Bound By The Millionaire’s Ring
BOOK 3 in the Sauveterre Siblings
The playboy’s temporary fiancée…
Millionaire racing driver Ramon Sauveterre is no stranger to fame, but he’ll do just about anything to keep the spotlight off his family. Including propose a decidedly short-term engagement to his gorgeous head of PR, Isidora Garcia!
Isidora cannot forgive Ramon for dragging her into this farce—just as she’ll never forgive him for the indiscretion that broke her heart. But while their relationship might be fake, the burning longing his kisses spark is all too real—and resisting Ramon’s heated touch until the end of their arrangement proves utterly impossible…
Bound By The Millionaire’s Ring
BOOK 3 in the
"This is why I’m such a bastard. This is why I don’t compromise. This is why I can never be the man you wanted me to me."
— Ramon, Bound By The Millionaire's Ring
I would like to claim I knew exactly what I was doing before I began writing the Sauveterres. I knew about fifty percent of what I wanted to do and half of that changed after I sent the proposal to my editor.
I knew Ramon was an utterly shameless playboy, though. He’s the opposite of his cool and aloof twin, Henri. I also knew Isidora had a secret in her past concerning her father, but I wasn’t clear on how she would clash with Ramon.
Then, as I was writing the scene in His Mistress With Two Secrets, when we meet Ramon for the first time, I realized they needed a PR person. Isidora walked in minutes later. She’s a childhood friend of the girls’ and she hates Ramon.
Well, she had a terrible crush on him from childhood, which was humiliating enough when he refused to take her seriously. Then, when she was eighteen, he did something truly unforgiveable. (He didn’t really, but he deliberately allowed her to think he had.) I won’t spoil it, but he was trying to spare her heart and instead, he broke it into little pieces.
They have a long way to go. I hope you enjoy their journey!
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Bound By The Millionaire’s Ring
Isidora Garcia didn’t glance up as her boss entered her office. She recognized him in her periphery and was only a little surprised he was here in Paris. He was a new father, but when there was a crisis with one of his sisters, particularly Trella, he waded in without hesitation.
“I just saw it,” she assured him. “I’m emailing—”
She cut herself off as preternatural knowledge struck. Her body tingled and her skin felt stroked. Her fingers became clumsy while her blood grew hot and thick in her veins.
She didn’t have to look up to know that was not Henri Sauveterre advancing on her. It was his twin, Ramon.
A flash of intense vulnerability went through her. Treachery. Anguish.
She clamped down on the rush of emotion, hiding it behind a falsely cool lift of her gaze to the man who looked identical to the one who had arm-twisted her into taking this position. They were both ruthless in their own way, but at least Henri wasn’t cruel.
“I didn’t know you were in Paris.” Her voice came out steady enough to hide the tightness that invaded her throat.
Like Henri, Ramon’s dark hair was cut short, but had a tendency to spike on top. His clean-shaven, spectacularly handsome features were sophisticated without being pretty, angular without being rugged. His Sauveterre eyes were green when they were amused and gray when they were not.
His irises were somewhere between slate and ash this morning, making a knot of tension coil in the pit of her stomach. His sensuous mouth sat in a flat line. His honed physique flexed beneath his tailored suit as he set his hands on her desk, leaning in to confront her.
“Why aren’t you doing your job?”
His lethal tone cut her in half, sending a burst of adrenaline through her.
Oh, she hated herself for still being sensitive to his every word. Him, with his superiority, and opportunistic streak, and complete lack of conscience. She wanted to hate him. Did hate him. But she remained susceptible. In fact, it was worse, now that she knew how brutal he could be. At least when she’d been young and stupid, she hadn’t feared him.
She took a firm grip on herself and tried to hide her dread by casually looking back at her screen. She couldn’t absorb what she’d been writing. She waved at her keyboard, aiming for nonchalance. “I’m doing it now. If you weren’t interrupting me, I could get on with it.”
She managed to sound composed and begged her hand to stay steady. She didn’t want to reveal the fine trembles that worked upward from a deep, inner flutter in the pit of her stomach.
Because even with hatred and fear gripping her, she found him utterly compelling.
“What can you possibly do at this stage?” he growled. “The cat is out. Why didn’t you prevent it?”
“Prevent your sister’s pregnancy?” Her pulse hammered once, hard, as she met his gaze, but she managed to tilt her mouth into a facetious smirk. “Not in my bailiwick, if you can believe it. I’ve had three discussions with her, suggesting we leak the news in a controlled way. She chose to stay mum.”
