Read an Excerpt
'But you have to marry me!' Gemma said in desperation. 'I have less than a week until my birthday. I'll lose everything if you don't!'
The mechanical whir of Michael Carter's wheelchair as it moved even further away made Gemma's blood suddenly chill in her veins.
He was her last hope.
Everything she had been througheverything they had both been throughall the heartache and suffering would have been for nothing if he didn't follow through on their agreement.
'I can't do it,' Michael said, actively avoiding her panicked eyes. 'I thought I could but I can't. It wouldn't be right.'
'Right?' She almost coughed the word out as if it were acid burning her throat. 'What's not right about claiming what is rightfully mine? You agreed on the terms, for goodness' sake!'
'I know, but things are different now.'
Gemma stared at him in rising alarm. 'Do you want more money?' she asked, mentally tallying how much she could afford to siphon off from her late father's estate. She'd have to sell The Landerstalle Hotel but that was the very least of her worries. She didn't want it anyway.
She gave Michael another penetrating look. 'Is that what this is about? You want more money?'
He turned the chair with a deftness she had always privately admired, his grey eyes filled with a shadow of something she hadn't seen there before. 'Listen, Gemma, you know I can never be a proper husband to you '
'I don't want a proper husband!' she said. 'You of all people know that.'
'I'm sorry you must think I am deliberately letting you down, but nothing could be further from the truth,' he said.
Tears sprouted in Gemma's cobalt-blue eyes but she fought them back with the determination that had become her trademark ever since the accident that had changed both their lives for ever.
'I can't do this without you, Michael. It's only for six months. Six lousy months! Is that so much to ask?'
His eyes moved away from hers again. 'I have other plans I'm going away. Overseas maybe I feel I need to put some distance between my past and my future.'
'But what about my future?' she asked. 'Without you I have no future! You're the only one who can help me. I need a husband in less than a week otherwise ' She couldn't even say the words out loud; they were just too painful to articulate.
'Look, I'm sorry, but that's just the way it is,' he said, his tone hardening. 'I can't do it. You'll have to find someone else.'
She gave him an incredulous look. 'Look at me, Michael. I'm not exactly model material these days. How on earth am I going to find a husband in less than a week?'
'That's not my problem. Besides, you shouldn't beat yourself up all the time about your looks. You have nothing to be ashamed of.'
No, she thought with a sharp pang of guilt that felt like a rusty saw severing her very soul. Only the fact that in one senseless act of stupidity I took away both our chances of a normal life.
She had never really understood Michael's grim acceptance of the consequences of that terrible day, even now almost five and a half years on. Both she and Michael had no memory of the actual accident, which was a small mercy, she supposed. However she did vaguely remember driving to Michael's house after yet another heated argument with her stepmother, but the details of that particular exchange remained locked inside her head.
Michael had never openly blamed Gemma, but just lately she'd sensed a subtle change in him. She saw it now, and a part of her wondered if that was why he was pulling the plug on their agreement as a final act of retribution for what she had done to him.
'I have to go,' he said into the heavily bruised silence. 'I have someone picking me up.' He activated his chair to come a little closer and held out his hand. 'Goodbye, Gemma. I hope things work out for you. I really do. I think it's best if we don't see each other again. We both need to move on from that day.'
She looked deep into his eyes, but he seemed to be uncomfortable holding her gaze. 'Goodbye, Michael,' she said, forcing her tone into cold, hard indifference when instead she felt as if everything inside her were falling apart piece by piece.
She stood like a frozen statue a few minutes later as a young man arrived to help Michael out to a waiting vehicle, which was fitted with a special wheelchair-lifting device. They drove off soon after with a cough and choke from the spluttering engine of the aged van, which seemed to her to be an added insult considering the amount of money she had offered Michael to be her husband for six months to fulfil the terms of her father's will.
