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"YOU, GET UP."
Holly Craig looked up at the man standing so tall and imposing before her. Her heart skipped a beat at the sheer masculine beauty of his face. He had dark hair, piercing gray eyes and a jaw that had been chiseled out of Carrara marble. His nose was elegant, tapered, and his cheekbones were so pretty that supermodels must surely swoon in envy at the sight.
"Come on, girl, I don't have all day," he said, his tones sophisticated and clipped. And Italian, she realized. He had an accent that wasn't thick. Rather, it was refined and smooth, like fine wine. Or fine perfume.
Holly clutched her casea secondhand case that wasn't even real leatherto her chest and shifted on the couch. "II'm not sure you have the right"
He snapped his fingers. "You are here to see me, yes?"
Holly swallowed. "You are Mr. Di Navarra?"
He looked irritated. "Indeed."
Holly jumped up, her heart thrumming a quick tempo. Her skin flushed with embarrassment. She should have known this man was the powerful head of Navarra Cosmetics. It wasn't as if she'd never seen a photo of the man who might just hold her entire future in his hands. Everyone knew who Drago di Navarra was.
Everyone except her, it would seem. This meeting was so important, and already she'd got off on the wrong foot. Easy, ma belle, her grandmother would have said. You can do this.
Holly stuck her hand out. "Mr. Di Navarra, yes, I'm Holly"
He waved a hand, cutting her off. "Who you are isn't important." His gaze narrowed, dropped down over her. She'd worn her best suit today, but it was at least five years out of season. Still, it was black and serviceable. And it was all she had. She lifted her chin, confused by the strange meeting thus far, but not yet willing to ruin it by calling him on his rudeness.
"Turn around," he ordered.
Holly's cheeks flamed. But she did it, slowly turning in a circle until she faced him again.
"Yes," he said to an assistant who hovered nearby. "I think this one will do. Let them know we're coming."
"Yes, sir," the woman said, her manner cool and efficient as she turned and strode back toward the office they'd both emerged from.
"Let's go," Drago said. Holly could only stand and watch him stride away from her, bewilderment muddling her head and gluing her feet to the floor.
He seemed to realize she wasn't with him, because he stopped and turned around. He looked impatient rather than angry, though she suspected angry was next on the agenda.
"Are you coming or not?"
Holly had a choice. She could say no, she wasn't coming. She could tell him he was rude and appalling and she'd come here for an appointment, and not to be talked down to, scrutinized and ordered around.
Or she could go, figure out what his strange manner was all about and get her chance to pitch him her ideas. The case in her hands was warm, fragrant with the samples she'd tucked inside. It reminded her of home, of her grandmother and the many hours they'd spent together dreaming about taking their perfumes to the next level, instead of only blending them for the friends and townspeople who purchased their custom combinations.
She'd come a long way to see this man. She'd spent every bit of savings she had getting here, with only enough for her lodging and the return trip home again. If she lost this opportunity, she lost far more than money. She lost her dream. She lost Gran's dream. She'd have to go home and start over again.
Because Gran was dead and the house would soon be gone. She couldn't afford to keep it any longer. Unless she convinced Drago di Navarra that she had something worth investing in. Something worth taking a chance on.
And she would do whatever it took to get that opportunity.
"Yes," she said firmly. "I'm coming."
Drago could feel her eyes upon him. It was nothing he wasn't accustomed to. Women often stared. It was not something he felt was an inconvenience. No, it was an advantage, especially for a man in the business he was in.
In the business of making people more beautiful, it did not hurt to be attractive yourself. If much of that was genetics, well, it was not his fault.
He still used Navarra productssoap, cologne, skin care, shampooand he would always maintain, to whoever would listen, that they benefited him greatly.
Now he sat in the back of the limousine with his projections and printouts, and studied the focus-group information for the newest line of products NC was bringing out this fall. He was pleased with what he saw. Very pleased.
He was not, it should be noted, pleased with the agency that had sent this girl over. She was the fourth model he'd seen this morning, and though they'd finally got it right, he was angry that it had taken four attempts to get the correct combination of innocence and sex appeal that he'd desired for this ad campaign.
