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Daddy, you owe me. Big-time.
Daniella Danatello paused outside the ballroom antechamber, careful not to scuff her just-dried perfectly manicured fingernails on the ornate brass door handle. A fresh rush of nerves shivered through her.
Straightening her spine she allowed a deep breath of oxygen to infuse calm. You can do this.
This was just one of a hundred hurdles she'd have to jump over the next few weeks in full glare of the publicity she'd come to hate. The same publicity the rest of her family hungered for like addicts craved drugs. Maybe, once this ordeal was over and she'd proved her worth, her father would finally stop hounding her for not achieving his version of success. Although, the chances of that happening were highly unlikely.
She jammed her feet down in her ridiculous jewelled heels, patted her hair to make sure everything had stayed in place and flattened down the yards and yards of silver-grey silk. Hurdles were nothing. Whatever happened now she could cope with; she'd endured much worse.
Switching on her best smile she turned the door handle and waited for the barrage of camera flashes .
She wasn't disappointed.
'Dani? Dani Danatello? Is that you?'
'Dani Danatello! Hey! Miss Danatello, over here.'
'New Zealand News. A question '
A wall of photographers and journalists stepped forward, the flashes almost blinding her. As she waited for her eyes to adjust she held a hand up to shield her face, then realised she had nothing to hide. They knew it all anyway.
'Dani! How do you think the Jets will do?'
'Dani? Do you have a heads-up on the final team pick?'
She drew in more oxygen as she'd been taught, breathed out slowly and steadied her voice. 'I'm sorry, I don't have any details about the team. You'll have to ask my father. Or Desere.' Demure Desere, her older sister, married to the team flanker. 'Or Deanna, maybe she'll talk to you, if you promise her a five-page spread.'
The youngest Danatello sister, Dazzling Deanna as the press dubbed her, engaged to the Jets' team tall boy The Lock, had sold an exclusive of their perfect hideaway proposal. Complete with close-ups of the moment Kyle had popped the question in a private hot tub overlooking the ocean. Surrounded by nothing but nature and birdsong, a stylist, photographer and make-up artist. So romantic.
Surprisingly Daddy hadn't been there, but he'd engineered the whole thing, just like he'd probably organised the phalanx of paparazzi here at the exclusive invitation-only charity ball. Davide Danatello, entrepreneur and chairman of the most successful rugby team in Auckland history, somehow always managed to mix his business with his daughters' pleasure. Keeping them close, and all but using them as bait to lure the world's best players to his team. And despite every attempt to the contrary now Dani was embroiled too.
'Come on, Dani! You must know the inside story.'
She fixed her plastic smile. 'No, my interest in the Jets is purely professional.'
'Women's News. Dani, you mean you're only interested in their bodies?'
'Obviously their bodies are of great interest to me.' No. That came out wrong. Her cheeks burnt. 'I mean, in a professional way.'
'So you haven't got your eye on anyone in particular? Not keen to be a WAG like your sisters?'
'Not at all.' Her stomach churned. 'No eyes on anyone.' And wouldn't again if she could help it.
Why the hell did it always turn so personal? She curled a stray lock of her hair round her finger as she fixed her gaze towards the ballroom. On the other side of the gilt-etched glass door people looked relaxed, chatting and laughing to the quiet strains of a string quartet. Ten strides along the red carpet. That's all it was, ten strides between chaos and calm.
She stepped her foot out to the accompaniment of more clicks and whirrs.
Nine strides. Poise. Posture. Polite. Her late mother's early grooming lessons came back to haunt her. Having been hounded by the press from the moment she was presented to them in a vintage christening gown she should have been able to deal with this intrusion. But she'd always hated the glare, the flashes, the raised harried voices. Hence the succession of photographs on various front pages of her, aged three, hiding behind her mother's skirt and, aged seven, sticking her tongue out. God, how she wished she was seven again.
Nearly over. The newshounds were just doing their job, then she could do hers. She exhaled, kept the smile, almost done. Her mojo was returning. She could do this. Could handle anything they threw at her.
'Dani! One more thing.'
A microphone almost knocked her front teeth out as the News hack barged forward. 'Tell us about rehab, Dani! Well and truly over your exhaustion now?'
'What?' She turned and blinked into the mass of black lenses, her stomach clenched and her smile slipping. Gee, thanks, mate. Just in case there was anyone left in New Zealand who hadn't heard about the sordid details leading up to her stay at the Inner Sanctum. Words stuck in her throat. She wondered, briefly, how much force it would take to ram that microphone where the sun didn't shine.
