THURSDAY NIGHT DRINKS at Di Fiore’s had been a weekly ritual for Lazzero Di Fiore and his brothers ever since Lazzero and his younger brother, Santo, had parlayed a dream of creating the world’s hottest athletic wear into a reality at a tiny table near the back as students at Columbia University.
The jagged slash of red fire, the logo they had scratched into the thick mahogany tabletop to represent the high-octane Supersonic brand, now graced the finely tuned bodies of some of the world’s highest paid athletes, a visibility which had, in turn, made the brand a household name.
Unfortunately, Lazzero conceded blackly as he wound his way through the crowd in the packed, buzzing, European-style sports bar he and Santo ran in midtown Manhattan, success had also meant their personal lives had become public fodder. A fact of life he normally took in stride. The breech of his inner sanctum, however, had been the final straw.
He absorbed the show of feminine leg on display on what was supposed to be Triple-Play Thursdays—a ritual for Manhattan baseball fans. Inhaled the cloud of expensive perfume in the air, thick enough to take down a lesser man. This was all her doing. He’d like to strangle her.
“This is turning into a three-ring circus,” he muttered, sliding into a chair at the table already occupied by his brothers, Santo and Nico.
“Because the city’s most talked-about gossip columnist chose to make us number two on her most-wanted bachelor list?” Santo, elegant in black Hugo Boss, cocked a brow. “If we sue, it’d have to be for finishing behind Barnaby Alexander. He puts his dates to sleep recounting his billions. I find it highly insulting.”
“Old money,” Nico supplied helpfully. “She had to mix it up a bit.”
Lazzero eyed his elder brother, who was probably thanking his lucky stars he’d taken himself off the market with his recent engagement to Chloe, with whom he ran Evolution—one of the world’s most successful cosmetic companies. “I’m glad you’re finding this amusing,” he growled.
Nico shrugged. “You would too if you were in the middle of my three-ring circus. Why I ever agreed to a Christmas wedding is beyond me.”
Lazzero couldn’t muster an ounce of sympathy, because the entire concept of marriage was insanity to him.
“Show it to me,” he demanded, glaring at Santo.
Santo slid the offending magazine across the table, his attention captured by a glamorous-looking blonde staring unashamedly at him from the bar. Loosening his tie, he sat back in his chair and gave her a thorough once-over. “Not bad at all.”
Utterly Santo’s type. She looked ready for anything.
Lazzero fixed his smoldering attention on the list of New York’s most eligible bachelors as selected by Samara Jones of Entertainment Buzz. A follow-up to her earlier piece that had declared the “Summer Lover” the year’s hottest trend, the article, cheekily entitled “The Summer Shag” in a nod to Jones’s British heritage, featured her top twenty bachelors with which to fulfill that seasonal pursuit.
Lazzero scanned the list, his perusal sliding to a halt at entry number two:
Since they’re gorgeous and run the most popular athletic-wear company on the planet—Lazzero and Santo Di Fiore clock in at number two. Young, rich and powerful, they are without a doubt the most delicious double dose of testosterone in Manhattan. Find them at Di Fiore’s on Thursday nights, where they still run their weekly strategy sessions from the corner table where it all started.
Lazzero threw the magazine on the table, a look of disgust claiming his face. “You do realize that this,” he said, waving a hand around them, “is never going to be ours again?”
“Relax,” Santo drawled, eyes now locked with the sophisticated blonde who couldn’t take her eyes off his equally glamorous profile. “Give it a few weeks and it’ll die down.”
Santo shifted his attention back to the table. “What’s got you so twisted in a knot?” he queried. “It can’t be that,” he said, inclining his head toward the magazine. “You’ve been off for weeks.”
Lazzero blew out a breath and sat back in his chair. “Gianni Casale,” he said flatly. “I had a call with him this afternoon. He isn’t biting on the licensing deal. He’s mired in red ink, knows his brand has lost its luster, knows we’re eating his lunch, and still he won’t admit he needs this partnership.”
Which was a problem given Lazzero had forecast Supersonic would be the number two sportswear company in the world by the end of the following year, a promise his influential backers were banking on. Which meant acquiring Gianni Casale’s legendary Fiammata running shoe technology, Volare, was his top priority.
Santo pointed his glass at him. “Let’s be honest here. The real problem with Casale is that he hates your guts.”
Lazzero blinked. “Hate is a strong word.”
“Not when you used to date his wife. Everyone knows Carolina married Gianni on the rebound from you, his bank balance a salve for her wounded heart. She makes it clear every time you’re in a room together. She’s still in love with you, Laz, her marriage is on the rocks and Casale is afraid he can’t hold her. That’s our problem.”
