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"Le chocolat qui vaut son poids en or," Stacy Reeves read the gilt script on the shop window aloud. "What does that mean?" she asked her friend Candace without looking away from the mouthwatering display of chocolates on gold–rimmed plates.
"Chocolate worth its weight in gold," a slightly accented and thoroughly masculine voice replied. Definitely not Candace.
Surprised, Stacy pivoted on her sandaled foot. Wow. Forget chocolate. The dark–haired blue–eyed hunk in front of her looked good enough to eat.
"Would you care for a piece, mademoiselle? My treat." Monsieur Gorgeous indicated the shop door with his hand. A silver–toned, wafer–thin watch winked beneath his suit sleeve. Platinum, she'd bet, from the affluent look of what had to be a custom–tailored suit.
Nothing from a department store would fit those broad shoulders, narrow hips and long legs so perfectly.
Never mind that she'd probably dream of licking chocolate from the deep cleft in his chin tonight, Stacy had learned the hard way that when something looked too good to be true it was. Always. A seductively sexy stranger offering free gourmet chocolate had to be a setup because sophisticated guys like him didn't go for practical accountants like her. And her simple lilac sundress and sensible walking sandals weren't the stuff of which male fantasies were made.
She glanced up and down the Boulevard des Moulins, one of the principality of Monaco's shopping streets, searching for her friend. Candace was nowhere in sight, but she had to be behind Mr. Delectable's appearance and offer. Her friend had joked about finding husbands for each ofher bridesmaids before her wedding in four weeks time.At least Stacy had thought she was joking. Until now.
Stacy tilted her head, considered the man in question and gave him a saccharine smile. "Does that line usually work for you with American tourists?"
The corners of his oh–so–tempting lips twitched and his eyes glinted with humor beneath thick, straight eyebrows. He pressed a ringless left hand to his chest. "You wound me, mademoiselle."
With his fantasy good looks he had to have an epic ego to match. "I sincerely doubt it."
She scanned the sidewalks again looking for her MIA friend.Anything would be better than embarrassing herself by drooling over something she couldn't have. Namely him or the five–dollar—make that euro—per–piece candy.
"You are looking for someone? A lover, perhaps?" Lover. Just hearing him say the word, rolling that R, gave her goose bumps. "A friend." One who'd been right behind her seconds ago. Candace must have ducked into one of the quaint shops nearby, either to purchase something weddingrelated or to spy if she was the one responsible for this encounter. After all, stopping by the chocolate shop had been Candace's idea.
"May I assist you in locating your friend?"
He had the most amazing voice. Deep and velvety. Was the accent French or native Monégasque? Stacy could listen to him talk for hours.
No. She couldn't. She was here with Candace, the bride–to–be, and two other bridesmaids to help prepare for Candace's wedding the first weekend in July, not to have a vacation romance.
"Thanks, but no thanks." Before Stacy could walk away, Candace popped out of the shop next door waving a scrap of lace.
"Stacy, I found the most exquisitely embroidered…" She trailed off as she spotted the Adonis beside Stacy. Surprise arched her pale eyebrows.
Maybe this wasn't a set–up. Stacy rocked back on her heels, folded her arms and waited for the inevitable. Candace had naturally white–blond hair and big babyblue eyes. Her innocent Alice–in–Wonderland looks tended to bowl men over. No doubt this guy would fall at Candace's dainty feet. Stacy had never had that problem and that suited her fine. Forever wasn't in the cards for her. She'd never trust a man that much.
"Mademoiselle." Tall, Dark and Tempting bowed slightly. "I am trying to convince vÃ´tre amie to allow me to gift to her un chocolat, but she questions my intentions. Perhaps if I buy you both lunch she will see that I'm quite harmless."
Harmless? Ha! He radiated smooth charm in the way that only a European man could.
A cunning smile curved Candace's lips and her eyes narrowed on Stacy. Uh–oh. Stacy stiffened. Whenever she saw that expression, someone was getting ready to try and pull a fast one on the IRS, and that meant trouble for Stacy, their accountant. "I'm sorry, Monsieur…? I didn't catch your name."
He offered his hand. "Constantine. Franco Constantine."
