She’d been warned about Stefano Cortez.
As Annabelle Wolfe climbed out of her vintage 1973 Land Rover, she surveyed the sprawling, whitewashed hacienda with a twinge of dread. She’d heard so many warnings over the last few months. She’d heard them in French, Portuguese, English, Russian. Stefano Cortez could not be trusted.
Be careful, Miss Wolfe. You won’t be able to resist him. No woman can.
Guard your heart, miss. And lock your door.
The broken hearts he’s scattered are as infinite as stars.
I have nothing to worry about, Annabelle told herself fiercely. Stefano Cortez might be the equestrian world’s most famous playboy, but he would have no effect on her. She wouldn’t let those stupid warnings make her lose her nerve!
But her body still trembled, and she knew it wasn’t from all the cups of coffee she’d gulped down on the long, dusty drive from Portugal to northern Spain.
Closing the truck door behind her with a bang, Annabelle stretched her stiff limbs, trying to shake off her fear. But it was no use. Warnings about Stefano Cortez’s charm had been repeated too constantly over the last few months, repeated every place she’d visited doing a ten-part photojournalism series on Europe’s top ranches for Equestrian magazine.
Stefano Cortez’s ranch was the final one of her assignment. He sold the most expensive, exclusive horses in the world – and only to customers he deigned worthy. Wealthy buyers fell over themselves to get the reclusive ranch owner’s approval. But that was nothing compared to what women did for his attention. The world’s number one stud farm, the current joke went, was owned by the world’s number one stud.
Annabelle rolled her tight shoulders. If Stefano Cortez was even a fraction of the man he was reputed to be, he would certainly try to lure her into bed. Men usually did – it was a longstanding joke to her colleagues and assistants.
But this was on a whole new level. According to rumor, no women had ever turned Cortez down. Ever. What if Annabelle, for the first time in her thirty-three years, surrendered completely? What if by some horrible mistake she fell into his bed like all the rest?
No! she told herself, biting down hard on her lip. She wasn’t romantic or easily deceived. She didn’t have a passionate bone in her body. She was cold and proud and rude – didn’t men always say so after she’d refused their advances? At thirty-three, she was a confirmed spinster, and immune to any playboy’s charm. She would never let any man close to her again.
So there was no way Stefano Cortez could take her down. Especially now that she’d been warned and knew to be on her guard. If he tried any of his smooth moves on her, she’d laugh in his face.
Trying to calm her nerves, Annabelle took a deep breath. So where was he? Where was the famous playboy who would apparently try to drag her into his bed the moment he saw her?
Looking around her, she saw half-wild horses racing across wide gold-colored fields, beneath a blue sky that stretched forever. A nearby stream burbled as she heard birdsong rising from the forested hills. It was so beautiful that she turned back to reach for her camera bag on the passenger seat through the open window. Then she heard a man’s deep voice behind her.
“So you have arrived at last.”
She froze. Clenching her hands into fists, she braced herself. She slowly turned around.
And nearly gasped.
Stefano Cortez stood before her, his eyes dark and luminous as fire beneath the Spanish sun. At 5’10”, Annabelle was far from petite, but she had to tilt her head back to look into his gorgeously chiselled face.
He was even more devastating in person than in photographs. At thirty-five, he was breathtakingly handsome, dark-haired and strong with a lean, muscular physique. His worn jeans fit snugly against trim hips. The sleeves of his black shirt were rolled up, revealing tanned forearms laced with dark hair – he clearly was not afraid of physical labor. His chin-length dark hair was pulled back into a leather tie at the base of his neck. Even as he held his powerful body absolutely still, his dark eyes raked slowly over her.
Her breath disappeared from her lungs. She felt vulnerable and exposed, like a hapless gazelle beneath a lion’s lazy gaze. She felt the restrained hunger of a well-fed predator who had absolute confidence in his power over her – or any other gazelle.
His sensual lips curved into a half-smile.
“Welcome to my home, Miss Wolfe,” he said in softly accented English. “I have been waiting for you.”
As their eyes locked, heat flashed through her, heat so sudden and unexpected that she nearly stumbled back. She had to force herself to keep her face impassive, even as her trembling hands tightened around the strap of her camera bag.
