The Billionaire’s Deception


 

MimiWells-Amalfi-MEDIUM
 

Chapter 1

 

“Signorina.”

“Hmm?” Janine Pike didn’t want to open her eyes. The buttery smooth voice could have been conjured out of the decadent dream she’d been having. Something involving champagne, of course.

“Signorina.”

Silk lingerie. Candlelight. Chocolate. A Hemsworth giving her a foot massage.

Signorina.” The voice was insistent now.

She shaded her eyes, cracked one open just a slit, and instantly regretted it. Apparently she’d had a lot more limoncello to drink last night than she’d thought. “What is it?” she asked.

A slim Italian man dressed in a finely-cut linen suit with an open-collar shirt peered down at her, his expensive calfskin loafers wildly out of place on this stretch of beach. “Your friends—“

She cut him off with a careless wave. “They’re getting something off the boat.”

“There is no boat, signorina.”

“Of course there’s a boat,” Janine huffed, sitting up and frowning. “The À Bientôt. It’s right over…”

Her voice trailed off as she took in the scene around her. Plastic cups and empty bottles littered the sand near the ashes of a makeshift fire pit. A silver hoop earring glinted, half-buried, beneath an abandoned hot pink bikini top. Not hers—Simone’s. But Simone, her boyfriend Christophe, and their gaggle of hot young European friends Janine had been partying with last night on the beach were nowhere to be seen. Neither was the boat. Or, to her horror, her backpack containing her entire wardrobe, her European journals, and her passport.

Panicked, she scrabbled in her pocket for her phone and came up with only a crumpled €20 note and some lint.

Oh, God. Her phone. Sometime last night she’d gotten up to charge it and—yep. It was probably exactly where she left it, plugged into one of the outlets in the galley of Christophe’s cruiser, which was God-knows-where in the iridescent waters off the Amalfi Coast by now.

À Bientôt, indeed. So Long, sucker.

“This is not happening,” she murmured, trying to quell her rising panic. She’d been in Europe for three months. Three months with no huge problems. When she’d stepped on the plane at Hartsfield International airport in Atlanta back in April, her mother had hugged her tight and made her swear to be cautious, to be safe, to come back in one piece. And Janine had promised. Up until now, it had been an easy promise to keep.

“Signorina, there is one more thing–”

“What?” she barked, hating the panicky sound in her voice. This wasn’t her.

“There is the small matter of the bill.”

She gulped. There’d been a lot of drinking last night. More than the pile of bottles here indicated. Definitely more than twenty euros’ worth, that’s for sure.

“My friend left his credit card with the bartender,” she explained, pointing toward the marina’s upscale rooftop bar.

The man pursed his reddish lips, his disdain clear. “The card has been declined.”

Damn Cristophe and his expensive tastes. And his enthusiasm. Last night was the first time she’d let herself get really looped. Even at home, she wasn’t a big drinker, and with the constant threat of “some lunatic with a pocket full of roofies,” as her roommate Hannah warned, she was more likely to order one drink and nurse it, keep it close, than she was to indulge.

But not last night. Last night had been a beer (only one), limoncello (dangerously delicious), and grappa (kill me now)-fueled blur. Simone—blonde, giggling Simone—had kept pace with Janine, Christophe, and the trio of Italian layabouts they’d picked up in Portofino and seemed none the worse for wear. Typical. Simone’s capacity had been campus legend at the small college they’d attended together. Ginormous linemen couldn’t keep up with her. Janine was a fool to have tried. But she was nearing the end of her trip, so she’d gone for it.

Man, had that been a mistake. The departure date on her ticket—oh, God, the ticket!—was looming ever closer. She only had a few days left. Only a few days to indulge. Only a few days to soak in the culture she wouldn’t be able to afford to visit again for years.

Only a few days to find her.

Janine had saved the Isola del Sole until last. Not just because it was famous for its turquoise seas, its flowers, its history. But because she lived here. Stéphanie, her sister.

