“Marry me this weekend.”
He will wed his Cinderella!
Sicilian billionaire Gabriel Salvetti offers a simple exchange—for her hand in marriage, he’ll save Francesca Mancini’s ancestral home. Penniless Frankie has the aristocratic name Gabriel needs to redeem his family’s notorious reputation. And their blatant physical attraction can only sweeten the deal. But when he discovers his convenient bride is a secret virgin, one taste is enough to make Gabriel crave his wife—forever!
Lose yourself in this tale of innocence and desire…
FRANKIE HAD COME back one last time to her ancestral home at Lake Como to say goodbye in private. The grand estate with its beautifully manicured gardens would be someone else’s home now. Someone else’s heritage. Someone else’s sanctuary.
She stood at the base of the grand scissor staircase in front of Villa Mancini. The shocking blood-red slash of the SOLD banner across the ‘For Sale’ sign made something in her stomach grip tight, as if her intestines were caught up in a strangling knot of fishing line. Would the new owner change the villa’s name? Turn it into a hotel or a casino? It had been in Frankie’s family for four hundred years. Four hundred years of family—generation after generation.
So many relatives.
So many memories.
How could it be possible to lose four hundred years of family history in a game of Blackjack?
Frankie drew in a breath and slowly released it. You have to survive this. Now was not the time for a panic attack. Now was not the time for tears and tantrums, because nothing was going to change the fact it was too late to save herself from this shame. It would soon become public. Excruciatingly, humiliatingly public. So far, the press knew very little of her desperate financial situation. She had let it be known she was selling the villa only because she would be moving back to London after two months of nursing her father during his terminal illness. She had called in every favour she could to keep the press away from the truth. But how long could she hope to keep her father’s dirty little secret?
She pictured tomorrow’s headlines—Aristocrat heiress Francesca Mancini left penniless by late father’s secret gambling debts.
Frankie had drained her own bank account trying to keep her father’s problem a secret for as long as she could. There was nothing left in her trust fund. All the money left to her from her late mother was gone. She had sold her London apartment. How could she let her father’s memory be tainted by a gambling addiction he had only acquired in the last few months of his life? His aggressive treatment for brain cancer had changed him. Made him desperate and reckless. She’d foolishly, naively thought her savings would be enough to cover his indiscretions. But her income as a special needs teacher was hardly going to cover debts that ran into the millions.
It was hopeless.
Utterly, heartbreakingly hopeless.
Frankie walked up the left side of the staircase to the front door. She still had her key—the real estate agent hadn’t requested it because the new owner would not be moving in until the final paperwork was completed. She unlocked the door and stepped inside the marble foyer but something about the atmosphere told her she wasn’t alone. There was a different energy in the air, the villa was no longer cold and empty but alive and breathing.
It had a pulse.
The door to the library on the ground floor was slightly ajar, and from inside she could hear the rustling of papers and the sound of a frustrated male sigh. For a moment, she thought she must have dreamed her father’s death and funeral and the debt debacle. A short blissful tide of relief rushed through her, but then she heard footsteps crossing the floor. Strong, purposeful footsteps. She would have recognised that stride even if she were blindfolded. Possibly even if she was deaf.
Gabriel Salvetti opened the library door wide and looked down at her from his superior height advantage. Why hadn’t she put on a pair of heels? Ballet flats didn’t quite cut it when she was in the company of the suave and sophisticated Gabriel Salvetti. Not that she ever sought his company—she actively avoided it if she could. Six foot four to her four foot six, he made her feel like My Little Pony facing off a thoroughbred stallion.
His were-they-black-or-were-they-brown? eyes met hers. ‘Francesca.’ He inclined his head in a brief nod that was somehow both polite and patronising at the same time.
‘What are you doing here?’ Frankie couldn’t read his expression. She’d always thought he’d make a good spy or undercover agent. Not that his criminal father, brothers and cousins would appreciate that. Gabriel was known as the white sheep in the super-wealthy Salvetti family. The only good apple in a rotten orchard. An orchard so big with deep roots and long limbs and twisted and craggy branches reaching into places no decent person would ever want to go.
