Excerpt: Dante's Temporary Fiancee
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This time his family had gone too far.
Rafe Dante stared at the bevy of women being subtly–and not so subtly–paraded beneath his nose by various family members. He’d lost count of the number of women he’d been forced to shake hands with. He knew why they were doing it. They were all determined to find him a wife. He grimaced. No, more than just a wife.
They hoped to find his Inferno soul mate–a Dante legend that had gotten seriously out of hand. For some reason his family had it firmly fixed in their head that it only took one touch for some strange mythical connection to be forged between a Dante and his soul mate. Ridiculous, of course. Didn’t they get it?
Not only didn’t he believe in The Inferno, but he had no interest in ever experiencing matrimonial blisslessness again. His late wife, Leah, had taught him that lesson in the short span of time from “I do” to “My lawyer will be in touch.” Of course, that phone call had never come. His wife had chartered a private plane to Mexico to recover from the tragedy of her marriage to him and met with a far worse tragedy when her plane crashed into a mountainside, leaving no survivors.
Rafe’s younger brother, Draco, joined him and folded his arms across his chest. He stood silently for a moment, surveying the room and the glittering contents, both jeweled and female. “Ready to surrender and just pick one?”
“I am. Dead serious.”
Rafe turned on his brother, only too happy to vent some of his irritation. “Do you have any idea what the past three months have been like?”
“I do. I’ve been watching from the sidelines, in case you hadn’t noticed. I’m also keenly aware that once you succumb to The Inferno, I’m next in line for the firing squad. As far as I’m concerned, feel free to hold out for as long as possible.”
“I’m working on it.”
Rafe returned his attention to the shimmer and sparkle and sighed. Dantes international jewelry reception possessed everything a man could ask for–wine, women and bling–and nothing he wanted.
The wine came from a Sonoma, California vineyard just a few hours from the family’s San Francisco home office. Having sampled the wine, he knew the label on the bottles was as exclusive as the guest list. The women were beautiful, wealthy, and shone as brilliantly as the wedding rings on display around the private showroom. As for the bling… Well, that oftentimes fell within his purview, at least it did when Dantes Courier Service transported the stunning array of gemstones and finished pieces.
And yet, Rafe was nagged by a sense of utter boredom. How many times had he attended receptions similar to this one? Always observing. Always maintaining a vigilant eye from the shadows. Always the watchful lone wolf instinctively avoided by the guests–until one family member or another thrust a potential bride in his direction. It was a pattern that had repeated itself so many times he’d lost count.
This occasion celebrated the exclusive release of Dantes latest collection, the Eternity line of one-of-a-kind wedding rings. Each was unique, combining the fire diamonds for which his family was renowned with the Platinum Ice gold from Billings–the company owned by Rafe’s sister-in-law, Tea Dante, who’d married his older brother, Luc, three months earlier. Just seeing rings that symbolized love and commitment filled Rafe with bitterness.
Been there. Done that. Still had the scars to prove it.
And then he saw her.
The little blonde pixie working the reception as one of the caterers couldn’t claim the title of most gorgeous woman in the room, but for some reason Rafe couldn’t take his eyes off her.
He couldn’t say why she attracted his attention, or explain the vague sizzle she stirred. Granted, her features were quite lovely, delicate and fine-boned with enough whimsy to make them interesting. Maybe it was her hair and eyes–blonde hair the same shade as the ice white sand of a Caribbean island and eyes the glorious turquoise of the rolling ocean waves that splashed and frolicked across those pristine beaches. Then there was that sizzle he couldn’t explain, a vague compelling itch that urged him to get closer to her in every possible way.
She circulated through the display room of Dantes’ corporate office building with a hip swinging glide that made her appear as though she were dancing. In fact, she possessed a dancer’s body, lean and graceful, if a bit on the pint-sized, every delectable inch showcased by the fitted black slacks and tight red vest of her uniform.
She disappeared into the crowd, her tray of canapes held high, and he lost sight of her. For a split second he was tempted to give chase. A few minutes later, the pixie waitress reappeared with a fresh tray of champagne and circled through the guests in the exact opposite direction from where he stood.
For some reason it annoyed Rafe. Determined to force a meeting, he began to maneuver his way through the crowd in an intercept course, one circumvented by Draco’s restraining hand.
“What?” Rafe asked, lifting an eyebrow. “I’m thirsty.”
