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"I presume you asked me in here for a reason, Dad?" Alex Valente said, his tone cool and collected as he sat in front of his father's desk in the opulent tenth-floor office overlooking Sydney Harbour.
There was a moment's pause. "Yes, there's a reason," Cesare Valente replied, leaning back in his leather chair.
Alex ignored the mixture of pride and regret in his father's eyes. They'd never been close, despite working together all these years. Cesare Valente had come to Australia as a child and was the founder of the House of Valente. Alex was its CEO. The two of them had taken the Australian perfume dynasty and turned it into a national success.
But it wasn't enough. It had never been enough for either of them. There were more successes out there, more opportunities to seize, including their upcoming launch in the States of their newest and finest perfume yetValente's Woman. Alex knew his father admired that same drive to conquer in himself. It was part of the reason he'd been tasked with the USA launch.
"And that is " Alex prompted, leaving the sentence hanging.
"I've come to a decision " Cesare's pause was surely for effect. "You're thirty-five years old. It's time you married and produced an heir."
Alex felt a brief moment of shock, then his eyes narrowed and his lips twisted. "I'll take your wishes into consideration if I ever decide to marry."
"You're not taking me seriously, figlio mio," Cesare said, lapsing into Italian to say son of mine.
Alex made a sound of derision. "There's a reason for that." He was a Valente, and Valentes didn't like being ordered about. His father knew that.
"I'm very seriousabout this," Cesare said quietly and firmly. "I'm getting older and I've recently had a health scare."
Something jolted inside Alex's chest. "You didn't tell me about that."
"No, I didn't." Just for a moment Cesare's eyes clouded over, then cleared. "I was having chest pains. They thought it was a heart attack, but I'm thankful it wasn't. This time. It's stress. I have to slow down, but I'm not going to hand over the reins of the business to you until I see you married with an heir on the way."
Alex shot him a withering look. "You're not asking much."
"I'm not asking, Alex. I'm telling. You've got six months in which to find yourself a wife and start a family or "
Alex's brow winged upward in challenge. "Or?"
"I sell the House of Valente to one of our competitors and give the money to charity. And I promise neither you nor your two brothers will see a cent."
Alex's jaw clenched. "I could always declare you insane."
Cesare gave a small smile. "You could try but I don't think any judge will give you power of attorney. I'm as sane as you are and I intend to do what I like with my own company."
Alex swore then pushed to his feet. "I don't need your money, Dad, nor do I need to be CEO. I'll survive without you."
"But will your brothers?"
Alex's shoulders stiffened. He took his status as eldest brother seriously. His own mother had died when he was three years old and Cesare had married again soon afterward. That marriage had lasted all of a year, just enough time for Nick to be born. Then his father had married Isabel, and had stayed married ever since. Matt at least had both his parents around.
"If you don't do as I ask, then I'll sell tomorrow. You and your brothers will be out on your own."
Alex glared down at him. "We're grown men. We'll survive."
"Oh, I have no doubt about that. But do you think it's fair for them to lose their inheritance like this?"
"Don't manipulate me," Alex growled.
"This isn't manipulation. It's a guarantee," Cesare said with quiet emphasis. "Alex, this is too important to me. It's my legacy to my sons. One day you'll realize this when you have a child of your own."
"Go to hell." Alex strode to the door and closed it behind him with controlled anger. He always wore his detachment like a second skin, but right now he was in danger of losing even that.
One week later
"And now," a woman's well-spoken voice said, "here is Anastasia stepping out for an evening of glamour in a beautiful gown that is sure to make a statement. The plunging neckline "
Alex heard the female voice through the microphone as he strode along the corridor toward the hotel ballroom. Her tone intrigued him even before he saw the woman, her accent Australian with an American twist, its slightly husky quality entrancing him beyond the beat of the music.
" and doesn't this set a new style? The classic black is "
His steps lengthened. He had to see this woman. Had to know if she looked as good as she sounded. He pushed open the door and stepped inside the room, the muted lighting allowing him full view down the well-lit center aisle to the tall, graceful blonde at the podium.
She'd been worth the rush.
Strikingly beautiful, with golden-blond hair pulled back in a sophisticated chignon, she carried an elegance that was as natural as breathing.
There was a round of applause as the model on the runway walked off, and he noticed his stepmother wave to him from the front row. He realized she must have been keeping an eye out for him. He hadn't exactly been enamored of attending a fashion show, but his father had cried off sick at the last minute and Isabel had been persuasive.
