Sierra Grayson was having the time of her life in San Francisco. The city was breathtaking, the food fabulous, and the shopping superb. An added bonus was that she had left her matchmaking mother in Santa Fe. Ruth Grayson was determined that her youngest child and only daughter follow her four older brothers into matrimonial bliss—whether Sierra wanted to get married or not.
What Ruth’s children wanted hadn’t mattered to their loving mother, who had been sure they would be happier married. Sierra would give her credit for being right in choosing the perfect woman for each of her sons, but Sierra had no intention of being next. She enjoyed life too much to be tied down to some man who’d want her to cater to his every whim.
When her sister-in-law, Sabra Raineau-Grayson, invited Sierra to San Francisco with her and Pierce, Sierra jumped at the opportunity. Having her other brother Brandon and his wife, Faith, join them had made the trip a fun-filled romp. And, as of five minutes ago, it had just gotten better.
Sierra had just been presented with the golden opportunity to meet the movers and shakers of the city’s elite. Of course, when she did, she’d look for an opportunity to sell them a prime piece of Santa Fe real estate. She almost skipped with glee in her new Jimmy Choo sandals.
A winsome smile on her face, she sauntered through the spacious and opulent lobby of the St. Regis Hotel. She would have had to be blind not to notice the attention she garnered. Since nothing much ever got past Sierra, she dismissed the interested gazes of the men along with the curious stares of the women.
Without being conceited, Sierra knew she looked good. It helped that she wore a new purchase, an imported white Valentino embroidered-and-beaded couture cotton sheath that complemented her golden skin. As always, she’d dressed with care, but especially this afternoon. Otherwise there was a distinct possibility that she wouldn’t have charmed Ken Simpson, the chairman of the auction that night, into accepting her as a replacement for her latest sister-in-law, Sabra.
Not only was Sabra stunning, she also was a two-time Tony-winning Broadway actress. But just as it was Sierra’s brain that had taken her to the top of her profession in Santa Fe, that same sharp intelligence impressed Mr. Simpson.
As Sierra had explained to Mr. Simpson and the rest of his enthralled committee members over cocktails in a five-thousand-dollar suite, as much as Sabra wished to fulfill her obligations, it didn’t seem the right thing to offer a bride on the auction block. What Sierra didn’t say was that if they didn’t agree, there would be a third person at the winner’s dinner table—Sabra’s love-smitten husband and Sierra’s youngest brother, Pierce.
Stepping outside onto the terrazzo floor of the outdoor restaurant, Sierra searched the almost deserted area for Faith. She’d called just before Sierra had gone to meet Simpson and said to meet her on the patio when she finished. Brandon, Sierra’s third brother and Faith’s husband, had gone to visit a friend who, like Brandon, owned and operated his own restaurant near the Cannery. The lovebirds, Pierce and Sabra, had taken off with Isabella, Sabra’s dog, for Fisherman’s Wharf.
Continuing into the lush area overflowing with red bougainvillea, verdant ferns, and towering palms, Sierra searched for Faith. If Faith said she would be there, she’d be there. She was dependable to a fault.
Just as Sierra turned to search another area, a deep, masculine voice stopped her dead in her tracks. A hot shiver raced over her body. Disturbed by her reaction, a frown puckered her brow as she swung back and moved toward the engrossing sound.
Before that moment she would have bet she wasn’t the type of woman to get all hot and bothered by a man’s voice. Seems she would have lost. Curious, led by instinct and an unexpected need, she sought the owner of the tantalizing voice.
She’d sensed something else in his tone, a tormented spirit.
Since she was a direct descendant of an African high priestess and a Native American shaman, Sierra didn’t question how she knew he was hurting, or her own actions. Her breath held, she stepped around a ten-foot potted palm.
Less than fifteen feet away, Faith stood in profile with a broad-shouldered man. A gray tailored suit fit his powerful body perfectly. His muscular arms curved loosely around Faith’s waist; her hands were splayed on his wide chest as she smiled up at him.
