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Destitute Yet Defiant

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The English Doctor's Baby

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        All about the author…
Sarah Morgan
      

      SARAH MORGAN was born in Wiltshire and started writing at the age of eight when she produced an autobiography of her hamster.

      At the age of eighteen she travelled to London to train as a nurse in one of London’s top teaching hospitals, and she describes what happened in those years as extremely happy and definitely censored!

      She worked in a number of areas after she qualified, but her favorite was A&E where she found the work stimulating and fun. Nowhere else in the hospital environment did she encounter such good teamwork between doctors and nurses.

      By now her interests had moved on from hamsters to men, and she started writing romance fiction.

      Her first completed manuscript, written after the birth of her first child, was rejected by Harlequin but the comments were encouraging, so she tried again, and on the third attempt her manuscript Worth the Risk was accepted unchanged. She describes receiving the acceptance letter as one of the best moments of her life, after meeting her husband and having her two children.

      Sarah still works part-time in a health-related industry and spends the rest of the time with her family trying to squeeze in writing whenever she can. She is an enthusiastic skier and walker and loves outdoor life.

      
    

  
    

    
      
      
        

        

        
          CHAPTER ONE
        

      

      
        THEY’D come to kill her.

        Two years of working on the seedier side of the city had honed her senses and taught her to keep herself sharp. She watched and she noticed—and she’d noticed them. A small group of men drinking too much, although she knew that would please Joe, who always hiked his prices when the punters were too drunk to notice. From her vantage point on the stage, she’d seen the notes changing hands, the bottles of whisky, the empty glasses and the glazed eyes but she’d just kept on singing, her voice pouring honey and whipped ; cream over anyone who bothered to listen. Ignoring the sick feeling in her gut that warned her that her time had finally run out, she sang about love and loss, knowing that the lonely men who frequented Joe’s Bar knew far more about the second than the first.

        And so did she.

        It was an existence far from anyone’s dreams but Jessie had stopped dreaming when she had been five years old.

        ‘Hey, doll!’ A man seated near the stage leered at her and waved a note. ‘I fancy a private performance. Come over here and sing that song on my lap.’

        Without missing a beat, Jessica backed away from him, flung her head back and belted out the final verse of the song with her eyes closed. As long as she had her eyes shut tight she could pretend that she was somewhere else. She wasn’t singing to a crowd of leering men who had given up on life, she was singing to a packed stadium or opera house—to people who had paid the equivalent of a month’s rent just to hear her voice. In that same fantasy she didn’t have gnawing hunger pains in her stomach and she hadn’t mended her cheap gold dress a hundred times. But most of all, she wasn’t alone.

        Someone out there was waiting for her.

        Someone was going to pick her up from work and take her home somewhere warm, cosy and safe.

        The song ended. She opened her eyes. And saw that someone was waiting for her.

        Several men, but they weren’t from her dreams—they were from a dark, terrifying nightmare.

        And she knew that they’d come for her. Fear had shadowed her every step for so long that she felt worn out with anxiety—tired of looking over her shoulder.

        The last warning she’d received had been a physical one, leaving her with bruises that had kept her home for a week.

        But this time they weren’t here to deliver a warning.

        Feeling her mouth dry and her heart pound, Jessie reminded herself that she had a plan.

        And a knife tucked in her suspender belt.

         

        He sat in the back of the room, the darkness allowing him a rare moment of anonymity in a life lived in the spotlight. The previous night he’d walked the red carpet with a starlet on his arm. His business had made him a billionaire before he was thirty and he enjoyed the privileged existence of the super-rich, but his life had once been lived in places like this—surrounded by drunks, violence and the ever present threat of mortal danger. He’d grown up here—almost been sucked under by the greasy underbelly of society until he’d finally dragged himself, by sheer grit and determination, into a different world.

        Another man might have chosen to lose those years, but he hated pretence of any sort and he carried the damage without apology, amused that the visible scars had proved as attractive to women as his dark, murky past.

        Nothing aroused a woman’s interest more than a bad boy, Silvio mused, knowing that if they’d been able to see inside his soul they would have run a mile. He was well aware that the women he mixed with liked the idea of danger, but not the reality. He also knew that the girl on the stage lived danger with every step and every breath.

        He couldn’t believe how far she’d sunk and he identified an emotion alien to him—guilt.

        It was because of him that she was living this life.

        His tension mounted as she moved in time to the beat, the subtle slide of her hips causing the man closest to him to lose his grip on his drink. The shatter of glass on the floor was a familiar sound and barely drew a glance from those around. Or maybe they were too numbed by the anaesthetising effects of alcohol to react.

        Silvio sat in perfect stillness and the whisky on the table in front of him remained untouched. The glass was no more than a prop. Knowing what was to come, he couldn’t afford to dull his senses. He also knew that whatever you escaped from today would still be waiting for you tomorrow, and he wasn’t in need of a pause button.

        He was a man who faced his mistakes, and he was facing one now.

        He never should have left her.

        No matter how difficult things had become between them, no matter how deep her hatred of him, he should not have walked away.

        The girl moved gracefully across the stage, seducing the audience, raising pulse rates and hopes in equal measure, her melting dark eyes and glossy mouth promising everything.

        He’d watched her grow up. Seen her evolve from child to woman and nature hadn’t just been generous in bestowing her gifts; she’d been lavish.

        And Jessie exploited those gifts as she sang with passion and feeling, her incredible voice sending a tingle down the length of Silvio’s spine. Watching her sway, he felt himself grow hard and the power of his response angered him because he’d never allowed himself to think of her like that.

        He set his jaw, reminding himself that the chemistry they shared was a forbidden thing. Something neither of them had ever pursued and never would.

        She was singing a ballad now, a slow, sultry rebuke to some man who had broken her heart, and he narrowed his eyes, knowing that she wasn’t singing from experience. Jessie had never allowed a man anywhere near her heart.

        She’d shut herself away emotionally when she had been a child. Only her brother had been able to penetrate the defensive shield she put between herself and the world.

        Changing his mind about the neutralising effects of alcohol, Silvio reached for his glass. He downed it in one mouthful, his gaze never shifting from the girl on the stage.

        Her ebony curls tumbled over her bare shoulders, the tantalising curves of her gorgeous body enhanced by a gold mini-dress that skimmed across the top of her incredible legs, leaving virtually nothing to the imagination.

        Which was presumably intentional.

        If a man had been searching for gold and discovered Jessie, he would have died happy.

        
        The whisky burned his throat. Or was it the anger? Was this really what she’d done with her life in his absence? It took extraordinary will power to prevent himself from dragging her off the stage and hauling her out of there, away from the greedy eyes and lecherous minds.

        But he didn’t want to draw attention to himself. This was the last time, he promised himself. The last time she was standing on that stage.

        The barman approached, but Silvio refused the offer of another drink with a faint shake of his head, his ice-cold gaze shifting from the girl to the group of men hovering around the table near him.

        He knew every one of them, and he knew the danger she was facing.

        He’d made a mistake, he thought grimly, thinking she’d be better off without him. When she’d ordered him out of her life, he should have ignored her. But it had been impossible to defend himself from her accusations because everything she’d said to him was true.

        Silvio’s mouth tightened, aware that he’d chosen the worst possible night to re-enter her life. Tonight was the third anniversary of her brother’s death.

        And he was responsible for that death.

         

        Knowing she had no time, Jessica didn’t waste any of it changing. Less than a minute after she’d slipped into the tiny cupboard that Joe laughingly called a dressing room, she was out of the door again, a thin cardigan covering the gold dress, trainers on her feet instead of heels. Her feet were crying from the vicious bite of the cheap shoes but she’d taught herself to ignore the pain. Her feet always hurt. Everything hurt. Tonight was no different.

        Her heart was thundering, her palms were sweating but she forced herself to focus, knowing that if she let the fear swallow her now, it would all be over.

        And she owed this to Johnny.

        Did they know what tonight was or was it a coincidence?

        A lump formed in her throat as she thought of her brother. He’d always been there for her, but when he’d been in trouble she hadn’t been able to save him—

        Nursing her anger, she stepped out into the dark alleyway that ran along the back of the club, wondering whether this was going to be it for her. Was it going to end here in this grimy dark street amongst people who didn’t care if she lived or died?

        ‘Well, if it isn’t our baby doll.’ A slow male drawl came from the darkness and they emerged in a group, hoods over their heads, their faces obscured by the darkness. ‘Do you have the money or are you ready to give us a private performance?’

        Almost melting into the gutter with fear, Jessie managed to curve her lips into a smile. ‘I don’t have the money, but I have something else. Something better,’ she said huskily, her voice smooth and full of promise. ‘But you’re not going to be able to claim it from there.’ She gave the leader a provocative smile and beckoned him over. ‘You’ll need to come closer. One at a time.’

        The man gave a short laugh. ‘I knew you’d see sense. Why are you covering up that gold dress?’ He sauntered towards her and Jessie forced herself to stand still and swallow the scream that was sitting at the base of her throat.

        ‘It’s raining.’ She undid her cardigan and watched with satisfaction as his eyes popped out of his head and his brain stopped working. Men were so predictable. ‘I’m cold.’

        ‘You’re not going to be cold for long, baby doll. There are six of us here to warm you up.’ He stopped in front of her, all arrogant swagger, showing off in front of the other members of his gang. ‘Where are the sexy heels?’ He grabbed the cardigan and dragged it off her, the movement tearing the flimsy fabric. ‘I really hope you haven’t forgotten the sexy heels, babe, or I’m going to have to punish you.’

        ‘I haven’t forgotten the shoes,’ Jessie said sweetly. ‘In fact, I have them right here.’ Really angry now because he’d ruined her only cardigan, she brought her hand round in front of her and jabbed the stiletto heel of her shoe hard into his groin.

        With a howl of pain the man doubled up and then crumpled to the ground.

        Jessica stood for a moment, slightly shocked by the sight of his writhing, agonised body. And then the shoe fell from her nerveless fingers and she ran.

        Her trainers splashed through the puddles, the breath tore in her lungs and her knees were shaking so badly her legs wouldn’t work properly.

        From behind her came shouts, swearing, and then the thunder of feet as the rest of the men started in pursuit.

        It was like being chased by a pack of wild hunting dogs, the terrifying inevitability of the ending slowing her pace.

        Was it better to run and be caught from behind? Or better to turn and face the enemy?

        She wanted to see what was happening—she didn’t want to be blinded.

        And then she slammed into something solid and a pair of strong hands caught her and stopped her flight.

        Oh, God, somehow one of them had got around her. She was trapped.

        It was all over.

        For a single moment she froze, like a frightened bird caught in the talons of a hawk, and then the sound of shouts and running feet grew louder and she knew she had only moments.

