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His Beautiful Revenge by Michelle Love (1)

 

 

The phone’s shrill ring broke across the bookstore. Zulika waved the receiver.

“Lucian,” she yelled across the room. Norah didn’t notice the man sitting at the corner table and the way he stiffened at Zulika’s words, his attention caught. Norah grinned at Zulika as she took the phone from her.

“I’ve told you before, me Norah, him Lucian.”

Zulika poked her tongue out good-naturedly at her friend.

“Ha ha.” She walked away, swatting Norah’s butt with her hand.

“Hey, you,” Norah glanced at the clock on the wall of the bookshop.

“Hey, doll,” Lucian sang cheerfully. “It’s Friday, work’s out, and I’m in the mood for some quality time with you. Are you going home soon?”

Norah grinned, caught up in his mood. He sounded more cheerful than he had in months. And wanting to spend time alone with her? Rare, she thought to herself, what was up with him? But she didn’t want to waste his good humor.

“Yeah, very soon. Just gotta clear up some stuff-then I’m all yours. You cooking?”

They both laughed. “Pizza it is, then,” Norah said. “I’ll pick it up on the way home. Do we have beer?”

There was a pause. “Well, we did until last night.”

She rolled her eyes. “Okay. Hey, did Ziggy eat his breakfast?” Ziggy was their ancient St. Bernard crossed with a barrel on legs. Lately he had stopped eating so much.

“Yep, all of it.” Lucian sounded like a proud daddy.

“Oh, good. O Okay, be home soon.”

“Love you.”

She hesitated, then smiled. “Love you too.”

Norah went back up to her little office above the bookshop. Her freelance graphic design company—consisting of just Norah and her uber-organized work ethic—was beginning to take off and she found herself spending less time in the bookstore she ran with her almost-sister-in-law and best friend, Zulika. It was a blessing and a curse, she thought now as she glanced through the endless emails she’d received. As much as her first love was art and design, she loved the laid-back pace and friendly atmosphere of their San Francisco store. Now that Russian Hill was an up and coming “hip” area, their clientele had tripled in the three years they had been open. The store, all dark wood bookshelves and large, comfortable couches, had added a coffee machine in the last year, which had drawn many people in, and they had recently expanded into the empty store front next door, adding tables where writers could sit and work. Ziggy also took up residence, making friends with the customers and their dogs.

Norah, at twenty-eight, was completing her Ph.D. in graphic design part-time as well as working, and sometimes the work seemed overwhelming. She wondered if she had missed the signs that her relationship of five years with Lucian Hargity was beginning to unravel and whether it was her fault for working too hard. She’d even said as much to Zulika—Lucian’s step-sister—but Zulika had merely rolled her eyes. “If my brother can’t handle a successful woman, that’s on him, not you.”

Zulika and Lucian were not close, but Norah and Zulika were, and so Zulika put up with her brother. Her mother had married Lucian’s father after both being widowed, but the marriage had been a disaster and lasted less than five years. It had cost Zulika’s mother her health and when she died, Zulika went to her best friend for comfort: Norah. The two had met in college and become as close as sisters; they’d earned the name “the twins” because they were always together. Looks-wise, the only thing they shared was their long, dark hair. Norah, with her dark beauty inherited from her Indian mother, dark brown eyes, and soft, warm smile, was tall and curvaceous, whereas Zulika, her sapphire-blue eyes large behind black-rimmed spectacles, was athletic and slender. They shared a silly sense of humor as well as sharp intelligence and street-smarts. Despite never being apart for long, they enjoyed each other’s company.

Norah considered Zulika her family and when she had met her step-brother, Lucian, it seemed the orphaned Norah had found her family. It was only later that she discovered that Zulika had been dismayed at the relationship between her best friend and step-brother. It had bugged her ever since, but to Zulika’s credit, she had never bad-mouthed Lucian to Norah or interfered in their relationship.

Five years later, and Norah felt as if something major—something bad—was about to happen. Lucian had been distant, distracted, and even cold. They rarely made love anymore, both exhausted from work. Lucian worked for a major PR company in the Bay Area and his work often took him down to Los Angeles or over to New York. Yes, that was it, Norah told herself, it was work …except …She knew from Zulika that Lucian was relatively junior in his role. At thirty-one and not long out of college—where he had struggled to maintain higher marks—he was still working his way up the ladder. Norah wondered if all of his trips were actually work and not …

No. Stop thinking about it. An affair? Norah was horrified by her own thought process. She would rather think the worst of him than accept that his trips were genuine. It wasn’t fair to Lucian. But she couldn’t shake the feeling that he was treading water with her.

She pushed the thought out of her mind—something she had a lot of practice with—and it wasn’t until there was a soft knock on the door that she looked up from her work. The sun was getting low in the window and, for August, that meant it was getting late.

“Yes?”

The door opened and Lucian stuck his dark blonde head around it. “Hey, you.”

Norah was surprised. “Hey …I thought I was meeting you at home.”

“I thought I would surprise you—and say hi to my little sister. She’s serving a customer, so I thought I’d come up.”

“The store’s still open …sorry. I mean, hi,” she chuckled and kissed him. Lucian was a typical preppy archetype—handsome, well-maintained …bland. What had attracted her to him in the first place …Norah was ashamed that she couldn’t remember, but she knew she had loved him once. Now …didn’t all relationships turn into this? Friends with benefits? If you could describe their stale sex life as a benefit.

They went back downstairs to see Zulika finally locking the store up. She grinned at Norah, half-ignoring her stepbrother.

“You will not believe the sale I just made; that complete leather-bound Dickens collection? Sold, baby.”

Norah’s jaw dropped. “The five-thousand dollar set?”

“The very one.”

“Holy moly …we’ve had that for years.”

Zulika grinned at Norah. “You wanna make out with me?”

“Always.”

“Okay, it just got weird.” Lucian pretended to be sick.

“Yeah, but if I wasn’t your sister …”

“Dude, stop. You really have no filter, huh?”

Zulika shook her head. “Nah. Not much of one. By the way, I have news. I have a date.”

Lucian and Norah looked at each other, then at Zulika.

“Holy hell.” Norah’s eyes were wide.

“Did the skies darken?” Lucian checked outside the window.

“Oh, you’re both so fucking funny.” Zulika gave them both the finger, but she grinned and chuckled.

“When’s the first date?”

“Tomorrow night. Oh, I was going to ask a huge favor.” Zulika fluttered her eyelashes at Norah. “It would be really nice if, say, I at least attempted to look like a lady. And seeing as I don’t own anything …”

Norah smiled. Zulika was always borrowing from Norah’s beloved collection of vintage dresses and Norah kept a few of them upstairs in her office for “emergencies” just like this one. “Yes. Here.” She threw her door key to Zulika. “Go nuts. Just don’t wreck it.”

Zulika kissed her cheek. “You’re the best.”

She and Lucian laughed at the speed with which Zulika scooted out of the door. Lucian shook his head.

“Poor guy doesn’t stand a chance.”

Norah grinned. “Who is it anyways? Not Rufus?” She looked hopeful and Lucian grinned.

“You wish, Reddy. How long have you been trying to finagle that? Two, three years?”

Norah tapped her head. “I’m telling you, it’ll happen. I know things.”

Lucian hooted. “Oh, you know things. Tell me, O Wise One, why do you want them to get together?”

“Because they are perfect for each other. Zulika is gorgeous, Rufus is cute, and he makes her laugh.”

Lucian’s smile was fond—and a little patronizing. “Is that really all you look for in a man?”

Norah flushed at the slight. “That …along with kindness and fidelity.” She couldn’t resist the snark and she watched something flicker in Lucian’s eyes. He didn’t rise to the bait though. “Come on, you. Let’s get home to the dog. Both he and I are starving.”

Norah relented a little. “I can rustle up dog-food pizza for both of you?”

Lucian laughed. “Yum. Now I’m really hungry.”

“Gross.”

That made him laugh even harder. “Let’s see, do I fancy beef chunks in gravy? Chicken in jelly?”

Norah made a gagging face. “Stop, please.” He laughed, caught her by the waist, and pulled her into his arms, kissing her tenderly. It was a sweet, loving kiss, but Norah felt herself tense up. Lucian noticed and his smile faded.

“Let’s go. I’m bushed.” He walked out of the door in front of her and got into his own car, not waiting for her to follow him on the way back to their Palo Alto home.

For a brief second, Norah considered not going home, staying there, pulling out the little temporary cot they kept upstairs for emergencies, and sleeping there. If it wasn’t for Ziggy …

Norah sighed and, starting her car, followed Lucian out of the city.

Giacomo Conti was bored. Yet another cocktail party with people he had nothing in common with, yet another evening wasted when he could be working, or reading, or hanging out with his own, more sedate friends. But then again, he reasoned, Tara was willing to appear with him for public events whenever he needed her, so it was only fair. He looked across at her now, seeing her blonde hair falling to her shoulders, her petite, doll-like features, and her long, long legs. Tara Hubert was the world’s highest-paid supermodel and she was with him. Giacomo Conti was a self-made billionaire, an Italian geek whose brilliance within the technology field had sent his career into the stratosphere when he was just nineteen.

Almost half a lifetime and now he was bored. His company, Conti-Tech, was competing with the Googles and Facebooks of the world and was on target to be a trillion-dollar company any day now. Yet Giacomo found himself envious of the lives his friends led—more sedate and less shallow. As teachers, writers, artist, and lawyers, they didn’t work any less hard for what they had; it was just their fields didn’t pay as much, apart from the lucky few. Giacomo’s best friend and his brother in arms, Orlando Price, was a school teacher in one of the city’s poorest schools, and yet the results he had with his kids, the hope and inspiration he imparted, was priceless. Giacomo’s evenings with Orlando, his wife, Carmel, and their seven-year-old daughter, Ferma, were his absolute favorite times. Tara never joined them. She had little time for the “little” people, and she and Carmel had no time for each other whatsoever. Tara’s beauty was icy and cold, whereas Carmel’s dark good looks were sensual and exciting. Tara was jealous, so when Giacomo insisted on spending time with his friends, Tara always cried off—to everyone’s relief.

