Книга - Wearing The De Angelis Ring


Wearing The De Angelis Ring

Falling for her fiancé?Tycoon Theo De Angelis lives life by his rules only…until a family debt nds him forced to propose the only merger he’s never chased – matrimony! Beautiful, inexperienced Alexa Caldini may be nothing like his usual blonde bombshell ‘type’, but that doesn’t mean their marriage bed must grow cold…Forced to marry the son of her father’s rival, Alexa is determined to impose certain ground rules on their inconvenient arrangement. Absolutely no emotions and definitely no physical relationship! But wearing the De Angelis ring is easier than facing the unexpected temptations of actually becoming Theo’s wife. How long before Alexa’s rules go up in smoke?

‘Are you suggesting that I actually want you to … to …?’

‘Kiss you? That’s exactly what I’m suggesting …’

‘Then you couldn’t be further from the mark!’ Alexa snapped, blushing furiously and hating him for reminding her of their kiss, which she would rather have forgotten. ‘I’m fine with you being …being attentive when we’re out together, but the last thing I want is to be kissed by you! Do you know something, Theo De Angelis? You’re the most egotistic, arrogant man I have ever met!’

‘I know. I think you told me already. But you make a valid point … just in case …’

She sensed what he was about to do and yet it still took her by surprise, and this time there was an urgency to his kiss that hadn’t been there before. His mouth assailed her, his tongue seeking out hers.

The Italian Titans (#ulink_7538cffc-8346-557b-932f-cc5f169ddaf2)

Temptation personified!

Theo and Daniel De Angelis have never wanted for anything. These influential Italians command empires and conduct every liaison on their terms … until now.

Because these enigmatic tycoons are about to face their greatest challenge in the most unlikely of forms— two gorgeous girls with demands of their own!

Find out what happens next in:

Theo’s Story:

Wearing the De Angelis Ring

January 2016

Daniel’s Story:

The Surprise De Angelis Baby

February 2016

Wearing the

De Angelis Ring

Cathy Williams

www.millsandboon.co.uk (http://www.millsandboon.co.uk)

CATHY WILLIAMS can remember reading Mills & Boon Modern Romance books as a teenager, and now that she is writing them she remains an avid fan. For her, there is nothing like creating romantic stories and engaging plots, and each and every book is a new adventure. Cathy lives in London and her three daughters—Charlotte, Olivia and Emma—have always been, and continue to be, the greatest inspiration in her life.


Cover (#ubd9303b8-4936-557d-a759-75b1da9fb256)

Introduction (#u2bb4cf5e-d958-55c9-93c8-b12884cbdd7d)

The Italian Titans (#u9c51b5d2-679c-536d-94c9-4778c510a6ff)

Title Page (#u86e6506f-f328-5370-915b-e38dfd54ca2f)

About the Author (#u3c4153ca-c22a-5702-a9ed-502377d29115)

CHAPTER ONE (#uca827a03-8c7e-5994-b32c-aff37cba8f70)

CHAPTER TWO (#u3b347f87-f3bd-5ceb-bff1-697569ab562c)

CHAPTER THREE (#ucec4f96e-8c29-595f-92e8-f703e3713523)

CHAPTER FOUR (#litres_trial_promo)

CHAPTER FIVE (#litres_trial_promo)

CHAPTER SIX (#litres_trial_promo)

CHAPTER SEVEN (#litres_trial_promo)

CHAPTER EIGHT (#litres_trial_promo)

CHAPTER NINE (#litres_trial_promo)

CHAPTER TEN (#litres_trial_promo)

Extract (#litres_trial_promo)

Copyright (#litres_trial_promo)

CHAPTER ONE (#ulink_2f56fd58-28f1-5bff-9b28-28d1f06e8dc9)

‘YOU’RE NOT GOING to like what I’m about to say.’

The very second Stefano had called his son and told him that he needed to speak with him as a matter of urgency, Theo had dropped everything and taken the first flight over to Italy, to his father’s enormous estate just outside Rome.

Stefano De Angelis was not a man given to drama, and both Theo and his brother, Daniel, had spent the past five years worrying about him. He had never really recovered from the death of his wife, their mother, Rose. The power house who had built a personal fortune from scratch had collapsed into himself, retreating to the sanctuary of his den, immune to the efforts of both his sons to pull him out of his grief. He had continued to eat, sleep, talk and walk, but his soul had departed, leaving only a physical shell behind.

What, Theo thought now, was he about to hear?

Cold fear gripped him.

‘Have you asked Daniel as well?’ He prowled through the huge sitting room, idly gazing through the window to the sprawling lawns, before finally taking a seat opposite his father.

‘This situation does not concern your brother,’ Stefano returned, his dark eyes sidestepping his son’s piercing green ones.

Theo breathed a sigh of relief. If Daniel hadn’t been likewise summoned, then at least a health crisis could be discounted. He had been tempted to phone his brother on the back of his father’s summons, but had resisted the impulse because he knew that Daniel was in the throes of a balancing act: trying to close a major deal and a minor love affair at the same time.

The deal, his brother had confided several days ago, when he had called from his penthouse apartment in Sydney, was a walk in the park compared to the woman who had been making noises about taking what they had ‘one step further’, and didn’t show any promise of retreating without putting up a fight.

‘So tell me... What am I not going to like to hear?’ Theo encouraged.

‘As you are well aware, son...’ Stefano’s hooded dark eyes gazed off into the distance ‘...things have not been good with me since your mother died. When my beloved Rose went, she took a big part of me with her.’

‘Of us all.’

‘But you and your brother are young. I, on the other hand, am an old man—and you know what they say about old dogs and new tricks. Perhaps if her death hadn’t been so sudden... Perhaps if I had had time to get used to the idea of her absence...’ He sighed. ‘But this is not why I called you here, Theo. To moan and complain about something that cannot be changed. I called you here because during the time that I was...shall we say mentally not present, certain unfortunate things took place within the company.’

Theo stilled. His keen eyes noted the nervous play of his father’s entwined fingers. His father was the least nervous man he had ever known.

‘Unfortunate things...?’

‘There has been some substantial mismanagement,’ Stefano declared bluntly. ‘And worse, I am afraid. Alfredo, my trusted co-director, has been involved in large-scale embezzlement which has only recently been drawn to my attention. It’s a wonder the press hasn’t got hold of it. The upshot, Theo, is that vast sums of money—including most of the pension funds—have been hijacked.’

Theo sat back, his lean, handsome face revealing nothing of what was going through his mind.

It was a problem, yes—but a serious one? Not really. At any rate nothing that he couldn’t handle.

‘If you’re worried about the man getting what he deserves, then you can leave that to me,’ Theo asserted with cold confidence, his sharp, analytical brain already formulating ways in which payback could be duly extracted. ‘And if you’re worried about the lost money, then likewise. It will be nothing for me to return what’s been misappropriated. No one will ever know.’

‘It’s not that easy, Theo.’

And Theo knew that now they were approaching the heart of the problem—the reason why he had been summoned.

‘I would never ask either you or Daniel for financial assistance!’ Stefano glowered, his fighting spirit temporarily restored as he contemplated the unthinkable. ‘You boys have made your own way in the world and my pride would never allow me to run to either of you with my begging bowl...’

Theo shook his head in frustration at his father’s pride—which, he had to concede, both he and Daniel had inherited in bucketloads. ‘It would not have been a question of—’

‘I’m afraid I went to Carlo Caldini,’ Stefano said abruptly. ‘There was no choice. The bank was not an option—not when there was a significant chance that they would turn down my request. If that had happened, then the business... Well, what can I say? Everything your mother and I built would have been thrown into the public arena to be picked over by hyenas! At least with Carlo we can keep this between us...’

Theo pressed the pads of his thumbs against his eyes.

Carlo Caldini had once been his father’s closest friend and now, for longer than he could remember, was his fiercest adversary. The fact that he had seen fit to go to Carlo for help threatened to bring on a raging headache.

There was absolutely no doubt that whatever his father was going to tell him Theo was not going to want to hear it.

