Authors: Karen Erickson
They’d do better if their father returned his attention to the very business that kept him afloat. But he was nowhere to be found, reportedly on the beach in Cannes with his latest, young mistress while their mother sat at home, crying and miserable, as usual.
The Campioni daughters were his representatives tonight and had been for a long time. Though neither of them had any idea the Renaldis would be in attendance.
Well, Cat hadn’t known. Maybe Annalisa had invited them?
“He’s coming for you,” Annalisa whispered harshly. “And he looks quite…determined.”
Cat ignored her sister, her gaze locking on Rafe. He did appear determined—and starkly, unmistakably handsome. His dark hair slicked back from his forehead, his gaze narrowed, his strong jaw firmed. He always had a downright jovial way about him. Always smiling, dark brown eyes twinkling, a laugh seemingly ready to spill at any moment.
There was no joviality in his expression at the moment, though. He looked grim.
“If he so much as speaks to you, there’s no telling what I might do,” Annalisa muttered.
“You won’t do anything,” Cat murmured in return, her gaze locked on Rafe as she spoke to her sister. “You’ll be on your best behavior. It wouldn’t do to make a scene in front of our father’s business associates.”
“As if he cares. If this business mattered to him, he’d be here!”
Cat repressed the scathing comment that threatened to burst from her. She was so tired of her sister’s rude and bitter behavior. It had gotten worse over the years, to the point of barely tolerable. “Shush. Let me talk to Rafael in peace. I don’t need you yammering in my ear.”
She heard her sister’s irritated gasp just as he stopped before them, his eyebrows raised as if he knew they spoke of him and he nodded toward Annalisa, his gaze skittering to her for the barest second before those mysterious, dark eyes settled on Cat and never left. “Good evening, Annalisa. Catalina.”
Annalisa snorted in reply while Cat smiled. “Happy to have you here this evening, Mr. Renaldi.” The polite greeting earned yet another snort from her sister.
His thick brows rose higher if that was possible. “Such formality. Considering our…position with each other, don’t you think you could at least call me by my name, Catalina?”
“Considering our still formal position to each other and the fact that I hardly know you, I believe Mr. Renaldi is rather fitting.” She kept her smile pasted on, though her mouth quivered at the corners. Inside, she trembled at having him so close. She could smell his tantalizing scent, feel the heat radiating off of his large body and she was tempted to step into him. Wrap her arms around him and see if he felt as wonderfully solid as she remembered.
But she withheld the urge, knowing she would only make a fool of herself if she did something so rash. Her sister would probably yank her off of him anyway.
“I know this is rather sudden, but I’d like to speak to you about that arrangement,” he said, his voice low, his gaze cutting to Annalisa for the briefest moment before settling on her again. “Now, if you don’t mind.”
“She won’t—” Annalisa started, but Cat silenced her with a look before returning her gaze to Rafael.
“Funny you should ask. I’ve been wishing to speak to you about our arrangement as well.” Cat lifted her chin, trying her best for cool, poised sophistication. She was young, untried and utterly lacking in comparison to the glamorous, beautiful women she’d seen on Rafe’s arm over the years, but she wanted him to realize he wasn’t trifling with a mere girl any longer.
She was a woman of twenty-three. Sheltered and without much experience, but still. Her entire life, every decision had been made for her, and finally she’d grown weary.
Tonight, for the first time, she was ready to make her own decisions. Whatever Rafe wanted to tell her, he probably wouldn’t like what she had to say in return.
And for once, she didn’t give a damn.
Cat followed Rafael out onto the small terrace off of the reception room of Campioni Leather Goods. Whereas Renaldi Accessories was a worldwide fashion empire, well known and respected, Carlo Campioni hadn’t been able to find as broad success with his business. In recent years the company had fallen on hard times.
Hence her father’s need of money and having no shame in borrowing it from the Renaldis. It didn’t help matters that Carlo would rather focus on his numerous dalliances than his business. Cat hadn’t seen her father in months.