And now …Giacomo realized he hadn’t been listening to the man talking to him, but there was a good reason. Tara was cheating on him. Giacomo had suspected it for months and now he had a name to go with his suspicions: Lucian Hargity. Giacomo had had his private detectives follow Tara for the last three months, document and photograph every time she met with the man, and build a portfolio that, when Giacomo confronted her, Tara would not be able to deny.

It had been Carmel who had started him thinking. She’d mentioned she’d seen Tara in the city with another man months previously, not realizing that Tara had told Giacomo that she would be in New York for work. Carmel had been horrified to think she had casually blurted out the evidence of Tara’s cheating, but Giacomo had reassured her it had been for the best. Carmel had shaken her head angrily.

“Giacomo, I know it shouldn’t be my business, but don’t ever bring that woman here again. I don’t take her cheating on you lightly.”

There had been a nasty incident a few weeks later when the two women had come face-to-face. Carmel had to be restrained by her husband as Tara bitched at her about Giacomo’s emersion in work, and she couldn’t help blurting out that at least Giacomo knew about loyalty. Tara had asked her what she meant by that and Carmel had snarled at her. “You know.”

Giacomo had feigned innocence when Tara asked him about it and Carmel had apologized to Giacomo for her mouth. “It gets away from me sometimes,” she said ruefully, hugging him. “I just can’t stand the fact that she had the nerve to cheat on you.

Giacomo had hugged her tightly. “Don’t worry, Bella. I’ll handle it.”

Since then, he had bided his time, burying himself in work as his detectives gathered the evidence. Only today he had been at a meeting—completely disengaged—that afterward he had decided to go to the workplace of Hargity’s girlfriend and sister. He had donned a baseball cap over his dark curls and stuck some Wayfarers on his face to cover his distinctive green eyes.

At thirty-seven, Giacomo Conti was considered one of the world’s handsomest, most eligible (said the women’s magazines, choosing to forget his relationship with Tara) bachelors. His tall, darkly handsome face was saved from being generic by the brooding, almost dangerous set of his green eyes rimmed by thick, black lashes, his chin dimple, and his strong jaw. His black hair was left to grow in wild curls, and he was a man who could make both a Saville Row suit and an Abercrombie and Fitch sweater look good. His broad shoulders, slim hips, and long legs contributed to his demeanor, and on the rare occasion that he smiled, it lit up the room.

Giacomo knew he was good looking and did not believe in false modesty. When he was younger, he had screwed his way across Italy, then Europe, and finally, the world. His sexual prowess was legendary. Giacomo deliberately let the world think he was a playboy and as deep as a puddle. It suited him to know that the real Giacomo was still that little geek playing with computers in his small house in Trani. His small circle of “real” friends knew him as “Jack” and knew the fun-loving, loyal, big-hearted man beneath the image. He trusted few people with the truth …especially not women.

So, when Tara’s infidelity came to light, he hadn’t been that shocked. And today, when he’d gone to the little bookshop, Anthology, in the Russian Hill district, he had been pleasantly surprised at the laid-back feel and the friendliness. The giant St. Bernard had taken a shine to him and sat with him as he drank the superb coffee and watched the two women who ran the shop. Giacomo could barely take his eyes off the taller woman, Tara’s lover’s girlfriend. Her sweet smile, her easy, infectious laughter, her patient way with customers, and her literary knowledge spoke to Giacomo in a way he’d never felt.

He’s cheating on you, lovely girl? Idiot, he thought in disbelief. When the phone had rung and the younger woman had yelled out the bastard’s name, Giacomo had felt immediately on edge—almost jealous, almost wanting to yell at her to ignore it and that the figlio di puttana wasn’t good enough for her. He’d watched her face break into a smile and couldn’t do it. He couldn’t break this lovely girl’s heart.

He’d left soon after, unable to stand it. At home, he hadn’t been able to resist Googling her. Norah Reddy, part owner of The Anthology Bookstore and also a freelance graphic designer. He looked through her online portfolio and was impressed. He called Sebastien, his longtime personal assistant, and asked him to set up a meeting with her. “I think we might find her useful for the some of the campaigns we have coming up,” He told Seb. Also, she’s gorgeous and I want to see her again. He grinned to himself as he hung up. Two birds with one stone. If he could harness the woman’s obvious talent and get that beautiful body into his bed …opportunity and revenge in one go.

He smiled to himself again now as the cocktail party droned on. Watching Tara network and flirt with the men in the room (Giacomo knew Tara barely registered the other women, knowing she was the most beautiful woman there), he wondered how he had ever gotten involved with her. She was so totally opposite of what he was attracted to, but then again, five years ago he’d been reeling from the death of his grandparents—cancer, within weeks of each other—and he’d dealt with it by drinking and numbing the pain by screwing around. Tara had seen his sadness and moved in, telling him she was what he needed.

He felt a pang of sadness now. Yes, he had needed her then and he couldn’t help but know that he was partially responsible for the fracture in their relationship now. He was obsessed with his work and passionate about what he could achieve. He had neglected her and Tara wasn’t a woman to neglect. He’d seen the disgust in her eyes when she looked at him. Maybe he should just cut her free.

His phone beeped—a message from Orlando. Dinner with Carmel and me, Friday?

Giacomo smiled. “Yes, god, please.” Hell, yes. Send black-ops to get me out of this party.

Ha ha. Grit your teeth. See you Friday, buddy.

Giacomo sighed. What he wouldn’t give to have a time machine now. Still, he had no meetings tomorrow as yet …so he could always go spend some time in that little bookshop …

He pushed the thought away and went to get his drink refilled.

Carmel gently took the headphones off her sleeping husband’s head. Orlando was stretched lengthways on their couch, his breath coming out in tiny snores. She kissed his forehead and smoothed a finger down his face. His arm, solid and muscular, slipped from his chest and hit the floor. He stirred, grumbled softly, and turned onto his side, still muttering. Carmel suppressed a laugh. She moved around the living room, picking up empty bottles, cups, sheet music, and student papers. It was a wonder any students got the correct papers back from their favorite music teacher. Orlando’s organization skills were not exactly a gift. Carmel stacked everything that looked school-related carefully on the small desk in the corner of the room, catching them as they slipped out of her grip.

As she tidied, she glanced out the window of their small home and froze. A movement caught her eye—someone moving away from the window. Their neighborhood was safe and it shook her to see that. Not least because, for the last few weeks, she had had a creeping feeling that she was being followed or watched. Carmel wasn’t a woman who scared easily, but it had been insidious, and whenever she had been alone, out in the city or on her way to work, she had become more paranoid. She hadn’t said anything to Orlando, not wanting to worry him until she knew for sure.

Now, though, if whoever was following her—if they actually existed—was coming to her house …No. No way, buster. Not with my daughter asleep upstairs.

She opened the front door and stepped out onto the porch, peering into the gloom. The street—which was tree-lined and still somewhere the kids could play outside—was empty, except for Jason, the elderly man down the street, who waved at her. She waved back, smiling. Jason was in a wheelchair and hardly likely to be peering in their high windows.

Satisfied she was being paranoid, she turned and went inside. Just for once, she locked both doors. She heard footsteps and turned. Orlando shuffled sleepily from the living room. He ran a hand through his short hair and grinned at her.

““Sup, babe, what you …” he yawned expansively, “ …doing out there?” He took in her face. She was frowning slightly. “What’s the matter?” He stepped toward her and slid his arms around her waist. Carmel blinked and her face cleared.

“Ah, nothing,” she said, not convincing him for a second. “Well, I just thought I saw someone watching the house. But there wasn’t. So.” He grinned down at her, cheeky and boyish. “Shut up.” She scowled at him, trying not to smile

“Watching the house?”

“Shut up.” She started to laugh. Orlando put a mock-serious look on his face.

“No, no, no, better to make sure. Want me to have a look …”

“…no …”

“…wouldn’t hurt to look.” He reached behind her and opened the door. For a second they both looked out. Carmel secretly hoped they would see …something.

Orlando turned to look at her. “Hmmm, strange ...” She wiggled away from him, swiping at him. Laughing, he gathered her up in his arms and buried his face in her neck, pressing his lips against her warm skin. He felt her body relax and, raising his head, tipped her face up to his. He kissed her gently on the mouth. Carmel sighed with happiness.

“Wanna go cuddle some?” He muttered, his lips moving against hers. She responded by kissing him harder. His right hand tangled in her hair as their kiss deepened, his left hand sliding down the curve of her back. She pressed her body into his, feeling the excitement build in both their bodies. She gasped for air as he broke away, sliding his hands under her buttocks and lifting her so her legs curled around his back. His dark brown eyes burned with desire as he bore her up the stairs.

He laid her on the bed and was undressing her when they heard it. “Ah,” said Orlando, sighing. “The walking, talking contraceptive device.”

Mommy! Carmel chuckled and disengaged herself from her husband. “Take a load off. I’ll go see what she wants.”

“There’s a reason you don’t have brothers or sisters,” Orlando yelled grumpily to his daughter and Carmel hushed him, giggling as she went to see what her daughter wanted.

Ferma was sitting up in bed, her hair in cornrows. “What is it, sweetie?”

“Monster.”

Carmel sighed. “Where, darling?”

“On my toes.”

