She huffed out a breath. “I never knew husbands were so controlling. Okay, who’s the final guy you need to impress?”
A flash of calculation crossed his face. “Count Michael Conte. He owns a successful pastry business in Italy, and decided to try his luck in the States. He’s focused on the first bakery opening at the waterfront.”
She lusted after the tray of crab cakes on her left and tried to pay attention. Nick let out a huff, grabbed two from the waiter, and slid them on the plate. “Eat.”
“Right.” For once, she agreed with his order. She popped the cake into her mouth and groaned with delight. His brows snapped together and she realized she’d made him cranky. Again.
He stared at her mouth as if he wanted the crab cake for himself. “Alexa, are you listening?”
“Yes. Conte. Bakery. I guess you expect me to mingle while do your business?”
He gave a tight smile. “I’ll work on Hyoshi for now. Why don’t you keep your eyes open for the Count? He’s tall, Italian accent, dark hair and eyes. Engage him in some conversation—it will keep you occupied.”
A small nibble of warning teased the edges of her consciousness but she was still too focused on the array of delicious appetizers. “You want me to talk to him?”
He shrugged in controlled carelessness. “Sure. Be nice. If you find out anything interesting, let me know.”
A chill skated down her spine and suddenly the scene crystallized. “You want me to spy for you?”
Impatience flicked in his voice. “You’re being ridiculous. Just relax and enjoy the party.”
“Easy for you to say. Your boobs aren’t hanging out of your dress.”
Nick cleared his throat and shifted. “If you weren’t comfortable, you shouldn’t have worn the dress.”
She stiffened. “I borrowed it from Maggie. I didn’t have an expensive dress.”
“I would have given you the money.”
“I don’t need your money.”
“Somehow, I doubt it. You didn’t sign the contract for any lofty reasons. Might as well take as much as you can get.”
A short silence settled between them. Coldness seeped through her. “You’re right. I was an idiot. Next time I’ll buy out Macy’s and send you the bill.” She turned on her heel and tossed her head. “After all, the only benefit to this marriage is your money.”
She walked away and left him staring at her back.
Alexa sipped a second glass of champagne and settled herself by the picture window overlooking the balcony. Nick Ryan belonged in this world—one of money and supermodels and refined dialogue. Clouds of Shalimar and Obsession blended with the heavy scent of cigar smoke. Her sight was blinded by an array of silks and satins, mostly in black or neutral; non-showy colors to set off the diamonds and pearls and sapphires she knew were all real. Everyone had tans, and she bet there wasn’t a tan line in the lot.
Alexa heaved a deep sigh. She’d dressed with care for the party and held her breath as she walked down the stairs to await Nick’s opinion. Even she knew she looked damn good in Maggie’s dress. The thought that she actually wanted to please him pissed her off.
He’d given her a thorough once over. Instead of a compliment, he’d mumbled about her choice of wardrobe and walked away. Didn’t even help her with her coat, or spare her a second glance until they got to the party. Hurt sliced deep but she punished herself for the emotion. She retained a polite aura and pretended she dressed like this every Saturday night.
Yet, as soon as he spoke about his plan for the waterfront, his face shimmered with such raw emotion her body clenched in response.
Passion. Fierce need burned in golden brown eyes. She fantasized about being the woman who incited such wanting. Once again, she was reminded Nick only experienced strong emotions for his buildings. Never women.
And never her.
She took a deep breath and finished her drink. Then launched herself through the double doors of the balcony and approached a group of women who seemed to be commenting on the sculpture. Within moments, she neatly entwined her way into the discussion, secured introductions, and delved into the world of social chatter.
Nick watched her stalk across the room and cursed under his breath. Hell, he’d done it again. He should’ve complimented her on the damn dress. But nothing had prepared him for her entrance as she walked down the stairs, ready for the party.
The electric blue dress dipped low in the front, clung to the edge of her shoulders, and fell down to the floor in magnificent, flowing folds of shimmering material shot with silver thread. Strappy silver sandals encased her feet, her hot pink toenails peeking out and playing hide and seek as she walked. Her hair was pinned high on her head, with corkscrew curls tumbling around her ears and caressing the back of her neck. Her lips were painted red. When she blinked, her silver shadow threw sparkles over her lashes and caught the light. He bet she’d also catch the attention of every man in the place.
He’d almost ordered her to change. This was no cool sophisticate he could control. This was a full-blown Eve, who dared a man to Hell and made a poison apple seem as sweet as candy. Instead, he’d muttered some remark under his breath and let the subject matter drop. He wondered if that was a flash of hurt in her eyes, but when he looked again, she was the same troublesome, sarcastic woman he’d married.
Anger cut through him at her constant ability to make him feel like shit. He hadn’t said anything wrong. She married for money, and freely admitted it. Why did she have to pretend to play the innocent victim in this whole mess?
