Authors: Karen Erickson
A fact that was rarely spoken of, what with the way Campioni came to their father just before Giorgio Renaldi died, begging for financial help. Their father had given in since he’d always had a soft heart for his lifelong friend. They’d called it a loan at the time.
Of course, he’d never paid the Renaldis back. He’d even asked for more money after their father’s death, which Matteo had reluctantly agreed to and handed over. Rafe viewed the loan as an investment. Insurance that Catalina indeed belonged to him and no other.
A rather barbaric way of thinking, but he’d never been considered a man of modern thoughts when it came to women. Perhaps that was wrong, but it worked for him. In his not too-distant past, women were always playthings. Useful to find his sexual pleasure before he carefully set them aside. Not that he ever treated them poorly, oh no. He had a reputation of being most thoughtful when it came to his past lovers. Discreet and respectful were two words bandied about when spoken about him and his affairs.
But that was all they were. Affairs. There was only one woman he set high on a pedestal. A woman whom he firmly believed was meant for him, who would soon belong to him forever.
And that woman was the young, vibrantly beautiful Catalina Campioni.
Matteo chuckled and shook his head. “You cannot own a woman, Rafe. I know Catalina is young, but if she heard you talk about her like that, she’d probably be tempted to slice your balls clean off.”
Rafe flat out laughed. “I doubt that. Our impending marriage is exactly what she wants. She will be the perfect, quiet, submissive little wife. I can’t help it if you married a fiery woman who constantly keeps you on your toes.”
“I happen to like Paige that way.” Matteo patted him on the shoulder, a secretive smile curling his lips. “And if you think your future bride is a sweet, quiet sort who will do whatever you tell her to, no questions asked, then you have another thing coming.”
Studying Catalina again, Rafe let his gaze linger. Her long, dark brown hair fell far past her shoulders, shiny and straight to the middle of her back. The sleeveless turquoise dress she wore accentuated her slight curves; the short skirt emphasized the length of her impossibly long legs. She laughed at something her sister said, turning her head so she could scan the room, and their gazes snagged. Held.
He stood straighter, refusing to look away, and she didn’t look away either. The smile fell from her lips, replaced with a worrisome frown that produced an adorable little wrinkle between her brows. She cut her gaze from his quickly, resuming her conversation with Annalisa.
Within seconds, he received a disapproving stare from the sister and he quickly turned his attention to Matteo, icy dread slipping down his spine.
He despised her censure-filled stares. Would rather put their unwanted encounter where it belonged—firmly in the past. Annalisa looked at him as if he were a squashed bug on the bottom of her shoe and Catalina appeared ready to bolt.
“I honestly don’t understand it, but if you want her so badly, perhaps you should give it a try between the two of you,” Matteo said. “But why have you avoided her the last year or so? You do know that I and the rest of the family assumed the two of you would be married by now. At the very least, publicly engaged and with a firm wedding date. But I suppose that’s what I get for assuming.”
Hell, he was so tired of the lectures and the warnings and the questions and the flat out “don’t do it” statements. His relationship with Catalina wasn’t simple. For the last year he’d tried to respect her request for needing time. As the months went by, he grew more and more impatient.
He wanted to marry and bed her—quickly. Relenting and giving in wasn’t normally part of his personality, but when it came to Catalina, he didn’t do things as normal. How could he refuse that pretty face, the sweet voice begging for some time to think? The taste of her lips had still been on his tongue when she made her request. The pleading look in those beautiful eyes of hers had been his undoing.
The happiness that had lit her face when he agreed to her request had sent arousal spiraling through him. She’d gone to him and stood on tiptoe, delivering another one of those chaste kisses upon his lips before she slowly pulled away.
He’d grabbed her by her tiny waist and kissed her thoroughly, her lips parting easily for him despite her obvious reluctance. She’d stiffened in his arms, her hands pushing at his shoulders for the merest of seconds before she’d melted against him. Falling perfectly into the kiss as if she couldn’t resist.
