About the Author
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
She closed her eyes, and she could feel it.
Hot, warm lips on her bare flesh. A firm, masculine hand at her waist.
She opened her eyes again and bent down, adjusting the delicate buckles on her white satin heels.
Her lover's hands on her ankle, removing her high heels. Leaving her naked in front of him, naked before a man for the first time. But there was no time for nerves. There was nothing more than the heat between them. Years offantasy, years of longing.
Alessia swallowed and took the bouquet of bloodred roses from the chair they were resting on. She looked down at the blossoms, some of them bruised by the way she'd laid them down.
Brushing her fingertips over the crushed velvet petals brought another wave of memory. A wave of sensation.
Her lover's mouth at her breast, her fingers woven through his thick dark hair. "Alessia?"
Her head snapped up and she saw her wedding coordinator standing in the doorway, one hand covering her headset.
Alessia nodded, and headed toward the doorway, her shoes loud on the marble floor of the basilica. She exited the room that had been set aside for her to get ready in, and entered the vast foyer. It was empty now, all of the guests in the sanctuary, waiting for the ceremony.
She let out a long breath, the sound loud in the empty, high-ceilinged room. Then she started her walk toward the sanctuary, past pillars inlaid with gold and stones. She stopped for a moment, hoping to find some comfort, some peace, in the biblical scenes depicted on the walls.
Her eyes fell to a detailed painting of a garden. Of Eve handing Adam the apple.
"Please. Just one night."
"Only one, cara mia?"
"That's all I have to give."
A searing kiss, like nothing she 'd ever experienced before. Better than any fantasy.
Her breath caught and she turned away from the painting, continuing on, continuing to the small antechamber outside of the sanctuary.
Her father was there, his suit crisp and pressed. An-tonioni Battaglia looked every inch the respectable citizen everyone knew he was not. And the wedding, so formal, so traditional, was another statement of his power. Power that he longed to increase, with the Cor-retti fortune and status.
That desire was the reason she was here.
"You are very much like your mother."
She wondered if there was any truth to the words, or if it was just the right thing to say. Tenderness was something her father had never seemed capable of.
"Thank you," she said, looking down at her bouquet.
"This is what's right for the family."
She knew it was. Knew that it was the key to ensuring that her brothers and sisters were cared for. And that was, after all, what she'd done since her mother died in childbirth. Pietro, Giana, Marco and Eva were the brightest lights in her existence, and she would do, had done, whatever she could to ensure they had the best life possible.
And still, regret settled on her like a cloak, and memory clouded the present. Memories of her lover. His hands, his body, his passion.
If only her lover, and the man waiting behind the doors to the sanctuary, waiting to marry her, were the same.
"I know," she said, fighting against the desolation inside of her. The emptiness.
The double doors parted, revealing an impossibly long aisle. The music changed, everyone turned to look at herall twelve hundred guests, who had come to watch the union of the Battaglia family and their much-hated rivals, the Correttis.
She held her head up, trying to breathe. The bodice of her dress threatened to choke her. The lace, which formed a high collar, and sleeves that ended in a point over her hands, was heavy and scratched against her skin. The yards of fabric clung to her, heat making her feel light-headed.
It was a beautiful dress, but it was too fussy for her. Too heavy. But the dress wasn't about her. The wedding wasn't about her.
Her father followed her into the sanctuary but didn't take her arm. He had given her away when he'd signed his agreement with the late Salvatore Corretti. He didn't need to do it again. He didn't move to take a seat, either, rather he prowled around the back of the pews, up the side of the church, his steps parallel to hers. That was Antonioni Battaglia all over. Watching proceedings, ensuring all went well. Watching her. Making sure she did as she was told.
A drop of sweat rolled down her back and another flash of memory hit her hard.
His sweat-slicked skin beneath her fingertips. Her nails digging into his shoulders. Her thighs wrapped around lean, masculine hips
She blinked and looked up at Alessandro. Her groom. The man to whom she was about to make her vows.
God forgive me.
Had she not been holding the roses, she would have crossed herself.
And then she felt him. As though he had reached out and put his hands on her.
She looked at the Corretti side, and her heart stopped for a moment. Matteo.
Her lover. Her groom's enemy.
Matteo was arresting as ever, with the power to draw the breath from her lungs. Tall and broad, his physique outlined to perfection by his custom-made suit. Olive skin and square jaw. Lips that delivered pleasure in beautiful and torturous ways.
