Excerpt: Dante's Contract Marriage
Purchase Today: Dante’s Contract Marriage
Date: 2008, August 04 08:02 PDST
Subject: Marriage Contract, Premarital Conditions
Ariana, as discussed in our recent phone conversation, I’m sending my first marital condition.
Condition #1: Absolutely, positively, unequivocally no secrets.
August 7, 2008
“I hate secrets.”
Lazzaro Dante made the statement so emphatically that it caused Ariana Romano to fall silent. Honesty compelled him to admit to himself that he hated secrets almost as much as he hated The Inferno—a myth his family considered a reality. The Inferno, or rather what his brothers and their wives perceived as some nebulous and fiery connection between soul mates that struck at first touch, had recently formed an exclusive club to which all his family members belonged, except him. As far as he was concerned, the family “curse” didn’t exist, and nothing anyone could say or do would change his mind. Ever.
He could hear his fiancée’s breath catch through the phone line and sensed her searching for an appropriate reply to his pronouncement. “I realize we’ve never met, but you are aware you’re marrying a woman, yes?” she asked. “Secrets and women go together like handbags and heels.”
Her comment caught him off guard. Perhaps it was the way she said it, with a hint of gentle humor sweeping through her odd accent. Her English, which she’d acquired from her British grandmother, carried the upper-crust echo of tea and crumpets and combined with the sunny warmth of her native tongue, an Italian lilt that orchestrated her every word.
“And you do realize I’m not Marco, right?” he reminded her.
“Your brother has explained as much,” she replied with far too much equanimity. “He’s visited us many times on Dantes business and says that despite being twins, the two of you are as different as night and day.”
“For instance he’s charming and you are not.”
Lazz straightened in his chair. “I’m logical.”
“He is amusing. You not so much. I believe that is the way Marco puts it.”
“When I see my brother, I’ll be sure to explain precisely where he can put it.”
If she heard the muttered comment, she didn’t respond to it. “Marco is also handsome and intelligent and kind. Not to mention an excellent kisser.” A pregnant pause followed the pronouncement. “Should I expect my future husband to be none of those things?”
He locked on to the most vital portion of her comment. An irrational anger exploded in him, an emotion far out of proportion to the situation. Not again, an insidious voice whispered. No way would he share another woman with his brother, especially not someone he planned to marry.
He’d been through that with Caitlyn, a woman he’d been on the verge of proposing to, when Marco had tricked her into marriage by posing as Lazz. He wouldn’t—couldn’t—marry Ariana if she expected him to be a stand-in for Marco. Logic be damned, he flat-out refused to be a substitute for any man.
“You and Marco kissed?”
She must have heard the edge in his voice, because she answered promptly. “Before he met Caitlyn, yes. But it didn’t rock either of our worlds.” Her use of the idiom would have amused him if the circumstances had been different. “Despite his expertise, it was like kissing in the hopes of finding a lover and finding only a good friend. Do you know what I mean?”
“Ah, well. Perhaps it’s never happened to you.” Again came that tiny pause, and he had the strong suspicion she was laughing at him. “Are you inexperienced?”
“I thought since you’ve been so insistent that you’re Marco’s complete opposite that perhaps this is another area in which you are lacking.”
She was poking at him, the same as when she’d been a child, he realized with equal parts amusement and annoyance. “You’re playing a dangerous game,” he warned. “Jerk a kitten’s tail, and Marco might scratch you. Jerk my tail, and you’re dealing with an entirely different kind of animal.”
Her breath escaped in a soft laugh. “Touché. I have gathered as much from our negotiations. Your list of marital demands have been quite interesting.”
“As have yours. Particularly your latest, which is why I’m calling.” Lazz regarded the printout he held with a basic masculine confusion. “Why do you want your own room? I can understand your own bedroom, but—”
“I require a room with a lock and a guarantee of utter privacy. Did I phrase my request in a way that confused you?”
“Not at all.” Suspicion roared to the surface. “You phrased it in a way that makes me wonder what you’re hiding and why.”