Since Sierra trusted Faith completely, she didn’t jump to conclusions. Instead Sierra ignored the strange tingling in her body and openly studied the stranger. One of her unique abilities had always been to size people up quickly and accurately. She did so now. Wealthy, powerful, dangerous. This man would take what he wanted and damn the consequences.
As if sensing her, he slowly turned his head. Their gazes clashed. There was no other way to describe the shock of his onyx eyes boring into hers. Never one to back down, Sierra continued to boldly stare at him as his gaze assessed her in one slow, smoldering sweep. The tingling spread like liquid fire over her body.
He was sensually beautiful, Native American and magnificent, with burnished copper skin. Thick jet-black hair secured at the base of his neck with a silver band hung past his broad shoulders. At least six-foot-five, he had chiseled cheekbones, incredibly long lashes, and a mouth meant to make a sensible woman sin.
He was also one of the few men Sierra had ever seen who were equal to her brothers, the Taggarts, or her cousin Daniel Falcon. The sheer male beauty of the man, the noble bearing, gave her pause, but it was his eyes, fierce and black, that sent another hot shiver racing down her spine.
Faith, apparently realizing the man’s attention had wandered, glanced around. When she saw Sierra, her smile broadened. The warm smile faltered when it wasn’t returned. Quickly Faith stepped away from the man and moistened her lips in an uncharacteristically nervous gesture.
Sierra’s sister-in-law ran a five-star hotel in Santa Fe with enviable ease. Nothing rattled her. She also loved Brandon to distraction.
“Sierra, I—I see you found me.” Faith’s smile slowly faded. “Sierra Grayson, Blade Navarone.”
“Ms. Grayson,” the man greeted Sierra, his voice stroking her.
“Mr. Navarone,” she returned just as formally, although there was nothing formal about the midnight eyes closely watching her or the heat searing her. So this was the infamous Blade Navarone, billionaire real estate mogul.
Faith looked from Blade to Sierra, then wrung her hands when neither said anything further. “Sierra is Brandon’s sister. Blade is a very good friend, Sierra. He happened to be in town on business. We bumped into each other in the lobby.”
“You missed the wedding. It was beautiful,” Sierra pointed out, but she already knew he attended few nonbusiness social events. She’d done a thorough study of the elusive man, or had tried to after he’d unrepentantly shown up in Santa Fe at Faith’s request. His mission was to make Brandon jealous.
Sierra hadn’t seen Blade while he was there, but he’d succeeded. Only a fool wouldn’t worry if a man like Blade took an interest in a woman he wanted.
No Grayson could ever be called a fool.
“I was unavoidably detained elsewhere.” Something flickered in Blade’s eyes as he glanced down at Faith. “Faith understood.”
Sierra’s brow furrowed. There it was again, the pain just beneath the surface. There hadn’t been any mention of any major professional problems in the numerous news articles she’d read on his holdings. To her surprise, there had been little information on Blade Navarone, the man behind the real estate empire. Navarone Resorts and Spas, the playgrounds of the rich and famous, were scattered like priceless jewels around the world.
Being his exclusive broker for the next Navarone property in Dallas, where fifty-five private estates were going for one to eleven million dollars, would have been a dream job for Sierra. For that titillating possibility she would have put off opening her own brokerage firm. The commission would have been staggering, the prestige boundless.
She hadn’t even received a response from her query. She’d shrugged it off and gone on. Now what Sierra couldn’t figure out was how Faith and Blade, complete opposites, were friends.
Faith was guileless, open, a nurturer like Brandon. Blade was known to be ruthless and relentless. He didn’t give second chances. One of his ex-employees, Howard Sims, could attest to that irrefutable fact.
In a nationally televised interview Sims had labeled Blade as vindictive and petty. Halfway into the interview the disgruntled employee was arrested by the police for embezzlement of company funds. He received the maximum sentence. Many said Blade had known of the interview and purposefully waited to show people he’d come down on you like a hard rain if you crossed him.
