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What are you saying, Dad?" Nick Valente asked his father, Cesare, as they sat on one of the terraced courtyards on the Valente estate.
"I'm saying I've been retired over six months now and while I've loved it here, this place is getting too big for us. Isabel and I have decided to move into an apartment in town."
The statement sucked the wind out of Nick. This place was home. He'd grown up on this estate in the Hawkesbury district of Sydney. His own mother had given birth to him here before taking off for greener pastures, leaving his father to meet Isabel six months later.
"The estate is yours," Cesare continued. "If you want it."
Something leaped inside him. Did his father even have to ask? Of course he wanted it. He wanted it so badly he had to turn his head away and look down over the cultivated lawns, lest his father see how much he wanted it.
And there was the crux of the matter.
He didn't trust his father.
Cesare was a crafty old devil who'd had a long reign as founder of The House of Valente, an Australian perfume dynasty now branching out in the rest of the world under the control of the eldest son, Alex, with their new perfume, "Valente's Woman." Cesare was used to getting his own way.
"And if I don't want it?" he said, playing it cool, just like he did every day in his job as Chief Operating Officer for the family business.
"Then I'll give it to Matt."
He was close to Matt, but his younger brother liked living in the center of the city, and this place would end up neglected. Matt would die out here on the far outskirts of Sydney, no matter that he could commute.
He, on the other hand, would appreciate the break away from hiscity apartment and from the constant round of hard work and equally hard play.
He casually turned his head to look at his father. "Matt's never liked this place much," he pointed out coolly.
Cesare inclined his gray head. "I know that."
"So why give it to him?"
"I haven't yet. It all depends on you."
His misgivings were increasing by the moment. "What's the catch, Dad?"
Cesare's lips twisted wryly. "You know me well." A calculating expression took over the older man's face. "You can have the estate on one condition. You have to get married."
Nick straightened in his chair. "What the hell!"
"This place needs a young family again."
"So I'm supposed to get married and have a family, too?" he said, sarcastically.
"That's usually the way it goes."
Nick shook his head. He had no plans to get married just yet. No woman was going to tie him down, and he'd be damned if he'd bring a child into the world whose parents didn't love each other.
"What about Alex and Olivia?" It was the most acceptable option to him. At least they would give this place the care it deserved.
"No, they have their own house now and wouldn't want to move. It would unsettle little Scott."
Yes, that was true. Alex and Olivia had adopted eight-year-old Scott at Christmas. They wouldn't want to move again so soon, if at all.
Suddenly something clicked in Nick's brain as he looked at his father. "Tell me you didn't have anything to do with Alex marrying Olivia."
Cesare didn't even flinch. "I'd be lying if I said I hadn't."
Nick's mouth tightened. "Does Mum know what you've been up to?"
He'd always considered Isabel his mother. She was elegant, charming, loving, and quite formidable when riled. She'd been the only mother he'd knownuntil his real mother had started turning up during his childhood, causing havoc.
"Isabel and I have agreed to disagree. She knows my feelings on this, and I'm not about to change my mind. It's too important to me."
Nick swore. "Dammit, I'm not marrying some woman just to satisfy your perverted sense of power."
"Then Matt gets the estate."
His stomach tightened. "Matt won't want it once I tell him what game you're playing."
Cesare took a sip of his coffee before putting the cup down on the table. "Then I'll have to sell, won't I?"
Nick swallowed hard. His father thought he had it all figured out, did he?
"Just who the hell am I supposed to marry anyway? Should I just pick a woman from my Rolodex?"
Nick's brain stumbled. He hadn't thought about that name in years hadn't thought about her in years hadn't thought about that kiss.
"She isn't in my Rolodex," he snapped, not wanting to think about her at all. That kiss had been a minor lapse in judgment.
"She's perfect for you."
"I'm glad you think so."
Displeasure furrowed Cesare's brow, then cleared. "You'll see. Once you marry her you'll"
"I'm not marrying her, Dad." If he was getting marriedand he wasn't saying he wouldhe'd choose the woman. "Besides, isn't she in England?"
"No, she's back. She's an interior designer now, and I've asked her to redecorate this house."
The surprises just kept on coming, didn't they?
"This place is fine the way it is."
Cesare considered him. "You've always loved it here."
Nick shrugged. "It's home."
"And that's why I'm offering it to you."
"But only if I marry Sasha Blake, right?"
"It'll be good to join the two families. Porter and Sally Blake have been our friends for years."
"I've never trusted Porter." Sally was a nice enough woman, if a little too submissive.
"Forget Porter Blake. It's his daughter you're marrying."
"I'm not marrying anyone. Period."
There was a small pause. "Sasha will be here tomorrow morning checking things while we're in the city. It might be a good time to talk to her."
His father went very still. Then, "I think Matt will be more than happy to change the whole look of this place, don't you? And Sasha must have some innovative ideas she's picked up from living in London."
Nick swore. "Why are you doing this, Dad?"
Cesare looked at him, a hint of vulnerability in his eyes. "I've had one heart attack already. I want to see you married before I die."