But this man standing in the pews was not the man who'd shared her bed that night a month ago. He was different. Rage, dark and bottomless, burned from his eyes, his jaw tight. She had thought, had almost hoped, that he wouldn't care about her being promised to Alessandro. That a night of passion with her would be like a night with any other woman.
Yes, that thought had hurt, but it had been better than this. Better than him looking at her like he hated her.
She could remember those dark eyes meeting hers with a different kind of fire. Lust. Need. A bleak desperation that had echoed inside of her. And she could remember them clouded by desire, his expression pained as she'd touched him, tasted him.
She looked to Alessandro but she could still feel Matteo watching her. And she had to look back. She always had to look at Matteo Corretti. For as long as she could remember, she'd been drawn to him.
And for one night, she'd had him.
Now now she would never have him again.
Her steps faltered, her high heel turning sideways beneath her. She stumbled, caught herself, her eyes locking with Matteo's again.
Dio, it was hot. Her dress was suffocating her now. The veil too heavy on her head, the lace at her throat threatening to choke her.
She stopped walking, the war within her threatening to tear her to pieces.
Matteo Corretti thought he would gag on his anger. Watching her walk toward Alessandro, his cousin, his rival in business and now, because of this, his enemy.
Watching Alessia Battaglia make her way to Alessandro, to bind herself to him.
She was Matteo's. His lover. His woman. The most beautiful woman he had ever seen in his life. It wasn't simply the smooth perfection of her golden skin, not just the exquisite cheekbones and full, rose-colored lips. It was something that existed beneath her skin, a vitality and passion that had, by turns, fascinated and confused him.
Her every laugh, every smile, every mundane action, was filled with more life, more joy, than his most memorable moments. It was why, from the first time he'd sneaked a look at her as a boy, he had been transfixed.
Far from the monster he'd been made to believe the Battaglias were, she had been an angel in his eyes.
But he had never touched her. Never breached the unspoken command issued by his father and grandfather. Because she was a Battaglia and he a Corretti, the bad blood between them going back more than fifty years. He had been forbidden from even speaking to her and as a boy he had only violated that order once.
And now, when Salvatore had thought it might benefit him, now she was being traded to Alessandro like cattle. He tightened his hands into fists, anger, anger like he hadn't felt in more than thirteen years, curling in his gut. The kind of rage he normally kept packed in ice was roaring through him. He feared it might explode, and he knew what happened when it did.
He could not be held responsible for what he might do if he had to watch Alessandro touch Alessia. Kiss her.
And then Alessia froze in place, her big, dark eyes darting from Alessandro, and back to him. Those eyes. Those eyes were always in his dreams.
Her hand dropped to her side, and then she released her hold on her bouquet of roses, the sound of them hitting the stone floor loud in the sudden silence of the room.
Then she turned, gripping the front of her heavy lace skirt, and ran back down the aisle. The white fabric billowed around her as she ran. She only looked behind her once. Wide, frightened eyes meeting his.
"Alessia!" He couldn't stop himself. Her name burst from his lips, and his body burst from its position in the pews. And he was running, too. "Alessia!"
The roar of the congregation drowned out his words. But still he ran. People were standing now, filing into the aisle, blocking his path. The faces of the crowd were a blur, he wasn't aware of who he touched, who he moved out of his way, in his pursuit of the bride.
When he finally burst through the exterior doors of the basilica, Alessia was getting into the backseat of the limo that was waiting to carry her and her groom away after the ceremony, trying to get her massive skirt and train into the vehicle with her. When she saw him, everything in her face changed. A hope in her eyes that grabbed him deep in his chest and twisted his heart.
"What are you doing, Alessia?"
"I have to go," she said, her eyes focused behind him now, fearful. Fearful of her father, he knew. He was gripped then by a sudden need to erase her fears. To keep her from ever needing to be afraid again.
"Where?" he asked, his voice rough.
"The airport. Meet me."
"Matteo, please. I'll wait." She shut the door to the limo and the car pulled out of the parking lot, just as her father exited the church.
"You!" Antonioni turned on him. "What have you done?"
And Alessandro appeared behind him, his eyes blazing with fury. "Yes, cousin, what have you done?"
