Rafael's Contract Brideñêà÷àòü êíèãó áåñïëàòíî
“I want you to marry me.”
Marry him? The idea was so ludicrous, so incongruous, so impossible that Cora could only stare at Rafael, her brain unable to coordinate with her vocal chords or inform her feet to get her the heck out of there. Forget the Spanish Mafia, Rafael Martinez was obviously nuts. Loop-the-loop. A few bricks, a bucket of cement and a shedload of mortar short of a wall.
Then anger rushed in on a tide of outrage. “Is this your idea of a joke?” Some kind of mad reality TV show where billionaires humiliate the aristocracy?
“Of course it isn’t a joke.” There was that near amusement in the rich treacle of his voice.
Curiosity broke through and surfaced the haze of anger. “Why? Why would you even suggest something so insane?”
“Because I think marrying you will change Don Carlos’s mind.”
“I told you that I am not for sale. Nor is my title. End of.” Finally her body caught up with events and she pushed her chair back and rose to her feet. Tried to ignore the stew of hurt that bubbled under the broth of rage. There was no need for hurt. Why should she care that Rafael Martinez was only after her title? She’d already known that—but somehow the idea he would marry her for it made her feel … icky.
“Wait.” The word was a command. “Please.”
Rafael’s Contract Bride
NINA MILNE has always dreamed of writing for Mills & Boon—ever since as a child she played library with her mother’s stacks of Mills & Boon romances. On her way to this dream, Nina acquired an English degree, a hero of her own, three gorgeous children and (somehow) an accountancy qualification. She lives in Brighton and has filled her house with stacks of books—her very own real library.
To all the wonderful Dog Rescue charities and organisations who work so hard to find loving homes for dogs (like those included in this book!)
About the Author
CORA BROOKES LEANT down to ruffle the Border Collie’s head, and flopped down on the park bench.
She adored Flash, just as she adored all the dogs she walked, but piled onto her day job, and on top of the extra accounts work, it meant exhaustion stretched her every muscle—physical and mental.
Still, she should look on the bright side—she had landed an excellent day job—an administrative position at Caversham Castle Hotel, part of Caversham Worldwide Holidays, and Ethan and Ruby Caversham were generous employers. So with her salary and all the extras one day she would be able to pay off the enormous debt that burdened her soul.
Determination banded her chest—she knew that repaying her parents wouldn’t buy their love, or even their affection, but it would make Cora feel a whole lot better about how badly she had let her family down.
Don’t go there, Cora.
Flash’s sharp bark was a welcome relief from her thoughts and she squinted through the light spring mizzle at the tall, lean figure headed purposefully towards her.
Relief made a rapid exit as her forehead scrunched into disbelief. That couldn’t possibly be Rafael Martinez. What would a billionaire Spanish-vineyard-owning playboy be doing in a park in the depths of Cornwall on a drizzly Saturday evening?
For a stupid second her heart skipped the smallest of beats. Hardly surprising—Rafael Martinez no doubt had that effect on the entire female population. Though in her case it wasn’t attraction that caused the skitter effect—it was nerves. Logic told her that he wouldn’t remember her—he’d shown no glimmer of recognition in the handful of times he’d seen her at the Cavershams’. Hadn’t once indicated that he recognised Cora Brookes, Administrative Manager, as being Lady Cora Derwent, daughter of one of aristocracy’s premier families.
And why should he? Cora had never been in the public eye. She had left that to her charismatic siblings, with their good looks and charm. She had kept her carroty-red hair, non-descript features and gaucheness out of the spotlight. Her only claim to distinction was the turquoise-blue of her eyes, and that hardly made her memorable. Plus, she and Rafael hadn’t even been introduced at that one party years ago.
And yet she hunched down on the bench, busied herself with Flash, and prayed he would walk on by.
No such luck. Out of the corner of her eye she espied a pair of denim-clad muscular legs.
The deep voice that always seemed laced with a tinge of amusement sent a shiver over her skin. Bracing herself, she straightened and looked up. Midnight-black hair. An aquiline face with eyes dark with a depth you could drown in. The jut of his nose spoke of determination and his jaw said the same thing. His lips charmed and allured, but his aura was one of danger.
This was a man who knew what he wanted and would take it. Not by force, but that only made him all the more dangerous—because what came with beauty was charm and arrogance. Her family demonstrated that in spades—and in clubs, diamond and hearts—the belief that they could succeed at anything because it was their God-given right.
‘Evelyn told me I would find you here.’
Mentally Cora cursed Ethan’s PA, but she could hardly blame her. Rafael Martinez was Ethan Caversham’s business partner and friend, after all, plus Cora had little doubt that Rafael had charmed the information out of her. The question was why? Even if there was some admin work to be done on the Caversham-Martinez Venture surely it could wait until office hours.
