“Hey dude, wait your turn. We all wanna to get in, but you gotta wait, man.”
Sebastian felt someone grab his arm as he walked past the people queuing to get into what was being lauded as the hottest nightclub in Cape Town. It had been a long, crappy day, and his dark mood turned darker.
Before he could so much as take a breath, he felt a heavy hand settle on his shoulder.
“I’ve got this, Mr Marino. You go on in, sir.”
He was no slouch in the size department at six foot three, and still the bouncer at his shoulder dwarfed him. The man’s muscular arms and thighs strained against the black standard-issue suit.
Stalking into the club, Sebastian headed for the bar. The bartender, catching sight of him, came over.
“Evening, Mr Marino. Your usual?”
With a nod, he replied, “Make it a double.”
The bartender placed the drink in front of him before returning to the other end of the bar, leaving him to his thoughts. Absently, his fingers traced the drops of condensation trickling down the outside of the glass. Lifting the tumbler to his lips, he took a large swallow of the ice-cold amber alcohol, relishing the bite as it slid down his dry throat. He licked his lips, catching a stray droplet and breathing in the rich, oak fragrance of the whiskey. He felt the tension of the long, stressful day start to fade.
He had been putting out fires ever since the press got wind of the rumours circulating that his father was ill. The rumours had caused nervousness amongst the shareholders, and he would have to set up a meeting soon to assure them that their fears were unfounded. Marino International would remain strong, regardless of who was at the helm.
Taking another sip of the single malt, he savoured it, allowing his tongue to swirl in the deep flavours. His thoughts turned to his father. The man had changed since losing his older son.
When his brother had been kidnapped, his father, Salvatore, had refused to pay the ransom. He hadn’t believed they would follow through on their threat to kill Stefano. His father had been so fucking wrong.
Sebastian had borne witness to the guilt that had consumed his father since they found Stefano’s body in an abandoned warehouse. His brother, his everyday hero, lying broken and lifeless on the cold cement floor was etched forever in his memory. It broke his heart when he thought of how Stefano’s life had been cut so short in a cruel world. He’d been the heir-apparent, the one set to take over the family business. God knew he had the brains and the talent for it. He’d been respected from a young age, having an arrogance about him that made people reluctant to screw him over in business.
Despite being driven and a hard task master, the man had been fair in his dealings. Days like today brought into stark focus how much Sebastian missed his brother. How much he longed to have him back. The grief he’d locked away leaked past his iron control.
Picking up his glass, he swallowed down what was left in one gulp. He turned to look at the dance floor heaving with bodies. People gyrated to the pulsating music, seemingly without a care in the world, having fun and living life. In his current mood, it seemed almost blasphemous. But at least the club was making him money. Inferno seemed to be filled to capacity once again.
Pivoting back to the bar, he motioned with his finger for a refill. From the corner of his eye, he noticed a woman sitting on her own. He turned his head to get a better look. Lifting her gaze, she looked directly at him, almost as if she’d felt the weight of his stare. Large, provocative green eyes captivated him. God, was she breathtaking. Simply stunning.
She dropped her head, almost self-consciously, breaking the stare as her hair fell across her face, acting as a curtain, hiding her beautiful visage from him. Her elegant hand lifted to tuck her long, auburn hair behind her ear before her keen eyes once again found his.
“Mr Marino, sir? Sir?”
The barman had obviously been speaking to him, but Sebastian hadn’t heard a word. He’d been too focused on the mystery lady.
This time, Sebastian was the one to break their stare.
“Sorry, I missed that.”
“Zane’s on the phone. He’s looking for you, sir.”
“Tell Zane I’ll come up as soon as I’m ready.”
“Will do, Mr Marino.”
The man went back to the phone, and Sebastian turned back to look at the beautiful stranger. But she was gone!
Swinging around, he frantically searched the countless faces on the dance floor. He found every auburn-haired woman but her. How had she simply vanished into thin air? She had to be there somewhere.
And just like that, he felt his positive energy leave him and his black mood returned. The fire that burned to meet the enigmatic woman had now been extinguished.
With a defeated sigh, Sebastian headed to his office where Zane was waiting to meet with him. At the last minute, he changed his mind. He needed to find her. Surely, she still had to be there somewhere in the club. A person didn’t just disappear.
He hurried back up the passage to the bar in time to see the woman in question disappear out the door. As he went to follow, the bartender once again called to him.
“Mr Marino, sir—”
“Not now,” was all he took the time to say as he made a dash for the door.