Half sister, she mentally corrected. Half. They shared a charming father and nothing else. Janine hadn’t even known Stéphanie existed until the day her letter arrived.

 

Dear Miss Pike, it began formally, We have never met,
but we have something very important in common. Someone, to be exact…

 

In all the years Janine had spent in the tidy suburban bungalow she shared with her family, she’d never really wondered about her biological father. She’d never missed out on love or attention, never wished he’d sweep her into a princess fantasy better suited to a Disney movie. Her mother never talked about him. Once Emily met Steve Pike, and Steve had fallen as hard for Janine as he had for her, that was it. Steve adopted Emily’s seven-year-old daughter the day of their courthouse wedding, and he was the only father Janine had ever needed. Wanted.

The monogrammed envelope bearing the exotic foreign postmark had the same impact as a grenade. Stéphanie Harlen’s letter did what twenty years of questions hadn’t: pried open her mother’s secretive lips. The man who made her, the one who never called or wrote, wasn’t a wayward college student, a spoiled trust-fund brat, a long-haul trucker, or a regrettable one-night stand—scenarios Janine had conjured over the years in response to Emily’s silence.

Nope. Her father was French. Famous. A household name, if you happened to adore food as much as you loved a legendary story.

She still had a hard time believing that Valéry Harlen, the dashing bad boy chef whose Mange Bien! TV series made him a household name, was the man responsible for her temper and her tenacious cowlick. And probably the uncharacteristic urge that goaded her into quitting her first real job and flying to Europe on this trip. As far as Janine knew, keeping her surprise daughter was the only impulsive thing her organized, no-nonsense mother had ever done in her life.

Linen Suit coughed pointedly and pulled out a silk handkerchief. Judging from the cut of his jacket and quality of the fabric, this man was no ordinary desk clerk. He was probably management, and probably beyond irritated at the irresponsible American with the wastrel friends. “I’m sure we can get this straightened out,” she finally stammered as he dabbed at the beads of sweat forming along his hairline.

Nothing to be done. She had one card to play, and she hoped like hell Stéphanie Harlen wouldn’t resent her for playing it.

She stood up and brushed the sand off the back of her shorts, located her shoes, and trudged up the beach behind him toward the cream stucco of the Hotel dei Fiori Isola del Sole.

Strange how things came full circle whether you planned them or not, she thought as they crossed into the cool shade of the stone tunnel leading from the beach to the lush front gardens of the hotel property. Valéry Harlen’s career had been launched from this place, his passionate and creative approach to traditional French and Italian cuisine earning him fame in foodie circles and a river of lire to boot. His first cookbook swaggered to the top of the bestseller lists, and his Gallic good looks catapulted him out of the kitchen and onto television. The cookbook that followed, Riez Souvent, its title taken from the television show’s closing toast, sent him on a worldwide tour of destination food cities and probably the bedrooms of a slew of enchanted women. Or book publicists, in Emily’s case. The affair had lasted a week. The souvenir was currently 24, jobless, and regretting she’d trusted someone like Simone’s Eurotrash boyfriend with all of her possessions.

They emerged into a sunlit garden ablaze in color and redolent with scent. Stately cypress trees encircled the space and gave it a cloistered feel despite being framed by the long curve of the hotel’s driveway. Roses bloomed in multicolored profusion. Bright geraniums poked their cheerful heads from planters and urns set along the walkways.

Janine followed Linen Suit through the arch of blazing pink bougainvillea that marked the end of the garden and across a cobbled portico dotted with luxury cars. A quartet of smiling doormen swept open the massive carved doors to usher them into the lobby. She let out a low whistle at the opulence that greeted her everywhere she looked: silk sheers at the windows, embroidered pillows on the chairs, even gold leaf on the figured plaster ceiling. The hotel’s signature floral arrangements cascaded from urns, vases, and baskets, sending dizzying spirals of lush scent into the air. Jazz music sparkled from a grand piano tucked into the curve of the wide stairway to the second floor mezzanine. Janine hunched her shoulders, feeling conspicuous at how shabby and out of place she must look in her travel-worn shorts and fading shirt. All around her, impossibly chic, slim women glided by in crisp resort wear and expensive sandals.

