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Excerpt: The Italian’s Chosen Wife

“I wish that was on the menu.”

Alessandro di Agnio’s lips thinned in distaste at his colleague’s expression. He leaned back in his chair, his cool gaze flicking over the waitress chatting at the nearby table. Her hand rested on her hip, and he could hear the warm gurgle of her laughter from where he sat. There was, he noticed, a tomato sauce stain on her blouse. Her hair was falling from its pins, and she ran a careless hand through it.

His eyes narrowed. “I believe we’re here for the food.”

Next to him, his potential client Richard Harrison chuckled. “Relax, di Agnio. It’s just an expression.”

Alessandro smiled, his expression now calm, urbane, in place. He took a sip of ice water. “She’s quite pretty, in her own way. Now, to the business at hand...?” He raised his eyebrows, still smiling, although his eyes were cold and the expression on his face was at best remote.

Richard leaned back in his chair, his own expression that of a mouse intent on teasing a cat. His lower lip stuck out in a boyish pout. “You know, I didn’t come all the way to Spoleto just to talk to you. I thought we were going to have some fun.”

“Of course. You know what they say about all work and no play.” Alessandro shrugged lightly, although his eyes were still hard.

“Then how about a little play?” Richard asked, his tone turning petulant. “I’ve heard so much about your playboy reputation. A few years ago there wasn’t a tabloid in this country without your picture splashed across its pages! Coming here, I was expecting a little something more than lunch at a second-rate trattoria.”

Alessandro smiled again, this time a mere stretching of his lips. He didn’t need to be reminded of tabloids. Yet he also knew Di Agnio Entreprises needed Richard Harrison’s business. And Alessandro di Agnio was a man who chose not to need anything.

“I didn’t realise my reputation stretched so far,” he said after a pause, his voice flat. “Of course, you need only to choose your pleasure. Dinner? Dancing?”

“Her.” Richard pointed to the waitress, still chatting, Alessandro noticed, and obviously not an industrious worker. He heard another peal of laughter, warm and inviting. She leaned forward, hair tumbling into her face, one hand swiping it away as she murmured provocatively. Everything about her told him she was relaxed, carefree, available. Easy.

He’d known women like that. Knew what they wanted, what they expected. Of him.

The customer she was talking to had to be seventy years old, at least. And he was eating it up. Probably wanted to eat her up, as well.

“Her?” Alessandro repeated. Icy disbelief laced his words. “I don’t pick women like sweets in a shop.” Not anymore. He injected a faint, dry note of humour into his voice as he added, “I didn’t think my reputation was quite that notorious.”

“I don’t mean like that,” Richard said impatiently. He was gazing at the waitress with the longing of a child at a toy, or as Alessandro had said, a sweet. A forbidden one, sticky and delectable. “She’s a waitress. Why don’t you hire her to wait on us tonight? A quiet dinner for two, at your villa.” Richard’s eyes lit up lasciviously.

Alessandro eyed his companion with cold dislike. “To wait on us?” he repeated. “and nothing else?”

Richard grinned. “We could see what happens.”

Alessandro didn’t bother to hide his disgust. His colleague was actually suggesting they hire the waitress as a virtual prostitute. “I think not.”

“Why such a prude, di Agnio?” Richard taunted. “From what I hear, you’ve done that and worse.” He paused meaningfully. “A lot worse.”

Alessandro did not dignify his companion’s remark with a response. He knew his own past. He knew what people believed. He chose to ignore it, as he had ignored every telling, incredulous remark since he’d taken the reins of Di Agnio Entreprises two years ago.

“If it’s pleasure you’re seeking,” he said with quiet, menacing derision, “you’ll find a wider range of amusements in town, not with some two-bit part-time whore.”

“You don’t need to be crude.” Richard sipped his wine, his expression thoughtful as he gazed at the waitress. She’d finally cleared the table, dirty plates stacked on one tanned arm.

Still chatting, Alessandro noticed with scathing disdain. He watched her lips curl into a smile that promised all too much.

“She reminds me of home. I bet she’s American.”

“Why don’t you go talk to her, then?” Alessandro questioned silkily. “I’m sure you don’t need my intervention.”

“But I want it.” Richard’s eyes met Alessandro’s, watery blue clashing with midnight steel. “And you need my business, di Agnio, so why don’t you just humour me?”

A muscle ticked in Alessandro’s jaw. He rested his hand flat on the table, resisting the desire to curl it into a fist. He would not be threatened, not by the need of Harrison’s business, not by the ghosts of his own past.

He was free. He was free of all that.

He smiled. “You’ll find I don’t need your business quite as much as you think,” he said lightly, “and perhaps you need mine a bit more than you’d like me to believe.”

Richard’s expression hardened, although fear flickered in his eyes, and one limp, well-manicured hand bunched the table cloth. “Where did you hear that?”

“I like to stay informed.” Alessandro’s smile widened, predatory, in control. Richard saw and seemed to shrink a little. “There’s a dinner and dancing club on the via Filetteria that will do very well for tonight.” He spoke firmly, as a parent to a child, and saw with satisfaction that Richard Harrison’s momentary flare of rebellious authority had died out.

“I just liked her, that’s all.”

Alessandro glanced again at the waitress. He could understand her appeal, on a basic level. She was pretty enough, and there was an aura about her that exuded--what? Warmth? Sexuality? Availability, perhaps.

A women to be pleasured--used--once and discarded.

If he did that, which he did not.

Not anymore.

Then she turned and caught his gaze. Her hair was piled untidily on top of her head, strands of indeterminate brown falling to frame her face. Nothing special, Alessandro decided dismissively, despite her obvious sex appeal. She knew how to work a room, a man.

Then her eyes widened, her gaze fastened on his.

Her eyes were the golden-green of sunlight on an olive grove, iridescent, filled with promise. With hope. Her lips parted into a smile, tender in its uncertainty.

Alessandro felt his insides tighten. Something flared to life within him--something he’d suppressed, had thought banished forever.

Need.

He turned back to Richard, who was oblivious to the silent, yearning exchange. “On second thought, I’ve changed my mind,” he said in a voice that brooked no argument, no opposition. His fingers toyed then tightened with the stem of his water glass. “A quiet dinner at home will suit my needs.”

Excerpt From: THE ITALIAN'S CHOSEN WIFE by Kate Hewitt
Copyright © 2008 by Kate Hewitt
Permission granted by Harlequin Books S.A. All rights reserved.

January 2008