For a woman who grew up with seven older brothers, Marianna Halsey knew surprisingly little about men.
Oh sure, she knew they ate like wild animals, forcing her to wolf down her meals as a kid so she didn’t miss out. She knew that they sorted their problems out with fists, and that they believed little sisters needed to be sheltered at all costs. She also knew they thought showering was optional and that it was perfectly fine to make a tower out of empty toilet paper rolls instead of taking them to the rubbish bin.
But when it came to knowing what a man wanted in a woman, she was at a total and utter loss.
Big boobs, small boobs, blondes or brunettes? Did they want witty and extroverted or thoughtful and quiet? She had no freaking clue. Truth be told, she wasn’t sure what she wanted in a partner, either.
What she did know, however, was that men didn’t seem to want her.
Marianna leaned back against the blue-and-white-painted chair, letting her eyes flutter shut as a warm breeze rolled past. Fanning herself, she sucked in the salty tang of the ocean and the sound of people speaking Greek. Allowing herself to get lost in the language, letting her ears delight in the sound of new words, gave her a moment of peace. The only moment of peace she’d had since she landed in Corfu yesterday.
She supposed most people would experience that muscle-loosening sense of relaxation the second they set foot on the idyllic island. But then again, most people hadn’t come here to lose their virginity.
She glanced down at her ereader, the searing words of a romance novel staring back up at her. Since she had no close girlfriends or people with whom she could talk about sex, she’d decided—as she did with most things—that books would be her best option. In fact, she’d barely slept a wink the entire journey from Australia to Greece as she’d devoured the stories, gobbling them up in her quest to garner any information which might help her seduce a man.
It was a damn good thing her ereader allowed her to shrink the text on her screen so her brother couldn’t lean over and see what she was reading! Romance novels should come with a warning: read in a cool place or risk spontaneous combustion.
Fire hazards aside, the books had aided her research and allowed her to create a checklist of important items.
To execute her anti-virginity plan she needed the following: a sexy Greek man, a romantic but private location, some fancy underwear—or in her case, a sexy bikini so she was beach-ready—and a bit of liquid courage. But not too much liquid courage…because vomiting on her target was bound to be a mood killer.
The open-air café across from her hotel was dotted with groups of people, a mix of locals and tourists from what she could tell. As yet, no one had caught her attention.
Patience. You’ve waited this long, what’s another hour or two to find the right guy?
All she had to do was pick her moment to slip away from the watchful eye of her older brother.
“Speak of the devil,” she muttered under her breath. Daniel, older brother number two, strode toward her with his shirtsleeves rolled back and perspiration beading along his hairline. Like her, he was used to the bone-dry heat of home rather than this sticky island humidity.
He dropped into the chair across from her. “How’s the reading?”
You wouldn’t be asking that if you knew how many times I’d read the word “cock” in the last five minutes.
“Good.” She reached for her coffee and sipped in an effort to stifle a giggle. “How was your meeting?”
“He didn’t go for it.” Daniel’s usually relaxed, jovial expression turned dark as a storm cloud. “I was warned he was difficult to deal with, but…he cut me off at the knees before I could even get the whole pitch out.”
“That’s a shame.” Her stomach clenched. As much as she wanted the best for her brother, she had a selfish reason for hoping he’d been successful. This trip could not be cut short.
“I’m not going to take no for an answer.” Daniel raked a hand through his hair. “I told him as much. What we’re doing will totally change how people invest their money. He should be all over it.”
Daniel was the “face” of their invention with his business background, but their younger brother, Matthew, was the brains. A child prodigy, Matthew had completed his degree in computer science before he was legally able to drink. He’d been building computers and designing programs for as long as anyone could remember. Now, with blockchain disrupting the finance industry, Matthew’s program enabled crowdsourcing for cryptocurrency price predictions, creating a whole new environment for making money.
But what they needed were a few high-profile investors to get on board. If they backed the product, then others would follow. And Daniel, never one to shy away from lofty goals, had decided that some fancy Greek billionaire—she’d forgotten his name already—would be target number one. Hence the trip.
“You should have brought me along to the meeting. I could have turned on the charm.” Marianna winked, and Daniel’s hearty laugh was so immediate and so genuine that she frowned. “It’s not that hilarious.”
