Well all good things must come to an end and today is the last of the Ho Ho Ho Harlequin Holiday Extravaganza posts but I saved a sensually fantastic feature for last and fabulous UK Harlequin Presents author Sharon Kendrick is here to put the icing on the cake chatting about her holiday romance Christmas in Da Conti's Bed. She's got a great Christmas curry recipe and she's offering one lucky winner a copy of the novel - Open Internationally!! See below for contest details! Sharon take it home!!!
Billionaire Niccolo Da Conti has everything a man could want—the money, the cars, the business empire—but seeing the unbearably enticing Alannah Collins again has sparked his possessive streak. He'll hire her, seduce her and cross her off his wish list once and for all!
Sharon is offering one print copy of
Christmas in Da Conti's Bed
Please use the Rafflecopter form below to enter
Read an Excerpt:
Niccolò da Conti hated marriage, Christmas and love—but most of all he hated it when people didn't do what he wanted them to.
An unfamiliar feeling of frustration made him bite back a graphic expletive as he paced the floor of the vast New York hotel suite. Outside, skyscrapers and stars glittered against the deepening indigo sky, though not nearly as brightly as the Christmas lights which were already adorning the city.
But Niccolò was oblivious to the party atmosphere, or even to the onset of this most hated time of year. All he could think about was his only sister and wondering why she was being so damned disobedient.
:I do not want,' he said, sucking in a ragged breath in an attempt to control his rapidly spiralling temper, 'some tacky topless model acting as your bridesmaid. I have worked long and hard to establish a degree of respectability in your life, Michela. Do you understand what I'm saying? It cannot be allowed to happen, and what is more—I will not allow it to happen.'
From the other side of the glitzy New York hotel penthouse suite, Michela's expression remained unchanged as she looked at him.
'But you can't stop me from having her, Niccolò,' she said stubbornly. 'I'm the bride and it's my decision. That's the thing.'
'You think so?' His mouth hardened and he felt another hot flicker of rage. 'I could refuse to pay for this wedding for a start.'
'But the man I'm marrying is rich enough to carry the cost of the marriage if you decide to take such drastic action.' Michela hesitated. 'Though I'm sure you wouldn't want the world to know that Niccolò da Conti had refused to finance his only sister's wedding, just because he doesn't approve of her choice of bridesmaid. Wouldn't that be a step too far in the modern world—even for a man as old-fashioned as you?'
Niccolò flexed and then relaxed his fingers, wishing there were a nearby punch-bag on which he could vent his mounting frustrations. The world usually ran according to his wishes and he was not used to having them questioned. Bad enough that Alekto Sarantos was acting like some kind of prima donna without having to cope with the bombshell that Alannah Collins was here.
His mouth tightened with anger as he thought about his sister and the sacrifices he had made. For too long he had fought to keep their tiny family unit intact and he was not prepared to relinquish control over her just yet. Because old habits died hard. He had faced shame and tragedy and had seen them off. He had protected Michela as much as was within his power to do so, and now she was about to enter into marriage, which would see her secure for life. His careful vetting of would-be suitors had paid dividends and she was about to marry into one of the most powerful Italian-American families in New York. She would have the sanctity he had always wished for her and nothing would be allowed to tarnish the occasion. Nothing and no one.
Especially not Alannah Collins.
Even the thought of the minxy little tramp made his body react in a complicated way he found difficult to control—and he was a man who prided himself on control. A powerful combination of lust and regret flooded over him, although his overriding emotion was one of rage, and that was the one he hung onto.
'I cannot believe that she has had the nerve to show her face,' he bit out. 'I can't believe she's even here.'
'Well, she is. I invited her.'
'I thought you hadn't seen her since I withdrew you from that appalling school.'
Michela hesitated. 'Actually, we've well, we've stayed in touch over the years,' she said. 'We emailed and phoned—and I used to see her whenever I was in England. And last year she came to New York and we took a trip to the Keys and it was just like old times. She was my best friend at school, Niccolò. We go back a long way.'
'And yet you told me nothing of this before?' he demanded. 'You maintain a secret friendship and then spring it on me on the eve of your marriage? Didn't you stop to consider how it might look—to have someone as notorious as this tawdry exhibitionist playing a major role in your wedding?'
Michela lifted her hands up to the sides of her head in a gesture of frustration. 'Are you surprised I didn't tell you, when this is the kind of reaction I get?'
'What does Lucas say about your connection with her?' he demanded.
'It happened a long time ago. It's history, Niccolò. Most people in the States haven't even heard of Stacked magazine—it folded ages ago. And yes, I know that a video of the original shoot seems to have found its way onto YouTube—'
'What? ' he exploded.
