The Innocent’s Emergency Wedding
His name might save her…but his touch will undo her!
Katie Collins can’t believe she’s standing in front of notorious playboy Alessandro Zetticci, asking him to marry her – immediately! Desperate to escape the wedding her ruthless foster-father has planned for her, who better to ask for help than his nemesis? It’s only temporary, but in experiencing the bliss of Alessandro’s touch, Katie realises her heart’s more at risk now than ever before…
‘YOU CAN’T MAKE me marry him. You can’t make me marry anyone…’
Katie Collins perched nervously on the plush chair in the vast reception room of Zed Enterprises, gripping her bag and reminding herself to breathe often enough to remain conscious. If she’d had more pride—or any other option—she’d have walked out over an hour ago, but the threats relentlessly circling in her head had forced her to remain. He was the one person who had the power to help.
‘If you won’t marry him you can leave right now, and you know that would kill her—’
Katie blinked the horror away and focused on her surroundings. Alessandro Zetticci’s offices showcased a sleek, minimalist style—steel and chrome screamed masculine sophistication and the wealth he’d accumulated in an astoundingly short time. It didn’t surprise her. He’d always had the knack of knowing what people wanted.
It had been a decade since she’d seen him and, while certain aspects of that particular visit were branded in her brain, she was acutely aware that he mightn’t even remember who she was. She’d have to remind him before begging for his benevolence.
‘You’ll be homeless. So will the woman who’s spent years caring for you, you ungrateful little b—’
Katie again blocked the echo of the viciousness her foster father had spat at her. Seeking distraction, she glanced at the receptionist. Dressed in a sleek navy skirt and smooth white blouse, the tall blonde looked like a chic French movie star, ageing with impossible grace. Katie was also wearing a navy skirt with a white blouse, but where the receptionist’s was silk, Katie’s was synthetic, and right now it was sticking to her. Outclassed, out of place…she was never quite good enough—
Katie stiffened, snapping out of the self-pity. She didn’t need fancy clothes, given she worked in the orchards and the kitchen most of the time.
‘You can’t refuse after all I’ve done for you—’
A trickle of sweat slithered down her back, even though the building was beautifully climate-controlled. Her body was literally leaking her nerves. She uncurled her grip on her bag for the twentieth time. Only to immediately clutch the strap again as if it were her lifeline.
She’d not made an appointment, and it was sheer luck that Alessandro was in the office at all today. Too late she realised she had no idea what she’d have done if he hadn’t been. She still had no idea what she was going to do if he said no.
‘Don’t you want to be a real member of the family?’
That attempt at manipulation had stabbed deep. So after all this time Katie was still an outsider? She’d always felt Brian hadn’t wanted her, but for him to state it so explicitly, for him to try to force her into doing something insane… She was still an outsider. Still just someone who owed…
‘Do you want to watch her devastation?’
And that was the problem. She did owe Susan, her foster mother. She more than owed her—she loved her, and she had to protect her.
‘Ms Collins?’ The elegant receptionist finally interrupted her anxious reverie. ‘Alessandro is ready to see you now.’
Katie’s heart skidded. She was seized with the urge to bolt in the other direction. Instead she followed the older woman, drawing in a deep breath as she went.
It was a good thing she did, because the second she walked into his office her lungs, like the rest of her, were rendered immobile. She’d looked at recent pictures on the train ride here, so she’d thought she’d be immune. She’d been wrong. Alessandro Zetticci in the flesh was overwhelming.
Katie couldn’t smile as the receptionist left—couldn’t even see what the room was like, because she couldn’t peel her gaze from where he stood behind his desk. Flashes of rogue memory burned. Alessandro in the orchard. His smile. His low laugh. His broad shoulders…
She blinked, desperately focusing on him here and now and clothed.
His jet-black hair was straight and long enough to flop in his eyes. His sculpted cheekbones were emphasised by the razor-sharp edge of a perfectly symmetrical, masculine jaw. Lightly stubbled rather than clean-shaven, he looked as if it wasn’t long since he’d left his bed. Long black lashes and dark eyebrows framed his arresting eyes. Powder blue, they were brightly backlit by fierce burning intensity.
