by Amy Wilkins, Harlequin Digital
Do you like…
- sexy scandals
- ruthless Italian tycoons
- pretend relationships that turn into much more?
Victoria Parker’s newest Harlequin Presents novel A Reputation to Uphold has all that and more Keep reading for an excerpt from chapter one that is sure to entice you….
About A Reputation to Uphold:
Out of the frying pan and into the fire…
When designer Eva St. George, branded wild and shameless by the media, is caught with tycoon Dante Vitale, it’s guaranteed to make the headlines. With a fledgling reputation to salvage, how can Eva refuse Dante’s exit strategy?
Only, his solution is not to leave but to stay—together!
This ruthless Italian’s sole focus is business, and if they can convince the world they’re truly in love, they both just might get what they want. With enough heat between them to rival the Sahara, the fine line between business and pleasure is going up in flames.
‘Don’t do this to me, Finn. Please. Not today.’
Over the din of society’s elite, Eva St George crushed her mobile phone against the shell of her ear and sank a fingertip in the other. Hoping the snowy crackle was a particularly bad line and not an indication that her brother was still knee-deep in Switzerland.
‘Damn.’ Pushing off the oriental silk-covered wall, she swerved through the cliques—women dripping in jewels, adorned in the latest haute couture, and male powerhouses garbed in bespoke evening wear. And all the while her eyes were locked on the ornate double doors leading from London’s most prestigious ballroom. ‘Finn, give me a minute.’
Twenty-foot banners hung from the high ceiling in swathes of candyfloss-pink emblazoned with crystal love-hearts—the emblem for Breast Cancer United, the charity Eva and Finn supported. One night a year, together, they launched the fundraiser in honour of their mother.
Right now, the omission of togetherness was the sting of a needle sinking into her heart.
Palm flat, she pushed the heavy oak and swept into the vast reception of the Royal Assembly Rooms, wobbling on her five-inch heels as plush fawn carpet gave way to sleek graphite marble.
‘Okay. Talk to me. Where are you?’
‘Look, sis, I’m really sorry. Every airport is closed. I’ve even tried to pay some rookie half a mill to fly me there but he can’t get clearance.’
Pain exploded behind Eva’s eyes and her hand shot up to her temple. ‘Oh, God.’
‘You can do this, Eva.’
Eyes darting this way and that, she spotted an alcove and slunk into the small space, swallowing past the wretched knot in her throat. ‘Finn. They’re expecting both of us. How can I possibly…?’ She stopped herself short. Inhaled long and deep, then pursed her lips, releasing the warm air in one soft stream. Knowing full well she could do it on her own; she just didn’t relish the thought. Speaking in front of hundreds of people who were no doubt waiting for the ‘Diva’ to nosedive wasn’t the nicest prospect in the world. Not only that, in a strange sort of way it felt as if they were letting their mother down. And, since her death, Eva had let her down enough. But the last thing she wanted was for Finn to worry or feel guilty.
‘Don’t worry, okay? I can handle this.’
‘Of course you can,’ he said with an encouraging bluster that said he wasn’t entirely convinced. ‘We’re talking about the woman who has just won the admiration of Prudence West, the soon-to-be Duchess of Wiltshire. Congrats, by the way.’
Eva rubbed her temple, waiting for her brain to catch on to the change of subject amidst the escalating throb, as she mentally altered a speech for two speakers. Problem was, it was taking a while and, by the time she realised what she was doing, her fingers wore more make-up than her face.
Scrambling in her vintage clutch for a tissue before she ruined her best dress, she said, ‘Thanks, Finny. Prudence West is lovely. She adored my gown designs.’
‘So she should—anyone with an ounce of taste can recognise a star in the making. Westminster Abbey, huh?’ His deep voice paused as if he were relishing every word. ‘My little sister under the royal spotlight. I’m so proud of you.’
Eva smiled and thought, not for the first time, how much she missed him. Finn was the only sane person in the family. Well, as sane as any jet-setting racing driver could be.
Tissue-hunting abandoned, Eva slipped her fingers from her clutch and leaned against the narrow ochre wall. ‘I can see perfectly well what you’re doing and I love you for it. And by all means give me an Abbey full of duchesses and I’ll collude in the art of dazzling every one. Then sit me behind my machine or in my design studio and I’ll make their every dream come true. But when it comes to this…’ A heavy sigh gushed from her mouth, making her lips tingle with dryness. ‘Dad’s here too, playing devil’s advocate over his flurry of ex-wives as they hurl daggers at each other. Honestly, Finn, the man would give Henry the Eighth a run for his money. He’s half cut, making an utter fool of himself. Why can’t he have more respect, especially tonight?’
‘Head high, turn a blind eye.’
‘Good in theory, lousy in practice.’ With her free hand she rubbed her bare shoulder to ward off a sudden ominous chill. ‘I’ve worked so hard for this, Finn. If something goes wrong tonight my face will be splashed on every tabloid in the country.’