'But it's really quite tame by modern standards,' said Michela quickly. 'If you compare it to some of the music videos you see these days—well, it's almost suitable for the kindergarten! And Alannah doesn't do that kind of stuff any more. You've got her all wrong, Niccolò, she's—'
'She is a tramp!' he gritted out, his Sicilian accent becoming more pronounced as his temper rose once again. 'A precocious little tramp, who shouldn't be allowed within ten feet of decent society. When will you get it into your head, Michela, that Alannah Collins is—'
'Whoops!' A cool voice cut into his angry tirade and Niccolò turned to see a woman strolling into the room without bothering to knock and suddenly his words were forgotten. If somebody had asked him his name right then, he thought he might have trouble remembering it. And yet for a moment he almost didn't recognise her—because in his memory she was wearing very little and the woman in front of him had barely an inch of flesh on show. It was the sound of her naturally sultry voice which kick-started his memory and his libido. But it didn't take long for his eyes to reacquaint themselves with her magnificent body—nor to acknowledge the natural sensuality which seemed to shimmer from it in almost tangible waves.
She was wearing jeans and a white shirt with a high collar, but the concealing nature of her outfit did nothing to disguise the luscious curves beneath. Thick black hair like lustrous jet hung over her shoulders, and eyes the colour of denim were studying him with a hint of mockery in their depths. Niccolò swallowed. He had forgotten the pale creaminess of her complexion and the rosiness of her lips. He had forgotten that this half-Irish temptress with an unknown father could burrow underneath his skin, without even trying.
As she moved he could see the glitter of a little blue dragonfly brooch gleaming on her shirt-collar, which matched the amazing colour of her eyes. And even though he despised her, he could do nothing about the leap of desire which made his body grow tense. She made him think of things he'd rather not think about—but mostly she made him think about sex.
'Did I just hear my name being taken in vain?' she questioned lightly. 'Would you like me to walk back out and come in again?'
'Feel free to walk out any time you like,' he answered coldly. 'But why don't you do us all a favour, and skip the second part of the suggestion?'
She tilted her chin in a way which made her black hair ripple down her back, like an ebony waterfall. But the smile she slanted at him didn't quite reach her eyes.
'I see you've lost none of your natural charm, Niccolò,' she observed acidly. 'I'd forgotten how you could take the word "insult" and give it a whole new meaning.'
Niccolò felt a pulse begin to pound in his temple as his blood grew heated. But much worse was the jerk of lust which made his groin feel unbearably hard. Which made him want to crush his mouth down over her lips and kiss all those insolent words away and then to drive deep inside her until she screamed out his name, over and over again.
Damn her, he thought viciously. Damn her, with all her easy confidence and her louche morals. And damn those sinful curves, which would compel a grown man to crawl over broken glass just to have the chance of touching them.
'Forgive me,' he drawled, 'but for a moment I didn't recognise you with your clothes on.'
He saw the brief discomfiture which crossed her face and something primitive gave him a heady rush of pleasure to think that he might have touched a nerve and hurt her. Hurt her as she had once hurt his family and threatened to ruin their name.
But she turned the look into a bright and meaningless smile. 'I'm not going to rise to that,' she said as she turned instead to his sister. 'Are you ready for your fitting, Michela?'
Michela nodded, but her eyes were still fixed nervously on Niccolò. 'I wish you two could be civil to each other—at least until the wedding is over. Couldn't you do that for me—just this once? Then you never need see one another again!'
Niccolò met Alannah's speculative gaze and the thought of her smiling serenely in a bridesmaid gown made his blood boil. Didn't she recognise that it was hypocritical for her to play the wide-eyed innocent on an important occasion such as this? Couldn't she see that it would suit everyone's agenda if she simply faded into the background, instead of taking on a major role? He thought of the powerful bridegroom's elderly grandparents and how they might react if they realised that this was the same woman who had massaged her own peaking nipples, while wearing a dishevelled schoolgirl hockey kit. His mouth hardened. How much would it take to persuade her that she was persona non grata?
He flickered his sister a brief smile. 'Why don't you let Alannah and I have a word or two in private, mia sorella? And let's see if we can sort out this matter to everyone's satisfaction.'
Michela gave her friend a questioning look, but Alannah nodded.
'It's okay,' she said. 'You're quite safe to leave me alone with your brother, Michela—I'm sure he doesn't bite.'
Niccolò stiffened as Michela left the suite and his unwanted feeling of desire escalated into a dark and unremitting tide. He wondered if Alannah had made that remark to be deliberately provocative. He would certainly like to bite her. He'd like to sink his teeth into that slender neck and suck hungrily on that soft and creamy skin.
Her eyes were fixed on him—with that infuriating look of mild amusement still lingering in their smoky depths.
'So come on, then, Niccolò,' she said insouciantly. 'Do your worst. Why don't you get whatever is bugging you off your chest so that we can clear the air and give your sister the kind of wedding she deserves?'
'At least we are agreed on something,' he snapped. 'My sister does deserve a perfect wedding—one which will not involve a woman who will attract all the wrong kind of publicity. You have always been wild—even before you decided to strip for the cameras. And I don't think it's acceptable for every man at the ceremony to be mentally undressing the bridesmaid, instead of concentrating on the solemn vows being made between the bride and groom.'