Gemma was still standing in the frame of the open door when a shiny black Lamborghini pulled up in front of her small cottage a short time later. She watched as a tall, vaguely familiar figure unfolded himself from the luxury car and began to move with long strides towards her front door.
She couldn't for the life of her remember where she had met him before. Perhaps he had been a guest at The Landerstalle some time in the past, or maybe he was someone famous. He certainly had an aura of celebrity about him. He moved with an easy long-legged grace, his leanly muscled form indicating he was no stranger to regular hard exercise. He was well over six feet tall and had glossy black hair that was fashionably arranged in one of those casual styles that looked groomed and yet messy at the same time. Even without the luxury car he drove she could tell he was wealthy. His clothes screamed designer and fitted him superbly.
Gemma normally would have quickly closed the door and ignored the bell if it rang, but her intrigue got the better of her.
She hardly ever had visitors.
She couldn't remember the last time someone had called on her spontaneously; even Michael had had to be lured to her house by a home-cooked meal, a vintage wine and a recently released DVD.
'Miss Landerstalle?' The man greeted her with a heavily accented voice, which, combined with his dark good looks, indicated his unmistakable Italian heritage.
'Yes,' she said, keeping her hand close to her side in spite of his politely proffered one.
She felt at a distinct disadvantage not being able to recognise him, for she felt sure she should. His commanding presence was almost palpable. Even a little threatening
'Do you not remember me?' he asked, looking down at her with eyes so brown they reminded her of the colour of espresso coffee.
Gemma felt a strange sensation pass through her at his words. There was something about that deep velvet voice with its clear-cut diction and those darker-than-night eyes that triggered a memory, but she couldn't quite put her finger on it. The accident had wiped some parts of her memory from her brain; she had snatches occasionally of her previous life but most of it she was glad she didn't remember in any detail.
'Um no I'm sorry ' she said, uncertainty shadowing her eyes. 'Have we met before?'
He gave her an unreadable little smile. 'Yes, we have many times. But it was a very long time ago.'
Gemma stared up at him, suspended in doubt as a crawling fear began to make its way from the base of her spine to the back of her neck on long spidery legs. She moistened her mouth and, taking a shaky breath, said, 'Y-you seem sort of familiar '
'Allow me to reintroduce myself.' he said, his gaze holding hers like a laser beam. 'My name is Andreas Trigliani. I used to work for your father at The Landerstalle Hotel ten years ago.' He paused for a fraction of second before adding, 'I was one of the bellboys.'
Gemma felt as if someone had suddenly lunged at her mid-section with a thick, solid pole. It truly felt as if a part of her insides had caved in. All her breath was knocked out of her in one fell swoop, leaving her light-headed and weak-kneed. Her memory returned with a rush of shame at how she had treated the young man who had tried so hard to please her all those years ago. Andreas Trigliani's infatuation with the only daughter of the owner of the prestigious Landerstalle Hotel had been an object of amusement to her at the time.
How she had laughed behind his back with her friends a bellboy in love with her!
A bellboy thinking he had a chance with the sole heiress to a massive fortune!
A twenty-one-year-old Italian boy who could barely string a couple of words of English together!
No, that wasn't entirely fair, Gemma recalled with another sharp twinge of guilt. He had spoken quite good English but she seemed to remember she had ridiculed it all the same. She inwardly cringed at how she had been back then. How could she have been so cruel?
But why was he here now? He didn't look as if he lifted anyone's luggage around now. He looked as if he was used to being waited on, his every whim taken care of with a simple flick of one of his tanned, long-fingered, well-shaped hands.
He had changed so much physically it was no wonder she didn't recognise him at first. He would be thirty-one now a man in every sense of the word. Ten years ago he had been a shy, eager-to-please young boy, underdeveloped for his age, she had thought at the time, certainly compared to the street-smart and pumped up young men she had frequently associated with. There had been a refreshing innocence about him back then which to her shame she had used to her advantage.
She had treated him appallingly, unforgivably.
