…to his pregnant Cinderella!
Billionaire Dante Lucarelli’s fake relationship with penniless waitress Belle Forrester is only supposed to last two weeks, to help clinch his latest business deal. But Dante has underestimated the all-consuming power of the attraction that sparks instantly between them. Now, one astounding night of seduction in Paris will change the course of their convenient arrangement for ever…
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DANTE LUCARELLI, BILLIONAIRE renewable energy entrepreneur, roared down the private road on the powerful motorbike, revelling in the wind against his skin, in the rare sense of freedom. For a very short space of time all his problems evaporated. And then that magical moment was over and he was recalling his duties as a guest and slowing down to enable his host, Steve, to overtake him.
‘You let me win!’ Steve growled, punching the taller male’s arm in retribution as they parked the bikes. ‘Where’s the fun in that?’
‘Didn’t want to show you up in front of the locals,’ Dante tossed back, his thick blue-black hair tousled, white teeth glinting in the sunlight against his lean bronzed features as he grinned down at his former schoolmate. ‘Anyway, it’s your bike… And so this is it? Your latest venture?’ he added, glancing through the overhanging pine trees at the restaurant surrounded by decking and overlooking the swimming lake. Sited above the sandy beach, it had a funky, carefree, Caribbean vibe. ‘Kind of small, isn’t it, for a guy who builds skyscrapers for a living?’
‘Knock it off,’ his friend urged, a burly blond man with the build of a rugby player. ‘It’s seasonal and does very well when the weather’s good.’
‘And employs a lot of those locals you like to take a paternal interest in,’ Dante mocked, knowing Steve’s sense of civic responsibility all too well. Steve Cranbrook was a kind man and one of the very few men Dante trusted.
They were in the south-east of France, a rural, far-from-touristic area where Steve had bought a chateau on a hill as a summer home for himself and his family. His all too numerous family, Dante reflected with a near shudder. Steve had four of the little blighters, two sets of twins under five, and they had been crawling over Dante and demanding attention ever since he had flown in earlier that day, which was why the break from the chateau was welcome. It wasn’t that Dante disliked children, just that he wasn’t used to them and weathering Steve’s sociable kids was like trying to stand in the path of a hurricane armed with innumerable arms, legs and chattering tongues.
‘It’s not like that,’ Steve protested. ‘I just invest when I see the chance and contribute if there’s a good cause. There aren’t many employment opportunities around here.’
Dante took a seat at a wooden table hewn out of a giant tree trunk. Shrewd dark-as-pitch eyes swept the colourful bunting fluttering in the breeze as he picked up on the rampant beat of the music coming from the speakers and noted the youthful gathering at the bar. ‘I bet this is the only party place in the neighbourhood,’ he commented.
‘Pretty much, but the food’s good too. We get a lot of family trade when the beach is busy. So, tell me, when are you meeting with Eddie Shriner?’
Dante’s lean, darkly handsome features tensed as the bite of his biggest problem sank its teeth into him afresh. ‘In two weeks’ time, and I still haven’t got a woman on board to keep Krystal at bay.’
‘I thought Liliana was stepping up as a favour,’ Steve incised in surprise.
‘No, that fell through. Liliana wanted an engagement ring as an inducement,’ Dante admitted with an exasperated frown of recollection. ‘Even though it would be a phoney engagement, I wasn’t taking the risk of travelling down that road even with her.’
‘An engagement ring?’ Steve queried in surprise. ‘Why on earth would she need a ring to pretend that she was your girlfriend again for Krystal’s benefit?’
Dante shrugged a lean shoulder. ‘She said it was a matter of pride, that she would lose face in front of Krystal if she didn’t have a ring, because why else would she have reconciled with me when we broke up years ago?’
‘Your love life…’ Steve groaned, raking a rueful hand through his floppy blond hair. ‘If you didn’t dump so many women and leave them bitter and angry, you wouldn’t be in this situation.’
Dante compressed his eloquent mouth in silent disagreement. He had no intention of ever marrying and producing children, and he had never lied to a woman on that score. He was upfront about his sex life and there was no room for love in it. Any woman who thought otherwise soon learned her mistake. He didn’t get attached to women—never had, never would—and Liliana was the only exception to that rule. She was an ex who had become a friend and he genuinely respected and liked her, but he had still not been able to love her or want a more serious relationship with her.
Even trusting Liliana had initially been a challenge because Dante had never had quite the same view of women since he had caught his deceitful mother in bed with one of his father’s closest friends. His snobbish mother, who stood in social judgement over others for their smallest mistakes and was quick to turn her back on them. He had soon realised that his parent regularly slept around. His indifference to Liliana had, however, told Dante all he needed to know about his own essentially cold heart. Without a doubt, he had inherited that ice gene from his unloving parents, he acknowledged grimly.
His sole experience of love had been his deep attachment to his older brother, Cristiano, and when Cristiano had died a year ago, it had shattered Dante and left him tormented with guilt. He often thought that had he been less selfish he might have saved his brother. Tragically, however, Cristiano had taken his own life because he had never been able to stand up for himself. Placed under intolerable pressure by their demanding parents and trying desperately hard to please as the eldest son and heir, Cristiano had crumbled and ultimately snapped under the strain.
And now the best that Dante could do in memory of his late brother was strive to buy back that little piece of woodland heaven where Cristiano had gone whenever life became too much for him. Sadly, in the wake of their firstborn’s death, their parents had immediately sold that piece of land for the highest price possible to Eddie Shriner, a resort developer currently married to Dante’s most embittered former lover. Even since marrying Eddie, Krystal had made several unashamed attempts to get Dante back into her bed. The woman was incorrigible and the last thing Dante needed was Krystal coming on to him while he was trying to make a business deal with her husband.
‘You should hire an escort to play your girlfriend. That sort of a woman, someone you pay,’ Steve disconcerted him by suggesting, his voice dropped to a discreet level across the table lest he be overheard.
‘Sounds dodgy and dangerous,’ Dante countered with a grimace, his attention stolen by the petite young woman standing by the bar with a tray.