April 6, 2007
February 1, 2008
The Sicilian’s Virgin Bride
Commanded back to her husband’s bed…
Women did not walk away from Sicilian billionaire Rocco Castellani. All he’d wanted was a lovely, biddable wife. Instead Francesca had taken off before the first dance at their wedding breakfast! But Rocco has tracked down his runaway young bride, and now she’s back by his side–where a good Sicilian wife should be! Rocco was cheated out of his wedding night–and now nothing’s going to stop him from taking his virgin bride….
February 1, 2011
Also published in
She flew in at night, in a small private plane that she’d chartered using the last of her cash. The brim of her hat was pulled low over her eyes, concealing almost all of her features, and her hair was ruthlessly subdued and twisted out of sight. She wore a plain black coat over black trousers. No makeup. No jewellery. It was the outfit of a woman who didn’t want to attract attention to herself. The outfit of a woman who was hiding.
Had the pilot looked closely he might have remarked on the ashen colour of her skin, or the slight shake of her hands as she clutched her one small bag. Had he looked closer still he might have seen the fire in her blue eyes and the determined jut of her chin. But he wasn’t looking. He’d taken one brief glance at her as she’d boarded the plane and immediately lost interest. He’d been paid an enormous sum of money to do exactly that, but all the same Chessie sat rigid in her seat, unable to relax as she stared through the small window into the darkness. She’d refused the offer of refreshment with a brief shake of her head, unable to contemplate placing any further strain on her already churning stomach.
Any minute now they’d be landing in Sicily, and the thought made her feel physically sick.
Trying to slow her galloping pulse, she closed her eyes, leaned her head back against the seat and breathed deeply. No one would stop her. No one was expecting her.
It had been six months: six months during which she’d learned to live her life looking over her shoulder. No names. No identities. Everything paid in cash. She’d lived a completely anonymous life in order to protect herself.
But now she was back.
For many, the Mediterraneanisland was a paradise.
For Chessie it was a prison.
Soon, she thought to herself, shifting restlessly in her seat. Soon she’d do what had to be done. But for now she just wanted to see her mother. It had been six months
The co-pilot walked into the back of the plane.
‘We’ll be landing in five minutes, Miss Berkeley. Keep your seat belt fastened. The car is waiting for you, as you requested.’ He spoke in heavily accented English, and Chessie replied in the same language, careful to conceal the fact that she was fluent in Italian. For a brief moment she contemplated what the pilot would say if he knew her identity, but then she gave a mental shrug, reassuring herself that there was no way the pilot could identify her. There was nothing in any of her documents that would betray her.
‘Va bene.’ The co-pilot nodded to her.
‘Have a safe journey.’
A safe journey?
Discovering that her mouth was dry with fear, Chessie tensed as the plane landed in a series of gentle bumps, and then fumbled with her seat belt, lifted her overnight bag and forced herself to walk to the front of the plane.
It would be all right, she told herself firmly as she walked down the steps onto the tarmac, breathing in the scent of Sicily and feeling the warmth of the night air close around her. Her father was dead. The funeral had passed. No one was going to be expecting her home. She’d sneak in and see her mother, and then leave.
And then she was going to sort out her life.
No more running.
No more hiding. If nothing else, the last six months had taught her that she was capable of so much more than she’d ever imagined.
In her state of high anxiety, the powerful headlights of the approaching car reminded her of searchlights. Trying to control her galloping imagination and her racing pulse, Chessie tensed as the vehicle purred across the tarmac and gently came to a halt beside her.
Anxious to avoid the attention of anyone who might be watching, she barely waited for the rear door to swing open before she slipped inside.
Only as the door closed behind her, sealing her in, did she realise that there was someone else in the back of the car, and her stomach lurched in a wild panic.
Oh, no, no, no!
Frozen by shock, she was unable to move. Unable to look. She didn’t need to look. She knew who it was because she felt his presence with every bone in her body.
Billionaire and bastard.
Keeping an iron grip on his simmering temper, Rocco watched as she reached for the door handle—watched as she registered the fact that the rear of the car was locked, providing her with no means to escape. Beneath the brim of the hat he could see that her eyes held the panicky, frightened look of a hunted animal.
He’d underestimated her, he thought grimly, and felt a flicker of cynical amusement. Because, of all the women he’d ever met, Francesca was the only one who had ever managed to surprise him.
‘Buona sera, tesoro. Welcome home.’ He switched to English because that was the language they’d always spoken together, and saw the colour drain from her cheeks.
It was obvious that she hadn’t expected him to be here, and her reaction intrigued him.
Was she really that naïve?
Had she really thought she could return to Sicily without his knowledge?
He waited for her to say something, but she didn’t speak. Instead she sat in frozen stillness, clutching the edge of the seat, her chest rising and falling rapidly as she sucked in air.
If she’d been anyone else Rocco would almost have felt sorry for her.
But he was a long way from feeling sorry for his wife. Why should he? After what she’d done she was fortunate that he was even prepared to sit in the same car as her.