She wondered if her supposed future husband would protest her working at Campioni. Or would he rather have her working for Renaldi?
Worse, could he be so old-fashioned he’d rather not have her working at all?
“What did you want to talk about?” she asked when he finally stopped and leaned against the metal railing that ran the perimeter of the terrace. He looked every inch the dashing male, clad in a navy suit, pale blue shirt and carefully knotted, buttery yellow tie. His suit probably cost more than her entire wardrobe.
That the Campionis were no longer even close to the same financial league as the Renaldis was a massive understatement.
She stood just in front of him, curling her arms around herself to ward off the chilly breeze that sprang up. Rubbing her hands along her bare arms, she watched him warily, noting the obvious way he drank her in. His blatant gaze drifted along her body from head to toe and she shivered, though not from the cold wind.
The way he looked at her had felt like a physical caress. As if he’d actually touched her. Her nipples tightened beneath her bra, her skin broke out in goose bumps and she pressed her lips together, wishing she could control her body’s reaction to him.
No man made her react like this. Ever. But that didn’t matter. She needed to end this. She wanted her freedom.
“We need to set a wedding date. I’ve waited long enough,” he said gruffly. No preemptive, no gentle cajoling or sweet persuading.
With that flat-out demand, Rafe reminded her of her equally demanding father.
waited long enough?” She kept her voice even, her demeanor calm. But inside, she raged. She wanted to smack him. Yes, she’d asked him to wait, but how long had he kept her hanging with no word, no sign that he wanted to marry her? Years! And now he was eager to make her his wife? Why the sudden urgency?
His jerky nod told her that he wasn’t in the mood for a patient, rational discussion. “I gave you time just as you requested. More than a year of you needing to complete whatever you wished to accomplish should be enough, don’t you think? I’m finished with the game playing. We’re getting married, and soon. No more protests, no more putting it off, Catalina. It’s time. I’m not getting any younger and neither are you.”
Game playing? The nerve of the man. And how dare he bring up her age. She was still young and he was under thirty. “Why now? I don’t understand.” Panic made her heart rate kick up and she breathed deep, trying to calm herself. She could do this. Make him understand that this wasn’t the right step for them.
“All this waiting around for you to grow up has made me impatient.” Standing straight, he reached for her, slipping his long fingers around her upper arm and pulling her closer to him. “It’s time for us to finally make this marriage happen, don’t you think?”
“No.” She wrenched her arm out of his tightening grip, hating how he referred to their supposed marriage like it was some sort of business deal that needed to be completed. Which it essentially was, not that she wanted to face that awful fact. “I don’t think it’s time for
happen. I don’t want
to happen at all.”
He glared at her, his dark eyes hard, and so incredibly difficult to read. “You don’t mean it.”
“I do.” Cat lifted her chin, never letting her gaze waver. She refused to show him any weakness. This was it. Her life would change forever within the next few minutes. “I don’t want to marry you. Look at how you insult me, basically calling me a child who needs to grow up. And then you expect me to swoon at the first mention of marriage? Well, I don’t think so. I have no desire to marry you, Rafael Renaldi. Not now. Not ever.”
Rafe didn’t say anything for long, tension-filled minutes. The air thickened around them; she could feel the angry heat of him, the tension rolling off his body in obvious waves. “You don’t want to marry me,” he finally said, his voice low and incredibly deep.
She slowly shook her head. “I don’t.” Her voice shook and she winced. Now was not the time to appear weak. She needed to remain strong, needed to stand up to him.
“Do I really need to give you any more of a reason?” She laughed nervously, but his expression never changed, making her even more wary.
“Yes, of course you do. I deserve a reason. You’re my fiancée. You have been for years. It’s the least you could do—give me a valid reason.”
