Vows of Revenge

By: Dani Collins


  SURROUNDED BY OLD money and cold-blooded cynicism for the first part of her life, Melodie Parnell wasn’t half as ingenuous as she looked. In fact, she actively tried to give off an air of sophistication by straightening her curly brown hair into a shiny curtain, adding a flick of liquid liner to downplay her round blue eyes and painting a bold red lipstick over her plump, pink lips. Her clothing choices were classic business style: a pencil skirt, a sweater set and her mother’s pearls.

  At the same time, she privately offered people the benefit of the doubt. She believed the best whenever possible and always sought the brightest side of every situation.

  That attitude had earned her nothing but contempt from her half brother and more than once resulted in a sting from social climbers and gold diggers trying to get closer to the men in her family. Being softhearted had definitely been her mother’s downfall. But, Melodie often assured herself, she wasn’t nearly as fragile or susceptible as that. The fact that she’d lost her mother very recently and kept slipping into a state of melancholy as she faced life without her didn’t make her vulnerable.

  Yet, for some reason, Roman Killian took the rug right out from under her—by doing nothing except answering the door of his mansion.

  “You must be the indispensable Melodie,” he greeted.

  She was supposed to be immune to powerful men in bespoke outfits, but her mouth went dry and her knees went weak. He wasn’t even wearing a suit. He wore a casually tailored linen jacket over black pants and a collarless peasant-style shirt, three open buttons at his throat.

  Not that she really took in his clothes. She saw the man.

  He had black hair that might have curled if he let it grow long enough, tanned skin and gorgeous bone structure. Italian? Spanish? Greek? He certainly had the refined features of European aristocracy, but Melodie knew him to be a self-made American. His brows were straight and circumspect, his eyes decidedly green with a dark ring around the irises. He was clean shaven, urbane and acutely masculine in every way.

  He met her gaze with an impactful directness that stole her breath.

  “Roman Killian,” he said, offering his hand and snapping her out of her fixation. His voice was like dark chocolate and red wine, rich and sultry, but his tone held a hint of disparagement. No one was truly essential, he seemed to say.

  “I am Melodie,” she managed to say. She watched his mouth as he clasped her hand in his strong grip. His upper lip was much narrower than his full bottom one. He smiled in the way men did when confronted with a woman they didn’t find particularly attractive, but were forced by circumstance to be polite toward. Cool and dismissive.

  Melodie wasn’t offended. She was always braced for male rejection and surprised if she didn’t get it. It wasn’t that she was homely. She had just inherited her mother’s catwalk build and elfin features along with her pearls. The attributes were fine for modeling, but came off as skinny and exaggerated in real life. Spiderlike and awkward—or so she’d been told so many times she tended to believe it.

  So his indifference wasn’t a surprise, but her skin still prickled and she warmed as though the sun had lodged in her belly and radiated outward through her limbs with a disarming feeling that she was glowing.

  She shouldn’t be so nervous. She’d still had a pacifier in her mouth when she’d begun glad-handing, and rarely suffered shyness no matter how lofty the person she was meeting. Presidents. Royalty. Such things didn’t affect her.

  Yet she found herself surreptitiously fighting to catch her breath, aware that she was letting her hand stay in his too long. When she tried to extract it, however, he tightened his grip.

  “We’ve met,” he said with certainty. Almost accusingly. His eyes narrowed as he raked her face with his gaze, head cocked and arrested.

  “No,” she assured him, but her pulse gave a leap while a romantic part of her brain invented a fanciful “in another life soul-mate” scenario. She was very good with faces and names, though, even when a person wasn’t nearly as memorable as he was. And he was too young to remember her mother, not that he looked the type to thumb through fashion magazines in the first place. There was an off chance he’d seen her in connection to her father, she supposed, but she was carving that particular man from her life one thought at a time so she didn’t bring him up, and only said, “I’m quite sure we haven’t.”

  Roman didn’t believe her, she could see it.