“A monster on your toes. Okay.” Carmel sat down, pretending to look under the comforter. “Now, who would be so brave to go near your stinky feet, punkin’?” She lifted the edge of the comforter, then pretended to hold her nose. “Pooh! No, no monster, darling. No cheesy feet-eating monster.”

Ferma giggled and wiggled her toes. “My feet don’t stink.”

“They don’t?Okay, I’ll check again …pooh, arghhhh!” Carmel pretended to choke on the ‘stink.’ “Help, I can’t breathe …the smell! The smell!”

Ferma giggled uncontrollably and Carmel tickled her daughter. “Now look, kiddo, there are no monsters, okay? None that will get in here—not while I’m around.Okay, Snugglepuss? Sleepy time now.”

She settled Ferma back into her blankets, then went back to bed to find Orlando sprawled across the bed, snoring. “So much for love,” she muttered, grinning, then crawled into bed next to him and was asleep almost as soon as she closed her eyes.

Norah shut off the shower and dressed quickly. Lucian lay watching her, then, as she passed him, hooked her legs and pulled her down onto the bed.

“Stay, stay,” he said, pinning her down. She wriggled out from underneath him, annoyed.

“Quit it! Too much to do. Get off, get off.” She struggled to her feet and swatted his head, smiling to soften the snub. “Up, up. Time to do manly stuff.” Lucian rolled into a sitting position, yawned and smiled at her.

“Manly stuff?”

She grinned. “Yep. Chop wood, hunt bison, that kinda stuff.”

From downstairs, they heard a pitiful whimper—Ziggy wanted his breakfast.

Norah sighed.

“I gotta feed the kid.” She left Lucian to shower and thumped downstairs. Ziggy was beside himself. She fought him off while reaching for his food, his nose seeking out the meaty chunks. As soon as she put his bowl on the floor, Ziggy fell on it with abandon.

Norah switched on the coffee pot and surveyed the contents of the fridge. Eggs. Eggs sounded good. She snagged a mixing bowl from the cupboard, feeling the satisfying crack of the shell against her palm. She grimaced as the egg white stuck to her skin and flicked the food into the bowl. She was whisking the eggs, adding some paprika, when Lucian came down the stairs.

Ziggy had finished his food and was now licking the empty bowl around the kitchen, the metal scraping against the floor tile. Lucian snatched up the bowl and Ziggy looked up at him with hope.

“Now you’ve done it,” Norah shook her head. “He thinks he’s getting extra.”

Lucian shrugged. “No dice, dog,” he addressed Ziggy, “Live with it.” He threw the dish into the sink. Ziggy harrumphed and wandered off. Lucian grinned and slid his hands around Norah’s waist, pretending to bite her neck.

She put the bowl of eggs into the microwave, fixed the time, and pressed start. She turned to face him.

“Boobie check.” Lucian pulled her shirt out and peered down her cleavage. “Yep, still there.” She half-smiled, a little irritated by his cheerfulness. Norah was not a morning person.

Lucian smiled. “You okay?”

“Yeah, fine. Do you want eggs?”

“Please.”

They were interrupted by the sound of wood being chewed. Lucian grabbed Ziggy and tugged him away from the table.

“Hey, hey, quit that.” Ziggy grumbled, rolling onto his back and biting his own leg, wiggling his body from side to side. Lucian laughed at their dog, teasing him with his toys and playing tug of war. “Stupid mutt.”

“Don’t call him stupid,” Norah said and bent to kiss Ziggy’s head. “You’re Mummy’s favorite boy. Yes, you are.” Ziggy licked her face and she giggled.

The microwave beeped. At the same time, a knock came from the front door. Norah threw Lucian the dish cloth.

“I’ll get the door. You deal with breakfast.”

“Okay. I’ll let his majesty out for a run. He’s antsy.”

The postman was waiting with a package for Norah to sign. She thanked him and was opening it when Lucian came back into the kitchen. “Anything interesting?”

Norah was studying the contents—a Conti-Tech brochure and letter outlining their future projects. The letter, by the looks of it handwritten by Giacomo Conti himself, asked her to keep the contents secret and requested she call his private office to set up a meeting.

I have studied your portfolio, Miss Reddy, and I think we can work well together. I’d like to hear your vision and see if we can build a professional relationship.

Look forward to hearing from you very soon.

Yours,

Giacomo Conti

Norah felt her body tremble. Conti-Tech wanted her? She felt a little breathless. If she landed a Conti-Tech contract …god, it would send her career into the stratosphere. “Just a possible future client,” she said casually, stuffing the contents back into the envelope and slipping it into her bag. “Nothing interesting.”

As they ate breakfast, Norah asked herself when she had stopped confiding in Lucian about the important things in her life. Then it struck her. Had she ever? Had she ever trusted him? She studied him now. “How’s work?”

Lucian shrugged. “Busy. Too many egos at work on this latest job. I tell you, never work with diva photographers or supermodels. A nightmare to work with. It doesn’t matter what we’ve pitched; they always, always change their minds. You’re lucky in your line of work.”

“Yes,” Norah said dryly. “Because clients never change their minds in my line of work.”

He waved away her sarcasm with his hand. “You know what I mean. You don’t have the high-pressure work that I do.”

Norah gritted her teeth. This was more like it. The affable, fun-loving boyfriend of this morning was gone and in his place, the egotistical douchebag who belittled her at every turn. Her eyes narrowed at him. “Why do you do that?”

“What?”

“Put me down? Does it make you feel like more of a man?”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

You don’t have the high-pressure work I do.” She mimicked him, knowing it annoyed him. “I run my own business, Lucian, and you think I don’t have pressure? Actually, I run two businesses. So don’t give me that bullshit.”

Lucian looked astonished at her outburst. Finally, he started to smile. “Are you menstruating?”

Wanting to pound the smirk off his face, Norah got up. “I’m going to work.” She looked around for her phone, and realizing she’d left it upstairs, she headed out of the door.

Upstairs, she sat on the bed and took a deep breath in. Why was she so annoyed? Maybe because this is what Lucian did—he’d be playful, friendly when it suited him, and distant and dismissive when it didn’t. She was sick of it. She dropped her head in her hands. It was Saturday and she was glad that she had the bookstore to open. Maybe it would distract her. She grabbed her phone, then saw her pill packet next to the glass of water on her nightstand. God, she’d forgotten to take it this morning. Hurriedly, she swallowed it with some water. No, Lucian, I’m not on my period because I make sure I never have them. She didn’t question why she had always made absolutely sure she wouldn’t get pregnant …not with Lucian’s child. As she walked back downstairs, she asked herself the same question she had asked herself for a long time now …

Why the hell am I still with him?

Lucian heard her on the stairs and stuffed the envelope back into her bag. Conti-Tech. Giacomo Conti wanted to hire Norah. Coincidence? He didn’t think so. Norah came in and grabbed her bag, giving him a short, “See you later.” He grunted in reply, then when he heard the front door close, he pulled his cellphone out.

Tara’s greeting was a purr, but a few seconds later she was much less friendly. “What the fuck are you talking about?”

“I’m talking about your boyfriend hiring my girlfriend. Does he know about us?”

“No, of course not. How could he?”

Lucian sighed. “I thought you said that friend of his might have seen us.”

“Carmel? That situation is being dealt with. Put it out of your mind.”

“How do you mean ‘dealt with?’”

“Don’t worry about it. I don’t think this thing with Giacomo and your girlfriend is anything to worry about. Didn’t you tell me she was an excellent graphic designer?”

“Well, yes …”

“Giacomo has a habit of nurturing new talent. He probably just sent out feelers to a whole slew of young up-and-comers. If we freak out about it …well, that’s just going to confirm issues.”

Lucian rubbed his eyes. “When can I see you?”

“Soon. As soon as this other situation is over with.” Tara’s voice warmed again. “I’ll miss you. I’ll miss your cock inside me, baby. I’ll miss sucking it …”

God,” Lucian gave a moan of desire. “I want to cum inside you so hard, beautiful …”

She laughed softly. “I’ll be thinking about you …”

Norah read and re-read Giacomo Conti’s letter. She showed it to an impressed Zulika, whose eyes bugged out of their sockets. “Wow. I mean, wow, Norah.”

“I know, right?”

It was late afternoon and the bookstore was quiet for once. Norah couldn’t resist telling Zulika about the letter. Zulika read Giacomo’s handwritten letter and sighed. “Even his handwriting is sexy.”

“He’s sexy?” Norah looked confused. She’d never seen the man himself. Zulika rolled her eyes.

“Just occasionally,” she teased, “Check out some gossip sites instead of your usual geeky ones. Here,” she grabbed her iPad and quickly brought up some photos. She handed it to Norah, who did a double-take.

“Holy moly.” She looked into the intense green eyes and dark good looks of Giacomo Conti. “I thought he was much older.”

“Well?”

Norah nodded, grinning. “That is one gorgeous man.”

“And you could be working closely with him,” Zulika teased, “I can see it now …you’re working one late night, on an urgent presentation. You’re both so absorbed in the work that you don’t realize it’s gotten dark outside. You lean across him and he smells your perfume…”

Norah was giggling. “Are you writing some kind of porn movie in your head?”

“Hey, you mentioned porn, so who’s the pervert?” Zulika grinned and Norah flushed. She’d got her there. Norah held up the iPad, trying to hide her embarrassment.

“Look at this man. Who wouldn’t think of porn?”

“True story.”

Grinning, Norah handed her back her tablet. “Anyway, besides that, it could mean the business taking off.”

“Which might mean you not being free to work here as much.” Zulika nodded, “I get it. We always thought that might happen.”

“Do you mind?”

Zulika shook her head. “Putting aside the fact I’ll miss your company, your business is the reason our business has been financed this long. I’m grateful. I’m more than that; I’m delighted for you. We need to celebrate.”

