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The word reverberated in Ferruccio Selvaggio's head, spread in his blood along with the thick, bitter ooze of grim satisfaction.
He'd finally gotten Clarissa D'Agostino where he wanted her.
A supplicant coming to beg his favor. Inhe flicked a glance at his Rolextwenty minutes' time.
She couldn't be here soon enough. He'd been waiting too long for this moment. Six years. That was how long she'd evaded him. Snubbed him. The princess who thought his hard-won wealth and power not enough to raise him to the status of the men she deigned to mix with, men born with the right lineage. The blue blood who thought a bastard, no matter how rich and influential, not worthy of civility.
But despite all her haughty disdain, he had Princess High-and-Mighty coming to do his bidding. And if everything went according to planand he now possessed all the leverage to make sure it didhe'd have her doing his bidding far longer and in far more ways than she thought.
He'd have her, period.
He'd been fantasizing about having her ever since that first night he'd seen her. That first glance.
It had been his first time in the royal court. He'd been uncertain of his reception, of his reaction to being there. Most of the people there had been D'Agostinos. His so-called family.
But he didn't share their name. His parents hadn't had him the acceptable way, hadn't given the name to him. Others had given him the surname he used now. He'd been called by it so many times, it had stuck. So he'd made it legal.
The evidence that he was a D'Agostino had been presented to him long ago. At the time, he'd demanded public recognition. His parents had been willing to give him anything but that. He'd told them what to do with their love and offers of support. He'd survived so far without them. He'd make it on his own, make it to the top, the same way.
Finally he'd reached a height of success from which he thought it time to satisfy his curiosity. He wanted to see what it was like, the place that should have been his home. What they were like, the people who should have been his family. If he'd been missing anything. If he could make up for it if he had been; if he could grow the roots he'd never had.
He'd entered the king's court unannounced. By then, he'd had enough clout that he could walk in anywhere in the world and be welcomed. And the court had welcomed him. To this day, he remembered none of those who'd done so. Besides his meeting with the king, he remembered nothing before and nothing after he'd seen her across the teeming space.
She'd been wiping at something on the neckline of that ethereal violet dress. In profile, her face had been a study of concentration and consternation. He'd felt everything inside him prime, rev into awareness.
Stunned, not knowing what that upsurge meant, he'd needed to look her in the face, in the eyes. Then she'd turned, fulfilled his need. And something he'd always scoffed at had ripped through him. A bolt of attraction. More, of recognition. Of the one woman who translated his every fantasy into glorious reality.
Physically, she'd been the amalgam of all the endowments he'd never thought could be gathered in one being. Hair the color of Castaldini's beaches, streaked with rays of its sun, permeated by tones of the rich soil of its mountains. A body at once willowy and womanly, unconscious femininity screaming in its every line and curve. A face that embodied all his tastes and demands.
But it had been her eyeswhich really had turned out to be violet, when he thought he'd imagined the color from that distanceand what he'd seen in them, that had snared him.
To think he'd thought they'd shown a reflection of his awareness, his discovery. He thought he'd seen more, too, a quality that had snapped the trap shut: Vulnerability.
Right. Clarissa D'Agostino was as vulnerable as an iceberg to the Titanic.
He still seethed to remember how he'd sought her, bared his need to have more of her, revealed his moronic belief in the existence of a connection between them that had transcended time and logic. He still burned at the memory of the moment he'd gotten what he deserved for such idiocy, when she'd stared at him as if he'd lost his mind, then told him to go find someone in a lesser
situationwho'd deem him good enough to
She'd told him that dozens of times since then. With every rejection of the invitations he'd never ceased to issue. Making them had become the masochistic lash he used every time he found his will to go on flagging, using the anger and frustration to keep on rising, keep on acquiring everything in his path. As he couldn't acquire her.
But now he finally would. One way or another.
He'd teach her a lesson. Many lessons. He'd take her down a few dozen pegs, and he'd revel in every one.
