USA Today Bestselling Author Susan Stephens
Susan Stephens' Books
Nine months to claim what's his!
For gardener Cassandra Rich, working in the foothills of Tuscany is the perfect way to escape her past. Until the man of the manor graces the villa with his presence and Cassandra with his attention.
Marco di Fivizzano can't take his eyes off the delectable Cass. So when he requires a plus one for a gala, Marco will uncover who this fiery blonde is—over dinner, or in his bed!
In Marco's arms, Cass blossoms, finding the freedom she's always craved…until she discovers she's pregnant and bound to the billionaire forever!
Plunging her spade into the rich moist earth of Tuscany, Cass smiled as she reflected on her good luck in landing the job in Italy. She loved nothing more than being outdoors, using her body to the full. And where better than here, to an accompaniment of birdsong and the gurgle of a crystal-clear river. Her job was to help out at a grand estate over the planting season.
The staff had a day off on Wednesdays to break up the week, so she had the place to herself, making it all too easy to imagine that she was the chatelaine in charge of the glorious grounds—though perhaps not kitted out in mud-caked boots, braless in a skimpy vest she'd ripped on some barbed wire, topped off with a baseball cap that was as frayed and faded as her shorts!
The estate was miles from anywhere and the solitude was bliss, especially after the clamour of the supermarket where she worked back home, and being on her own was better than facing the owner of the estate. Marco di Fiviz-zano, an Italian industrialist, hadn't been near the place since she'd arrived. She was in no hurry to meet a man who, according to the press, was as bloodless and cold as the Cararra marble he mined.
She didn't need to worry about him, Cass mused as she stabbed her spade into the ground. She couldn't imagine a man like Marco di Fivizzano taking time out of his busy schedule to drive down from Rome to his country estate in the middle of the week. When she'd asked Maria and Giuseppe—housekeeper and handyman, respectively—if and when she was likely to meet her boss, they'd just looked at each other and shrugged.
Which was probably as well, Cass reflected as she returned to vigorously prepping the ground for the seedlings she was planting. She had no problem with hard work. Tugging her forelock was something else.
She'd always been a rebel, though a quiet one, all the rebellion being in her head. Dumb insolence, her headmistress had called it, when Cass, at seven, had refused to cry on the day she'd been made to stand on the school stage as all the pupils had trooped past. That had been the headmistress's idea to shame her on the day Cass's parents' had been arrested for drug offences. Young as she had been, she had determined never to be bullied again.
One thing still perplexed her. If her parents hadn't been the type of people the headmistress had wanted to encourage, why had the school been so keen to take their money?
She couldn't stand snobbery either. Her late father, better known as the infamous rock star Jackson Rich, could easily afford the school's extortionate fees, but that hadn't stopped the staff resenting him, his beautiful wife and Cass, his quiet, plain daughter.
Leave the past in the past where it belongs, and enjoy the Tuscan sunshine…
It was easy to do that, Cass reflected happily. Dappled sunlight sifting through the trees warmed her skin, and the scent of wild oregano was intoxicating. It was unseasonably warm for springtime in Italy, and how much better was this than her old job, squashed up in a stall, bashing the life out of a till at the local supermarket?
Closing her eyes, she smiled as she weighed up her choices: a nylon uniform that gave her static and stifled her; or the comfortable outfit she was wearing today?
She loved working with plants, and had begged the store manager to allow her to work in the garden section, promising him that his plants would never droop again if she were in charge. He'd given her this weird look and said he liked his women clean and free from mud. She'd handed in her notice the same day.
Wiping the back of her arm across her face, she turned full circle with her arms outstretched as if sunlight were something she could touch. Birds were singing, bees were buzzing, and she could already see the fruits of her labours in fresh green shoots. On an impulse she reached for her phone to take a selfie to send to the godmother she adored and had lived with since her parents' death. When she'd taken this job she'd had it in mind to save money to buy a plane ticket for her godmother to visit her son in Australia. It would have been nice to be able buy it in time for his birthday, but that was a dream too far.
