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Lifting her head from her camera, through which she had been studying a model posing provocatively in matching bra and briefs, Lily recoiled instinctively from the scene in front of her.
Almost naked male and female modelsthe girls all fragile limbs and pouting mouths, some of them open in conversation, or drinking water through straws so as not to spoil their carefully applied make-up, and the boys with their gym-toned bodiesstood together as they submitted themselves to the attentions of hovering hair and make-up artists. Fingers tapped away on mobile phones, gleaming tanned skin contrasted with the catalogue client's underwear all the models were wearing for the shoot. Heavy beat music boomed out into the small space despite the fact that some of the models were listening to their own iPods.
In other words it was a normal chaotic studio fashion shoot.
'Has that last male model arrived yet?' she asked the hairstylist, who shook her head.
'Well, we can't hold the shoot any longer. We've only got the studio for today. We'll have to use one of the other male models twice.'
'I can spray on some dye that will darken the blond guy's hair, if you like?' the stylist offered, reaching out to steady the rail containing more underwear to be modelled as it swayed dangerously when one of the models pushed past it.
Looking around, Lily felt her heart sink. She had grown up in this worlduntil she had turned her back on it and walked awayand now she disliked, almost hated it, and all that it represented.
Given free choice, this cramped, shabby studio with its familiar smella mix of male pheromones, sweat, female anxiety, cigarettes and illegal substances that seemed to hang invisibly in the airwas the last place she wanted to be.
Edging past a chattering group of models to get to the door, she put down her camera on a nearby table and went to check the pose of the pretty girl with the wary charcoal-grey-eyed gaze, wondering as she did so how many young hopefuls had entered the industry imagining that they would leave with a contract to model in a top fashion magazine only to discover a much seamier side to modelling. Too many.
This kind of shoot was the unglamorous rump end of what it meant to work in fashion, and a world away from money-no-object glossy magazine shoots.
She hadn't wanted to do this. She was here in Milan for a very different purpose. But she had never been able to resist her younger half-brother's pleas for help and he knew it. Rick's motherher father's second wifehad been very kind to her when she had been young, and she felt that it was her duty now to repay that kindness by helping her half-brother. She couldn't ignore her sense of duty any more than she could ignore all their late father had been.
She had tried her hardest to dissuade Rick from following in their famous and louche father's footsteps, but to no avail. Rick had been determined to become a fashion photographer.
Satisfied with the model's pose, she went back to the cameraonly to frown in irritation as the door to the studio swung open, throwing an unwanted shadow across her shot, along with an equally unwanted suit clad male torso. The missing male model had obviously finally arrivedand ruined her shot by stepping into it.
Thoroughly exasperated, she pushed back the shiny swing of her blonde hair and told him, without removing her gaze from her camera, 'You're lateand you're in my shot.'
It was the sudden silence and the stillness that had fallen over the rest of the room that alerted her to the fact that something was wrong. Her senses picked up on it and reacted by sending a quiverful of tiny darts of anxiety skimming along her spine. She stepped back from the camera and looked upright into the coldly hostile gaze of the man who had just walked in. A tall, dark-haired, broad-shouldered, expensively suited man, whose body language reinforced the same cold hostility she could see in his eyes along with proud disdain. Against her will Lily could feel her eyes widening as she took in the reality of the man confronting her, her pulse beating unsteadily against her skin.
Whoever this man was, he was obviously no model. Even stripped he would be
He would be magnificent, Lily acknowledged, her stomach suddenly hollowing out with a sensation that took her completely off guard. If asked, she would have saidand meant itthat she was inured to male good looks, and that as far as she was concerned sexual attraction was a cruel deceit on the part of Mother Nature, designed to ensure the continuation of the species and best avoided. She had grown up in a world in which beauty and good looks were commodities to be ruthlessly traded and abused, which was why her own beauty was something she chose to downplay.
She intended to be crisp, cool and in control as she queried, 'Yes?' But instead of the apology for ruining her shot and the explanation of his presence she was expecting, she received an even more hostile look of silent, angry contempt that raked her from head to toe.
As yet he hadn't so much as given a sideways look at the scantily clad girls who were now, Lily saw after a look at them herself, all gazing at him. And no wonder, she admitted.
He made the young male models look like the mere boys they were, for all their muscles, but then he was extraordinarily handsomehandsome, but cold. And Lily suspected judgemental. He exuded an air of raw male pride and sensual power, even if there was a grim harshness about his expression that warned her that whatever had brought him here it wasn't going to be good newsfor someone. But not her. He couldn't be here for her, so why did his presence have every one of her carefully rigged inner alarm systems breaking into a cacophony of warning?
She was her parents' daughter, Lily reminded herself.
At some level that had to mean she was as vulnerable to that kind of overpowering male sensuality as her mother had been. And just as capable of using her own beauty for commercial exploitation? Lily struggled to repress the feeling that made her shudderas though against an unwanted male touch. She would never allow herself to repeat her mother's mistakes.
She was here to do a job, she reminded herself, not to give in to her own insecurities.
