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"Have you heard? He's trying to buy her a husband." Feminine laughter trilled mockingly.
"With his millions, it shouldn't be hard."
"The old man will live to see a hundred and five and keep control of his company right up until he dies," the woman said. "That means over thirty years married to a woman who is hopelessly introverted, hopelessly ordinary and probably hopeless in bed, to boot. Practically a lifetime before her future husband will see any fruit for his labor."
"Put in that light," the man drawled sardonically,
"the return on investment does seem pretty low."
"Why, darling, were you thinking of applying for the job?" Scornful disbelief laced the woman's too knowing voice.
The masculine laughter that came in reply grated on Luciano's nerves. He had arrived late to the New Year's Eve party hosted by the Boston based multimillionaire, Joshua Reynolds. Nevertheless, he knew exactly whom the cynical woman and her male cohort were discussing: Hope Bishop"an extremely sweet and sÃ¬, very shy, young woman. She was also the granddaughter of their host.
Luciano hadn't realized the old man had decided to procure her a husband. It should come as no surprise. While she had the innocence of an eighteenyear-old, she must be twenty-three or four, having 7
8 completed her degree at university two years ago. He remembered attending a formal dinner to celebrate.
The dinner, like any other social gathering hosted by Reynolds, had turned into a business discussion and the guest of honor had disappeared long before the evening was over. He had thought at the time he might be the only person to have noticed. Certainly her grandfather had not, nor had any of the other businessmen present remarked upon Hope's absence.
Luciano turned away from the gossiping couple and stepped around a potted plant easily as tall as most men. Its bushy foliage obstructed his view of what was behind it, which was why he didn't realize Hope Bishop was standing there in frozen mortification until he had all but stepped on her.
She gasped and moved backward, her corkscrew curls catching on the leaves behind her, their chestnut color a startling contrast to the plant's bright green shrubbery. "Signor di Valerio!"
He reached out to stop her from landing on her bottom in the big Chinese pot housing the plant.
Wide violet eyes blinked in attempt to dispel suspicious moisture. "Oh, I'm sorry. How clumsy I am."
"Not at all, signorina." The skin beneath his fingers was soft and warm. "I am the one who must apologize. I walked without looking ahead of myself and am at your feet in regret for my precipitous behavior."
As he had hoped it would, his overly formal, oldfashioned apology brought a small smile to tilt the generous lips that had a moment before been trembling. "You are very kind, signor."
She was one of the few people who believed this to be so. He let go of her arms, finding it surprisingly difficult to make his fingers release their captive. "And you are very lovely tonight."
It had been the wrong thing to say. Her gaze flitted to the shrub and the still gossiping couple beyond, her expression turning pained. Their voices carried quite clearly, now discussing an adulterous affair between two of their acquaintances. No doubt Hope had heard their earlier words.
She affirmed his thoughts when she softly said, "Not lovely, I think, but hopelessly average," telling him too that she knew he had heard the unflattering comments.
He did not like the sadness in her eyes and he once again took her arm, leading her toward the library. It was the one room unlikely to have a lot of New Year's Eve guests milling about. "Come, piccola."
Little one. It suited her.
She did not demur. That was one of the things he had always liked about the girl. She did not argue for the sake of it, not even with her overbearing and often neglectful grandfather. She was a peaceful sort of person.
They reached the library. He guided her inside, quickly ascertaining he had been right and no one else was present. He shut the door to keep it that way. She needed a few moments to collect herself.
Once again he was surprised by a desire to maintain his hold on her, but she tugged slightly on her arm and he released her. She faced him, her tiny stature accentuated by her three-inch heels, not diminished as he was sure she had hoped.
She really did look lovely in her formal gown of deep purple. The bodice outlined small, but perfectly proportioned curves while the shimmery fabric of the
10 full skirt floated around her ankles in a very feminine way. She was not ravishingly sexy like the women he dated, but pretty in a very innocent and startlingly tantalizing way.
"I don't think he's trying to buy me a husband, you know." She tucked a reddish-brown curl behind her ear. "He's tried to buy me pretty much everything else since his heart attack, but I think even Grandfather would draw the line at buying a husband."
He wouldn't put anything past the wily old man, but forbore saying so. "It is natural for him to want to buy you things."
She grimaced. "Yes, I suppose so, but in the past he's always been impersonal with it."
A husband would be a pretty personal purchase, Luciano had to admit. "What do you mean, signorina?"
"Oh please, you must call me Hope. We've known each other for five years after all."
Had it been that long? "Hope then." He smiled and watched in some fascination as her skin took on a distinctly rosy hue.
She averted her face, so she was looking at the overfull bookcase on her left. "Grandfather has raised me since I was five."
"I did not know this."
She nodded. "But I don't think he noticed I even lived in his house except to instruct the servants to buy me what I needed, clothes when I grew out of them, books when I wanted them, an education, that sort of thing."
It was as he had always surmised. Hope had been relegated to the background of Reynolds' life and she had known it.
"But just lately, he's been buying things for me himself. My birthday was a month ago and he bought me a car." She sounded shocked by the fact. "I mean he went to the car dealership and picked it out himself. The housekeeper told me."
"This bothers you?" Most women of his acquaintance would find a car a very appropriate birthday gift.
Her pansy eyes focused back on him. "No. Not really. Well, except that I don't drive, but that's not the point. It's just that I think he's trying to make up for something."
"Perhaps he regrets spending so little time with you through your formative years."
Her soft, feminine laughter affected his libido in a most unexpected way. "He had the housekeeper take me out to dinner for my birthday after having the Porsche delivered by the dealership."
