Read an Excerpt
'I can't do this.'
Eve's voice was little more than a whisper as the icy hand of fear gripped her throat and trailed its chilly fingers down her spine. She wanted to run, but was suddenly too panic-stricken to move. Besides, in the stiletto-heeled thigh-length boots she probably wouldn't get very far.
On the other side of the curtains the ballroom of Florence's grandest palazzo was packed with five hundred of the world's most wealthy and beautiful, who had come to pay homage to the man who had been dressing them for half a century. Only the cream of Antonio di Lazaro's client list had been invited to attend this exclusive fiftieth anniversary retrospective, and any celebrities not sitting out there in the glittering ballroom waiting for the show to begin were backstage, getting ready to model some of the legendary Lazaro label's most iconic designs.
Sienna Swift, current supermodel darling of the international fashion scene, looked up briefly from the magazine she was reading and gave Eve her famously dazzling smile.
'Course you can. You'll be fine.'
'But I'm a...a journalist.'The dishonesty of the statement made Eve falter as she said it. 'My friend Lou was supposed to be doing this article-she'd have been fantastic, but I've never done anything like this in my life. I don't know the first thing about modelling!'
Sienna turned the page. 'Well, babe, you've got the legs for it. And better boobs than the rest of us put together. What's to know? It's hardly rocket science.' She paused to scrutinise a photograph of one of her closest rivals before adding, 'It's all about sex, I suppose.'
'Sex?'Eve wailed, her spirits sinking even further. 'Why sex? Where I come from sex is not something you do in front of five hundred people and photographers from every major publication around the globe.'
Apparently. She couldn't very well say she didn't know the first thing about that either.
Sienna sighed and put the magazine down. 'OK, we haven't got long, so let's make this as simple as possible. All you have to do is find someone to focus on. You're up there on the catwalk, right? And you just fix your eyes on some bloke and forget everyone else. Watch.'
The model took a couple of steps back, thrusting her hips forward in classic catwalk style and placing her hands on them. Looking around for a likely candidate, she fixed her smoky gaze on the singer from Italy's hottest new boy band, who'd just come offstage.
'You walk towards him and you never take your eyes off him,' she murmured through sultry, pouted lips. 'Not for a second. This is lust at first sight. You're looking at him as if he's the sexiest man alive and you're going to go right up to him and strip his clothes off and there and then.' She swung back to Eve with a wicked smile. 'That's all there is to it!'And to the obvious dismay of the blushing singer she picked up the magazine again and resumed her study of it.
Eve squirmed uncomfortably in the transparent PVC mini-dress, and tugged it down over her bottom. It would be a lot easier to follow Sienna's advice if she was allowed to wear her glasses, without which she wasn't going to be able to focus on anything more than half a metre away from her face, and if she wasn't dressed in an upmarket plastic bag. She seemed to have drawn the short straw in the clothes lottery, and had been allocated one of Lazaro's more bizarre creations from his avant-garde phase in the 1960s. Strategically positioned fluorescent flowers stopped the dress being absolutely X-rated, but she still felt horribly exposed.
All around her some of the most beautiful women in the world were sipping mineral water from miniature bottles and dropping the kind of names that would have sent a real journalist into a frenzy of excitement. Among them Eve felt lonely, disorientated, and about as glamorous as a transit van in a garage full of sportscars.
She didn't belong here.
She closed her eyes against the sudden wave of homesickness that threatened to knock her for six as she thought of her messy desk by the window in Professor Swanson's office. At this time of year her view of the college quadrangle was almost entirely obliterated by the wisteria rampaging across the window, casting a murky underwater light over the clutter of teacups and student essays and piles of scribbled notes in the dusty book-lined room.
That was her world, and she had been crazy to think for a second that she could cut it in Lou's. Fashion journalists-especially those who were successful enough to shadow supermodels for exclusive behind-the-scenes articles on the A-list events of the year-were generally not shy, shortsighted academics. There was just no way she could pull it off.
'I think I'd better go and get changed,' she muttered, trying to squeeze through the crush at the steps to the catwalk.
The plan had failed before it had even begun, and it was better that she face that fact now. Lou had taken a huge risk in faking illness at the last minute and putting Eve forward for this article, and if either of them had stopped to think about it they would have realised how outrageous the whole scheme was. She was going to let Lou down, but that wasn't the worst part.
The worst part was letting her twin sister Ellie down. And letting Raphael Di Lazaro slip through her fingers again.
Without looking up from the horoscope page, Sienna grabbed her arm and pulled her back. 'No time,' she said cheerfully. 'We're on in a second. Look, it says here that Scorpios should exercise caution in financial matters. Do you think that means I shouldn't buy that Prada clutch bag, then?'
Eve's teeth were chattering violently as she replied, 'I shouldn't think so. Look, it doesn't by any chance say that on Thursday Aquarians should avoid public displays of nudity and stay at home eating chocolate instead, does it?'