‘And what’s his price?’ he asked, because there was no such thing as a free lunch—and when the lunch was with a sworn enemy then it was going to be the opposite of free.

Exorbitant was the word that sprang to mind.

Stefano fidgeted. ‘You’re not getting any younger, Theo. You’re thirty-two years old! Your mother dearly wished that she would see one of you boys settled... It wasn’t to be...’

‘I’m not following you...’

‘All of this unravelled over eight months ago,’ Stefano said heavily. ‘During that time it proved impossible to repay the loan. It’s been an uphill struggle just picking apart the extent of the losses and dealing with Alfredo...’

‘And you kept it all to yourself!’

‘There seemed little point in worrying you or your brother.’

‘Just tell me what ruinous interest rates Carlo has imposed and I’ll deal with it.’

‘Here is the part you may not like, son...’

‘I’m all ears.’

When it came to money there was nothing Theo couldn’t buy, and naturally he would pay the bill without complaint—although he was furious with his father for thinking it necessary to seek help outside the direct family circle.


‘As you know, Carlo has a daughter. An only child. Sadly there were to be no sons for him.’

Even in the thick of disclosing what he knew his son would not want to hear Stefano couldn’t quite conceal the smugness in his voice, and Theo raised his eyebrows wryly. He had never known what had caused the enmity between his father and Carlo, but he suspected that the lifelong grudge stemmed from something ridiculously insignificant.

‘What has that got to do with anything?’ he asked, frankly bewildered at the tangent his father had taken.

‘Alexa... I think you may have met her... Or perhaps not... Well, it seems that the girl is not yet married, and Carlo...’ Stefano shrugged. ‘He is saddened at that—as I would be had I had a daughter... So part of the repayment schedule—which, in fairness to that sly old fox, is more lenient than at any bank—is that you help him out of his predicament with Alexa. In other words, Theo, I have promised him your hand in marriage to the girl...’

* * *

Alexa glared down at the outfit her mother had laid out for her to wear.

Something ‘suitable’ to meet a man she had no wish to meet, far less marry. A wildly ridiculous frothy dress in startling blue that swept down to the ankles with a plunging neckline and an even more ridiculously plunging back.

She was to be paraded in front of Theo De Angelis like a sacrificial lamb.

She wanted to storm out of the house, head for the nearest port and take a boat to the opposite end of the world—where she would hide out for maybe ten years, until this whole ludicrous situation had been sorted out.

Without her involvement.

At first, when her father had sat her down and told her that she was to be married to a De Angelis, she had thought that he was joking.

An arranged marriage? In this day and age? To a son of the man with whom he had had a stupid, simmering feud for thirty-five years? What else could it have been but a joke?

That had been a week ago—plenty long enough for her to discover that her father had been deadly serious.

‘The poor man is in serious financial trouble.’ Carlo Caldini had opened up to her in an attempt to pull at her heartstrings. He had looked at her with a sad expression and mournful eyes. ‘True, he and I have not seen eye to eye over the years...’

‘All thirty-five of them, Papà...’

‘But in the end who else does one turn to but a friend? I would have done the same in his position...’

Alexa had been baffled at this show of seemingly heart-wrenching empathy, but if her father had deemed it fit to rush to the rescue of a man he had spent over three decades deriding, then so be it. What did it have to do with her?

Everything, as it had transpired.

She had been bartered like a...a...piece of meat!

She adored her father, but she would still have dug her heels in and point-blank refused had he not pulled out his trump card—in the shape of her mother.

Cora Caldini, recovering from a stroke, was under doctor’s orders to take it easy. No stress, her family had been warned. And, more than that, her father had confided, this last stroke had been the most serious of three... Her heart was weak and all her talk was of her mortality, of her dying before she could see her only child married and settled. What if something happened to her? her father had asked. What if she was taken away from them before her only wish could be granted?

Caught in the eye of a hurricane, Alexa had ranted and raved, had stood her ground with rousing lectures about modern times, about arranged marriages being a thing of the past. She had pointed out, arms folded, that they hadn’t had their marriage arranged so why should she? She had waxed lyrical about the importance of love, even though she didn’t know the first thing about that. She had darkly suggested that the last thing Cora Caldini would want would be a phoney marriage for all the wrong reasons...

In the end she had gained the only concession that she could. If she married the man then it would be on her terms. After a year of unhappy enforced marital misery she would be free to divorce and Stefano De Angelis would be released from his debt. Her father had quickly acquiesced.

Now, with the man due to arrive at their mansion within the hour, she gritted her teeth and returned the elaborate blue dress to the wardrobe from which it had been removed.

She wasn’t going to dress up like a doll for a man whose reputation as a commitment-phobe womaniser spanned the country and beyond. There had been no need to look him up on the Internet because she knew all about him—and his brother. Theo and Daniel De Angelis, cut from the same cloth, both ruthless tycoons, both far too good-looking for their own good.

Despite her privileged background, Alexa had made it her life’s mission to avoid men like them. She had plenty experience with the superficiality of men who had money and power. She had been surrounded with them for years. She had seen the way they always took it as their God-given right that they could do as they pleased and treat women as they liked simply because they could.

She disapproved of everything Theo De Angelis stood for. Certainly the sort of men she preferred had always been of the thoughtful and considerate variety.

When she thought about love she thought about her parents—thought about being swept off her feet by someone kind and humorous, with whom she could enjoy the sort of united happiness her parents enjoyed. When she contemplated marriage she knew that there would be no compromises made. She would marry her soulmate—the man whose hand she would want to hold for the rest of her life. She had met sufficient idle, arrogant, self-absorbed and vain rich guys—guys exactly like Theo De Angelis—to know that she would never find her soulmate amongst them.

And look at her now! So much for all her ideals!

She showered, taking her time because she certainly wasn’t going to scuttle down to the drawing room to wait for him—like an eager bride-to-be, thrilled to nab a man the tabloid press had once labelled the most eligible bachelor alive.

And she wasn’t going to wear the blue dress—or any dress, for that matter. In fact she wasn’t going to wear anything that displayed her body at all.

She chose a pair of jeans and a loose-fitting blouse that was buttoned to the neck and then, taut with suppressed anger at her situation, stared at her reflection in the mirror.

Long, wavy dark hair, pulled back into a no-nonsense bun, framed an oval face. Like her father, she was olive-skinned, with dark eyebrows and thick, dark eyelashes, but from her mother she had inherited her bright turquoise eyes. Her best feature, as far as she was concerned—because the rest did little to excite the imagination. She wasn’t long and leggy, and she had stopped being able to fit into a size eight the second she had hit adolescence. Hers, to her eternal regret, was an unfashionable five-foot-four hourglass figure—the sort that personal trainers over the years had tried and failed to whip into shape.

She heard voices before she reached the drawing room because the door was open, and was assailed by a sudden attack of nerves.

It was one thing pouring scorn on the likes of Theo De Angelis from the relative safety of her bedroom.

It was quite another holding on to her self-righteous, justifiable fury when he was perched on a chair, metres away from her, just out of sight.

She had never seen him in the flesh. He lived in London, but even if he had lived in Rome she probably wouldn’t have seen him anyway, because she made a point of avoiding society dos whenever possible.

Heart beating fast, she took a deep breath and entered the drawing room.

Drinks were being served and her parents were sitting opposite him, their body language indicating that they were delighted with whatever he happened to be saying.

Conversation came to an abrupt halt.

Alexa had never thrived on being the centre of attention. Along with her background of vast wealth, she had grown up in circles where the girls were catty and where looks counted for everything. Trapped in a figure that had always catapulted her in the direction of baggy clothes, she had learned to leave the attention-seeking to others, and once she had left school had turned her back on it completely.

Right now she found herself riveted by the long, lean man, relaxing in a deep velvet chair which he seemed to dwarf.

Photos could say so much, but they had given her very little indication of just how big and muscular he was. They had also not prepared her for the sheer outrageousness of his looks. He was drop-dead gorgeous. His hair was cropped short and black, his features perfectly chiselled, his eyes lazy and the most peculiar shade of green she had ever seen, fringed with the sort of luxurious lashes any woman would have given her eye-teeth for.

