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Trust fall into a riveting world of mystery, lies, and betrayal with this brand-new billionaire romance series by USA Today Bestselling Author Dakota Willink.
I wasn’t looking for a hero, especially one as wickedly gorgeous as Anton Romano. I knew better than to get into bed with someone like him—both figuratively and literally.
His onyx eyes weren’t the only thing dark and dangerous about him.
He ignited a fire inside me, but surrendering to the flame would leave my already bruised heart in tatters.
However, the self-made billionaire had found me at my lowest.
So when he offered me the very thing I needed more than anything, I couldn’t refuse—his money or his touch.
I was a prodigy born from New York’s underworld, viewed by many as a calculating monster for how I amassed my fortune.
Serena Martinelli was amongst Italy’s elite, beautiful devastation wrapped in red, just waiting for me to untie her many layers. She awakened my darkest desires that craved to be satisfied, but I couldn’t allow myself to scratch that alluring itch. One touch of her flawless olive skin risked unraveling years of carefully laid plans.
She might need my money, but she didn't know that I also needed something from her—and I would stop at nothing to claim what I wanted, no matter the cost.
Copyright © 2023 by Dakota Willink
The sun dipped below the horizon, bathing the sky in a hue of pink and orange. It cast a warm and intimate glow over the streets of New York. The city was alive with the sounds of chatter, cars honking, and distant laughter. It created a symphony of humanity that pulsed through my veins. Once night fell, everything would come alive with new energy with the lights from the skyscrapers illuminating the sky. It was one of the things I loved about the city, and it made me wish I’d visit more often.
On this particular evening, the streets were bustling with people dressed in their finest. Some were on their way to dinners, theater shows, and other forms of entertainment. For me, the Met Gala was my end destination, an event I never dared dream I would actually attend until this very day.
The early May air was warmer than usual, but it still felt cool on my bare arms. I rubbed them with my hands as I made my way toward The Metropolitan Museum of Art, hoping to ward off the chill as I strolled past ornate fountains, trees, and benches. When I got closer to the wide granite staircase, I slowed my pace, hesitant to continue. I’d walked up the famous steps plenty of times in the past, and normally would have enjoyed seeing the people playing instruments, reading books, or simply contemplating life.
But tonight was different.
Tonight I wanted to avoid the steps at all costs. The casual assortment of people who usually occupied the stairs would no longer be there, replaced by an electric atmosphere of cameras and flashbulbs. I couldn't help but feel a sense of anticipation for the possibilities that lay ahead. Only the rich and famous would ascend the grand steps this evening—which was precisely why I needed to avoid them. I was far from being worthy of the elite.
In fact, I had never been as financially strapped as I was at that moment. It was the reason feelings of imposter syndrome were running havoc on my psyche. I knew I didn’t belong here, despite my cultured façade.
I recalled the care and attention I'd put into my appearance earlier that evening. The expense of having my hair styled and my face made up was worth it. My eyes were smoldering, almost seductive, and my dark locks were coiffed into a sophisticated updo. I had hardly recognized myself in the mirror of my hotel room when I took in my reflection. A luxury salon visit was a rarity for me, but I knew my limitations. I seldom had a need for fancy hair and makeup in my line of work, making my experience with so much fuss practically non-existent. Calling in professional help for tonight had been a must.
My hand drifted up to smooth a strand of hair, now curled and pinned elegantly with a few loose tendrils cascading down the center of my neck and upper back. They ended just above the blood-red corset, intricately laced and adorned with a spill of scarlet chiffon that flowed in a dramatic puff over my legs to brush the ground. The lavish gown and heart-shaped ruby necklace were donations from none other than the renowned French designer Madeleine Toussaint.
Madeleine was a close friend to my mother. She had a deep appreciation for my father's work before his passing, and it was by her invitation that I was here tonight. She understood the weight of my situation and what was at stake. A promise that I’d made to my father five years ago required money—and lots of it. Madeleine had assured me that the guest list for the Met Gala would open doors to the funding I desperately needed.
