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SHE came hurrying along the sidewalk, enveloped from head to toe in black suede, stiletto-heeled boots clicking sharply, her head bent against the rain-driven wind, and barreled into Nicolo just as he stepped from the taxi.
The doorman moved forward but Nicolo had already dropped his briefcase and caught her by the shoulders.
"Easy," he said pleasantly.
Her hood fell back as she looked up at him. Nicolo, always appreciative of beauty, smiled.
She was beautiful, with elegant bones, a mouth that looked soft and inviting, and eyes the deep blue of spring violets, all that framed by a mass of honey-colored loose curls.
If someone had to run you down, this was surely the woman an intelligent man would choose.
"Are you all right?"
She pulled out of his grasp. "I'm fine."
"My fault entirely," he said graciously. "I should have watched where I was"
"Yes," the woman said, "you should have."
He blinked. She was looking at him with total disdain. His smile faded. Though he was Roman, he'd spent a good part of his life in Manhattan. He understood that civility was not an art here but it was she who'd run into him. "I beg your pardon, signorina, but"
"But then," she said coldly, "I suppose people like you think you own the street."
Nicolo lifted his hands from her shoulders with exaggerated care.
"Look, I don't know what your problem is, but"
"You," she said crisply, "are my problem." What was this? A Mona Lisa with the temperament of a hellcat. Innate old-world gallantry warred with newworld attitude.
Attitude won. "You know," he said brusquely, "I apologized to you when there was no need, and you speak to me as if I were scum. You could use some manners."
"Just because I'm a woman"
"Is that what you are?" His smile was as cold as his words. "Let's see about that, shall we?" Temper soaring, logic shot to hell, Nicolo pulled the blonde to her toes and kissed her.
It lasted less than a second. Just a quick brush of his mouth over hers. Then he let go of her, had the satisfaction of seeing those violet eyes widen in astonishment
And caught the rich, sweet taste of her on his lips. Sweet heaven. Had he gone un po'pazzo?
He had to be. Only a crazy man would haul a meantempered woman into his arms on Fifth Avenue.
"You," she said, "youyou"
Oh, but it had been worth it. Look at her now, sputtering like a steam engine, that icy demeanor completely shattered.
She jerked free of his hands. Her arm rose. She was going to slap him; he could read it in those amazing eyes, eyes that flashed lethal bolts of lightning. He probably deserved itbut he'd be damned if he'd let her do it.
He bent his head toward hers. "Hit me," he said softly, "and I promise, I'll make your world come crashing down around your ears."
Her lips formed a phrase he would not have imagined women knew. Not the women in his world, at any rate, but then none of them would have accused a man of something clearly their fault.
Why be modest? The truth was, not a woman he'd ever met would have blamed him even if he were at fault.
The hellcat glared at him. He returned the look. Then she swept past him, honey-blond mane glittering with raindrops, black suede coat billowing after her like a sail.
He watched her go until she was lost in the umbrellashrouded crowd hurrying through the chilly March rain.
Then he took a deep breath and turned his back to her. His eyes met the doorman's. Nothing. Not the slightest acknowledgment that anything the least bit unusual had happened but then, this was New York. New Yorkers had long ago learned it was wisest not to know anything.
And a damned good thing for him.
Kissing her had been bad enough. Challenging her to call the police
How stupid could a man be? He could have ended up with his face spread across Page Six. Not exactly the publicity one wanted before a meeting with the ninety-year old head of an investment firm that prided itself on decorum and confidentiality.
The rain was coming down harder.
The doorman already had his suitcase. Nicolo picked up his briefcase and walked into the hotel.
His suite was on the forty-third floor, which gave him an excellent view of the park and the skyline beyond it.
When he started looking for a permanent place to live in the city, he'd want a view like this.
Nicolo tossed his raincoat on a chair. If all went well, he'd contact a Realtor after Monday's meeting.
If? There was no "if" about it. The word wasn't in his lexicon. He never went after something without making damned sure he knew when, where and how to get it. That approach was a key to his success.
He toed off his shoes, stripped away his clothes and headed for the shower.
