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Shel Myerson ran his hand over his close-cropped scalp, marveling again at the smooth feel. It wasn’t the most original idea in the world, getting a haircut to symbolize a grand change in his life, but it still took getting used to.
He had to admit the new look really helped. Paparazzi the world over knew him from his signature dreadlocks and his height. Cameras were nothing new for Shel—you spent your life in front of one when your mother was a beloved 80s sitcom star—but he’d long since become bored of the photographers who followed him like gnats. Their persistence had only worsened when his creative venture, the historical fantasy cult show, Fortune’s Fool, became a worldwide phenomenon and catapulted him onto the Forbes list. After that, he couldn’t take a leak without one of the bastards following him into the can.
Three years of nonstop meetings, press junkets, and negotiations. Three years of parties, beautiful women, good times. The past six months alone had been an adrenaline-fueled blur, and not just because he’d been shadowing his best friend, Rocco De Luca, during the spring’s F1 event calendar, taking notes for a new series idea in between stints behind the wheel at charity races. Writing and producing kept him busy and made him more money than he could spend in four lifetimes, but racing helped bleed off the energy that kept him up at nights, held the insomnia that had plagued him since he was a little boy at bay.
He stretched his long legs beneath the burnished, Fazioli grand he’d been playing, then began a new piece. Something light and American, something pleasant. Nothing that would draw much attention. Anonymity had its perks. Get a crotchety old barber in a nondescript shop down an alley in Sorrento to cut your hair. Take a public ferry back to the Isola del Sole instead of his usual helicopter. Throw on a suit, sit at the piano bench, and he became a ghost. Just an employee. Just part of the background.
It was heaven.
He looked around the opulent room. No one flicked a glance in his direction. Not the porters, not the front desk staff, and certainly not the women. He knew women like this. Hell, he usually dated women like this—polished, gorgeous, rich. The kind who spent more on sunglasses each year than most families did on groceries. They were like walking F1 cars—sleek, fast, and dangerous.
A helpful example strolled across the polished marble of the lobby, dressed in handkerchief linen, draped in gold and diamonds, and carrying a large chartreuse handbag, an instantly identifiable on-trend satchel from the hot designer Le Corsaire.
He knew this, of course, because of Pilar. Lovely Pilar, the face of Le Corsaire. His now ex-girlfriend because of Le Corsaire.
“You’re a darling, Shel, but Georges can take me places you can’t,” she’d said, shedding one lovely crocodile tear in the process.
He didn’t ask what kind of places she meant. During their tempestuous time together, he’d taken her to openings and events, galas and shows, sat front row during fashion week in both Paris and Milan, marveling at her the way he was expected, and acted the perfect gentleman when she dumped him, yet again, in Venice. Considering they were both barely clothed at the time, he thought he’d done well not to have pushed her out on the balcony and let the swarm of lenses along the Grand Canal broadcast the news to the hungry world of gossip.
Instead, he’d paid for the suite, tipped the housekeepers an outrageous amount to atone for Pilar’s mountain of makeup-stained towels and the wrinkled designer clothes she’d strewn everywhere, and left their five-star, luxury inn for the relative quiet of Rocco’s family’s flagship hotel on the Isola del Sole.
Surprise number one was that Matteo, Rocco’s older brother and the manager of the dei Fiori hotel group wasn’t there. He’d gone to Venice himself to meet with Baroness Helena Von Lienz, a lovely and sophisticated ex-model, to negotiate, charm, or, if necessary, seduce her out of the ownership percentage in the dei Fiori hotels she’d inherited from her late husband. Surprise number two was that Rocco had scooped up Matteo’s briskly efficient assistant and whisked her off to England.
But the staff knew him well from his many late night jaunts with Rocco. They ensconced him in a private cottage out back, the one in the corner closest to the staff apartments, for some quiet. He thought and wrote best in times of personal pressure. If this relationship implosion in front of the entire European gossip corps didn’t qualify as personal pressure, he didn’t know what would.
