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She'd been warned about Stefano Cortez.
As Annabelle Wolfe climbed out of her vintage 4x4, she surveyed the sprawling white hacienda with a feeling of dread. She'd been warned constantly over the past few months: Stefano Cortez could not be trusted.
Be careful, Miss Wolfe. You won't be able to resist him. No woman can.
Guard your heart, miss. The broken hearts he's scattered are as infinite as stars.
I have nothing to worry about, Annabelle told herself fiercely. Stefano Cortez might be the equestrian world's most famous playboy, but he would have no effect on her. She wouldn't let those stupid warnings make her lose her nerve!
But her body still trembled, and she knew it wasn't just from all the coffee she'd gulped down on the long, dusty drive from Portugal to northern Spain.
Slamming her truck door with a bang, Annabelle stretched her stiff limbs, trying to shake off her nervous fear. It didn't work. Warnings about Stefano Cortez's charm had been repeated too often lately, repeated everywhere she'd visited for her photojournalism series on Europe's top-ten horse ranches for Equestrian magazine.
Stefano Cortez's ranch, Santo Castillo, was the final one of her assignment. He sold the most expensive, exclusive horses in the world, and even then, only to customers he deemed worthy. Wealthy buyers fell over themselves to get the reclusive ranch owner's approval. But that was nothing compared to what women did for his attention.
The world's number-one stud farm, the current joke went, is owned by the world's number-one stud.
Annabelle rolled her tight shoulders. If Stefano Cortez was even a fraction of the man he was reputed to be, he would definitely try to lure her into bed. Most men usually did, unfortunately. It was a long-standing joke to all her colleagues and assistants.
But Stefano Cortez took seduction to a whole new level. According to rumor, no woman had ever turned Cortez down. Ever. And what if the rumors were true? What if by some horrible chance Annabelle fell into his bed like all the rest?
No way, she told herself, biting down on her lip. Annabelle didn't have a passionate bone in her body. She was cold and proud and rudedidn't men always say so after she refused their advances? At thirty-three, she was a confirmed spinster, immune to any playboy's charm. After everything she'd been through, she'd never let any man close to her.
She would be on her guard with Stefano Cortez, and if he tried any smooth moves on her, she'd laugh in his face.
Wouldn't she ?
Looking around her, Annabelle took a deep breath. So where was he? Where was the famous playboy who would apparently try to drag her into his bed the moment he saw her?
She saw half-wild horses racing across wide gold-colored fields, beneath a blue sky that stretched forever. She heard the burble of a nearby stream and birdsong rising from the forested hills. June in northern Spain. It was so beautiful here that she turned to reach through the truck's open window for her camera bag on the seat.
A man's deep voice spoke behind her.
"So you have arrived at last."
Annabelle froze. Slinging her bag on her shoulder, she braced herself and slowly turned around.
And nearly gasped.
Stefano Cortez stood before her, his eyes dark and luminous as fire beneath the Spanish sun. At five-ten, An-nabelle was far from petite, but she had to tilt her head back to look into his gorgeously chiseled face.
He was even more devastating in person than in photographs. At thirty-five, he was breathtakingly handsome, dark-haired and strong with a lean, muscular physique. His worn jeans fit snugly against trim hips. The sleeves of his black shirt were rolled up, revealing tanned forearms laced with dark hair, showing he clearly was not afraid of physical labor. His chin-length dark hair was pulled back into a leather tie at the base of his neck.
He held his powerful body absolutely still as his dark eyes raked slowly over her.
Annabelle's breath disappeared from her lungs. She felt vulnerable and exposed, like a hapless gazelle beneath a lion's lazy gaze. She felt the restrained hunger of a well-fed predator who had absolute confidence in his power over her.
"Welcome to my home, Miss Wolfe," he said in softly accented English. His sensual lips curved into a half smile. "I have been waiting for you."
Their eyes locked. Heat flashed through her, heat so sudden and unexpected that she nearly stumbled back. Annabelle had to force herself to keep her face impassive, even as her trembling hands tightened around the strap of her camera bag.
"Youyou have?" she said faintly.
