Annoyance sharpened within Fiorella. He had her locket safe and he'd only give it to her on his slimeball, selfish terms? Her brain whirred as she met his very direct, challenging gaze with a defiant stare of her own. But his blue-green eyes were so brilliant they were almost luminous—stunning enough to stop her thinking straight; pretty enough to tempt her to see if the rest of his body was as unfairly blessed. She resisted the urge—just—but her peripheral vision was informing her anyway. The man was so powerfully built, just a vague awareness of him made her breathless. But on the inside? He had no heart. She refused to fight or beg him for mercy. She had the feeling he'd only enjoy the power play and he was already arrogant enough.
It was her own fault for fidgeting with her locket. If her father were still alive he'd be shaking his head and saying I told you so. He'd told her so many other things, over and over too. Such as to stay away from sharks. And he hadn't just told her, he'd enforced her seclusion. He'd never have allowed her within fifty feet of a man like this.
'I'd love to attend this gala with you this evening.' She finally answered him through gritted teeth. 'Thanks so much for inviting me. It's extremely kind of you...' Her voice petered out as he stepped closer.
He was far taller than she'd realized. And the muscles that rippled as he slowly bowed before her?
So many muscles. So much skin. So much man. Fiorella had never gaped or drooled over anyone yet suddenly she was dangerously close to doing both. And her temperature had skyrocketed—temping her to dive into the water, silk dress and all. It was mortifying. Since coming to study in the States she'd spent more time around men who weren't family, but she'd not actually been this near to any. So her overheated reaction was just because of his proximity, right?
But this near, the vitality and intensity leaped in his mesmerizing, mocking eyes—eyes that seemed to see all the way to the shockingly embarrassing direction of her thoughts.
He hesitated just as he was about to drop the pendant into her palm, his entire body tense and his gaze locked on her. 'You're not going to snatch it and run away?'
'I've given you my word,' she said, not wanting to admit that his full attention all but fixed her in place.
'Does a princess always keep her promises?' His lips twisted.
She realized he didn't expect her to. Did he think she was spoiled? Perhaps the pool closure had been enough for him to decide that. She could see how it might look that way, but the reality was rather different. She'd only walked through now to avoid seeing too many people when she was all made-up like this. 'Wow, you have trust issues?'
'Doesn't everyone?' He still watched her too closely. 'I bet you do.'
'Absolutely.' She nodded. They'd been ingrained from so early on. 'But I'll take a chance this once. I'll stay for civilized conversation at your gala, then I'm out.'
Truthfully, she couldn't resist spending a little longer in his company. She was equal parts wary and fascinated.
'Perfect.' He dropped her locket into her palm.
'Thank you.' She curled her fingers around it with relief. As she glanced back up, she caught him still intently watching her and felt her skin burn again. 'You're curious to know what's inside it?'
He shook his head. 'I'm more interested in why you're not opening it to check for damage.'
'Sometimes you're better off not knowing how bad things are.' Denial was easier than admitting how much something hurt.
His searching gaze narrowed. 'You should assess it for damage, then you can either fix it or get rid of it.'
She clutched the locket closer to her chest. 'I'm never getting rid of it. Even if it is damaged.' And she wasn't checking the interior with him watching either. 'So…' She strove to change the subject. 'You know my name, but I'm afraid I don't know yours…'
He stunned her all over again. 'You're Jaxon Greene?'
This was the guy who'd been awarded an honorary doctorate at the graduation ceremony this afternoon? The genius who'd made billions before the age of twenty when he'd ridden some early crypto-currency wave and now was a capital investor in sustainable project developments? The guy lauded as a disruptor, visionary and all-round save-the-planet hero?
And the guy who slid through women with ruthless ease if the gossip of her classmates was true. They'd been excited about his arrival on campus and had been planning to stake out tonight's celebratory gala, but Fiorella had been too distracted by her brother Alek's news to pay much attention. But now she remembered those stories. And now she believed every word. The man was absolutely a slayer.
'You didn't recognize me?' He looked mock-wounded. 'I recognized you instantly.'
Fi gritted her teeth. The last thing she wanted was recognition but it happened regardless. Even when people thought they were being discreet and subtle, they stared and turned their backs to steal selfies.
'If you don't want to be noticed, why walk around in A-grade princess dresses?' He grinned, clearly reading her expression.
