Michael North awakened with a violent start in the middle of the night.
His first thought was for the safety of the exquisite woman curled trustingly against him. She was warm and soft, beguilingly beautiful in the moonlight with her dark golden hair spilling across his pillow. He wanted to touch that hair and kiss her lips again, wanted it so much he had to clench his hands.
Ironically, he’d enjoyed his evening with her more than he’d enjoyed being with anyone in a very long time.
Maybe that was why his gut twisted as he experienced an uncustomary pang of conscience. After all, he’d seduced her for very deliberate, self-serving reasons.
Careful not to disturb her, he sat up and brushed a lock of thick, black hair out of his eyes. Everything he’d done tonight—the seductive dinner at her failing bistro, the lovemaking in his penthouse, all the shared laughter and smiles—had been a lie.
He’d set her up so he could protect his naive younger brother.
But at some point Michael had forgotten about Will. His dinner date with Bree had begun with champagne served in sparkling flutes at Chez Z, the intimate French bistro she’d inherited from her famous brother, Johnny Z. She loved to cook and to eat, and Michael had loved watching her indulge.
She’d blushed when she’d drunk champagne. She’d sighed when she’d licked chocolate off her fingertips, and his. The wet, warm tip of her tongue against his flesh had almost been as good as having sex with her. Almost.
He’d loved the sound of her laughter, the glow of her cheeks when she teased him, the flash of intelligence in her slanting eyes when she’d made him feel clever and her wildness in bed.When had he had such a good time with anybody?
Surprisingly, Bree had given him more pleasure and tenderness and amusement during their evening than he’d ever imagined possible.
Because, first, she wasn’t his usual type. He went for cool, sophisticated glamour, for sleek, slim blondes who made heads turn and other men envy him. Bree was lush and earthy and wanton. She loved color and baubles and cheap scarves and probably didn’t bother to carry a comb in her purse.
And second, Bree Oliver, for all her seeming innocence and charms, was a gold digger. She’d targeted his foolish brother, thinking Will was the chump she needed to keep Chez Z from going into bankruptcy.
For Will’s sake Michael had to finish her off. No matter how much he’d enjoyed being with her or how fabulous she’d been in bed, she deserved it.
If only Michael had been as smart five years ago when he’d fallen for Anya Parris. But, no, like a fool, when Anya had lied about being pregnant, he’d married her. He’d suffered through a hellish marriage that had included infidelity, scandal and a very public divorce.
Never again would Michael forget the cynical truth about the North wealth. It attracted women who pretended a genuine interest in him when all they wanted was the use of his penthouse, his ranch, his helicopters, his private jets, his invitations to the right clubs, the best restaurants and the A-list parties. Unlike his brother, Michael wasn’t above enjoying the women his money lured, but only for brief intervals.
Never again would he believe any woman wanted more from him than his luxurious lifestyle. Never again would he make the mistake of forming a serious attachment. Unfortunately Will, who’d had a more indulged childhood than Michael, was too trusting for his own good. It was up to Michael to save Will from Bree.
Soft summer moonlight turned the high ceilings of his loft and his large bed to shades of silver and gray. Bree’s body felt warm; treacherously so as she nestled closer against him. Her cheap silver bangles and necklaces on the bedside table glittered. Her colorful, filmy clothes and scarves lay in tangles on the floor beside her sandals where he’d stripped her while she’d swayed to music, laughing.
The cozy heat of her satin-soft body lured him. He wanted to stay beside her, to see the shy warmth of her sweetly crooked smile and the flirtatious glow that lit her amber eyes every time he kissed her.
No, he had to finish her off—now—even if her sweet strawberry scent filled his nostrils and made him weak with the craving to bury his lips in her thick, satiny hair, to kiss her throat, to taste her mouth and other parts of her sexy, feminine anatomy just one more time.
Intoxicated by her soft, sensual allure, he lingered in the bed beside her, torturing himself as he savored her warmth and remembered all the ways they’d made love.