“Sis, you are many things. Smart, kind, funny…but you’re not about to charm anyone into a business deal.” He reached across the table and squeezed her hand. “And I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
None of them would. Growing up in a small country town with more overprotective brothers than should be legal had meant dating prospects were nonexistent. She’d been put permanently in everyone’s “too hard” basket.
“Don’t look at me like that. Besides, this guy is a bit of a bastard. You don’t want the attention of someone like that.” Daniel shook his head. “And I know the software is good enough to sell itself. I’m not going to pimp my own sister out to get his attention.”
“So what now?”
“I’ve got a meeting with an ex-trader who was a big deal before he retired. I’m hoping he might have some contacts.” He checked his watch. “But he lives on the north part of the island, so I’ll be gone until this evening. Can I convince you to come with me? It’s supposed to be beautiful up there.”
Her heart skipped a beat. It was like the fates had handed her the perfect window of opportunity. And there would be no need to make excuses as to why she wanted to slip away if her brother was going to be on the other side of Corfu.
“Didn’t you just indicate that I’d be useless in a business meeting?” Marianna raised a brow, hoping to hell that she sounded calm, and not like she was about to spend the afternoon trying to find a stranger for the purpose of having sex.
Daniel blew out a puff of air. “I don’t like the idea of leaving you alone for that long. We’re in a strange country, and this is one language you don’t speak.”
True. She was fluent in English, Italian, Spanish, French, and German, and could carry on basic conversation in Portuguese, Indonesian, Russian, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Mandarin, but still hadn’t gotten around to learning more than a few cursory phrases in Greek. It was on her list.
Maybe if you hadn’t spent your whole life with your nose in a book, you wouldn’t be so inexperienced in dealing with people.
She’d been that child—the one who preferred learning over relationships. An information sponge. Marianna liked that about herself, though perhaps she should have made some girlfriends over the years. Perhaps if she’d tried harder, she wouldn’t be looking to romance novels for information about the opposite sex. And it wasn’t like she could ask her best friend, Jules, about it, either. He was a guy, and they’d never ever crossed that line, even if she’d wanted to many times as a teenager. But asking him about it now would just be…weird.
Hence, the romance novels.
“I’ve got my translation app, and if there’s one thing you don’t need to worry about, it’s me and languages.”
“You’ve got roaming turned on for your phone, right?” Daniel asked, his brows creased. His dark eyes were a mirror-image of her own, of all the Halsey kids. “Don’t worry about the cost.”
“I’ll turn it on,” she promised. She drained the rest of her coffee and stood, tucking her ereader back into her handbag.
Daniel looked at her sheepishly as they headed out of the café. “I know you think I’m being overprotective—”
“Promise you won’t go too far, okay?”
“I’ll be fine. I’m going to sit and read, and then I’m going to go to bed early and try to shake this jet lag.” She ignored the guilt zipping through her for lying to her brother.
She shouldn’t feel guilty. Marianna was a grown woman, and she didn’t have to account for herself. But the truth was, she’d gotten used to being protected. To being alone with her nose in a book. Back home, it had become harder and harder to meet people. To date.
The weight of knowing she was so inexperienced made her incredibly self-conscious, and it had only gotten worse as time passed. Guys back home expected a woman in her mid-twenties to be confident. And Marianna had fumbled so badly the one time she’d managed to kiss a man that he’d laughed in her face. Said she kissed like an overeager puppy.
Needless to say, she wasn’t encouraged to try again.
But that was the whole point of coming on this trip. Here, she could pretend to be anyone.
In fact, she already had a fake identity planned out. She was going to be Bianca, a well-traveled, cultured language student who was enjoying a holiday in the Greek islands. And if it all went horribly wrong and she embarrassed herself again, then she could fly home and avoid the risk of awkwardly running into her lover.
The very thought of it stoked the fire already burning inside her. Excitement, trepidation, and need all twisting and turning together to create a ball of anxious energy. She wanted to go home a new woman. An experienced woman.
“Daniel, will you go already?” She laughed, hoping it sounded genuine. “You came here to do business, not to babysit me. It’s a little insulting that you think I can’t take care of myself. I’m twenty-four, not fourteen.”
They hovered outside the café. Across the road, their hotel stood proud and white against a perfect azure sky dotted with marshmallow clouds. The streets bustled with tourists, and Marianna’s gaze immediately zeroed in on a man a few feet away.
