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'Don't look now, but he's here and he's right behind us.'
Eva Redmond's heart catapulted into her throat as the urgent whisper from her old college chum tess sliced through the hum of polite conversation and the tinkle of champagne glasses in the upscale San Francisco art gallery. 'Are you sure?'
Tess looked past Eva's right shoulder. 'Tall? Check.' She nodded. 'Dark? Check. Handsome? Check. The only one not in a suit? Check.' She grinned at Eva. 'Yup, it's definitely your rebel scriptwriter.' Her gaze flicked past Eva again. 'And you're in luck. Not only is he alone. But he's even hotter than his photo.'
Eva stared blankly at the six foot square canvas in front of herwhich was titled The Explosion of the Senses, but looked more like an explosion in a paint factory to her untrained eyeand swallowed down the knot of apprehension that had been tightening around her larynx ever since she'd boarded the plane at Heathrow that morning.
The knowledge that the man she'd travelled five thousand miles to meet was standing a few feet away made it feel as if she were trying to swallow a boulder.
'Goodie,' she muttered.
Tess laughed and nudged her. 'Don't sound so pleased.'
'Why would I be pleased?' Eva whispered back, fairly sure Nick Delisantro's extreme hotness was not going to work in her favour. If only he were a geeky academic. Sticking with what you knew might be dull. But dull had its advantages.
'Why wouldn't you be?' Tess countered. 'Giving a scorching hot guy the news that he's the heir to a fortune in Italian real estate is what I'd call a win-win situation.'
Eva nobly resisted the urge to sneak a peek over her shoulder. 'Yes, but I'm not you, am I?' she remarked wryly as she studied her friend dispassionately.
In her ice-blue, off the shoulder silk gown and six-inch designer heels, Tess looked elegant, slim, super-confidentand completely at home in the rarefied atmosphere of a gallery opening in San Francisco's Union Square neighbourhood. Which wasn't at all surprising. Tess had spent the last three years building a formidable reputation as an events planner in the US and even at university she'd been able to schmooze for England. Eva meanwhile had spent the years since she'd gained her first at Cambridge burying her nose in dusty antiquarian documents and computer research data. She couldn't schmooze to save her lifeand she'd never felt more out of place than among all these beautiful people who had elevated socialising to an art form.
The admission touched some lonely place deep inside. She shook off the thought. She wasn't lonely; her life was exactly how she wanted it. Settled, secure, content. Until two days ago, when her boss Henry Crenshawe had demanded she travel halfway round the globe to be humiliated in public.
'And it's not as simple as telling him he could be the Duca D'Alegria's grandson. I'll also have to tell him the man he always thought was his biological father isn't.' Eva tensed at the thought of having such an intimate conversation with a stranger. A scorching hot stranger who had steadfastly ignored all her attempts to contact him in close to a month. 'I shouldn't have let you talk me into asking him for an appointment here. It's not appropriate.'
Tess gave an easy shrug. 'So don't ask him straight away. Flirt with him first. He'll be much more amenable. I guarantee it.'
Eva doubted that. She didn't know how to flirt and this man was a master at it. During her extensive research for the firm's high-profile new client, it was one of the few things she'd managed to discover about the elusive Niccolo Carmine Delisantrothe man who she had deduced was almost certainly the illegitimate grandson Don Vincenzo Palatino Vittorio Savargo De Rossi, the Duca D'Alegria, was offering a small fortune to locate.
The dry facts of Delisantro's life had told her very little about him as a personNorth London runaway turned successful Hollywood scriptwriter and San Francisco resident who had scripted the biggest box-office hit of the decade five years agoexcept that he was a wow with the ladies and he guarded his privacy like a hawk.
'You can take a look now, and see what you're up against.' Tess indicated with her champagne flute. 'Kate Elmsly's cornered him,' she finished, mentioning the perky and persistent gallery owner who had greeted them both earlier.
Trying to even her breathing, Eva turned. And her lungs seized to a halt. The back of her neck bristled as she took a hasty sip of her champagne cocktail. This was worse than she thought.
As she studied the man standing about ten feet away Eva realised she wasn't just out of her depth, she was in danger of drowning.
Tess was right. The grainy photo she'd managed to find on the Internet didn't do Nick Delisantro justice.
