Read an Excerpt
'Are you Charlotte Wareham, the project manager from Kentham Brothers?'
Charlotte—Charley—Wareham looked up from her laptop, blinking in the strong Italian spring sunshine. She had only just returned from a snatched, very late lunch—a sandwich and a cup of delicious cappuccino in a local café. Her meeting with the two civic dignitaries responsible for the restoration project on a derelict public garden, to be completed for the five hundredth anniversary of the garden's creation, which she would be overseeing, had overrun badly.
The man now towering over her, whom she hadn't met before, and who seemed to have appeared out of nowhere, was plainly angry—very angry indeed—as he gestured towards the cheap faux stone urns and other replica samples she had shipped over for client inspection.
'And what, may I ask, are these vile abominations?' he demanded.
It wasn't his anger, though, that had a coil of shocked disbelief tightening her whole body. Dimly she recognised that the sharp, swift pang of sensation possessing her was instinctive female recognition of a man so alpha that no woman could or would even want to deny him.
This was a man born to stand head and shoulders above his peers—a man born to produce strong sons in his own image—a man born to take the woman of his choice to his bed and to give her such pleasure there that she would be bound to him by the mere memory for the rest of her life.
She must have been sitting in the sun for too long, Charley decided shakily. Such thoughts were certainly not something she was normally prone to— quite the opposite.
She made a determined effort to pull herself together, putting her laptop down, rising from the faux stone bench on which she had been sitting, and standing up to confront her interrogator.
He was tall and dark and as filled with furious rage as a volcano about to erupt. He was also, as her senses had already recognised, extraordinarily good-looking. His olive-toned skin was drawn smoothly over the tautly masculine bone structure of his face, and he was tall, dark-haired, with the kind of arrogantly proud chiselled features that spoke of patrician forebears. His unexpectedly steely grey-eyed gaze swept over her with open contempt, his look like a sculptor's chisel, seeking the exact spot in a piece of marble where it was most vulnerable.
Charley tried to look away from him and found instead that her gaze had somehow slipped to his mouth. Shocked by her own behaviour, she tried to drag her gaze away, but it refused to move. Prickles of warning quivered over her skin, but it was already too late. An unwanted jolt of awareness of him as a man had already struck through her like forked lightning coming out of a still, calm sky, and was all the more frightening for that unexpectedness. Her mouth had gone dry; a thousand tiny nerve-endings were pulsing beneath her skin. She could feel her lips softening and swelling as though in preparation for a lover's kiss, and he was looking at them now, his gaze narrowed and unreadable, but no doubt filled with arrogant disdain for her weakness. A man like this one would never look at her mouth the way she had looked at his. He would never be caught off guard by the sudden shock of knowing that his senses had torn free of his mind and were imagining what it would be like to feel her mouth against his.
Jerkily, her fingers trembling as she fought for self-control, Charley pulled down the sunglasses perched on top of her head to cover her eyes, in an attempt to conceal the effect he was having on her. But it was too late. He had seen it—and the contempt she could see hardening his expression told her what he thought of her reaction to him. Her face, her whole body was burning with a mixture of shocked disbelief and humiliation as she battled to rationalise and understand what had happened to her. She simply didn't ever react to men like that, and it shocked her that she had done so now—and to this man of all men. She had an unnerving need to touch her own lips, to see if they actually were as softly swollen as they felt.
What had happened must be some kind of reaction to all the pressure and stress she had been under, Charley tried to rationalise. Why else would she be reacting in this uncharacteristic and dangerous way? Her senses, though, refused to be controlled. The artist's eye within her recognised the raw male power of the body that was cloaked by his undoubtedly expensive charcoal-grey suit. Beneath his clothes he would have the kind of torso, and everything that went with it, that the medieval artists for which Florence was so justly famous had so loved to sculpt and paint.
Too late she recognised that he was still waiting for her to respond to his question. In a bid to regain the ground she felt she had lost, Charley lifted her small pointed chin and told him, 'I do work for Kentham Brothers, yes.' She paused, trying not to wince as she looked at the haphazard line of pots and statues, their shoddiness laid bare by the stranger's disdain, and then continued, 'And the "vile abominations", as you call them, are in fact very good value for money.'
The look of contempt that twisted his mouth into bitter cynicism—not just at the samples but also at her—confirmed everything Charley already knew about herself. The truth was that she was as lacking in true beauty, style and elegance, and every other female attribute there was that a man might admire as the samples were lacking in anything truly artistic. And it was that knowledge—the knowledge that she had been judged and found wanting by a man who was no doubt a true connoisseur of her sex—that prompted her to tell him defiantly, 'Not that it is really any of your business…' She paused deliberately before adding a questioning, 'Signor…?'
The dark eyebrows snapped towards the bridge of his arrogant, aquiline nose, the grey eyes turning molten platinum as he gave her an arrogantly lofty look and told her, 'It is not Signor anything, Ms Wareham. I am Raphael Della Striozzi—Duce di Raverno. Il Duce is the form of address most people of the town use to address me—as they have addressed my father and his father before him, going back for many centuries.'
Il Duce? He was a duke? Well, she wasn't going to let herself be impressed, Charley told herself, especially since he was obviously expecting her to be.
'Really?' Charley stuck her chin out determinedly— a habit she had developed as a child, to defend herself from parental criticism. 'Well, I should point out to you that this whole area is strictly off-limits to the general public, titled or untitled, for their own safety. There are notices in place. If you have issues with the restoration work which Kentham Brothers has been commissioned to do, I suggest that you take them up with the authorities,' she told him briskly.
