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There was something about him which made her think of danger. Something dark and tantalising which drew her gaze like a magnet. Cassie felt the rush of blood to her cheeks and the sudden pounding of her heart as she stared at the man across the busy holiday rush of the department store.
He was gorgeous. Too gorgeous to be real, surely? Why, if she hadn't been surrounded by tinsel, fairy lights and a packed working schedule until the big day itself she might have thought that Christmas had come early.
Not that she had a lot to compare him with. It was only the second time she'd been away from rural Cornwall where most of the men she met wore cheap aftershave and trod on your toes while you were dancing. And when you got up close for the slow numbers you could see little pieces of blood-stained tissue paper on their chins, where they'd cut themselves shaving.
Which was why landing this temporary job in London's most glitzy department store over the festive season was Cassie's chance to get away from the predictable world she'd grown up in and to live the dream. And London at this time of the year was a dreaman enchanted world of fairy lights and fake snow and an air of expectation. She loved Christmas.
Even working on the 'Seasonal Candle' sectiona fir-festooned grotto selling a variety of upmarket candles was a dream. One which remained intact despite the best efforts of mealy-mouthed Lindy in nearby Cosmetics and the fact ten hours of standing made your feet scream with protest. Daily, Cassie dealt with stick-thin society matrons and laughing students and over-excited small children filing past her on their way to see Santa.
Only today, she could see someone rather different from her usual customera tall, brooding man with skin the colour of burnished olive. Clad in a dark cashmere overcoat, his face proud and aristocratic, his lips mockingly sensualand yet there was a cold, hard glint to his eyes of pure ebony.
Cassie's heart started racing. Racing hard enough to burst. She was certain he wasn't interested in buying a candlein fact, she was surprised to see him shopping at all. He looked like the sort of man who would have minions to do the more mundane chores in life and one who would never cut himself shaving. She didn't imagine he'd be tempted by her sales pitch, eitherbut something made her walk up to him, her bright professional smile fixed firmly in place.
Never in her life had Cassie been so conscious of anyone's presence. He seemed to own the space around him simply by existing in it and exuded a rare kind of charisma which made people stop and take a second look.
Suddenly dizzy and wondering what insane instinct had propelled her into his vicinity, she drew a deep breath. 'Good afternoon, sirI wonder can I interest you in one of these beautiful candles?'
Giancarlo's brows knitted together as a banal little sentence interrupted his reverie and he found himself staring into a pair of violet eyes of extraordinary beauty. He was used to the adulation of women in general and salesgirls were no exceptionand he really wasn't in the mood to be engaging. But he was supposed to be buying Christmas gifts for all his admin staff and the girl who was trying to sell him something was very prettyso he gave her his attention. 'A candle?' he drawled.
Cassie nodded. His sexy Italian accent matched his Mediterranean looks, adding yet another layer to his allureand silently she despaired at her own stupidity.
She might not have a wealth of experience about the opposite sex but she was intuitive enough to recognise when a man was completely out of her league. And this one most definitely was. Why, his clothes just screamed class and quality and his demeanour was more than impressiveit was daunting. So don't just stand there gawping at him like a stranded fishsay something!
'That's right, sir. But not just any candlethis is the biggest selection you'll find in London. Irresistible specialities for the festive season.' Cassie widened her smile and wondered whether his face was always so dark and so forbidding. 'It is Christmas. Or hadn't you noticed?'
Giancarlo gave a shrug. It wasn't his favourite time of year, nobut on closer inspection his attention was captured by more than the seasonal mayhem going on around him. Because she was exquisite. Absolutely exquisite. With skin like quietly gleaming satin and hair like silk. And a body which should have carried a health warningeven though she was wearing the rather plain store uniform. Through the faint miasma produced by jet lag and overwork, he felt the sudden prickling of his senses.
'Christmas?' he murmured. 'Would that have anything to do with the choir of angels I'm hearingor is that the effect you have on all your customers?' He saw the colour rise in her cheeks and gave a lazy smile. 'Look, why don't you tell me what it is you're selling and we shall see if you can persuade me to buy?'