Silence rippled around the room. All eyes bore into her.
'Dani? Any comment?'
Oh, yes. But far too rude to be broadcast to the watching millions only a satellite dish away.
Despite her promises to deal with that dark chapter in her life with humour and grace, she couldn't help but look at the reporter with derision.
'I feel great, thank you.' She wrapped the hair round and round her knuckle, brought it up to her mouth. 'We've all moved on. It was a long time ago.' Nearly five years, dammit.
Aware her shoulders had sagged Dani pulled herself straight and made for the door. Eight strides should do it.
'So, Dani, lucky for you the police dropped the charges. Very conveni'
'Thank you, everyone. That's enough interrogation for one night.' A deep commanding voice and a firm arm turned her away from the cameras. But the flashes started up again, this time even more intensified.
Not surprising. Dani looked up at the man who'd moved in behind her. Even in stilettoes she only came up to his shoulder. She craned her neck to look into deep brown eyes and a genuine smile with a hint of a dimple in his left cheek. Floppy hair covered his forehead. Wide shoulders offered the chance to take refuge, and for a brief second the temptation to slide right on in threatened to overwhelm her. The flashes popped around them like firecrackers. And something strange popped and whizzed in her stomach too.
The man's voice oozed calm. 'Hang on to my arm and we'll be through in no time.'
'I'm fine, thank you,' she snapped back, through the faux smile and clenched teeth. She wouldn't be enchanted by a too-damned-sexy rugby player. No doubt another daddy set-up. 'I'm perfectly capable of doing this on my own.'
She'd resolved to get through the tournament ordeal on her own too, to do everything on her own. Alone was the way to go. Especially after her last failed fiance fiasco. After everything
But her feet wouldn't budge. Great. Rebellious feet and a rescue. She didn't need rescuing. Not by Adonis in a penguin suit, however gorgeous and strong he looked.
'Dani! Is this your new man?'
'Goodness, no!' She could see the screeching headlines now. Dani Danatello's Dashing Date. She shrugged his arm away but he held her tight. Close up she realised he wasn't a rugby player. Could have been with that toned physiquebut he had perfect ears and no scars or rough edges. She'd memorised the player sheet on the flight and didn't recognise Pretty Boy here. She'd remember those eyes anywhere.
'Let's not argue in front of the children.' His whisper was a hot heat against her cheek, a strange sensation that sent shock waves rippling through her. She edged away, but he leaned in closer, his lips almost touching her ear. 'The secret to dealing with this lot is to imagine them all naked.'
'Eugh. Do I have to?' A bubble of laughter floated up her throat as she glanced at the beat-up News journalist who looked older than her grandfather. Then she turned back to her rescuer. Imagine him naked.
An uninvited devil voice inside her head whispered, Yes. What lay beneath that expensive suit?
She swallowed hard.
No. Heat seeped into her cheeks. Mentally reprimanding herself she stepped forward, catching the man's smile in profile. For all his hurry to save her he seemed to be lapping up the attention, shaking hands with a couple of the TV crews, waving towards the photographers squashed at the back. Irritation feathered down her spine. Another wannabe for the limelight. As if she hadn't already learnt her lesson with people using her to get to her father, or grab their fifteen minutes of fame.
He pressed a palm gently on the dip in her back and the irritation morphed into a tingle that zapped down her legs.
Then he winked conspiratorially. 'Well, the naked thing seems to workyou're not as rigid as you were ten seconds ago. Now try a real smile, Dani, it won't kill you. And stop chewing your hairit'll all tie up in your stomach like a big fur ball.'
'What?' Okay, so he knew her name because he'd have to have been deaf not to hear the paparazzi's shouting. But how did he know she chewed her hair? It had hardly reached her mouth, and she'd stopped that habit years ago anyway. 'I'm not chewing it.'
'Yes, you are. So stop it, drop your hand and smile. We don't want you coughing up on my shoes in front of these vultures. Now that would make a headline.' 'Your shoes are safe.'
'Thank God.' He laughed, a deep mellow sound that unfurled something in her gut. 'First day in my new job, I don't want to spend the evening hiding my feet.'
She angled her head to look at his feet encased in shiny black leather. Big. How did the saying go? Big feet, big She swallowed. Big socks. Big personality too. Who the hell was he?
