Confessions of an Italian Marriage
He’s back to reclaim her…
But where has he been?
What do you do when your husband goes missing? Flush him out by pretending to marry again! Billionaire Giovanni’s dramatic return forces Freja to confront the deep hurt she felt at his desertion…and the sparks that continue to fly between them…
Giovanni had to go into hiding to protect his new bride, but he’s shocked by the consequences his mysterious past had on Freja. Now he’ll have to let her in closer than he’s allowed anyone before if he’s to save the whirlwind marriage he’s suddenly so compelled to fight for!
Confessions of an Italian Marriage
Hell hath no fury like a woman whose husband faked his own death.
— Freja, Confessions of an Italian Marriage
Back in 2005, still seven years before I sold my first book, I saw a documentary called Murderball about wheelchair rugby. The men were hardcore alpha males, very athletic and confident and full of testosterone.
My first thought was that ‘someone’ should write a hero like that because they were really sexy, but I didn’t see myself as up to the task. I hadn’t even sold a book yet and I was still playing things very safe.
Fast forward to 2019 and I watched the new season of Veronica Mars. Spoiler alert, the ending sucked. I was so annoyed, I decided to rewrite that ending more palatably where, instead of her husband dying, my hero, Giovanni, fakes his death. Freja suspects he’s alive and is trying to flush him out to prove it. When he surfaces, there’s built-in conflict because she’s furious he let her believe for one second that he was actually dead.
So I pitched it to my editor while pitching some other stories and I actually said, “I’ve always wanted to do a James Bond sexy spy-guy so maybe this hero could be an ambassador or something and does secret spy stuff and fakes his death and what do you think?”
She told me to run with it, but shortly thereafter, asked if I’d ever thought of doing a character in a wheelchair. I thought of those Murderball guys, but writing an athlete hero in a wheelchair was a ‘one day’ aspiration. Maybe I’d think about it for a future book, but it wouldn’t fit for this book. This hero was a super spy-guy who fakes his death. Murderball hero would have to wait.
Except, once I asked myself, “Why can’t super spy-guy be in a wheelchair?” I was sunk. Because I couldn’t think of a reason he couldn’t be sexy and a spy and dynamic and a Sicilian tycoon…and also happen to be in a wheelchair.
And Freja is his perfect match. She’s sharp and tough and funny and sweet. I hope you adore both of them as much as I do.
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Confessions of an Italian Marriage
Hell hath no fury like a woman whose husband faked his own death.
Freja Catalano smiled with appropriately bedazzled delight as she took a selfie in the mirrors that surrounded where she stood on the small, carpeted dais in the back of Milan’s most exclusive bridal boutique.
“I can take the photo,” offered the designer, Teresina. She paused in her reverent arranging of the abundant and infinitely delicate chiffon overskirt. Every inch was tastefully embroidered with white flowers and swirling vines, seed pearls and sequins. The train puddled out for six feet behind Freja’s reflection.
As Freja ran her image through different filters, a tiny prickling awareness swept across her scalp and into her shoulders. She lifted her head and glanced toward the closed curtain across the archway into the front of the shop, but there was no one there, just the sound of a bridezilla complaining about a swatch of organza.
“This is fine, thanks,” Freja replied absently as she tapped out her selection and started typing her caption. Her stomach remained full of unsettled butterflies, though.
#FinalFitting #BigDay #OneMonthAway #CantWait
As Teresina pinched seams and took in the narrow band of pearl-bedecked satin that formed the waistband of the gown, she asked around pins, “Is the photo for your mother?”
“My social feed. My mother passed when I was young.” Freja added several more hashtags about bridal nerves, first love, and winter weddings in New York.
“I’m so sorry. I presumed she was in Sweden and would be attending the wedding.”
“No, both of my parents are gone.” And the wedding that had crushed Freja’s soul for them to miss had already happened. Freja had worn a simple ivory sheathe and held tulips stolen from a public garden. It had been perfect.
Or so she’d believed at the time.
And since that had been a short four and a half months ago, and since her first groom had ‘died’ three weeks later, Freja’s name was dominating the click-bait headlines with variations of ‘gold-digger to grave-digger’ troll droppings.
Not that Freja’s notoriety had bothered Terasina. Freja had earned Terasina’s undying loyalty by stating, ‘Everyone knows Milan is superior to Paris.’ The fact Freja had taken possession of her husband’s wealth and could buy this boutique thousands of times over didn’t hurt either.
Freja didn’t mention she had only come here because she was confident Giovanni was in his home country.
This is what I’m spending your money on. Do you like it? She didn’t write that, just finished tagging Teresina, the boutique and—
“Does your fiancé follow you?” Teresina asked with concern. “It’s bad luck for him to see the dress before the wedding.”
“I guess it is, isn’t it?” Freja finished tagging Nels and hit post.
Nels was a recent graduate of business law who was drowning in debt and firmly in the closet for family reasons. In exchange for stepping into Giovanni’s nonexistent shoes, Freja had promised to assure Nels’s terminally ill grandmother that she loved him unconditionally, which was not untrue, and that she was looking forward to starting a family with him, which was something they’d only discussed as not now, but not completely off the table.
It was a match made in screamingly civilized practicality.
“Tell him not to peek.” Teresina suggested as she straightened and gently tested the hidden banding that secured the off-the-shoulder sleeves. The bodice was made of Venetian lace exquisitely crafted to plunge in both front and back, painting Freja’s torso in white flames that danced down both arms to her wrists. “I can’t imagine any man seeing you like this could resist you, though.”
Freja smiled weakly, not revealing that the one man she had hoped to get a rise out of had very firmly resisted.
She completely ignored the agonized whisper in the back of her head that asked, What if he’s really dead?
He wasn’t. Snakes of anxiety slithered in her middle over his continued absence, but she had plenty of reasons to believe he was still alive. Okay, more like a handful of subtle coincidences and one decent piece of evidence that wasn’t solid enough to prove anything, not even a robbery. When she had tried to tell Nels she thought there was a chance her husband could be alive, however, he’d given her a look of pity and suggested she was stuck in the denial stage of grief.
Maybe she was. She had fought seeing his true feelings toward her, right up until that final conversation.
Do you love me? Do you even want to be married?
You’re behaving like a jealous shrew. Wait for me in my hotel room. I’ll join you when I’ve finished my meeting.
He hadn’t. And dead or not, Giovanni had left his fortune in her hands. She was wholly unequipped to manage it. Nels had lived on her floor when she’s been at university and had been kind enough to look over her book contract and, later, her prenuptial agreement. When she’d gone to him with the volumes of legal documents that were coming her way as a result of her husband’s supposed demise, he’d been alarmed by the overreach some of Giovanni’s top executives were attempting.
Freja was a millennial with pale blond hair, blue eyes, and no formal schooling until her degree in creative writing. Obviously, that meant she was a certified bubblehead who couldn’t so much as recognize when a fast food outlet was trying to upsell her with a supersize of fries. Her knowledge on running a multi-national corporation was zero, but she was smart enough to see phrases like ‘irrevocable power of attorney’ as the horrendous red flag that they were.
