Authors: Kate Walker
“Why didn't you ask them?” she managed, knowing that it was what he wanted her to say. Cesare's smile was slow, almost benign, but there was something in his eyes that stopped it from being the tender response it appeared.
“They didn't offer me what I wanted,” he said with a deliberate softness.
“And that wasâ¦?” she whispered, and watched his smile grow into a wicked grin.
She barely had time to catch her breath before his mouth came down on hers, but it was with an unexpected gentleness that seemed to draw out her soul, take it away from her and hold it captive. And in that moment she knew that she was lost. Knew that no matter how hard she tried to convince herself, there was no way in the world that she was over Cesare Santorino.
They're tall, darkâ¦and ready to marry!
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The Italian's Demand
On sale in October, #2354
he was going to ask her.
The words were clear and definite inside Cesare's head, voicing the resolve he had held to for years now.
He had been waiting for this day for ever it seemed. Six long years. Too long. It had been a wait that had tried all his patience, straining it to breaking point at times. But tonight the waiting had come to an end. Tonight Megan was going to be his.
The sound of the doorbell ringing through the house jolted him slightly, making him grimace wryly as he snatched his finger off hastily. He was risking sounding more like the police arriving with a warrant for someone's arrest rather than a would-be lover who had waited longer then he could bear for the woman he wanted more than any other.
The housekeeper sounded flustered and confused as well she might, Cesare reflected ruefully. Normally his visits were well prepared for, notice given of his arrival long in advance. He was an honoured guest in this house, welcomed as a friend as well as a business colleague, so his arrival like this was not only out of the blue, it was also totally out of character.
âWe weren't expecting you. Mr Ellis didn't sayâ¦'
One lean brown hand came up to cut off her words, brushing aside her nervously apologetic explanation.
âHe would not have said, because he didn't know. I
didn't tell him I was coming to England, or that I was likely to call.'
Mrs Moore took a small step backwards, obviously feeling that she should invite him in, then hesitated again.
âI'm afraid Mr Ellis isn't here. He's visiting relatives in Scotland. There's only Miss Meganâ¦'
âAh, so Megan is home, is she?'
He was pleased with the tone he managed to use; glad to hear that he sounded both disinterested and faintly surprised. Hearing him, no one would have thought that his visit here tonight had been calculated for just this effect. That he had come to England knowing that Tom was away, and that his only daughter was in the house on her own.
âI take it she's back from university now then is she?'
âThat's right. Finished her degree and everything. She got back at the weekendâon her own, surprisingly.'
âOn her own?'
No. That question had been too sharp, betraying too much of an interest and a degree of shock than was wise.
âYes, I thought she'd bring the boyfriend with her.'
Belatedly, the housekeeper realised that keeping her employer's friend standing on the doorstep was not the most polite approach. Mrs Moore moved further back into the wide, tiled hallway.
âWon't you come inside, sir? I'm sure Miss Megan would be delighted to see you.'
Privately, Cesare took the liberty of doubting that she would be any such thing. The way he and Megan had parted the last time he had seen her, at a New Year party given by her father, he had little hope that âdelighted' would describe her reaction to him now. When he had resolved on this visit, he had had every confidence that he could soon overcome any initial resistance, but the mention
of a boyfriend was an unexpected complication, one he should have forseen but, foolishly, had not.
âI'll tell her you're hereâ¦'
! He reproved himself inwardly at the realisation that once again he had almost given himself away. That â
' had been too quick, the lapse into his native Italian giving too much away.
Hastily he switched on a covering smile, fixing his deep brown eyes on the housekeeper's face. It was a calculated move, one that had melted far harder hearts than hers in the past, and it had exactly the effect he wanted now.
âDon't announce me. I'd like to do it myselfâgive her a surprise.'
âOf course. She's in the library.'
Mrs Moore waved a hand in the direction of a door at the far end of the hall.