The blonde with the chartreuse Le Corsaire snapped her fingers at a porter and departed, giving Shel an unobstructed view of the front desk. Leaning against it, unaware of the stir she was causing for the young men at the bell stand, was a compact brunette. She was talking to Carlo Fusco, the officious day manager, and she seemed nervous. Shel’s gaze traveled up her slim, yet muscular legs, paused in appreciation at the sweet, heart-shaped curve of her ass, and traveled up her neat spine to where it disappeared into the streaky darkness of her coffee-colored hair. He caught a few words, low and insistent. The warm depth of her voice, so unlike Pilar’s breathy, high tones, pleased him. Hell, more than pleased him. He was startled to realize he was turned on.
“…I’m sure my friends will come back soon and settle everything.”
Shel frowned. The conversation wasn’t going well. He looked closer. She was American, he could tell from her accent. Alone, obviously. But she carried nothing with her. No bag, no suitcase, nothing.
She turned her head, sighing in frustration, giving him a glimpse of sea-green eyes and a lush mouth. A mouth he wanted to taste, to bite.
Under the keyboard of the piano, he’d gone rigid.
Hell, that was unexpected. But maybe not. The conversation at the desk was becoming more intense, her gestures more agitated.
“…My wallet is gone and all I have is this.”
He shouldn’t get involved. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d gotten himself tangled in something monumentally stupid because of a good looking woman. But something about this woman was different. Finally, she sighed loud enough that an older gentleman further down the desk looked up sharply and frowned.
“I need to speak to Stéphanie Harlan.”
That was unexpected.
“Signorina Harlan is not available,” Fusco said.
His mystery girl was not impressed by the officious tone. “She’ll see me.”
“Signorina Harlan’s calendar is full at present.”
A convenient but mostly accurate story. Shel knew exactly where Steffi was—with Rocco. He was sure that at the moment, Steffi was most likely quite busy. And, knowing Rocco, naked.
“She’ll want to see me,” the girl persisted.
Fusco’s expression shifted from bland to impatient. “Wait here, please.” He disappeared into the offices behind the desk.
“But—” The woman groaned. “Thanks, universe,” she muttered. “Why not just strike me dead where I stand and make this go more quickly for the both of us.”
He was halfway across the lobby toward her before he realized what he was doing. It’s a trap. Don’t get involved, he reminded himself right before he blurted, “Excuse me, but is there anything I can do for you?” Way to stay uninvolved, genius.
She turned to him, lifted her gaze to meet his. He braced for the inevitable “Don’t I know you?” and “Oh my God you’re the Fortune’s Fool guy” realization, the one that split all women into three categories—obsessive fangirls of the show who propositioned him so they could pump him for spoilers, gossip blog readers who propositioned him because he was famous and had hot actor friends, or gold diggers who propositioned him because he was rich.
The woman did none of those things. Instead, her face crumpled and she let out a howl accompanied by instant tears of frustration. “I quit my job and spend three uneventful months in Europe just to have my backpack and everything I own vanish because I trusted the wrong people, and now I owe my left arm to this hotel because I can’t pay my stupid bar bill that my stupid friends drank most of anyway.” She waved a hand toward the office door Fusco had closed behind him. “So, no. You can’t really help me unless you can turn that guy into the weasel he really is or teleport Stéphanie Harlan from wherever she’s hiding into this lobby.”
Shel was still processing the fact that she hadn’t recognized him. No way a haircut had that much power. But he was glad for the temporary anonymity all the same. He smiled at her and mimed playing a piano. “My superpowers are limited to jazz arrangements and cheesy power ballads.”
“Power ballads,” she nodded with a wry twist of her lips. “How very American.”
“How very indeed.” Something interesting was crackling between them despite her distress. Something interesting and unusual. “This isn’t happening,” she said through clenched teeth.
It’s happening, all right. Something is, anyway. “I can’t teleport her here, but I do know her,” Shel offered. “We—work together.” Not exactly a lie. She’d helped with last year’s Isola del Sole Pro-Am race for charity, sitting next to her boss Matteo in the patrons’ box every day of the event. “And she just started dating a friend of mine. I’ll call him.”
“Sure.” Shel was probably going straight to hell for the number of lies he just told, but he didn’t care. His storytelling senses were picking up on something else, something she was hiding. He had to find out what.
“I’m Janine, by the way,” she said. Her smile was small, tentative. “Janine Pike.”