No mere human being had a right to that level of perfection. Thick wavy hair the colour of rich caramel curled to touch the collar of a worn black leather bomber jacket, which matched his thin black sweater and jeans. Sharp angular cheekbones with a hint of stubble, tanned olive skin to highlight his Italian heritage and a honed, muscular six foot plus physique combined to set him apart from the pampered crowd of local celebrities and dignitaries. His dark brooding masculine beauty drew female eyes, and hers were no exceptionthe relaxed, almost insolent way he leaned against the bare brick column as the gallery owner chatted effusively only made him seem more aloof. Surly, sexy, supremely magnetic, effortlessly successful as a hunter-gatherer but with a dangerous edge, Nick Delisantro was the perfect male prototype to ensure the survival of his species.
Eva sighed, a shiver running down her spine then sprinting straight back up again. While she was the female prototype to ensure it failed. An academic whose knowledge of men and sex included a few fumbled encounters as a post-grad and a secret passion for florid historical romance novels that had half-naked men with exceptional pecs on the covers.
She swung back to face 'The Explosion of the Senses,' her own senses imploding as her gaze skimmed down the designer gown Tess had lent her. 'This isn't going to work,' she murmured, more to herself than her friend. 'I look ridiculous.'
The crimson velvet creation with its split skirt and plunging neckline would look sensational on her friend, but Eva was two inches shorter and had several extra inches round the bust. The gown had made her feel exhilarated when she'd squeezed into it an hour ago, but now only made her feel like more of a fraud.
She wasn't one of those stunning damsels in distress with long flowing tresses and enough spirit to bring a marauding pirate captain to his knees. She was a risk-averse academic with a wardrobe full of beige who was still technically speaking a virgin at the ripe old age of twenty-four.
Tess placed a comforting hand on Eva's forearm. 'You do not look ridiculous. You look voluptuous.'
Eva crossed her arms over her chest. 'Flashing my boobs at him is not the way to go here,' she said, feeling more uncomfortable by the second. 'I should just go to his agent's office tomorrow morning and ask him for an appointment.' That would be the safe, smart thing to do, and had been Eva's plan all along until Tess had discovered through her many contacts that Nick Delisantro was attending tonight's gala opening and wheedled them both an invite.
'Cleavage is never a bad thing where men are concerned,' Tess asserted. 'And you said this commission is important,' she urged. 'If his agent blows you off, what are you going to tell your boss?'
Eva didn't have an answer for that. Mr Crenshawe had told her in no uncertain terms that Roots Registry valued the De Rossi commission, and if Eva delivered the missing heir before one of the rival companies the duca had hired located him too, she would finally be in line for a promotion.
It was a powerful incentive. Eva adored her job. Poring over diaries and journals and correlating the evidence left by birth, marriage and death certificates allowed her to imagine lives often lived centuries agotheir passions, their pain, their triumphs and tragedies. And the promotion she'd worked so hard for would finally give her the job security she craved.
Tess craned her neck to peer past Eva. 'It looks like he's shaken off Kate,' she continued. 'Go now.' She prodded Eva with her elbow. 'Brush past him on your way to the bar. The dress will do the rest.'
'And if it doesn't?' Eva asked tentatively, not sure the revealing dress was something she could actually control.
Tess shrugged. 'Then you haven't lost a thing. We'll go back to my place and you can try out plan B for Boring tomorrow.'
'Okay.' Eva took a shuddering breath, feeling as if she were about to walk the plankin nothing but her underwear. 'I'll walk past him on my way to the toilet.' How hard could that be? 'But then we're leaving.'
She handed Tess her empty champagne flute and smoothed shaky palms down the luxurious velvet. The soft, seductive material brushed against her thighs as she concentrated on not falling flat on her face in the unfamiliar four-inch heels she'd also borrowed from Tess. She glanced towards him as she drew level, positive he wouldn't even have noticed her. And froze.
Heavy lidded chocolate eyes, as bold and insolent as the rest of him, caught hers and held. The image of Rafe, the pirate captain from her favourite, much-thumbed novel, shimmered like a mirage then cleared. A shaky breath gushed out as she stared back, transfixed by the way the overhead light caught the golden flecks in his irises. The colour was unusually striking and very familiar. She'd seen the exact same shade when the duca had arrived at their offices in London to hand over his dead son's journal.