A harried porter pushed past her, toting a fortune in Louis Vuitton luggage. Janine thought ruefully of her now-missing backpack, its web of scars from being dropped, dragged, and shoved into compartments all over Europe. That backpack had been her home, really, for months now. It held everything—her few changes of clothes, the one cute dress she’d packed for slightly more formal occasions, a dried thistle from the Highlands of Scotland, a vintage scarf discovered at a flea market in Paris, flat pebbles she’d scooped out of the Rhine near the rock of the Lorelei, and a piece of millefiori she couldn’t resist buying for her mother in Rome. Not to mention her watertight pouch containing the rest of her cash, her bank and credit cards, and her passport.

Geez, her passport. How in the world would she manage to replace that with no money and no other ID? Her American driver’s license was in the pouch with it.

Linen Suit stepped behind the counter and spoke quietly with a woman holding a phone receiver. She glanced over at Janine, then handed a paper to Linen Suit.

“Here you are, signorina.”

Janine looked over the bill and blanched at the total.

“Will you be paying in cash or by credit card?” His bland face suggested that this amount was nothing special.

She suppressed a cough. How had they managed to run up a tab that large? It had a comma in it, for Pete’s sake!

“Cash, signorina?” he interrupted.

“No.”

“Credit.” He reached for a card reader.

“No,” she blurted. How to explain? “You see, my wallet has been…” She trailed off. Stolen? Is that what happened? She hated to think an old friend like Simone, even if they had lost touch in the years since college, would be party to that. “My wallet is gone. I’m sure my friends will be back soon and settle everything.”

Linen Suit did not look amused. “Signorina, the Isola del Sole is well known for its hospitality, but it does not take kindly to thieves.”

“I’m not—“ Her voice was louder than she expected. People were starting to whisper. She looked away from the counter toward the staircase. Her gaze collided with that of the man sitting behind the glossy grand piano. His dark eyes were steady, his sculptural face a smooth cappuccino brown. A charge rippled through her and dissipated just as quickly. He might be just a piano player, but even from this distance she could tell from the perfect tailoring of the jacket smoothed across his broad shoulders that he fit right in with the wealthy clientele of the lobby. Unlike her.

She dragged her attention back to Linen Suit. “I’m no thief,” she said in a low voice. “I’m merely stating a fact. My wallet is gone and all I have is this.” She placed the €20 bill on the counter and met his gaze. “Until my friends return, that is. Then I’m sure we can settle everything to your satisfaction.”

“I’m afraid that might not be good enough,” he said. His blandly pleasant face had disappeared, replaced by one that telegraphed his disapproval. She’d never felt more like a stereotypical ugly American tourist, and she hadn’t done anything except have too much to drink the night before. She was tired, she was hung over, and she needed a shower. She was out of options.

Janine took a deep breath. “I need to speak to Stéphanie Harlen.”

 

Shel Myerson ran his hand over his close-cropped scalp, marveling again at the smooth feel. It wasn’t the most original idea in the world, getting a haircut to symbolize a grand change in your life, but it still took getting used to.

He had to admit that the new look really helped. Paparazzi the world over knew him from his signature dreadlocks and his height. Cameras were nothing new for Shel—you spent your life in front of one when your mother was a beloved 80s sitcom star—but he’d long since become bored of the photographers who followed him like gnats. Their persistence had only worsened when his own creative venture, the historical fantasy cult show Fortune’s Fool, became a worldwide phenomenon and catapulted him onto the Forbes list. After that, he couldn’t take a leak without one of the bastards following him into the can.

Three years of nonstop meetings, press junkets, and negotiations. Three years of parties, beautiful women, good times. The past six months alone had been an adrenaline-fueled blur, and not just because he’d been shadowing his best friend Rocco De Luca during the spring’s F1 event calendar, taking notes for a new series idea in between stints behind the wheel at charity races. Writing and producing kept him busy and made him more money than he could spend in four lifetimes, but racing helped bleed off the energy that kept him up at nights, held the insomnia that had plagued him since he was a little boy at bay.