Another woman would have snatched up the reins and stared down the sexist pigs trying to take advantage of her. Freja might have, if she hadn’t been brittle with grief. Meanwhile, every meeting had been full of vultures making advances, baldly trying to flatter her into a relationship as a shortcut to Giovanni’s money. It was exhausting. She didn’t have the stomach for it, especially not for a fortune she neither wanted nor needed.
Nels had trusted her with his secret back when she’d shyly asked him on a date because he felt so unthreatening. He had minored in corporate ethics and longed to be the change he sought. They would both benefit from having a spouse so their grand bargain had been struck.
Was it bigamy if her first husband was secretly still alive and the second marriage was only on paper? She had asked Nels, but he had given her that pitying look again and said, “I need to know you’re of sound mind or we can’t do this.”
Giovanni was the only person who could prove it was illegal. If he wanted to burst in at the last second to stop it, fine. But she wouldn’t hold her breath. She really would be the clichéd dumb blond if she failed to get the message that her husband didn’t want to be tied to her after he had staged an explosion to end things.
No, she accepted that their whirlwind romance had fizzled as quickly as it had flared. If that left her feeling as bleak and wraithlike as a wisp of smoke, well, she only had herself to blame. She had known there was no such thing as forever, but she’d gone ahead and fallen for him anyway. Her heart had been broken into a thousand pieces for her trouble.
“Bellissima.” Teresina finished her fussing and kissed the tips of her fingers. “Shall we try it with the veil?”
The muted ping of the bell at the front silenced the squirrel-like chatter out there. It happened so abruptly, Teresina and Freja both looked toward the closed curtain. Freja’s stomach clenched with apprehension.
A male voice asked to see the manager.
The hair on the back of her neck stood up. She didn’t know that voice precisely, but she’d been on high alert since Giovanni’s ‘death.’ The explosion had been reported as an accident, someone had tried to kill him. She understood that meant she could be a target, too.
Maybe she was paranoid. Maybe it was just a salesman. She had no reason to believe that authoritative voice was here for her. Any man who wanted to meet with her could go make an appointment through her agent or Nels or any number of other channels. They wouldn’t hunt her down in a wedding boutique.
But as the clerk said, “I’ll see if she’s available,” and the silence remained absolute, a cold layer of perspiration burst onto Freja’s skin.
Teresina smiled an apology and started for the curtain.
Freja forced an unbothered smile as adrenaline poured into her extremities, clenching her lungs and tightening her hand on her phone.
As Teresina slipped past the curtain, Freja moved without second-guessing her instinct. She scooped up her miles of skirt and ran silently on the toes of her five-inch heels past the door into the changeroom where she’d left her clothes and purse, past the powder room, into the administration office where she’d first met with Teresina and seen the—
Porta di emergenza – allarmata
That’s what this was. An emergency. She was alarmed.
She shoved against the lever and burst into the narrow, cobblestone alley. A loud bell began to ring within the shop. The door clattered closed behind her, muffling the sound. It grew fainter as she raced toward the street where traffic honked in its usual chaotic madness.
She was only thinking she needed witnesses. Getting arrested for stealing a dress she’d only half-paid for was better than facing whatever that man had in store for her. She could call Nels from the police sta—
Behind her, she heard the door slam open again. Shouts sounded.
In front of her, a black SUV swerved into the break in the sidewalk, forcing her to pull up short at the mouth of the alley. She started to pivot in hopes of squeezing past it and down the street, but the back door flung open.
“Get in,” Giovanni said.
The sight of him struck like a gong, leaving her quivering. He had a shaggy black beard, dark glasses, and his black hoodie was pulled up to hide all but his familiar cheekbones, but his legs stopped above the knees and she recognized the tense line of his mouth.
Alive. Her heart soared so high, it should have shattered the sky.
At the same time, a thousand furies invaded her like a swarm of killer bees. There was no triumph in learning she was right. There was only a crippling heartbreak that he had abandoned her. If he’d been truly dead, she would have been angry, but she wouldn’t have blamed him.
This, though? He had put her through horrifying hours of actually believing he was gone. She had endured his gut-wrenching funeral, convinced it was a sham. Then, two short weeks later, she’d suffered another unbearable loss that would never heal.
He’d forced her to go through all of that alone.
For every minute that had passed since that awful day, she had longed for him to reveal himself, but now her feet only carried her forward so she could bitterly hiss, “Go to hell.”
“Where do you think I’ve been?” he growled.
“I’m calling the police!” Teresina yelled from deep in the alley. Two of Teresina ’s employees were recording everything on their phones.
A man in a suit was running toward her. She instinctively moved closer to Giovanni, heart jamming with fear.
Giovanni’s hard arm looped around her and he dragged her into the back of the car. He clutched the door for leverage, but his strength was as annoyingly effortless as always.
She didn’t fight him. In fact, once he grabbed her out of her stasis, she helped, kicking against the edge of the door to thrust herself inside, desperate for whatever sanctuary he offered.
They wound up in a heap on the back seat while the man who was chasing her came up to the open door and reached for her leg.
She screamed and kicked at him with her sharp heels. He dodged her shoes and threw the yards of silk in after her, then slammed the door before he leapt into the passenger seat in front of Giovanni.
“Go,” Giovanni said to the driver and he pushed himself upright.
As the SUV sped into traffic, Freja rocked deeper into the seat, stunned to her toes.
Six months ago…
“Are those the mushrooms?” a woman asked, catching Freja’s attention as she circulated with a tray of canapes.
Freja paused at the clutch of guests perched on sectional benches in the reception hall waiting for the ballroom doors to open. Everyone wore beaded gowns and tuxedos and one man was in a wheelchair—
“Oh, my God!”
The tray and its contents would have slipped right off her hand if he hadn’t caught it with an effortless reflex.
Giovanni Catalano. She’d checked up on him through the years so she knew him instantly. His father had been an Italian ambassador, his mother a well-known heiress. Giovanni had been left in a wheelchair by the same car crash that had killed his parents and older brother. He’d become a Paralympic athlete then later developed software apps that had earned him obscene amounts of money—as if what he’d inherited hadn’t been enough. He had since broadened his investments to become a billionaire at thirty-two.
His wealth and power cloaked him in authority and an air of earned arrogance, but she hadn’t expected him to project so much sheer magnetism.
He was ridiculously handsome and compelling. His tuxedo didn’t have to do any work, but its pleated shirt and white bow tie accented his swarthy, clean-shaven jaw. His jacket was beautifully tailored to his wide-shoulders and the crisp trousers were neatly hemmed to drape a few inches past where his legs stopped above the knee.
His bone structure was to die for with his stern brow, sensual lips and heavy-lidded bedroom eyes. It was impossible to tell the color of his irises in the subdued lighting of the reception hall, but she knew them to be stormy gray.
She belatedly straightened while he continued to hold her dumbfounded stare, absently offering the tray to the group as he did.
Someone tittered about him missing his calling.
Freja was only dimly aware of the world beyond their sustained eye contact. Her heart was racing as though she’d run up ten flights of stairs. A flush of something like shyness or embarrassment was washing through her along with strange tugs and a tremendous sensual awareness throughout her entire body.
She tried to dismiss it as the silly vestiges of an infatuation that was so far in the past, it shouldn’t affect her now. It hadn’t even been himshe’d pre-pubescently crushed on!