He was as beautiful as any human being had a right to be...and yet the air of ruthless power that surrounded him like an invisible cloak removed him from being just an incredible-looking man to being a man who drew stares and held on to them.

For a few seconds Alexa’s heart seemed to stop and she lost the ability to blink.

But that only lasted for a few seconds and then reality resurfaced, rescuing her from standing there like a stranded goldfish.

Her parents had stood up to make introductions. She didn’t take a step closer to him, and neither did he make any move to rush forward. In fact he remained sitting just long enough for her to wonder whether a complete lack of manners was also part of his personality.

‘Why didn’t you wear the lovely dress I laid out for you on the bed?’ her mother whispered, in clear dismay at her choice of clothes.

‘I decided that the casual approach was better than showing up in a Cinderella frock. Have you noticed that the man is wearing jeans? I wouldn’t say he dressed for the occasion, would you?’

She directed a cool smile at him as one of the staff got busy with a bottle of champagne and the business of polite conversation began.

With her parents there some of the pressure was removed, but she still found herself sitting like a rigid plank of wood, back erect, body screaming with tension. When, after half an hour, her parents rose and informed them that they were going out for dinner, she glanced up at her mother with undisguised panic.

‘You two should have some time to enjoy yourselves!’ Cora chirruped brightly. ‘Elena has prepared something, and you can dine informally in the blue room...’

Alexa wondered whether her mother had taken complete leave of her senses.

Enjoy themselves?

Didn’t she realise that this was an absolute nightmare? No, of course she didn’t. She thought that, yes, it was an arranged union—but one that had been happily accepted by both parties. And she wouldn’t have questioned that any further because it was so much what she wanted. Her daughter married and settled.

The door clicked quietly shut behind them and Alexa stared down at her half-drunk glass of champagne. She could feel those fabulous green eyes looking at her, and it infuriated her that he felt he had no need to say anything at all.

‘So...’ She finally broke the lengthening silence. She glanced quickly at him and just as fast looked away.

‘So...’ Theo drawled, stretching out his long legs and linking his fingers loosely on his stomach. ‘Here we are. I never imagined two weeks ago that I would now be sitting in the Caldini living room, gazing at the excited, radiant face of my bride-to-be...’

What had he been expecting? he asked himself. The fact that Carlo Caldini—a man with more millions than he knew what to do with—had been unable to source a husband for the daughter he clearly wanted married off had said it all.

Plain beyond belief, with an insanely boring personality—that had been the prediction his brother had made, when he had been told about the catastrophe, and Theo had privately agreed. He and Daniel might no longer live in Italy, but they were rich and powerful enough to garner invitations from everyone who mattered, and neither could remember ever meeting the girl—which, along with her failure to be married off, had also said it all.

But, finding himself locked in the jaws of a steel trap, Theo had determined to make the best of things. Because, however odious the woman was, no marriage was set in stone. There was always a window for negotiation when it came to an out clause, and Theo had already located it.

In the meanwhile he had imagined someone unappealing and terminally shy, who would make a suitable background spouse while his father’s company was patched up from the inside. All things considered, he had come to the conclusion that his life would hardly have to change at all. She would remain in Italy, dutifully keeping the home fires burning, he would visit occasionally, work permitting, and she would not complain.

When Alexa had walked into the drawing room he had been startled to discover that she was nothing like the woman he had conjured up in his head.

She was...

He still wasn’t entirely sure—and that was a first for him. For if it was one thing Theo De Angelis excelled in, it was an ability to read a woman in under five seconds.

She had sat in mute silence for most of the half hour during which laboured chit chat had been made, with both Carlo and Cora Caldini making sure to tread very carefully around the giant elephant in the room: namely the matter of an arranged marriage.

Cora, he had been told by her husband, knew that the marriage was to be an arrangement, but she knew nothing of the financial situation that had propelled it into existence and nor should she find out. She could deal with an arranged marriage... Several of her friends had children who had been diplomatically set up with suitable partners. It would be tactful not to go into more details.

Alexa’s mute silence hadn’t translated into the meek subservience he had been expecting.

And looks-wise...

He tilted his head and noted the mutinous, challenging stare she returned.

‘And I didn’t think that I would be sitting here gazing at my devoted and adoring husband-to-be!’ Alexa retorted, because there was no reason for her to pretend that this was anything but a fiasco.

Besides, the man was so good-looking that he might just be arrogant enough to think that she actually wanted to be in this position.

She felt she should rid him of any such assumption from the start.

‘So I’m assuming...’ he rose fluidly from the chair to refill her glass with more champagne before topping his up with more of the whisky he had been drinking ‘...that we’re both singing from the same song sheet?’

‘What did you expect?’ Alexa threw at him, mouth downturned.

‘I could either answer that question truthfully or else ignore it altogether. Which would you rather?’

Alexa shrugged and tore her eyes away from his long, muscular frame. ‘We might just as well lay our cards on the table,’ she said.

‘In which case,’ Theo drawled, ‘I should tell you I had reached the conclusion that you might be a little desperate...considering Carlo is prepared to throw you in as part of his financial negotiations with my father...’

Slow, furious colour crawled into her cheeks.

‘You are the most arrogant man I think I have ever met in my entire life!’ Alexa said through gritted teeth.

She gauged the level of satisfaction she would get from flinging her glass at him, but decided that the only way to handle this disaster would be not to let him get to her.

She wasn’t going to lose her cool. She never lost her cool. It was what made her so good at what she did. She worked in the offices of a group of pro bono lawyers and daily dealt with people in need of practical and emotional help. Three evenings a week she volunteered at a women’s shelter. She was calm personified!

‘Since we’re about to be joined in happily married bliss, I suggest you take that on board and don’t think of implementing any changes.’

Theo was perversely enjoying himself, and he put that down to the sort of man he was. The sort who could deal with whatever was thrown at him, however unexpected.

‘And in return,’ he continued, in the same lazy dark drawl that made her toes curl, ‘I won’t try and turn you into someone charming and well behaved...’

Alexa glared and bit down hard on the riposte stinging her lips. She had no idea how she was going to survive twelve hours with this man, never mind twelve months.

‘I’ve spoken to my father,’ she gritted, ‘and he has agreed that we only have to carry out this crazy charade for twelve months. After that we can part company and you can return to your life of— You can return to your life and I can get back to mine.’

Theo wondered what she had been about to say but let it go. He, in actual fact, had secured a far better deal—because his twelve months also included a substantial acquisition of Caldini company shares and a seat on the board. It would tie in very nicely with his current diversion into telecommunications.

After the initial shock of the catastrophe that had been presented to him, he had very quickly reached the perfectly correct conclusion that marrying his daughter off was only one benefit for Carlo Caldini in helping his father.

The other was glaringly obvious.

Carlo Caldini ran a juggernaut of a family business but there was no male family member to whom he could leave his legacy—and, like many traditional Italians, he wanted his business to remain in the family. By marrying his daughter to Theo he netted one of the most wildly respected and formidable businessmen on the globe.

And for Theo, Alexa Caldini came with a considerable dowry.

‘So no doubt we should be discussing the mechanics,’ he said.

‘What do you mean?’

‘I mean that to the outside world we must be a loved-up pair about to embark on the greatest adventure of our lives. I will not have a whiff of scandal surrounding this, because under no circumstances is my father to be subjected to any manner of rumour about a convenient match concocted to save his company.’ His green eyes had cooled. ‘Are we one hundred per cent clear on this?’

‘Or else what?’

‘That’s a road I would seriously advise you not to go down.’

His voice was icy cold, with deadly intent, and Alexa shivered. Theo De Angelis had not reached the dizzy heights by being kind and avuncular. He’d probably never helped a little old lady cross a road in his entire life. She wondered how he would react to her world when they were man and wife...

‘When we’re in public,’ he purred silkily, ‘you will withdraw your claws. You can keep them for when we’re alone together.’

‘You might find that you don’t like being scratched.’ Alexa tilted her chin mutinously and he smiled—a slow, curling smile that did all sorts of weird and unexpected things to her body.

