It has all the trappings of a trashy romance novel: a flamboyant billionaire media tycoon enthralled by a leggy Moroccan exotic dancer nicknamed "Ruby Heartbreaker."
But this is real life, and the sex scandal involving former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and the dancer, Karima El Mahroug, has been a tabloid headline writer's dream.
The now-76-year-old Berlusconi is accused of having sex 13 times with El Mahroug in 2010 when she was 17, which normally wouldn't be a problem since the age of consent in Italy is 14. But sex with a prostitute under 18 is a crime there.
El Mahroug was expected to take the stand Monday in Berlusconi's trial on charges that he hired her for sex and later tried to pull strings to get her out of jail when she was accused of theft. But while Berlusconi has said that both allegations are attempts to smear him, members of his defense team declined to question El Mahroug when she appeared in court Monday, and they told her she could leave.
After El Mahroug left the courtroom, the prosecutor asked the court to use her testimony from the investigation period as evidence instead.
Berlusconi lawyer Nicolo Ghedini told reporters that his team decided not to interrogate El Mahroug because of worries that any responses or debate in court could cause tension during the hotly contested campaign leading up to Italy's national elections next month.
The performer, who has since appeared scantily clad in photographs across the country, told the Italian news channel Sky TG24 about two years ago that she had lied about her age before meeting Berlusconi for a dinner party at his private residence near Milan.
"He knew that I was 24 years old because I told everyone that I was 24 years old," El Mahroug said. "I didn't want people to know that I was a minor."
It was during that first encounter on Valentine's Day in 2010 that she said she received 7,000 euros (about $9,375) after a friend informed Berlusconi that she needed help.
Both have denied allegations of having sex.
"Absolutely no," El Mahroug said. "I just arrived in Milan, and it was a little difficult living there," and Berlusconi gave her the money to help support herself financially, she said.
The friend "spoke with (Berlusconi) and explained my situation, my story, my family situation," she said. "And he helped me."
Investigators say they later questioned the dancer's former roommate, who claimed El Mahroug had confided in her, describing the details of her sexual relationship with the Italian premier.
'Bunga bunga' parties
In addition to the charges against Berlusconi, three of his associates are accused of selecting up to 33 young women, including El Mahroug, to attend so-called bunga bunga parties at Berlusconi's house, where the women would perform erotic dances before the prime minister chose one to spend the night with.
Berlusconi, who served three times as Italy's prime minister, laughed off the allegations in a 2011 interview with a leading Italian newspaper.
"I'm 75, and even if I'm a bit mischievous, 33 girls in two months is too much even for someone who is 30," the daily La Repubblica quoted him as saying.
Just to keep things interesting, last month, on an Italian talk show, the former prime minister announced plans to marry a television showgirl-turned-politician a half-century younger.
Francesca Pascale, 27, is "a girl who is beautiful on the outside, but even more beautiful on the inside," Berlusconi said.
Planning a comeback