"It was a mild heart attack," Nick rasped, remembering.
"And the next one may be fatal, figlio mio," son of mine, he said, lapsing into Italian.
Nick felt an inward shudder at the thought and knew his father had him right where he wanted him. He could fight Cesare on everything but this. That heart attack had really shaken up the whole family, and he wasn't about to be responsible for any further attacks.
Marrying to please his father may sound ridiculous in this day and age, but he'd been raised with strong family values. He'd do what was necessary. But did it have to be Sasha Blake of all people he had to marry?
A shapely female bottom and matching long legs in white trousers greeted Nick when he opened the front door to his parents' house the next morning. They belonged to a gorgeous female figure standing in strappy sandals on a chair near the staircase.
At least they were until the woman turned, saw him and gave a squeal of fright, then started to topple off. He raced forward and caught her as she fell back into his arms.
For a moment she stared up at him. "Nick?" she whispered, almost as if his name was a secret.
He looked down at the beautiful blonde and wanted to lie and say no, he wasn't Nick. And he'd never kissed her either. Nor did he want to again.
She was Trouble.
And he had to ask her to marry him.
She continued to stare up at him with eyes good at robbing a man of his thoughts. He'd forgotten the impact of those long sweeping lashes featuring eyes the color of green satin. Even when she was growing up there was something about them that tried to pierce his defenses. It had taken a constant and concentrated effort not to let her succeed.
Their kiss had come close.
"What on earth were you doing up there?" he growled, setting her on her feet, fascinated despite himself at the visible pulse beating at her throat and a faint blush dusting her cheeks. She'd been a pretty teenager before, but now she'd grown into a very beautiful woman.
She pushed against him and stepped back. "I thought I saw a crack in the wall, so I was checking it out."
The impact of her touch lingered. And so did the scent of her perfumeValente's Woman. Somehow he was glad she wore his family's perfume.
"I hear you're an interior designer now," he said for something to say.
"Yes, I am." She seemed to pull herself together, and an excited light entered her eyes. "And I'm so happy your father chose me to redecorate this place."
Remembering, he shot her a dark look. "I don't want this house redecorated. It's fine how it is."
Disappointment crossed her face before she gave a tiny smile that held a touch of defiance. "Then it's as well this isn't your house, or I wouldn't have a job."
Tension rocked his stomach. "Look, let's go into the salon. I'll get Iris to make us some coffee."
Her expression grew wary. "I'm supposed to be working."
"Then add an extra hour's wages to the bill. My father can afford it."
She tipped her head to one side, her straight blond hair swaying like a sheen of silk over her shoulders. "You're very generous with your father's money."
"He wants me to talk to you."
She tensed. "Oh. I see. He's firing me, is he?"
"No, it's not that at all." But she was going to wish it was.
Relief fluttered across her face. "Then what can you possibly say to me that he can't himself?"
He opened his mouth to say it but realized it would be a bit too much all in the space of a minute. No need to break a record with this.
He gestured toward the salon. "The coffee first." He waited for her to precede him, then used the intercom to ask Iris to bring in some coffee.
When he turned to look at Sasha she was standing by the fireplace. Suddenly he couldn't take his eyes off her. It was crazy but she looked so right standing there in tailored white pants and a soft-knit green top, slim and refined and such a contrast amongst all this heavy, ornate furniture.
"It's not polite to stare."
Her words broke through his thoughts. "You're different from what I remember." It was more than a physical difference, but he wasn't sure what it was yet.
Her eyelids flickered. "What do you remember, Nick?"
She gave a soft gasp. "It's not gentlemanly of you to bring that up."
"I was only being honest."
"Ever heard of being too honest?"
"I don't work like that."
"True. You were nothing less than honest after that kiss, weren't you?" she said, a wry twist coating her lips.
"If you mean that I didn't profess everlasting love, then you're right. I'd prefer not to sugarcoat things." It had been a kissa stunner of a kissbut that's all it was. "Why, did I hurt your ego?"
"What? No way," she said quickly, perhaps too quickly. "It was my first kiss by a man, that's all. Up until then they'd all been boys."
"No doubt you've been plenty kissed since then."
"I'm not naive."
"Yes, I remember Randall. You had a fling with him, didn't you?"
Strangely, the thought of her with other menwith Randall Tremainehad always unsettled him, but he forced himself to ignore it. She could kiss whomever she liked, make love to whomever she liked. And she had. It had nothing to do with him.
She gave a shaky sigh. "I can't believe the first thing we talk about after seven years is kissing."
A blush rose up her cheeks but just then Iris appeared in the doorway with the tray of coffee, interrupting the moment. They exchanged a few pleasantries, then Iris put the tray down on the coffee table and left the room.
"Shall I pour?" Sasha said, taking a seat on the sofa.
"Thanks." He sat down opposite, watching as she poured with an elegance that was innate. Once again he had the feeling she looked right in this setting. He grimaced to himself. Or perhaps it was just because his father had implanted the idea in him.
"So how long has it been since you left for London?" he asked as she passed him the cup and saucer.
"You were twenty when you left. That's young to be in a big city by yourself.