Authors: Karen Erickson
“Fine, so you leave me here all alone to take care of Mama. Thanks so much. You’re so considerate,” Annalisa said snidely.
What had she done to earn such horrible, hurtful remarks from her sister? All her life, she’d been nothing but kind and quiet. Always wanting to tag along after Annalisa, who’d barely tolerated her when they were kids. They’d grown closer over the years, but lately their relationship had started to deteriorate. Cat had no idea why. “I always take care of Mama when she needs me. You know she’s gotten better.” Somewhat. Would she ever be better? Maybe if their father came home and stayed for once, Mama would finally get out of the depressed cloud she’d been living in.
“Since she found out you left, she’s been a wailing, uncontrollable mess. She’s afraid you’re going to ditch her forever, just like Father did.” The scathing tone in Annalisa’s voice did not go unnoticed.
“He didn’t ditch her forever. He’ll be back,” Cat said, but she didn’t necessarily believe it. How many times had both of them said those very words to their mother, to each other? And how many times had the man come back into their lives for a fleeting moment, only to disappear again, sometimes for long, agonizing months?
Too many times to mention.
“He’s never back for long, you know this. She’s deathly afraid you won’t return. That you’ll run away to be with that asshole of a man.” The bitterness in Annalisa’s voice had reached new heights. “I hope you’re happy with your decision to take him back. I thought you were through with him.”
Cat turned away from where Rafe stood nearby, not wanting him to hear her answer. “I thought I was through with him too. But…but maybe I’m not.”
“God, you’re so stupid,” Annalisa yelled. “Falling for a selfish man’s charms. He’s just using you, you know. He wants to get in your pants, use you, then walk away.”
Her sister’s words hurt, more because Annalisa verbalized her every fear.
“I really hate you for leaving me here with her. With our mother. She’s distraught. Worried that something terrible is going to happen to you.” Annalisa’s voice lowered. “Sometimes, Cat, when you do shit like this, I really do hope something terrible is going to happen to you. It’s the least that you deserve.”
Never, ever had her sister spoken to her so cruelly. “You don’t mean it.”
“Oh, but I do. You think you can do whatever you want, have any man that you want, but you can’t, Catalina. You have a life here with your family. Responsibilities that only you can take care of. You can’t neglect us forever. You need to return home. Now.”
Cat blinked back tears and shook her head, feeling silly since Annalisa couldn’t see her do it. “I’m coming home Monday.”
“That’s not good enough.”
“I don’t have a choice. Monday will have to do,” Cat said, her voice growing weak as the tears threatened to take over completely.
“Leave now, Cat. March your butt down to the airport, buy the first ticket home and come back to us. You’ve proved your point, had your little taste of freedom. Now you need to come back here,” Annalisa demanded.
“Give me that.” Rafe appeared above her, wrenching the phone from her hand and hitting the End Call button on the bottom of the screen. “Quit listening to that horrendous cow before she has you dissolving into a puddle of tears and unable to get yourself back together.”
She choked on the sob that had lodged in her throat. Fear coursed through her. Would he send her away? At least then Annalisa would get her wish. “D-did you hear what she said?”
“I didn’t need to hear. I could see how she was trying to destroy you word by word just by watching when you spoke to her. Your face turned ghostly white and you still look like you’re going to cry.” He tossed the phone onto the couch where it landed beside her and settled in, wrapping his arm around her shoulders and gently pulling her against him. “She may be your sister, but she doesn’t have to be so damn abusive toward you.”
“She’s not abusive,” Cat automatically defended, ignoring the disbelieving snort that came from Rafe. “She’s under a tremendous amount of pressure, what with our father never around to help with the business. Everything involving the company tends to land on her shoulders and she’s been trying to straighten out the mess our father left behind for years. When I’m around, I’m a big help to that burden.”
“That’s wonderful. I commend both you and your sister for taking on such major responsibilities at such young ages, but that doesn’t mean you don’t deserve a little time to yourself,” Rafe said, his gaze tender as he studied her.
“Annalisa never takes time for herself. She says she can’t afford to, especially not now.”
“I could give two shits what your sister says.” Rafe sounded infuriated—on her behalf. That realization sent what felt like a bazillion butterflies flapping away in her stomach. “Now come on. Pull yourself together and let’s go out for breakfast. We’ll need a big meal to fortify us for a long afternoon of shopping.”
“Don’t you ‘oh, Rafe’ me, Cat. You want this just as badly as I do. You
it, to help you forget.” He took her hand and pulled her to her feet, smoothing his thumb across the back of her hand. Her skin tingled from his fleeting touch. “I hate what I witnessed just now.”
She stared up at him, remaining silent. No one had ever defended her before. Nor had anyone ever seen just how cruel Annalisa could be toward her.
“I—I’m sorry you had to see our silly family fight. It won’t happen again, I promise.” She stood and started to walk away from him, ready to escape for at least a little while. But he went after her and grabbed a hold of her arm, keeping her there. With him.
“It wasn’t about the fight. It was how she berated you and insulted you and made you feel like a stupid, useless human being. I didn’t need to hear her to know that’s exactly what she was doing to you.” He blew out a frustrated breath. “No one should be talked to like that, least of all by your blood relative.”
“She’s an unhappy person,” Cat said, her voice small.
Rafe snorted. “I’ll say.”
“Part of that is my fault,” she said hurriedly. “I’m nothing but a burden to her. We all are.”
“Jesus.” Rafe yanked her to him, holding Cat in his arms, so close she could feel his delicious warmth seeping into her. “Don’t listen to her. You’re not her burden. She brings that all on herself. You can do and be whatever and whoever you want to be, Cat. Don’t you realize that?”
