His Innocent’s Passionate Awakening
by Melanie Milburne
Untouched and unawakened…or redemption?
Rather than lose her beloved estate to ultrarich playboy Luca Ferrantelli, Artemisia agrees to wed him…on paper. Traumatised by a devastating accident, the heiress hasn’t left the castello in years. She knows nothing of the world outside — nothing of a man’s touch.
If there’s a chance that marrying Artie will give his grandfather the will to live, Luca must do it. But he’s determined to resist the addictive pull of Artie’s vibrancy and vulnerability. Until their scorching wedding kiss stirs the beauty to sensual new life!
Escape to exotic locations where passion knows no bounds.
ARTEMISIA BELLANTE STARED at her father’s lawyer in abject horror. ‘But there must be some mistake. How can Castello Mireille be…be mortgaged? It’s been in my father’s family for generations. Papa never mentioned anything about owing money to a bank.’
‘He didn’t owe it to a bank.’ The lawyer, Bruno Rossi, pushed a sheaf of papers across the desk towards Artie, his expression grave. ‘Have you heard of Luca Ferrantelli? He runs his late father’s global property developing company. He’s also a wine and olive producer with a keen interest in rare grape varieties, some of which are on the Castello Mireille estate.’
Artie lowered her gaze to the papers in front of her, a light shiver racing down her spine like a stray current of electricity. ‘I’ve vaguely heard of him…’ She might have spent years living in isolation on her family’s ancient estate but even she had heard of the handsome billionaire playboy. And seen pictures. And swooned just like any other woman between the ages of fifteen and fifty.
She raised her gaze back to the lawyer’s. ‘But how did this happen? I know Papa had to let some of the gardeners go to keep costs down and insisted we cut back on housekeeping expenses, but he didn’t mention anything about borrowing money from anyone. I don’t understand how Signor Ferrantelli now owns most, if not all, my family’s home. Why didn’t Papa tell me before he died?’
To find out like this was beyond embarrassing. And deeply hurtful. Was this her father’s way of forcing his shut-in daughter out of the nest by pushing her to the verge of bankruptcy?
Where would she find the sort of money to dig herself out of this catastrophic mess?
Bruno shifted his glasses further up the bridge of his Roman nose. ‘Apparently your father and Luca’s father had some sort of business connection in the past. He contacted Luca for financial help when the storm damage hit the castello late last year. His insurance policy had lapsed and he knew he would have no choice but to sell if someone didn’t bail him out.’
Artie rapid-blinked. ‘The insurance lapsed? But why didn’t he tell me? I’m his only child. The only family he had left. Surely he should have trusted me enough to tell me the truth about our finances.’
Bruno Rossi made a shrugging movement with one shoulder. ‘Pride. Embarrassment. Shame. The usual suspects in cases like this. He had to mortgage the estate to pay for the repairs. Luca Ferrantelli seemed the best option—the only option, considering your father’s poor state of health. But the repayment plan didn’t go according to schedule, which leaves you in an awkward position.’
Artie wrinkled her brow, a tension headache stabbing at the backs of her eyes like scorching hot needles. Was this a nightmare? Would she suddenly wake up and find this was nothing but a terrifying dream?
Please let this not be real.
‘Surely Papa knew he would have to eventually pay back the money he borrowed from Signor Ferrantelli? How could he have let it get to this? And wouldn’t Luca Ferrantelli have done due diligence and realised Papa wouldn’t be able to pay it back? Or was that Ferrantelli’s intention all along—to take the castello off us?’
Bruno leaned forward in his chair with a sigh. ‘Your father was a good man, Artie, but he wasn’t good at managing finances, especially since the accident. There have been a lot of expenses, as you know, with running the estate since he came home from hospital. Your mother was the one with the financial clout to keep things in the black, but of course, after she died in the accident, it naturally fell to him. Unfortunately, he didn’t always listen to advice from his accountants and financial advisors.’
He gave a rueful movement of his lips and continued.
‘I’m sure I wouldn’t be the first person to tell you how much the accident changed him. He fired his last three accountants because they told him things had to change. Luca Ferrantelli’s offer of financial help has meant you could nurse your father here until he passed away, but now of course, unless you can find the money to pay off the mortgage, it will remain in Luca’s possession.’