Guilt gnawed at his insides. He’d told Carolina he would never commit—that he just didn’t have it in him. The truth, given his parents’ disastrous, toxic wreck of a marriage he’d sworn never to repeat. And she’d been fine with it, until all of a sudden, a couple of months into their relationship, she’d grown far too comfortable with his penthouse key, showing up uninvited to cook him dinner after a trip to Asia—a skill he hadn’t even known she’d possessed.
Maybe he’d ignored one too many warning signs, had been so wrapped up in his work and insane travel schedule he hadn’t called it off soon enough, but he’d made it a clean break when he had.
“Gianni cannot possibly be making this personal,” he grated. “This is a fifty-million-dollar deal. It would be the height of stupidity.”
“He wouldn’t be the first man to let his pride get in his way,” Santo observed drily. He arched a brow. “You want to solve your problem? Come play in La Coppa Estiva next week. Gianni is playing. Bring a beautiful woman with you to convince him you are off the market and use the unfettered access to him to talk him straight.”
Lazzero considered his jam-packed schedule. “I don’t have time to come to Milan,” he dismissed. “While you’re off gallivanting around Italy, wooing your celebrities, someone needs to steer the ship.”
Santo eyed him. “Gallivanting? Do you have any idea how much work it is to coordinate a charity game at this level? I want to shoot myself by the end of it.”
Lazzero held up a hand. “Okay, I take it back. You are brilliant, you know you are.”
La Coppa Estiva, a charity soccer game played in football-crazy Milan, was sponsored by a handful of the most popular brands in the world, including both Supersonic and Fiammata. The biggest names in the business played in the game as well as sponsors and their partners, which made for a logistical nightmare of huge egos and impossible demands. It was only because of his skill managing such a circus that Santo had been named chairman for the second year in a row.
Lazzero exhaled. Took a pull of his beer. Santo was right—he should go. La Coppa Estiva was the only event in the foreseeable future he would get any access to Gianni. “I’ll make it work,” he conceded, “but I have no idea who I’d take.”
“Says the man with an address book full of the most beautiful women in New York,” Nico countered drily.
Lazzero shrugged. “I’m too damn busy to date.”
“How about a summer shag?” Santo directed a pointed look at the strategically placed females around the room. “Apparently, they’re all the rage. According to Samara Jones, you keep them around until you’ve finished the last events in the Hamptons, then say arrivederci after Labor Day. It’s ideal, perfect actually. It might even put you in a better mood.”
“Excellent idea,” Nico drawled. “I like it a lot. Particularly the part where we recover his good humor.”
Lazzero was not amused. Acquiring himself a temporary girlfriend was the last thing he had the bandwidth for right now. But if that’s what it took to convince Gianni he was of no threat to him, then that’s what he would do.
Making that choice from the flock of ambitious types presently hunting him and ending up in Samara Jones’s column, however, was not an option. What he needed was an utterly discrete, trustworthy woman who would take this on as the business arrangement it would be and wouldn’t expect anything more from him when it was done.
Surely that couldn’t be too hard to find?
* * *
Friday mornings at the Daily Grind on the Upper West Side were a nonstop marathon. Students from nearby Columbia University, attracted by its urban cool vibe, drifted in like sleepy, rumpled sheep, sprawling across the leather sofas with their coffee, while the slick-suited urban warriors who lived in the area dashed in on the way to the office, desperate for a fix before that dreaded early meeting.
Today, however, had tested the limits of even coolheaded barista Chiara Ferrante’s even-keeled disposition. It might have been the expensive suit who’d just rolled up to the counter, a set of Porsche keys dangling from his fingertips, a cell phone glued to his ear, and ordered a grande, half-caff soy latte at exactly 120 degrees, no more, no less, on the heels of half a dozen such ridiculous orders.
You need this job, Chiara. Now more than ever. Suck it up and just do it.
She took a deep, Zen-inducing breath and cleared the lineup with ruthless efficiency, dispatching the walking Gucci billboard with a 119-degree latte—a minor act of rebellion she couldn’t resist. A brief lull ensuing, she turned to take inventory of the coffee bar on the back wall before the next wave hit.
“You okay?” Kat, her fellow barista and roommate asked, as she replenished the stack of take-out cups. “You seem off today.”
Chiara gathered up the empty carafes and set them in the sink. “The bank turned down my father’s request for a loan. It hasn’t been a good morning.”
Kat’s face fell. “Oh, God. I’m sorry. I know it’s been hard for him to make a go of it lately. Are there any other banks he can try?”
