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Greetings from a sleety and snowy Cheshire.
Grab a coffee, sit back and enjoy the first chapter of NO RULES – and isn’t the new look for the series amazing?
She looked a million dollars.
However, Chloe reckoned there was nothing worse than attending the glitzy party of the year—and wearing a fake happy face.
Nico Ferranti and his team at the five star Ludlow Hall Hotel and Spa sure knew how to throw a superb event. In this case, the engagement party for Chloe’s beloved half-sister Anastacia Morgan and her fiancé, Italian soccer star, Olivier Conti. All the guests were in high spirits and dressed to impress. The enormous Grand Ballroom with its vaulted ceiling was decorated for fun and frolics. In the center of each round table sat a complicated floral arrangement accessorized by gold and silver floating balloons. The fragrance of the waxy ivory freesia and jasmine display was incredible.
Unfortunately for Chloe the combination of the heady scent from the flowers and noise from the band had done nothing to ease her stress headache from hell. Her complicated updo hadn’t been a good idea either. Her hair—caught in a fancy clip, which glittered with glass jewels—dug like the claws into her skull.
What she wanted was a tranquil place to let her hair down, and take a painkiller washed down by a glass of cold water, in that order.
Even though she was worried sick, she’d never ruin everyone’s joy during Ana and Olivier’s Big Night.
She knew she’d only to ask the people who loved her and they would give her unconditional support, but tonight was not the time to rain on her sister’s parade.
The trouble was, she didn’t have a lot of time—four weeks to find money she didn’t have—and no matter how hard she tried, she could not come up with a solution.
Chloe was—according to her mother—bright and creative and smart.
Not that smart or she wouldn’t be hip deep in shit.
Her hands were shaking, so she clasped them over the clutch bag on her lap.
She was a good person.
She was kind and helped others.
And yet, by supposedly helping another, she’d been betrayed in the worst possible way.
Her mood plunged, teetering on the edge of what felt like a dark abyss.
Then she caught herself.
Chloe reckoned the time had come to toughen up, grow up, and stop relying on those who loved her to pick up the pieces of this hot mess.
There was no point in thinking life wasn’t fair.
She’d figure a way out, she had to.
She would fix this—once she worked out a plan.
Shame her bright and creative brain was a complete blank.
Across the table, her mother was deep in conversation with Olivier’s mother. By their excited hand movements and the way they’d put their heads together, she bet they were in the thick of preparing the wedding of the year. Chloe wondered if either had thought to speak to the prospective bride and groom, since the actual wedding date hadn’t been set. Both women might be on the wrong side of forty, but they made a sensational looking pair. Valentina Conti, dark and tall and slim, looked as if she’d just walked off the cover of Vogue Italia. And Maria Rucker, still a leggy blonde stunner, was a force of nature who lived for her family and the many good causes she supported.
Feeling as if someone was taking an axe to her head, Chloe rose from her seat.
The movement caught her mother’s attention.
Vivid blue eyes narrowed as she studied her daughter’s face. Chloe loved her mother to bits, but if she thought there was something wrong with one of her girls, the woman was like a heat seeking missile.
The last thing she needed right now was her mother on her case. A woman who, it had often been said by her father, had spooky powers when it came to sniffing out trouble. It was vital that she remain under her parent’s radar and keep a low profile, especially this evening.
Tanith, Chloe’s younger sister by twenty-two months, grabbed her wrist.
Blue, blue eyes studied her face. “You okay? You look awfully pale and you’ve been awfully quiet tonight, too. What’s the matter?”
Since Chloe’s stress headaches were infrequent but nothing new, Tanith —always a sensitive soul—nodded. “It’s the combination of noise, scented candles and flowers. Need a pain pill?”
Chloe waggled the small clutch bag in her hand. “Got some. Be back in a minute.”
Her mother caught Tanith’s eye and lifted a smooth brow in query.
Her sister mouthed, headache, in response.
And as her mother turned to resume her conversation, Chloe made good her escape.
Phew, it was a good thing that recently her mother had been distracted by organizing tonight’s party, or she’d be right on top of why her eldest daughter had not been quite herself.
Ordinarily, Chloe loved a good party.
Normally, she’d be the first on the dance floor strutting her stuff with a hot guy, or two.
And since a large male contingent of Olivier’s footballer pals and social circle were in attendance this evening, most of them stag, there were certainly plenty of hot guys to choose from.
