October 1, 2016
The Spaniard’s Pregnant Bride
"You will be mine. You will be my wife."
With her identity concealed, Allegra Valenti enters Italy's most glorious masquerade ball determined to make happy memories to sustain her through her impending arranged betrothal. But a passionate encounter with a masked stranger leads to far-reaching consequences that tear apart her dutiful life.
Brooding Spanish duke Cristian Acosta cannot believe the masked siren he finally let his guard down for is his best friend's sister—the pampered heiress he grew up despising. Now, to safeguard the Acosta legacy, Cristian must adorn Allegra with a trinket of his own—a gold wedding band!
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He was death come to take her away. At least, that was what he looked like as he descended the sweeping stairs of the Venetian ballroom, his black cloak billowing behind him, his blunt fingertips brushing the elegant marble banister. Allegra felt it like a touch against her skin, and for the rest of her life she would wonder at the strength of it.
He was masked, like everyone else in attendance, but that was where the similarity between him and anyone else—or indeed, him and any mortal—ended.
He was not wearing the bright silks of many of the men there, rather he was dressed all in black. The mask that covered his face some sort of glittering midnight metal, cut into the shape of a skull. His skin must have been painted a deep charcoal beneath it, because she could catch no sight of man or humanity in the small spaces between the intricately fashioned metal.
She wasn’t the only woman to be struck dumb by his appearance—a ripple ran through the room. Resplendent, silk-wrapped creatures were all quivering in anticipation of a look, a glance. Allegra was no exception. Her identity hidden behind the beautiful painted designs on her face, she allowed herself the indulgence to look at him.
The party, being held in one of the most beautiful and historic hotels in Venice, was hosted by one of her brother’s business associates. It was one of the most sought-after invitations in the world, and those attending were the elite.
Italy’s oldest, wealthiest families. Old money and new. Eligible heiresses who held whole rooms captive with a saucy glance.
She supposed she was part of them. Her father was old money and new. Nobility with a lineage that could be traced back to the Renaissance. But unlike his father before him, he’d taken that position and spun it into gold. Had taken crumbling, inherited properties and reinvigorated them as his business, pushing him to the height of the social and financial stratosphere.
Her brother, Renzo, had only brought the Valenti family higher, taking her father’s company global and increasing their wealth by leaps and bounds.
Still, Allegra didn’t feel like she was one of these women. Didn’t feel seductive or vibrant. She felt…caged.
But this was supposed to be her chance. Her chance to lose her virginity to a man that she chose, rather than to the prince that she was promised to marry, who did nothing to heat her blood or fire her imagination.
Perhaps such a sin would send Allegra straight to hell. Though, who better to take her there than the devil himself? He was here, after all. And with his entrance into the room he had affected her more deeply, more profoundly, than her arranged fiancé ever had.
She started to take a step toward the staircase, and then stopped. Her heart was pounding so hard she thought she might be sick. Who did she think she was? She was not the kind of woman to approach a strange man at a party.
To approach him and flirt and ask him to—
She had no idea what she’d been thinking.
Allegra turned away from the stranger. She wasn’t going to court Death at this party, in all the ways that term applied. Yes, she had the fantasy that she might find someone tonight. Someone she wanted. But when push came to shove, she simply didn’t have the courage.
Anyway, her brother had brought her to this party under sufferance, and if she caused any trouble, he would probably burn the place to the ground. Renzo Valenti was not known for his quiet temperament. Allegra, however, had learned to curb hers.
As a child she had been a trial, according to both of her parents. But she had allowed them to teach her. With lessons in deportment and carriage and all other manner of things designed to make her the sort of lady who would make something of herself.
And it had paid off. At least, from the point of view of her parents. Renzo’s close friendship with Cristian Acosta—a Spanish duke her brother had been friends with since his years in private school—had made an introduction between her father and Prince Raphael DeSantis of Santa Firenze.
From that introduction, at the urging of dear Cristian—who Allegra wanted to dunk into the sea—had come a marriage agreement that saw Allegra promised to a prince. A triumph in her parents’ eyes.
She should be ecstatic, so she’d been told.
She had been formally promised to Raphael since she was sixteen years old, and he appealed to her no more now that she was twenty-two than he had at the very first meeting. It was a strange thing. He was a handsome man, that was not up for debate. But in spite of all that handsome, he left her cold.
Unlike her older brother, he kept himself out of the tabloids. The very picture of respectability and masculine grace in suits, and in the more casual wear he favored when her family met with him for holidays in his homes around the world.
Perhaps it was part of her mercurial nature that she had never felt tempted to do more than accept perfunctory kisses on her cheek from him. That she couldn’t find it in her to feel passion for him as some sort of rebellion against what she was being commanded to do. Or perhaps, it was him. Perhaps he was simply too…cold.
Was it so much to want someone with a passion that matched her own?
Though, her passion was theoretical. Both for life and for men. It made her want to break free. Made her want to challenge the life that had been set out before her.
No doubt Cristian would tell her she was being selfish. Of course, Cristian had always acted like he held a personal stake in her engagement. Possibly because he’d arranged it.
It made her wonder what else he stood to gain from her marriage. Probably infinite favors from Prince Raphael himself. Which was likely the reason Cristian loomed so large every time he was over for dinner at her parents’ house.
Cristian was the only person who ever made her lose her cool. The only person who inspired her to let loose on her control and rage when he made her angry.