        
        Survival instincts took over.

        Jessie lifted her knee to deliver a blow to his manhood but this man was quicker than her, anticipating the movement with a swift shift of his body. Without uttering a sound, he slid a strong arm around her waist and yanked her against him, ensuring that she had no room for manoeuvre.

        Pressed against rock-hard muscle and powerful thighs, Jessie searched desperately for weakness and found none. At least, not in him. But being held against that powerful male body triggered an altogether different reaction inside her. Panic, yes. And something more intimate and twice as frightening. As her pelvis burned and melted Jessie struggled against his grip, shocked and appalled by the sudden flare of sexual awareness that gripped her. It must be something to do with adrenaline, she thought wildly. Something about the final moments before death making your senses more acute. Death was thundering down on her and she was aroused.

        She was still trying to find an explanation for her inexplicable response when she became aware of the sudden change in the hard male body pressed against her.

        So it was the same for him, she thought with a bitter smile. He did have a weakness after all—the same one all men had.

        Turning that to her advantage, Jessie slid her hand down his powerful body and covered him with the flat of her hand.

        His shock was only marginally greater than hers, and she heard the breath hiss through his teeth a fraction of a second before he slackened his hold. It was all she needed. Her fist landed against the side of his face and she was running again.

        She took fewer than three steps before the arms closed over her again and he hauled her back like a rag doll.

        ‘Maledezione, don’t ever pull a stunt like that again!’ The cold, furious voice penetrated her terror and Jessie felt a flicker of fear far, far deeper than anything she’d experienced before because she finally recognised who it was who held her.

        Stunned, she stared into the face she’d just punched. ‘Silvio—?’

        ‘Stai zitto! Be quiet! Don’t say a word,’ he commanded, his fingers tightening on her wrists as the men finally caught up with them.

        Jessie’s mind went blank with shock.

        Silvio Brianza.

        Images exploded in her head. Images of the last time she’d seen him. Images she’d banished from her brain.

        ‘Hey—thanks for catching her.’ This was a different man from the one she’d injured with her shoe and Jessie wondered numbly whether his friend was still lying in the alley, clutching himself.

        She didn’t even care.

        She was no longer worried about them.

        The air was suddenly choked with an entirely different sort of tension and her emotions were focused on the man whose powerful body was pressed against every contour of hers.

        Jessie tested his hold but it was like being held in a vice and her attempt to free herself drew a hiss of anger from him. She wished it had been anyone but Silvio who had come to her rescue.

        ‘Let me go. I don’t want your help.’

        ‘Of course you don’t—you’re doing fine by yourself.’ His scathing tone brought the colour rushing to her cheeks and Jessie felt a flash of humiliation that he should find her in this state.

        ‘I can handle it,’ she muttered, but she knew there was no chance he was going to let her go. Silvio Brianza was too much a man to let a woman fight for him.

        Thinking about him as a man was a mistake and the colour bloomed in her cheeks as she remembered how he’d felt against her hand.

        Grateful for the darkness, Jessie gave a hysterical laugh.

        She was about to be killed and she was thinking about sex again. Only this man could have that effect on her. He’d always made her think things she wasn’t supposed to be thinking.

        ‘You’re going to be killed, Silvio.’

        ‘I thought that was what you wanted.’

        His reference to the last time they’d met made her shiver.

        How many lonely nights had she spent planning his fate when the rest of the world had been sleeping? A thousand ways to kill Silvio Brianza.

        Was that what she wanted? She couldn’t think straight with the dangerous thrill of awareness gripping her shivering body.

        All she knew was that the terrible fear had gone. Locked against his muscular frame, she felt safe. Which was ridiculous. She’d never been less safe in her life.

        ‘Back off. She’s ours.’ The rough voice was thick with menace. ‘You can hand her over and get back in your fancy car. We’ve got no quarrel with you.’

        Fancy car?

        Jessie turned her head, saw the low, sleek Ferrari parked at the end of the seedy alleyway. It was like a portal to another life. A reminder of how far Silvio had come.

        He’d left all this behind. This wasn’t his world any more.

        So what was he doing here?

        Why had he picked tonight to step back into his past?

        The man she’d stabbed with her shoe finally joined the rest of his friends, his eyes burning with anger and resentment as he focused on Jessie.

        She looked into those dull, drug glazed eyes and saw her own death.

        
        Her thoughts were oddly detached as she prepared herself for the end. With Silvio by her side, there would be a fight, she knew that. But it was a fight they couldn’t possibly win.

        Would the end be quick?

        Would it be a knife? A gun?

        Suddenly she realised that she didn’t want Silvio to die. Not for her.

        She drew breath to speak but before she could utter a sound Silvio brought his mouth down on hers in a brief, scorching kiss.

        Jessie was too shocked to protest, or perhaps her lack of resistance had something to do with the fact that her thoughts had skimmed perilously close to this exact scenario in the last few moments. Her lips parted beneath the pressure of his, hot, liquid pleasure diluting the fear. Far from resisting, she kissed him back passionately, her desperation as powerful as his, her demands every bit as urgent.

        For most of her adolescence she’d fantasised about this. Even after that terrible night, when her world had darkened and her attitude towards him had irrevocably altered, perversely she’d still thought about it.

        But of all the dreams she’d had, none of them had come close to the reality.

        His mouth drove every thought from her head except one…

        That if she had to choose a moment to die, this would be it.

        Through a haze of desire she heard a snigger from the watching men. ‘Now, that’s just greedy,’ one of them complained.

        Her head still spinning from the kiss, Jessie didn’t even realise Silvio had released her until he stepped forward out of the shadows. There was an air of menace attached to that simple, understated movement and she shivered as she watched, frightened and fascinated at the same time. He didn’t speak or bluster—instead, he was terrifyingly cold, his spectacularly handsome face displaying not a single flicker of emotion as he confronted the men. And that, Jessie thought numbly, said everything there was to be said about Silvio Brianza. A lone warrior.

        Her legs were threatening to give way, although whether it was from desire or fear she was no longer sure. All she knew was that she wanted to shout a warning. She wanted to warn him not to die for her, but her lips had been paralysed by the touch of his mouth and she couldn’t think of anything except how it had felt to be kissed by him.

        And then she realised that this scenario wasn’t playing out the way she’d anticipated. Instead of attacking Silvio, the group was falling back. They’d lost the fierce bravado of a pack intent on a kill and instead they were just staring at him.

        Water dripped from the gutter down the back of her neck and Jessie shivered as she tried to work out what was happening.

        Why would six men retreat from one?

        Confused, she glanced at Silvio and realised that he was standing in the faint shaft of light created by the final flickers of an exposed bulb presumably intended to provide light to the dank corners of the filthy alleyway.

        And suddenly she realised what they’d seen. The distinctive scar that ran down one cheek—the only blemish in a face so insanely perfect that if it hadn’t been for that one single flaw, his features could have been the work of Michelangelo.

        Jessie strained her ears to hear what was being said but the relentless drip of water from the surrounding roofs all but drowned out the words he was speaking and the eerie darkness made it impossible to read his lips.

        At one point Jessie thought she heard someone mutter something that sounded like ‘The Sicilian’, but she couldn’t be sure and they obviously had no interest in including her in the conversation.

        Just when she was wondering whether she could slip away unnoticed, they all turned to look at her.

        Jessie stood welded to the spot and for one crazy moment she wondered whether Silvio was going to join them. Strip away the expensive clothes and he had the credentials. He’d lived his early life among people like these. He’d led the most feared gang of all.

        Those dangerous dark eyes fixed on her and for a fraction of a second he was a stranger to her. She saw what the others had seen. And what she saw was frightening.

        Jessie sucked in a breath, reminding herself that, whatever their differences, this man would never hurt her physically.

        Emotionally? Emotionally he’d achieved what a childhood lived rough hadn’t managed to accomplish.

        He’d broken her into tiny pieces.

        Her eyes slid to the scar, her breathing stopped and they stared at each other. The tension in the air shifted and morphed into something different, something a thousand times more dangerous.

        Without breaking eye contact, Silvio strolled towards her.

        He was frighteningly calm and Jessie wanted to warn him not to turn his back on the men, but she didn’t dare snap the tension that held them all immobile.

        As he reached her he lifted a hand and stroked her hair away from her face, the gesture oddly out of place in such a tense situation. His touch was both deliberate and possessive, as if he was making a statement about their relationship, and she didn’t understand that because they didn’t have a relationship any more.

        It had been smashed in that grimy room exactly three years earlier, over her brother’s lifeless body.

        
        Then his hand dropped. ‘Andiamo. Let’s go. Get in the car,’ he commanded, and Jessie obeyed, not because she wanted to get in the car, but because she was as mesmerised by his aura of authority as the gang members. He dominated this godless, lawless environment with the sheer force of his presence and Jessie slid into the sumptuous warmth of the Ferrari, feeling as though she were stepping into another world. Moments later he joined her and she wasn’t sure whether the deep growl came from the engine or the depths of his throat. All she knew was that she’d been wrong about his mood.

        He wasn’t calm.

        He wasn’t calm at all.

        Forced into close proximity by the confines of the car she could tell that he was struggling with a raging anger and that knowledge unsettled her because in all the years she’d known him, she’d never seen him like this. Never seen that icy control slide. Not once. Not even that night when their relationship had hit rock bottom.

        ‘Silvio—’

        ‘Don’t say a word.’ He cut her off before she could even begin her sentence, his voice strangely thickened, his knuckles white on the wheel. He didn’t glance in her direction. Instead he kept his eyes fixed on the road, speeding through the back streets of London as if he were competing for a Formula 1 title.

        Jessie was tempted to point out that there wasn’t a lot of point in rescuing her from one threat only to kill them both in a car wreck, but she kept her mouth shut.

        Why him?

        Why did it have to be him who had rescued her?

        Now that the immediate danger had passed, her thoughts were impossibly confused. The adrenaline rushing around her body had been diluted by another hormone and the only thing in her head was that kiss. Her body was still trembling from the pressure of his mouth against hers and the more she remembered of her wild, crazy response, the more appalled she was. Had he noticed her reaction? She shrank in her seat, hoping that he’d been too distracted to register just how enthusiastically she’d played her part.

        Disgust slithered over her bones and settled in the core of her like a cold, hard stone.

        Had she no shame?

        How was it possible to respond like that to someone you’d spent three years hating? Her brain was like a slide show—one minute she was remembering the breath-stealing moment when his dark head had lowered to hers, the next she was seeing her brother’s face.

        Shocked, confused and ripped apart with self-loathing, Jessie realised that the one thing she wasn’t thinking of was the six men who had just tried to kill her.

        And that didn’t make sense, did it?

