A sizzling summer seduction...becomes a blazing battle of desire!
It sounded like heaven: an apartment in a small Italian town--the perfect summer escape. But after a number of setbacks, Charli Olson finds herself stranded, with nowhere to go--until gorgeous Massimo Castellini offers her a room in his luxurious villa.
Massimo finds Charli's blond prettiness hard to resist. Although he's vowed he'll never love again, he amuses himself with her seduction. But Charli surprises Massimo with her strong will. Suddenly the casual affair becomes a dark battle of desire--which Massimo fully intends to win....
About the Author
Karen van der Zee is the author of 34 romance novels published by Harlequin and Silhouette, one of which won a RITA Award.
She grew up in the Netherlands where she developed a taste for travel. She married an American globetrotter and has cooked, shopped, mothered, traveled and written romance novels and non-fiction stories in Africa, Asia, the US, the Middle East, and Europe. She now lives in France.
Read an Excerpt
HE WAS drop-dead gorgeous. Tall, dark and handsome. Charli smiled at the cliché, forgetting for a moment the burden of her troubles as she watched the man guiding the sailboat towards the dock.
Strong, square shoulders. A lean body that moved with confidence and grace. Thick black hair, sexily wind-blown and rakishly long. Yes, definitely, very good-looking. And, going by the fancy boat, probably plenty rich as well.
He might be exactly what she needed. The August sun here on the Italian coast was still bright and hot in the late afternoon and Charli squinted a little to see him better. Thirtyish, she guessed. Dark glasses obscured his eyes. She watched as he tossed the line onto the dock, then lithely jumped from the boat to loop it expertly around the cleat, his tall body athletic and easy on the eyes. White shorts and a blue T-shirt showed off muscular legs and arms that were nicely tanned. She felt an annoying little thrill of feminine awareness at all that male splendor and tried to ignore it. This was not the time for romantic fantasies.
She was in trouble and she didn't care about how handsome he was, or how rich, or how fancy his boat. What mattered was that these attributes together probably spelled a certain sophistication that included a command of the English language. And, more than anything else right now, what she needed was someone who spoke English.
Alone in a foreign country, lost and clueless, Charli sat on a wooden bench in the marina, contemplating the fact that this was no way to start a new life. Or at least a New Chapter in her life. Being clueless was against all the rules on the list she had made for herself.
In this New Chapter of her life she was going to be on her own, all by her happy own self, and she was going to do exactly what she wanted to do when she wanted to do it. No one to answer to, no one to please, and no one's orders to follow.
The freedom was going to be glorious. And the best part of itso she'd told herselfwas that she was going to get started with this adventure in sunny Italy.
And now here she was, lost, helpless, clueless. Also sunglasses-less. They'd fallen as she'd struggled out of the train from Naples dragging her luggage. And then she'd stepped on them with a fatal crunch, almost losing her balance as she'd tried to side-step them. Not a good omen, if you wanted to think about it that way.
She did not want to think about it that way. It had been just an accident, that was all. She'd buy herself a new pair tomorrow.
I told you it was a bad idea to go to Italy on your own. She could almost hear Rick's voice in her head. Very annoying. The Rick Chapter was over and there was no room for him in the New Chapter, which was definitively Rickless, and perhaps even reckless.
''You don't even speak the language,'' he'd said. ''You don't know what that apartment looks like. It might be a rat-infested medieval dump! You're not being sensible, Charli!''
''It will be an adventure!'' she'd said, not allowing herself to be scared off. She'd smiled bravely, fluffed her newly-cut short curls and offered him a careless sassy smile.
He had not been amused, and for days afterwards had pestered her with his objections and then practically ordered her not to go. Ordered her, mind you.
That was when she'd decided enough was enough and had told him their relationship was over. She couldn't stand his controlling, overbearing attitude any longer. That had been a month ago and it was the best decision she had ever made, even if it had scared her to death to turn her calm, comfortable life upside down.
And here she was in sunny Italy and her adventure to live on her own was now truly starting, be it not in the most auspicious way. She'd felt so brave, so courageous, but now, feeling hot, tired and lost, it was hard to feel heroic.
She'd arrived at the train station two hours ago, had waited for an entire hour for Signor Bernardini to pick her up and take her to the apartment, and no one had come. Well, never mind Mr Bernardini, she'd thought, she'd find the place herself. She had the address, so how hard could it be? It was right here in the historic center of this small town, not far from the railroad station according to the map they'd sent her. Maybe he was waiting for her there. She'd spotted a car rental place across from the station and had got herself a small box on wheels, thrown her luggage in it and followed the directions she'd been given.
