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She was ready to beg him.
Virginia Hollis shuddered. She wrapped her arms around herself and stared out the back window of the sleek black Lincoln as it wound along the darkened streets of Chicago. People strolled down the block, hands in their pockets, chins neatly tucked to their chests to shield their faces from the biting wind. Men held cell phones to their ears; women struggled with their shopping bags. One glimpse made it seem like such a regular evening. An ordinary night.
But it wasn't ordinary. It couldn't be.
Because Virginia's world had stopped turning.
The men who'd knocked on her door this morning had had a message for her, and it had not been a kind one.
She inhaled deeply and glanced at her simple black dress and the delicate strappy heels on her pink-toed feet. It seemed important for her to look nice—not just respectable, but sophisticated, noble—because the favor she was to ask was anything but.
And she could think of no one else to ask but him. God. Just thinking of humiliating herself like this in front of him made her stomach churn.
Nervously, she tugged on the pearl strand draped around her neck and tried focusing on the city again. The pearls were smooth under her fingers, genuine and old, the only thing Virginia had been able to salvage from her mother's belongings.
Her father had lost it all.
Bet by bet, he'd lost the cars, the antiques, the house. Virginia had watched with a combination of helplessness and rage. She'd threatened, screamed, pleaded with the quickly aging man, all to no avail.
There was no stopping him. No stopping the gambling.
There was nothing left now.
Nothing but her.
And she could not, could not, turn a blind eye to those men—to the threat they posed. To the threat they had succinctly delivered. No matter how much she frowned upon what her father did, and no matter how many times she'd promised never again to speak to him about it and he continued gambling anyway, he was her father. Her only family.
Once he'd been a businessman. Respected, admired even. Now it saddened her to think what she'd become.
Virginia didn't know how much he owed. She'd rather not know. All she knew was the deal she'd struck with those three surly men that morning. She had a month to come up with one hundred thousand dollars, during which time they would leave him alone.
In her wildest dreams, Virginia had never imagined coming up with that amount of money, on such little time. But while she couldn't, Marcos Allende could.
The little hairs on her arms pricked to attention at the thought of him. Her boss was a quiet, devastatingly handsome man. Some said he was gifted; his touch was that of a Midas. While Virginia had only been his assistant for a year—his third of three assistants, because it seemed one alone couldn't handle the daunting task of having him as boss—in that length of time, she had seen enough of him to agree.
The man was out of context.
He was bold, ruthless and proud. Single-handedly, he'd spotted, bought and righted troubled companies, and he'd created an empire. He inspired respect and admiration among peers and fear among his enemies. Judging by the overwhelming number of phone calls he received from the female population of Chicago, Virginia could tell they adored him. And in Virginia herself, the man inspired things she dared not consider.
Every morning when she stepped into his office, he would study her with that dark, compelling gaze and disturb every inch and atom of her body with the hot intimacy in his eyes. She would always try to act professionally, to look away when his stare became inappropriately long. But his eyes had a way of undressing her, of speaking in silence, of summoning visions in her mind about him and her and skin and sweat. Yet tonight she was on her way to him for one purpose only, and she reminded herself that her visit to his lair at such a late hour might not be welcome.
With his assistants he was always the firm, quiet boss, but Marcos Allende was reputed to have a hell of a temper, one she might witness tonight for the very first time.
Her stomach clenched when the car pulled into the ample driveway of one of the Windy City's most luxurious apartment buildings, situated on the heavily trafficked Michigan Avenue. A uniformed valet opened the door.
She mumbled a quick "thank you" and stepped out of the car, walking into the sumptuous apartment building with an eerie calm that belied every one of the roiling emotions inside her.
She made no eye contact with the people milling around the area, but instead focused all of her attention on the polished bronze doors at the far end of the lobby.
"Mr. Allende is expecting you."
An elevator attendant waited for her. He slipped a card into the top slot inside the confined elevator space and lit the top P before stepping out with a bow. "Good evening, madam."
The doors closed and Virginia stared at her blurry reflection.
