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"What the hell are you doing on my boat?"
Elena Calderon froze in the act of polishing the luxurious teak bar in the yacht's upper lounge. The low growl of the male voice from across the room was laced with a stark and absolute authority that demanded instant obedience. And she knew exactly who he was without looking up. She knew.
She felt it slam into her, through her, like a sledgehammer.
He wasn't supposed to be here, she thought wildly. He hadn't used this boat in over a year! He usually rented it out to wealthy foreigners instead!
"I'm polishing the bar," she managed to say. She kept her tone even because that was how a stewardess on a luxury yacht spoke to the guests. To say nothing of the owner himself. But she still couldn't bring herself to look at him.
He let out harsh kind of laugh. "Is this some kind of joke?"
"It's no joke." She tapped her fingers on the bar before her. "It's teak and holly, according to the chief steward."
She'd told herself repeatedly that what had happened during that one mad dance six months ago had been a fluke. More to do with the wine and the music and the romantic ballroom setting than the man
But she didn't quite believe it. Warily, she looked up.
He was half-hidden in the shadows of the lounge's en-tryway, with all of that bright Sicilian sun blazing behind himbut she recognized him. A bolt of sensation sizzled over her skin, then beneath it, stealing her breath and setting off a hum deep and low inside.
Alessandro Corretti. The man who had blown her life to bits with one single dance. The man she knew was bad no matter how intensely attractive he was and no matter how drawn she was to him, against her will. The man who was even worse than her lying, violent, criminally inclined ex-fiance, Niccolo.
Elena hadn't dared go to the polizia when she'd fled from Niccolo, fearing his family's connections. Alessan-dro's family, however, made those connections seem insubstantial, silly. They were the Correttis. They were above the law.
And yet when Alessandro stepped farther into the lounge, out of the shadows, Elena's chest tightened in immediate, helpless reactionand none of it terror. Her breath caught. Her heart sped up. She yearned, just as she had six months ago, as if her body believed he was good. Safe.
"Was that an attempt at levity?" There was nothing in the least bit safe about his hard voice, or that look in his eyes. "Hilarious, I'm sure. But you still haven't answered my question, Elena."
Today the usually breathtakingly sophisticated eldest heir to and current CEO of Corretti Media and its vast empire looked
rumpled. Uncharacteristically disheveled, from his thick, messy dark hair to his scuffed shoes. His tall, muscled strength was contained in a morning suit with the torn jacket hanging open over his lean, hard chest. He had a black eye, scrapes and cuts that only accentuated his aristocratic cheekbones, a slightly puffy lip, even scraped knuckles. And that famous, cynical mouth of his was set in a grim line while his too-dark green eyes were ferociously narrowed. Directly at her.
What was truly hilarious, Elena thought then, was that she'd actually convinced herself he wouldn't recognize her in the unlikely event that they ran into each other on this yacht she'd been repeatedly assured he hardly used. She'd told herself that he had worldaltering interactions like the one she wanted to forget with every woman he'd ever clapped eyes on. That it was simply what he did.
And if some intuitive, purely feminine part of her had whispered otherwise, she'd ignored it.
"I'm not trespassing," she said with a calm she wished she felt. "I work here."
"Like hell you do."
"And yet here I am." With a wave of her hand she indicated the smart tan-colored skirt she wore, the pristine black T-shirt tucked in at the waist, the sensible boat shoes. "Uniform and all."
His dark eyes were trained on her, hard and cold. She remembered the fire in them that night six months ago, the impossible longing, and felt the lack of both as a loss.
what, exactly? A maid?" His voice managed to be both incredulous and fierce at once, and she ordered herself not to react as he began to walk toward her, all impeccable male lines and sheer masculine poetry despite the beating he'd obviously taken.
Damn him. How could he still affect her like this? It disgusted her. She told herself what she felt now was disgust.
"I'm a stewardess. Cleaning is only one of my duties."
"Of course. And when you found yourself possessed of the urge to trade in designer gowns and luxury cars for actual labor, I imagine it was pure coincidence that made you choose this particular yachtmy yachton which to begin your social experiment?"
