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The Spanish Billionaire's Hired Bride
By Rachel Lyndhurst, Edited by Alethea Spiridon Hopson
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2012 Rachel Lyndhurst
All rights reserved.
"Stop right there or I'll snap your neck."
Ricardo Almanza heard the blonde's breath catch as his hand closed around her throat and pulled her backwards against his body. Her pulse was rapid beneath his fingertips, and her short gasps indicated fear. He loosened his hold. She might be a thief, but she was still a slightly-built woman and he had no intention of deliberately hurting her.
He grabbed her wrist and shook it roughly until she dropped the diamond necklace she was holding onto the bedspread. Her other hand flew to protect her throat, and she arched her back as if she was trying to look at him, or spit in his face, perhaps. Her voice was laced with panic.
"The Condesa —"
A pause. Her accent betrayed her, clearly not Catalan or a native of Ibiza and her Balearic sister islands. "Be quiet," he growled in English. "And do as I tell you."
Ricardo maneuvered her toward the edge of the bed, pushing his knees into the back of hers until her legs buckled, and she fell forward. Her face twisted against the silk coverlet and he sensed she was looking for a means of escape. Grabbing her by the shoulders, he quickly tipped her onto her back and was suddenly staring into the widest, greenest eyes he had ever seen. They flashed like emeralds, and shallow, rapid breaths escaped her parted lips. His gaze slipped lower, snagged for a fraction of a second by the sight of her breasts as they rose and fell beneath a close-fitting black T-shirt. She reminded him of a trapped panther, beautiful, wild and poised, ready to fight back. A savage creature that would scratch his eyes out given half a chance.
He let go of his quarry and stepped backward to get a better look. The terrified blonde lay there panting, her eyes darting back and forth with terror. But a few more seconds were enough to confirm his very first thought. If he really had to take a wife someday, this was exactly how he'd want her to look.
"You should have done more research before you targeted this place." He trickled the necklace through his fingers as her eyes lasered into his. "These diamonds will never find a buyer on the black market. They're unique and each one traceable. No criminal on Ibiza worth his salt would touch them. Unless, of course, you're stealing to order."
"I'm not stealing anything," she hissed and pushed herself up onto her elbows. "I was just —"
"Just passing?" Ricardo injected a deliberately unpleasant tone into his voice, irked by the way her T-shirt now strained across her chest. A distraction. "You must think I'm completely stupid. Now take off your clothes."
"You heard me. You wouldn't be the first amateur thief to hide stolen goods in her underwear."
The woman sat bolt upright on the edge of the bed and stared at him open-mouthed for a few seconds. "I'm not taking anything off. Who the hell do you think you are?"
"You don't know? I'm disappointed." Clever, playing the outraged innocent, but he was having none of it. "You can call me Señor while we do this. Now take off your clothes, or I'll do it for you."
"If you touch me again, I'll —"
"You'll do what? Scream? Call the police?" Ricardo laughed and took a step closer, bending so that his face was close enough to see flecks of gold in her irises. It wouldn't be the first time a corrupt police officer was in league with a petty criminal either, so he was taking no chances on what she may have already stashed away. "They'll be here soon enough. Once I've finished with you ..."
Her eyes were wide and clear. "Just promise me you won't hurt the Condesa if I agree to do what you say."
"The Condesa?" What was the little crook up to now? Not that it mattered, but it would be nicer not to have to wrestle her to the ground before the police arrived. He took a long breath and allowed his gaze to drop to her mouth as she stood up to face him. "Very well, we'll leave the Condesa out of it."
"We can be civilized about this." The blonde licked her lips and her voice dropped an octave, becoming silky as she fingered his collar. "What is your name?"
Ricardo suppressed the urge to laugh. The little minx was trying to seduce her way out of trouble! "Take off your clothes," he said firmly and then everything went black with pain.
* * *
"You're an oaf, Ricardo," Condesa Antonella Almanza muttered with an expression as sour as green lemons. "The poor girl thought she was about to be raped and murdered up there. I expect you to apologize when she brings our coffee."
Ricardo rose from a white leather sofa and thrust his hands deep into his trouser pockets. His stepmother never failed to irritate him. "Perhaps, dear madrastra, you would care to explain to me what that English woman is doing here in the first place? Apart from making coffee, fetching your jewels, and kicking like a rabid mule, that is."
"And perhaps you would like to explain to me what you were doing sneaking around upstairs without permission?"
"I own the place, remember?"
She frowned and ran a beautifully manicured hand over her shiny black hair.
"Helen Marshall is my Girl Thursday."
"Your what?" Ricardo said with a laugh of disbelief.
"The same as a Girl Friday, only faster." The older woman sniffed disdainfully, unwilling to look him in the eye. "It's all about one's work-life balance."
Ricardo shook his head. "You kill me with your mad ideas, Antonella. You really, really do."
She picked at an invisible speck on her Chanel jacket. "You don't understand my needs, you never have."
