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Sparkling white lights twinkled beneath the soaring, frescoed ceilings of the grand ballroom of the Cavanaugh Hotel. All the glitterati of New York were sipping champagne, gorgeous in tuxedos and elaborate gowns for the Black and White Ball, hosted by the illustriousand mysteriousCountess Lia Villani.
"This isn't going to be as easy as you think," Roark's old friend whispered as they moved through the crowd. "You don't know what she's like. She's beautiful. Willful."
"Beautiful or willful, she's just a woman," Roark Navarre replied, raking back his black hair with a jet-lagged yawn. "She'll give me what I want."
Casually Roark straightened the platinum cuff links of his tuxedo as he looked around the packed ballroom. His own grandfather had once tried to force him to live in this wealthy, stuffy, gold-plated cage. He still couldn't believe he was back in the city. Roark had spent the past fifteen years building massive land projects overseas, most recently in Asia, and he'd never thought he would come back.
But this was the largest piece of land in Manhattan to come on the market in a generation. The five skyscrapers Roark planned to build would be his legacy.
So he'd been furious when he heard Count Villani had beaten him to it. Fortunate for Roark the canny Italian aristocrat had died two weeks ago. He allowed himself a grim smile. It was lucky indeed that Roark was now dealing with the count's young widow instead. Though she still seemed determined to follow her husband's last wishes and spend most of his enormous fortune to create a public park in New York, the young gold digger would soon change her mind.
She would succumb to Roark's desires. Just like every woman.
"She's probably not even here," Nathan tried again. "Since the count died "
"Of course she's here," Roark said. "She wouldn't miss her own charity ball."
But hearing the awed whispers of the countess's name around them, Roark wondered for the first time if she might be some small challenge. If he might actually have to make an effort to get her to accede to his demands.
An intriguing thought.
"There are rumors," Nathan whispered as he followed Roark through the crowds, "that the old count died in her bed of too much pleasure. His heart couldn't take it."
Roark gave a derisive laugh. "Pleasure has nothing to do with it. The man was sick for months. My heart will be fine. Believe me."
"You haven't met her. You don't know. Christ."
Nathan Carter wiped his forehead. His old friend from Alaska was vice president in charge of Navarre Ltd.'s North American holdings. He was normally cool and confident. It shocked Roark to see him look so nervous now. "She's hosting this benefit to raise money for the park. Why do you think she'll sell the land to you?"
"Because I know her type," Roark ground out. "She sold her body to marry the count, didn't she? He might have wanted to leave the world with one magnificent charitable act to make up for years of ruthless business deals, but now he's dead she'll want to cash in. She might appear like some kind of do-gooder, but I know a gold digger when I see "
His voice trailed off as he focused on a woman entering the ballroom. He sucked in his breath as he watched her descend the sweeping stairs.
Lustrous black hair curled over pale, bare shoulders. Her eyes were hazel green, the color of a shaded forest, fringed with black lashes. She wore a white gown that displayed the hourglass shape of her curvaceous body to perfection, sleeveless and tight over her breasts, the skirts widening out into a mermaid shape below her knees. She had the face of an angel, but with a bite: blood-red lips stood out starkly, rich and full and delectable, luring a man's kiss.
Strangely shaken, Roark breathed, "Who is that?"
Nathan glanced behind him and gave a sardonic smile. "That, my friend, is the merry widow."
"The widow " Roark looked back at her. The woman was the most beautiful he'd ever seen. Curvy, saintly, wicked. She was a cross between Rita Hayworth and Angelina Jolie. For the first time in Roark's life, he fully understood the ramifications of the word bombshell.
Maybe there was something to the rumors that the old count died in her bed of too much pleasure.
Roark stared at her, stunned. He'd had many women in his life. He'd seduced them easily across every continent. But at this moment it was as if he'd never seen a woman before.
He swallowed. Countess Lia Villani was a goddess.
It had been too long since he'd felt like this. Too long since he'd been so intriguedor aroused. He'd crashed the countess's party to convince her to sell him the land. The sudden thought came to him: if she was receptive to his proposal to sell him the land for a huge amount of money, perhaps she would be equally receptive to the suggestion that she share his bed to seal the bargain?
But he wasn't the only man who wanted her. Not by a long shot.
Roark watched as a white-haired man in a sleek tuxedo hurried up the sweeping steps to her side. Others, not quite so bold, stood watching her from a distance. Already the wolves were circling.
And it wasn't just her beauty that drew every eye in the room, the longing, wistful gazes of every man, the envy of every woman's annoyed glare. She had power in the dignity of her bearing, in the cool glance she gave her new suitor. In the teeth she flashed in a smile that didn't meet her eyes.
She was a she-wolf herself. This countess wasn't some weak simpering virgin or clinging, cloying debutante. She was powerful. She wielded her beauty and will like a force of nature.
And Roark suddenly wanted her with an intensity that shocked him.
With one glance the woman set fire to his blood. As she moved down the stairs, her curvaceous body swaying with each step, he could already imagine her arching naked in his bed. Gasping out his name with those pouty red lips as he plundered her full breasts and made her tremble and writhe beneath his touch.
This woman that every other man wanted, Roark would take.
Along with the property, of course.
"I am so sorry for your loss, Countess," Andrew Oppenheimer said earnestly, bending over to kiss her hand.
"Thank you." Numbly, Countess Lia Villani stared down at the older man. She wished herself back at Villa Villani, mourning quietly in her husband's overgrown rose garden, enshrouded by medieval stone walls. But she'd no choice but to attend the benefit she and Giovanni had spent the past six months planning. He would have wanted her to be here. The park would be his legacy, as well as her family's. It would be twenty-six acres of trees and grass and playgrounds, in eternal remembrance of the people she'd loved.