But why was he in her house? He hadn’t even come to her father’s funeral, even though he had done business with him in the past and her father had considered him a friend.
But then she noticed the sheaf of papers in Gabriel’s hand and her gut clenched and her heart slipped from its moorings. No. No. No. The words were hammer blows in her head. Surely, he wasn’t the new owner? How could she bear it? To have the man whose advances she’d spurned four years ago take up residence in her family’s home?
Gabriel held the library door open. ‘Come in. We need to talk.’
Frankie raised her chin and stood her ground, her mind whirling with what he might want to talk about. ‘We do not need to talk. But you need to leave.’ Her arm shot out to point to the front door. ‘Now.’
‘I’m not leaving until we talk. It’s in your interests to hear me out.’ His expression was enviably calm. As calm as his adult-talking-to-a-wilful-child tone. As calm as the silver-surfaced Lake Como outside. Some men took control of a situation by force but not Gabriel Salvetti. He used words economically and curtly. He used stillness and silence as a weapon. He carried with him an aura of command he wore like a second skin.
But the less she thought about his skin the better. She had seen a little too much of it recently. Particularly, a press photo of him at South American beach resort with his latest lover—a blonde model type, whose slim body had made Frankie throb with jealousy. Frankie had inherited her English aristocrat mother’s curvy figure and her Italian father’s uncontrollable dark brown hair. It wasn’t exactly what she’d call winning the genetic lottery.
Gabriel, on the other hand, might not have inherited his family’s penchant for criminal activity but he had inherited every one of the Salvetti traffic-stopping good looks. His jet-black hair, chocolate brown eyes, sculpted nose and mouth and tanned and toned athletic build left him with no shortage of female adoration, and consequently, the arrogance to think no woman could resist him.
Which was why Frankie had made such a point of rejecting his offer of a dinner date the night of her twenty-first birthday party. To prove she was immune to him. If not to prove it to him, then to prove it to herself. He’d assumed she would say yes, so she’d said an emphatic don’t-ask-me-again no, even though a part of her wondered if she had been wise to try and score points with such a worldly man.
And the odd time she had run into him since, she had given him the cold shoulder and hot tongue routine, because, he of all people, was the one person she did not trust herself around. He stirred in her feelings she didn’t want to feel. Physical feelings. Feelings and desires and impulses that burned and scorched her inside and out.
Gabriel crossed the foyer to where she was standing and Frankie forced herself to hold his penetrating gaze. Could he see how threatened she was by his presence? His potent, far too attractive presence? So much for her immunity. Her body was reacting to his closeness like an ice sculpture in front of a blowtorch. Her skin tightened, tingled, tensed as if anticipating his touch. Even her breasts, hidden behind the layers of her clothes, prickled and shifted in the lace cage of her bra like something too long restrained.
‘I can think of nothing you could say that would be of the remotest interest to me.’ She injected her tone with a generous dose of scorn. Eat your heart out, Miss Elizabeth Bennet. No one but no one could do a cold put-down better than Frankie. She wasn’t called an ice princess for nothing.
A half-smile lifted one edge of his mouth, making something in her stomach flip and flop and flap like a torn sail in a stiff breeze. He tapped the paperwork he was holding against his other hand. ‘I have a solution to your current dilemma.’
‘A…solution?’ Frankie affected a laugh. ‘I can’t imagine how any solution you’ve come up with would be in any way agreeable to me.’
He shrugged one broad shoulder, his spy face back in place. ‘It’s an offer. Take it or leave it.’
Frankie could see why he was lethally successful at brokering high-stakes property deals. No wonder he had become one of the wealthiest businessmen in Italy. Even wealthier than his own family, which was saying something. They weren’t called the silver-tailed Salvettis for nothing.