“I—I don’t know what I want to be. I thought I had everything all figured out. My entire life, I’d been told that someday I would be Mrs. Rafael Renaldi and that I would belong to you.” She laughed, but there was no humor behind it. “And then I foolishly asked to end it and you agreed. Now I’m nothing. Nobody. The forgotten daughter. The burdensome sister. I’m nothing,” she repeated.
“You’re something to me. Say the word, Cat. Say yes and we can be engaged once more. Hell, I’ll take you down to the courthouse this afternoon and we can handle this properly.” He squeezed his arms around her tight, pulling her in so close she was pressed intimately against his solid, hard body. “Forget what you thought you wanted and focus on me. On us. Be my bride once more, Cat. Say yes.”
“I don’t know,” she said, her voice soft.
Talk about a swift kick in the balls. He’d never felt lower in his life than he had when she said those three simple, irritating-as-hell words.
I don’t know.
He could whisk her away from that horrendous sister of hers and show her a new life. A better life. One where she wouldn’t feel like someone’s obligation, where she wasn’t left to the whim of a super controlling, bitchy sister like hers. He’d give Cat whatever she wanted, no questions asked. He liked her.
But he also felt sorry for her. This, he knew, was a dangerous combination. Would sympathy dictate his motives? That wasn’t fair to her—or him.
So instead of hashing over the tyrannical diatribe Cat had just suffered on the phone and the following squashed marriage proposal, Rafe swept all the ugliness under the virtual rug and reminded Cat they had a breakfast to get to.
He took her to a small café near his apartment building, where he’d plied her with eggs, bacon and hash browns until she was groaning in protest over having to eat one more bite. They then hopped into a taxi, where he’d been quietly amused at the way Cat clutched at her stomach while the driver raced like a bat out of hell through the streets of Manhattan. All the while bemoaning her too-full stomach and the cabby’s crazy driving.
Finally, they’d ended up in one of the high-end department stores he knew his sister Stasia liked to frequent, figuring he couldn’t go wrong with the location. It would have everything Cat would need under one roof. She’d acted reluctant at first, protesting that she didn’t want to shop on his dime or spend his money. Nothing seemed to please her as they wandered through the departments. He followed behind her, growing more and more frustrated, finally ready to call it quits when she stopped short on the third floor in front of a mannequin display.
“Oh, it’s beautiful,” she said with quiet reverence, her entire body going still as she drank in the sight before her.
He moved so he stood next to her, studying the tall, bony-looking mannequins dressed in barely there, sparkly dresses. The one he preferred was in the middle. The dress was sleeveless with a scoop neck and almost indecently short—and completely covered with iridescent sequins that caught and threw the light like a walking disco ball.
A sexy-as-hell disco ball, that is.
“Which dress do you prefer?” he asked, waving at the display.
“The one in the middle.” She sighed, a wistful sound that made his heart ache for her. Seemingly all over a dress, though he knew his ache was for far more. “I love the color of the sequins. Not quite gold, not quite silver, and so pretty.” She went to the dress and smoothed her hand down the front of the skirt. “It’s too short.”
“It would show off your legs like I wanted,” he pointed out.
She flashed him a smile from over her shoulder. “Probably too much leg.”
Probably, but he wasn’t about to agree with her. He could tell she wanted that dress too damn much and he didn’t want to dash her dreams. “I’m not protesting.”
Laughing, she shook her head and checked the price tag, an audible gasp escaping her. “It’s way too expensive.”
“How much is it?”
“No.” She shook her head, backing away from the display. “There’s no way I would let you buy that for me.”
“Cat. Tell me how much.”
She started to walk away, heading in the opposite direction they came. “I don’t want it, Rafe. Please. Let’s find something else.”
Ignoring her, he stepped up to the dress in question and checked the tag. Twenty-eight hundred dollars. A ridiculous amount of money for a scrap of fabric, but if wearing the dress tonight would make her happy, then she was an owner. No questions asked. “You should try it on,” he called out to her.
“And get my hopes up? No way.” She stopped in the middle of the aisle and turned to study him. “I’m not trying it on.”
He continued to ignore her, going to the racks behind the mannequin display, where he found the dress hanging. He thumbed through the various sizes, pulled out what he believed could be the one she wore and held the dress up for her to see. “You are definitely trying this on. I’m dying to see what it looks like on you.”
She slowly approached him, casting her gaze about the area, no doubt making sure no one was watching them, which they weren’t. The entire store was fairly quiet. “I won’t let you spend that kind of money on me, Rafe. Especially for a dress like that.”
“That’s my decision to make. Now, let’s find you a dressing room.” He grabbed hold of her arm and started to lead her deeper into the women’s department, noticing the sign on the wall that stated the dressing room area was located in the far right corner.
“Are you sure?” She chewed her lip nervously as they walked through the endless racks of clothes toward the back.
“I’m positive. Honestly? I’m dying to see you in this. And if it fits and you love it, then we’re getting it. And we’ll need to find you shoes to go with it.” Stiletto heels preferably, something that would make those sexy legs look infinitely long.
“You’re making my head spin,” she warned.
“Is that a bad thing?” he teased.
“Absolutely.” She paused. “A girl could get used to this sort of treatment.”
He hauled her in close, his mouth right at her ear. “The girl of which you speak could have this sort of treatment every day for the rest of her life if she so chose.”
“Rafe…” Her voice trailed off, and he wanted to kick himself.
Cat made him push. Made him want. It was an unusual position for him to be in, considering he’d never felt like this before.
For once in his life, he needed to learn how to back off. She needed to come around on her own terms.
Letting the subject drop, he urged her into the dressing room with only the one dress to try on, knowing instinctively it was the only choice. She took forever, testing his patience, causing him to pace back and forth in front of the entrance until finally, finally she came out to show him how she looked in the dress.
And nearly stole his breath away when he first set eyes on her.