'For someone who seems to have spent all his life avoiding commitment, I applaud your sudden dedication to the marriage service.' Her cool smile didn't slip. 'But I don't think most men are as obsessed with my past as you are.'
'You think I'm obsessed by your past?' His voice hardened. 'Oh, but you flatter yourself if you imagine that I've given you anything more than a fleeting thought in the years since you led my sister astray.' His gaze moved over her and he wondered if the lie showed in his face because he had never forgotten her, nor the effect she'd had on him. For a long time he had dreamt of her soft body and her sweet kiss—before waking up in a cold sweat as he remembered what he had nearly done to her. 'I thought you were out of her life,' he said. 'Which is where I would prefer you to stay.'
Calmly, Alannah returned his stare and told herself not to react, no matter what the provocation. Didn't matter how angry he got, she would just blank it. She'd seen enough of the world to know that remaining calm—or, at least, appearing to—was the most effective weapon in dealing with an adversary. And Niccolò da Conti was being very adversarial.
She knew he blamed her for being a bad influence on his beloved sister, so maybe she shouldn't be surprised that he still seemed to bear a grudge. She remembered reading something about him in the press—about him not being the kind of man who forgot easily. Just as he wasn't the kind of man who was easily forgotten, that was for sure. He wore his wealth lightly; his power less so. He could silence a room by entering it. He could make a woman look at him and want him, even if he was currently staring at her as if she were something which had just crawled out from underneath a rock. What right did he have to look at her like that, after all these years? Because she'd once done something which had appalled his straight-laced sensibilities—something she'd lived to regret ever since? She was a different person now and he had no right to judge her.
Yet it was working, wasn't it? The contempt in his eyes was curiously affecting. That cold black light was threatening to destabilise a poise she'd spent years trying to perfect. And if she wasn't careful, he would try to crush her. So tell him to keep his outdated opinions to himself. Tell him you're not interested in what he has to say.
But her indignation was beginning to evaporate, because he was loosening the top button of his shirt and drawing attention to his body. Was he doing that on purpose? she wondered weakly, hating the way her stomach had suddenly turned to liquid. Was he deliberately reminding her of a potent sexuality which had once blown her away?
She became aware that her heart was pounding like mad and that her cheeks had grown hot. She might not like him. She might consider him the most controlling person she'd ever met—but that didn't stop her from wanting him in a way she'd never wanted anyone else. Didn't seem to matter how many times she tried to block out what had happened, or tried to play it down—it made no difference. All they'd shared had been one dance and one kiss—but it had been the most erotic experience of her life and she'd never forgotten it. It had made every other man she'd met seem as insubstantial as a shadow when the fierce midday sun moved over it. It had made every other kiss seem about as exciting as kissing your teddy bear.
She ran her gaze over him, wishing he were one of those men who had developed a soft paunch in the intervening years, or that his jaw had grown slack and jowly. But not Niccolò. No way. He still had the kind of powerful physique which looked as if he could fell a tree with the single stroke of an axe. He still had the kind of looks which made people turn their heads and stare. His rugged features stopped short of being classically beautiful, but his lips looked as if they had been made with kissing in mind—even if their soft sensuality was at odds with the hostile glitter in his eyes.
She hadn't seen him for ten years and ten years could be a lifetime. In that time she'd achieved a notoriety she couldn't seem to shake off, no matter how much she tried. She'd grown used to men treating her as an object—their eyes fixed firmly on her generous breasts whenever they were talking to her.
Today's edition of Ho Ho Ho Harlequin Holiday Extravaganza is with NYT & USA Today award winning author RaeAnne Thayne who besides penning wonderful mainstream fiction also writes for the Harlequin Special Edition line. She's here today chatting up her new holiday novel A Christmas Ranch plus she's got a great Christmas morning French Toast recipe and as if that's not enough she's generously sponsored a giveaway of her 2 in 1 of The Christmas Ranch and A Cold Creek Holiday US ONLY. Giveaway details below! RaeAnne take it away and I'm making your French Toast for my Christmas morning :)!
Hope Nichols has never felt as if she belonged anywhere, except her hometown of Pine Gulch. So, when she hears that her family's property, Christmas Ranch, is set to be shut down forever, a determined Hope heads home. She refuses to let the Grinch steal her holiday—this will be the most memorable ranch Christmas ever! And, thanks to hunky former navy SEAL Rafe Santiago and his adorable nephew, she might just pull off that miracle.
Giveaway is one print copy of RaeAnne's 2 in 1
The Christmas Ranch & A Cold Creek Holiday
Please use the Rafflecopter form below to enter
Read an Excerpt:
Though Thanksgiving was still a week and a half away, Christmas apparently had already rolled into Pine Gulch, Idaho, in all its snowy glory.
Hope Nichols looked through the windshield of the crappy old Ford pickup truck she had picked up for a cool thousand dollars at the edge of a Walmart parking lot in Salt Lake City. On a late afternoon in November the storefronts of the small but vibrant downtown area were alive with Christmas displays—trees, lights, toy soldiers, the occasional Nativity scene.