Cassie nodded. Trying to ignore the now frantic crashing of her heart, she drew an arc with her hand in front of the glittering display as she slipped smoothly into the script of her sales patter. 'Well, these candles all come in a wide range of scents. The Christmas Chocolate has proved to be one of our most popular varieties this year. It's dark and spicywith subtle undertones of mulled wine.'
'And is that your favourite?'
'My my favourite?'
'Mmm. Surely you must have a favourite?'
For a second, her sales pitch deserted her. She hadn't been asked that before. And when he asked it, he made her feel special. Different. Oh, but she was an idiot! But she still looked into the gleam of his black eyes and answered as honestly as she could. 'To be honest, I like this one best. It smells of sweet oranges. And cloves. Sort of traditional. And nostalgic. Everybody loves them. All ages. They have universal appeal. Especially at this time of year.'
There was a pause and Giancarlo felt another quick beat of desire as he heard the wistful little note in her voice. 'You've got a deal,' he said softly. 'I'll take half a dozen.'
Cassie opened her eyes wide. 'You mean six?' she squeaked.
'Unless the definition of half a dozen has changed since the last time I heard it?' he questioned gravely.
'N-no. Certainly, sir. Six it is.'
While she was wrapping themwith fumbling fingers which seemed much less dextrous than usualhe asked her a series of questions, and in view of the commission she was going to make on the sale, it seemed rude not to answer them. No, she didn't live in London, she was only here for the holiday season, and no, she wasn't wearing coloured contact lensesher eyes really were that colour. But in truth, his presence was so distracting that she could barely think straight.
Giancarlo watched as she snipped the end of a claret-coloured ribbon and tugged at the finished bow with a flourish. She was just too good to walk away from, he decidedwith that pale blonde hair and violet eyes and a body shaped like a bottle of Verdicchio.
He'd spent most of the past month in New York labouring away on a tough deal he'd only just pulled off by the skin of his teeth. One of those deals which had seen him still at his desk at midnight and beyond. His name had been splashed all over the financial papers, he'd stacked up a few million dollarsand then quietly siphoned off a substantial portion to a cause far more worthy than his already bloated bank account. All in all, it had been a successful tripjust like the one before, and the one before that. But success could be drainingsometimes it took you away from the fundamentals in life. And he was sick of the relentless march of Christmas with its in-your-face commercialism and over-the-top celebration.
What he needed was a little light relaxation with a female of the species. And not some ball-breaking woman who liked to work and play as hard as a man and gave you a lecture on equality if you so much as opened a door for her. Until you made the mistake of taking her away for a long weekendwhen suddenly she was talking three-carat diamond rings and church weddings.
No. He wanted someone soft and unchallenging. Someone easy on the eye and easy on the mind. Someone who would massage his ego and a lot more besides. Like this sassy little thing with her soft, curving breasts and her peachy little bottom. He couldn't imagine her wanting to talk stocks and shares with himor angling for a winter break in Hawaii!
'What time do you finish work?' he questioned as she took his credit card from him.
Cassie hesitated. 'Six-thirty,' she said, feeling on rather shaky territory herebut surely it would be rude not to answer a customer when he asked you a direct question?
'And you'll be going out for dinner afterwards?'
Cassie thought of the pan full of pasta and pesto which was sitting on the fat-spattered cooker back at the shared apartment which was currently her temporary home. As accommodation went it was pretty basic, but she was grateful to her old school-friend, Gavin, for letting her stayeven if it meant sleeping in a room which was little more than a cupboard.
'Well, sort of,' she prevaricated.
'I told my flatmates I'd have dinner with them.'
'And what if I asked you to have dinner with me instead?'
'I can't,' she breathed.
She stared into his narrowed black eyes and her stomach gave a funny little lurch. 'Because I don't I don't even know you.'