        Her gaze slid to Silvio.

        He was just one man.

        Why did she feel safe?

        She swallowed a hysterical laugh, wondering why she needed to ask herself that question.

        The visible markers of success hadn’t changed who he was. The expensive watch on his wrist, the car he was driving—none of those things had shaped the man. Underneath the exterior of smooth sophistication that enabled him to blend with the upper echelons of society, Silvio was solid steel. Hard, tough and the very essence of what it meant to be a man.

        She felt safe because she was safe. Physically. Any woman would be safe with him, although perhaps only she really understood who he really was.

        Just looking at him made her feel guilty and Jessie tore her eyes away from him and looked behind her. Not that she thought for one moment anyone would be following the Ferrari. It would be like sending a donkey in pursuit of a racehorse.

        ‘They called you “the Sicilian”.’ Unable to help herself, she cast another look at his profile. Looking at him was an irresistible compulsion. ‘It’s so long since you had anything to do with that life but your reputation still frightens them. They knew you.’ She stared in fascination, wondering why she wasn’t more afraid of him herself.

        Was it because she couldn’t see the scar?

        From this angle the damaged skin was invisible, his features almost impossibly perfect.

        Perfect, but cold.

        Up until tonight she would have said he didn’t feel—but it was evident that he was feeling something.

        Jessie wondered why he was so angry. ‘Why did you come here tonight?’

        ‘I heard a rumour about a pack of trouble and a girl with a golden voice.’ He shifted gears viciously, coaxed the car round a tight corner and accelerated away so fast that Jessie’s head thumped gently against the head rest.

        ‘I wasn’t looking for trouble.’

        His eyes were fixed straight ahead of him. ‘How much did he owe them?’

        Jessie gave a twisted smile, not at all surprised that he knew the truth.

        She didn’t waste time pretending he’d misunderstood. Neither did she ask him how he knew. He knew everything. This man had contacts at every strata of society—a network that would have made both social climbers and the police force weep with envy.

        ‘Forty thousand,’ she said flatly, wishing the sum didn’t sound so terrifying. ‘It was twice that, but I’ve paid back half. I’m late with a payment. That’s why they came after me tonight.’ She gave him no details. Didn’t elaborate. But he knew. He was a man who’d known hunger, violence and deprivation and, in the fleeting second before he controlled his reaction, she saw the murderous flash of anger in his eyes.

        ‘You paid them?’ The question hissed through his lips and Jessie was reminded that this man was twice as dangerous as the men he’d rescued her from.

        ‘I didn’t exactly have a choice.’

        He changed gears with a savage movement of his hand. ‘But you could have gone to the police.’

        The dark streets flashed past and Jessie wondered if he even realised he’d just driven straight through a red light. ‘That would have made things worse.’

        ‘For whom? Law-abiding citizens shouldn’t be afraid of the police, Jessie. Or were you afraid you’d be arrested?’ The contempt in his tone baffled her until she saw his gaze flick briefly to her exposed thighs—saw the raw fury—and suddenly understood his meaning.

        He thought she—

        That was why he was so angry?

        Jessie was so shocked that for a moment she couldn’t respond. ‘What sort of job do you think I’m doing?’

        ‘Presumably the same job as the rest of the girls in that club.’

        He thought she was a prostitute.

        She leaned her head back against the seat and started to laugh. It was that or cry and there was no way she was ever crying in front of this man. All her tears had been shed in private.

        ‘You think it’s funny?’ His tone savage, he drove the car harder still and Jessie wondered why it bothered her so much that he thought that of her.

        ‘I use what God gave me. What’s wrong with that?’ It was a stupid thing to say. Flippant, provocative—like dangling a piece of raw meat in front of a hungry wolf—and the moment the words left her mouth she wanted to suck them back in. But it was too late for that. Too late to wish that everything was different between them.

        Too late to wish that the past hadn’t happened.

        And perhaps it was safer this way. If his opinion of her was rock bottom then it would protect them both from the dangerous chemistry that had flickered round the edges of their relationship like a force field.

        She didn’t want that.

        He didn’t want that.

        He brought the car to an abrupt halt and when he looked at her the red blaze of fury in his eyes made her shrink against the seat in instinctive retreat.

        ‘If you were that desperate for money,’ he said thickly, ‘you could have come to me. It didn’t matter what happened between us. None of that mattered. If you were in trouble, you should have contacted me.’

        ‘You are the last person on this earth I would ever ask for help.’ But the words came out as a whisper because she was too overwhelmed by her feelings to manage anything stronger or more convincing.

        Self-loathing mingled with a desperate yearning that frightened her.

        She didn’t want to feel like this.

        ‘Pride can kill, Jessie.’

        ‘It isn’t about pride! Even if I’d wanted to contact you, I wouldn’t have known how. I don’t know you any more.’ Neither did she know herself. ‘You’re always surrounded by clever people and security staff. Although why you need the security staff, I don’t understand.’ She turned to look at him and then immediately looked away because one glance at his mouth made her think of that kiss. ‘Why do you employ security staff? You don’t exactly need help, do you? Or are you worried about dirtying your expensive suit?’

        ‘Don’t change the subject,’ he said harshly. ‘Were you really prepared to die rather than contact me? Is that the honest truth?’

        Jessie stared in front of her, realising with a flash of surprise that they were parked on the pavement near her block of flats. ‘You know why I didn’t contact you.’

        ‘Sì, I know. You hate me.’ His tone was flat but his grip on the wheel didn’t relax. ‘You blame me for everything.’

        ‘Not everything—just that one thing. Do you know what tonight is?’ Her voice shook with emotion and his eyes flashed.

        ‘Do you think I’d forget this date? Does it help you to know I blame myself every bit as much as you do?’ The rain pelted onto the car, blurring their surroundings.

        Like tears, Jessie thought as she stared at the water pouring over the windscreen. ‘No. It doesn’t help.’ Nothing helped.

        The memory of that night hovered between them like a menacing storm cloud waiting to unleash something terrible and Jessie unclipped her seat belt and opened the car door, on the run from memories and a conversation she didn’t want to have.

        ‘Thanks for the lift.’ She didn’t say ‘home’ because she didn’t think of this place as home. It was just the place she slept—for now. Until she moved on—which she did regularly.

        It was raining hard now, the litter-strewn pavements slick with it, the graffiti on the walls glistening under a glowing orange streetlamp.

        Jessie felt ridiculous standing there, soaked to the skin in her cheap gold dress. Next to the sleek Ferrari and the equally sleek billionaire she felt appallingly self-conscious.

        Jessie the prostitute.

        
        Was that really how she looked?

        So much for her fantasy about singing to packed stadiums or opera houses.

        She was as far removed from that as the average woman singing into her hairbrush. As far removed from that as she was from the man who was now striding round the car to her.

        His eyes glittered in the ominous light. Ignoring the rain, Silvio removed his coat and slung it around her shoulders. Pulling it closed, he covered her up, every millimetre of her—as if he couldn’t bear to look. ‘You do realise that this is the last place in the world that any sane woman would choose to come to alone at night?’

        The coat overwhelmed her, falling almost to the ground and covering her hands. ‘They tracked me down. I had to move. They don’t know I live here.’ She rolled the sleeves back methodically, trying to find her hands—and then she froze, the truth slamming into her.

        He knew she lived here.

        Jessie felt her face drain of colour and met his diamond-hard eyes with dawning horror. ‘You didn’t ask for directions.’ Her voice was a cracked whisper. ‘How did you know where to drop me?’

        ‘I make it my business to know things,’ he said grimly. ‘And if I know, you can be sure that those animals know too. I calculate we probably have less than ten minutes to clear out your things before they get here. Move!’

      

    

  
    

    
      
      
        

        

        
          CHAPTER TWO
        

      

      
        THE ground floor.

        She was living on the ground floor.

        Silvio stood in perfect stillness as she undid the bolts on the door, struggling with anger almost too big to contain. He knew that his ability to control his emotions was one of the things that separated him from those animals they’d left behind, and yet right now he didn’t feel so different from those men. What had she said to him?

        I use what God gave me.

        Remembering the careless way she’d thrown those words at him, Silvio turned away from her, not trusting himself to speak or even look at her. In his head he was seeing Jessie the child, clinging to her brother and not understanding where her comfortable, familiar life had gone. He couldn’t reconcile that vision of vulnerable innocence with reality—he kept seeing Jessie in the tight gold dress, using what God gave her.

        The innocence had gone.

        He’d known from the moment he’d taken her mouth and felt her wild, uninhibited response.

        Just thinking about it had an immediate impact on his body and Silvio swore in Italian, exasperated by his inability to switch off that part of himself. Knowing that his priority had to be to get her away from here, he inhaled deeply and forced himself to focus on what was important.

        Saving her life.

        Turning back to her, he saw that she was shivering under his coat, but he knew there was little he could do about that. Even though she sold her favours to men, he knew instinctively that if he touched her now he’d risk adding another bruise to the one already developing on the right side of his face.

        It had come as no surprise that she knew how to punch.

        He’d taught her.

        She undid the last bolt and pushed open the door. ‘There. Home, sweet home. You can go now. Thanks for the ride.’

        ‘I’m not going anywhere.’ They were a sitting target in the dimly lit walkway and he wasn’t leaving her there.

        Silvio glanced back at the gleaming paint of his black Ferrari, the car as visible and out of place as an alien spaceship in a children’s playground.

        ‘If you’re worried about your toy, Silvio, just go and play with it,’ she said tartly, gasping as he yanked her back and stepped in front of her. ‘What are you doing? I’m not inviting you in for coffee if that’s what you’re hoping. You had one kiss for free. That’s all you’re getting.’ The bravado hid an ocean of fear and Silvio wondered how long it would take her to admit that she was scared.

        ‘That kiss saved your life.’ Even it had been at the expense of his own mental stability.

        Taking what he assumed to be a last look at his car, Silvio went into the flat first, knowing exactly what he would find.

        Much of his childhood had been spent in places exactly like this—bars at the window, locks on the door and a board hammered over the letter box because whatever anyone wanted to post through your door, it sure as hell wasn’t going to be a letter.

        Being back here was harder than he was prepared to admit, even to himself.

        It was dank and small and it took him less than five seconds to reassure himself that no one was inside.

        Closing the blinds and securing the front door, he turned with a growl. ‘You shouldn’t be living on the ground floor.’ The moment the words left his mouth he could have bitten his tongue because he of all people should have known why she’d chosen this position.

        He pressed his fingers to his temples, tasting regret. Sensitive words didn’t come easily to him but he was fairly sure he could have done better than that if he hadn’t been distracted.

        Anticipating her reaction, he cast her a look and she looked straight back at him, her eyes dark pools of defiance.