* * *
Alessia's hands shook as she handed the cash to the woman at the clothing shop. She'd never been permitted to go into a store like this. Her father thought this sort of place, with mass-produced garments, was common. Not for a Battaglia. But the jeans, T-shirt and trainers she'd found suited her purpose because they were common. Because any woman would wear them. Because a Battaglia would not. As if the Battaglias had the money to put on the show they did. Her father borrowed what he had to in order to maintain the fiction that their power was as infinite as it ever was. His position as Minister for the Trade and Housing department might net him a certain amount of power, power that was easily and happily manipulated, but it didn't keep the same flow of money that had come from her grandfather's rather more seedy organization.
The shopgirl looked at her curiously, and Alessia knew why. A shivering bride, sans groom, in a small tourist shop still wearing her gown and veil was a strange sight indeed.
"May I use the changing room?" she asked once her items were paid for.
She felt slightly sick using her father's money to escape, sicker still over the way she'd gotten it. She must have been quite the sight in the bank, in her wedding gown, demanding a cash advance against a card with her father's name on it.
"I'm a Battaglia," she'd said, employing all the self-importance she'd ever heard come from Antonioni. "Of course it's all right for me to access my family money."
Cash was essential, because she knew better than to leave a paper trail. Having a family who had, rather famously, been on the wrong side of the law was helpful in that regard at least. As had her lifelong observation of how utter confidence could get you things you shouldn't be allowed to have. The money in her purse being a prime example.
"Of course," the cashier said.
Alessia scurried into the changing room and started tugging off the gown, the hideous, suffocating gown. The one chosen by her father because it was so traditional. The virgin bride in white.
If he only knew.
She contorted her arm behind her and tugged at the tab of the zip, stepping out of the dress, punching the crinoline down and stepping out of the pile of fabric. She slipped the jeans on and tugged the stretchy black top over her head.
She emerged from the room a moment later, using the rubber bands she'd purchased to restrain her long, thick hair. Then she slipped on the trainers, ruing her lack of socks for a moment, then straightened.
And she breathed. Feeling more like herself again. Like Alessia. "Thank you," she said to the cashier. "Keep the dress. Sell it if you like."
She dashed out of the store and onto the busy streets, finally able to breathe. Finally.
She'd ditched the limo at the bank, offering the driver a generous tip for his part in the getaway. It only took her a moment to flag down a cab.
She slid in the back, clutching her bag to her chest. "Aeroporto di Catania, per favore."
Matteo hadn't lingered at the basilica. Instead, he'd sidestepped his cousin's furious questions and gotten into his sports car, roaring out of the parking lot and heading in the direction of the airport without giving it any thought.
His heart was pounding hard, adrenaline pouring through him.
He felt beyond himself today. Out of control in a way he never allowed.
In a way he rarely allowed, at least. There had been a few breaks in his infamous control, and all of them were tied to Alessia. And they provided a window into just what he could become if the hideous cold that lived in him met with passionate flame.
She was his weakness. A weakness he should never have allowed and one he should certainly never allow again.
Dark eyes clashing with his in a mirror hanging behind the bar. Eyes he would recognize anywhere.
He turned sharply and saw her, the breath pulled from his lungs.
He set his drink down on the bar and walked across the crowded room, away from his colleagues.
"Alessia." He addressed her directly for the first time in thirteen years.
"Matteo." His name sounded so sweet on her lips.
It had been a month since their night together in New York City, a chance encounter, he'd imagined. He wondered now.
A whole month and he could still taste her skin on his tongue, could still feel the soft curves of her breasts resting in his palms. Could still hear her broken sighs of need as they took each other to the height of pleasure.
And he had not wanted another woman since.
They barely made it into his hotel room, they were far too desperate for each other. He slammed the door, locking it with shaking fingers, pressing her body against the wall. Her dress was long, with a generous slit up the side, revealing her toned, tan legs.
He wrapped his fingers around her thigh and tugged her leg up around his hip, settling the hardness of his erection against her softness.
It wasn't enough. It would never be enough.
Matteo stopped at a red light, impatience tearing at him. Need, need like he had only known once before, was like a beast inside him, devouring, roaring.
Finally, she was naked, her bare breasts pressing hard against his chest. He had to have her. His entire body trembling with lust.
"Ready for me, cara mia?"
"Always for you."
He slid inside of her body, so tight, much more so than he 'd expected, than he 'd ever experienced. She cried out softly, the bite of her nails in his flesh not due to pleasure now.
His. Only his.