That wasn’t what this was, though. This was far more intense. Physical.
Was it lust? How mortifying.
He swiveled the empty tray back to her and cocked one eyebrow. “Do I know you?”
“No!” She nearly choked on her tongue. “I mean, I met y— I thought you were someone else.” Not true, but her very brief history with his brother wasn’t something she wanted to blurt out in front of strangers. Far too many questions followed when she spoke about her childhood.
“We’ve never met,” she hurried to affirm in a sputter, but her discomfiture made him narrow his eyes. Butterflies invaded her stomach. “Have a nice evening.”
She took the tray and walked away with a dizzy stagger. It took everything in her not to look back over her shoulder as she fetched more canapes and continued serving.
Nearly a full hour passed where she tracked back and forth, waiting for everyone to filter into the ballroom and find their seats. She forced a smile and concentrated on not becoming clumsy when her limbs didn’t feel as if they were her own.
Giovanni Catalano stayed on her radar the entire time.
Was it her imagination or was she on his? She didn’t catch him looking at her, but she experienced the sensation of being observed.
She lost track of him once everyone had finally entered the ballroom, though. Still disconcerted, she busied herself with gathering abandoned napkins and dishes from the reception hall. The sense of being watched returned and she spun around.
His wheels had made his approach nearly silent, but there he was. An intense zing of electrical awareness went through her so sharp it hurt.
“Come.” He neatly pivoted and rolled down the hall.
Her heart lurched and she glanced to see the people in the ballroom were watching screens flashing to life with a presentation. Her colleagues would be looking for her to help serve shortly, but she could slip away unnoticed for a few minutes. Pulse racing unevenly, she followed.
Giovanni ducked down a corridor, turned the handle on a door, and led her into the empty cloakroom. A handful of light wraps and jackets hung on the racks, but the shutters were closed and the attendant absent.
He swiveled to confront her and nodded for her to close the door.
She did, still astonished to be in his presence.
“Have we met?” he demanded.
“No. I mean, I know who you are.” Freja wished she’d kept her tray, needing a shield of some type. Not that she felt unsafe, but nor did she feel completely safe either. Something about him struck her as dangerous in ways she couldn’t articulate. Not that he wanted to hurt her, but she suspected he could. He was so muscled and had that air of power.
She was breathless in his presence for no explicable reason, completely beyond her depth—which was odd for her. She rolled with punches and was almost always ten steps ahead of most people around her.
Nevertheless, she found herself sinking into the single wooden chair tucked beneath an empty section of rack, weakened simply by the force of his personality.
A brief flicker of surprise went across his expression as she came down to his eye level.
“Why did you give those people the impression we’ve had sex?” he asked bluntly.
“I didn’t. Did I?” She pressed into the hard rungs of the chair back. “No one thought that! Why would they?”
“They not only thought it, they judged me a cradle-robber.” His turbulent gaze took her in from crown to toes. “You’re what? Twenty-two?”
“Twenty-three.” Not a young twenty-three, either. At least, she knew a lot of people her age who were far less capable of looking after themselves. He made her feel positively juvenile, though. Like those perfectly sensible students who spouted feminist doctrines then grew flushed and got all high-voiced around the football quarterback. “I’m really embarrassed for reacting like that.” She fought to keep her voice steady and clear. “I didn’t mean to.”
“Why did you?” His demeanor was both compelling and faintly ominous. “Who did you think I was?”
“No one. Well… It was a prevarication. I knew right away that you’re…” Oh God, she was touching her hair. Playing with the fine hairs beneath her ponytail, where the hollow at the back of her neck was prickly with heightened awareness. Exactly like a flirty cheerleader. She clasped her hands in her lap. “I met your brother once. When I was a child.”
His head went back and his whole body bunched as though preparing for a fight. His hands closed into fists and his jaw hardened.
She understood that reaction. It happened to her sometimes when people mentioned her father. Years of carrying grief didn’t mean it no longer had the power to knock the wind out of you, especially when it arrived out of the blue.
“He made an impression,” she continued gently, understanding too that there could be a gift hidden behind the sucker punch. A new memory could bring that person to life again, if only for a brief, intangible moment. “It was a fencing class for children.”
“In Sicily?” Another raking glance filled with skepticism.
“I was there with my father. He often enrolled me in local activities while he worked. Stefano was teaching with a girl named Paloma.”
Giovanni’s head jerked slightly at the sound of his brother’s name. He offered her a three-quarter profile under the unforgiving fluorescent light. “You would have been very young. Seven?” he calculated.
“He said I had potential.” She smiled with nostalgia for the little girl who had developed instant hero worship from being noticed by such a dynamic young man. “I thought I would go on to become an Olympian like him.”
His cheek ticked. “Did you?”
“No.” Laughably, she wasn’t much of anything, not even a proper US citizen. One day she might become a school teacher. At best she could call herself an author, but she wasn’t even published yet and was riding on her father’s coattails. “No, that swashbuckling fantasy went the way of my equally delusional dream that I would grow up and marry him.”
His choked off laugh could have been actual humor or a measure of outrage that she would dare to aspire to marry such a man.
“He was always flirting with Paloma during class,” she explained. “He was so dashing and full of compliments, he became the ideal against which I judged all other boys when I grew old enough to have an interest in them. None had much chance after that.” She sighed wistfully, laughing at herself before she sobered. “I was devastated when I heard he’d been killed. It was the first time I understood that people could die before their time.”
He was staring holes through her, leaving hollow spaces, but she said what was in her because she knew she would regret it if she didn’t take this chance to express her sincere condolences when she had this chance.
“He talked about you with fondness. I was worried about you after the accident. Sad for you losing your brother and your parents. I always wanted a sibling myself.” She shrugged self-consciously at having such depth of compassion for a complete stranger. “I’ve looked you up over the years—which makes me sound like a stalker, I suppose, but I only viewed public things like your events at the games and read up on the apps you developed. That’s why I recognized you and acted so strangely. I’m sorry I made you uncomfortable.”
Uncomfortable? Giovanni snorted. He had thought his cover was blown.
Maybe it was. Freja—why had she only given him her first name?—was setting off all sorts of alarms on his internal gauges, from self-preservation to the sexual ones he did his best to ignore.
She was too beautiful to disregard out of hand, though, even in a cheap, ill-fitting catering uniform. Her black vest hugged her slender waist, emphasizing the thrust of her hips and breasts. She wasn’t tall, but he’d watched her for an hour and she moved like a dancer, graceful and light. There wasn’t a speck of make-up on her face, but her translucent skin looked soft and luminous as baby powder. Her lashes and brows were nearly invisible, glinting pale gold, same as the hair pulled back into a simple ponytail. Her blue eyes bloomed like cornflowers and her pale pink lips looked smooth as rose petals.
That impression of absolute innocence was an illusion, though. She possessed an underlying maturity that allowed her to hold his gaze with disconcerting confidence—and imbue their stare with a pulse of male-female awareness.
Proceed with caution, he warned himself, even as he rationalized that he had no choice but to proceed.
“Have dinner with me tomorrow.”
She blinked, appearing startled by the invitation, which didn’t speak to a woman who had approached him for the sole purpose of nurturing a better acquaintance.
