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The six-inch stiletto heels of Issy Helligan's thigh-high leather boots echoed like gunshots against the marble floor of the gentlemen's club. The sharp rhythmic cracks sounded like a firing squad doing target practice as she approached the closed door at the end of the corridor.
She huffed and came to a stop. The gunshots cut off, but her stomach carried right on going, doing a loop-the-loop and then swaying like the pendulum of Big Ben. Recognising the symptoms of chronic stage fright, Issy pressed her palm to her midriff as she focussed on the elaborate brass plaque announcing the entrance to the 'East Wing Common Room'.
Calm down. You can do this. You're a theatrical professional with seven years' experience.
Detecting the muffled rumble of loud male laughter, she locked her knees as a thin trickle of sweat ran down her back beneath her second-hand Versace mac.
People are depending on you. People you care about. Getting ogled by a group of pompous old fossils is a small price to pay for keeping those people gainfully employed.
It was a mantra she'd been repeating for the past hour--to absolutely no avail.
After grappling with the knot on the mac's belt, she pulled the coat off and placed it on the upholstered chair beside the door. Then she looked down at her costume-- and Big Ben's pendulum got stuck in her throat.
Blood-red satin squeezed her ample curves into an hourglass shape, making her cleavage look like a freak of nature. She took a shallow breath and the bustier's underwiring dug into her ribs.
She tugged the band out of her hair and let the mass of Pre-Raphaelite curls tumble over her bare shoulders as she counted to ten.
Fine, so the costume from last season's production of The Rocky Horror Picture Show wasn't exactly subtle, but she hadn't had a lot of options at such short notice--and the man who had booked her that morning hadn't wanted subtle.
'Tarty, darling. That's the look I'm after,' he'd stated in his cut-glass Etonian accent. 'Rodders is moving to Dubai and we plan to show him what he'll be missing. So don't stint on the T and A, sweetheart.'
It had been on the tip of Issy's tongue to tell him to buzz off and hire himself a stripper, but then he'd mentioned the astronomical sum he was prepared to pay if she 'put on a decent show'--and her tongue had gone numb.
After six months of scrimping and saving and struggling to find a sponsor, Issy was fast running out of ways to get the thirty grand she needed to keep the Crown and Feathers Theatre Pub open for another season. The Billet Doux Singergram Agency had been the jewel in the crown of her many fund-raising ideas. But so far they'd had a grand total of six bookings--and all of those had been from well-meaning friends. Having worked her way up from general dogsbody to general manager in the last seven years, she had everyone at the theatre looking to her to make sure the show went on.
Issy sighed, the weight of responsibility making her head hurt as the corset's whalebone panels constricted around her lungs. With the bank threatening to foreclose on the theatre's loan any minute, feminist principles were just another of the luxuries she could no longer afford.
When she'd taken the booking eight hours ago she'd been determined to see it as a golden opportunity. She'd do a tastefully suggestive rendition of 'Life Is a Cabaret', flash a modest amount of T and A and walk away with a nice healthy sum to add to the Crown and Feathers's survival kitty, plus the possibility of some serious word-of-mouth business. After all, this was one of the most exclusive gentlemen's clubs in the world, boasting princes, dukes and lords of the realm, not to mention Europe's richest and most powerful businessmen among its membership.
Really, it should be a doddle. She'd made it quite clear to her booker what a singing telegram did--and did not--entail. And Roderick Carstairs and his mates couldn't possibly be as tough an audience to crack as the twenty-two five-year-olds tripping on a sugar rush she'd sung 'Happy Birthday' to last week.
Or so she hoped.
But as Issy eased the heavy oak panelled door to the East Wing Common Room open, and heard the barrage of male hoots and guffaws coming from inside, that hope died a quick and painful death.
From the sound of it, her audience were primed and ready for her--and not nearly as old and fossilised as she'd assumed. The corset squeezed her ribcage as she stayed rooted in the doorway, shielded from view.
Putting on 'a decent show' didn't seem such a doddle any more.
She was staring blankly at the rows of bookcases lining the wall, mustering the courage to walk into the lions' den, when she caught a movement on the balcony opposite. Silhouetted by the dusky evening light, a tall figure strode into view, talking into his mobile phone. It was impossible to make out his features, but déjà vu had the hair on the back of Issy's neck standing to attention. Momentarily transfixed by the stranger's broad-shouldered build, and the forceful, predatory way he moved in the small space, Issy shivered, thinking of a tiger prowling a cage.