        ‘What? If you’re waiting for me to crumble, Silvio, you’re going to be waiting a long time. I’m tough as nails.’

        Silvio shook his head in disbelief, not knowing whether to laugh or strangle her. ‘There isn’t time for you to crumble,’ he said evenly. ‘You’ve got five minutes to pack anything that’s important to you. Then we’re leaving.’ A flash of gold dress and creamy skin knocked the words out of his brain and he looked away quickly. The fact that he needed to do so told him just how close to the edge he was.

        On reflection, he wished he’d found another way to secure her safety other than by kissing her.

        Never before in his life had he had such a slippery grip on control and he knew that if he saw her in that outrageously sexy dress he’d start thinking of all those men looking at her…

        
        How many of them had had their hands on her?

        And why had he waited three years to come looking for her? Why had he thought she’d be better without him in her life?

        Apparently unaware of his torment, she reached into a cupboard. The coat slipped from her shoulders and the movement of her body gave him a flash of suspender belt. And something else.

        With a soft curse Silvio stepped forward and stuck his hand up her dress, ignoring her outraged gasp. He stepped back with the knife in his hand, his mood so dangerous that he didn’t trust himself to be close to her.

        ‘Maledezione, what is this?’

        ‘It’s a knife.’ Her gaze challenged him. ‘You should know—it isn’t as if you haven’t seen one before.’

        ‘You shouldn’t be carrying this.’ His fingers toyed with the blade, the glint of metal winking at him mockingly. ‘If I hadn’t turned up when I did…’

        ‘I would have used it if I had to.’

        Thinking about what would have happened if she’d produced a knife sent ice through his veins.

        He’d almost lost her.

        A chorus of vicious barking from outside the flat reminded him that they had no time for reflection or recrimination and Silvio slipped the knife into his pocket and retrieved his coat from the floor.

        ‘Find yourself a coat that fits. I assume you have one. And hurry up.’ He wondered whether he’d been foolish to allow her to come here, but then he reminded himself that they needed her passport.

        ‘I don’t understand the hurry. It’s going to take me more than five minutes to find somewhere new to live. This is premium property, Silvio—not easy to come by.’ Pulling open a cupboard, she removed a mug and waved it at him. ‘Water? I can’t offer you coffee—they turned the gas and electric off last week.’

        ‘You’ve just lost thirty seconds of packing time,’ Silvio ground out, prowling to the window and staring into the badly lit concrete walkway that led to the flats. The area made him shiver.

        How many times had she risked her life crossing that litter-strewn concrete desert late at night?

        ‘I take it that’s a no.’ With a careless shrug, she put the mug down on a small table and Silvio glanced back at her, frowning as he saw the red bruising on her knuckles.

        ‘I’d forgotten about your hand.’

        ‘My hand is fine. How’s your face?’

        ‘My face is fine.’ Struggling with emotions he didn’t know he was capable of feeling, Silvio crossed to the small fridge and yanked it open, glaring with disbelief at the empty shelves. ‘What do you eat?’

        ‘I usually eat out,’ Jessie said blithely, her slender frame telling a different story. ‘I can’t get through the week without dining in at least one Michelin-starred restaurant.’

        Ignoring her sarcasm, Silvio reminded himself that his priority was getting her out of this place, not sorting out deficiencies in her diet. ‘Where’s the freezer compartment?’

        ‘No freezer compartment. You’ll just have to take your gin and tonic without the ice. Sorry for any inconvenience.’

        If the situation hadn’t been so urgent he would have admired her courage.

        Or maybe it was just that she didn’t know how much danger she was in.

        And then she switched on another light and he saw the dark shadows under her eyes.

        She knew.

        The fact that she was frightened dug deep into his gut. Her life choices were coming back to haunt her and regret sliced through him because if he’d been here, everything would have been different.

        He’d thought that leaving was the best thing he could do for her. Now he saw it had been the worst.

        ‘That’s another minute wasted,’ he drawled softly. ‘Never mind—the ice will have to wait until we’re at my place.’ The bruising on her hand would be worse but he’d have to find some other way of dealing with it. It was better than this nervous tension.

        ‘I’m not going with you, Silvio.’ She turned on the tap, filled the mug full of water and drank thirstily. But the hand holding the mug was shaking. ‘Get out of my life.’

        ‘I did that once before. It didn’t work out so well, did it?’

        ‘It worked perfectly for me.’

        ‘I’m back in your life, Jessie, whether you like it or not.’

        ‘You can’t afford me, Silvio. You might be rich but I’m out of your league.’ Her allusion to her dubious lifestyle stoked his anger. He wanted to push her up against the wall and demand to know why she’d allowed this to happen. He wanted to know why it had all gone so wrong. But he knew the answer to that one.

        He was responsible. Because of him, she’d given up caring. Because he’d allowed her to send him away, he hadn’t been able to protect her.

        Guilt crashed down on him and he heaved it away, knowing it to be a poor friend—a stifling, useless weight that achieved nothing. Keep moving forward—wasn’t that how he’d lived his life?

        ‘Another thirty seconds gone. I hope you travel light.’ Silvio prowled back to the window and lifted the blinds just enough to give him visual access.

        The first thing he noticed was that a small crowd had gathered around his car. The second was that a battered black van with no lights had pulled up at the far end of the street.

        He swore in Italian. ‘You’re out of time, Cinderella. Get your passport.’

        ‘I’ve told you—I’m not going with you.’

        ‘Now!’ He thundered the word and saw her flinch. ‘Before both our brains are splattered over your wall. Move!’

        ‘I—’

        ‘So help me, Jess, my reputation will only protect us for so long. After that we need something a little more concrete. If you say one more word I’ll shoot you myself.’ Distracted by the neckline of her gold dress, he was finding it hard to concentrate. ‘Get your passport!’

        ‘I don’t have a passport! You’re the one who joined the jet set, not me!’ She yelled the words at him, her cheeks flushed and her eyes defiant. ‘Why would I need a passport? International travel isn’t exactly high on my list of priorities.’

        Acutely conscious of the vulnerability revealed by that statement, Silvio hunted for a sensitive response but in the end resorted to practicality. ‘I’ll get you a passport.’

        ‘I’ve told you, I’m not—’

        ‘You come of your own free will or I carry you,’ he growled thickly. ‘Your choice.’

        ‘You call that a choice?’ A car door slammed and she jumped. Her eyes flew to his and he saw her terror.

        ‘Discussion over.’ He grabbed her wrist but she dug her heels in.

        ‘Wait—there’s something I need…’ Wrenching her wrist out of his grip, she scrambled onto the rickety table and removed a shoebox from a cupboard.

        Averting his eyes from another flash of stocking and smooth thigh, Silvio stared through the blinds and saw the van doors open. Six of them. The same six.

        
        Pulling out his phone, he made a call, the exchange of words taking all of five seconds to complete.

        Seeing Jessie teetering on the table, he reached out and swung her down. He tried to take the shoebox from her but she snarled at him like a lioness protecting a litter of cubs, clutching the box so tightly that her fingers were white and the lid of the box crumpled slightly.

        ‘Whatever is in that box, it isn’t worth risking your life for,’ he thundered, but he let her keep the box. ‘Does the bathroom window open? Is there a way out of the back?’ He knew there would be, because there was no way Jessie would live anywhere that didn’t have several exits.

        ‘This way.’ She vanished through a door and Silvio followed her, bumping his head on the doorframe and squashing inside the tiny bathroom he’d seen briefly when he’d checked for intruders. There was barely room for one of them, let alone two.

        She wasn’t coming back here, he promised himself savagely as she pushed up the window and dropped silently onto the grass, the movement affording him another glimpse of her gorgeous legs. He was going to make sure of it.

        He followed her through the window, grabbed her hand and hauled her back towards the front of the building.

        She dug her heels in. ‘Not that way. They’re waiting for us.’

        ‘They’ve gone in the front.’ Hearing the splintering of wood, Silvio scooped her up in his arms and carried her towards the car just as the sound of police sirens split the air. She was still clutching the shoebox and her hair brushed against his cheek, the scent sending a thousand forbidden memories skimming across his senses.

        ‘What’s in that damn box, Jess?’

        ‘Stuff. Silvio, drop me and get out of here…’ Her voice cracked and she struggled in his arms. ‘You don’t want to be involved in this. You don’t need those headlines in your fancy new life. Leave me.’

        It was his first glimpse of the real Jessie—kind, caring Jessie, the terrified, frightened girl he’d met when he’d still been a wild teenager making all the wrong choices. ‘I’m not leaving you again, Jess. Get used to it. And with a background like mine it’s a bit late to worry about what the media are going to write.’ He unlocked the Ferrari with the press of a button and dropped her and her precious shoebox onto the passenger seat.

        The movement was too much for the cheap gold dress and the seam split, testing his restraint by exposing a generous section of bare midriff and the shimmer of sexy underwear.

        Deciding that he would rather have faced a gun, Silvio recoiled and slammed the door.

        Without looking over his shoulder, he slid behind the wheel and accelerated away from his past, keeping his eyes fixed forward.

         

        Something soft was pressed against her cheek and she felt deliciously warm. If this was heaven, it was a great place.

        ‘Jess?’ A rough male voice came from nearby. ‘Jessie, can you hear me?’

        Jessie assumed she was supposed to respond but she was just too warm and comfortable to move and anyway the voice sounded angry and she preferred to stay in the protective clouds of sleep where nothing could touch her.

        ‘Maledezione, I should have removed that wet dress. She’s been asleep for too long.’

        ‘Could be shock, boss. And she’s warm enough under the blanket.’ Another voice, this one deferential. ‘Do you want me to call the doc?’

        
        ‘No, not yet.’ The hard voice again. The angry one. Only this time there was a hint of something else in those steely tones.

        Worry?

        Had she really slept that long?

        Surely not. She never, ever slept.

        She only ever dozed, kept awake by her tormented thoughts and the ever-present threat of danger.

        Drifting in that blissful land between sleep and wakefulness, Jessie realised that she’d slept because she’d felt secure. For the first time in as long as she could remember, she knew she was safe.

        Jessie opened her eyes and met his. Her heart emptied itself into that one, single look and she saw the answering flare of awareness in his eyes. There wasn’t a sound in the room, nothing but the hammering of her heart and his sharp, indrawn breath.

        And then she remembered.

        She remembered why she couldn’t feel this way.

        He withdrew from her instantly, the hardening of his mouth the only indication that he’d read her thoughts.

        ‘There’s a bathroom through that door.’ His tone was neutral and he gestured to an archway. ‘Dressing room through there. Help yourself to anything that fits. When you’ve freshened up, we’ll talk.’

