Read an Excerpt
The last time she had seen Alex Romero, he was wearing nothing but one of those swimsuits that show off way more of a man’s body than they cover.
It was blue. A shade darker than the aqua Caribbean where he moved through the waves like a fierce, irresistible Aztec god. Water sparkled off every delicious inch of his tanned body. Sunlight dappled hair the color of Colombian coffee.
The swimsuit was tapered enough to make the most of his broad shoulders. Small enough to show off his washboard abs and rock-hard stomach. Tight enough to ignite any number of fantasies.
Every one of which came back to Kate Ellison in a flash that sent her cheeks flaming and a twin fire sparking through her insides.
This was not the time—or the place—and just to remind herself, she looked around the conference table where she was seated. On her left was a grim-faced man in a pin-striped suit, a man who just happened to be her immediate superior. On her right sat a tight-lipped representative of the New York City Police Department. An attractive middle-aged woman from the mayor’s office sat next to him. She was dressed all in red and she didn’t bother to introduce herself. She assumed everyone knew who she was.
Two plainclothes detectives sat directly across from Kate, their backs to the breathtaking view outside the floor-to-ceiling windows of the forty-sixth-floor office suite. She’d worked with them for the last nine months—not always amicably. Now they were finally close to blowing the top off a money-laundering scheme the likes of which even this town hadn’t seen in years, and the cops made no secret of what they thought of having what they optimistically called “their work” usurped by the FBI.
And then there was Alex Romero.
Kate reined in her wild fantasies. She forced herself to forget the image of Romero in his swimsuit, the one she—and at least a couple million other women—had drooled over when it appeared on the cover of a popular supermarket tabloid under the headline World’s Sexiest Man—Millionaire Playboy Romero is Jet Set Romeo.
It took more willpower than she knew she had to convince Kate that a long, heartrending sigh wasn’t wise. Or professional. If a picture was worth a thousand words, the real Alex Romero—live, in person, and in an incredible package of poise, polish, and a suit that looked like it cost more than she made in a month—was worth more than any of the photographs of him that regularly graced the fashion magazines, the gossip pages, and the tabloids.
He was a smidgen under six feet tall, with the chiseled features and dark eyes so many women all over the world dreamed about. Though Kate had been introduced to him only a few short minutes earlier, she already knew that he more than lived up to his legend. He was confident. Sophisticated. Aristocratic. Even sexier in person than he was in print.
And a lot more formidable.
He was enough of a tactician to realize the strongest position in the room was at the head of the table. And conscious enough of the image that had been built around him by an army of corporate spin doctors to keep his trademark bottle of Dom Pérignon ’86 iced in a Waterford crystal bucket at his elbow. For those times—the gossipmongers all said—when he had yet another ubiquitous stroke of investment genius, or another corporate triumph, or another female conquest to celebrate.
There was no doubt about it: Alex Romero was the Romeo of the tabloids. He had the patrician good looks of his Cuban ancestors, the razor-sharp mind of a man who’d attended all the best schools, and the breeding that could come only from belonging to the right country clubs.
Right then, he was also in something of a snit.
“You can’t possibly know what you’re asking.” With the slow lift of one eyebrow, Romero let them know exactly what he thought of the plan they’d proposed.
It was not the response Kate was expecting from a man she had assumed would be reasonable, one who was apparently intelligent enough to run a corporation that employed more people than lived in some third-world countries. A little disappointed, she sat up in her seat and watched as Romero rose from his chrome-and-leather chair and leaned forward, his hands flat against the polished marble tabletop. As eminently composed as he was obviously piqued, he flashed a look down the long table. “Are you out of your minds?”
“It’s only for four months.” Mark Harrison, the special agent in charge of local FBI operations and Kate’s boss, was enough of an old warhorse not to be intimidated. Or at least not to show it. He poked one finger at the report on the table in front of him. “We’ve been through it all before. Our people talked to your people. Your people were supposed to talk to you, and—”
One of Romero’s hands went up, stopping Mark mid-sentence. Romero shot a look toward a bespectacled, balding man who stood behind the massive desk that dominated the far end of the room. Early on in her investigation, Kate had talked to Norbert Fielding. She knew he served as a combination man Friday and confidant to Romero, but the look his boss gave him made her wonder how much longer he’d stay in the inner circle. And out of the unemployment lines.