Still, I couldn't shake my nagging doubts. As beautiful as the dress Madeleine provided to me was, I had half a mind to ball up the cumbersome train—which for all intents and purposes was absolutely ridiculous—hail a cab to JFK airport and go back to Italy. The red carpet and glare of media cameras were not for me. Being in the company of celebrities, musicians, fashion designers, and models would never be my forte, but I knew I had little choice but to endure it. Only the ultra-wealthy had the resources to support my father's work, and that was more important than my own discomfort or awkwardness. I had to pretend to fit in, act as if I belonged, and knew what I was doing.
Focusing on putting one foot in front of the other, I forced myself to continue toward the grand staircase. However, the closer I got, the more my heart began to race. Anxious jittered threatened to overwhelm me.
Maybe if I just take a minute to sit down and collect myself…
I glanced behind me at the bench I’d just walked past, then turned to make my way toward it. I made to sit down but paused, realizing that sitting in this dress would be quite a challenge. It wasn't just the train that was an issue. All the voluminous layers of chiffon would be more than a little cumbersome.
I pressed my lips together tightly and started the awkward attempt at gathering the skirt layers. I went to move them to one side so I could sit, but the corset was so snug, I could barely bend to shift the chiffon. I released an impatient breath but came to a sudden stop when I realized I was being watched. I glanced up to the observing eyes of a man dressed sharply in a bespoke tuxedo.
Great. Just what I needed right now. An audience.
I tried to act indifferent to his obvious attention, but something made me pause and take a second glance.
The man looking at me was anything but ordinary. He was striking in the most captivating way. I judged him to be slightly older than me, perhaps around thirty-five years of age. His face was chiseled, boasting a sculpted square jawline of masculine perfection. It gave him an air of refined elegance, yet there was something raw around the edges that hinted at danger. It just made him that much more alluring.
He was tall, standing well over six feet, looking impressive in his black tuxedo jacket, crisp white shirt, and solid black bowtie. His dark brown hair was longer, but not too long, with the ends curling at his collar.
I’d encountered many attractive men throughout my life, but none had ever compared to the man standing before me. He was intimidating just as much as he was tempting, yet I couldn’t suppress the sudden vision of running my hands through his thick, dark hair, working my fingers to unfasten the buttons of his shirt, and spreading my hands across the expanse of his chest, over his shoulders, and...
I felt a sudden stirring deep in my belly, and my face began to flush with heat.
What the hell was that? Get a hold of yourself, Serena!
I refocused my attention on maintaining a modicum of grace as I attempted to sit on the city bench. However, it was wishful thinking. To my horror, when I lifted the train of my dress, the heel of my shoe caught the hem, and I lost my balance.
“Oh!” I gasped, suppressing a curse as my flailing arms searched for something to hold onto.
My current predicament should have been predictable. I would never be graceful in a gown such as this. I braced myself for impact as the ground rushed to meet me.
However, instead of falling onto hard concrete, I landed against the hard chest of the dark and mysterious stranger. His grip was firm, with one hand wrapping around my lower back and the other curling around my upper arm.
I inhaled sharply, the sudden intake of breath allowing me to take in his tantalizing scent. He smelled almost as good as he looked. It was an intoxicating combination of sexy male and decadent sin.
A flush of embarrassment warmed my cheeks as our eyes met, his gaze was reserved and appraising. He had incredible eyes. They were dark as onyx with chocolate flecks that one would only be able to discern if they were close enough—and boy, was I ever close. The intensity of his dark gaze sent a shiver down my spine, raising the hairs on the nape of my neck.
Lines of concern etched across his flawlessly chiseled features, bringing to my attention to the fact that I was gawking at him like a smitten schoolgirl. My pulse thrummed from his proximity. A perfect stranger should not arouse these feelings inside of me. I was oddly turned on in all the best ways, yet I couldn't recall a time in my life when I felt more humiliated. I wasn’t sure how I was able to feel both humiliation and arousal at the same time.
“Are you alright?” he asked, his voice as smooth as his appearance, and I was struck dumb, unable to find my voice to respond.
I blinked twice and shifted slightly back, forcing myself to focus. Clearing my throat, I gave him a quick nod. “I'm fine, thank you. It seems poofy layers are in vogue this season. I should have informed the dress designer about my terrible rapport with poof. We had a bad break up some years ago and I swore I’d never go back.”