He braced his arms against the balustrade, cast his gaze into the distance. The sun's gold was starting to deepen as the star quickened its descent toward the endless expanse of liquid turquoise and emerald that was the southern Castaldinian Sea.
Another rush of bitter anticipation tumbled and sprayed through his system like the waves did on the shore. He wasn't here only for the spectacular vista the tower of his mansion afforded him. This was also the best vantage point from which to view the winding road over which she'd be brought to him
Everything seemed to dim as the last three words replayed in his mind like a distorted old recording.
Brought to him. Not coming to him of her free will, unable to wait to see him, as she had in too many dreams to count.
What would he have felt if she'd been rushing here with hunger in her eyes, with longing on her lips?
His lips compressed as he tore his eyes away from the road and blindly roamed the view he could no longer see.
No. No if onlys. She'd made her choice that first night. Had reinforced it countless times throughout six interminable years.
Even if she changed her mind now, for whatever reason, it would be too late. Now only one thing mattered. That she had no choice. That there was no way she could reject him again. And he intended to savor every second of her downfall, startinghe snapped another look at his Rolexten minutes from now.
He pushed away from the balustrade, swung around.
Time to put the finishing touches to his plan.
The words, spoken like a pledge, a prophecy, in the lethal tone of a dangerous man, reverberated inside Clarissa's head. They had done so for six years now. Twenty-four hours ago, she'd found out that "then" had arrived. Ferruccio Selvaggio had her cornered. She exhaled and gazed through sunglasses and rioting hair at the vista rushing by as the limo zoomed over the road that snaked parallel to the shore.
She knew the sun was turning flame orange and speeding on an intercept course with the sea, that the horizon would be changing into a thousand hues and the waters would be starting their transformation from aquamarine to royal blue.
She saw none of it. Her vision was turned inward, where there was nothing but gray chaos.
Calm down. Breathe.
She carefully drew in a stream of the fresh sea air that buffeted her face. Then again. And again.
And nothing. Taking one breath at a time wouldn't restore any measure of calm. It hadn't since yesterday. Since her father had made her cut short her first official mission to the States to give her the news. The shock of her life.
She thought she'd known the limit of her father's desperation to find himself a crown prince after his stroke. He'd proven her wrong.
The crown of Castaldini was by law not passed from father to son, but rather earned by merit. With the approval of the royal council, the current king would choose his successor from the royal D'Agonstino familya man of impeccable reputation, sturdy health and no vices, solid lineage, a leader with character and charisma, and above all, a self-made success of the highest order.
She'd been the only one who hadn't been stunned when he'd announced his first candidate. Leandro, the prince whom eight years ago her father had declared renegade, stripped of his nationality and exiled. She'd thought Leandro the wisest choice of any candidate for the crown. It had been time to forget grievances and think of Castaldini's best interests. But when her father had wrestled the Council into making the offer, Leandro had done the unthinkable. He'd turned the power and responsibility down.
And her father had dropped another bomb. He had another even more impossible candidate. Her oldest brother, Durante. And in an undreamed of precedent in Castaldinian history, he'd gotten the Council to amend the most fundamental part of the kingdom's constitution to make his son eligible for the crown.
She'd never been so excited. She'd always thought how unfairly absolute the laws of succession were, that while they protected Castaldini from unsuitable heirs, in Durante's case they were depriving it from having its best king ever. But the Council had voted, and the impossible had become possible.
Then Durante had come back with his bride-to-be, and Clarissa had even dared to hope that he and her father would work out their rift. Everything had looked like it would have a perfect happy ending for her family and for Castaldini.
Again the impossible had happened. They had sorted out their rift, but Durante had turned down the succession.
She'd tried to speak to him, but he hadn't been available for discussion as he'd prepared for his wedding and disappeared with his bride on an extended honeymoon. Clarissa had gone to the States, her father assuring her that he was working on securing the next candidate, the one he believed most suited to the job despite there being an even more insurmountable barrier to overcome to make the Council agree.
