A million reasons to say "I do"
Athena Howard can't believe she did it. In an outrageously large wedding dress, she climbed out the window and escaped The Wedding of the Year and the fiancé who lied to her. And she fell
straight into Luca De Rossi's arms! It must be fate. Luca has just two weeks to marry and meet the terms of his grandmother's will. The cutthroat businessman offers Athena one million pounds to become Mrs. De Rossi in name only, unless the allure of his new wife's purity proves too much for this cynical playboy to resist claiming their wedding night
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'I've been thinking.'
'Really?' Luca De Rossi could not disguise the scepticism in his voice as he glanced at the blonde in bed beside him. Giselle Mercier was exquisite, and she was an inventive lover, but Luca doubted that the French model with baby-blue eyes and a penchant for expensive jewellery was about to announce that she had discovered a solution for world peace, or a cure for cancer.
His suspicions were confirmed when she held up her left hand so that the enormous diamond on her third finger was set ablaze by the early-morning sunbeams streaming into the penthouse.
'Yes. I've been thinking that I don't want to get married at a registry office. I want our wedding to be in a church, or even a cathedral.'
Giselle glanced towards the window and the view of the elegant spires of the DuomoMilan's magnificent cathedral.
'And I want to wear a wedding dress. Think what a fantastic publicity opportunity it would be for De Rossi Designs,' Giselle purred when Luca frowned. 'The press would go mad for pictures of a wedding gown designed by the creative director of DRD for his bride.'
'There will be no press coverage of our wedding,' Luca said tersely. 'You seem to be forgetting that our marriage will be a temporary arrangement. I only require you to be my wife for one year. After that we will divorce and you will receive one million poundsas we agreed.'
Giselle threw back the sheet to reveal her naked, golden-tanned body, and hooked one lissom thigh across Luca's hip. 'Perhaps you'll decide that you don't want a temporary marriage,' she murmured. 'Last night was amazing, chéri. I think we could have something special '
Luca muttered something ugly beneath his breath as he swung his legs over the side of the bed. It was true that the sex last night had been goodalbeit in the vaguely uninspiring way that sex always was with any of his mistresses. But it meant nothing to him. Just as it always meant nothing.
He didn't know why Giselle had suggested that their relationship could be in any way 'special'. They had made an arrangement that suited both of them and he could not conceal his impatience at her attempt to try and change the rules.
He strode across the room and stared moodily out of the window, while his mistress ran her eyes hungrily over his bare buttocks and muscular thighs. In the sunlight, Luca's thick black hair, which had a tendency to curl at his nape, gleamed like polished jet. His broad shoulders were tanned a dark bronze, the same as the rest of his body, even his buttocks, which made Giselle wonder if he sunbathed in the nude.
She had never had a lover as skilful and tireless as Luca De Rossi. No wonder the tabloids dubbed him the 'Italian Stallion' ! He was as famous for his affairs with the countless female celebrities who wore his designs to red-carpet events as he was for his undeniable artistic talent and his flair for designing clothes that flattered women whatever their shape.
Luca was sinfully sexy and filthy rich. He was also in urgent need of a wife, so that he could keep his ancestral home: Villa De Rossia palatial house on the shores of Lake Como. It was something to do with the terms of his grandmother's will. Luca had to be married by his thirty-fifth birthday or the villa, which had been owned by the De Rossi family for three hundred years, would be sold.
Giselle did not understand all the details and did not particularly care. The important thing was that Luca had asked her to be his bride. The deal included an amazing pay-off, as well as lots of other perkssuch as the diamond solitaire ring that Luca had promised she could keep when they went their separate ways.
But Giselle had no intention of going anywhere. It had occurred to her that, even though a million pounds was more than she was ever likely to earn from modelling, it made sense to hang on to her soon-to-be husband for as long as possible. After all, if he was willing to pay her one million pounds for one year of marriage then even Giselle's poor grasp of mathematics could work out the amount she should receive after two or three years of being Luca's wife. And of course if they had a child then Luca would have to pay maintenance and school fees.
Really, the future looked very promising, Giselle decided.
'Luca ' she said huskily. 'Why don't you come back to bed?'
Luca ignored the invitation. A familiar sense of frustration at the situation he found himself in made his blood boil, and he felt a strong urge to smash his fist through the window. He rested his brow against the glass and looked down on Corso Vittorio Emanuelle II, Milan's famous shopping precinct.
