If you like hard hearted, arrogant heroes and heroines who're naive and too good to be true on first impression, but hide a core of steel that brings the hero to his knees - you will like Pia and Raphael's love story! Although there's a bit of Pia going on her knees too! :)
There's an interfering grandfather, a diamond ring and several hot scenes involved that might require a lemonade to cool down!
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If you don't want to go anywhere but want to read a sample first, scroll down: Enjoy!
Her skin prickled. Her body, even though overheated from two hours of dancing, suddenly tingled.
Pia Vito could almost pinpoint the moment the piercing awareness claimed her, the moment a sudden chill replaced the warm breeze coming in through the wide doors of the vast ballroom on her grandfather’s estate.
It was the moment he walked in.
Her grandfather Giovanni’s godson and protégé.
CEO of Vito Automobiles.
The man Milanese society seems to be in awe of.
The women around her went into a quiet frenzy, sending longing looks his way, detailing his finer points to each other.
From the moment she had discovered her long-lost grandfather Gio, and he had accepted her as his granddaughter at the beginning of the summer, all Pia had heard from him was stories about Raphael Mastrantino.
And her drama-prone grandfather hadn’t exaggerated for once.
No other man could have prowled inside the ballroom with such arrogant confidence, as if he owned the estate and all the people in it.
No other man would look that striking in a plain white shirt while making the rest of the tuxedo-clad men look overdressed.
No other man could have commanded the attention of an entire ballroom by his mere presence.
Piercing eyes met hers across the ballroom, held hers, as if determined to see through to her soul.
It was as if an electric arc had built up between them—the very concept she’d been explaining to her fifth grade students back home.
No adjective she knew could describe the sheer masculinity of him. Broad shoulders tapered to a lean waist, long legs. The ruthless planes of his face, the stark angles were those one only saw in sculptures.
It took every ounce of energy she possessed to keep her smile in place.
Not even a facsimile of a greeting appeared in his hard face. With his cynical and appraising expression, even from a distance Pia felt his derision to the tips of her toes.
Any warmth she’d felt amidst the dancing crowd dissipated as realization struck.
Her grandfather’s godson didn’t approve of her? Why?
Which was why she had felt his gaze on her back like a concentrated laser beam.
Ignoring his presence—which was like the earth trying to ignore the sun—her movements awkward and stilted, she adjusted her path exiting the dance floor and kept moving, head down.
She ran straight into something so solidly male her breath jumped into her throat. Cursing herself, she looked up. And was caught in the darkest eyes she had ever seen, draped by the lushest lashes no mascara could ever reproduce.
When had he moved so close?
His fingers had landed on the patch of bare skin that her dress and gloves left on her arms. The pads of his fingers pressed into her flesh, not quite hard but not gently either. As if he knew of her intention to escape him.
The scent of him, warmed by his skin, drifted up toward her nostrils and she breathed in deeply. A furious flush began to work its way from her chest to her neck and upward at his continued scrutiny.
She had never been comfortable with men, had no idea of that subtle, sophisticated flirting language all her fellow teachers, at least the young ones, seemed to know. Even with Frank, it had taken her two months to put a sentence together.
But this felt as if she were naked, as if her worst fears—her loneliness after her grandmother’s death, her overwhelming need to belong somewhere, anywhere—as if it were all on display for his eyes.
“You are not running away from me, are you, cara mia?” came a taunt in the deep, silky voice that let loose butterflies in her stomach.
When she’d banged into him, she had braced herself with her hands and there they rested now. On him. His abdomen, to be precise. He was a granite wall under her hands. She fluttered her fingers over him, curious to see if there would be softness, if she could find more give…
The pressure of his fingers increased over her wrists, arresting her explorations. “Do you not speak then?” This time, he sounded coldly angry. “You communicate instead by touching men?”
Pia pulled back as if burned.
This was ridiculous. She managed twenty eleven-year-olds every day in the classroom! How dare he give voice to something so embarrassing, something she’d only done as a reaction to stress?
“My head hurts,” she somehow managed to say and it was partly true. “I’m not used to so much jewelry. The designer heels I’m wearing are killing my feet. Please excuse me.”
