Excerpt: Chapter One
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The Rings That Bind Playlist
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission.
All rights reserved.Christian Markos tipped the last of his champagne down his throat and immediately refilled his glass.
He'd known today was going to be hard, but hadn't imagined quite how torturous it would be. Not even all the running around he'd done with Rocco that morning, in their seemingly desperate attempt to find the bride, had mitigated it.
Afterwards, he'd stood by the side of his closest friend on the happiest day of his life and all he'd been able to think was how deeply he'd betrayed him.
While Rocco had been exchanging his vows, Christian had been using all his willpower to stop his gaze flitting to Alessandra.
He was still fighting it.
Alessandra Mondelli: Rocco's baby sister. A pretty child who'd grown into a ravishingly beautiful woman. The one woman in the world who was totally off-limits.
Or should have been.
Attired in a long, sleeveless, silk mauve dress, with her glossy, dark-chestnut hair pulled back in a tight chignon, she'd arrived by boat with the radiant bride, the spring sun beaming down on her golden skin.
In his eyes the chief bridesmaid outshone everyone, including the famous supermodel bride.
The last time he'd seen Alessandra she'd been wearing a short, cream lace dress with black beading and a pair of black shoes so high he'd been amazed she could walk in them. But walk in them she had, beautifully, her delectable bottom swaying with every step. That was the last time he'd seen her clothed. The last time he'd seen her properly she'd been burrowed naked under the bed covers in her apartment.
The wedding party had moved from the beautiful gardens by Lake Como and into the Villa Mondelli ballroom. The wedding dinner was over, the evening celebration about to start. He'd made his best man's speech and managed to raise some laughs from the other guests, especially Stefan and Zayed, who'd substituted the speech he'd written with a bluer version. Instead of relaxing, knowing his job was done, Christian was on tenterhooks waiting for the music to strike up.
An American A-list starlet kept making eyes at him, a stunning woman with a body to die for. Just six weeks ago he would have been at her side like a shot. If not her, then one of the other gorgeous women littering this star-studded event already being labelled 'wedding of the century.' Supermodels, lingerie models, singers… It was like being a child in a sweetshop.
If that were the case, then he must have diabetes, because none of the sweets looked remotely tempting.
Except one. The forbidden one.
How could he have allowed things to get so out of hand? He might flit from bed to bed but he never lost control of himself.
To have lost his control with Alessandra…
He could blame it on all the champagne they'd drunk. He could blame it on a lot of things, but all the blame was on himself.
Alessandra had been vulnerable. Try as she'd done to hide it, she'd been a mess, grieving the loss of her grandfather, the man who'd raised her since she'd been a baby and who'd been buried barely two weeks before.
Christian had dropped in at the House of Mondelli, the world-famous fashion house, on his way back from Hong Kong, expecting to take Rocco out for a night on the tiles, maybe spend the weekend together on his Italian friend's yacht. But Rocco had been in New York and he'd bumped into Alessandra, who'd insisted he take her out instead. Under normal circumstances he would have made his excuses and got back in his jet to fly on to Athens. If he hadn't caught the desperation in her beautiful honey-brown eyes, he would have done just that, not found himself recalling how she'd barely been able to stand during the funeral service.
When they'd set out for the evening, the last thing he'd expected was that they would end up in bed together.
Women came and went in his life on a regular basis. He could only assume that it was the fact Alessandra was someone who was in his life, so to speak, that meant he was having a hard job forgetting and moving on. That and the guilt of it all. She might have been the one to instigate the kiss that had led to them making love, but the blame for what followed lay firmly on hisshoulders.
He should have been stronger.
In the six weeks since he'd seen her, he'd worked hard to push her from the forefront to the back of his mind, enough so that he'd arrived at Lake Como confident he could handle being in her presence without any problems.
He'd taken one look at her and all the guilt had churned itself back up. They'd exchanged a few brief words over the course of the day, the same basic pleasantries they'd exchanged with everyone else, but that was the extent of their interaction. So far, at least. There was still the dance to get through.
Whether he liked it or not, he would have to hold her in his arms one more time.
Stefan said something to him at the exact moment the band started their warm-up. As he spoke, Christian saw Olivia lean in close to press her ear to Rocco's mouth. It was a gesture that reminded him of his dinner with Alessandra, the way she'd leaned into him to hear him speak over the noise of the restaurant; the way her sultry scent had played under his nose.
From the corner of his eye he could see her chatting to the official photographer, the photographer probably getting tips from her. Alessandra Mondelli was one of the most famous fashion photographers in the world, a remarkable achievement, considering she was still only twenty-five. She'd made it all on her own. Just as he'd made his name on his own.
Stefan repeated himself; he'd been talking about the charitable foundation they and their friends had formed some years back.