If she hadn’t known better she’d have thought he wore coloured contact lenses, but Katie had seen him sullen and silent over the breakfast table and at Christmas dinners long gone by, and even then, when he’d been moody and resentful, his eyes had glowed with that brilliance.
His mouth had a natural sinful curve, a permanent wicked half-smile—as if he were thinking something slightly inappropriate. It was a mouth made to kiss. Katie remembered that.
The top button of his white shirt was undone, exposing a deeply tanned neck. That tan was an all-over one. Katie remembered that too.
The man was appallingly handsome. The kind of gorgeous rarely seen in the streets, that made ordinary people turn for a second, third, fourth look.
But it wasn’t only his smouldering looks that drew people’s attention. It was the energy that crackled from him. He had vitality—a kind of fire that drew everyone around him in. It was what had made his empire so massive, so quickly. Because of that smile and that aura of amusement, everyone wanted to lean closer, seduced by the self-assurance that glowed in his eyes.
More than self-assurance he had arrogance—a pure don’t-give-a-damn attitude that made him impossibly popular and his investments an unparalleled triumph. He looked ready for something far more enjoyable and intimate than business. He looked like a man with a wicked ability to have a good time. And he followed through on that appearance. He was irresistible—catnip to pretty much every woman in the world. And he was happy to be played with. But never caught.
Katie definitely remembered that.
Yet Alessandro Zetticci had faced hardship too. Katie was counting on that fact to make him human. Make him understand. Make him want to help.
Now she blinked again, breaking the mortifying immobility his appearance had engendered and stepped deeper into his domain. He didn’t greet her—didn’t say anything. His swift glance seemed to take her in and dismiss her all in one second.
‘I’m Katie Collins,’ she began, her embarrassment blooming in the face of his uncharacteristic frigidity. ‘I live at White Oaks Hall with Brian Fielding—’
He still didn’t smile. ‘I don’t need you to remind me who you are, Katie.’
‘I wasn’t sure you’d remember—’
‘How could I possibly forget?’ Displeasure and disapproval flashed in his eyes.
Faltering at his unfriendly demeanour, Katie licked her dry lips. She’d done nothing to him. Certainly she’d meant nothing to him.
Alessandro Zetticci had stalked into Katie’s life when he was a sullen fifteen and she a very shy ten. His father, famed Italian chef Aldo Zetticci, had just married Brian’s sister Naomi. Brian and Naomi were close, so Aldo and Alessandro had joined the extended Fielding family for holidays at White Oaks—much to Alessandro’s obvious resentment.
Only a couple of years later Aldo had died. Alessandro and Naomi had then clashed on the future of his father’s food empire. Brian had backed Naomi. Petulant and fiery, Alessandro had fought hard, flaring up at Brian’s interference.
‘If you go now, you’ll never be welcome back here.’
Brian’s banishment of Alessandro had terrified her at the time.
‘Don’t mention him again.’
Brian had whirled on her when she’d fearfully asked where Alessandro had gone. She’d been too young to understand everything, but had known that in no way had it all been Alessandro’s fault. In any case, Alessandro’s ideas for his father’s company couldn’t have been that bad, given he’d gone on to build his own business with such success.
He’d always been determined and strong. But from the look in his eyes now he was also unforgiving.
Katie cleared her throat and forced herself to speak anyway. ‘I have a proposition for you.’
One jet-black eyebrow arched. ‘How intriguing.’
His tone couldn’t have sounded less intrigued or any more dismissive.
Irritation stiffened her. She was too desperate to cope with casual dismissal. ‘I work at White Oaks,’ she carried on. ‘I’ve developed some sauces made from our produce. They sell very well.’
She paused, because so far he was bored-looking. Her desperation swiftly blew up to all-out pain.
‘Cut to the chase, Katie,’ he drawled. ‘What do you want from me?’
She was so thrown by the reality of Alessandro in the flesh, so intimidated by that look in his eyes, that she forgot the little speech she’d carefully prepared to try to convince him. It just tumbled out with no further preamble.
‘I want you to marry me.’
His eyes widened, the black heart of his pupils all but swallowed the fiery brilliant blue. The rest of him didn’t move. He didn’t even seem to be breathing.
