Gracie O’Brien was trying to look nonchalant. As if she was used to being a guest at glittering functions in one of London’s most prestigious venues. When in fact, she was more used to being a waitress…in far less salubrious surroundings in the outer reaches of London. The kind of places where men habitually pinched her bottom and said crude things about her lack of ample assets.
She gritted her jaw unconsciously to acknowledge that in today’s economic climate, a hard – won yet paltry art degree didn’t count for much. She had a dream, but unfortunately to finance her dream she needed to live and eat and survive. And the only jobs available to her right now were on the menial end of the scale.
She mentally shook herself out of the uncharacteristic introspection – she could handle the menial end of the scale. She couldn’t handle this. She was clutching her bag to her belly. Where had Steven gone? She’d only come tonight as a favour to him because he needed a date. Her mouth compressed. Tension gnawed at her in these kind of surroundings, along with the habitual anxiety she felt for her brother.
Gracie forced herself to relax. This annual charity benefit thrown by the company her brother now worked for signified a huge turning point in his life, which had to explain his moody humour and nerves lately. That’s all it was. She had to stop worrying about him. They were twenty – four now and she couldn’t go on feeling responsible for him just because she’d taken on that role from as far back as she could remember, when she’d been the one who had inevitably stood between him and some bully. She still bore scars of the scrapes she’d been in, protecting her little brother, younger by twenty fraught minutes.
Their mother, before she’d abandoned them, had never let Gracie forget that her beloved son had almost died while Gracie had had the temerity to flourish with rude health. Her mother’s parting words to Gracie had been, ‘I’d take him with me and leave you behind if I could – he’s the one I wanted, not a pathetic girl. But he’s too attached to you and I can’t deal with a screaming brat.’
Gracie pushed down the surge of emotion she felt whenever she thought of that dark day, and sighed when she finally caught sight of her brother in the distance. Her heart swelled in her chest with love for him. Despite their abandonment and so much that had happened since then, they’d always looked out for one another. Steven’s inherent weakness had meant that even Gracie’s strength hadn’t saved him for a few dark years but now he was back on track.
Her brother had implored with her earlier, ‘Please Gracie…I really want you there with me. They’re all going to have their wives with them. I need to fit in. Do you know what a coup it is to get a job with De Marco International…?’
He’d gone on to wax lyrical once again about the God – like Rocco de Marco, so much so that Gracie had relented just to make him stop rhapsodizing about this person who couldn’t possibly be human, he sounded so perfect.
She’d also relented because she could see how anxious he was and knew how hard he’d worked for this chance. The long hours in prison studying and sitting his A levels so that he could get into college as soon as he got out. The constant fear that he would relapse back into his old drug addicted ways. And he hadn’t. Finally his uniquely raw talent and intellect was being used.
He was talking to another man and to look at him across the room, one wouldn’t even think they were related. Steven was tall and as skinny as a rake. Gracie was five foot five and her almost boyish figure caused her no end of dismay. Her brother was blonde, pale and blue eyed. She was red – haired, freckled and brown eyed, taking after their feckless Irish father. Another reason why her mother had hated her.
She grimaced now when her dress slipped half an inch further down her chest, exposing even more of her less than impressive cleavage. She’d seen it in a charity shop earlier and hadn’t tried it on. Big mistake, Gracie grumbled to herself. The dress was at least two sizes too big and trailed around her feet like her Nan’s dresses had when she’d been a child playing dress up.
She gave up hope that Steven was going to look for her figuring he was too busy and turned her back on the crowd to hitch up her dress. She faced a buffet table groaning under the weight of platters of deliciously delicate canapés and an idea struck her. Happily engrossed in her task a few minutes later, she froze when a deep and sexily accented voice drawled from nearby, ‘The food won’t disappear you know…most of the people in this room haven’t eaten in years.’
The cynical observation went over Gracie’s head. She flushed guiltily, her fingers tightening around the canapé she’d just wrapped in a napkin to put in her bag, along with the three others she’d already carefully wrapped up. She glanced to her left, where the voice had come from and had to lift her eyes up from a snowy white broad chest, past a black bow – tie and up to the most arrestingly gorgeous vision of masculinity she’d ever seen in her life.
The canapé dropped unnoticed from her hand into her open bag. She was utterly gobsmacked and transfixed. Dark eyes glittered out from a face so savagely beautiful that Gracie felt ridiculously like bowing, or doing something equally subservient. And she was not a subservient person. Sexual charisma oozed from every unashamedly masculine molecule.
‘I…’ She couldn’t even speak. Silence stretched between them.
One ebony brow went up. ‘You..?’
His mouth quirked and that made things worse because it drew her attention to there, and she found herself becoming even more mesmerized by the decadently sexy shape of his lips. There was something so provocatively sensual about his mouth. As if its true purpose was for kissing and only kissing. Anything else would be a waste.