Oh, God, please let him help me. I'll do anything. Anything…
Long seconds later, the doors rolled open to reveal the penthouse—a vast room with black granite floors, dimly lit and lavishly furnished. The walls could've been covered in crisp green bills and screamed the owner's net worth just as loudly. To a mortal, his place seemed as inaccessible in price as the owner was claimed to be in character.
Virginia stepped inside. A pair of elegant, willowy bronzes flanked the entry and a massive oil painting with vibrant black brushstrokes hung at the end wall. Before she could absorb the rest of the opulent area, as though drawn by some unknown force of nature, her gaze landed on him. He stood next to the bar at the far end of the living room. He was as elegant and unmoving as the designer furniture surrounding him. Dark, tall, detached. He faced the window, his broad back filling the shoulders of his jacket. Her heart thumped as she took a step forward, the click of her heels on granite magnified in the silence.
"I trust you had a fine ride."
Her flesh pebbled at the hum of his voice. So husky. So mellow. As though he were no threat to anyone. The crackling energy around him dispelled the notion fast.
"I did. Thank you for sending a car, and for seeing me on such short notice," she said quietly.
Starting to shake inside, she advanced toward the living room, stepping lightly across a plush Persian rug. He didn't turn. Virginia wasn't certain she even wanted him to. Every time their gazes met, a bolt of electricity would shoot through her. Sometimes he didn't even need to speak. His eyes did it for him. And in her mind, he said the wickedest things to her.
Now here she was, in his apartment, ready to face that bold, virile man she'd fantasized about. Ready to beg him.
Never mind Virginia had her modestly successful life, which she'd tried to live by the book. Never mind she'd paid her bills on time and tried first and foremost to stay out of trouble. Never mind anything but what had to be done. Saving her father. Doing anything she had to, to make him safe again.
She could've sworn Marcos read her thoughts just now, for he whispered, "Are you in trouble, Virginia?" While still gazing out the window as though mesmerized by the tiny flicker of city lights.
She swallowed, eyeing his back. "It appears I am."
"And you came to ask for my help?"
A ball of unease settled in the pit of her stomach, and the words seemed to be wrenched from her throat. "I do need your help, Marcos."
He turned, and she was rendered motionless by the sheer black power of his stare. "How much?"
Her heart pounded faster. His face was so exquisitely masculine, and there was something so naughty about him—his attitude, his dark good looks, his accent—that a dormant part of her found thrilling and frightening at once. Every inch of his Latin blood showed in his bronzed skin, the very masculinity oozing from his pores.
His inquisitive gaze traveled with interest down the length of her body until she could bear no more. She lifted her chin with pride, though the way she wrung her hands before her wasn't all that convincing. "I—I don't expect anything for free. I wanted to see you about an advance. A loan. Perhaps I could do more work for you. Special projects."
His eyelids dropped as he sighted her lips. "You're very pretty tonight, Virginia."
The low seduction in his words made her heart clench in a fistful of thrill. She fought the thrill, telling herself he was a sexy, virile man—and that he must look at all women this way. Which was why they called him. All. The. Time! When those eyes were on her, he made her feel like the sexiest woman alive—like the only woman alive.
"I'm trying to raise…" She paused, summoning all her courage. "I'm trying to raise one hundred thousand dollars. Can you help me?" she asked him then, lowering her face. As she spoke, she felt so…so cheap…so humiliated to be asking for money…
"Is that all you need?" he asked softly. As though it were nothing. A paltry sum. And to him, with all his billions, of course it would be.
He surveyed her in silence. "May I ask why you need it?"
Her gaze flicked up to his, and she shook her head. She couldn't bear it.
His lips twitched and the corners of his eyes crinkled, almost—almost—managing to make him less threatening. "You won't tell me?" he prodded.
"If you don't mind," she mumbled. She tugged the hem of her dress to her knees when his gaze ventured to her legs and lingered. "So there's nothing I could do for you? In exchange for this…incredible salary?" God. She couldn't even say the amount it seemed so out of reach.
He laughed, and Virginia didn't think she'd ever heard him laugh before. The sound resembled the roll of distant thunder.