They were all dead now. First her father, then her sister, then her mother. Now her husband. And in spite of the warm summer night outside, Lia's heart felt as cold and unbeating as if she'd been lowered into the frozen ground with her family long ago.
"We'll find some way to cheer you up, I hope." Andrew stood back from her, still holding her hand gently.
Lia forced herself to form her mouth in the semblance of a smile. She knew he was just trying to be kind. He was one of the park trust's biggest donors. The day after Giovanni had died, he'd written her a check for fifty thousand dollars.
Strange how, in the past two weeks, so many men had suddenly decided to write large checks for the benefit of the park.
Andrew held on to her hand, not allowing her to easily pull away. "Allow me to get you some champagne."
"Thank you, but no." She looked away. "I appreciate your kindness, but I really must greet my other guests."
The ballroom was packed with people; everyone had come. Lia could hardly believe that the Olivia Hawthorne Park in the Far West Side was going to become a reality. The twenty-six acres of railyards and broken-down warehouses would be transformed into a place of beauty, right across the street from where her sister had died. In the future, other kids staying at St. Ann's Hospital would look out their windows and see a playground and acres of green grass. They'd hear the wind through the trees and the laughter of playing children. They'd feel hope.
What was Lia's own grief and pain compared to that?
She pulled her hand out of his clasp. "I must go."
"Won't you allow me to escort you?" he asked.
"No, I really"
"Let me stay by your side tonight, Countess. Let me support you in your grief. I know it must be hard on you to be here. Do me the honor of allowing me to escort you, and I will double my donation to the park. Triple it"
"She said no," a man's deep voice said. "She doesn't want you."
Lia looked up with an intake of breath. A tall, broad-shouldered man stood at the base of the stairs. He had dark hair, tanned skin and a hard, muscular shape beneath his perfectly cut tuxedo. And even as he spoke to Andrew, he looked only at her.
He had a gleam in his dark, expressive eyes that made her feel strangely hot all over.
Warmth. Something she hadn't felt in weeks, in spite of the June weather.
And this was different. No man's gaze had ever burned her like this.
"Do I know you?" she whispered.
He gave her a lazy, smug smile. "Not yet."
"I don't know who you are," Andrew interrupted coldly, "but the countess is with me"
"Could you go and get me some champagne, please, Andrew?" she said, turning to him with a bright smile. "Would you mind?"
"No, of course I'd be delighted, Countess." He gave the stranger a dark look. "But what about him?"
"Please, Andrew." She placed her hand on his slender wrist. "I'm very thirsty."
"Of course," Andrew said with dignity, and went down the stairs toward the waiters carrying flutes of champagne.
With a deep breath, Lia clenched her hands into fists and turned back to the intruder.
"You have exactly one minute to talk before I call security," she said, walking down the stairs toward him, facing him head-on. "I know the guest list. And I don't know you."
But when she stood next to him on the marble floor, she realized how powerfully built the dark stranger truly was. At five-seven, she was hardly petite, but he had at least seven inches and seventy pounds over her.
And even more powerful than his body was the way the man looked at her. His gaze never moved from hers. She found herself unable to look away from the intensity of his dark eyes.
"It's true you don't know me. Yet." He moved closer, looking down at her with an arrogant masculine smile. "But I've come to give you what you desire."
"Oh?" Struggling to control the force of heat spreading through her body, Lia raised her chin. "And just what do you think I desire?"
"I have money."
"You're spending most of your dead husband's fortune on this foolish charitable endeavor." He gave her a sardonic smile. "A shame to waste money after you worked so hard to get your hands on it."
He was insulting her at her own party! Calling her a gold digger! And the fact that it was partially true
She fought back tears at the slight to Giovanni's memory then looked at the stranger with every ounce of haughtiness she possessed. "You don't know me. You don't know anything about me."
"Soon I'll know everything." Reaching forward, he gently ran a finger along the edge of her jawline and whispered, "Soon I'll have you in my bed."
Men had said such ridiculous things to her before, but this time she couldn't scorn the arrogance of his words. Not when the brief touch of his fingertip against her skin caused a riot of sensation to sear her whole body.
"I'm not for sale," she whispered.
He lifted her chin. "You'll be mine, Countess. You'll want me, as I want you."
She'd heard about sexual attraction, but thought she'd lost her chance to experience it. Thought herself too cold, too grief stricken, too numb.
Feeling his hand on her was like a burst of hot sunlight, causing warmth and light to sparkle prisms of diamonds across her frozen body. Warmth unfurled in her. Melted her.
Against her will, she moved closer.
"Want you? That's ridiculous," she said hoarsely, her heart pounding. "I don't even know you."
He took her hand in his own, and she felt the strange warmth racing up her fingertips and her arm. To her breasts and the core of her body.
She'd been so cold for so long. Outside, the streets of New York were sweltering in the first real heat wave of the summer. Back at her adopted home in Tuscany, the high mountains were warm and lush and green. But for Lia time had stopped in January, when she'd first learned of Giovanni's illness. Since then, in her heart, the ice and snow had only risen higher and higher, burying her in its cold waves.
Now she felt the dark stranger's heat almost painfully. Desire struck her with the sharpness of its heat, and blood rushed through her with a sudden burning intensity and throbbing pain, as frozen limbs came back to life.
"Who are you?" she whispered.
He pulled her slowly into his arms and looked down at her, his face inches from her own.
"I'm the man who's taking you home with me tonight."