Ignoring the man, he ran towards the parking lot, but once again, the vixen had vanished. What was it about this woman? She was like a fucking ghost. Cursing under his breath, he scanned the parking lot in hopes of catching sight of her, but to no avail.
He dropped his head in disappointment, releasing a heavy sigh. Thrusting his hands in his pockets, he contemplated his next move. Was there another move? How did you find someone who didn’t want to be found?
Just as he’d resigned himself to the fact that she was gone, he heard the purr of an engine come to life. Moving in the direction the sound had come from, he spotted a bright yellow Mini Cooper reversing out of a parking space. Sprinting to reach her, he prayed he’d make it in time.
He saw her brake to engage first gear and realised he wasn’t going to make it. In the dim light, all he could see was those incredible green eyes he’d found himself so captivated by in the club. Their gaze met in the rearview mirror and clung for what felt like an eternity before she broke contact and slowly drove away.
Serena hated the clubbing scene, but her best friend had been insistent that she joined her. The woman wasn’t one to take no for an answer. She was sure Kim was trying to set her up on yet another unwanted blind date. Yet here she was at the club, sipping on a drink she didn’t want, and bored out of her mind.
To add insult to injury, she’d been right about Kim wanting to set her up. Regardless of how many times Serena told her she wasn’t looking for a new man in her life, Kim seemed oblivious. She’d taken it upon herself to find Serena’s “Mr Right”, and nothing was going to derail her plans.
After Serena had booted the last jackass to the curb, the last thing she wanted was another relationship. Her track record with men was shocking, and she’d decided it was best to give love a wide berth for the time being. “Mr Right” definitely wasn’t on her radar at the moment. Now if she could just get that through to Kim.
Serena scanned the room, watching from afar as bodies danced to the beat of the loud music, bumping and grinding like their lives depended on it. Women smiling coyly and men thinking they were getting lucky for the evening, it was all just a game to see who was going home with whom for the night. Serena just wanted to go home by herself. Why was that so much to ask?
Turning back to the bar, she grabbed her glass of wine and was just about to take a sip when she felt someone staring at her. As she looked across the bar, she felt shock ripple through her when her eyes collided with a smouldering amber gaze. It drew her in, promising things she didn’t realise she wanted. With effort, she dropped her eyes, slowly giving him the once-over. His crisp blue suit was tailored to perfection, easily accommodating his tall, well-built body. He oozed confidence and sex; his whole persona screamed playboy. Despite that, she felt her whole body clench at the look in his eyes.
Uncomfortable with where her thoughts were going, she looked back down at her glass, thankful for the thick strands of hair that fell across her face, which allowed her to hide from his intense look. Lifting her hand to push the loose locks behind her ears, she couldn’t help but give him another look. Shit, he was still staring at her, and it looked like he was ready to head her way. That was all she needed, some wealthy playboy who thought he was God’s gift to women hitting on her.
Thoroughly disconcerted by her overwhelming response to the stranger, Serena scrambled to her feet when the gorgeous man turned to acknowledge the bartender talking to him. Suddenly, she could think of nothing else but escaping the magnetic pull of him. Her senses, now on full alert, were screaming for her to get out, get away.
The relationship she’d just ended had been so dysfunctional that she was wary of men in general, but this one in particular had trouble stamped all over that striking face of his.
So, as he turned to give his attention to the man at his side, she took the opportunity to slip into the crowd, looking for Kim. Finding her on the dance floor with her boyfriend and a group of people she didn’t know, Serena made her way to her friend’s side. She put her mouth to Kim’s ear so she’d be able to hear over the pounding music.
“Honey, I’m going to head for home. This music is giving me a nasty headache.”
“Oh no,” Kim cried. “Steve hasn’t even arrived yet.”
“I’m sorry, but I really do need to go. I’ll see you in the morning.”
Disappointment was clear on Kim’s beautiful face, and she sighed deeply. “Okay. I’ll see you tomorrow. Take something for that headache before it escalates. Feel better, okay?” Kim hugged Serena, and Serena felt a pang of guilt. Her friend was only trying to do something nice for her, but she wasn’t ready for a new man in her life just yet. She hugged Kim a little tighter, conveying without words that she appreciated the effort even though she wasn’t interested. Then she fled the club.
Climbing hastily into her car, she wondered again about her intense reaction to the sexy stranger. She couldn’t remember ever reacting like that to any man. What was it about this particular man that made her want him so badly? What made her want to be touched, tasted, taken, and used by a complete stranger? And why was her body betraying her? God, she had to get out of there before she did something utterly stupid.