Recognition sparked in Candace's eyes, but the name meant nothing to Stacy. "I've been looking forward to meeting you, Monsieur Constantine. My fiancé, Vincent Reynard, has spoken of you often. I'm Candace Meyers, and this is my one of my bridesmaids, Stacy Reeves."
Mr. Wonderful's considerable charms shone back on Stacy with the heat of the noonday sun. He offered his hand. Darn protocol. She'd been warned during the hours–long etiquette session delivered by Candace's soon–to–be sister–in–law that the inhabitants of this tiny country were quite formal and polite. Refusing to shake his hand would be an insult.
Franco's fingers closed around Stacy's. Warm. Firm. Lingering. His charisma spread over Stacy like butter on hot bread. "Enchanté, mademoiselle."
She snatched her hand free and blamed the spark skipping up her arm on static electricity caused by the warm, dry climate. A predatory gleam flashed in his eyes, and warning prickles marched down Stacy's spine. Dangerous.
He turned back to Candace. "May I offer my congratulations on your upcoming nuptials, Mademoiselle Meyers? Vincent is a lucky man."
"Thank you, monsieur, and I would love to accept your luncheon invitation, but I'm afraid I'll have to decline. I have a meeting with the caterer in an hour. Stacy, however, is free for the rest of the afternoon."
Stacy's jaw dropped. She snapped it closed and glared at her friend. Embarrassment burned her cheeks. "I am not. I'm here to help you plan your wedding. Remember?"
"Madeline, Amelia and I have everything under control. You have a nice lunch. We'll catch up with you tonight before we go to the casino. Oh, and monsieur, the hotel has already received your RSVP to the wedding and the rehearsal dinner. Merci. Au revoir." Candace waggled her fingers and departed.
Stacy considered murder. But she'd read that Monaco had a truly impressive police force. There was no way she could get away with strangling the petite blonde in broad daylight on a crowded street, and rotting away in a European prison wasn't exactly the financially secure future she had planned for herself.
A plan now in jeopardy.
Worry immediately weighted her shoulders, but she slammed the barriers in place. Stop it. This is Candace's month. Don't ruin it for her.
But Stacy wasn't the type to hide her head in the sand. She knew she had some difficult days ahead. Not now. You have a more urgent problem standing in front of you. She blinked away her distressing thoughts and examined the man problem. She hadn't missed Candace's not–sosubtle hint that Franco Constantine was close enough to the Reynards to have been invited to the intimate rehearsal dinner for only a dozen or so guests.
In other words, play nice.
Franco grasped Stacy's bare elbow as if he knew making a fast escape topped her to–do list. She felt those long fingers clear down to her toes, and it rattled her that an impersonal touch from a stranger could wreak havoc on her metabolism.
"If you will give me but a moment, Mademoiselle Reeves, I must speak to the shopkeeper, and then I am at your disposal."
He escorted Stacy inside the chocolate shop. The heavenly aroma was enough to give her a willpowermelting sugar rush. After greeting the clerk, Franco commenced a conversation in rapid–fire French…or something that sounded like French.
Stacy shamelessly eavesdropped while perusing the offerings in the glass cases, but she only managed to translate every tenth word or so. Despite the moneyback guarantee on the box of Speak French in 30 Days CDs she had listened to during the month prior to leaving Charlotte, North Carolina, she wasn't prepared for natives speaking the language at Grand Prix speed.
She caught a hint of crisp, citrus cologne and the hair on the back of her neck rose. Without looking over her shoulder she knew Franco stood immediately behind her. After bracing herself against his potent virility, she turned.
"Mademoiselle?" He held a sinful morsel aloft. What else could she do but take a bite? Her teeth sank into dark chocolate and a tart cherry. Her eyes closed and she fought a moan as she chewed. Ohmigod. Yum. Yum. Yum.
Cherry juice dribbled on her chin, but before she could wipe it away Franco's thumb caught it and pressed it between her lips. Knowing she shouldn't, but unable to think of a way to avoid it, Stacy swallowed and then darted out her tongue. The taste of blatantly sexy male combined with the most decadently rich chocolate she'd ever sampled slammed her with sexual arousal like nothing she'd ever experienced.
