And he’d believed her. Emma Hayes was the first, and only, woman he’d ever slept with without a condom. In his whole life.
The way it had felt—the way she had felt...
Cesare ground his teeth. His plan of dealing with the aftermath had not gone well. After three months apart, he’d convinced himself that surely, cool, sensible, emotionless Emma had forgotten their night together.
But she hadn’t. And neither had he.
“You haven’t been photographed with any other women for ages,” Olga purred. “I knew that could only mean one thing. You’ve missed me, as I’ve missed you.”
Looking up, Cesare blinked. He’d forgotten she was there.
She gave him a sultry smile. “We were good together, weren’t we?”
“No.” Cesare stared at her. “We weren’t.” Picking up the designer clothes and expensive leather boots she’d left in a neat stack by the bed, he held them out to her. “Please get out.” In his current frame of mind, he was impressed with himself for managing the please.
Olga frowned, licking her red, bee-stung lips. “Are you kidding?”
“But—you can’t send me away. I’m still in love with you!”
Cesare rolled his eyes. “Let me guess. You’re having some sort of crisis because your bookings are down. You’re ready to give up the difficulties of the modeling business and settle down, marry rich, have a child or two before you devote the rest of your life to shopping for jewels and furs.”
Her cheeks turned red, and he knew he was right. It would have been funny, but this had happened too often for him to find it amusing anymore.
Her long lashes fluttered. “No one understands you like I do, Cesare. No one will ever love you like I do!”
Crossing the suite, he opened the door, and tossed her clothes and boots into the hallway.
“Cara,” he drawled, “you’re breaking my heart.”
Olga’s eyes changed from pleading to anger in a moment, leaving him to feel reasonably assured that her so-called love was worth exactly what the sentiment usually was: nothing, a breath of wind, once spoken, instantly lost.
“You’ll be sorry!” She stomped past him, then stopped outside the doorway, wiggling her nearly-bare bottom at him. “You’ll never have all this ever again!”
“Tragic,” he said coldly, and closed the door.
His suite went quiet. Cesare stood for a moment, unmoving. He felt weary as the emotion of the past hour came crashing around him.
Emma. He’d lost her. She’d acted like all the other women, so he’d treated her like one.
The trouble was that she was different.
Maybe it’s for the best, he thought. Things had gone too far between them. It had become...dangerous. Scowling, he dropped his towel and pulled a black shirt and pants from his wardrobe. The pants were slightly wrinkled, and the shirt had been oddly ironed. They didn’t even have the right smell, because Emma hadn’t been the one to wash, dry and fold them.
But it wasn’t her laundry skills he missed most. He looked out the window. The lights of London’s theater district were already twinkling in the dusk.
Cesare had always liked the environment of hotels, the way the faces of the people changed, the sameness of the rooms, the way a man could easily move out of one hotel and change to the next without anyone questioning his constancy, or thinking there was a flaw in his soul.
He’d known Emma Hayes’s value since she’d first joined the housekeeping staff of his hotel on Park Avenue in New York. She’d been in charge of the penthouse floor, where he stayed while in the city, and he’d been so impressed by her work ethic and meticulous skills that she’d become assistant head housekeeper within the first year, and then head housekeeper when he’d opened the Falconeri in London. Now, she supervised the staff of his Kensington mansion. Taking care of him exclusively.
But she didn’t just keep Cesare in clean socks. She kept him in line. Unlike other employees, unlike even his friends, Emma wasn’t overly impressed by him. She’d become his sounding board. Almost like...family.
How could he have let himself seduce her? He needed her. He could always count on Emma. She always put his needs first. She never even asked for time off. Not until three months ago, when she’d abruptly left for a long weekend.
The Kensington house had felt strangely empty without her. He’d avoided coming home. On the third night, he’d returned from an unsatisfactory date at two in the morning, expecting to find a silent, dark house. Instead, he’d heard a noise from the kitchen and felt a flash of pleasure when he realized Emma must have returned early.
