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The crush of beautiful people in this small town on the French Riviera was a treat for the senses, but only one beauty captured Rafael da Souza's attention. She always had from the first moment he had met her in London.
His desire for her had never waned during the five years they'd been married. Nothing would ever change that.
He knew the exact moment strikingly beautiful supermodel Leila Santiago walked into a room, even if he was already prepared. And he was certainly ready for this reunion, body and soul! even before they had married, they'd mutually agreed to wait before starting their family. It had been important to both of them that they focus on their careers first. That they enjoyed life and especially each other.
And they had.
Rafael's brow pulled as he looked back on what was now the fifth year of their marriage. He could count the times he'd been with Leila over this past year on one hand. Her career and his had taken quantum leaps, bigger than either of them could have imagined, but such success came at a terrible price for it had pulled them both in different directions.
Leila had been involved on two whirlwind global tours, her beautiful face splashed on glossy magazine covers around the world. Rafael's time had volleyed between being technical adviser on one film and developing a cutting-edge mobile phone device that was light-years ahead of the competition.
He and Leila had only managed to find one fleeting weekend to spend together in Aruba following a photo shoot there. Moments alone, undisturbed by their busy careers, had always been precious between them, and although Rafael had tried to talk to Leila about his desire to start a family, the time had gone by too quickly.
"We'll talk about it at the film festival in France," she'd promised in Aruba as she'd planted hot kisses across the taut planes of his belly. And then she'd taken his mind off family and his dream with bold caresses and long leisurely kisses that he'd been starving for.
They'd ended up in bed, arms and legs entwined. Tongues dueling in carnal love. Bodies thrusting together in the most passionate sex he'd ever had with her.
When he was buried deep in her, clutching her to his heart, he felt whole, and they'd both gotten lost in loving the night away. And then their idyll had been over. Rafael had left with the rising sun after Leila had dropped the bombshell that she wouldn't reschedule an upcoming shoot in order to accompany him to his brother Nathaniel's wedding. He'd been too angry and hurt to do more than offer a clipped, "Fine, I'll see you in France."
Now, he certainly intended to do more than talk about starting a family. They would have an entire week together in France. While their days would be busy with promotions and such, their nights would be devoted to each other.
His heart warmed at the thought of having children with Leila, of having a home with her that wasn't empty or flat.
He'd never had that in his entire life. His mother had loved him, yes, but she had always held at least two jobs at a time to support them, and she had worked incredibly long hours. He had hardly seen her as a child.
As for a home, their small flat in Wolfestone might have been the place Rafael had been raised, but the memories there were painful, suffocating. Rafael had felt only freedom when he had left its cloying grasp. He had moved to a modern apartment in London and then, when he had married Leila, they had bought a luxurious penthouse in Rio, far away from the darkness of Rafael's past.
But though this was his and Leila's residence, it still lacked that life and energy of a loving family that he had felt missing for so long.
Rafael wanted a real casa with land where his children could play and make good memories to last a lifetime. A place they could call home, a place they'd feel safe. Loved. Everything his aristocratic father had denied him.
Leila knew how much this meant to him and she had shared his dream of having a family.
And, if they were very lucky, they'd realize that dream soon.
Now, as he saw Leila approach and close the distance separating them, his gaze hungrily licked over her like flames on dry tinder, consuming, scorching. It was always like this, the gripping desire that engulfed him whenever they were reunited.
As for his heart..
His heart warmed with emotions that seemed too huge to imagine. He was afraid to look away, to blink, for fear he'd awaken to discover that what he had with her had just been a fantasy.
She was absolutely gorgeous.
And she was his wife. His.
Under the rapid-fire flash of cameras, she strode down La Croisette with her million-dollar smile in place. He knew she wasn't focused on any one person or thing, that her stunning smile was for her legion of adoring fans.
She knew how to make love to the camera, and the lens loved her. And why wouldn't it?
She was a fantasy brought to life. The woman every man dreamed of making love to, the woman every woman wished she could emulate.
Perfection. Seductive perfection.
Her mass of golden hair was caught up in a tumble of messy curls that framed a face that had graced every major magazine since she was thirteen. But that gamine child that had launched her career was gone, replaced by a sensual woman who'd worked hard to make a perfectly toned body seem more desirable than voluptuous curves.
Her crimson dress caressed her upthrust breasts and gentle bow of her hips in the warm salt-tinged breeze. He knew every move she made was carefully orchestrated, right down to the metered strides of her long lithe legs supported by killer stilettos. Strong flawless legs that would wrap around his naked flanks in the throes of passion.
Their March rendezvous had reminded him just how much he'd missed her this past hectic year. How he'd taken for granted the exact feel of her silken skin against his fingers and mouth, her erotic scent that clung to him and held tight, her sultry passion that drove him wild in bed and out.
He caught the slight hesitancy in her eyes before she stopped before him, her palms firm on his chest in a familiar way that had been captured on film a thousand times. A touch that left him trembling inside, remembering all that was good between them. All the passion, the pure joy, the bliss of shutting out the world and lying wrapped in each other's arms.
Her gaze made a slow sweep up to his face, and he felt his own lips pulling into a smile. His hands settled on her trim waist, firm and clearly possessive. Her soft lips beckoned him and he met her halfway for their customary kiss of greeting, but the moment was gone before he could savor it.
Her scent stayed with him though, a provocative perfume that teased the senses. That promised much more. This would be the new fragrance she was here to promote in conjunction with the release of the film of the same name, Bare Souls.
That certainly did not describe them!
For as close as they were with each other's bodies, they had both kept their own demons securely locked away since the day they'd met. He'd never told her how being William Wolfe's unwanted bastard had scarred him. She'd never divulged everything pertaining to the near disastrous bout of anorexia she'd suffered at a young age. But he suspected she was still haunted by that episode in her life, and he wondered now if she'd truly fully recovered from the disease.