Whatever had brought him here to this shabby studio it wasn't the prospect of modelling work. His face might be as commanding and as harshly delineated that a hundred thousand ancient Roman coins might have been struck in its patrician and imposing image. It might be the kind of face that could lead vast armies of men into war and entice any number of women into bed. But it was a face that currently bore an expression of such cutting contempt that if it was captured on camera it was more likely to send prospective buyers running for cover than rushing out to buy what he was supposed to be modelling.
Was he going to say anything to break the pool of tense silence he had created?
Lily took a deep breath, and repeated determinedly, 'Yes?'
Another ice-cold look. The man must be close to inhuman, removed from the emotional vulnerabilities that affected the rest of the human race, not to be affected by the tension she could almost feel humming on the air.
'You are the one responsible for this?'
His voice was quieter than she had expected, but redolent with the same power as his presence and grimly harsh.
Lily gave the studio and the models a brief concerned glance. He was obviously here on a hostile mission of complaint of some kind, and since she was standing in for her half-brother she knew that she was obliged to agree.
'There's something I want to say to youin private.'
A rustle of reaction ran through the room. Lily wanted to tell him that there was nothing he could possibly have to say to her, and certainly not in private, but there was a nagging suspicion at the back of her mind that her half-brother might have done something to provoke this man's anger.
'Very well,' she conceded. 'But you will have to make whatever you want to say brief. As you can see, I'm in the middle of a shoot.'
The look of blistering contempt he gave her made Lily take a step back from him, before reluctantly moving forward through the door he was holding open for her. Out of old-fashioned good manners, or more in the manner of a guard determined not to allow his prisoner to escape?
The studio was in an old building, its door sturdy enough to block out the speculative questions Lily knew would be being asked by all the models and stylists inside it. She stood on the small landing at the top of the stairs that led to the studio, keeping as close to the door as she could.
At such close quarters to him there was nowhere to escape tohe was blocking her exit via the stairs by standing next to them.
'Call me old-fashioned and sexist,' he told her, 'but somehow finding that it is a woman who is procuring young flesh for others and profiting financially by doing so is even more abhorrent and repellent than a man doing the same thing. And you are such a woman, aren't you? You are a woman who lives off the vanity and foolishness of others, feeding them with false hope and empty dreams.'
Lily stared at him in disbelief. Revulsion filled her at the accusation he had made, accompanied by shock that he should have made it. The thought crossed her mind that he might be some kind of deranged madmanonly to be squashed by the message from her senses that this was a man who was perfectly sane.
She pushed her hand into her hair a habitual gesture of insecurity and told him shakily, 'I don't know what all this is about, but I think you must have made a mistake.'
'You're a photographer who seeks out vulnerable young idiots with the promise of a glamorous modelling career that you know is all too likely to destroy them.'
'That's not true,' Lily defended herself, but her voice wobbled slightly as she made the denial. After all, wasn't what he was saying really very much in line with the way she herself felt about the modelling industry?
She took a deep breath, intending to tell him that, but before she could do so he continued grimly. 'Have you no sense of shame? No compunction or guilt about what you do?'
Guilt. Ah, that was the word above all others that could trigger off an avalanche of dark memories inside hera word like a poisoned dart aimed at her unprotected emotions. She had to get away from him, but she couldn't. She was trapped here with him on the tiny landing. In her mind's eye she saw the panic he was causing in her manifesting itself into a wild flight to escape from him, a desire to curl herself up into a ball of flesh so small that it could not be seenor touched. But that was just in her imagination. The reality was that she could not escape.
'This world into which you are attempting to drag Pietromy nephewis one of cruelty and corruption in which young flesh is used and abused by those who crave its beauty for their own debauched purposes.'
His nephew? Lily's heart was thumping wildly. Every word he said carved a fresh wound into her own emotions, lacerating the too thin layer of fragility that was all she had to protect them.
'I have no idea how many young people have fallen victim to your promises of fame and fortune, but I can tell you this. My nephew will not be one of them. Thank goodness he had the good sense to tell his family how he had been approached with promises of modelling work and money.'
Lily's mouth had gone dry. She had always particularly disliked this aspect of her father's work, knowing what painful fires of experience young models could be drawn into by the unscrupulous. To be accused as she was being accused now was such a shock that it robbed her of the ability to defend herself.
'Here's your money back.' The man was slamming down a wad of euros. 'Blood moneyflesh money
How many of the vilest sort of predators were you planning to introduce him to at this party you invited him to attend with you after the shoot? Don't bother to answer. Let me guess. As many of them as you could. Because that is what this business is about, isn't it?'
Rick had invited the young man to accompany him to a party? Lily's heart sank even further. Rick was a sociable guy. It was normal for him to go out after shoots and have a drink. Besides, it was fashion week, and Milan was full of important people from the top of the fashion tree. It was also full of those at the bottom of that world, though. The kind who
She could feel a shudder of revulsion gripping her as her skin turned clammy with remembered fear and her heart pounded. She wanted to breathe fresh air. She wanted to escape from the past this man and their surroundings had brought back to her.
'People like you disgust me. Outwardly you may possess the kind of beauty that stops men in the street, but all that beauty does is cloak your inner corruption.'
She had to get some fresh air. If she didn't she was going to pass out. Think of something else, Lily told herself. Think of the present, not the past. Focus on something else.