Read an Excerpt
Graubunden Region, Swiss Alps
'You're doing much better,' Rachel Chase's ski instructor said as he performed a smooth cross-country sliding ski across the final slope towards the Bollinger Alpine Resort.
'It's not true, Matt, but thank you for persisting with me.' With a grateful smile, Rachel filled her lungs with crisp, clean mountain air, set her jaw, turned her face and kept sliding across the baby slope. It was humiliating, but she constantly had to grab hold of his hand.
Probably she just didn't have the confidence to ski, but in every other way the Bollinger Alpine Resort had been the perfect hideout. The staff took excellent care of her in this lake-filled valley nestled beneath the Alps, and with complete discretion. When Max, the manager, had offered her refuge in a hideaway cabin at the back of the resort, she'd grabbed the chance.
For a week she'd refused to unpack, remaining ready to run again. The peace felt too good to be true after the nightmare of ringing phones and flashing cameras she'd endured in LA after Pete's lies had hit the headlines. She shuddered to think what it was like now 'Dr Pete' had discovered he could only fix his failing ratings, and hang onto the fame and adulation he craved, by publicly reuniting with the wife he'd denounced as a cheater.
Rachel rubbed her wrist. It had long since healed, but it was symbolic. An hour after she'd seen a doctor privately and alone to have the broken limb put in a cast, she'd had the locks changed and filed for a temporary restrainingorder. She hadn't pressed chargesit would have destroyed Petebut she'd go to court if he touched her again. Her lawyer had made that crystal clear.
Her phone had been off for weeks. He couldn't use tracking, charm, love, guilt or even her mother and sister to get his way. She had enough to deal with learning how to survive alone, without the constant knowledge that her family loved Pete more than they'd ever loved her.
A soft voice asked from behind her, 'Rachel, are you okay? Does the key not work?'
She started. Though Pete had only hit her twice before she'd left him, it had left its mark in a nervous reaction she hadn't learned to control yet. After a deep breath she turned to the pretty brunette with the hint of willowy figure that Rachel had once had to starve herself to maintain. Apart from her second cousin Suziewho'd arranged her new name, two new passports with different names and had given her thousands of dollars Pete couldn't tracethe members of staff at Bollinger Alpine Resort were the only people she could trust.
She apologised in German and entered the cabin. 'I'm fine, thank you, Monika.' She unclipped and with both hands pulled off her snow boots and damp, tight ski socks.
Monika had brought her lunch. Jami and Max joined her soon after to listen to her stories about life as a celebrity wife in Tinsel Town. She dredged another story from the depths of all she wanted to forget for the sake of those who were risking their livelihoods to protect her.
* * *
From the corner of the terrasse he watched the woman holding court, three members of staff watching her in adoring awe, as if she was an affable duchess. He'd watched her trying to ski before, pretending to stumble so she could hold the hand of a young, handsome ski instructor.
He'd known women like her before and he despised themusing wiles and fame to get their way. She charmed people into falling into her hand. Obviously she revelled in being the centre of attention. And she was good at it: the sweet, rueful manner combined with her fawn-like eyes and her 'big as Texas, big as her heart' smile was a lethal cocktail for the uninitiated.
What a shame for Mrs Rachel Rinaldithe now-infamous 'Mrs Dr Pete' of chat-show legendthat he'd been initiated into how far one could fall when the fame bubble burst. He wasn't naive or stupid. He'd been taken, burned, lied to and left broken before she even left grade schooland he'd never let anyone do it to him since.
Mrs Rinaldi was about to discover just how far her charm would get her.
'And so He That Shall Not Be Named insisted those ten seconds of footage be cut from the interview. Apparently a top-action hero's being human enough to trip on a step and fall flat on his face could ruin his entire career and cause his wife to divorce himquote, unquote.'
'I assume my invitation to this party was lost in the post.'
The giggles and snorts of her friends died. Brow furrowed, Rachel turned to see what was wrong, but with one look her breath caught in her lungs.
A man of dark, dangerous male beauty stood in the doorway. His tight, brooding sensuality hit her in the solar plexus like a drive-by shot. His features weren't quite classic, but his stormy eyes and sensuous mouth more than made up for the lack of perfection. His bearing had a loose-limbed elegance and his lean, strong body was encased in a dove-grey suit that complemented his eyes. She blinked hard once or twice. It felt as if the room was spinning around herbut this had happened to her once before
I am not that girl now. She forced her eyes to remain open, focused on him. No man would ever make her close her eyes or fall to her knees again, physically or emotionally.
