Sonia dragged her wheeled suitcase into the foyer of the apartment building’s top floor and stopped dead, gaping at the domed roof, big enough for a cathedral. The soaring surface looked like carved marble. To her right was a grand staircase, wide enough to drive a car down. On the far side of the landing was a single, imposing door.
She ran an unsteady hand through her hair, tousled around her shoulders. If only she’d slept on the twenty-four hour flight from Sydney to Rome maybe she wouldn’t feel so daunted.
This was the right address. The security code to the front door had worked. Yet she hadn’t expected such luxury! The building, tucked into a cobblestoned street between the Piazza Navona and Rome’s Tiber River, had looked venerable and a little grim, as if it might be run-down inside.
Sonia huffed a laugh and hitched her shoulder bag higher. Run-down! Not with the ultra-modern lift that had brought her to the penthouse. The apartment belonged to a friend of her brother-in-law. The owner was probably a wealthy media identity or business mogul.
Grabbing her case, she marched across and fitted the key in the lock. It turned smoothly, with barely a sound.
See? It’s the right place after all.
Relief flooded so hard she swayed. It was one thing to insist she didn’t want to be met at Fiumicino, Rome’s airport. It was another to make her own way, with her almost non-existent Italian, into the city, retrieve the keys of her temporary home and locate it.
But if she didn’t stand her ground, Angela and Matteo, her sister and brother-in-law, would insist she stay with them. Sonia refused to play gooseberry. The pair had reunited after a long separation and were like honeymooners. They needed privacy.
Besides, she didn’t want to face two love-birds daily over breakfast. The idea of romance left a sour tang on her tongue. She shuddered and closed the door behind her, wishing she could so easily shut out her shattered dreams.
Sonia shook her head. She wasn’t going there. Not now. Not ever again.
She’d put all that behind her. She refused to spend her first day in Rome stewing on past mistakes.
Turning from closing the door, Sonia got an impression of warmth, space and light. A mixture of cosiness and chic that the designer in her knew came at a price. Wide, polished floorboards gleamed beneath her feet and a raked ceiling soared high. The walls were lined with bookcases and plump sofas that made you want to stretch out and spend the weekend reading. Except that beyond them, past the ornate fireplace and long dining table, was the most glorious view of Rome.
Sonia put down the suitcase and let her shoulder bag slide to the floor. Ahead a pair of French doors, framed by a flowering vine with blush pink flowers, led to a balcony and a panorama that stole her breath. Rome’s rooftops spread before her.
She blinked and pinched herself.
What strings had her brother-in-law pulled to get her this place for her first two months in Italy? She owed him big time. How she’d repay him she had no idea.
Transfixed by that view, Sonia tugged off her jacket and crumpled shirt, dropping them on a sofa. That was better. She lifted the thick hair from her nape and revelled in the waft of cool air over bare skin. She tried to look good in public, since her job was all about image. But at home... She grinned. For the next eight weeks this was home!
For the first time in ages things were looking up. Her heart lifted and the tension that had bound her tight for so long eased.
Sonia toed off her shoes and headed towards the stunning panorama, nostrils twitching as the heavenly scent of good coffee reached her. Had the owner left a bag of coffee beans in the kitchen by way of welcome? Or—
Thought unravelled as a man sauntered into the room.
Her brain froze, shifting into a series of slow motion freeze frames as she processed what she saw.
There was a lot to see.
One still-reasoning part of her brain noted, That’s where the smell of coffee comes from. For he sipped from a tiny white cup as he strolled across to the French doors. Doors Sonia belatedly realised were open.
But most of her brain was busy taking in the sight of him.
And remembering to breathe.
He was tall, very tall, and he walked with the loose-limbed gait of someone both confident and athletic.
Sonia swallowed. Definitely athletic. He had broad, straight shoulders, narrow hips and long, muscled legs. In fact, he was muscled in all the right places. With his rumpled black hair, pale olive skin and impressive physique he could be a model. Even the light fuzz of chest hair was just right, not a heavy pelt, but enough to make a woman want to run her fingers across that solid chest, then follow the narrowing dark line down towards—
Her gasp was as loud as a shout in the silence.
He swung to face her. The full frontal view affirmed her assessment. This man, this completely naked man, was formed like some ancient Roman god. Perfect musculature over strong bones and, oh, that...
Sonia whipped her gaze higher, fire scorching her cheeks.
Espresso dark eyes captured hers. The flames teasing her cheeks spread to her throat and breasts. And lower, much lower.
She sucked in another breath, shocked this time at herself. Her pulse thundered in her ears, yet Sonia felt light-headed as if her blood had drained to her toes. No, not her toes. There was a hot, pooling sensation between her thighs.
Horrified, Sonia registered the slight rise of decisive black eyebrows, the flaring of nostrils in that proud, streamlined nose. As if he was aware of that sudden rush of arousal in a body that moments ago had been limp with jetlag.
The tiny coffee cup paused on the way to his mouth. A firmly sculpted mouth, she noted, above a square, well-cut jaw. Then the cup rose, tilted, and she watched the strong muscles in that bare throat work as he swallowed.
Sonia blinked. Her hand rose to her own throat, then settled, splayed below her collarbone, where her heart knocked an erratic rhythm like a cage full of wild birds desperate to break free.
Since when had watching a man swallow been an erotic experience?
He lowered the cup slowly and spoke.
Sonia couldn’t make out the words. Her pulse drowned them.
He spoke again and this time she heard the lyrical cadences she associated with her brother-in-law, Matteo.
‘Non parlo Italiano.’ She croaked the words from her desert-dry throat. Explaining she didn’t speak Italian constituted one of her few phrases.
Why wasn’t he getting dressed? Why was he just standing there looking...?