A hint of a smile played at the corners of his mouth, almost as if he were holding back a chuckle.
He glided his hand down the length of my arm, coming to a rest near my elbow. “You’re pulse. It’s racing.”
“Is it?” I practically squeaked.
Something dark smoldered in the depths of those ruthless eyes, and he seemed closer than he had been a few moments before. Our heads were only a foot apart, and I began to wonder if he was going to kiss me. Surely, I had to be mistaken. After all, we’d only just met, and I didn’t even know his name.
Still, I couldn’t stop myself from breathing in, needing to indulge in his scent once more. The tempting blend of clean pine with his own natural masculinity was a heady combination. It reminded me of that alluring smell of rain in the air just before a wild storm, tempting you to linger outside longer than you should.
Much to my disappointment, he stepped back until we were a respectable distance apart, but he continued to hold my hand in his. His fingers grazed my palm until I remembered that I didn’t have soft, feminine hands like most other women he probably interacted with. My hands were calloused from years of hard work. Feeling self-conscious, I pulled my hand from his.
His onyx eyes flashed, and his brows pushed together. If I wasn’t mistaken, my action seemed to displease him.
“My name is Anton,” he eventually offered.
Adonis. Apollo. Ares. Anton. Of course his name would sound like it belonged to a mythical God. Why wouldn’t it? Was Anton even the name of a God?
Someone in my line of work should know the answer to that, but the minute I’d laid eyes on the alluring Anton, my brain had turned to mush. I was completely captivated by him. It was as if he had cast some sort of enchanting spell over me.
I bit my lower lip to stop myself from swooning even more, then gave him a small smile.
“A name fit for a princess.”
Ignoring the way his comment made me feel, I fought a threatening blush. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Anton.”
“I can assure you—the pleasure is all mine.”
There was no stopping a flush of red from flooding my cheeks this time. Between his affluent attire and ruthlessly handsome features, this man was way too sexy for his own good.
His nearly black eyes shifted to linger on the ruby around my neck, before falling to the swell of my breasts. His gaze stayed there only briefly, but long enough for me to notice. For some reason, I didn’t mind this slow appraisal. It didn’t feel like inappropriate ogling, but more like a show of appreciation.
“I’m on my way to the Met Gala. I assume you’re on your way there too?” he questioned after giving my dress a once over.
“If I can muster up the courage to climb those steps, then yes. I’m supposed to be there tonight by invitation from a friend, the designer of my dress.”
“Ah, I see. So, there will be nobody escorting you to the ball then, princess?” he asked in a teasing tone.
“Oh. Um... no. This is just business.” My reply came out stilted and unsure. I couldn't quite understand why he was asking or why he was calling me ‘princess’ but the term of endearment made my stomach flutter. I kind of liked it.
No. I really liked it—even though I knew I really shouldn’t. My eyes focused on his, and I was instantly ensnared in his gaze. It caused my heart to do the sort of flip I hadn’t felt since high school.
“All business and no play? Such a shame,” he mused with a tsk-tsk. “Is that why you don’t seem too excited to be here?”
“If I don’t seem excited, it’s because I’m not,” I blurted without meaning to. But alas, my foolish blithering continued. “I mean… I just… These events are… I don’t know how to explain how I feel.”
“Try me,” he coaxed.
I’d given lectures in front of hundreds of people, yet I could barely string more than four words together in front of this man. Perhaps it was because I didn’t know how to describe the irrational fear I had about attending such a high-profile event, where a nobody like me would be forced to interact with some of the most famous, influential, and wealthiest people in the world.
Or maybe it was because I was terrified of experiencing a monumental failure—one that would result in everything I’d ever worked for to come to a bitter end. But worse, failure would mean I’d never follow through on the promise I made to my father.
It was most likely a combination of all of the above.
Either way, I didn’t need to explain anything to this sexy stranger. I owed him nothing more than a thanks for stopping my fall and preventing epic embarrassment.
“It’s complicated,” I tried to shrug off.
