Sheikh's Forbidden Conquest - Out in the UK June 2015 Sheikh's Forbidden Conquest - Out in the US June 2015 A Bride Worth Millions - Out September 2015 A Bride Worth Millions - Out September 2015

A Bride Worth Millions

A Bride Worth Millions

Mills & Boon Modern Romance

September 2015

ISBN: 0263249107

 

Harlequin Presents

August 2015

ISBN: 0373132751

 

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About the Book

Athena Howard has always lived in the shadow of her daring sister Lexi, but Athena is forced into the spotlight when she escapes from her society wedding with Italian playboy Luca De Rossi. Luca needs to marry – and fate has provided him with a bride, but will the marriage be torn apart by secrets...

 


Read an Excerpt

It felt as though someone was using a pneumatic drill to bore into her skull. Wincing with pain, Athena forced her eyes open. Without her glasses her vision was blurred, but she was certain she did not recognise the elegant décor of eau-de-nil walls and dusky blue furnishings.

Her mouth was parched. She carefully turned her head and made out a glass of water on the bedside table.

So she was in a bed. But whose bed?

Random memories came into her mind. Charlie and his best man Dominic in bed together… Her crazy idea to climb out of the window at Woodley Lodge and her terror when the ivy had given away and she had fallen...

Her brother-in-law Kadir’s friend Luca De Rossi had caught her before she’d hit the ground. And Luca had helped her to run away from her wedding—at least he had driven her away in his sports car and brought her to his hotel. She had a vague recollection of being in a hotel bar and Luca saying that he would take her up to his suite and make her coffee.

Which meant that this must be Luca’s room—and she must be…in Luca’s bed!

Another piece of the jigsaw slotted into place. She remembered that Luca had undone the lacing at the back of her dress before lifting the wedding gown over her head. Oh, God! Her face burned as she recalled with excruciating clarity how she had stood in front of him in her underwear and said, ‘Take me, Luca, I’m all yours.’

She thought he’d murmured, ‘Lucky me,’ in a dry tone. But she couldn’t be sure, and after that her memory was blank.

Carefully she turned her head the other way on the pillow and was relieved to find that she was alone in the bed. But the tangled silk sheets seemed to suggest that a lot of activity had taken place between them.

Athena’s heart juddered to a standstill.

Had she? Could she have had sex with Luca and not remember anything about it? He was a notorious womaniser, and she had literally thrown herself at him. Perhaps he had accepted her offer.

In a strange way it would be a relief if she’d lost her virginity without being aware of it, she thought, nibbling her lower lip with her teeth. She had allowed the incident that had happened years ago, with a university professor friend of her parents who had been giving her extra Latin tuition, to affect her for far too long. If she had had sex with Luca it couldn’t have been too traumatic if she had no recollection of it.

She sat up and instantly felt very sick. The sheet slipped down and she saw she was wearing the white push-up bra that was part of the pretty bridal underwear set she had hoped would excite Charlie on their wedding night. Grimacing, she peeped beneath the sheet and discovered that the matching lacy thong was still in place, which suggested that her virginity was also intact.

‘Good morning,’ a gravelly voice said, followed curtly by, ‘Although it beats me if there is anything good about it.’

Athena whipped her head round and instantly regretted moving so quickly as the room and her stomach lurched in unison. Luca was sitting in an armchair close to the bed. He was dressed entirely in black, and his tight-fitting sweater moulded his torso so that she could see the delineation of his powerful abdominal muscles beneath the fine wool.

Lifting her gaze higher, she noted that the night’s growth of dark stubble on his jaw accentuated his raw sexual magnetism. His mouth was curled in an even more cynical expression than usual, and she felt unnerved by the assessing expression in his amber eyes. The fact that he was dressed seemed to indicate that he had not accepted her drunken invitation the previous night, but Athena was desperate for confirmation.

‘If I spent last night in your bed, where did you sleep?’

His black brows snapped together, but his voice was deceptively soft as he drawled, ‘Where do you think I might have spent the night?’

Her jerky glance at the rumpled sheets betrayed her. Luca’s eyes narrowed and he swore. ‘Are you suggesting that I took advantage of you while you were paralytic? Could you be any more insulting?’

She swallowed and rested her aching head against the pillows. ‘I’m sorry...but I don’t remember anything that happened after you brought me to your suite last night…and I need to know if you...if we...’

He moved with the speed of an attacking cobra as he sprang up from the chair and leaned over the bed, placing his hands on either side of her head.

‘You are not in my bed. This hotel suite has two bedrooms. Let’s get a few facts straight,’ he said grimly. ‘Number one—if we’d had sex I guarantee you would remember. Number two—I only make love to women who are conscious and capable of participating. Number three...’ Luca’s wolf’s eyes gleamed with a hard brilliance ‘...I dislike being manipulated, Miss Howard.’