Her gaze flickered back down, past the perfect symmetry of that masculine chest, over a flat belly and well-defined abs to the penis that, instead of looking wizened and tiny against all that imposing bulk, seemed definitely in proportion and anything but limp.
Sonia jerked her attention back to his face. Did his mouth curl at one corner? No, he looked unmoved and completely calm.
As if strange women in his apartment were an everyday occurrence.
Which wouldn’t surprise her in the slightest.
‘No, I’m Australian.’ Then, a second late, she realised what he meant. ‘Yes, I speak English.’
‘And with a charming accent, too.’ He nodded, then turned back the way he’d come. ‘Excuse me a moment.’
Sonia clutched at the back of a long, white sofa, fingers sinking into the thick upholstery. She was exhausted and surprised. That’s all. Of course her pulse raced and her brain fogged. It had nothing to do with the fact that his back view was every bit as superb as the front. The bunching clench of his buttocks as he walked...
‘There. That’s better, yes?’ The coffee cup was gone and instead he held a white towel, wrapping it around his hips as he strolled back.
Sonia’s gaze darted to those big, square hands, and the leisurely way he tucked the towel in and felt something grind tight in her pelvis. Something she recognised as arousal.
Frantically she told herself it was okay. Jetlag did strange things to the brain.
It wasn’t her brain reacting, it was her body, revving into life after a long chill winter of celibacy. Yet even that was no explanation for her response. Sonia wasn’t promiscuous. She didn’t need sex to be happy. In fact, after her experience with Eric, she’d deliberately avoided another intimate relationship. So why was every nerve in her body sitting up and salivating?
Because you’ve never met a man so casually, breathtakingly sexy in your life.
Because that dark chocolate voice makes you melt.
But oh, it wasn’t just his voice...
She whipped her attention back to his face. His chiselled, gorgeous face with hooded eyes that made her think of wide beds, sensual caresses and bold demands.
Something urgent inside shivered into life.
With a physical effort Sonia dragged herself back to the present.
‘I’m so sorry.’ She tried to smile but failed. Her muscles were stiff with shock. ‘Obviously I have the wrong apartment. Though the key worked.’ She shook her head. ‘How could that be?’
* * *
Renzo watched the cloud of long, caramel-coloured hair ripple and spill around her shoulders. Morning light from the window picked out gold highlights that winked in the tousled mass as if inviting him to reach out and test its softness.
She had the rumpled, dazed look of someone just out of bed, and when that sultry mouth pouted in confusion, lust shot straight to his groin.
For some reason she was half-undressed. Not that he objected. He was all for appreciating beautiful women. And this woman was beautiful.
She’d left her shoes and shirt behind her. All she wore was a pair of pale trousers and a flame-red lace bra cut so low it looked like her bounteous breasts would spill out with one deep breath. That bra was doing predictable things to his libido. Though it wasn’t the bra as much as those luscious breasts that trembled deliciously with each shaky breath.
Renzo found himself holding his own breath in anticipation. And wishing he had more than a towel to hide his burgeoning arousal. If she kept looking at him with those big green eyes...
His erection twitched and of course she noticed. She’d been eating him up with that wide gaze ever since she walked in.
Renzo was caught between surprise at her intrusion and amusement at her response. Like a kid staring into a sweet store, not knowing where to start.
But unlike many women Renzo knew, this one was shocked too, both by his nakedness and, he guessed, by her response. It was there in the fiery blush covering her from those high cheekbones to the hard nipples peaking just below the edge of her bra.
Whoever she was, his intruder wasn’t a sexual sophisticate, here to seduce him.
More’s the pity. He could do with the distraction.
He’d had his share of grasping women, eager for his body, his wealth or the cachet of his family name. He could spot one instantly. This woman was different.
‘Presumably the key worked because it’s for this apartment. Are you a friend of Marco’s?’ The sudden thought quenched his arousal. If she was Marco’s lover she was definitely off limits.
‘Marco? Marco Veracini?’ She nodded and Renzo felt disappointment spread like ice crackling in his veins. ‘That’s right. Though I don’t know him exactly.’
Renzo stifled a smile of relief. ‘That explains it. This is Marco’s apartment, which is why the key worked.’
But instead of returning his smile, the woman frowned. As that turned her ripe lips into a pout his body tightened painfully. Renzo wondered at the strength of his response to a stranger, but soon found himself fantasising about how that mouth would feel on his skin.
‘If it’s Signor Veracini’s apartment it’s supposed to be empty. I’m living here for the next two months.’ She tilted her head to one side, her gaze sharpening. Renzo had the feeling that assessing look was more usual than the glazed, hungry stare he’d seen in the last few minutes.
‘Really? He didn’t tell me.’ Renzo ran his hand around the back of his neck. Typical of Marco. He’d left for New York and not said a word about letting out the apartment. But then why should he? Since Renzo had his own place in Rome he never used this one anymore. Until this week.
‘And you are?’ She stood tall, her tone businesslike despite the fact she stood half-undressed. Her eyes fixed on his face as if he were the one who needed to explain.
It seemed both he and this intriguing stranger had a claim to the apartment.
The situation was ridiculous, but delicious.
‘Lorenzo Veracini. Renzo. I’m Marco’s cousin.’
He reached out and took her slim hand in his grasp. Renzo noted her tiny shiver of response, an echo of the clenching awareness tightening his own body. He liked her handshake too, firm and definite, despite the fact his hand easily engulfed hers. He guessed that she was a woman who stood up for herself. A woman of energy and enthusiasm.
The devil inside him hoped so. He enjoyed energetic women.
Renzo smiled down into wide green eyes the colour of a spring field. His week-long eviction from his own apartment suddenly seemed not a nuisance but a pleasure.