In truth, she wasn’t even tempted because there was nothing normal happening in her life at the moment. She was in deep doo-doo. Trapped. And, she’d no idea what the hell to do about it. The last thing her family needed was a firestorm of salacious publicity at the worst possible time—Anastacia’s engagement to one of the world’s biggest soccer stars—along with her father’s long held dream, his appointment as chairman of the national soccer association.
As she made her way to the rest rooms and a few minutes of peace and quiet, Chloe again wondered how she’d been so stupid to let herself be so effectively conned?
Then the couple of the night caught her attention on the dance floor. Her heart melted because she just had to smile at the way her Ana and Olivier were hip-to-hip and forehead-to-forehead to a slow number. Bless them. They were so wonderfully in love and unafraid to show it.
As for looking for love herself, well she was way too young for romance, never mind happy ever after. Naturally, she’d kept her opinion to herself, because who the hell was she to judge another? But in truth Chloe felt Ana might be too young to settle down, too. Then again and to be fair, Ana might be young in years, but she’d overcome difficult and dark times to thrive in her life and career. Unlike Chloe who’d been shielded, until recently, from the natural storms of the world by over-protective parents. Now, she had her own tiny flat in London and she relished her freedom. Freedom was precious. However, with freedom came personal responsibility for the choices a person might make. A single bad decision and now she was snared right in the middle of one of life’s hurricanes. Hell, the very last thing she wanted was marriage, or an intimate relationship with anyone.
But then, she was so happy to have found Ana. Someone she knew she could trust, someone to confide in. Nevertheless, this happy event tonight was neither the time nor the place to spread bad news.
Anxiety tied her belly in knots, made tension tighten like a vice over her shoulders and neck, while the jab of pain in her head made her wince.
Worry nibbled relentlessly on the edge of her mind.
Then she took herself firmly in hand before a wave of self pity threatened to overwhelm her.
Hang on a minute—
Was she going to go running to mummy and daddy and her big sister for help?
Was she hell!
Life wasn’t fair.
Truth was, some people were just toxic bastards.
What it boiled down to was that she was a compassionate person.
Was it her fault those very qualities had been used against her?
So why did she feel she was in the wrong?
Maybe because she didn’t want to cause a shitstorm in the now calm sea of her parents’ lives. Her parents were good people. Salt of the earth. People who’d gone through years of heartbreak before they’d finally found and made contact with Ana. After the worry and heartache they’d been through, she refused to bring more trouble to their door.
The anger that brewed in her belly for days surfaced now.
An anger that turned hot and an anger that saved her from descending into a dark place.
How dare those sons-of-bitches spike her drink and strip her like that?
Through no fault of her own, she was a victim.
How dare they threaten to share naked pictures of her across social media, and then treat her to the silent treatment for days?
And how fucking dare they keep her in suspense like this?
Hadn’t she been brought up to deal face-on with the hard stuff life threw at a person?
Hell, hadn’t she been brought up to kick-ass and put up with no shit?
Feeling more determined, more in control, Chloe threw back her shoulders and lifted her chin. Her feet in high heels picked up speed as she headed for the exit and the reception hall beyond. She’d made her own mess and she’d damn well fix it.
Once she’d come up with a game plan…
Her anxious mind busy, Chloe slammed straight into a man-chest, rock hard, and dressed in a dark suit.
An expensive dark suit.
Strong hands clamped on Chloe’s bare shoulders to keep her steady.
The jolt of his touch rocked her system.
Her breath hitched with the shock of it.
The essence of him, male, mingled with an expensive cologne.
She took a deep breath, and his scent sank into her lungs, into her blood, and all at once he seemed familiar in a way Chloe found hard to comprehend.
Something in her mind seemed to click into place.
She swore she heard it.
The sudden, convulsive shiver that ran over her body made her frown.
“Mio dio. What part of no do you not understand?” he asked, his accent and the deep rumble of his voice seemed to vibrate down her spine.
Chloe was five seven in her bare feet, but even in heels she had to tilt her head back to stare up into cold dark eyes. “Understand?”
Not only tall, he was incredibly well built with broad strong shoulders. His inky hair was tied back from a lean face. Eyes of steel. He had a cute little dent in his chin, just like a movie star.
Her breath hitched as she simply gazed in awe at the physical perfection of male beauty.
Of course, she recognized him.
Like every other women with working ovaries, she knew the whole sorry story.
