His Suitable Bride

By: Cathy Williams

Rafael’s Suitable Bride





Cathy Williams




CHAPTER ONE


ON A day when most sane people were doing their utmost to stay off the roads, Rafael Rocchi had decided against the ease and speed of the train and chosen instead to bring his Ferrari out of hiding. It wasn’t often that he got the opportunity to drive it, and what was the point of having all that supercharged brake horsepower and black metal tucked away in his London garage—cleaned and polished once a week by his chauffeur, Thomas, and then patted gently on the bonnet and locked away for another week of rest and relaxation?

Driving to his mother’s house in the Lake District would be perfect. He would be able to lose himself in the sheer pleasure of being behind the wheel of a car that was as powerful and challenging as an unbridled wild horse. Nothing topped it for a sense of freedom, which was, to him, invaluable because by contrast, his day-to-day life was so structured. Running the Rocchi empire, which he had done singlehandedly since his father had died eight years previously, was not exactly a liberating experience. Invigorating, yes. Highly charged and immensely satisfying, yes. Liberating, no.

Once on the open road, the car devoured the distance noiselessly and effortlessly. On this rare occasion, Rafael had switched off his mobile phone and instead was listening to the rousing dynamism of classical music, keenly alert to the condition of the roads, but not unduly bothered. The past few days had seen snow cover the length and breadth of the country, and although none was currently falling, the fields as he headed up north were still blanketed in white.

At no point did he think that a fast car on treacherous roads was a lethal combination. He was utterly convinced of his own ability to control his Ferrari, just as he was convinced of his ability to control every aspect of his life. It was probably why, at the age of thirty-six, he was already legendary in the business world, feared for his ruthlessness as much as for his brilliance.

He was even occasionally inclined to think that women feared him equally, and that, he thought, was a good thing. A little fear never hurt anyone, and it paid to make sure that a woman knew who controlled the strings in a relationship. If six-month flings could be deemed relationships. His mother certainly had an alternative way of describing them, which, he thought, was behind this grand party of hers. A little impromptu post-Christmas event, she had told him, to lift everyone’s spirits because there was no month flatter than February—yet how impromptu could a party be when catering for over a hundred people had to be arranged?

No, his mother was on the matchmaking bandwagon again, even though he had repeatedly told her that he was not up for grabs, that he liked his life precisely as it was. As far as his mother was concerned—traditional Italian that she still was at heart, even after decades of living in England—unmarried and offspring-free at the age of thirty-six couldn’t possibly be a happy situation for anyone. She herself had married at twenty-two and had had Rafael by twenty-five, and would have had several more children had fate not seen fit to deny her the chance.

She had also insisted that he attend, which was ominous, but in the whole world the one person whom Rafael respected unconditionally was his mother. And so here he was, at least for the moment enjoying the experience of getting there even if, once there, he would be bored out of his skull—and probably stuck having to make mind-numbingly dull small talk with a girl with whom he would almost certainly have nothing in common.

His mother had never come to grips with the truth that Rafael liked his women almost solely for their looks. He liked them tall, blonde, obliging and, most important of all, temporary.

All it took was that small lull in his concentration. As he rounded the corner of the small country road which led towards his mother’s substantial property, he pressed on the brakes at the sight of a car which had veered off the road and ploughed into the snowy bank at the side. The Ferrari spun round, and in a squeal of protesting tyres came to a halt just feet away from the hapless and, as Rafael could see as soon as he had stormed out of his skewed car, abandoned Mini.

His pleasurable satisfaction had come to an abrupt halt, and there was someone on whom he could vent his well-deserved rage. Someone standing up from the other side of the Mini now, fixing him with a startled glance. A woman. Typical.

‘What the hell’s going on here? Are you hurt?’

The woman stepped out and blinked up at him.

‘Well?’ Rafael demanded. As an afterthought, he realised that he had better move his car just in case someone else rounded the corner. The road was always deserted, but there was no point taking chances.

‘I have to move my car,’ he told the woman who didn’t appear to have a tongue in her head.

When he next stepped out of his now parked car, it was to find that she had disappeared once again.