He stretched his long legs beneath the burnished Fazioli grand he’d been playing, then began a new piece. Something light and American, something pleasant. Nothing that would draw much attention. Anonymity had its perks. Get a crotchety old barber in Lake Como to cut your hair. Take a public ferry back to the Isola del Sole instead of his usual helicopter from Sorrento. Throw on a suit, sit at the piano bench, and you become a ghost. Just an employee. Just part of the background.

It was heaven.

He looked around the opulent room. No one flicked a glance in his direction. Not the porters, not the front desk staff, and certainly not the women. He knew women like this. Hell, he usually dated women like this—polished, gorgeous, rich. The kind who spent more on sunglasses each year than most families did on groceries. They were like walking F1 cars: sleek, fast, and dangerous.

A helpful example strolled across the polished marble of the lobby, dressed in handkerchief linen, draped in gold and diamonds, and carrying a large chartreuse handbag, an instantly identifiable on-trend satchel from the hot designer Le Corsaire.

He knew this, of course, because of Pilar. Lovely Pilar, the face of Le Corsaire. His now ex-girlfriend because of Le Corsaire.

“You’re a darling, Shel, but Georges can take me places you can’t,” she’d said, shedding one lovely crocodile tear in the process.

He didn’t ask what kind of places she meant. During their tempestuous months together, he’d taken her to openings and events, galas and shows, sat front row during Fashion Week in both Paris and Milan marveling at her the way he was expected, and acted the perfect gentleman when she dumped him, yet again, in Venice. Considering they were both barely clothed at the time, he thought he’d done well not to have pushed her out on the balcony and let the swarm of lenses along the Grand Canal broadcast the news to the hungry world of gossip.

Instead, he’d paid for the suite, tipped the housekeepers an outrageous amount to atone for Pilar’s mountain of makeup-stained towels and the wrinkled designer clothes she’d strewn everywhere, and left their five-star luxury inn for the relative quiet of Rocco’s family’s flagship hotel on the Isola del Sole.

Surprise number one was that Matteo, Rocco’s older brother and the manager of the dei Fiori hotel group wasn’t there. He’d gone to Venice to meet with Baroness Helena Von Lienz, a lovely and sophisticated ex-model, to negotiate, charm, or, if necessary, seduce her out of the ownership percentage in the dei Fiori hotels she’d inherited from her late husband. Surprise number two was that Rocco had scooped up Matteo’s briskly efficient assistant and whisked her off to England.

But the staff knew him well from his many late night jaunts with Rocco. They ensconced him in a private cottage out back, the one in the corner closet to the staff apartments, for some quiet. He thought and wrote best in times of personal pressure. If this relationship implosion in front of the entire European gossip corps didn’t qualify as personal pressure, he didn’t know what would.

The blonde with the chartreuse Le Corsaire snapped her fingers at a porter and departed, giving Shel an unobstructed view of the front desk. Leaning against it, unaware of the stir she was causing for the young men at the bell stand, was a compact brunette. She was talking to Carlo Fusco, the officious day manager, and she seemed nervous. Shel’s gaze traveled up her slim, yet muscular legs, paused in appreciation at the sweet, heart-shaped curve of her ass, and traveled up her neat spine to where it disappeared into the streaky darkness of her coffee-colored hair. He caught a few words, low and insistent. The warm depth of her voice, so unlike Pilar’s breathy, high tones, pleased him. Hell, more than pleased him. He was startled to realize he was turned on.

“…I’m sure my friends will come back soon and settle everything.” Shel frowned. The conversation wasn’t going well. He looked closer. She was American, he could tell from her accent. Alone, obviously. But she carried nothing with her. No bag, no suitcase, nothing.