Pun not intended. Trella was tall and a wizard with cutting cloth to create the effect she wanted, but she was five months along. She couldn’t hide it forever.
“You should have had a fourth discussion. And a fifth. Your father had the contacts to keep these things under wraps. Why don’t you?”
Her heart stalled. Oh, he was not going to bring her parents into this, was he? That was such dangerous ground.
At least it flipped her out of defensive mode into a willingness to go toe-to-toe.
“Even my father can’t control every person with a social media account. The photo was posted by a woman visiting her mother at the hospital. You took Trella there yourself—in that car everyone notices. Of course people watched to see who got out.”
She punctuated with a look that said, “Take some responsibility for a change.”
“The only reason it took this long for the trolls to call it a baby bump was because they were having so much fun shaming her for gaining a few pounds.” Then, as she remembered his sister-in-law had delivered twins by emergency cesarean a few days ago, she asked, “How are Cinnia and the babies?”
“Fine.” He pushed off the desk, expression blanking to aloofness—it was the way he and all his siblings reacted when questioned about their family, even when the inquiry was sincere.
The Sauveterre twins had become media sensations the minute the second pair, Angelique and Trella, came along. Born to a French tycoon and his Spanish aristocrat wife, the children had been mesmerizing in their mirrored resemblance and elegantly perfect lives.
Then, when the girls were nine, Trella had been kidnapped. She was recovered five days later, but rather than give the family breathing space, the media’s microscope had focused even more intently on their slightest move. The pressure had sent their father into an early grave and the fallout had continued for years.
Angelique—Gili to her family—seemed to have found some happiness, though. She was secretly engaged to her soul mate, Kasim, which was why the family had convened in Spain.
Their celebration had been cut short when Cinnia was rushed to hospital.
Trella had jumped into Ramon’s distinctive Bugatti Veyron to chase the ambulance with him. Not content with the limited edition Pur Sang, worth millions, Ramon had had one custom-built to his own specifications. It was fully carbon this and titanium that, didn’t have a lick of exterior paint and topped out at a speed of over four hundred kilometers an hour.
Isidora was dying to ask if it had air-conditioning.
Worried for Cinnia, Trella had leaped out of the car without taking due care over how much midsection she showed.
Any casual snap of a Sauveterre went viral. And one that allowed the public to speculate on a secret pregnancy and the identity of the father…? There was no containing such a nuclear bomb.
Isidora knew all this because she had grown up with the girls. Her father had worked for Monsieur Sauveterre. She’d had tea parties with the girls before Trella was taken and still had slumber parties with them. She cared deeply for them and wanted the best for the whole family.
That was why Henri had hired her. He trusted her with his sisters and all of the family’s most delicate PR announcements—most recently a statement that he and Cinnia had spoken their wedding vows in the hospital with their newborn daughters in attendance.
None of that mattered to Ramon, however. To him, she was an outsider, not entitled to anything more than criticism and a pat. Fine.
Fine. It didn’t hurt. She was so past yearning for his positive regard.
“I was hoping you were Henri.” For a million reasons. “I was going to suggest taking the family portrait with Cinnia and the babies sooner than planned. I’m inundated with requests. Releasing photos might divert this focus on Trella.”
“By all means, let’s make sacrifices of my brother’s innocent children before they’re a week old.”
She was only trying to help. Swallowing back a lump that formed behind her breastbone, she rose to walk a file to the cabinet in the corner, mostly as an excuse to put distance between them. “Do you have another suggestion?”
Oh, that supercilious attitude grated. If her father hadn’t badgered and cajoled, if Henri hadn’t offered her disgusting amounts of money, if she didn’t adore Trella and Angelique and now Cinnia, and want to protect her friends as much as Henri did, she would quit this job. Even this little bit of interaction with Ramon was too much.
“I’m all ears,” she said without turning around. She shoved the file into the cabinet, feeling a burning sensation streak down her back. He was not looking at her butt and she was not wishing he would. Seriously. She consciously tried not to tense, but she needed to resist him. She was so done with this man!
“Arrange a press conference,” he said. “I’m announcing my retirement from racing.”
Isidora had the nicest ass he’d ever seen—and he was a connoisseur.
When she turned with surprise, one arm remaining atop the filing cabinet so her buttons strained across her breasts, he stole an appreciative glance at that, too, before lifting his gaze to her astonished expression.