Her breath stuttered at the sight of his jet-black hair and smooth olive skin. Darkness coated the sharp angle of his jaw, like a shadow. Her fingers itched to touch him, to see if the stubble was rough beneath her fingertips. And, unlike her and her brother, this man looked cool as a cucumber. There wasn’t a drop of sweat on him.
Her pulse quickened, and she was shocked at how quickly her body reacted. It was like someone had found the perfect marble statue of a man and brought him to life. Brought him here. For her.
He looked exactly like how she’d pictured the heroes of her romance novels—tall, dark, handsome. Mysterious with an undercurrent of something deeply sensual. Like a sexy secret that needed to be uncovered.
“Trust me,” Daniel said, breaking into her haze of lust by bending down to plant a kiss on top of her head. “When you’re well into your thirties, twenty-four will seem like a lifetime ago.”
“Okay, old man,” she teased.
“Call me if you need anything.” He looked at her pointedly. “You have the number for emergency services, right?”
“Yes. And the hotel concierge, and the number of the bank in case my credit card gets stolen.” She cut him off from asking any more questions by holding up her hand. “The only thing you have to worry about is whether I’m going to fit in the airplane seat on the way home from all the loukoumades I’m eating.”
She placed a hand over her stomach. Maybe she should be a little more worried about that. She had a tendency to snack while she read, a habit cultivated during many hours spent working on her studies back home.
“I’ll call you when I’m on my way back,” Daniel said.
“Good luck.” She smiled up at her brother. He worked hard and he deserved to succeed. For himself, and for their family. “I hope you bowl this guy over.”
Daniel left her alone, and the second he’d disappeared out into the crowd, Marianna’s eye drifted back to the handsome stranger. From this angle, his profile was proud and strong. He had a straight nose, heavy brows, and full lips that curved wickedly. Her blood thrummed in her veins, and the longer she stared the more she knew this was the man she wanted to take to bed.
Perhaps trying to seduce such a stunning man was aiming too high, but Marianna was sick of missing out on the joys of life. Instead of being the mousy country girl she was back home, she was going to be a worldly woman. Smart, intelligent, and sexy. Deserving of any man.
But just as she was trying to work up the courage to approach him, he walked past. The crowd moved around her, and she stepped back to get out of the way. Trying not to feel defeated, she stuck her hand into her bag to grab her phone. But when her fingertips brushed something warm and decidedly human, she screamed and balled her fist.
Shit! Nico Gallinas dodged a small fist as it came flying in his direction. It whizzed past his ear as he stumbled back against the guy who’d been trying to pickpocket the sister of Daniel Halsey. He’d noticed a man lurking behind her, eyes laser focused on the straw bag that was sweet but stupidly designed. Way too open at the top for a busy tourist area.
The second he’d seen the man stealthily slip a hand inside the bag, Nico had snatched at the man’s wrist. Only the woman had mistaken him for the pickpocket.
“How dare you!” She swung again, and this time it landed. It wasn’t enough to make stars dance in front of his eyes, but his jaw smarted, and he stumbled back. At the same time, she yanked her bag away from him. But the pickpocket still had a grip on the handle, possibly hoping to use the commotion as an opportunity for a snatch-and-grab. “Thief!”
The sound of material splitting cut through the air, and the contents of the bag exploded. Nico slipped and stumbled back. The pickpocket ducked out of his way and made a grab for the wallet, which had bounced next to Nico’s foot.
As the thief reached for it, Nico kicked at the man’s ankles. He didn’t fall, but it was enough to throw him off balance. And when the woman’s shocked gaze landed on the man who was really to blame for the commotion, the thief turned on his heel and darted down an alleyway.
Nico reached for the wallet, holding it out to her. What had Daniel said her name was? Marianna. “Here. You might want to consider using a more secure bag next time. Pickpockets target this area.”
She clamped one hand over her mouth as she accepted the wallet. “Oh my god, I am so sorry. I thought…”
“You made it very clear what you thought.” He shoved his hands into his pants. “I’d have to be doing more than picking pockets to afford this suit, for what it’s worth.”
“I thought the suit was a tactic.” A rosy flush filled her cheeks, and she hung her head as she bent down to pick up her things. “So you didn’t look like a thief.”
A man and a woman had stopped to assist them in gathering her personal effects from the ground. Tissues, a tube of lipstick, sunscreen, a mobile phone. A sleeve of birth control pills. She sucked in a breath and snatched them up, quickly stuffing them into her broken bag.