She turned her head, sighing in frustration, giving him a glimpse of sea-green eyes and a lush mouth. A mouth he wanted to taste, to bite.

Under the keyboard of the piano, he’d gone rigid.

Hell, that was unexpected. But maybe not. The conversation at the desk was becoming more intense, her gestures more agitated.

“…My wallet is gone and all I have is this.”

He shouldn’t get involved. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d gotten himself tangled in something monumentally stupid because of a good looking woman. But something about this woman was different. Finally, she sighed loud enough that an older gentleman further down the desk looked up sharply and frowned.

“I need to speak to Stéphanie Harlen.”

That was unexpected.

“Signorina Harlen is not available,” Fusco said.

His mystery girl was not impressed by the officious tone. “She’ll see me.”

“Signorina Harlen’s calendar is full at present.”

A convenient but mostly accurate story. Shel knew exactly where Steffi was—with Rocco. He was sure that at the moment, Steffi was most likely quite busy. And, knowing Rocco, naked.

“She’ll want to see me,” the girl persisted.

Fusco’s expression shifted from bland to impatient. “Wait here, please.” He disappeared into the offices behind the desk.

“But—” The woman groaned. “Thanks, universe,” she muttered. “Why not just strike me dead where I stand and make this go more quickly for the both of us.”

He was halfway across the lobby toward her before he realized what he was doing. It’s a trap. Don’t get involved, he reminded himself right before he blurted, “Excuse me, but is there anything I can do for you?” Way to stay uninvolved, genius.

She turned to him, lifted her gaze to meet his. He braced for the inevitable “Don’t I know you?” and “Oh my GOD you’re the Fortune’s Fool guy” realization, the one that split all women into three categories:

1) Obsessive fangirls of the show who propositioned him.

2) Gossip blog readers who propositioned him because he was famous and had hot actor friends.

3) Gold diggers who propositioned him because he was rich.

The woman did none of those things. Instead, her face crumpled and she let out a howl accompanied by instant tears of frustration. “I quit my job and spend three uneventful months in Europe just to have my backpack and everything I own vanish because I trusted the wrong people, and now I owe my left arm to this hotel because I can’t pay my stupid bar bill that my stupid friends drank most of anyway.” She waved a hand toward the office door Fusco had closed behind him. “So, no. You can’t really help me unless you can turn that guy into the weasel he really is or teleport Stéphanie Harlen from wherever she’s hiding into this lobby.”

Shel was still processing the fact that she hadn’t recognized him. No way a haircut had that much power. But he was glad for the temporary anonymity all the same. He smiled at her and mimed playing a piano. “My superpowers are limited to jazz arrangements and cheesy power ballads.”

“Power ballads,” she nodded with a wry twist of her lips. “How very American.”

“How very indeed.” Something interesting was crackling between them despite her distress. Something interesting and unusual. “This isn’t happening,” she said through clenched teeth.

It’s happening, all right. Something is, anyway. “I can’t teleport her here, but I do know her,” Shel offered. “We—work together.” Not exactly a lie. She’d helped with last year’s Isola del Sole Pro-Am race for charity, sitting next to her boss Matteo in the patrons’ box every day of the event. “And she just started dating a friend of mine. I’ll call him.”

“Would you?”

“Sure.” Shel was probably going straight to hell for the number of lies he just told, but he didn’t care. His storytelling senses were picking up on something else, something she was hiding. He had to find out what.

“I’m Janine, by the way,” she said. Her smile was small, tentative. “Janine Pike.”

“Sheldon.” They shook hands. Hers was small, warm. It vanished into his, but her grip was firm. Despite her current circumstance, Janine had backbone. And a great figure besides, all curves and softness instead of angles and planes, like Pilar. He liked it. A lot.

He dropped her hand before it became obvious how much he enjoyed touching her. No piano to hide his reaction this time. She stepped back, lips parted, a faint flush along her jawline. Curiouser and curiouser.

“Just a minute,” he told her. “Why don’t you have a seat over there?” he suggested, indicating a chair out of sight of the main desk. “Fusco can’t see you.”