Forty-five minutes later she'd been a nervous wreck, clutching the steering wheel like a drowning person hoping she'd survive the traffic. She'd cruised down every tiny crowded medieval street in this warren of an ancient town, unable to locate the place, unable to find a parking space anywhere so she could get out and find someone to ask. Finally she'd ended up at the harbor where the marina parking lot was the only place she could find to park. Her legs had shaken as she stepped out of the car, and she'd felt more like a wimpy rag doll than a warrior princess. However, she'd now recuperated and felt calmer again. So she was lost. Not the end of the world, was it? This was not the Sahara desert or the Borneo jungle. This was the middle of civilization, a small town in Italy full of people and pasta. She would survive.
All she needed was a guide who could physically show her how to find the way to the apartment. A guide who spoke English.
And here, right in front of her was a Roman god in shorts who might just fit that bill. The god straightened, whipped off his sunglasses and rubbed the bridge of his regal nose, then raked his hand through his hair. Her heart skipped a beat. Really, he was too good-looking to be real.
She came to her feet and moved toward him and at the same time he turned slightly and caught sight of her. His brown gaze zapped right into hers and she felt a jolt of electricity, like lightning slashing through the sky. He stood perfectly still and her own feet stopped moving.
Her heart raced and she forgot what she had been going to say, oblivious to everything but those eyes, so full of darkly glimmering reflections, like polished stone. For a moment she felt oddly disoriented, unaware of her surroundings.
A second of frozen time. Then she dragged in a deep breath and swallowed. It was so hot standing here in the sun. So very hot.
''Excuse me,'' she said, and heard the unfamiliar, husky tone of her voice. She cleared her throat. ''Do you speak English?''
He nodded. ''I do.''
''Oh, good.'' Relieved, she thrust the paper with the address at him. ''I've been driving around for an hour and I can't locate this place. I wonder if you could help me.''
He studied the letter the notaio had sent her. Over his shoulder, Charli caught sight of someone else jumping off the boata teenage girl, all arms and legs and long shiny hair.
The girl looked at her curiously. She was sixteen or seventeen, Charli guessed, very pretty, with dark hair, silvery-gray eyes and a slim body clad in shorts and a pink cropped top, showing a flat stomach. A small backpack hung carelessly from one shoulder. The girl glanced at the paper.
''Cos questa?'' she asked. The man replied to her in Italian, then looked at Charli.
''I think I know where this is, but showing is easier than telling. We'll take you. It's not far from here.''
Such beautiful words! Such musical intonation! This was exactly what she had wanted, yet suddenly she felt uncertain. Uncertain about the man, the heat waves between them. What was wrong with her?
''I don't want to inconvenience you...I mean''
''It's not a problem. It's only a five-minute walk.'' His face showed nothing but calm control, but she sensed he was well aware of the sizzle of attraction between them.
She swallowed. ''I have a car.'' She pointed at the parking lot.
''So do I,'' he said dryly. ''It's best you leave it here for now. There may not be a place to park it nearby.''
Well, she'd seen the streets in the historic center, and she had a pretty good idea that there wasn't.
She nodded. ''All right.'' He pointed at the marina building. ''I need a few minutes in there and then we'll be on our way.'' His Italian accent had a distinct British flavor.
He stalked off. Charli took in a restorative breath and smiled at the girl.
The girl smiled back. ''Are you American?'' she asked. ''Yes. I just arrived from Naples. Someone was supposed to meet me at the train station, but no one ever showed up.''
''And now you're lost.'' She seemed to find this amusing.
''Yes. Hopelessly. I drove around for ages, but with the streets being one-way I couldn't follow the directions. I think they're meant for walking, not driving.''
''Where are you from in America?''
''Really? My best friend Melissa is from Philadelphia!'' The girl stuck out her hand. ''I'm Valentina Castellini.'' She waved in the direction in which the man had disappeared. ''And that's Massimo, my brother.'' She made a face. ''I want to go to college in the States next year, with Melissa, but he wants me to go to England.''
''I'm Charli Olson. Your English is very good. Did you learn that in school?''
''Yes, and from my American and English friends. I'm in an international school in Rome. We do most of our work in English. Massimo says it's important to have an international education these days, because of globalization and all that.''