He was selling freshness and beauty, not a prepackaged look that many of the models he'd seen recently came with. They had a hard edge about them, something that looked out from their eyes and said that, while they might appear innocent, they had actually left innocence in the rearview mirror a thousand miles ago.
This girl, however
He looked up, met her gaze boldly, appraisingly. She dropped her eyes quickly, a pink stain spreading over her cheeks. A sharp feeling knifed into him, stunning him. He had a visceral reaction to that display of sweetness, his body hardening in a way it hadn't in quite some time. Oh, he'd had sexplenty of itbut it had become more of a box to check off in his day rather than an escape or a way to relax.
His reaction just now interested him. His gaze slipped over her again, appraised what he saw, as he had the first time. She was dressed in a cheap suit, though it fit her well. Her shoes were tall, pink suedeand brand-new, he realized, looking at the sole of one where she'd turned her legs to the side. The price tag was still on the shoe. He tilted his head.
Not Jimmy Choo shoes or Manolo Blahnik shoes, certainly. He didn't expect her to be wearing thousand-dollar shoes, or even the latest designer fashions, but he had rather expected she would be more polished.
Which was odd, considering that polish was precisely what he did not want. Still, she was a model with a highly respected New York City firm. He'd have thought she might be a bit more prepared. On the other hand, perhaps she was fresh from the farm and they'd sent her over straightaway in desperation.
"How many of these jobs have you done before?" he asked.
She looked up again. Blinked. Her eyes were blue. Her hair was the most extraordinary shade of strawberry-blond, and a smattering of light freckles dotted her pale skin. He would have to tell the photographer not to erase those later. They added to her fresh look.
Drago suppressed a stab of impatience. "Modeling jobs, cara"
She blinked again. "Oh, I, um."
"I'm not going to send you away if this is your first time," he snapped. "So long as the camera loves you, I couldn't care less if you've just come up from the family farm."
Her skin flushed again. This time, her chin came up. Her eyes flashed cool fire, and he found himself intrigued at the play of emotions across her face. It was almost as if she were arguing with herself.
"There's no need to be rude, you know," she snapped back. "Manners are still important, whether you've got a billion dollars or only one."
Drago had a sudden urge to laugh. It was as if a kitten had suddenly hissed and swatted him. And it had the effect of making some of his tension drain away.
"Then I apologize for being rude," he said, amused.
She folded her arms over her breasts and tried to look stern. "Well, then. Thank you."
He set the papers down on the seat beside him. "Is this your first time to New York?"
Her tongue darted out to moisten her lower lip. A slice of sensation knifed into his groin. "Yes," she said.
"And where are you from?"
He leaned forward then, suddenly quite certain he needed to make her feel comfortable if he was going to get what he wanted out of this shoot. "You'll do a fine job," he said. "Just be yourself in front of the camera. Don't try to act glamorous."
She dropped her gaze away and slid her fingers along the hem of her jacket. "Mr. Di Navarra"
"Drago," he said.
She looked up again. Her blue eyes were worried. He had a sudden urge to kiss her, to wipe away that worried look and put a different kind of look there. He gave himself a mental shake. Highly uncharacteristic of him. Not that he didn't date the modelshe did sometimesbut this one wasn't his usual type. He liked the tall, elegant ones. The ones who looked as if ice cubes wouldn't melt in their mouths.
The ones who didn't make him think of wide-eyed idealists who chased after dreamsand kept chasing them even when they led down self-destructive paths. Women like this one were so easily corruptible in the wrong hands. His protective instincts came to the fore, made him want to send her back to Louisiana before she even stepped in front of the camera.
He wanted her to go home, to stop chasing after New York dreams of fame and fortune. This world would only disappoint her. In a few months, she'd be shooting drugs, drinking alcohol and throwing up her food in order to lose that extra pound some idiotic industry type had told her made her look fat.