With her parents, when push came to shove, she did as she was told.
In reality, her existence was staid. And she felt like she was in a constant struggle against it.
Or at least, she intended to struggle against it. To pull, to give some sort of indication that she was unhappy. She swallowed hard, forcing herself to turn her attention to the rest of the ballroom, to keep herself from looking back at Death again.
Allegra wandered over to the far side of the ballroom, picking up a plate and availing herself to the various delicacies that were spread out before her. If she could not indulge in men, she would indulge in chocolate. If her mother was here, she would remind Allegra that she had a wedding dress she would need to fit into in only a few months, and that eating chocolate was potentially not conducive to that.
And her mother needed everything to be…conducive to something. Needed her children to fit into the proper mold so that they could fulfill their duties and all of that. So that they could build upon what their father had begun and bring honor to their family name, and just a whole lot of things that Allegra found very daunting to take on.
In a fit of rebellion, Allegra grabbed another cream puff. Her mother was not here. Anyway, they employed a very accomplished seamstress. Surely she could do something with the gown should it not fit her more abundant curves.
Renzo wouldn’t stop her. Though, he did not oppose her parents pushing her toward this marriage, he only ever seemed amused by her moments of spirit.
But then, Renzo seemed to take his mantle on easily. It was a strange thing. As a man, his life had to bend where work was concerned. He’d had to take over their father’s real estate development firm, but nothing else in his life was dictated to.
As for Allegra…she imagined she could have whatever job she wished as long as it left her on hand to devote her personal life to the husband her parents deemed fit.
Perhaps that was why Renzo was so much more indulgent. He saw the disparity in what they were asked to do, who they were asked to be.
Her parents did not. And neither did Cristian, who had enabled her parents in their attempts to marry her off. Additionally, he was always on hand to play the opposing, humorless figure. Though, she knew his life had its share of hardships, and it almost made her feel guilty for finding so much at fault with him. Endless fault, really.
But still, his personal tragedies—and his involvement in her upcoming marriage—didn’t give him a right to be so harsh with her.
She blinked, looking back down at her food. She didn’t know why she was thinking of him now. Maybe because were he here, he would lift a sardonic brow at her if he saw her indulging in a plateful of sweets. Likely, using it as evidence to support his thinking that she was only a child. A spoiled one, at that.
She thought he was an ass. So, she supposed they would have to call it even.
The music began to swell, a dramatic waltz wrapping itself around her, enveloping her in the smooth and easy sensuality. She turned and looked at the couples out on the dance floor, holding each other close and moving with effortless grace.
What would it be like to have a man lead you like that? To hold you so close, with such strength? She imagined that her future husband was a very accomplished dancer. He was—after all—a prince. As far as she knew they began taking classical ballroom from the moment they learned how to walk.
Suddenly, a black-gloved hand came into her view. She looked up and her breath fled from her lungs. She parted her lips, preparing to speak, and he lifted his other hand, pressing his index finger to the cold, still mouth of his mask.
He had seen her too. He had noticed her. She had not been alone. That rush of heat, of excitement she had felt when he’d descended the stairs, that impression that he had not been touching the banister, but her skin, had washed over her for a reason. The connection was real.
Excitement, emotion, swelled in her chest even as the music began to swell, filling the space in the room, and inside of her.
She allowed him to lift her from her chair, and even though they made no skin-to-skin contact, though the leather glove provided a bit of protection between her hand and his, she felt a lightning bolt of heat straight down low between her thighs.
She was being ridiculous. He could be anyone. He could be any age. He could be hideously disfigured beneath that mask. He could, in fact, be Death himself.
But she did not think he was. Because this feeling was too certain. Too deep.
When he pulled her into his hold, when her breasts pressed against the hard wall of his chest and heat sparked through her, she knew that whoever he was, he was the one that she wanted.
A strange thing. To have such an instant, intense attraction that transcended reality on such a visceral level.
He swept her over the dance floor like she weighed nothing, weaving between other couples as though they didn’t exist. Didn’t matter. She looked up and caught his dark gaze and a shock wave blasted through her. She focused on the crystal chandelier above that cast fractals of light over the people below, and at the rich velvet drapes that hung over the walls, partly concealing murals of frolicking goddesses painted over the plaster surface.
Each brush of her body against his made her tremble. Every brush of that gloved hand on her lower back sent a sweeping wave of longing through her. She ached between her legs, desperate for his touch. This wasn’t just a dance. It was a prelude to something much more sensual.
She had never responded to a man like this before. Of course, she had never danced with a man like this before, either. Still, she didn’t think this had anything to do with the dancing, as arousing as it was. She didn’t think it had anything to do with the music, as deeply as it affected her. This was all about him. And it had been from the moment he had walked into the room.
She was dizzy. That had nothing to do with the dancing either.
She slid her hand down from where it was looped around his neck, pressed her palm against his chest, making sure to meet his gaze. It was dark, obsidian and unreadable beneath the mask. Perhaps he was disgusted. Perhaps he could not imagine why she had taken his request to dance as an invitation for more.
He caught her hand, wrapping his fingers around her wrist and pulling it back.
She froze, thinking she had made a terrible error. Then, he turned her hand, slowly rubbing his thumb over the sensitive skin on the inside of her wrist. She shivered, her body taking his touch for exactly what it was. A response. A yes.