“Good idea.”

Zulika studied her friend. “Why don’t you stay with me tonight? Call Luc, tell him you need a girl’s night in.”

Norah nodded. “I’d like that.” What she didn’t add was it would be a relief. The tension at home and Lucian’s mood swings—she needed a break from it. What she also hadn’t told anyone else was that she’d been looking at apartments in the city to rent. If Lucian was cheating, then she already knew her plan. In a weird way, she almost hoped he was cheating because then she would have the final push to do what she had wanted to do for a long time.

End it.

Giacomo had now been to the Anthology three times and was feeling like somethings of a stalker. Finally Seb had told him that Norah Reddy had called and tomorrow was the day he would finally meet her. The few hours he had spent in her unknowing company, he had seen a woman who, above all else, was free. Free from vanity and free from expectations. He reminded himself that he did not really know her from those hours observing her, but he couldn’t help feeling excited about the meeting.

Tonight, however, Tara was sitting out on his balcony, smoking one cigarette after another and fretting about …what was it this time? Giacomo sighed and went outside, pinching a cigarette from her packet.

“What is wrong today?” He said, lighting the cigarette and inhaling deeply. He studied her. Tara, her denim-blue eyes large, was almost thirty, but she looked a good five years older. Sun damage and smoking had weathered her face, but it didn’t detract from her beauty. She gazed back at him steadily.

“Why have you never asked me to marry you?”

The question surprised Giacomo. They had never discussed marriage before. He leaned forward. “Because marriage has never figured into my plans,” he said honestly. “And, rightly or wrongly, I thought you would prefer to have a career rather than be shackled to me.”

And why would I marry someone who would cheat on me? Or is that why you are cheating on me?

Tara smirked. “My career is steady. I get the work of girls ten years younger.”

“I know that you do.”

“But I think of marriage, kids …”

“With me?”

Tara put out her cigarette. “Of course you.”

Giacomo smiled coolly. “I’m surprised.”

“Why?”

He met her gaze steadily, leaving the reason unspoken. Tara was the first to look away. “Whatever.”

She got up, but he caught her hand. “You are not happy, Tara.”

“No.”

“Then why don’t you leave?”

She didn’t answer, merely pulling her hand away. As she turned to leave, he saw, just for a moment, a flash of hurt in her eyes.

“Tara …”

“Don’t,” she said, her voice quivering, and disappeared back into the apartment. Giacomo felt like a heel, but told himself he’d done nothing wrong. You’re not the one who is cheating.

“Not yet,” he said, thinking of Norah Reddy’s pink lips and sweet smile. “Not yet.” He dropped his head into his hands and sighed.

Che cazzo di casino. What a fucking mess.

Norah straightened her skirt over her hips and wished she had another suit. As a graphic designer, she’d always been casually, if professionally, dressed, but otherwise she was hardly ever out of jeans and Chuck Taylor’s. She felt awkward in the dark red suit, but as soon as Giacomo Conti entered the room, she forgot everything else. The photograph on the website did not do him justice.

He shook her hand, his large, warm hand dwarfing hers, and led her into his office. His very cute assistant, Sebastien, grinned at her.

“Would you like some coffee?”

“Just water, please,” she managed to croak out at him and he gave a reassuring wink.

“Jack, for you?”

Giacomo smiled and Norah felt her stomach flip. God …that smile. “Water’s good for me too. Thanks, Seb.”

“He’s nice,” Norah said after Seb had gone and Giacomo smiled.

“He is, and very efficient. I got lucky. Now, I want to thank you for coming to see me, Norah—I can call you Norah, yes?”

Oh, god, yes. Especially with the accent. “Of course, Mr. Conti.”

He laughed. “And that’s “Jack” to you. I hate standing on formality.”

Norah relaxed a little. “Me too.”

“Good. Now, as I said in my letter, we have a number of new projects in the pipeline and I was impressed with your portfolio.”

Norah nodded. “And thank you for taking the time to look, but, Mr. Conti, I have to tell you from the off: I’ve never worked a major project before. Not that I wouldn’t welcome the chance to work with you, but I have to be honest. It would be a huge step-up for me.”

“I appreciate that,” Giacomo—Jack, she reminded herself—said as Seb came in with their drinks. “Then, I suppose, think of this as graduation day.” He grinned at Seb, who rolled his eyes.

“That’s his favorite saying,” Seb said to Norah in a stage-whisper and she chuckled.

“It is?”

Giacomo nodded. “Yes, but it’s also true. Norah, Seb’s right in that I do like to nurture new talent, especially from the Bay Area, but it helps when that talent has new, fresh, exciting ideas …and your portfolio shows me how talented you are.”

Seb made a loud beeping noise. “Too many uses of the word ‘talent.’ You’re out.”

“You’re fired,” Giacomo shot back, grinning, as Seb made his exit, laughing out loud. Norah was shaking her head in disbelief at the comedy show.

“I may be out of line, but I’ve never been in an office like this,” she laughed and Giacomo smiled at her.

“Like I said, I hate formality. Or hierarchies. God, who gets off on power trips? Never a good way to run a business.”

Norah liked this man –immensely—not just because his green eyes were beautiful and warm or because his smile was making a steady pulse beat between her legs, but because, if nothing else, he was honest. Rich, handsome, the world at his feet, but he made jokes with his employees and took their teasing with good humor. Yeah, you’re a good one, Norah thought and felt sadness that she didn’t know more men like him.

“Are you okay?”

She pulled herself up. “Yes, very. Just wishing more workplaces were like this.”

He smiled. “I hear you. Come and sit on the balcony and we’ll talk about the projects I have in mind.”

The afternoon flew by and Norah left the Conti building feeling more energized by work than she had for a long time. The challenges Giacomo Conti laid in front of her were daunting in their scope, to be sure, but the kind of challenge she had longed for.

“I see us working closely together,” he said, his eyes twinkling, and she grinned at his flirtatious manner; this man knew how gorgeous he was and didn’t mind using it. You are trouble, she thought now, smiling to herself, but she had enjoyed every moment in Giacomo Conti’s company. More than his looks and personality, though, he had treated her with respect, listened to her as she went through some preliminary ideas, and gave her constructive criticism and praise. It had been a productive, collaborative meeting and she had enjoyed it. Giacomo had asked her to officially sign a contract with him. She had agreed without even discussing money; she had forgotten all about the money side of thing until she got home and read through the contract.

She frowned. It must be a typo. She grabbed her phone and called him. “I think there’s been a typo,” she said, her tone amused. “There are one too many zeros on the end of this check.”

She heard his deep, soft laugh and it sent thrills through her. “No,” he said. “There’s no mistake.”

Norah gasped. “Giacomo …no. This is too generous.”

“No, it isn’t. You just haven’t been paid what you are clearly worth before. I have to tell –you—I won’t budge on this.”

Norah was speechless. “I don’t know what to say except thank you for believing in me.”

That laugh again. “I know you won’t let me down.”

“I won’t. I promise. Not ever.” Were they still talking about work? The conversation had taken a far more intimate turn and Norah felt her body quiver with longing.

There was a pause in the conversation. “Norah …I’m having dinner with some friends tomorrow night. Would you like to join me?”

Norah felt a pang. God, yes, she would but … “Giacomo, I can’t. I’m sorry. I have commitments at home.”

“Understood. Another time?”

“Definitely. Goodnight, Giacomo.”

“Sweet dreams, Bella.”

She couldn’t stop thinking about him. She went to bed that night, and as Lucian was still out, she allowed herself a little fantasy, sliding her hand between her legs and stroking her clit as she conjured up an image of Giacomo Conti naked, wet from the shower as he opened the door to her. He smiled, saying nothing, but pulling her gently into his arms. Norah gave a soft moan as she imagined his lips against hers, his strong hands sliding under her dress to tug her panties down her legs. She bit her lip as her hand moved faster on her clit and she imagined his cock, huge and pulsating, thrusting deep inside her as his green eyes locked onto hers.

Norah came as her fantasy melted away and she lay there panting for a few minutes, her body vibrating with the afterglow and her mind whirling. Her orgasm, intense and all-consuming, had made her shiver with desire and longing.

She heard the front door slam, bringing her back to reality. She turned over in the bed, not wanting to talk to Lucian as he stomped up the stairs.

“Norah? You awake?”

She kept her eyes shut, feeling irritated at his presence. God, just leave him already, woman. She stiffened as he got into the bed. He smelled of booze and perfume.

Fucker.

She felt him reach for her and kept her body stiff and unresponsive. “Come on, baby,” he slurred, “Wake up for daddy.”

She wanted to throw up. He knew she hated it when he got like this—drunk and sloppy—and he did it deliberately. The “daddy” thing had always revolted her and it was a new thing too. Did his other girlfriend like it?

Lucian’s hand was between her legs now, and finally, she reacted. “What the hell are you doing?”

He laughed. “Just getting mine. C’mon, honey, we haven’t done it for weeks.”

She edged away from him, but he grabbed hold of her arm. “Let me go, Lucian.”

“You know what? No. You’re my girlfriend, dammit …”

He moved quickly, pulling her back onto the bed and covering her body with his, his hands burrowing. “Get off me,” she growled at him, getting more annoyed and scared, but he didn’t let her go. His fingers were seeking her sex now.

“Why are you wet? See, ready for me, just like I wanted.”

Norah was crying now as he pinned her to the bed. “Lucian, stop, stop …

But he didn’t stop, thrusting his half-erect cock into her and thrusting his hips as she cried and struggled to get away from him, sobbing her rage and hurt. He kissed her roughly and she bit down on his tongue, hard.

“Fucking bitch!” And he hit her across the face, hard.