Serge Morretti, rich, gorgeous and often described as Sardinia’s hottest tourist attraction. He was the black sheep of his mighty family. An orphan who’d been brought up by a powerful uncle. And unquestionably the last man in the world she would have chosen to meet given her need to keep a very low profile.
Up close and personal, she treated herself to a thorough examination of that extraordinary face and saw things the camera missed. Things like the way his dark eyes danced. Things like he wore arrogance like a badge of honor. Then again, she supposed when Serge looked in the mirror each morning and saw that face looking back, how could he be anything but arrogant. A tabloid writer had called him a beautiful bastard, and for once the writer had not exaggerated.
The man was hot!
God, she felt hot and tingly all over.
His dark eyes narrowed as he studied the hectic flush rising from her neck and into her cheeks.
The way he stared at her like that, all intense and brooding, she wondered if he’d heard the odd little click, too.
After all, his hands still held her firmly in place.
“Please accept my apologies, beautiful girl.” Now his eyes sparkled with a sheer devilment that made her knees weak. “I presumed you were someone else.”
“Did you just call me a girl?” she snapped, to hide the weak knees.
Chloe Rucker, she reminded herself fiercely, didn’t do weak knees.
Then his gaze took a slow and very thorough study of her from blonde head, over her dress of blue silk, to her nude heels and back again.
His mouth curved and his eyes twinkled into hers in a clear appreciation that told her he more than liked what he saw. “My apologies again. Woman, of course.”
Something in his tone made her doubt he meant a word of his apology.
However, she shifted beneath his hands. “Let me go and I’ll be on my way and you can go hide from a girl.”
The pad of his thumb rubbed gently over her collarbone and she seriously wished he’d stop it because the simple movement was doing strange things to her long dormant libido. A libido that sizzled in a way that seemed to mess with the wiring in her brain.
“I am not hiding. I am keeping out of trouble.”
Then that made two of them.
“With your reputation, I’d have thought that was an impossible task,” she told him frankly.
He blinked again.
His mouth twitched.
He smelled amazing.
Shame about the man-bun.
“Ah, you have heard the Morretti board is again baying for my blood? Their displeasure is covered in all the newspapers. Worry not. Except for an… um… unexpected distraction last night, this is me being a good boy.”
“Hmm,” Chloe said, beyond tempted, but determined not to respond to the playful smile dancing in his eyes and around the edges of his firm mouth. She adored the cute dent in his chin. “If this is you being good, I’d hate to see you being bad.”
“I am so well-behaved tonight, it is killing me. Particularly right at this moment. What is your name, bella?”
Chloe knew Serge Morretti thought of women as his own walking all-he-could-grab buffet. And wasn’t it a shame she wasn’t on the menu.
Her spine adopted the rigor mortis stiffness of a corpse, even as his big body shifted to almost touch hers in a way that had her heart miss a beat.
Almost against her will, her eyes moved from his mouth to dark eyes that captured hers.
She bet her life that if the rumors were even half true, Serge Morretti was a superb lover.
Then again, he was a man who’d had plenty of practice.
Shocked by the thought of sleeping with him, she took a step back, but he refused to let her go.
A mix of irritation with him, but more with herself by the way her whole body tingled with awareness, as if electrified from her scalp to her toes, had her tilt her chin. She didn’t do body tingling either.
“My name is none of your business. I’ll leave you to it, shall I? Let’s hope last night’s unexpected distraction doesn’t find you.”
He sighed, an exclusively male sound. “I can only hope they have moved on to someone who is a better marriage bet. You did not happen notice them, did you?”
The guy had had more than one women in his bed?
She shook her head.
And had to bite down hard on her bottom lip to stop the grin at the hard-done-by look on his gorgeous face. This guy was outrageous, a real character, and funny. Except he was the last man any woman with a working brain cell would ever want to marry.
After years of hard study to attain her science degree, Chloe now embraced a heady freedom to do whatever she liked, when she liked. Plus, she had plenty of working brain cells. Plenty. “No. What do they look like?”
He thought hard for a beat, then his take-pity-on-me-puppy-dog eyes—which didn’t fool her for a single moment—met hers. “Deranged and demented?”
She had to laugh. “What are their names?”
“I am trying hard to forget.”
“You’re nothing but a man-slut,” she told him severely, her tone channelling her formidable mother.
Serge didn’t even blush. “One day, when I meet the right woman I will settle down.”