“That was the last.” Chiara bit her lip. “Maybe Todd can give me some more shifts.”
“And turn you into the walking dead? You’ve been working double shifts for months, Chiara. You’re going to fall flat on your face.” Kat leaned a hip against the bar. “What you need,” she said decisively, “is a rich man. It would solve all your problems. They’re constantly propositioning you and yet you never take them up on their offers.”
Because the one time she had, he’d shattered her heart into pieces.
“I’m not interested in a rich man,” she said flatly. “They come in here in their beautiful suits, drunk on their power, thinking their money gives them license to do anything they like. It’s all a big game to them, the way they play with women.”
Kat flashed her an amused look. “That’s an awfully big generalization don’t you think?”
Chiara folded her arms over her chest. “Bonnie, Sivi and Tara went out the other night to Tempesta Di Fuoco, Stefan Bianco’s place in Chelsea. They’re sitting at the bar when this group of investment bankers starts chatting them up. Bonnie’s thrilled when Phil asks her out for dinner at Lido. She goes home early because she’s opening here in the morning. Sivi and Tara stay.” She lifted a brow. “What does Phil do? He asks Sivi out to lunch.”
“Pig,” Kat agreed, making a face. “But you can’t paint all men with the same brush.”
“Not all men. Them. The suit,” Chiara declared scathingly, “may change, but the man inside it doesn’t.”
“I’m afraid I have to disagree,” a deep, lightly accented voice intoned, rippling a reactionary path down her spine. “It would be a shame for Phil to give us all a bad name.”
Chiara froze. Turned around slowly, her hands gripping the marble. Absorbed the tall, dark male leaning indolently against the counter near the silver bell she wished fervently he’d rung. Clad in a silver Tom Ford suit that set off his swarthy skin to perfection, Lazzero Di Fiore was beautiful in a predatory, hawk-like way—oozing an overt sex appeal that short-circuited the synapses in her brain.
The deadpan expression on his striking face indicated he’d heard every last word of her ill-advised speech. “I—” she croaked, utterly unsure of what to say “—you should have rung the bell.”
“And missed your fascinatingly candid appraisal of Manhattan’s finest?” His sensual mouth twisted. “Not for the world. Although I do wonder if I could have an espresso to fuel my overinflated ego? I have a report I need to review for a big hotshot meeting in exactly fifty minutes.”
Kat made a sound at the back of her throat. Chiara’s cheeks flamed. “Of course,” she mumbled. “It’s on the house.”
On the house. Oh, my God. Chiara unlocked her frozen knees as Lazzero strode off to find a table near the window. Chitchatting with Lazzero when he came in in the mornings was par for the course. Insulting the regulars and losing her job was not.
* * *
Amused rather than insulted by the normally composed barista’s diatribe, Lazzero ensconced himself at a table near the windows and pulled out his report. Given his cynical attitude of late, it was refreshing to discover not all women in Manhattan were bounty hunters intent on razing his pockets.
It was also, he conceded, fascinating insight into the ultracool Chiara and what lay beneath those impenetrable layers of hers. He’d watched so many men crash and burn in their attempts to scale those defences over the past year he’d been coming here, he could have fashioned a graveyard out of their pitiful efforts. But now, it all made sense. She had been burned and burned badly by a man with power and influence and she wasn’t ever going there again.
None of which, he admitted, flipping open the report on the Italian fashion market his team had prepared, was helping him nail his strategy for winning Gianni Casale over at La Coppa Estiva. The fifty-page report he needed to inhale might. As for a woman to take to Milan to satisfy Gianni’s territorial nature? He was coming up blank.
He’d gone through his entire contact list last night in an effort to find a woman who would be appropriate for the business arrangement he had in mind, but none of them was right for the job. All of his ex-girlfriends would interpret the invitation in entirely the wrong light. Ask someone new and she would do the same. And since he had no interest of any kind in a relationship—summer shag or otherwise—that was out too.
Chiara broke his train of thought as she arrived with his espresso. Bottom lip caught between her teeth, a frown pleating her brow, she seemed to be searching for something to say. Then, clearly changing her mind, she reached jerkily for one of the cups on her tray. The steaming dark brew sloshed precariously close to the sides, his expensive suit a potential target. Lazzero reached up to take it from her before she dumped it all over him, his fingers brushing against hers as he did.
A sizzling electrical pulse traveled from her fingers through his, unfurling a curl of heat beneath his skin. Their gazes collided. Held. He watched her pupils flare in reaction—her beautiful eyes darkening to a deep, lagoon green.
