The Forbidden Touch of Sanguardo

By: Julia James

 CHAPTER ONE

CELESTE STOOD POISED at the head of the long curving flight of marble stairs that led down into the great hall below. It was already crowded with people in black tie and evening clothes, and servers were circulating with trays of champagne and canapés. Her fellow models for the evening were mingling in evening dress, prior to the charity fashion show that was about to start. She had arrived slightly late at the stately home in Oxfordshire that was the evening’s venue, but had seized the last-minute opportunity to be here tonight, well away from London—and from Karl Reiner.

Celeste’s expression tautened even just from her thinking about the man. She had known when she became the new face of Blonde Visage, one of the skincare ranges belonging to Reiner Visage—one for each complexion type—that Karl Reiner liked to have a more than professional relationship with the Reiner Visage models, but because he had been preoccupied with another ‘face’—Monique Silva—Celeste had felt it safe to allow herself to be tempted by the lucrative contract. Making good, regular money was, even after years in the fickle and intensely competitive modelling business, not something to turn down lightly.

A bleak expression lit the back of her eyes.

There was never, ever, any such thing as easy money—

She of all people should know that...

For now Karl had tired of Monique and was turning his attention to Celeste—and he assumed she would be as willing as Monique had been.

Celeste’s expression hardened. Karl Reiner could assume what he liked, but he would not get what he was after from her. Not even now he had flown in from New York this weekend specifically to pressure her to extend her contract—and pay the price he wanted her to pay for it.

Well, she would not be extending it. Yes, the money had been good, but these days making money was not the be all and end all of her preoccupations. A cold miasma seemed to touch at her skin. Not any more...

Her refusal was a message Karl Reiner didn’t want to hear, and he had demanded she make herself available to have dinner with him in London tonight. To evade him Celeste had been obliged to volunteer at a late hour for the charity fashion show that was shortly to take place in the grand salon.

Just thinking about Karl Reiner and what he wanted of her—what he thought she would provide—intensified the feeling of a cold miasma on her skin. It was penetrating into her like a toxic memory, fetid and foul...

With effort, she pushed it from her mind.

No! She would not think—would not remember.

She had dealt with those memories long ago! Paid the price for dealing with them—a price she was still paying, must always pay—and it was a price she paid because there was no alternative. Could never be.

All she could do was what she had done for years now—build her career, focus only on that. Be dedicated, hard-working.

On her own.

Always on her own.

For a last fleeting moment the bleakness showed in her eyes again. She knew far too well the price she was paying for those memories whose dank tendrils dragged across her flesh.

A stab of self-revulsion jabbed at her. Once she had lacerated herself with such stabs, but she gave herself a mental shake. She would not let anything drag her mind down such dark pathways. She was here tonight to do a job. One she had done a hundred times before.

Yet as she gathered her long skirts gracefully, preparing to descend into the thronged hall below, something stayed her for one last moment. She felt as if something were different tonight. As if she were poised on the edge of her familiar world. On the threshold of a new one.

Then, with a sharp, dismissive intake of breath, she took a step forward and started to move down the staircase. There was no new world awaiting her. There could not be.

She did not need the echo of that trailing miasma across her skin to tell her that...

* * *

Rafael Sanguardo stood, empty champagne glass loosely held in long fingers, and let his dark gaze rest on his opulently baroque surroundings, painted and gilded to profusion. It was an irony not lost on him that, as one of the sponsors of the charity, he should be a guest here—considering that it had been the exploited wealth of the Americas that had built this eighteenth-century splendour and that it had been the labour of his peon ancestors, albeit under Spanish colonial masters and not British ones, who had so signally contributed to this display of old-world wealth.

But now history had turned its wheel of fortune. In the global village of the twenty-first century it was the industrious entrepreneurship of former colonials who generated much of the world’s wealth—and Rafael Sanguardo knew he could count himself one of their number.

Thanks to his own intelligence, determination and drive, he had transformed himself in little more than a dozen years from an orphaned teenager living in one of the smallest of the string of countries stretching from Mexico to Colombia, via a philanthropic scholarship to a prestigious North American university, into a serial entrepreneur who had backed a succession of highly successful companies and who could now, had he so wished, have made his home in just such a palatial pile as the one he was tonight a guest in.

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