'I'm sorry ' She lowered her gaze hoping he wouldn't be able to read the lie for what it was. 'I can't remember I I had a serious car accident a few years ago. There are still parts of my memory missing.'
'I am so very sorry,' he said, his tone sounding so genuine it lifted her gaze back to his involuntarily. 'That must indeed be very difficult to deal with.'
Gemma felt his gaze lock down on hers, her heart starting to thump behind her ribcage like a delicate timepiece suddenly way out of control. Her eyes fell away from his again as she answered in a tone that was husky and far too soft, 'Yes yes it is '
There was a long pulsating silence.
Gemma felt the scrutiny of his dark, unfathomable gaze. She could feel the weight of it even as she actively avoided it. It probed her, seemingly laying open her hidden secrets, the shame she had tried to hide from everyone, the shame of her wasted youth, the shame of her past and the shame of her inner wounds that no hand could reach inside and heal.
'I suppose you are wondering why I am here in Sydney again after so long,' he said, the rich, deep timbre of his voice sending a totally unexpected shiver of sensation along the exposed flesh of her arms.
She moistened her tombstone-dry lips again and forced her gaze to meet his dark steady one. 'Are you on another working holiday or business this time around?'
His smile revealed even white teeth, but there was no humour in the movement of his lips. 'I am on a mission, you could say,' he said. 'I am expanding my business to include some Australian luxury resort accommodation. I am interested in the Landerstalle.'
'You've certainly come a long way from being a bellboy,' she observed, covering her uneasiness with a glib tone. 'What did you do? Win the lottery or something?'
His eyes grew momentarily hard. 'No, luck had nothing to do with it,' he said. 'I did it the usual way, with good old-fashioned work. I now oversee several billion dollars of luxury real estate across the globe. I am only sad that my father did not live long enough to enjoy the benefits of my success.' He paused for a moment and added, 'He died soon after I returned from my working holiday in Australia.'
Gemma stared at him, struck into silence by her own grief at the recent loss of her own father. She had never guessed that the young man who had worked at her father's hotel in such a lowly manner would one day own his own empire. He had seemed just like any other cash-strapped backpacker working his way around the globe. As far as she remembered there had been no sign of such lofty ambition way back then.
'I'm very sorry about your father ' she said, knowing how hopelessly inadequate it sounded, but feeling the need to express her sympathy all the same.
'Thank you,' he responded, his tone softening unexpectedly. 'I was very sorry to hear of your loss as well. It must have been very hard on you, being the only child. Over the years I have been very grateful for the comfort of my family to share the ongoing burden of grief.'
Gemma was not used to compassion and felt it strip away her defences, the defences she so desperately needed around herself. She forced her features into a hardened expression and said, 'Yes well, as you probably remember, my father and I weren't particularly close.'
'He was a good man,' he said. A bit ruthless at times but then most men with success in their sight need to be.'
'Yes ' She tried a smile but it made her mouth feel strange. It had been such a long time since she'd used those particular muscles she suspected they had forgotten how to do it.
'How is your stepmother?' he asked.
She gave him a guarded glance before looking away. 'Waiting as we speak with bated breath for my father's estate to drop into her hands,' she said with undisguised bitterness.
There was another silence, shorter this time but no less unnerving to Gemma.
'So your father has left her everything?' Andreas asked.
She dragged her gaze back to his. 'Not exactly, but as it turns out she's going to get the lot after all.'
'Why is that?'
'Because the terms of my father's will state that, unless I am married by my next birthday and stay married for six months, Marcia will inherit the estate in its entirety.'
Andreas looked puzzled. 'Why did he construct his will in such a way?'
'I'm not sure ' She worried her bottom lip with her teeth for a moment before continuing, 'I guess he kind of figured I'd never consider marriage unless he held a carrot too big to resist in front of my nose.'
'The state of marriage does not appeal to you without a suitable inducement?'