‘And you might discover that I’m very good when it comes to subduing wild cats.’

Suddenly confused, and feeling horribly out of her depth, Alexa blinked and gulped down the remainder of her champagne.

She might talk the talk, but how good would she be at walking the walk?

She had virtually no experience when it came to the opposite sex. She had been sent off to England to an all girls’ boarding school and from there to university, where she had buried herself in books, determined to get her law degree.

Of course there had been a couple of boyfriends, but neither had excited her and she had always been determined to hold out for the Right One—never to sell herself short. They had both cleared off as soon as they’d realised that she wasn’t going to hop into bed with them.

Now, as her bright blue eyes tangled with his cool, unreadable green ones, she knew that this was a predator, born to lead and accustomed to obedience.

Obedience she would give him—but only within the parameters that suited them both. If he didn’t want anyone getting wind of the real reason for their union she, in turn, did not want to embarrass her parents, whom she dearly loved.

He wanted her to put up a public front and she would—but the second they closed the door behind them there would be no more game-playing.

And suddenly a thought rippled through her that made her breathing quicken.

When the front door closed...what happened next?

It was something that she would have to broach, and she licked her lips nervously because the mere thought of this big, domineering man touching her sent her whole nervous system into instant meltdown.

He surely wouldn’t expect them to sleep together! Not when this was a farce—a marriage of convenience...a union in which there would be no love lost!

Her breathing steadied.

Panic over.

He might be arrogant and ruthless, but he wasn’t an idiot—and besides, she knew the sort of women he dated because she had seen pictures in some of the trashy magazines she had flicked through while she was getting her hair done.

Tall, blonde women who wore the minimum of clothing and whose full-time occupation appeared to be personal grooming.

‘You said that we need to discuss the mechanics of this...this arrangement...?’

‘Shall we do that over dinner—?’

‘Why? We might as well hash it out now.’

He stood up, blatantly ignoring her interruption. ‘I wouldn’t like to kick off our joyous life together on the wrong note,’ he drawled, strolling towards the door, which her parents had tactfully shut behind him on their way out.

‘What do you mean?’ Alexa followed him, disgruntled.

‘I mean your mother has had a doubtless delicious meal prepared for us. What kind of guest would I be if I disregarded her invitation?’

‘The kind that’s marrying me thanks to parental pressure?’ Alexa muttered sourly.

He shot her a brief look of appreciation.

‘Besides,’ she continued, skin tingling from that momentary look, ‘you don’t strike me as the sort of man who gives a hoot what other people think of him.’

She swept past him, breathing in his clean, woody scent and determinedly ignoring its impact on her senses.

‘I find that I’m willing to make an exception for my in-laws-to-be...’

‘Why are you taking this so calmly?’

It was the first thing Alexa said as they sat down at the table in the informal dining room. The blue room was still big enough to fit a ten-seater table, but places had been set for them opposite each another at one end. As always, it was a full arrangement, with dinner plates, side plates and separate silver cutlery for every course to be served—in this case salad, soup, main course and dessert.

Alexa could not have felt less hungry, and she looked with uninterest as salads were brought in and placed in front of them.

He, she noted, had no problem with his appetite.

‘How else do you imagine I should react?’ Theo looked at her, and across the width of the table she felt his overwhelming presence all the more acutely.

There was something intimate about eating together, and she could barely concentrate on her salad as the flutter of nerves threatened to overpower her common sense.

She put that down to her healthy dislike of the man.

‘Do you imagine that this is a situation I enjoy being in?’ he enquired coolly. ‘My father dropped this bombshell and I find I’ve had next to no option but to take the hit.’

‘I never thought I’d end up in a marriage with someone who would walk up the aisle only thanks to having to take a hit from a bombshell he couldn’t dodge,’ Alexa said bitterly—and that was the stark truth.

She had never followed the pattern of her friends, who had believed in sleeping around. She had never assumed that marriage was something to be taken lightly because it could be unpicked without too much difficulty if the going got rough. Her own parents had had a long and extremely happy marriage. Her mother, Irish by heritage, had been a gap-year student when she had met Carlo, and theirs had been a case of love at first sight. Which made it doubly upsetting that her father had seen fit to put her in this position. He had taken advantage of a situation and she was going to have to pay the price.

‘I don’t think that way of thinking will pay dividends in this particular situation...’ Theo pushed his salad plate to one side and sprawled back in the chair to look at her coolly. ‘We’ve both been put in an unfortunate position and now we have to deal with it.’

‘And you’re not angry...?’

‘Like I said, there’s no point in wasting energy on emotions that won’t get either of us anywhere. We’re going to present the perfect picture of a couple in love. Naturally there will have to be an engagement and a public announcement. Doubtless there will be cameras. You will smile and gaze adoringly up at me.’

‘And what will you be doing while I’m smiling and gazing adoringly?’

‘Controlling the situation.’

‘And this so-called engagement is supposed to last...how long?’

‘It’ll be brief,’ Theo asserted with the sweeping assurance of someone who had given the details a great deal of thought. ‘We can’t wait to tie the knot.’

‘And how is this supposed to make any kind of sense?’ Alexa demanded. She lapsed into silence as their salad plates were removed, to be replaced with soup. ‘Have you suddenly had a transformation and gone from being a womaniser to a one-woman man who’s desperate to get married?’

‘And that,’ Theo said in a hard voice, ‘is just the sort of approach I am warning you to avoid.’ Then he smiled—a slow, lazy smile that made the breath hitch in her throat. ‘I never imagined that you were a spitting cat...’ he mused. ‘Do you think that’s the reason your parents think you’ll end up on the shelf...?’

CHAPTER TWO (#ulink_73fabd51-5de3-5c49-89ef-ceed130e590f)

‘I CAN’T BELIEVE you just said that.’

Never had a meal seemed so interminably long. Interrupted by the arrival of their main course—a fish casserole—Alexa could only glare at him with simmering resentment. No one had ever riled her to this extent. His air of superior cool got on her nerves and made her rantings seem childish and petty.

‘You have no right to say stuff like that! You don’t know me!’

Theo dug into his food. She might not be his type, but there was a certain arresting quality to her face. Anger suited her, and he was startled at this reaction—because temper tantrums were things he had always actively discouraged.

Her dig about his womanising had annoyed him, and as far as he was concerned what was good for the goose was likewise good for the gander. If she wanted to throw accusations at him, then her shoulders should be broad enough to take it when he threw a few home truths back at her in return.

Not his style, admittedly, but then again since when had he ever been placed in a situation like this? On every single level she was just the sort of woman he would never naturally be drawn to. Physically, she was nothing like the tall, leggy supermodels he dated and, appearances aside, he liked his women to be obliging and accommodating. His work life was intense enough without having to do battle with a woman.

‘Aren’t you going to eat?’ he asked. ‘It’s excellent. Maybe I’ll get the name of your mother’s chef... Do you think she would object if I poached him?’

‘Elena isn’t a chef,’ Alexa muttered. ‘She’s the housekeeper we’ve had for centuries. And, yes, I think my mother would object if you decided to poach her. For your information, I have never considered myself as on the shelf. I’m not one of those women who thinks that the be-all and end-all of life is to get married as fast as you can and start having children.’

‘I’m guessing that both your parents do.’

Alexa pushed her plate to one side. ‘There’s no point discussing this. What my parents think or don’t think... How long before we get married?’

She was forcibly struck by the surreal situation she was now wading through—and by the fact that her contented life had been turned upside down in the space of a few days.

So she hadn’t been leading the most thrilling of lives... But it had taken her ages to get used to being back in Italy after first boarding school and then university abroad, followed by a stint in London, where she had worked for a small law company before her mother’s illness had called her back home.

She had spent the past year and a half easing herself into a life that felt foreign. Was it any wonder that excitement and thrills weren’t high on her agenda? Once she found her feet, she was sure that the slightly zoned out feeling she lived with much of the time would disappear.

She hadn’t banked on excitement landing on her doorstep in the form of a forced marriage.

