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Shivering a little in the night air, Leola Foster stared down into a square dominated on one side by a Romanesque church and on another by a tall stone watchtower. Jagged blocks of stone along the top of the cliff—all that remained of a ruined wall—reminded her that San Giusto, the southernmost city in the Sea Isles of Illyria, had once needed protection from pirates. Spring was only a few weeks old, and even this far south it wasn't really warm enough to stand by the shuttered window in her pyjamas.
But she'd given up trying to get back to sleep. Images from the dream that had jerked her awake still lingered with a sour, humiliating aftertaste. She shivered again, wishing her unconscious would stop replaying the incident over and over again in a never-ending loop.
Call her naïve, she thought with a bitterness that startled her, but she'd never for a moment suspected that Durand had any interest in her; three months ago when she'd arrived in London from New Zealand, her employer's partner—in both personal and business senses—had completely ignored her.
Leola smiled grimly, remembering how excited she'd been, how confident that this was another step up in her chosen career. After all, Tabitha Grantham was a world-famous brand, noted for the cool sophistication and perfect tailoring of the clothes she designed.
And Tabitha herself had contacted Leola after seeing her line at Auckland's Fashion Week.
'I like your edge,' she'd said, interviewing her over cocktails in the opulent hotel suite she shared with Durand. 'I think you'll go far and I'd like to help you. You'll learn plenty, but I have to warn you I don't pay my interns much, and I'll expectyou to work like a galley slave.'
And work her hard she had. Not that Leola had objected. She'd found it exhilarating, bewildering, shocking and fascinating, and she'd soaked up every bit of information she could, every scrap of technique, every contact.
Pity it had all come to an abrupt, mortifying end when Jason Durand decided she'd do as his latest fling.
Unseeing, her gaze skimmed the dark spires of the cypresses along the ruined wall. Night had worked a transformation on the city. Bustling and noisy and charmingly Mediterranean during the day, San Giusto brooded silently under the Northern hemisphere stars. A violent homesickness gripped her; in New Zealand the stars were familiar and the breeze tangy with a wilder, more primal scent.
It was still there, she thought wistfully; she could return any time.
In fact, it looked as though she'd be back there pretty soon. If it hadn't been for the godmother who'd given her this week in Illyria as a birthday present she'd be maxing out her credit card right now on airfares.
Her head came up proudly. No, she would not slink back with her tail between her legs—or not until she'd exhausted every option. She didn't do defeat.
So she'd find new digs first. Without Tabitha's subsidy she couldn't afford the bedsit; she'd had to plead with the landlord to store her suitcases until she came back from this trip.
So digs first, a new job next.
Her lips tightened in a mixture of outrage and frustration. Dammit, she'd been fighting Durand off when Tabitha walked into the room three days ago, yet it had made no difference.
'I'm sorry,' Tabitha had said, her eyes steely, 'but Durand is more important to me than you are. I don't want to see you again.'
Of course Durand was a vital part of the business, but it had been Tabitha's callous dismissal—as though Leola had been a Victorian housemaid found pilfering!—that had stung, enough for her to threaten Durand with the police or the press when he'd refused to pay out her final week's wage.
That had got her the money, but she'd rather have had the internship.
Leola drew in a deep breath of air scented with pine and salt, figs and grape. She was not going to let betrayal or her fear for the future spoil her week in this lovely place, and if she couldn't sleep she might as well work her restlessness off. A brisk walk should do it.
Ten minutes later she locked the door of her apartment behind her and strode towards the deep, mysterious shadows at the base of the ancient tower that marked the cliff walk.
It was a night from an ancient fable—serenely impersonal sky, the soft sigh of the sea on the rocks at the base of the cliff, a stillness so profound she almost expected to see a nymph flit from one of the trees to join her sisters in classical frolics with dolphins.
Yet halfway across the square the skin between Leola's shoulder blades prickled, and she had to resist the urge to swing around and scan the darkened houses behind her.
Cravenly glad that she'd worn a dark top over her black jeans, she was relieved to reach the shade of the trees at the foot of the tower. Slowly, telling herself she was being stupid, she turned.
Her breath stopped in her throat. From the corner of her eye she spotted a stealthy movement at the base of the church. Someone—or something—was sliding along the ancient stone.
