Authors: Karen Erickson
To all the readers out there—I appreciate each and every single one of you.
“You look lonely. Care for some company?”
Rafael Renaldi turned to find Annalisa Campioni standing before him, a little smile curving her lips.
He frowned. She was the last person he wanted to talk to this evening. Her younger sister, though? He was dying to speak to Catalina. But she’d been avoiding him since she arrived.
“You look lovely tonight, Annalisa.” He brought his champagne glass to his lips and drained it, setting it on the tray of a waiter passing by. He was bored, frustrated and ready to leave.
And now he was trapped.
The smile on Annalisa’s face grew. “Why thank you. You’re looking rather dashing yourself.”
If it were anyone else, he’d believe she was flirting with him. But Annalisa hated his guts. She always had, especially because he was promised to her sister. He believed Annalisa was jealous of their arrangement.
Huh. If they even
an arrangement. He hadn’t spoken to Catalina in quite a while.
He intended to change that tonight.
“Have you seen your sister lately?” he asked, noting the disappointment filling Annalisa’s eyes. “I need to talk to her.”
“Why?’ she spit out, her voice full of venom. “So you can string her along some more with your pretty, empty promises?”
Rafe reared back, shocked at her anger. “I don’t make your sister empty promises,” he said carefully.
She emitted an unladylike snort. “Stop lying. This supposed engagement between you two is a complete fraud. You should end it now.”
Furious at her accusations, he started to walk away from her. “I don’t need to listen to this,” he muttered under his breath.
Annalisa snagged hold of his arm, pulling him toward her. “I don’t know why you waste your time with her anyway, when you could have me.”
She threw herself at him. There was no other way to describe it. Annalisa nearly knocked him over, what with the force she used when she grabbed hold of him. Her surprisingly strong arms wound around his neck, forcibly bringing him toward her so she could kiss his lips. He tore himself out of her grip, taking a staggering step backward, wiping his hand across his lips. “What the hell was that? You know I’m not interested in you, Annalisa. I’m going to marry your
Pressing her lips together, she stared at him, her eyes wide, panic written all over her face. Tears formed in her eyes, and he immediately felt like a complete bastard.
Before he could offer her an apology, she turned and ran.
“Rafael is looking for you,” Annalisa said, her nose in the air as she scanned the crowded room.
Hope lit within Cat’s chest. They were at a fashion event supporting local houses and the sisters were there representing their family business. She knew the Renaldis would be there as well but wasn’t sure exactly which brother would be in attendance.
Luckily enough, it was the one she was supposed to marry.
“Really?” she asked Annalisa, trying to sound nonchalant. But inside, her heart raced. She glanced about, hoping to spot him.
“You should avoid him at all costs. He is nothing but a cheat and a liar,” Annalisa warned.
Cat barely repressed the urge to roll her eyes. “Are we having that discussion again? Because I’m so tired of it. You always try your hardest to badmouth him and I’m sick of it.”
“He’s put you off this long, baby sister. I highly suggest you ask for some time. Make sure this is what you really want. Marriage is a lifetime. Look at our parents. They’re absolutely miserable,” Annalisa said.
Annalisa’s words rang in her head minutes later when she came across Rafe. He was charming and sweet. Kissing the back of her hand and making her giggle. Asking her questions, plying her with champagne. She listened to him with rapt attention, entranced by his swarthy good looks, the way the lights from above made his dark hair gleam. He was everything she wanted in a husband.
He escorted her outside to the terrace, the both of them sipping champagne and not really talking. She hoped he would kiss her. Or at least talk about their upcoming nuptials.
She was still agreeable…right?
“Catalina.” His husky, deep voice sent a delicious shiver down her spine. “I want to kiss you.”
Parting her lips, she released a shuddering breath as he stepped closer. He slipped his fingers into her hair, brushing the stray strands away from her forehead before his hand slid down to cup her cheek.
“You don’t mind do you?”
“N-no.” He made her so incredibly nervous. Annalisa’s warning ran through her mind again. How many other women had he brought out to a dark and secluded terrace such as this one? How many women had he seduced?
Closing her eyes, she pushed the thought aside. It was too painful to contemplate.
He took advantage of her closed eyes, moving in to steal a kiss. His lips were soft and warm, the kiss gentle. She broke away from him first, staring up at his handsome face with wariness, and he narrowed his gaze, as if she’d just offered him a challenge.
Then he took her mouth in the deepest, hottest kiss she’d ever experienced. His strong lips were firm yet soft, his tongue insistent as it slid against her own. He touched her cheek, his fingers drifting across her skin, and she whimpered.
His mouth, his tongue, his hands, everything about him was pure seduction. He swallowed her every moan, touched her with an assuredness only an experienced man would have.
“I want you,” he whispered close to her ear. “I must make you mine soon.”
“How soon?” she asked.
Rafe pulled away from her, his dark brows drawn together. “I’m not sure.”
“Because I need time,” she went on, knowing she needed to get this out before he convinced her otherwise. “I’m still not ready. There are things I need to do…” Her voice trailed off. She wasn’t sure what those things were, but she knew she couldn’t marry him. Not yet.
Annalisa’s gloomy words had scared her.
