As the youngest of the famous Skavanga sisters, beautiful Leila has earned her reputation as the untouched Skavanga diamondand is tired of it! It's time to start living her life, and who better to teach her how than gorgeous Spaniard Raffa Leon?
Raffa has no problem mixing business with pleasure! Intrigued by her shy purity and enticed by her request, he'll ensure Leila enjoys everything life has to offer. But as her frosty facade gives way to an unleashed passion, Raffa realizes that there are consequences to playing with fire!
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Tension coiled in Leila's stomach as she peered out of the cab window to weigh up the party guests pouring into the hotel. This time of year wasn't great for holding an event in the frozen north. Leila's home town of Ska-vanga was beyond the Arctic Circle in the land of the midnight sun, but when her sister Britt threw a party no one cared about the weather. Sky-high heels and body-con was the order of the day for the women, while the men rocked formal suits beneath their silk scarves and alpaca overcoats. The mantra for the packs of girls heading up the steps to the hotel appeared to be: if you're going to freeze, do it on the way to Britt's party.
Leila was the only one of three Skavanga sisters who didn't shine at parties. Small talk wasn't her strength. She was happiest in her office in the basement of the mining museum, gathering and recording fascinating information-
Relax, Leila instructed herself firmly. Britt had lent her a gorgeous dress with a pair of spindle-heeled sandals to match, and she had a fleece-lined jacket sitting next to her in the cab. All she had to do was run up the steps of the hotel, breeze into the lobby and get lost in the crush.
'You have a good time now!' the cabbie insisted as she paid the fare, adding a hefty tip because she felt sorry for him having to work such a filthy night.
'Sorry I couldn't get you any closer to the hotel,' he added, pulling a long face. 'I've never seen so many cabs here before-'
The Britt effect, Leila thought as she smiled. 'Don't worry. This is fine for me-'
'Careful you don't slip, love-'
'You all right?' The cab driver leaned out of his open window to take a look at her. 'Fine, thank you.'
Liar. She had just performed a series of skating moves that would have done any ice star proud-if that ice star were a clown, that was.
The cabbie shook his head with concern. 'The roads are really icy tonight.'
She'd noticed. She was currently lodged in an inelegant squatting position at the side of his cab, her tights were ripped, and her dress was thankfully not completely ruined after a close encounter with the side of a mud-streaked cab. Thank goodness her dress was blue-black. Navy was a great colour. It could be sponged.
Picking herself up, she stood waiting for a gap in the traffic. The cabbie was also waiting for the cars to clear. 'Aren't those the three men in the consortium that saved the town?' he said, pointing.
Leila's heart lurched. Sure enough, heading in arrow formation up the steps of the hotel were her elder sister Britt's husband, the Sheikh of Kareshi; her middle sister Eva's fiancé, the impossibly handsome Italian Count Roman Quisvada; and the third man in the consortium, who drew her gaze like a heat-seeking missile to its target. Powering up the steps ahead of the other men, Raffa Leon. Dangerously attractive. Currently single.
Turning away from more trouble than most women could handle, Leila shook her head with impatience for allowing herself to indulge in a moment of sheer fantasy. She was the shy, virginal sister in a family of out-there go-getters, and Raffa spelled danger in any language. Even the most experienced woman would think twice before falling into his lap, and she was more of a smalltown mouse.
But the cabbie was right in saying the three men had saved the town. Leila and her two sisters, Britt and Eva, along with their long-lost brother, Tyr, had used to own the Skavanga mine outright, but when the minerals ran out and diamonds were discovered, they couldn't afford the specialized equipment required to mine the precious stones. The town of Skavanga had always depended on the mine for its existence, so the future of everyone who lived there had been at stake too. It had been such a relief when the powerful consortium had moved in, saving both the business and the town.
'There's one billionaire left, if you hurry,' the cabbie commented with a wink. 'The other two are married- or about to be, I heard.'
'Yes.' Leila smiled. 'To my sisters-'
'So you're one of the famous Skavanga Diamonds,' the cabbie exclaimed, clearly impressed.
'That's what they call us,' Leila admitted. She laughed. 'I'm the smallest stone with the most flaws-'
'Which makes you the most interesting in my book,' the cabbie cut in. 'And you're still in with a chance, seeing as there's one billionaire left for you.'
She loved his sense of humour and couldn't stop herself laughing. 'I've got more sense than that,' she assured him. 'And I'm definitely not Raffa Leon's type.' She gave a theatrical sigh. 'Thank goodness.'
'He has got a bit of a reputation,' the cabbie agreed. 'But you don't want to believe everything you read about people in the press.'