She’d been so silky and tight the first time, like a velvet glove. When he’d pushed eagerly inside, holding her against the wall, she’d cried out. But when he’d stopped out of concern for her, she’d pressed her palms into the small of his spine and pleaded with him to stay—to stay forever if that was possible. Slowly her small body had accommodated itself to him. Driving into her, the pleasure of each stroke had been so total in its visceral thrill that fierce pleasure unlike any he had ever known had saturated every cell in his body.
She’d been a damn good actress, playing at virginal innocence, enticing him then surrendering like a wanton. She’d nearly undone him. She’d almost made him believe that he alone, not his fortune, was special to her.
“Who knew?” she’d whispered with him sheathed inside her. “I like it. No, I love it.” Then she’d stroked his cheek lovingly, her eyes shining with wonder. “I’m glad it’s you. I never thought it would be half so nice. I always wanted to date someone as handsome and smart as you. I…I just never thought anybody like you…would look at a girl like me.”
It had been nice for him too, being with her. More than nice.
His world could be so cold, and she seemed so sweet. For one forbidden moment, when she’d kissed him as if she’d wanted to consume him, he’d lost himself in the searing hot, torrid welcome of her body. He’d almost forgotten to protect himself.
Every time he’d made love to her, even with a condom, the sex had gotten better. And each time afterward when she’d clung to him, she’d seemed sweeter. Whatever this thing was between them, it had shaken him to the core. Hell, just thinking about her and what she’d done to him made him hard again, even as he lay beside her icily plotting his next step.
“Will said you were cold and uptight,” she’d whispered.
He hadn’t liked her comparing him to Will, but with every kiss and unassuming glance her power over him had increased. A connection to her built deep inside him and morphed into something that felt more than physical.
What had been going on?
Her mysterious white-hot appeal had fueled a compulsion that no other woman had ever aroused in him. She’d made him ravenous. Together their writhing bodies had burned and soared. His out-of-control excitement had felt addictive, tempting him to forget everything he knew about women like her. She’d provided some deeply needed comfort he hadn’t known he’d craved until he’d experienced it in her arms. He had never known a real home, or felt at home with anyone, not even with the Norths, who’d given him their name and had claimed him as family. Not until tonight…with her.
She was dangerous. He had to rid himself of her quickly.
If he stalled for even one more night, she might have him totally in her power. He might even sink his own money into her bistro.
If he invested enough, would she favor him over Will?
Hell, he had the money. A part of him wanted her to prefer him to all others.
He swore. Such thoughts could derail him from his purpose. Just as he was about to throw off the covers and escape her so he could get his head straight, she whimpered. Clutching at his arms, she seemed to expect him to protect her from some mysterious terror.
His heart throbbed. Oh, God.
Her voice was feminine, helpless. When her featherlight fingertips brushed his skin, he burned, aching for her all over again. No way could he resist her plea.
How old was she? Twenty-five? Ten years younger than he was? Or even younger? Whatever her age, with her thick, dark gold hair tumbling about her face and bare shoulders, her wild beauty dazzled him. She had a classic brow, a long, thin nose, high cheekbones, an incandescent complexion and full, voluptuous lips.
Not that she had the money or sense of style to dress properly. Her baggy, overlarge clothes had concealed and distracted more than they’d enhanced her beauty. But naked—with her tiny waist, curvy hips, soft breasts and those pert nipples exposed—she was perfect.
More than anything he wanted to roll her over, take her in his arms, hold her and pet her hair, and whisper that everything was all right. But nothing was all right. Not when he knew what she was—and what he had to do—and yet still felt so powerfully attracted to her.
Careful not to disturb her, he arose. He had to get a grip. But the minute he broke their physical connection, she sensed it and seemed to miss his presence as much as he missed hers.
“Michael,” she purred in a sexy, sleep-blurred tone. “Darling, come back to bed.”
“I’m not your darling,” he growled, hating that on some level he wanted to be.