‘Not for real of course,’ she hastened to add awkwardly. ‘In name only. And not for long.’
‘You want me to marry you?’ he repeated slowly. ‘That was not what I expected you to say.’
Katie tensed, unable to read his expression, but then he threw back his unfairly handsome head and laughed. It seemed he’d not heard anything as entertaining in eons. And it was utterly insulting.
Scalding emotion curdled the raw acid in Katie’s stomach. All her life she’d strived to meet everyone else’s requests and demands as she’d desperately tried to fit in and stay safe. But in this instance she was sick of staying silent and being good. Because almost no one ever asked what she wanted.
Fury filled her, fuelled by total humiliation. ‘I’m so glad I could give you a joke for the day,’ she spat sarcastically. ‘Forget I ever said anything.’
‘I’m unlikely to ever forget that.’
He strolled around his desk with deceptively casual strides, swiftly moving to where she stood, only three feet into his office.
‘What are you doing?’ Her voice veered up in an embarrassing squawk as he stepped deep into her personal space.
He didn’t reply. Instead he surveyed her dispassionately, rather as if she was a curiosity in a natural history museum. Then he leaned closer still.
‘Are you sniffing me?’ Outraged, she flinched away from him.
‘Yes. Have you been drinking?’ He reached out and grasped her chin.
Katie stilled, attempting to fix him with a furious gaze.
Unconcerned, he turned her face to one side then the other, intently studying her features. ‘On drugs?’
‘What? No.’ She jerked free of his hold. ‘Look, I’m perfectly sane.’ The truth slipped out, and so did all the hurt and hopelessness. ‘I’m just in trouble, and you’re the only person I could think of who might be able to help me. Obviously you can’t, so I’ll leave now.’
She turned sharply as emotions whacked her with a one-two punch. She’d never been as embarrassed or as violently angry. She suddenly spun back, slamming her fury into his face.
‘I don’t know why I thought you’d understand the desire to protect the person you love most—to prevent her losing the thing she loves more than anything,’ she yelled at him. ‘I don’t know why I thought you’d ever understand that!’
He stared at her for a long second, his mouth compressed. Sudden emotion flared in his eyes and he stepped forward. ‘Katie—’
She shoved past him, rage giving her strength, but just as she reached the door he slammed his hand high above hers to hold it shut, stopping her from storming out. She tugged, but couldn’t beat his weight or strength and the door remained sealed. She tugged harder.
‘Katie, stop,’ he said eventually.
Belatedly she stilled, realising too late what an exhibition she was making of herself. She breathed hard, trying to block the sensations caused by his invasion of her personal space. He was right behind her, leaning so close she could feel his heat. Something insidious shifted inside her. Something deep…something tempting. Something she intuitively knew she needed to ignore.
She closed her eyes in embarrassment.
‘You can’t just storm in, demand something so outrageous and then flounce off without an explanation. You need to speak,’ he added firmly. ‘Sit down and start from the beginning.’
She remained locked in place for another mortified moment. He was right. And she’d been so wrong. She should never have come—what had she been thinking?
But he wasn’t going to let her leave without a proper explanation. And didn’t she owe him that at least? Hell, she was every bit the useless idiot Brian had called her…
Slowly she released the door handle and pivoted awkwardly on the spot. Because Alessandro didn’t stand back to give her room to move. He still had his palm pressed on the door, as if he didn’t trust her not to try to escape again. He was still so close she almost felt giddy.
Breathe, Katie, breathe.
But she was looking into his eyes and all kinds of confusion clouded her mind. She’d been such a fool to think she could handle him.
He gazed at her, his clear blue eyes compelling and uncharacteristically serious. ‘Take a seat and talk to me.’
He suddenly swung aside so she could walk back into the room.
She quickly bypassed him and sank into the nearest chair, her knees strangely wobbly. ‘White Oaks is in debt,’ she said in a low voice. ‘Apparently we’re about to lose it. Susan doesn’t know.’
‘But isn’t it Susan’s estate?’ Alessandro folded his arms and leaned back against the door, still blocking the exit.
Her foster mother had lived there all her life—had inherited it upon her parents’ death. And now, as she faced the disease that was slowly killing her, it was her sanctuary. Katie couldn’t sit back and watch Susan lose it.