Remembering how the glossies made out that all three Skavanga sisters were currently monopolising the world stage, at least as far as celebrity went, Leila was inclined to believe him. The only stage she stood a chance of monopolising was the bus shelter on her way to work.
'And remember this,' the cabbie added, giving Leila an appraising look. 'Billionaires like to marry down. They want a quiet life at home. They have enough excitement in the office. Don't take offence,' he said quickly. 'I mean that as a compliment. You look like a nice, quiet girl, is all.'
By this point Leila was convulsed with laughter. 'And no offence taken. Now you be careful of the icy roads. I'm guessing you've got a long, cold night ahead of you.'
'Too right, I have. Goodnight, love. You have fun at that party.'
'I will,' she promised. Just as soon as she had visited the restroom to sort out her dress. Parties might not be her thing, but she had no intention of letting down her glamorous sisters by arriving at their celebration looking as if she'd been mud wrestling before she arrived.
Picking her way carefully across the icy road as soon as there was a gap in the traffic, she launched herself into the shadows. Raffa Leon was standing at the top of the steps scanning the street, probably waiting for some glamorous socialite to decant from a limo.
God, he was gorgeous!
But bang went her plan for an anonymous entrance- Not necessarily All she had to do was choose her moment and scoot past him. He wouldn't even notice her- Wrong.
Everything was going so well. Raffa was looking one way while she was running up the steps on his blind side. But then she hit a patch of ice, and while her heels went one way she went the other. With a shriek, she prepared to hit the stone hard.
She was shocked into silence for a moment as the most impossibly handsome face in the world hovered inches from her own.
'Raffa Leon!' She faked surprise. 'Goodness! Please forgive me. I didn't see you standing there-'
Surprise? Make that deeply embarrassing. If there was one lap she didn't want to land in tonight, it was this lap. And Raffa was holding her so firmly she had no option but to remain exactly where she was, with him shooting heat through her veins, and quite a lot of other places too. Trying not to breathe in case the cheese sandwich she'd chomped down earlier overrode the smell of toothpaste, she remained immobile, while he while he just smelled amazing. And those eyes
'Thank you,' she said, recovering her senses as he lifted her and steadied her on her feet.
'I'm glad I caught you.'
His voice was deep and sexy, and faintly accented in a way that would have made the call of a corncrake sound melodious. 'I'm glad you did too.' He had just performed a save that would have earned him a standing ovation if she'd been a rugby ball.
'You didn't twist your ankle, did you?'
The man for whom the phrase tall, dark and handsome had been invented was looking at her legs. Deeply conscious of her ruined tights, she made a big play of brushing herself down. 'No. I'm fine.' She shook both feet in turn as if to prove the point and then felt stupid. He made her feel so gauche.
'We have met before,' he said, easing his big, sexy shoulders in a shrug.
'In the reception line at Britt's wedding,' she confirmed. 'It's good to see you again.'
Not only did he smell divine, and he was unreasonably compelling in a swarthy, piratical way, but those wicked eyes and that energy flying off him, both were off the scale. This encounter was so far out of her comfort zone, it was embarrassing, and she was longing to escape, but Raffa seemed in no hurry to get away. In fact he was studying her face as if she were one of the exhibits in the museum. Was her mascara smudged? She wasn't very good at applying make-up. Worse! Did she have sandwich stuck in her teeth?
Closing her mouth, she checked discreetly with her tongue.
'Not only did we meet before, we're almost family, Leila.'
'Sorry ' When Raffa's eyes smiled into hers, she couldn't think straight. 'Family?'
'Si,' Raffa insisted in his addictive Spanish drawl. 'Now the second member of the consortium is marrying a Skavanga sister, there's only us two left. There's no need to look so shocked, Señorita Skavanga. I only meant that perhaps we can get to know each other a little better now.'
Did he really want to?
Why did he want to?
Instantly suspicious of why such a devastatingly successful, good-looking man would want to get to know her better, she blurted, 'I don't have many shares in the company.'
Raffa laughed then forced a gasp out of her as he bowed over her hand. 'I don't have any intention of stealing your shares, Leila.'
How could someone brushing his lips over the back of her hand cause so much sensation? She'd read about things like this. Before they were married or engaged her sisters had talked incessantly about romantic encounters, but this was a whole new world for Leila. Not that Raffa meant to be romantic. It was just his way of putting her at ease.
So why was it having the opposite effect?
People were still pouring up the steps to the party, pressing in on them from every side, making conversation impossible, let alone making it easy to move away from each other. And she was hopeless at small talk. The weather? It was always cold in Skavanga. That would keep them talking for all of ten seconds. But this was a Skavanga sisters' party, and Raffa was their guest, so it was up to her to make him feel welcome.