Draco shot him a knowing look. “Funny. I’d have said you look hungry. And with so many eyes on you, I recommend you avoid sating your appetite until a more appropriate time and place.”
“Relax. Where there’s a will…” Draco gestured toward one of the nearby display cases and deliberately changed the subject. “Looks like Francesca’s latest line of Eternity wedding rings is going to be a huge success. Sev must be thrilled.”
Caving to the inevitable, Rafe nodded. “I think he’s more thrilled about the birth of their son,” he replied. “But this would probably rate as icing on the cake.”
Draco inclined his head, then slanted Rafe a look of open amusement. “So tell me. How many of the lovelies fluttering around the room have our beloved grandparents introduced to you so far this evening?”
Rafe’s expression settled into grim lines. “A full dozen. Made me touch every last one of them, like they expected to see me set off a shower of fireworks or light the place up in a of blaze of electricity or something.”
“It’s your own fault. If you hadn’t told Luc that you and Leigh never experienced The Inferno, the entire family wouldn’t be intent on throwing women your way.”
The fact that so many of his relatives had succumbed to the family legend, only added to Rafe’s bitterness toward his own brief foray into the turbulent matrimonial waters. Time would tell whether their romances lasted longer than his own. They might claim they’d found their soul mates, courtesy of Dantes Inferno. Rafe, the most logical and practical of all his kith and kin, adopted a far more simple and pragmatic–okay, cynical–viewpoint.
The Inferno didn’t exist.
There was no eternal bond established when a Dante first touched his soul mate, no matter what anyone claimed, anymore than Dantes Eternity wedding rings could promise that the marriages for which they were purchased would last for all eternity. Some hit it lucky, like his grandparents, Primo and Nonna. And some didn’t, like his disastrous marriage to his late wife, Leigh.
Rafe stared broodingly at his older brother, Luc, and his bride of three months, Tea. They were dancing together, swirling across the floor, gazing into each other’s eyes as though no one else in the room existed. Every emotion blazed in their expressions, there for the world to witness. Hell, even when Rafe had been in the most passionate throes of lust, neither he nor Leigh had ever looked at each other like that.
In fact, he’d been accused by the various women in his life that his penchant for practicality and hard, cold logic–his Lone Wolf persona–bled over into his personal life with dismaying frequency. Possessing a fiery passion in the bedroom definitely compensated, as did his striking Dante looks, they conceded, but not when that passion went no farther than the bedroom door. Emotionally distant. Unavailable. Intimidating. For reasons that bewildered him, that word was always accompanied by a shudder.
What none of them understood was that he didn’t do love. Not the brutal, I-married-you-because-you’re-a-rich-and-powerful-Dante love his late wife, Leigh, specialized in. Not the casual, melt-the-sheets-and-enjoy-it-while-the-bling-lasts type that characterized the women interested in an affair with him. And definitely not The Inferno brain-frying-palm-burning-happily-ever-after brand of bull spouted by his more emotional and passionate Dante relatives.
Rafe knew himself all too well. And he could state with absolute certain that not only wasn’t he hardwired that way, he never had and never would experience an Inferno love.
Which was just fine by him.
“It was annoying the first few times a potential bride was dangled in front of me,” Rafe informed his brother. “Since it was Nonna and Primo, I couldn’t say much. But now everyone’s gotten into the act. I can’t move without having some gorgeous thing shoved under my nose.”
Draco signaled to someone over Rafe’s shoulder. “A fate worse than death,” he said with a fake shudder.
“It would be if it were you under the gun.”
“But I’m not.” Draco leaned past Rafe and helped himself to a flute of champagne. “Want one?”
“Consider this your lucky day. The tray’s right behind you.” He offered a cocky grin. “And don’t say I never did you a favor.”
Confused by the comment, Rafe turned to take a glass and found his elusive pixie standing there, holding the tray of drinks. Close up she was even more appealing than from across the room.
He gestured to her with the flute. “Thanks.”
Her smile grew, lighting up her face, the room, and some cold, dark place in his heart. “You’re welcome.” Even her voice appealed, rich and husky with an almost musical lyricism.
Draco watched the byplay in amusement. “You know, if you want the relatives to leave you alone, there is one way.”
That snagged Rafe’s attention. “How?” he demanded.
Draco grinned. “Find your Inferno bride.”
“Son of a–” Rafe bit off the curse. “I already told you. I’m never going to marry again. Not after Leigh.”