She dragged a sobering breath through her nose and struggled to fortify her quaking ramparts. Before she could make her excuses and bolt, Franco lifted the second half of the candy to her mouth. She tried to evade his touch, but his thumb grazed her bottom lip, and then, holding her gaze, he lifted the digit to his mouth and licked the remaining confection from his skin with one slow swipe.
Her pulse stuttered. Gulp. Seduction in a suit. The chocolate hit her stomach like a wrecking ball, and the desire in Franco's eyes rolled over her like a heat wave, intensifying the disturbing reactions clamoring inside her.
"Shall we dine, mademoiselle?" He offered his arm in a courtly gesture.
There was no way she could go to lunch with him. Franco Constantine was too…too…too everything. Too attractive. Too confident. And judging by his apparel, too rich for her. She couldn't afford to become involved with such a powerful man. If she did, she could very well repeat her mother's mistakes and spend the rest of her life paying for it.
She backed toward the exit. "I'm sorry. I just remembered I have a…a dress fitting."
She yanked open the shop's glass door and fled.
Stacy slammed into the luxurious four–bedroom penthouse suite she shared with Candace, Amelia and Madeline at the five–star HÃ´tel Reynard. There were perks in having a friend marrying the hotel chain owner's son.
All three women looked up from the sitting area. "Why are you back so soon?" Candace asked. "Why did you throw me at that man?" Stacy fumed. Candace tsked. "Stacy, what am I going to do with you? Franco is perfect for you, and the sparks between the two of you nearly set the shop's awning on fire. You should have had lunch with him. Do you know who he is? His family owns Midas Chocolates."
"The globally famous company. Godiva's numberone competitor. We have a store in Charlotte. Franco's the CEO of the whole shebang and one of Vincent's best friends. He happens to be absolutely yummy."
No argument there. "I'm not looking for a vacation fling."
Madeline, a nurse in her early thirties, swept her long, dark curls off her face. "Then let me have him. From Candace's description before you arrived Franco sounds beyond sexy. A short, intense affair with no messy endings sounds perfect, and I won't have to worry about getting dumped because we'll be leaving after the wedding anyway."
A vacation affair. Stacy couldn't imagine ever being so nonchalant about intimacy. Intimacy made her feel vulnerable which is probably why she avoided it 99 percent of the time. In her nomadic life she'd never had a friendship that lasted more than a few months until she and Candace had bonded over an IRS audit three years ago when the large accounting firm Stacy worked for had assigned her to Candace's case. Having a friend was a new experience—one Stacy liked—even if she did sometimes feel like an outsider with this trio of hospital workers. Madeline and Amelia were Candace's friends, but Stacy hoped they'd be hers too by the time they left Monaco. Otherwise, if Candace moved away after the wedding Stacy would have no one. Again.
But the idea of Madeline with Franco made Stacy uneasy, which was absolutely ridiculous considering she'd spent less than ten minutes in the man's company, and she had no claim on him. Nor did she want one. Could she have a vacation romance? No. Absolutely not. It just wasn't in her cautious makeup.
"So, is he sexy?" asked Amelia, the starry–eyed romantic of the group.
The women's expressions told Stacy they expected some kind of response. But what? She knew nothing about girl talk. "Yes. B–but in a dangerous way."
"Dangerous?" the three parroted in unison, and then Candace asked, "How so? Franco seemed perfectly civilized to me and very polite."
None of these women knew about Stacy's childhood. And she didn't want to share the shameful details. Not now. Not ever. From the time Stacy was eight years old she'd known she and her mother were running from something every time they packed up—or not—and moved to a new city. Stacy hadn't figured out from what or whom until it was too late.
She swallowed the nausea rising in her throat. "Franco Constantine exudes power and money. If things went wrong between you, he could afford to track you down no matter how far you ran."
The women looked as if her answer made no sense to them. But it made perfect sense to Stacy. Her father had been a wealthy man. When he'd abused his wife the authorities had looked the other way, and when she'd run he'd used his resources to track her down. It had taken him eleven years to get even.
Wealthy, powerful men bent the rules to suit their needs, and they considered themselves above the law. Therefore, Stacy did her best to avoid them.
Franco Constantine definitely fell into the Avoid column.