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MAXIMILIAN ANDREA QUINTANO — Max to his friends —
walked out of the bathroom wearing only a pair of navy silk boxer shorts. Just the effort of bending to pull them on had made his head spin. He needed air and, walking out onto the balcony that ran the length of the suite, he willed the pain behind his eyes to vanish. It was his own fault. It had been his thirty-first birthday two days ago, and although Max owned a penthouse in Rome and a house in Venice, he had done what was expected of him and spent the day at the family estate in Tuscany with his father, stepmother, Lisa, and other family members.
But on his return to Rome yesterday, after he had taken his yearly medical exam for insurance purposes, he'd met up with his best friend Franco and a few others from his university days for lunch. The party that had ensued had ended up with Franco belatedly remembering his wife was expecting him home in Sicily. Max, due to fly there the next day anyway, had agreed to accompany Franco to the island to carry on the party there.
Finally, at four-thirty in the morning and feeling much the worse for wear, Max had got a taxi to the Quintano Hotel, the hotel he was scheduled to arrive at that same afternoon in place of his father.
Ever since Max's grandfather had built his first hotel on the island, before relocating the family to Tuscany, it had become a tradition for the Quintano family to holiday at the Sicilian hotel during the month of August. For the last decade Max had rarely visited, leaving it to his brother Paulo and the rest of the family to carry on the tradition.
A deep frown suddenly creased Max's broad brow as he thought of his older brother's tragic death in a car accident just four months ago. When Paulo had enthusiastically entered the family business and become a top hotelier, Max had been given the freedom to pursue his own interests, and he knew he owed his brother a lot.
An adventurer at heart, Max had left university with a degree in geology, boundless energy and a rapier-sharp brain. He had headed to South America, where on his arrival, he'd acquired an emerald mine in a game of poker. Max had made the mine a success and started the MAQ Mining Corporation, which over the last nine years had expanded to include mines in Africa, Australia and Russia. The MAQ Corporation was now global, and Max was a multimillionaire in his own right. But, as he had been forcibly reminded a few months ago, all the money in the world could not solve every problem.
Deeply shocked and saddened by Paulo's death, Max had offered to help his father in any way he could with the hotel business. His father had asked him if he would check the running of the hotel in Sicily and stay a while to keep the tradition going. The loss of Paulo was too fresh for Paulo's widow Anna and their young daughters to go, so of course Max had agreed.
Max rubbed his aching temples with his fingertips. The way he felt at the moment he was glad he had agreed to his father's request — he desperately needed the break. Dios! Never again, he vowed. By some miracle, when he'd arrived at the hotel just before dawn he had retained enough sense to instruct the night porter to keep his early arrival quiet. Nothing and no one was to disturb him....
Max stepped from the balcony into the sitting room. He needed coffee — black, strong and fast. He stopped dead.
For a moment he wondered if he was hallucinating.
A tall, feminine figure with a mass of flowers in her arms seemed to glide across the room towards him. Her hair was pale blond, and swept back into a long ponytail to reveal a face ethereal in its beauty. Her breasts he could only imagine, but her waist was emphasised by a black leather belt neatly holding a straight black skirt, which ended a few inches above her knees. The simple skirt revealed the seductive curve of her hips, and as for her legs... A sudden stirring in his groin said it all. She was gorgeous. "Ciao, bella ragazza," he husked.
Sent up by the hotel manager to deposit the flowers and check the suite before the arrival of its illustrious owner, Sophie Rutherford was startled by the sound of the deep, masculine voice. She jerked her head towards the open French doors, the flowers falling from her hands at the sight of the huge man standing before her.
Frozen in shock, she swept her green gaze over him. Thick black hair fell over a broad brow, and dark, heavy-lidded eyes were set in a square-jawed, ruggedly handsome face. His bronzed muscular body was wide shouldered, with a broad chest lightly dusted with black hair that arrowed down over a flat stomach and disappeared beneath his dark shorts. His legs were long and splayed. He looked like some great colossus, she thought fancifully, and her green eyes widened in awe at so much masculine power.
Then he stepped towards her.... "Oh, my God!" she cried, suddenly remembering where she was and belatedly realising he had no right to be there. "Don't move! I'm calling Security."
The scream echoed though Max's head like a razor on the bone. He closed his eyes for a second. The last thing he needed was someone calling the deity down on him. Then his less than sharp mind finally registered that her words had been spoken in English.
Max slowly opened his eyes, but before he could make a response she was disappearing out of the door. He heard the turn of the key in the lock behind her and could not believe it; the crazy girl had locked him in his own suite....
Shaking his head in amazement, he picked up the telephone and revealed his presence to Alex, the hotel manager. The he ordered some much needed coffee, and strode back into the bedroom to dress. Once he had shaved and dressed he returned to the sitting room, to find a maid cleaning away the flowers and Alex placing a coffee tray on the table. There was no mistaking the barely contained amusement in Alex's eyes as he greeted his old friend.
"Max, it's good to see you. I guessed you were the undesirable giant about to rob the place," Alex said and he burst out laughing.