Before Sierra’s cousin Daniel had cut back drastically in his business to be with his newborn son, he and Blade were friendly business rivals. They also had the same unforgiving personality. Marriage and a family had changed Daniel. None of the few articles on Blade even hinted at a special woman in his life.
“He’s just a friend,” Faith explained as she moved toward Sierra and away from Blade.
“Just” was not a word you’d associate with Blade Navarone. He’d come seemingly out of nowhere with grit, nerve, and a razor-sharp intelligence almost fifteen years ago to build a financial empire.
The unmistakable hurt in Faith’s voice finally pulled Sierra away from her examination of Blade. Stepping forward, she extended her hand. The contact of his large calloused palm against hers sent more shivers skipping down her spine. His black gaze narrowed. He felt the unsettling sensation as well.
Pulling her hand back, Sierra resisted the urge to swipe it against her dress. She had a strong feeling it wouldn’t do any good. Nothing would erase the stunning impact he made on a woman.
“Faith, I hate to interrupt, but we should be going before they give away our appointments at the spa,” Sierra said, firmly turning her attention to her sister-in-law. “Because of the auction, we were lucky to be squeezed in.”
“Did they let you switch with Sabra?” Faith asked.
Sierra smiled and almost relaxed. What was the matter with her? She hadn’t met a man she couldn’t charm. “Did you doubt?”
Faith laughed and hugged Sierra, then turned to Blade. “Sierra changed places with her sister-in-law, Sabra Raineau, so she could be one of the prizes for a dinner tonight at the auction.”
“And to keep my brother from being an uninvited guest at their dinner,” Sierra explained with a chuckle.
“I won’t detain you further then. Good-bye, Faith. Ms. Grayson.”
Still trying to figure out why she’d reacted so strongly to him, Sierra watched Blade walk away. No, not walk. Saunter like a big cat fearing nothing and no one.
“You had me worried for a moment there.” Faith hooked her arm through Sierra’s and started back to the hotel’s lobby.
Sierra bumped her shoulder against Faith’s. “You’re smitten with my brother. The same over-the-moon way he is about you.” Her head tilted to one side. “I guess I was just caught off guard by seeing Blade Navarone in the flesh.”
The words had barely left her mouth when her mind tried to conjure up a picture of a naked Blade—strong, wide shoulders, bare chest delineated with muscles, rock-hard abdomen. She shook away the unnerving image before her mind ventured farther down his incredible body. “Or that you two were such close friends.”
Faith tucked her head before answering. “I hope one day he finds the happiness he helped me find with Brandon.”
Sierra caught the sadness in Faith’s voice. Instinctively Sierra knew Faith could tell her the reason behind Blade’s unhappiness, but she was just as sure that she wouldn’t. Faith would never betray a confidence. And Blade Navarone was definitely a very private man.
“Come on, we’d better hurry.” Arm in arm they entered the lobby and headed for the elevator.
In the spacious room Sierra was unable to keep from searching for Blade. With his towering height, she quickly located him heading toward the revolving front doors. Two men, both tall and athletically built, flanked him. Suddenly he stopped, turned.
She felt the rush, the punch of his intense gaze. Without looking away, he said something to the man on his right. Then as abruptly as Blade had stopped, he spun and continued. The man he had spoken to watched her for a second longer, then followed.
She’d see Blade again. She was sure of it. She just wished she knew how she felt about finally meeting a man who made her glad she was a woman.
The Gallery Ballroom of the St. Regis Hotel glittered with crystal chandeliers and the precious jewels worn by the elegant women dressed in haute couture gowns. The auction items, ranging from a trip to Paris on a private jet to box seats at a San Francisco Giants game, had created a great deal of excitement and heated bidding. But not as much as when it came time to auction off five famous women of stage, screen, and television. The men were clearly enjoying themselves. One by one the women were snapped up until only two remained.