After emailing the shot, she received a reply from her godmother almost at once:
You look as if you're having a good time! Suggest a wash before anyone sees you. xoxo With a happy laugh Cass reached up to brush away a bee, only to realise that the sound she could hear wasn't an insect but something much larger…something coming steadily closer, casting a pall over the flawless Tuscan day. Her heart rate doubled as a black helicopter swooped over the trees and hovered overhead. It blotted out the sun and obliterated the calm with noise and dust. Shielding her eyes, she tried to see who was inside, but as 'Fiviz-zano Inc.' was emblazoned on the side, she didn't have to test her imagination too far. Her best guess was that 'the Master', as Giovanni and Maria referred to He who must be obeyed, had arrived. He couldn't have told anyone he was coming or Giovanni and Maria would never have taken the day off.
She could handle it, Cass determined. She was hardly a stranger to awkward situations. She would simply stay out of his way.
Her heart beat wildly as the helicopter descended slowly like a sinister black bird, flattening the grass and driving the songbirds from the trees in a panic-stricken flock. She hadn't met anyone who travelled by helicopter since she'd been a little girl in her parents' exotic world. Thrusting her spade into the ground, she realised her hands were shaking.
Wiping her hands on her shorts, she stood rooted to the spot as the rotors slowed to a petulant whine. The passenger door opened and a tall, commanding figure, dressed immaculately for the city, sprang to the ground. Marco di Fivizzano was infinitely better looking than the press suggested, and for a moment she stood trapped in his stare.
What had got into her? She'd done nothing wrong.
Who the hell… ? Marco's frown deepened. Then he remembered vaguely that his PA had mentioned something about temporary staff for the summer. He was in no mood for dealing with that now. Surely Giovanni and Maria would have laid out the ground rules—that no one approached him when he was here on his Tuscan estate.
Swearing softly under his breath, he remembered that today was Maria and Giuseppe's day off. He had been in such a hurry to leave the city for the country that his only thought had been how fast he could get here. Now he had some scruffy youth to deal with. He would have expected a new member of his gardening team to be an older and more experienced man, not some beardless boy. Coming closer, he stopped dead in his tracks as she turned to face him.
A grubby urchin? No make-up? Ragged clothes? Hair hidden beneath a faded baseball cap?
Legs like a colt…body like a ripe fruit, bra-free nipples pressing imperatively against her fine cotton top, her young face work-f lushed and appealing.
His body responded violently and with approval. Beneath the mud, sweat, and rosy cheeks stood a very attractive young woman. The cap was crammed down hard on her head, with the brim pulled low to shade her eyes from the sun, as if she cared nothing for vanity—and that in itself was a novelty. Her clothes consisted of a ripped and mud-daubed singlet that clung lovingly to her full, pert breasts, while the frayed shorts emphasised the length of her slender legs. Striding up to her, he saw that she wasn't as young as he'd first thought, and neither was she intimidated by him—far from it. This girl wasn't afraid of anything, he sensed as she held his stare.
'And you are?' he prompted shortly.
In contrast to his irritable mood, she appeared to be relaxed and slightly bemused.
'Cassandra Rich. Your new gardener?'
Something about the surname chimed in his head, but he pushed that aside for now. Evaluating staff was his strength. The success of his business had been founded on that skill.
He stared deep into a frank, cornflower-blue gaze and ran a quick assessment. She was fresh, bright and intelligent. Inner strength, combined with the summing up she was giving him, was so novel and unexpected that he almost broke into a smile—something he did so rarely that his body took the cue and responded more insistently.
'I'm here for the summer,' she volunteered, glancing around.
Good. That gave him time to work with, he reasoned dryly.
Was he in lust with this woman?
Possibly. She was so unlike the sophisticated types he was used to she required further study—and a category all her own.
'Where's the rest of the gardening team?' he demanded, frowning.
'They're taking staggered holidays,' she explained with a shrug, drawing his attention to her bright blue eyes as she pushed a lock of her honey-gold hair away from them. 'That's why I'm here,' she added, 'to plug the gap.'
He had moved on from assessing her unusually forward manner to wondering about the rest of her hair, hidden beneath the ugly cap. He could so easily imagine freeing it and seeing it cascade down her back, just before he fisted a hank of it to pull her head back to kiss her throat.
'You can handle this entire estate on your own?' he demanded sceptically, bringing himself back with difficulty to the business side of this encounter.
'I'll have to, won't I?' she said. 'At least until the others return.'