That had done it. He’d known then they were made for each other.
But still he’d waited. Like a fool.
Tonight, though, he was done. The waiting was over.
Catalina belonged to him and no other. And she needed to realize this fact.
“God, I can’t stand him. Look at how he’s watching you. As if you belong to him like his own personal toy and he’s about to come over and stake his claim. Sickening.” The disgust in her older sister Annalisa’s voice was more than obvious. She’d never contained her dislike for Rafael Renaldi or Catalina’s tenuous link to him.
Cat had grown used to that link over the years. As a child, she’d found her potential future with Rafael quite romantic. Knowing that one day, she’d be married off to one of the handsomest boys she’d ever seen? No protesting on her part.
As she’d become a teen, she found herself completely enamored of the charming, enigmatic Rafe. After bragging about her future and earning too many questions and even mocking laughter, she’d kept their arrangement a secret from her friends. Had closed herself off to any potential teenage boyfriends—and there had been quite a few who’d come around, interested in seeing her, talking to her. Dating her.
She’d turned them all away, never telling them why. How she wished she could tell them she was promised to someone else. Someone older and more mature, who would someday be ready to take her hand and make her his bride. In her mind, body and spirit, she was already taken.
What a foolish, stupid girl she’d been.
They’d seen each other a few times throughout her teenage years. She’d admired him from afar and spoken to him like a bumbling fool every time he came near. He was polite, somewhat attentive, a bit impulsive. As in, he’d sneak away from her every chance he got, but she blamed it on their four-year age difference. At sixteen, no way could she hold the interest of a twenty-year-old man.
At least, that was what she told herself.
But then she’d become older. Wiser. A little more jaded as to the ways of the world. Specifically, the destruction of her parents’ marriage opened her eyes. Life was not always full of romance and flowers and beautiful, perfect things.
Like Rafe’s numerous indiscretions with an endless stream of beautiful, sophisticated women. His well-known reputation amongst the Italian and U.S. fashion industries as a charming flirt couldn’t be denied. The man hadn’t a faithful bone in his body.
Exactly like her father.
The very man who’d slowly, quietly destroyed their family over the years. Oh, her parents were still together—miserably. But her mother was a mere shell of a woman. Her father was never around. Her sister was bitter against men in general.
Cat in turn had become bitter against one man in particular.
“He believes he still does own me in a way,” she finally answered, earning a scathing glare from Annalisa. “What? It’s true.”
“Papa sold you to the highest bidder,” Annalisa bit out, her lips tight, her golden eyes narrowed into slits.
“Not quite. Our fathers were best friends. They believed Rafael and I would make a good match.” They’d gone over this story again and again. Once upon a time, she’d been perfectly fine with it. Now, she was desperate to back out of her arranged marriage.
“I suppose I should be thankful Papa didn’t sell me to him. Or worse, the older, lecherous brother who married his nanny,” Annalisa said with a sneer. “All the Renaldi men are heartless pigs.” She looked down on everyone, specifically every man. They were horrible creatures in her eyes.
“You don’t even know him,” Cat said softly, wishing her sister wasn’t so judgmental. “Matteo Renaldi is a respected businessman in the industry. You know his father and ours were great friends.”
“Don’t try and enlighten me on how wonderful the Renaldi men are. We both know what they really are,” Annalisa muttered.
“And what exactly are they?” Cat asked.
“Well, Matteo is a sneaky bastard who bedded his nanny. Rafe charms his way into the pants of every woman he meets. And Vincenzo is married to some model he never, ever sees. What sort of relationship is that?” Annalisa ticked off every rumor like they were the absolute truth when most of it was gossip.
And Annalisa had no qualms throwing Rafe’s reputation out there. Not caring that it might hurt her sister’s feelings.