Bracing herself, she launched in. 'I hope you're enjoying your trip to Skavanga.'
He seemed amused by her opening sally. 'I am now.'
This was accompanied by a slanting smile that would bring Hollywood to its knees.
'It's been back-to-back business meetings for me before tonight,' he explained, his face turning serious, which was another great look for him. 'I just finished another meeting.'
'So you're staying here at the hotel?'
She blushed as Raffa held her gaze and frowned slightly. He probably thought she was coming on to him, when that was a typical example of Leila Skavanga out of her depth and swimming frantically to reach the shore. Or, to put it another way: she had zero small talk.
Fortunately, Raffa had turned to assess the logistics of making it through the door without being trampled on. 'It seems to have quietened down a bit. Shall we go in?'
'Oh, I can make it from here,' she insisted, guessing he was longing to get away.
'Don't look so worried, Leila,' he said, smiling. 'You're going to love the party. Trust me '
Trust Raffa Leon? When everyone knew his reputation? 'I'd better find my sisters, but thank you for your assurance-and for your great save,' she added as an afterthought, smiling.
'Don't mention it.'
His eyes were warm and luminous, and they plumbed deep, considering Raffa Leon was practically a stranger. This only made her more determined to stick to her original plan, which was to share a quick drink with her sisters, eat dinner-without spilling food down her, if possible-and then indulge in a little non-controversial chit-chat before shooting off as soon as she politely could.
'You're shivering, Leila-'
Oh. She was, she realised now.
'And you're laughing?'
She bit her lip, to stop thinking about the Raffa effect, and how her shivering had nothing to do with the freezing cold.
'Here-put my overcoat on.'
'Oh, no, I-'
Too late! She might have a perfectly good jacket, but Raffa's reflexes were too fast for her and now she had his coat draped round her shoulders. It was hard to pretend she wasn't distracted by his residual heat in the coat, or by the fact that it still carried the faint imprint of his cologne.
'How did you get all this mud on your dress, Leila?'
As he noticed everything she decided to make a joke of it. 'I.um.slipped away for a minute?'
He laughed. 'And I thought I saved you.'
'Next time I'll have to do better.'
'Hopefully, there won't be a next time. It was my fault for chatting to the cabbie instead of looking where I was going.'
Raffa's mouth kicked up at one corner as his eyes lit in a conspiratorial smile. 'The landing wasn't too hard, I hope?'
It was hard not to laugh. 'Only my pride got bruised.'
'I think we'd better go inside before you have another accident, don't you, Leila?'
His smile was indefensibly sexy, she concluded, dragging her gaze away, but it was nice to have a man take care of her for once, especially when she was Ms Independence-not that she was going to make a habit of it, but for a few short minutes on this one special night, it couldn't hurt to lap up his aura, and she was quite sure Don Leon would find some excuse or other to part company as soon as they were inside the hotel.
So, he'd finally met the third Skavanga sister. And for longer than a ten-second handshake in a receiving line. She had turned out to be quite a surprise. Tense, but funny, Leila Skavanga was hugely lacking in self-confidence for some reason. He didn't blame her for not relishing the prospect of a party-false smiles and meaningless chit-chat weren't his favourite form of recreation either.
It was hard being the youngest in a family, as he knew only too well, though he'd broken free of the constraints imposed on him at a young age. When he'd been young, with absentee parents, and three older brothers to kick him around, not to mention two older sisters, who took great pleasure finishing the job, it was no surprise he'd turned out to be a handful. In his experience you went one of two ways as the youngest child: determined and driven, as he was, or retiring and apologetic, like Leila Skavanga.
'Let's find the restroom first, to sort out your clothes,' he suggested as soon as they were inside the hotel. He was feeling unusually protective towards this woman, he realised as Leila glanced at him.
'That was my plan,' she confirmed as if to let him know that she was setting the ground rules-and she could look after herself, thank you very much.
'Before I intercepted you?'
'Before I landed in your lap,' she corrected him.
He laughed into her eyes. He liked the defiance he saw there. There was more to Leila Skavanga than met the eye. But then her cheeks flushed red and she looked away.
Why was she embarrassed? Too much physical contact? Too much physical contact with him?
Could Leila really be that innocent? His ingénue radar-rusty from lack of use-said yes. Her sisters weren't noted for being shy and retiring, which only made Leila all the more intriguing. And when she turned to look at him with eyes that, apart from being very beautiful, were wide and candid, he registered a most definite physical response.
'Come,' he said, forging a passage for her through the crowd. 'Let's get you sorted out so you can enjoy the party.'
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