‘What do you mean?’ she asked shakily.

His face was so close to hers that even without her glasses she could almost count his thick black eyelashes. The rigid line of his jaw warned her that his hold on his temper was tenuous. But despite his anger Athena did not feel the wariness that she usually felt with men. Far from it. She hardly dared to breathe as her senses reacted to the warmth emanating from Luca’s body and the intangible scent of his maleness.

Molten heat washed over her entire body and pooled between her thighs. She was painfully aware of the ache in her breasts and her pebble-hard nipples chafing against her lacy bra cups. The intensity of her desire shocked her, yet deep down she felt relieved at this proof that she had normal sexual needs just like any other woman, and that the assault when she was a teenager had not destroyed her sensuality.

She pictured Luca lowering his body onto hers and pinning her to the mattress with his hard thighs. She imagined how it would feel to have her breasts crushed against his chest and her lips crushed beneath his mouth as he kissed her with fierce passion.

The urge to moisten her dry lips with the tip of her tongue was overwhelming. She saw his eyes narrow as he watched the betraying gesture, and she sensed from his sudden stillness that he knew she wanted him to kiss her.

He jerked upright, leaving her confused by her reaction to him and pink-cheeked with embarrassment.

This is what I mean,’ he said harshly, dropping a pile of newspapers onto the bed.

Athena tried to ignore her pounding headache as she sat upright and peered at the headline on one of the papers. ‘What does it say? I can’t read it without my glasses. Thank you…’ she murmured when Luca shoved her spectacles into her hand.

She put them on and drew a sharp breath as she saw clearly the newspaper headline and the photograph below it of Luca holding her in his arms in the hotel bar. She had her arms wrapped tightly around his neck and a silly grin on her face that in the cold light of day made her want to die of mortification.

Bride Jilts Toff for Italian Playboy!’ screamed the headline, followed by a paragraph explaining how The Honourable Charles Fairfax had been left heartbroken after his fiancée Athena Howard had run off with his old school friend from Eton College, famous fashion designer Luca De Rossi, an hour before their lavish wedding was due to take place.

‘Oh, my God,’ Athena said faintly. There were a hundred questions in her mind and she voiced the top one. ‘How did the journalists know you had brought me to your hotel?’

‘Drop the innocent act,’ Luca growled. ‘Obviously you tipped off the press about our location and told them this lie about us having an affair.’

‘No… No, I didn’t!’ she stammered, suddenly realising that behind Luca’s unreadable expression his anger was simmering like a volcano about to erupt. ‘Why would I have done that?’

He shrugged. ‘I don’t know. Maybe you had a row with Charlie and wanted to hurt him. You used me as your stooge. I helped you to escape from Woodley Lodge because I believed your helpless “I can’t marry Charlie because I don’t love him” routine, and this is the thanks I get,’ he said savagely as he picked up another newspaper with a similar sensational headline and screwed it up in his fist. ‘I don’t know why you did it. Who understands what goes on in women’s minds?’ Luca muttered.

His jaw clenched as he recalled his phone conversation with Giselle half an hour ago. The story about him stealing Athena from under his old school friend’s nose had made the headlines in Italy as well as England, and Giselle had refused to be placated or to listen to him when he’d tried to explain that none of it was true.

Is this Athena woman with you at your hotel in London?’ Giselle had demanded.

He had been unable to deny it . ‘Yes, but…’

The rest of his words had been drowned out by Giselle’s shrill tones.

‘You’ve made me look a fool to my family and friends. Everyone knew that you and I were supposed to be getting married, but a week before our wedding you’ve been caught with your pants down with your best friend’s bride.’

‘I have not been caught with my pants down,’ Luca had said grittily, ‘and neither is Charles Fairfax my best friend.’

At Eton, Charlie had been an irritating boy from a lower year who had hung around him and Kadir because Kadir was a sultan. Privately Luca had suspected that Charlie wasn’t interested in women, and he’d been surprised to hear that he was getting married.

‘And your family only know about our wedding,’ he’d continued, ‘because against my advice you told them. I said we should keep the news of our marriage of convenience a secret. I’m sure I don’t need to remind you that you will be well paid for being my temporary wife.’

‘You’re damned right, I’ll be well paid,’ Giselle had said in a hard voice. ‘I’m upping my price, cherie. I want two million, or the marriage deal is off.’

He had underestimated Giselle, Luca acknowledged. He had dismissed her as an airhead. But she understood that the closer it got to his birthday the more valuable she was. He was unlikely to find another woman prepared to marry him within the next two weeks and be his wife in name only.

Giselle had believed she was calling the shots, but Luca had had enough of being manipulated—first by his grandmother and now by a gold-digger. He had not lost his temper—that wasn’t how Luca operated. But anyone who had crossed swords with him in the boardroom would vouch that behind Luca De Rossi’s charming smile lay a heart made of ice and an implacable will that was second to none.