Auburn brows framed warm brown eyes. Her gold-tipped lashes were thick and lush. Her glossy hair, which had toned down from a bright copper as a child to a rich burgundy wine, was pulled back in a clip. He couldn’t help imagining it falling freely around those high, honey-toned cheekbones. She wore little makeup, needing nothing to give her skin that glow of health, or shape her plump lips.
He typically stuck with overt beauties, ones made with a generous hand that exuded sexuality. When it came to physical companionship, he preferred obvious women and uncomplicated encounters. Indifference was his goal. He didn’t objectify women, but they objectified him. He was fine with being trophy-hunted. He gave as much pleasure as he took and they both walked away unharmed and completely satisfied.
Isidora had never offered anything so simplistic. Her years of doe-eyed hero worship had reflected yearnings and expectations he could never fulfill. So he had done her an enormous favor five years ago. He had let her believe he had slept with her mother. That adolescent crush of hers had needed to be crushed.
She still hated his guts for it. Overnight, she had stopped accompanying her father to the office or Ramon’s races. She continued to visit his sisters, but sent regrets to any parties the Sauveterres invited her to attend. While completing her degree in public relations, she had maximized work-abroad opportunities. On the few occasions Ramon had crossed paths with her, she had left the room as quickly as she politely could.
That’s how he’d made such a study of her ass.
Her contempt had finally gotten to him last year, when he’d seen her at her father’s sixty-fifth birthday party. He had rivalries in business and on the track, but no one outright hated him. Isidora had been all grown up, incandescent in a sapphire-blue dress. Surely she was far enough past her childish infatuation to hear the truth and get over her anger.
“I want to bury the hatchet,” he had said when he’d cornered her into a waltz. “Let’s go somewhere private, talk this out.”
“Is that what you’re calling it these days? Burying the hatchet?” Her tone had been glacial. “No, thanks.” She had walked away before the song finished.
Still acting like a child, he had deduced, but he had her attention now.
“You’re retiring,” she repeated now, with disbelief. “From racing.”
“Si.” It was the least he could do for his family.
“But you’re still winning. Your fans will be devastated.”
“I have sufficient fame and money.”
“But… You love it. Don’t you?” She closed the file cabinet and faced him, weight hitched to one hip so her knee peeked out the slit in her skirt.
Definitely no longer a child, his libido took great care to note.
“It’s just a pastime.” Psychologists would say his need for speed was compensation for failing to catch up to Trella when she’d been kidnapped. That might have been true in the beginning, but he was genuinely fascinated by the mechanics of high-performance engines and loved competing. Nevertheless… “This is something I’ve been considering for some time. I’ll continue to sponsor my team and stay involved that way.” These were the pat answers he would give the press this afternoon.
“It seems extreme. Trella’s pregnancy can’t be denied. Not forever.”
He folded his arms, not used to defending his decisions to anyone. He didn’t bother to soften the condescension in his tone as he explained, “I’m choosing to announce it now to distract from the rumors about her, but quitting racing was inevitable once Cinnia turned up pregnant. Henri can’t travel as much as he used to.”
He and Henri jointly ran Sauveterre International, but work had been Henri’s sport of choice for mental distraction. Ramon had never shirked his responsibilities, but he had never felt guilty handing something to his brother if he had to race.
Henri had greater concerns now. Ramon was more than willing to pick up the slack so his brother could look after his young family.
“So you’ve been planning this all along?”
“I knew once the babies came, my role would change.”
“We all knew you were taking over this office so Henri could move to Madrid, but I don’t think anyone expected you to quit racing.”
“We planned to make all the announcements next month. With the babies coming early, we’ve moved up the timetable. I will begin restructuring today. Starting with you.”
Her eyes widened. “Me? I arranged a transfer to Madrid. It takes effect with Cinnia’s due date, but— Are you saying that with the babies coming early, I need to move that up?”
“You’re staying here.” He probably shouldn’t take so much pleasure in making that statement, but he found enormous satisfaction in it. “My sisters came to Paris with me. They’re sorting things at Maison des Jumeaux in preparation for Angelique leaving. Her engagement will be announced soon and there are details with Kasim’s family that need your delicate touch.”
Isidora’s jaw dropped behind her sealed lips, making her cheeks go hollow. Her thick lashes quickly swept down to disguise what might have been a flash of…fear? No. Fury? Why? He wasn’t being sarcastic about her delicate touch. She was very good at her job or she wouldn’t have the position she held.