‘Is there a problem?’ she asked. ‘I assume you know Ethan isn’t here?’
‘I do. I understand he has whisked Ruby off to Paris.’
His deep tone was neutral, but the lines of baffled disdain on his face stoked her irritation further.
‘It’s very romantic.’
A shrug denoted indifference and caused her eyes to glance off the breadth of his shoulders.
‘I’ll bow to your greater knowledge. I thought it a bit of a clich? myself. But I’d be the first to admit romance isn’t my forte.’
No, but dalliance is. Cora bit back the words, though she couldn’t eradicate her frown—there was nothing clich?d about Ethan and Ruby’s palpable joy in each other.
‘Paris is the romantic capital of the world and I’m sure they’re having a fantastic time.’
Heaven knew why she had turned into a romance cheerleader—her experience on that particular playing field was nil.
‘Anyway, romance is not what I came here to discuss.’
Of course it wasn’t. The idea of a romance between them was laughable.
‘So what did you come here to discuss?’
Irritation fluttered inside her; she was not on the Caversham clock right now. Annoyance escalated as she caught herself in the act of smoothing her hands down her jeans, aware of a desire to smooth down her frizzed-by-drizzle hair.
‘How can I help? I assume it must be urgent to bring you here in person?’
Wariness made her neck prickle. This didn’t make any sort of sense.
His lips twisted in a sudden wry moue as he lowered himself to the bench next to her. ‘You could say that.’
To Cora’s surprise Flash sat up and put his chin on Rafael’s knee.
‘It’s fine.’ Rafael patted the black and white dog; his strong fingers kneaded the exact spot the dog liked best. ‘Is he yours?’
The thought of her own beloved dogs rekindled the tug of missing them. But she’d had no choice but to leave Poppy and Prue behind on the Derwent estate—it wouldn’t have been fair to bring them with her.
‘I’m a dog-walker in my spare time. Flash is a rescue dog and he needs a lot of attention. His owner is working long hours on a freelance assignment so I’m walking him. He doesn’t usually like strangers.’ Her tone was snippy but she couldn’t help herself.
‘Dogs like me.’
Of course they did. In a moment of silence, as Rafael focused his attention on the dog, Cora realised that she appeared to be mesmerised by the movements of his fingers. The small growls of pleasure Flash emitted pulled her attention away and she shifted apart from Rafael, suddenly all too aware of him—the strength of his body, the way he filled the space with an aura of...of...something she had no wish to analyse too closely.
‘So, as I said, how can I help?’
‘Ethan mentioned he is about to send you on secondment to another Caversham enterprise.’
Cora nodded. ‘He and Ruby want to focus on Caversham Castle, so he thought I would be better deployed elsewhere.’
‘How about the Caversham-Martinez venture? Working directly for me?’
‘You?’ Her jaw dropped kneewards.
‘You sound surprised.’
‘I am. Or rather I’m confused.’ She was an excellent administrator—it might not be the job of her heart and dreams, but she was darn good at it—but... ‘Why not just email me and set up an interview? Turning up in person seems extreme.’
‘I think it’s eminently sensible. I like the element of surprise and this way what I see is what I get.’
His dark eyes rested on her face and Cora resisted the urge to squirm in her seat. The prolonged scrutiny made her uncomfortable—too aware that compared to his usual eye candy she wasn’t anywhere near to measuring up. Especially kitted out in mud-spattered jeans, hiking boots and an oversized hoodie, with her red hair scraped back into a frizzy ponytail. But she forced herself to maintain eye contact, to keep her back straight and her gaze cooler than iced water.
‘Or don’t get,’ she pointed out.
‘So you wouldn’t be interested in working for me?’
Cora tried to think, swallowed the instinctive no that had leapt to her vocal cords. Surely by now she had learned not to blurt out the first thing that came into her mind? How many times had her mother sighed and wrinkled her face in lines of distaste at her younger daughter’s lack of social grace?
The constant refrain of her childhood had been, ‘Why can’t you be more like your sister?’ Why, indeed? Cora had always wondered. What cruel fate had decreed that her twin should be so beautiful, vibrant and perfect and that she, Cora, should be so different? So average, so invisible—Kaitlin’s pale shadow.
As if in reminder, she tugged at a strand of her hair and looked at it. Carroty-red whereas Kaitlin’s hair was a beautiful red-gold that caught the light with magical hues. If Kaitlin were here she’d lean forward, enthral Rafael Martinez with her smile, her throaty voice and a hint of cleavage. She’d lead him on to tell her more, and then decline in a way that somehow robbed her refusal of all sting.
Well, Kaitlin wasn’t here, and Cora didn’t want to work for Rafael. Every instinct told her that Rafael Martinez was every bit as lethal as her very own family. Well, she couldn’t choose her family—but she could choose who to work for.