"Your reputation precedes you." Stefano Cortez's lips curved as his gaze traced slowly down her body. "The famous Annabelle Wolfe. The beautiful photographer who travels to every corner of the world on assignment."
Struggling to hide her flushed skin and pounding heart, Annabelle lifted her chin. "And you are Stefano Cortezthe greatest stud of Santo Castillo."
She'd meant to offend him, but he only gave a low laugh. The sound of that deep, masculine amusement caused another strange flutter through her body.
He moved closer, and she licked her suddenly dry lips.
"You are as charming as I'd hoped. Mucho gusto," he whispered, looking down at her. "Encantado."
He didn't touch her, but his words were like a caress, as if he'd kissed her hand. As if he'd pressed his warm lips against her skin. His masculine power pressed upon her consciousness from all sides. She felt the power emanating off his tanned skin, the virile strength of his lean, muscular body.
She swallowed, gripping her camera bag with both hands as she muttered, "Nice to meet you."
His sensual mouth curved, as if he knew why she did not hold out her hand in greeting, much less her cheek.
"I look forward to seven days of your company, se-norita" he said. "I can see this week will be pleasurable indeed."
His dark eyes gleamed with the promise of untold delights, and Annabelle's breath quickened. He was so close she could feel the heat emanating from his skin. She felt vulnerable. Feminine. She felt a strange, deep longing to let herself go, to melt her tense body into his warmth and fire.
Dear God, what madness had come over her? She had to get a grip! Even a legendary Spanish playboy couldn't have this much power, this fast!
She set her jaw. She would show both of them that she was no fool. Because she knew, however beautiful a playboy's face might be, his soul was always selfish and cold. She'd learned that long ago.
Annabelle drew back, glaring at him.
"How flattering," she said acidly. "But surely you don't intend to spend the entire week with me, Mr. Cortez. I've heard from multiple sources that your interest in a woman rarely lasts longer than a single night."
Annabelle waited for him to scowl at her rudeness, but to her chagrin he only looked amused.
"In your case, Miss Wolfe," he said softly, "I might make an exception."
Her heart leaped in her throat. She swallowed, trying to slow her quick, shallow breath.
Do not trust his charm. Do not, she told herself fiercely.
"I work best alone." She raised her chin. "So thanks, but I won't need your company. Or want it."
Annabelle took a deep breath, remembered how hard Equestrian had fought to get this exclusive at Santo Castillo, and tried to modulate her tone. "Forgive me if that sounds harsh. I just don't like to have anyone hovering over me as I work." She tried to smile. "And I'm sure you have a great deal to do for your charity gala this weekend.. "
Abruptly, he lifted his hand toward her. She jumped back, wide-eyed and jittery as a colt.
He frowned. "Allow me to carry your bag, Miss Wolfe."
Oh. So that was why he'd reached for her. A warm blush curled her cheeks. "That's not necessary."
"You are my guest."
"Thank you, but I can manage my own equipment." "Por supuesto. But it seems a great deal for one person."
"Usually I have an assistant.." Annabelle stopped, thinking of Marie who was now in Cornwall with her husband and newborn baby. She took a deep breath. "But I'll be fine. Don't worry. My photos of your ranch will be fine. The project will be fine. I work best alone," she repeated.
"So you said." Stefano looked down at her, and she felt a bead of sweat break out between her breasts. "Why do you keep looking at me like that?"
"Like you " Her voice trailed off as she struggled to think of words that wouldn't sound ridiculous. Like you want to rip off my clothes. Like you want to drink me for tea. Like you want to fling me over your shoulder, throw me into your bed and lick every inch of me. She finished awkwardly, "Like you've never seen a woman before."
He barked a laugh. "I've seen many, as you know. And yet." He paused. "I cannot stop looking at you."
"Because you are more beautiful than I even imagined."
She swallowed. "I.I am?"
He gave a single nod. "The photos I've seen of you hardly did you justice."
A chill went down Annabelle's spine.
The photos I've seen of you.
Which photos did he mean? Recent pictures of Annabelle at her brother's society wedding in London? Pictures of her sunburned face as she'd traveled on assignment through the Sahara and the plains of Mongolia earlier that winter?