‘Nothing is going to go wrong. Listen…’ she heard him inhale; the fact that her stoic-under-pressure sibling felt the need inched her tension levels as high as the opulent chandelier filling the reception ‘…I was worried about you. I know how much today means to you. So I sent…’
A group of guests hustled past and she turned her back to them to face a mural of the Angel Gabriel filling the inside wall of the alcove. She just hoped it was a good omen. ‘Sent? Sent what?’
‘He won’t crowd you but he’ll be there if you need him.’ Need? She didn’t need anyone. To be continually let down? No, thanks.
Hold on… He? A thread of unease tightened around her chest, then unravelled so fast her heart began to whirl. ‘He? Who’s he? You keep breaking up.’
‘I’ve…asked Vitale…come in my place.’
Before her eyes the Angel Gabriel morphed into Lucifer, horns and all, while Eva went up in flames. ‘Dante? No way—call him off.’
‘Call him off?‘ A dark chuckle hummed down the line. ‘Despite his bloodthirsty reputation, he isn’t a Rottweiler, Eva.’
‘Oh, yes, he is.’ Voice feathery, her hormones went on a rampage, tearing through her body, piping her ve180ins with more heat. ‘He’s…he’s a snarling, arrogant brute.’
‘Hey, he’s a good guy. I’d trust him with my life. He won’t let me down.’ That was exactly what she was afraid of. ‘Dante wouldn’t be the global success he is today if he purred like a pussycat. You don’t know him, Eva.’ She knew enough but she had no intention of telling Finn that. He’d ask why and then she would be in trouble.
Air whipped in and out of her lungs. Her breasts threatened to escape from the ruched bands of cerise satin and she pressed the flat of her hand to her stomach, begging the tremulous churn to subside. Except her fingers shook so badly her tummy began to swirl like a washing machine on full spin.
‘I thought he was staying in Singapore, setting up his precious department store. Not that the man hasn’t got enough of them.’ That was another thing Finn was good for—dropping information on Dante Vitale without her having to ask questions. She liked to know when he honoured London with his presence so she could go into hiding. Ridiculous. How old was she? Too old. She thanked heaven Finn was trying to speak again before that line of thought took hold.
‘He’s back to get…’ The line hissed. His voice faded in and out. ‘I was speechl…’
‘Finn! Are you there?’ Oh, God. ‘I’m going to kill you, Finn, you hear me? With my bare hands. I’ll never forgive you for this.’ A total lie. She’d forgive him anything. But Dante? Her nerves were already fraying like torn taffeta.
The line’s-gone-dead tone resounded through her head like a death blow and her eyes shuttered. Trust Finn to pour petrol on the blaze without even realising it.
Breathe, Eva, breathe.
Okay. She had two choices. Stand. Or topple off her brand-new stilettos. And wouldn’t the vultures love that!
No choice really. Standing tall, spine pin-straight, she sucked in air. Get a hold of yourself. Remember why you’re here.
Of course she could face the upper echelons of society and make her annual speech. So she didn’t have Finn by her side—so what? She was a grown woman who was forging her own way to success. She’d just landed one of the biggest contracts of the decade and she refused to let her inebriated father, his ex-wives or the mighty Dante Vitale witness her fall from grace.
It had taken years to climb from the depths of hell after her mother’s funeral. Thankfully, the passage of time had washed the grime from her past. No longer was she faced with another hideous front page photograph every morning while every tacky tabloid in the country savaged her reputation. And she wasn’t going back there. Ever. Unless it was to showcase her creations and prove to the world she was more than the daughter of a famous designer and a notorious eighties pop star.
Chin up, shoulders pinned, she sauntered back into the ballroom where the air was awash with cultured tones and the tinkle of feminine flirtation.
Turning a blind eye to her father’s attention-seeking wave, she hit the wide mahogany bar and gripped the thick brass rail surrounding it.
Smiling sweetly at the bartender, she ordered her usual. ‘Sparkling mineral water, please.’
She could do this.
Then it hit her—a deliciously warm musky scent embracing her body in cashmere and teasing her dormant senses to life. Dizzying need, long forgotten, popped her eardrums to bring his dark, rich, Italian lilt direct to her brain in high definition.
‘Being a good girl tonight, are we, Eva?’
Skin erupting with a million pinpricks, her stomach wove a torrid sensual spell. It took every stitch of effort to stand tall, keep her head high and inhale enough oxygen so she didn’t pass out.
‘It’s all in a good cause, Dante,’ she said, proud of her strong, if a little sassy voice—the adage ‘fight fire with fire’ flaming to mind.
Ungluing her sexy heels, she forced an even sweeter curve upon her lips and turned oh, so languidly to face him. And realised the strength of Hercules couldn’t have prepared her.
