Her Wedding Night Surrender (Harlequin Presents)

By: Clare Connelly

PROLOGUE

‘SO, LET ME get this straight.’ Pietro stared across his desk at the man he’d idolised for the better part of two decades. ‘You’re actually asking that I marry your daughter—a woman thirteen years my junior, a woman I barely know. And why, exactly, do you suppose I’ll say yes?’

Across from him Col shifted in his chair, his own gaze direct. ‘Emmeline is a beautiful and intelligent woman. Why are you so offended by my suggestion?’

Pietro’s scepticism on that score wasn’t something he wished to communicate to his friend. Nor the belief he held that Emmeline was either painfully shy or vapid.

‘I have no intention of marrying anyone,’ Pietro said, neatly sidestepping the question. ‘Ever.’

‘Even better. Marrying Emmeline isn’t going to skittle any lingering love affair for you.’

Pietro’s lips were a gash, scored across his face. He spoke emphatically and with the kind of iron-like command that had his corporate opponents running scared. ‘There will be no marriage.’

Col smiled at the swift rebuke. Apparently the commanding tone that Pietro’s business adversaries feared was inconsequential to Col.

‘I love you, Pietro. Like a son. You and Emmeline are the most important people in my life. I need you to marry her.’

‘Why? Where has this come from?’ Pietro leaned forward, analysing every flicker of the older man’s face.

‘I’ve been thinking about it for a few weeks.’

‘Why?’ Pietro pushed, certain now that he wasn’t seeing the full picture.

Col exhaled slowly and his eyes dropped away from Pietro’s. ‘Emmeline wants to go to university. She’s found a place in Rome. I’ve told her she may come here to study, with my blessing. But only so long as she marries you.’

‘And she has agreed?’ Pietro snapped scathingly, his impression of Emmeline as a limpet who’d signed her life away on a dotted line increasing.

‘It took some discussion,’ Col admitted gruffly. ‘But, yes, she agreed.’ His eyes held a defiant glint in their depths. ‘Emmeline would do anything I ask of her. She’s always been a good girl.’

A good girl? Pietro had to concentrate hard to stop himself rolling his eyes. Good girls were boring. Predictable. Dull. The description served only to reinforce his dim opinion of the Senator’s daughter.

‘So?’ Pietro laughed, the sound rich with disbelief. ‘I can keep an eye on your daughter without marrying her!’

‘Damn it!’ Col shouted, the words an angry curse on his lips. ‘That’s not enough.’

‘Why not?’ Pietro narrowed his eyes. ‘What am I missing?’

Col’s glare was defiant, his expression rich with displeasure. But after a burning moment of silence he nodded. Just once, but it was enough to signal a surrender of sorts.

‘What I’m about to tell you stays in this room.’

Perplexed, Pietro jerked his head in agreement.

‘Swear it, Pietro. Swear you will keep my confidence.’

‘Of course.’

Pietro had no concept of what he was agreeing to, at that point, so it was easy to go along with the Senator’s insistence.

‘There are only two people other than myself who know what I’m about to tell you. Not even Emmeline knows.’

A frisson of anticipation drummed along Pietro’s spine. He stayed silent, waiting for the Senator to continue.

‘There’s no easy way to say this. I’m dying.’

Pietro froze. He felt his body go into a kind of shocked stasis. ‘What?’ he heard himself query after a long moment, and the word was almost sucked out of him.

‘Dying. My oncologist thinks I’ve probably got a few months in me yet.’

He leaned forward, and the determination in his gaze sent shivers running down Pietro’s spine.

‘They won’t be good months, though. I want Emmeline as far away from me as possible. I want her happy. Safe. Protected. I want her blissfully unaware of what’s happening to me.’

Pietro felt as though a slab of bricks had landed on his chest and was determinedly squeezing all the air out of him. He’d lost his own beloved father to cancer twenty years earlier. The idea of going through that again turned his blood to ice.

‘That can’t be right.’ He ran a palm over his eyes and stared at the Senator with renewed interest. He looked so well. Just as always. ‘Have you had a second opinion?’

‘Don’t need one.’ Col shrugged. ‘I saw the X-rays. Cancer everywhere.’

Pietro swore in his own tongue. It had been a long time since he’d felt so powerless. ‘I’m sorry.’

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