‘But she left the business side of it to Brian when her health began to deteriorate. She focused on the gardens—you know she loves them. All these years…’
She shook her head. She’d had no idea that the estate finances were so dire—that Brian had mismanaged everything so badly and hidden it, to boot. His betrayal hurt.
‘He only told me the depth of the trouble we’re in yesterday.’
Katie couldn’t let Susan lose all that was her love and her life. She’d thought the garden tours she’d organised and the sauce business she’d started would be enough to keep the books she’d seen balanced, but she’d been wrong.
‘Brian says he’s made a deal. If I marry Carl Westin, Carl will absorb our debt and Susan and Brian can stay at White Oaks.’
‘If you marry Carl Westin?’ Alessandro pushed away from the door and walked towards her, his gaze narrowing. ‘Of Westin Processing?’
‘You know him?’
Alessandro looked shocked. ‘He’s only a little younger than Brian—’
‘And a lot older than me, yes.’
‘Not to mention unreliable and—’
‘Creepy,’ she interrupted fiercely. ‘I can’t marry him.’
Alessandro rubbed his hand across his mouth, hiding the smile that felled a thousand women. ‘This is twenty-first-century London, Katie. I don’t think Brian can bully you into a marriage you don’t want.’
Discomfort clawed at her innards. Alessandro didn’t know the subtle ways in which her foster father had undermined her over the years. How did she explain something so complex? Explain that something so important had been shredded by stealth over time? By subtle comments and control?
‘There’s physical force, but then there’s the more emotional kind…’ Her throat tightened, shame silencing her. She hated her powerlessness, her lack of real strength.
The remnants of his smile faded as he watched her struggle to finish her sentence. ‘Your supposed debt to Susan?’
It wasn’t ‘supposed’. Susan had cared for Katie. She was the first—the only—person to have done that.
Katie had gone to them when she was almost two, when Susan had finally got Brian to agree to fostering after they’d spent years trying for children of their own. But Brian had never agreed to adoption, and there’d always been the threat that Katie could be sent back into the care system.
In truth, Brian was as controlling of Susan as he was of Katie. It was only that Susan seemed mostly blind to it.
‘She’s vulnerable.’ She glanced at Alessandro. ‘She’s in a wheelchair now. She can’t be left alone for long.’
As Susan’s neurological disease progressed, she lived in her own world, safe in the grounds of the estate. A world Katie cared for with her.
‘It would kill her to have to leave White Oaks.’ Katie had to keep it secure for Susan until the end. ‘It’s her life.’
She loved her gentle foster mother dearly. Susan had welcomed her, and they’d spent so much time together sheltered on the estate… Though over the last decade their roles had slowly reversed. Katie now read to Susan, kept her company and comfortable. She’d do almost anything for her.
But Katie couldn’t talk to Susan about how bad things had become financially, or about Brian’s insane plan—she was too fragile to be burdened with that. For a while now Katie had been shielding Susan from several problems Brian had wrought.
‘So, if Carl gets you, White Oaks stays safe for Susan.’ Alessandro summed it up bluntly. ‘But why does Carl want you?’
She flinched, hit by a hot flash of embarrassment. Yeah, she was hardly catch of the day. ‘You don’t think he finds me attractive?’ she mumbled, knowing her face was blushing beetroot.
He had the grace to shoot her a rueful look. ‘If he actually wanted you he wouldn’t woo you with an ultimatum like this.’
‘Maybe he can’t get anyone else to say yes to him? Maybe he thinks he’ll get an obedient wife?’ she said bitterly. ‘This way he’ll be able to control me. He’s used to getting what he wants, however he has to do it.’
Alessandro stepped towards her, the whisker of a smile in his eyes. ‘And you think I’m different?’
A hot fury built within her. ‘I’m sure you’re used to getting what you want. Fortunately you don’t want me.’
He blinked and that smile fully resurfaced. ‘How do you know I don’t want you?’
She laughed bitterly. ‘You never so much as looked at me.’
‘If I recall, the last time we met you were little more than a child. It would have been unacceptable in every way if I’d looked at you then.’ He angled his head. ‘But I’m looking at you now.’
As if that was going to make any difference!