‘I appreciate the offer, but I don’t think that is the right move for me.’
‘Why not? I haven’t even told you about the role I have in mind for you.’
‘It doesn’t matter. Really, I don’t want to waste your valuable time.’
Please don’t let her have put a sarcastic inflexion on ‘valuable’.
‘It’s my valuable time to waste.’
His eyebrows rose, though his black eyes held more amusement than chagrin. And then he smiled—a smile that had no doubt brought more women than she could count to their knees. Heaven help her, she could see why—but she knew the exact value of such smiles. What she did wonder was why Rafael Martinez was wasting one on her.
A flicker of curiosity ignited—one that she suppressed. No doubt Rafael expected her to roll over and beg to work for him. Tough.
‘I appreciate that, but it would also be a waste of my valuable time.’ A smile of saccharine-sweetness sugared her tone as she rose to her feet. ‘I’m sorry, but I’m not interested.’
The man simply sat there, made no move to stand. ‘Trust me, Cora. What I have in mind you will want to hear.’
The easy assurance in his voice flicked her on the raw.
‘Hear me out. I accept that your time is valuable—I’ll pay you well for it.’
Cora stared at him—heard the steel under the silk of his voice, saw the sculpted line of his jaw harden. Curiosity surged, despite all resolution, instinct and common sense. This was important to Rafael Martinez, but for the life of her she didn’t know why. Administrative staff were ten a penny. Yet Rafael Martinez was willing to pay for her time...
Her brain emitted a reminder flare of her need for cash. ‘No strings. I hear you out and then if I don’t want the job I say no.’
That worked for her—in truth there would be satisfaction in saying no. In pulling down his arrogance a notch or two.
‘Fine. Five hundred for an hour of my time.’ It was outrageous, but Cora didn’t care—she would almost be relieved if he got up and walked away. Almost.
‘I’ll give you five thousand for a day.’
‘A day?’ Once again drop-jaw-itis had arrived.
‘Yup. I’ll pick you up from Cavershams at nine tomorrow morning.’ In one lithe movement he rose to his feet—clearly her consent was a token he didn’t need. ‘See you then.’
Part of her itched to tell him to forget it, but common sense yelled at her that five thousand pounds was a windfall she couldn’t afford to refuse. Suspicion whispered that he had orchestrated this entire encounter. And then there was a part of her that she didn’t want to acknowledge—the one that fizzed with a stupid sense of anticipation.
He turned. ‘And don’t forget your passport.’
* * *
Rafael Martinez parked on the gravelled drive of the renovated Caversham Castle Hotel and for a scant second wondered if he had run mad—whether this whole enterprise qualified him for bedlam.
No. Resolve tightened his gut and clenched his hands around the steering wheel. This was the best way forward—the only way to persuade Don Carlos de Guzman, Duque de Aiza, to sell his vineyard.
Correction. The only way to persuade Don Carlos to sell his vineyard to Rafael Martinez. Because Don Carlos despised Rafael without even knowing his true identity.
Anger burned as the voice of Don Carlos echoed in his brain and raked his soul. ‘Men like you, Rafael, are not the kind of men I like to deal with.’
Well, they’d soon see about that. Soon, Grandpapa. Soon. The taste of anticipated revenge was one to savour, but actual revenge would be better yet. Full-bodied and fiery and with a hint of spice—like the Rioja the Martinez vineyards produced.
But first things first—right now he had to persuade Cora to join his scheme. It was more than clear that Cora disliked him—and the only reason he could think of was the fact she too disapproved of his background. To Lady Cora Derwent, as to Don Carlos, he must appear the epitome of jumped-up new money and bad blood.
That new money might be despised but it would be the key—he was sure of that. The previous evening Cora had obviously wanted to tell him to take a hike, but the idea of filthy lucre had prevented her.
A glance out of the car window demonstrated that Cora herself was headed towards the car through the light smattering of rain. She was dressed in a dark blue trouser suit expressly designed, it seemed to him, to minimise her assets, and sensible blue pumps. She looked...muted.
He swung the door of the sleek silver two-seater up and climbed out of the car; stroked the roof of his pride and joy—the glorious creation that was proof he’d left his childhood in the dust.
Not that Cora looked impressed—in fact her lips had thinned into a line of disapproval that Don Carlos himself would have applauded.
Up close, Rafael could see that her ensemble didn’t just mute her: it almost rendered her invisible. Her red hair was pulled back in a severe bun, her posture was slightly slouched, her face ducked down. Perhaps it was a bid not to be recognised. Though why Lady Cora Derwent was masquerading as Cora Brookes was a mystery he fully intended to solve.
True, she had always kept out of the limelight, whilst the rest of her family played social media and celebrity rags for all they were worth. Nothing sold a paper like aristocracy, after all, and the Derwents were as aristocratic as they came—a family that traced its bloodline back to Tudor times.