She hadn't been able to imagine who could possibly be better than Leandro or Durante. Then the king made her cut her mission short to drop the biggest bomb of all.
He'd gotten the Council to make an even more incredible amendment, allowing the king to extend another offer of the crown of Castaldini.
To Ferruccio Selvaggio.
She still didn't know how she hadn't collapsed in a heap of shock and confusion upon hearing that.
From what she'd heard in the media about Ferruccio, he was a man with no origins. All that was known about his parentage was that he'd been given up for adoption in Napoli when he was born.
But he'd never been adopted. By the time he was a difficult
six-year-old, he'd been placed in a foster home, the first of a dozen, until he ran away from the last one at age thirteen. He'd chosen to live the harshest of lives on the streets of Italian coastal cities and in Sicily and Sardinia rather than return to the system. Over the next two decades, he educated himself extensively and worked his way up to the highest echelons imaginable.
When his status had solidified, he'd come to Castaldini. Since then, he'd been a recurring figure in her father's court, and a constant one in her dreams and nightmares. Worse, his businesses in the kingdom now comprised almost one quarter of the national income.
When she'd told her father that that didn't make him king material, that Castaldini couldn't just waive the laws that had made it unique in the world for eight hundred years to have a king who only answered the financial criterion of the ancient laws of succession who wasn't a D'Agostino or even a Castal-dinian, her father had dropped the biggest bomb yet.
Ferruccio was a D'Agostino.
The king had been entrusted with this fact before Ferruccio had first come to Castaldini. He'd told a select few, among them Durante and Paolo, her brothers; but knowing the delicate dynamics involved, he'd chosen not to divulge Ferruccio's parents' names so that the house he belonged to wouldn't suffer the repercussions of exhuming buried secrets.
After his stroke, he'd given the Council his word as proof of the fact. They'd argued that illegitimacy was by far the worst breach of the ancient laws that he'd asked them to commit in his quest to find the next king. They couldn't accept a bastard contender for the crown. But the king had made a solid case for Ferruccio otherwise.
Ferruccio was everything the king must be, he said, even more so than his first two choices. He was even more radically self-made, as his rise had been against what should have been insurmountable odds. He was a leader by nature, his shipping empire the largest in the world and his political powers far-reaching. At last the Council succumbed and made the offer.
Contrary to Durante and Leandro, Ferruccio had been instantly amenable to discussing that offer. But he'd refused to give a word of either consent or refusal. Before he would give either, he had terms to negotiate.
He would negotiate with only one Council member. Her.
Clarissa closed her eyes again on another eruption of fury.
How dare that arrogant jerk!
Castaldini was not only acknowledging him, it was offering him the incalculable honor and privilege of becoming its future king, and he had terms? What more did he want? A binding contract adding the island to his real estate acquisitions?
Not that that was too far-fetched. Among her shocking discoveries, she found out that he'd long ago purchased a huge chunk of Castaldinian soil. Three hundred square miles of the six thousand that made up the island. It didn't matter that this was the south eastern area that was said to be unreclaimable for being too mountainous, it was still five percent of the whole damn kingdom.
And why negotiate with her? She was the most junior Council member. Wasn't really even that, yet. She'd been made a member the day before she embarked on her trip to the States, a training mission that had been cut short, too.
But she knew why.
Now that Ferruccio was in a position of unprecedented power, he wanted to lord it over the D'Agostinos, the royal family, maybe over the whole nation he felt had spurned him. He wanted to lord it over her, too, the only female, she believed, who hadn't fallen flat on her face at his approach, quaked at his every glance, melted when he beckoned.
Well, she had
But he didn't know that. She hadn't let him know, and she thanked God for that daily. She hated to think what would have happened if she hadn't been forewarned of his true nature and intentions and had succumbed to the dictates of her desires that first time he'd expressed interest.