Over her dead body, it would. No way was she handing over her family’s home without a fight, even if it would be a David and Goliath mismatch. Artie would find some way of winning.
She had to.
Artie did her best to ignore the beads of sweat forming between her shoulder blades. The drumbeat of panic in her chest. The hammering needles behind her eyeballs. The sense of the floor beneath her feet pitching like a paper boat riding a tsunami. ‘When and where did Papa meet with Signor Ferrantelli? I’ve been Papa’s full-time carer for the last ten years and don’t recall Signor Ferrantelli ever coming here to see him.’
‘Maybe he came one day while you were out.’
Out? Artie didn’t go out.
She wasn’t like other people, who could walk out of their homes and meet up with friends. It was impossible for her to be around more than one or two people at a time. Three was very definitely a crowd.
‘Maybe…’ Artie looked down at the papers again, conscious of warmth filling her cheeks. Her social anxiety was far more effective than a maximum-security prison. She hadn’t been outside the castello walls since she was fifteen.
Two fifths of her life.
As far as she knew, it wasn’t common knowledge that she suffered from social anxiety. Her father’s dependence on her had made it easy to disguise her fear of crowds. She had relished the role of looking after him. It had given her life a purpose, a focus. She had mostly avoided meeting people when they came to the castello to visit her father. She stayed in the background until they left. But barely anyone but her father’s doctor and physical therapists had come during the last year or two of his life. Compassion fatigue had worn out his so-called friends. And now that the money had run dry, she could see why they had drifted away, one by one. There wasn’t anyone she could turn to. Having been home schooled since her mid-teens, she had lost contact with her school friends. Friends wanted you to socialise with them and that she could never do, so they, too, had drifted away.
She had no friends of her own other than Rosa, the housekeeper.
Artie took a deep breath and blinked to clear her clouded vision. The words in front of her confirmed her worst fears. Her home was mortgaged to the hilt. There was no way a bank would lend her enough funds to get the castello out of Luca Ferrantelli’s hands. The only job she had ever had was as her father’s carer. From fifteen to twenty-five she had taken care of his every need. She had no formal qualifications, no skills other than her embroidery hobby.
She swallowed and pushed the papers back across the desk. ‘What about my mother’s trust fund? Isn’t there enough left for me to pay off the mortgage?’
‘There’s enough for you to live on for the short-term but not enough to cover the money owed.’
Artie’s heart began to beat like a wounded frog. ‘How long have I got?’ It sounded like a terminal diagnosis, which in some ways it was. She couldn’t imagine her life without Castello Mireille. It was her home. Her base. Her anchor.
Her entire world.
Bruno Rossi shuffled the papers back into a neat pile. ‘A year or two. But even if you were by some chance to raise finance to keep the estate, the place needs considerable maintenance. Costly maintenance. The storm damage last year showed how vulnerable the castello is. The north wing’s roof still needs some work, not to mention the conservatory. It will cost millions of euros to—’
‘Yes, yes, I know.’ Artie pushed back her chair and smoothed her damp palms down her thighs. The castello was crumbling around her—she saw evidence of it every single day. But moving out of her home was unthinkable. Impossible.
She literally couldn’t do it.
Panic tiptoed over her skin like thousands of tiny ants wearing stilettoes. Pressure built in her chest—a crushing weight pushing against her lungs so she couldn’t take another breath. She wrapped her arms around her middle, fighting to hold off a full-blown panic attack. She hadn’t had one for a while but the threat was always lurking in the murky shadows of her consciousness. It had followed her like a malevolent ghost ever since she came home from hospital from the accident that killed her mother and left her father in a wheelchair.
An accident that wouldn’t have occurred if it hadn’t been for her.
The lawyer cleared his throat. ‘There’s something else…’ The formal quality of his tone changed and another shiver skittered down Artie’s spine.
She straightened her shoulders and cupped her elbows with her hands, hoping for a cool and dignified stance but falling way too short. ‘W-what?’
‘Signor Ferrantelli has proposed a plan for you to repay him. If you fulfil his terms, you will regain full ownership of the castello within six months.’