The thought of bloodlines served as a reminder of his own and he felt the familiar pulse of anger. An anger he crystallised into purpose.
‘You ready to go?’
Rafael walked round and swung the passenger door up, waited whilst Cora slid inside the low-slung car, censure radiating from every pore. Perhaps she felt the car to be a vulgar show of wealth.
Yet he caught her slight exhalation of appreciation as she nestled back on the sumptuous carbon fibre seat.
As he revved the engine he shifted to face her. ‘Cora, say hello to Lucille.’ Another push of the accelerator elicited a throaty purr. ‘See—I think she likes you.’
A very small smile tilted her mouth, and for a second his gaze snagged on her lips. Unadorned with lipstick, they were full and generous, and when she smiled he wondered why she didn’t do so more often.
‘You can’t fool me. Or Lucille. You are impressed.’
A decisive shake of her head emphatically denied the statement. ‘Nope. Not impressed.’ Then, as if relenting, she reached out to stroke the dashboard. ‘But you can tell Lucille that I prefer a British sports car to an Italian or German one any day. I like it that a UK designer came up with the idea, and I love it that it can compete with those European giants and come out the winner. Apparently Lucille is based on the “Blackbird” spy plane, and—’
She broke off and Rafael blinked. Genuine enthusiasm had illuminated her face and totally eradicated the dowdy image.
‘You’re a car buff!’
‘No. My brother is, so I know a bit about it.’
Her brother. Gabriel Derwent. Super-charismatic, super-intelligent, currently abroad and off the radar for a while, following a public break-up with Lady Isobel Petersen. There had been a harvest of rumours along the celebrity grapevine of a family rift, but these had been countered by the Derwent publicity machine with assurances that the Derwent heir was involved in an exciting, new project, details yet to be revealed.
Cora frowned—perhaps in regret at the mention of her brother, given the identity charade she wished to maintain. Then her lips snapped back into a thin line and she folded her arms across her chest.
‘That doesn’t mean I understand why anyone would spend such an exorbitant amount of money on a car. For the sake of a status symbol.’
‘I can’t answer for “anyone”, but I bought Lucille because of the immense pleasure it brings me to drive her.’
Cora shrugged. ‘I’ll stick to chocolate. Cheaper.’
‘But if you had the money...?’
Her expression clouded. ‘I’d buy more expensive chocolate. Anyway, what you do with your money is your business. I wish you and Lucille well. In the meantime, what’s the plan for the day?’
‘We’re on our way to Newquay airport. Then we fly to Spain.’
Shock etched her features. ‘You’re kidding, right?’
‘Nope. We’re going to one of the Martinez vineyards in La Rioja.’
So that I can propose to you.
Somehow he couldn’t see that answer flying. ‘So I can outline the job I have in mind.’
‘So let me get this straight. You are paying me five grand to spend a day at a Spanish vineyard with you so that you can outline a job offer. What’s the catch?’
‘Hold on.’ This conversation needed his full attention. ‘I’ll find a place to stop.’
Minutes later he’d pulled into a layby and shifted his body to face her.
‘There is no catch.’
Her blue eyes focused on his face as her shoulders lifted. ‘There is always a catch.’
‘Not this time. I told you—all I want is for you to hear me out, and if you’re not interested so be it.’
Cora shook her head. ‘You seem mighty sure that I will be.’
‘And you seem mighty sure that you won’t. It’s a risk I’m willing to take. It’s a day of my life—if you refuse, so be it.’
‘So no catch? Nothing nefarious? Everything above board?’
‘No, no and yes.’
Rafael allowed his most reassuring smile to come to the fore but to no avail. Instead of bringing reassurance, his legendary charm seemed to have made her even jumpier.
‘It just seems a little OTT.’
Not given the enormity of his plan.
‘That’s not your worry. Loosen up. Life is full of opportunities. Take this one.’
‘I’m not keen on opportunity.’
The hint of bitterness in her voice didn’t elude him, and a small stab of unexpected sympathy jabbed him even as he filed the information away.
‘You don’t have to take the opportunity,’ he pointed out. ‘You only need to consider it. What have you got to lose? Worst-case scenario: I tell you the job, you say no, and you’ve benefited from a trip to Spain and lunch with me.’
Despite the sarcastic inflexion he was sure there was a smidgeon of a smile in her voice.
‘Come on. Enjoy the day. When’s the last time you took a day off?’
A long time if the slightly peaky look of her skin and the smudges under her eyes were clues.
‘The temperature in La Rioja is twenty-two degrees. Plus it is an incredibly soothing place to be. Snow-capped mountains, leafy vineyards, vast blue skies, medieval villages...’ñêà÷àòü êíèãó áåñïëàòíî