The shock of the assault was icy cold and Norah’s whole body shut down. Lucian continued his rape, thrusting and grunting until he came. “See, baby? See how much I love you? God,” he buried his face in her neck. “Don’t ever leave me, Norah. You ever leave me and I’ll kill you ...I’ll kill you …”

Frozen, Norah lay under him, and after a few minutes, Lucian was snoring. She shoved him off her. He didn’t wake as she slid from the bed. She got dressed, pulling her hold-all from the closet and dumping her clothes and toiletries into it. Downstairs, she attached Ziggy’s lead, grabbed her laptop and phone, and got into her car. Without looking back, she drove into the city and straight to Zulika’s apartment.

When Zulika opened the door, she was shocked to see Norah’s face, wan and pale. Dry-eyed but obviously devastated, Norah let Zulika lead her into the apartment, then said, very calmly, “I need you to take me to the nearest police station, Zul. I have to report a rape.”

Giacomo smiled at his friends as they sat around the outside dinner table. Ferma was perched on Giacomo’s knee, showing him how to draw the perfect spacecraft, and Carmel was leaning against a reasonably drunk Orlando. Lando raised his glass. “To my family, my beautiful wife and daughter, and my brother, Giacomo.”

Giacomo buried a grin and Carmel rolled her eyes. “Fourth time tonight, hun.”

They had enjoyed sizzling hot fajitas and two or three bottles of red wine, and now it was getting late.

“Come on, fruit bat.” Carmel lifted her daughter up. “Time for bed. Give Jack a kiss.”

Ferma threw her arms around her godfather’s neck and kissed his cheek. Giacomo chuckled. “Night, mio caro.

While they were alone, Lando studied his friend. “You look different. Upbeat.”

Giacomo smiled and ran his hand through his dark curls. “And if I told you why …”

Lando laughed. “Please, make my day and tell me it’s a woman.”

“It is,” Giacomo admitted wryly. “And not the one it’s supposed to be.”

“I figured. Who is she?”

“Her name is Norah Reddy she’s a brilliant graphic designer, and she has a boyfriend. That would beokay—after all, I couldn’t date someone who worked for me—except for one thing.”

“What’s that?”

Giacomo hesitated for a long moment. “I think Norah’s boyfriend is the one screwing Tara.”

Lando was sober then. “Oh god, Jack …”

“I know. What a fucking mess.” He gave a humorless laugh. “I’ve been saying that a lot lately.”

Lando sighed. “Man …does she know? I mean, this Norah girl? Does she know?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Hell.”

“Yup.”

They sat in silence for a few minutes, then Lando leaned forward. “You like her?”

Giacomo nodded. “Very much. She’s …the opposite of Tara.”

“Man, I think it’s time you ended things with Tara. You haven’t been happy with her for years.”

“She asked me the other night why I had never proposed to her. I gave her some guff about not wanting to settle down and hurt her career.”

“Did she buy it?”

“No. I think we both know it’s over at this point. God, I knew she was cheating and my instinct was to find out who with, but now I wish I never knew. I wish I had just had the guts to finish it.”

They sat in silence until Carmel came back down and re-joined them. “Men? Have we moved into serious territory?”

“Jack’s got a crush.”

Carmel grinned at Giacomo. “How many times have I told you, Jacky? I’m married.”

“Sucks, my mistake.” He grinned at her, but then his smile faded. “Carmel, I met someone. Someone …special. But I also know something that could break her heart. Do I tell her?”

Carmel didn’t have an answer for him.

Zulika took her friend to the police, then accompanied her to the hospital for the rape kit. She saw the burgeoning bruise on Norah’s face and her stomach roiled with fury. When she was sure that Norah was asleep, back safe in Zulika’s apartment, she called her step-brother. He was still asleep.

Motherfucker,” she hissed down the telephone at him. Lucian was awake then.

“Zul, what the hell is going on?”

In the background, she could hear sirens and she smiled grimly. “Hear those blues and twos, cocksucker? They’re coming for you. I saw what you did to her. I saw the bruises on her face. You fucking raped Norah.”

“What the fuck? Rape? I had sex with my girlfriend, Zulika, not that it’s any of your business …and where the hell is Norah? Norah!”

She heard him call out for his absent girlfriend and it made her growl. “You don’t even remember, do you? You hit her, Lucian, then you forced yourself on her. Rape, dear brother, is rape. God, I could kill you.”

“What?” Lucian’s voice had changed from confused to scared now. “No …no … I couldn’t have …god …”

Zulika heard the knock at Lucian’s door. “Better get that, asshole. It’s time for your walk in perp irons. You’ll never see her again. Do you understand? Neither of us. Don’t come near either of us ever again or I’ll have you arrested.”

“Zul …please, call my lawyer …” She heard the police inside his apartment now, telling him to hang up the phone.

“Go fuck yourself.” She said and hung up the phone. Tears began to fall down her cheeks and, trembling, she buried her face in a pillow to muffle her sobs. The shock of what happened was hitting her now, but she knew it was nothing to what Norah must be feeling. Zulika couldn’t believe it; she had never liked her step-brother, but had never thought him capable of this.

She felt an arm slip around her shoulders and looked up to see Norah was awake. They hugged each other for a long time.

“Don’t cry,” Norah said gently, which of course made Zulika cry even harder.

“Why are you comforting me? You’ve been through hell.”

Norah opened her mouth to argue, but her body slumped and she nodded. “I guess it’s just hitting me.”

Ziggy, his eyes mournful, padded over to the two women and stuck his snout between them. Norah gave a little laugh and hugged him. “The only man I can rely on,” she said, stroking his silky head.

They sat up until dawn, talking about what she would do next. “Stay with me,” Zulika begged and Norah agreed.

“Just for now,” she said and told Zulika about the apartments she had already scouted out. “I was lying to myself for so long, Zul. It’s been over for months, maybe even years.”

Zulika nodded. “I think we both needed to break up with the asshole. It’s not as if our parents are even married anymore.”

Norah didn’t know what to say about that. “I can’t thank you enough for being here for me.”

Zulika hugged her again. “You are my family, Norah. It’s you and me against the world. You, me, and this fur ball.” She scratched Ziggy’s ears. “Monday, you start your new job with that gorgeous man.”

“God, that seems like a million years ago. Was it really only a few hours?” Norah’s thoughts were in a muddle, she was so tired.

Eventually they fell asleep on Zul’s bed, Ziggy between them, and slept until mid-afternoon.

Lucian did not want his father finding out about his arrest, so he called the one person he knew had enough money to bail him out. Tara arrived, steaming angry, in heavy disguise at the station and posted bail. Lucian tried to kiss her and she stopped him.

“Not here,” she growled and stalked off, leaving him to trail behind. In her car, speeding out of the city to a motel they often used, she railed against his calling her. “Giacomo could have found out,” she hissed at him. “Or the paparazzi. What if they had taken you to the same station as they do all the celebs? The press pays the police to tip them off. If someone recognized me …”

She ranted all the way to the motel. In the room, he realized she hadn’t even asked him what he had done to be arrested. He waited until she had finished admonishing him.

“Baby, I’m sorry. It’s a big mess anyway.”

“What did you do?”

“What they have accused me of,” he corrected, “is assault and rape. What happened is very different.”

She folded her arms. “So what happened? Who did you allegedly rape?”

Lucian sighed. “Norah. We had sex. I got a little rough and she cried foul.”

Tara stared at him. “You told me you two didn’t have sex anymore.”

“We rarely do. I was drunk and missing you …”

“So it’s my fault, is it?”

“I didn’t say that. Anyway, we fucked and then she bit me, so I slapped her. Lightly. Playfully.”

Tara curled her nose up. “She likes it rough?”

No. Lucian swallowed hard. “Yes,” he lied. Tara sat down beside him, and after a moment, brushed her lips against his.

“Fine, you’re forgiven. When is your court date?”

Lucian kissed her again. “I don’t know yet. Can we talk about something different? Or rather, now that we’re here, do something different?”

Tara smiled. “Lie back.” Lucian obeyed and she stripped his trousers and underwear from him, taking his cock into her mouth and sucking hard and long until he was rigid and trembling. She pulled her own panties down and straddled him, lowering herself onto his cock and moving her hips along with his. Lucian lost himself in the sensations and slowly his anger, fear, and sadness became numb.

Monday morning and Norah was beginning to feel like herself again. Well, not really, but at least she had her new job to look forward to. She covered the nasty bruise on her cheek with heavy foundation, which she hated, but made do otherwise with a light coating of mascara on her already thick eyelashes. She slipped into a yellow and orange sundress, which glowed against her dark caramel skin, and some flat pumps. She wanted to be comfortable, but she wanted to look good too—for a good first impression, she grinned to herself. Not for any other reason.

“You look gorgeous.” Zulika was approving and Norah flushed.

“Thank you, Zul. God, I’m nervous. Is it natural to be this nervous?”

“Well, when you’re going to work for Adonis himself,” Zulika grinned at her friend, whose blush deepened even further. “Try not to fuck him on the first day. God, Norah …I’m sorry. I didn’t think,” she said when she saw her friend’s stricken face, then quickly got up to hug her.

“It’s okay.” Norah’s voice was muffled. “We can’t dance around it forever. I need to move past it.”

Norah was pushing the rape to the back of her mind as she got into her car, but a second later she jumped out of her skin as Lucian knocked on the driver’s window.

“Go away,” she yelled, locking the doors and windows.

“I just want to talk,” Lucian called, holding his hands up. “Look, just open the window an inch so we can hear each other. That’s all I ask.”

“No. Anything you have to say to me, you can say to my lawyer.” She started the car and he backed off.

“Norah …I’m sorry. That’s all I wanted to say. I’m sorry.”

