A pledge to protect…
That will be tested at the altar!
After tragedy strikes, Daniela Avelar steps up as CEO to her brother’s global yacht empire. But to prevent corporate mutiny, she needs the help of his business partner, Valerio Marchesi.
Little does Daniela know that Valerio has already sworn to keep her safe. And when the tycoon discovers she’s in grave danger, he insists she become his bride! He’ll risk the unavoidable chemistry that sparks every time they lock eyes. Because this engagement of convenience is anything but… It’s a red-hot fire burning out of control!
Release Date: 29th October 2020
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VALERIO MARCHESI AWOKE to the thunder of his own heartbeat, his senses taking in the complete darkness that surrounded him and the feeling of cold sweat on his skin. It was not the first time he had awoken in a state of panic in the past six months. His physician had called it post-traumatic stress, and like countless others had sympathised with him for his ordeal. He didn’t want their damn sympathy.
Gritting his teeth, he fought through the fog left by the entire bottle of whisky he had downed the night before and reminded himself why he’d completely sworn off drinking in recent months. As he came fully to consciousness and tried to sit up, he became instantly aware of two things.
One, judging by the soft clearing of a throat nearby, he was not alone in the room. And two, he couldn’t move his upper body because he had been tied to his own bed.
Any remaining effect of the alcohol in his system instantly evaporated. The room was dark, but he could just about make out the blurry outline of his luxury yacht’s master cabin around him. Both of his wrists had been tied to the ornate wooden headboard on either side of his head, using what felt like soft fabric. He tested the bonds, black panic snaking up his back like wildfire, followed by the swift kick of fury.
He would die before he allowed this to happen again.
‘Good, you’re awake.’ A female voice cut across the shadows. ‘I was just debating if I should throw some water over your head.’
The woman’s voice silenced his growls momentarily as his brain scrambled to differentiate between the danger of his past and in the present moment. Drawing on some recent meditative practice, he inhaled deeply past the adrenaline, focusing his mind to a fine point. The woman’s voice sounded familiar, but Valerio couldn’t quite place it other than to note that it was English, upper class, and deathly calm. Nothing like the rough-hewn criminals from his memories, but one never knew.
‘What the hell is going on here?’ he demanded gruffly. ‘Show your face.’
Heels tapped across the wooden floor, the dim light from the curtain-covered windows throwing her shape into relief. She was tall, for a woman, and had the kind of exaggerated full-figured curves that made his spine snap to attention. A knot of awareness tightened in his abdomen, catching him completely by surprise. At thirty-three years of age, he’d believed himself long past the kind of embarrassing loss of control usually attributed to youth. But it seemed he hadn’t been around a woman in so long, apparently anyone was going to ignite his starving libido.
Even someone who was possibly attempting to hold him hostage.
It was a strange kind of twist, considering his most recent brush with captivity had been the catalyst for his self-imposed isolation from society. Had his broken mind moved on to finding some kind of thrill in the possibility of danger?
He pulled at the headboard once again, a sharp hiss escaping his lips at the burn of the fabric on his skin. The sheet that only partially covered his nude body slipped further down the bed.
‘You’re only going to hurt yourself by struggling.’
‘Well, then, cut these damn ropes off,’ he growled, trying and failing to keep the edge from his voice. ‘I don’t keep money here, if that’s what you are after.’
A soft laugh sounded out, closer this time. ‘I’m not here to rob you, Marchesi. The ropes are for my own safety, considering the night we’ve just had.
‘Your safety…?’ He tried and failed to process her words, feeling the tug of a memory in his mind.
He knew that voice.
Soft hands brushed against his skin as the woman gently adjusted the sheet over his body. Another shiver of awareness heated him from the inside out. It had been so damn long…and her familiar scent was all around him, tugging at those memories. He breathed her in greedily, feeling the warm blend of sweetness and musk penetrate his chest, melting some of the ice that seemed permanently lodged inside.
A soft lamp was flicked on beside the bed without warning, the sudden golden light making him wince with pain. The woman came into focus slowly, a watercolour of long ebony curls and flawless dark caramel skin. Recognition hit him with a sudden jolt, his eyes narrowing, and all anxiety was suddenly replaced by swift, unbridled anger.
‘Only my friends get to call me that, Marchesi.’
Daniela Avelar narrowed her eyes, pulling a chair closer to the bed and lowering herself down elegantly, as though sitting down to afternoon tea. ‘You made it clear the last time I saw you that you are not my friend.’