“Michael. I…Have I done something…?” At his harsh tone, her voice grew shy and uncertain before it died in the silvery darkness.
The powerful need to comfort her from the hurt he was determined to inflict wrapped around him.
Hell. He had to finish this—or he would go crazy.
“I’m not your darling,” he repeated ruthlessly. “Tonight, everything, all of it—it was all lies.”
“I seduced you to protect Will. From you. When you came on to me while I was with him at the fundraiser, I knew what you were and saw how you intended to use him. You made my job easy when you made a play for me, too.”
“What are you saying?”
“I’m saying I sought you out tonight and slept with you so I could use it as leverage to make you stop seeing my brother. Tonight was all about Will.”
“Will?” She sounded confused. “Wait a minute. You think Will and I…that we’re a couple? That we’re dating? You…you don’t like me?”
“How could I like you, knowing what you are?”
Having been poor himself, he knew all about wanting more, about using people to get what he wanted. He’d worked damned hard. Still, he’d done a few things he wasn’t proud of to get where he was.
“You were after him, and then after me, because you needed our money for your failing restaurant.”
“No,” she whispered.
“Do you deny Will is one of your investors?”
“No.” But her beautiful mouth trembled just a little, and her eyes were now glistening with unshed tears. “You…deceived me? You didn’t really want me?”
He shook his head.
“Why? How could you do that? I would never use Will…or anybody. Will’s a friend, and yes, he’s an investor. He’s been an investor right from the beginning. But I’m not after his money! I’m not!”
“Then why did you hit on me so blatantly the night we met at the fundraiser when you were with Will?”
“Maybe I flirted. But only because I thought you liked me….” She sucked in a breath. “Will is just a friend. He was a friend of Johnny’s first, and an investor in Chez Z when my brother first opened it. That’s how Will and I became friends.”
“Friends? That’s all you were?”
The night of the fundraiser she’d worn a silver backless gown and a transparent shawl that had left very little of her sensuous shape to his imagination.
Her family history hadn’t helped his opinion of her. Six months ago, Johnny Z, her celebrity chef brother, had been found dead in bed with a prominent plastic surgeon’s wife, another of the bistro’s investors. Everyone presumed the surgeon had shot Johnny, but the husband, who’d hired lawyers, wasn’t talking to the police, and his wife had vanished. Thus, the investigation had stalled. Still, the scandal, coupled with Z’s absence in the kitchen, had been devastating to Chez Z’s bottom line.
“Will asked me to go with him to the fundraiser, so he could introduce me to some people who might be interested in investing. When he introduced me to you, I thought you might be one of those people.”
Her eyes were so brilliant with innocence and outrage he almost believed her. Then he remembered Anya and how gullible he’d been. He’d wanted to believe her. Capable as he might be in the business world, apparently he was an easy mark when it came to women he wanted in his bed.
“Bottle the performance! If you think I’m as big a fool as my little brother, you’re wrong. I want you to dress and leave. If you stay away from Will, I won’t tell him I slept with you tonight. If you don’t leave him alone, I’ll tell him about us.”
“Tell him for all I care. Better—maybe I’ll tell him myself. He needs to know how far you’ll go to control his life. Maybe he’ll resent you even more than he already does.”
Her reaction caught him off guard. He’d expected her to care more, to bargain, and what she’d said about Will hurt.
“He can’t afford to resent me,” Michael bluffed. “I write his allowance checks.”
“So everything’s just about money and control to you? And you think I’m like you—”
“I know you are! So, leave my brother alone, and I won’t make him think the worst of you by telling him about us. You bet on the wrong horse this time. Pick another. Someone who isn’t naive. Someone more like you and me.”
“Tell him. I’m not like you, and you can’t blackmail me either.”
“You are like me. Greed isn’t the only thing we have in common,” he replied coldly. “If Will didn’t desire you, I’d be willing to set you up as my mistress. I’d keep you and your bistro afloat for as long you excited me.”