"Very funny, Alex. It's good to see you, too. Now, tell me, who the hell is the crazy girl?" Max asked, pouring himself a cup of coffee and downing it in one go, before collapsing onto one of the sofas.
"Sophie Rutherford," Alex answered, joining Max on the sofa. "Her father, Nigel Rutherford, is the owner of the Elite Agency in London. They handle the arrangements for a lot of our European clients, and Nigel asked me if his daughter could work here for a couple of months during her university vacation to improve her language skills. She is studying Russian and Chinese, but she also has a good grasp of Italian, French and Spanish. I thought, given the international clientele we attract, she could be very useful. She has certainly proved her worth already in the month she has been here. She is happy to work anywhere, and nothing is too much trouble for her."
"If she is as good as you say, then I trust your judgement." Max grinned at the older man. "But my guess is the fact she is so beautiful might also have affected your decision," he mocked.
"You would say that." Alex grinned back. "But, unlike you, it takes more than a pretty face to influence me — especially at my age."
"Liar," Max drawled, a knowing, sensual smile curving his hard mouth as the image of the young woman flashed up in his mind. "Any man with breath in his body can see she is gorgeous, and I for one would like to get to know her a whole lot better."
"Sophie is not for you, Max," Alex said suddenly serious. "She is only nineteen, and in the absence of her father she is under my protection. Much as I like you, I do not think she is your kind of woman. She is serious about her studies and not the type of girl to have an affair — she is more the marrying kind."
Max could have been insulted, but he wasn't. Alex was like an honorary uncle to him, and knew him well. As much as Max loved women, and they loved him, he had no intention of marrying for years — if ever. Since Paulo's death his father had begun to hint that it was time he married, constantly reminding Max that if he didn't there would be no male to carry on the great name of Quintano. But Max didn't want to settle down. He wanted to travel the world, doing what he loved. And with more money than he knew what to do with, Max was quite happy for Paulo's family to inherit their rightful share of his father's estate — as they naturally would have done if Paulo had lived. The last thing Max felt he needed was a wife.
"That's a shame.'His firm lips twisted wryly. "She is delectable. But have no fear, old man, I promise not to seduce her. Now, shall we get down to business?"
Later that afternoon Max walked through the semicircle of trees that fringed the secure hotel beach and scrambled over the rocky headland to the small cove he had first discovered as a boy. He loved to dive from the rocks, and it was here that he had first become interested in geology. Today, however, the only rocks that concerned him were the ones in his skull, and he knew a swim would clear his head and cool him down.
Just then, a flash of pale gold against the backdrop of dark stone captured his attention. His dark eyes narrowed intently as he realised it was the girl from this morning. As he watched she flicked the shimmering mass of her hair over one shoulder and stretched herself out on a towel.
Silently Max moved towards her, his body reacting with instant masculine enthusiasm as his dark gaze swept over her. The pink bikini she was wearing was quite modest, compared to some he had seen, but the figure it graced was the ultimate in feminine allure. Her eyes were closed, and her glorious hair lay in a silken stream over one high firm breast. He had been right about her legs — they were long, slender and very sexy — and her skin was as smooth as silk, with just the shimmer of a tan. Max couldn't take his eyes off her, and he was instantly regretting his promise to Alex to leave her alone.
As he moved closer his shadow fell over her and she opened her eyes.
"Sophie Rutherford, I believe?" he drawled smoothly, and held out his hand. "I am Max Quintano.'Max watched as she shot to her feet as though electrified. "This morning did not seem to be quite the right time to introduce myself. Please forgive me for any embarrassment I may have caused you." He smiled.
"Sophie, yes..." She blushed and took his hand. "It is nice to meet you, Mr Quintano, but I think it is I who should apologise to you, for locking you in your room."
Max felt the slight tremble in her hand and looked into her gorgeous green eyes. There he saw embarrassment, but also the feminine interest she could not hide — and miraculously his hangover vanished. "Please, call me Max. There is no need to apologise — it was my fault — I must have startled you. Anyway, it is much too hot to argue, and as it happens you are occupying my favourite beach." He smiled again. "I wouldn't want to chase you away — I have already done that once today — please stay and allow me to show you that my apology is genuine and I am not some giant burglar."
Sophie pulled her suddenly tingling hand from his and almost groaned. "Did Alex tell you I said that? How embarrassing."
Never before had she felt such instant and overwhelming attraction for a man. She had taken one look at him this morning and, shocked witless, had behaved like a terrified child.
Now, desperate to improve his impression of her, she added with a wry smile, "But, in my defence, you really are very tall."
"I'm six foot five — and there is no need for embarrassment, Sophie. I can assure you I am not in the least embarrassed by it. However, you do look rather red in the face — how about a swim to cool off?" Max suggested. Not giving her time to answer, he added, "Race you to the water!"
Of course Sophie followed him. He hadn't doubted for a moment that she would; women had chased him all his adult life.
Wading into the water, Max turned and splashed her, and saw her smile broaden to light up her whole face. He also saw the gleam of mischief in her eyes just before she bent down and splashed him back.
The horseplay that followed did nothing to cool Max's suddenly rampant libido. Had she any idea that when she bent forward her lush breasts were bobbing up and down and almost out of her top? he wondered.