He’d found her sitting alone in the dark kitchen, holding a tequila bottle. Her black dress was wrinkled. Her eyes had dark smudges beneath them, as if she’d been crying, and her long black hair was unkempt, cascading thickly down her shoulders.
“Emma?” he’d said, hardly believing his eyes. “Are you all right?”
“I just came back from Texas,” she whispered, not looking at him. “From a funeral.”
He’d never seen her drink before, he realized—not so much as a glass of champagne. “I’m sorry,” he said uncomfortably, edging closer. He didn’t know anything about her family. “Was it someone you loved?”
She shook her head. “My stepmother.” Her fingers clutched compulsively around the bottle. He saw it was still unopened. “For years, I sent money to pay her bills. But it never changed her opinion. Marion always said I was selfish, a ruiner of lives. That I’d never amount to anything.” She drew in a shaking breath. “And she was right.”
“What are you talking about?” he said, taking an instant dislike to this Marion person, dead though she might be.
Emma flung an unsteady arm around to indicate the immaculate, modern kitchen. “Just look.”
Cesare looked around, then turned back. “It’s perfect,” he said quietly. “Because you’re the best at what you do.”
“Cleaning up other people’s lives,” she’d said bitterly. “Being the perfect servant. Invisible like a ghost.”
He’d never heard her voice like that, angry and full of self-recrimination. “Emma...”
“I thought she’d forgive me in the end.” Her voice was muffled as she sagged in the kitchen stool, covering her face with a trembling hand. “But she left me no message in her will. Not her blessing. Not her forgiveness. Nothing.”
She looked at him for a long moment, then she turned her face toward the shadows without answering. She took a deep breath. “Now I’m truly alone.”
Something had twisted in Cesare’s chest. An answering pain in his own scarred heart, long buried but never completely healed. Going to her, he’d taken the bottle from her hand. He’d set it on the kitchen counter. Reaching out, he’d cupped her cheek.
“You’re not alone.” His eyes had fallen to her trembling pink lips as he breathed, “Emma...”
He’d only meant to offer solace, but somehow, he still wasn’t sure how, things had spiraled out of control. He remembered the taste of her lips when he’d first kissed her. The look in her deep, warm green eyes as he covered her naked body with his own. The shock and reverence that had gone through him when he realized he was her very first lover.
She was totally different from any woman he’d taken to his bed before. It wasn’t just the alluring warmth of her makeup-free face, or her total lack of artifice, or the long, dark hair pulled back in an old-fashioned chignon. It wasn’t just her body’s soft plump curves, so different from the starvation regime demanded by starlets and models these days.
It was the fact that he actually respected her.
He actually—liked her.
Everything about Emma, and the way she served him without criticism or demand, was comfort. Magic. Home.
But if he’d known she was a virgin, he never would have—
Yes, you would, he snarled at himself, remembering the tremble of her soft, tender lips beneath his, the salt of tears on her skin that night. The way she’d felt to him that night...the way she’d made him feel...
Cesare shook his head savagely. Whatever the pleasure, the cost was too high. Waking up the next morning, he’d realized the scope of his mistake. Because there was only one way his love affairs ended. With an awkward kiss-off, a bouquet of roses and an expensive gold watch, handed over by his one indispensable person—Emma herself.
He clawed back his short dark hair, still damp from his shower. His jaw was tight as he remembered the stricken expression on her pale, lovely face when she’d seen Olga in lingerie, standing in front of a bed which had been mussed, not with lovemaking, but from his hopeless attempt at sleep after a night on the phone with the Asia office. Of course Emma wouldn’t know that, but why should he be obligated to explain?
What is wrong with you, Cesare?
Nothing was wrong with him, he thought grimly. It was the rest of the world that was screwed up, with stupid promises and rose-colored illusions. With people who pretended words like love and forever were more than sentiments on a Valentine’s Day card.