Sienna laughed. 'Let's see. Aquarius. "Due to Mercury moving into the pinnacle of your chart, Thursday will see a spectacular reawakening of your love-life. Your destiny awaits you in a most unexpected place." Excellent! You'd better stick around after all!'
Eve grimaced. Even if she could persuade herself to believe in astrology-or destiny, for that matter-she'd have to draw the line at reincarnation. Her love-life wasn't just sleeping, it was dead and buried.
No. If she was going to stick around it would be nothing to do with love or destiny, for pity's sake, and everything to do with revenge.
She gave Sienna a watery smile. 'Just my luck the man of my dreams is going to appear in my life the day I'm dressed as Porn Star Barbie.'
The grand ballroom of the Palazzo Salarino glittered in the light from its famous antique crystal chandeliers as the floor-length windows darkened from the blue of late afternoon to the deep mauve of evening. The body of the room was filled with row upon row of gilded chairs, seating the fashion world's premier figures, and the perfection of the scene was reflected in the numerous Venetian mirrors that lined the walls.
On shaking legs Eve stepped out from the wings.
For a second she couldn't see anything at all as a thousand flashbulbs dazzled her, and it was all she could do not to put her hands in front of her face to shield it. The catwalk stretched ahead of her, looking at least a mile long, and beyond it lay the elegant salon with its sea of upturned faces.
Sienna's words came back to her. 'Find someone to focus on...'
Desperately she scanned the cavernous room, for once glad that her shortsightedness prevented her from recognising the dauntingly famous faces. Her steps slowed and she felt the smile freeze on her face. Was she supposed to smile? She couldn't remember. The audience was a whispering restless mass. It was impossible to single anyone out, Eve thought in panic, willing herself to keep going while every fibre of her being was telling her to turn on her spike heels and run.
Someone was standing in the shadows, leaning against one of the marble pillars with his head tilted back. He was wearing a dark suit that outlined the powerful breadth of his shoulders against the pale marble, and there was something incredibly arresting about his stillness. In the dimly lit room, through the fog of her shortsightedness, it was impossible to see him clearly, but she could feel his eyes upon her.
I can do this, she thought. I can do this. Achingly beautiful, heartbreakingly poignant, the exquisite notes of Madame Butterfly drifted through the room, filling her with their bittersweet sexual yearning. She and Ellie had always loved this opera, sneaking to the top of the stairs in their nightgowns to catch this particular aria when their mother used to play it late at night on an old record player. The words were as familiar to her as a lullaby, and hearing them now gave her strength.
Everything around her receded-the cameras, the audience, the syrupy voice of the pink-suited host. The world shrank to encompass nothing but the music and the dark, narrowed eyes of the stranger. He didn't move, but as she swayed towards him she could feel the laser beam burn of his gaze and sense the sexual energy he gave off, like heat. It melted into her skin, making it tingle, thawing her icy shell of insecurity and shyness.
For the first time in two years she felt properly alive. Reaching the end of the catwalk, she lifted her head and paused. Their eyes locked over the rows of people separating them in a dizzying moment of absolute sexual recognition. For a brief second Eve seriously considered keeping going: jumping down from the catwalk and walking right up to him, as Sienna had said. Her body was crying out to him with an urgency that took her breath away, and the need to touch him, to inhale his scent and taste the warmth of his lips, was almost overwhelming.
The photographers at her feet surged forward in a volley of flashbulbs. Blinded by white light, she could still see the dark silhouette of her mysterious rescuer imprinted on her mind. Wrenching her dazzled gaze away, she turned to walk back up the catwalk, still feeling his eyes upon her and helplessly aware of the wanton undulation of her hips. In the few seconds that their eyes had held he had insinuated himself under her skin, like some mystical enchanter, infusing every cell in her body with molten longing. She was possessed.
Stepping shakily off the catwalk, she slipped through the crowd of girls waiting to go on and, oblivious to their smiles and congratulations, stumbled back to her corner of the communal dressing area. Throwing herself into a chair, she stared at her reflection in the mirror.
She looked like Sleeping Beauty must have in the moment following Prince Charming's kiss-dazed, bewildered, and unmistakably aroused. Gone was the shy, uncertain girl who had stepped nervously through the curtains five minutes ago, and in her place was a tousled maenad with bee-stung lips and eyes like dark pools of invitation.
The horoscope had been spookily accurate. It was exactly as if she had been sleeping until the electrifying presence of the unknown man had brought her painfully, pleasurably, back to consciousness.
She dropped her head into her hands. Except that clever, sensible Eve didn't believe in all that nonsense, did she?
She had been the shy twin, always in the shadow of flamboyant, confident Ellie. Ellie had been the one who'd devoured horoscopes and believed in destiny, pursuing your dream. While Eve had still been at Oxford, working hard on her dissertation, Ellie had abandoned her degree in Art History and blown her student grant on a one-way ticket to Florence instead.