Despite the early hour, people were already milling in the glassdomed walkways where all the top fashion brands, including De Rossi Designs, had boutiques. The fashion label that Luca had created fifteen years ago had become a global success, and the iconic DRD logo was a byword for haute couture and highend ready-to-wear clothes that complemented the exclusive leather shoes, handbags and accessories that De Rossi Enterprisesfounded eighty years ago by Luca's great-grandfather Raimondowas famous for.
It was thanks to Luca that the family business had been saved from the brink of bankruptcy and now enjoyed an annual sales revenue of over a billion pounds. But he had never received praise or thanks from his grandparents when they had been alive, Luca reflected bitterly.
He walked back over to the bed, frowning when he saw the soft expression in Giselle's eyes. The last thing he wanted was for her think that she was in any way special to him, or that their relationship could become permanent. He had met her days after he had learned of his grandmother's will, when he had been reeling from shock and consumed with rage.
Giselle had been just another blonde at a party, but when she had tearfully confided that she had been dropped from her modelling contract, and was worried about how she would be able to afford the rent on her flat, Luca had seen a way to resolve both their problems. He had money, but he needed a wife. Giselle needed money and she had agreed to his marriage deal.
It was as simple as that, and he did not need her to complicate things with messy emotions that he was incapable of reciprocating.
'The jewellers who sold you my diamond ring have a matching necklace on display in the window.' Giselle arranged herself on the pillows so that her breasts tilted forward provocatively. 'It would be nice to have the set.' She pouted when Luca ignored her attempt to pull him down onto the bed. 'Why are you getting dressed? It's the weekend and you don't have to go to work today, do you?'
Luca forbore from pointing out that he hadn't built up his successful fashion label at the same time as running De Rossi Enterprises by working weekdays, from nine till five. Twenty-four/seven was nearer the mark. For the past fifteen years he had slogged his guts out to restore the De Rossi brand, but he faced losing everything he had achieved if he did not give in to his grandmother's outrageous attempt to blackmail him from beyond the grave.
Nonna Violetta had wanted him to marry, and marry he would, Luca thought with a grim smile as he stared down at his bride-to-be. But it would be a sham marriage, a business deal, and the only reason he intended to go through with it was because it would allow him to give Rosalie the special care she needed.
'I have to go to England,' he told Giselle as he pulled on his trousers, followed by a shirt and jacket.
The superb tailoring of the suit he had designed himself emphasised his lean, six-feet-plus frame, and the shirt moulded his powerful abdominal muscles.
'I've been invited to a society wedding,' he said drily.
Giselle's pout switched from sexy to sulky. 'You could take me. Who is getting married?'
'Charles Fairfax is someone I know from school. He's marrying the sister-in-law of my good friend Sultan Kadir of Zenhab.'
'You're friends with a sultan?'' Giselle's eyes widened. 'I bet he's mega-rich. Will I meet him when I'm your wife?'
Not if he could help it, Luca thought to himself. Kadir Al Sulaimar was his closest friend, and would understand his reasons for marrying Giselle. But the truth was that Luca felt uncomfortable about his fake marriage. He was a world-weary cynic, but when he had acted as best man to Kadir at his wedding to his beautiful English wife, Lexi, nine months ago, Luca had witnessed the intense love between the couple and had briefly felt envious of something that he could never have.
'Who is this sister-in-law of the Sultan that your friend Charles is marrying?' Giselle flicked through the pages of a gossip magazine that she had brought with her because Luca only kept boring books at the penthouse. 'Is she a celebrity?'
'Unlikely.' Luca had a vivid recollection of Athena Howard's sapphire-blue eyes, her oval-shaped face, and the determined chin that hinted at a stubborn streak in her nature. In Zenhab he had felt curious because Athena shared no physical resemblance with her sister. Lexi, with her silvery-blond hair and slender figure, had been a breath-takingly beautiful bride, but her sister and chief bridesmaid had faded into the background.
Luca had simply been carrying out his duties as best man when he had stood beside Athena for the wedding photographs and later led her onto the dance floor. She was petite in stature, and the top of her head had only reached his mid-chest. Following Zenhabian tradition she had worn a headscarf during the wedding ceremony, but at the private reception Luca had been surprised to see her long braid of dark brown hairuntil she had explained that Lexi was her adoptive sister and they were not related by blood.
