He was the most beautiful man Zoe Collins had ever seen, and that was some realisation when she was currently surrounded by some of the world’s most physically perfect men and women, at one of Paris fashion week’s biggest shows.
He was sitting in the front row, so he had to be important. Aware that she was staring, Zoe dragged her gaze away and looked around the vast ballroom that had been transformed into a fairy woodland scene, with real trees down the centre of the runway.
The air was scented from the expensive perfume of the hundreds of guests milling around, while they waited for the show to start. Her heart was still pounding from the adrenalin rush of what she’d just done.
She’d been outside the Grand Palais, taking pictures of ‘influencers’ as they went into the show and by pure fluke she’d noticed one of the catering staff outside a door, having a cigarette. When they went back inside the door was left ajar and Zoe had seized the opportunity to get into the inner sanctum.
She knew that if she could actually manage to get into ‘the pit’ where the official photographers lined themselves up at the end of the catwalk, she could try and convince them that she was one of them. Even though she wasn’t. At all. She was a self – taught, amateur photographer.
There was no way she would have got accreditation to be in here. As it was, some of the other photographers were looking at her suspiciously. She hunched forward, letting her shoulder – length hair hide her face, and hoped they wouldn’t notice that she had no official lanyard.
Excitement buzzed under her skin. She’d never been at a fashion show before and it had always been a dream of hers to see the spectacle up close. Along with becoming a bona fide fashion photographer. For as long as she could remember she’d escaped into glossy magazines and had pored for hours over the fantastical editorial created by the industry’s best photographers, editors and stylists.
But breaking into a tight – knit industry like this was akin to climbing Everest without oxygen. Next to impossible, without contacts. Or experience.
She knew she shouldn’t draw attention to herself but she couldn’t resist looking at the man again. When her gaze found him her pulse – rate skipped and her heart beat a little faster.
He had more than just good looks she realised. There was an air of impenetrability about him. Talking to no – one. Looking at no – one. Glancing down periodically at his phone. Totally relaxed, yet primed. Interested but not showing interest. Aloof.
She guessed he was tall, just from how he domimated the space around him. He had broad shoulders, a lean body. Very short hair, almost militarily short. Dark under the lights but not brown, or black. More, dark blond.
But his bone structure alone had Zoe lifting the camera to her face, almost without even realising what she was doing. And when she looked through her view – finder her heart stopped altogether.
Close – up he wasn’t just beautiful, he was breathtaking. High cheekbones, deep – set eyes. A mouth that promised decadence and sin. Firm contours. Sensual. A hard uncompromising jaw that a shadow of stubble only enhanced.
There was a faintly olive tone to his skin. And then his head turned and his eyes connected directly with hers through her camera. She froze. His eyes were mesmerising. Dark grey. Cold. Cynical. Guarded.
Zoe acted on instinct, her finger came down on the button and the camera made a clicking sound as it immortalised his image forever.
But, before she could even take the camera down from her face there was a blur of movement and she was being grabbed by her jacket and hauled up and out of the pit of photographers.
‘Who the hell are you and why are you taking pictures of me?’
Dimly, Zoe recognised that his voice matched the rest of him. Deep and authoritative. Slightly accented. She also recognised that he was far taller than she might have guessed. Well over six feet and towering over her own far less substantial five foot four.
His eyes raked her up and down. ‘Who are you? Where’s your accreditation?’
‘I…’ she faltered, all of the bravado that had led her in here dissolving. She swallowed. ‘I don’t have any.’ She vaguely heard muttering from the other photographers and guilty heat climbed up over her chest to her face.
‘Look, I’m sorry, I saw an open door and I just – ‘
‘Thought you’d enter illegally?’
Zoe spluttered, ‘Well, that’s a bit extreme, isn’t it?‘
He put his hand on her arm and pulled her out of the photographers area and along the front row towards the main doors, on the opposite side of the room from where she’d entered. Her face burned with humiliation. Who the hell did this guy think he was? Acting like judge and jury. Crashing a fashion show was hardly crime of the century!
Zoe could see people tuck their legs out of the way as she passed and noted several iconically famous faces assuming looks of digust and horror as she was all but hauled out.
When they were the other side of the main doors she pulled free. She could see security guards approaching but the man put up a hand and they stopped. She looked up, breathless, adrenalin rushing through her system and something else, something that felt disturbingly like excitement.
‘Who are you?’ She rubbed her arm, even though he hadn’t hurt her at all.
He didn’t answer, just reached for her camera, lifting it over her head before she could stop him. She reacted instantly, reaching for it, ‘Hey, that’s my camera, you can’t just –‘
But a hand, planted squarely on her upper chest, holding her back, stopped her words. She watched in dismay as he easily accessed and scrolled through the pictures, presumably finding the one of him, and the ones she’d taken outside, before coming in.
He closed his hand around the camera and took his other hand down from her chest. ‘I’ll take this. You can go.’
Zoe went cold inside. ‘But you can’t just take my camera, that’s my property.’ Her most precious possession. It had belonged to her father and had gone everywhere with her since – she spoke rapidly to push down unwelcome memories. She didn’t need those now. ‘Are you security? You can wipe all the pictures, I don’t care, just please give me back the camera.’ She put out her hand. Panicky.