Key in the ignition, she engaged the start button, put the car into reverse, and backed out of the parking space. Turning for the exit, she looked up and found a man standing in the middle of the road. Braking, she looked at him watching her intently through the rearview mirror, her gaze locked with his. She couldn’t seem to look away. It was him, the sexy stranger.
She was so ensnared in his gaze she couldn’t break eye contact. Why would this man follow her? Why was he staring at her with his one sexy eyebrow cocked, asking her a question she couldn’t understand? He took a step toward her, and she panicked. She revved the vehicle’s engine. Taking her foot off the brake, she took off, well aware he was still standing in the road watching her rear lights disappear. She observed him out of the corner of her eye, not wanting him to see her looking.
She let out a breath she hadn’t realised she’d been holding. She was the one running, yet in the pit of her stomach, she felt a deep disappointment that she wouldn’t get to see him again.
His strong, firm hands gripped her breasts, plumping the mounds together as his lips suckled on one. He trailed his lips across her chest, nipping and soothing the skin as he worked his way to the other to give it the same attention. The little nubs beaded tighter, begging, aching for more of his touch.
Slowly, his touch moved lower, worshipping her. She couldn’t hold back a moan as his skilful hands found her wet and needy for him. As he slipped a finger through the wetness, she held her breath. The acceleration of her heartrate had nothing to do with fear and everything to do with the arousal that burned through her body, engulfing her senses.
His lips unsmiling, his hot gaze intense as he looked down at her …
The shrill sound of her alarm clock sounded loudly in the quiet of her room, and Serena’s impending orgasm was rudely ripped from her. Reaching over, she slapped an unforgiving hand onto the snooze button. She wasn’t quite ready to leave her sensual dream and face the reality of a new day. Snuggling back down, she tried desperately to return to her dream. Frustratingly, it remained just out of reach.
By the time the second alarm blared, she was ready to cry with disappointment. Sighing, she rolled out of bed and stumbled into the bathroom. She had a new client coming in to see her today, so she couldn’t afford to be late.
Stripping down, Serena stepped into the shower and turned the water on high. As the spray beat down on her overstimulated body, she replayed the erotic dream of the very sexy stranger. What was it about that specific man that consumed so much of her mind? What made him stand out above all other men she’d met before?
Her heart beat a little harder at the thought of the stranger from the club. What would it be like to have his hands running all over her body instead of her own? Well, it was to remain a mystery. It was unlikely she’d ever encounter her stranger again.
Pull yourself together, woman. With another sigh, she shook herself out of her reverie. Stepping out of the shower, she grabbed a towel and headed into her walk-in closet to get ready to face her day. She needed something sharp to make a good first impression.
Filtering into the morning traffic, Serena went through her appointments in her head. Her new client would be her first for the day. He was hosting a fundraising event, and since he had neither the time nor the inclination to organise it himself, he was looking for an events coordinator to handle all the details. His secretary, who normally dealt with this sort of thing, was off sick and wouldn’t be back in time to pull it off.
After years in the industry, Serena had finally gone out on her own, and this account would be an enormous boost to the reputation of her budding business as it was an international construction company renowned for the luxury accommodations they built. She would have to pull out all the stops on this one.
Brooding over a cup of coffee as her mind raced with a million ideas, Serena was pulled from her thoughts by the insistent buzzing of her desk phone.
“Mr Marino is here, Serena,” Ginny announced.
Trying not to let her nerves get the best of her, Serena answered her phone. “Thanks, Ginny. Please take him into the boardroom. I’ll be right there,” she replied, taking a fortifying breath.
She picked up the file and made her way to the boardroom. Smoothing a hand over her hair, she took another big breath and pushed the doors open. She couldn’t see the client as Ginny obscured her view, but she heard him reply and went weak at the knees. That voice. The rich, deep baritone was simply sinful. It conjured up thoughts of satin sheets and hot, sweaty sex. There was a hint of an Italian accent, and, dear god, he could probably read the telephone directory and make it sound wickedly sensual.
As Serena stepped forward, Ginny moved to the side, and she got her first look at her new client. Shock rooted her to the spot. She blinked. Lifting a trembling hand to her throat, she simply stared. She opened her mouth, but nothing came out. She felt as if she’d entered the twilight zone, because larger than life and as wickedly sexy as she remembered him, stood her mystery man.
Despite not making a sound, it was as if he sensed her presence. His gaze zeroed in on her, his eyes trailing down the curves of her body. Ever so slowly, his eyes came back up and locked with hers, holding her shocked stare.