‘Max—two months. And, to return to your question about the plausibility of my settling down at the speed of light... We both need to agree that it’s a case of love getting the better of me.’ He shrugged elegantly and stood up, tossing his serviette onto the table and prowling through the room as he thought.

Alexa followed him with her eyes. His movements were economical and graceful. He was wearing black jeans, a white linen shirt which was cuffed to the elbows and loafers, and he exuded elegance. He certainly hadn’t dressed for the occasion, but he still managed to look every inch the powerful tycoon that he was. He was obviously one of those people who could pull off elegance wearing anything... If he swapped clothes with a tramp he would still manage to look cool and sexy.

‘I broke up with my last girlfriend over three months ago—during which time I’ve been out of the public eye...’

‘You’re telling me that the press usually follow everything you do?’

Theo paused, leaned against the window ledge, then looked at her and kept looking at her as the dishes were cleared away. He signalled in a barely discernible gesture that they should be left alone for a while, and the door was duly shut as the last dish was removed. The oak table was left with just the wine decanter and a bottle of champagne.

‘I’m high-profile,’ he agreed. ‘I don’t ask for it, but it seems that some reporters have little else to do but take pictures of the rich and famous. It’s just a fact of life, and I’ve become accustomed to dealing with it.’

‘I would absolutely hate that.’

‘It’s something to which you might find you have to become accustomed—’

‘On top of everything else,’ Alexa muttered.

Her eyes flickered towards him and she found that she had to tear them away, because he was just so unfairly compelling to look at.

Theo chose to ignore her interruption. He had anticipated someone plain, docile and quite possibly grateful to be rescued from the prospect of spinsterhood. A traditional Italian woman who would welcome the abundance of riches suddenly deposited in her lap—because he knew without a trace of vanity that he was a good catch.

It would have been hard to locate someone less grateful than the girl now glowering at him, and he banked down a sudden flare of irritation.

‘At any rate,’ he pressed on, ‘no one will raise eyebrows about the timeline, and the fact that at least on paper this would appear to be the perfect match will certainly help things along. We both come from prominent Italian families... I have found the woman of my dreams, someone close to home, and have decided to steer my life in a different direction... Both families are overjoyed by the match...’

‘Even though our fathers haven’t been on speaking terms for years?’

‘All the more touching. Everyone likes a fairy-tale ending.’

‘You’re so cynical, aren’t you?’

‘Realistic and practical.’

‘And how are we supposed to have met? We don’t even live in the same country.’

‘I don’t think it will require great feats of the imagination to come up with something.’

Was she going out of her way to get on his nerves? he wondered. Did she honestly think that his life hadn’t also undergone a seismic change? Less than two weeks ago he had been a free man—free to go where he pleased, to have whatever woman he wanted. No one was waiting in the wings, expecting him to put in an appearance. That freedom had disappeared in a puff of smoke, but was he whining and complaining? No. He was solution-orientated and, like it or not, plans had to be made so that this pretence could be seamlessly accepted as nothing short of the absolute truth.

‘Let’s have your thoughts on this,’ he said.

An edge of irritation had crept into his voice and, hearing it, Alexa scowled, once again reduced to feeling petty.

‘I suppose we could have met here,’ she said, a little ungraciously.

‘I occasionally do come to Italy to see my father. . It’s a realistic enough scenario. You happened to be somewhere... Suddenly my life shifted on its axis... If a reporter asks you for details you can always tell him no comment and then gaze adoringly at me. Probably safer than getting tangled up in a lie.’

He looked at her glum face, then down to her baggy, unappealing outfit. No doubt she had pointedly dressed down for a confrontation she didn’t want, but it was something that would have to be discussed whether she liked it or not. He suspected not, but treading delicately round the issue wasn’t going to do.

‘Is that how you normally dress?’

‘I beg your pardon?’

‘Jeans...baggy tops... And what are you wearing on your feet...?’

Alexa looked at him indignantly and stuck her foot out. ‘Trainers.’

‘Running shoes? To my mind, they’re for running. Are you running anywhere? Have you just come from the gym?’

‘What are you getting at?’ Her voice had risen a notch. His levels of arrogance were in the process of escalating.

‘Credibility,’ Theo said succinctly. ‘We may make the ideal match, and when our engagement hits the news much will be made of our backgrounds, but even the least observant reporter might question the fact that I’ve fallen head over heels in love with someone who doesn’t appear to give a damn how she looks...’

Alexa’s mouth dropped open. She contemplated throwing something at him.

‘That is the most insulting thing that has ever been said to me in my entire life!’

‘It’s not meant to be insulting,’ Theo informed her drily. ‘I’m looking at this situation from all angles and simply bringing one of those angles to your attention. The women I’ve dated in the past—’

‘There’s no need to go into that.’ Alexa was mortified, and outraged that he should be tactless enough to criticise her choice of clothing. ‘I know exactly what sort of women you’ve dated in the past.’

‘How so?’

‘I’ve seen the occasional picture in a trashy mag.’ She liked the way the words trashy mag rolled off her tongue.

‘You read “trashy mags”? You surprise me. I thought I might be getting a highbrow intellectual for a wife. I’m disappointed.’

There was a thread of amusement in his voice which she decided to ignore, because it seemed to point to a side of his personality that wasn’t part of the package she had conjured up.

‘They’re the only things to read at the hairdresser,’ Alexa told him airily. ‘Great big stacks of silly magazines, full of useless gossip. I saw a picture of you in one of them a couple of months ago. A tall, blonde woman was clinging to you as though she might fall flat on her face unless you kept her propped up. Maybe she’d had too much to drink...’ Alexa mused, enjoying herself for the first time that evening. ‘I hadn’t thought of that. But I suppose those society dos usually involve a lot of alcohol. I’ve been asked to several over the years,’ she inserted, truthfully enough, because as the daughter of a prominent Italian family she had occasionally been asked to some event or other in aid of a good cause, ‘but I try and avoid them.’

‘How virtuous.’

‘So, yes, I know that you date tall model-types. A bit like your brother. He also pops up in those kinds of magazines, with some drunken supermodel hanging on to him for dear life...’

Theo thought of Daniel and for a second tried to imagine what the mouthy little brunette facing him would have thought of his brother. His brother was the essence of a playboy—which was why he had laughed uproariously when Theo had told him about the situation he was stuck in.

It would have been Daniel’s ultimate nightmare, and he had been overjoyed at the prospect of being able to remain free, single and unattached, without having to worry that their father might start making noises about him settling down. One son who had settled down would be plenty good enough.

‘I like the way you think the supermodel was drunk...’ Theo murmured, temporarily distracted by her digression and thinking that, yes, there was a very high chance that whoever she had seen clinging to him had had too much to drink. ‘Maybe she was clinging to me because she liked the sensation of being pressed up against me... A lot of women do...’

Alexa blinked and blushed. ‘Well...’ the conversation had meandered, and she had only herself to blame ‘...in case you hadn’t noticed I’m not six-foot-two and blonde, so you can’t turn me into one of your supermodels...’

‘You know exactly what I was talking about, Alexa...’

‘Do I?’ The way he said her name sent little shivers through her, and her eyes glazed over as she tried to fight off the unusual sensation.

‘Show up next to me in a pair of jeans, some trainers and a baggy sweatshirt and people are going to scratch their heads in bewilderment. And show up next to me you’re going to have to—because we’re going to spend the next couple of months convincing whoever needs convincing that we’re a loved-up couple.’

‘I have a job...’ Alexa stared at him in horror.

‘I’m not asking you to shadow me twenty-four hours of the day,’ Theo clarified. ‘In fact I won’t even be in Italy for significant periods of time. My work is primarily in London. I will, however, try and arrange my business dealings so that I can be here more often than I normally would. I don’t see that I have much choice in the matter. At any rate, when I’m in London you’re going to have to drop whatever you’re doing and put in an appearance. Two people who are supposed to be madly in love should be madly in love enough that they actually want to spend time in the same country together.’

‘Are you telling me that I will have to give up my job?’

Theo looked at her pensively. ‘You work in a law office. Am I right?’