Her hesitation could also be an illusion, he reminded himself, but it caused a surprisingly brutal clench of disappointment in him. “No?”
“If I can switch my shift, yes,” she said with a shy smile. “Thank you. I’d like that.” She was looking at him much the way he was studying her. Who is this person? I must find out.
He couldn’t allow her to see beneath his surface, of course, but oh, did he want to dig beneath hers. He took her number.
“I should get back,” she said with a glance to the closed door, but she didn’t rise. She studied him with an expectancy, as though she was waiting for something more.
To hell with it. The manufactured shell of a persona he wore was necessary, but he was all man beneath. A nudge of his wheels and he was close enough to touch her. He didn’t. Not yet. He managed to maintain some shred of self-control, but he wanted to. Unless…
“I’m not my brother.”
“I know.” Her brow quirked, dismissing the very idea. “That was a childish crush, not—”
He lifted his brows, confounded by her and fighting not to show it.
“Whatever this is.” Her gaze searched his.
Yes, what was it? He wanted to know, too. He absently braked his wheels and dropped his hand on the edge of her chair. He felt the small jolt in her thigh against his inner wrist as he leaned in, waited a half second for her to decide if she wanted to reject him, then set his mouth against hers.
He’d been so focused on the job at hand for so long, he’d forgotten how satisfying it was to let himself feel. To taste. To experience the surprised tremble of a woman’s lips. Hers were as smooth and soft as they looked, parting with welcome and moving in tentative response.
Hooks of desire snagged into him while a wind seemed to buffet them, making them sway. He lifted his free hand to her neck, drew her forward a fraction more so he could deepen their kiss, suddenly ravenous for all things sexual. For her. His blood became fire and she was the rain.
She made a noise that was pleasure and surrender, gorgeous and evocative. She leaned into him. One of her hands found his arm, the other touched his shoulder.
Without breaking their kiss, he gathered her and dragged her into his lap.
She gasped, eyes blinking open with surprise before her arms went around his shoulders. She set her mouth against his and made another of those blissful humming noises as her breasts mashed against his chest.
She was making this too easy. He knew that at a distance and wasn’t so desperate for female company that he took it where he found it. He shouldn’t allow this seemingly unfettered response of hers to fuel his, but he was racing past normal checkpoints. In another instinctive move, he dug his fingers into her hip and pressed her deeper into the cradle of his thighs, wanting the weight and pressure of her in the places he could feel it.
Her hands went into his hair as if she knew how sensitive his scalp was. The tingle of pleasure was so acute, he had to bite back a ragged groan. He buried the sound in her throat as he ran his mouth down to her collar, suddenly starving, wanting all of her, right here, right now.
A pair of women walked past the far side of the vented panel that was the only thing hiding them from view. Their gossipy voices yanked him back to an awareness that he and Freja were essentially in public.
She stared at him the way a stranger might who had blindly stepped in front of his car, her whole life flashing in her eyes while her shiny lips quivered in astonishment that she was still intact.
He felt the same, which was sobering enough to steady his galloping heart.
“Tomorrow,” he promised, forcing himself to remember that she might be a plant. He helped her to her feet, determined to use the time between now and then to find out.
And even though he would need every minute of that time to assess whether he could trust her, he was already urging that time to pass quickly.
Freja walked briskly to the Manhattan restaurant from the gallery where she’d been working a few blocks away.
Her catering uniform was in a bag over her shoulder. She had already changed into a tweed skirt over knee-high boots with red leggings and a red turtleneck. She’d topped it with a brown motorcycle jacket mined from a thrift store. When she had combed out her hair, it had immediately lost the waves she’d hoped to retain by keeping it in a plait all day. No such luck. As always it was fine as spider silk and arrow straight. She had plopped a newsboy cap over it and called it ‘good enough.’
The busy street was carpeted in cherry blossom petals from the trees that lined it. It made a snowy carpet for Giovanni where he had parked his chair beside the wrought iron rail that surrounded a massive oak. He was reading something on his phone. The collar of his white shirt poked from his gray pullover and the end of a pale blue scarf flicked in the breeze like the tip of a cat’s tail. He was casual and stunningly elegant, definitely not wearing anything that had been purchased second-hand.
Both road and foot traffic were heavy and noisy, but he lifted his head and looked straight at her as she approached, as though he’d been aware of her from the moment she turned the corner at the end of the block. His black hair was charmingly ruffled by the breeze, his swarthy face naturally stern, yet lit with probing curiosity.
“You’ve written a book,” was his cryptic greeting. “It’s very compelling.”
She cut herself off as he lifted a hand, leaving her in the awkward position of rebuffing his invitation to embrace and kiss in greeting or bend to accept it. She’d been reliving last night’s kiss nonstop so she set her hand on his shoulder and leaned in.
Something flashed in his gray eyes—humor, surprise—then an inferno of heat before he steadied her with one hard arm and captured her mouth with startling greed. Her heart leapt and her feet seemed to leave the ground. All of her felt suspended and floating as she abandoned herself to the wonder that was his mouth playing over hers.
She could have kissed him forever, here in the street, while strangers brushed by them. He was a stranger, she reminded herself distantly, but he didn’t feel like one. She felt as though he’d been calling to her for her entire life and she had finally caught up to him.
He let their kiss dwindle to a series of briefer tastes while a rumble of deprivation sounded in his throat. He kept her hand in his own as she straightened. She locked her soggy knees, trying to remain upright.
“I was offering to take your bag, but thank you.” His mouth curved with amusement, while his heavy eyelids transmitted a smoldering beam of sensual appreciation. “I’ve been thinking about you and wanted to do that again.”
“Oh, my God.” She ducked her brow behind her free hand, flustered at having read the situation so wrongly.
He released a soft chuckle across her knuckles and kissed the back of her hand. “Give me your bag and we’ll get out of this wind.”
She slid her bag from her shoulder and set it in his lap, then obeyed his wave that invited her to walk down the ramp ahead of him. Inside, he passed her bag to the maître d’ and she gave up her jacket before they were shown through the intimate dining lounge.
From the outside, with its small street-level windows, she had presumed this was a midrange Italian restaurant. It was far more impressive and exclusive. Subtle lighting leant intimacy to the sumptuous furniture arranged in private pockets and alcoves. A harpist in the middle of the room plucked a soothing mood into the air. A woman in a corner wore an epoch’s worth of diamonds while the man sampling wine was a famous American with a full complement of EGOT awards. His companion was a well-known human rights lawyer.
“Am I dressed all right?” Freja asked in a whisper.
“You’re perfect,” he assured her.
Moments later they were settled at a discreet table. His chair was armless and streamlined, but still too bulky for the space on the opposite side of the table. He slid into the spot on the side, close enough that only the corner of the table separated them.
She self-consciously set aside her cap and dropped her phone into it, then flicked her hair behind her shoulders, aware of him watching her as he ordered a bottle of wine.
When they were alone, she cleared her throat and said, “I was going to ask how you learned about my book.” She’d only given him her first name yesterday. “I’m even more interested in how you have a copy? It doesn’t come out until the fall.”