But she refused to bite at his provocation—so she smiled, feeling the ripple inside as he leaned closer as she did. 'Because it's on-brand for me.'
It was a lie, but she wasn't about to explain that this dress was a one-off design, that it had taken her classmate hours to hand paint, that she'd only just finished it this afternoon and that they'd quickly taken some photos after which Fiorella had decided to cut through the pool house to avoid seeing too many people on the way back to her college dorm. She'd not expected to see anyone while she was in it.
'On-brand?' He laughed so dryly she winced.
There was no escaping who she was. But she'd had no idea Jaxon Greene was so much man. Which was stupid of her, given that reputation. She'd somewhat rudely assumed his attraction would be fortune related, not physique. But of course he'd have it all—brilliance, brawn, bank balance…
But no soul, remember?
'If I can trust you to wait here a moment,' he added with that wicked curve still on his lips, 'I'll change into something that won't negatively impact on your "brand."'
'Sounds great,' she cooed.
He shot her another look and stalked in the direction of the change rooms. To her shame, she couldn't resist watching as he walked away. Yes. He was so very much man.
But once he was out of sight, she checked the locket. The precious photos inside were safe and dry and she breathed out and put it safely into the small bag she had over her shoulder. Then she messaged the classmate who she'd modeled the dress as a favor for, to check she wouldn't mind her wearing it to an event.
And then Jaxon reappeared. She tried not to stare but her gaze was apparently glued to his form. She was used to men in suits but despite that perfect fit and impeccable tailoring, his all-black ensemble looked dangerous. Or perhaps it was that look in his eyes as he approached her—unrelenting, intensely focused and utterly sure of himself. Her pulse picked up.
He was a shark.
'Very nice, these facilities.' He sent her a mocking look as he offered his arm for her to take. 'It's a shame their use is so limited.'
'There's a much bigger pool for the swim squad and the water polo players.' She had to remind herself to breathe evenly, as she walked out of the building with him. Her fingers lightly rested on his forearm but the heat and strength of him seared through that expensive fabric and she wondered just how hot she'd feel if she actually touched him skin to skin. 'This is just for—'
'The exclusive use of princesses?'
Her father had insisted upon the swimming pool arrangement when he'd finally agreed to let her study abroad. She'd immediately acquiesced. It had been so incredible that he'd allowed her to leave Triscari, she'd have said yes to almost any stipulation. But since his death nine months ago, she'd not thought to amend the requirement. In truth, she still needed the privacy. 'It was going to be decommissioned—'
'But your dad paid for it to be refurbished?'
'Wasn't that good of him?' Fiorella forced a smile. Was Jaxon determined to think badly of her? 'If you disapprove, why do you want me to go to this dinner with you?' she asked, lifting her hand off him. 'You know we can't help who our parents are.'
He paused. 'That's very true.' Something fleeting crossed his expression. 'He wanted to spoil you, it's nice that he cared.'
'He didn't want to spoil me, he wanted to protect me,' she replied without thinking. Her heart ached at the plain truth of it. Her father had become so distant after her mother had died and the only 'love' he'd then shown was by isolationist control. If it hadn't been for her brother Alek, she'd still be virtually captive in the palace.
'Wasn't that good of him?' he echoed with surprisingly soft astuteness.
She faltered, unwilling to delve further into that old source of pain.
'But now your brother—'
'Understands my need for more freedom.' Her heart eased as she remembered Alek's news. 'He's always understood that. I owe him a lot.' She just wished there was more she could do for him.
Jaxon's luminous gaze met hers in that uncomfortably assessing way. 'So you have more freedom now? You get to do things you couldn't before?'
'I get to make my own choices.' She nodded, and then shot him a look. 'Unless some guy coerces me into dating him.'
'Relax, Princess.' His grin returned. 'It's not a date. It's one favor in return for another.'
Was that all it was? She swallowed, struggling to ignore the warring reactions within her—relief, disappointment, anticipation anyway.
'Well, if you'll excuse me a moment,' she said as they walked out of the pool complex. 'I'll brief my security.'
She saw Jaxon look at the woman standing a few meters away. 'Of course, she'll attend with you.'
'That's not necessary. I can handle you.' She answered with far more bravado than she felt.
'There'll be press,' Jaxon warned. 'You know that, right?'
Fiorella suddenly laughed and shook her head. 'There's always press.'
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