‘Don’t bother,’ she snapped. ‘You have hundreds of gorgeous women you really want. All of them. At once—’ She broke off, realising she’d got herself into a quagmire of excruciating embarrassment.
‘Hundreds at once?’ he echoed with mild incredulity.
‘Oh, whatever.’ She shook off his amusement. ‘You know you don’t need to threaten a woman to get your way with her. You don’t need to use blackmail—emotional or otherwise.’
‘But that’s what Brian does to you.’ All amusement had dropped from his expression.
She drew in a deep breath and sighed. ‘He’s used to me doing what he says.’
Because she’d always worked to keep the peace, for Susan. But in asking this of her Brian had gone too far. It wasn’t a business deal he’d arranged, it was marriage—intimate and personal. And Brian’s brutal response to her refusal had horrified her. So she’d decided to figure out a deal of her own with the one man Brian despised. The only man she’d been able to think of.
‘But you’re not his daughter,’ Alessandro said.
‘Thank you for that reminder,’ she said stiffly, swallowing back the burn of pain.
It was stupid how much it hurt. There’d always been those little comments from Brian—constantly reminding her that she wasn’t family, that she had to be grateful and good, keep her on her best behaviour… The few times she’d tried to fight back, he’d squashed her.
‘I’m no blood relative to any of them.’
And that was what gave Brian even more power over her.
‘You don’t think of me as family?’ Alessandro asked.
She glanced up at him. ‘You weren’t there. How could you be?’
Alessandro had only appeared from boarding school during holidays and formal occasions. Her aloof ‘step-cousin’ couldn’t have been less interested in forming a relationship with his new family.
‘And thank you for that reminder,’ he echoed with a soft jeer. An arrogant smile curved his lips for a fleeting second. ‘I chose to leave—why can’t you?’
‘I’m not like you,’ she said. ‘I can’t just walk out. I can’t talk to Susan about it—she doesn’t know about any of this.’ Katie was protecting her on several levels. ‘I’d buy out the debt myself, if I could, but I have hardly any money.’
His gaze narrowed. ‘You said your sauces sell well?’
She bristled at his belittling tone. ‘They do okay. They’re even stocked in Sybarite, here in London.’
She’d been so delighted when the gourmet deli had put in a repeat order only a week ago, taking almost all her stock.
‘Sybarite? Wonderful.’ He said with light mockery. ‘Then why aren’t you paid accordingly?’
‘I put all the profit back into the business… I don’t need a lot personally.’
His eyebrows shot up.
‘I live in,’ she explained irritably. ‘I have accommodation and food. I don’t need fancy things.’
He skimmed a glance over her outfit and she shrank at the hint of disdain in his eyes.
But then she fought back. ‘I knew things weren’t good—that’s why I started the garden tours as well. I owe it to them to work hard…to help Susan.’
She’d heard that phrase so many times and Brian was right, she did owe them. They’d plucked her from a life of poverty and neglect… Who knew what her life would have been like if it hadn’t been for their generosity?
‘You don’t owe them the rest of your life,’ Alessandro said bluntly.
‘No, but I love Susan,’ she said fiercely. ‘And she needs me now.’
‘There’s no one else? Not her husband?’ he said dryly.
Katie froze at the disparagement in his tone. ‘All the times I’ve tried to stand up to Brian… In the end I’ve given in…’
‘Because of Susan?’
But Alessandro was right, wasn’t he? She didn’t have to sacrifice her whole life.
‘I guess because of her…he has a hold over me,’ she said lamely.
‘And I don’t?’
‘Of course not.’
But she couldn’t meet Alessandro’s eyes. He had a hold over her in a way that she could never admit to herself, let alone to him.
‘So you think that if you marry someone else then you won’t have to marry Carl?’
But when he put it as baldly as that it sounded crazy.
‘Why me?’ he asked.
‘Because you’re outrageous enough to actually do it,’ she said bluntly.
No one would expect the infamous playboy to settle, and somehow she thought he might enjoy that unpredictability.
‘And, according to the rich list, you have more money than you know what to do with.’
‘Now, that’s what I originally expected.’ His twisting smile held little mirth. ‘You want me to rescue White Oaks financially? Why not just ask me for the money? Why do we have to marry?’
