Authors: Karen Erickson
How could he explain his behavior over the last few years without sounding like a complete jerk? He had his reasons. But would she believe them?
With nothing else to lose, he went ahead and tried to explain. “I was working. Trying to better myself by moving my way up the ranks of the family business so I could offer you whatever you wanted as my wife. I wanted to provide you with a good life,” he said. “And…I’m a man. It wasn’t right, seeing other women. I know this. But what was I supposed to do? I wasn’t sure if we would really be together.”
She turned to face him and he let his hands fall away from her. “You’re serious.”
Rafe nodded. “I’m sorry. I’m an ass. It all sounds foolishly old fashioned, doesn’t it? I guess our entire situation could be described that way, though.”
“Yes, it does sound old fashioned,” she agreed, her voice so soft he could barely hear her. “My friends, they used to make fun of me. Many of them didn’t believe me when I told them I was engaged. They all thought I was a liar. I was only fourteen or fifteen when I started bragging about marrying you, so I guess I can’t blame them.”
He thought of a young, pretty Catalina telling her friends she would marry him one day. How he did ignore her because at the age of eighteen, nineteen, the very last thing on his mind was the uninteresting, way-too-young-for-him teenage girl he was being forced to marry. He’d much rather screw the endless string of girls his own age he’d chased after back in those days.
God, he’d been such an ass. Still was.
“My sister said I should’ve kept my mouth shut.” Cat clamped her lips together, looking miserable. “After a while, I finally took her advice and stopped talking about it. About us. The more I ignored it, the more it felt completely unreal. It still feels unreal, you know? And here I am, standing with you. Looking right at you.”
“It’s real. We’re real,” he said, keeping his voice low for fear he might make her upset. Or worse, make her run. “Very real. So real you told me you didn’t want me any longer and rejected me outright.”
A tiny smile curved her lush lips. “You won’t let me live that down, will you?”
“No.” He smiled faintly in return, enjoying the sparkle that returned to her eyes. “You may think you’re not worthy or whatever it is that you believe, Catalina, but you were quite brave, telling me you didn’t want to marry me after all. All that determination took me by surprise.”
“That had always been my plan, to take you by surprise,” she confessed with an impish smile.
“Well, then, your plan worked.”
“I didn’t mean to hurt you.” She reached for him, clasping his hand in hers. “I thought you didn’t want to be with me. That us being together was a mistake.”
“You were wrong.” He threaded his fingers through hers right before she let his hand drop, trapping her in his grip.
“It’s hard for me to believe any of this when you say things like that.” She tried to pull her hand from his, but he tugged her forward, bringing her closer to him. “You ignored me for so long. It’s pitiful that I’m admitting this to you, but I’ve been ignored almost my entire life. Annalisa always outshone me. She was the oldest, the one they put all the expectations on, the intelligent one with a head for business. I was the baby, the quiet one, the not-so-smart one, the girl who wanted nothing more than to look pretty and go shopping. The biggest expectation they had for me was marrying well, and I couldn’t even seem to manage that when they thought I should.”
Guilt assuaged him. He’d pushed off marrying her, fearing he wasn’t ready. Then she’d put their marriage off over the last year supposedly because
wasn’t ready. But what had been the real reason? Had she been trying to prove herself to her family? “I don’t like that your family did that to you. It’s pretty unfair, don’t you think?”
She shrugged. “Life is unfair. Besides, families do that. They can’t help themselves. Doesn’t your family have different expectations for everyone? I’m sure what they expect you to do versus what they expect from your older brother are two very different things.”
“You’re right.” And she called herself the not-so-smart one. “They still shouldn’t have made you feel less than others or compared you to your sister.”
“It happens. I’m sure you’re compared to your brothers all the time.” She blew off his statement with a flick of her free hand. “So tell me. What are we going to do today?”
He smiled. “Whatever you want.”
“I’m…I’m not sure what we should do.” The last thing Cat wanted to bring up in front of this man was old family resentments and how she always felt as if she stood in her sister’s shadow. Talk about depressing. If she continued to rattle on like this, eventually Rafe would start thinking less of her too, just like everyone else did.
Worse, he might even become more interested in Annalisa, and that was the very last thing she wanted to happen. Despite her breaking off their engagement, she didn’t want to see Rafe with her sister.
That was just…wrong.
Reassuringly enough, he still held her hand, his long, strong fingers wrapped around hers, their palms pressed close. The entire moment felt downright intimate as they stood together in his quiet, beautiful apartment, the city spread out before them. The sun shone bright and hot through the window, warming their faces. Rafe’s dark hair gleamed, his stubble-covered cheeks tempting her to reach out and clasp his face in her hands, pull him to her. Feel those plush lips close over hers, his big hands gripping her waist, holding her steady as she drowned in his taste. Forgetting everything but him. And her. Imagining the two of them together.
Blinking, she stared up at him, hoping he couldn’t read her mind. A few shared, heady kisses and she couldn’t seem to stop thinking about kissing him again. And again and again.
Curiosity got the best of her as she studied him covertly, drinking in his tall, lean and muscular body. What would it be like, to be with him so…intimately? Not that they had a chance now, what with her calling everything off, but how would he react if he found out she was a virgin? Would he think her a silly, scared little girl? Or would he be pleased that she saved herself for him?
Because she had. She’d been with no other man. She wanted only to be with Rafe. Thought it only right considering they were going to be married. Her virginity would’ve been a gift to him.
Now it would be a gift to someone else. She’d let him go. He wasn’t hers any longer.
Tears threatened, and she shook her head, pushing her useless thoughts away. He frowned as he peered down at her. “Are you all right?” he asked.
“Fine.” She nodded furiously, her hair brushing against her cheeks. “Really, I am.”