Raphael stared at her in furious disbelief. She, this Englishwoman, was daring to attempt to deny him access to this garden?
'I am not the general public. It was a member of my family who originally bequeathed this garden to the town.'
'Yes, I know that,' Charley agreed. She had done her research on the garden very thoroughly when she had first been told about the contract. 'The garden was a gift to the townspeople from the wife of the first duke, in thanks to them for praying for the birth of a son after four daughters.'
Raphael's mouth hardened into a grim line, as he returned, 'Thank you, I am well aware of the history of my family.'
But it was only when he had looked into the matter more thoroughly that he had discovered the ornamentation this woman intended to replace with hideous examples of modern mass production had originally been created by some of the Renaissance's most gifted artists. Now abandoned, damaged and forgotten, the garden had been designed by a foremost landscaper of the day.
The realisation of how magnificent the garden must have been had stirred within him a sense of responsibility towards the current project. A responsibility he should have been aware of earlier, and which he now blamed himself for not shouldering before. The town might own the garden, but they carried the name of his family, and next year, when it was reopened to the public in celebration of its five hundredth year of existence, that connection was bound to be publicly referred to. Raphael took pride in the proper artistic maintenance of all the historic buildings and art treasures that had come down to him through his family, and the thought of the garden to which his family was connected being given a makeover more suited to an English suburban plot owned by people with dubious taste filled him with an anger that was currently directed towards Charlotte Wareham—with her makeup-less face, her sun-streaked mud-brown hair, and her obvious lack of interest or pride in her appearance. She was as ill equipped to match the fabled beauty of her renaissance peers as her revolting statues were of matching the magnificence of the originals that had once graced this garden.
He looked again at Charley, frowning as a second look forced him to revise his earlier assessment of her. Now he could see that her pink, lipstick-free mouth was soft, her lips full and well shaped, her nose and jaw delicately sculpted. He had initially thought her eyes, with their thick dark lashes, above cheekbones currently stained with angry colour, a light plain blue, but now, with her anger aroused, he could see they had become the extraordinarily brilliant blue-green of the Adriatic at its most turbulent.
It didn't matter what she looked like, Raphael told himself grimly.
Charley could feel her face starting to burn with memories of her parents warning her about thinking before she spoke or acted, and the unfeminine hastiness of her desire to answerback when challenged. She had believed that she had learned to control that aspect of her personality, but this man—this…this duke—had somehow or other managed to get under her skin and prove her wrong. Now she felt as though he had wrong-footed her, but she wasn't going to let him see that.
'Well, you may be the Duke of Raverno, but it says nothing in the paperwork I have seen about a duke having any involvement in this project. As I understand it, no matter what part your ancestors may have played in the garden in the past, it is the town that is now responsible for them and their restoration. You have no right to be here.'
She wasn't going to let him bully her, not for one minute—title or no title. She had had enough of that over these last few weeks, with her employer making her life such a misery that she longed to be able to hand in her notice. But she had to grin and bear it in the current financial climate. Her small household, which included her elder sister, her younger sister and her twin sons, desperately needed the money she earned— all the more so since her elder sister's interior design business was on the verge of collapse.
With so many people unemployed, she was lucky just to have a job—something her employer continually pointed out to her. She knew why he was doing that, of course. Times were hard; he wanted to cut back on his staff, and he had a daughter fresh out of university, working as an intern within the business, who'd thrown a complete hissy fit when she'd learned that Charley was going to be overseeing this new Italian contract.
If it hadn't been for the fact that she spoke Italian, and her boss's daughter did not, Charley knew she would already have lost her job. She would probably lose it anyway once this contract had been completed. So, she might have to let her employer treat her appallingly, because she desperately needed to keep her job, but she wasn't going to let this arrogant Italian do the same thing. Not when it was the town council she was answerable to and not him. And besides, challenging him made her feel much better about her unwanted awareness of him.
Raphael could feel the fury building up inside him—burning and boiling inside him like molten lava.
When the town council had announced that they planned to restore the dangerously dilapidated pleasure garden just outside the town walls, he had instituted a search of the ducal archives for copies of the original plans for the garden, initially simply out of curiosity, thinking they might assist with the renovation. However, when he had returned from Rome to discover that for financial reasons the town had decided to replace the statues and other features originally designed and created by some of Florence's greatest renaissance artists he had been appalled—and his temper had been left on edge by the council's assertion that the garden would either have to be restored within the small budget available or the site completely flattened, because in its present state it constituted a danger to the public. And now here was this Englishwoman, whose challenge to him was igniting his fury to near uncontrollable levels.
Raphael might not welcome what was planned for the restoration of the garden, but he welcomed even less the effect this young woman responsible for managing the restoration was having on him. Such was the intensity of his anger that it was fostering within him a desire to punish her for daring to provoke it in him. And that could not be allowed. Not now or ever.
Anger and cruelty were the twin demons that together created men whose savage legacy could never be forgotten or forgiven. And the propensity to exhibit them flowed as surely through his veins as it had done through the ancestors who had passed down that legacy to him—but with him that inheritance would end. He had vowed that as a thirteen-year-old, watching as his mother's coffin was placed in the family vault in Rome to join that of his father.
Raphael looked unseeingly towards the padlocked entrance to the gardens. He could feel the heavy, threatening shadow of those twin emotions at his back, following him, out of sight but always there, over his shoulder…