âI'm sure she'll be glad to see you. If you want my opinion she's a little run down at the momentâfar too pale and thin for my liking. She's probably been burning the candle at both ends and not eating properly.'
It was a struggle to contain his impatience. Would the woman never go?
At last she seemed to realise that he was anxious to move and turned in the direction of the kitchen. But then just as Cesare felt some of the tension that held his muscles taut start to ease she hesitated and turned back again.
âShould I bring in some coffee? A cold drink?'
âI'll ring if we need anything.'
It was the tone he adopted with difficult employees. One that demanded instant, unquestioning obedienceâand always got it. It worked this time too. The housekeeper nodded, made a small, awkward movement, almost as if she
was coming close to bobbing a respectful curtsey, then turned and trotted away, her heels clicking in the silent hall.
Cesare gave a deep sigh of relief as he pushed both his hands through his jet-black hair. It was almost as if the housekeeper had sensed his intent, the reason why he was here tonight, and had set herself up as the moral guardian of the daughter of the house, the defender of Megan's honour, against the dark intrusive force of a sexually mature male.
His beautifully curved mouth twisted slightly cynically as he shut the door quietly. He didn't want to alert Megan to his presence. Wanted to come up on her unawares. And it wasn't her honour he wanted to steal. It was her heart.
Megan had heard the doorbell some time earlier but had decided to ignore it. If it was important then Mrs Moore would come and fetch her. If it wasn't, then the housekeeper could deal with it. The older woman knew much more about her father's daily life than she did since she had been away at university. And besides, she wasn't in the mood for company.
âWhat am I going to do?'
Sighing, she pushed aside the sleek fall of her auburn hair and propped her chin on her hands, elbows resting on the table at which she sat. A book lay open in front of her, one she had been making a pretence at reading. But it had been simply for something to do, and her mossy-green eyes had been left so unfocused by tears that the words on the pages danced in front of her vision in a totally incomprehensible blur.
I going to do?'
She had asked the question of herself again and again more times than she cared to remember, but there had never
been a hope of an answer in her mind. She didn't know what to do, or where to turn next.
The sound of the door opening jolted her head up, but it was the figure who appeared in the doorway, tall, dark and devastating that had her blinking in stunned disbelief, unable to believe that she was seeing correctly.
Her heart gave one violent, breath-snatching thud against her ribcage, leaving her gasping in shock. Cesare Santorino was the last person she had expected to see here tonight. The last person she
to see as well.
But that didn't stop her foolish emotions going into overdrive simply to see him.
She had once adored every inch of this man's tall, rangy body, dreamed of losing herself in his arms, of drowning in the deep, molten bronze of his eyes. The image of his forcefully carved features had etched itself into her memory, so that for many nights the last thought in her mind as she drifted asleep had been of the slash of high, slanting cheekbones, the shockingly sensual curve of his wide mouth, the hard strength of his jaw and chin.
âWhat are you doing here?'
To her annoyance, her voice came and went like a badly tuned radio and she had to fight to get it under control. It was just the way she was feeling, she told herself angrily. Just the low mood that had already affected her so badly. Nothing more.
Cesare, had been over him for months; ever since that disastrous party at New Year when he had humiliated her so badly. Before then she had worshipped the ground he walked on, but that night he had taken her devotion, her pride, and trampled it underneath his beautifully polished, handmade leather shoes.
âIf you want to see my dad, then he's not hereâ¦'
âI know,' Cesare cut in sharply, a faint frown drawing his dark straight brows together. âIt was you I came to see.'
That frown, and something in the intonation of his lyrically accented voice set her nerves on edge, raising the tiny hairs on the back of her neck in wary apprehension. She was suddenly painfully aware of the blurred marks of tears on her cheeks, only roughly scrubbed away with the back of her hand.
âWhat did you want me for?'
She got to her feet as she spoke, moving away from the direct light of the window, into a more shadowy part of the room.
âI didn't think you ever wanted to speak to me again.'
