ten years younger than he was? Or even younger? Whatever her age, with her thick, dark gold hair tumbling about her face and bare shoulders, her wild beauty dazzled him. She had a classic brow, a long, thin nose, high cheekbones, an incandescent complexion and full, voluptuous lips.
Not that she had the money or sense of style to dress properly. Her baggy, overlarge clothes had concealed and distracted more than they'd enhanced her beauty. But nakedwith her tiny waist, curvy hips, soft breasts and those pert nipples exposedshe was perfect.
More than anything he wanted to roll her over, take her in his arms, hold her and pet her hair, and whisper that everything was all right. But nothing was all right. Not when he knew what she wasand what he had to doand yet still felt so powerfully attracted to her.
Careful not to disturb her, he arose. He had to get a grip. But the minute he broke their physical connection, she sensed it and seemed to miss his presence as much as he missed hers.
"Michael," she purred in a sexy, sleep-blurred tone. "Darling, come back to bed."
"I'm not your darling," he growled, hating that on some level he wanted to be.
"Michael, I Have I done something ?" At his harsh tone, her voice grew shy and uncertain before it died in the silvery darkness.
The powerful need to comfort her from the hurt he was determined to inflict wrapped around him.
Hell. He had to finish thisor he would go crazy.
"I'm not your darling," he repeated ruthlessly. "Tonight, everything, all of itit was all lies."
"I seduced you to protect Will. From you. When you came on to me while I was with him at the fund-raiser, I knew what you were and saw how you intended to use him. You made my job easy when you made a play for me, too."
"What are you saying?"
"I'm saying I sought you out tonight and slept with you so I could use it as leverage to make you stop seeing my brother. Tonight was all about Will."
"Will?" She sounded confused. "Wait a minute. You think Will and I that we're a couple? That we're dating? You you don't like me?"
"How could I like you, knowing what you are?"
Having been poor himself, he knew all about wanting more, about using people to get what he wanted. He'd worked damned hard. Still, he'd done a few things he wasn't proud of to get where he was.
"You were after him, and then after me, because you needed our money for your failing restaurant."
"No," she whispered.
"Do you deny Will is one of your investors?"
"No." But her beautiful mouth trembled just a little, and her eyes were now glistening with unshed tears. "You deceived me? You didn't really want me?"
He shook his head.
"Why? How could you do that? I would never use Will or anybody. Will's a friend, and yes, he's an investor. He's been an investor right from the beginning. But I'm not after his money! I'm not!"
"Then why did you hit on me so blatantly the night we met at the fund-raiser when you were with Will?"
"Maybe I flirted. But only because I thought you liked me " She sucked in a breath. "Will is just a friend. He was a friend of Johnny's first, and an investor in Chez Z when my brother first opened it. That's how Will and I became friends."
"Friends? That's all you were?"
The night of the fund-raiser she'd worn a silver backless gown and a transparent shawl that had left very little of her sensuous shape to his imagination.
Her family history hadn't helped his opinion of her. Six months ago, Johnny Z, her celebrity-chef brother, had been found dead in bed with a prominent plastic surgeon's wife, another of the bistro's investors. Everyone presumed the surgeon had shot Johnny, but the husband, who'd hired lawyers, wasn't talking to the police, and his wife had vanished. Thus, the investigation had stalled. Still, the scandal, coupled with Z's absence in the kitchen, had been devastating to Chez Z's bottom line.
"Will asked me to go with him to the fund-raiser, so he could introduce me to some people who might be interested in investing. When he introduced me to you, I thought you might be one of those people."
Her eyes were so brilliant with innocence and outrage he almost believed her. Then he remembered Anya and how gullible he'd been. He'd wanted to believe her. Capable as he might be in the business world, apparently he was an easy mark when it came to women he wanted in his bed.
"Bottle the performance! If you think I'm as big a fool as my little brother, you're wrong. I want you to dress and leave. If you stay away from Will, I won't tell him I slept with you tonight. If you don't leave him alone, I'll tell him about us."
"Tell him for all I care. Bettermaybe I'll tell him myself. He needs to know how far you'll go to control his life. Maybe he'll resent you even more than he already does."
Her reaction caught him off guard. He'd expected her to care more, to bargain, and what she'd said about Will hurt.
"He can't afford to resent me," Michael bluffed. "I write his allowance checks."
"So everything's just about money and control to you? And you think I'm like you"
"I know you are! So, leave my brother alone, and I won't make him think the worst of you by telling him about us. You bet on the wrong horse this time. Pick another. Someone who isn't naive. Someone more like you and me."
"Tell him. I'm not like you, and you can't blackmail me, either."
"You are like me. Greed isn't the only thing we have in common," he replied coldly. "If Will didn't desire you, I'd be willing to set you up as my mistress. I'd keep you and your bistro afloat for as long you excited me."
"Do you ever listen? For the last time, your brother and I are just friends. That's why he won't care if you slept with me. He was just an investor in the bistro. He already has someone in his life."
Michael knew she was lying when she faltered and said, "Maybe you should ask him."
If only Will did have someone, then Michael could have Bree for himself. He could afford her a helluva lot more easily than Will, couldn't he?
Suddenly Michael reconsidered the situation. Where was the harm in keeping her, if she wasn't serious about Will? As long as he understood what she was and was willing to be generous to her?