‘How did you know?’

‘Your parents told me before you came down,’ Theo said wryly. ‘They thought a little background information about you would be a good idea.’

‘What else did they say?’

‘That you don’t seem particularly enthralled by it...’

Alexa was dismayed. She liked what she did well enough, but her liking it only ‘well enough’ would not have gone unnoticed by her parents. She was their only child, and they could tune in to her moods in ways that were scary.

Was that why they had jumped to the conclusion that she was somehow unhappy with her life?

Like a detective in possession of clue number one, Alexa could begin to see why they might have also come to the conclusion that if she wasn’t happy in her job, she wasn’t happy in her life—and her mother, traditional as she was, would have instantly decided that it was because there was no guy in the picture. She was now twenty-six years old—at an age when so many Italian girls she had grown up with were married, some with kids. Her mother wouldn’t have understood that she was just missing the independence she had had in another country.

‘I haven’t been there very long.’

‘A year and a half is long enough to decide whether you like a job or not. My point being that it won’t be any great sacrifice for you to be flexible with it while we indulge in our passionate love affair. And when we do tie the knot it won’t be any great sacrifice either for you to jack it in altogether and return to London with me. There’s no way I can live out here.’

Alexa’s head was spinning. It didn’t get worse than this. Not only had her life been overturned, but she felt as if she were on a rollercoaster ride and someone else had complete control of the on/off switch.

‘I don’t just work at a law firm,’ she said tightly, ‘I also volunteer three evenings a week at a local women’s shelter, and that’s something that I do happen to like—very much!’

That came as a surprise to Theo. Her parents hadn’t mentioned it, and he wondered whether they’d thought it was something he might find a little embarrassing.

He didn’t.

In fact he was intrigued. There was no need for her to do anything but enjoy living in the lap of luxury. There was certainly no need for her to have a job, but he could understand her wanting that well enough. However, helping out at a women’s shelter was way beyond the call of duty, and he felt a twinge of curiosity about this woman who was going to become his wife.

Since curiosity and women didn’t tend to go hand in hand for him, he allowed himself a few seconds to enjoy the novel sensation.

‘Doing what?’ he asked with genuine interest.

Alexa hesitated. Determined that total detachment was the only way to deal with a situation she didn’t like, convinced anyhow that someone like Theo De Angelis was just the sort of man she could only ever view as an adversary, she was wary of this brief lull in warfare.

He was leaning forward, frowning slightly, his head inclined to one side, waiting for her to reply.

And just for a split second she glimpsed the ferocity of his charm—the charm that drew women like magnets and ensured that his face was always plastered somewhere inside one of those trashy magazines she had told him about.

For a split second it was as if she were the only woman in the universe who interested him. That was how it felt. And even though she knew that it was an illusion, and it didn’t change her fundamental opinion of him, she was still...

Sucked in...

‘I... You probably don’t get this...’ she tried for defensive and belligerent but achieved breathless ‘...but I am actually interested in putting back into the community...’

‘I’d like to argue that one with you, but go on...’

‘I did Law at university, and my experience has been working with pro bono legal teams. I like the thought of being able to help people who need legal aid but haven’t got the money to hire some fancy, expensive lawyer. I like thinking that the little guy can get as much from the system as someone with money.’ Her voice picked up with enthusiasm. ‘One thing led to another, and I found out about a women’s shelter that needed volunteers. I thought it would be just the sort of thing I might like—and I do. I help out there on every level...from mucking in with the general work to giving some of the women there legal advice...’

She stopped abruptly, a little embarrassed at the way she had opened up, even though she was hardly divulging state secrets.

‘Anyway,’ she said, her guard back up and firmly in place, ‘there’s no need to dress up for my job or for my volunteer work—not that I feel comfortable dressing up anyway. You asked me if jeans and baggy jumpers and trainers are the clothes I like wearing and the answer is yes.’

Theo didn’t say anything for a few seconds. He was still chewing over the picture she had painted of herself and marvelling that he could have been so far off target in his assumptions about this person who had been dumped on him.

Then he shook aside the moment of introspection.

Back to the matter in hand.

‘That’s as may be,’ he said, in a voice that allowed no wriggle room, ‘but you’ll need a new wardrobe.’

Alexa was happy to fume once again, even though she could see the sense of what he was saying. Who was going to be convinced that he’d fallen in love with a girl who avoided parties and society affairs and whose wardrobe consisted of varying shades of denim? It just demonstrated how far apart they were in everything aside from their backgrounds, and as far as she was concerned similar backgrounds would never be good enough to bridge the gaps.

Thank goodness there was a time limit on this charade!

‘And what sort of clothes would you suggest?’ she asked politely. ‘Do I have a say in what I wear as the radiant bride-to-be, or are you going to take over that aspect of things as well?’

‘Would you like me to? I’ve never been shopping with a woman in my life before, but I’m more than happy to test-drive the experience with you...’

‘I’ll choose my own clothes,’ Alexa said hurriedly as her head was filled with images of him sitting on a chair in a boutique and looking at her as she paraded different outfits in front of him. Short, over-endowed on the breast front, and lacking in the legs-up-to-her-armpits arena, she could just imagine the comparisons he would make and inwardly cringed.

‘And leaving Italy...?’

He let that very important question drop and wondered what ripples it might cause. She was extremely close to her parents. He knew that. Just as he knew that she had returned from working in London post-haste the moment she’d felt she needed to be by her mother’s side.

Alexa shrugged. It wasn’t a depressing thought. In fact it might be just about the brightest thing on an otherwise nightmarish horizon.

Of course it would entail living with the man now scrutinising her...

Which brought that awkward subject she had shoved aside back to the surface.

What, exactly, would their married life entail? It would be a silly academic question, of course. She wasn’t his type any more than he was hers. But she would have to clarify things—draw a line in the sand, so to speak.

‘I would want to carry on working wherever I happened to be,’ she told him, and he nodded.

‘Do you imagine that I’m the sort of dinosaur who would stop you? At any rate...’ He shrugged and glanced at his watch, to find that they had been talking for a lot longer than he had imagined. It wouldn’t be long before her parents would return. ‘At any rate...’ he picked up the thread of what he had been saying ‘...within the constraints of our so-called marriage you would be free to do whatever you wanted to do.’

Alexa nodded, and wondered what sort of woman he would have liked to marry, and what his expectations might have been. Would he have wanted a little stay-at-home wife? She couldn’t picture him as a guy who could ever be domesticated. There was something essentially untamed about him. She’d been pushed into this, but so had he. He must have had thoughts about marriage and now he was stuck with her—at least temporarily. His life had been equally disrupted and yet you wouldn’t have guessed.

She had noted the way he had looked at his watch. So they might be talking business, but it still felt like an insult to be in a man’s company and to find him clock-watching because he wanted to get away.

‘Fine,’ she said crisply. ‘In that case I would look for work as soon as I moved to London. Which...er...brings me to... I feel I ought to get a few things straight...’

‘Spit it out.’

‘This isn’t going to be a normal marriage.’

‘That’s somewhat stating the obvious.’

‘We probably won’t see much of one another, which suits me just fine, and it’ll just be for a few months anyway, but during that time I would appreciate it if you didn’t bring women to the house.’

Theo looked at her incredulously. ‘“Bring women to the house...”?’

‘I know...’ Alexa felt addled by the way those cool green eyes were resting on her face, making her feel as though she had made one big, enormous gaffe. Which she hadn’t. She was just getting things straight. ‘I know that behind closed doors...you know...we will be able to drop the act... But I would rather I didn’t have to bump into any of your supermodels on the staircase...’

‘You think I’m going to bring women back to the house I will be sharing with you? Put them in the room next door for easy access?’

‘You’re going to be with me for a year. I expect you will have...needs...so to speak...’ Her cheeks were flaming red and she licked her lips nervously. ‘And of course,’ she ploughed on into thick silence, ‘our marriage will be for show only. I mean...there will be no question of us...sharing a bedroom...or anything. I just want to make that clear.’ She gave a high laugh. ‘Just stating the obvious! So, when it comes to...er...’ Her voice petered out and she looked at him in helpless frustration.