'So why don't I introduce myself and we'll get that problem out of the way?'
A hand was extended, and with proprietary ease, it captured hers. Cassie's hand had been shaken many times in her lifeoften by departing guests at the little B&B run by her mother. Or when she'd won a prize for ice-dancing, which was something she was particularly good at.
But never had it felt quite like this before .
His big hand made hers seem so tinyand the warm touch of his bare skin against hers seemed, well intimate, really. Or was that because his thumb brushed almost negligently against her palma movement so brief that she might almost have imagined it? Except the responding shiver of her skin told her she hadn't imagined anything.
'My name is Giancarlo Andrea Vellutini,' he said softly. 'I am Tuscan by birth and global by nature. What else would you like to know? That I have a house in London and my diary is empty tonight? I was planning to catch up on a stack of paperwork, but you ' he leaned forward and read her name badge ' Cassandra Summers have tempted me into changing my plans.'
Cassie couldn't deny being tempted, tooand not just because the way he said her name made it sound like pure poetry. Invitations to dinner were pretty thin on the groundand nobody remotely like this man Giancarlo had ever asked her out before. In fact, the most recent date she'd been on had consisted of someone from the computer department who'd taken her for a disgusting burger in a fast-food chainand then claimed to have forgotten his wallet!
Yet instinct warned her against accepting this far more tantalising offer. That same deep instinct which had alerted her senses when she'd first set eyes on him. The one which told her that this man was dangerous and not for the likes of her. He was too good-looking. Too urbane. Too rich. Too everything. And wasn't it more than a little arrogant of him to assume that she would drop everything and fit in with him just because he had decided he would change his plans?
'It's very sweet of you, but I'm afraid I can't let my flatmates down,' she said apologetically.
Giancarlo's eyes narrowed. The little shop-girl was turning him down? Inconceivable! 'You have a boyfriend?' he questioned curiously. 'Someone waiting at home for you?'
'No,' she said. 'There's no one. But my flatmates are relying on me to bring half their supper home from the delicatessen here.'
He wondered if she was playing games with him. Perhaps imagining that she would make herself more desirable by playing hard to get. Or was it possible that here was a woman who wasn't his for the takinga woman with enough self-respect to say no? His lips curved into a thoughtful smile. Doubtful.
Pulling a thick cream business card from his wallet, he slid it between her unresisting fingers. 'Well, why don't you call me if you change your mind?'
She met his eyes, again feeling the unmistakable tingle of her skin where he'd touched her and wondering if he could feel it, too. She swallowed, plucking up every bit of courage she had. 'Or perhaps you could always come in another day?'
Dark eyebrows were elevated. 'And ask you again?'
She thought he was about to start haunting the department store like some lovelorn young suitor? 'I don't think so,' he said silkily. 'Ciao, bella.'
And to Cassie's consternation, he turned on his heel and walked awayjust like that. For a moment she stood there watching the tall, striking figure in the cashmere coat until he had disappearedand began to wonder if she had imagined the entire interlude. And then she looked down at the neatly wrapped package which was still sitting next to the till and realised that he had forgotten to take his candles and that it was too late to run after him.
All the way home on the bus, with the brightly wrapped candles lying on her lap, Cassie could have kicked herself. How stupid could she have been? Batting his invitation away as if men like him were queuing round the block to date her. How many times in life did an opportunity like that present itselfa gorgeous man offering to sweep you off your feet?
Her father's prolonged illness had been heartbreaking and she had been longing to get away from Cornwall. But hadn't she also come to London partly because she felt her life was passing her by and she wanted a little adventure? And surely it would be difficult to imagine a greater adventure than some tantalising Tuscan asking her to have dinner with him.
Still, at least she could comfort herself with the thought that she was a loyal friend and flatmateand that she hadn't let the others down. Until she let herself into the apartment to find that the flat was empty and all the pasta had been eaten. Gavin had left her a note saying they'd all got too hungry to wait and had gone to the puband would she care to join them?