Those big hazel eyes that had captured the heart of the world at thirteen locked on his and his concerns fled. For a heartbeat it was difficult to breathe. Impossible to think.
Then in a blink the look was gone, replaced with the seductive glint of a woman. The look that had men around the globe drooling after her.
He certainly was not immune! His body responded to the carnal energy arcing between them, and he reached out and cupped her jaw, a simple caress that drew whispers from the crowds.
But it was as if everyone else on the planet faded away until it was just them.
This reaction to each other, this look that they shared and which they had exploited, kept the paparazzi from hounding them with too many questionsspecifically about the stability of their marriage this past year.
"How was Nathaniel's wedding?" she asked.
"Everyone asked about you," he said, still hurt that she'd not altered her plans for him. "I called you"
"I know," she said, her palms shifting against his chest in a small urgent circle, her eyes searching deep into his as if begging him to understand. "I couldn't get away."
He nodded, accepting that apology because now wasn't the place to engage in a deeper conversation. But there was a strained note in her voice that had him wondering if she were having difficulties with her career, problems he didn't know about.
If his brothers and sister had thought it odd that the most celebrated model of the decade couldn't demand a day off to attend a family wedding, none of them had mentioned it to him. But then his family was already highly dysfunctional.
They all knew not to expect too muchthey were all wary of loving too deeply. And yet love had happened for Rafael. A deep, passionate love that scared him, for he knew that such emotions were fragile. Priceless.
Being with Leila again, knowing she'd be his for an entire week during the film festival, made his skin tighten with anticipation. His heart pounded far harder. Desire. Lust.
Yet, those base emotions were wrapped up in much deeper emotion, like a tight wad that made his blood surge. They had been building toward a far stronger marriage before this past chaotic year.
He fully intended to pick up where they'd left off.
"Our suite is ready," he said.
"Good. I'm eager to sit down someplace quiet for a while."
He cut her a quick look as he took her arm. A sliver of uncertainty crossed her features again. There was paleness beneath her makeup as well. Had she been ill?
They walked together into the hotel, and he was grateful that velvet ropes kept the fans and paparazzi at bay. He'd never grown comfortable being in the spotlightspawned from his youth of being pointed out as the Wolfe bastard. Now was no different.
Though he was no longer the subject of ridicule, he still hated the attention that crashed into his private life.
He took Leila's arm and escorted her across the elegant lobby, thankful that they met nobody along the way inclined to ask for an autograph or a quick chat. They were left alone still as they took the elevator to their floor, but Rafael didn't draw a decent breath until he shepherded his wife into their suite and closed off the world behind them. He'd asked for and received a magnificent view of the sea, complete with a private balcony.
"It's breathtaking," Leila noted, pulling free of him and crossing to the bank of windows, and Rafael thought how the view paled in comparison to her beauty. "When did you arrive?"
"Yesterday. I came straight from London."
She faced him then, and backlit with the sun it made her look more fragile and pale. "Were you able to spend much time with your family?"
"I flew in the day of the wedding and left the next morning," he said, then shrugged when her smooth brow pulled into a frown. "Like you, my schedule was incredibly tight."
She nodded at that and looked away. How ironic that he'd kept bits of his past secret from her, yet he disliked it when the tables were turned. He simply saw no sense in divulging how despicable his father had been to him, how he'd suffered emotionally while his siblings had endured that plus physical abuse.
Some things were better left buried. He certainly couldn't see any reason to exhume the dark secrets of his past to his wife.
A good part of his success in business had hinged on his gut feeling to strike deals at opportune moments. This was no different.
"We should coordinate our schedules," he said, smoothly steering the conversation away from his family and their murky past. "My publicist stressed the importance of us showing support for each other and our projects during the festival, though I can't imagine not being there for you."
"Yes, of course. I'll get my mobile."
Was there a quaver of distress in her voice?
He glanced back only to find her riffling through a brand-new designer purse, seeming simply distracted. She was unquestionably the most beautiful woman he'd ever known, but her life was as screwed up as his.
They had been two rising stars who'd collided in a glitter of passion. She had reached the pinnacle of a career that now dictated the way she must live.
Leila was a millionaire in her own righther name a brand that was copied. Emulated. She had endorsements. Fame. A demanding life far apart from his own.
This past year Rafael had moved from the realm of millionaire to billionaire, and the fast-track world of computer technology meant he always had to stay one step ahead of the competition. He'd honed his rapier-edged instincts in fighting his way to the top of his world, and now he wondered if the changes he saw in Leila had been there all along. If he'd simply been too comfortable with his marriage to recognize his wife wasn't her usual bubbly self.
She certainly seemed more sure of herself than in the past, yet there was a vulnerability about her that hummed about the edge of her success like a nervous hummingbird seeking nectar. There was something wrong that he couldn't quite put his finger on.
They'd both achieved their goals, but at what price to their personal life? Was their marriage still as strong as it once had been?
He'd find out this week that they'd be together; he'd already planned to spend the bulk of his time in his wife's company. He'd missed her more than he could possibly express, for tender words had never been easy for him to grasp, much less admit.
It had always been easier to show her how much he loved her with gifts. Like his latest smartphone.
Rafael ran his thumb over the sleek new mobile that was the cutting edge of technology. This was his baby. The wireless device of the future that was featured in the movie Bastion 9, which would premiere here tonight.
But while the phones he'd donated for the elite festival gift bags were silver on black, like the ones that would go on sale tomorrow around the world, this device had a one-of-a-kind liquid magenta shell enhanced with thin black swirls.