He heard the pixie’s sharp inhalation at the same time the flutes on her tray began to wobble unsteadily. The glasses knocked against each other, the crystal singing in distress. She fought to steady the tray, almost managed it, before the flutes tipped and cascaded to the floor. Glass shattered and champagne splattered in a wide arc.
Reacting instinctively, Rafe encircled the waitress’s narrow waist and yanked her clear of the debris field. A tantalizing heat burned through the material of her uniform, rousing images of pale naked curves gilded in moonlight. Velvety smooth arms and legs entwined around him. Soft moans like a musical symphony filling the air and driving their lovemaking.
Rafe shook his head, struggling for focus. “Are you all right?” he managed to ask.
She stared at the mess on the floor and nodded. “I think so.”
She lifted her gaze to his, her eyes wide and impossibly blue, the only color in her sheet-white face. He didn’t see any of the desire that had swept over him. Remorse and oddly, a hint of panic, sure. But not so much as a flicker of passion. A shame.
“I’m so sorry,” she said. “I started to step back so I could circulate some more and my foot slipped.”
“You’re not cut?”
“No.” She blew out her breath in a sigh. “I really do apologize. I’ll get this cleaned up right away.”
Before she could follow through, another of the catering staff crossed the room to join them. He was clearly management, judging by the swift and discreet manner in which he took control of the situation and arranged to have the broken glass and champagne cleaned up. The waitress pitched in without a word, but when it was done, the manager guided her over to Rafe.
“Larkin, you have something to say to Mr. Dante?” he prompted.
“I want to apologize again for any inconvenience I may have caused,” she said.
Rafe smiled at her, then at the manager. “Accidents happen. And in this case, it was entirely my fault. I’m afraid I bumped into Larkin causing her to drop the tray.”
The manager blinked at that and Rafe didn’t have a doubt in the world that he’d have accepted the excuse if Larkin hadn’t instantly protested, “Oh, no. The fault is entirely mine. Mr. Dante had nothing to do with it.”
The manager sighed. “I see. Well, thank you, Mr. Dante, for your gallantry. Larkin, please return to the kitchen.”
“Yes, sir, Mr. Barney.”
Rafe watched her walk away. As far as he was concerned, she was still the most graceful woman in the room. “You’re going to fire her, aren’t you?”
“I wish I didn’t have to. But my supervisor has a ‘no excuses’ policy for certain of his more exclusive clientele.”
“I gather Dantes is on that list?”
Barney cleared his throat. “I believe you top the list, sir.”
“It’s a shame, really. She’s the nicest of our waitresses. If it were up to me…”
Rafe lifted an eyebrow. “I don’t suppose we can forget this incident took place?”
“I’d love to,” Barney replied. “But there were too many witnesses and not all of our help is as kind-hearted as Larkin. Word will get out if I do that and then both of us will be out of a job.”
“Understood. I guess it would have helped if she’d allowed me to take the blame.”
“You have no idea,” came the heartfelt comment. “But, Larkin’s just not made that way.”
“A rare quality.”
“Yes, it is.” Barney lifted an eyebrow. “If there’s anything else you or anyone in your family needs…?”
“I’ll let you know.”
The two men shook hands and Barney disappeared in the direction of the kitchen, no doubt to fire Larkin. Rafe frowned. Maybe he should intercede. Or better yet, maybe he could arrange for a new job. Dantes was a big firm with plenty of branches. Surely he could find an opening for her somewhere. Hell, he was president of Dantes Courier Service. He could invent a job if one didn’t already exist. The thought of Larkin’s sunny smile welcoming him to work each day struck him as appealing in the extreme.
Draco approached. “So? Have you given my idea any thought?”
Rafe stared blankly. “What idea?”
“Weren’t you listening to me?”
“It usually works best if I don’t. Most the time your suggestions only lead one place.”
Draco grinned. “Trouble?”
“Well, this one won’t. All you have to do is find your Inferno bride and everyone will leave you alone.”
Rafe shook his head. “Apparently you’re not great at listening, either. After that disaster of a marriage to Leigh, I’m never going to marry again.”
“Who said anything about marriage?”
Rafe narrowed his eyes. “Explain.”
“You know, for such a smart, analytical type guy, there are times when you can be amazingly obtuse.” Draco spoke slowly and distinctly. “Find a woman. Claim it’s The Inferno. Maintain the illusion for a few months. Act the part of two people crazy in love.”
Rafe’s mouth twisted. “I don’t do crazy in love.”