It was nothing new. They’d been dancing around this particular attraction for weeks, months. He, because he was a creature of habit, and destroying his morning routine when it all went south hadn’t appealed. She, apparently because he was one of the last men on earth she wanted to date.
Teeth sinking deeper into that lush, delectable lower lip, her long, dark lashes came down to veil her expression. “Enjoy your coffee,” she murmured, taking a step back and continuing on her way.
Lazzero sat back in his chair, absorbing the pulse of attraction that zigzagged through him. He didn’t remember the last time he’d felt it—felt anything beyond the adrenaline that came with closing a big deal and even that was losing its effect on him. That it would be the untouchable enigma that was Chiara who inspired it was an irony that didn’t escape him.
He watched her deliver an espresso to an old Italian guy a couple of tables away. At least sixty with a shock of white hair and weathered olive skin, the Italian flirted outrageously with her in his native language, making her smile and wiping the pinched, distracted look from her face.
She was more than pretty when she smiled, he acknowledged. The type of woman who needed no makeup at all to look beautiful with her flawless skin and amazing green eyes. Not to mention her very Italian curves presently holding poor Claudio riveted. With the right clothes and the raw edges smoothed out, she might even be stunning.
And she spoke Italian.
She was perfect, it dawned on him. Smart, gorgeous and clearly not interested in him or his money. She did, however, need to help her father. He needed a beautiful woman on his arm to take to Italy who would allow him to focus on the job at hand. One who would have no expectations about the relationship when it was over.
For the price of a couple of pieces of expensive jewelry, what he’d undoubtedly have to fork out for any woman he invited to go with him, he could solve both their problems.
He lifted the espresso to his mouth with a satisfied twist of his lips and took a sip. Nearly spit it out. Chiara looked over at him from where she stood chatting with Claudio. “What’s wrong?”
“Sugar.” He grimaced and pushed the cup away. “Since when did I ever take sugar?”
“Oh, God.” She pressed a hand to her mouth. “It’s Claudio that takes sugar.” She bustled over to retrieve his cup. “I’m sorry,” she murmured. “I’m so distracted today. I’ll fix it.”
* * *
Lazzero waved her into the chair opposite him when she returned. “Sit.”
Chiara gave him a wary look. She’d started to apologize a few minutes ago, then stopped because she’d meant every word she’d said and Lazzero Di Fiore was the worst offender of them all when it came to the broken hearts he’d left strewn across Manhattan. Avoiding her attraction to him was the right strategy.
She crossed one ankle over the other, her fingers tightening around her tray. “I should get back to work.”
“Five minutes,” Lazzero countered. “I have something I want to discuss with you.”
Something he wanted to discuss with her? A glance at the bar revealed Kat had the couple of customers well in hand. Utterly against her better judgment, she set her tray down and slid into the chair opposite Lazzero.
The silver-gray suit and crisp, tailored white shirt set off his olive skin and toned muscular physique to perfection. He looked so gorgeous every woman in the café was gawking at him. Resolutely, she lifted her gaze to his, refusing to be one of them.
He took a sip of his espresso. Set the cup down, his gaze on her. “Your father is having trouble with the bakery?”
She frowned. “You heard that part too?”
“Sì. I had a phone call to make. I thought I’d let the lineup die down.” He cocked his head to the side. “You once said he makes the best cannoli in the Bronx. Why is business so dire?”
“The rent,” she said flatly. “The neighborhood is booming. His landlord has gotten greedy. That, along with some unexpected expenses he’s had, are killing him.”
“What about a small business loan from the government?”
“We’ve explored that. They don’t want to lend money to someone my father’s age. It’s too much of a risk.”
A flash of something she couldn’t read moved through his gaze. “In that case,” he murmured, “I have a business proposition for you.”
A business proposition?
Lazzero sat back in his chair and rested his cup on his thigh. “I am attending La Coppa Estiva in Milan next week.” He lifted a brow. “You’ve heard of it?”
“Gianni Casale, the CEO of Fiammata, an Italian sportswear company I’m working on a deal with, will be there as will my ex, Carolina, who is married to Gianni. Gianni is very territorial when it comes to his wife. It’s making it difficult to convince him he should do this deal with me, because the personal is getting mixed up with the business.”
“Are you involved with his wife?” The question tumbled out of Chiara’s mouth before she could stop it.
“No.” He flashed her a dark look. “I am not Phil. It was over with Carolina when I ended it. It will, however, smooth things out considerably if I take a companion with me to Italy to convince Gianni I am of no threat to him.”
Her tongue cleaved to the roof of her mouth. “You’re suggesting I go to Italy with you and play your girlfriend?”