“I am not hiding anything. I’m being quite explicit. This is not a matter for one of your infamous negotiations. Refuse my request and it’s a deal-breaker.”
“Why?” he repeated.
Her laugh came to him, rich and earthy, and filled with a honeyed warmth. “How many times must I tell you? I’m a woman. Women need their privacy.”
“Your own bedroom isn’t private enough?”
“I can’t do what I have in mind in a bedroom.”
“That’s a relief,” he muttered.
Ariana’s laughter teased him again, decimating the barriers of logic and rational thought Lazz had worked so hard to erect. He struggled to remember what she looked like, but nothing came to him, possibly because nearly two full decades had passed since he’d last seen her. Maybe he’d ask Marco. His brother had conducted protracted business dealings with the Romano family. Worse, Ariana and Marco had kissed. No question he would be able to describe Ariana. Knowing Marco, he’d be able to do it right down to the last tiny freckle.
Lazz grimaced. Or perhaps he wouldn’t ask his brother a damn thing, since he suspected Marco would use the opportunity to either give him some serious grief, or even worse, try and talk him out of honoring the contract their father had signed with Vittorio Romano. And all because of that ridiculous Inferno nonsense.
“Are you going to tell me why you need a private room?” Lazz asked again.
“You simply expect me to comply with no explanation or clarification?”
“Yes. I expect you to comply the same way you expect me to comply with your marital demands.” She paused, before asking delicately, “How many are we up to now? Ten?”
“Five,” he corrected. “Six, if you count the one I’m sending you later today about the disposition of Brimstone.”
“Of course that one counts. And how many have I made?”
“Which leaves me with three to spare, should I choose to use them. And maybe I will. Maybe I’ll save my extra three demands for after we’re married. You can be the genie to my wishes.” Her sigh of pleasure drifted across continents. “I quite like that idea.”
For some reason that sigh caused a hunger to gnaw at the pit of his stomach. “That’s not how it works.”
“It works however we say it does. You claim you’re the logical one.”
“I am the logical one.” He always had been, and marriage to Ariana wouldn’t change that fact, a point he intended to make crystal clear. He attempted to get them back on topic. “About the room. If you’d just explain—”
“Are you worried that I intend to take a lover? Would you feel better about my request if I tell you I promise to honor my vow to remain faithful to you for the duration of our marriage?”
Yes. He closed his eyes at the silent acknowledgment. He knew where his suspicions came from. Understood his knee-jerk reaction to anything that hinted at a secret or a hidden agenda. He could lay that little issue squarely at Marco’s door—and at his own. Just as Marco had used subterfuge to sweep in and carry Caitlyn away, Lazz had been every bit as guilty of a few secrets and deceptions of his own in the course of that entire debacle. Still, it had been quite a blow to his pride when the woman he’d hoped to marry had chosen his twin brother over him.
The entire incident had left a sour taste in Lazz’s mouth and created a general distaste for lies and deception. And yet, here he was embroiled in just that. It might have been of his father’s making, but he’d chosen to keep the reasons for his impending marriage a secret from two of the people he loved most in his life. And though he attempted to rationalize his decision, there were certain lines that couldn’t be smudged.
What he was doing was wrong and he knew it.
“You’re not going to tell me why you need a private room, are you?” Lazz asked. “Despite my condition that we not have secrets from each other, you still refuse to explain.”
“I’m sorry, Marco.”
“Lazz,” he corrected softly.
“Now I really am sorry.” There was no mistaking her sincerity. “I swear I wasn’t ‘jerking your tail’ as you called it. Using your brother’s name was an honest mistake. You sound so much like him.”
“I look like him, too,” Lazz warned. “But I’d appreciate it if you’d remember my name by the time we marry. My grandparents might find it a bit suspicious if you keep calling me Marco. They believe we met and fell in love the last time you were in San Francisco, and it’s imperative that they continue to believe that for the duration of our marriage.”