“If you want everyone to leave you alone, you will. After a short engagement, have her dump you. Make it worth her while to go a long way away and stay there.”
“You’ve come up with some bone-headed ideas in your time. But this one has to be the most ludicrous–” Rafe broke off and turned to stare in the direction of the kitchen. “Huh.”
Draco chuckled. “You were saying?”
“I think I have an idea.”
Rafe shot his brother a warning look. “If you say one word about this to anyone–”
“Are you kidding? Nonna and Primo would kill me, not to mention our parents.”
Draco stabbed his finger against Rafe’s chest. “They wouldn’t believe for one minute you were clever enough to come up with a plan like this.”
“I’m not sure clever is the right word. Conniving, maybe?”
“Right. Keep telling yourself that. Maybe one of us will believe you. In the meantime, I have an Inferno bride to win.”
Rafe headed for the kitchen. He arrived just in time to see Larkin refusing the wad of money Barney was attempting to press into her hand. “I’ll be fine, Mr. Barney.”
“You know you need it for rent.” He stuffed the cash into the pocket of her vest and gave her a hug. “We’re going to miss you, kiddo.”
One by one the wait staff followed suit. Then Larkin turned toward the exit and Rafe caught the glitter of tears swimming in her eyes. For some reason a fierce, protective wave swept through him.
“Larkin,” he said. “If I could speak to you for a minute.”
Her head jerked around, surprise registering in her gaze. “Certainly, Mr. Dante.”
Instead of exiting into the reception area, he escorted her through the door leading to the hallway. “Is there a problem? I hope you don’t blame Mr. Barney for my mistake. He did fire me, if that helps.”
Ouch. “It’s nothing like that,” he reassured. “I wanted to speak to you in private.”
Leading the way to the wing of private offices, he reached a set of double doors with a discreet gold plaque that read “Rafaelo Dante, President, Dantes Courier Service.” He keyed the remote control fob in his pocket and the doors snicked open. Gesturing her into the darkened interior, he touched a button on a panel near the door. Soft lights brightened the sitting area section of his office, leaving the business side with its desk, credenza and chairs, in darkness.
“Have a seat. Would you like anything to drink?”
She hesitated, then gave a soft laugh. “I know I’m supposed to say no, thank you. But I’d love some water.”
“Coming right up.”
He opened the cabinet door that concealed a small refrigerator and removed two bottles of water. After collecting a pair of glasses and dropping some ice cubes into each, he joined her on the couch. Sitting so close to her might have been a mistake. He could sense her in ways he’d rather not. The light, citrusy scent of her that somehow managed to curl around and through him. The warmth and energy of her body. The way the light caught in her hair and left her eyes in dusky blue shadow. He’d hoped the business setting would dampen his reaction to her. Instead, the solitude only served to increase his awareness.
He gathered his control around him like a cloak, forcing himself to deal with the business at hand. “I’m sorry about your job,” he said, passing her the water. “Firing you seems a bit severe for a simple accident.”
“I don’t normally work the more exclusive accounts. This was my first time.” She made a face. “And my last.”
“The catering firm won’t switch you over to work some of their smaller parties?”
She released a sigh. “To be honest, I doubt it. The woman in charge of those accounts isn’t a fan of mine right now.”
The question made her uncomfortable. “Not exactly.”
If he was going to hire her, he needed to gather as much information about her as possible, especially if she didn’t deal well with authority. “Then what, exactly?” he pressed.
“Her boyfriend was on the wait staff, and…”
“He hit on me,” Larkin reluctantly confessed.
“Something you encouraged?”
To his surprise, she didn’t take offense at the question. In fact, she laughed. “JD doesn’t require encouragement. He hits on anyone remotely female. I hope Britt figures out what a sleaze he is sooner, rather than later. She could do a lot better.”
Rafe sat there for a moment, nonplussed. “You’re worried about your supervisor, not your job?”
“I can always get another job, even if it’s washing dishes,” Larkin explained matter-of-factly. “But Britt’s nice…when she’s not furious because JD’s flirting with the help. I just got caught in the middle.”
Huh. Interesting assessment. “And now?”
For the first time a hint of worry nibbled at the corners of her eyes and edged across her expression. “I’m sure it will all work out.”
“I overheard Barney say something about rent.”
She released a soft sigh, the sound filled with a wealth of weariness. “I’m a little behind. What he gave me for tonight’s work should cover it.”
“But you need another job.”
