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IT WAS like playing Russian roulette with your sex life: place a loaded invitation in the barrel, then shoot and see if you scored a hit.
Everyone was doing it, Raffaelle Villani observed cynically--the young and nubile, complete with breast implants and carefully straightened and dyed blonde hair. They circled the room eyeing up likely victims, picked the richest man they could find, then primed him and fired their lucky shot.
Or unlucky, depending from which side of the fence you viewed it.
Some you win, some you lose, he mused as one eager player tried the deal on him only to be rewarded with the sight of his back.
Contempt twisting his lean golden features, he beat a retreat to the furthest corner of the room where the bar was situated. Discarding his untouched glass of champagne, he ordered a glass of full-blooded red wine to take its place.
Functions like this were the pits and he would not have come but for his stepsister twisting his arm. He owed Daniella a favour for pulling him out of a tricky situation recently with a woman who had been about to become his latest lover--until Daniella had whispered in his ear that the woman was married with a small son.
It turned out that she had even lied to him about her name. Discovering that she was actually the ex-catwalk model Elise Castle, now married to the heavyweight Greek Leo Savakis, had not made Raffaelle feel good about himself.
Married women were not his bag. Married women with small children were an even bigger turn-off. As were neat little liars who pretended to be someone they were not. Elise Castle ticked the boxes in all three categories and the hardest part ofit all had been accepting how thoroughly he had been duped by a pair of innocent blue eyes and a set of good breasts that had been her own.
Or maybe not, Raffaelle then contended. Perhaps the breasts and the blue eyes had been just more lies the beautiful Elise had fed to him. Fortunately he had not managed to get close enough to find out.
But he still owed it to Daniella that he'd managed to get out of a potentially scandal-spinning tangle before it had exploded in his face.
He was into gun metaphors, he noticed. What a great way to spend a Saturday night.
Where was Daniella--?
Straightening his six-foot-four-inch frame up from its bored languid slouch against the bar, Raffaelle began scanning the sea of bodies milling about in front of him for a glimpse of the sylphlike figure belonging to his beautiful stepsister.
He found her almost instantly. Her glossy mane of black hair and the red dress she was wearing made her virtually impossible to miss. She was standing with some smooth-looking guy over by a wall on the other side of the room, and it came as a shock to Raffaelle to see that she was playing the game like all the rest!
She was pouting, her pose distinctly saucy, her breasts pushed up almost against the guy's chest while he looked down at her with one of those lazy I'm-interested-smiles on his handsome face.
Were Daniella's breasts her own--?
The question hit Raffaelle's brain and made him curse softly because he didn't care what Daniella's breasts were made of. She was not and never had been his type. And anyway, as his stepsister, she was and always had been off limits.
She was also getting married in two months, to one of his closest friends. But there she stood, coming on to another man!
Annoyance launched him away from the bar with the grim intention of going over there and hauling her away before one of the other kind of circling vultures here--the press--noticed her and ruined the foolish creature's life.
"Mr Villani?'a husky female voice spoke to him. "I'm really sorry to bother you but..."
Raffaelle spun on his heel to find himself staring down at yet another nubile young thing with the requisite blonde hair and good breasts. His expression turned to ice as he looked down at her, though the way she was looking up at him through tense, apprehensive, big blue eyes almost made him think twice about turning his back.
More so when the pink tip of her tongue arrived to nervously calm the little tremor he could see happening with her lips.
Nice lips, he noticed. Full, very pink, very lush lips. "Do you think I could h-have a word with you?" she requested nervously. "It's really important," she added quickly. "I need to ask you a big favour..."
A favour? Well, that was a novel approach. Raffaelle felt the corner of his mouth give a twitch--and thereby did the worst thing he could have done, by allowing a chink of interest to stop him from walking away.
Her silky hair hung dead straight to her slender shoulders and she possessed the most amazing pearly-white skin. He sent his eyes skimming down her front to her cleavage where two firm, plump very white breasts balanced precariously inside the tiny bodice of the short and skimpy pale turquoise silk thing he supposed he should call a dress. She wasn't tall by his standards, but she had a pair of legs on her that did not need the four inch heels she was wearing to extend their fabulous length.
Cosmetically enhanced or not, this one was probably the most appealing package in the room tonight, he accepted as he lifted his eyes back to the pair of pink lips to watch them tremble some more as she waited for his response.
When he still did not give one, she took a step closer, her too-blue eyes lighting up with appeal. "You see I have this--problem..."
She was going to touch him. His stupid hesitation had given her encouragement to believe that he was interested.
Raffaelle stiffened, each well toned muscle in his long lean framework abruptly tightening up.
"No," he iced out.
Then turned on his heel and strode off.
Cold, rude, arrogant swine, Rachel mentally tossed after him in stinging frustration. Did the too-tall, dark and disgustingly handsome devil think he was so special that he didn't need to be polite to a woman?
Well, you're not my type, Mr Villani, she told the long length of his retreating figure. Especially if his type was the kind of women doing the rounds here tonight.
Rachel's blue eyes turned bitter as she flicked them round the gathered assembly of the famously rich and beautiful--in that order, money being the biggest attraction here tonight. It was a trade fair for the beautiful people to ply their wares in front of London's wealthiest, though it hid under the more respectable title of a Charity Fundraising Event.
She should not have come here. If Elise hadn't convinced her it was the only way to get close to a man like Raffaelle Villani, she would not have been seen dead at a do like this.
"He likes them blonde and slinky,'Elise had said. "Notoriously can't keep his hands off. You only have to read down the list of his last fifteen girlfriends to know the man has no control when he's faced with blonde hair and a great pair of legs."