âWhy ever not?' Infuriatingly it was touched with a thread of amusement that scraped over her skin.
âYou made it plain that you didn't want to waste your time with me.'
His slow, sexy smile did terrible things to what little composure she had left, making her feel as if a powerful cord was tightening around her heart and tugging hard.
, you weren't in any fit state to spend time with anyoneâwaste or not.'
âI'd had a glass or two of champagne!'
But what she was never going to admit was that it had not been the sparkling wine that had intoxicated her, but the sheer impact of his presence, lethally elegant and stunning in the stark black and white of traditional evening wear.
âOr three, or fourâ¦' Cesare returned drily. âAnd the problem was that you were hellishly enticing in your tiddly state. Do you have any idea just how sweetly seductive you looked in that slip of a dress?'
âSweetlyâ¦' Megan echoed, totally bemused.
Had he really said what she thought he had said? Had he really used the words
to describe her? Even through the haze of misery that clouded her thoughts, the words touched something in her. Something that she had believed was long since dead. Something that still lingered in the heart she was sure she had armoured against him after that last, humiliating, public rejection of her.
âNot at all.'
Cesare shook his dark head, moving at last, strolling into the room with the lithe ease of a hunting cat, letting the door swing to silently behind him.
âIt was all that I could do to keep my hands off you.'
The only response that Megan could manage was a loud, unladylike snort, vividly expressing her cynical opinion of that comment.
âOh sure! You had such a struggle that you put me aside as if just touching me might contaminate you. And then youâ¦then you ignored me for the rest of the night. No?'
She blinked in confusion as Cesare shook his dark head.
âNo,' he stated flatly. âThere was no way I could ignore you, no matter how I tried. I've never been able to ignore you. Not from the moment you bounced into my life as a pretty thirteen-year-old, the first time I ever visited this house. I couldn't take my eyes off you then, and I've never been able to since.'
He still couldn't. If she was in a room, there was only one direction in which his eyes would be drawn. She was like some vivid, bright spark, burning so brilliantly that it almost blinded him. And the hardest thing had been that he could never admit to it; never reveal the way he felt.
And she was so much more lovely now; the beauty that had promised as an adolescent becoming reality in the young woman who stood before him. She had hair like the burnished leaves of a copper beech tree, eyes like the deepest, mossy pools above the finest cheekbones he had ever seen. Tall and slender, she was curved in all the right places that declared her femininity, and her skin had the smooth softness of a peach so that his fingers itched to touch it.
But he had given his promise to her father, and had sworn to abide by it until the date of her twenty-second birthday set him free.
âI would never joke about something like this.'
Megan shook her head in bemusement. This couldn't be happening! Nothing he was saying seemed as if it could possibly be true. And the worst, the bitterest irony, was that these words were the ones she had always dreamed of hearing him say. Dreamed, but known that those dreams would never become reality.
She had had the world's greatest crush on this man since she had been in her teens. But he was eight years older than her, a sophisticated, cosmopolitan businessman, the owner of the huge corporation of which her father's firm was just one microscopic, unimportant component. Men like Cesare Santorino didn't take any notice of girls like her.
âStop messingâdon't tease me like this.'
âWhat makes you think that I'm teasing?'
Looking into his dark, inscrutable face, she could almost believe that he meant it. There was no trace of amusement in those burning eyes, no hint of a smile on the sensual mouth.
âBut you have to beâ¦'
Again his proud head moved in denial of her protest.
. There is no “have to be” about this. I am telling the absolute truth.'
âYou can't beâ¦'
All the strength went from her legs and she dropped down into the nearest chair, unable to keep upright any longer. And at least this way she could put some distance between them.
âI don't believe you!'
Oh, this was worse than ever! Bending down, he had placed both strong-fingered hands on the arms of the chair, one on either side of her. Imprisoned in the cage made by them and his powerful body, the wall of his chest in the immaculate white shirt a solid barrier between her and escape, she could look nowhere but into the smouldering bronze of his eyes.