She tilted her head to one side. “I don’t suppose you’re hiring?”
He liked her directness. No coyness. No wide-eyed, gushing pretense or any sort of sexual over- or undertones. Just a simple, frank question. “I may have a job for you,” he admitted cautiously. “But I’d need to run a quick background check. Do you have any objections?”
And then he saw it. Just a flash of hesitation before she shook her head. “I don’t have any objections.”
“Fine.” Only it wasn’t fine. Not if she were hiding something. He couldn’t handle another deceptive woman. Refused to deal with that sort of woman. “Full name?”
“Larkin Anne Thatcher.”
She supplied her social security number and date of birth without being asked. He pulled out his cell and texted one of his brother’s former security associates, Juice, with the request. He’d have gone through Luc, but there might be uncomfortable questions when he later presented Larkin as his Inferno bride. Better to keep it on the down low. In the meantime, he’d get some of the preliminary questions out of the way.
“Have you ever been arrested?” Rafe asked.
Larkin shook her head. “No, never.”
A flash of indignation came and went in her open gaze before she answered in a calm, even voice. “Never. I’ve needed to take drug tests for various jobs in the past, including this latest one. I have no objection to taking one here and now if you want.”
“Credit or bankruptcy issues?”
Indignation turned to humor. “Aside from living on a shoestring? No.”
“Not a one.”
“I haven’t served.”
Now she grinned. “How much time do you have?”
Rafe eyed her curiously. “That many?”
“Oh, yeah. The list is as long as it is diverse.”
“Any special reason?”
She hesitated again, but he didn’t pick up any hint of evasion, just thoughtfulness. “I’m searching.”
“Right job, right place?”
She seemed pleased that he’d understood so quickly. “Exactly.”
“I can’t promise to offer that, but I might have something temporary.”
For some reason she appeared relieved. “Temporary will work. In fact, I prefer it.”
“Not planning on staying in San Francisco for long?” He tried to keep the question casual, but conceded that as attractive as he found her, he’d feel better about his proposition if she intended to move on a few months from now.
“I don’t know. Actually, I’m looking for someone. I think he may be here.”
“He.” That didn’t bode well for his little project. “Former lover?”
“No. Nothing like that.”
He pressed. “Who are you trying to find?”
“That’s not really any of your business, Mr. Dante,” she said gently. “What I will tell you is that it won’t have an impact on any job you might offer me.”
He let it go. For now. “Fair enough.”
His cell vibrated and he checked it, surprised to find that Juice had completed his preliminary check. Had to be a new record. Either that or Larkin Thatcher didn’t have much history to find. The text simply said “clean,” but he’d attached an email that went into more specifics.
Rafe excused himself long enough to access his computer and scan it. Nothing unusual other than a long and varied work history. Considering she was only twenty-five it was rather impressive.
“Still interested in offering me a job?” she asked.
It was the first time she’d betrayed any nerves and it didn’t take much thought to understand the cause. “How far behind are you on your rent?”
She tapped her pocket. “As I said, this will catch me up.”
“But it won’t leave you anything to spare for utilities or food, will it?”
She lifted a narrow shoulder in a wordless shrug that spoke volumes.
He took a moment to consider his options. Not that he had many. Either he made the offer and put Draco’s plan into action, or he forgot the entire idea. He could still find a position for Larkin. In fact, there was no question that he’d do precisely that. The question was… Which job?
If it weren’t for the Parade of Brides, it would have been an easy question to answer. But the unpleasant truth was, he just didn’t know how much more of his family’s interference he could handle. It had gotten to the point where it wasn’t just interfering with his private life, but with his business life, as well. These days, he couldn’t turn around without running into one of his many relatives. And for some reason they were always accompanied by a young, single woman.
He needed it to stop…and soon.
Before he could decide, Larkin stood. “Mr. Dante, you seem hesitant.” She offered an easy smile. “Why don’t I make it easy for you? I really appreciate your concern, but this isn’t the first time money’s been tight. I’m sort of like a cat. One way or another, I always land on my feet.”
“Sit down, Larkin.” He softened the demand with a smile. “My hesitation isn’t whether or not I have a job available for you. It’s which job to offer.”
She blinked at that. “Oh. Well… I can handle most general office positions, if that helps. Receptionist. File clerk. Secretary or assistant.”
“What about the position of my fiancee?” He folded his arms across his chest and lifted an eyebrow. “Do you think you could handle that?”