"I didn't know it was yours." Not when she'd answered the original advert, when she'd decided waitressing at the tourist restaurants along the stunning Sicilian coast was too risky for someone who didn't want to be found. And now she wished she'd heeded her impulse to keep running when she'd discovered the truth. Why hadn't she? "When I found out, I'd already been working here a week. I was told you rarely, if ever, used it."
If she was honest, she'd also thought he owed her, somehow. She'd liked the idea that Alessandro had been paying her, however indirectly. That he was affected in some way by what that dance had put into motion, no matter if he never knew it. It had felt like a kind of power, and she needed every hint of that she could find.
"What a curious risk to take for so menial a position," he murmured.
He was even closer now, right there on the other side of the bar, and Elena swallowed hard when he put his hands down on the gleaming surface with the faintest hint of a sensual menace she didn't want to acknowledge. If she'd been on the same side he was, he would have been caging her between them. She couldn't seem to shake the imageor perhaps it was that the barrier seemed flimsy indeed when the way he was looking at her made something coil inside of her and pull taut.
"It's an honest job."
"Yes." His dark green gaze was laced through with something she might have called grief, were he anyone else. "But you are not an honest woman, are you?"
Elena couldn't hide the way she flinched at that, and she wasn't sure what she hated morethat he saw it, or that she obviously cared what this man thought about her. When he didn't know anything about her. When all he'd ever known about her was that shocking, overwhelming explosion of awareness between them at that long-ago charity ball.
He couldn't know how bitterly she regretted her own complicity in what had happened that night, how her reaction to him still shamed her. He couldn't know what Niccolo had planned, what she'd very nearly helped him do. He knew how blind she'd been, sadly, but he couldn't know the truth
But Alessandro was just like Niccolo, she reminded herself harshly then, no matter her physical reaction to him. Same kind of man, same kind of "family business," same kind of brutal exploitation of whoever and whatever he could use. She'd had a lot of time to read about Alessandro Corretti and the infamous Corretti family in her six months on the run. There was no telling what he might know about his rival Niccolo Falco's broken engagement and missing fiancée, or how he might use that information.
She had to be careful.
"I already know what you think of me," she said, keeping her voice cool. Unbothered. "And anyway, people change."
"Circumstances change." There was no denying the bitterness in his voice then, or stamped all over that battered, arrogant face. She told herself it didn't move her at all, that she didn't feel the insane, hastily checked urge to reach over and cover his hand with hers. "People never do."
Sadly, she knew he was right. Because if she'd changed at allif she'd learned anything from these months of running and hidingshe wouldn't have found this man compelling in the least. She would have run screaming in the opposite direction, flung herself from the side of the boat and swum for the Palermo shoreline they'd left more than ninety minutes ago.
"If you don't want me here"
She swallowed, fighting to remain calm. She couldn't afford to lose her temper, not when he could ruin everything with a single telephone call. It would take no more than that to summon Niccolo from that villa of his she'd nearly moved into outside of Naples. Alessandro would probably even enjoy throwing her back into that particular fire. Why not? The Correttis had been at bitter odds with Niccolo's family for generations. What was one more bit of collateral damage?
Especially when Alessandro already thought she was the sort of woman who aspired to be a pawn in the kind of games men like him played.
Think, she ordered herself. Stop reacting to him and think about how best to play this!
"Then I'll go, of course." Given what she knew he believed about her, he must imagine she'd be impervious to threats. Which meant she had to be exactly that. She smiled coolly. "But we're out at sea."
He shifted then, only slightly, and yet a new kind of danger seemed to shimmer in the air of the lounge, making Elena's pulse heat up and beat thick and wild beneath her skin. His dark green eyes gleamed.
"Then I certainly hope you can swim."
"I never learned," she lied. She tilted her head, let her smile flirt with him. "Are you offering me a lesson?"
"I suppose I can spare a lifeboat," he mused, that gleam in his eyes intensifying. "You'll wash up somewhere soon enough, I'm sure. The Mediterranean is a small sea." One corner of his battered mouth quirked up. "Relatively speaking."
