Excerpt: Dante's Blackmailed Bride
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Francesca Sommers ran a critical eye over the sumptuous ballroom in Nob Hill’s exclusive five-star hotel, Le Premier, and struggled to suppress a severe case of nerves. In a little over twenty-four hours she’d have her very first showing. She couldn’t believe her good fortune, both in being offered the opportunity to work with Tina and Kurt Fontaine, as well as having her designs among those featured at Timeless Heirlooms’ spring show.
As though sensing Francesca’s nervousness, Tina came up beside her and slipped an arm around her waist. “You can stop worrying right now,” she said. “You’ll see. Your pieces will be the hit of the evening. Not to take anything away from Cliff or Deborah’s talent and skill—they’re both good designers—it’s your collection that will take everyone’s breath away. It offers the perfect blend of romantic elegance and timeless appeal that are hallmarks of my company.”
Francesca relaxed ever so slightly, smiling in delight at the compliment. “Are you sure you don’t mean old-fashioned?” she asked with a laugh.
Tina lifted a dark eyebrow, which gave her exotic features an imperious cast. “Period pieces are a Fontaine specialty. We’re at the leading edge of the resurgence in popularity for jewelry like this. You’ll see. Tomorrow night’s showing will put us over the top.”
Francesca shook her head. “Catching Juliet Bloom’s eye will put us over the top. I don’t suppose she’s responded to our invitation?”
“Her agent contacted us. She’s still out of the country wrapping her latest film. But her agency’s sending a representative. And I’ve learned that Juliet’s next movie is another period piece. If this rep likes what she sees” Tina lifted a shoulder. “We’ve all done the best we can. The rest is up to fate, as well as those stunning pieces you’ve designed.”
Kurt entered the room and Tina murmured an excuse before joining her husband. Francesca pretended to give her full attention to the various displays currently under construction, but in reality she studied her employers with an intense yearning.
As the brilliant and creative owner of Timeless Heir-looms, Tina couldn’t be more different from her husband of nearly thirty years. Small, dark and vivacious, she hurtled through her days, whereas Kurt took life in stride. He also qualified as one of the most strikingly handsome men Francesca had ever met, towering over Tina, his Nordic appearance the polar opposite of his wife’s.
Although he held the title of director of operations for TH, his real job consisted of supporting Tina and keeping the nuts and bolts of the business end of the company running smoothly. With his calm, reassuring demeanor, he excelled at both, even during stressful and frantic periods such as this.
Francesca gripped her hands together. Right now Timeless Heirlooms desperately needed Kurt’s soothing touch. Despite the Fontaines’ attempts to keep everyone in the dark, rumors had reached Francesca of their financial difficulties. They were counting on her—or rather, her designs—to help them recover their footing in the volatile world of jewelry sales. In response, she’d thrown herself, heart and soul, into her job, giving the Fontaines every ounce of her talent and skill. But would that be enough?
For as long as Francesca could remember, she’d wanted to work for one of Dantes’ subsidiaries, mainly because it offered an unparalleled opportunity to advance her career and bring her designs to life. But when the Fontaines bought out TH, a far different reason drew her to apply to them for a job, instead of Dantes. A reason she kept tucked close to her heart.
It gave her the opportunity to get to know her father.
* * *
Sev’s plans for the evening of the Fontaines’ show seemed perfect…right up until he saw her.
For some inexplicable reason, she drew his gaze the moment he walked into the ballroom and the impact from that one look struck with all the power and sizzle of a lightning bolt flung from on high. Every business plan, every thought about taking over TH, of tracking down this new designer and acquiring him for Dantes, leaked from Sev’s brain and puddled at his feet. In its place one imperative remained.
Get. The. Woman.
She stood in the midst of a group of people, a tall, golden swan surrounded by sparrows. Everything about her spoke of old-time grace and elegance, the very embodiment of Timeless Heirlooms’ motto—jewelry that mates past with present. He knew many beautiful women, but something about this one captivated him on a visceral level. Unremitting desire entangled him in an unbreakable web and refused to let go no matter how hard he struggled to break the bond.
For a split second Sev forgot why he’d come or what he hoped to accomplish. Instead, he felt compelled to follow that primal tug. He would have, too, if Marco hadn’t grabbed his arm.
“Hey, where are you going? The Fontaines are in the other direction.” He glanced toward the section of the room that held Sev’s attention and grinned in sudden understanding. “Bella, yes?”
“Yes.” The single word—one riddled with desire—betrayed him and Sev shook his head in an effort to clear it. What the hell was happening to him? He never lost focus like this. Nothing ever came between him and business. Nothing. Not even a drop-dead gorgeous woman whose very presence sang with all the promise and allure of a Greek Siren.
Marco straightened his suit jacket. “Since my assignment is to mingle with the guests while you see what information the Fontaines are willing to cough up, I believe the lady in question is on my list.” He clapped his brother on the back. “Looks like you’re out of luck, Sev.”
The mere thought of his brother getting anywhere close to this particular woman had Sev seeing red. Marco, the charmer. Marco, who could entice any and all women into his bed with a single look. Marco, who had never met a woman he hadn’t enjoyed to the fullest, before discarding. Marco, with his golden swan.
A faint roaring filled Sev’s ears, a noise that deafened him to everything but one increasingly urgent demand. Get. The. Woman. “Not her,” he ordered. It amazed him that he could still speak coherently, considering the compulsion that infected him and drove him to react in ways in complete and utter contrast to his normal character. “Stay away from her.”
Marco still didn’t get it. “You’re not playing fair,” he protested. “Why don’t we let the lady decide who she prefers?”
Sev simply turned and looked at his brother. “Not her,” he repeated.
Marco held up his hands, the humor fading from his expression. “Fine, fine. But if she approaches me, I’m not sending her away. Not even for you.”
Sev’s hands collapsed into fists and it took every ounce of effort to keep from using one of them to rearrange Marco’s features—arresting features that attracted women to him with lifelong ease, not to mention unparalleled success. “If she approaches you, send her over to me.”
Marco frowned. “Have you met this woman before? Do you have a history with her? You know I don’t poach my brothers’ women. Not unless your relationship’s over.” His smile glimmered again. “I don’t suppose it’s over by any chance?”
“It’s not over. In fact, it hasn’t started.” His gaze fixed on his quarry. “Yet. I’m just staking my claim. Now are we clear, or do I have to spell it out with my fists?”
“No, it’s not clear. Stake your claim? Spell it out with fists?” Marco’s frown deepened. “Have you lost your mind? When have you ever spoken about a woman like that? What’s gotten into you?”
Sev drew in a slow breath, fighting to clear his head, with only limited success. What had gotten into him? Marco was right. He never reacted like this over a woman. Nothing and no one came ahead of business. But another glance in the blonde’s direction caused the desire to erupt in messy waves of molten heat. It filled him with a whispered demand to go to her. To seduce her. To take her and make her his, no matter who or what stood in his way. It overshadowed all else, rooting into his very soul and sending out powerful tentacles that latched on to every part of him and refused to let go.
“Hey! Wake up, big brother.” Marco snapped his fingers in front of Sev’s nose, concern bleeding into his voice and expression. “I’ll tell you what. Why don’t we check out the new designs before we get to work? See what we’re up against.”
“Good idea,” Sev managed to say.
Despite the arm his brother dropped on Sev’s shoulder, it took every ounce of self-control at his command to turn his back on the blonde and walk away. With every step, he could feel the quicksand of need sucking at his feet and legs. It didn’t matter how much distance he put between them, he could still sense her on every level, and that awareness unsettled him more than he cared to admit.