“Do you ever listen? For the last time, your brother and I are just friends. That’s why he won’t care if you slept with me. He was just an investor in the bistro. He already has someone in his life.”
Michael knew she was lying when she faltered and said, “Maybe you should ask him.”
If only Will did have someone, then Michael could have Bree for himself. He could afford her a helluva lot more easily than Will, couldn’t he?
Suddenly Michael reconsidered the situation. Where was the harm in keeping her, if she wasn’t serious about Will? As long as he understood what she was and was willing to be generous to her?
“Okay, then, if Will doesn’t want you because he has someone else, there’s nothing to stop me from having you. Here’s a new deal for you. If you cut Will loose as an investor and become my mistress, I’ll keep your bistro afloat for as long as you please me in bed.”
“What?” She stared at him as if she was having a hard time comprehending him.
“You heard me. Be my mistress, and your money problems will go away for as long as you keep me happy. Like you did tonight.”
“I can’t believe this. First you sleep with me to destroy an imagined relationship with your brother. And now you want to buy me for yourself? I’m sorry I ever met you.”
“I’m sure you’ll feel differently after you shop for the right apartment in the neighborhood of your choice and we settle on your generous allowance.”
“Now you wait a minute!”
“You want to save the bistro, don’t you? We enjoy each other, so why not?”
She pushed herself up from the bed. “You can’t just buy people!”
“You’d be surprised what money buys.”
“Well, I’m not for sale.”
“I doubt that. I just haven’t made you the right offer. Tell me what you want, and we’ll negotiate.”
“I can’t believe I ever thought for one second that you were a decent human being.” Her expression twisted in utter misery. “And I did. I really did. I can’t believe I’ve been such a fool…again.” She sighed. “This just proves what I told you earlier—I don’t have very good instincts about men. I think you’re the worst of them all…and I have to tell you, that’s pretty low.”
Her rejection stunned him. Too late Michael saw that he should have flattered her, that he should have seduced her into the deal as he had seduced her into his bed. Obviously she was like all the criminals in prison who proclaimed their innocence; she really didn’t see that she had done anything wrong. That’s where they were different. At least he knew when he’d crossed the line and was willing to accept the inevitable consequences.
“I’ll call my chauffeur,” he said coldly, hiding his disappointment. “He’ll be at the front door downstairs in five minutes to escort you out of the building. He’ll drive you anywhere you wish to go. After tonight I don’t ever want to see you with my brother again. Do you understand?”
“You can’t order me around…or your brother, who is an adult, and who is, whether you like it or not, one of my key investors. I fully intend to see him as often as I like! He has every right to invest his money where he chooses.”
“You’re very wrong.”
Michael turned his back and strode out of the room because the sight of her shimmering, pain-filled eyes, her quivering lips and her bare breasts were more than he could bear. Damn it, in spite of her rejection, in spite of what she was and how she was using Will, he still wanted her.
Only when he heard her rushing down his spiral staircase to the lower floor—she never used an elevator unless she had to because she was afraid of them—only when he heard his front door slam downstairs, did Michael return to his bedroom.
For a long moment he stood in the dark and stared out at the city that sparkled beneath a full moon and a starless sky. It was a beautiful night he supposed, a night made for romance, if one believed in such things. He wondered if his failure to do so was due to the many flaws in his soul.
Growing bored with the view he left the window and turned on every light. Never had the vast marble bedroom in his penthouse apartment blazed with such cold and terrible brightness.
Only when he saw the bright splashes of red staining his sheet did he realize that maybe he’d been wrong about at least one thing.
Had she been a virgin? His heart, which usually felt so solid behind its frozen walls, began to beat with vicious, guilty pain. Surely no virgin would have shown such a wild uninhibited response. And yet….
When he remembered her little cry when he’d first entered her, and her sweetness, and the admiration in her eyes when he’d discussed some of his projects with her, he recoiled. What if she had been an innocent? What if he, who’d been raised so roughly, had failed to see goodness because it had been such a rarity in his life?
