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Wife By Force

By:Caro LaFever

International Billionaires II: The Italians

Chapter 1

The anger surprised her.

This rush of pure rage. Of bitterness she thought she'd erased long ago.

She'd practiced this meeting for years. Rehearsed how she'd act, what   she'd say. But it all fell out of her head and heart. Slipped away from   her mouth and tongue.

His hand held hers in a light, formal grip. Yet his heat overwhelmed her   senses, pulsing down her arm into the core of her-the old, cold pain.   Everything around her faded: the warm night air behind her, the noise  of  the party behind him. A haze of unreality blurred everything around   her.

Except for his heat.

"Ah," he finally said. "Little Lara Derrick. All grown up."

She looked at him then, looked into hooded eyes set in a face of stark   angles and planes. For a moment, she saw only a stranger. This was a   man's face-a ruthless man, tough and implacable. Exactly as she   remembered from the last time they'd stood together.

Nothing like the boy she'd once thought of as her best friend.

His eyes narrowed. Something sparked between them. The old bond, the   feeling she'd carried through her childhood … of belonging … of being loved …

No. Wait.

Her wits stirred to life and with them the hard-won truths she'd learned   over the past years. There had never really been anything. All her   fantasy, all silly girlhood imaginings. Not reality. He'd made that   brutally clear with his actions against her.

In a rush, the fury surged once more. Surprised again at its power, she   sucked in a deep breath and stiffened her spine. A nod at the man in   front of her was the only thing she could manage. If she started to   talk, she might yell. If she moved another muscle, she might hit. If she   looked at him again, he might see what was in her eyes.

And then he would know what he'd done to her.

"Nothing to say?" His hand held hers in a light grip, his touch soft. "If I remember correctly that is unusual for you."

The slight teasing in his tone made her itch to strike out. She jerked   her hand from his, and a wave of relief welled inside her when her   father stepped up behind her, providing needed distraction, stopping her   from doing anything stupid. But for a long moment, she still felt the   coolness of the man's dark gaze, felt the heat of his body.

The haze threatened to blur her surroundings once more.

Then it was gone with her father's booming hello, the lighter tones of   her brother's laughing joke. The man's deep, smooth voice, greeting them   and welcoming them into his home without a trace of warmth, cleared  the  haze inside her like a good gale of icy English wind.

Thank God.

Lara walked past him into the cool marble foyer. Laughter and chatter   drifted out of the large drawing room on the right and she moved   quickly, losing herself in the crowd of neighbors and friends   celebrating the upcoming nuptials of his youngest sister. Exchanging a   wave of greeting with a cluster of friends across the room, she ignored   his sister's invitation to join them. Instead, she swiped a glass of   champagne from a waiter, leaned on the wall and sipped.

Her fingers shook as they clutched the crystal.

A fresh spurt of anger, at herself this time, ran through her. He meant   nothing to her. He'd meant nothing to her for a long time. She'd made   sure of that.

So why?

Why was her stomach churning, why were her hands damp, her eyes blurry   with tears? This reaction gave him too much credit. Too much power.   Something she would not tolerate.

She needed some air.

With a stiff gait she walked through the crowd, past the laughter and   talking, and eventually out onto the terrace. Closing the door behind   her, she let the Italian night surround and soothe her. The gentle lap   of the Mediterranean Sea, meters away, slid through and around her.   Calming her.

It was over. She'd met him again and survived the experience.

"He doesn't matter to you," she whispered to herself.

So he'd changed the course of her life and certainly not for the better.   Yet she'd managed to come through her experiences stronger and  smarter.

The beat of her heart throbbed in her chest.

She'd been a foolish child then, bent on destroying any link to him.   Systematically, she'd cut herself off from her childhood, isolated   herself in a new life. Done exactly what he'd wanted her to   do … disappear.

How stupid she'd been.

Because this place, these people, were part of her and always would be.   Not him. Never him. Everything else, though, she wanted back. Her life   in Italy, her family, the friendships she had with his sisters.

She also had a goal now, something not tied to a man or his wishes and   desires. Her school would be the declaration of her power as a survivor.   For the foreseeable future, it would be her life. Precisely as she   wanted it to be.         



Lara turned and looked through the pane glass of the terrace doors. The   colors of the women's dresses blended into a kaleidoscope of silk and   satin and status. The men's dark suits, white dress shirts, black   tuxedoes, offered contrast. The flash of diamonds, the sparkling light   of the chandeliers, the glint of class and glamour.

Her bittersweet memories blurred her gaze for a moment.

She'd played dolls in this elegant room, with the rain splashing the   terrace doors. She and his sisters had used the chic settees as castles,   the antique tapestries lining the walls as backdrops, the marble   statues as pawns in their play. The room had been merely their   playground, nothing to be impressed with.

Not aristocratic. Haughty. Intimidating.

Like he'd shown himself to be.

Then and now.

He moved through the room as if he owned it all, which he did, and owned   everyone who scattered before him. He never smiled; instead he nodded   with cool arrogance. Lara watched as grown men almost genuflected  before  him. He accepted it as if it were his due. What pride. What an  ego.  Nothing like years ago. Then he'd been a lanky teenager who  grinned and  laughed. Who hadn't hidden everything he was thinking  behind a cold  mask.

Who hadn't been capable of betraying those who loved him.

However, that had been a lie too, her memory of him as someone other   than an imperious aristocrat. Another of his lies. Or maybe she'd been   lying to herself.

Not anymore. Never again.

She was no longer a dreamer. She was a realist.

She took a deep sip of champagne and turned away to stare at the rolling   lawn darkened with night shadows. She would get through this week,   suffer his presence at his sister's wedding, and then odds were, she'd   rarely see him. After all, since she'd been back in Italy, she hadn't   seen him at all. He'd been wheeling and dealing in Dubai or someplace   exotic. Inevitably, he'd leave for another important business deal   somewhere else in the world. Leaving her free to make a new life where   she belonged.

The click of the door opening made only a slight sound, but it shot   through her. The air immediately hummed with life, catching her off   guard. It was him. She knew it. The realization shook her-she still felt   this old instinctive bond.

It shouldn't be. It shouldn't happen.

"So," he said from behind her. "You are back."

A flutter of panic slid across her skin at the thought of being alone   with him. She thought about running down the steps, into his park, away   from this. But she'd learned to confront now, learned to stand instead   of run.

She turned around to face him.

The golden light spilling from the terrace doors slid across his   shoulders, highlighting their broad length. Gilding his black hair, the   glow brushed along the tough edge of his jaw. The rest of his face was   hidden in shadows.

"Yes." She looked at the shadowed garden once more. She would ignore   him. Ignoring wasn't running. And honestly, she had nothing to say to   him, not anymore. He'd made clear he felt nothing except contempt for   her.

Why was he here, then? Why had he followed her out here when he could so   easily be surrounded by the adoring crowd inside? What could he   possibly say to her that hadn't already been said?

She breathed in the warm air, redolent with honeysuckle and the tang of   salt. Pulling her wayward emotions together, she reminded herself of   what she'd practiced over and over. The words she'd say, the actions   she'd take when she at last saw him.

Distance. Disdain. Dismissal.

He moved to stand beside her. A faint whiff of his cologne drifted to   her, the clean bite of citrus mixed with a deeper cut of spice. Beneath   it lurked the smell of him, musk and man. Unique to him. His impact on   her defied her determination to pay no attention to him. She hadn't   planned for this awareness of him, this draw, hadn't realized how hard   this would be.