He forced thoughts of his wife out of his mind and concentrated on the group of businessmen circling Hyoshi Komo. Nick sensed one important factor to secure the Japanese man’s vote.
Get Hyoshi Komo excited, and Nick had the job.
The last and final piece in the puzzle was Michael Conte. The famous count was well known in the business world for his charm, money, and sharp intelligence. He believed in passion, not preciseness, and behaved completely different from his other two partners. Nick hoped a lively conversation with his wife might help him gain a bit of an edge, especially since gossip pegged Conte as a womanizer. He stifled the quick flare of guilt and stepped into the group of men to speak.
Alexa decided it was time to find her husband.
Besides the brief time seated beside him at dinner, they’d been out of each other’s company the whole night. Humming under her breath to the strains of “I Get a Kick out of You”, she checked the room but couldn’t pick him out of the crowd. She decided to make her way down the elaborate hallway. Maybe he’d gone to the bathroom.
Her heels clicked against polished marble. The sounds of the music faded, and she studied the paintings on the wall with pleasure, murmuring to herself when she found one she recognized. Her steps carried her around the next corner into a room that looked more like a gallery, filled with shelves of old, bound books carefully displayed. She held her breath as her fingers itched to caress the binding of old leather and relish the sound of crackling as she turned the pages steeped in history.
“Ah, so to get you to notice me tonight, I should turn into a book, no?”
She spun around. A man stood in the doorway, his eyes filled with a mischievous humor she knew to be a part of his core. His hair was long and caught back in a low ponytail, giving him the look of a pirate who had charmed women for centuries. His lips were full and his nose dominated his strong features in typical Italian style. Dressed in black pants, a black silk shirt, and expensive leather shoes, he exhibited a graceful, seductive air just by standing. Alexa knew immediately the man was charming, warm-hearted, and deadly to women. The thought made a smile curve her lips. She had a soft spot for womanizing Italian men. They reminded her of puffed up peacocks who inwardly wished to be kept in line by the right woman.
“Oh, I noticed you.” She turned her back and resumed her study of the books. “I knew you’d get to me by the end of the night.”
“And were you looking forward to the moment, Signorina?”
“With baited breath. So, should we use one of the bedrooms here or go back to your place?”
A shocked silence descended.
Alexa peeked over her shoulder. A mixture of disappointment and temptation carved out his features. Alexa bet he missed the idea of a chase, but didn’t want to turn down such an offer. A delighted laugh bubbled to her lips at his obvious conflict and sudden loss of confidence.
A knowing light gleamed in dark eyes. “You are teasing, no?”
She turned to face him, still laughing. “I guess I am.”
He shook his head with amusement. “You are a wicked woman to tempt a man like that.”
“You are a wicked man to think a woman would do such a thing.”
“Perhaps, you are right. A woman like you should have a husband watching at all times. Such a treasure could be stolen at any moment.”
“Ah, but if I were a true treasure, I wouldn’t be stolen easily. Certainly not by the first line thrown at me.”
He pretended offense. “Signorina, I would never insult you by thinking it would not be a long treasure hunt. You’d require a lot of work.”
“Signora,” she corrected. “I am married.”
His face pulled into a low, sad look. “Pity.”
“Somehow, I think you knew.”
“Perhaps. But let me introduce myself formally. I am Count Michael Conte.”
“Alexa McKenz—er, Alexa Ryan.”
He caught her slip-up and seemed to make a mental note. “Newly married, yes?”
“Yet you wander the hallways alone, and were not seen in the company of your husband all night.” He shook his head. “These American ways are tragic.”
“My husband is here on business.”
“Nicholas Ryan, correct?”
She nodded. “You should know him well. He’s making a pitch for the waterfront deal.”
Michael kept his face neutral. Obviously, behind his charming facade lurked a sharp businessman and she bet he knew her identity when he approached. Nick underestimated Conte if he believed a conversation would soften him. This man obviously kept business and pleasure in two separate worlds.
“I have not had the pleasure of meeting him as of yet.” He leaned in ever so slightly. His musky cologne rose in the air between them. His eyes met and held her own. She waited for a blast of sexual energy, a hum of chemistry, a note of hunger to shake her body and confirm Nick Ryan wasn’t the cause of her problems.
Nothing. Not even a spark.
With a tiny inward sigh, she resigned herself to battling her attraction for Nick and admitted maybe she still harbored a crush from her girlhood days. If Michael Conte couldn’t stir a shred of sexual emotion, she was in deep trouble.
Alexa sighed. “I think you will love my husband as much as I do,” she said.
He received her message and accepted the implication with grace. “We shall see. As for us, we will be friends, no?”
She smiled. “Yes. Friends.”
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