Caitlin's 50th book for Harlequin!
Untamed Billionaire’s Innocent Bride
A Combe Family Scandals Story
A long-lost billionaire…
A virgin to tame him!
Dedicated personal assistant Lauren Clarke always does as she’s asked. Her latest task? To prevent a media scandal, she needs to find reclusive Dominik James—her boss’s estranged brother—and convince him to marry her! But in Hungary’s darkest forests she discovers more than just an untamed billionaire… Dominik’s brooding masculinity awakens Lauren’s long-dormant desire. Once they’ve exchanged their convenient “I do’s,” will innocent Lauren accept that their hunger can’t be denied?
Read on…as the billionaire and his convenient bride tie the knot!
Untamed Billionaire’s Innocent Bride
Lauren Isadora Clarke was a Londoner, born and bred.
She did not care for the bucolic British countryside, all that monotonous green with hedges this way and that, making it impossible to get anywhere. She preferred the city, with all its transportation options endlessly available—and if all else failed, the ability to walk briskly from one point to the next. Lauren prized punctuality. And she could do without stiff, uncomfortable footwear with soles outfitted to look like tire tread.
She was not a hiker or a rambler or whatever those alarmingly red-cheeked, jolly hockey-sticks sorts called themselves as they brayed about in fleece and clunky, sensible shoes. She found nothing at all entertaining in huffing up inclines only to slide right back down them, usually covered in the mud that accompanied all the rain that made England’s greenest hills that color in the first place. Miles and miles of tramping about for the dubious pleasure of “taking in air” did not appeal to her and never had.
Lauren liked concrete, bricks, the glorious Tube and abundant takeaways on every corner, thank you. The very notion of the deep, dark woods made her break out in hives.
Yet, here she was, marching along what the local innkeeper had optimistically called a road—it was little better than a footpath, if that—in the middle of the resolutely thick forests of Hungary.
Hive-free thus far, should she wish to count her blessings.
But Lauren was rather more focused on her grievances today.
First and foremost, her shoes were not now and never had been sensible. Lauren did not believe in the cult of sensible shoes. Her life was eminently sensible. She kept her finances in order, paid her bills on time, if not early, and dedicated herself to performing her duties as personal assistant to the very wealthy and powerful president and CEO of Combe Industries at a level of consistent excellence she liked to think made her indispensable.
Her shoes were impractical, fanciful creations that reminded her that she was a woman—which came in handy on the days her boss treated her as rather more of an uppity appliance. One that he liked to have function all on its own, apparently, and without any oversight or aid.
“My mother gave away a child before she married my father,” Matteo Combe, her boss, had told her one fine day several weeks back in his usual grave tone.
Lauren, like everyone else who had been in the vicinity of a tabloid in a checkout line over the past forty years, knew all about her boss’s parents. And she knew more than most, having spent the bulk of her career working for Matteo. Beautiful, beloved Alexandrina San Giacomo, aristocratic and indulged, had defied reason and her snooty Venetian heritage when she’d married rich but decidedly unpolished Eddie Combe, whose ancestors had carved their way out of the mills of Northern England—often with their fists. Their love story had caused scandals, their turbulent marriage had been the subject of endless speculation and their deaths within weeks of each other had caused even more commotion.
But there had never been the faintest whisper of an illegitimate son.
Lauren had not needed to be told that once this came out—and it would, because things like this always came out eventually—it wouldn’t be whispers they’d have to be worried about. It would be the all-out baying of the tabloid wolves.
“I want you to find him,” Matteo had told her, as if he was asking her to fetch him a coffee. “I cannot begin to imagine what his situation is, but I need him media-ready and, if at all possible, compliant.”
“Your long-lost brother. Whom you have never met. Who may, for all you know, loathe you and your mother and all other things San Giacomo on principle alone. This is who you think might decide to comply with your wishes.”
“I have faith in you,” Matteo had replied.
And Lauren had excused that insanity almost in that same instant, because the man had so much on his plate. His parents had died, one after the next. His fluffy-headed younger sister had gone and gotten herself pregnant, a state of affairs that had caused Matteo to take a swing at the father of her baby. A perfectly reasonable reaction, to Lauren’s mind—but unfortunately, Matteo had taken said swing at his father’s funeral.
The punch he’d landed on Prince Ares of Atilia had been endlessly photographed and videoed by the assorted paparazzi and not a few of the guests, and the company’s board of directors had taken it as an opportunity to move against him. Matteo had been forced to subject himself to an anger management specialist who was no ally, and it was entirely possible the board would succeed in removing him should the specialist’s report be unflattering.
Of course, Lauren excused him.
“Do you ever not excuse him?” her flatmate Mary had asked idly without looking up from her mobile while Lauren had dashed about on her way out the morning she’d left London.
“He’s an important and very busy man, Mary.”
“As you are always on hand to remind us.”