She jumped at the disembodied chorus of rowdy masculine cheers and dragged her gaze away.
Focus, Issy, focus.
She straightened her spine and took a step forward, but then her eyes darted to the balcony again. The stranger had stopped moving. Was he watching her?
She thought of the tiger again. And then memory blindsided her.
'Gio,' she whispered, as her breath clogged in her lungs and the corset constricted like a vice around her torso.
She gasped in a breath as heat seared up the back of her neck and made her scalp burn.
She pulled her gaze away, mortified that the mere thought of Giovanni Hamilton still made all her erogenous zones do the happy dance and her heart squeeze painfully in her chest.
Don't be ridiculous.
That guy could not be Gio. She couldn't possibly be that unlucky. To come face to face with the biggest disaster of her life when she was about to waltz into another. Clearly stress was making her hallucinate.
Issy pushed her shoulders back and took as deep a breath as the corset's stays would allow.
Enough with the nervous breakdown, already. It's showtime.
Striding into the main body of the room, she launched into the sultry opening bars of Liza Minnelli's signature song. Only to come to a stumbling halt, her stomach lurching back into Big Ben mode, as she rounded the door and got an eyeful of Rodders and his mates. The mob of young, debauched and completely pie-eyed Hooray Henries lunged to their feet, jeers and wolf whistles echoing off the antique furnishings as the room erupted.
Issy's throat constricted in horror as she imagined Little Red Riding Hood being fed to a pack of sex-starved, booze-sodden wolves while singing a show tune in her underwear.
Suddenly a firing squad looked remarkably appealing.
Go ahead and shoot me now, fellas.
What in God's name was Issy Helligan doing working as a stripper?
Gio Hamilton stood in the shadows of the balcony, stunned into silence, his gaze fixed on the young woman who strutted into the room with the confidence of a courtesan. Her full figure moved in time with her long, leggy strides. Sequins glittered on an outfit that would make a hooker blush.
'Gio?' The heavily accented voice of his partnership manager crackled down the phone from Florence.
'Si, Gio.' He pressed the phone to his ear and tried to get his mind to engage. 'I'll get back to you about the Venice project,' he said, slipping into English. 'You know how the Italian authorities love red tape--it's probably just a formality. Ciao.' He disconnected the call--and stared.
That couldn't be the sweet, impulsive and impossibly naïve girl he'd grown up with. Could it?
But then he noticed the pale freckled skin on her shoulder blades and he knew. Heat pulsed in his groin as he recalled Issy the last time he'd seen her--that same pale skin flushed pink by their recent lovemaking and those wild auburn curls cascading over bare shoulders.
The smoky, seductive notes of an old theatre song, barely audible above the hoots and jeers, yanked Gio out of the past and brought him slap-bang up to date. Issy's rich, velvety voice sent shivers rippling up his spine and arousal flared--before the song was drowned out by the chant of 'Get it off!' from Carstairs and his crowd.
Gio's contempt for the arrogant toff and his cronies turned to disgust as Issy's singing stopped and she froze. Suddenly she wasn't the inexperienced young temptress who'd seduced him one hot summer night, but the awkward girl who had trailed after him throughout his teenage years, her bright blue eyes glowing with adoration.
He stuffed his phone into his back pocket, anger and arousal and something else he didn't want to acknowledge coiling in his gut.
Then Carstairs lunged. Gio's fingers clenched into fists as the younger man grabbed Issy around the waist. Her head twisted to avoid the boozy kiss.
To hell with that.
The primitive urge to protect came from nowhere.
'Get your filthy hands off her, Carstairs.'
The shout echoed as eleven pairs of eyes turned his way.
Issy yelped as he strode towards her, those exotic turquoise eyes going wide with astonishment and then blank with shock.
Carstairs raised his head, his ruddy face glazed with champagne and confusion. 'Who the…?'
Gio slammed an upper-cut straight into the idiot's jaw. Pain ricocheted up his arm.
'Ow! Dammit,' he breathed, cradling his throbbing knuckles as he watched Carstairs crumple onto the carpet.