He set his glass on the nearby bar and signaled to the twin leather couches. "Sit."
She sat. Her back was stiff and straight as she tracked his lithe moves around the room. How could a big man move with such grace? How could—
He poured two glasses nonetheless. His hands moved skillfully—too skillfully not to notice—and brought one to her.
She grasped the fluted glass and stared at a faraway bronze sculpture, trying not to breathe for fear of what his scent might do to her. He smelled so amazingly good. Earthy and musky and male. She drew in a shaky breath until he dropped onto the couch across from hers.
When he stretched his arms out behind him, he made the couch appear small, his wide frame overwhelming the bone-colored leather designer piece. Under his jacket, the dress shirt he wore was unbuttoned at the top, gifting her with a view of smooth, bronzed skin and a polished gold cross.
She wanted to touch him. She wondered what that bronze skin would feel like under her fingers, if his cross was cold or warm…
Suddenly sensing his scrutiny, she raised her chin and smiled.
Lifting one black brow, Marcos opened his hand and signaled to her. "You're not drinking."
Virginia started, then obediently sipped. "It's…good. Very…um, rich."
"Have I ever bitten you?"
She almost choked on the wine, blinked, and then, then she saw the smile. A prime smile. Rare, like everything valuable, higher on one end than the other.
"I can see this is difficult for you," he said, with a glimmer of warmth in his eyes.
"No. I mean, yes. It is." He had no clue!
He set his glass aside, crossed his arms over his chest, and snuggled back as if to watch a movie. "You don't trust me?"
Her heart skipped a nervous beat.
Trust him? She respected him. Admired him. Was in awe of him and, because of his power, even a little afraid of him. And maybe, she realized, she trusted him, too. From what she'd seen, Marcos—quiet, solid, heart-of-gold Marcos— had proved to be nothing but a champion for his people. A lion protecting his cubs. When Lindsay, assistant two, had been weeping for months after her twins were born, Marcos had hired an army of nannies and sent her off to a second honeymoon in Hawaii with her husband.
Lindsay was still talking about Maui.
And when Mrs. Fuller's husband passed away, the overwrought woman had cried more tears reminiscing about all that Marcos had done to support and aid her family than she had cried at the funeral.
No matter how humiliating this was, how awful her situation and having him know it, she knew, like nothing in her life, he was as steady as a mountain.
Holding his gaze, she replied in all honesty. "I trust you more than I trust anyone."
His face lit in surprise, and he scraped his chin between two blunt fingers. "And yet you don't tell me what troubles you?"
The thought that he—the man she most honored, esteemed—would know her life was in such shambles squished her heart like a bug. "I would tell you what I need the money for if I thought it mattered, and I would tell you if that is the only way you'll give it to me."
With an expression that would befit a lone hunting wolf, Marcos rose and strode over, then pried the glass from her fingers. "Come with me."
Unnerved that she couldn't even begin to guess the thoughts in that unique, labyrinthine mind of his, Virginia followed him down the wide, domed hallway of his penthouse, becoming acutely aware of his formidable frame next to her.
And she couldn't help but wonder if maybe she wasn't a little bit the fool for trusting him after all.
Predatorily, Marcos studied her profile, her nose, the untamed, unruly bounce of her curls. She bit her lip in nervousness. Where was he taking her?
Visions of a bedroom flicked across her mind, and her cheeks flamed hot.
He opened the last door for her, and Virginia entered the darkened room, shamed at her own quickening pulse.
"Your home office?" she asked.
He flicked on the light switch, and the room burst to life. Bookshelves lined three of the four walls. A Turkish rug spread across the sitting area. Five glossy wood file cabinets formed a long, neat row behind his desk. No adornments. No picture frames. No distractions. As fine in taste as the rest of his apartment, with a state-of-the-art computer perched atop a massive desk, his office screamed two words: no nonsense.
"I like it." She strode inside, the knowledge that this was his private, personal space making her blood bubble. Her fingers itched with the overwhelming urge to organize the stacks of papers on his desk.
"I know about your father, Miss Hollis."
Dread sunk like a bowling ball in her stomach. "You do?"