He was the epitome of masculinity as he strolled through the door of the ski cabin, bringing a draft of New England’s frigid air with him. The rough-hewn floor groaned under his weight, and his hard muscles rippled beneath his skin-tight ski outfit as his sturdy legs transported his six-foot, three-inch frame across the room. He came to a stop in front of a woodstove, pulled off his mittens, and held large hands toward the roaring flames.
Nia’s eyes glowed with a mixture of conflicting emotions as she gaped at the notorious Italian playboy—Massimo Luciano Andretti, sole heir to Andretti Industries, one of the largest textile manufacturers in the world.
With his smooth olive complexion, black, wavy, shoulder-length hair, a wide sensuous mouth, and eyes as blue as the Atlantic Ocean on a sunny day, Massimo was, by far, the sexiest exhibit in the billionaire bachelors’ storefront window. No woman he set his sights on was safe. He captured them, pampered them, bedded them, then wiped his mouth and moved on to the next willing victim like an impartial judge at a pie-baking contest.
But Massimo’s irresistible sex appeal wasn’t the reason Nia had tracked him down to the resort mountain town of Granite Falls, New Hampshire. She had a six-year-old score to settle with the bastard who’d caused her father’s death, and just recently placed the lives of her younger brother and herself in danger.
On his dying bed, her father had made her promise to forget about Massimo Andretti and to concentrate on taking care of herself and Aaron. He’d also made her promise that she would move as far away from Maine as possible. Nia had kept her promises and gone on with her life as best she could, even though she had never been able to put Massimo Andretti completely out of her mind since she’d first seen him six years ago.
Aaron had grown into a responsible young man and didn’t need her protection from Maine’s child welfare system anymore. He was a high school senior, and had recently received a full scholarship in engineering from MIT. Nia was so proud of him, and grateful that she’d had a chance to give him as normal a life as possible.
It wasn’t easy, and many times she’d prayed for someone to come along and take the burden of parenthood away from her. But no one had come. She was all Aaron had, and he was all she had. Together, they’d survived a difficult past and had been looking forward to a better future.
But the past had a way of raiding a girl’s present and stealing her future.
It showed up in the form of a letter from a loan shark named Eddie. Included in the letter was a copy of a six-year-old promissory note that bore her father’s signature. Eddie wanted his money—interest, penalties, and late fees included. It was then Nia understood why her father had instructed her to get as far away from Maine as she could. Seemed she hadn’t gone far enough. She’d definitely picked the wrong state in which to start fresh and hide from her past.
Nia had been puzzled as to how Eddie had tracked her down, especially when she’d been so careful to cover her tracks. She’d simply ignored it, hoping he would think she wasn’t who he thought she was. But when a second letter arrived with a photo of Aaron’s high school football team with his face circled, and another of him walking home from school that very week, Nia knew she was in real trouble. In the note, Eddie had promised that Aaron would be beaten to death in front of her, and then he would take his sweet time with her before slicing her throat. She had two months to produce the money.
She should have listened to her gut when it warned her not to let Aaron tryout for the football team, but how could she deny him that one little pleasure in his young pitiful life? He’d been denied so much, and she couldn’t take that away from him, too. She never imagined that their high school would win the national championship and that their names and faces would be plastered all over the local news. The problem was that Aaron was the spitting image of their father. There was no denying who he was.
Nia quivered from the memories of reading that letter. There was no way she could come up with a million dollars—ever—much less in two months. Eddie was neither impressed nor pacified with the small installments she’d offered him, and had even suggested that she was a pretty little thing who could work it off in trade for him.
In her desperation, Nia’s thoughts had gone to one man—Massimo Andretti. His actions, or lack of them, had created the problem. It was only fair that he fix it. She’d thought of writing to him, but recalling her father’s numerous unsuccessful attempts to contact him six years ago, she’d decided it was a waste of time.