Guilt hit him in the gut even as he fought to remain outraged. Memories assailed him of the last time they had spoken. Six months ago he had delivered the most painful speech of his life, marking the death of his business partner at a memorial ceremony. His best friend. Her twin brother.
Duarte Avelar had been shot dead right in front of him, after they’d both been taken hostage after an event in Rio de Janeiro and kept at gunpoint for two weeks, deep in the slums of the city. The story had made global news. He’d been lamented as a hero for surviving. He alone knew the truth of what had happened.
He had forced himself to hold it together throughout his friend’s memorial service on a rainy morning in the English countryside. He had tried to speak words that would honour the sacrifice Duarte had made to save his life. But eventually he’d lost his grip on control and had torn out of the church as if the fires of hell had been at his heels, needing to get away from all the sympathetic stares and unbearable grief.
But Dani had run after him, standing in front of the door of his chauffeur-driven car. Daniela Avelar—a woman who prided herself on being one of the best PR and marketing strategists in the business, and who had always seemed to look down her nose at him and his wild playboy lifestyle. She was a woman who never asked anyone for help, not even her own brother, but she had begged him to stay. She’d held on to his arm and begged him to tell her the truth of what had happened in Brazil…to let her help him.
He had scraped together enough composure to growl at her, telling her that knowing wouldn’t make anything different. That it wouldn’t bring Duarte back. Then he had got into his car and driven away, pretending not to be affected by the sight of the tears streaming down her cheeks.
Shame was a familiar lead weight in his solar plexus even now.
In the lamplit room, Daniela crossed her legs, drawing his attention to the spindly-heeled shoes on her feet. She had been working for Velamar as their PR strategist for years, so he was used to her trademark pinstriped trousers and perfectly pressed blouses, with their delicate ribbons tied at the throat. But on this cream-coloured confection the collar was undone, the ribbons hanging limp and creased as though someone had grabbed them and held them tight in their grip.
She looked tired, though she was trying hard not to let it show. But he could see the faint dark shadows under her eyes, the tightness around her mouth. He wondered if grief had stolen her perfect polished image and grace, just as it had stolen his carefree nonchalance.
‘Do you have any idea how long I’ve been trying to find you?’ She met his eyes without fear or hesitation—an easy feat considering she had him half naked and trussed to a bed.
‘I’ll admit that of all the ways you could have got my attention this is quite creative, if not a little insensitive.’ He spoke easily, pulling at the bonds and feeling them slide slightly to one side. The knots were strong, but not strong enough. She might be about to inherit part-ownership of Velamar—one of the most exclusive yacht charter companies in the world—but she was no sailor.
Valerio ignored the pull in his chest at the thought of the brand he had built from the ground up, the work that had once given him purpose and pride. ‘Did you ever think that maybe I didn’t want to be found?’
‘You walked away from your responsibilities, Marchesi.’
‘My company is in good hands.’
‘Our company is in brilliant hands—considering I’ve been running it alone for six months.’ She sat and surveyed him like a queen on her throne, which was not inaccurate considering the Avelar family name was practically royalty in their native Brazil. ‘But your employees don’t respond to my own particular brand of authority, it seems. They’re practically begging for the return of their playboy CEO and his infamous parties.’
‘Final warning. Untie me and get the hell off my yacht, Daniela.’
‘You don’t remember anything about last night, do you?’ She raised one brow, watching him with curiosity and the faintest ghost of a smile.
Valerio looked around the room once more, the pain in his head sharpening. The last thing he remembered was storming out of his brother’s sprawling villa in Tuscany after an embarrassing display of temper and popping open the first alcoholic beverage he could find. He’d drunk alone and brooded silently in the back of his chauffeur-driven car the entire way to where his yacht had been moored in nearby Genoa.
He’d always known that yesterday would be a difficult day, considering he’d avoided his family for so long, but he’d thought he’d done enough work on himself to get through a couple of hours in their company. He had expected pity and tiptoeing around him. He hadn’t been prepared for their anger. Their judgement. They didn’t know anything about what he’d gone through…what he’d done. All they cared about was the precious Marchesi image and the worrying rumours that he’d gone insane.
His rages were unpredictable, and tended to fog his memory, so he didn’t remember much. But he was pretty sure he had smashed a few of his brother’s expensive vases on his way out.