“Of course. You made it a condition, one I heartily approve of.” A note of formality stole the summer warmth from her voice. “I will be very careful to play my part. Believe me, I don’t wish my grandmother or my mother to find out about this devil’s contract any more than you want your grandparents to discover the truth.”
“My grandparents would do everything in their power to stop the wedding if they knew about the contract.” Primo had once told him that to marry without The Inferno would turn a blessing into a curse. So Lazz had allowed his grandparents to believe that he and Ariana had experienced what he privately denied.
“Don’t you find it disturbing that you’re marrying a virtual stranger,” she asked, “knowing nothing about what sort of person I am?”
“It’s not forever, Ariana. And it enables us to achieve the same goal. We both want to prevent Brimstone from being thrown away.”
“So we marry for profit.”
Her concern came through loud and clear. She sounded on the verge of backing out, something he couldn’t allow to happen. “If privacy is what you need in order to make all of this more palatable for you, you can have it. I agree to your third condition. I also promise we won’t stay married a minute longer than necessary.”
“How can I possibly refuse such a romantic offer?” she asked lightly.
His grin slid into his voice. “I can’t imagine. So, when are you coming over?”
“Not until right before the ceremony. Both my grandmother and mother are shrewd women. I’m afraid if they see us together, they won’t believe our story of a whirlwind love affair. It took a lot of maneuvering to convince my mother to delay our arrival. She wanted to fly over weeks beforehand. Fortunately, once I explained my problem to my father, he supported my request. We arrive the morning of the rehearsal.”
“That makes sense.” Lazz glanced at the calendar on his desk. “Not long now. Just three more weeks.”
“August 28th. And then we’ll be married,” she murmured.
“Temporarily.” Lazz’s mouth tightened. And The Inferno be damned.
“So what’s his latest demand?” Constantine asked his sister. Ever since the contract between their father and Dominic Dante had come to light, her brother had scoured the fine print, watching over the negotiations like a hawk.
“He’s just reiterating one of his older ones. We’re to have no secrets.”
Constantine grinned. “Are you serious?”
“No. But he is.” She dropped into the chair in front of her brother’s desk and lifted her feet to rest on the edge. “I’m beginning to realize that Lazz is nothing like Marco.”
“I like Marco. He’s fun.”
“Maybe a little too much fun, just as his brother is a little too much business.” She released her breath in a sigh. “Isn’t there a happy medium?”
“You’re looking at him.”
Ariana chuckled and nudged a stack of files with her bare toe. They cascaded in his direction, creating a flurry of papers that swamped his desk. “Aren’t we full of ourselves, especially for virtual paupers.”
Constantine busied himself for a moment, straightening the papers she’d knocked over, but Ariana understood. They’d been broke for years due to a series of bad investments their father had made. Since then, they’d lived off their name, as well as off friends who were willing to pick up the tab in order to have the Romanos grace their homes. And though it didn’t seem to bother their father, Ariana had watched with serious concern the impact it had on her brother.
Constantine hated being broke. Hated freeloading. Hated having their maternal grandmother, Penelope, use the money from her Mrs. Pennywinkle royalty checks to keep the Romano estate intact. He had a head for business, but so far lacked investors. And the few who’d shown interest didn’t plan to allow Constantine to run the concern, but simply wanted the Romano name attached to the project and her brother installed as a figurehead.
This marriage offered salvation for all of them. With their share of Brimstone, it would be more than enough to seed Constantine’s business, as well as provide her father with a comfortable retirement.
“Do you think Grandmother suspects anything?” Ariana asked.
“Not at all. She’s downright giddy over your wedding.”
“I’m so relieved she’s well enough to come.”
A light tap sounded at the door, and the object of their conversation wheeled herself through the doorway. “Oh, there you are.” She beamed at her grandchildren. “I was hoping to find you here. I just wanted a word with Ariana about a few wedding details.”
Constantine shoved back his chair. “In that case, I’ll make myself scarce.” He bent over his frail grandmother and kissed her rose-petal-soft cheek. “You call me if you need anything, Gran,” he said before making good his escape.