Tia Grayson has never known life outside the Brazilian convent she calls home. Until Max Leonelli arrives with the shocking news that she is heiress to an English fortune—and ignites a burning need for his touch. A billionaire…Tia’s grandfather expects a match between his protégée and his heir—but Max is not a marrying man. Until the sight of Tia’s ravishing beauty has him reconsidering. A baby? Max must escort Tia home, but desire soon overtakes them. After one incendiary night, the potential for consequences gives Max the perfect opportunity to claim Tia as his bride!
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‘IT’S A VERY big favour and I have no right to ask it of you,’ Andrew Grayson admitted ruefully, angling his wheelchair closer to the fire, his pale worn face taut.
Max Leonelli, a multimillionaire financier at the age of twenty-eight, who had known Andrew since he first entered his household at the age of twelve, frowned. ‘Anything,’ he declared, without hesitation in making that pledge.
Andrew surveyed the younger man with quiet pride. It was way too late to admit that he should have married Max’s aunt and adopted him. His housekeeper’s nephew had come into his life as a homeless adolescent, traumatised, frightened and distrustful. No sign of those traits was to be seen in the powerful and sophisticated businessman Max had become.
Women, furthermore, were mad for Max. The beautiful boy with wounded eyes had grown into a striking man with olive-toned skin sheathing spectacular bone structure and a hard, challenging gaze. Max was tough and his humble beginnings and horrible childhood had merely made him tougher but he was also fiercely loyal. And since Andrew’s failing health had removed him from the daily stresses of his international business empire, Max had been at the helm of it in firm control. While it had been Max’s baptism of fire he had proved to be more than equal to the challenge.
‘This goes beyond anything and you won’t like it,’ Andrew warned him.
Max was confused because Andrew usually came straight to the point. ‘OK…’
Andrew breathed in, his breath rasping in his struggling lungs. ‘I want you to marry my granddaughter.’
Black-lashed dark eyes flaring bright as topaz in the firelight, Max stared back at the older man in sheer bewildered disbelief. ‘Your granddaughter lives in a convent in Brazil.’
‘Yes and I want you to marry her. It’s the only way I can protect her when I’m gone,’ Andrew declared with conviction. ‘I should have fought her father when he refused to let her visit me but up until last year I still hoped that Paul would come home and step into my shoes and I didn’t want to alienate him. After all, she was his daughter, not mine. It was his right to decide how he wanted her raised.’
Max released his pent-up breath slowly. Marry a girl he had never met? A convent-bred female oddity who had not returned to the UK since she was born? It was an utterly extraordinary request but it was also the only serious sacrifice Andrew had ever asked of him and would inevitably be a last request because Andrew was dying. At that thought, Max’s eyes burned as though he had got too close to the fire, his sleek, strong, bone structure tightening into disciplined rigidity because Andrew’s quiet dignity demanded that restraint.
‘Tia is all I have left, my only surviving blood relative,’ Andrew reminded him heavily, his shadowed eyes veiling at the acknowledgement as he turned his greying head away, momentarily sidetracked by the grief of having lost both his sons.
Three years had passed since his elder son, Steven, had died childless, but it was only two months since Andrew had received word that his younger son, Paul, had succumbed to a sudden heart attack in Africa where he had been buried without fanfare and without ever properly mending fences with his estranged father. Tia was Paul’s daughter, the result of his short-lived marriage to a Brazilian fashion model.
‘She should have been made a part of our lives long ago,’ Andrew sighed.
‘Yes,’ Max agreed, reflecting on what little he had learned about Tia’s father, Paul. A generation younger than both of Andrew’s sons, Max had only ever known Steven. Steven had worked for his father for years, a conscientious plodder who lacked initiative. Paul, so Max had been told, had been far brighter and more promising, but he had walked out of his job in his mid-thirties and gone off to become a missionary, severing his ties with his father and the business world and ultimately losing his wife in the process. On Paul’s first posting to Brazil, his wife had gone off with another man, leaving her husband and her infant daughter behind her. Paul had dealt neatly with that unwelcome responsibility by placing the little girl in the care of the local nuns and continuing his travels to work with and preach to the poor in the world’s most troubled places.
‘Why would you want me to marry her?’ Max asked gently.
Andrew groaned. ‘Think about it, Max. She knows nothing about our world and she’ll be a substantial heiress. It would be like throwing a newborn baby into a shark tank. She will desperately need someone to look after her and guide her until she finds her own feet.’
‘She’s not a child, Andrew,’ Max pointed out wryly. ‘She’s…what? Twenty-one?’
‘Almost twenty-two,’ the older man conceded grudgingly. ‘But she still needs a safe harbour until she can learn her way in this cut-throat world.’
‘She may have grown up in the Amazon Basin but she may also be a great deal more current than you think,’ Max argued.
‘I doubt it and, while thousands of my employees depend on the stability of my companies, I’m not prepared to take that risk. I have a duty of care towards them as well. Tia will be a sitting duck for fortune hunters. I’ve been in contact with the Mother Superior at the convent. My biggest concern was that Tia ultimately intended to become a nun but apparently she has never expressed that wish.’
‘So why is she still living in a convent in her twenties?’ Max enquired with a faint edge of derision.
‘I understand that she works there now. Don’t judge her, Max. She’s never known anything else. Paul was a very rigid man and frankly more than a little sexist in his outlook. He wanted a son. On his terms a daughter was simply a worry and a disappointment. He seemed obsessed with the idea of keeping her pure and safe from modern influences. I believe he hoped that with his encouragement she would eventually enter the novitiate.’
‘But she hasn’t.’ Raking a long-fingered hand through his black tousled hair, Max strode restively across the room to help himself to a malt whiskey while wishing that he could not see Andrew’s point of view.
As the Grayson heiress, Tia would be a target and Max knew what that felt like because he had been a target since he made his first million. He knew more than most about being wanted primarily for his wealth and the richer he became, the more he was stalked, pursued and flattered by women who would have been equally keen to catch him were he ugly and old.
‘And I’m very fortunate that she hasn’t because everything I worked all my life to achieve would be sold up and given to the convent if she were one of the sisters there,’ Andrew pointed out ruefully. ‘I owe my employees more than that. I would also like to meet her…’
‘Of course you do.’ Max compressed his wide sensual mouth. ‘But I don’t need to marry her to fulfil that wish.’
‘It’s unlike you to be so slow on the uptake,’ Andrew murmured wryly as he frowned at the younger man with shadowed blue eyes. ‘Obviously I want to leave everything to you and Tia together.’
‘Together?’ Max repeated in a stunned undertone.