Taken by the Highest Bidder

By: Jane Porter
CHAPTER ONE




SAMANTHA VAN BERGEN’S husband was missing in action. Again. And unfortunately, Sam knew where he was.

She knew where to find him when he didn’t return home for days at a time, and she knew what to expect.

Disaster.

This was a battle, she thought, drawing her gray velvet cloak closer to her evening gown as she swiftly climbed the stairs to Monte Carlo’s grand Le Casino, a battle she was losing.

Johann had always been a compulsive gambler but he used to win more. He used to walk away from the table when it turned ugly. But he didn’t do that anymore. He just sat there, losing. Losing. Losing.

They’d already lost so much. Their savings. The chic penthouse. The Ferrari—not that Sam had ever driven it.

What was left? She wondered, climbing the casino’s marble steps.

In Le Casino’s VIP card room, Cristiano Bartolo lounged at his favorite table when the door to their private room opened. Annoyed by the interruption, he glanced up, but his irritation eased as he recognized beautiful, blond Samantha van Bergen, or more commonly known as the baroness van Bergen.

It was, he thought, mouth curving faintly, such a huge, stately title for such a young blushing English bride.

He played his card, then looked up to watch her unfasten the top hook on her velvet cloak, letting the dove-gray velvet fabric fall back over one shoulder revealing her white evening gown beneath.

She fascinated him. He didn’t know why. He’d only seen her once before, but she’d made such an impression that night six months ago he knew he’d never forget her.

The first time he’d seen her had been here, at Le Casino, as well. Then, as now, he’d been sitting at the exclusive high roller tables, and then, as now, every head at the table had turned. Cristiano turned, too, to see what had caught every man’s attention.

No wonder every man stared.

The baroness was small, slim, beautiful. She had a delicate oval face framed by blond ringlets, long loose curls that gave her a decidedly angelic appearance, although her eyes, slightly tilted at the corners, were not completely innocent.

Beautiful girls were a dime a dozen, but she touched him; with her serious expression, her dark brown brows pulled, the deep furrow between arched brows.

Cristiano watched now as the young baroness stood just inside the door, not nervous or uncertain, just focused. She wore a look of utter concentration, an expression of grave concern, and Cristiano was certain this is what Joan of Arc must have looked like before battle as she moved to Johann van Bergen’s side.

Cristiano had never liked Johann, would never like Johann, and had deliberately sat at this table so he could play the baron. Cristiano had discovered months ago that Johann van Bergen didn’t know how to play cards, couldn’t gamble and hadn’t a clue how to walk away from a game even when he was being bled. And he was most definitely bleeding tonight.

Bleeding out.

Bleeding dry.

Cristiano scooped up a handful of chips, moved them forward, upping the ante by two hundred and fifty thousand pounds. It wasn’t a small bet, but neither was it huge. Over five million pounds had already been wagered tonight. Johann’s loss to Cristiano’s gain.

Eyes narrowing, Cristiano watched as Samantha approached the table, watched one long loose blond tendril slide forward on her shoulder, dangle across her breast. He envied the curl. Longed to take it, twine it around his fingers and then dip it between her full breasts.

Cristiano reached for his whiskey, sipped it, let the heat and fire warm him, wanting Samantha. She made him feel—curious, carnal, intent on possession.

She crouched now at Johann’s side, her velvet cloak pushed back on her shoulders, her slim bare arms extended, her hands on Johann’s thigh.

Her hands didn’t belong on Johann’s thigh.

Her hands belonged on his.

Cristiano’s gaze moved from her bare arms to her shoulders to her deep cleavage revealed by the plunging neckline of her white evening gown. Leisurely he let his gaze travel up, along the smooth column of her throat to her firm rounded chin and jaw, the curve of cheekbone and the worry in her blue eyes. The worry was also there in the faint line between her perfect arched brows, as well as in the press of her lipsticked mouth, her beauty delicate and yet painfully pinched.

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