        ‘Dressing room?’ Jessie sat up, realising that the warmth and comfort had been delivered by an opulent velvet throw in a rich shade of aubergine. Underneath she was still wearing the minuscule gold dress and next to her was the shoebox. With a rush of relief, she curled her fingers over it, pulling it closer.

        Silvio watched her for a long, disturbing moment and then a man appeared in the doorway and he glanced towards him. ‘Yes?’

        
        ‘Chief Inspector Warren on the phone. Says it’s urgent.’

        ‘I’ll call him back.’ Silvio turned back to her and Jessie stared at him in disbelief.

        ‘You were the one who called the police?’

        ‘That’s what they’re there for, Jess. Dealing with crime. I need to return this call.’ He glanced at his watch. ‘If you need anything, shout. I’ll be outside.’

        ‘No, wait—we can’t stay here. If they know where I live then they probably followed us here—they’re dangerous…’ Panic fluttered inside her like the wings of a trapped butterfly and his lips curved into a sardonic smile.

        ‘I’m dangerous too,’ he said softly. ‘Or have you forgotten that?’

        She’d forgotten nothing and her eyes lifted to his cold, handsome face and she shivered.

        ‘You used the police as delaying tactics but that won’t work for long. They want money from me—and they want…’ She couldn’t bring herself to articulate the rest of the sentence and she didn’t need to because they both knew what she was referring to.

        His eyes darkened and he turned abruptly and strode to the window, as if he were struggling with something. ‘If you can’t even say the word then perhaps you should consider changing your profession.’

        She should have corrected him but she didn’t want to.

        Let him think it.

        His revulsion and contempt would help create the distance she needed.

        ‘What is this place, anyway?’ She looked around the room, seeing space and luxury. ‘Is it a hotel or something? Clever. They wouldn’t look for me in a place as fancy as this.’

        ‘It’s my apartment.’ He answered without turning. ‘And you’re lying in my bed.’

        
        His apartment?

        
          His bed?
        

        Trying not to think about the bed part, Jessie swallowed, kicking herself mentally for being so stupid. For not knowing that apartments this big existed. Feeling gauche and unsophisticated, she shrugged carelessly. ‘So—business must be good if you can afford a place like this.’

        ‘Business is fine.’

        Jessie pushed her hair out of her eyes, willing to bet he’d never had anyone like her in his fancy apartment before.

        It was a supremely male domain. Nothing girly here. No pink or frills or concessions towards anything soft. It was upmarket and expensive, luxurious in every sense. And surprisingly minimalist. The corners of her mouth flickered. ‘I didn’t think you could live without your gadgets. Where’s the flat-screen TV?’

        ‘Hidden. Why?’ Finally he turned, his handsome face devoid of expression, his dark eyes revealing nothing of his thoughts. ‘Do you want to watch something?’

        ‘No.’ Her eyes were fixed on the modern fireplace that was a feature of the back wall. It wasn’t lit, but the breath had become trapped in her throat and she stared for a moment, forcing herself to breathe calmly, knowing his eyes were on her. Watching. ‘Stylish.’ She forced the word between dry lips and he gave a brief nod, apparently satisfied by her response.

        Shaken by how hard it was to hide her feelings from him, Jessica reminded herself that she needed to be careful.

        He knew her too well. ‘This is really your home?’

        ‘One of them.’

        Jessica tried to imagine owning more than one place like this and gave a twisted smile. She couldn’t have felt more out of place if he’d dropped her into the jungle in her cheap gold dress. In fact, she probably would have felt safer in the jungle—she was used to living amongst wild animals. But this…she glanced around the acres of space…was an alien environment.

        ‘You don’t need to feel uncomfortable, Jess.’

        ‘I don’t feel uncomfortable.’ The words were defiant and wasted because they both knew she was lying.

        He sighed. ‘And you don’t need to be scared.’

        ‘I’m not scared.’

        She was terrified.

        Not of the group of men that were so intent on spilling her blood, not even of this swanky apartment. What frightened her was him.

        Her feelings.

        They were too tangled, too complex, too dark…

        It was a cruel twist of fate that had made him her rescuer.

        Suddenly she knew she couldn’t stay on this bed any longer—his bed—and she threw off the velvet cover and padded silently over to him, feeling his eyes follow her every move.

        It shouldn’t have bothered her.

        Men did that.

        They watched her.

        She’d taught herself to handle it and it no longer worried her—sometimes it was even useful because it meant that her tips were bigger. This time it was different.

        This man was different.

        ‘Where are we?’ She wasn’t interested in where they were, but she looked out of the window because it gave her something to focus on other than the man.

        It took her a moment to react because the view was so very different from what she’d been expecting. This was a rich man’s view—London at its sparkling, night-time best, a vibrant city dressed like a woman ready for a glamorous date, all high heels and diamonds.

        
        His world.

        Far beneath her, the river Thames curled in a ribbon and Jessica gave a gasp and recoiled.

        As if he’d been waiting for precisely this reaction he curled strong hands over her shoulders and steadied her. ‘It’s all right.’

        Panic choked her and she gasped for breath, teetering on the precipitous edge between sanity and hysteria. ‘It’s not all right! It’s not all right, Silvio! You brought me to the top floor!’ Her voice rose and she snatched in several short breaths. ‘How could you do that? How could you? I have to get out of here!’ She tried to drag herself out of his arms but his fingers bit into her arms and he shook her slightly.

        ‘Jess, listen to me.’ His voice was commanding, his grip preventing her from running. She would have gone over the balcony if she’d had the chance and he knew it. ‘You’re not trapped. You’re safe.’

        There was roaring in her ears and she lifted her hand to her mouth, her breathing so rapid that the world started to spin.

        She heard Silvio swear softly and then he hauled her across the room and yanked open a door. In front of her was a curving metal slide, like something from a child’s playground. She stared at it blankly and she heard him sigh.

        ‘If you sit on it, you’ll be on the ground floor in less than four seconds. I designed it myself.’ Still with his hand around her wrist he dragged her back to the glass wall overlooking the river, hit a button and the whole thing slid open.

        The cold air and driving rain made her gasp but he pulled her onto the balcony and gestured. ‘Staircase.’ His tone was forceful, his gaze compelling as he tried to penetrate the terror that was eating her up. ‘From this bedroom alone there are three exits. Do you understand me, Jess? Three exits. There are another nine from the rest of the apartment. It isn’t possible to be trapped in here.’

        
        Another soaking of rain was turning the cheap gold dress into a sodden rag and she was shivering again, but Jessie managed a nod.

        In terms of acknowledgement it wasn’t much, but it was obviously enough for him because he drew her back inside, hit the button again and once again the outside world vanished and the glass wall closed her inside the cocoon of climate controlled luxury.

        Humiliation swamped her. ‘Sorry…’

        ‘Jessie—you were dragged out of a burning house when you were five years old,’ he said grimly. ‘Don’t apologise to me. I know why you sleep on the ground floor. I know why you don’t like tall buildings, but you’re safe here. I know it’s not the ground floor, but you can’t be trapped. Trust me.’

        He was the last man in the world she wanted to trust, but what choice did she have? At this moment in time she was in too much of a mess to be fussy.

        If she left his protection, she’d be dead.

        Without releasing her hand, Silvio strode purposefully into the bathroom. He hit a button on the wall and hot, scented water swirled into the large tub.

        Jessie wanted to say something but she had no idea what.

        He stared at her frozen features with a mixture of concern and exasperation. ‘You’re cold. You’re wet. You’ve had a long day. Get out of that damn dress, soak in the bath, close your eyes. Then you can eat. Judging from the contents of your fridge, you need it.’ His eyes raked her face and then he cautiously released her wrist, still watching her. ‘After that we’ll talk.’

        Jessie’s teeth were chattering. ‘What’s the point in talking? You’ll do what you want to do.’

        A sardonic smile touched his beautiful mouth. ‘Yes, you’re right. I will. Get in the bath, Jess.’

        
        Did she look that bad?

        She scraped her soaking hair away from her face, knowing that she must look like a drowned rat. Knowing that she owed him thanks. Despite her gratitude for his intervention, she just couldn’t say the words. Showing gratitude to a man she hated proved impossible. She was still trying to force the words past her uncooperative lips when he gestured to a heated cabinet by the bath.

        ‘Towels. Anything else you need, shout.’ He paused by the door—cool, sophisticated and very much at home in this world. ‘Perhaps you’d better not lock the door.’

        He closed the door behind him and Jessie immediately locked it.

        Why had he suddenly reappeared in her life? And why was he helping her? After the things she’d said to him, she hadn’t expected ever to see him again.

        It couldn’t be guilt or regret.

        She knew that Silvio Brianza didn’t have a conscience.

        She leaned her forehead against the locked door, embarrassed by her loss of control and wishing it hadn’t been him who had witnessed it. Then she laughed. No one but him would have understood. But Silvio had been there after the fire. He’d been living in the care home where she and her orphaned teenage brother had been taken after the tragedy that had shattered their young lives.

        They’d lost everything, and everyone, and they’d been thrust into a world that had been both harsh and cruelly unfamiliar.

        Jessie turned and looked at the bath, tempted by the froth of luxurious bubbles and the prospect of steaming water. How long had it been since she’d dipped herself in hot water? Too long. And never in a bath like this one. To just lie in a bath and relax, knowing that someone else was watching for danger…

        
        Despite the sleep she felt exhausted, but she knew she couldn’t stay here. Not with him. It was out of the question. He was her enemy.

        She rubbed her fingers over her lips, trying to erase the memory of that kiss—telling herself that she had no reason to feel guilty. He’d kissed her. Not the other way round.

        
          But she hadn’t fought him off, had she?
        

        Confused and angry with herself, she stripped off the gold dress, ripping it further in the process. She was not going to feel guilty. It wasn’t as if she’d gone to him for help. She hadn’t. Even when she’d been at her lowest point, she hadn’t allowed herself to approach him.

        And she’d had no choice but to accept his help tonight. If she hadn’t, she’d be lying bleeding in that alleyway.

        Survival, she reminded herself grimly. That was what her life was about.

        Survival.

        Reasoning that she wasn’t going to get far in a soaking-wet gold dress, Jessie stripped it off and slid into the bath, moaning with rapture as the hot water soothed and warmed her skin.

        Just for a minute, she promised herself as she slid deeper under the foam. What harm could it do?

        But she couldn’t relax. She was too wound up after what had happened and luxuriating in warm bubbles was something she’d never done before. It felt…decadent. She shampooed her hair quickly and in less than two minutes she was out of the bath and drying herself in a soft warm towel. Eyeing the damp gold dress on the floor, she faced the fact that she was going to have to borrow something to wear.

        Her instinct was to refuse his offer, but how could she?

