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His hand tightened on his wineglass, even as he said politely, “It’s not necessary.”

“I wouldn’t mind. After all, it’s my home, too, now....”

The candlelight flickered in the soft, invisible breeze. “No.”

His short, cold word echoed across the table. As their eyes locked, Emma’s heart cried out. For all the things they both weren’t saying.

Was this to be their marriage? Courtesy, without connection? Proximity without words?

Would this beautiful villa become, like the Kensington mansion had been, her empty, lonely tomb?

Taking another gulp of wine, she blinked fast, looking out at the dark, quiet night. Lights of distant villas sparkled like stars across the lake. She heard the cry of unseen night birds, and the soft sigh of wind rattling the trees.

“How did you first meet her?” she asked softly. “Your wife?”

“Why do you want to know?” He sounded guarded.

“I’m going to be your wife tomorrow. Is it so strange that I’d want to hear the story of the first Mrs. Falconeri? Unless—” she bit her lip and faltered “—you still can’t bear to speak of her...”

For a moment, she thought he wasn’t going to answer. Then he exhaled. “I was twenty-three.” He paused. “I’d inherited my uncle’s hotel. Not the hotel you worked at on Park Avenue, but an old, rickety fleabag on Mulberry Street. I struggled to keep it afloat, working each day until I dropped, doing everything from carrying luggage to bookkeeping to making breakfast.” He paused. “Angélique stumbled into the lobby one evening, taking cover from a rainstorm.”

He fell silent. He cut a piece of chicken, took a bite. Set his fork and knife down. Emma leaned forward over the table, on edge for what he would say next, barely aware of the cool night breeze against her overheated skin.

Cesare looked out at the dark, moonswept lake, haunted with October mist. “For me,” he said softly, “it was love at first sight.”

Emma’s heart lurched in her chest.

“She was so glamorous, ten years older, sexually experienced and—well, French...”

Everything she was not. Emma felt the pain twist more deeply beneath her ribs.

“We were married just six weeks after we met.”

“That’s fast,” Emma mumbled. He’d known her for almost eight years.

“I was dazzled by her. It seemed like a miracle that she wanted to marry me. After we wed, I was more determined than ever to make the hotel a success. No one would ever accuse me of living off my wife.”

“No,” she whispered over the lump in her throat. She took another gulp of wine, finishing off her glass.

“She was unique,” Cesare said in a low voice. “My first.”

He couldn’t mean what she thought he meant. “Your—first?”

“Yes,” he said quietly.

“But—you were twenty-three.”

“Amusing, yes?” His lips curved. “The famous playboy, a virgin at twenty-three. My uncle was strict, and after he died, I was too focused on the hotel. I had no money, nothing to offer any potential wife.”

It was a good thing she hadn’t been drinking wine or she would have spit it out in shock. “You were trying to save yourself—for marriage?”

“I was idealistic,” he said quietly. “I thought love was supposed to be part of it.” He glanced behind him at the villa, then at the dark water, scattered with gold and silver moonlight like diamonds on citrine. “Then it all died.”

Yes. She’d died. His one and only love.

“You still love her, don’t you?” Emma choked out. “And you always will.”

Cesare’s dark eyes abruptly focused on her. He put his hands over hers and said softly, “It doesn’t matter.”

She felt the warmth of his hands over hers, beneath the dizzying stars in the wide black-and-violet sky. Her heart beat frantically in her chest. She wanted to throw herself at his feet. To beg him to be faithful. To beg him to forget his long-dead wife and love her, instead.

“Of course it matters,” she said hoarsely. “My father used to say love is all that matters. It’s the only thing we leave behind.”

His expression hardened. “We both love Sam.”

“But is that truly enough for you to be happy?”

“Marriage isn’t about happiness,” he said. “It’s about keeping a promise. Until death do us part. And the truth is, you and I are already bound together. By our child.”

Bound, Emma thought unhappily. Bound like a rope around his wrists. Like a shackle. Like a chain.

She rose unsteadily to her feet. “I can’t do this.”