“I’m extremely well-connected.” His mouth quirked as though that was an understatement. “I only received it an hour ago so I haven’t read all of it. You’re still in Mongolia. My sense is that it gets worse before it gets better.” He grew somber.
Various accounts of her story had been excerpted in the news when she was first freed. Throughout her recent four years at university, while writing the book, she had read aloud sections in class or circulated them for feedback. She was used to a reaction of sheer disbelief or dismay that she wasn’t more disparaging of the people who’d held her.
Giovanni only waited patiently for her to respond.
“I think we’ve established that loss is as bad as it gets,” she murmured.
“True,” he agreed in a grave tone. “Is that why you wanted to write it? As an homage to your father? I’d heard of him, but only vaguely as a travel writer. I had no idea he’d been such an avid blogger. And so political.”
Something in that leading statement caused her a brief flashback to those early days of arriving in America, when government types had interrogated her incessantly. Giovanni was the son of an ambassador, she reminded herself. His interest was likely ingrained from his early life observing the highest-level of world governments, not suspicion that she was a cog in such things.
“Pappa didn’t take sides so much as document blatant injustice when he came across it. His true interest was culture and history and the beauty of nature that we too often overlook. That’s what his fans wanted from him—escape from the clamor and nonsense of their own lives into the reassurance that we’re all part of the same human fabric. And yes, there was a part of me that wanted to give his readers his final chapter. They did, after all, pay for my upkeep most my life.”
They still did. Many of his books had gone into reprint after the story of his death broke. She was his sole beneficiary.
“I imagine they feel invested in you, being his companion through all his adventures.”
“You’ll laugh, but I honestly had no idea how famous he was. My publisher told me to join social media to promote my book and my phone exploded. I hadn’t even read any of his books cover to cover until I was at university. Why would I need to? I was there. And in the places we visited, he was only seen as a nosy tourist.”
His attention was fully on her as though he examined and weighed every word she spoke. It was disconcerting, causing her to blush with self-consciousness.
“Now I’ve started my own blog, and realize how much work it is to find interesting content, I realize why he exploited me so shamelessly.”
“Does that bother you?”
“Not really. He was always very good about asking which photos he could post or whether he could quote something I’d said. He would flag pages in his manuscript and let me veto anything I felt was too personal or didn’t reflect well on me. I rarely pushed back because it never occurred to me that people even read what he wrote or cared about me. At best, I imagined they were reading for snippets of history and odd mishaps like arguing with a donkey on a muddy track. I didn’t realize they came to believe they knew me, not until I was brought to America and the reporters wouldn’t leave me alone.”
“Why America? You’re Swedish aren’t you?” Again, she had the flickering sense she was being debriefed, but this was how her life had gone since her father’s death. Her notoriety gave people the impression they had a right to ask personal questions.
“I have distant relations in Sweden, but we only returned to renew our passports. My mother died when I was four and my father took me with him on his travels.”
“He educated you himself?”
“He was a teacher in a previous life.” She nodded. “He enrolled me in local schools at different times, mostly for language and socialization. You must know a little about that sort of upbringing?” She tried to bat the conversation in his direction.
“I do,” he said after the briefest of pauses. “While my father was alive, we lived wherever he happened to be assigned. I resented being uprooted every year, forced to say goodbye to my latest batch of friends, then having to assimilate into a new culture. Above anything, I wanted to stay in one place. Be careful what you wish for,” he said with an ironic nod at his chair.
“Is New York your home now?”
“My complex business interests keep me traveling. I have many homes.”
“You’ve become your father,” she teased.
“It appears that way.” He said it lightly, but his face smoothed to unreadable and he sat back, popping the fragile bubble of connection they’d briefly entered.
The wine arrived, distracting her from examining her distinct impression that he didn’t want to talk about himself. Giovanni ordered appetizers and they clinked glasses.
“How did you come to settle in New York instead of Sweden? School?”
“You could read the book to learn all this. You didn’t have to buy me dinner,” she pointed out.
“I want the raw data, not the polished prose. Unless you’d rather not talk about it?” That penetrating gaze of his made her heart stall each time it landed on her. There seemed to be a degree of challenge in it, as though refusing to talk would be seen as a sign of weakness or guilt.
“I don’t mind,” she lied.
She’d told her story enough times it was something she could usually do while holding herself at a distance so the facts didn’t hurt too much to revisit. With him, however, her typical confidence was butting up against a level of self-assurance she had never encountered. She felt overpowered, which made her defenses shaky. She had to remind herself that she didn’t need his approval for any reason, but it didn’t stop her from wanting it and she didn’t understand why.
“You might have seen in the book’s acknowledgment the mention of my father’s editor? Oliver was instrumental in getting me out of North Korea. It’s why the US took over negotiations from the Swedish officials. Oliver worked tirelessly for two years to learn whether I was alive, locate exactly where I was, and petition for my release. He brought me into his home afterward.”
“Because he felt responsible for sending you and your father there?”
“It was my father’s choice to go. No, Oliver regarded himself as a surrogate father after such a long friendship with Pappa. He and his wife, Barbara, continue to be very kind to me, but I was nineteen when I arrived. I didn’t want to be a foster child or a house guest.” Not again. “I had several offers for ghost writers to tell my story and Oliver suggested I write the book myself, as part of a creative writing degree. I had some money from my father’s estate for tuition, Oliver made some calls to his alma mater, and I thought university would be a good way to integrate into western society, that I would meet people my age and expand my mental horizons.”
“Oh? How did that go?” Giovanni’s mouth pursed knowingly. “I’m guessing your horizons were already stratospheres beyond your peers.”
“Pizza, sex, binge drinking… That’s all they cared about.” She sighed. “The people who had traveled hadn’t really traveled. They had spent summers on a yacht in the Greek islands or went on a spring break rager through the Caribbean. Even my instructors seemed stunted, hammering at me to draw a thicker line between black and white. They couldn’t understand why I wasn’t angrier. Theymade me angry, trying to force me to rewrite my own experience to fit the narrative they thought it should have.”
“It’s a sensational story. Why wouldn’t you sensationalize it for profit?”
“Exactly. I couldn’t possibly have affection for the people who had held me. That would make them people.”
She waited for the questions that usually came when she got this far, the ones that probed for salacious details. Had she been mistreated or assaulted? What horrible things had she done to survive?
“Were you not given an advance for your book? Why are you working in catering?”
That almost sounded as though he was more interested in how she’d come to meet him at the hotel last night than how she’d been pried from the clutches of a notoriously uncooperative government.
“I used my advance as a down payment on a small flat, but I have a mortgage and living expenses. Oddly enough, a creative writing degree isn’t at the top of HR managers’ wish lists.” She shrugged. “So I tutor ESL students and a friend got me in with this catering company. Once I get my book tour out of the way, I’ll start a teacher certification program.”
“You want to shape young minds?”
“Open them, at least.” She made a more determined effort to steer the conversation in his direction. “May I ask you a question?”
“Never married and currently uninvolved,” he said promptly, maintaining his intense stare, though it held a shadow of self-deprecation at what he was implying.
“I wish I could say the same,” she threw back, deadpan.
His face abruptly fell with shocked dismay.
She burst out laughing.
“I didn’t expect you to be so gullible.” Freja’s laugh was so merry, her expression so incandescent, he was spellbound.
