The cards have been dealt, but the game's just begun.
Proving her worth to her male-dominated family didn’t include being forced to bet herself in a high-stakes poker game. But to save the family business and protect her father’s health, Nina Avalon is prepared to do anything. Even agree to a scandalous wager with a ruthless tycoon.
Sicilian billionaire Raul Stregone has revenge on his mind. When the opportunity to ruin the family who destroyed his drops in his lap, Raul plans to wreak his vengeance via the boardroom—and the bedroom—with the daughter of his adversary. Yet while he may have won her fair and square, it soon becomes apparent that she’s not going down without a fight.
But let her wrangle all she wants. One way or another, he plans on collecting his winnings.
His accent was stronger, as if the polished veneer had slipped, allowing a glimpse of the fighter beneath. Nina drew in a breath, resisting the urge to move back against the force of potent energy emanating across to her. “I simply want you to reconsider.”
“Your brother made a deal with me. He lost.”
“Now you intend making my whole family suffer.”
His laugh was mocking, sardonic. “You will hardly suffer, cara.”
Cara. It sounded sexy and erotic offered in that deep, gravelly tone flavored with the accent of his homeland.
Nina shifted in her chair, her pulse skipping. “My brother had no right to gamble a percentage of our company. This was a private undertaking between the two of you, and involving our company was not Carl’s decision to make. Besides, my father has to be consulted about any business affecting the company.”
“Then I’ll consult with him.”
Heads turned at Nina’s outburst. Mortified, she looked back at Raul. “There’s no reason to involve my father.” No reason to batter his already weakened heart with further stress. “I’m my father’s representative in this matter, you can deal with me.”
He sat back, the polished demeanor restored as the corners of his mouth flickered. “A pleasant enough prospect.”
“Perhaps I should warn you not to underestimate me.”
He sipped his drink and then lowered the glass. “I have a suggestion.”
Oh, she bet he had. “Which is?”
“Another wager. Of a more personal and mutually pleasurable nature.”
When his gaze flickered over her in an insultingly suggestive manner, icy fingers walked down her spine. There was absolutely no mistaking the nature of this prospective wager, even without the provocative curve of his full mouth and the sultry gleam in his eyes.
She huffed. “I don’t think so.”
“Very well. I’ll speak with your father first thing tomorrow.”
Her stomach pitched, but she refused to take the bait. “I don’t respond to blackmail.”
“Not blackmail, surely.” He steepled his fingers. “Business.”
“Whatever. You think you can manipulate me into getting what you want.”
“You don’t know what I want. Yet.”
“I have a pretty rough idea.”
“You flatter yourself.” Although his predatory look indicated she was bang on target. “My priority right now is achieving payment of a debt. As much as I’d enjoy you in my bed, business comes first.”
As sensation tingled across her skin, hot on its heels came the question—why on earth would he be interested in her? He was a player on the world’s stage, so far out of her orbit it wasn’t funny. He had affairs with top models, actresses, royalty. Not studious types in the middle of a master’s degree with their hearts set on a key place in the family business.
Despite the way her body reacted, she wasn’t interested in him. For some women he might be dangerously appealing with his tanned skin, seductive eyes and muscled physique—not to mention a rapier mind that no doubt dipped into whatever the hell subject it fancied and came out an expert. To her he was simply another man who ruthlessly pursued whatever he wanted, and she’d had more than enough experience of his sort.
What she wanted—needed—was a steady sort of man, reasonable and unassuming, who would treat her as an equal partner. Not another arrogant, demanding, give-me-what-I-want-when-I-want-it type who thought the world revolved around him.
What she didn’t need was the man who wrote the book on arrogance currently sitting opposite her with an imperious smile on his admittedly lush mouth.
Dragging her attention away from his mouth, she focused on the potential disaster looming as they failed to reach a compromise. “It’s good to know business comes first for you. At least that’s something we agree on. For me it comes first, last and always. I’ve no interest in anything else.”
“Which is undoubtedly where we differ. I have an interest in many things.” His gaze swept once more along her mouth, lingering there for excruciating moments until it returned to meet hers. “But I digress. Allow me to outline my proposal to benefit us both.”
Proposal? There was a proposal? She was still recovering from his sultry perusal of her mouth. She shifted in her chair and cocked her head. “I’m all ears.”
He studied her, as if weighing what little he could offer in return for as much as he could get.
“As I said, it involves another wager.” He held up his forefinger as Nina sucked in a breath about to protest. “Should you win, I’ll agree to discharge the current debt owed me in return for the property portfolio.”
Relief shimmered through her, but such response was premature until she knew what she would have to forfeit if things didn’t turn in her favor. “What if I don’t win?”
He drew in a long breath, considering. Her heart started pumping. If Carl stood in front of her right now she would willingly strangle him. He should be the one offering up heaven knew what in exchange for liberation.
She should be home safe in Chelsea, putting the finishing touches to her latest assignment on market forces. Not facing off against Raul Niccolo Stregone. Damn and blast Carl for putting her in this position. Her brother had brushed aside her concern that she hadn’t played in years, that she hadn’t wanted to play in years. Poker was like riding a bike, he’d assured her. Once you learned you never forgot.
More like skating on thin ice, Nina mused as she willed back nausea. One plunge into the icy depths and you never wanted to take to the blades again.
He was enjoying himself, Nina realized, watching Raul’s sensuous mouth press against his glass. He was stalking, priming his opponent, ready for the attack.
Was he bluffing? Waiting to see if she caved? Folded? Merely having some fun at her expense? Maybe waiting for her to say, “Okay, let’s have another wager,” then he would laugh and say he was only joking. That he’d be taking the shares after all.
A waiter materialized again when Raul raised his hand. Watching Nina, he beckoned the waiter forward and whispered conspiratorially. Nina strained to hear, but the chatter around her and the nervous buzzing in her ears made it impossible.
With a nod, a deferential bow, the waiter hurried away.
Temper sliced over some of the anxiety as Nina realized he was making her sweat. “I assume at some stage you intend answering me. But obviously not until you’ve milked this for all it’s worth. So go ahead. Have your fun. I’ll wait.”
His grin flashed fast and deadly. “You know as well as I do that when you have your opponent on the back foot, it’s best to savor the moment. But again, I digress.” He ran long fingers across his jaw. “If you accept the wager and lose, then I may still accept the property portfolio.”
Another sweep of relief, but this time accompanied by the clang of warning bells. “You said may,” Nina pointed out as tightness squeezed at her temples. “What else do you want?”
Those long fingers traced round and round the damn glass, mesmerizing her as they journeyed with a slow and treacherous rhythm. Panic rose, gripping her throat. She looked up. “What do you want?”
His hand stopped moving as his gaze pierced hers. “What do I want?” A marauding glint shimmered in his eyes. “I want you. For one month.”