“My people,” Romero said, “were told not to talk to your people.” He shifted his gaze back to Mark. “My people were told to tell you we’d see you when the time was right. In court.”
Mark could be the very soul of discretion, but apparently, even he found it hard to believe they were meeting a brick wall. “It’s not as bad as it sounds,” he said in the conciliatory voice his direct reportees hardly ever heard. “Believe me. We’ve got all the details worked out. If you’d like to look this over . . .” When he offered a slim stack of papers and Romero firmly refused to even glance at it, Mark’s cheeks went dusky. “Four months isn’t forever. After the trial is over, you can get back to your life.”
“Impossible!” Romero’s snort of derision could only be described as monumental. “I have business to conduct. Important business. A man of my stature simply can’t disappear. Not for four months. Not for four days. A corporation like this doesn’t run itself. Not when you’ve got seventeen different divisions reporting to one office. And to one man.” He allowed the barest of smiles to touch his lips. “Me.”
Mark didn’t smile back. “That’s all well and good,” he said. “But—”
“There are no buts.” Fitfully, Romero undid the button on the jacket of his impeccably tailored navy suit. He paced to the windows and, one arm braced against the glass, leaned forward, his back to the room. Obviously he was used to having the last word in any conversation, and just as obviously he was telling them that the topic was no longer open for discussion.
The two detectives shuffled their feet and the papers on the table in front of them. The man from the police commissioner’s office looked up at the ceiling. The woman representing the mayor studied her red nail polish.
“Spoiled son-of-a—” Mark’s growl was loud enough for only Kate to hear. She stifled a smile and sat back to watch, more interested now in how the game was being played out than she was fascinated by Alex Romero.
It was funny how quickly reality could chase away fantasies, especially for a woman as down-to-earth as Kate.
No illusions or delusions.
Wasn’t that what she always said about herself?
It hadn’t taken her long to see through the illusion that was Alex Romero. And as for delusions that his personality might actually match the fantasy lover she’d built in her head?
She smiled again, then erased the expression before Mark could see it and wonder why one of his most dependable special agents was suddenly acting like a lunatic in a situation that was far from funny. Free of Romero’s spell, she was able to assess the man objectively for the first time.
She would have had to be completely without imagination not to appreciate the dramatic silhouette he made against the glass. But this time when she let her gaze skim over his shoulders, she noticed not how broad they were, but how stiffly he held them. Mulish to the last. His head was turned for effect, his chin firm and inflexible. Just like his personality.
Kate wondered how long he would stand that way and pretend they didn’t exist. But even as soon as the question presented itself, she knew the answer. He would stand there forever if he had to. He would do anything, to anyone, any time, to get what he wanted. And right now, Alex Romero wanted to be left alone.
Surprisingly it was the woman from the mayor’s office who had the nerve to break the silence. She cleared her throat, coughed politely. “I suppose, Alex, that you’re worried about the meeting of the city business leaders’ consortium.” It was more of a question than a statement, as if she were testing the waters before she took the chance of dipping a toe into them. “The meeting is scheduled for July and if everything goes as planned, you’d be gone in July.” She sighed and drummed her nails against the tabletop. “It would be something of a problem, of course.”
“Something of a problem?” Romero’s statement was an echo of the woman’s but it contained far more cynicism than Kate imagined the woman ever would have dared. “I’ve got thirteen hundred invitations out. The most influential journalists . . . the most powerful businessmen . . .” Even a man as articulate as Romero couldn’t find the words to voice his outrage. He closed one hand into a fist. “Do you have any idea what you’re asking, Sophia? You and the mayor don’t honestly think I sit here twiddling my thumbs all day, do you? Tell me you don’t really believe that.”
The woman folded her hands on the table in front of her. Kate couldn’t help but notice they were trembling just a little. “Alex.” She aimed a smile at his back, one that wavered just a bit around the edges. “Of course the mayor doesn’t think that at all. He’s worried about you. As an important member of this community. And as a friend. He told me to assure you that the consortium is in good hands. We’ve already contacted Bill Gates, and—”
Kate didn’t think Romero’s back could get any stiffer.
She didn’t think his voice could be any chillier.
But the single word contained all the warmth of an iceberg.
Any other time—in any other circumstances—Kate would have found Romero’s whole performance laughable. But there was more at stake here than Romero being upstaged at some event that sounded more like a media circus than a business meeting.
From the Paperback edition.