The auctioneer banged his gavel against the Plexiglas podium. The buzz quieted as the boisterous friends of the man who’d just won a dinner date with the star of a prime-time sitcom finished congratulating him. “Ladies and gentlemen, the next auction item was to be a dinner date with two-time Tony Award winner Sabra Raineau.”
Sabra, exotically beautiful at the table with Pierce and the other family members, stood. Applause erupted. She waved but didn’t make her way to the podium as the other women had.
“However, Ms. Raineau is now Mrs. Pierce Grayson.” Pierce stood and curved his arm possessively around his wife’s small waist. “Subsequently, she has been taken off the list.”
Groans emanated from around the room. Pierce smiled, brushed a kiss over Sabra’s waiting lips, then held out her chair as they both reclaimed their seats.
Sierra rolled her eyes, then smiled. Love looked good on Pierce, just as it did on all her brothers.
“Gentlemen, if you’ll give me a moment. Mrs. Raineau-Grayson’s sister-in-law has graciously consented to stand in her place. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.” The auctioneer stared fondly at the Grayson table in the middle of the room. “Please help me welcome from Santa Fe . . . Ms. Sierra Grayson.”
“Go get ’em, Sierra,” Sabra told her.
“You look beautiful,” Faith added.
“So do you,” Brandon said to his blushing wife.
Sierra smiled at her sisters-in-law, then stood. So did Pierce and Brandon. Well aware that people were waiting to see what she looked like, Sierra casually turned in a rustle of chocolate silk. A hushed silence fell over the room.
Her waist-length hair, piled atop her head in an intricate coil and held in place by a diamond comb, allowed an unimpeded view of her sculpted face and lovely neck. The strapless Versace gown cupped her full breasts and nipped at her trim waist before cascading down in a full tiered skirt.
With a slight nod of her head that caused her diamond chandelier earrings to brush her cheeks, Sierra started toward the stage. The babble of excited voices and her two protective brothers followed. It was their way of telling the winning bidder to tread lightly or he’d answer to them.
Sierra could take care of herself, as they both should have remembered. However, since her brothers were almost as stubborn as she, she continued.
“What’s Shane Elliott doing here?” Brandon growled on passing the man seated at one of the banquet tables on their way to the stage. “I bet Navarone is here as well. They both just better remember that Faith is mine and off-limits.”
Sierra recognized Shane as the unsmiling man she’d seen earlier with Blade. The man watching them so intently was handsome, his black hair cut close to his head, his gaze as sharp as a rapier. Unlike Blade, who sent her heart and body into overdrive, his associate didn’t do a thing for her.
Leaving her brothers at the bottom of the short stairs leading to the stage, Sierra searched the audience for Blade. She masked her disappointment with a smile when she didn’t see him.
“Let’s start the bidding off at two thousand dollars, with two-hundred-dollar increments.”
The auctioneer had barely finished speaking before a man a few tables away yelled, “Two thousand dollars.” The bidding was swift and quickly climbed to eighty-two hundred dollars. The auctioneer was nearly dancing with glee. The highest bid for the other dinner dates had been five thousand dollars.
“Do I hear eight thousand, four hundred dollars?” He glanced around the crowded ballroom. “Eight thousand, two hundred dollars, going once, going twi—”
“Ten thousand dollars.”
People turned in their seats to find the new bidder. Sierra didn’t have to. She had watched Shane since the bidding had begun. His expression had alternated between annoyance and boredom. There was only one reason for him to bid.
“Ten thousand, two hundred,” shouted the man who had almost won as he came to his feet.
The auctioneer looked at Shane without announcing the bid. Shane slowly came to his feet as well, his unblinking gaze pinning the bidder with an intimidating glare.
The man gulped. Sierra felt sorry for the poor fellow. Shane was brawnier and several inches taller.
“Thirty thousand dollars.”
The crowd gasped. The initial bidder hastily took his seat.
Shane’s fierce gaze swept the ballroom again, as if defying anyone to bid against him. No one did. “I think the auction for Ms. Grayson is over.”