She licked her suddenly paper-dry lips. ‘Are you offering to…to lend me money?’
‘Not lend. Give.’
His eyes held hers in a lock that pulsed with something she didn’t want to name. Stubbornly refused to name or acknowledge. But she felt it all the same. Her body betraying her with a slow-moving heat spreading like warm treacle to all her secret places. His deep mellifluous voice with its rich Italian accent always did that to her—made her aware of every inch of her skin, aware of its traitorous desire to get closer to him, even though her rational brain told her, Danger. Keep away.
‘Give?’ Frankie raised her eyebrows. ‘Free? No strings?’
The half-smile was back and was even more devastating to her resolve to resist him. She couldn’t stop thinking about his mouth and how it would feel to have it pressed to hers. They had not touched each other than a handshake on their first introduction when she was seventeen and a handful of times since, most notably the night of her twenty-first birthday. But it hadn’t stopped her wondering what his touch would be like on other parts of her body. Polite nods and handshakes. That’s all he had done and yet her body had reacted, still reacted as if he had some strange sensual power over her.
‘There are always strings, cara mio. Always.’ His dark-as-night gaze drifted to her mouth as if he too was having the same wicked thoughts. She took a moment to study him. He was clean shaven but there was enough dark stubble on his jaw to suggest there was nothing wrong with the supply of his virile male hormones. His eyes were fringed with thick lashes and his prominent eyebrows could switch from intimidating interrogation to intelligent interest in less than a heartbeat.
Speaking of heartbeats… Frankie’s was currently giving a very good impression of having some sort of medical event. Strings? What strings? What did he mean? And dared she ask him?
He was standing within touching distance. If she so much as reached out a hand she could touch that broad, muscle-packed chest. She could trace the contours of his mouth, trace the slightly Roman nose, trace the slash of a jagged white scar above his left cheekbone. He was dressed casually: dark blue jeans, a white T-shirt with a grey cashmere sweater over the top to counter the chill of late autumn. She could smell the light lemon and lime notes of his aftershave—they swirled around her nostrils like a stupefying drug.
Frankie brought her gaze back to his and stepped back, her hands curled into fists in case she was tempted to touch him. Tempted to tell him she didn’t care what strings he had in mind, she just wanted to be rescued from the shame of her father’s crippling debts. But of course, her pride would never allow her to do something like that. She flashed him an icy glare. ‘I suppose you’ve come here to tell me you’re the new owner.’
‘I’ve bought the villa, yes. But I plan to give it to you.’
The words couldn’t have been more shocking. Or pleasing. And it was this ambiguity of her feelings that was even more worrying. ‘What do you mean?’ Frankie was surprised her voice came out at all as her throat was so tight with a combination of hope and dread. Hope that she would be able to keep her home and dread that there would be a price to pay that had nothing to do with money.
He tapped the paperwork against the back of his other hand again. ‘My lawyer has drawn up a contract. But I’m not going to discuss this out here in the foyer.’ He nodded towards the library door. ‘I think it’s best if you’re seated for this.’
Frankie widened her eyes but then quickly averted her gaze and stalked ahead of him to the library. No way was she going to let him see how much he unsettled her. She had spent years keeping men with nefarious motives at bay. Men who saw her, because of her social standing and her family wealth, as a trophy worth collecting. Even some of her girlfriends had only been friends with her because of her aristocratic background. It had made her distrustful of just about everyone but what choice did she have? She had been stung too many times in the past.
She was conscious of Gabriel following her, wondering if his satirical dark gaze was on the curves of her bottom. Was he comparing her to Miss Beach Baby?
Frankie turned around to face him once they were both inside the study. She folded her arms and planted her feet, giving him her best make-me-sit-down-at-your-peril glare. ‘Tell me what’s going on.’
His gaze flicked to the chair next to her. ‘Sit.’
She straightened her shoulders like she was channelling a deportment guru. ‘No, I will not sit. I’m a woman, not a dog.’