She'd wanted to experience art and passion and beauty for herself, not hear about it second-hand in some dingy lecture theatre. At some point, when she'd been in Florence for a couple of months, she'd clearly decided to add heroin to the list of things she wanted to experience.
That was where following your dreams and reading your horoscope got you. To an anonymous, sordid death that the police hadn't even bothered to investigate.
They hadn't, so Eve had vowed she would. In the two years since it had happened Eve's life had shrunk even further, until there was nothing left but her work for Professor Swanson and the cold, aching desire for closure and for justice.
But the face that stared back at her from the mirror now was transformed by desire of a different kind. It was the face of a girl who knew what she wanted-and it had nothing to do with revenge. The expression in her eyes was one of white-hot, naked, take-me-and-damn-the-consequences lust.
And, what was more, it suited her. Now all she had to do was find her man and...
'You were brilliant! A total natural!'
Sienna kicked off killer six-inch stiletto heels and helped herself to a miniature bottle of champagne from one of the ice buckets that were dotted around the dressing room. On the other side of the curtain the audience were still clapping and cheering as she took a long, thirsty swig.
In a daze, Eve looked up. The show couldn't have finished already. That would mean she had just spent the last forty-five minutes lost in an erotic fantasy.
'Right, then,' Sienna went on happily, 'That's the work bit over. Now it's party time!' Oh, God. She had just spent the last forty-five minutes lost in an erotic fantasy. 'The Lazaro parties are always totally wild.' With an alarming lack of inhibition Sienna stripped off the outrageous white leather and tulle wedding dress she had worn for the finale and tossed it aside. 'Have you seen how many celebs are out there? I can't wait to meet them. And there's even a whisper going around that Rapahel di Lazaro is back from abroad. He's supposed to be, like, so-ooo gorgeous. I'm definitely going to introduce myself.'
The mention of that name brought Eve back to reality with roughly the same force as a head-on collision at high speed. He was the one she should be spending the evening trying to get close to, not her handsome hero.
'Well, if you find him you can introduce me too. I'd love to meet the mysterious Raphael di Lazaro. So far I haven't even been able to dig out so much as a photograph of him. How come he's so elusive?'
Sienna shrugged. She had changed into a backless, barely-there dress in cherry-pink, and was now slipping her feet into a pair of pink satin wedges that even Eve recognised as being the height of fashion.
'He left before I started modelling for Lazaro, but people here are still talking about him. The rumour goes that his girlfriend ran off with his brother-Luca; you're bound to meet him-and Raphael couldn't handle it. I heard he went to South America somewhere, though I'm not sure if that's right. I mean, he's a fashion photographer, and it's not an area you'd really associate with fashion, is it?'
Eve gave a dry laugh. 'No.' Drugs, yes. Fashion, no. 'Anyway, that's why he hasn't been around for a couple of years. And even before he went the paparazzi used to give him a pretty wide berth.' Sienna finished applying shocking pink lipstick and paused for a moment while she pressed her lips together. 'He hates them, apparently, but that's not unusual in this business. What's more surprising is that they seem to respect that. He must be quite a guy. Hey, Eve...? Are you all right?
'Oh. Yes. Yes, of course.'
'Well, come on, then. We're missing valuable party time! What are you wearing?'
'Oh, nothing much. I mean, not literally-but I've only got this.'Flustered, Eve got to her feet and rummaged inside a moth-eaten antique carpet-bag-her Mary Poppins bag as Ellie used to call it-fishing out a slither of silk which she tossed absent-mindedly to Sienna.
Sienna held the dress up carefully. 'It's gorgeous. Where's it from?'
Eve flashed her a smile and put on a posh, showbiz accent. 'A frightfully exclusive little label called Charity Shop. Frankly, darling, I never wear anything else.'
The lavender-scented air was still warm, and, stepping out onto the romantically lit terrace, Raphael Di Lazaro felt an enormous sense of relief. The ornate grandeur of the palazzo's ballroom, with its wall-to-wall celebrities and trophy wives, had been suffocating. Everything was so highly polished and symmetrical, just like the perfectly made-up, expressionless faces of the models, but it made the dust and chaos he had so recently left behind in Columbia seem positively refreshing in comparison.
Accepting a glass of champagne from a passing waiter, he discreetly checked his watch. This was the kind of event he usually avoided like a hot day in hell, but he was here on business, not for pleasure. This was exactly the sort of environment in which his slimeball brother was most likely to operate.
Half-brother. Since uncovering evidence of the new depths of evil and corruption concealed behind Luca's shallow charm, Raphael was more determined than ever to remember that they shared only one parent. And Antonio Di Lazaro had played such a distant role in Raphael's upbringing that he hardly qualified for the title of father.
Luca was the golden boy in Antonio's eyes. In everyone's eyes.