        What clothes she had were back in her grim little flat. And she wouldn’t miss any of them.

        
        Wondering why she was worrying about modesty when he thought she was a prostitute, Jessie wrapped herself in a long bathrobe before emerging cautiously from the bathroom.

        Her precautions proved unnecessary because the bedroom was empty, the lighting dimmed to a warm, intimate glow.

        She stared at the bed, her wayward mind conjuring up images she didn’t want to see.

        Was this where he brought his women?

        
          Did he kiss them the way he’d kissed her?
        

        Forcing aside that unsettling thought, she snatched up the shoebox she’d rescued from her flat and tucked it under her arm. Then she padded over to the dressing room, aware that the last place she’d lived would have fitted into this space with room to spare. It was huge.

        A door had been left open for her and she peeped inside, like a nervous child exploring its mother’s wardrobe, afraid of being caught.

        Her mouth fell open because she’d never seen anything like it, even in her dreams.

        There were racks of shoes stored in transparent boxes; jumpers and T-shirts in a rainbow of colours, all perfectly folded, and rails of shimmering, glamorous dresses.

        Jessie reached out a hand and touched one of the dresses, the silk sliding over her fingers like fluid. There was nothing cheap here. Nothing suitable for the life she led.

        The clothes went with the apartment and the apartment was the domain of the super-rich. She bent to tuck her battered, cardboard shoebox safely into the corner of the cupboard, out of sight.

        ‘Are you all right?’ His voice came from behind her and Jessie jumped as if she’d been caught stealing, clutching the edges of the dressing gown together at her throat to make sure that not a millimetre of flesh was exposed.

        
        ‘I’m fine.’

        ‘You were quick.’

        She stiffened defensively, not wanting to admit that she was too jumpy to relax. ‘I spent as long as I needed.’

        ‘Why aren’t you dressed?’

        Jessie gave a humourless laugh and glanced over her shoulder at the rails of clothes. ‘Because I couldn’t see anything suitable.’

        His gaze slid to the rails of clothes and a faint smile touched his mouth. ‘That’s a very female remark. A closet full of clothes and nothing to wear.’

        ‘They’re not right.’

        ‘Nothing fits?’

        ‘I have no idea if anything fits me! I haven’t tried any of them on.’

        ‘Why not?’

        ‘Because I can’t wear any of that stuff, Silvio!’ Suddenly she wished she were wearing her heels. At least then she wouldn’t have felt quite so small and insignificant next to him. Or maybe she would. Acknowledging that her feelings of inferiority came from the inside, Jessie glared at him, exasperated that he had so little clue as to how she was feeling. ‘Where am I going to wear fancy stuff like this? I can hardly walk around the streets wearing a floor-length gown, can I?’

        ‘You’re not going to be walking around the streets.’ Studying her face, he leaned against the doorframe, supremely relaxed and indecently good-looking.

        Jessie noticed that he’d showered and changed, his dark hair slightly spiky from the water, his lean, powerful legs encased in clean, black jeans. An expensive watch glinted from beneath the cuff of his tailored shirt and Jessie wondered idly how much it had cost him.

        More than she’d earned in her lifetime.

        
        He looked as sleek and expensive as the apartment he lived in and the car he drove.

        But most importantly of all, he was comfortable here. As comfortable as he’d been in the dirty alley. He was able to move between the two worlds without faltering.

        Feeling the gulf between them widen, Jessie took a step backwards. Once she’d adored him. But that had been a long time ago. Now she didn’t even know him. ‘Look…’ She cleared her throat. ‘If you could just find me a pair of old jeans or something, that will be fine. Then I can get out of here and leave you to your life.’

        Without responding, Silvio opened another cupboard and moments later he pushed several pieces of clothing into her arms. ‘Try these. They should do until we can find you something else.’

        Jessie looked down at the soft denim and nodded. ‘This is perfect,’ she said gruffly. ‘I don’t need anything else. I have stuff in my flat.’ The thought of going back there left her cold with fear and he obviously had a similar reaction because his eyes hardened.

        ‘Give me a list of the things you need and I’ll send someone.’

        Jessie shrank inwardly at the thought of anyone seeing how little she owned. ‘There’s no need. I have to go back anyway.’

        ‘You’re not going back, Jess. For the time being, you’ll be living with me.’

        Relief mingled with outrage and she wondered why being with this man triggered such contradictory emotions. ‘Are you planning to keep me locked up here in your fancy bachelor pad just so that they can’t get me?’ Her laugh was high-pitched. ‘That would cramp your style. I can just imagine what your new posh friends would say if they met me.’

        ‘They’d like you. And if they didn’t like you that would be their problem, not yours.’

        
        Jessie turned away from him, staring into the wardrobe to hide the humiliating glitter of tears that she felt in her eyes. She must be tired, to be this close to crying. ‘I can’t stay here with you. It feels wrong.’ She didn’t add that she felt grubby and out of place. ‘I need to leave now. I have to leave.’ She said the words for her own benefit as much as his, trying to force herself to do the right thing. But nausea churned in her stomach at the thought of leaving. If she walked away from him, she’d be walking away from safety. Did she really want to keep struggling and looking over her shoulder?

        ‘Don’t waste time arguing with yourself.’ Reading her mind, he strolled towards the door of the dressing room. ‘You’re not going anywhere, Jess. You’re staying with me until I tell you it’s safe for you to go back out there—and that’s non-negotiable.’

        Her eyes slid to his and she met his hard, unflinching gaze. He was being macho and over-protective and she knew she ought to argue with him. It horrified her to discover that she didn’t want to.

        Being protected felt good.

        ‘Do you think they’ll come after me?’

        ‘I know they’ll come after you. They’re going to check that I told them the truth. But you don’t need to be scared.’ He spoke with the cool conviction of someone who’d never been scared of anything in his life. ‘This place is a fortress. They can’t get to you here.’

        Something he’d said nagged at her brain. ‘What do you mean, they’re going to check that you told them the truth? The truth about what? What did you say to them? Why did they back off?’ Her heart rate was suddenly twice as fast and her palms were clammy as she recalled those terrifying moments in the alleyway. ‘They shouldn’t have let me go. I thought they were going to kill me—’

        
        Tension rippled through his powerful frame and she wondered whether he’d always seemed this intimidating or whether she was just feeling more vulnerable than usual.

        ‘Silvio? How did you persuade them not to?’ Her mouth was suddenly dry and her limbs turned liquid. ‘What did you say?’

        The silence stretched between them and he held her gaze, his dark eyes burning into hers. ‘I told them the one thing guaranteed to ensure that no one touches you.’ His tone had a raw, elemental edge and he studied her with brooding concentration. ‘I told them you’re my woman.’

      

    

  
    

    
      
      
        

        

        
          CHAPTER THREE
        

      

      
        ‘TELL me what you’d like to eat and my chef will cook it. Eggs? Bacon? Pancakes?’

        ‘You told them I’m your woman. Why would you do that?’ Jessie paced the length of his enormous living room, unable to focus on anything except what he’d just told her. ‘I can’t believe you did that.’

        His woman…

        Her stomach dropped because it was uncomfortably close to her adolescent fantasies. When other girls had been drooling over boy bands and football stars, Jessie had been thinking about Silvio Brianza. When she’d seen him with different women it had caused an almost physical pain and the depth of her misery had been intensified by the humiliating knowledge that he had been aware of her feelings.

        She’d loved him until she’d ached, but he’d never treated her as anything other than his best friend’s little sister.

        They were separated by ten years and a gulf of experience.

        And that gulf had been made even wider by the circumstances of her brother’s death.

        She was betraying him by even being here.

        ‘Food, Jess,’ he said patiently, and she glanced towards him, too agitated to concentrate. Everything felt alien. The environment, him, even the clothes.

        
        The jeans and the thin cashmere jumper fitted her perfectly but they felt like nothing she’d ever worn before.

        It was amazing what money could buy.

        ‘How can you think about food?’ she said hoarsely. ‘We need to talk about this!’

        ‘We’ll talk when you’ve eaten.’ Maddeningly calm, Silvio turned to a woman who was hovering and spoke to her in Italian. Then he turned back to Jessie. ‘She’ll ask the chef to prepare something. You’re too thin. When did you last eat?’

        ‘I’m not thin, and, Silvio, we need to—’

        ‘No, we don’t need to do anything. You need to trust me.’ He strolled towards the large glass table that was the focus of the far end of the enormous room. ‘Come and join me.’

        Torn between gnawing hunger and raging guilt, she didn’t move.

        ‘Sit, Jess.’ His tone was neutral, as if he were bored with the entire situation. ‘Or do you hate me so much you can’t sit at my table?’

        Jessie stared at him in silence, wondering how it was possible to feel so many things about one man. ‘I can’t sit at your table,’ she said huskily, twisting the edge of the jumper with nervous fingers. ‘I can’t eat your food or sleep in your bed. I just can’t. I know you saved me tonight, but that doesn’t change the way I feel about you.’

        His face revealed no emotion but his hand closed over the back of one chair, his knuckles white. ‘So you’d rather starve yourself and put yourself at risk?’

        ‘I can look after myself.’

        He had the grace not to laugh. ‘You need help, Jess.’

        ‘I don’t want help.’

        ‘You mean you don’t want help from me.’ Dragging the chair back from the table, he sat down, his eyes still fastened on her. His jaw was dark with stubble, his legs long and lean, and he looked like every woman’s dark, forbidden fantasy.

        ‘You’re right,’ Jessie croaked, registering the sudden weakening of her knees with a spasm of bitter regret. ‘I don’t want help from you. I don’t want anything from you.’

        Silvio reached out a hand and toyed with his fork, his movements slow and deliberate. ‘If you leave this place tonight,’ he said softly, ‘they’ll find you. Is that really what you want?’

        Jessie rubbed her arms with her hands, trying to control the shivering. ‘I can protect myself.’

        ‘Like you did tonight? I’m not giving you a choice, Jess, so you don’t need to stand there wondering whether you’re betraying your brother’s memory by eating at my table. It isn’t your decision. If it makes you feel better you can tell yourself I’m holding you against your will.’ A humourless smile tugged at the corners of his sensual mouth. ‘Another crime to add to the many I’ve already committed against you.’

        Dragging her eyes from his, Jessie looked at the window and thought about what was waiting for her out there in the darkness and the rain.

        If she left him, she’d die and it was no use pretending otherwise.

        He was the only one who could protect her against what was out there.

        As if to undermine her resolve still further, at that moment several staff emerged and placed food on the table and her stomach gave an embarrassing rumble.

        ‘You might as well eat while you’re agonising over whether it’s all right to accept my help.’ Silvio gestured impatiently towards the table. ‘Sit, Jess.’