Or images from nearly twenty years ago, when her drunken father had tried to kill her as a teenager?
Had Stefano Cortez stumbled upon the before-and-af-ter images that had once been in every British newspaperthe first showing Annabelle as a blonde, smiling fourteen-year-old with rosy cheeks, the second showing her with a monster's swollen face, her eyes like slits, a savage red whip slash peeling back her skin?
Annabelle searched Stefano's expression with hard eyes. But only a smile curved his sensual mouth as he looked back at her.
She exhaled with a flare of her nostrils. Good. He didn't know about her past. As juicy and notorious as the Wolfe family scandal had once been, the world had moved on. People had forgotten.
But not Annabelle. She would never forget. She still had scars to prove it. On her body. On her face. Beneath her carefully applied makeup and long blond bangs, the vestige of the violent red scar from her father's whip would always remain.
Tilting his head, Stefano frowned down at her. "You do not care for compliments."
"Why do you say that?" she evaded.
"You look almost.angry."
"It's fine." He was far too observant. Annabelle smoothed imaginary crumbs off her light-gray suit, then looked up. "But you should know I am well aware of your reputation. I do not intend to be another notch in your bedpost. You are wasting your compliments on me."
His dark eyes gleamed. "No compliment on a pretty woman is ever wasted. And you are more than pretty. You are belleza"
"You're wasting your time, Casanova," she said sharply. "I am quite impossible to seduce."
His gaze deepened with interest, as if she'd just offered him an irresistible challenge. A few strands of his chin-length black hair escaped the leather tie at the nape of his neck, falling forward to frame the brilliance of his dark eyes. "So I have heard."
Pulling the heavy camera bag up higher on her shoulder, she muttered, "Afonso Moreira told me you'd be like this."
"Ah. My Portuguese rival." He lifted a sardonic eyebrow. "What else did he say?"
"He said you're a playboy who steals women's hearts, along with their virtue. He said I should lock my door."
As she looked up at him, white sunlight lit his black hair like a halo. He looked like a dark angel as his eyes became like endless pools of night.
"Moreira is right," he said quietly.
Her mouth fell open. She hadn't expected that reply in a million years. "Hehe is?"
"Si." His sensual lips curved upward. "That's exactly the kind of man I am."
Annabelle's heart pounded in her throat as she stared up into his darkly handsome face. She was dimly aware of the warm wind against her skin, loosening her chignon, blowing blond tendrils across her cheek. For an instant, she was lost in the swirling darkness of his gaze.
His eyes weren't black as she'd first thought. They were a multitude of colors as infinite as Spanish earth, obsidian and sable, coffee and burnt sienna. Full of warmth. Full of life.
He reached his hand toward her cheek, his fingers a millimeter from her skin, so close she could almost feel the warmth of his finger-tips.
Annabelle felt her heart slow, then stop. She was only dimly aware of her feet turning in the dusty courtyard, ready to bolt back to her truck, back to London.
Stefano frowned, his forehead furrowed as he stared down at her. Abruptly, he pulled away, dropping his hand.
"Yes, you are a beauty, Miss Wolfe," he said almost casually. "No doubt many men find you attractive. But I "
His voice trailed off.
Annabelle's lips parted. "But you don't?"
Stefano gave her a half-lidded smile. "Let's just say you're not my usual type."
His words should have come as a relief to her. Instead, they felt strangely like a rejection, a low dull hurt she hadn't expected. She pressed her lips together. "Oh. Good."
"So you see," he said quietly, looking down at her, "you have no reason to be afraid of me."
Annabelle looked up at him, horrified. Had he seen her fear? Had he known she'd been briefly tempted to run awayfrom Santo Castillo, from her assignment, from himlike some terrified virgin?
But that was exactly how he made her feel. Every inch the terrified virgin she was.
But her job and reputation were on the line. Straightening her shoulders, she tossed her head and lied, "I'm not afraid of you."
"Bien." He moved closer, his eyes locked with hers as he whispered, "I promise you have no need to lock your door."