Giovanni’s only thought should have been to question how his team had missed something as vital as romantic associations, but her remark had prompted a far more visceral reaction. Involved? No. He wanted her for himself.
Which was not only an uncharacteristic thrust of unjustified jealousy, it was the sort of emotional reaction he had trained himself not to have. The fact she had so easily slid past his well-fortified shields against any sort of manipulations, intended or otherwise, told him exactly how dangerous she was.
He tried to neutralize all of that fire power of hers with some heat of his own.
“You’re nothing like I expected.” He picked up her hand and brought it to his mouth to drop a kiss in her palm. “Which is why I have such a strong disinclination to share you.”
She blushed and he felt her hand twitch in nervous reaction, but she left it trustingly in his. Her brow pulled in a small frown. “You’re possessive?”
“I’m Sicilian, bidduzza. I’m incapable of being anything else.”
Each breath he drew was laden with the scent of her—spring and berries and something sweet like almond cookies. He wanted to continue nuzzling along her wrist, but contented himself with tracing his thumb along her love line.
This isn’t real, a voice reminded in his head. She might not be as innocent as she projected. Even more concerning, she might be, in which case he definitely shouldn’t allow himself to sink into any sort of involvement with her.
How was he to know either way if he didn’t spend time with her, though? It was a convenient rationalization for pursuing a woman he couldn’t have. What the hell was he going to do?
“What was your real question?” he prompted, still caressing her palm with his thumb.
“Do you still fence?”
Ah yes. He had confirmed that small detail, at least. An online search had unearthed a passage from one of Hugo Anderson’s earliest books about his ‘young companion,’ as her father had referred to her, taking fencing lessons from an Olympic hopeful. For weeks after, every stray piece of driftwood had become a weapon until a nasty sliver had forced her to find other amusements.
“These days I stay fit in ways that allow me to watch the market numbers or take a conference call. Fencing requires complete focus.”
“I wish I’d kept it up. There you go,” she said decisively. “I’ll look for classes. You’ve given me a goal.”
“We can’t all shoot for world domination via cellphone apps.”
“That was dumb luck,” he said with uncharacteristic frankness—and a hint of disparagement that she leapt on with an incisive frown.
“What are your real goals, then? Inspire me. Mine are all very tame.”
He scratched his cheek, stalling. “You don’t yearn for the obvious? Marriage and a family?”
She let her mouth hang open before she accused, “Sexist.”
“How is that sexist? Many people want those things, gender notwithstanding.”
She wasn’t afraid to put him on the spot. It was as annoying as it was refreshing. Given his wealth and position, most people jumped to his every whim, rarely challenging him on his opinions or what he did with his life.
His response to her question should have been a quick and firm ‘no.’ He’d buried any youthful assumptions that he would one day have a family when he’d buried the one he’d had. Part of that reaction had been bitterness. Lately it was simply a matter of priorities. Close relationships of any kind were a vulnerability he couldn’t afford.
But he had a sudden vision of her in his bed, gaze sleepy and filled with infinite possibilities. His heart lurched in warning. Or was it masculine craving?
“Marriage isn’t a priority for me,” he said in an implacable signal. “I’ve always been focused on other things. My physical health, athletic training, my education. My investments.” Not to mention unraveling multi-national conspiracies and political corruptions without getting himself further maimed or killed in the process.
“Same.” She nodded thoughtfully. “I’ve been focused on my book and finding my feet. In many ways, I feel as though I’m still waiting for my life to start.” She looked at the hand still in his warm grip. “This is the first date I’ve been on in ages. The handful of friends I made at school have moved on to careers and other things. I know a lot of people, but I’ve always moved around so much, I’ve never connected deeply with anyone.”
Her thumb tentatively caressed the backs of his fingers. His hair damned near stood on end, the sensation caused such an acute reaction in him.
At the same time, the wistful yearning in her voice reverberated off the steel shields he’d erected around his heart, making her words echo inside him as though they were his own. He had an overpowering urge to mute that inner vibration with the press of her body against his own.
All his good sense flew out the window. Before he realized what he was saying, his voice rumbled from the depths of his chest.
“Come home with me.”
“Now?” Her pupils dilated and a visible quake went through her, one that leapt so quickly onto the suggestion, his honed instincts of self-preservation tingled in warning, but a responsive ripple of pleasure rolled through him. How could he resist her when this was how they reacted to one another?
Don’t let her see how desperate you are, he cautioned himself.
While his mouth affirmed, “Right now.”
“This is something I’m still getting used to,” Freja admitted nervously as they left the elevator into his penthouse. Recessed lighting kept the lounge dim enough that the view of the city lights was like a carpet of stars beyond the darkened windows. She trailed her hand over the buttery leather of the overstuffed sofa. “I thought Oliver and Barbara lived like kings in their two-bedroom walk-up. This…”
There were no words for the kind of expansive luxury surrounding her. Until moving to New York, she’d only seen this sort of wealth in historic palaces. Catering had sent her into a few high-end hotels and penthouses, but even those paled next to what appeared to be a mansion atop a skyscraper. The floors were a gleaming hardwood, the drapes silk, the art on the walls a colorful mix of modern impressionists. Beyond the value in such things, the real luxury was in how the entire space was tastefully customized for a man who moved in a wheelchair instead of on two feet.
Something introspective shadowed his expression as he hung her jacket. He paused.
“When I asked you here, I was only thinking that I wanted to be alone with you. I didn’t consider the way you’ve been forced to live in the past.” His mouth pulled with consternation. “If you have second thoughts— I hope you feel comfortable here, but leave anytime if you don’t. Or we can go back to the restaurant.” He turned to regard her as though she were a complex puzzle he was trying to solve.
“I like to believe I’m a good judge of character.”
She had believed it until meeting him, at least. He was hard to read, though. She continued to finger the soft leather of the sofa, soothed by its texture as she considered his contradictions. Bold enough to state what he wanted, compassionate enough to anticipate her hidden apprehensions. Open about his attraction, completely closed off in other ways.
“I wouldn’t have come here if I thought you were planning to attack me.”
His expression eased into a smoldering one that pulled her insides tight with anticipation. “Only in a very sensual sense, bidduzza.And with your explicit consent, of course.” He rolled forward. “Come. Sit,” he invited, nodding at the sofa.
She hesitated behind it.
His expression cleared, but his mouth tightened briefly. “That’s fine,” he said evenly. “I presumed you’d have questions.”
“I do, but not— Well, that too, I guess.” She hadn’t even considered whether he had full sexual function, only thinking that she wanted to be alone with him, too. “It’s more…” She could hear herself stammering and wanted to die of mortification. “I’ve never done this,” she blurted.
His shoulders relaxed and one of his dark eyebrows lifted in self-deprecation. “This is considerably faster than I usually move myself.”
“No, I mean….” She nervously linked her hands before her. “I’ve never had sex.”
His head went back in astonishment.
She wrinkled her nose. “I knew you’d think me odd.” Her fellow students had. “That’s why I thought I should mention it.”
“It’s not odd.” He tilted his head, conceding, “Okay, I’m surprised. I didn’t expect someone as worldly as you are wouldn’t have taken a lover somewhere along the way.” He studied her again in that way that picked over her bones, but left small fires in its wake.