He wasn’t in the habit of giving anyone ego strokes, however, so he simply continued. “With Trella in the hot seat again, I’ll do my best to draw fire with the retirement announcement, but you’ll have to manage all of that, as well as the press releases on the restructuring.”
“I can do that remotely.” She folded her arms, posture stiff and defensive, face turned to the window, where vertical blinds held out most of the July sun along with the building’s excellent view of the Seine. “I’ll speak to Henri—”
“He just brought home twins, Isidora. He’s working as little as possible and mostly from home so he can enjoy his children and support his wife. Henri is not your employer, we are. We speak for each other and this is something we decided together.”
“You decided between you to deny my transfer? Without discussing it with me?”
“Yes.” It hadn’t even been a discussion. As often happened, Henri had voiced what Ramon had already been thinking. “It’s a matter of response time. Some of your work can be done remotely, but when a crisis arises, like today’s, we need you on the spot to defuse it.”
Her mouth tightened. He could see her wheels turning, searching for an alternative. He knew why she was acting like this and he was losing patience with it.
“Perhaps we could coax your father out of retirement?” he said facetiously.
“Don’t think I’m not tempted.”
“Stow your grudge, Isidora. You’re a professional. Act like one.”
She lifted haughty brows. “It’s not my ability to keep things professional that I’m worried about.”
“If I was the least bit interested in frostbite below the belt, you’d have something to worry about. I’m not.”
He always hit back. Always. It came from never wanting to be a victim again.
But when her nostrils pinched and she sniffed like she’d taken a hard jab to her slender middle, he felt a pang of conscience. A shadow of hurt might have flickered in her eyes, but she moved behind her desk, ducking her head and sliding a nonexistent tendril of hair behind her ear, the screen of her hand hiding her expression from him.
When she lifted her face again, it was flushed, but her expression was one of resolve. “I’ll hand in my resignation by the end of the day.”
The floor seemed to lurch beneath his feet. Her antipathy ran that deep?
As he searched her gaze, unable to believe she was serious, her pupils expanded until her eyes were like black pansies, velvety. Yet disillusioned and empty.
For one heartbeat, the world around him faded. A quiet agony that lived inside him, one he ignored so completely he barely knew it existed, seared to life, flashing such acute pain through him that his breath stalled. Fire, hot and pointed, lit behind his breastbone.
He slammed the door on that dark, tangled, livid place, refusing to wonder how she had managed to touch it by doing nothing but trying to retreat from him.
Why would she even suggest it? The job she held, as someone still fresh from school and not yet twenty-four, was unprecedented. Nepotism had played a part, sure, but she brought a rare and valuable quality to the position: trustworthiness.
Ramon would not be the reason his sisters lost a precious ally.
He wasn’t a man who begged, however. Racetracks were not conquered by being nice. She already hated him so there was no point in trying to charm her. Meanwhile, that strange split second of confused feelings left him with the scent of danger in his nostrils. It fueled his need to control. To dominate. To conquer.
He came down on her with the same lack of mercy he showed anyone else who might threaten him or his family.
“Cariño, let me explain what will happen if you resign.” He moved to lean on her desk again.
She was standing now, blinking with wariness. She stiffened, but she didn’t fall back.
He caught a light scent off her skin, something natural and spicy with an intriguingly sweet undertone. Herbs and wildflowers? The base, primitive animal inside him longed to get closer and find out.
Perhaps he would get the chance, he thought darkly, as he continued.
“I know you’ve signed confidentiality agreements, but given your antagonism toward me, I don’t trust you not to take what you know about us to the highest bidder. I will make your life extremely difficult if you walk out of here. There won’t be other jobs available to you. Not at this level.”
A renewed flush of color swept across her cheekbones. “If that’s your way of trying to make me warm up to you, ‘hash-tag friendship fail.’”
“Prove your loyalty to our family. Do what we pay you very well to do.”
“Me.” She pointed at her sternum. “You want me to prove my loyalty to your family.”
“Yes. And quit editorializing on mine.” He ignored a stab of compunction. “You know nothing about my capacity for loyalty or anything else.”
“I know what I need to know,” she assured him bitterly. “But if you’re going to make threats against my career, fine. I’ll take the high road and show you what loyalty really is. I’ll stay because I care about your sisters and because my father would come out of retirement if I quit. His devotion to your family is that ingrained. I never told him that you slept with his wife or he might feel differently. And don’t say they were divorced!”
She jabbed her finger at him.