He noticed an ereader on the floor next to his foot, so he stooped down to collect it. In the fracas, the device must have landed on the power button. The screen showed a page of text, and when Nico squinted he let out a bark of a laugh. Miss I-Can-Pack-A-Punch was reading one hell of a book.
I want you to fuck me. Hard. Take your big cock and bend me over.
Her eyes widened as she looked at the device and saw it was on.
“Give it to me. Now. I mean…crap. Give the ereader to me.” She cringed as he handed it over, hugging it to her torso like a protective shield. “How much did you see?”
“Not much,” he replied. “I stopped reading after bend me over.”
A flush of embarrassment pinkened her cheeks, matching the pretty shade of her lips. Stunning. He especially liked the way her hands fluttered at her neck. He’d expected a woman reading such bold words to be a little more confident, but the contradiction grabbed his attention. He was always attracted to those.
“Oh god.” She pressed a palm to her face. “How’s the jaw?”
He chuckled. “I’ll live. I’ve taken worse punches.”
Actually it damn well stung like a bitch, but he didn’t want to make her feel bad. She’d only been trying to protect herself. And he was pretty damn impressed by her swing.
It was lucky he’d even noticed her coming out of the café with Daniel Halsey, otherwise she’d have more than a broken handbag to worry about.
What had her brother told her? That Nico was a cold-hearted bastard? An asshole? Probably. It’s not like he could dispute it. One didn’t make it to his level by being nice or by accepting every “life-changing” offer that came his way.
The Australian man had come to him so full of energy and excitement, wide-eyed with naïveté. A system that could allow people to crowdsource cryptocurrency price predictions? Right, and why would Nico want to endorse that? He’d made success by learning the ropes and honing his ability to marry gut instinct with a critical mind. By doing the work. Predictions were worthless without an experienced man in possession of them, and assuming anyone could do what Nico did by simply sourcing a bunch of predictions was even more of an insult.
Nico had shut the meeting down quickly. If Daniel Halsey had bothered to agree to a phone meeting first, he could have saved himself a flight. But the man had obviously assumed he could talk his way into Nico’s endorsement easier in person. More fool him.
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have punched you.” She bit down on her lip. “I took a few self-defense lessons at university, and I guess all that training must have been waiting for a moment to be used.”
Her skin was slightly damp with perspiration, and it gave her an ethereal glow. The fabric of her white sundress clung to her in patches, making the conservative cut sexier than it should have been. Nico was surprised to notice his normal urge for solitude was absent around this woman. He found himself wanting to know more about her.
“Apology accepted,” he replied.
The crowd had dispersed now, the thief long gone. Corfu was a mostly safe place, but anywhere tourists congregated there would be someone looking to take advantage.
“Can I buy you a drink to say thanks for saving my wallet?” she asked. Her dark eyes bored into him, unsettling something deep inside his chest.
Nico raised a brow. Most often women expected him to buy drinks. Not that he planned on letting her pay, mind you. And any bartender in Corfu wouldn’t take Nico’s money even if he offered it. One of the perks of being rich enough that everyone wanted you drinking at their establishment. Not that Nico got out much these days, mind you.
What had his business partner called him the other day? A hermit?
But that was beside the point. He shouldn’t be fraternizing with the sister of a man he’d just rejected for a business deal. There was always a chance that it could end badly.
“I’m Bianca, by the way.”
Bianca? Nico frowned. Daniel had mentioned his sister in passing, calling her Marianna. Unless he was mistaken in assuming they were related? Daniel had kissed the top of her head with such platonic affection that Nico would have been shocked if they weren’t close.
He accepted her hand and closed it in his fist, surprising himself at the steady hum in his blood. From a distance, he might have simply called her pretty. But up close there was a subtle complexity to her, a depth only those with a keen eye would see. And he was a man who loved details.
Long, dark hair tumbled down her back. It was so dark one might mistake it for being black, but the shade was so much more interesting than that. Sunlight bounced off strands rich with red and gold undertones, giving them a faint but fiery gleam. Her skin was incredibly fair, her eyelashes long and dark. Thick. They framed wide eyes the color of rich cocoa.
Whatever this woman was playing at with her fake name, she’d officially intrigued him.
“Sure, let’s get a drink,” he said. “But how about we find you a new bag, first?”