Which it did. It was one thing to worry about what Rafe was doing when she was alone with her thoughts. Another thing entirely when her sister blatantly called him out on his faults right in front of her. Cat wondered more than once if Annalisa secretly relished berating Rafe for her benefit.
“Oh, Anna.” Grimacing, Cat looked away, casting her attention on anything but the man staring at her from across the room—or her embittered, never-happy sister. It seemed no one was pleased with whatever life delivered them.
She noticed Matteo with his young American nanny, now wife. Paige Renaldi was lovely, probably the same age as Cat, and she looked so joyous as she stared into her husband’s eyes, Cat felt a sharp pang in her heart. The pang turned into a rather large crack when she noted the pure happiness radiating in Matteo’s gaze as he laughed at something his pretty wife said.
Cat wanted that sort of marriage. One built out of love, adoration and respect. Not some ridiculous, prearranged agreement between two best friends who thought their families should be linked together forever.
Yes, she wanted her freedom from Rafe Renaldi. Didn’t want to be tied down like her mother at such a young age to a man she didn’t love, let alone really know. She wanted a chance to be free, to experience life to its fullest. Not married and endlessly pregnant, taking care of the bratty children while her no good husband was off philandering. All while she grew whiny and fat and miserable.
No, she couldn’t stand the idea of turning into her mother. It could so easily happen too…
“Don’t ‘oh, Anna’ me.” Annalisa’s grating voice broke through Cat’s thoughts. “You know you don’t want this marriage, so quit defending our father and what he did to you, making you some sort of slave to Rafe Renaldi’s every whim. He’s a disgusting beast of a man anyway. So…large. And…broad. I’m sure he would manhandle you and scare you to death, let alone what he might do to you once you’re in his marital bed.”
As if she couldn’t help herself, Cat let her gaze return to the man they were discussing. She didn’t mind his largeness. Or his broadness. The idea of him manhandling her in their marital bed didn’t set her heart trembling in fear.
More like set her body quivering in pleasure.
Stop it. You don’t want him. He’ll trap you into a life that will leave you miserable.
She thought of the kiss they’d shared. How she’d melted in his arms as if she’d been made for him. The taste of his lips, his velvety tongue sliding against hers when he deepened their kiss. He’d devoured her, really. The way her body had lit up at first touch of his hands, the tingles that had washed over her when he whispered her name…
“He’s a handsome devil, I’ll give him that,” Annalisa rattled on. “But a practiced charmer who will decimate you with a few chosen words if you don’t watch it. You’re weak, Catalina. You know this. He’ll have you wrapped so tight around his finger you won’t know any better. You’ll believe every lie he feeds you.”
“I’m glad you think so highly of me,” Cat retorted, irritation ripping through her. God, did everyone believe her a gutless ninny? Most likely, what with the way she’d accepted her fate without protest the majority of her life.
Well. Maybe for once, she needed to protest. Stand up and fight for what she believed in. At this very moment, the thing she believed in most was rather simple.
Remorse filled her sister’s eyes and Annalisa reached out, grabbing hold of Cat’s arm and giving it a reassuring squeeze. “I didn’t mean to insult you, Cat. You know this. It’s just your situation with that—
makes me so angry. On your behalf,” she added hurriedly.
Cat had wondered more than once if her sister wasn’t jealous over the fact that she hadn’t been the chosen one for Rafael. Annalisa and Rafe were closer in age. It made sense that they would be matched up over her.
But nothing about the entire situation made sense. She’d given up questioning the logic behind the decision long ago.
“Of course, on my behalf.” Cat nodded, noticing movement out of the corner of her eye, and she turned, her lips parting when she saw what was happening. “What in the world…”
Her sister gasped loudly as Rafael Renaldi himself made his way toward them, pushing through the small crowd that filled the reception area of their father’s business. Well, their business now, what with Annalisa having run the small, independent, leather goods company for over two years, Cat at her side, helping as much as she could. They weren’t as huge and well known as Renaldi, but they did well enough.