He narrowed his eyes, warning her she was standing on the line.
“It would gut him to know what you did and unlike you, I’m not someone who enjoys making other people miserable.”
“I said ‘difficult,’ hermosa. If you want me to make your life miserable, I can arrange that quite easily.”
“Job done, hermoso,” she said with a smile that went nowhere near her eyes. “Will you excuse me? I have a press conference to arrange.”
“Isidora,” he said gently, without moving. His eyes clashed with her gaze in a way that kept his muscles tight and his skin tingling with exaltation in the battle. “I care about my sisters and your father. That’s why I’m allowing you continue with us, and not firing your ass for insubordination. Mind your manners, or you will discover exactly what kind of man I am.”
With fury burning a hole in the pit of her stomach, Isidora did her job and sent out the notices that a press conference would be held in the media room of Sauveterre International’s Paris tower. The skyscraper in Madrid was its twin, built the same year on the same specifications. Until today, Ramon had worked out of that office, which was why she had not requested a transfer back to her home country, where she could be closer to her parents.
She desperately wanted to call her father with the news that Ramon was retiring. Her father had been a fan of all types of racing long before his client’s son had begun entering grand prix races at a mere nineteen years. After showing some talent for racing while learning evasive driving, Ramon had spent an inheritance from one of his grandparents on a car and team, much to the late Monsieur Sauveterre’s dismay. Ramon had won that first year and had won or placed in nearly every race since.
Some of Isidora’s most cherished memories involved catering to her father as he parked himself in front of the television for a twenty-four-hour endurance race, or biting her nails alongside him as cars zoomed through the narrow streets of Monaco. In the beginning, she hadn’t been so much a fan of racing as she was of her father’s passion and delight in having a companion while he watched.
Of course, by the time she was twelve, she had definitely been a fan of one particular driver, heart pitter-patting as Ramon rocketed through turns and occasionally spun out only to straighten and take over the lead once again.
Ramon’s winning streak, coupled with his Sauveterre name and the fact he represented both France and Spain, made him more than a darling in the racing world. It set him on a level beyond infamous. Demigod.
He had certainly dazzled her young heart.
But after That Day, which had actually been an early morning, when she had bumped in to Ramon leaving her mother’s house wearing rumpled clothes, a night’s stubble and a complete lack of remorse, she had stopped watching the races with her father. She had claimed she was too busy with university, and would go to her deathbed before she admitted she had watched alone, in dorm rooms, or plugged into her laptop, tucked away in a solitary corner of the library.
She hated Ramon Sauveterre, but she had always needed to know he survived to race another day. How could she be disappointed on his behalf that he was giving it up? She ought to be doing a happy dance that he wasn’t getting what he wanted for a change, the arrogant, heartless tyrant.
Her father would be even more devastated, but as the former VP of PR for Sauveterre International, he would understand. Even she had understood, before embarking on this profession, that when it came to publicity, Ramon stole the lion’s share of attention as a way to take the fall for his family, particularly his sisters.
That behavior had continued even as she’d taken over her father’s position. Since she had come aboard earlier this year, she had watched it happen—if somewhat mysteriously. Ramon had to be the source of the leaks, but he took care of them in his own way, never involving her and never charging into her office to demand why she wasn’t preventing his scandals from going viral.
Still, his escapades always seemed to hit the light at the right time to pull attention from his siblings. When Angelique had been called a two-timer because photos of her kissing not one, but two different princes had turned up, photos from one of Ramon’s “private” parties had surfaced. He had been half-naked and canoodling with a stripper on each knee. When Trella reentered society via the wedding of a family friend, causing a social-media riot, a tape of Ramon’s blue-streaked voice mails had taken over the talk-show circuit. The minute Cinnia’s twin pregnancy had become a target, an online feud had erupted between Ramon and a fellow driver.
So, in a way, she wasn’t surprised he was announcing his retirement when a secret as big as Trella’s pregnancy was hitting the airwaves. It just made Isidora…sad. And sheepish, for calling him faithless.
Not that she would admit that after he had threatened her job and future, the power-drunk bastard. Why did he have to be so hard on her? What had she ever done except like him a little too much?
She smoothed her hair, painted her lips a demure pink and told her throat to stop feeling so raw at the injustice.
She texted Ramon that she would wait for him at the elevator, but Etienne joined her first. He had been her father’s protégé and had taken her out a few times last year, breaking it off when their sex life hadn’t progressed as he had desired. She had gone to London to finish her degree and had been quite happy to never cross paths with him again.