‘I swear I didn’t tell the newspapers that you and I are…involved.’

Athena’s soft voice dragged Luca from the memory of his row with Giselle and the grim realisation that, although calling her bluff and telling her to get lost had been infinitely satisfying, he had blown everything.

‘But I think I can guess who did.’ Athena bit her lip. ‘I suspect it was Charlie.’

‘Why would Charlie tell the press that you’d jilted him and run off with one of the wedding guests?’ Luca said impatiently. ‘The story makes him look foolish in public. I remember at school he was a pompous oaf—he’ll hate people believing that you dumped him for another man.’

‘He has to put the blame on me to hide the fact that he is having an affair with…’ Athena hesitated. She believed Charlie really had tipped off the press that she was at the hotel with Luca, but her innate sense of loyalty stopped her from revealing his secret relationship with Dominic. ‘With someone else,’ she finished flatly.

‘Charlie is having an affair?’ Luca’s brows lifted in surprise.

Athena could be lying, he reminded himself. But he found he believed her. This morning she looked young and curiously innocent, with her face scrubbed of make-up and her long chestnut-brown hair rippling down her back. She had tugged the sheet right up to her chin, but not before he had glimpsed firm, round breasts that reminded him of plump peaches framed by a wispy white lace bra.

She kept darting shy glances at him from beneath the sweep of her lashes. But the sexy underwear that he’d seen last night when he had removed her wedding dress and put her into bed indicated that she was as sexually confident as he would expect of a woman in her mid-twenties who had been about to get married.

‘When did you discover that Charlie was being unfaithful?’

‘Just before I climbed out of the window.’ Athena pushed a heavy swathe of hair back from her face. ‘I knew I couldn’t go ahead with the wedding. I panicked, and all I could think of was to get away. I thought Charlie would explain the truth about why the wedding was cancelled. I was horrified when my mother told me on the phone that Charlie had accused me of running off with you, but I never thought that he would lie to the press.’

She looked down at the lurid newspaper headlines and missed the flash of anger in Luca’s eyes

‘Are you saying you already knew Charlie had accused you of having an affair with me?’ Luca asked in a dangerous voice.

‘Mum said that Charlie saw us drive off in your car. I assumed he had told his parents and mine that he’d suspected me of seeing another man in the weeks before the wedding. Of course you and I know he was lying…’

Her voice tailed off as Luca swore savagely.

‘But now the story is in the newspapers and the whole damn world believes that you and I are lovers,’ he grated. ‘If you knew last night that Charlie had lied to the press, why the hell didn’t you say so? I might have been able to stop the story from being printed.’

‘I…I didn’t think.’ Her mother would say that was nothing new, Athena thought bleakly. And she did not actually remember much about the previous evening after she’d drunk several cocktails.

‘I don’t suppose there’s any point telling the newspapers the truth about why I ran away. Charlie will deny it was him who was unfaithful and everyone will think I’m accusing him unfairly out of spite. We can only hope that the story will quickly be forgotten.’ She gave Luca a hopeful look. ‘I’m sure no one will pay much attention to gossip in the tabloids.’

Dio! Her chirpy optimism caused Luca to grit his teeth. She was either an incarnation of Mary Poppins, or a good actress—and his experience of women and the games they played made him favour the latter.

‘The woman I was due to marry was riveted by the tabloid headlines,’ he said sarcastically.

Due to marry? You mean you’re engaged?’

Athena’s stomach swooped. She couldn’t explain the hollow sensation she felt inside at Luca’s revelation. He had a reputation as a womaniser, and she wondered what kind of woman had finally tamed him.

‘Not any more—since Giselle read in the papers that I stole my old school friend’s bride from under his nose and, according to at least one overly imaginative tabloid journalist, we spent last night having hot sex at my hotel.’

Luca cast a glowering look at the newspaper photo of him carrying Athena into the hotel lift. He hadn’t noticed any photographer in the lobby, but he had been distracted when Athena had pressed her face against his throat and he’d felt her warm breath graze his skin.

It was possible that she had been aware of the photographer, he brooded. She might even have arranged for the press to be at the hotel. She’d admitted that she had discovered hours before her wedding that Charlie had cheated on her—perhaps she had decided to pay her errant fiancé back by being photographed apparently on her way to bed with her lover.

Oh, no! That’s terrible about your fiancée!’ Athena’s hand flew to her mouth and she dropped the sheet, exposing the sexy push-up bra that was nothing like her usual sensible underwear. Flushing hotly, she snatched the sheet back up to her chin.

‘It’s too late for modesty,’ Luca told her impatiently. ‘Last night you were so drunk that I had to take off your dress and put you into bed.’

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