As she drove through more residential areas on her way to Cold Creek Canyon, she saw the holiday spirit extended here. Nearly every house had decorations of some sort, from inflatable snowmen to a full-fledged Santa and reindeer display.
She didn't mind even the kitschiest of decorations, even though to some it might seem early in the season. Considering she hadn't spent the holidays at home for the past five years—or even in the country—she couldn't wait to embrace the whole Christmas thing this year.
She supposed that was a good thing, since her family's Ranch was the holiday epicenter around here.
This area of eastern Idaho already had a few inches of snow—not much, but enough to cover everything in a lovely blanket of white and add a bit of seasonal charm to the town she remembered with such warmth and affection.
While Pine Gulch wasn't exactly her hometown, it was close enough. Hope and her sisters had lived here through most of their formative teen years, and she loved every inch of it, from the distant view of the west slope of the Tetons to the unassuming storefronts to the kind people who waved at her even now, though they couldn't possibly recognize her or the old blue pickup truck with the primer on the side.
She had come to be pretty fond of the old Ford. It didn't exactly drive like a dream, but it had four-wheel drive and all its working parts. Buying it had been an impulsive decision—she had intended to rent a car in Salt Lake City to drive home after she flew in from northern Africa, but had suddenly realized she would need transportation permanently now. This truck would get her through the gnarly winter season until she figured out what she would do next. After a decade of wandering, she was ready to stay put for a while.
Nerves in her stomach danced a little, as they had been doing throughout the five-hour drive from Salt Lake, while she tried to anticipate the reaction she would find at the Star N Ranch when she showed up out of the blue with her duffel bag.
Aunt Mary would probably cry, her older sister, Faith, would be shocked and her younger sister, Celeste, would smile in that quiet way of hers.
The children would at least be happy to see her, though she knew Louisa and Barrett—and everyone else, for that matter—were still reeling from the death of their father. Travis, Faith's husband and childhood sweetheart, had died four months earlier in a tragic accident. Hope had come back for his funeral, of course, but her correspondence and video chats with her family since then had mostly been superficial.
It was time to come home. Past time. Since Travis's death, she couldn't shake the feeling that her family needed her, despite their protests that all was fine. The holiday season was insane at The Christmas Ranch and all hands were necessary, even when those hands belonged to the wanderer in the fam—
With a noise as loud as a gunshot, something hit the passenger-side window of her truck, jerking her thoughts back to the present. In the space of a heartbeat, the window shattered as Hope slammed on the brakes, ducked and instinctively yelled a curse word her mostly Berber students taught her.
What the ?
Who would be shooting at her? For a crazy moment, she was a terrified, desperate thirteen-year-old girl again, heart pounding, adrenaline pulsing. She didn't have flashbacks very often, but when she did, they could roll over her like a bulldozer.
She drew in a breath, forcing away the panic. This was Pine Gulch. There were no snipers here, no rebel factions. Nobody would be shooting at her. She glanced at the window. Because the truck was older, it didn't have tempered glass and the entire window had shattered. All she found was a melting pile of snow amid the shattered glass—and a healthy-sized rock.
Not a gunshot, then. A dirty trick. Tentatively, she raised her head to look around. At first, she didn't see anything, until a flurry of movement on that side of the vehicle caught her gaze.
A young boy stood just off the road looking shocked and not a little guilty.
Hope pulled over to the side of the road then jumped out of the driver's side and headed for him.
The kid stared at her, eyes wide. He froze for only a moment as she approached, then whirled around and took off at top speed across the snow-covered lawn just as a man walked around the side of the house with a couple of snow shovels in hand.
"You're in luck, kid," he called. "I found shovels for each of us."
The man's voice trailed off as the boy raced behind him, using what were quite impressive muscles as a shield, as if he thought Hope was going to start hurling snowball-covered rocks right back at him.
"Hey. Come back here. Where do you think you're going, young man?" she demanded sternly in her best don't-mess-with-me teacher's voice.
The big man frowned and set the snow shovels blade-down on the sidewalk. "Excuse me, lady. What the he—er, heck is your problem?"
She told herself her heart was racing only from adrenaline at her window suddenly shattering. It had nothing to do with this large, muscled, gorgeous man with short dark hair and remarkable hazel eyes. Somehow he seemed even bigger as he bristled at her, overpowering and male.
She, however, had gone against bullies far worse than some small-town cowboy with a juvenile delinquent and an attitude.
She pointed to the pickup truck, engine still running, and the shattered passenger window.
"Your son here is the problem—or more accurately, the rock he just tossed through my window. I could have been seriously hurt. It's a miracle I didn't run off the road."
"I'm not his son," the kid snapped. He looked angry and belligerent at the very idea.
She supposed it was only natural her mind immediately went to kidnapping, especially after the sudden flashback.
"I'm his uncle," Sexy Dude said, with a frustrated look at the boy. "Did you see him throw it? I'm sure you must be mistaken. Joey is not the kind of kid who would throw a rock at a moving vehicle—especially a stranger's moving vehicle."