Norah watched him turn and walk away from her, getting into his car and driving off. She drew in a deep breath and started the car. The Conti-Tech buildings were out in Mountain View. She would have to drive past her old home.

Tears pricked her eyes then, but she pushed them away. “You don’t get to win this, Lucian. You don’t get to ruin my big day.”

She pulled the car away from the curb and drove towards her new life.

Seb came to get her at reception an hour later, grinning and nudging her with his shoulder in a conspiratorial way. Norah was already half-in-love with him and chuckled. “You look more excited than I do,” she said. “I’m really not that interesting.”

“I beg to differ,” Seb said, “I need a new pal around here.” He lowered his voice. “All the guys are so straight and so nerdy it’s painful. And I told Jack the other day, he’s getting old now, so I need a new playmate.”

Norah felt her spirits soar only for them to plummet again when Seb continued, “Jack’s just having an argument with the dragon at the moment. Sorry, I mean his girlfriend. Hopefully, he’s dumping her—we can but hope.”

Right on cue, the door opened and a beautiful but icy blonde stalked out. Norah recognized her, but couldn’t place her. The blonde met her gaze and they sized each other up. The blonde’s eyes narrowed and she stalked out. Seb cheerfully gave the finger to her retreating back.

“Seb,” Giacomo was at the door of his office, trying to hide a grin. Seb shrugged good-naturedly.

“Sorry, I have Finger Tourette’s. Anyway…here she is!” Seb indicated Norah flamboyantly and Norah burst out laughing. God, how did these two ever get any work done?

Giacomo shook Norah’s hand. “Come on in before you’re scared off by this lunatic. Sebastiano, can I trust you to field calls for a little while?”

“Take as long as you need,” Seb said, a wicked gleam in his eyes. Norah couldn’t help but grin at the man. He was fun and she loved that he had already singled her out to be his friend.

And as for the man in front of her …lord, she would have to try hard not to be distracted by his sensual presence. He was wearing a light blue shirt tucked into dark gray trousers that fit him perfectly. Giacomo smiled at her. “Ready to start work?”

She grinned back at him. Really, his smile was like sunshine. “You bet.”

By the end of her first week, Norah was flying. It had been intense, exhausting, and high-speed, but she had loved every exhilarating moment of working with Giacomo. He had very fixed thoughts about what he wanted for the campaigns, but he never dismissed her own ideas, listening to them carefully so that in the end, the first draft of the very first advertisement was a fifty-fifty collaboration between them.

More than that, she found him to be great company. He was relaxed, flirtatious without being creepy, and comfortable with himself in a way that Norah envied. But, then again, she supposed that when you looked like Giacomo did, you would be comfortable. It did border on arrogance some of the time, especially when dealing with people she could tell he didn’t like, but, never, ever with his employees, or with her.

He came unexpectedly to the Anthology one afternoon when she was working upstairs and she felt shocked at how happy seeing his face made her. Don’t fall for your client, girl. But she had to admit that she didn’t think she could stop herself.

Norah introduced Giacomo—she just couldn’t get on board with calling him Jack; it was too generic for a man like him—to Zulika, who liked him immediately, and to Ziggy who greeted him like an old friend. Norah almost groaned – looks, class, fun, and likes dogs? Yes, please …

When he invited Norah to come for drinks after a meeting with two of his friends, this time she agreed, and now, as they took a cab into the city, Norah felt nervous—excited nervous, to be sure. Giacomo’s arm was across the back of the seat behind her as they rode in the back of the cab. He was chatting easily, but she couldn’t help but feel the tension that had been building between them. Giacomo held her gaze as he talked to her, but she barely heard a thing. He seemed to sense the turmoil in her. He stopped talking and let the back of his finger drift down her cheek.

Norah felt her skin vibrating with longing and his warm fingers brushed her collarbone. She closed her eyes, reveling in the feeling of his touch. She felt him move closer, then his lips brushed hers softly. She didn’t dare open her eyes. She didn’t want to break the spell or have to deal with the fact that she knew this was wrong. He had a girlfriend. He was her client.

His lips were firmer against hers now and she gave a soft moan of desire. His fingers knotted in her long hair and his tongue massaged hers gently. Her hands had a mind of their own, sliding along the length of his hard-muscled thighs.

Norah opened her eyes. Giacomo was gazing at her, his green eyes dark with desire, drinking in every detail of her face. His lips moved against hers so naturally, their breath mingling. Finally, they drew apart and Giacomo smiled ruefully. “I have wanted to do that since we met.”

She flushed with pleasure. “Me too …but, Giacomo, we can’t. We work together. You have a girlfriend.”

Giacomo nodded sadly. “I know ...and I assume you have a partner at home?”

God, the shock of the reminder sent a pain through her stomach. Lucian. She shook her head. “No. Not anymore.”

Giacomo stroked her hair. “Bella …we should talk. Not here, obviously,” he half-smiled. “But soon. Soon …I will not have the other …commitment, and believe me, not just because of the way I am feeling about you. It had been over long before I was aware of your existence. The work thing …I understand your reticence, but we can work around that. For now, just know …you are all I think about.”

She could hardly breathe. This gorgeous, beautiful, unattainable man wanted her. She knew the truth of it in his gaze, his words, and the tenderness of his touch.

She was still glowing when they reached the bar and she was caught up in the introductions. Orlando and Carmel Price, both strikingly beautiful African-Americans, tall, and with the friendliest smiles, were waiting for her. They introduced themselves to her and teased Giacomo, who clearly adored them.

They ordered drinks and sat in a corner booth. Carmel, a human rights lawyer, chatted to Norah amiably about her work, Norah’s work, and Ferma, their daughter. Norah liked the other woman immensely. Orlando was a riot; funny and erudite, his gentle teasing of Norah made her feel at home with them. Giacomo was relaxed, and at one point, Norah noticed him raising his eyebrows at Carmel, who nodded back approvingly. Norah tried not to blush at the obvious sign of approval she was receiving.

The evening went on longer than anyone expected and it was only at ten o’clock that Orlando looked ruefully at his watch. “Sorry to say, we have to get back for the sitter. She’s probably sitting in the corner, sobbing and rocking back and forth because Ferma’s been on a tear.”

Norah nearly snorted her drink out of her nose at the image. “I must meet Ferma. She sounds like my kind of anarchist.”

Carmel and Giacomo laughed and Orlando nodded. “She is that. Norah, it has been an absolute delight to meet you and I hope it’s just the first of many such evenings.”

“Hear, hear,” said Carmel as they all stood. She hugged Norah and whispered in her ear. “I shouldn’t say this, but Jack’s crazy about you.”

Norah felt tears prick her eyes. “I like him too,” she said, slightly embarrassed, but Carmel grinned at her and squeezed her hand.

“You’ll be good for him, sweetie. I can tell.”

Orlando gave Norah a bear hug too. “If everyone is free one night next week, can I suggest dinner at our place?”

They agreed on a night, then Carmel and Orlando left them alone. Giacomo held out his hand to her. “Shall we catch a little night air before getting a cab?”

They walked down to the waterfront. Giacomo took her hand and held it, winding his fingers through hers. Norah felt like a giddy teenager and when Giacomo stopped and took her in his arms, she didn’t resist. His kiss was intoxicating, soft at first, then as their lips moved together, firmer and rougher until they were both panting. He groaned and broke away. “God, Norah, I’m sorry …I know this is wrong and, that I should settle things with Tara first, but …” He looked at her with such tenderness that she wanted to cry. “I want you, Norah …so badly. In my arms, my bed …my life. Do you feel it too?”

Norah nodded. “I do.” Her voice barely above a whisper, the breath caught in her throat as he came to her again. Leaning his forehead against hers, he met her gaze.

“Come home with me, mio caro …” The deep timbre of his voice, the accent …god …

Norah found herself nodding. “Yes, Giacomo …yes …”

Norah couldn’t remember the cab ride to Giacomo’s place. She couldn’t remember him leading her into his mansion in Pacific Heights. She couldn’t remember him sweeping her off her feet and taking her up the huge staircase to his bedroom. She could remember every moment of what happened next.

Giacomo stripped her slowly, kissing every part of her exposed skin. His hand drifted down under her dress to caress her sex through her panties and she moaned at the touch of him. She cupped the hot, huge length of him through his pants and could feel his desire for her. He murmured her name as her dress fell to the floor and he buried his face in her belly, kissing the soft curve of it, making her shiver in delight. He stood and tugged off his own shirt and pants, and Norah sank to her knees and slid her hands into his underwear, freeing his diamond-hard cock and taking it into her mouth. God, the feel of him. She closed her eyes and licked the salty pre-cum from the sensitive tip. There was no way she could take all of him into her mouth, so she stroked the length of him, tracing a pattern with her tongue on the tip and making him groan her name. She could feel him nearing his peak, then he was pulling her up, ripping her panties from her, laying her on the bed, and plunging his cock deep inside her sodden, wet cunt. Norah wrapped her legs around his hips and arched her back as the sheer pleasure of being fucked by him took her over completely. Giacomo’s mouth was on her breasts, taking each nipple into his mouth as his cock plowed deep and long into her.

“God, Giacomo, Giacomo …” Norah couldn’t help but scream his name as his pace increased, his thrusts almost violent, and when he came, she felt the force of his cum shooting deep into her belly. She couldn’t take her eyes off him, lost in his intense gaze. They stayed connected as they kissed and panted for breath, then Giacomo slowly moved out of her and lay by her side, gazing down at her.

“Norah, you make me the happiest man,” he said, emotion making his voice break. He smoothed his hand down her body. “Beautiful, just beautiful …”

Norah didn’t know how anything else in the world was beautiful besides this man, but her heart warmed at the compliment. She reached down to stroke his cock, as it was already hardening again.