“Yes. I would, of course, compensate you accordingly.”
“With the money to help your father.”
Her jaw dropped. “Why would you do that? Surely a man like you has dozens of women you could take to Italy.”
He shook his head. “I don’t want to take any of them. It will give them the wrong idea. What I need is someone who will be discreet, charming with my business associates and treat this as the business arrangement it would be. I think it could be an advantageous arrangement for us both.”
An advantageous arrangement. A bitter taste filled her mouth. Her ex, Antonio, had proposed a convenient arrangement. Except in Antonio’s case, she had been good enough to share his bed, but not blue-blooded enough to grace his arm in public.
Her stomach curled. Never would she voluntarily walk into that world again. Suffer that kind of humiliation. Be told she didn’t belong. Not for all the money in the world.
She shook her head. “I’m not the right choice for this. Clearly I’m not after what I said earlier.”
“That makes you the perfect choice,” Lazzero countered. “This thing with Samara Jones has made my life a circus. I need someone I can trust who has no ulterior motives. Someone I don’t have to worry about babysitting while I’m negotiating a multimillion-dollar deal. I just want to know she’s going to keep up her end of the bargain.”
“No.” She waved a hand at him. “It’s ridiculous. We don’t even know each other. Not really.”
“You’ve known me for over a year. We talk every day.”
“Yes,” she agreed, skepticism lacing her tone. “I ask you how business is, or ‘What’s the weather like out there, Lazzero?’ Or, ‘How about that presidential debate?’ We spend five minutes chitchatting, then I make your espresso. End of conversation.”
His sensual mouth twisted in a mocking smile. “So we have dinner together. I’m quite sure we can master the pertinent facts over a bottle of wine.”
Her stomach muscles coiled. He was disconcerting enough in his tailored, three-piece suit. She could only imagine what it would be like if he took the jacket off, loosened his tie and focused all that intensity on the woman involved over a bottle of wine. She knew exactly how that scenario went and it was not a mistake she was repeating.
“It would be impossible,” she dismissed. “I have my shifts here. I can’t afford to lose them.”
“Trade them off.”
“No,” she said firmly. “I don’t belong in that world, Lazzero. I have no desire to put myself in that world. I would stick out like a sore thumb. Not to mention the fact that I would never be believable as your current love interest.”
“I disagree,” he murmured, setting his espresso on the table and leaning forward, arms folded in front of him, eyes on hers. “You are beautiful, smart and adept at putting people at ease. With the right wardrobe and a little added...gloss, you would easily be the most stunning woman in the room.”
Gloss? A slow curl of heat unraveled inside of her, coiling around an ancient wound that had never healed. “A diamond in the rough so to speak,” she suggested, her voice pure frost.
His brow furrowed. “I didn’t say that.”
“But you meant it.”
“You know what I mean, Chiara. I was giving you a compliment. La Coppa Estiva is a different world.”
She flicked a wrist at him. “Exactly why I have no interest in this proposal of yours. In these high-stakes games you play. I thought I’d made that clear earlier.”
His gaze narrowed. “What I heard was you on your soapbox making wild generalizations about men of a certain tax bracket.”
“Hardly generalizations,” she refuted. “You need someone to take to Italy with you because you’ve left a trail of refuse behind you, Lazzero. Because Gianni Casale doesn’t trust you with his wife. I won’t be part of aiding and abetting that kind of behavior.”
“A trail of refuse?” His gaze chilled to a cool, hard ebony. “I think you’re reading too many tabloids.”
“I think not. You’re exactly the sort of man I want nothing to do with.”
“I’m not asking you to get involved with me,” he rebutted coolly. “I’m suggesting you get over this personal bias you have against a man with a bank balance and solve your financial problems while you’re at it. I have no doubt we can pull this off if you put your mind to it.”
“No.” She slid to the edge of the chair. “Ask someone else. I’m sure one of the other baristas would jump at the chance.”
“I don’t want them,” he said evenly, “I want you.” He threw an exorbitant figure of money at her that made her eyes widen. “It would go a long way toward helping your father.”
Chiara’s head buzzed. It would pay her father’s rent for the rest of the year. Would be enough to get him back on his feet after the unexpected expenses he’d incurred having to replace some machinery at the bakery. But surely what Lazzero was proposing was insane? She could never pull this off and even if she could, it would put her smack in the middle of a world she wanted nothing to do with.
She got to her feet before she abandoned her common sense completely. “I need to get back to work.”
Lazzero pulled a card out of his wallet, scribbled something on the back and handed it to her. “My cell number if you change your mind.”