Was he trying to convince her or himself? His words rang a little hollow, making her wonder if Joey was exactly the kind of kid who would vandalize a vehicle, whether he knew the owners or not.
"Then explain to me why my window is shattered and why he took off the moment I stopped my truck to talk to him about it."
The guy frowned. "Joe. Tell the nice lady you didn't throw a rock at her window."
The boy lifted his chin obstinately but after meeting her gaze for just a moment, he looked down at his snowboots. "I didn't throw a rock," he insisted, then added in a muffled sort of aside, "It was a snowball."
"A snowball with a rock inside it," she retorted.
He looked up and gave his uncle an imploring look. "It was a accident. I didn't mean to, Uncle Rafe. I swear."
"Joey." The uncle said the single name with a defeated kind of frustration, making her wonder what the situation was between the two of them. Where were the boy's parents?
"It was a accident," he repeated. Whether it was genuine or an act, Joey now sounded like he was going to cry.
"An accident," she corrected.
"Whatever," the boy said.
"Using proper English is important when you wish to convey your point." Yes, she sounded prim but six years of combined experience in the Peace Corps and teaching English across the globe had ingrained habits that were probably going to be tough to break.
"Okay. It was an accident," he spoke with such dramatic exaggeration that she almost smiled, until she remembered the crisis at hand.
"That's better, but I'm still not sure I believe you. I think you were aiming right at my truck."
"I didn't mean to break the window. I wasn't even trying to hit the window, I was trying to hit the hubcap. My friend Samantha and me are playing a game and we get five points for every hubcap."
"My friend Samantha and I," she said. She couldn't seem to help herself, even though she noticed the correction only made the uncle glower harder, making him look big and rough-edged and even more dangerous.
She suddenly felt small and not nearly as tough as she liked to think.
"Can we deep six the English lessons, lady, and focus on your window?"
She was nervous, she suddenly realized. Was it because of his military haircut or the muscles or because he was so great-looking? She pushed away the uneasiness and forced herself to concentrate on the real issue.
"Sorry. Reflex. I'll stop now. I've been teaching English in northern Africa the past few years and was in the Peace Corps before that. I'm just returning to Pine Gulch to visit my family. They live in Cold Creek Canyon and."
Her voice trailed off. He didn't care about that. She cleared her throat. "Right. My window. It was a very dangerous thing you did, young man. Tell your friend Samantha it's a bad idea to throw snowballs at cars, whether the snowballs have rocks in them or not. You could distract the driver and someone could easily get hurt—maybe even you."
The boy gave her a pugnacious sort of look but said nothing until his uncle nudged him.
"Tell the nice lady you're sorry."
"I don't think she's very nice," he grumbled.
Again, Hope almost smiled, until she met the man's gaze and found him looking extremely una-mused by the entire situation.
"Too bad." The boy's uncle—Rafe, was it?—frowned at him. "Tell her you're sorry anyway."
Joey looked down at the snow-covered ground again and then finally met her gaze. "I'm sorry I hit your window and not your hubcap. We don't get any points for hitting windows."
As apologies went, it was a little weak but she would still take it. She was suddenly weary of the whole situation and wanted to continue on toward the Star N and her family.
"In your defense, that window had a crack in it anyway. It probably wouldn't have shattered if it hadn't been for that."
"You're not going to be throwing any snowballs at cars again," the boy's uncle said sternly. "And you're going to tell Samantha not to do it either, right?"
"But I was winning the contest! She was gonna give me her new Darth Vader LEGO minifig if I won and I was gonna give her my Green Ninja minifig if she won."
"Too bad. The lady is right. It's dangerous. Look at the trouble you've already caused!"
The boy didn't look happy about it but he finally shrugged. "Fine."
"We'll pay for the window replacement, of course. If you get an estimate, you can have them send the bill to me here. Rafe Santiago. I'll warn you that I'm only going to be in town for another few weeks, though."
The name seemed to strike a chord deep in her subconscious. Had they met before? Something about his hazel eyes—striking against his burnished skin—reminded her of someone but she couldn't seem to pin down who or where.
She didn't remember any Santiagos living in this little house before. From what she remembered of Hope's Crossing, this had always been a rental house, often used short-term for seasonal workers and such.
"I will do that." She held out her hand, deciding there was no reason they couldn't leave on good terms. "I'm Hope Nichols. You can find me at The Christmas Ranch, in Cold Creek Canyon."
At her words, something sparked in those hazel eyes but she couldn't identify it.
"Nichols?" he said sharply.
Perhaps he knew her sisters, though Faith went by her married name now, Dustin, and she couldn't imagine quiet, introverted Celeste having much to do with a rough and tumble man like him. Maybe Joey had caused trouble at the library where Celeste worked. She could believe that—though, okay, that might be a snap judgment.
"Can I go inside?" Joey asked. "Snow got in my boots and now my feet are freezing. I need to dump it out."
"Yeah. Go ahead. Dump the snow off on the porch, not inside."