With a flick of his hand the journalists parted like the Red Sea and he steered her through. 'You have to play them at their own game. Don't let them intimidate you.'
'I'm fine. It's just too hard to see past all those lights.'
'So don't look. Take my arm.'
Before she could refuse he'd looped her hand under his elbow and whisked her away from the glare. A few strides later and they were through the glass door into an oasis of calm. Crystal chandeliers glinted in soft light, the low hum of polite chatter reverberated gently around the room. Elegant dinner tables seating eight, bedecked in crisp white tablecloths and splashes of the Jets' scarlet, filled the room. New Zealand's finest had been invited to celebrate the glorious commencement of the tournament that would see Auckland Jets make rugby history. And she would play the most important role of her life to date, and hopefully win a place in her father's heart.
Trying to soak up the calm ambience she wriggled her arm out from Pretty Boy's. 'I can find my own way now.'
'At least let me see you to your table.'
'Don't you have somewhere you need to be?' Like a different continent?
'Sure a dreary charity dinner, possibly meeting the new team physiotherapist, getting stuck, no doubt, in a discussion about muscles and tendons and things that could send me to sleep.'
He leaned forward and slipped the unruly lock of her hair over her shoulder. As he spoke he held her gaze. 'You, on the other hand, would keep me wide awake.'
She ignored the frisson of excitement she suddenly felt, the way her skin jumped at his touch or the soft-spoken words that caressed a deep part of her. He was a man, plain and simple. And right now, in the wake of desperate grasping Paul the Prat, men were the enemy.
To add insult to injury, Pretty Boy was probably something to do with the management, ergo something to do with her father. She scraped in a breath and stepped out of his reach. Pure irony that the first guy she'd had a physical reaction to since Paul was one of her father's lackeys. So off limits, and then some. And he was hitting on her.
She tried to bite back the smile that smoothed over her mouth, knew when it hit her eyes because his pupils flared too. 'You do know who I am?'
'Sure, you're Dani Danatello. One of Davide's daughters.'
'Aha.' She bit her bottom lip to stop the laugh and nodded. 'Which one?'
'That I don't know. First, third, sixth? How many does he have?'
She held up three fingers, noticed a chip in one nail already. Like that would have happened to Desere. 'Three, that we know of.'
'Your family's on the front pages so often I lose track. Although you haven't been there for a while. I would have remembered.' Curiosity danced across his gaze. 'I heard out there with the press that you're the one who went to rehab. The one Ah. Yes. That one. You've changed a bit. Hair not so long.' A smile spread across his damned perfect lips as he prepared to say what she'd been hearing for the past four years.
One day she'd be remembered for something other than a childish prank that had gone woefully wrong. One day she'd be able to walk down the street without the usual smart-mouthed retorts. She drew herself up to her full five-feet-four-anda-half. Plus a lot more of stiletto. 'Okay, buster, get it over with.'
'The damned headline. You know you want to.'
'"Desperate Dani's Drunken Dare."'
She winced. Desperate Dani. Ouch.
He smiled, but it wasn't the usual leery response she got from men. There were flickers of warmth there too. 'And just look at you now. Mind you, you looked mighty fine naked in a public fountain on your birthday.' And there he had to go spoil it. 'Twenty-first, wasn't it?'
'Twenty-third. I was very drunk. And stupid.' And too wasted to care. But now she did. And so, obviously, did Daddy's lackey. The press had splashed her naked image across the front page to highlight the dangers of rich kids' party lifestyles and binge drinking. And, generally, to humiliate her father.
It had taken a lot to come back from that, for them both. Although the fraught relationship they'd developed since still stretched on a tight and often fraying thread. But she would change that, by the end of this tournament. 'Why does everyone have to remember it?'
'Because it was a heck of a picture. Dani Danatello riding a marble horse statue, soaking wet literally bareback magnificent.'
'Yes, yes. The famous Lady Godiva moment.'
He grinned but looked a little bemused.
'Lady Godiva? The woman who rode naked on horseback through a town to complain about taxes or something? Centuries ago?'
'Yeah, yeah, my dad's a history boffin, I know. Pure class.' His gaze shifted down to her decolle-tage, this time covered with silk and chiffon, not two thick blonde braids. One swift glance back at her face and he frowned. He touched her shoulder and looked into her eyes. She wanted to shake away from his fingers, but they were strangely comforting. Despite being her father's lackey there was something quietly honest about him.