“Of course, you need time,” he said, nodding eagerly. “I understand. Really I do. Marriage is a big commitment.”
“Yes, it is,” she agreed. “I think I need at least a year before we can begin discussing plans.”
“A year?” He stepped away from her completely, rubbing his hand along his jaw. “All right,” he said slowly. “I can agree to that.”
He agreed far too quickly with her. And that was what scared her the most.
“You don’t have to go through with this, you know.”
“You’ve already said that.” Rafael Renaldi stood next to his older brother, pretending he cared about the conversation they were having, which they’d already had a million times. He’d learned to drown out the negativity over the years, especially the last few.
It was easier to ignore the argument tonight, however. He was distracted—and pleasantly so.
“And every time I say it, I mean it, Rafe. This old-fashioned arrangement is like some sort of noose around your neck that tightens with every year that passes. It’s time to bail.” Matteo shook his head, his mouth grim. He’d been against Rafe’s situation for years. Once their father had died, he’d become even more vocal about it. “You can still back out. She’d understand. Her entire family would understand.”
“I don’t want to back out. I want this.” His gaze remained fixed on a woman.
woman. She stood across the room, deeply engrossed in conversation with her older sister. Both of them were equally beautiful, though his eyes were drawn more to the one who belonged to him. “And how do you know she’d understand? Or her entire family would? I’d assume her father would still want this happen.”
An irritated sigh escaped Matteo. “Do you really believe she wants to do this? Have you spoken to her recently and asked her how she feels? How about her father? Have you talked to Carlo Campioni at all? This has gone on long enough. Something must be done. Now.”
Rafe really hated it sometimes, when his big brother behaved reasonably. No, he hadn’t spoken to Carlo, but who had? The man had turned into a ghost as of late. He very rarely came into work or made public appearances, according to those who worked at Campioni Leather Goods. His daughters had taken over the family business completely, with the older one, Annalisa, stepping into her father’s place and running the company.
And beyond the greeting Rafe had offered her upon his arrival to this small social gathering earlier, no, he hadn’t talked to Catalina Campioni much. But he hadn’t forgotten her. How could he? She’d always been in the back of his mind, ever since they were children, and as he grew older, she’d pushed herself closer and closer to the forefront. Not by her own doing, oh no. His vivid imagination had helped that along.
Of course, there had been that single, unforgettable kiss they’d shared the last time they’d seen and spoken to each other for longer than stiff greetings and painfully polite conversation.
And then she asked for more time, like she couldn’t stand the thought of marrying him. Talk about devastating.
Never give a woman breathing room
, Matteo had warned him like he was an idiot—after the fact. Which proved that, yes indeed, Rafe was an idiot. Breathing room allowed the woman the opportunity to change her mind, Matteo went on to say.
For whatever reason, lately Rafe had grown afraid that Catalina had most definitely changed her mind. A man resorted to desperate measures during desperate times. This meant he needed to push forward and make their marriage happen. Soon.
“I hope like hell she wants to do this,” Rafe finally said, full of worry—and ire. “We agreed.” After the kiss, after she requested a bit of distance, he’d asked her if they would still marry, needing the confirmation. She’d nodded her answer, appearing too overcome to form words.
He’d run with that simple confirmation ever since. Again, proving he was an idiot.
“Her father and our father agreed a long time ago. There’s a distinct difference,” Matteo pointed out. “Arranged marriages are a thing of the past for our culture.”
“I realize that, but the agreement’s in writing. One of us would be breaking a legal contract if we backed out,” Rafe grumbled, jerking his attention away from the one woman who could keep him in knots like no other, so he could focus on his brother.
Big mistake. Matteo looked exasperated at having to explain himself yet again. It felt like they’d been having this conversation for years. “As if any modern court would uphold that stupid document.” He shook his head. “You could have any woman you want and you know it. I know it. Hell, Catalina Campioni most likely knows it too. So why in the world do you want her? You don’t even know her.”
Rafe was tired of having to explain himself all the damn time. Why did Matteo always want a reason?
want a reason? Wasn’t being in love with her enough?
Of course, most would laugh at him if he said he was in love with her, since they really didn’t know each other that well. But it was true. He’d been waiting for her to mature, to grow. To become the woman that wanted to be married to him. Who wanted to give him children. That she still didn’t want him hurt more than he cared to admit.
“Why wouldn’t I want her?” he said, his voice gruff. He needed to play this off to Matteo so he wouldn’t look like the sappy, romantic bastard that he truly was. “She’s been promised to me for years. She’s sweet and she’s kind and so damn beautiful, it hurts to look at her.” Without hesitation, he waved his hand toward where Catalina stood, not caring who saw him. He was tired of staying away from her. The “give me distance” agreement between them settled heavily in the crowded room, until it was all he could see and hear and think about.
Matteo watched him in that cool, calculating way his older brother had. As if he could see right through him, knowing when he told the truth or lied. Feeling like a little kid, Rafe wanted to squirm where he stood, but he held his ground. “You talk as if you own her.”
Rafe raised a brow. “Essentially, I do. I don’t mean to sound like an ass.”
“Then don’t,” Matteo said simply.
“Money was passed, Matteo.” Rafe lowered his voice. He hated discussing this. It made him uncomfortable. “You know this.”