Joey raced off and after a moment, Rafe Santiago—why was that name so familiar?—turned back to her.
"I'm sorry about my nephew," he said, rather stiffly. "He's had a rough time of it the past few weeks."
She wondered what had happened, but when he didn't volunteer any further details, she accepted it was none of her business. "I'm sorry if I came down too hard."
"I didn't say you did. Whatever he's been through isn't an excuse anyway. I'll talk to him about this stupid contest and make sure he and his friend both realize it's not a good idea."
He gave her another searching look and she had the strangest feeling he wanted to say something else. When the silence stretched between them, a little too long to be comfortable, she decided she couldn't wait around for him to speak.
"I should go. My family is waiting for me. I'll be in touch, Mr. Santiago."
"Rafe," he said gruffly. Was that his normal speaking voice or did she just bring out the rough edges? she wondered.
"Rafe. Nice to meet you, even under the circumstances."
She hurried back to her pickup truck and continued on toward home, though she couldn't shake the odd feeling that something momentous had just happened.
Today's Ho Ho Ho Harlequin Holiday Extravaganza features Harlequin Presents author Victoria Parker who's chatting to us from the UK about her exotically fabulous holiday tale To Claim His Heir by Christmas. She's got a great holiday recipe (and I converted the measurement to US equivalents so may want to double check it) and she's also generously sponsoring a Giveaway open Internationally. Giveaway details below! Look at that great cover! So Take it away Victoria!!!
Five years ago, Princess Luciana of Arunthia experienced heaven in the arms of a man whose every touch felt like paradise. But when Thane's true identity as the prince of Galancia was revealed, Luciana had no choice but to flee. Her lover was her kingdom's greatest enemy, and she was expecting his baby!
Giveaway includes one print copy of
To Claim His Heir By Christmas
+ some extra goodies from Victoria
Use the Rafflecopter form below to enter
Read an Excerpt:
He was going to propose. Any minute now.
It was every little girl's dream. A handsome man, one of the most beautiful she'd ever seen, sat opposite her at an intimate table for two, with a velvet box nestled in his inside pocket. Aristocracy, no less. The suave Savile Row sophisticate who was Viscount Augustus. The man who'd set the scene so superbly.
Dimly lit chandeliers cast a seductive romantic ambience throughout the room of the critically acclaimed restaurant, where Michelin chefs were famous for creating masterpieces of haute cuisine. Open fires crackled and crystal tinkled as exorbitantly priced champagne flowed, poured into flutes in an amber rush of opulent effervescence. And beyond the wide plate-glass windows lay the majestic vista of the Taren-taise Valley—Savoie, bathing in the rose-pink wash of dusk, its white-capped mountains towering from the earth like watchful sentinels over the exclusive lavish ski resort of Pur Luxe.
Stunning. Awe-inspiring. The stage was set. All that was left were the words. And Princess Luciana Valentia Thyssen Verbault was paralysed with dread.
Please, God, please get me out of this somehow
There is no way out, Luce. Not only do you have a duty to your people but a deal is a deal. And you made one with the devil himself.
Lord, she hated her father right now. 'Go to the Alps,' he'd said. 'Take a few days to think things over, get your head together.'
Luciana had taken in his seemingly sincere autocratic face, paler since she'd last seen him as his health continued to deteriorate, and thought, yes, a few days to ponder. After all, she'd thought, she had years before her coronation, plenty of room to breathe, to barter for more time. But, as the saying went: Men plan. Fates laugh.
King Henri of Arunthia was being pushed by his doctors to retire. So she'd come to inhale the invigorating crisp air, to infuse her mind with solace. Reassess. Come up with a strategy where matrimony wouldn't equate to losing the only person she lived for. What her father hadn't said was that he was dropping her smack-bang in the midst of her worst nightmare by sending Augustus to seal the deal.
She supposed she should have seen it coming. Avoiding the Viscount via any means possible since her return home from China three weeks ago obviously hadn't worked a jot. All she'd done was delay the inevitable.
You can run but you can't hide. Wasn't that what they said?
Truth was, for so long she'd been living on borrowed time, wishing with all her heart that time would miraculously stand still. But time, as she'd soon realised, waited for no man. Let alone a woman as desperate as she was to avoid the ticking clock.
Now she would pay the ultimate price for bartering with her father five too short years ago. Five years of living a normal existence, well hidden in her sanctuary near Hong Kong. Five years of latitude and liberty in exchange for total compliance—starting now.
'Luciana? Is the filet not to your liking, querida?''
Her eyelashes fluttered as she fought the urge to squeeze them shut. Pretend she was anywhere but here. Querida Lord, she wished he wouldn't call her that. Wished too that she could extinguish the heat banked in his blue eyes. Hadn't he had enough carnal relations for one afternoon? She almost asked him. If he'd enjoyed the brunette in his suite. The one who'd answered his door half naked and ravaged. But the truth was she couldn't care less. It was the endearments she loathed. They hinted at affection and love and there would be none in this marriage. On either side.