A memory slipped into Luca's mind of the perfume that Athena had worn at the weddingan evocative fragrance of old-fashioned roses that had stirred his senses as they had walked together in the palace gardens. Stirred rather more than his senses, in actual fact, he recalled ruefully.
He could not explain to himself why he had kissed Athena Howard, or why the memory of that brief kiss still lingered in his subconscious.
Giselle's petulant voice pulled him from his thoughts. 'Why can't I come to the wedding with you? Anyone would think you were trying to avoid being seen with me.'
'That's not true, cara. But I can't turn up at a wedding with an uninvited companion.'
The hard gleam in Giselle's eyes warned Luca that damage limitation was needed. His fiancée had been blessed with beauty at the expense of brains, but she was well aware that his thirty-fifth birthday was two weeks away. He felt a surge of impotent fury that everything that mattered to him lay in the hands of a brainless bimbo. It wasn't Giselle's fault, he reminded himself. She was the solutionnot the cause of his problems.
'While I'm away, why don't you visit the jewellers and buy that diamond necklace?'
He dropped a credit card onto the bed and Giselle snatched it up.
'I might as well get the matching earrings, too.'
'Why not?' Luca murmured drily.
So what if his bride-to-be had an avaricious streak a mile wide? he thought five minutes later, as he walked out of the building and climbed into the chauffeur-driven car waiting to take him to the airport. What were a few diamonds when he would soon have everything he wanted?
Inexplicably, the memory of a pair of sapphire-blue eyes slid into his mind. He gave an indifferent shrug. Later today Athena Howard would become Mrs Charles Fairfax. He had only agreed to attend the wedding as a favour to Kadir.
Luca frowned, thinking of the phone call he'd received from the Sultan of Zenhab.
'Lexi is upset that we can't fly to England for her sister's wedding because the baby is due any day. We'd both be grateful if you would attend the wedding in our place and try and talk to Athena. Lexi is worried that her sister is making a mistake by marring Charles. You and I both know from our schooldays that Charlie Fairfax is a charmless oaf,' Kadir had reminded Luca. 'But if Athena seems happy then you won't need to hang around. However, if you detect that she's having doubts about the marriage '
'What do you expect me to do?' Luca had demanded.
'Stop the wedding from going ahead,' Kadir had replied succinctly. 'I don't know how, exactly, but I'm sure you'll think of something.'
She did not look so much like a meringue as a cream puff, Athena decided as she studied her reflection in the mirror in her bedroom at Woodley Lodge, the country house of Lord and Lady Fairfax. But it was too late now to wonder why she had allowed herself to be persuaded to choose this crinoline-inspired wedding dress with a skirt so wide that she could be mistaken for the White Cliffs of Dover. The puffed sleeves broadened her top half, while the enormous skirt with its layers of white satin ruffles accentuated her lack of height and made her look dumpy.
'You'll be marrying into the aristocracy in front of five hundred guests,' her mother had reminded Athena when she had tentatively remarked that a simpler style of dress might suit her better. 'You need a dress that will make you the centre of attention.'
Butterflies performed a clog dance in Athena's stomach at the prospect of five hundred people looking at her as she walked down the aisle. Please God, she prayed she didn't do something embarrassing like trip on her long skirt and annoy Charlie.
She hoped he was in a better mood than he had been the previous evening. She had felt awful when she'd spilt red wine on the cream velvet carpet in the sitting room. Lady Fairfax had said that it didn't matter, although she'd compressed her lips into a thin line, but Charlie had made a fuss and had said she was like a bull in a china shop.
Athena bit her lip. Sometimes Charlie said quite hurtful thingsalmost as if he didn't care about her feelings. During the past year that they had been engaged, she had tried her best to be a gracious and elegant hostess at the dinner parties he had asked her to organise. But she would be the first to admit that she was clumsyespecially when she was nervousand she always seemed to do something wrong that earned Charlie's criticism.
Heaven knew what he would say when he heard of her latest catastrophe. While inserting the contact lenses she wore because she was short-sighted she had dropped a lensthe last of her disposable lenses as it turned outdown the plughole of the sink, which meant that she would have to wear her glasses to the wedding.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This book was so good. I read it in one sitting . I recommend it. Will read again.
This one was easy to put down. Definitely not the authors best.