‘Because it’s a language Brian understands. If I’m not married—without the protection of a man,’ she spat sarcastically, ‘I’ll still be controllable. If I’m married, he’ll back off. I don’t want just to be out of reach. I want to be repulsive.’
‘Repulsive?’ Alessandro echoed awfully. ‘And there’s no better way to do that than by marrying me? Wow.’ He leaned forward. ‘You make it sound so eighteenth-century… Will you be sullied for ever if you’re with me?’
‘Married to you, yes.’
She’d never forgotten the look of anger on Brian’s face when he’d seen an article featuring Alessandro in the newspapers.
‘Brian will hate that I’ve come to you.’
He drew in a sharp breath.
Katie suddenly realised what she’s said and sent him a contrite look. ‘I’m sorry—’
‘Don’t apologise for being honest.’ He watched her for a moment. ‘You’ll do anything to look after Susan?’
‘Almost anything.’ A welter of guilt swamped Katie.
His sympathetic glance was laced with sarcasm. ‘You’d rather sell yourself to a wealthy tyrant of your own choosing?’
‘So, between Carl and me, I’m the lesser of two evils? The more attractive?’
A frisson of danger lent steel to his light query. She suddenly felt afraid of something, felt fear slicing through her too sensitive, too thin skin.
‘You’re temporary,’ she said bravely. ‘You like temporary. You never hold on to anything for long. Not women or companies. You take what you want and move on.’
‘You really think you’ve done your research on me, don’t you?’ He looked down at her, grimly thoughtful. ‘How can you go back there if you defy Brian so overtly?’
‘I think he’ll accept it when he realises his financial problems are resolved. And he’ll see he can’t reach me any more.’ She’d finally be free of his hold over her.
‘But what will Susan say about you marrying me for my money? Me, the spurned step-nephew, cast out all those years ago? Won’t she be disappointed in you?’
A flush of heat singed her skin. ‘I wouldn’t tell her… I’d have to…’
‘Fake it?’ he jeered softly. ‘Pretend you’re in love with me?’
‘It wouldn’t be for long. Then White Oaks will be safe and Susan can stay there for as long as she has left. Brian can’t bully us into anything. He can’t send either of us away if I own it. I’ll have the power.’
Alessandro regarded her steadily. ‘Sounds like a fine plan when you put it like that.’ He hunched down in front of her and whispered. ‘But what’s in it for me?’
She stared into his gleaming eyes, wondering how to convince him—playing to his sympathetic side seemed unlikely to succeed. ‘I thought you might enjoy it…’ she muttered.
‘What—being married to you?’ That tantalising smile curved his lips, all arrogance.
She blushed furiously. ‘Having revenge on them.’
He pressed his hand to his heart in mock distress. ‘You really don’t think much of me, do you?’ he said slowly, but that edge was still in his eyes.
‘You don’t want to take something from them when they took something from you?’
That glint sharpened. ‘What do you think they took?’
‘Your father’s company.’ She swallowed, remembering that fight and the fury with which Alessandro had stormed out of White Oaks.
There was a moment of pure stillness. She couldn’t tell what he was thinking behind those fiercely burning eyes. She only knew that he was thinking rapidly—but what he was thinking was clear only to him.
‘Hasn’t all your research told you I’m more successful than they are now?’ he asked sharply, standing up and stepping back from her. ‘I don’t waste my time thinking about the past. I don’t need their business. I don’t need your sauces. And I certainly don’t need your insane proposal.’
His rejection hit her in a low, dulling blow. Of course he didn’t. Of course she couldn’t convince him. She was a fool for having thought this could work, but it had been her only plan. She’d been desperate. She still was desperate.
But in the face of his displeasure she fell back into her automatic safety mode. ‘Sorry,’ she muttered tonelessly. She’d been conditioned for years to apologise when confronted with conflict. ‘I’m so sorry.’
Angrily, he muttered something in Italian. Something that sounded viciously impolite. ‘What did you think was going to happen here today?’
She had no clue. She’d not really thought at all. The mad idea had come to her in the middle of the night. He was the only man she knew with the resources, maybe the motivation, and truthfully he had been her only hope. So she’d sneaked out early in the morning and caught the first train to London.