His grandson's lips lifted a fraction on one side, as if he were enjoying a private joke, then his gaze dipped. Eva's heart punched her ribcage with the force of a heavyweight champ.
The lazy perusal raked over her sensitised skin like a physical caress, before his gaze met hers again. 'Do I know you?' he asked, the tone husky and amused, curt British vowels laced with the hint of a Californian drawl.
Eva shook her head, her tongue apparently stapled to the roof of her mouth.
'So why have you and your friend been spying on me?' he asked.
Good Lord, he has bionic hearing.
Eva's breathing choked to a stop. Then released in a rush as her common sense caught up with the kick of panic. He couldn't possibly have heard themwith all the hard surfaces the noise level in the gallery was loud and discordant. He must have spotted Tess watching him. Tess wasn't exactly subtle.
'We couldn't help it,' she said, trying to think of a viable excuse. 'You're a lot more intriguing than the art.'
'Is that right?' one brow lifted, making her breathing accelerate. 'I'm not sure that's a compliment. A daytime soap would be more intriguing than this stuff.' The disdainful comment was belied by the wry tone. 'What's so intriguing about me?'
Eva's breathing slowed and she began to get a little lightheaded.
Was he flirting with her?
'You don't belong here,' she stammered, the fierce buzz of anticipation in her stomach coming from nowhere. 'But you don't care. That's unusual in a social situation. The normal response is to want to participate. To be part of the crowd. That makes you intriguing.'
The words trailed off as his lips quirked in a curious grin, softening his angular features.
Stop lecturing, you idiot. You sound like a professor.
He straightened away from the column, making her aware that he was at least half a foot taller than her, even in her borrowed heels.
Lifting his arm, he propped it against the column, angling his body so he shielded them both from the rest of the gallery. He stood close enough for her to smell the tantalising musk of soap and leather and pheromones. And see the crescent shaped scar drawing a white line through the shadow of stubble on his cheek. The pirate fantasy flickered at the edges of her consciousness. She forced it back, but not before the pulse of heat rippled over her skin and made her heart rate shoot back up to warp speed.
'You worked all that out after a few minutes?' he drawled.
Guilt tightened the muscles in her throat.
'That's what I do. I'm an anthropologist.' Of sorts. 'I study people and their behaviour patterns. How they interact socially and culturally.' It wasn't exactly a lie, and she had a BSc to prove it.
'An anthropologist,' he said, savouring the word as if it were a rare single malt whisky. His gaze roamed over her, and her nipples squeezed into hard, aching points. 'I've never met an anthropologist before.'
And he wasn't meeting one now, she thought, her gaze flicking away from his. This was the perfect time to tell him the truththat she was the woman whose phone calls and email messages he'd refused to return for three and a half weeks. But instead of seizing the opportunity to get down to the business of begging him for an appointment, the butterflies already fluttering in her stomach went AWOL, and she hesitated.
She'd never had the chance to flirt with a man like this before. Never been studied in that frank, assessing way, the pulse of awareness arching between them more potent than any drug.
'Anthropology can be fascinating,' she heard herself murmur, feeling inexplicably needy.
'I'll bet,' he said. 'Although you're wrong about me.' His gaze drifted over her hair, which Tess had spent an hour taming into a chignon. 'I belong here just fine.' Lowering his arm, he hooked one of the stray curls that had fallen out of the chignon. 'But you, on the other hand, don't belong at all.' The back of his finger brushed her cheek, the touch subtle but so unexpected, she jumped.
He chuckled. 'What are you afraid of?'
Heat pulsed in that secret place between her thighs at the intimate question. She wasn't afraid of him, that would be ludicrous, it was just that she'd never been touched like that before, with a sense of entitlement.
'I'm not afraid,' she blurted out, the urge to run sudden and instinctive and oddly intoxicating. 'I have to go to the rest room.'
He tucked the lock of hair behind her ear with a care that made her heart throb in unison with her pulse points. 'Let's discuss anthropology when you get back.'
The suggestion was casual but proprietary and only disturbed her more. She might be a novice at this, but she didn't think this conversation had anything to do with anthropology any more.