She couldn’t catch her breath. Her body was frozen to the spot. Her brain scrambled to process the fact that her mystery man was none other than Sebastian Marino, decked out in a bespoke suit that did little to hide his muscular body. A body she had dreamed about only hours before. She felt the blush burn across her cheeks and her body react to the memory of that dream. But as she looked back at him, his eyes were not smiling. If anything, he looked pissed off.
Almost as if he suspected the thoughts rioting through her mind, he gave her an almost-knowing smirk. Nothing more than the quirking of his lips. These very feelings were the reason she’d run the night before. She’d thought she’d never see him again, yet here he was in her boardroom. Fate certainly had a perverse sense of humour.
When Sebastian cocked his eyebrow at her, like he had the night before, she finally managed to gather herself. This was business, pure and simple. She needed to pull it together. The last thing she wanted was for Sebastian Marino to think she was unprofessional. It would be the kiss of death for her small company. With one last shaky breath, she stepped forward, extending her hand to Sebastian.
“Mr Marino, it’s a pleasure to meet you,” she managed to say in a clear, cool voice. Was that really her voice sounding so calm?
Taking her small, elegant hand in his large one, Sebastian dipped his head slightly without breaking eye contact. Holding it a little longer than she was comfortable with, he murmured, “Miss Callum, a pleasure.”
It felt like a live wire of electrical current pulsed through her body, shocking her enough to pull her hand from his grasp. In an attempt to appear unaffected, she smiled.
“Please, call me Serena. May we offer you anything to drink before we get started?”
“Serena then. Thank you, yes. A coffee would be wonderful.”
“Ginny, would you please get Mr Marino some coffee?” Serena smiled at Ginny.
“Certainly. Coming right up. Can I get one for you too, Serena?”
Serena nodded, and Ginny left the boardroom, closing the door behind her. The silence in the room following the other woman’s departure was deafening. She had to do something to regain control of the situation.
“Well then, Mr Marino. Shall we get down to business?”
“No need to stand on formalities, Serena. Sebastian will do.”
With a small incline of her head, Serena acknowledged his words.
“Shall we get to it then, Sebastian?”
“Yes, indeed.” Indicating for her to take a seat, he waited until she sat before settling in the seat next to her.
A slow burn had ignited at the way he’d said her name. She loved the sound of it on his tongue. As if he’d reached out and touched her intimately. The look he’d given her as he’d waited for her to take a seat told her he wasn’t completely unaffected by her either. The air fairly sizzled between them as Serena and Sebastian sat at the boardroom table.
With a deep breath, she opened the folder to begin but got quite distracted by his cologne. It was fresh and clean, cool and spicy; a wholly masculine scent that made her mouth water and scrambled her senses.
Gathering herself, she turned to ask him about the event and found him staring intently at her, almost as if he wanted to say something. When he remained silent, she asked her question. As he answered her, she pushed her thoughts aside and concentrated on the matter at hand. Thankfully, as the meeting progressed, the annoyed vibe she’d sensed from him first dissipated.
Time flew by as ideas were bandied back and forth. When they’d finally settled on a concept, he asked Serena to describe her vision. Fired up by the images she saw in her mind, she leaned toward Sebastian, sketching on the pad that lay before her in a bid to share her concept. She lifted her eyes to look at him as she went to speak, but the words died away as she found his gaze focused on her cleavage.
She’d become so animated while explaining and sketching that her blouse had shifted to reveal the smooth, creamy skin beneath. Serena felt the heat rise in her cheeks, her body, her very core. She responded to the banked smoulder she saw in his eyes, longing to feel his hands on her, his lips on hers.
He leaned in, his gaze remaining intense. Their faces were so close she could feel his breath on her lips. Abruptly, she sat back and cleared her throat. Sebastian merely cocked that expressive eyebrow at her before glancing at his watch.
“We’ve covered much ground this morning, Serena. But, unfortunately, I must be on my way. I have another meeting this afternoon and cannot afford to be late.”
“Yes, of course. Let me see you out.”
She escorted him from the boardroom. As they reached the elevator, Sebastian pressed the button before turning to her.
“That was most productive. I am quite pleased with our progress this morning.”
“Yes, I feel we’ve covered a fair bit of ground today. It’s given me a good feel for what you’re after.”
The elevator chimed its arrival, and he stepped inside. Giving her that enigmatic smirk, he pressed a button on the panel.
“I will be in touch later in the week to arrange our next meeting,” he replied as the doors closed. And with that, he was gone.
For a moment, Serena remained where she stood. It felt as if she’d run a marathon. Sebastian Marino was a force of nature, and she was definitely feeling the aftereffects.