‘To...er...?’ he encouraged.

‘You know what I’m saying!’

‘You’re giving me permission to have sex with any woman I want, just so long as I don’t bring them into the house I will be sharing with you?’


‘That’s very considerate and generous of you, but I’m not the sort of man who believes in fooling around outside marriage.’

‘But it won’t be a real marriage...’

‘Are you magnanimously giving me permission because you want me to respond in kind?’

‘I—I don’t know what you mean,’ Alexa stammered.

His eyes were chips of ice. ‘Then shall I spell it out for you? Are you telling me that I can have sex with any woman I want because you want me to tell you that you can do likewise with any man?’

Alexa’s mouth dropped open.

‘You can drop the innocent act,’ Theo said drily. ‘I may be older than you, but I don’t hark back to the Dark Ages. You’re in your mid-twenties, and I’m guessing that you have a boyfriend stashed away somewhere. Your parents didn’t mention anyone on the scene, in which case he probably isn’t socially acceptable...’

‘Not socially acceptable?’ was all Alexa could parrot in bewilderment.

Of course—he was judging her by his standards. A bolt of white-hot fury lanced through her. She clamped her lips tightly shut and waited to hear where he would go next with his crazy assumptions.

‘If he was the sort of guy you wanted to show off to your parents you would have trotted him back home for a sit-down meal and a meet-and-greet evening by now...’

‘Because that’s what you’ve done with your girlfriends in the past?’

‘I’ve always discouraged that.’ Theo waved aside her interruption. ‘But we’re not talking about me. We’re talking about you.’

‘So he’s “socially unacceptable...”?’ She stifled a bubble of hysterical laughter.

If only he knew! But to a man like Theo De Angelis the thought of being a twenty-six-year-old virgin would have been unthinkable. It wouldn’t even have crossed his radar! It would never have occurred to him that there were some people on the planet who actually weren’t interested in jumping into bed for the fun of it—people who were willing to hold out for the real thing...people who believed in love and were willing to wait till they found it before they had sex. People who wanted to share the precious gift of their body with the person they truly loved.

‘He’s not married...?’ he mused, for the first time wondering what her social life was like.

His eyes skimmed over her flushed face and, yes...there was definitely something curiously appealing about her—something that would definitely be considered attractive by any number of men.

What would she look like with her clothes off?

Just like that his imagination fired up. Her clothes revealed nothing, but the jut of her breasts suggested that she had more than a generous handful. Big breasts, with big nipples.

He frowned and shifted as his libido, dormant since he had dispatched his last girlfriend, sprang into enthusiastic life. His thick, hard erection pushed against his zipper and he shifted again, annoyed at the way his body was reacting without his permission.

Hell... He had no intention of complicating an already complicated situation by getting curious about a woman who wasn’t his type.

But his body was refusing to play ball and he focused on her face, driving inappropriate thoughts from his head.

‘What a relief!’ Alexa said with thick sarcasm. ‘It’s nice to know that you think I have some morals.’

Theo’s eyes narrowed, because the suggestion was there that what she had he obviously lacked in abundance.

What woman had ever insinuated anything like that to him in his life before? It was outrageous. She knew just how to antagonise him, whether deliberately or not, and it took willpower not to waste his energies rising to the bait.

He wondered whether he had touched upon a sensitive issue. Had he hit a home run without even trying? Was there some man waiting in the wings? No matter. He would have to be dispatched—and that was certainly something he wasn’t going to waste time apologising about.

‘I suppose he’s one of your do-gooder pals?’ Theo asserted flatly. ‘Maybe someone working with you at whatever shelter you work at. Am I right? I don’t suppose you would want to introduce someone like that to your parents. You might enjoy putting the world to rights, but cut to the chase and you’re the only child of one of the most important families in the country. You might be allowed freedom of movement to pursue whatever career you want, but when it comes to settling down don’t tell me that your parents wouldn’t be alarmed if you chose someone who couldn’t make ends meet...’

Alexa didn’t know whether to be insulted or amused by his freewheeling assumptions. She certainly wasn’t going to set him straight—because why should she? She stoutly reminded herself that whilst it was in her nature to be utterly honest this was a novel situation—there was no need for her to account for herself.

‘My parents aren’t that small-minded,’ she told him with saccharine politeness. ‘They wouldn’t care if I brought home someone who couldn’t make ends meet.’

‘I beg to differ,’ Theo said, in just the kind of tone of voice that set her teeth on edge. ‘Why do you think your father is so keen for me to marry you?’

‘Apparently because he wants to get me down from the shelf before I take up permanent residence there.’ Her cheeks were burning and she was clutching the sides of her chair, leaning forward, every muscle in her body rigid with angry tension.

‘He sees me as his natural successor,’ Theo informed her smoothly. ‘He sees me as the perfect match for you—someone who can run his empire. It’s what he wants for you...and of course for himself...’

Alexa whitened. It all made sense now, and she suddenly felt like a pawn caught up in a game that was much bigger than her. Their feuding fathers had sealed a bond and all the players had won except her. Theo’s father would have his family name kept intact and his company rescued from the threat of public disgrace. Her mother would have her daughter married and, after her stroke, would have what she had wanted for the past few years. She wouldn’t see it as an act of selfishness. Arranged marriages were perfectly acceptable in certain social circles. Her father would likewise see his daughter married off, and in return... Yes, he would have the perfect son-in-law.

And Theo would have...

He didn’t have to spell it out for her, because it was obvious now that she was putting two and two together. Theo would wangle part-ownership of her father’s company. Maybe not all of it, but his portfolio would increase substantially—not that he needed it.

And she, Alexa, would get one year of gnashing her teeth and trying not to commit homicide.

Right now she could dig her heels in and refuse to go along with what everyone else wanted. But she knew that she wasn’t going to do that. She wouldn’t stress her mother and risk another health problem which might prove far more serious than the last.

Theo could see the play of emotions on her face as comprehension dawned and he squashed the sickening suspicion that he was responsible for that. She was an adult and she had made her choice. True, she hadn’t asked to be put in this unenviable position, but neither had he. Tough situations always made a person stronger, more resilient.

Matter sorted, he said bluntly, ‘I know this situation isn’t ideal, but if you have a boyfriend he’s going to have to go into hiding while we’re together. I have no intention of sleeping around behind your back. The press follow me like hyenas and I don’t plan on giving them any carcasses to chew on—and you’re going to do the same.’

He heard a rustle of activity and the distant sound of voices marking the return of her parents.

‘There’s an event tomorrow evening.’ He stood up and raked his fingers through his hair. ‘Formal. I’ve been invited and you’ll be my...guest. It will be our first public appearance together and the perfect opportunity to get the gossip mill at work...’

Feeling as though she had been through several wars and only managed to survive by the skin of her teeth, Alexa stood up as well.

‘And of course I’m to dress the part...’ she muttered, feeling even more powerless standing in front of him, because he was just so...big...

‘I intend to stay in the country for at least the next fortnight. There will be several high-profile functions.’

‘I’ll make sure my wardrobe is overflowing with stuff I wouldn’t normally wear in a million years!’ she snapped.

Theo smiled slowly. ‘I look forward to seeing them... I’ll pick you up tomorrow evening at seven. Get ready to be the centre of attention...’

CHAPTER THREE (#ulink_d193233c-8426-5a6b-b834-00e371474239)


Alexa tried hard not to grimace. She had spent a restless night. Her entire mind had seemed to be filled with images of Theo, leaving no room for anything else.

First thing in the morning she had telephoned her boss at work to advise him that she would have to take a temporary leave of absence. She hated leaving him in the lurch, but he would find out soon enough the reasons for her abrupt departure. When pressed, she had only muttered that it was of a personal nature.

Then she had spent the day, at her mother’s excited instigation, at various beauty parlours and clothes shops.

She had had her nails done, her face done... She had gone to the hairdressers, where they had trimmed her hair, suffused it with highlights and then insisted she look and admire what they had created... She had traipsed from one shop to another and allowed herself to be guided by personal shoppers...

