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There were times when she decided to be brave and this wasn’t one of them. Despite being more relaxed now she had made a decision—admittedly her jaw was still aching, but her teeth had unclenched—the static buzz of panic in her head had not gone away but it was less deafening.

Samuele would probably be relieved by her no-show. If he hadn’t actually said that small talk wasn’t really his thing, she felt it was a safe assumption to make, and she wasn’t here to socialise anyway so starting as she meant to go on seemed a logical choice. In retrospect the entire ‘what am I going to wear?’, ‘do I look good in this?’, butterflies-in-the-stomach fizz of mingled excitement and anxiety was rather embarrassing, more suited to a date than what this was.

What was this?

She quickly gave up on finding a definition. It was far easier to say what it was not, and that was a date in any sense of the word.

She was just hoping that they were generous with the sandwiches because she had lied to Rosa—she was starving.

She wasn’t really sure how long she’d been standing there lost in thought, but when the polite knock on the door came she still hadn’t got around to kicking off her heels. Opening it wide ready to receive the tray—probably silver—she felt her smile fade and her hand drop to her side as she found herself facing not someone bearing a tray, but someone pushing a trolley, and another someone swiftly bringing up the rear.

‘Oh, that is...’ She gave a shrug, thinking it might not be a bad thing that there was wine when she spotted the cooler. She wasn’t really much of a drinker but something to take some of the tension out of her shoulders would be good. ‘Lovely,’ she tacked on, stepping back to let them enter. It was easier than arguing and she wasn’t about to send back good food when she was this hungry!

Hovering to helpfully close the door behind the waiters, who had their hands full, she found herself being pushed backwards as the door opened even wider to admit a tall figure. Her heart jolted.

Oh, dear, this wasn’t going as planned!

Samuele had chosen to dress down but in a ‘not as we know it’ way, in black jeans that clung to his narrow hips and a pale blue linen shirt. Only a strong sense of self-preservation stopped her giving a little whimper of appreciation. It was the artist in her, she told herself.The woman in her, countered the voice in her head.

Samuele paused, registering her presence—how could a man not?—but resisting the very strong impulse to turn and stare. He conversed casually with the two staff members, delaying the moment just to prove to himself that he could. He was attracted to her, absolutely, but nothing had essentially changed; he was in perfect control of himself.

Maya was playing catch-up. Caught off guard by the sudden turn of events, her brain had lagged behind. The door was still open and she caught herself actually considering in a half-hearted joking way if anyone would notice if she just slipped away.

Man up, Maya, she told herself sternly.You’re the one who always says face your fears—but her internal pep talk came to an abrupt halt when she realised she didn’t want to know what she was afraid of.

Her eyes went to where Samuele stood looking impossibly handsome. He was smiling in response to something one of the waiters was saying, responding a moment later with a comment that made them both laugh. The informality she had noted since they’d arrived continued to surprise her; she had assumed that he’d be a remote authoritarian employer who demanded deference.

But then he didn’t have anything to prove, did he? He had already their respect, so he didn’t have todemanddeference, it was just there. Watching the exchange made her think of the times when her stepfather would get huffy when people didn’t use his full academic title.

She could remember squirming with embarrassment when he would speak over someone with a correctiveProfessorEdward Tyler.

In the time it took for her thoughts to slide through her head the small table beneath the window had been covered in a pristine white creaseless cloth, the finishing touches of crystal wine glasses and silver cutlery laid with geometric precision.

All impressive, but she barely noticed the crystal or silver; the thing that was registering with Maya was the fact they had laid two places. On one level she was aware that the light-headed fizz of excitement she was feeling at the thought of dining alone with Samuele in her suite was not an appropriate response.

She planted a hand against her throat, feeling the frantic pulse leap and twirl, and wondered if this was what a panic attack felt like, soothing herself with the reflection that even if it was it wasn’t fatal—at least she didn’t think so...

He turned, acknowledging her presence for the first time as the door closed behind his staff. ‘I said we’d serve ourselves.’ He offered the translation even though during her ridiculous panicking she had barely registered they were talking Italian.

‘This is all...’ she paused, clearing her throat as he reached for the bottle in the ice bucket. Popping the cork with a practised twist, he raised an interrogative brow and she hastily added faux-calmly, ‘Very kind of you, but it’s totally not... It isn’t necessary.’ She tried channelling a cool she was a million miles from feeling. ‘I would have been fine with a sandwich,’ she said, allowing her eyes to touch his but not making the mistake of maintaining eye contact.

‘What? And leave you all dressed up and nowhere to go?’

He smiled slowly, and his eyes, as they swept up her body from her toes to her head, left a tingling trail of heat across her skin. ‘You look lovely.’

She pulled in a tense breath and smiled nervously. ‘I feel a bit overdressed.’Thatembarrassment she could shrug off; less easy was coping with the suffocating thud of her heartbeat, and the tingling sensation under her skin, as though a million butterflies were beating madly to get out.

Samuele was pretty sure he could have dealt with her overdressed problem in no time at all, but that would be playing with fire, so he closed down the visuals that went with the thought.

And you’re not playing with fire already?

He closed down the inner voice too and dragged out a chair for her. He watched her hesitate before moving forward gracefully on those crazy heels, her slim thighs pushing against the silky jewel-bright fabric with each stride, forcing his pulse rate even higher. She looked sleek, sexy and exotic with her dark hair streaming like a glossy cloud down her back, just allowing him a peek of her naked lower back. The painful effort of not allowing the desire he felt to show on his face sent a trickle of sweat down his back.

What the hell are you doing here, Sam?

If his life was a roadmap, he felt that right at this moment he was standing at a crossroads. There were two paths ahead. He could see them perfectly clearly: one led to a businesslike short-term arrangement involving looking after Mattio for a few weeks, the other led straight to the bedroom.

One involved the short-term pain of self-denial, the other led to short-term, incredible pleasure... Ironically it was the degree of desire he felt to pursue the second option that made him hesitate. He’d already accepted that Maya was not the same as any other woman he had ever met.

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