  “Ingrid and Huxley aren’t with you?” He flicked a look for her clients to where her taxi had dropped her next to the fountain in his paved courtyard.

  “They’ll be along shortly,” she said.

  He brought his sharp gaze back to her face, making her quiver inwardly again. Slowly he released her and waved toward the interior of his home. “Come in.”

  “Thank you,” she murmured, disconcerted by everything about him.

  He was so masculine, so confident yet aloof. Secure, she thought, with a twist of irony. He’d made his fortune in security, starting with a software package but now offering global solutions of all kinds. It was one of the few things she knew about him. She hadn’t researched him much, mostly relying on what Ingrid had shared, turned off by the idea she might wind up reading about her half brother if she looked up Roman online.

  But knowing he was Anton’s competition had made her predisposed to like Roman. He also seemed to have a streak of magnanimity, supporting causes from homelessness to dementia research to donating computers to libraries. And he’d offered his home in the south of France for his employee’s wedding. Surely that meant he possessed a big heart under that air of predatory power?

  “I didn’t expect a security specialist to have such a welcoming home,” she confessed, trying to ignore the sense that his eyes stayed glued to her narrow shoulders as she took in a modern house built with old-world grandeur. “I imagined something very contemporary, made of glass and stainless steel, all sharp angles.”

  The high ceilings held glittering chandeliers. A double staircase came down in expansive arms of delicate wrought iron and sumptuous red carpet over yellowed marble. The tiles continued through the huge foyer to an enormous lounge where a horseshoe sofa in warm terra-cotta would easily seat twenty.

  Did he entertain often? Something in the way his energy permeated this airy interior so thoroughly made her think he kept this all-comfortable splendor to himself.

  “The sorts of things that people want to protect are often attractive. Jewelry. Art,” he supplied with a negligent shrug. “Six inches of steel works to a point, but surveillance and alarms allow for designs that are more aesthetically pleasing.”

  “Are we being filmed right now?” she asked with a lilt of surprise.

  “The cameras are only activated when an alarm is tripped.”

  So it was just him was watching her, then. Nerve-racking all the same.

  A formal dining room stood off to the right. It could be useful for the waitstaff, perhaps, since the four hundred wedding guests would eat in tents outside. And yes, the property allowed plenty of room for the ceremony, tents, a bandstand and a dance floor. Arched breezeways lined the house where it faced the Mediterranean. In the courtyard stood a square pool with a quarter circle taken out of it like a bite for a small dining area. Beyond its turquoise water a half dozen stairs led to a long strip of sandy beach. Off to the right a tethered helicopter stood on a groomed lawn. Once it had been removed, that space would be perfect for the ceremony and reception.

  Melodie had grown up in luxury, but nothing as extravagant as this. Roman Killian was a very rich man. It was difficult to hide how awed she was.

  She brought her gaze back to the bougainvillea training up the colonnades, and smaller pots of roses and geraniums and flowers she couldn’t identify. They gave off scents of anise and cherry and honey, dreamy and adding to the magical atmosphere of the place.

  “This is all so beautiful,” she murmured, trying not to see herself as a bride, spilling in a waterfall of white lace down the stairs, emerging to blinding light and a strikingly handsome groom. The sunset would paint their future in rosy pink. Candlelight would burn like their eternal love.

  She met Roman’s gaze and found him eyeing her as if reading her thoughts, making her blush and look away.

  “It’s very generous of you to offer it,” she managed.

  “Ingrid is an exceptional employee,” he said after a brief pause, making her think that wasn’t his real reason for offering his home. “Why didn’t you all come together? Are you not staying at the same hotel?”

  “They’re newly engaged,” Melodie said wryly. “I’ve been feeling very third wheel since meeting them at the airport.” It was only four days, she reminded herself.

  “Job hazard?” Roman guessed with a twitch around his mouth.

  She couched a smile, suspecting he had a much lower tolerance than she did for witnessing nuzzling and baby talk.

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