She held his gaze, returning it with an openness most men found unnerving. Yes, the man knew how to dress, to impress a woman with a glance, but it was probably all for show.
Definitely 'been there, done that'and she'd thrown out the T-shirt.
'A shame, since it seems I'm the host.' The new arrival spoke quietly, but small flickers of restrained lightning showed in each word. His dark-grey eyes rested upon the occupants of the cabin one by one. And she'd thought she knew how to unnerve others.
'Herr Bollinger, uh, welcome back. We were not aware of your arrival.' Max spoke in German, with a nervous twitch in his left eye. Monika squirmed, and Jami gazed at the door as if it held the secrets of life.
Bollinger. So this was the resort's owner, the son of a French multi-millionaire and a French-Swiss movie star. She'd seen pictures of him from about twelve years ago, when he'd been in the top ten of the World's Beautiful People, but she'd never seen him in the flesh. Armand Bollingerthe man nicknamed 'the Wolf' for his brilliance in business circles as well as in his love life. And, now she had seen him, she knew why. The leashed storm in him took Rachel's breath anew.
He stepped inside the room, filling it with an air of absolute command, even as he spoke with exquisite courtesy. 'I'd like to speak with our guest alone, thank you.' He glanced at each of his staff in turn. Without a word, Jami, Max and Monika fled, and she couldn't blame them.
The man turned to her with a smile that was perfect, welcoming and professional. 'Ms Chase, I am Armand Bollinger.' He didn't waste words he didn't need, such as 'I am the owner of the resort'. His voice sounded like chocolate brandy ought to taste. In a suit whispering Savile Row, and a linen shirt two shades darker than the trousers, he was the epitome of european elegance.
So why did she sense such a dark cloud hovering inside him? He seemed the consummate beautiful stranger. Yet, looking just beneath the surface, she felt not the hunter but the wounded wolf, pushing ancient scars out of existence by force of sheer will. 'Are all your needs being met? Is there anything you need?'
That's not why you came.
Her years of psychology training and practice had kicked in at first sight of him, without consciously trying. The owners of resorts did not commonly knock on doors to check on service levels; that was left to the managers. The resort owners she'd met might come to visit her if they discovered who she was, but they wouldn't have the haunted look of Armand Bollinger's eyes. Beneath the exquisite manners he wore with the same comfort as his excellent clothing, whatever it was he'd come to say sat ill on him.
He knows who I am.
The thought panicked herbut she would not show any weakness. She would never give in to any man's demands again.
'Every need has been met, Herr Bollinger, thank you.' She lifted her chin, kept her eyes fully on his. 'Have you come to ask me to leave?'
Armand stared at the diminutive woman before him, her warm curves encased in jeans, a fluffy pink pullover and hotel slippers. Very different from the tiny angles, designer outfits and high heels he'd seen when she was TV's Mrs Dr Pete, the Texan sweetheart who'd made Dr Pete's show the hit it wasor the hit it had been until he'd tossed her off the show. He'd heard it had been canned in the past few weeks.
He'd always been told the camera added ten pounds. It seemed real life did that to Rachel Rinaldi. In fact, if he hadn't seen those fawn-like brown eyes, or her famous smile dazzling his staff through the terrasse windows, or heard her pretty, sing-song southern accent telling her story, he wouldn't have recognised her at all. Gone were her trademark mahogany waist-length locks, the flawless make-up, the four-inch heels and the jewellery. In their place were a light-brown pixie haircut and clear, creamy skin with a light dusting of freckles not to mention the bristling stance and the challenging flash in her eyes as she squared up to him. She was expecting him to throw her out, but she'd go down swinging. But surely she knew why he was here?
She hadn't played the fame card yet to get what she wanted, or to railroad him with their respective positions. But she will, he thought cynically. Sooner or later they all did, which was part of the reason he'd left that world years ago. The world his parents had once dominated; oh yes, the Bollingers had been 'beautiful people'.
Then their world had fallen apart, and no one knew it but them. Even now, no one knew the truth of his father's death, or the things he'd done, the family shame.
'If you're going to ask me to leave, Herr Bollinger, I'd appreciate it if you'd get it over with rather than stringing it out this way.'