Then her father had retired and Henri had used a press-gang of euros and guilt trips to bring her aboard. Etienne had believed he was a shoe-in for her father’s position. Instead he had wound up answering to her. He was not happy.
“So it’s true?” he said, his tone bordering on belligerence.
“Trella is pregnant?” His tone rang with obviously. “That’s what this press conference is about, isn’t it?”
“I’m need-to-know, same as you.” She pretended to read something on her phone. “But today’s announcement is on another topic entirely.”
A beat of silence, then he asked, “You’re not going to tell me what that topic is?”
“You’ll find out in five minutes. That’s why I invited you to hear it firsthand.”
He swore, muttering something about favoritism.
When she made no response, he said, “So you don’t deny it?”
His jaw clenched, then he spat out what had clearly been chewing at him. “You were hired because of your father. You’re not even qualified. You don’t have my experience.”
“I was given a chance because of him, yes. But if I stuff things up, I can assure you they will have no qualms about letting me go.”
A door closed down the hall and they went silent as Ramon’s firm steps approached. She pasted on the same composed smile she would use to introduce him to the rabid hounds of the press.
“Henri.” Etienne greeted Ramon with a deferential nod. He waved at the elevator she’d been holding, inviting Ramon to enter ahead of him.
“Ramon,” he amended as he stepped into the car.
“Of course,” Etienne said, visibly flustered as he came in last and pressed the button for the bottom floor. “The memo didn’t specify.” He sent a malevolent look at Isidora. “I didn’t realize you were here. I suppose your brother is still in Spain with—”
“Bernardo never had a problem telling us apart,” Ramon interjected. “And neither does Isidora. It’s a quality we appreciate in those closest to us. Don’t ever gossip about my family again. I have no qualms about letting you go for that.”
It wasn’t working. After a brief ripple of flashes and murmurs over his announcement, the callouts quickly turned to Trella.
“Can you confirm the pregnancy?”
“When is she due?”
“Who is the father?”
“Ladies and gentleman, please confine your questions to today’s topic.” Isidora leaned her fragrant hair under his nose so the microphone picked up her well-modulated voice. “Ramon is retiring from racing to free up his time to restructure the company. These are details that will be of interest to your financial and market readers as well as the sports fans.”
Such a smooth, unruffled command as she stayed on message, just like her father. As competent as she was, however, Etienne was right. She lacked experience. She didn’t have Ramon’s well-honed skill for manipulating the press—techniques he had learned from her father under the worst possible tutelage.
“Cuánto lo siento,” Bernardo had said fifteen years ago, pleading for Angelique’s forgiveness while Ramon had held her small, sweaty palm in his equally clammy hand.
The police thought a public plea for help would urge people to come forward with tips that could rescue their sister from her kidnappers.
“Emotions move people, Angelique,” Bernardo had said. “I don’t mean to cause you more pain. Lo siento mucho. I know you’re frightened and hurting, but please don’t try to hide your tears. People need to see how you are feeling. This is what makes it stick in their minds and moves them to act the way we need them to. Lo lamento mucho. I wish I didn’t have to ask this of you, but I need you to reveal your heart to the camera.”
It had been a disgusting thing to ask of a nine-year-old girl. Using her terror and anguish had bordered on exploitation. Their father hadn’t been able to watch, too filled with self-contempt at putting his shy, sensitive daughter through such an ordeal when she was already so traumatized. But they had been desperate, all of them.
Their father had held their weeping mother in the other room while Henri stood beside the camera, so Angelique could look at him as she pleaded for Trella’s return. Henri had worn the same ravaged expression that Ramon had felt upon his own face.
They had all developed a deep, deep hatred of the public attention that had never been invited and had turned their family into a target in the first place.
After Trella was rescued, and they were trying to move on with their lives, they had all found different ways of coping with the continued attention. Henri stonewalled at every opportunity. Angelique accepted and ignored. Trella had retreated to seclusion, becoming an elusive unicorn who had gone several years without being photographed.
Ramon preferred to play them at their own game. He didn’t care what was printed about him. It amused him when the facts were wrong, especially when those “facts” came from him. One of his fellow racers had gleefully exchanged a volley of insults with him for several weeks earlier this summer, to take the pressure off Cinnia as she floundered under the weight of two babies and more attention than anyone should have to suffer—especially if they hadn’t become inured to it the way the rest of his family had.