“Most things in life are, Serena.” His gaze was heavy and warm while he waited. It was like a blanket on the coldest winter day, making me want to get lost in all the comforts he could offer.
Still, I didn’t want to admit my insecurities about not belonging—especially to him. This event was for the elite. For all I knew, he was amongst them, hailing from prestigious lineage that I’d never measure up to. At the very least, he certainly looked the part in his pristine tailored tuxedo. But at the same time, he didn’t come across as an arrogant snob like one would expect from someone who appeared beyond approach. He seemed genuinely interested in hearing what I had to say.
“A lot is at stake,” I told him honestly. “There are investors here that I need to connect with if I want to keep the lights on. I know what I need to do and say but I’m…” I paused and pushed my brows together in a frown. There was something about this man that made me want to divulge more about myself then I should.
“I’m always awkward at these sorts of things,” I admitted, pointing in the direction of the museum.
“Awkward in what way?”
“Like I can’t be comfortable in my own skin. It used to be easier when…” I trailed off again, unable to believe I nearly went down that road. This was not the time for a trip down memory lane. I didn’t need to remember how things like this had been easier when my charismatic ex-husband was around to effortlessly work any room. That was another time—and another life.
“Have you been to many events like this before?” Anton asked, cocking his head to the side curiously.
“Too many to count. You’d think they’d get easier over time, but they don’t. If anything, they’ve gotten harder.” I looked down, focusing my attention on an old, flattened wad of gum on the sidewalk. “I know my insecurities are irrational. I can’t make sense of them.”
“Emotions don’t have to make sense. They just have to make themselves known,” he stated as if it were that obvious.
I slowly blinked twice, looking back up to meet his gaze as I processed his words. The heat of his stare stirred something in me, making me wonder if the emotions he referred to were the insecurities I’d mentioned, or if the reference was an undertone to something darker. I suddenly felt astoundingly exposed, It was as if he could see beyond my red designer dress and borrowed ruby necklace, and lay bare every secret that I’d ever held dear.
I looked down again, then gave him a brief sideways glance. I wasn’t sure what game he was playing at, but I wasn’t here for it. I had no time for meaningless flirtations—if that’s what this was. I needed to stay focused and flirting with a handsome stranger would not help me achieve what I set out to do tonight.
“Do you know what a trust fall is?” he asked. His head tilted to the side as he carefully assessed me. His countenance made me feel like an enigma that he was determined to solve.
“Trust fall? What’s that?”
“It’s the ability to fall without questioning if everything will be alright in the end. It means blindly jumping into uncomfortable situations, such as this gala, and irrevocably trusting someone or something to catch you if you fall.”
I pressed my lips together in a tight line. There may have been a time when I could do exactly as he suggested, but not now. Not anymore. Too much had changed and too much was at stake.
“I don’t think I can do that.”
“You can and you will,” he stated definitively. His tone was no nonsense, as if I had no choice in the matter whatsoever. “I’m good at reading people, Serena. When you’ve seen all that I have, understanding people becomes a necessary survival skill.”
I raised an eyebrow at the cynicism laced in his words.
“That sounds a bit ominous. What exactly have you seen?” I asked, feeling genuinely curious..
Something dark flashed across his face before it was quickly masked. He didn’t answer, but instead skated past my question and continued as though I hadn’t spoken.
“I see strong determination in you. You told me that you need to win over investors to keep the lights on, but I can tell it’s more personal than that. I don’t need to know the details of your story to know the only thing lacking in this scenario is the confidence you have in your abilities. Not one person attending that gala is better than you. Sure, some might think they are, but they aren’t. You belong here just as much as the rest, princess.” Pausing, he held out his hand to me. “Do you trust me?”
I’d only just met him. I didn’t know how anyone could wholly trust someone they barely knew—yet, strangely, I found myself doing exactly that.
“Okay, I’ll trust you,” I said, and took his outstretched hand.
Trust fall into a riveting world of mystery, lies, and betrayal with this brand-new billionaire romance series by USA Today Bestselling Author Dakota Willink.
Releasing February 27, 2024
Copyright © 2021 Dakota Willink - All Rights Reserved.
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