The aggressive tone seemed off-kilter in her pretty southern accent. Armand didn't start at the somewhat acid return to the present; even his mental shake was unseen. Give nothing away, don't hand your power to anyone. He'd learned that lesson long before he'd been kicked out of home at the age of twelve and he'd never forget it.
'You are a paying guest, Ms Chase,' he replied with all the practised smoothness of years, the acting training from young childhood. His father had called them 'deportment classes', but Armand knew them for what they were. Put on a show, look pretty, display perfect behaviour at all times. No anger, no sorrow, no remorse. And don't ever be yourself. So he'd play the game she'd set up and see where it led. 'We have just met. Why should you think I wish you to go?'
'Well, you're furious at me for some reason,' she returned, notably less hostile, but with her famed perception.
This time it was harder not to physically react. Damn it, she knew what he wanted! Surely she'd known he'd come the moment he found out where she was hiding out? 'Another assumption, given that I've only asked if you need anything,' he said softly.
'You're lying.' With an almost triumphant expression, she pointed at his eyes. 'See, there it is again. It's like lightning behind clouds, the look of fury hiding behind good manners. You're mad at me for some reason, so why not just say so? The sooner you get it off your chest, the sooner I can get back to my lunch.'
Dissected and dismissed within three sentences. Armand wasn't used to either happening to him. Rudeness from guests he could tolerate; stupidity he could ignore, certainly, though it irritated him. The superciliousness and constant demands of the super-rich were every-day life to him, his bread and butter. He'd been unfailingly polite, the perfect gentleman in all the years he'd spent rebuilding the resort and his reputation. The Wolf led the pack. Nobody got the best of him; nobody got to him.
How could this total stranger hop the barriers he'd erected twenty years ago with such ease? Damn it, she was laughing at him. Nobody had seen through him since he'd been sent to boarding school at the age of twelve. The day after he'd broken his father's nose.
The night his fairy-tale world had risen up to the light, exposed for the ugly lie it was. The night his sisters had lost their innocence. The night they'd all lost each other. Though they'd gained some closeness since his father had died, somehow it was never the same again.
He caught himself rubbing his finger.
Shut down, turn off. He forced a smile. He was damned if he wouldn't turn the tables. 'All right, then, Ms Chaseor should I say, Mrs Rinaldi?'
Not a muscle moved in her face, but something flickered in her eyesa fleeting expression he'd seen on a woman's face before, and never wanted to see again. But she spoke calmly, almost bored. 'I realised you'd recognised me the moment you broke into my cabin and heard me speak, Herr Bollinger. Would you mind getting to the point of your visit? My lettuce is wilting as we speak.'
His moment of perception fled beneath the sheer gall of the woman. Now he was less important than lettuce. If Rachel Rinaldi was famed for her loving empathy with strangers, he surely wasn't seeing a sign of it. But, by God, he wouldn't let her get to himor, more accurately, keep getting to him. 'By all means, Ms Chase, return to your lunch. It seems that you need it. Would you mind if I join you?'
The hesitation was so long it was almost as visible as the look in her eyes. She didn't want him here. Never once in his life had a woman refused his company, or even hesitated; always it had been women inviting him, women watching him hesitate. Women always had to watch as he walked through his invisible exit sign and never looked back.
He shrugged off the momentary irritation and waited for her to speak. What did he care? This woman was far from his type, and he wasn't looking. He had more than enough to fill his life without coping with a weak, tearful woman's sensitivity, or the ego-filled demands of self-proclaimed strong women hitting him like an axe to the head.
That was the way it always went. His last relationshipif it could be called thathad put him off for a long time to come. Behind her dark, sinuous beauty, Selina had used tantrums, tears, other men and sexual manipulation, all aimed at one thing: to gain the fame of being the woman to tame the Wolf and wear his ring. She'd nearly scratched his eyes out when he'd said only one thing to her as he'd packed his things: 'I don't do cheating women.'
'Certainly, Herr Bollinger,' Rachel Chase said after what seemed an inordinately long time. 'I'm getting a crick in my neck from looking up at you, anyway. Do come in.'
'Thank you,' he said, holding onto his courtesy, seething beneath. This woman wanted him to leave. She didn't feel his famed charm, and his manners only seemed to bring out an irritated acerbity in her he'd never seen on TV.
He didn't careof course he didn'tbut he couldn't help asking himself why.