‘You look surprised to see me.’ With a huge effort he kept his tone neutral, careful to reveal nothing of his true feelings.
‘Why? We’re married, tesoro. Why wouldn’t I be here to meet my wife on her return to our home?’
Finally she turned to look at him, and her eyes were stricken.
‘How did you know?’ Her voice was little more than a choked whisper, and he had to strain his ears to catch her words.
‘How did I know you’d be landing tonight?’ The smile didn’t come easily but somehow he managed it, along with a casual lift of his shoulders.
‘Did you really think I wouldn’t?
You’re my wife, Francesca. I care about everything that happens to you. Your father entrusted you to me and I’m responsible for your safety. It’s a role I take extremely seriously.’
‘Care?’Her voice recovered some of its strength.
‘You don’t care about me, Rocco.You don’t care about anyone but yourself.’
Rocco leaned forward and removed the hat. Her dark hair slid from the inadequate clip and tumbled over her shoulders in curling waves. She looked incredibly young. Far too young to be so scheming.
‘What a surprise you are,’ he murmured thoughtfully.
‘So much fire and spirit, and yet you keep it so well hidden. When we met before our wedding you barely spoke. I had to coax every word out of you. I thought you were impossibly shy.’
For a moment she just stared at him.
‘You don’t know me at all, Rocco.’
‘Clearly.’ He wondered if she even registered the irony in his tone.
‘But I intend to work very hard to rectify that. In fact you should probably know that I now intend to devote all of my time to furthering our acquaintance.’
‘No.’ There was a note of panic in her voice, and she gave a quick shake of her head.
‘You don’t need to know me. And I don’t want to know you either. I already know enough.’
She was a mass of contradictions, he thought to himself as he studied her. Infinitely complex. First impressions had suggested that she was gentle and timid and yet she’d proved herself to be wild and wilful.
‘Your dark hair shows your Italian blood.’ He leaned forward and gently wound a silken lock around his finger.
‘But those blue eyes of yours show your English heritage.’She had huge sapphire eyes, and a soft pink mouth that was temptingly full. In fact, she was a vision of feminine youth and innocence. And yet he knew that her innocence was gone for ever. Lost to another man. Anger rushed through him, along with another infinitely more ugly and dangerous emotion.
So this was how it felt, he mused, trying to detach himself from the hot burn of envy that licked at the heels of his iron self control.
This was how it felt to confront infidelity.
Something from his past—something dark and dangerous—flickered to life and he ruthlessly suppressed it, reminding himself of his golden rule.
Move forward. Always forward. Never back.
She might have lost her innocence but she was still his.
Her breathing was rapid.
‘Don’t touch me. I don’t want you to touch me.’ With a jerk of her head she moved away from his fingers and slid to the furthest corner of the seat, staring straight ahead, as if by not looking at him she could somehow deny his presence.
‘I want to go to my father’s house.’
Still struggling against a desire to flatten her to the seat and make himself the entire focus of her attentions, Rocco was silent for a moment, his eyes on her profile as he considered her request.
‘Aren’t you a little late? Your father is dead. The funeral was two weeks ago.’ He softened neither his tone nor the harshness of his words, and yet there was no reaction from her. Nothing. It didn’t fit, he mused as he watched her. The pieces just didn’t slot together.
‘As his only child, you didn’t think it might be appropriate to show up and pay your respects before now?’
She turned to face him, and there was something in her eyes that he couldn’t interpret.
‘No,’she said quietly.
There was a long silence—a long silence during which she simply stared at him with a blank expression in her eyes. Then she turned her head away.
‘My relationship with my father is none of your business, Rocco. I don’t owe you anything, least of all explanations. And I’m not here to see you. I came to see my mother.’
‘Your mother has gone.’
‘Gone?’There was shock in her voice and fear in her eyes.
‘I really have no idea,’ Rocco drawled, and she reached across the seat and clutched his arm with nervous fingers.
‘Was she at the funeral? I need to know if she was at the funeral.’
‘Yes. She left soon afterwards.’ He watched as she sank against the seat, her eyes closed, her relief visible.
‘Thank goodness,’ she whispered.
‘In that case you can stop the car. I’ll get back on the plane and I won’t bother you again. You can get on with your life.’
‘I intend to. But I certainly won’t be taking you back to the plane,’Rocco said smoothly.
‘We have much to talk about. Welcome home, tesoro.’
She was still his, he reminded himself with grim determination.
Everything else was in the past, and he was a master at keeping his eyes fixed firmly on the future.
Much to talk about?
Watching her hope for a rapid departure from Sicily crash and burn, Chessie tried to think fast. Why hadn’t she anticipated this? How could she have been so stupid as to imagine that she could arrive in Sicily and not be noticed?
At what point had she forgotten just exactly who her husband was?
They called him il lupo. The wolf.
He’d made his first million before he was even out of his teens, and then carried on amassing money with ruthless determination. As unpredictable as he was brilliant, he was also wild, ruthless and dangerously handsome. Chessie had once overheard a woman observe in dreamy tones that if the world were about to end, then she’d choose to spend her last night naked with Rocco Castellani.