Apparently the auctioneer agreed. He banged the gavel. “Sold.”
Sierra started off the stage. Shane crossed the crowded ballroom and waited for her at the bottom step. He was dressed in a tailored tuxedo, and his face was serious, his eyes watchful.
“You paid a lot of money, Mr. Elliott.”
“So I did.” Lightly taking her arm, he escorted her with him to the cashier. Pulling a check from his pocket, he quickly filled it out. “Let’s get out of here.”
Sierra’s brothers and their wives were waiting outside the double doors of the ballroom. Shane’s gaze flickered over the group. He smiled for the first time. “Faith.”
“Hello, Shane,” she returned his greeting, her grip firm on Brandon’s arm. With her free hand, she handed Sierra her beaded evening clutch.
“I’ll say this once. Get out of line and we’ll meet again,” Brandon warned.
“I can guarantee you won’t like it,” Pierce added.
Sierra debated whether she should tell her brothers her suspicion that Shane was acting for Blade; then she decided to keep the information to herself. Her brothers probably would take it worse if they knew Blade was her dinner date. Brandon disliked him on principle because he had taken Faith out, Pierce because as a financial consultant he had almost certainly heard the rumors of Blade’s unsavory reputation.
“Noted. Let’s go.” Tugging his black bow tie loose, Shane propelled her through the lobby toward the front door.
In four-inch evening sandals Sierra could barely keep up with Shane’s long-legged stride. She might not have been able to if she hadn’t been used to six-foot-tall brothers. With the determined look on his face, she didn’t think Shane would slow down even if she asked. He was a man on a mission.
Hustling her through the double glass doors, Shane didn’t stop until they were standing beside a Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud. He reached for the back door handle.
“Is Blade inside or are you taking me to him?” she asked.
Shane’s dark head jerked around. Surprise flickered in his eyes. He straightened to stare at her. She’d bet few things caught him off guard. “What makes you think that?”
She laughed despite her unaccustomed nervousness. “Anyone who cared to look could figure out you hated the entire process at the auction, and this even more.”
He grunted and opened the back door. “Please get in.”
Since Sierra’s mother and four overprotective brothers hadn’t raised a fool, she ignored the slight pressure of Shane’s hand on her arm and leaned down to make sure her guess was correct.
Blade’s powerfully built body was in the farthest corner of the sedan. She couldn’t see his eyes, but she felt the pull, the sudden heat. Her heart raced. Perspiration dampened her palms. She was unsure if her reactions were due to apprehension or sexual awareness. Both were new emotions.
Gathering the full skirt of her gown, she climbed inside. She was curious about the attraction between them, curious about the man.
Blade Navarone hadn’t given an interview in several years. A confidentiality clause was reported to be in all the contracts of his employees in management since the incident with the embezzler. A few months ago when Newsweek did an in-depth story on the movers and shakers in national and international real estate, the outline of a face with a question mark appeared on the cover of the magazine, with Blade’s name underneath.
He was practically a nomad, moving from one lavish property to the other as the notion struck. She wondered what drove him, why he was so reclusive. In real estate he had few equals. He was admired and feared, as elusive as the wind.
And for a little while she’d have him all to herself, she thought as the car pulled smoothly away from the curb. She couldn’t wait to see where that led.
“You don’t seem surprised to see me.” Blade studied Sierra in the soft interior light of the car. She was even more beautiful and alluring than he’d remembered. He seldom gave in to impulse, but he had wanted to see Sierra again.
She laughed, a soft, musical sound that made his gut clench. “Shane’s annoyed face gave it away. He hated being there.”
Shane hadn’t liked going in Blade’s stead but had understood the necessity. He’d been watching Blade’s back too long not to. Shane made grown men cower, yet Sierra laughed. “You don’t appear disturbed by his annoyance.”