Artie’s eyebrows shot up along with her heart rate. And her anxiety grew razorblade wings and flapped frantically against her stomach lining like frenzied bats. How could she ever repay those mortgage payments in such a short space of time? What on earth did he require her to do? ‘A plan? What sort of plan?’ Her voice came out high and strained like an overused squeaky toy.
‘He didn’t authorise me to discuss it with you. He insists on speaking to you in person first.’ Bruno pushed back his chair, further demonstrating his unwillingness to reveal anything else. ‘Signor Ferrantelli has requested a meeting with you in his Milan office nine a.m. sharp, on Monday, to discuss your options.’
Options? What possible options could there be? None she wanted to think about in any detail. Ice-cold dread slithered into her belly. What nefarious motives could Luca Ferrantelli have towards her? A woman he had never met? And what was with his drill sergeant commands?
Nine a.m. Sharp. In his office. In Milan.
Luca Ferrantelli sounded like a man who issued orders and expected them to be obeyed without question. But there was no way she could go to Milan. Not on Monday. Not any day. She couldn’t get as far as the front gate without triggering crippling, stomach-emptying, mind-scattering panic.
Artie released her arms from around her body and gripped the back of the nearest chair. Her heart was racing like it was preparing for the Olympics. ‘Tell him to meet me here. It’s not convenient for me to go to Milan. I don’t drive and, from what you’ve just told me, I can’t afford a taxi or even an Uber.’
‘Signor Ferrantelli is a busy man. He expressly told me to tell you he—’
Artie stiffened her spine and raised her chin and ground her teeth behind her cool smile. ‘Tell him to meet me here, nine a.m. sharp, on Monday. Or not meet with me at all.’
Luca Ferrantelli drove his Maserati through the rusty entrance gates of Castello Mireille on Monday morning. The castello was like something out of a Grimm brothers’ fairy tale. The centuries-old ivy-clad stone building was surrounded by gardens that looked like they hadn’t been tended for years, with overgrown hedges, unpruned roses, weed-covered pathways and ancient trees that stood like gnarly sentries. The castello had loads of potential—years of running his late father’s property development company had taught him how to spot a diamond in the rough.
And speaking of diamonds…
He glanced at the velvet box on the seat next to him containing his late grandmother’s engagement ring, and inwardly smiled. Artemisia Bellante would make the perfect temporary bride. Her father, Franco, had emailed Luca a photo of his daughter shortly before he died, asking Luca to make sure she was looked after once he was gone. The photo had planted a seed in Luca’s mind—a seed that had taken root and sprouted and blossomed until all he could think about was meeting her—to offer her a way out of her present circumstances. Young, innocent, sheltered—she was exactly the sort of young woman his conservative grandfather would deem suitable as a Ferrantelli bride.
Time was rapidly running out on convincing his grandfather to accept the chemo he so desperately needed. Luca had a small window of opportunity to get Nonno to change his mind. Luca would do anything—even marry a poverty-stricken heiress—to make sure his elderly and frail nonno could live a few more precious years. After all, it was his fault his grandfather had lost the will to live. Didn’t he owe Nonno some measure of comfort, given how Luca had torn apart the Ferrantelli family?
A vision of Luca’s father, Flavio, and older brother, Angelo, drifted into his mind. Their lifeless bodies pulled from the surf due to his reckless behaviour as a teenager. His reckless behaviour and their love for him—a lethal, deadly combination. Two lives cut short because of him. Two lives and their potential wasted, and his mother and grandparents’ happiness permanently, irrevocably destroyed. No one had been the same since that terrible day. No one.
Luca blinked to clear away the vision and gripped the steering wheel with white-knuckled force. He couldn’t bring his father and brother back. He couldn’t undo the damage he had caused to his mother and Nonna and Nonno. His grandmother had died a year ago and since then, his grandfather had lost the will to live. Nonno was refusing treatment for his very treatable cancer, and if he didn’t receive chemotherapy soon he would die. So far, no amount of talking, lecturing, cajoling or bribing or begging on Luca’s part had helped changed his grandfather’s mind.
But Luca had a plan and he intended to carry it out no matter what. He would bring home a fresh-faced young bride to give hope to his grandfather that the Ferrantelli family line would continue well into the future.
Even if that was nothing but a fairy tale.
