At the Count's Bidding

By: Caitlin Crews

CHAPTER ONE

“I MUST BE HALLUCINATING. And may God have mercy on you if I am not.”

Paige Fielding hadn’t heard that voice in ten years. It wrapped around her even as it sliced through her, making the breezy Southern California afternoon fade away. Making the email she’d been writing disappear from her mind in full. Making her forget what year it was, what day it was. Rocketing her right back into the murky, painful past.

That voice. His voice.

Uncompromisingly male. As imperious as it was incredulous. The faint hint of sex and Italy in his voice even with all that temper besides, and it rolled over Paige like a flattening heat. It pressed into her from behind, making her want to squirm in her seat. Or simply melt where she sat. Or come apart—easily and instantly—the way she always had at the sound of it.

She swiveled around in her chair in instant, unconscious obedience, knowing exactly who she’d see in the archway that led into the sprawling Bel Air mansion high in the Hollywood Hills called La Bellissima in honor of its famous owner, the screen legend Violet Sutherlin. She knew who it was, and still, something like a premonition washed over her and made her skin prickle in the scant seconds before her gaze found him there in the arched, open door, scowling at her with what looked like a healthy mix of contempt and pure, electric hatred.

Giancarlo Alessi. The only man she’d ever loved with every inch of her doomed and naive heart, however little good that had done either one of them. The only man who’d made her scream and sob and beg for more, until she was hoarse and mute with longing. The only man who still haunted her, and who she suspected always would, despite everything.

Because he was also the only man she’d ever betrayed. Thoroughly. Indisputably. Her stomach twisted hard, reminding her of what she’d done with a sick lurch. As if she’d forgotten. As if she ever could.

She hadn’t thought she’d had a choice. But she doubted he’d appreciate that any more now than he had then.

“I can explain,” she said. Too quickly, too nervously. She didn’t remember pushing back from the table where she’d been sitting, doing her work out in the pretty sunshine as was her custom during the lazy afternoons, but she was standing then, somehow, feeling as unsteady on her own legs as she had in the chair. As lost in his dark, furious gaze as she’d been ten years ago.

“You can explain to security,” he grated at her, each word a crisp slap. She felt red and obvious. Marked. As if he could see straight through her to that squalid past of hers that had ruined them both. “I don’t care what you’re doing here, Nicola. I want you gone.”

She winced at that name. That hated name she hadn’t used since the day she’d lost him. Hearing it again, after all this time and in that voice of his was physically upsetting. Deeply repellant. Her stomach twisted again, harder, and then knotted.

“I don’t—” Paige didn’t know what to say, how to say it. How to explain what had happened since that awful day ten years ago when she’d sold him out and destroyed them both. What was there to say? She’d never told him the whole truth, when she could have. She’d never been able to bear the thought of him knowing how polluted she was or the kind of place, the kind of people, she’d come from. And they’d fallen in love so fast, their physical connection a white-hot explosion that had consumed them for those two short months they’d been together—there hadn’t seemed to be any time to get to know each other. Not really. “I don’t go by Nicola anymore.”

He froze solid in the doorway, a kind of furious astonishment rolling over him and then out from him like a thunderclap, deafening and wild, echoing inside of her like a shout.

It hurt. It all hurt.

“I never—” This was terrible. Worse than she’d imagined, and she’d imagined it often. She felt an awful heat at the back of her eyes and a warning sort of ache between her breasts, as if a sob was gathering force and threatening to spill over, and she knew better than to let it out. She knew he wouldn’t react well. She was lucky he was speaking to her at all now instead of having Violet’s security guards toss her bodily from the estate without so much as a word. But she kept talking anyway, as if that might help. “It’s my middle name, actually. It was a—my name is Paige.”

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