“Marry you.” She shook her head tearfully. “I can’t let this beautiful villa be turned into a tomb, like your house was for me in Kensington, with nothing but silence and shadows to fill my bed.... I can’t spend the rest of my life alone. Trapped with a man who doesn’t even want me.”

“You think I don’t want you?” His voice was dangerous.

“You say that I am special,” she said bitterly. “Your partner. Your friend. But we both know, once we are wed, you’ll take lovers. But I won’t. Because—I...” I love you, she almost said, but her throat closed when she saw Cesare’s face.

“Not want you. My God.” There was fury in his black eyes as he stood in the moonlight. “I told you I haven’t touched another woman in over a year, and you think I don’t want you?”

Her mouth suddenly went dry. “You—”

“You have no idea how hard it’s been not to touch you.” Reaching out, he slowly stroked down her neck, then leaned forward and whispered, “I’ve yearned to have you in my bed. Every night. I’ve thought of nothing else—but you.”

Sparks flew up and down her body everywhere he touched.

“But I was trying to do the right thing for once in my damned life,” he ground out. “In sickness and in health. For richer or for poorer. I was trying to do the right thing for our son. But the truth is all I’ve been able to think about, every single night, is having you naked beneath me.”

Emma couldn’t breathe.

Cesare’s gaze dropped to her lips. “And this is my reward for my sacrifice. You mean nothing more to me now than the housekeeper you were. You think—”

His voice ended with a growl as he ripped her into his arms. Holding her against his chest in the moonlight, he lowered his head, then stopped, his mouth an inch from hers.

Emma trembled at the warmth of his breath. She could almost taste his lips. Electricity seared through her veins.

“Please,” she whispered, hardly knowing what she was asking for. She licked her lips, felt her tongue almost brush against his skin. She shuddered with blinding need, from her body to her heart. He doesn’t love me. His heart is buried with his wife. “Lust,” she breathed aloud, staring at his lips. “It’s just lust.”

She heard his harsh intake of breath. In sudden movement, he pushed her against the wall, and lowered his mouth to hers in a savage, hungry kiss.

Sparks sizzled down her skin as she felt his body, hard against hers. His hand roamed down her neck, ruthlessly reaching beneath the neckline of her blouse, to cup her breast beneath her bra. She gasped as she felt his hand brush her aching nipple. As her lips parted in the gasp, he deepened the kiss, twining and flicking his tongue against hers. He took her mouth roughly, in a way that left no doubt who was master.

A soft moan came unbidden from deep inside her. Her arms rose of their own accord to wrap around his shoulders. His tall, muscular body pressed against hers, hip to hip, and she felt lost in his passionate embrace. She clutched his back, feeling the steel of his muscles beneath his shirt. His hips swayed, grinding against her.

Cesare kissed her, his tongue twisting hot and hard in her mouth, tangling, giving and taking. And Emma knew that whatever her brain told her she should want, that in her body and heart she’d wanted this, only this, for the past year. For years before that.

The truth was that she’d waited for it all her life.

But this wasn’t just lust for her. No matter how she’d tried to convince him otherwise. The truth was trembling inside her. I love you. I never stopped loving you.

Her hands reached up, tangling in his short black hair. She pulled him closer, clutching his shoulders, lifting on her tiptoes to kiss him with all the anguished love in her heart. He gripped her hard against the rough stone wall.

They kissed on the balcony, with the moonswept lake at their feet, and if a cool October wind blew against Emma’s overheated skin, she no longer felt it. Cesare’s hands moved over her body, sliding down her thin blouse, up her arms. Her breasts were crushed against his hard chest, and every inch of her was on fire.

His kiss possessed her with an intensity and force she’d never felt before. It was as if she alone could save him from destruction, as if he were taking her very breath to live.

When he drew back, he looked down at her, his eyes wide. Tilting back her head, he gently ran his thumbs over her full, swollen lips.

“Tell me to stop,” he said with a shuddering breath. “For God’s sake. Tell me now...”

But she couldn’t. She could no more tell him to stop than she could tell herself to stop breathing, or the stars to stop shining. She loved him, and for one more night, the pathetic truth was that she was willing to do anything, pay any price.

Tags: Jennie Lucas Billionaire Romance