She scoffed. “Good plan.” She curled into the seat and rested her head against the wing. She closed her eyes, strain and exhaustion evident on her lovely face.

Shel fished out his phone to text Rocco. Sorry to disturb – young woman here to see Steffi.

Busy right now.

Shel smirked. I’ll bet.

He saw Fusco emerge from the office, look around for Janine, and begin a hissed conversation with the front desk staff, complete with angry hand gestures. Ask Steffi if she knows a Janine Pike, Shel texted back.

To his surprise, the phone rang in reply. “Hey buddy,” he began, but Steffi’s voice cut him off.

“Janine Pike?” she said, her French origins still evident in the zh- sound she used for the initial J. “Janine is there?”

“Yeah, she’s right here. What’s the big deal?” Shel asked.

There was a brief pause before she answered softly, “Janine is my sister.”

Shel blinked in surprise. Steffi had never mentioned a sister. Ding! Ding! Ding! So that’s what Janine was hiding. This day, and Janine, were getting more fascinating by the minute.

As if hearing his thoughts, she continued, “I only learned of her existence recently. I had no idea she was coming to the Isola del Sole. Is she staying at the hotel?”

Shel considered the facts—the unpaid bill, the lack of luggage, the decidedly casual clothing. “I don’t think so. Looks like a day visitor to me.”

“You have to keep her there,” Steffi blurted. “Rocco cannot leave here until the end of the weekend because of his contractual obligations. And since I am here as Matteo’s representative, I cannot leave either unless I’m ready to give up my job with dei Fiori. Can you help me?”

“Of course.”

“Put her in my apartment and do not let her leave. We’ll be back Sunday evening.”

“Sunday. Right. I’ll take care of it.”

“Thank you. Here—” Shel heard her hand the phone over, then Rocco’s smooth baritone poured through the receiver.

“You interrupted an important moment, my friend.”

Shel laughed. “Any moment with a woman is important to you.”

“This one is different,” Rocco admitted. “Do whatever you have to, but keep Janine there until I can return Steffi to the hotel.”

Sheldon studied Janine again. Sisters? Janine’s loose hair, rumpled clothes, and tired sport sandals were universes away from Steffi’s customary French twist and neat, professional skirts and pumps. “Right. Ciao.”

“Ciao.”

Shel pocketed the phone and headed toward the desk, where Fusco was still blistering the people behind it in rapid Italian. “Mr. Fusco.”

Fusco abandoned his tirade and his face shifted to rapt attention. Unlike Janine, he knew exactly who Shel was, including his relationship with the De Luca brothers.

“Yes, Signor Myerson?” he replied, just this side of obsequious.

“The young lady asking for Steffi Harlen.”

Fusco’s look turned venomous. “I assume she is trying to avoid paying last night’s bar bill and thinks Miss Harlen will be an easier touch than I.”

“You assume wrong,” Shel corrected. He’d never really liked Carlo Fusco, and the way he spoke so dismissively of Matteo’s right hand, and Rocco’s new fiancée, didn’t bode well for his continued employment with the Hotel dei Fiori. “I have spoken to both Miss Harlen and Mr. De Luca. I will handle Miss Pike.”

“But the bill—”

“Just follow along with whatever I ask. Understood?” Shel glared at him and waited for him to wilt. It was a short wait. Fusco was nearly a foot shorter than he was and easily intimidated.

Fusco opened his mouth, shut it. “Yes, Signor Myerson.”

“Good.”

He turned from the counter and dismissed Fusco, smiling in anticipation as he walked back toward where Janine was waiting. She’d fallen asleep. He brushed her hand lightly with the tip of one finger, watched her come to, meet his gaze steadily. Janine, with her sea-green eyes and her secrets. What a story this might turn out to be.

“Come with me,” he told her.

 

The Billionaire’s Deception is the second book in the Amalfi Nights Billionaires series,
published by the Holiday Books imprint of Tule Publishing. Find out more here!