'Yes, you will,' he confirmed sharply, still trying to work out whether her manner was impudent or overly straightforward. Meanwhile, she was staring at him inquisitively, as she might study an unusual exhibit in a gallery. They were polar opposites, curious about each other—the billionaire, hard and driven, and the mystery girl who gave casual a new edge.
His groin tightened when she smiled. He liked the way her full lips curved and her ski-slope nose wrinkled attractively.
'I'm not as helpless as I look,' she assured him. 'And I promise I won't let you down.'
Her promise pleased him. 'If you were helpless you wouldn't be employed here.'
He turned away, knowing he should feel exhausted, but he was suddenly wide-awake.
He hadn't slept for the past twenty-four hours as he'd wrestled a trade agreement to the table that would benefit not just his own group of companies but his country. Word of his success had spread like wildfire in the power halls of Rome, attracting lean, predatory women with crippling shoes and sprayed-on clothes—another reason he had been pleased to leave the city. He could have called any one of them to accompany him to Tuscany. They were decorative and efficient and they knew the score, but none of them had appealed. He didn't know what he wanted, but it wasn't that.
'If there's anything I can do for you?' the girl called after him, stopping him in his tracks.
Was she referring to a cup of coffee or something more?
'No. Thank you.' He didn't want company, he reminded himself. At least not yet.
Success in business rode him. It also turned him on. He'd been cramped up in the city for too long. He was a physical man, bound by convention in a custom-made suit, who was forced to spend most of his working life in air-conditioned offices when what he longed for was his wild land in Tuscany. Tucked between majestic granite mountains, his country estate was an indulgence he chose not to share with anyone—certainly not with some member of his part-time staff.
'Anything at all?' she pressed.
Did she have any idea how provocative she was? As he had turned to face her she had opened her arms wide, putting her impressive breasts on show.
'Nothing. Thank you,' he repeated irritably. 'Get back to your gardening.'
He needed relief in the form of a woman, but this woman was too young and too inexperienced for him to waste his time on.
He ground his jaw with impatience when she started to follow him, and made a gesture to indicate that she should go back. The only conversation he was interested in was with real people like Maria and Giuseppe, and he resented her intrusion. She had changed the dynamics completely. She was an outsider, an interloper, and though she might hold appeal, was that smile as innocent as it looked?
If there was one thing he understood, it was the needs of a woman's body and the workings of her mind, but this girl was so different it frustrated him that he had yet to make a judgement about her.
Cass shivered involuntarily. What was wrong with her? After deciding the safest thing was to steer clear of Marco di Fivizzano, she was doing the absolute opposite. It was as if her feet had a mind of their own and had decided to follow him to the house. She should know better, when he came from the same shallow, glitzy world as her parents—
'Watch out!' he snapped.
'Sorry.' She jumped back with alarm, realising he'd stopped, and she'd almost cannoned into him.
'Have you nothing better to do than follow me to the house?' he demanded in a tone that spoke of deals hard won and nights without sleep.
'I've finished for the day,' she explained, 'and I just thought—'
'I might need help?' he queried. He stared down at her from his great height as if she were an irritation he didn't yet have an answer to. 'If you're going to be here for the summer, you'd better tell me something about yourself.'
Her brain had stalled beneath the blazing stare. What could she tell him?
How much did she want to tell him?
'Come on—keep up,' he insisted, striding ahead. 'Let's start with where you come from.'
'England—the UK.' She had to jog to keep up with him. 'It's a region called the Lake District. I don't expect you—'
'I know the area. Family?'
The word 'family' was enough to spear her with ugly memories. That was what she didn't want to talk about, let alone take her thoughts back to the day a small bewildered child had stood at the side of the family swimming pool looking down at her parents floating, drowned after a drug-fuelled fight. She settled for the heavily censored version.
'I live with my godmother,' she explained.
'It was a long time ago.'
Almost eighteen years, Cass realised with shock. She'd been so young she'd hardly known how to grieve for them. She hadn't really known them. She'd had one carer after another while they'd been on the road with her father's band. Her emotions had died along with her parents, until her godmother had arrived to sweep Cass up in a hug. She'd taken Cass home to her modest cottage in the Lake District where the only drug was the scenery and her godmother's beautiful garden. Cass had lived there ever since, confident in her godmother's love and safe in a wellordered life.
Mills & Boon Modern (UK)
25 Feb. 2016
Harlequin Presents (US)
March 1, 2016