He was playing a part, though, wasn't he? She wondered, then, if he was going to get down on one knee. While she sincerely hoped not, he was a virtuoso at playing the press and they'd want the fairy story.
Fairy story. Yeah, right. A fool's dream. Like so many others that taunted her day and night.
'It's wonderful, thank you,' she said, attempting another small mouthful even as her stomach roiled.
It could be the best filet mignon in the world and it would still taste like black ash. Though no one would ever know it. Trained by the best, she was the perfect picture of elegant refinement. Graceful to a fault.
'Good. I want tonight to be perfect,' he said softly. Slick and skilful.
Luciana whipped out the serene smile she'd perfected since the cradle—not too bright or flashy, nor too dull. Just perfect, as her mother would say. Neglecting to add the tiny detail that it would strip her throat raw every time she faked it.
'I want tonight to be perfect.'
Guilt trickled through the turbulent maelstrom of emotions warring for dominance in her chest. He was trying, wasn't he?
Of course he is—he wants a throne of his own. Of course he's pulling out every weapon in his cultivated arsenal.
Still, it wasn't his fault that the 'arranged marriage' part of her conditioning hadn't quite taken root. It wasn't his fault that she dreamed of another. It wasn't his fault that she had a taste for dark and dangerous.
Yes, and look what trouble that landed you in. Surely you've learned your lesson by now?
And Augustus was good-looking. Very handsome, in fact. Sandy blond hair artfully shorn and midnight-blue eyes. He had women after him in their droves. Yet he was her duty—tall and fair. The man she'd been ordered to wed. And from there to his bed.
A phantom knife sliced through her stomach and instinctively she bowed forward to ease the lancing pain Then she forced her poise to kick in, reached gingerly for her glass and poured the amber liquid down her throat. Maybe if she got tipsy enough she'd have enough anaesthetic on board to say yes without shattering into a million pieces.
Flute back to the table, Luciana picked up her fork to push the tenderised beef around her gold-rimmed plate on the off-chance that he'd reach for her hand again. Once this evening was more than enough.
Would she ever get used to his touch? It was nothing like when he' d touched her. Nothing like the wickedly high jolt of electricity that had surged through her veins, or the blaze of her blood creating a raging inferno inside her.
Stop! For the love of God, Luciana, stop.
Problem was, as always, she found it impossible to halt the flow. The fiery rush of memories. Memories of a man who'd given her a gift to last a lifetime.
Pain and secrecy thumped inside her ribs like a dark heart. Because no one could know. No one could ever, ever know.
Princesses of the realm, first in line to the throne, were not meant to disgrace themselves by breaking free of their dutiful chains. Not meant to alter their appearance beyond recognition to avoid the paparazzi and go to rock concerts in Zurich dressed like a hippy, doling out false names. Not meant to fall in love no, lust at first sight and have wild, passionate love affairs. They especially weren't supposed to have them with Arunthia's enemy. Not that she'd known exactly who he was when they'd met.
Such an ironic twist of fate. One she would have reduced to a dream if she didn't hold and squeeze and hug and kiss the living proof of her reckless walk on the wild side every single day. Yet, despite it all—despite knowing she'd given her innocence to a treacherous, dangerous man—she could never, would never regret it. Because her first and only lover had given her a gift that was the single most brilliant, bright spark of joy in her world her son.
Discreetly she sneaked a peek at the mobile phone hidden in her lap to see if Natanael's goodnight text had come through. Nothing. She stifled the melancholy of missing him by picturing him playing happily with her sister Claudia and baby Isabelle, while Lucas watched on adoringly, protectively. Possessively.
At times it physically hurt to look at them. The perfect family. So deeply, devotedly in love. Their beautiful marriage was eons away from the unions she was used to. Luciana hadn't known such a thing existed. She would do anything for that. Pay any price.
Envy, thick and poignant, pierced her chest with a sweet, sharp ache and she cursed herself for feeling that way. Wanting what she couldn't have. Plunging lower than the black trench of despair she'd dug beneath her own feet. On the verge of letting loose the scream that was irrevocably bottled up inside her.
Come on, Luce. You know happiness isn't written in the cards for a royal firstborn. Only duty.
Luciana tried to swallow and block the lash of repercussions her trip down the aisle would provoke before anguish swept her mind away on a tide of insanity.
Stop this! You're protecting him—just as you've always done.
But how was she ever going to leave her heart? The person she needed in order to breathe, as if he were the very air itself? Her gorgeous little boy.
Claudia had sworn she'd save him from the oppressive walls of Arunthe Palace, love him as Luciana did until she could figure out a way for them to be together always. As Queen she'd have more power. She would think of something. She had to.
In the meantime Luciana would always be near—but what about his tub time, and the way he liked to be tucked tight and snug into bed? Luciana wanted to run his bath with his favourite bubbles that made his tender skin smell sweet. And what about when he called for her in the night when he was having bad dreams? She wanted to hold him when he was scared.