Artie watched Luca Ferrantelli’s showroom-perfect deep blue Maserati come through the castello gates like a prowling lion. The low purr of the engine was audible even here in the formal sitting room. The car’s tinted windows made it impossible for her to get a proper glimpse of his face, but the car’s sleek profile and throaty growls seemed like a representation of his forthright personality.
Didn’t they say a person’s choice of car told you a lot about them?
Artie already knew as much as she wanted to know. More than she wanted to know. That would teach her for spending the weekend trawling over the internet for any mention of him. Her research had revealed him as a flagrant playboy who brokered property deals and broke female hearts all over the globe. Barely a week went past without a gossip page featuring Luca Ferrantelli with a star-struck sylph-like blonde draped on his arm.
The powerful sports car came to a halt at the front of the castello. Artie sucked in a breath as the driver’s door opened, her heart giving a sudden kick, her eyes widening as a vision of potent, athletic maleness unfolded from behind the wheel. The internet photos hadn’t done him justice. How could it be possible to be so spectacularly attractive? Her pulse fluttered as if someone had injected her veins with thousands of butterflies.
The good-looks fairy godmother had certainly excelled herself when it came to Luca Ferrantelli. Six foot four, lean and athletic, with wavy black hair that was casually styled in a just-out-of-bed or just-combed-with-his-fingers manner, he was the epitome of heart-stopping handsome. Even though she was looking at him from a distance, Artie’s heart was stopping and starting like a spluttering engine. How was she going to be when he was in the same room as her? Breathing the same air? Within touching distance?
As if Luca Ferrantelli sensed her gaze on him, he took off his aviator-style sunglasses and locked gazes with her. Something sprang open in her chest and she suddenly couldn’t breathe. She quickly stepped away from the window and leaned back against the adjacent wall, clutching a hand to her pulsing throat, heat pouring into her cheeks. She had to get a grip. And fast. The last thing she wanted to do was appear gauche and unsophisticated, but, given she had been out of society for so long, she was at a distinct disadvantage. He was the poster boy for living in the fast lane. She was a wallflower who hadn’t been seen in public for a decade.
It was some minutes before the housekeeper, Rosa, led Luca Ferrantelli to where Artie was waiting to receive him, but even so, her pulse was still leaping when the sitting room door opened. What if she became tongue-tied? What if she blushed? What if she broke out in a sweat and couldn’t breathe? What if—?
‘Signor Ferrantelli to see you,’ Rosa announced with a formal nod in Luca’s direction, before going out of the room and closing the door behind her with a click.
The first thing Artie noticed was his hair wasn’t completely black. There were several strands of steel-grey sprinkled around his temples, which gave him a distinguished, wise-beyond-his-years air. His eyes were framed by prominent eyebrows and were an unusual hazel—a mix of brown and green flecks, fringed by thick, ink-black lashes. His amazing eyes were a kaleidoscope of colours one would normally find in a deeply shadowed forest. His jaw was cleanly shaven but the faint shadow of regrowth around his nose and mouth hinted at the potent male hormones working vigorously behind the scenes.
The atmosphere of the room changed with his presence, as if every stick of furniture, every fibre of carpet and curtains, every portrait frame and the faces of her ancestors contained within them took a collective breath. Stunned by his looks, his commanding presence, his take-charge energy.
‘Buongiorno, Signorina Bellante.’ Luca Ferrante’s voice was like the sound of his car—low and deep, with a sexy rumble that did something strange to the base of her spine. So, too, did seeing his lips move when shaping and pronouncing her name. His lower lip was full and sensual, the top lip only marginally less so, and he had a well-defined philtrum ridge beneath his nose and a shallow cleft in his chin.
Artie slipped her hand into his outstretched one and a zap of electricity shot from her fingers to her core like a lightning bolt. His grip was strong and yet strangely gentle, his fingers long and tanned with a light dusting of dark masculine hair that ran over the backs of his hands and disappeared beneath the cuffs of his business shirt and jacket. Armani, at a guess. And his aftershave an equally intoxicating blend of citrus and spice and sophistication that teased her senses into a stupor.
‘Buongiorno, Signor Ferrantelli.’
Artie aimed for cool politeness but sounded more like a star-struck teen in front of a Hollywood celebrity. She could feel warm colour blooming in her cheeks. Could feel her heart thumping like it was having some sort of medical crisis. Could feel her female hormones responding to his male ones with little tingles and pulses deep within her body.