“Don’t you think it’s ridiculous how I’ve been your fiancée since I was a child?” She hissed out the last word, bitterness making her insides twist. “It’s an old-fashioned arrangement, and you know it. I don’t want to marry you. I doubt you want to marry me either.”
“Not true.” He slowly shook his head. “I’ve always wanted to marry you, Catalina. You can’t break an agreement that was made years ago with a simple no and think you can walk away from me.”
The cool way he said that made her nervous. “Whatever crazy formal agreement our fathers made when we were mere children can’t be held up in any court. You know this.” She sounded like her sister, but she needed to present a proper argument. Her personal reasoning wouldn’t matter to him.
How could she have believed he’d willingly let her walk? She should’ve known better.
But why did he want to marry her? He’d never showed much interest in her before, beyond the few stupid kisses they’d shared. It made no sense.
“I’ll prove you wrong. I can hold you to this agreement, just watch me.” He studied her, his gaze locked on her face. “Don’t test me, Catalina. When there’s something I want, I’ll do whatever it takes to get it.”
“I’m not a pretty little object you can add to your collection.” Fear trickled down her spine when he took a step toward her. “I’m a human being, Rafael. I won’t marry you. I don’t even
“We’ve known each other for years.”
“Not for real. I know absolutely nothing about you. What you like, what you don’t like, what your favorite foods are, how you take your coffee, nothing.” She threw her hands up in the air, taking a step backward when he took two steps forward. He was making her nervous, what with the predatory way he moved toward her, looked at her. “I refuse to marry a man I don’t know, who doesn’t love me.”
“Do you love me, Catalina?” His voice had softened, as had the glint in his eyes, but she still stepped backward, desperate to escape him.
“Of course not,” she retorted, almost insulted he would ask such a thing. “Like I said, I don’t know you. How could I love you?”
“You’ve…admired me, though. In the past. I’ve seen it in your eyes.” He took yet another step closer, his voice deceptively soft as he continued. “Just as I’ve admired you. You’ve grown into a very beautiful woman, you know.”
She released a shuddery breath. He sounded downright…seductive. “You can’t base a marriage on looks alone.”
“You’re absolutely correct.” A tiny smile curved his lips, the sight of it stealing her breath. He was right. She’d admired him for years, that handsome face of his, the few charming words he’d tossed her way like a sprinkling of bread crumbs. She’d gobbled them up, always.
Cat didn’t admire the man he portrayed himself as to the public, though. Rafael Renaldi wasn’t necessarily an admirable man, at least in her eyes. “We could get to know each other better these months leading up to the wedding, during our official engagement.”
“No.” She shook her head so furiously she almost made herself dizzy. “Absolutely not. There’s no point.”
“No point in what?”
“Getting to know each other.” He invaded her space, so close she could feel him, smell him, imagine being in his arms again. “We’re not getting married.”
“I beg to differ.” He sounded amused, which infuriated her more.
“I won’t marry you.”
“Why the hell not?”
Did the man have a thick skull or what? How many times did she have to say no? “Tell me, have you been loyal and true to me since we’ve been engaged?”
Rafe gave her a look of such incredulity she could’ve almost found it funny. But she didn’t. Not at all. “What exactly are you referring to?”
“It’s obvious, isn’t it? I’m asking if you’ve been faithful to me. As your fiancée. Your future bride.” She took a few steps to the side, away from him, needing the distance. Breathing in the cool air as the breeze washed over her heated skin and cleared her jumbled brain. Having him too close was dangerous to her mental health, let alone her stupid body that was so eager to betray her.
He aroused her, pure and simple, even when he made her angry—it seemed especially when he made her angry. So infuriating.
“Such an…unusual question,” he said, sounding seemingly nervous.
“Well, we’re involved in an unusual situation so I guess it’s only natural for me to ask, don’t you think?” She shook back her hair, tilting her chin in a way that felt so defiant, it gave her a surge of confidence. “Tell me. Have you been loyal to me? Faithful?”