        The scent of fried bacon made her mouth water and she walked towards the table as hesitantly as a gazelle might approach a waterhole, knowing that a predator was watching.

        
        Fortunately the table was large enough to allow dining without intimacy.

        She pulled out the chair at the far end of the table from him. ‘This place is huge.’

        ‘Space is important to me.’

        ‘Because of all those years cramped in one room?’

        A shadow flickered across his face. ‘Something like that.’

        ‘Well, you’ve certainly left all that behind.’ Curious in spite of herself, Jessie looked around her, momentarily distracted by what she saw. ‘Did you build this?’

        ‘Not with my bare hands, if that’s what you’re asking.’ His low, masculine drawl was tinged with amusement. ‘My company built it.’

        It was impossible not to be impressed by what he’d achieved. ‘You used to do it with your bare hands. You used to haul the bricks and sweat alongside the men.’ Looking at the swell of muscle under the thin fabric of his expensive shirt, she wondered whether he still did. Something had to be responsible for his athletic physique and the raw power in those shoulders. That wasn’t the body of a man who spent his days at a desk, pushing paper.

        His next words confirmed her suspicions. ‘I still do some of the physical work, but even I don’t have time to erect entire apartment buildings and hotels single-handed. Are you going to eat standing up?’

        Jessie sat on the edge of the chair. He obviously wasn’t going to talk properly until she’d eaten, so she might as well eat. ‘This company of yours—tell me what else you build.’ She eyed the sleek glass table, wondering if it would crack if you put something heavy on it.

        ‘Mostly hotels. But I can be persuaded to build corporate premises if the project interests me enough.’

        Jessie lifted a knife in her hand and turned it, the silver catching the light and winking at her. Silver. ‘You’ve come a long way from the building site.’

        ‘That was the intention.’

        ‘But you chose to build your fancy apartment block in the roughest part of London. You look out of your window every day and see what you left behind. A psychologist would say you were trying to prove something.’

        ‘And an analyst would say it was a shrewd investment. It’s a good position. In less than three years this has become the trendiest place to live in the city.’ He spoke with the confidence of someone whose judgements had proved unerring. ‘Right by the river. Close to the commercial heart of London.’

        ‘Uncomfortably close to the rough part of London.’

        ‘This is a cosmopolitan city.’ Silvio sat back in his chair as a chef dressed in white placed more food in the middle of the table. ‘Grazie, Roberto.’ He spoke a few words of Italian and the man melted away, leaving them alone again.

        Determined not to show how impressed she was, Jessie stifled a laugh. ‘Does that guy stay up all night in case you want to eat?’

        ‘I have a team of chefs. They work a rota.’

        ‘You’re so rich now you can’t boil yourself an egg?’

        ‘I entertain a lot. Generally my guests expect more than a boiled egg.’

        ‘But tonight you’re slumming it. Stuck with me. Poor you.’ Hiding her self-consciousness behind bravado, Jessie leaned forward and lifted the lid from one of the plates. ‘Mmm. Bacon.’ Seduced by the delicious smell, she suddenly realised how hungry she was. ‘Can I help myself or does someone have to serve me?’

        ‘I thought you’d rather have privacy.’

        In other words he was embarrassed by her. Jessie’s face flamed and she stabbed her fork into a few rashers of bacon, telling herself that she didn’t care what he thought. ‘Don’t you want any?’

        ‘Not at the moment.’ Silvio poured himself a black coffee. ‘I’m not hungry.’

        ‘I’m always hungry.’ Forgetting that she was trying to be reserved with him, Jessie looked at the bacon on her plate and wondered if she’d taken too much. Deciding that it would draw more attention to herself to put some of it back, she sat there awkwardly.

        ‘Is that all you’re going to eat?’ Silvio stood up and strolled round the table. Without asking for her input, he piled more bacon on her plate and then added a heap of fluffy scrambled eggs and warm, fresh rolls. ‘If you don’t eat it, you’ll offend my chef and I can’t afford to lose him. He’s too good at his job.’

        Nibbling the corner of the most delicious roll she’d ever tasted, Jessie had to agree with him. ‘He cooks like this for you every day?’ She savoured the scrambled eggs, moaning with pleasure. ‘Is he married? Does he want to be?’

        He ignored her question. ‘When you’ve finished eating you should try and get some more sleep. Tomorrow I’ll take you shopping.’ He was back at his end of the table, topping up his coffee.

        Her mouth now full of hot bacon, Jessie stopped chewing and stared at him. Then she swallowed hard. ‘Shopping?’ She started to laugh because the idea was ridiculous. ‘You’re mixing me up with some other girl, Silvio. I don’t need new clothes—I need a new life, and you can’t buy that from Harvey Nichols. And anyway…’ without thinking, she picked up a piece of crispy bacon in her fingers and nibbled it ‘…I don’t have any spare money for shopping.’

        ‘You’ll be spending my money.’

        Noticing the napkin next to her plate, Jessie started to wipe her fingers and immediately smeared grease on the crisp, clean linen. Mortified, she considered trying to hide it but then realised that he was watching her. Her face scarlet, she shifted in her chair. ‘Sorry. I wasn’t concentrating. I picked the bacon up.’ Jessie clutched the napkin self-consciously. ‘I’ll wash it if you show me where.’

        Astonishment lit his dark eyes. ‘Just leave it. Someone else will do it. Why would you even suggest it?’

        She gave a hollow laugh and put the napkin carefully on the table. ‘Because I’m usually that someone else.’

        He registered that comment with a slight hardening of his jaw. ‘Well, all that is going to change. Your life is going to change.’

        Suddenly she didn’t feel like eating any more. ‘You think if you throw money at me, it will solve the problem?’

        Her eyes lifted to his and they stared at each other in tense silence.

        ‘It will solve at least part of the problem.’

        ‘Money won’t change the way I feel about you and, anyway, I don’t need your money. I can earn my own.’ Seeing the flare of disapproval in his eyes, she sighed. Even though she knew the truth, it didn’t feel good knowing that he thought that about her. ‘Look—there’s something I need to tell you—’

        ‘Forget it. I don’t want to know.’ His tone was clipped. ‘What I do want to know is why you were paying off Johnny’s debts.’

        Hearing his name knocked the breath from her body and Jessie sank her teeth into her lower lip, appalled by the sudden slug of emotion that hit her. ‘Don’t say his name.’

        ‘Why?’

        ‘Because I—I can’t—Just don’t!’ She was out of her chair, heart racing, the breath trapped in her throat, the food on her plate forgotten.

        ‘You’re paying for his mistakes, Jess,’ Silvio said, his voice low and savage. ‘It has to stop.’

        
        ‘It will stop when I’ve paid the money he owed.’

        ‘They want more than money from you, tesoro.’

        The endearment cut right through to her heart. She didn’t want endearments. She didn’t want anything from him. ‘I know.’ Jessie started to pace again, feeling trapped in a situation not of her making. ‘I know what they want.’ And the knowledge had kept her awake every night for months.

        ‘Maledezione, every man who looks at you wants the same thing.’ He was out of his chair too, his tone thickened with anger, his hand slicing through the air. ‘Do you know what those men in the bar were thinking? Every last one of them was imagining you naked and thanks to your choice of dress, it didn’t take much imagination.’

        ‘Joe insists that his singers dress like that.’

        ‘Because the women he employs provide services other than their voices!’ He dragged his fingers through his hair, his beautiful features set and hard, power and authority stamped in every line of his handsome face. ‘I can’t believe you’d do that to yourself, Jess.’

        ‘What I do with my life is none of your business.’

        ‘It’s just become my business.’ He was unyielding and remorseless. ‘Why are you wasting your incredible voice in a place like that? You could be working anywhere.’

        Jessie looked down at herself—at her borrowed clothes—and gave a cynical smile. ‘I’m a nightclub singer, Silvio.’

        ‘No. You’re a singer. It was your decision to use your voice in a nightclub. There are other choices.’

        ‘Not for people like me.’ She told herself that it was his height and build that made him seem intimidating.

        ‘Jess…’ He spoke her name through his teeth, as if he was struggling not to ignite. ‘Your voice is exceptional. Truly exceptional. With training, you could go right to the top. You’d be an international star.’

        
        Jess was still for a moment, immobilised by the vision he’d painted. And then she remembered that dreams had a way of crumbling. ‘Hard to be an international star without a passport,’ she said flippantly, and Silvio made an impatient sound in his throat.

        ‘So it’s better to just give up, is that right?’

        She swallowed. Not to anyone would she confess that when she sang, she wasn’t in a seedy club. She was up there, singing for an enraptured crowd of thousands. ‘Sometimes dreaming can make things worse.’

        ‘Dreaming can drive you forwards.’

        ‘Dreaming can emphasise the gap between hopes and reality.’

        ‘Then make the dream your reality!’ His eyes were two dangerous slits and Jessie looked at him uncertainly, shaken by the barely leashed anger she sensed in him.

        ‘I don’t understand why you’re so upset.’

        ‘I don’t understand why you’re not more upset,’ he countered in an aggressive tone. ‘Don’t you ever feel angry with Johnny for leaving you in this situation?’

        Jessie blinked rapidly, her hands balled into fists. ‘Yes,’ she whispered. ‘Sometimes I feel angry. And then I feel guilty, because I know a lot of it was my fault.’

        Silvio’s face hardened. ‘None of it was your fault.’

        ‘You’re wrong.’ The words clogged her throat. She was torn between the urge to confide in him and the urge to walk away. ‘There was so much more I could have done. I made mistakes.’

        ‘We all made mistakes,’ Silvio said dismissively, unconsciously demonstrating the blistering confidence that had helped earn him millions. ‘And Johnny made the most mistakes of all.’

        ‘You have no right to blame him.’

        ‘I have every right.’ He prowled over to the window, turning his back to her, everything about him screaming tension. ‘He was selfish and weak and he should have taken better care of you. He behaved like a boy when he should have stood up and been a man.’

        ‘Well, not everyone is as tough as you are!’ She flung that observation at his back and saw his powerful shoulders tense.

        ‘You’re in this situation because of him. If I hadn’t come tonight—’ The words were cut off abruptly and he turned suddenly. ‘It ends now, Jessie, this life of yours. Let’s stop pretending you have a million options to choose from.’

        She was frozen to the spot by his words. ‘You’re blaming Johnny for everything,’ she whispered, ‘just because he isn’t here to defend himself.’

        ‘I wish he were here.’ Silvio gave a vicious growl, his thick, dark lashes framing blazing eyes. ‘One of the things I regret most is that I didn’t make him face up to the truth.’

        Jessie felt the colour drain from her face. ‘You were supposed to be his friend.’