His gaze skated over her figure, leaving a trail of fiery heat in its wake. His eyes came back to hers and her heart went into arrhythmia again. The steely glint of determination in his eyes warned her she was seriously outmatched. ‘I’m trying to help you, Francesca. It would be wise not to bite the hand that currently holds the deeds to your ancestral home.’
Frankie unfolded her arms and made fists of her hands. She wanted to slap that arrogantly assured expression off his face. Then she would punch him in his rock-hard stomach, even if it shattered every bone in her hand in the process. He was deliberately baiting her. Making her squirm like a bug on a corkboard. She had refused to date him in the past and now he wanted revenge with an indecent proposal. She plonked herself down in the chair and threw him a look that could have blistered the paint off every one of her ancestors’ portraits. ‘Do you think you can blackmail me to sleep with you?’
He was sitting on the corner of her father’s desk, his long legs stretched out in front of him, casually crossed at the ankles. ‘I prefer a less offensive term than blackmail, cara.’
She curled her lip. ‘What term do you prefer to use? And for God’s sake stop calling me cara.’
‘The term I would use is charity.’
Frankie frowned so hard her forehead hurt. ‘Charity?’
His lazy smile set that sail in her stomach flapping again. ‘I am willing to gift you this house as well as the money to cover your father’s debts if you’ll agree to become my wife.’
Frankie shot out of her chair so fast it fell over with a thump. ‘Your…wife?’
‘Yes. My wife. But only for a year.’
Frankie opened and closed her mouth, unable to find her voice. For a shameful moment, unable to find a reason to refuse him when she thought of all that money. And her family home. Not to mention the hope of avoiding the public shame of millions of euros of debt.
No shame. No debt. No dirty little secrets let loose.
But she couldn’t accept his proposal…could she? It was against everything she believed in. ‘But I don’t understand… Why would you only want to be married for a year?’
He got off the desk and came over and righted the chair she had knocked over, turning to face her again. ‘You have something I need in the short term.’
Frankie swallowed, her legs suddenly feeling as if all her joints were only held together by pieces of string. She searched blindly for the desk behind her with her hands, gripping it to keep herself upright. His eyes were as dark as ebony, watchful, calculating, mesmerising. ‘W-what?’ It annoyed her to hear that crack in her voice. Annoyed and shamed her.
She rapid blinked. ‘Respectability?’ She gave a humourless laugh. ‘Don’t you realise the appalling mess my father left me in? There is absolutely nothing respectable about owing millions of—’
‘No one needs to know anything about any of that if you marry me. I spoke to your father’s lawyer on the phone just before you arrived. I will cover the entire debt on the condition that you marry me this weekend.’
Frankie’s stomach dropped like an anchor. He was serious about this? He was prepared to marry her? To repay all that wretched money? ‘This weekend? But it’s Thursday now and—’
‘You are aware of my family’s reputation, sì?’ His mouth took on a twisted line.
‘Yes, but everyone knows you’re not—’
‘Everyone but the board of directors I am currently trying to stay on,’ Gabriel said. ‘Your father was the one who nominated me last year but now he’s gone, the other members are a little uneasy. But when I marry Marco’s only daughter—an English/Italian aristocrat with an impeccable pedigree and reputation—it’ll convince them I’m to be trusted.’
Frankie let go of her grip of the desk and clutched the neck of her silk blouse, worried her thumping heart was going to leap out and land on the carpet at Gabriel’s feet. ‘But I don’t understand why you would choose me. I mean, we’re not exactly friends. And you must know other aristocrats. Didn’t you date a member of European royalty a few years ago?’
Gabriel came to stand in front of her, every inch of his six-foot-four frame exuding male power and potency. With him this close, she had to remind herself to breathe. She had to remind herself not to stare at his mouth, not to dream about it crushing hers. Had to remind herself she was a woman of pride and would not resort to marrying a man for his convenience.