"Your needs? I think I've got a pretty good idea by now, judging by the accounts I approve for payment every month."
"I need to relax more, have some 'me time'."
"Give me strength! What do you do all day? You have a cleaner, a cook, a gardener —"
"How dare you! I gave your father the best years of my life. He and your wretched family ruined me for anyone else. He owed me for that, and as a consequence, the debt is now yours, as eldest son."
"The only son," he snapped. "And I have never dishonored that debt. So how much are you paying this little English cuckoo?"
Helen Marshall coughed politely in the doorway, noting the fury on the Condesa's face. She'd understood every word of their blazing row. "Your coffee, madam," Helen murmured as she entered the salon, eyes lowered to the Turkish rug beneath her feet.
"Ah, at last." The Condesa replied and waited as Helen poured the coffee with shaky hands. She took her cup carefully, so as not to tangle her nails in the tiny handle and jerked her chin towards the man Helen now knew was Ricardo Almanza. "Before you go, my appalling stepson has something to say."
Helen took a step back from the coffee tray and slowly raised her face, catching her reflection in an elaborate mirror over the fireplace. She looked pale, her makeup having been partially rubbed off on the Condesa's bedspread. She could no longer avoid acknowledging the tall shadow hovering to the far right of her vision. Ricardo Almanza's aura dragged her eyes to meet his once again. The angry stare she remembered boring into her in the bedroom was the same, just calmer. His eyes were the color of Baltic amber, his hair as black as night and a trace of the mandarin and persimmon in his cologne hung in the still air. Gold cufflinks in the shape of a lion's head glinted on the white shirt cuffs protruding from his black jacket. His fingernails were short and clean and a shiver ripped through her as she remembered the feel of his hard hands gripping her ...
"I owe you an apology, Senorita Marshall. My behavior was unfortunate. I felt compelled to protect my stepmother from an intruder. I had not been informed of your employment. I made a mistake."
Tall, dark, and angular, he would tick all the boxes if he wasn't such a misery. "And I'm sorry I kicked you so hard in the — I apologize for being so vicious," she said, recalling the ferocity with which she'd slammed her foot into his groin. A slow smile changed his countenance entirely and a lump formed in her throat.
"You were frightened, it was understandable."
"Yes. Yes I was," she murmured. No air moved and the atmosphere was heavy as a clock chimed five times. She gritted out a smile. "Will that be all today, madam?"
"Going so soon?" Ricardo interjected before the Condesa could answer. "Please, there's something I'd like to know before you go. What exactly did you do here today?"
"Do?" Helen switched to the Condesa, silently pleading for guidance. She was sure her employer didn't want her stepson to know what happened most afternoons during siesta.
"Yes, fulfilling the terms of your contract, you know, earning your pay." He shot a scornful glance at his stepmother and appeared to ignore the vitriol in her expression.
"Well, um, today we started learning Mandarin," Helen said brightly.
"Mandarin? Is that so?" Ricardo slapped the back of the sofa. "Well, well, well that's going to be so incredibly useful when you go handbag shopping in Milan, Antonella. How forward thinking of you. I am so very, very impressed."
"Shut up, Ricardo," the Condesa snapped. "I have every right to expand my mind and improve my education."
"You certainly need to," he muttered.
The Condesa shot him a look of contempt. "And before you complain and penny-pinch for one more second, I absolutely refuse to let her go until I can speak some basic Russian as well. So essential these days."
"What a waste of money."
Helen simmered with indignation. It was bad enough being employed as an overqualified slave to a spoiled and vain old woman, but to be discussed like this was insulting. They were behaving as if she didn't exist! She straightened her spine and lifted her chin. She'd heard quite enough of their bickering. "If that will be all today, I'd like to catch the next bus home. I'll have to wait another two hours if I miss the five-thirty down to the harbor."
"Harbor? You are not staying in the staff wing?" He turned on his stepmother before Helen could reply. "Please don't tell me you've filled the whole villa with staff dedicated to your 'wellness.' I didn't think it would be possible to pour any more money down the drain."
"I choose to live out," Helen said. "It means I can bring nice fresh things for her from the market each day on my way here. I haven't asked for an increase in salary to reflect this arrangement, so there's a cost saving, a matter close to your heart, it appears."
Ricardo stood silently for a moment, and then raised a sardonic eyebrow. "Why Ibiza town? You don't like luxury villas with spectacular views and oligarchs as neighbors?" He lazily ran a fingertip across his chin. "Or maybe it's because you enjoy being herded like cattle on public transport twice a day?"
"I love this villa," Helen replied sharply. That was twice he'd likened her to an animal, the arrogant sod. "But the current living arrangement suits us both well."
More silence. She may have gone too far.
"Fair enough." He took a set of car keys from his trouser pocket and smiled again. His teeth were as white and perfect as the Condesa's best pearls. "It's probably more fun in town anyway, but I won't hear of you catching the bus tonight. I'll see you safely back."