Luckily for her, the delivery of the second letter coincided with the breakup of Massimo’s six-month engagement to a Boston heiress. Nia wasn’t surprised when it fell apart. Massimo was an Andretti, and five months into the engagement, rumors of an affair began flying. Then, just two weeks ago, the bride-to-be canceled the wedding. Infidelity was synonymous with Andretti men. Massimo was merely proving he was hewn from the same adulterous piece of granite.
He hopped beds as frequently as he hopped the globe, which was pretty often, seeing he owned companies on every continent. His five-month engagement to the heiress was the longest relationship he’d ever had. He never denied the charges of infidelity, and he didn’t even seem shaken up over the breakup. As far as the world knew, he hadn’t yet zeroed in on his next catch. But with Massimo, one never knew.
The thought of associating herself with such an unscrupulous man made Nia sick to her stomach. But she had no choice. Her father owed Eddie. Massimo owed her. His broken promises had destroyed her family. This debt was not hers. It was Massimo’s. And it was time he paid it.
Nia rubbed her palms along her arms and curled her fingers into the soft material of her cashmere sweater. Her new wardrobe and travel expenses had cost several thousand dollars, not to mention the high interest on her credit cards, but she couldn’t approach Massimo looking like an underpaid schoolteacher. He was a man who appreciated classy women. She’d never seen a shabby-looking love interest on his arm.
A rush of uncertainly fluttered in her belly. What if Massimo didn’t take her bait? What if he decided she wasn’t worth the trouble? There was no doubt in her mind that Eddie would keep his promise to kill her and her brother if she failed to pay him in two months.
The day after she’d gotten the second letter, Nia had packed Aaron off to the Caribbean to stay with her friend who’d moved back there. She didn’t want Eddie getting any ideas that he could kidnap and hold him as collateral until she paid the debt. Besides, she couldn’t leave him in New York by himself, and she couldn’t bring him to Granite Falls on her clandestine mission, either.
She’d never lied to Aaron about anything, but she wasn’t about to lay this kind of burden on him, so she’d simply told him that it was crucial he left the country. He wasn’t happy about the disruption in his senior year, but he’d grown to trust her over the years and knew that she would only ask him to do something if it was vitally important. Since his high school was a superb prototype of twenty-first-century learning, he was able to carry on his studies via the Internet and satellite. Thank God for technology.
She’d been tempted to follow him across the ocean and forget about Massimo Andretti, but Eddie had found them once. He could find them again. This time, there would be no warning. He would just kill Aaron, use her up, and then kill her, too.
Nia’s heart began to race as she watched Massimo slide his mittens back on. He was warm now and ready to go back out on the trail. Maybe she should let him go before her plan blew up in her face. Massimo Andretti could turn out to be far more dangerous than Eddie if he discovered she was about to swindle him.
No. She shook her head. There was no room for doubts and fears. Massimo was the only way to keep her and Aaron alive. She just had to convince this Andretti hound that she was his next willing victim.
Girding herself with resolve, Nia slid the metal strap of her knockoff Kate Spade purse over her shoulder and glided from the bench. Her legs felt like worn-out elastic as she covered the short distance to Massimo’s side. “Beautiful day for skiing, isn’t it?” she said, smiling up at him.
His head swung lazily to the other side. His thick long lashes lifted and his deep-blue gaze patrolled her face. “Then why aren’t you out on the trails?”
Nia breathed through the sensual tremor that rocked her body. She never knew being this close to a man could be so unnerving, even one who presented a chilling aura. She forced her confused emotions into order and placidly said, “I enjoy watching other people.”
His wide mouth pulled into a slight smile as his gaze moved slowly down the length of her then back up again. “Is that the way you get your kicks, watching other people?”
“It depends on what I’m watching them do.” She held his hard gaze even as the provocative question and his deep voice made her insides quiver.
Interesting, Massimo thought as he surveyed the young woman with straight dark hair tumbling past her shoulders to the soft curve of her back. He’d felt an instant attraction towards her from the moment he walked into the cabin and spotted her sitting in the corner. If it weren’t for the sticky matter of his marriage of convenience in less than a week, he would have joined her at the booth and been charming his way between her shapely thighs already.