But what about your convenience?
The voice of her conscience tapped her on the shoulder like an unwelcome guest at a party. Gabriel’s plan was tempting. Seriously, ridiculously tempting. One year of her life and she would be free of the shame of her father’s gambling debts. She would have her family home back. It would remain in her possession. It would not be sold off to strangers or turned into a hotel or a grubby casino…
‘I need your answer, Francesca. Yes or no.’
Frankie removed her hand from the neck of her blouse and scooted away from him, going behind her father’s desk to keep a barrier between them. ‘I need some time to think about this…’ She disguised a gulping swallow, her thoughts in a messy fishing line tangle of fear.
Married for a year to Gabriel Salvetti? She had hoped to marry one day a man who loved her. Like her father had loved her mother. The mother she had never met since she’d died the day Frankie and her twin brother were born. Roberto had been stillborn and she had always wondered if she was responsible for both their deaths. Her father had never loved another woman since her mother’s death. He had never remarried. He’d had the occasional relationship but no one had taken her mother’s place.
That was the sort of love she wanted from a man.
Frankie gripped the back of her father’s leather chair. ‘What sort of marriage are you envisaging?’ Her voice betrayed her with its faint note of trepidation.
His gaze flicked briefly to her mouth. ‘That would be entirely up to you.’
She frowned, something in her stomach toppling from a high shelf. Something lower in her body flickering. Flaring. Flaming. ‘What do you mean?’
‘It can be a paper marriage or a normal one. Your choice.’ His expression gave her no clue as to which one he wanted her to choose. A screen had come down over his face. And yet the atmosphere subtly changed as if an invisible third party had entered the room—mutual desire. It throbbed in the air like a current, back and forth between his gaze and hers. She felt it in her body, deep in her body—a flickering pulse that drew molten heat to her core.
Frankie sent the tip of her tongue out over her lips. ‘And if I were to choose a paper one…would you get your…erm…needs met elsewhere?’
His answer surprised her. He was a full-blooded man of thirty-two. He was in the prime of his life. He had a new lover every few weeks. He was always being photographed with a glamorous woman on his arm. ‘You’d remain celibate for a whole year?’ She couldn’t keep the incredulity out of her voice.
‘If you agree to a paper marriage, then that’s the deal.’ His eyes contained a hint of sardonic amusement. ‘But of course, I would expect you, too, to remain celibate.’
Frankie wondered if he knew she was still a virgin. But how could he know? It wasn’t something she brandished about. She was pretty sure her father hadn’t known about her lack of a love life, especially since she’d been based in London the last four years, teaching in a special needs school. She had been unlucky with dating. A bad experience in her late teens had made her wary of dating men she didn’t know. And the ones she knew, she didn’t want to date. Like most young women her age, she dreamed of falling in love, but another part of her shied away from getting that close to someone.
To allow someone to see who she really was—the girl who had carried a curse since birth. Her birthday was her mother and brother’s death day. If that wasn’t a curse, she didn’t know what was.
Frankie tightened her hold on the chair and fashioned her features into her trademark icy hauteur. ‘I suppose you think if I agree to marry you, then I won’t be able to help myself. That I’ll beg you to make love to me or something.’
His mouth tilted in a smile so sexy the backs of her knees tingled. ‘If so, I’d be happy to be of service.’
Frankie could feel her cheeks heating hot enough to steam the wallpaper off the walls. ‘I’m not in the habit of begging so don’t hold your breath. But I still don’t understand why you of all people would go to this amount of trouble and expense to rescue me from this situation.’
Gabriel picked up a paperweight off her father’s desk and passed it from one hand to the other, his gaze focused on the trapped dandelion clock inside the glass sphere. She had given it to her father a couple of years ago because it reminded her of how she felt. Her fragile core of sensitivity shielded from the outside world. Gabriel held the sphere still for a moment, his thumb rolling over the top like he was caressing a woman’s breast.