Hearing Issy's sharp gasp, he looked round to see her eyes roll back. He caught her as she flopped, and scooped her into his arms. Carrying her against his chest, he tuned out the shouts and taunts coming from Carstairs's friends. Not one of them was sober enough--or had enough gumption--to cause him a problem.
'Kick this piece of rubbish out of here when he comes to,' Gio said to the elderly attendant who had scurried in from his post in the billiards room next door.
The old guy bobbed his head. 'Yes, Your Grace. Will the lady be all right?'
'She'll be fine. Once you've dealt with Carstairs, have some ice water and brandy sent to my suite.'
He drew a deep breath as he strolled down the corridor towards the lifts, caught the rose scent of Issy's shampoo and realised it wasn't only his knuckles throbbing.
He gave the attendant a stiff nod as he walked into the lift, with Issy still out cold in his arms. She stirred slightly and he got his first good look at her face in the fluorescent light.
He could see the tantalising sprinkle of freckles on her nose. And the slight overbite which gave her lips an irresistible pout. Despite the heavy stage make-up and the glossy coating of letterbox-red lipstick, her heart-shaped face still had the tantalising combination of innocence and sensuality that had caused him so many sleepless nights a lifetime ago.
Gio's gaze strayed to the swell of her cleavage, barely confined by dark red satin. The antique lift shuddered to a stop at his floor, and his groin began to throb in earnest.
He adjusted her dead weight, flexing his shoulder muscles as he headed down the corridor to the suite of rooms he kept at the club.
Even at seventeen Issy Helligan had been a force of nature. As impossible to ignore as she was to control. He was a man who loved taking risks, but Issy had still been able to shock the hell out of him.
From the looks of things that hadn't changed.
He shoved opened the door to his suite, and walked through into the bedroom. Placing his cargo on the bed, he stepped back and stared at her barely clad body in the half-light.
So what did he do with her now?
He hadn't a clue where the urge to ride to her rescue had come from. But giving Carstairs a right jab and knocking the drunken idiot out cold was where any lingering sense of responsibility both started and stopped. He was nobody's knight in shining armour.
He frowned, his irritation rising right alongside his arousal as he watched her shallow breathing.
What was that thing made of? Armour-plating? No wonder she'd fainted. It looked as if she was struggling to take a decent breath.
Cursing softly, he perched on the edge of the bed and tugged the bow at her cleavage. Issy gave a soft moan as the satin knot slipped. He loosened the laces, his eyes riveted to the plump flesh of her breasts as the corset expanded.
She was even more exquisite than he remembered.
The pain in his crotch increased, but he resisted the urge to loosen the contraption further and expose her to his gaze. Then he spotted the red marks on her pale skin where the panels had dug into tender flesh.
'For heaven's sake, Issy,' he whispered as he smoothed his thumb over the bruising.
What had she been thinking, wearing this outfit in the first place? And then prancing around in front of a drunken fool like Carstairs?
Issy Helligan had always needed a keeper. He'd have to give her a good talking-to when she came round.
He stood and walked to the window. After flinging open the velvet drapes, he sat in the gilt chair beside the bed. This shouldn't be too hard to sort out.
The reason for her disastrous charade downstairs had to be something to do with money. Issy had always been headstrong and foolhardy, but she'd never been promiscuous. So he'd offer her an injection of capital when she woke up.
She'd never have to do anything this reckless again-- and he'd be free to forget about her.
His gaze drifted to the tantalising glimpse of one rosy nipple peeking over the satin rim of the corset.
And if she knew what was good for her, she'd damn well take the money.
Issy's eyelids fluttered as she inhaled the fresh scent of clean linen.
'Hello again, Isadora.' The low, masculine voice rumbled across her consciousness and made her insides feel deliciously warm and fuzzy.
She took a deep breath and sighed. Hallelujah. She could breathe. The relief was intoxicating.
'Mmm? What?' she purred. She felt as if she were floating on a cloud. A light, fluffy cloud made of delicious pink candyfloss.
'I loosened your torture equipment. No wonder you fainted. You could barely breathe.'
It was the gorgeous voice again, crisp British vowels underlaid with a lazy hint of the Mediterranean--and a definite hint of censure. Issy frowned. Didn't she know that voice?