“You – you have?” she said faintly.
“Your reputation precedes you.” Stefano Cortez’s lips curved as his gaze traced slowly down her body. “The famous Annabelle Wolfe. The beautiful photographer who travels the world to take such perfect pictures of ice.”
Struggling to hide her flushed skin and pounding heart, Annabelle lifted her chin.
“And you are Stefano Cortez – the greatest stud of Santo Castillo.”
He gave a low laugh. The sound of that deep, masculine amusement, the intensity of his hot dark gaze, caused another strange flutter through her body.
He moved closer, and she licked her suddenly dry lips.
“You are as charming as I’d hoped. Mucho gusto,” he whispered, looking down at her. “Encantado.”
He didn’t touch her, but his words were like a caress against her skin, as if he’d kissed her hand. As if he’d pressed his lips against her body. His powerful masculinity pressed upon her from all sides. Behind his dark head, she could see the vast blue Spanish sky. She could hear the sounds of birds, see the golden sunshine like a halo against his hair. She felt the power emanating off his tanned skin, the virile strength of his lean, muscular body.
She swallowed, gripping her camera bag with both hands as she muttered, “Nice to meet you.”
His sensual mouth curved, as if knew why she did not even hold out her hand in greeting, much less a cheek.
“More than nice. I look forward to seven days of your company, señorita,” he said. “I can see this week will be pleasurable indeed.”
His dark eyes gleamed with the promise of untold delights, and Annabelle’s breath quickened. He was so close, she could feel the heat emanating from his skin. She felt vulnerable. Feminine. She felt a strange, deep longing to be warm, to let herself go, to melt her tense body into thoughtless pleasure.
Dear God, what madness had come over her? She had to get a grip on her herself! Even a legendary Spanish playboy couldn’t have this much power, this fast!
Annabelle blinked hard. She would show him –both of them – that she would not fall into his arms. However handsome his face might be, however powerful his body, a playboy’s soul was always empty and cold. She’d learned that long ago – the hard way.
She drew back, glaring at him.
“That’s flattering,” she said acidly, “but surely not true, Mr. Cortez. Spending a whole week in my company? I’ve heard – from multiple sources – that your interest in a woman rarely lasts longer than a night.”
Annabelle waited for him to scowl at her rudeness, but to her chagrin he didn’t seem offended. To the contrary. He leaned forward.
“That is usually true. But in your case, Miss Wolfe,” he said softly, “I might make an exception.”
She blinked, trying to slow her shallow breath. Her hands tightened on the leather strap of her camera bag.
He has no heart, she told herself fiercely. Do not trust his charm. Do not.
“Thanks, but I work best alone.” She raised her chin and her eyes glittered. “I do not need your company. I do not want it.”
Annabelle took a deep breath, tried to modulate her harsh tone. “Forgive me if that sounds rude. I just don’t care to have anyone hovering over me as I work.” She shook her head with a shrug. “And I’m sure you have a great deal to do to prepare for your charity gala this weekend.…”
Her voice stopped as he lifted his hand towards her. She jumped back, wide-eyed and jittery as a colt.
He frowned. “You must allow me to carry your bag, Miss Wolfe.”
Oh. So that was why he’d reached for her. A warm blush curled her cheeks. “Not necessary.”
“You are my guest.”
“I’m not some fragile, helpless heiress. I’m here to work. I can manage my own equipment.”
“Although usually I have my assistant…” Annabelle stopped, biting her lip, thinking of Marie who’d quit her job for the sake of her husband and newborn baby. She shook her head, hard. “But I’ll be fine without her. Don’t worry. My photos of your ranch will be fine. The project will be fine. I work best alone,” she repeated.
“So you said.” Stefano looked down at her, and she felt a bead of sweat break out between her breasts.
“Why do you keep looking at me like that?” she said in a low voice.
“Like you…” Her voice trailed off as she struggled to think of words that wouldn’t sound ridiculous. Like you want to rip off my clothes. Like you want to drink me for tea. Like you want to fling me over your shoulder, throw me into your bed and lick every inch of me. She finished awkwardly, “…like you’ve never seen a woman before.”