Frankie could actually feel her breast tingling. Damn the man for being so dangerously attractive. He could turn her on by remote. It was as if her body was tuned in to him. Tuned to his control and it was terrifying. Terrifying and yet…and yet…tempting.
He put the paperweight down again and met her gaze. ‘Your father was a good man, Francesca. He took a chance on me early in my career. Like most people, he had his misgivings about me. But I made sure his one-off offer of help wasn’t wasted.’ He looked down to straighten the paperwork on the desk, glancing back at her to continue. ‘Sure, he made a mess of things towards the end, but that was mostly due to his illness. I don’t want his memory tainted or destroyed by what happened in the last few months of his life.’
Frankie had always been a little jealous of his relationship with her father. She hadn’t been as close to her father as she would have liked but she mostly blamed herself. She was the one who had taken the love of his life away on the day she was born as well as his much longed for son and heir. It was hard to be close to someone who reminded you of what you had lost.
It was hard to be close to anyone when you carried such a horrible curse.
‘But if you were so chummy with my father, then why didn’t you come to his funeral?’
A flicker or something passed through his gaze. A flash of pain, a lightning strike of guilt. He pushed one of his hands through the ink-black thickness of his hair, his mouth set in a grim line. ‘I was unable to get there due to circumstances beyond my control.’
Frankie folded her arms like a starchy schoolmistress. ‘Did those circumstances involve a bikini-clad blonde bombshell?’
His eyebrows drew together in a frown. ‘No. They did not.’
‘Then what kept you away?’
The shutter came back down on his face. ‘Suffice it to say it was a crisis and I was the only person who could deal with it at that time.’
She didn’t know whether to believe him or not. She had been surprised, and yes, hurt not to see him at the funeral. He had only visited her father once in the last two months of his life and she hadn’t been there at the time. She’d been out picking up more incontinence pads for her father and by the time she got back, the nurse on duty told her about Gabriel’s brief visit. She wondered now if it had been deliberate. She hadn’t realised how much she’d wanted to see him at the funeral until he didn’t show. She couldn’t explain why it had disappointed her so much other than she had felt completely overwhelmed with making all the arrangements on her own. And it was hard not to think it was her fault her mother and her twin brother Roberto hadn’t been there to help her.
Frankie came out from behind the desk and went to stand in front of the windows that overlooked the parterre garden. She had spent most of her childhood playing in the gardens of the villa. It was her magical place, a place where she had exercised her imagination in order to make up for the absence of a mother and a sibling. She’d had a series of nannies and had never felt neglected in a physical sense. But emotionally she had felt isolated. Not necessarily unloved but not adored either.
She breathed out a long sigh and turned back to face Gabriel. ‘Can I have a couple of days to think about this…proposal of yours?’
‘I need your answer today. The press is sniffing around and I can’t hold them off for ever.’
Panic beat a tattoo behind her ribcage. Hurry. Stop. Hurry. Stop. Hurry. Stop. She had never been good at decision-making under pressure. Her thoughts fired off in all directions like a box of accidentally lit fireworks. Marriage was a big step. A monumental step that should not be entered lightly—not according to her values. But what else could she do? Other people would suffer if that money was not paid back soon. Her father had borrowed money from friends and associates and it would only take one of them to sell their story to the press for her father’s reputation to be permanently soiled.
But marrying Gabriel Salvetti?
Frankie covered her nose and mouth with her steepled hands, fighting to control her breathing. Everything was happening so fast. She didn’t have time to think. To measure the risks. To escape. The room began to shift around her. The walls closing in, the furniture dark and looming and oppressive. She needed to sit down before she fell down. She reached for the chair but it was like searching through vaporous fog…
Suddenly a firm hand came down on her left arm to steady her. ‘Are you okay?’ Gabriel’s deep voice was full of concern. ‘Breathe, cara.’ He took both her hands and led her to the chair. ‘Put your head down between your knees.’ He guided her with a gentle hand pressed to the back of her head. ‘That’s it. Good girl.’