She tilted her head to one side. Diamond earrings sparkled, brushed against her flawless skin. In another woman Blade would have thought the movement coy, practiced. He didn’t have a doubt in the world that wasn’t the case with Sierra.
“I grew up with a tiger for a mother and four older, strong-willed brothers. Shane is child’s play.”
Blade openly stared at the exquisite heart-shaped face. There was humor in her sexy voice that he could too easily imagine whispering naughty things in his ears, but there was also a hint of steel. She wasn’t a woman who would bend easily to any man. That fierceness, her inner fire, attracted him as much as her beauty. But recklessness could lead to tragedy.
“Are you always so quick to leave with a man you don’t know?”
The reprimand in his deep voice was unmistakable. Her chin lifted automatically. “Faith trusts you; therefore, you’re trustworthy. The same for Shane Elliott. You wouldn’t have sent him to Santa Fe to help her if you thought otherwise.”
“Beauty and brains.”
“There’s also another reason for my being here,” she told him.
He leaned forward, causing the space around them to shrink. She caught a whiff of his woodsy cologne. Her senses came alive. She fought to keep her gaze from dropping to his mouth as he said, “Please go on.”
“I’ve tried to reach you several times without success.” Sierra leaned back against the supple leather, her shaky footing growing more secure with each passing second. Business first . . . last . . . always. “The last time was shortly after you visited Faith. You had just completed your latest resort in Jackson Hole, and already there was talk of the next project in Dallas.”
“Which is becoming a reality,” he said mildly.
Caught up in the excitement of the moment, she forgot to be cautious and closed the distance between them, her voice animated. “I read that construction is almost complete on Navarone Place. I want to be the exclusive broker for the fifty-five private estates in Dallas, and for the resort you’re planning on Riviera Maya.”
Blade had known from the first moment that she would be different. Women chased him. The beautiful woman leaning toward him, her eyes bright with enthusiasm, her raspberry-colored lips soft and inviting, would chase no man, which made her safer to pursue. He didn’t want hysterical good-byes.
His hands clenched as a pain sliced through him. He’d give his heart to no woman again. Nor would he put one at risk.
The car stopped briefly at a security checkpoint, then cruised through a twelve-foot steel gate. “You can tell me your qualifications over dinner.”
Sierra glanced out the window as the car passed a gated house with two armed guards, then continued up a winding road. “I don’t suppose there is a new restaurant up here?”
“My home. I understood that the auction prize was having dinner together,” he reminded her. “Reservations would have been extremely difficult to get at the better places.”
“Difficult, but not impossible for Blade Navarone,” she said as the car came to a smooth stop.
“No,” he admitted just as his chauffeur opened Blade’s door. “Thank you. I’ll see to Ms. Grayson.” Rounding the car, Blade opened Sierra’s door. She ignored his extended hand and the open door. She simply looked at him.
Despite what she’d said earlier, she was weighing him. And despite the strong possibility she might ask him to take her back to the hotel, he patiently waited for her to trust him when he would have admitted he wasn’t a patient man. However, the thought of Sierra being taken advantage of by any man sent an unexpected rage surging through Blade.
“What’s on the menu?” she finally asked.
He relaxed. Almost. “I believe Martin prepared a number of dishes. Lobster, shrimp scampi, steak.”
“I love good food.”
“He’s an excellent chef. I hired him away from the Mansion while I was in Dallas during the preliminary research for Navarone Place. The Mansion is the only five-star, five-diamond hotel in the United States and world-renowned for its cuisine and service.”
“Well, then, what are we waiting for?” She put her hand in his and stepped out of the car. Her fingers were long and delicate, her skin soft. When she stood, their bodies almost touched. He caught the arousing scent of amber and orange blossoms. His nostrils flared. His body hardened. He wondered what her lips and her skin would taste like.
The teasing smile slid from her face. Her breathing accelerated. Awareness shimmered between them.
He wanted her, then, there, with a forgotten fierceness. And he always got what he wanted.
Copyright © 2007 by Francis Ray. All rights reserved.