Air locked at the base of her throat as she collided with eyes the colour of burnt umber, gleaming with intelligent purpose and deeply set in a face that could only be described as pure Italian masculinity. Satin-sheen golden skin, an abundance of thick, glossy saddle-brown hair tumbling over his forehead and flicking over his ears.
Eva fiddled with the strap of her handbag to stop herself from tracing the curve of his gorgeous cynical mouth—a mouth she’d spent half her adolescence yearning to kiss.
There was something almost deadly about his beauty, she thought, as she skimmed the wide set of his shoulders, encased in the finest black evening-wear money could buy, the tuxedo only serving to lend his sophistication a ruthless, savage edge.
Eva licked her suddenly dry lips. ‘Well, this is a nice surprise.’
‘I doubt it,’ he said, his fiercely intent gaze searing over her face.
The man saw too much and the idea that he could see inside her, her heart thumping full pelt, her blood rising to boilingpoint, peeved her off. She was over this man—had been for years.
Although, in all fairness, it was perfectly natural to still find his dark magnetism so devastating. Right at this minute she knew every woman in the room had been enticed into a delirious state—staring at the forbidden, wanting past endurance. More fool them because never again would he hold power over her. Where her once vulnerable and innocent heart had been deceived, now she knew the difference between lust and love. And she wanted neither. From Dante or any man.
Picking up her crystal tumbler, she relished the cool condensation against her palm and used it to motion to an old client. ‘Look, I’m not sure what Finn told you, but I don’t need my hand held to speak to a few friends. I’m a big girl. I suggest you go home to your latest mistress. Business or otherwise.’
Renowned for his stupendous retail mind, his financial wizardry and his ferocious talent in the bedroom, Dante Vi-tale was a one-night wonder. With the exception of his wife, Natalia, of course. If she remembered correctly, that had been a two-month wonder. Almost as long as her father lasted with one of his fine specimens.
The worst thing was, she’d been so pathetically enraptured with him she would’ve taken one night. But his taste ran to sultry brown eyes, sleek brunettes with svelte sun-kissed bodies. Pure Italianesque. Little wonder he’d never given Eva a second glance. Until she’d literally thrown herself into his path. And even then.
Her face began to burn as the mortal humiliation came back to her in a torrid rush of heat. ‘If you’ll excuse me, I need to mingle.’ Feet bolting, she managed two steps before a steel arm wrapped around her waist and hauled her back to the bar.
Eva shuddered from top to toe, the melting sensation back with a vengeance as a lock of his shockingly thick hair fell across one eye as he tossed her a ‘stay put’ look.
He ordered a finger of single malt and pinned her in place with the wide span of his hand, only his thumb and forefinger touching her satin sheath. The tiniest contact enough to send all the heat from her face down to her knickers.
‘Don’t you think your dress is a little revealing, Eva?’ he said with a satiric bite. ‘This is a charity fund-raiser, not a nightclub.’ He knocked back the shot and carefully lowered the glass to the polished mahogany bar.
‘There’s nothing wrong with my dress and you know it.’ It was nun-like in comparison to what his usual dates wore. ‘Why are you here, Dante? I understand what Finn was trying to do. He has no idea what happened. But you…’ She shook her head. ‘You should’ve refused. Especially since you can’t bear to look at me for more than five seconds.’
As if to deny her accusation, he deigned to look at her—with such cold detachment he might as well have tossed the whisky-coated rocks in her face.
‘I’m here because I owe Finn, nothing more. As you’ve accurately pointed out, I have far more pleasurable things to do than babysit a loose cannon. But if you think for one minute I intend to break my word to him, you are sadly mistaken.’
She closed her eyes momentarily. ‘People grow, people change.’
‘No. They do not.’ He leaned a touch closer and she went strangely woozy. ‘Especially when they still have the power to stop traffic.’
Only Dante could twist a compliment into an insult with that cynical mouth. His dark eyes flickered down her body and she cursed her penchant for decadent ice cream.
Then he continued in that same thick, dark drawl, ‘That was quite a pile-up you caused in Piccadilly Circus. Did you enjoy the world staring at your body?’
Distaste filled her mouth. ‘That billboard was a campaign for—’
He waved her off with a dismissive flick and Eva sighed. What was the point of arguing with a man who saw everything in black and white? So she stuck with the facts, praying he’d just walk away. ‘Go home, Dante. I don’t need a chaperone.’
‘Apparently you do,’ he said, his caustic gaze dropping to the mineral water she held in a death grip. ‘At least you’re not plastered.’
She gasped. And to think she’d once thought herself in love with the guy!
‘You’re locked in the past. You don’t know me. I drown in work these days.’
‘Really.’ One word, brimming with derision, and she wondered if he even knew what she did for a living. He’d been in Singapore for the past year or so, Italy before that, but he’d seen Finn on occasion. Maybe he didn’t care enough to ask, but frankly she’d had enough of being dragged through the wringer.