Well, not in my case, Rachel thought heavily as she gave a grim tug at the hem of the dress Elise had made her wear. "You have to look the part," her half-sister had insisted. "When you pay the extortionate price for tickets like these it means you have to look as if you can afford to throw good money away."
The silly price of the tickets was one thing, but a five figure sum dress only earned its price tag if it looked good on the wearer.
Rachel felt as if she looked like a very cheap tart. "Hello, beautiful..." The unremarkable hit line arrived as a hand squeezed around her waist at the same time and a pair of lips arrived at one of the straps which held up the dress. "Having trouble with the dress? Can I help?"
His teeth nipped at the shoulder strap. Rachel heaved in a thick breath of disgust. "Take your hands and your teeth off me," she iced out, then broke free and walked off without giving the guy a single glance.
She'd taken about five steps before she realised she'd inadvertently walked in the same direction as Raffaelle Villani.
And there he was.
She stopped dead.
He was in the process of disentangling a lovely young thing wearing red from the possessive clutches of another man. The vision in red turned to pout a protest at him, then flung her arms around his neck and kissed him full on the mouth.
So much for him preferring them blonde, Rachel thought cynically. The creature he'd just claimed and was now kissing was hot-lipped, glossy and black-haired.
Oh, God, she thought helplessly, what was she going to do if she did not manage to pull this off?
"You're drunk," Raffaelle informed Daniella. "Tiddly," his half-English stepsister insisted with a smile gauged to melt his irritation away.
It did not succeed. "Admit to being drunk, cara," he advised as he grabbed both of her hands and dragged them down from around his neck. "It is the only excuse Gino will accept for what you have just been doing."
"I haven't been doing anything--!" Eyes the colour of warm dark chocolate opened wide and tried their best to look innocent.
"You were hitting on that guy," Raffaelle accused her. "We were flirting, that's all! And what do you think you're doing, Raffaelle?'she protested when he took hold of her hand and turned towards the exit.
"Taking you home," he clipped out. "I don't know why I let you talk me into bringing you here in the first place."
"For some fun?" Daniella offered up. "I don't do this kind of fun." 'That's your big problem, Raffaelle," she informed him as he trailed her behind him. "You don't do anything these days other than work yourself into the ground."
"My choice." 'To be a grouch."
A nerve ticked at the corner of his mouth because she was right: he was becoming grouch--a bitter and cynical grouch.
"All because one woman managed to con you into believing she was pure sweetness and light..."
"As you try to do, you mean?" 'I am all sweetness and light!" Daniella insisted. "And that wasn't very nice," she complained. "Nor do I lie or cheat."
"Tell that to Gino not to me," Raffaelle countered. "If he had seen the way you were preparing to wrap yourself around that guy, he would call the wedding off."
"But Gino isn't here because he prefers to be halfway across the world playing the hot shot tycoon."
"However, the press is here--"
Raffaelle stopped walking as a sudden thought hit him. He swung round to pierce her with a hard stare.
"Is that what this is about?'he demanded. "Did you drag me out to this thing--which is nothing more than an overpriced knocking shop," he said with contempt, "so that you would be caught on camera playing the vamp with some other guy just to punish Gino, knowing that I would be on hand to haul you out of trouble before you got yourself in too deep?"
"I hate him," Daniella announced. "I might even decide not to marry him. I'm supposed to be the love of his life yet I haven't set eyes on him in two wh-whole weeks!"
The small break in her voice did it. Raffaelle heard the fight with tears and released a sigh. "Come here, you idiot." He pulled her into his arms. "You know Gino worships the ground you walk upon but he is busy trying to free himself up for that long glorious honeymoon he has planned for you both."
"He even sounds like he would rather be doing something else when he rings me," she sniffed into his shirt front. "I'm not a doormat. I refuse to let him wipe his feet on me!"
Raffaelle shifted his stance. "You're laughing at me!" Daniella choked out. "No, I am not."
What he was actually doing was staring over Daniella's glossy dark head into the cynical blue eyes of the blonde who had approached him a few minutes ago. She was now standing about ten feet away being buffeted by the milling crowd but not noticing because she was too busy looking at him as if he was a snake.
A sting injected itself down the front of his body. The confusing signals she was giving off dressed--or undressed--like she was, while glaring at him like that, were setting his senses on edge.
Who the hell was she, anyway? Why had he not hung around long enough to find out?
Did he want to know?
His eyes cooled and hardened. No, he didn't, he answered his own question. Expensive tarts in expensive dresses were ten-a-Euro to buy in this room. He did not need to buy his women. And this one was more the type for the guy who was approaching her from behind right now and eyeing her up and down as if she was his next tasty snack.
And tasty said it, he found himself reluctantly admitting as he ran a glance down her front until he reached the place where those two fabulous legs came together.
Was the hair at her crotch the same pale gold colour as the hair on her head?
He shifted again, was vaguely aware of Daniella talking into his shirt but didn't hear what she said. That damn inconvenient thing called sexual curiosity was trying to take him over, heating him up like a pot coming to the boil.
The blonde stiffened, tugging his gaze back to her face to clash with the shocked look in her eyes. He realised then that she knew what he had been thinking, her pearly-white skin suffused with heat.
Feeling the spark too, cara? his glinting eyes mocked her. Well hard damn luck because I am not buying.
The approaching man had reached her--a tall fair haired good-looking guy who stepped right in behind her and ran his fingers up her bare arms to her shoulders, then bent to murmur something in her ear.
She quivered--Raffaelle saw it happen. As she slowly blinked her eyes and turned her head sideways so she was no longer looking at him, he watched her sumptuous pink mouth tilt into a smile.
She turns on for any man, he observed grimly. "Hi," Rachel said, still stinging at the way Raffaelle Villani had just looked at her as if she was a sex object put on show to be bought.
"Hi to you too," Mark returned. "No luck with the appeal approach?"