"He bought you a Porsche?" That was hardly a suitable gift for a young woman who did not even know how to drive. Porca miseria! She could kill herself her first time behind the wheel with such a powerful car. He would have to speak to Reynolds about making sure she had received proper driving instruction before she was allowed onto the roads alone.
"Yes. He also bought me a mink coat. Not a fake one, but the real thing." She sighed and sat down in one of the burgundy leather reading chairs. "I'm, um...a vegetarian." She peeked up at him through her lashes. "The thought of killing animals makes me nauseous."
He shook his head and leaned back against the desk. "Your grandfather does not know you very well, does he, piccola?"
"I suppose not. I'm really excited about the sixweek European tour he gave me for Christmas, though. Even if I won't be leaving for six months. He booked it for early summer." Her eyes shone with undisguised delight at the prospect. "I'll be traveling with a group of college students and a tour guide."
"How many other young women will there be?" She shrugged. "I don't know. There will be ten of us in all, not including the guide of course." She crossed one leg over the other and started to swing the ankle back and forth, making her dress swish with each movement. "I don't know what the ratio of men to women will be."
"You are traveling with men?"
"Oh, yes. It's all coed. Something I would have loved to do in college, but better late than never, don't they say?"
He didn't know about that, but the idea of this naive creature spending six weeks with a group of libidinous, college age men did not please him. Why he should care, he did not stop to analyze. It was his nature to act on not only his behalf, but that of others as well.
"I do not think it is wise for you to go on such a trip. Surely a wholly female group would be more enjoyable for you."
Her leg stopped its swinging and she stared at him, clearly dumbfounded. "You're kidding, right? Half the reason for going on the trip is to spend some time with men close to my own age."
"Are you saying you object to Joshua buying you a husband, but not when it comes to him buying you a lover?" He didn't know what had made him say it. Only that he had been angry, an inexplicable reaction to the news she was interested in male companionship.
She blanched and sat back in her chair as if trying to put distance between them. "I didn't say that. I'm not looking for a...a lover." Then in a whirl of purple chiffon, she jumped up. "I'll just get back to the party." She eased around him toward the door as if he were an angry animal threatening to pounce.
He cursed himself in his native tongue as she opened the door and fled. There had been tears in her lavender eyes. What the gossiping duo had not been able to do with their nasty commentary, he had managed with one sentence.
He had made her cry.
Two now familiar hands grabbed her shoulders from behind. "Please, piccola, you must allow me to once again apologize."
She said nothing, but she didn't try to get away. How could she? The moment he touched her, she lost all sense of self-will. And he did not have a clue, but then why should he? Sicilian business tycoons did not look to hopelessly average, twenty-three-year-old virgins for an alliance...of any sort.
She blinked furiously at the wetness that had already trickled down to her cheeks. Wasn't it enough that she had been forced to overhear her shortcomings cataloged by two of her grandfather's guests? That Luciano of all people should have heard as well had increased the hurt exponentially. Then to have him accuse her of wanting her grandfather to buy her a
14 lover! As if the idea that any man would desire her for herself was too impossible to contemplate.
"Let me go," she whispered. "I need to check on Grandfather."
"Joshua has an entire household of servants to see to his needs. I have only you."
"You don't need me."
He turned her to face him. Then keeping one restraining hand on her shoulder, he tipped her chin up with his forefinger. His eyes were dark with remorse.
"I did not mean it, piccola."
She just shook her head, not wanting to speak and betray how much his careless words had hurt. She was not blasé enough to take the type of sophisticated joking he had been indulging in with equanimity.
He said something low in Italian and wiped at her cheeks with a black silk handkerchief he had pulled from his pocket. "Do not distress yourself so. It was nothing more than a poorly worded jest. Not something for which you should upset yourself."
"I'm sorry. I'm being stupidly emotional." His gorgeous brown eyes narrowed. "You are not stupid, piccola, merely easily hurt. You must learn to control this or others will take advantage of your weakness."
"Consider... The words of that gossiping pair distressed you and yet you know them to be false. Your grandfather has no need to buy you either a husband or a lover." He accentuated his words with a small squeeze of her shoulder. "You are lovely and gentle, a woman any man would be lucky to claim."
Now she'd forced him to fabrication to get out of the sticky situation.
She made herself smile. "Thank you." The stunning angles of his face relaxed in relief and he returned the smile.
Good. If she could convince him she was fine, he would let her leave and she could find someplace to lick her wounds in private.
No one else would notice if she disappeared from the party. Well, perhaps Edward, her colleague from the women's shelter would notice. Only she had left him thoroughly engrossed in a debate over archeological method with one of her grandfather's colleagues and doubted he would surface before the party ended.
She stepped back from Luciano's touch, as much out of self-preservation as her need to get away completely. His proximity affected her to a frightening degree.
"I'm sure there are other guests you would like to talk to." Again the small polite smile. "If you're anything like Grandfather, you see every social occasion as an opportunity to advance your business interests. Most of the guests are his business contacts."
"You are a poor prevaricator, Hope." He stepped toward her, invading her space with his presence and the scent of his expensive cologne. She wondered if he had it mixed especially for him because she'd never smelled anything as wonderful on another man.
"P-prevaricator?" she asked, stumbling over the word because he was so close.
"It means one who deviates from the truth." His mouth firmed with grim resolve that warned her she would not get away so easily. "Rather than discuss business with men I can see any day of the week, I would prefer you to show me to the buffet table. I came late and did not eat dinner tonight."