Authors: Karen Erickson
Something mysterious flickered in his gaze when she said the last word in particular. “Your questioning is unfair.”
“I don’t think so.” She wasn’t about to admit her truth. That she’d remained true to him all these years. That guilt and some sort of silly infatuation kept her from being so daring as to fling herself into the arms of another man and beg him to take her. She’d kissed a few men over the years. Nothing too serious, not one of them affecting her with a mere touch of his lips as Rafael had.
Yet another reason for her to be so furious with what he’d done to her. Why him? Why did her body, mind, and whatever else have to react so strongly to him all the time?
“Tell me, Rafe,” she urged when he still hadn’t said anything. “Tell me if you’ve been faithful to me. If you have, then we can get married. If you haven’t…”
“What then?” he asked.
“Then our endless engagement is officially over. You can go your own way and I can go mine.” Her lips curved into a smile. She had him. No way could he admit he’d been faithful to her. She’d call him out on his lies because she knew it wasn’t true. The man hadn’t a faithful bone in his body, just like her cheating, no good father.
This was perfect. She’d been a wreck before speaking to him and somehow still figured out a way to talk herself out of this farce of a marriage.
Her new life would finally begin. Now.
His supposed bride-to-be was furious with him; he could see it written all over her pretty face, the passionate fire blazing in her hazel eyes, the tension stiffening her slender body. She’d caught him red-handed with her questions, set up a trap he had no choice but to fall into guiltily, and damn it, he wished he could lie to her and make it believable. Not that he was an outright liar—he just didn’t want to hurt her with the ugly truth.
But he couldn’t lie, and she knew it. She caught him. He had no choice but to admit his guilt.
“No,” Rafe finally said on a shuddering breath. “I haven’t been faithful to you since the start of our engagement.”
A ridiculous question for her to ask him, considering they’d been engaged since they were children and had rarely seen each other ever since. No one would expect him to be faithful to her. She was right. They hardly knew each other. He didn’t know her at all other than she was beautiful and seemingly kind. She had somehow stepped into a leading role at her family business, which he couldn’t help but admire, and the taste of her lips was sweeter than anything he’d ever experienced.
But none of that counted, not really. At least, according to her.
“Then our pending marriage is null and void.” The high wattage grin she flashed him sliced through his heart. Christ, she was beautiful. And unfortunately, according to her, she was no longer his. “It’s over.”
How could it be over when nothing had ever begun? He kept his question to himself, watching as she moved away from him, the smile still on her face. She was quite pleased with the results of their conversation. There was no denying it.
“You really want that? To end this?” he asked quietly, causing her head to jerk toward him. “Because I don’t.”
An exasperated sigh escaped her and she shook her head. She really was extraordinarily beautiful when she was angry. “You say things like that and the words mean nothing. You don’t know me, you just like the idea of me.”
“The idea of you?” What did she mean?
“The thought of me as your sweet, young wife waiting for you at home while you’re out doing whatever you want. Me, cleaning your house and warming your bed, making your meals and chasing your children, tied to this…lonely, unfulfilled life. And you’ll get everything you could ever want.” The bitterness in her voice was unmistakable. She didn’t want this sort of life or want him.
But he didn’t want that sort of life either. Yes, he’d spoken to Matteo of the submissive little woman waiting at home for him, but did he really mean it?
After spending just a few minutes with Catalina and seeing how she so desperately didn’t want a marriage like that, neither did he.
He couldn’t believe how quickly she could change his mind.
“You’re sorely mistaken if you think that’s all I want from you,” he started, but the withering stare she shot in his direction silenced him.
“Please. You’ll say all the right things now because you want me to believe you, but be honest with yourself. You don’t know me, don’t love me or feel absolutely anything for me. Why would that change when we’re married? It wouldn’t. It absolutely wouldn’t, and you know it. In fact, our relationship would probably take a turn for the worse because we’ll slowly start to resent each other. Resent our businesslike marriage and how we let it happen.” She paused, pressing her lips together. Had she revealed too much? He was thankful for her candor even though it hurt.
“You don’t want a relationship based on nothing,” he said, his voice flat.
She had a valid point, one he couldn’t argue. Quite frankly, he’d grown weary of the argument for marriage in general. With Catalina, he got a sense that he couldn’t win. She would trump him every single time.
Rafe knew the right move would be to back down and walk away. He didn’t want to—it was the last thing he wanted to do, but he didn’t want to be trapped forever with a resentful wife either.
“You’re right,” he agreed, earning a shocked gasp in reply. “Our marriage would be based on nothing but an outlandish agreement made years ago between two men whose children didn’t know each other and never really would. I can’t ask you to marry me, Catalina. It wouldn’t be right.”
She was quiet for a moment, staring at him as if she couldn’t quite believe he just said that.
“It’s Cat,” she finally whispered, her voice trembling.
Frowning, he met her troubled gaze. “What did you say?”
“My friends and family, they call me Cat,” she explained, confusing him further. Certainly she didn’t think of him as a friend or a member of her family.
So why mention the nickname now?
“It just sounds so formal when you call me Catalina,” she explained further when he didn’t reply.
“And isn’t that what you called our agreement? Too formal?” She had, hadn’t she? He couldn’t remember. The endless words they’d spoken to each other this evening were all starting to run together.
She shrugged. “Yes, but…I got tired of hearing you call me Catalina.”
, I appreciate the sudden informality, but I suppose this is the end.” He liked the sound of it. Cat. The nickname fit her. Made him think of a gorgeous, sleek feline, slinking into his life, turning his head. This woman constantly aroused him to an almost painful state only to turn around and leave him in the dust.