She didn't understand how she could still find this man so beautiful, like one of the old gods sent down to earth again. Savage and seductive, even as he threatened to set her adrift. But she knew better than to believe her eyes, her traitorous body, that awful yearning that moved in her like white noise, louder by the second
. She knew what and who he was.
She shouldn't have had to keep reminding herself of that. But then, she couldn't understand why she wasn't afraid of him the way she'd come to be afraid of Niccolo, when she also knew Alessandro was far more dangerous than Niccolo could ever be.
"You're not going to toss me overboard," she said with quiet certainty.
A different kind of awareness tightened the air between them, reminding her again of that fateful dance. The way he'd held her so close, the things she'd simply known when she'd looked at him. That curve in his hard mouth deepened, as if he felt it, too. She knew he did, the way she'd known it then.
"Of course not," he said, those dark eyes much too hot, something far more alarming than temper in them now. Memories. That old longing. She had to be careful. "I have staff for that."
"Alternatively," she said, summoning up that smile again, forcing herself to stand there so calmly, so carelessly, "though less dramatically, I admityou could simply let me go when we arrive at the next port."
He laughed then, and rubbed his hands over his bruised face. He winced slightly, as if he'd forgotten he was hurt.
"Maybe I'm not making myself clear." When he lowered his hands his gaze burned fierce and hot. She remembered that, too. And it swept through her in exactly the same way it had before, consuming her. Scalding her. "Niccolo Falco's woman is not welcome here. Not on this boat, not on my island, not anywhere near me. So you swim or you float. Your choice."
"I understand," she said after a moment, making it sound as if he bored her. She should have been racked with panic. She should have been terrified. Instead, she shrugged. "You must have your little revenge. I rejected you, therefore you have to overreact and throw me off the side of a yacht." She rolled her eyes. "I understand that's how it works for men like you."
"Men like me," he repeated quietly, as if she'd cursed at him. He sounded tired when he spoke again, and it made something turn over inside of her. But she kept on.
"You're a Corretti," she said. "We both know what that means."
"Petty acts of revenge and the possibility of swimming lessons?" he asked dryly, but there were shadows in that dark gaze, shadows she couldn't let herself worry about, no matter that strange sensation inside of her.
"It also means you are well known to be as cruel and occasionally vicious as the rest of the crime syndicate you call your family." Her smile was brittle. "How lucky for me that I've encountered you on two such occasions."
"Ah, yes," he said, his dark gaze hard as his cynical mouth curved again, and something about that made her legs feel weak beneath her. "I remember this part. The personal attacks, the insulting comments about my family. You need a new topic of conversation, Elena."
He didn't move but, even so, she felt as if he loomed over her, around her, and she knew he was remembering it even as she didthose harsh words they'd thrown at each other in the middle of a ballroom in Rome, the wild flush she'd felt taking over her whole body, the way he'd only looked at her and sent that impossible, terrifying fire roaring through her. She felt it again now. Just as hot. Just as bright.
And just like then, it was much too tempting. She wanted to leap right into the heart of it, burn herself alive
She shoved it aside, all of it, her heart pounding far too hard against her ribs. There was so much to lose if she didn't handle this situation correctlyif Niccolo found her. If she forgot what she was doing, and why. If she lost herself in Alessandro Corretti's dark, wild fire the way she still wanted to do, all these months later, despite what had happened since then.
"Far be it from me to stand in the way of your pettiness," she said, jerking her gaze from his and moving out from behind the bar. She headed for the doorway to the deck and the sunshine that beckoned, bright and clear. "It's a beautiful day for a swim, isn't it? Quite summery, really, for May. I'm sure I won't drown in such a small sea."
She ignored him and kept moving.
"Don't make me put my hands on you," he said then, almost conversationally, but the dark heat in it, the frank sensual promise, almost made her stumble. And, to her eternal shame, stop walking. "Who knows where that might lead? There are no chaperones here. No avid eyes to record our every move. No fiance to watch jealously from the side of the dance floor. Which reminds me, are congratulations in order? Are you Signora Falco at last?"
Elena fought to breathe, to keep standing. To keep herself from telling this manthis dangerous, ruinous manthe truth the way every part of her screamed she should. She hardly knew him. She couldn't trust him. She didn't know what made her persist in thinking she could.