He was the object of every woman’s fantasies, and being this close to him froze her normally agile brain.
Watchful and unsmiling, he lounged back against the seat, his powerful body almost unnaturally still and Chessie found his iron self-control strangely intimidating. Everything about him was dark. His eyes, his hair and his simmering temper. She gave a tiny shiver, because he embodied power and authority, and she knew that this man wielded more influence than her father ever had.
He was the ultimate smooth operator, but she wasn’t fooled by the sophisticated persona that Rocco presented to the world. The shockingly expensive hand-made Italian shoes, the exquisitely cut suit and the impossibly handsome face were nothing more than camouflage. A disguise designed to lull his opponents into a false sense of security. She knew that the charismatic smile that had seduced so many willing women hid a cold, tough streak that would have been the envy of the average barracuda.
It didn’t matter how this man dressed, or how he appeared to others. She knew the truth.
Rocco Castellani was Sicilian. Full-blooded Sicilian. And Chessie was one of the few people who understood exactly what that meant.
You could wrap a tiger in a sheep’s fleece but it would still be a tiger underneath.
His presence in the car was so unexpected that her cool determination deserted her. Her heart took off at an alarming pace and her insides suddenly churned.
‘You can’t seriously wish to continue with our marriage?’ She must have misunderstood him.
The silence stretched between them and she stared at him in panicked silence, finding it impossible to read his expression and equally impossible to look away from his glittering dark eyes.
‘Because our marriage is over.’ Because she’d left him. What Sicilian would forgive that?
He gave a faint smile.
‘It hasn’t even begun, tesoro. Thanks to you, we have much ground to cover. I’m looking forward to it.’
Her heart was pounding like a hammer against her chest, and her whole body was gripped by a reaction so violent she thought she might pass out.
‘What are you doing here? Why are you here? The papers said you were in New York.’ She’d been banking on it.
‘You should never believe everything you read in the papers, but I’m flattered to know that you’ve shown such an interest in my movements during your long holiday.’ His voice smooth, his eyes still on her face, he issued a set of instructions to the driver before relaxing back in the seat.
‘Clearly you were missing me. Don’t be embarrassed. It’s perfectly natural for a wife to miss her husband. I’m just relieved that we’ve now been reunited.’ His tone was smooth and civilised, but Chessie felt her palms grow damp—because she wasn’t fooled by his outward appearance of calm. Rocco was a deadly opponent, and she knew that her actions had put her in the role of adversary.
He had to be angry. She knew he had to be angry. And yet so far he hadn’t even raised his voice ‘H-how did you know I was on that plane?’ Her stammer was back, and she wanted to scream with frustration. Why now? Why, when she needed every bit of her new-found confidence, did everything she’d learned over the past six months suddenly desert her?
‘Why wouldn’t I know?’His firm, sensual mouth flickered into a faint smile.
‘After your father’s death, your return to Sicily was inevitable. It was only a matter of time. Patience isn’t my major virtue, but I struggled through.’
‘I thought I—You didn’t—’
‘Since you didn’t come home for the funeral, I assume you have finally returned because you are bored with your lover.’
‘My lover?’ She stared at him blankly, still trying to come to terms with the fact that he’d obviously been waiting for her return.
‘What lover?’ Still in shock, she couldn’t look away from his penetrating gaze, and her voice was barely a whisper.
‘You’re my wife. From the moment we exchanged vows, my security team was briefed to watch you closely. So if you’re trying to deny that you left our wedding with Carlo Mancini—’ he gave a careless shrug, as if the matter was of little consequence ‘—then you’re wasting your time. I hope you found him a satisfying sexual partner.’ Something in the way he delivered those words increased her tension, and she remembered that one of Rocco’s most deadly skills was his ability to think with a cool, clear head even when he was seething with anger.
And he was seething with anger. She sensed it. Sensed his inner struggle.
Unlike her father, Rocco had learned to control his unpredictable Sicilian temperament and use it to his advantage. Instead of confronting the enemy, he studied them, watching for weakness, picking his time to pounce and kill. She’d once read a profile of him in the financial pages of a quality newspaper that had described him as a master of strategy, a skilful tactician and a merciless adversary. He was a man who took no prisoners.
Except her. She had been earmarked to be his prisoner by virtue of their marriage.
It was one of the reasons she’d escaped. One of the reasons she’d taken off with Carlo. Carlo, her father’s gardener, who had just happened to be in the right place at the right time. It hadn’t occurred to her that Rocco would think they were lovers. In fact that assumption on his part was just another example of the differences between them.
She would no more take a lover on her wedding day than she would swim naked through a pool full of sharks, and the fact that he thought that she would said more about him than it did about her.
He was a man who didn’t know the meaning of the word love. A man who had never cared for a woman in his life. And she still couldn’t believe that she was trapped in the back of his car. She’d been so careful …