The man’s voice was incredulous. ‘You don’t know who I am?’
She looked at him. She wasn’t all that up to date on pop culture or gossip magazines but she was fairly sure he wasn’t an actor, or a singer. But he did look vaguely familiar. Maybe he was familiar because he was a male model. He certainly had the looks. Although there was something raw about him, as if he would never do anything so submissive as pose for a photograph.
‘You’re not security?’
‘I’m Maks Marchetti.’
He looked at her. She looked at him. Shock spread through her body. Maks Marchetti.
He arched a brow. ‘The Marchetti Group? We own the fashion house whose show you just crashed.’
Zoe could feel blood draining south from her face. Faintly she said, ‘I know who you are.’ The reason she hadn’t recognised him was because he was the most reclusive of the three Marchetti brothers who had inherited the business from their father on his death some years previously.
The Marchetti Group were at the very top end of exclusive and had become even more so in the years since Marchetti senior’s death. They owned every major brand in the world – and if they didn’t own it they were busy acquiring it. The brands they didn’t own weren’t worth mentioning.
And this man was a Marchetti. Which meant he could buy and sell everyone in that room. She could hear music starting now. Presumably the show was kicking off.
That dark grey gaze was unnervingly direct. He seemed unconcerned that he was missing the start of the show. Zoe recalled the sense of aloofness she’d picked up from him.
‘Shouldn’t you be inside? If you could just give me back the camera I’ll go and you’ll never see me again.’
Maks Marchetti looked down at the woman in front of him, more transfixed than he liked to admit. At first glance she was pretty average. Average height, average weight and build. Slim. Petite actually. But there was something about her that kept him looking, that had caught his attention when he’d looked over and seen the camera raised to her face, pointing directly at him.
She had honey – blonde shoulder – length hair. Finely etched brows. A delicate jaw. Straight nose. Her eyes were an arresting shade of green and blue. Aquamarine. Pretty. More than pretty, actually.
But she had a scar, in indentation that dissected her top lip on one side, almost an inch long. There was another scar, that ran from one upper cheekbone to under her hairline. They piqued his interest.
As if sensing his gaze on her, she ducked her head and her hair fell forward covering her face. ‘It’s rude to stare.’
Maks had to curb his impulse to reach out and tip up her chin so he could see her. She was a complete stranger.
‘It’s rude to trespass.’
She looked up again, those eyes flashing green. They were long – lashed. She wore no make – up that he could see and her skin was flawless. Apart from the scars. It was the colour of pale cream roses with a hint of pink. It made him wonder what she would look like in the throes of passion, would her eyes turn a deeper green when she was aroused? Would her cheeks flush a deeper pink?
An unexpected jolt of lust caught him by surprise. More than a jolt. Actually, she wasn’t just pretty. She was beautiful, but in a way that crept up on him. He moved in a world that celebrated beauty so much that he’d almost become inured to it. But she had a kind of beauty he’d never seen before. Understated. Captivating.
Dio. What the hell was wrong with him?
He took a step back. ‘Leave now and I won’t have you prosecuted for trespassing.’ She went pale. He ignored his conscience. ‘We don’t allow paparazzi into the shows.’
Her mouth opened and he noticed her lips. Wide, and lush. Soft. Tempting. His eye was drawn to that intriguing scar again.
‘I am not paparazzi.’
She’d drawn herself up, her whole body quivering as if she was indignant. Maks had to hand it to her, she was a good actress. He ignored the way he wanted to drop his gaze over her body and study her more thoroughly. There was a distinct hum in his blood now and he did not welcome this distraction. Or attraction.
‘Well, I’m afraid that sneaking into one of the biggest shows of the season with wall to wall A – list guests makes me a touch suspicious. And in any case this is not up for discussion.’
Maks Marchetti looked over her head and made a gesture. Zoe turned around to see two beefy security men approaching them. She swivelled back to Marchetti. ‘Look, please, I didn’t mean any harm. I’m really not paparazzi.’
But her words fell on deaf ears. Marchetti said over her head, ‘Please escort this young woman out. Make sure she doesn’t ever get into another show again.’
Zoe’s mouth fell open, as her arms were taken on each side, lightly but firmly. She glared at Marchetti. How had she thought he was beautiful? The man was cruel and cold.
‘Seriously? You’re blacklisting me?’ Now she wouldn’t get in even if she had a lanyard. Her dreams of breaking into the lower echelons of the fashion photography industry were going up in smoke.
The security guards started to lead her away. She saw her camera dangling carelessly from Marchetti’s hand. ‘What about my camera?’
He held it up. ‘You lost it the moment you trespassed. Good – bye, I hope we don’t meet again, for your sake.’
Zoe was being propelled backwards and she knew she should turn around. She didn’t even know this man and she’d gone from thinking he was gorgeous to hating him, all within a few seismic minutes. But she couldn’t tear her gaze from his.
And worse, was the feeling of…hurtat what he’d said. That he hoped they wouldn’t meet again. What on earth was that about? It galvanised her to say, ‘Well, for what it’s worth, Mr Marchetti, you’re the last man on earth that I ever want to meet again.’
He lifted a hand, the one without her camera. He even let his mouth tip up at one corner. ‘Ciao.’