He snorted a laugh. “I’ve seen many, as you know. And yet…” He paused. “I cannot stop looking at you.”
“You are more beautiful than I imagined.”
The look he gave her could have melted stone. “I…I am?”
He gave a single nod. “The photos I’ve seen hardly did you justice.”
A sudden chill went down Annabelle’s spine.
Which photos had he seen? Recent shots of Annabelle at her brother’s society wedding in springtime London? Pictures of her sunburned face as she traveled on assignment through the Sahara and the plains of Mongolia earlier that winter?
Or… pictures from nearly twenty years ago, when her drunken father had tried to kill her as a teenager? Had Stefano Cortez stumbled upon the before-and-after images that had once been in every British newspaper, the first picture showing Annabelle as a blond, smiling fourteen-year-old with rosy cheeks, the second showing her with a monster’s swollen face, her eyes like slits, a savage red whip slash peeling back her skin?
Annabelle searched Stefano’s expression with hard eyes. But only a smile curved his sensual mouth as he looked back at her.
She exhaled with a flare of nostril. He hadn’t seen the old, buried pictures. He didn’t know about her past. As juicy and notorious as the Wolfe family scandal had once been, the world had moved on. People had forgotten.
But not Annabelle. She would never forget. She still had scars to prove it. On her body. On her face. Beneath her carefully applied make-up, half-covered by her highlighted blond bangs, the violent red scar of her father’s whip would always remain.
Tilting his head, Stefano frowned down at her. “You do not care for compliments, do you?”
“Why do you say that?”
“You looked almost…angry.”
“I’m not.” He was far too observant. Looking down, Annabelle smoothed imaginary crumbs off her light-gray suit then, trying to make her face expressionless before she looked up. “But I am well aware of your reputation. And you should know I do not intend to be another notch in your bedpost. You are wasting such compliments” – such lies – “on me.”
His dark eyes gleamed. “No compliment on a pretty woman is ever wasted. And you are more than pretty. You are…belleza.”
“I told you you’re wasting your time, Casanova,” she said sharply. “I am quite impossible to seduce.”
His gaze deepened with interest, as if she’d just offered an irresistible challenge. A few strands of his chin-length black hair had escaped the leather tie at the nape of his neck, falling forward to frame the brilliance of his dark eyes. “So I have heard.”
Pulling the heavy camera bag up higher on her shoulder, she muttered, “I was warned about you.”
“Were you?” He lifted a sardonic eyebrow. “By whom?”
“By everyone. Most recently by Afonso Moreira.”
“Ah. My Portuguese rival. And what did he say?”
“That you’re a playboy who steals women’s hearts, along with their virtue. He said I should lock my door.”
White sunlight overhead lit his black hair like a halo. He looked like a dark angel as his eyes became like endless pools of night. “Moreira is right.”
Her mouth fell open. She hadn’t expected that reply in a million years. “He – he is?”
“Sí.” His cruel, sensual lips curved upwards. “That’s exactly the kind of man I am.”
Her heart pounded in her throat as she stared up into his darkly handsome face. She was dimly aware of the warm wind against her skin, loosening her chignon, blowing blond tendrils across her cheek. For an instant, she was lost in the swirling darkness of his gaze.
His eyes weren’t black as she’d first thought. They were a multitude of colors as infinite as Spanish earth, obsidian and sable, coffee and burnt sienna. Full of warmth. Full of life.
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Annabelle and Stefano's story is part of a larger series of drama and intrigue- the dynasty of the Notorious Wolfes! Explore the story of eight siblings, denied the love of their father and driven to succeed told through the voices of eight different authors. Check out the family tree, a summary of their scandalous past, and character profiles at the iheartpresents.com website.
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Text Copyright © 2012 by Jennie Lucas • Cover Art Copyright © 2012 by Harlequin Enterprises Limited
Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A. Cover Art used by arrangement with Harlequin Enterprises Limited. All rights reserved. ® and ™ are trademarks owned by Harlequin Enterprises Limited or its affiliated companies, used under license.