        ‘If I’d been a better friend I would have forced him to remember his responsibilities instead of giving him what he asked for. I failed him. And do I regret that?’ His tone held the bitter notes of self-recrimination. ‘Yes, I do. More than you will ever know. But there’s something I regret even more than that, and that’s not reminding him of his duty to you. He should have protected you!’

        ‘He loved me.’ Instinctively leaping to her brother’s defence, Jessie backed away. ‘Johnny loved me.’

        ‘Sì, he loved you.’ Silvio’s tone was contemptuous. ‘He loved you the way that suited him, not the way that was best for you. But all that is going to change. You’re not going back to that life, Jess. It’s over. I should not have left you alone and from now on I’m doing what your brother should have done. I’m taking you away from that place. And if being with me makes you feel guilty, deal with it.’ He was merciless and unyielding and Jessie backed away a few more steps, her heart pounding.

        ‘I’m not your responsibility. I don’t want your help. I hate you.’ She glanced around the sumptuous apartment, feeling disloyal to Johnny just by being there. The contrast between this and the desolate place where he’d spent his last few hours was painful to think about. ‘Why would you even want to help me, knowing the way I feel about you?’

        A muscle flickered in his lean cheek. ‘You lost your brother. I don’t blame you for the things you feel about me.’

        It was emotion, and Silvio Brianza didn’t do emotion.

        ‘Well, I blame you, Silvio!’ Her voice shook with enough passion for both of them. ‘You gave him the money. Without that he wouldn’t have been able to do it.’

        His eyes darkened and he seemed about to say something, but then changed his mind. ‘I know what I did.’ His tone was flat. Neutral. He made no attempt to dodge her accusations or excuse himself. ‘And I know you blame me.’

        ‘Is that why you’re helping me? Guilt? I thought you never looked back. I thought you always look forward.’

        He took so long to answer that she wondered if he’d heard her question.

        And then he inhaled slowly. ‘I’ve already lost him,’ he breathed. ‘I won’t lose you, too. That’s looking forward.’

        His words sent a shiver of awareness through her body and a deep, heavy sadness because she knew they’d lost each other years before.

        It was all too late. The blame and recrimination had eroded their relationship as surely as the weather eroded rock. It had been reshaped into something she no longer recognised.

        ‘I can’t pretend to be…’ it was difficult to say the words ‘…your woman.’

        
        ‘Yes, you can. Johnny would have wanted you to do whatever it took to keep yourself safe.’

        Jessie’s heart was pounding against her chest. ‘So you’re going to move me into your fancy apartment, dress me up in some shiny new clothes and kiss me in public, is that it?’

        ‘You’ll go where I go.’ His eyes dropped to her mouth. ‘And I’ll kiss you when I want to kiss you.’ He was self-assured, strong and more of a man than anyone else she’d ever met.

        And the mention of kissing knocked the strength from her knees. ‘It’s a crazy plan.’

        ‘What’s crazy about it?’

        ‘Well, for a start your current girlfriend is likely to object that you’ve moved some lowlife into your apartment.’

        ‘Don’t speak about yourself like that. And—I’m not in a relationship at the moment.’

        Jessie looked at him in disbelief. ‘Oh, sure. A man like you must really have to scrabble around for a date. I’m not naïve, Silvio. Women have always found you irresistible. I know you get thousands of offers.’

        He didn’t smile. ‘Just because I have the opportunity to sleep with a woman, it doesn’t mean I do,’ he said softly, his words a subtle condemnation of the life he believed she led. ‘I’ve always been extremely selective.’

        Jessie looked at him warily and then glanced around her. Nothing but the best for Silvio Brianza. Apartment, car—women. ‘All the more reason why no one is going to believe I’m your woman. I wouldn’t be convincing. I don’t know how to live in this world.’

        ‘This world is easy.’ His wry tone was tinged with humour. ‘It’s yours that’s the hard place to live.’

        ‘Life is hard, Silvio. That’s how it goes.’ She twisted the ends of her hair, aware that it had dried fluffy. ‘And how long do we keep this charade up for?’

        
        ‘Until I say it can stop.’

        Jessie looked at him in exasperation. ‘They’ll never believe you. No woman involved with you would work in a seedy bar.’

        Silvio gave a grim smile. ‘You no longer have that job.’

        ‘You lost me my job?’

        ‘You don’t need a job that requires you to dress like the centrefold of a pornographic magazine.’

        ‘It paid well!’

        ‘For all the wrong reasons. You’re not going back there.’ His voice harsh, he made it clear that there was no room for negotiation on that point.

        Outraged and suddenly frightened, Jessie paced across the pale wooden floor. ‘You shouldn’t have done that, Silvio.’

        ‘Did you love the job that much?’

        She stopped pacing and stared straight ahead of her. ‘No,’ she croaked. ‘No, of course I didn’t. But I don’t want you taking control of my life! How am I supposed to earn money? How am I supposed to pay them back? And whether or not we go ahead with this charade you’re proposing, I’m going to need a job when it finishes.’

        ‘I’ll give you a job.’

        Jessie glared at him. ‘I don’t want your charity.’

        ‘It isn’t charity. It’s employment.’

        ‘How can you offer me a job?’ Fraught and exhausted, Jessie gave a hysterical laugh. ‘You build hotels.’

        ‘Once they’re built, my hotels are run by a team of people. Live music is one of the entertainments we offer.’

        ‘You’re offering me a job as a singer?’

        ‘I’m certainly not expecting you to lift bricks.’

        Pride warred with practicality. She wanted to tell him she’d rather die than accept a job from him. The problem was, if she didn’t accept it, dying might well be her fate.

        
        She stood still, aware of his unwavering scrutiny, knowing that this was a turning point for her. She had to make a decision.

        Her survival instincts proved stronger than her principles.

        It wasn’t really charity, was it, if he was paying her to do a job?

        And the opportunity to move away, somewhere miles from here, was too tempting to reject out of hand.

        ‘Where would I go?’

        ‘To start with, Sicily. My flagship hotel opened last month and we’re hosting the celebrity wedding of the year in a few days’ time. Gisella Howard is marrying Brentwood Altingham the Third.’ The name brought a faint smile to his hard mouth. ‘Old money. Very old money.’

        Trying not to look impressed, Jessie shrugged. ‘Do they know you were from the streets?’

        ‘That’s why they’ve chosen my hotel.’ His eyes gleamed with irony. ‘They’re confident I can handle security.’

        And they were right, Jessie thought, remembering the bold, fearless way he’d extracted her from danger. ‘And you’ve employed all your dangerous friends to keep the paparazzi at a distance.’

        ‘Something like that.’

        ‘So you’re offering me a job in a super-smart hotel?’ Impossibly daunted, Jessie suddenly wished she had the confidence to take it. ‘I’m really going to fit in there wearing my gold dress.’

        ‘You won’t be wearing your gold dress. And it’s not open to negotiation.’ Silvio glanced at his Rolex. ‘It’s really late. You’re obviously exhausted so go and get some rest. Do me a favour and don’t try and escape because my team have instructions not to let you pass. Use my room. I’ll take one of the others. I have to go out for a while.’

        ‘Go out?’

        
        He was leaving her?

        The warm cocoon of safety that had surrounded her since she’d slammed into him in the alley evaporated and suddenly she wanted to beg him not to go. ‘W-where are you going?’

        ‘Out.’ Without elaborating, he strode towards the door, leaving Jessie immobilised with panic.

        What was so urgent that he had to go out in the middle of the night?

        And how was she going to keep herself safe without him?

        ‘Silvio…’ Her tone was urgent and he turned, a frown in his eyes, his mind clearly on something else.

        ‘What?’

        Jessie tried to ask him not to go. Her mouth opened but the words wouldn’t come. What was the matter with her? Why was she being so pathetic? ‘Nothing,’ she croaked finally. ‘I’ll see you.’ It required a monumental effort to hide how bad she felt, and for a moment she thought she’d failed because he stared at her, his gaze sharpening.

        ‘Non ti preoccupare. Don’t worry. You’re safe here, Jess. This place has state-of-the-art security.’

        ‘I’m not worried.’ She snapped the words, hating herself for showing her insecurities and reminding herself that she’d been coping on her own for the past three years. Watching her own back.

        But in the last few hours she’d tasted safety and she didn’t want to let it go. After three years of sleeping with one eye open and living her life on a knife edge, she’d suddenly been able to relax, safe in the knowledge that he was the one in control.

        Aware that he was still watching her closely, Jessie managed a casual shrug. ‘Have fun.’ Where else would he be going at this time of night but to see a woman? And why should that thought make her feel so miserable?

        
        Silvio checked his watch again. ‘Get to bed, Jessie.’ As the door clicked shut behind him, Jessie flinched.

        Suddenly she was aware of the enormous space around her and felt terrifyingly vulnerable. Looking around her, she wondered what he meant by ‘state-of-the-art security’. Presumably not her, holding a saucepan, ready to bash an intruder.

        How were you supposed to know if anyone was lying in wait in a place like this?

        It was full of dark, hidden spaces.

        Having worked herself into a panic, Jessie tried telling herself that any apartment he’d built was bound to be secure but she knew it wasn’t the building that had provided that security blanket.

        It had been the man.

        And he’d gone.

         

        It was hours later when Silvio arrived back at the apartment.

        Grimly satisfied with what he’d achieved, he dismissed the hovering staff and poured himself a drink.

        As the first streaks of dawn split the night sky, he stared sightlessly through the glass, trying not to think what would have happened to her if he hadn’t chosen to return when he had. What he’d learned about her life over the past few hours had turned his insides ice cold.

        He’d asked questions, called in favours, exploited contacts, all the time spreading the same message:

        That Jessie was his and no other man’s.

        He’d been unable to think of any other way of ensuring her protection.

        Draining his drink in a single mouthful, he reflected on the irony of the situation.

        It was a good job that both of them were private people, he thought grimly as he stared into his empty glass, otherwise everyone would know that an emotional involvement between the two of them was impossible.

        The apartment was silent as he walked towards one of the guest suites but he paused outside the master bedroom, unable to resist the impulse to check on her.

        Opening the door quietly, he looked at the bed and saw it empty.

        There was no sign of her.

        Preparing to fire his head of security, Silvio was about to leave the room and create hell when he noticed that the velvet throw from the bed was missing. Frowning, he strolled into the room, a suspicion forming in his mind.

        He checked the bathroom and then moved across to the dressing room. It was in darkness. Rubbing his hand over the back of his neck, he stilled for a moment and tried to think like her.

        Her childhood fear of being trapped had never left her and he hadn’t needed to witness her performance earlier to know how much she hated being on the top floor. A penthouse to Jessie wasn’t real-estate heaven—it was hell. Knowing that, he also knew that there was no way she’d shut herself in a dressing room.