Helen felt her ankles wobble. "No, really. It's not necessary, the bus stop is at the end of the road and it takes me right past my flat." She could sense her face was growing red and shiny with embarrassment. She had to get out of this.
"I insist," he replied silkily, as if he could read her mind. "Unless your boyfriend would disapprove?"
"No. Of course not," she said crossly. "I don't need a boyfriend to look after me. I'm capable of doing that myself."
"Do you do everything yourself, Helen Marshall?" Ricardo asked in a soft voice that made the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end. She knew exactly what he meant by that remark, and a sudden flutter low in her pelvis warned that she was far from being affected by him. Whether she liked it or not, the man oozed sex. He was dangerous and enticing, a brooding presence that put ordinary men in the shade.
"That's quite enough, Ricardo," the Condesa snapped. "Take the poor girl home and behave yourself. We've both had quite enough of you today."
Helen reluctantly followed Ricardo through the salon door. She should have put her foot down about the lift. She was walking into big trouble, but she couldn't stop herself. She was being drawn in his wake, helpless, like a moth to a flame ...
It was a peculiar sensation, leaving the villa through an elaborate arch that led to a paved courtyard. Before now Helen had always come in and out through the back entrance by way of the kitchen and utility areas, a situation appropriate to her role in the household and with which she felt quite comfortable. Still more peculiar was the sparkly sensation zinging around the inside of her forehead. Trailing Ricardo Almanza's exquisitely muscled behind was probably shortening her lifespan by a few good weeks. He wore a suit well.
The light was rapidly fading into a slumberous Mediterranean evening, and the white stone walls of the villa glowed in a way that reminded her of the moonstones on her mother's eternity ring. The courtyard lemon trees were now black silhouettes against a violet and pink sky, and she remembered why she loved this part of the world so much. Heat, color, the sizzle of insects.
Ricardo turned into the narrow road outside the villa's walls and Helen stopped dead in her tracks behind him. "Don't tell me that thing is yours."
"Si. Of course it is. What did you expect? A cheap Spanish car, like a SEAT?" He glanced at the red Ferrari and shrugged. "It's a cliché, but I like fast cars."
Helen nodded slowly and feigned a sigh. "And there I was expecting a moped ride."
His chin jutted upwards and the movement of an eyebrow muscle was sufficient warning for her to say no more. "I wouldn't expect any woman in my company to straddle one of those things." His eyelids lowered. "They have me for that."
Helen blushed and was glad of the fading light. Talk about shameless ego. She tossed her hair belligerently and silently slid into the passenger seat.
"You've got to admit this is more fun than the bus," Ricardo said a few minutes into the journey.
"I guess ..." Helen clutched the door trim as he took a sharp bend and sounded his horn at a truck carrying oranges. She swallowed hard and stared pointedly out of the window. He didn't need to see how he was affecting her equilibrium. It wasn't his driving either. Each time he thrust the Ferrari into another gear, his trousers pulled tightly over firm thigh muscles and she could feel the heat of his body in the snug confines of the car. Sharp darts of awareness unexpectedly pulsed between her thighs and she was shocked at how difficult it was proving to suppress them. His scent was good too — the cologne she'd smelled earlier had complex layers and was crammed with pheromones. She squeezed her eyes shut and tried to pretend he wasn't there. What was the matter with her? He had all the hallmarks of a first class jerk.
"Don't worry," Ricardo said as his long fingers tapped impatiently on his knee. "We're just coming onto a straight bit, so I can speed up."
"Oh, good," Helen said looking warily across at his angular profile. "How long until we're back in town?"
"About ten minutes." He flicked through at least three gears before she could even gasp. The bus took about half an hour.
"Don't rush on my account."
He grinned and looked straight ahead before flooring the accelerator.
The sensation was like being struck from behind by a runaway juggernaut. The engine roared, its power prickling the soles of her feet as they shot along the peninsula. She couldn't help admiring how the mechanical beast submitted to its master's touch, fluidly cornering each sharp bend. It was thrilling. It was dangerous.
This was the second time today she had faced the prospect of an untimely death, and on both occasions at the hands of Ricardo Almanza. The sooner she could get out of this car and away from him the better. She didn't have time to die on Ibiza, and more to the point, she couldn't afford to. She didn't like the effect he was having on her. She had much more important things to do than indulge in wild fantasies involving Spanish playboys.
"So, tell me," Ricardo suddenly said, his voice raised above the throaty roar the engine. "What brings you to work in Ibiza?"
"Oh this and that. It's a beautiful part of the world." She felt a surge of relief as she spotted a sign indicating the harbor was just one mile away. The ordeal would soon be over.
"How long are you here for? Six months or so? What's the deal?" After a few seconds of silence, Ricardo gestured with a hand that he was waiting for an answer.
Excerpted from The Spanish Billionaire's Hired Bride by Rachel Lyndhurst, Edited by Alethea Spiridon Hopson. Copyright © 2012 Rachel Lyndhurst. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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