A Dangerous Solace

By: Lucy Ellis

CHAPTER ONE


GIANLUCA BENEDETTI APPRAISED the shapeless suit and then the woman in it. She had potential, if she ditched the floppy large-brimmed hat, took down her hair, stepped out of the suit and started all over again from scratch. She had the essentials. She was tall, her legs were good from what he could tell, and there was a liveliness to her that she seemed to be repressing as she went to stamp her foot but then arrested the gesture.

Which drew his attention to her shoes. They didn’t quite fit the image of the woman wearing them. Elegant low heels, graceful arch, red leather slingback, with a complicated knot of red silk flowers running over the toes. The shoes were fussy and feminine. The woman in them was not.

‘Give me back my money!’ Her voice was clear, crisp and no-nonsense, for all she was obviously angry. Gianluca could tell by her accent she was Australian, which accounted for the plain speaking.

The guy was giving her the runaround. In the crowded domain of the arcade people were making a detour around the brunette standing in front of the kiosk. She looked like a ticking time bomb ready to go off.

The foot trembling with indecision above the pavement came down with a decided stamp.

‘I am not going anywhere until you refund me that money. I gave your company forty-eight hours’ notice. It says clearly on your website that refunds are possible with twenty-four hours’ notice.’

Gianluca shut down the European markets, pocketed his personal device, and strolled away from the doorway of the coffee bar he’d been frequenting all his adult life in Rome.

Impeccable manners towards women instilled in him by a Sicilian grandmother had him approach her.

‘Signora, may I be of some service to you?’

She didn’t even bother to turn around. ‘I am not a signora, I am a signorina. And no, you may not help me. I’m perfectly capable of helping myself. Go and ply your trade with some other idiot tourist.’

Gianluca leaned closer. She emitted a light fragrance, something floral, definitely too feminine for this dragon of a woman.

‘My trade?’

‘Gigolo. Escort. Servicer of women. Go away. I don’t want you.’

Gianluca stilled. This dragon thought he was a male prostitute?

He looked her up and down. She hadn’t even bothered to turn around. Common sense told him to shrug and walk away.

‘So, signorina...’ he laid on the emphasis ‘...maybe you’re hard up, yes? You need to remember what it is to be a woman?’

‘Excuse me?’ She turned around, angling up her face, and in a single stroke Gianluca lost every preconception he had built around her.

The shapeless clothes, her tone—he’d taken her to be older, harder...certainly less attractive than—this. She had creamy skin, wide brows, amazing cheekbones and—what was most intriguing—soft, lush lips. A veritable ripe strawberry of a mouth. But her face was dominated by a pair of ugly white-rimmed sunglasses, and he had to resist the urge to tug them away and get the full effect.

Although he definitely got a sense of her eyes widening.

‘It’s you!’ she said.

He raised a brow. ‘Have we met?’

This wasn’t an unknown scenario over the years. His past football career—two years of kicking a ball around professionally for Italy—combined with his title had given him something of a public profile beyond the usual roaming grounds of Roman society. He made sure his tone offered no encouragement.

The dragon-who-wasn’t took a step back.

‘No,’ she said fast, as if warding him off.

He became aware that she was looking around as if searching for an escape route, and for some reason his own body tensed. He recognised he was readying himself to give chase.

Madre di Dio, what was going on?

A pulse pounded like a tiny drum at the base of her throat, and he couldn’t have said why but it held his attention. She made a soft sound of panic. His eyes flicked up to catch hers and sexual awareness erupted between them. It was so fast, so strong, it took him entirely off guard.

He stepped towards her, but she didn’t shift an inch. Her chin tipped up and her eyes flared wide, as if she was waiting for something.

Something from him.

Something he couldn’t quite put his finger on.

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