She was used to being a curiosity. People disbelieved things she said about herself and her life. For the most part she didn’t care what others thought of her, but Giovanni’s skepticism was different. That shadow of doubt he wore provoked a small outrage in her along with a clench of something more defensive. She wanted him to see her exactly as she was. To know her and like her and want her despite all the nicks and dents that life had left upon her.
“There wasn’t at least one young man at university who tempted you?”
“They all seemed very one track and immature.” The one she had thought had potential turned out to play for another team. She shrugged self-consciously. “No one made me feel like I wanted more than coffee and kisses.”
“But I do?” His face was impassive while the line of his shoulders had turned to granite.
“Why is that hard to believe? You invited me here. I thought that meant we were mutually attracted.” She crossed her arms protectively.
“I’m very attracted to you,” he assured her in a voice that curled her toes in her boots. “It’s still a big step for you to take with someone you barely know.”
She hunched her shoulders to her ears. “Growing up the way I did, always moving to a new place, I learned that I don’t often get second chances. If there was a place I wanted to see or something I wanted to do, I had to take the opportunity when it was presented or we would be in the next town or across a border and I couldn’t go back.”
“I’m a unique experience you don’t want to miss?” His voice chilled with warning.
“Am I not for you?” she asked with a spark of tetchiness. “Because if I’m a run-of-the-mill hook-up, then yes, I would prefer to take my jacket and bag and find my own way home.”
His cheeks hollowed and his mouth pursed in doleful humor. “You’re definitely unique, Freja.” He absently ran the backs of his fingers under the angle of his jaw.
The silence drew out until her stomach was so tight she could hardly breathe. She looked to her bag where he’d set it on the table by the door.
“I’m trying to make myself say that this isn’t your only opportunity to sleep with me,” he said in a voice that went gritty and thick. “I know I should tell you that if you’re feeling pressured, we can back off. We can date and wait for a time that feels right.” He shook his head, jaw clenched. “But I’ll be leaving for Europe next week. Which is more reason you should be sensible about this decision.” His fist clenched on the arm of his chair. “I’ll be there through the summer, possibly longer. I wouldn’t expect you to wait for me.”
And wouldn’t invite her to come with him. He was warning her this wasn’t the beginning of anything serious. She absorbed that as a clash that rang through her whole body. But as she weighed little against nothing, there was no contest. She would take what she could get.
“If you want to leave, go. I’ll call you tomorrow. If you want to stay the night, then I want you in my bed.”
That declaration was as weighty as a thick wool quilt, a little abrasive, but strangely comforting. She warmed under it. Fast.
“I want to stay.” Even though her stomach was nothing but butterflies of anticipation. “That’s why I’m here.”
His breath left him in a jagged laugh. “That frankness of yours is going to be the death of me. Come here.” In a well-practiced shift, he used the arm of the sofa to transfer himself onto the cushions. He held out a hand to her.
She came around and let him draw her to sit next to him. He set one arm along the back of the sofa and angled toward her. His light touch encouraged her to angle toward him and drape her legs across his thighs.
“You won’t hurt me,” he assured her, but it was the way his touch played across her knees that made her twitch in reaction. He pointed to what was left of his right leg. “This one is completely without sensation. I can’t control it at all. Sometimes it spasms. This one I can move a bit and feel some pressure, but no heat or pain.” He thwacked his finger against his meatier left thigh. “I don’t feel anything at all right here.” He drew a wide band from his spine around his ribcage to the middle of his chest on the right side. “Sensation is patchy through here.” He waved his hand over his abdomen and lap. “If I move your hand when you’re touching me, that’s why.” He picked up her hand and played with her fingers. “Go ahead and do the same with me. I want to touch you where you enjoy it most.”
Her fingers flexed in reaction to the idea of setting his hand in intimate places.
The corners of his mouth deepened knowingly. He set a tiny kiss on her knuckle, melting her thought processes one brain cell at a time.
“My shoulders and scalp and earlobes are really sensitive. My left nipple.” He shrugged at that incongruity. “I may not finish the way you expect. Don’t take that as a reflection on you or my level of enjoyment.”
“I don’t know what to expect,” she reminded, trying to keep the moment light while she quaked internally at the enormity of what they were discussing so calmly and naturally.
“Right. I should have said, everything that happens between us is a completely typical experience exactly as you would have had with your able-bodied university nits.”
She chuckled dryly, but her smile faded as he trailed his reverent gaze over her face.
“Or not.” He picked up a tendril of her hair, letting it sift through his fingers. “That is sleek as a satin ribbon, isn’t it? I’ve been dying to know.” He did it again. “Smooth and cool. Like you,” he added in a tone that maybe was supposed to be whimsical, but she was having trouble tracking.
Her scalp grew sensitized and a shiver chased down her spine. She reflexively pulled from his light hold on her hand to cross her arms and rub away the goosebumps that rose beneath her sleeves.
“Am I making you shiver? I want to.” He stroked a light touch from her shoulder to her elbow and back, reigniting the prickling sensation she’d tried to erase. His touch firmed into a warm massage that was equally inciting. “Don’t hold back any of your reactions. Your pleasure is my pleasure.”
“Really?” Her experience with men was…not that. More like, Go farther, faster. Why aren’t you into this?
“I want to know you’re as excited as I am.” He tucked her hair behind her ear and played his fingertip along the whorls he exposed, caressing behind and into the hollow beneath her earlobe.
Why that made her nipples stand up, she didn’t know, but she felt them tighten and sting. She bit her lip and wanted to lift her hand to erase that sensation too, especially when his gaze dropped. She looked down and yes, her nipples were poking against the soft red knit of her pullover.
“I want it to be so good, you can’t bring yourself to leave my bed.” His voice grew husky and intimate, his concentration wholly on the vision he created as he slid his hand to her side. He pressed the knit of her turtleneck taut so her breast was blatantly outlined, nipple standing firmly against it. “No bra?”
“I don’t like them,” she confessed faintly.
“Neither do I. Not anymore.”
She had never experienced such a strange euphoria simply by being near someone, barely touching. His light caress through her clothing was feathery and wonderful. She liked being snuggled close to his solid warmth, able to discern his strength and take in his scent of wool and outdoors and faint aftershave and a more intimate, personal fragrance that was spicy and musky and all him.
His touch slid back to her shoulder, encouraging her to lean in as he did, closer and closer, gaze on his mouth. He didn’t kiss her, though. He touched light kisses along her jaw, then stole a very brief kiss. Started to come back for more.
She drew back slightly. “Shouldn’t we go to the bedroom?”
He frowned with insult. “I’ll have to turn in my Italian citizenship if I don’t seduce you.”
“But I already said yes.”
“You agreed to the sensual attack I promised you.” He grew serious. Maybe faintly suspicious. “Why the hurry?”
“I’m nervous,” she admitted with a sheepish wrinkle of her nose.
“Then we should take it slow.”
“But I feel…impatient.” Her low-grade blush increased until she was so hot, she probably glowed, fully embarrassed by how urgent she felt. “I want to be naked and feel all of you and know how it will be when we’re…together.”