Frankie took several breaths, trying not to notice how nice it felt to have Gabriel’s hand resting against her hair. A frisson of pleasure stole down from her scalp to her spine in a long streak of tickly warmth. He was standing so close to her she could feel the denim of his jeans through the silk sleeve of her top. And the potent heat of his muscled thigh. She couldn’t remember a time when she had been so close to a man. Well, she could but it wasn’t a time she wanted to recall in any detail.
But this was different.
Gabriel was different. He was respectful and caring in a way she had never expected him to be. His touch did strange things to her. Wicked things. Forbidden things. Unleashed thoughts and desires she couldn’t suppress even though she wanted to. They were racing through her mind, triggering wanton images of him and her with entangled limbs and mouths pressed together in a passionate kiss, their bodies straining, yearning to get even closer.
Gabriel crouched down in front of her, his hand taking one of hers. ‘Feeling better now?’ His espresso-black gaze meshed with hers, making her feel dizzy all over again. Dizzy with the need to feel his mouth on hers. She moistened her lips and watched as he followed the movement of her tongue. His eyes came back to hers and it was like a switch had been flicked.
The atmosphere tightened as if every stick of furniture in the room had taken a collective breath and held it. Held it. Held it…
Frankie glanced down at her pale hand encased in his. His fingers were dusted with dark masculine hair, the nails neat and square. She couldn’t stop thinking about his hands on her body, touching her, pleasuring her. Awakening her. She tried to suppress a shiver but didn’t quite manage it. ‘I’m okay… I just felt a little faint…’
Gabriel released her hand and straightened, briefly resting a hand on her shoulder. ‘I know my proposal must have come as a shock but I give you my word my motives are exactly as I’ve told you. There is no hidden agenda.’
Frankie couldn’t hold his gaze. She didn’t want him to see the naked need that was stirring in her body. A need she hadn’t been aware of until now. She looked down at her hands resting on her thighs. ‘Marriage seems a little extreme, though. I mean, what will we do after the year is up?’
‘Get a divorce or an annulment.’ He said it so casually as if it was as simple as ticking a box.
Frankie brought her gaze up to meet his. ‘But you don’t seem to be getting much out of the deal. You’re prepared to spend millions for what? To be known as my husband?’
He moved to where she had been standing a few minutes before. His back turned to her as he too looked at the view outside. After a moment, he turned to face her but the light from outside put his face in shadow so she couldn’t read his expression. ‘You read the papers, do you not? You must have heard of my father’s latest scandal?’ The hardened tone of his voice alerted her to the shame he must feel about the criminal behaviour of his family. ‘Drugs. The recent haul one of the biggest in the history of this country. Do you need me to go on?’
Frankie shook her head and bit her lip. ‘No. It must be awful for you.’
‘Damn right it’s awful.’ He moved to stand behind her father’s desk, his hands gripping the back of the chair as she had done earlier. ‘It’s been virtually impossible to run my business lately. Deals have been cancelled at short notice. Big deals. Deals I worked on for months. Every time I turn up to a board meeting I can feel the tension, the uneasiness. Your situation is awful too, but we can fix both with a short-term marriage. It’s not as if you’re marrying a stranger. I will not treat you with anything but the utmost respect. You have my word on that.’
Put like that, it sounded a perfect plan. The trouble was the devil was in the detail. Devilish details such as her growing awareness of him. The physical awareness she could feel even now. The faint prickle of her breasts every time his gaze skated over her figure. The tingle in her lips when his eyes rested on her mouth. The hollow burning ache between her thighs when she thought about him touching her there. Frankie crossed her legs in an effort to quell the sensation but, if anything, it made it worse. It made her more aware of the secret tingling urgings of her body. ‘But if we were to marry on paper, say, won’t people expect us to be affectionate with each other, at least in public if not in private?’