So what? It was probably just one of the local dogs coming home from a night on the tiles.
So why was adrenalin pumping through her, quickening her senses, ramping up her pulse so that all she could hear was the rapid, heavy thud of her own heartbeat?
Because her night-attuned eyes picked out people—a line of them, some stumbling, some walking fast, all noiseless. They seemed to emerge from a deeper darkness in the church wall—a door—and they were heading for the wall.
A flare of light shocked her into a gasp; she saw a man's face—handsome, subtly cruel—before the light died.
And then she was grabbed from behind in one swift, brutal movement, an iron hand clamping across her mouth so that her scream had no chance to escape. Instinct drove her to a frenzy of struggling desperation, but she was dragged into the pitch blackness of some recess in the wall.
Think, she commanded herself, and tried to turn so she could knee her captor in the groin, an assault he blocked with ruthless efficiency. She forced herself to go limp, surreptitiously folding her fingers into a fist, but his arms crushed her against a lean, shockingly strong body, completely subduing her so that she could neither move nor signal.
All coherent thought lost to an unnerving panic, she tried biting at the remorseless hand over her mouth, but that didn't work either. It tightened, cutting off her breath.
Panic kicked her ferociously in the stomach and she let herself sag. He eased the pressure a little, but she could feel the tension smoking off him.
A quiet scraping, then what sounded like a muffled curse in an unknown language—Illyrian?—came from the direction of the square. Every muscle painfully taut, Leola waited for some sign of inattention from the man who held her so fiercely against him; he was big, she realised, as well as hugely powerful, and he
He smelt good.
In some wildly illogical way that clean male scent eased her fear a little.
Until she was hauled sideways, through what had to be a door in the wall. Barely audible, her captor said in English, 'Don't be frightened.'
How did he know she'd understand?
He didn't let her go, and he didn't take his hand away from her mouth. If anything, the fingers tightened a fraction. In warning? Forcing down a spasm of terror, Leola waited for him to lose concentration.
She couldn't see what was happening, but a faint thud sounded as if he'd kicked the door shut behind them and the air became musty. Shivering, she realised they were inside the tower.
'Just another few minutes,' he said again, his words pitched for her ears only. 'Walk.'
Instead Leola sagged, hoping he'd think she'd fainted and that she might get a chance to get away.
It didn't work. Ruthlessly he propelled her in front of him.
'Stairs,' he said, still in that deep, oddly soft voice, half lifting, half dragging her upwards.
Once they reached the top would he throw her down the cliff into the sea below? Panic surged again, freezing her mind.
All she could think of doing was to pretend to find it hard going, stumbling, hesitating, until he said curtly, 'It's no use. And you're safe enough.' His voice was hard and cool and deep, the upper-class English accent very faintly underpinned by something much more exotic.
In spite of her fear she snorted in pure outrage, and he laughed, an oddly amused sound that made her wonder if she was indeed safe. 'OK, we're far enough away now for you not to be heard,' he said, and those cruel fingers relaxed, fell away.
She screamed with every ounce of strength she possessed, only to have it cut off by his hand again.
'Wildcat,' he said, that infuriating note of—mockery?— underlying the single word.
Furiously, she opened her eyes to glare at him. He released her, and, unable to see for a few seconds, she swayed, blinking ferociously until she was finally able to focus on her captor, calmly barring the door behind them. He turned, and her breath locked in her throat.
In the dim light of one electric bulb he looked like something out of a mediaeval epic, a warrior with a warrior's uncompromising ruthlessness. Darkly tanned, with the arrogant facial structure of some Nordic conqueror, he was smiling, but his eyes were hard, an almost translucent ice-grey. And although she was tall herself, Leola had to look a long way up into those piercing eyes.
A feverish shiver—of apprehension, or perhaps recognition—scudded the length of her spine. He was built like a Viking, and the aura of danger pulsing about him made her take a step backwards, although she kept her head high.
'Who are you?' she demanded. 'Why did you drag me up here?'
His gaze sharpening, he bent his black head and said brusquely, 'I hurt you. I'm sorry.'
Leola felt it then, the sting of her cut lip, the taste of blood when she ran her tongue over it. 'You're sorry? So am I. What the hell do you think you're up to?'