Her face flaming now because she was not used to thinking about kissing men within seconds of meeting them, Gracie dragged her gaze back up to those black eyes. She was aware that he was tall and almost intimidatingly broad. But it was actually hard to process the reality that the rest of him was equally gorgeous. His hair was thick and black, with one lock curling on his forehead. It gave him a devilish air that only enhanced the strong features which held a slightly haughty regard.
He carried an unmistakable air of propriety, his hands in his pockets with easy insouciance, and that realization finally managed to dissolve Gracie’s paralysis. She contracted inwards, lowered her eyes. ‘The food isn’t for me…it’s for…’ she searched wildly for some excuse for her gauche actions and thought belatedly of what Steven would say if she was thrown out for this. Maybe she’d read this man all wrong? She glanced up again and asked suspiciously, ‘Are you security?’
Even as the words left her mouth and there was a clearly incredulous split second before he threw his head back to laugh throatily, she knew she shouldn’t have opened her mouth. This man was no mere security guard. The sting of embarrassment, the knowledge that she was utterly out of her depth in these surroundings made Gracie retort sharply, ‘There’s no need to get hysterical about it. How am I meant to know who you are?’
The man stopped laughing but his eyes glittered with wicked amusement further raising Gracie’s ire. She knew that she was also reacting to the very peculiar effect he was having on her body. She’d never felt like this before. Her skin was sensitive, goosebumps popping up despite the heat of the room. Her senses were heightened, she could hear her heart thumping and inside, she felt hot, as if her insides were being slowly set on fire.
‘You don’t know who I am?’ Blatant disbelief was etched into the man’s perfect features. But Gracie amended that thought. They weren’t actually perfect. His nose looked slightly misaligned as if it had been broken. And there were tiny scars across one cheek. Another faint scar ran from his jaw to his temple on the other side of his face.
She shivered slightly, as if she recognized something about this man on a very deep and primal level. As if they shared something. Which was ridiculous. The only thing she shared with a man like this was the air they were currently breathing. His question and that incredulity brought her back to earth. She hitched up her chin. ‘Well I’m not psychic and you’re not wearing a name tag so how on earth should I know who you are?’
That gorgeous mouth closed and firmed as if he was trying to keep in a laugh. Absurdly Gracie felt like smacking him and had to curb her renowned flash of temper, which unfortunately did match her hair. ‘Who are you then if you’re so important that everyone should know you?’
He shook his head, any trace of humour suddenly gone. Gracie shivered again but this time it was because she saw another facet of this fascinating specimen of maleness. Strange how in the space of just mere seconds she could feel as if she was seeing hidden layers and depths of a complete stranger. Now he had a speculative gleam in his eyes. She sensed strongly that behind the easy charm lurked something much less benevolent, something dark and calculating.
‘Why don’t you tell me who you are?’
Gracie opened her mouth but just then a man materialized between them and directed himself to the tall man/God and completely ignored Gracie, as if she was some random nobody, which, she needed no reminding, she was. But also as if he was used to inserting himself between women and this man, which was extremely irritating.
‘Mr de Marco, they’re ready for you to give your speech.’
Shock slammed into her. Mr de Marco. This man she’d just been ogling was Rocco de Marco? From the way Steven had described him and his achievements she’d imagined someone much older. And quite possibly short and fat, with a cigar. Not this dynamic virile man. She guessed him to be early thirties at the most.
The obsequious man who’d interrupted them melted away and Rocco de Marco stepped closer to Gracie. Immediately his scent hit her and it was musky and disturbingly masculine. He put out his hand and still in shock, she lifted hers to let him take it. His eyes never leaving hers, he bent down and pressed a kiss to the back of her small, pale and freckled hand. Inwardly, even as her blood leapt to his touch, she cringed at how rough her work hands must feel.
He stood again and let her hand go. He wasn’t speculative anymore, he was all hot and seductive. ‘Don’t go anywhere now will you? You still haven’t told me who you are…’
And then with a searing look he had turned and was striding away into the throng and it was only then that Gracie breathed in again. Unable to stop herself, she took in the sheer masculine majesty of his physique. He stood head and shoulders above most of the crowd who were parting like the veritable red sea to let him through. A broad back tapered down to narrow hips and long legs. Physical perfection.
He was Rocco de Marco. Legend financier and billionaire. Some people called him a genius. Wildly her glance searched for and found Steven who was looking raptly to where Rocco now stood on a dais, commanding the packed ballroom.
Without even knowing quite why it was so important to get out of there, Gracie just knew she had to leave. The thought of facing that man again was frankly overwhelming. Her utter gauchness screamed at her. The rough skin on her hands itched. Not one person in that room could have been unaware of who he was. Except her. The sheer class of the people struck home hard. The jewels the women wore were real, not like her cheap plastic baubles. She didn’t belong here.
She thought of how the most important man in the room had witnessed her filching canapés from the buffet and when she had the scary vision of being introduced to him by Steven, she blanched. Steven would be mortified if Rocco de Marco mentioned it. He might even get into trouble. That well ingrained sense of responsibility kicked in and so Gracie did the only thing she could do. She ran.