Now another baby was on the way. Ramon would quietly strangle his sister at some point for getting herself into that situation, but that was a job for another day.
Today’s task was to protect that unborn Sauveterre. And Trella. Despite the progress she had made in the last year, she was still very fragile. She had barely survived her kidnapping. The critical press that had dogged her for years after had made every effort to finish her off. Ramon was very cognizant that a renewal of that harsh focus could give her a setback.
“Is it true that Trella watched some of your races last year, by pretending she was Angelique?”
Yes, and that was a can of worms that needed to stay closed. Ramon had to bring the focus back to him. Leaving racing wasn’t doing the job. The dry topic of restructuring a corporation was certainly not holding anyone’s attention.
Emotions move people. Reveal your heart to the camera…
His mind raced to find and evaluate options, quickly discovering the line he would have to follow if he wanted to stay in front of the pack.
“The truth is, I’ve discovered something for which I feel more passion than racing,” he announced in a firm voice. “Hard to believe, is it not? Racing has been my life for over a decade, but with my brother so happily married and starting his family, I find I can’t wait to enjoy the same. I’m deeply in love and…well—”
He moved around Isidora so he was no longer behind the podium and sank to one knee beside her.
A massive gasp went through the crowd.
The bombardment of flashes and clicks increased, but the shouting of questions ceased. An eerie expectancy characterized that wordless explosion of repeated shutter clicks and flashes. The lights strobed against her skin as he looked up to Isidora’s incredulous expression.
She paled as comprehension dawned. Her eyes showed white around her gray irises. One hand came to her mouth and she might have said, “Don’t you dare.”
“Lo siento, mi amor,” Ramon said with loud pride over the mechanical clicks and pops. “I cannot sneak around any longer, trying to keep this quiet. I love you too much.”
He couldn’t recall ever saying those words to anyone except his mother and siblings. It felt strange, pulling disturbingly at that inner door he kept so firmly closed. The push-pull gave his voice the appropriate amount of unsteadiness as he continued.
“You said if I quit racing, you would marry me. So, mi corazón. Now will you make me the happiest man on earth? Our fathers would approve, you know they would.” He added the last as a reminder of where her loyalty should lie.
He had to give it to her. She had studied well under Bernardo. Her eyes filled with glossy tears and she didn’t try to hide them. Her fingers against her lips trembled. Her other hand was cold when he took it in his, her fingers lax with shock.
The white fingers against her mouth curled into a fist.
“Was that yes?” He pretended he had heard a response no one else could and leaped to his feet. As he crushed her to his front, he played up the joyful act as he exclaimed, “She said yes!”
Then he dug his fingers into her hair, tipped back her head and kissed her.
She stiffened. Her breasts crushed into his chest as she sucked in a shocked breath.
He closed his grip on her more firmly, subtly, but implacably. Do this, he urged, but even he had his limits when it came to cold-bloodedly achieving his goals. Rather than force the kiss upon her, he brought all his sensual skill to bear and persuaded her to accept it.
Oh, this rat wasn’t content to threaten her job or break her heart. He had to knock her self-esteem into smithereens. He rocked his mouth across her lips in exactly the way she had fantasized all through her teen years. Confident, hungry, enticing. Like he loved her.
Exactly as he’d just said he did.
She couldn’t let his declaration affect her. It was a lie. She wanted to scratch his eyes out for playing with her like this.
Her own eyes stung, as if they’d been scraped raw behind her eyelids, but her self-control checked out. The besotted girl who had fallen in love so long ago came running out of her room, where she’d been crying into a pillow for five years. She threw herself into Isidora’s body, heart singing with joy. She offered her mouth and drank up the sweet sensations that washed over her as Ramon acted, finally, like he wanted her.
Everywhere they touched, her skin bloomed with heat. Her bones turned pliant and the betrayal of his putting her on the spot like this evaporated. Her, the girl who had crushed so hard on a boy who was too old for her, the girl who had been ignored, rejected, then brutally passed over for her mother, the girl who had dealt with those horrible feelings of treachery and rebuff… She kissed him back.
She wasn’t terribly experienced and that was his fault, too. These were the arms she had wanted from the first. These were the lips. This was the man.
He drew back and she realized he had one possessive hand drawing slow circles on her butt. That’s why flutters of excitement were working up her lower back and into her loins. The fireworks that had been going off behind her closed eyelids were actually flashes. The roar in her ears was excited laughter and cheering. Sly jeering.