His gaze drifted to her mouth for a brief moment. But then he blinked and brought his eyes back to hers, his expression an unreadable mask. ‘We will have to touch on occasion but we can agree on what’s appropriate.’
‘You’re making it sound so…so clinical,’ Frankie said.
‘The best solutions to tricky problems are formed without emotion clouding judgement.’ He tapped his fingers on the back of the leather chair and added, ‘Which brings me to the number one rule I insist on.’
His eyes were as steady and determined as a marksman’s. ‘No falling in love with me.’
Frankie rocketed out of her chair as if it had burned her. ‘Me fall in love with you?’ She pointed her index finger at her chest and then at him. ‘What about you falling in love with me?’ This time she stabbed her index finger at him before pointing it back at herself. ‘Works both ways, buddy.’
His jaw was set in an intractable line, his gaze suddenly cold and marble-hard. ‘It’s highly unlikely. No offence.’
Frankie gave a snort of laughter even though her ego was suffering a major crisis. A debilitating crisis. Was she so unlovable? Was every doubt she had about herself true? ‘Let me tell you what I find offensive. You thinking I would be so desperate as to accept your stupid proposal.’
Gabriel put his hand on the paperwork he’d placed on the desk earlier and pushed it across so she could see it. ‘The villa will be placed back in your name as soon as we’re married. It’s written in this contract. We will go on a short honeymoon to the south of France for the sake of appearances.’
A honeymoon? Frankie’s gaze went to the contract even though she hated herself for it. She didn’t want to need Gabriel’s help but who else would or could help her? Some of the people she had thought of asking had already lent her father money and were impatient to be repaid. And who else had that sort of money?
She read through the contract, wondering yet again why he was going to so much trouble to help her. But then she recalled what he’d said about his father’s latest scandal and the board position Gabriel was trying to keep. Success was important to men like Gabriel. He thrived on it. It was why her rejection of him had nettled him.
He didn’t give up on a goal.
He found ways, made ways, to achieve it.
Frankie pushed the contract back to his side of the desk. ‘It seems to me you’re paying a very high price for respectability, marrying a woman you swear you could never love.’
‘It’s best if we both keep our emotions out of this, Francesca.’ He softened it with a small on-off smile that didn’t reach his eyes. ‘And if we were to consummate the marriage, I absolutely insist on the use of contraception. No exceptions. Understood?’
Frankie held her hand up. ‘Whoa there. Aren’t you jumping ahead of yourself? I haven’t agreed to marry you yet and I—’
‘You will marry me, cara. You have too much at stake not to.’
Frankie wished it wasn’t true. But the thought of losing her home for the sake of her stubborn pride was an ask too big, an even bigger ask than marrying a man who claimed he would never fall in love with her. Was there any crueller blow to a feminine ego than that insulting declaration?
Frankie blew out a breath of resignation, keeping her gaze out of reach of his. ‘It looks like I’ve got no choice…’
He came from behind the desk and stood next to her. ‘Look at me, Francesca.’
She brought her gaze up to his dark inscrutable one. He searched her gaze for a long moment, then he lifted his hand to her face and gently traced the curve of her cheek from just below her ear to the base of her chin. Every nerve in her face tingled at his touch, her heart skipping a beat, her breath coming to a screeching halt.
His mouth slanted in a knowing smile. ‘I’m helping you. You’re helping me. That’s all this is. Do I make myself clear?’
Frankie pulled out of his hold and pointedly rubbed at her chin. ‘I have some rules too. You don’t get to touch me unless I say so.’
‘Sounds reasonable, although there will be occasions when we’re in public that my asking permission will look odd, sì?’
‘Okay, but I mostly meant when we’re alone.’ Frankie elevated her chin to a defiant height. ‘And it’s going to be a paper marriage.’
A glint appeared in his gaze as if the wick of an irresistible challenge had been lit. ‘Are you absolutely sure about that, cara mia?’
Penniless Virgin To Sicilian Bride will be available in store and online from May 2019