Her snort of female derision made his eyes again narrow with a male interest Chloe had seen many times before. Both her and Tanith took after their mother in looks. They were tall Nordic blondes who seemed to attract the wrong sort of attention from the type of men who regarded all blondes as air-heads. Although it had to be said that Tanith might be reluctant, but she was the official beauty of the family and she had the longest legs as well as a big brain, too. The lovely thing about her sister was she had absolutely no idea of the impact of her looks. In fact, Tanith could care less about fashion or shoes or makeup. All she cared about was writing the next chapter of her horror story. A book that would terrorize even Mr. King’s legion of hardened fans.
But then something else occurred to her.
“Wait a minute. You had sex with two women and now you’re hiding from them?”
He stared hard at her as if he’d received a huge shock.
And then his lips twitched.
“And here I thought I had heard it all,” he muttered. “It pains me to have fallen so low in your regard on such a short acquaintance. No. I did not have sex with either woman. We talked. Or I should say, they talked. A lot. A girl and her mother.”
Fascinated in spite of herself by this tall tale, Chloe blinked. “A girl and her mother?”
“Si. A young Russian girl and a woman named Countess Lucretia, who claims to be both her mother and descended from the house of Romanov.” He shrugged, looked thoughtful for a moment. “Although, I am pretty sure the girl was drunk at the time. And her mother, at the very least, is not quite right in her head.”
She opened her mouth to ask him how on earth he’d met such people, and caught the distinct twinkle in his eye.
He was spinning her line.
She bet the Countess and her daughter didn’t even exist.
Chloe raised a smooth brow. “Let me go.”
This time his smile went all lazy as his head dipped slowly towards hers.
Her breath caught because she just knew he was going to kiss her.
And the way her lips actually sizzled with anticipation, she just knew she was going to let him.
“Chloe!” A small hand clutched hers and gave it a hard tug. “Chloe! I need to go pee-pee.”
With a clear reluctance, Serge released her.
A reluctance that brought a wave of goose-bumps in the wake of the smooth glide of his hand from her bare shoulder to her wrist.
Chloe looked down to find six year old Sophia Ferranti in her best party dress, dancing a fast jig, her huge emerald eyes pleading. And since Sophia was one of Chloe’s favorite people, she didn’t hesitate to help her out.
Serge did not look at all happy at the interruption, but she reckoned it was probably just as well.
Wasn’t life strange?
She’d been saved from a bad boy’s kiss by a little girl desperate to spend a penny.
“Excuse us,” she said to an infamous man who was like catnip to the paparazzi and any woman with a pulse.
Eyes firmly focused on the way ahead, Chloe told herself she was not at all disappointed to have missed his kiss.
In fact, she reckoned she’d had a lucky escape.
And as she led the way to the rest rooms, she had no idea little Sophia looked over her shoulder to give Serge a fierce look and poked out her tongue at him for good measure.
It wasn’t until they were washing their hands in the beautifully appointed rest rooms that Sophia said, “I love your dress, Chloe. You look like a model.”
In the mirror, Chloe caught Sophia’s sparkling green eyes. “Why, thank you. I love your dress, too.”
In response, Sophia’s cheek dimple flashed like lightning. “Who was that man?”
Chloe re-applied nude lipstick to lips that still hummed with an anticipation that hadn’t been met. Meanwhile, her companion studied her every move like a little hawk. “No one important. I sort of bumped into him.”
Sophia leaned her elbows on the worktop, as if settling down for a chat with a girlfriend. “He likes you. I can tell.”
Chloe’s brows rose as she caught Sophia’s twinkling eyes in the mirror. “Can you indeed?”
The child nodded in the way of a person who knew what she was talking about.
“He’s a hand lingerer.”
Chloe blinked and turned to her. “A what?”
“It’s what my Auntie Rosie calls a man who leaves his hands on a woman for too long.”
Shaking her head at this fascinating snippet of information, Chloe studied intelligent eyes in a young head.
“Remind me, how old are you?”
Sophia’s dimple popped again. “I’m six, going on sixty.”
“More of Auntie Rosie’s wise words?”
“Is Auntie Rosie here tonight?”
Chloe held out her hand and realized her headache had miraculously disappeared. “Take me to Auntie Rosie. I can’t wait to meet her.”
“My papa says she’s a pistol.”
“I just bet she is.”
Don’t forget, you can grab NO RULES on pre-order now. It’s out next Friday!