With mounting irritation, Rafael walked round the back of the Mini and found her kneeling on the ground, looking for something with the help of the light from her mobile phone.

‘Sorry,’ came an anxious apology from the squatting figure. ‘I’m really sorry. Are you all right?’ A quick glance in his direction, then the search for whatever was missing began again.

‘Have you any idea how dangerous it is for you to leave your car there?’ He nodded curtly at the Mini.

‘I tried moving it, honestly, but the tyres kept squealing.’ She stood up, reluctantly abandoning her search, and chewed her lips nervously.

Rafael could now see that the woman in question was little over five-three. Short and dumpy from the looks of it. Which did nothing for his diminishing patience levels. Had she been willowy and beautiful, his charm-gene might have automatically been kick-started. As it was, he looked down at her with a frown of displeasure.

‘So you then decided to leave it where it lay, never mind the risk you were causing to anyone coming round the bend, and start scrabbling on the road instead?’ His voice was laced with sarcasm. Never noted for high levels of patience, Rafael was now on the verge of snapping completely.

‘Actually, I wasn’t scrabbling on the road. I was … I rubbed my eyes to wake myself up, and one of my contact lenses came out. I’ve been driving all the way from London. I should have taken the train, but I want to leave first thing in the morning and I didn’t want to be rude and have to wake anyone up to drop me to the station.’ She looked up at him earnestly. ‘Hello, by the way.’ She held out one small hand and stared at the stranger.

He was the most beautiful stranger she had ever seen in her entire life. Actually, he could have stepped off the cover of a magazine. He was very tall, over six feet, and his dark hair was combed back so that there was nothing to distract from the perfect chiselled beauty of his face. His scowling face.

Cristina couldn’t stop herself from smiling helplessly, unfazed by his unsympathetic expression.

Rafael ignored the outstretched hand. ‘I’ll get your car into a less hazardous position and then you’d better get in my car. I assume you’re heading in the same direction as me. There’s only one house at the end of his lane.’

‘Oh, you don’t have to do that,’ Cristina said breathlessly.

‘No, I don’t, but I will because I don’t want the hassle of dealing with a guilty conscience if you get behind the wheel of your car when you can’t see anything and crash.’ He spun round on his heels while Cristina continued to watch, with fascinated interest, as he expertly did what she had spent half an hour trying and failing to do.

‘That was brilliant,’ she told him honestly when he was back in front of her, and Rafael felt some of his anger begin to subside.

‘Hardly brilliant,’ he muttered. ‘But at least the damn thing’s in a safer position now.’

‘I could drive myself now,’ Cristina was forced to admit. ‘I mean, I have a pair of specs in my bag. I always carry them because I never know when my contact lenses are going to start irritating my eyes. Do you wear contact lenses?’

‘What?’

‘Never mind.’ She frowned slightly, belatedly considering her appearance and what lay ahead of her.

‘Well?’ Rafael was back by his car, passenger door open, waiting for her to stop dithering at the side of the road while the wind whipped around them, reminding them that yet more snow was just a frosted breath away.

Cristina took a couple of steps towards him, her expression still anxious and hesitant. ‘It’s just that … well …’ She spread her hands tellingly along the length of her body. ‘Look at me. I can’t possibly make an entrance looking like this.’ She barely knew her hostess, Maria. She had met her a few times in Italy, when she had been living with her parents before moving to London, and she had seemed a nice lady, but she really wasn’t close enough to her to enlist her help in getting cleaned up because she had somehow managed to lose a contact lens. Now her hands were dirty from rummaging on the ground, her tights were torn and she dared not even think of the state of her hair, which was unruly at the best of times.

‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ Rafael told her dismissively. He pulled open the passenger door and sighed impatiently. ‘It is freezing out here, and I’m not standing having a prolonged conversation with you about the state of your appearance.’ He kindly decided not to point out that there was very little she could have done with her appearance which would have made her look sexy anyway. She was built like a little round ball, and the wind was doing some very unflattering things to her hair. Grubby hands weren’t exactly going to go a long way to remedy what looked like a pretty plain gene pool.

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