He was fully prepared for Monday's meeting and his long-anticipated buyout of Stafford-Coleridge-Black.
His financial empire was huge, with offices in London, Paris, Singapore, and, of course, Rome.
It was time for Barbieri International to move into the New York market. For that, he wanted something that would be the crown jewel of his corporation.
In the rarefied echelon of private banking, that could only be Stafford-Coleridge-Black, whose client list read like a Who's Who of American wealth and power.
Only one thing stood in the way: SCB's chairman, James Black.
"I have no idea what you'd think to discuss with me," the old man had said when he'd finally agreed to take Nicolo's phone call.
"I've heard rumors," Nicolo had answered carefully,
"that you are considering a change."
"You mean," Black had said bluntly, "you've heard that I'm going to die soon. Well, I assure you, sir, I am not."
"What I have heard," Nicolo had said, "is that a man of your good judgment believes in planning ahead."
Black had made a sound that might have been a laugh. "Touché, Signore Barbieri. But I assure you, any changes I might make would be of no interest to you. We are family owned and have been for more than two hundred years. The bank has been passed from one generation to another." A brief, barely perceptible pause. "But I wouldn't expect you to understand the importance of that."
Nicolo had thought how good it was that they were not face-to-face. Even so, he had to work hard to control his temper. Black was an old man but he was in full command of his faculties. What he'd said had to be a deliberate, if thinly veiled, insult.
This high up the ladder, the international financial community was like an exclusive club. People knew things about each other and what Black knew was that Nicolo's wealth and stature, despite his title, had not come from legacy and inheritance but had been solely self-created.
As far as the James Blacks of this world were concerned, that was not a desirable image.
Probably not desirable as far as Fifth Avenue honeyblondes were concerned, either, Nicolo mused, and wondered where in hell that thought had come from?
What mattered, all that mattered this weekend, was his business with Black. It had mattered enough during that phone call to keep his tone neutral when he responded to the flinty old bastard's gibe.
"On the contrary," Nicolo had said. "I do understand. Completely. I believe in maintaining tradition." He'd paused, weighing each word. "I also believe you would do your institution a disservice if you refuse to hear what I have to say."
He'd gambled that Black would bite. Not that it was all that much of a gamble, considering what Nicolo knew.
SCB had, indeed, always been family-owned and operated. The problem was that the old man was facing his ninetieth birthday and his sole heir was a grandchild still in school.
Still in school and a girl.
Nicolo was sure that "tradition," to James Black, meant handing the reins of the company to an heir, not an heiress. Black had never made a secret of his feelings about women in business.
And that was probably the one thing the two men could agree on, Nicolo mused as he stepped from the shower. It was what he would build his argument on, Monday morning.
Women were too emotional. They were unpredictable and undisciplined. They did well as assistants, even, on occasion, as heads of departments, but as ultimate decisionmakers?
Not until science figured out a way women could overcome the dizzying up-and-down ride of their hormones.
It wasn't their faultit was simply a fact of life.
And that, Nicolo thought as he dressed in gray flannel trousers, a black cashmere turtleneck and mocs, was his ace in the hole.
Nicolo was the only investor who could afford the indulgence of buying SCB privately. That meant that Black had nowhere to turn except to him, unless he wanted to sell his venerable institution to one of the giant conglomerates hungering for it, then live long enough to see it disappear within the corporate maw.
He was the old man's salvation and they both knew it. The moment of truth had come last week when Black's secretary phoned and said her employer would agree to a brief meeting solely as a courtesy.
"Of course," Nicolo had said calmly but when he hung up, he'd pumped his fist in victory.
The meeting meant only one thing: the old man had admitted defeat and would sell to him. Oh, he'd undoubtedly make him dance through a couple of hoops first, but how bad could that be?
Nicolo slipped on a leather bomber jacket and shut the door to his suite behind him.
He wouldn't dance, but he'd move his feet in time to the music. Do just enough to placate the old bastard.
Then Stafford-Coleridge-Black would be his.
Not bad for a boy who'd grown up in not-so-genteel poverty, Nicolo thought, and pressed the button for the elevator.