“Giacomo,” she nuzzled her nose against his. “You don’t know what this means to me, this night …”

She felt him stroke a finger along her collarbone and knew what he was seeing. A bruise, from Lucian’s attack on her.

“What did he do to you, mio caro?” His eyes were dark with danger now. He had obviously guessed she’d been attacked.

“Something unforgivable.”

Giacomo nodded, his eyes serious. “I want to kill him for it.”

Norah kissed him. “He isn’t worth it, Giacomo. He’s nothing. What he did to me …I won’t let him ruin my life …or my sex life. What he did wasn’t sex—it was violence. Pure violence.”

Giacomo traced the shape of her lip with his finger. “Still, I am surprised you …”

Norah smiled, a little pang of something inside her. “I know. Me too. If it hadn’t been with you, I don’t think I could have. Not so soon. But I have to admit …I’ve been thinking about this since I met you.”

Giacomo grinned, cocky. “Glad to be of service.”

Norah laughed, but then her smile faded. “What I don’t like is …now, I have done what I said I’d never do—sleep with another woman’s man.”

Giacomo kissed her fingers. “Principessa, I am your man. But I do see your point. Believe it or not, I have never been a cheater until now. I have cultivated the image of someone who plays hard and fast with a woman’s heart, but I am really not like that.”

“Then why do you let people think that?” She was genuinely curious now. He gave her a strange smile.

“Safety net,” he said simply and she smiled, her hand stroking his face.

“I understand.”

“Somehow I thought you might. I will talk to Tara tomorrow. She’s out of town tonight.”

“Does she live here?”

Giacomo shook her head. “No, she has her own place. One here and one in New York.”

Suddenly Norah didn’t want to talk about Tara anymore. She’d already cheated with Giacomo once and now that they had talked …she pushed him onto his back and straddled him.

He grinned up at her, looking ten years younger, boyish, free, and happy as he stroked her breasts and her belly while she impaled herself on his rock-hard cock. “Bella, the feel of your skin is like silk to me …”

They made love slowly this time, drinking each other in, then afterward Giacomo took her in the shower, thrusting into her from behind as he held her against the cool tile. Norah felt every inhibition slip away as he fucked her expertly.

She wouldn’t stay the night though. “When things are settled with Tara, then I will,” she told him, and although he was disappointed, he accepted it. “At least let me drive you home.”

The night was warm, so they drove back to Norah’s apartment with the top down. Norah enjoyed the feel of the cool air on her skin. Giacomo’s hand was on her bare leg as he drove and she smiled over at him.

This whole night has been a dream, she thought, a total dream.

Giacomo kissed her tenderly before he let her go. “Goodnight, mio caro.

Norah floated back to the apartment. Ziggy gave a delighted woof and padded out of his dog bed to greet her. She sat on the floor with him and hugged him. “My other best man,” she murmured, but then nearly jumped out of her skin as Zulika’s voice came out of the dark.

“Oh, yes?”

She flicked a lamp on and grinned at a blinking Norah. “You look as if you’ve been fucked professionally. Can I assume you and the billionaire have been knocking boots?”

Norah flushed scarlet, but couldn’t help the smile that crept over her face. “Am I a slut?”

Zulika’s eyes widened. “No, but it’s true? Yes, yes, yes!” She punched the air triumphantly. “Was he as good as he looks?”

Still burning, Norah sat down next to her friend. “Better.”

“Was he huge? He looks huge.”

“Zul!”

“Norah?”

Norah chuckled. “Yes, all right? Yes he is …blessed in that department.”

“Eggplant or butternut squash?”

“And that’s all the detail you’re getting,” Norah got up, giggling, but Zulika pulled her back down.

“Okay, no more details except …are youokay? I mean, after what happened, I’m surprised that you, you know.” Zulika’s eyes were concerned, serious now.

Norah hugged her. “Me too, actually. But I’m not letting Lucian destroy my life. I wanted Giacomo, so I had him. Now,= that does sound slutty.” She burst out laughing and Zulika joined her.

“No, it doesn’t. You know what it sounds like, No-No?”

Norah shook her head. “What?”

Zulika smiled. “Happiness.”

Giacomo asked Tara to meet him at her favorite restaurant. After he’d told her, gently, that it was over between them, she stared at him. “And you thought you’d tell me in public so I wouldn’t make a scene?”

Giacomo sighed. “Yes. Is that what you want to hear, Tara? Honesty? Then, yes.”

Tara looked away from him and he was surprised to see tears glinting in her eyes. “Tara?”

“I need a smoke. Come outside with me.”

They sat on the patio and Tara offered him one of her cigarettes before lighting her own. Giacomo, not trusting this calm, shook his head.

“Tara …we haven’t been happy in god knows how long. You know this.”

Tara blew a lungful of smoke out. “I know. I just …hoped we could find our way back to each other.”

Giacomo toyed with the stem of his wine glass. “Tara, I know about Lucian Hargity.”

She laughed derisively. “I figured. Lucian means nothing to me.”

“And yet he was worth cheating on me with?”

Tara gave him a withering look. “Please, don’t tell me you’ve been entirely faithful to me this all time.”

“Until I knew it was over, I was.”

She looked skeptical. “Is that why you hired Lucian’s girlfriend?”

Ex-girlfriend, and no. I hired her because she was the best person for the job.”

Tara’s eyes searched his face. “You’ve fucked her, haven’t you?”

Giacomo said nothing, kept his face blank, and didn’t look away from Tara’s gaze. Tara made a disgusted noise. “Well, little Miss Pure ain’t so pure after all.”

That got him. “You don’t know the first thing about Norah, so shut your mouth about her.”

Tara smirked and Giacomo knew he’d lost that round. He sighed. “Look, Tara, there’s no reason this has to be unpleasant. I’m going to go now. Take care of yourself.”

Tara watched him walk away from her. God, he was still so attractive to her, even after she’d cheated on him. At the same time …how dare the fucker dump her? Tara Hubert wasn’t dumped. She was never dumped. Who the hell did Giacomo Conti think he was? One thing she did know—she would make him pay for this.

She smiled to herself. “No, Giacomo, you’re wrong. There’s every reason this has to be unpleasant,” she murmured to herself, throwing back the last of her wine. “And it’s about to get really fucking unpleasant.”

Norah drove out to Mountain View the next morning, her heart thumping, almost giddy at the thought of seeing Giacomo. Sebastien noticed the change in her as soon as he saw her.

“What have you been up to?” He tried to get it out of her, but Norah, giggling, wouldn’t tell. He guessed, of course, as soon as Giacomo walked in, his eyes immediately going to Norah. His smile split his face and Norah flushed bright red. Sebastien sniggered, nudged Norah, then disappeared as his boss glared at him. Giacomo took Norah’s hand.

“Come up to my office, Bella.”

As soon as the door was closed behind them, he took her in his arms and kissed her. His kiss was so passionate, and so tender that Norah’s head spun. Breaking away for air, they smiled at each other.

“I am a single man,” he said simply, and she could have cried with happiness when he added, “bBut I hope not to be in the next few minutes. Beautiful Norah, will you be mine?”

“Yes, god, yes.” As he reached behind her and locked the door, she was already reaching for his fly. He slid his hands under her skirt, pulling her panties down as she freed his cock, already huge and engorged, from his pants. He lifted her up, bracing her against the wall, and thrust into her.

“God, Principessa, I have been thinking about this all night. The taste of you and your warm, wet cunt wrapped around my cock …”

Norah kissed him fiercely, wildly turned on by his dirty talk. “Fuck me hard, Giacomo …”

And he did, making her come over and over, muffling her cries with his mouth. He came explosively, pumping his seed deep inside her.

They didn’t get much work done that day, and later, Giacomo took her back to his house and they started over, fucking each other in every different position they could think of. Giacomo moved a mirror so that they could watch themselves screwing, entranced by the sight of his thick, long cock sliding in and out of her red, swollen cunt.

Norah had never known a night like this—wild and uninhibited—he made her feel like a goddess. She had never felt so feminine, or sexy, or so loved. When Giacomo took her from behind, pushing into her ass, she found new realms of pleasure. When he went down on her, she came again and again.

Finally, exhausted and sated, they fell asleep in each other’s arms and Norah already knew she was lost.

She was in love with him.

Tara lay back in her bed and studied Lucian as he got dressed. After an unsatisfactory fuck—her words to him—he was annoyed with her. Tara lit a cigarette.

“What’s she like?”

“Who?”

“Your ex. The bookseller. Your rape victim.”

Lucian shot her a warning look. “That’s not funny.”

Tara shrugged. “Neither is rape. Anyway, tell me. What is she like?”

Lucian sighed. “What does it matter?”

Tara smiled cruelly. “I just want to know who my ex is fucking.”

Lucian stopped. “What?”

Tara stubbed out her cigarette and was studying her own breasts. “He’s fucking her. I thought you should know.”

Lucian made a disgusted noise. “If you think that, then you’re crazy. Norah doesn’t sleep around.”

Tara’s mouth set in a thin smile. “Have you seen Giacomo? The man is a god. He could get a Mary Knoll nun into bed.”

Lucian stared at her. “You’re serious.”

“Deadly.”

Tara watched as a myriad of emotions played out across Lucian’s face, then he shrugged, feigning nonchalance. “None of my business anymore.”

“He knows about you and me.”

“I thought you said there was no way.”

“Carmel Price must have told him. She never liked me, the stuck-up bitch.”

“I thought you said you were taking care of that too.”

Tara’s smile returned. “Oh, believe me, she won’t get away with it.”

“Too late now.”

“For you and me? Yes.”

Lucian stood and tucked his shirt in. “What do you mean?”