He gathered her in his strong arms and his chest muscles flexed as he pulled her to sit fully in his lap, so they were nose to nose. His big hands moved over her lower back and hips, waking her up to swirling sensations that expanded into her inner thighs.
“This is how it will be,” he told her, opening his mouth against her throat and licking at her flesh. “Better and better with every minute that goes by.”
He really did attack her senses. She caught her breath at the onslaught of sensations, gasping when his hands hardened on her, holding her in place.
“I’m dying to have you naked and spread out on my bed, weak with need for the release I give you.” His hot breath wafted against her nape. “I’m going to take liberties that are liable to shock you. I’m as impatient as you are for all of that.”
“Are you?” He seemed in such complete control.
“Do you lack sensation below the waist? What do you think that is against your ass? A penknife?”
She chuckled shyly and glanced down to where a stiff ridge dug into her cheek. She gave a small wriggle that made heat flare in his eyes.
She did it again, testing her newfound feminine power.
“You will be the death of me,” he said in a rasp and rocked to shift his legs open a little further, nestling her deeper into his lap. “Can we lose these?” He tugged the zipper on the inside of her boot.
She nodded, wondering how the slow relaxing of her boots and their loose drop could pull such an erotic sensation from her loins to the arch of her foot.
He caressed her calf and invited, “Kiss me.”
She did, sliding her arms around his neck while she worked her mouth over his, dabbing her tongue into the taste of him between his parted lips. Trying to slake a greedy hunger she’d never experienced—or expressed—in her life.
Gradually, she became aware of his arms firming around her. His hand was in her hair, his other one soothing along her ribcage while he took control of their kiss. He was unhurried about it, but she slowly became aware that they were fully involved. He was thoroughly ravaging her and it was fantastic. She curled into him with a groan, pressing her thighs together to ease the growing ache between. When his touch crept over her breast and he molded the swell while sweeping his thumb across her nipple, she moaned into his mouth.
He drew back and his heavy-lidded gaze was fixated on where he was fondling her. “Let me see,” he said in a thick voice and gave a tug against the back of the turtleneck.
“Yes, I’m so hot,” she breathed anxiously.
“Me, too.” He swept off his own pullover first, then helped her do the same. He swore as she twisted her naked torso back toward him, stalling her with his wide hands against her shoulders, still balancing her on his thighs.
“You’re so beautiful.” His palms went down to cup the sides of her breasts. His thumbs shaped beneath the swells to plump them and tilt her beaded nipples higher.
She trembled as she tried to work his shirt buttons loose. It wasn’t easy. He dropped his head to set the sweetest kisses across her shoulders. His light touch grazed her stomach and ribs and tickled the curves of her breasts. It was such a tease! Her breasts grew heavy with anticipation. Everything in her wanted to sit still for the lovely sensations he was causing with those clever fingers and damp lips, but more than that, she wanted to feel him. His hair against her jaw made her turn her nose into his scent, but she finally had his shirt undone enough to push it open and, “Oh!”
She thrust her arms beneath the edges, hugging his sides. The scrape of her naked breasts against the silken hairs on his chest sent a glorious, electrical excitement through her. He made a growling noise and caught her into a passionate kiss. As they devoured each other, tongues tangling, they moved against one another, skin against skin in hedonistic friction.
It took her a moment to realize her perception of falling was real. He was tipping her onto her back on the cushions, but coming down with her. He leaned over her, mouth finding her throat and taking soft, wet bites.
“Giovanni,” she moaned.
“Say it like you mean it.” His expression was so stark and intensely masculine, it should have been intimidating, but his touch as he cupped her breast was reverent. He looked at her naked flesh, licked at her nipple then blew softly. Her loins pulsed in reaction.
“Giovanni,” she said with all the yearning in her, tone ringing with plea and command.
He rewarded her with a delicate suction that had her tangling her fingers in his hair, arching up to offer more. She was going insane, she was so aroused, but he moved from one to the other and back until instinct drove her to slither herself more completely beneath him. Her body screamed for the weight of his. For his thighs between her own.
As they rearranged themselves, her skirt rode up, allowing her bend her knees on either side of his hips.
He balanced on one elbow over her. “Tell me if I’m too heavy.”
“I like it.” She pulled his shirt from his waistband and slid her palms all over his back.
He had the torso of a power lifter, thick chest and shoulder muscles rippling under her touch. When her fingers grazed his left nipple, he sucked in a sharp breath.
She lifted her hand. “Hurt?”
“No,” he said on a jagged laugh. “It feels really good.”
She touched him again, watching his eyes drift shut as she very deliberately played her thumbs across his nipples. His breathing grew uneven and her own arousal intensified as she watched the way he was reacting.
He suddenly snapped his eyes open and dragged her hand to his shoulder. “I’m going to lose it if you keep that up. Ladies first.” He kissed her parted lips and settled his weight on her.
When she felt the pressure of his erection through their clothes against the juncture of her thighs, she tilted of her hips to increase the pressure.
“What do you need?” He rolled onto his elbow and pressed the heat of his palm against her mound. “This?” He rocked his palm firmly.
“Yes,” she moaned in anguished relief. “Was I hurting you?”
“Quit asking that.” He nipped at the edge of her jaw. “The only thing that’s hurting me is that I can’t feel more of you.” He searched beneath her skirt for the waist band of her leggings and worked his hand inside, fingers cleverly getting into her underwear.
He watched her expression as he did. She bit her lip, shy, yet dying of anticipation. She never let men get this far. It had never felt right, but now she dearly wanted to know how it would feel.
One long touch parted the wet seam of her folds, intimate and lovely. He returned to the swollen bundle of nerves he’d only grazed, as if he’d known exactly what he was doing all along. One firm circle and such an exquisite streak of pleasure went through her, she clenched her eyes shut to savor it while a decadent groan filled her throat.
“Hurt?” he mocked with a hot chuckle of his breath against her cheek. He did it again.
She groaned again and met his kiss with a flagrant offer of her tongue while she rocked her hips to match the slow rhythm of his touch firming and gliding away, returning and easing, dipping lower and deeper, invading so she clung to him with all her might, driven by sheer desire to cast off propriety and seek the pinnacle that suddenly loomed.
And there it was, quick and sweet and expansive, bathing her in a rush of tingles while her cries of satisfaction were muffled by his carnal kiss.
His touch stayed under her skirt, but eased to a proprietary hand on her belly while he let her break their kiss and catch her breath.
“You very nearly took me with you. That was incredibly sexy.” He circled the tip of his nose against her own, kissed her temple, then her cheekbone. Through her haze, she thought he might be shaking.
She wished he had climaxed with her. She’d never orgasmed with anyone else in the room and she felt incredibly vulnerable right now, having done it by his hand. Letting him draw that from her gave him a power over her that she didn’t know how to take back. He had broken down barriers in her before she fully understood how much protection they offered.
Even knowing that, however, latent desire throbbed in her blood. She was still aroused. She wanted more and the depth of want in her—for more of his touch, his kisses, and the pleasure he gave her—was genuinely painful. Her need for him felt as basic breathing or eating. It was unsettling to become so carnal within the space of a few minutes.
“Now I want to go to the bedroom,” he informed smokily, setting one short, suggestive kiss on her mouth.