The thought of him asking for her and her not being there It tormented her mind. How she was going to explain it all to him she had no idea. And how was she going to leave Natanael behind if this man dragged her to his family estate in Northern Arunthia?
So tell him. Tell him. He might understand. Support you. Help you.
This man? No. No, she didn't trust him not to betray her confidence. Didn't trust anyone.
You made a deal, Luciana. Now you pay.
Ah, yes, a deal made in naive, youthful folly. In desperation such as she'd never known. A pact etched in her mind like an effigy on a tombstone. A shiver ghosted over her as she was haunted by the past.
'Please please, Father. I can't do it. I can't get rid of him.' She knew he was small, so small inside her, but she couldn't take him away, she couldn't give him up. She couldn't.
'Luciana, you are not married. You will bring disgrace on us all. You are the heiress to the throne and the father of the child you carry is an enemy of this nation. Do you forget his assassination attempt? On me? He is a traitor to the crown.'
'Yes, but I didn't know who he was. I—'
'If this man ever discovered your child's existence he could use him as a pawn to gain power over us. He could take Arunthia. And do you honestly want his Satan of an uncle getting his hands on your son? We have avoided war for sixty years—do you want your people to live in tyranny as those in Galancia do?'
'No, no. But no one need ever know. I could go away for a while. Please, I'm begging you. Pleading with you Let me keep him.'
The King's deep sigh filled the oppressive air stifling his office and she teetered on the precipice of throwing her pride to the gale and plunging to her knees.
Then he said, 'Five years, Luciana. Five years of freedom. That is all I will give you. But the world must never know he is yours because Thane must never, ever find him. You will never be able to claim him as your son and heir. Do you understand me?'
'Yes. Yes, I understand,' she said—wild, frenzied, frantic. Unthinking of the consequences of what she was agreeing to. So desperate she would have sold her soul in that moment.
'You will be hidden well in the Far East, and in five years you will return to take the throne and do your duty. You will marry, Luciana, am I clear?'
'Yes—yes, I swear it. I'll do whatever you want. Just let me have him.'
His steely eyes were clouded with disappointment and grief and sorrow. That gaze was telling her she would rue this day, this bargain.
Luciana ignored it. As long as her son got to take his first breath, got to walk upon the earth and live life to the full, without the constraints of duty like a noose around his neck, she would make a deal with the devil himself. And so she did.
Augustus's voice shattered her bleak reflection and she tuned back in to the chatter that fluttered around them in a hushed din.
All she had to do was remember that her happiness came second to Natanael's safety. And shewould keep him safe if it was the last thing she did.
'Luciana? Would you like coffee and dessert or ?'
Or ? Lord, not now. Not when she was falling apart at the seams. She wasn't ready to hear those words. Not yet. Not ever.
She felt powerless. Completely out of control. Like a puppet on a string.
The room began to spin.
'Yes, thank you, that would be wonderful,' she said, her voice thankfully calm and emotion-free as she plastered a cringe-worthy beatific smile on her face.
Coffee. Crème brulée. That would buy her another twenty minutes, surely.
Panic fisted her heart as the tick of the clock pounded in her ears. Tick-tock. Tick-tock.
The walls loomed, closing in around her, crushing her lungs.
Calm down, Luce. What are you going to do—hyperventilate and pass out? Make a total fool of yourself?
She needed air. She couldn't breathe.
'I'm sorry—please excuse me. I think I need ' To go out on the balcony? No, no, no, he'd follow her and drop to one knee, she knew. 'To visit the restroom. I'll only be a few minutes.'
After all that she realised he wasn't listening. Someone on the other side of the room had caught his eye, and Luciana frowned as his lightly tanned face stained a ghastly shade of grey.
'Augustus? Are you all right? Did you hear what I said?' Slowly he shook his head. 'I do not believe it. Luciana, you will never guess who is dining in this very room. I had no idea. Your father will be most displeased. I am so sorry '
He was sorry? Ah, wonderful. One of his women, no doubt. The buxom brunette from earlier, come to ruin his perfect proposal? She didn't want to know. It was her parents' marriage all over again. No doubt she'd be faced with his mistresses most mornings too.
Well, that's better than you warming his bed, isn't it?
Anything was better than that.
'Don't worry about it, Augustus. Your secret is safe with me.' Her father wouldn't care less who the man whored with. There was more likelihood of mutual backslapping. 'I'll be back soon.'
Ignoring her, on he went. 'Of all the places in all the world.'
Luciana bit into her bottom lip, stifling the impulse to run like a world class sprinter. Praying for this evening to be over. Praying someone would rescue her from this nightmare. Before the truth escaped on the scream that was building gradually, inexorably, and she single-handedly destroyed the very life she was trying to protect.
'Of all the places in all the world What an unpleasant surprise.'
His cousin, Seve, who was seated to his right at the oval dining table, leaned his upper body sideways in an effort to be discreet.
'I can see the sweat beading on his upper lip from here. It's your old pal from that exclusive rich joint you were sent to in Zurich. Viscount Augustus.'