Tara waved her hand around vaguely. “I mean this. Us. Thanks for everything and all that, but this is goodbye.”

Lucian shook his head. This was nothing new from Tara. “You’re a fucking bitch, you know that?”

“As a matter of fact, I do.” She laughed suddenly. “Okay then, Lu-lu, I’ll give us one last chance. Who knows? We may be made for each other.”

As Lucian left the apartment, his gut began to churn with the thought of Norah in bed with another man. And Giacomo Conti …god …

He had to get back with Norah …but how? Part of his bail conditions meant he couldn’t go anywhere near her. He needed to get to her via Zulika—which would be a problem because his half-sister hated him even more than Norah did. Still …Lucian was nothing if not a good actor. Turn on the waterworks. Beg for forgiveness.

Wait for the billionaire to screw someone else, and if he didn’t, if he was truly enamored with Norah, there was no reason that Norah couldn’t be made to believe that he had cheated on her.

Lucian began to smile. Norah had been his, and he had been dumb enough to throw it away.

He wouldn’t make the same mistake twice.

Lucian called Zulika a few days later, begging her to meet with him, crying down the phone. She had never liked her brother much, but even her cynical heart was touched by his grief.

“I’ll meet you,” she told him in a firm voice. “But I tell you now, I am one-hundred percent Team Norah. Do you understand?”

“I do.” And he sounded genuine. “Just meet with me and hear what I have to say. If you don’t like what you hear, fine. Please, Zul.”

She met him at a coffeehouse, well away from their apartment or the bookstore. He smiled at her, but she didn’t return it—just nodded. “I only have a half hour,” she said shortly.

“Just hear me out. That’s all I ask.”

“Go ahead.”

Lucian sighed. “What I did to Norah …it’s unforgivable. It was a dumb mistake. No, not a mistake. It was horrendous what I put her through and I take full responsibility for it. I’ll go to the D.A. right now and plead guilty if she’ll just meet me to talk it through. I don’t want her forgiveness. Just …to talk.”

Zulika was studying him through narrowed eyes. “Rape, Lucian. You raped her.”

“Yes.”

There was a long silence. “I never thought you capable of that.”

He gave her a half-smile. “Believe me, I had no idea I was. I was just …I don’t know. An animal. A disgusting animal. I’m in AA now. Not that it excuses anything, but it’s a start.”

“Why should Norah give you the time of day?”

“No reason …except history. The fact that, because of you, we will always be connected somehow.”

Wrong tack. Zulika’s face hardened. “I have no problem cutting you out of my life, Lucian. It’s not like we have ever been close.”

He nodded slowly. “I know. But the thought of losing you both …it’s killing me. I will do my time for what I did to Norah, I swear. I will make this right. Believe it or not, I love both of you.”

Zulika sighed. “Okay, let’s cut to the chase. Norah isokay. Justokay. That girl has given you more chances than you deserve and she’ll probably do it again. So, if you want to make nice, it would create a better atmosphere for everyone. Norah, me, and your Dad. I still think you need to maintain a distance, but hey, that’s me. I will tell you this—if she says no, she says no. Don’t forget the restraining order is still in effect.”

Lucian rolled his eyes. “How could I forget?” He sighed and ran his hands through his hair so it stuck up. “Thing is, I know it’s over with Norah. How I thought we could ever make it work—I blew it when I slept with someone else, when I hurt Norah. I’m not stupid. I know that part of it is over. But I miss my buddy, my pal. We had a few great years together.”

She nodded. “If you think you can be just friends, then God be with you.”

“I’d like to try.”

Zulika chewed her lip. “I don’t know what Norah will say. I’ll talk to her, but I’m not going to plead your case—just repeat verbatim what you’ve said here today. Do you understand that?”

Lucian nodded. “I do.”

They sat in silence for a few minutes while Zulika contemplated her step-brother. She sat up and nodded at him. “Okay, tell you what. I’ll talk to Norah for you. I will.” She hesitated before continuing. “I’m going to tell you something else, and how you react to it will tell me for sure if I’m crazy for trusting you, okay?”

She waited for him to process what she’d said. She could see the myriad of questions whirling around his head. Finally, he nodded.

Zulika took a deep breath and hoped she wasn’t about to make the biggest mistake of her life.

Giacomo trailed his fingers down the length of her spine as Norah bent over her design table. She shivered with pleasure, then chuckled. “You’re distracting me, Conti. I’m trying to sketch here.”

“This sundress has no back. How do you expect me to concentrate on anything but your honey skin?” He pressed his lips to her spine and she gave up, laughing.

“We will never get this job finished at this rate.” She turned and smiled at him.

“I don’t care.” He bent his head to kiss her. The last month had been the happiest of her life, Working with Giacomo during the day and making love with him all night. Her life had changed so rapidly that it made her head spin.

She had spent time with him and his friends, and –Zulika—who was once again between boyfriends and so was co-opted by Sebastien as his new buddy—and found her life enriched by all of their presence. The only dark cloud was Lucian. Zulika had come to her and reported what he had said, but Norah shook her head. “No. I’m sorry. I can’t.”

She had told her lawyer she would drop the charges on the condition that Lucian never came near her again and that she got full and final custody of Ziggy. She didn’t want the court case and she most definitely didn’t want her new relationship brought into the spotlight. Lucian had agreed and now she had a lifelong restraining order and her freedom.

Giacomo noticed her reverie. “Penny for them?”

“Nothing,” she smiled, “Just taking pause, reflecting on my life. I have never been happier, baby.”

He grinned. “You know what we need? A vacation.”

She grinned. “Damn, boy, you will do just about anything to get out of work, won’t you?”

He laughed. “Fine. I’ll ask you again, later, when my cock is buried deep inside your delicious cunt …I find you agree to most things then.”

She broke into laughter. “Such a dirty boy …but,” she grinned wickedly, glancing over at his office door, which was shut but not locked, then slowly pulling up her skirt, “Why wait until later?”

Giacomo grinned and made to walk to the door, but she stopped him, a sly grin on her face. “No. Leave it.”

His eyes widened for just a second, then he moved, quick as a cat, his hands under her dress, tearing her panties from her. Norah gasped in excitement as he hitched her legs around his waist, unzipping his fly to release his cock, then thrusting into her. He pinned her hands down on the sloping desk and fucked her hard and fast, his eyes never leaving hers. She came just as they heard voices in the ante-office and he muffled his groan as he came inside her.

A knock at the door. “Just a moment, please.” Giacomo pulled out and they both, breathless and laughing, tidied themselves up. Norah bent back over her work, trying not to giggle as Giacomo strode to the door.

Sebastian—whoe clearly knew exactly what had gone on—was grinning wildly. “Just wanted to tell you that catering has arrived.”

Giacomo kept his face straight. “Thanks, Seb.”

“No problem,” he called over his shoulder. “By the way, I think it’s hot –dogs—unless you’ve just had one, Norah ...” He cackled with laughter.

Thank you, Seb.” Giacomo could barely hold it together then and Norah let a giggle out, then couldn’t stop until she was crying with laughter. Giacomo was shaking his head, grinning.

“I’m going to fire that guy.”

Norah put her arms around his neck. “Don’t you dare.” She kissed him. “Or I won’t come on vacation with you.”

“You’ll let me take you away?”

She grinned. “I will. After we’ve finished this campaign.”

“Tyrant.”

“Hot dog.”

Carmel was absolutely sure she was being followed now, and with Orlando, she went to the police. The officer who dealt with them was kind, but told them unless they could gather some actual evidence to prove she was being followed, there was little they could do.

“I thought California had pretty stringent stalking laws now?” Orlando asked, his expression wan and concerned. The officer, Det. Lawrence, nodded.

“But until we can prove definitively that Mrs. Price is being stalked by someone, and who that someone might be, we can’t do anything. Your work as a human rights lawyer, Mrs. Price, may, of course, throw some light on who would be a suspect. Could you make a list?”

“Of course.”

They thanked him for his time and he promised that he would follow up with them.

They went for coffee afterward at a small diner they knew. Orlando was distracted and Carmel tried to cheer him up. “Sweetie, look, maybe it’s nothing.”

“And maybe it’s something.”

She touched his face. They had been married for nine years now, and every day they spent with each other just strengthened their bond. They had met in college and they both bemoaned the cliché, but to hell with it, that’s where she had fallen in love with the tall, rangy musician. With her focus on law, they couldn’t have been more different with their passions, but they became inseparable from the first day, when, after a boozy evening in the student bar, they discovered they shared the same sarcastic, dry humor and were equally as disdainful of the pretentious arty set. They had enough in common to have something to talk about and enough differences to make it interesting. He’d had competition, of course. Almost every man at the college, including the tutors, practically drooled when they saw her, but to her credit, she was completely oblivious to the attention.

Orlando won her precisely because he made an effort to see past the dark Creole good looks inherited from her mother. To him, she revealed a humorous, intelligent side and confidence tempered with humility. And in turn, she brought him out of his shell. He was still shy, but hid it well, the result being that people would often find him the life of the party. If only they knew the real man. When he’d come to California from Oregon at fifteen, he’d felt like a shadow—half a person. His beloved Aunt Kathleen, who’d raised him from a boy, had been an amateur photographer and her enthusiasm and vision had inspired him. He’d applied to the art college. Orlando strongly believed in fate and when, on the first day of college, he saw the lovely, dark girl full of life and laughter bounding through the corridors, something had changed over in him and he measured the start of his life from that moment.

“Baby,” she said now and smiled at him, bringing him back into the present. “I say we change the subject. I’ve been thinking. Now that Ferma is getting so big …maybe she’d like a sibling.”

Orlando looked surprised. “What happened to, ‘Impregnate me again, and I’ll feed your danglers to a rabid dog?’”