Long tanned fingers dipped into his pocket, producing a handkerchief. 'Here,' he ordered. 'Wipe it.'
Automatically she took the cloth, still warm from his body, and patted her lip. The bloodstain was tiny; showing him, she said, 'It's nothing.'
Her eyes widened as he covered the stone floor between them in two steps to lift her chin in a strong hand, black brows drawing together as he surveyed her face.
'It certainly won't mar your beauty,' he said, and when she flinched he laughed in his throat and bent, kissing the maltreated lip with a gentleness that was very much out of accord with his intimidating appearance.
'What was that for?' she asked inanely, wondering why her legs felt as though the bones had dissolved.
'I kissed it better. Did your mother never do that for you?'
Her mother hadn't been the affectionate sort—not to her children, anyway. In a brittle voice Leola said, 'It only works if you love the person doing the kissing.'
'I must remember that,' he returned, the sardonic humour vanishing so that she met eyes that were coldly, implacably intent. 'Now, what were you doing walking the square at three-fifteen in the morning?'
'Possibly the same as you,' she countered.
'I hope not.' He paused to lethal effect before prompting silkily, 'Tell me.'
Leola masked an involuntary stab of fear with a shrug. 'It's no big deal. I couldn't sleep. None of the books I brought were worth reading again and I didn't fancy a hot drink, so I decided to go for a walk. What's so unusual about that?'
'Did you hear or see anything?'
'Yes,' she said smartly. 'I was attacked by a total stranger and dragged into a tower.'
His humourless smile showed very white teeth. 'This is important,' he said, each word a warning.
'Why?' Her heart picked up speed as another surge of adrenalin activated her flight-or-fight response.
Fighting was useless; he'd already shown her a measure of his strength, nicely judged so as not to hurt her too badly. A swift shiver scudded down her spine at the memory of that oddly tender kiss.
Flight, then? Hastily she glanced around. The room he'd brought her to was made of stone, its only obvious exit the door they'd come through. He'd haul her away from that before she could lift the bar. Shadows hid the farthest wall, but her quick glance and the musty air told her there were no windows.
Flight seemed impossible too.
The cold pool beneath her ribs expanded. What had she unwittingly walked into? Strangely, instinct told her that this man wasn't a direct threat to her safety, but one glance at his flint-hard face with its arrogant bone structure reminded her that sometimes instinct couldn't be trusted.
'Did you see any movement?' he asked, quite gently, but something in his icy regard warned her not to lie.
Eyes troubled, she hesitated. 'How do I know if you're one of the good guys?'
Damn, Nico thought, he liked her spirit, even if it was extremely inconvenient. Just before he'd kissed her—an impulse he should have resisted—he'd noticed that her eyes were a dark blue-green with intriguing gold speckles. They were shadowed now, and her full mouth, scratched by his grip, was set in a straight line, her lithe figure stiff and wary.
He repressed his intensely physical reaction. Nico had learned in a hard school not to trust anyone—not even a blonde goddess with an intriguing accent, tawny-gold hair and a body that promised sensual rapture.
'You don't,' he told her without hesitation. 'Tell me what you saw.'
For several moments more her eyes challenged him, and then she made a rapid gesture, instantly cut short. 'Movement,' she said steadily. 'A slow sort of glide along the base of the church.'
Had she decided to trust him? It didn't matter. 'Any faces?'
When she hesitated again he knew she'd seen the man he was tracking. Some poor devil, he thought grimly, would pay for releasing the ray of light that had caught Paveli's fleshy face.
But she said nothing. He scrutinised her guarded face, and made up his mind. If she was one of Paveli's lookouts she had to be neutralised. If she wasn't, she was in danger. Either way, she had to be removed. 'I'm afraid I'll have to interrupt your holiday for a few days.'
Unable to hide a flash of alarm, she stiffened. 'It's all right,' he assured her, his tone casual. 'You'll be living in a very comfortable house with pleasant people; you just won't be able to leave it.'
'In other words I'll be a prisoner,' she said evenly.
He had to admire her refusal to be daunted and her ability to face facts. 'I'd rather you thought of yourself as a guest,' he said with smooth cynicism, and waited for her response.
'Guests can leave whenever they want to,' she retorted. 'What is this all about?'
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