Let go of his hand!
Her brain gave the command but her hand was trapped in some kind of weird stasis. It was as if her hand had a mind of its own and was enjoying being held by his warm, dry one, thank you very much. Enjoying it so much, she could feel every whorl of his skin as if it were being engraved, branded into hers.
Luca removed his hand from hers but his gaze kept hers tethered. She couldn’t look away if she tried. Magnetic. Enthralling. Mesmerising. His eyes seemed to draw secrets from within her while concealing his own.
‘Firstly, allow me to offer my condolences on the recent passing of your father.’
She stepped back and waved her still-tingling hand in the direction of the sofa. ‘Would you like to sit down? I’ll call Rosa to bring in coffee. How do you take it?’
‘Black and strong.’
Of course you do.
Artie pressed the intercom pad and summoned Rosa, surreptitiously eyeing him while she requested coffee from the housekeeper. Everything about Luca Ferrantelli was strong. Strong, determined jaw. Strong, intelligent eyes. A strong and muscled body that hinted at a man who wasn’t afraid of pushing himself to the limits of endurance. A man who set goals and didn’t let anyone or anything stop him from achieving them.
Artie ended the intercom conversation with Rosa and sat on the nearest sofa, and only then did Luca take the seat opposite. He laid one arm along the back of the sofa in a casually relaxed pose she privately envied. She had to place her hands on the tops of her thighs to stop her knees from trembling. Not from fear but from a strange sense of fizzing excitement. She tried not to stare at his powerfully muscled thighs, his well-formed biceps, the flat plane of his stomach, but her gaze kept drifting over him of its own volition. Drinking in the planes and contours of his face, wondering what was going on behind the screen of his gaze, wondering if his firm lips would soften when he kissed…
Artie blinked and sat up straighter on the sofa, crossing her legs to try and control the wayward urges going on in her lower body. What was wrong with her? He had barely exchanged more than half a dozen words with her and she was undressing him with her eyes. She curled her hands into balls on her lap and fixed a smile on her lips. ‘So, how was your drive from Milan? I hope it didn’t inconvenience you too much to come here?’ Who said she couldn’t do small talk?
Luca’s half-smile and his glittering forest floor eyes made something slip sideways in her stomach. ‘It didn’t inconvenience me at all. But we both know that was your intention, was it not?’
Artie forced herself to hold his penetrating gaze. ‘Signor Ferrantelli, I am not the sort of woman to jump when a man says jump.’
The dark gleam in his eyes intensified and a hot trickle of something liquid spilled deep in her core. ‘You may have no choice, given I now own nine tenths of Castello Mireille, unless you can buy me out within the next twenty-four hours.’ There was a don’t-mess-with-me warning in his tone that made her want to mess with him to see what would happen.
Artie disguised a swallow, her heart picking up its pace. ‘My father’s lawyer informed me of the unusual financial arrangement you made with my father. One wonders why you didn’t buy all of it off him while you had the chance.’
His gaze was unwavering. ‘He was a dying man who deserved some dignity in the last months of his life.’
Artie gave a cynical smile while her blood boiled in her veins and roaring anger bubbled in her chest. ‘Do you expect me to believe you felt some measure of compassion for him? Even while you were systematically taking his home away from him ancient stone by ancient stone?’
Luca didn’t change his casual posture on the sofa but a ripple of tension passed across his features, tightening his jaw, flaring his nose, hardening his eyes. ‘Your father approached me late last year for help. I gave it to him. It was a straightforward business deal. And now I have come to collect on my investment.’
Artie shot up from the sofa as if someone had pressed an ejector switch. She glared at him with the full force of her fury, chest heaving like she had just completed a marathon without training first. ‘You can’t take my home off me. I won’t allow it.’
Luca Ferrantelli’s gaze was diamond-hard. ‘My intention is to give the castello back to you—after a time. And for a price.’
Something heavy landed on the floor of her belly. ‘What price? You must know I can’t possibly raise the necessary funds to pay out the mortgage?’
He held her gaze in a lock that made the backs of her knees tingle. ‘I will erase the debt and give the deeds of the castello back if you agree to be my wife for six months.’