He was never more glad he'd agreed to come, he mused, making his way around the edge of the room toward Isabel toward this beauty on the stage who could have been one of the models herself.
"For our next outfit, Crystal is wearing a jewel of a gown that "
Just as he reached his stepmother, he looked up at the podium and his eyes locked with those of the blonde. It was a moment out of time.
"Er " She faltered just that little bit. " this accents her perfect figure "
Alex watched her recover and carry on with the commentary, vaguely aware of Isabel's whisper chiding him for being late.
The blonde glanced at him again and he caught a flicker of disconcertion in her eyes before she angled her chin and looked away to continue talking.
But it was too late.
He'd seen her reaction. She'd definitely felt something between them, and if that was panic he'd just seen on her face, then she was panicked by her own emotions.
Good. He wanted this woman, and what he wanted he usually got. Until now he'd been a man who only slept with a woman after he'd gotten to know her, but he'd rethink that tonight. The draw of this woman was too strong.
"And now, one of the highlights of the Cannington Collection is this delightful garment showcasing "
Alex frowned when he heard the Cannington name but before he could think further, Isabel leaned toward him and whispered, "She's beautiful, isn't she?"
He pretended not to know who she was talking about. "The model?"
Isabel tutted softly. "No, the presenter. She's a famous fashion designer in the States and this is her fashion show. She grew up here and now she's come back to live in Australia. Her mother's Felicia Cannington, you know. The movie star."
Alex let that sink in. Most people knew Felicia Cannington was an Australian who'd made it big in Hollywood over three decades ago. She was a much-loved favorite of the big screen.
He glanced again at the beautiful blonde. "And that's her daughter up there?"
Isabel nodded. "Yes, that's Olivia Cannington."
His business brain kicked into gear and he knew he'd just been handed the perfect solution to his problems. For the last week he'd been thinking about nothing but his father's ultimatum. He'd hoped by now Cesare would admit he'd been totally unreasonable because of his health scare, but the wily old bastard hadn't backed down. When Cesare Valente wanted something he usually got it.
Not that he'd said anything to his father about it. At first he'd been determined not to give in to Cesare's demand and planned on ignoring it as long as he could.
But the guilt had been getting to him. How could he let the family business be handed over to a bunch of strangers? More importantly, how could he let Nick and Matt lose their rightful inheritance?
Now he didn't have to, he decided. He'd grant part of his father's wish only because he'd found a suitable woman.
As for producing a child Cesare could whistle in the dark over that. His father would be retiring within the next couple of months anyway and wouldn't be able to maintain his control over the business. No, a child wouldn't be a part of the bargain.
It would be just him and the blonde. If she was as captivating as she looked, and if she was available, then he'd found the woman to marry.
"Good evening, Mr. Valente," Olivia replied with as much cool politeness as she could. She'd recognized Alex Valente's name as soon as her business partner had introduced them. The House of Valente was well-known throughout Australia for its excellence in perfume design and production.
"Alex," he invited, his slate-gray eyes sweeping over her with a burning intensity that made her heart bump against her ribs.
Holding on to her composure, she inclined her head. "Alex." She ignored the meaningful look Lianne gave her before the other woman excused herself and took off across the room to see to their other guests.
Instead, she let a moment pass as she took a sip of her champagne and tried not to show how much this handsome man affected her.
Darn him. The party after the show was usually a lighthearted affair, with everyone relaxed and ready to enjoy themselves after all the hard work they'd put in to make the collection a success.
But Alex Valente had spoiled the whole thing for her tonight. From the moment he'd stepped into the ballroom he'd caught her attention. It was an attention she didn't welcome or need, but he'd been staring at her so hard during the show she'd lost her focus. It had unnerved her, making her stumble over her words. That had never happened to her before.
So she wasn't particularly happy about meeting him now. "Did you enjoy the show?" For all his sophistication, she suspected he was more at home working in his office than attending a fashion show.
"It was fascinating."
"Do you often go to fashion shows?" she asked, making small talk, passing the time, hearing the chatter going on around them, the music getting louder.
A wry smile entered his eyes. "No. I only came to accompany my stepmother."
Olivia remembered seeing the elegant woman sitting next to him. "I see. Did she stay for the party? Is she here now?" Perhaps he'd go find her and not come back. She silently sighed. That was about as likely as the moon turning to cheese.
"No, my father wasn't feeling well tonight so she decided to go home."
"I hope he's okay."
Alex's mouth tightened. "He is."
She considered his words. "You sound certain about that."
"My father's very good at getting his own way," he said brusquely.