“Sheldon.” They shook hands. Hers was small, warm. It vanished into his, but her grip was firm. Despite her current circumstance, Janine had backbone. And a great figure besides, all curves and softness instead of angles and planes, like Pilar. He liked it. A lot.
He dropped her hand before it became obvious how much he enjoyed touching her. No piano to hide his reaction this time. She stepped back, lips parted, a faint flush along her jawline. Curiouser and curiouser.
“Just a minute,” he told her. “Why don’t you have a seat over there?” he suggested, indicating a chair out of sight of the main desk. “Fusco can’t see you.”
She scoffed. “Good plan.” She curled into the seat and rested her head against the wing. She closed her eyes, strain and exhaustion evident on her lovely face.
Shel fished out his phone to text Rocco. Sorry to disturb – young woman here to see Steffi.
Busy right now.
Shel smirked. I’ll bet.
He saw Fusco emerge from the office, look around for Janine, and begin a hissed conversation with the front desk staff, complete with angry hand gestures. Ask Steffi if she knows a Janine Pike, Shel texted back.
To his surprise, the phone rang in reply. “Hey buddy,” he began, but Steffi’s voice cut him off.
“Janine Pike?” she said, her French origins still evident in the zh- sound she used for the initial J. “Janine is there?”
“Yeah, she’s right here. What’s the big deal?” Shel asked.
There was a brief pause before she answered softly, “Janine is my sister.”
Shel blinked in surprise. Steffi had never mentioned a sister. Ding! Ding! Ding! So that’s what Janine is hiding. This day, and Janine, were getting more fascinating by the minute.
As if hearing his thoughts, she continued, “I only learned of her existence recently. I had no idea she was coming to the Isola del Sole. Is she staying at the hotel?”
Shel considered the facts—the unpaid bill, the lack of luggage, the decidedly casual clothing. “I don’t think so. Looks like a day visitor to me.”
“You have to keep her there,” Steffi blurted. “Rocco cannot leave here until the end of the weekend because of his contractual obligations. And since I am here as Matteo’s representative, I cannot leave either unless I’m ready to give up my job with dei Fiori. Can you help me?”
“Put her in my apartment and do not let her leave. We’ll be back Sunday evening.”
“Sunday. Right. I’ll take care of it.”
“Thank you. Here—” Shel heard her hand the phone over, then Rocco’s smooth baritone poured through the receiver.
“You interrupted an important moment, my friend.”
Shel laughed. “Any moment with a woman is important to you.”
“You know this one is different,” Rocco stated. “Do whatever you have to, but keep Janine there until I can return Steffi to the hotel.”
Sheldon studied Janine again. Sisters? Janine’s loose hair, rumpled clothes, and tired sport sandals were universes away from Steffi’s customary high ponytail and neat, professional skirts and pumps. “Right. Ciao.”
Shel pocketed the phone and headed toward the desk, where Fusco was still blistering the people behind it in rapid Italian. “Mr. Fusco.”
Fusco abandoned his tirade and his face shifted to rapt attention. Unlike Janine, he knew exactly who Shel was, including his relationship with the De Luca brothers and probably his net worth. Fusco was the type.
“Yes, Signor Myerson?” he replied, just this side of obsequious.
“The young lady asking for Steffi Harlan.”
Fusco’s look turned venomous. “I assume she is trying to avoid paying last night’s bar bill and thinks Miss Harlan will be an easier touch than I.”
“You assume wrong,” Shel corrected. He’d never really liked Carlo Fusco, and the way he spoke so dismissively of Matteo’s right hand, and Rocco’s new fiancée, didn’t bode well for his continued employment with the Hotel dei Fiori. “I have spoken to both Miss Harlan and Mr. De Luca. I will handle Miss Pike.”
“But the bill—”
“Just follow along with whatever I ask. Understood?” Shel glared at him and waited for him to wilt. It was a short wait. Fusco was nearly a foot shorter than he was and easily intimidated.
Fusco opened his mouth, shut it. “Yes, Signor Myerson.”
He turned from the counter and dismissed Fusco, smiling in anticipation as he walked back toward where Janine was waiting. She’d fallen asleep. He brushed her hand lightly with the tip of one finger, watched her come to, meet his gaze steadily. Janine, with her sea-green eyes and her secrets. What a story this might turn out to be.
“Come with me,” he told her.
End of Excerpt