“How charmingly you lie, Ms. Vito.”
He delivered the insult in such a smooth voice that it took her a few seconds to realize it.
“Next, you will tell me you hate these kinds of parties and you were just putting on a good show for Gio’s sake. That the jewelry and dress and shoes—the ones that incidentally proclaim you as a walking fortune—are not really your thing.” He twisted the last two words into a mocking American twang. “That you didn’t really enjoy dancing with every man who asked you with that innocent invitation in your eyes. That this whole evening is an elaborate charade you’re suffering through like a good sacrificial lamb.”
That was exactly what she had been doing.
The dress, the shoes, the jewelry, even the complicated updo her hair was twisted into, none of it was her. But she had kept quiet.
Because she’d wanted Giovanni to be proud of her.
Because she’d wanted to be someone else, even for one night. Sophisticated and charming and polished—not a woman who fell for lies and found herself in crushing debt.
Yet this arrogant man made it sound as if the idea of Pia not wanting the attention, not liking being on display were impossible.
“You’ve already drawn your conclusions, Mr. Mastrantino.”
“How do you know who I am?”
“Gio told me you’d be the most handsome, the most powerful and the most arrogant man I’ve ever met. He was right.” Heat climbed up her chest as he raised a brow.
She looked around the ballroom and every pair of eyes was trained on them. Locating her grandfather’s silver hair, she sent him a please-rescue-me look.
As if he hadn’t even seen her, Gio carried on his conversation.
A pulse of panic drummed through her. It was as if Mr. Mastrantino, Gio and even the guests were playing a game, but no one had told Pia the rules.
“Then you have the advantage, for he told me nothing about you. Until I saw the invitation, I didn’t even know you existed. A ball in honor of Pia Alessandra Vito.” He was a few inches taller than even her uncommon height and for the first time in her life, Pia felt dainty, even fragile. “Giovanni’s long-lost granddaughter, finally returned to the bosom of her loving family, his legacy displayed like a crowning jewel to society.”
Why was he so ticked off with her?
But his possessive touch stilled everything within her. Her breath hitched, and her insides seemed intent upon some kind of rearrangement. Like molecules under heat.
“The Cinderella story of the year,” he continued, a hardness in the curve of his sensual mouth. “I assume Gio has already also bought a prince for you to dance with before the stroke of midnight too, si?”
Bought a prince for her?
As if a man had to be paid to be with her! Pia could feel the color leaching from her face.
Raphael had no idea how deep his thoughtless comment dug into her. How much it hurt.
“Gio knows I don’t want a…” The words stilled as she tallied all the men that had been hounding her tonight.
Why had Gio invited so many young, eligible men? Why had each and every one of them made a beeline for her? True, she was the guest of honor, but still. There were other women at the ball.
A shiver curled around her spine.
“Non?” Raphael inflected it enough to tell her he didn’t believe her. “Why do you think all these men have been falling over themselves to dance with you? Your great beauty?” His gaze raked her, and then dismissed her. “Your charming conversation? Your magnetic presence?”
With each derogatory question out of his mouth, Pia knew he had it right. But she was damned if she would stand there another moment and let him mock her.
She turned and stumbled. A pained gasp fell from her mouth.
Strong arms wound around her waist from behind before her bottom kissed the black-and-white marble floor. His muscular forearms brushed the undersides of her breasts, pushing them up. A burst of heat filled her lower belly.
Pia clung to him, her breath in disarray. It was too much sensation, too raw.
Slowly, gently, as if she were a newborn calf, he turned her around. In a movement that was as fluid as it was economic, he knelt in front of her.
Her heart pounded.
A pin could have dropped in the ballroom and it would have been an explosion.
His trousers stretched tight over his thighs, his austere face raised to her, he cradled her foot in a tender clasp. A lock of his thick black hair fell forward on his forehead. Those dark eyes moved over her face, down her throat, where her pulse pounded violently, to the sight of the upper curves of her meager breasts plumped into fullness by the bodice.
A tightness emerged in his face.
Tilting his head down, he placed her right foot on his left thigh. The tips of her fingers rested on his shoulders and she felt the muscles there shift and clench.