‘What does Carl say about it?’ Alessandro almost snarled. ‘Does he know the bride he’s buying is so unwilling? Can’t you bargain a better deal with him?’
‘He came to see me last night.’ Her skin crawled at the thought of Carl and what he’d said to her. ‘I’d hoped he meant for us to be married in name only, but…’
‘He wants you to have his babies?’ Alessandro’s whole demeanour seemed to sharpen.
It wasn’t funny, it was foul, and it made her escape all the more imperative. ‘He said he’ll take what he wants.’
And apparently he did want her…like that.
Alessandro swiftly strode further away from her. ‘But you don’t want him?’
‘Of course I don’t!’ The thought repulsed her.
Alessandro stood on the other side of his desk, leaning on it. There was a moment as he studied her. She saw him take a careful breath.
‘What if you were to marry me?’ His expression turned speculative. ‘You wouldn’t want to—?’
‘No!’ she interrupted vehemently.
‘No?’ He smiled at the interruption, and that crooked curve to his mouth was sinful. ‘What if I wanted to?’
It was horrendous how attractive his smile was—and that lightness to his eyes…
‘Really? Does your ego need to get any bigger?’ She glared at him.
He’d already said no to her. She already knew he wasn’t interested. He was just teasing her now—his amusement was audible.
‘We both know you have millions of other options,’ she said, completely flustered. ‘I wouldn’t get in your way.’
His eyebrows shot up. ‘Wouldn’t you?’ he asked dryly, before a soft laugh escaped him. ‘You as my wife would be willing to just stand by and watch me with other women?’
She flushed, her brain sending her that one image she’d successfully blocked for years—until today. Because she had watched him with another woman once.
She’d come across them accidentally. She’d been walking through the orchards, alone as always, when she’d spotted them lying in a grassy patch beneath a heavily flowering apricot tree. He had been shirtless and his jeans had been undone, slipping down his thighs. The muscles of his broad, bronzed back had moved powerfully as he’d bent over the pretty student who’d been arched beneath him.
Her sighing whispers had been too soft for Katie to decipher from that distance. But she’d heard the wickedness in the tone of his low, murmured reply and the breathless, rapid response of the woman he was bestowing carnal pleasure upon. He’d literally been devouring her.
Katie had frozen—not even hiding—fascinated and appalled at the sight of such complete intimacy—at his raw masculinity. She’d been an extremely sheltered young teen, still figuring things out and not really understanding what she was seeing.
To be honest, she still didn’t understand it. She’d never met a man who’d made her want to act so wantonly despite the threat of exposure. To be that hedonistic, that caught up in a moment that she wouldn’t care who was around to watch…
After only seconds she’d fled, with the sounds of that woman’s delight echoing in her ears.
She’d told herself it wasn’t her fault. If he was going to pleasure his girlfriend in the orchard—where anyone could have seen them—well, that was his problem. But she’d flushed almost purple that night, when he’d finally graced them with his presence at dinner that evening, almost half an hour late.
‘Got held up,’ he’d offered—not an apology, just a careless fact.
She’d seen him again in the village a few days later—with a different girl hungrily kissing him in an alleyway. His apparent infidelity to that first girl had shocked her. There’d been another girl only a couple of days later.
It had taken the young and naive Katie a while to realise he wasn’t actually in a relationship with any of them. No commitment, no mess—only fun. Alessandro had been incredibly popular and he hadn’t been afraid to make the most of it.
And it seemed every woman who’d crossed his path since was as eager to slide her legs apart and let him do whatever he liked between them… He hadn’t slowed down any in the decade since that last summer he’d come to the estate.
Katie’s quick Internet search on the train this morning had thrown up a billion pictures of him with a billion different women. All beautiful. All as enthusiastic as anything, judging by the look in their eyes. Alessandro Zetticci was an insatiable, arrogant playboy. Which actually made him perfect.
But he wasn’t having her. She wasn’t interested in any of that.
Only now he’d rounded his desk again. He gripped the armrests of her chair, bending so that his nose was only inches from her own. Dawning brilliance lit his eyes.
‘Would you watch, Katie?’ he asked.