“If I could succeed at even one thing, I’d feel so proud of myself,” she had confided. “And look at you—you turned the family investment firm around right after the last global financial meltdown. Now you’re opening banks and hotels in China and power plants in Malaysia. You conquer worlds—and accept such feats as your due. Your family must be so proud of you.” Her shining eyes had warmed him through.
If he’d been wrong about her virginity, had he been wrong about other things? Had she truly admired his accomplishments? Had she liked him, at least a little? Had he wounded her? And what was she really to Will?
Damn it. He was sure of her ulterior motives. With her famous brother dead, his image trashed and their once-popular bistro on the Upper West Side in trouble, she’d been after Will for his money. Then she had zeroed in on Michael at the fundraiser when she’d seen a better mark. The only reason she’d turned down Michael’s second offer was because he’d wounded her pride.
As he yanked the sheets off his bed, he remembered her radiant complexion and the wonder in her eyes and his own intense pleasure. Sheathed to the hilt, he’d felt all-male and powerful and yet happy in a bone-melting way he’d never known before.
If she was what he believed, why had she turned him down? Why?
Michael tried and failed to push his gnawing doubts aside. Damn it, he had to know why. But he couldn’t face her tonight.
They both deserved a few hours to recover from his brutal offer and her rejection. Tomorrow morning would be soon enough to confront her again.
But by morning she was gone.
After he bribed the doorman to let him in to her empty apartment, he stomped about flinging her cupboards open while he dialed her cell phone, which went to voice mail. For more than an hour he searched for some clue as to where she’d gone and found none. His texts were ignored. When he went to Chez Z, her steely-eyed French mother, Bijou, had been in a meeting with the waitstaff.
“She said she had to go somewhere,” her mother said coolly, when he’d insisted upon interrupting her. “She said it was an emergency. She looked upset. I didn’t pry. Now, I wish I’d asked more questions. Are you the problem? Is she in trouble because of you?”
“Well! She is no good with men. In fact that’s an understatement. She’s pathetic. She took after me, you see. Her father did everything he could to ruin my life. If you aren’t going to treat her right, stay away from her, yes?”
What could he say to that? Despite the circumstances, he envied Bree for having such a mother. He hadn’t been so lucky.
When Michael had gone to his brother’s to warn him about Bree, Will had refused to let Michael into his apartment.
“She already told me what you accused her of,” Will said, standing with the door half-closed to keep Michael in the hall. “I don’t know where she is, and frankly, I wouldn’t tell you if I did. You’ve overstepped the line.”
“She said you were seeing another woman? Are you?”
Will, who usually had an easy nature, scowled. “Right now, maybe you can guess why I don’t choose to discuss my personal life with you.”
Then he shut the door in Michael’s face.
Michael felt guilty and uneasy. What was Will hiding? Not only had Bree rejected him, she’d turned his brother against him. Will wouldn’t even confirm he was dating someone else, so did that mean he was still interested in Bree? If Will was involved with another woman, what the hell had Michael accomplished by bedding Bree other than becoming obsessed with her himself?
The odds were he was right about her character. Maybe she was gone, but what good was that if Will felt more protective of her than ever? Instead of turning his brother against her, all he’d done was make his brother angry with him.
Despite everything, Michael burned for her. No matter how hard he tried to bury himself in his work during the weeks that followed, no matter where he traveled or how many glamorous women he publicly dated in the attempt to prove to himself and to her how little she mattered, he couldn’t forget her.
Even when he left on what proved to be a month-long business trip to Shanghai to solve a crisis at one of his hotels, memories of her sweetness and outraged innocence lingered, haunting him.
The perfection of their night together drove him mad—especially after he learned that the same day he’d left New York, she’d returned to her bistro and had lunched with Will.
Had she deliberately remained hidden until he was gone? Was she that afraid of him?
What was her game? How could he stop her and save Will?