Before he could say anything of what he was thinking, the car came to a halt. The door swung open immediately. "Sir, thank goodness," the location manager said. "The girl isn't here and"
"I have her," Drago said. The other man's head swung around until his gaze landed on the girlHolly, was it? Now he wished he'd paid more attention when he'd first seen her outside his office.
"Excellent." The man wiggled his fingers at her. "Come along, then. Let's get you into makeup."
She looked terrified. Drago smiled encouragingly. "Go, Holly," he said, trying the name he was fairly certain was correct. He didn't miss the slight widening of her eyes, and knew he'd got it right. Clearly, she hadn't expected him to remember. "I will see you again when this is over."
She looked almost relieved as her eyes darted between him and the location manager. "Y-you will?"
She seemed very alone in that moment. Something inside him rose to the fore, made him ask a question he knew he shouldn't. "Are you busy for dinner?"
She shook her head.
Drago smiled. He shouldn't do this, he knew it, and yet he was going to anyway. "Then consider yourself busy now."
Holly had never been to a fancy restaurant in her life, but she was in one nowin a private room, no lesssitting across from a man who might just be the most handsome man she'd ever seen in her life. The longer she spent in Drago di Navarra's company, the more fascinated she was. Oh, he hadn't started out well, that was for surebut he'd improved tremendously upon further acquaintance. He'd actually turned out to be nice.
There was only one problem. Holly frowned as she listened to him talk about the photo shoot earlier. She wasn't a model, but she'd stood there in Central Park and let people fuss over her, dress her in a flowing purple gown, paint her with makeup, tease her hairand then she'd stepped in front of the camera and froze, wondering how she'd let this thing go so far.
She'd only wanted a chance to tell Drago di Navarra about her perfumes, but she hadn't known where they were going or what he expected until it was too late. She'd choked when she should have explained. But she'd been worried that if she explained who she was and what she wanted, he would be angry with her.
And that wasn't going to work, was it?
Still, as she'd stood there, frozen, she'd known it was over. Her dream was dead, because she was going to have to explain to all these people watching her that she truly had no idea what she was doing.
But then Drago had walked onto the shoot and smiled at her. She'd smiled back, and suddenly the photographer was happy. She was certain she'd still been awkward and out of place, but everyone had seemed delighted with her. They'd changed her clothes, her hair, her makeup several times. And she'd stood in front of that camera, thinking of her perfumes and wondering how on earth she was going to explain herself to Drago, until someone finally told her they were done.
Then Drago had whisked her off for dinner and she'd clammed up like a frightened schoolgirl. She was still wearing the last dress they'd put on her, a pretty, silky sheath in eggplant and a pair of gold Christian Louboutin pumps. This entire experience was a fantasy come to life in many ways. She was in New York City, being wined and dined by one of the most eligible bachelors in the world, and she wanted to remember every moment of it.
And yet everything about this day was wrong, because she'd come here to pitch her perfume, not model for Na-varra Cosmetics. How could she tell him? How could she find the perfect moment to say "Oh, Drago, thank you for the dinner, but what I really want to talk to you about is my perfume"?
Still, she had to. And soon. But every time she tried to open her mouth and tell him, something stopped her. There were interruptions, distractions. When he reached across the table and took her hand in his, every last thought in her head flew out the window.
"You were fabulous today, Holly," he said. And then he lifted her hand to his lips and pressed them against the back of her hand. A sizzle of electricity shot through her, gathered in her feminine core and made her ache in ways she'd never quite experienced before.
She'd had a boyfriend back home. She'd been kissed. They'd even gone further than thatbut she'd never felt the moment was right to go all the way.
And then he'd broken up with her. Taken up with that catty Lisa Tate instead. It still stung.
You're too selfish, Holly, he'd said. Too focused on your damn perfume.
Yes, she was focused. Holly dragged herself back to the present, tried so hard to ignore the skittering of her pulse and the throbbing deep in her core. She knew what this was. She might not have had sex before, but she wasn't stupid. She'd experienced desire with Colin, but she'd just never got to the point where she'd tumbled over the edge into hedonism.