Exactly what she’d done to him tonight.
“I guess so,” she agreed, her voice hollow, her gaze…sad? No, it couldn’t be. He was reading her wrong. He must’ve read her wrong for years.
What an idiot he was.
“This is what you want.”
“Absolutely.” She nodded. “Freedom. I’m dying for a taste of freedom. I want to see the world before I settle down, you know? We used to spread our time evenly between Chicago and here, but the last few years, we’ve rarely left Italy.”
Chicago was the U.S. base for Campioni, where many of their relatives lived and also maintained a small branch. But Carlo Campioni had run out of funds, hence his inability to return to the States. Not that Rafe would throw his knowledge of their financial state in her face. He knew most everything about her family.
Not marrying him wouldn’t give her an opportunity for freedom. Didn’t she realize she’d only become married to her family business if she didn’t wed him? That it would suck her dry, working so hard to build the company back up after her father had nearly destroyed it?
But she wouldn’t listen to reason, not now, especially coming from him. Still, he couldn’t help but say something.
“If you gave me a chance, I could’ve shown you the world. Together, just the two of us,” he said softly.
Surprise flitted over her face, her full lips parting, forming a little O. “Don’t say things you don’t mean.”
“I never do.”
Silence settled between them once again, thick with promise. Could she not sense it? Feel it? The tension between them? The attraction? It was more than obvious to him, permeating the air and making it hard for him to focus. She looked frazzled too, her eyes full of confusion, her cheeks flushed a delicious pink. She gnawed on her lower lip as if she wanted to chew a hole in it, and he wondered what she might be thinking.
Not that she’d tell him, oh no. She’d already written him off as bad for her. As if his sole intention was to ruin her life and leave her a domesticated slave available to his every whim.
A rather unfair assumption, and one he couldn’t seem to convince her out of.
“I appreciate you giving me no trouble,” she finally said, drawing herself up to her full height as she thrust her shoulders back, looking so very mighty and strong despite her petite stature. “And letting me back out of this agreement between us. You know it was the right thing to do.”
“If you say so,” he murmured, his gaze never leaving her pretty, oh-so-tempting face. “Give me one last kiss goodbye, then? Between old friends and ex-future husband and wife?”
She rolled her eyes, some of the fire back. He liked seeing that hint of fire, the flash of defiance. Maybe Matteo was right. A little feistiness in a woman wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. “You must be kidding.”
He schooled his expression, trying for solemn. Really, he wanted to laugh, yank her into his arms and lay one on her. “I never kid about kisses, Cat. That is one thing you’d learn if you were to marry me.” There was heated promise in his voice and he hoped like hell she noticed.
Pressing her lips together, she approached him quickly, leaning in for the fastest, barest peck upon his lips he’d ever experienced.
But he was quicker than that, thank Christ. He slung his arm around her slim waist and hauled her in, her slender, slightly curvy body pressing up against his, her lips achingly close to his mouth. She tempted him beyond measure, despite her eager rejection and he wanted to prove to her that they could be good together.
If only she would give him a try.
Without warning, he pressed his mouth to hers, softly. Reverently. Her eyes were wide open as she stared up at him, and he broke the kiss, letting his lids fall to half-mast as he leaned in and kissed her again. One corner of her mouth, then the other, tasting those succulent lips, pleasure rippling through him when she closed her eyes as if lost to the deliciousness of his mouth on hers. Savoring her lips, he darted out his tongue quickly, tasting her. Drawing the moment out as slowly as he could. Using it to his advantage so maybe, just maybe, he could get her to change her mind.
That he had to work so hard to try and change her mind was mind-blowing, but nothing had been normal about this situation from the start. What could he expect?
Withdrawing from her for the barest second, he studied her pretty, upturned face, her damp lips, her closed eyes and those thick, dark lashes. God, she was a true beauty, one he wanted to explore further, but she shut him down. Not giving him a chance.
So he took another kiss, this one lingering longer, coaxing her lips apart with his own as best as he could but she held firm. Stubborn female, he thought with slight amusement when he finally broke the kiss, noting the telltale throb of her pulse at the base of her neck when she opened her eyes to stare up at him in silent awe.
She was just as affected by the kiss as he was. Perhaps even more so. Triumph surged through him even knowing that she could still walk away.
“Goodbye, Cat,” he whispered, wishing his mouth was on hers once more.
“Goodbye.” Her voice trembled as she unconsciously swayed toward him.
“Want more?” he asked, sounding like a cocky bastard even to his own ears.
That snapped her out of her haze, damn his arrogant hide. “Absolutely not,” she returned, pushing him aside so she could stride past him, her heels clipping the concrete pavers as she hurried toward the open door and slipped inside the reception room, where the small gathering still seemed to be in full swing.
He remained outside for long, dark minutes, trying to gather his thoughts, his pride, his everything.
Rafe had come to this small event to confront his future wife and demand that she marry him and soon.
Instead, he would leave alone, with no fiancée, no future, no nothing. Just a lonely existence without bride to call his own. Until this very night, he hadn’t realized he truly wanted no one else, only Catalina.
And she’d turned him away instead.
The night air was warm, the cool breeze having disappeared hours earlier, and Cat wondered for what felt like the hundredth time if she’d ever get any sleep. The clock on her bedside table mocked her, the time glowing bright red at her like a message brought forth by the devil himself.
Past two a.m. and she was still wide awake, her thoughts filled with a certain irritating man who drove her crazy.
And an irritating man who secretly drove her wild with barely restrained passion.