A Whisper of Disgrace

By: Sharon Kendrick
CHAPTER ONE


THE BOTTLE WAS cold, but not nearly as cold as the ice around her heart. Rosa lifted the champagne to her lips and drank another mouthful as she tried to dull the pain. She wanted to wake up and find that the past few days hadn’t happened. She wanted to be the person she thought she’d always been. And she wanted that towering man on the other side of the nightclub to stop watching her with that dark and unsettling stare of his.

The flashing lights and loud music were making her feel giddy—or maybe that was just the champagne she’d been glugging from the moment she’d walked in. She wasn’t really used to the sharp, bubbly flavour and she didn’t really like it—mainly because she’d been brought up on the wines of Sicily which were rich and warm and red. Or at least, she’d been allowed the occasional half-glassful, topped up with water—watched over by the fiercely protective eyes of her two brothers.

Except that they were not really her brothers, were they? From now on, she had to start thinking of them as her half-brothers.

Rosa gripped the neck of the bottle, a shudder running down her spine as she forced herself to confront the unbelievable truth. That nothing was as it seemed, nor ever would be again. The discovery had been brutal and she’d found out in the worst possible way that she’d been living a lie all her life.

And she was nothing but a fake.

‘Mademoiselle? You are ready?’

Wordlessly, Rosa nodded as the nightclub attendant gestured towards the podium on which various women had been attempting to pole dance all evening. It would be fair to say that most of them had been making an absolute hash of it, despite the fact that they were slim and blonde and incredibly fit. But then, all the women on this part of the French Riviera looked like that. Rosa was the one who stood out like a sore thumb with her mahogany hair, olive skin and the generous curves—which were currently spilling out of her brand-new crimson dress.

She placed one leg rather unsteadily on the podium, wondering if she would be able to dance in the kind of heels she wouldn’t have dared wear back home in her native Sicily. But who cared if she stumbled? And who cared if her dress was the shortest thing she’d ever worn? Not her. Tonight she was going to shrug off the old Rosa, who had cared so much about appearances and doing the right thing. Tonight she was going to embrace a brand-new Rosa—one who had grown a tougher skin so that nobody could hurt her ever again. On this privileged strip of French coastline known as the Côte d’Azur, she would emerge from her protective shell into a glittering and unrecognisable creature—and her transformation would be complete.

She took another slug of champagne and put the bottle down, but as she stepped up onto the podium, she found her gaze locked with the man on the other side of the club—the one with the dark hair and the powerful body. He was still watching her—and something in the speculative amusement which glittered in the depths of his eyes made Rosa’s stomach perform an odd kind of flip. Hadn’t anyone ever taught him that it was rude to stare like that? And even more rude to ignore that poor woman who was practically draping herself over him.

The music began as Rosa gripped the pole, thrusting her pelvis towards it, the way she’d watched the others do. She’d never even seen a pole dance before tonight—nor would she ever have dared enter a competition for enthusiastic amateurs. But shock could make a person behave in a way which was completely out of character.

Snaking one leg around the slippery pole, she began to move. She could feel the smooth, cold metal sliding against her bare thigh. The alcohol was relaxing her and the hypnotic beat of the music began to suck her in. And suddenly it was easy. Easy to lose herself in the sensual sway of the music and forget about her own particular heartache. Her movements seemed instinctive—as if she had been born to dance this way. As if rubbing her body against a static piece of metal was the only way to go. Closing her eyes, she raised her leg even higher and tipped her head back, so that she could feel her long hair brushing against the floor. She began to grind her hips in slow and sensuous circles against the pole and, inexplicably, could feel the slow burning heat of excitement deep in her groin.

Through her dreamy reverie she could hear other sounds. A loud, whooping noise as she slid up and down in time to the music. The unrestrained clamour of male voices shouting enthusiastically as she clutched the pole and writhed against it. But Rosa didn’t care who was shouting—she just kept her eyes tightly closed and gave the dance everything she’d got. It was the most cathartic thing she’d ever done and it wasn’t until the music had stopped that she opened her eyes to find that a large crowd of men had gathered at the front of the stage to watch her.

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