Italian Rocco Mondelli, Sicilian Stefan Bianco, desert Prince Zayed Al Afzal and he had all taken a keen interest in running and raising money for their charity. They were the so-called Columbia Four, although he couldn't recall which of them had dubbed them so. Whoever had come up with it, it had stuck. They'd met during their first week at Columbia University and, as incredible as it was to look back on, the bond they'd formed had been instant. That bond had grown and a good few years later, when it had become obvious all four were heading towards the Forbes World's Billionaires List, they'd formed the charity. Christian was extremely proud of their charity, founded to ensure disadvantaged kids could get the education they deserved but were unable to afford. It felt good for them to be doing something together that didn't involve drinking and bedding as many beautiful women as they could.
They all believed the bond between them to be unbreakable.
But even the strongest steel could be destroyed.
He answered with what he hoped sounded like intelligence but, in truth, what came out of his mouth sounded so unintelligible he could be speaking Martian.
Luckily Stefan's attention was diverted by the band striking up their first song.
The bride and groom glided onto the dance floor to loud applause.
Christian's eyes drifted to his right, back to Alessandra. She was looking straight at him, a trapped expression in her eyes.
His chest tightened.
A powerful slap to his shoulder broke the spell.
'Time to get yourself on the dance floor,' Zayed said, sitting on the empty seat to Christian's left.
Theos. He had to dance with her. Olivia, the bride, had ordered it. The best man and chief bridesmaid…
Alessandra met him halfway, her obvious apprehension mirroring what raced inside him.
It would help if the band were playing one of the usual upbeat tunes that had made them one of the most famous groups in the world rather than the cover of a romantic ballad they were currently warbling.
Gritting his teeth, he walked by her side to the dance floor and took her into his arms.
His heart jolted at the first touch, a dozen memories playing in his mind. Her scent. Her taste.
The back of her dress was low, leaving him no option but to touch her silky skin. It was either that or hold on to her bottom. His hand lay rigid against her bare back, hardly touching her.
Yet, no matter the physical distance he tried to impose between himself and her slender form, his senses filled with Alessandra, her sultry scent playing tricks on him as they moved over the dance floor in a manner more akin to a pair of robots than a couple who'd had a wild night of sex just six weeks before. The stirring that had begun when he'd watched her walk up the aisle and had simmered since took on new life, an ache forming in his groin that he willed away with increasing frustration.
Think of Rocco, he ordered himself, staring at his loved-up friend who was locked in the arms of his equally loved-up wife. Rocco caught his eye and nodded briefly before leaning down to kiss his bride.
That one action felt like a knife in Christian's guts.
What would his friend say if he knew his best man had taken his sister's virginity?
The all-consuming desire he'd felt that night still dwelled in his blood. One night was all he usually needed, all he wanted. Once a woman had been enjoyed, there were no more mysteries to discover, no need for a repeat.
His skin felt as if it were dancing its own tune, his body out of kilter with what his head demanded.
He followed the words of the song they were dancing to, counting down the time to when the obligatory dance would be over. From the stiffness in Alessandra's stance, she was counting down the time too.
When the song finally came to an end and he made to pull away, she tilted her head to look at him, her doe-like eyes staring at him. Theos, she was so beautiful, those striking eyes set above a snub nose framed by slanting cheekbones. Her delicious plump lips parted. 'Christian, I…'
Whatever she was going to say was cut short when Zayed tapped her on the shoulder and threw Christian a conspiratorial wink. 'I do believe it's my turn to dance with the beautiful lady,' he said in a voice loud enough for Rocco to hear.
The groom turned his head towards the raised voice, his eyes narrowing before he broke into a wide grin.
It clearly didn't cross his mind that any of his friends would dream of doing anything with the sister he was so protective of.
Sickened with himself, Christian stepped back and forced a smile, mock-bowing. 'She's all yours.'
He waited for Alessandra to make a good-natured but cutting retort about not being anyone's property, but her eyes were stark on his face, a fleeting look of panic flashing over her which she quickly covered. But not quickly enough.
The ballroom of Villa Mondelli had enough waiting staff not to let any guest go thirsty for longer than thirty seconds but Christian wanted to get away from the hubbub of the mingling guests and headed to the bar.
After a shot of bourbon, he turned his head to see her now dancing with Stefan. She looked happy to be dancing with him, he thought, taken aback at the strength of his bitterness.
It was only natural she'd been stiff and awkward in Christian's arms. A one-night stand hadn't been on either of their minds when they'd set out that evening.
He'd been her first lover.
That, more than anything, was the thing that refused to dislodge from his mind.
The woman who'd been vilified by the press for an affair with a married man when she'd been a teenager had been a virgin. He'd always suspected there had been more to the story than had been written but the truth had come as a cataclysmic shock.
Whatever the truth, it was none of his business. Alessandra was none of his business. She couldn't be.
He took another shot to clear the bile crawling up his throat and watched Stefan place a hand to her waist. The bile almost choked him to see her laugh at something his friend said in her ear.