At her expense.
Oh, this mean bastard of a man. He didn’t even let her go when she pressed her weak arms against his chest and tried to make space to catch her breath.
His embrace tightened to keep her smeared across his front. All she could do was hide her face by resting her ear against his chest and look toward the back wall—where Etienne stared at her with his lip curled in contempt.
“You—” So many filthy names crowded her tongue as Ramon closed them into his office minutes later that she couldn’t pick one. “How could you?”
Her chest was tight, her voice fractured. Her entire world was topsy-turvy and it didn’t help that she was in the mirror image of Henri’s office, situated on the other side of a pair of connecting doors to her right. She definitely felt as though she stood on the wrong side of a looking glass.
Ramon threw off his jacket and slung it over the back of the sofa as he passed the conversation lounge. He dug his ringing phone from the pocket of his pants on his way to his desk in front of the tall windows.
“I need to take this. Stay here until you can find a suitable glow of delight. You looked like hell as we left. Good thing they only saw the back of you. Hola.”
“Are you serious?” a woman’s voice said. It sounded like Trella, but she and Angelique sounded very similar.
Ramon propped the phone against his laptop dock and glared at it. “This is your fault. Say ‘thank you.’”
“Why would you do something like that to poor Isidora? She didn’t know it was coming, did she?”
“Did I take you by surprise, mi amor?” He turned his head to glance at where she stood like a whipped dog, hovering inside the closed door, trying to find her bearings among the cool masculine colors and implacable lines of the décor.
“Izzy’s with you? I’m so sorry, Izzy.” Trella was one of the few people who could get away with calling her that.
“It’s fine,” Isidora lied, forcing herself to move until she was close enough to see both Trella and Angelique in the screen, but not so close she joined Ramon in the tiny window. “I should have found a way to defuse those photos before they became more than we could contain. But we’ll need a statement from you. There’s no more avoiding it.”
“It’s not your fault.” Trella spoke in the same pained tone she had used each time Isidora had tried coaxing her toward a disclosure. “I know I have to cop to eating for two, but I don’t want…”
To tell the father. That was obvious, since she refused to name him even to her family. They all had a very good idea, however. Isidora had concluded herself that the man in question had to be Prince Xavier of Elazar, who had been photographed kissing “Angelique” earlier this year.
As Ramon had said himself, Isidora had never had a problem telling the twins apart. She had known straight away that Trella had been caught kissing that particular prince, while Angelique was the twin in the photos with Kasim.
Did Prince Xavier know which twin he had kissed? That was a question for another day. She imagined Angelique’s fiancé, now King Kasim, must have some opinions on the matter as well, since his intended appeared to have two-timed him. But Angelique had never said a word on the topic. Today, she showed nothing but loving protectiveness as she looped an arm around her sister and gave Trella a comforting hug.
“Why don’t I walk over right now and we can discuss some angles,” Isidora suggested. She could use an excuse to leave the building and get some air.
“Pahahaha!” Trella sputtered.
“You can’t!” Angelique cried at the same time, urgently shaking her head.
“Why not? Is there something going on at the design house—?”
“You’re one of us now, moza amiga.” Trella leaned forward as though speaking to a child. “You travel by armored tank and avoid leading the hunters to the door. Seriously, hermano. What were you thinking?”
“What do you mean?” Isidora asked, even as reality began to sink in. Declaring a fake engagement, putting her on the spot in front of the cameras like that, had been awful, but the greater ramifications began to strike her consciousness.
No. The explosion of excitement downstairs had been for Ramon. Hadn’t it? The paparazzi wouldn’t think they had found a fresh target in her, would they?
She had never thought of herself as naive, but suddenly saw herself as the world’s most gullible idiot.
“Have you talked to your parents?” Angelique asked with concern, voicing what was finally hitting Isidora’s sluggish brain. “They’re probably getting calls.”
Isidora touched her brow. All those years she had spent lying to the world, including to her own father, spinning and downplaying her mother’s affairs so their family wouldn’t be talked about and vilified. Now every single tryst would be dug up. Her mother’s past lovers might even throw their names into the ring of fame, just to have their moment in the spotlight. It didn’t matter that her parents had eventually divorced over Francisca Villanueva’s infidelity. She had cheated on Bernardo Garcia dozens of times and he would be forced to relive all of it. He would be humiliated all over again.
Isidora flung around to face Ramon. Of all the things he’d done, this was, by far, the worst. “I will never forgive you for this.”