Wincing, he tried to sit up more fully against the wooden headboard, only managing a couple of inches before he inhaled sharply against the sudden throb of pain that assaulted his cranium. What had been in that whisky?
‘Don’t move too fast. The doctor gave you a mild sedative.’
‘You drugged me?’
‘You tried to take on my entire security team one by one. You were in some kind of a trance. We couldn’t…’ She swallowed hard. ‘You weren’t yourself.’
Growling, he pulled hard against the bonds once more. A satisfying creak sounded from the wooden beam above him. He saw the first glimmer of unease flicker in her eyes.
‘This was the only way I could think of to make you listen.’ She stood up, her eyes darting to the door at the opposite side of the room. ‘I didn’t mean for it to go this far… I didn’t think you were as out of control as your brother said.’
‘You spoke to Rigo?’ His brother—the damn idiot. He had promised Valerio that if he accepted the invitation he would keep his appearance in Tuscany to himself. But then, Valerio hadn’t planned on causing such a scene. Once again, he’d lived up to his reputation of being the reckless wild-card Marchesi brother.
The shame burned his gut.
Daniela cleared her throat. ‘Look, I’ve been patient. I’ve given you more than enough time, considering what happened, but now it’s time for you to come back. The board members are not happy with my choices as acting CEO. There’s a motion in place to sell off my brother’s design projects and pull out of a large chunk of our charity commitments, and I’m the only one blocking their way.’ She pinched the bridge of her nose, a deep sigh escaping her chest. ‘This kind of unrest is bad news. With the pressure of the new Sirinetta launch coming up, I just don’t have time for it.’
Her words rang in his mind, fuelling his anger and disbelief. Nettuno Design was Duarte’s brainchild—an offshoot of the Velamar brand—and the maritime engineering firm had created the very first Sirinetta mega-yacht. It was the yacht that had launched their modest luxury yacht charter firm right up into the upper echelons of society five years ago. It had been the catalyst that had brought them in contact with figures of royalty and power across the globe, and wealth beyond their dreams.
‘So you decided to kidnap me to tell me this?’
She narrowed her eyes on him with barely restrained irritation. ‘A second meeting is being held the day after tomorrow in Monte Carlo, with more board members flying in. I have information that they are planning to vote me out.’ She took a deep breath, meeting his eyes. ‘I need your help. I need you to get over whatever this is and come back.’
‘I know it’s not technically official, but I named you acting CEO in place of both me and Duarte,’ he gritted out, his friend’s name sounding wooden and unfamiliar in his mouth. ‘They can’t vote you out. They’re bluffing.’
‘Considering Duarte is about to be declared legally dead, and what with all the recent rumours in the press about your mental instability… I’m afraid they can.’
Valerio froze, the news sending his blood cold.
Duarte’s official death certificate had not been issued—he’d made sure of it. As executor of the estate, he’d specifically given the authorities more time before Daniela could legally inherit all her brother’s assets.
And now she dared to barge on to his yacht and calmly make demands while she was sitting on a bombshell of this magnitude? Dio, she had no idea what this meant.
Oblivious, she continued. ‘Apart from the fact that our reputation is being pulled under the proverbial bus…they know I’m not qualified. I mean, to be honest, I know it too. I’m a PR strategist—not a leader or a figurehead. I’ve never done this before.’
‘Let me free,’ he growled.
‘Not until you agree to come to the meeting.’
She folded her arms under her breasts, the movement pushing up her ample cleavage and making the blood roar in his ears.
‘Daniela… I’m warning you. You have no idea what’s going on here, so let me off this bed right now.’
‘I’m quite aware of what’s going on in my own company. You’re the one who’s been MIA for months on end, and I can’t risk you disappearing on me again.’ She closed her eyes briefly, opening them to lock on his with intent. ‘I don’t care if you hate me for this. I will do whatever it takes to save my brother’s legacy.’
She claimed that he was the only one who could save the company? The man she had once called a frivolous playboy? She had no idea what he had been uncovering over the past six months. Hell, he wasn’t even sure he knew.
What he did know was that she wasn’t the only one prepared to do whatever it took to save something. But the person he’d been trying to save seemed intent on putting herself in danger, again and again.
Anger gave him an extra spurt of energy, and the last knot that bound his wrists slipped free.
Like a coiled spring, Valerio launched himself off the bed.