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“How can you say that?” she demanded.

“Are you honestly telling me that it’s better for Sam to believe his own father abandoned him? Yes, I’m selfish. Yes, I work too much. Yes, it’s possible I might buy him a pony. Maybe I wouldn’t be a perfect father. But you wouldn’t—won’t—even give me a chance. It isn’t Sam that you fear will be a burden.” He looked at her. “It’s you. You’re afraid I will take charge of him, and you’ll be left behind. You’re afraid for yourself. Only yourself.”

Emma stared at him, her lips parted in shock. The accusation was like a knife in her heart.

Was he right? Could he be?

She shook her head fiercely.

“No. You’re wrong!”

“You don’t want to lose him,” he growled. “Neither do I. From this moment, his needs must come first.” He paused. “I did think of suing you for full custody...”

Those words were an ice pick in Emma’s heart. She made a little whimpering sound. “No...”

“But a custody battle would only hurt my son. I’m not going to leave him in Bouchard’s care, either. Or abandon him, whatever you say. I’m not going to shuttle a small child between continents, between two different lives. That leaves only one clear path. At least it’s clear to me.” Pulling a small jewelry box from his tuxedo pocket, he opened the box, revealing an enormous diamond ring.

“Emma Hayes,” he said grimly, “will you marry me?”


CESARE STOOD BEFORE her, waiting for her answer. He hadn’t even thought of bending down on one knee. His legs were shaking too badly. He was relieved his voice hadn’t trembled at the question. The words felt like marbles in his mouth.

Hearing a soft gasp, he glanced behind him. Five members of the restaurant’s staff were peeking from the kitchen door, smiling at this moment, waiting for Emma’s answer, in that universal interest in the drama of a wedding proposal.

Will you marry me?

Four simple words. A promise that was easy to say, though not so easy to fulfill.

Cesare had the sudden memory of his father’s bleak face after his beloved wife had died in his arms. The same look of stark despair on Angélique’s face when Cesare had come home and found her dead, an empty bottle of sleeping pills on the floor beside her.

No. He wouldn’t let himself remember. This was different. Different.

Cesare held the black jewelry box up a little higher, to disguise how his hand was shaking.

“Marry you?” Emma’s eyes were shocked. Even horrified. She gave an awkward laugh. “Is this a joke?”

“You think I would joke about this?”

Biting her lip, she looked at the ring. “But you don’t want to get married. Everyone on earth knows that, and from the day I’ve known you, every woman has tried to marry you anyway. We used to laugh about it.”

“I’m not laughing now,” he said quietly. “I’m standing in front of you with a twenty-carat ring. I don’t know how much more serious I can be.”

Her beautiful face looked stricken. “But you don’t love me.”

“It’s not a question of love—at least not between us. It’s a question of providing the best life for our son.”

Her gaze shuttered, her green eyes filling with shadows in the flickering candlelight of the restaurant. She backed up one step—physically backed away—wrapping her arms across her body, as if for protection.

Nothing prepared him for what came next.

“I’m sorry, Cesare,” she said quietly. “My answer is no.”

He was so shocked, his hand tightened on the jewelry box, closing it with a snap. He’d assumed she would say yes. Instantly and gratefully.

He heard gasps behind him and whirled to face the restaurant staff hanging about the kitchen doorway.

“Leave us,” he growled, and they ran back into the kitchen. He turned to face Emma, his jaw taut. “Might I ask—why?”

She swallowed. He saw her face was pale. This was hard on her, too, he realized. “I told you. I won’t be a burden.”

“Burden. You keep using that word. What does it mean?”

His dangerous tone would have frightened most. But standing her ground, she lifted her chin.

“You know what it means.”

“No, I don’t. I know you’ve lied to me for months, that you stole my son away without a word. But instead of trying to take him away from you, instead of seeking revenge, I’m trying to do the right thing—a new experience for me, I might add—while you keep whining words like love and burden.”

Her shoulders drooped as, biting her lip, she looked down. For a long moment, she didn’t answer, and he looked at her in the darkness of the restaurant. She looked so beautiful in the flickering candlelight, with all of the lights of Paris at her feet.

Cesare’s throat tightened.

He thought of the night he’d found her in the dark kitchen, after her stepmother’s funeral. He’d taken one look at her tearstained face, at the anguish in eyes which had never shown emotion before, and his own long-buried grief had risen in his own soul, exploding through his defenses. He’d thought he was offering her solace, but the truth was that he’d been seeking it himself. Against his will, in that moment, Emma had made him feel again....

Now he heard her take a deep breath.

“Whatever you think now, this desire to commit won’t last. You don’t want the burden of a wife and child. We both know it. You don’t know what marriage means.”

“We both know I do,” he said quietly.

Her eyes were anguished as tears sparkled—unheeded, unfought—down her cheeks like diamonds. “But you don’t love me,” she whispered again.

“And you don’t love me,” he said evenly. “Do you?”

Wordlessly she shook her head. He exhaled. “This marriage has nothing to do with romance.”

She gave a half-hysterical laugh, swooping her arm to indicate the roses, the view of Paris, the twenty-carat diamond ring. “What do you call that?”

He gave her a crooked half grin. “I call it...strategic negotiation.”

Emma gave another laugh, then her smile fell. “A marriage without love?”

“Without complications,” he pointed out. “We will both love our son. But between us—the marriage will be in name only.”

“In name only?” He’d shocked her with this. He saw it in her face. “So you wouldn’t expect us to...”

He shook his head. “Sex complicates things.” Not to mention made it hard to keep the walls around his heart intact. At least where she was concerned. He hesitated. “Better that we keep this relationship...”


“Cordial, I was going to say.”

She took a deep breath.

“Why would I agree to give up any chance at love?”

“For something you want more than love,” he said quietly. “For a family. For Sam.”


“I will love him. I’ll be there with him every step of the way. Every single day. Isn’t that better than trying to shuttle him between two separate lives, where he never knows where he belongs?”

Raw yearning filled her soft green eyes. Blinking fast, she turned away, to the dark, sparkling view of Paris. “I’ve worried about what would happen to Sam, if anything ever happened to me...” Looking up at him, she swallowed. “I’ve been in remission a long time, but there are no guarantees. If the cancer ever came back...” She looked up at him. “I’ve been selfish,” she whispered. “Maybe you’re right. Maybe even a flawed father is better than none.”

“I will be the best father I can be.”

“Would you?” she said in a small voice. Her beautiful face was tortured, her pink lips trembling, long dark lashes sweeping against pale cheeks. “Or, if I were crazy enough to accept, would you panic within a month and run off with some lingerie model?”

Coming toward her, he took both her hands in his own. “I swear to you, on my life,” he said softly. “Everything your father was for you—I will be for him.”

He felt her hands tremble in his.

“I won’t let you break his heart,” she whispered.

“I don’t lie, and I don’t make promises. You know that.”

Her voice was barely audible. “Yes.”

“I don’t make promises because I consider myself bound by them.” Gently he placed the black jewelry box with the silver Harry Winston logo into her palm. “I’m making you a promise now.”

Her anguished eyes lifted to his. “Please...”

“You are the mother of my child. Be my wife.” Brushing back long tendrils of black hair from her shoulder, he lowered his head to her ear. He took a deep breath, inhaling the scent of her. She smelled like vanilla and sunlight, like wildflowers and clean linen and everything good he’d once had but had lost so long ago. He felt a shudder of desire, but pushed it aside. He wouldn’t let sex complicate this relationship. He couldn’t. Pulling back, he said softly, “Be my wife, Emma.”

Tags: Jennie Lucas Billionaire Romance