“As long as you say so.” He released his grip on her hand and she felt oddly bereft, which was ridiculous. “So. You never did answer. What would you like to do today? Considering you’re my guest, I think it should be your choice.”
Her brain fried just looking at his handsome face. How could he expect her to decide what to do and see while they were in New York over the next few days? “Um…” Her voice trailed off. “Maybe see the Empire State Building? I’ve never been.”
He smiled indulgently, and she wondered if he thought she was a dimwit. “I can take you on the special out-of-towner tour if that’s what you’d like.”
That sounded incredibly boring. He was a sophisticated, worldly man. He didn’t want to drive her around New York looking at touristy landmarks. “We don’t have to if you don’t want to. I’m sure that sounds incredibly boring to you. Taking me around like I’m some sort of silly tourist.”
“You are, though, aren’t you? And I don’t mind. Really. I know I’d enjoy spending time with you, wherever we might go.”
Her cheeks heated at his sweet words. Did he really mean that? The sincere expression on his face told her, yes, he did. “Whatever you want to do, I’m perfectly agreeable. I’d be happy to stay here and do nothing if that’s what you’d prefer.”
“Absolutely not. When was the last time you were in New York?”
“Um, probably over ten years ago, maybe longer. When we used to come to the States, we always went to Chicago and rarely anywhere else. I have family there,” she said.
“Right.” He nodded. “And the U.S. location for Campioni is there as well.”
“Yes. That too.” She wanted to roll her eyes at herself. Their conversation was awkward and inane and it was starting to make her nervous.
Maybe this was a mistake, coming to New York with Rafe. She should’ve stayed home. Continued on with her little life like the good girl she tried so desperately to be. Working day in and day out at the family business, helping her sister, listening to Annalisa drone on and on over whatever was bugging her on that particular day. Supporting her mother through crying jags, lamenting how her father didn’t love them anymore. Secretly hoping like crazy her father would finally realize she was a worthy daughter and tell her so.
And then someday she would’ve found a nice man to marry, someone calm and steady and eager to make her his wife. They would move into a modest house not far from Campioni and her husband would probably come and work with her. They could raise two lovely children in that equally lovely house and live a perfectly lovely existence until they died perfectly ordinary deaths.
That sounded infinitely, horribly boring.
She studied the man standing before her. Just looking at Rafe filled her with an unexplainable excitement that bubbled up inside her. Her stomach bounced with nerves, and when he settled that dark, mysterious gaze on her, flashing that devastating smile, her knees literally weakened.
Yes. She had it bad. Damn it, she’d been a fool to end it with him. But maybe, just maybe, he really could show her that adventure he’d promised. Would he want to though?
“You know what I want to do?” she asked abruptly, clearly startling him, if his expression was any indication.
“Please, enlighten me.” He sounded amused, but not in a mocking way, like she was used to when she heard that same tone in her sister’s voice. No, Rafe acted as if he was in on the joke too.
“I want to go to a huge, loud nightclub, get drunk and dance.” Her stomach tumbled to her toes at her admission and she held her breath, afraid to hear his answer. She hoped he wouldn’t chastise her like Annalisa undoubtedly would.
“Really.” It wasn’t a question.
She nodded. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do.”
“Get drunk and wild and sweaty on a dance floor, surrounded by a huge crowd of strangers? That’s your ultimate dream?”
When he said it like that, he made her request sound cheap and sleazy. Which admittedly, it was. “I’m being crazy, aren’t I?”
“Never.” That gorgeous smile didn’t fade. In fact, it grew brighter if that was possible. “Whatever you want, your wish is my command. I think I know just the place to take you. You’ll love it.”
Excitement coursed through her veins and she clapped her hands together like a child. “Really? Oh.” Reality intruded. “But I have nothing to wear.”
“I’ll take you shopping,” he suggested.
“No, I couldn’t ask that of you. It wouldn’t be right,” she started, but he cut her off with a look.
“I want to buy you something. A sexy little dress, something to show off those long legs of yours.”
He noticed her legs? “A—all right.” A shrill ring sounded, one she would recognize anywhere. It was her cell phone, and that particular ringtone she’d assigned to her sister.
“My phone,” she mumbled as she went to her purse where it rested on the coffee table and pulled the phone from within. “Hello.”
“Tell me that note you left us is a lie.” No
hi, how are you, my God we’re so worried
. Instead, she got typical, bulldoze Annalisa fashion. “Tell me you’re coming back home. That you’ve finally come to your senses and you’re ditching that jerk for good.”
Cat clutched her phone tight to her ear, not wanting Rafe to hear Annalisa insulting him. “I’m not home. I’m in New York, like I told you I would be.”
The silence went on for so long, Cat momentarily wondered if her sister had hung up on her. “You’re kidding,” Annalisa finally said.
“How inconsiderate could you be, leaving us here having to tend to everything?” Annalisa’s voice exploded over the line, so loud Cat had to pull the phone away from her ear. “And you escape without a word, without consulting us and asking if it would be okay? How dare you be so selfish, Cat?”
She was a grown woman and still had to answer to her mother and, worse, her sister. It was ridiculous. Embarrassing. “I needed to get away. The last few days have been very stressful.”
“Such a ridiculous excuse. I can’t believe you. Don’t you even care about us? What we’re all going through? We have our own issues to deal with. We really don’t want to deal with yours too,” Annalisa muttered disgustedly.
“Listen, I know you’ve been busy and you need my help, but I was desperate for a vacation and this seemed to be the only solution I had available to me. I’ll be home in a few days’ time, I promise. And I timed my leave over a weekend, so at least I wouldn’t miss too much work.” Always accommodating, never-wanting-to-rock-the-boat Catalina, that was her.