The man in question emerged from the building. He'd changed from shorts into freshly pressed chinos and Charli felt her pulse leap as his dark eyes studied her for a moment. She could not read his face. ''This way,'' he said, pointing toward the marina exit. Valentina put a hand on his arm. ''Massimo, her name is Charli and she's from Philadelphia!'' she announced with a clear note of excitement.
''Really?'' It sounded a bit cool. Although there was nothing cool about his dark eyes and his dark hair that lay tousled on his forehead. He extended his hand. ''Massimo Castellini,'' he said politely.
''Charli Olson.'' She smiled at him nicely, trying not to melt when his strong brown hand grasped hers. This was too ridiculous for words. Never before had she felt such a strong reaction to a man. And it was the last thing she wanted right now.
''Are you visiting a friend?'' Valentina asked as they walked into the street.
''No, I inherited an apartment from my grandmother. I'm coming to see it and maybe stay for a while.''
They stopped at the curb of the street and waited for the light to change.
''Your grandmother lived here? You're Italian?'' Valentina's eyes grew big. ''You don't look Italian.''
Charli laughed. Her blond, blue-eyed genes had a more Nordic origin.
Massimo Castellini frowned at his sister. ''It's not polite to ask so many questions.''
''Oh, I don't mind,'' Charli said. ''My grandmother was American, but she inherited the apartment from her sister who married an Italian, but they never had any children. My grandmother left it to me when she died earlier this year. I have no idea what the place looks like. I didn't even know it existed.''
They crossed the street, turned into a cobblestoned street so cluttered with parked cars, motorcycles and garbage cans they had to walk single file in order not to get run over.
''This leads to the Piazza di San Bonaventura,'' Massimo Castellini pointed out. ''Remember that.''
Oh, sure, she thought. Easy. But she looked around and tried to take notice of the shops they were passinga flower shop, a farmacia, a small coffee shop with a few chairs and tables out on the sidewalkred and white tablecloths, very cozy. The smell of espresso coffee spilled out into the street.
Paying attention to her surroundings served the purpose of keeping her eyes off the man in front of her. For female eyes he was a vision well worth looking at as he walked with his long-legged stride down the street. Charli decided it was safer to look at, say, vegetables.
The open vegetable market they passed had lots of themcolorful displays of tomatoes, zucchinis, herbs, peaches, grapes, plums and melons, even fresh fish, she saw in passing. It occurred to her that this might well be the place where she'd be buying her produce in the coming months, and the idea pleased her. She'd learn how to cook Italian food, eat the Italian way.
Massimo turned another corner and she followed his broad back with Valentina behind her. A motorcycle whizzed past at alarming speed, a young man driving, his girlfriend in jeans and high heels behind him with her head against his back and her arms around his waist.
The smell of pizza greeted her, coming from a small outdoor restaurant, and she felt suddenly ravenous. She hadn't eaten for hours. Another turn down a cobblestoned street so narrow no cars could possibly pass through, then through an arch into a courtyard.
''Here it is,'' Massimo said and Charli took in her surroundings.
Apartment balconies rose above, full of laundry drying in the sun. A cat asleep near one of the doors. A potted palm. A scene straight from a tourist brochure. Or a movie. Any moment now Sophia Loren would step out on one of the balconies and call down to them.
''That's the one,'' Massimo said, pointing at a green wooden door, ancient, the paint peeling. Several name plates and bells offered the identities of the inhabitants and he leaned forward to read. ''Here it is. You have a key?''
''No.'' She wasn't feeling very bright. ''I was hoping maybe somebody was waiting for me here. They were supposed to meet me at the station, but maybe...''
He rang the bell, but no one answered. He rang one of the other bells. No success there either.
From a top-floor balcony on the other side of the courtyard a loud female voice called out to them in Italian. Charli looked up, seeing not Sophia Loren but an old woman with blue curlers in her hair bringing in her laundry.
Massimo said something back and a rapid conversation ensued.
Charli hated feeling so helpless, understanding nothing. Standing there like an idiot in front of this decrepit door without a key. What had she been thinking? What would this man be thinking?
That she was a total nitwit, of course.
Well, she didn't care what he thought. She didn't care what anybody thought anymore, least of all a man.
''She says they've all gone out and there's no one at home,'' Valentina whispered, translating.
The woman must keep tabs on her courtyard neighbors' coming and going. Clutching the laundry to her chest, the old lady moved inside, and Massimo turned to Charli.