Zayed appeared at his side. 'Hiding yourself away, buddy?'
'Just taking a few moments.'
Stefan finished his dance and came over to join them. 'What are we all drinking?'
'Christian's already on the hard stuff,' Zayed said, indicating the empty shot glasses before them on the bar.
Christian hardly listened. Alessandra had left the dance floor. A quick scan of the ballroom found her sitting at a table with a group of people he didn't recognise. She was staring at him.
Their gazes held before he pulled away and fixed a smile on his face for his friends' benefit.
'Who's ready for a shot?' Before either could answer, he waved at the barman to pour them a bourbon each.
The three friends, sitting in a row at the bar, raised their glasses and chanted, 'Memento vivere!' 'Remember to live,' the motto the four friends did live by, and downed their shots.
'I never thought I'd see us at a wedding for one of our own,' Zayed mused, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. 'I still can't believe Rocco's got married. I mean… married?''
'Who would have thought he'd fall in love?' Stefan said with the same incredulous tone.
Christian grunted and caught the barman's attention for another round.
Call him cynical, but he couldn't help wonder how long it would be before the love they felt for each other turned into something ugly. Because that was what marriage did—turned two people full of hope and love into bitter caricatures of themselves.
Much safer for everyone's sake to avoid emotional entanglement. Christian conducted his own affairs by enjoying the moment and then moving on with the minimum of fuss. He had known before he was in double figures that marriage was not for him.
Zayed swivelled on his stool to cast his eyes over the ballroom. 'There are some hot women here.'
Stefan grinned. 'I noticed that lingerie model giving you the eye.'
'I thought she was an actress?'
'No, that was the other one.'
'I tell you who knocks spots off all these women,' Zayed said. 'Alessandra.'
Christian snapped his head round to stare at him. 'Don't even think about it.'
Zayed raised his hands. 'I'm just making an observation.' 'Well, don't.'
'Man, you know I wouldn't go there. I'd never do that to Rocco— Where are you going?' he added when Christian got up from his stool and made to leave.
'To get some air.'
'You not feeling well?' Stefan was looking at him closely.
'It's been a busy time. I'm probably jet-lagged. Get another round in—I'll be back in a few minutes.'
Instead of going outside, Christian went to the restroom and splashed cold water on his face.
He'd been a paper thickness away from punching Zayed.
Theos, he needed to get a grip on himself.
This was his guilt and his problem. No one else's.
Back in the ballroom his eyes automatically sought Alessandra out. As he found her, she turned her head in his direction, as if some sixth sense told her he was there. Quickly she turned away.
He thought he was doing a good job of hiding his guilt-ridden inner turmoil. After that one close call of almost punching one of his oldest and closest friends for an innocuous remark, he joined in with the celebration they were there for, drinking, laughing and horsing about, being the same old Christian he always was when with them.
Except, every time he looked, he found Alessandra's gaze upon him. Their eyes would meet for a fraction of a second before jerking away. She certainly seemed to be enjoying herself, though, dancing with anyone who cared to ask, at one point stealing Olivia from Rocco and waltzing her around the floor to screams of delight.
Only when the bride and groom, their hands clenched tightly together, left to head off to their secret honeymoon destination did Christian determine his duty to have been done.
Exchanging bear hugs with Zayed and Stefan, who called him every laughably demeaning name under the sun for retiring to bed so early, he strode out of the ballroom, unable to resist one last glance at Alessandra. For once, she wasn't looking at him.
He was about to climb the stairs to the sleeping quarters when he heard his name called.
Stefan approached him and pulled him into another embrace. 'You are playing with fire, my friend,' he said into his ear.
'I don't know what you're talking about.'
'Sure you do.' He pulled back a little and brought his hands up to Christian's face, slapping both his cheeks lightly. 'You have to end it. Now'
Christian's chest compressed. He couldn't lie to his friend. 'It was over before it started.'
'Good. Keep it that way. For all our sakes.'
The Rings That Bind
On his terms only
The day Rosa agreed to wear Nicolai Baranski's ring she wasn't so foolish as to expect love. Yet nothing could have prepared her for the aching loneliness of her husband's constant indifference—an indifference that proved too much to bear.
Nico is furious—no one turns their back on a Baranski. Rosa has some nerve if she thinks he will just let her walk away. He'll use every sensual trick at his disposal to bring her back, begging for more. And once he's got her where he wants her? He'll let her go. But only when he's ready!
"Michelle has the gift to transport any reader to a world of romance so scorching hot you will feel like you just stepped into the hottest place on earth! Pure, magical, sexy, sensual romance at it's very best!."
5/5 Star review Deserè Steenberg, Romance Book Haven.
"Smart’s debut will pull at heartstrings with its arrogant yet compassionate hero and longing heroine. The dialogue flows well and the love scenes ignite all the senses." Romantic Times
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