Alexa knew that it was just the sort of day most girls of her background would have taken for granted. But by the end of the afternoon, laden with bags which had quickly been taken to her room, each elaborate dress carefully hung in her wardrobe while her precious casual clothes had got second billing, she had felt utterly spent.

Now, looking at her mother’s thin, beaming face, she reminded herself why she had embarked on this crazy scheme. Her mother was positively radiant.

She hadn’t accompanied her shopping, but had greeted the sight of each purchase with gratifying squeals of delight. Alexa was forced to concede that at long last Cora Caldini had managed to get the doll she had wanted rather than the tomboy she had been stuck with.

‘I look...’ Alexa stole a glance at her reflection and for a few startling seconds, now that she was seeing the complete and finished product, was lost for words ‘...different...’ she eventually managed to croak.

Neither the mirrors she had cursorily glanced in at the various shops nor the face she had politely and very briefly scanned at the hairdressers seemed to have done justice to the person now reflected back at her.

Different was an understatement, and she was honest enough to acknowledge that.

Her curves were still all there, but for some reason the dress took them, held them, shaped them in some way so that she was...sexy...

‘I know,’ her mother said with immense satisfaction. ‘Fabulous! And the colour suits you perfectly.’

That colour was a shimmering pale duck-egg-blue that brought out the brightness of her eyes. Perfectly fitted to slightly below the waist, clinging to her torso like a second skin, the dress flared softly to the ground. The neckline was scooped, but not outrageously so, just affording a tantalising glimpse of the soft swell of her breasts, and the back was equally scooped. When she moved, it flowed in gossamer-fine layers of silk around her, so that every movement she made was as graceful as a dancer’s.

The highlights she had ignored at the hairdressers picked up rich copper threads in her hair that she had never noticed. Only a fraction of her hair had been trimmed so that, loose, it tumbled down her back and cascaded over her shoulders.

Her mother had brought in some of her jewellery, and the next half an hour was spent trying on several pieces.

Alexa discovered that she actually enjoyed that half an hour...

She was hardly aware of time passing until there was a knock on the door and she was told that Theo had arrived and was waiting for her by the stairs.

Alexa snapped out of her reverie and smiled at her mother. ‘This is the most excited I’ve seen you in ages. Do you think I should have been going around dressed like this for the past few years?’

‘You’ve never been one for dressing up...’ Her mother sighed, still smiling. ‘And I wouldn’t have changed that for the world. But now and again... Well, my darling, you can see for yourself how wonderful it is to just try something new once in a while. Theo is going to be stunned.’

Theo won’t notice what I wear unless I turn up in dungarees and trainers, Alexa wanted to retort as she slipped her feet into stilettoes that were precariously high but absolutely suited to the outfit.

‘You’re going to be engaged—and married. Such an exciting time... I know you’ve been nudged a little in that direction—but, darling, a mother knows best, and I just know that the two of you are going to be soulmates. When your father told me that Stefano had mentioned his son had seen you, wanted to meet you... Well, I was over the moon. And, having met him for myself... Well, he’s just perfect—and I can tell you feel the same...’

So that’s how this little charade is being played out, Alexa thought. Theo had supposedly wanted to set up a meeting with her. Her mother probably had visions of love at first sight, if not at first meeting.

Of course she didn’t know of his deal made with the devil. One year of self-sacrifice and in return shares in their sprawling family company. And, added to that, his father’s company would be saved from public ruin.

Love and respect for her mother stopped her from prolonging the conversation and hammering the truth home like a battering ram. But it was just so frustrating.

She grabbed a little sequinned bag from the dressing table and then followed her mother along the corridor towards the staircase. Pausing at the top, she looked down to see Theo and her father chatting. Theo’s back was to her, but the powerful force of his presence still struck her like a physical blow.

He was dressed as formally as she was. One hand was shoved into the pocket of black hand-tailored trousers, and she could see the pristine white of his shirt-cuff peeping out from beneath his immaculately fitted black jacket.

His body’s posture was loose...relaxed. He was a man looking forward to an evening out with the woman he would show off to the world as his wife-to-be.

No wonder her mother thought that the man was the next best thing to sliced bread. Theo had his act down pat. He was so socially adept at handling any situation that anyone looking in would have just seen a prospective son-in-law dedicated to charming his in-laws. Anyone looking in would have probably thought that he had asked her father for her hand in marriage and proposed on bended knee. Which just went to show...

She took a deep breath and began walking down the winding staircase.

Theo turned slowly. Carlo Caldini was proving to be both amusing and intelligent. In fact he reminded Theo of his own father. He could understand why they had been inseparable friends for such a long time. Without much time to spare there had seemed little point in having a drink, so they had remained at the bottom of the staircase, chatting.

It had come as no great surprise that Alexa had not been waiting for him when he arrived. As long as she wasn’t hiding out in the broom cupboard in the hope that he would leave without her, then that was all right. He was prepared to wait for as long as it took—whether they arrived on time or not was of little importance to him. In fact the later the better, to some extent, because not only would that limit the hours spent in tedious chatter but it would also ensure that the maximum number of people would witness their arrival, arm in arm.

In Rome, even more than in London, news of the happy couple and their impending nuptials would spread faster than the speed of light.

With his mind toying with the question of how best he could assimilate a wife into his lifestyle without having to alter his day-to-day routine very much, it took Theo a few seconds to focus on the woman gliding with effortless grace down the stairs.

So she’d taken him at his word. He hadn’t known what to expect—whether she would actually do what was necessary or else jump aboard her independence bandwagon and don some paint-spattered overalls and hiking boots for the social event to which he had been invited.

Where had that figure come from? She’d hidden it well... With the dress clinging lovingly to her, he could see that she had the perfect hourglass shape. Full breasts narrowed to a slender waist, and even in the floor-length gown he could see that her legs would be shapely. She was the absolute opposite of the stick insects he was accustomed to dating.

Their eyes met and she pursed her lips—just sufficiently to remind him that she was doing this under duress.

If either of her parents had noticed that little show of rebellion they were hiding it well under their broad smiles and proud gazes, but as soon as he had followed her into the chauffeur-driven limousine, Theo turned to her.

‘You’re going to have to do a bit better than that...’ he drawled, making sure that the privacy partition between the driver and the rear seat was firmly up.

She had pressed herself as far away from him as she could physically get without falling out of the car.

‘And the evening isn’t going to kick off on the right footing if you behave as though I’m carrying the plague,’ he went on, keeping his voice even and detached.

‘I’ll be fine once we get there,’ Alexa told him defiantly.

She had noticed that he hadn’t complimented her on her outfit. Whilst her father had been holding her at arm’s length and showering her with over-the-top compliments Theo had stood back, face impassive. Anyone in that situation would have felt hurt, so it wasn’t strange that she had.

Clearly when there was no pressing need to make an impression he wasn’t that bothered, so why did he expect her to cosy up against him now? Just in case the driver got suspicious?

‘I’m not even sure where we’re going,’ she said, because yet again his show of good manners had made her feel like a silly kid.

‘Art exhibition,’ Theo said succinctly. ‘Under normal circumstances I would have been in London, but as I happen to be here...’

‘An art exhibition...?’ She had gone to a couple of those ages ago, with her parents. The art had been incomprehensible and the crowd had been shallow and overdressed.

‘There will be no need to stay long,’ Theo said mildly. ‘Just long enough to create an impression. Although...’

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Falling for her fiancé?Tycoon Theo De Angelis lives life by his rules only…until a family debt nds him forced to propose the only merger he’s never chased – matrimony! Beautiful, inexperienced Alexa Caldini may be nothing like his usual blonde bombshell ‘type’, but that doesn’t mean their marriage bed must grow cold…Forced to marry the son of her father’s rival, Alexa is determined to impose certain ground rules on their inconvenient arrangement. Absolutely no emotions and definitely no physical relationship! But wearing the De Angelis ring is easier than facing the unexpected temptations of actually becoming Theo’s wife. How long before Alexa’s rules go up in smoke?

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