With uncharacteristic malice, she hoped the pointed heel would bruise his rock-hard flesh.
His fingers unbuckled the small belt of her sandal with a nimble touch. He plucked the heel off her foot, and fingers wrapped around her bare flesh.
Pia flinched as pain and awareness mingled, spreading up from her ankle.
His nostrils flared, his mouth pinching into a stiff line. Long fingers rubbed the small ridge the strap had dug into her skin. Back and forth, softly, slowly, until a soft moan—a raw, unrestrained sound—fell from her mouth.
Holding her gaze, he touched her more boldly, more purposefully.
A strange, forbidden craving released in her lower belly, warmth pooling there. Her heart beat in rhythm to those fingers. When he moved one finger upward, almost reaching her knee, Pia jerked her foot back.
And then, because of the uneven balance, toppled onto him.
With a curse, he caught her. But he was still so tall that when she fell, his face was buried scandalously against her belly. The warmth of his breath against her soft muscles set off such a deep clench in her sex that Pia whimpered.
His hands on her waist, he gave her a gentle nudge. Her entire body was a shivering, needy pulse. Pia looked down at his hands. “Let me go.”
He shrugged those broad shoulders, an innocent look in his eyes. “You will fall if I let you go.”
This man was dangerous. What he so easily made her feel—this hitch of her breath, this nervous knot in her belly, the warmth unspooling in every muscle—every forbidden sensation was dangerous.
This time, instead of putting her foot on his thigh, she put her hand on his shoulder, balanced herself and shed her other sandal. Then she picked them up with her left hand, muttered a rushed thanks at his shoulder and straightened.
She moved no more than a couple of steps when he stood in front of her again. “It is not the stroke of midnight yet, so surely it is not time for you to disappear, is it?”
Pia faced him, still shuddering after that intimate slide against him. Hard and lean and unforgiving, his body had left an imprint on hers. “You’re no prince. More like the devil.”
A white smile flashed in his dark face.
Pia sighed. The man’s will was unbending. Her feet hurt, her head was throbbing, she really was tired. But of course, her grandfather’s godson had come to the ball with an agenda.
He turned her around with his hands on her shoulders and gently pushed her to the center of the dance floor. One arrogant nod of his head and the orchestra began playing a classical waltz.
One large hand spanned her waist while the other clasped her fingers. Her body stretched tight and stiff to resist gliding against his. For a few minutes, they moved around the floor seamlessly, yet she couldn’t relax, couldn’t muster a single calm breath. His scent weaved around her. He was hard and lean everywhere she touched him.
“My ego would suffer if I didn’t already know that you are just as stiff and awkward with other men,” he whispered against her ear while his arm rested around her waist.
Pia found herself sinking into the depths of those black eyes. She was plain and awkward, yes, but no coward. “I’m sure I could hardly dent that humongous ego.”
His laughter, a deep, husky sound startled the life out of her.
Of course, graceful dancer that he was, he didn’t let his own steps falter.
Long fingers fluttered near the underside of her breast making Pia aware of every inch of her skin. “Tell me about yourself.” For all her supposed resistance, he had somehow pulled her closer. On a side step, her hip rubbed against his thigh. Pia shivered. “About your dreams and aspirations,” he continued, as if he felt nothing of the torture he put her through. As if he felt nothing period. “Maybe your favorite ice cream or your favorite Italian designer. Or what you’re planning to ask Gio to give you for your birthday present.”
“You know, to make up for all the years he missed. A yacht? Are you fond of sailing? A condo in Venice?”
“I’ve no idea—”
Another turn around the hall, but this time with the sensation of his palm covering her upper back. She couldn’t take much more of this heightened awareness. “How old are you?”
“Quite an accomplishment for one so young.”
Her body was so aware of him that her mind couldn’t grapple with the intent in his words. “Please, stop. Just stop. I’m not…good at this.”
His thumb traced the veins over the back of her hand almost absently. “What is the this that you’re not good at?”
“Dealing with men like you. Playing ridiculous games. I’m not like other women you probably know. I’m nothing like the women I know.”