Did he somehow know about that awful, embarrassing secret of her past?
‘You’re trying to intimidate me,’ she squeaked. ‘It’s not going to work. I’m not afraid of you.’
He laughed. ‘Perhaps you should be. But perhaps I’m not trying to intimidate you. Perhaps I’m testing you.’
He lifted a hand, lightly exploring her jawline with the lightest touch. ‘To see if I can seduce you.’
His touch ought to have been easily escapable, but she couldn’t seem to move.
Desperately she quelled the flare of heat deep and low in her belly and deliberately rolled her eyes. ‘Sorry. I’m immune. That’s why we’d be perfect together.’
‘I agree,’ he answered urbanely, but his eyes danced with devilish laughter. ‘Perfect together. In bed.’
‘I’m not going to sleep with you.’
‘So determined…’ His lips curled. ‘Afraid you might catch something?’
It was a low, teasing drawl, but there was a sharp warning underlying his tone that made her wary. She’d been offensively rude in her outright rejection of any kind of intimacy with him. But as if it was even a consideration! He was the one being rude now.
You did just ask him to marry you.
And she had implied that he was a complete man whore.
‘No.’ She flushed uncomfortably, because he kept switching from serious to teasing. ‘I’m just—’
‘Scared you might like it?’ he interpolated with a low chuckle.
Yes, this was the Alessandro Zetticci she’d read about—the irrepressible tease who worked hard but played harder.
‘You really can’t help yourself, can you?’ She glared at him in exasperation. ‘You think you can seduce every woman you meet!’
‘Most don’t need to be seduced.’ He shrugged, then muttered with outrageous insouciance, ‘Most are willing to let me do whatever I want before I even know their name.’
He was so close his words whispered over her lips…so close he seemed to see all her secrets. She closed her eyes—only to regret it instantly. Because now she was even more attuned to his nearness. His heat. His strength. His will. But she knew his words were designed to shock her, to repulse her. Because beneath the seductive slide of his whisper she still heard that steely anger.
She opened her eyes and glared at him. ‘I’m not most women. And I’m not challenging you. This isn’t about that and never will be.’ She drew in a deep breath. ‘If we marry I’ll have no expectations, put no restrictions on you. And I’d expect the same for you.’
He straightened, and from his towering height shot her a censorious look as if he’d suddenly become the epitome of virtue.
‘I may be many things, but a breaker of promises I am not. Even in a civil ceremony I’d promise fidelity, and I’d never break that promise. If you want me to marry you, you’d better agree to the same.’ He was very curt and very clear.
She slammed her hands on the arms of the chair to stop herself slithering down to the floor. Was he going to say yes?
‘Honour our vows for the duration of our marriage. Of course.’
‘Does it really come as that much of a shock?’ He pinched the bridge of his nose.
‘It’s just that you—’
‘I’ve never got married before? No. Never had the desire nor reason to.’
Her jaw hung open. ‘Are you saying you’re going to—?’
‘I’m just ascertaining the rules in play before I decide,’ he pre-empted her coolly. ‘How many lovers do you take in a month?’ he asked. He immediately followed up with another question purely designed to shock. ‘I enjoy sex and generally have it regularly. I assume you’re the same?’
Katie shut her mouth and swallowed. How could he possibly think that she’d have anywhere near the interest he had?
‘The past doesn’t matter,’ she said briskly, fighting down the all-consuming heat this conversation was creating within her. ‘There’s only the future. Best not to dwell on what’s gone before. I’ll not be unfaithful, if that’s what you’d prefer. I have no problem with celibacy.’
‘Well, see…here’s the thing,’ he drawled with an impossibly wicked glint in his eyes. ‘I don’t like celibacy.’
‘We don’t need to be married long,’ she said crossly. ‘I’m sure six months will be long enough to…to…’
‘Ensure you’re left utterly undesirable?’ he finished for her tartly.
‘Get our business affairs straightened out.’ She threw him another exasperated look.
‘Six months of celibacy?’ He clutched his chest and gasped theatrically, apparently appalled at the suggestion.
‘Please yourself,’ she retorted through gritted teeth, goaded to the extreme.
He cocked his head and that devilish smile spread over his too-perfect face. ‘Is that what you do?’