His gaze swept over the tiara in her hair, the diamonds at her throat. “I would say you’re doing just fine. From everything I see, you have Giovanni wrapped around your finger.”
“I don’t know how to decipher your words. I don’t understand why you’re determined to make a spectacle of me in this crowd. I don’t know why you’re—”
Her attraction to Gio’s godson was the last thing she needed. Especially when, clearly, he bore no goodwill toward her.
A finger under her chin, he tilted her face up to look at him. The stark beauty of him hit her hard again. “Why I’m what?”
“Why you’re even touching me like this… I don’t know why I’m reacting to you like this. Why my heart is beating so hard I feel like it might rip out of my chest. Why there’s this…” His eyes flared and Pia caught the words that were bent on pouring out of her mouth. “And why you’re so intent on proving that you affect me like that even as your eyes are full of contempt.”
His mouth lost that cynical curve; his eyes became searching, intent. It seemed she had finally shocked him.
His hold gentled and Pia slipped away. The marble floor was cold against her bare feet reminding her she had left her heels behind.
But she was no more Cinderella than Raphael Mastrantino was a prince.
Raphael ran a finger along his collar, his body humming with awareness, with unspent energy as if he were a randy youth.
His attraction to Pia—instant and all consuming—defied logic. She was not beautiful, not in the conventional sense, not sophisticated for all her dress and jewelry—and yet there was something irresistibly alluring about her.
Which woman among the society he lived in would so openly admit what she felt for him? And with that artless dismay that she was attracted to him?
No, first there were games, games that every woman played. Even his mother played them when Raphael refused to buy her the latest model of the Vito Viva. Either she cooked his favorite food every night or she shed phony tears over his father’s death—an entire episode meant to guilt him and remind him that he should be a good son who granted each and every one of her expensive wishes.
Even his four sisters played games, with Raphael, and with their boyfriends who had inevitably turned into husbands.
No one admitted in that raw, unsophisticated way what a man made her feel. No one moaned like that—as if she were sinking into a whirlpool of pleasure when a man touched her ankle. No woman that he knew stared at a man with those big, luminous eyes as if he was the answer to her every fantasy.
Coy looks, innuendoes laced with sexual tension, teases, throwing herself at other men to make him jealous—the list of things his ex-wife, Allegra, had tried on him a few years ago were innumerable.
I’m not good at playing games.
There had been a genuine quality to her distress, to her confusion. As if her body was betraying her and she didn’t know what to do.
Either she was truly naive—an anachronism with her faint blushes and her trembling mouth—or she knew just how to appeal to a man as jaded and cynical as he was. Perhaps she had decided that the right way to court his attention would be to cater to that traditional man in him, the Neanderthal that Allegra had called him so many times.
Was that it? Had she thought to counter his distrust by catering precisely to his tastes?
A chill ran down the length of his spine as he made his usual rounds through the mansion as he usually did when visiting.
He had no doubt about how much Gio would have talked about him over the last month. As his godson and his protégé, he was Giovanni’s pride and joy. Raphael had turned the small spare automobile parts company that Gio had handed him into Vito Automobiles, a leading manufacturing company.
Giovanni had been his lifeline when he’d been sinking as a seventeen-year-old. He’d been a light in a long, dark tunnel that Raphael’s weak father had plunged them all into.
Not that it stopped Giovanni from also being manipulative as hell. Throughout the evening, he had stood on the periphery of the crowd, watching, with a satisfied smile on his face. Like a puppeteer intensely delighted with the results of his string pulling.
Whatever the old man was up to, it would eventually fall to Raphael to clean it up. Just as he kept Giovanni’s hounding relatives at bay. Just as he ensured that the leftovers from Gio’s time on the board—men who would stab Raphael in the back before he could blink—didn’t leach away the gains he had made.
Just as he took care of the various and sundry branches of Mastrantino families without any expectations in return.
And yet, as he questioned one of the staff members about Pia, Raphael was suddenly aware that this was unlike any other responsibility he shouldered.
For no bickering ex-wife of Gio’s or grasping cousin of his mother had ever caused his blood to pound like this.
No woman had ever called to his baser instincts like this supposed innocent granddaughter of his godfather.