The only reason Lauren hadn’t leaped into that fray, she told herself now as she stormed along the dirt path toward God knew where, was because good flatmates were hard to find, and Mary’s obsession with keeping in touch with her thirty thousand best friends in all corners of the globe on all forms of social media at all times meant she spent most of her time locked in her room obsessing over photo filters and silly voices. Which left the flat to Lauren on the odd occasions she was actually there to enjoy it.
Besides, a small voice inside her that she would have listed as a grievance if she allowed herself to acknowledge it, she wasn’t wrong, was she?
But Lauren was here to carry out Matteo’s wishes, not question her allegiance to him.
Today her pair of typically frothy heels—with studs and spikes and a dash of whimsy because she didn’t own a pair of sensible shoes appropriate for mud and woods and never would—were making this unplanned trek through the Hungarian woods even more unpleasant than she’d imagined it would be, and Lauren’s imagination was quite vivid. She glared down at her feet, pulled her red wrap tighter around her, thought a few unkind thoughts about her boss she would never utter out loud and kept to the path.
The correct Dominik James had not been easy to find.
There had been almost no information to go on aside from what few details Matteo’s mother had provided in her will. Lauren had started with the solicitor who had put Alexandrina’s last will and testament together, a canny old man better used to handling the affairs of aristocrats than entertaining the questions of staff. He had peered at her over glasses she wasn’t entirely convinced he needed, straight down his nose as he’d assured her that had there been any more pertinent information, he would have included it.
Lauren somehow doubted it.
While Matteo was off tending to his anger management sessions with the future of Combe Industries hanging in the balance, Lauren had launched herself into a research frenzy. The facts were distressingly simple. Alexandrina, heiress to the great San Giacomo fortune, known throughout the world as yet another poor little rich girl, had become pregnant when she was barely fifteen, thanks to a decidedly unsuitable older boy she shouldn’t have met in the first place. The family had discovered her pregnancy when she’d been unable to keep hiding it and had transferred her from the convent school she had been attending to one significantly more draconian.
The baby had been born in the summer when Alexandrina was sixteen, spirited away by the church, and Alexandrina had returned to her society life come fall as if nothing had happened. As far as Lauren could tell, she had never mentioned her first son again until she’d made provisions for him in her will.
To my firstborn son, Dominik James, taken from me when I was little more than a child myself, I leave one third of my fortune and worldly goods.
The name itself was a clue. James, it turned out, was an Anglicized version of Giacomo. Lauren tracked all the Dominik Jameses of a certain age she could find, eventually settling on two possibilities. The first she’d dismissed after she found his notably non-San Giacomo DNA profile on one of those ancestry websites. Which left only the other.
The remaining Dominik James had been raised in a series of Catholic orphanages in Italy before running off to Spain. There he’d spent his adolescence, moving from village to village in a manner Lauren could only describe as itinerant. He had joined the Italian Army in his twenties, then disappeared after his discharge. He’d emerged recently to do a stint at university, but had thereafter receded from public view once more.
It had taken some doing, but Lauren had laboriously tracked him down into this gnarled, remote stretch of Hungarian forest—which Matteo had informed her, after all her work, was the single notation made in the paper version of Alexandrina’s will found among Matteo’s father’s possessions.
“That was what my father wrote on his copy of my mother’s will,” Matteo had said cheerfully. Cheerfully, as if it didn’t occur to him that knowing the correct Dominik James was in Hungary might have been information Lauren could have used earlier.
She didn’t say that, of course. She’d thanked him.
Matteo’s father might have made notes on Alexandrina’s will, but he’d clearly had no intention of finding the illegitimate child his wife had given away long before he’d met her. Which meant it was left to Lauren to not only make this trek to locate Dominik James in the first place, but also potentially to break the news of his parentage to him. Here.
In these woods that loomed all about her, foreign and imposing, and more properly belonged in a fairy tale.
Good thing Lauren didn’t believe in fairy tales.
She adjusted her red wrap again, pulling it tighter around her to ward off the chill.
It was spring, though there was no way of telling down here on the forest floor. The trees were thick and tall and blocked out the daylight. The shadows were intense, creeping this way and that and making her feel…restless.
Or possibly it wasn’t shadows cast by tree branches that were making her feel one way or another, she told herself tartly as she willed her ankles not to roll or her sharp heels to snap off. Perhaps it was the fact that she was here in the first place. Or the fact that when she’d told the innkeeper in this remote mountain town that she was looking for Dominik James, he’d laughed.
“Good luck with that,” he had told her, which she had found remarkably unhelpful. “Some men do not want to be found, miss, and nothing good comes of ignoring their issues.”
Out here in these woods, where there were nothing but trees all around and the uneasy sensation that she was both entirely alone and not alone at all, that unhelpful statement felt significantly more ominous.
On and on she walked. She had left the village behind a solid thirty minutes ago, and that was the last she’d seen of anything resembling civilization. She tried to tell herself it was lucky this path didn’t go directly up the side of the brooding mountains, but it was hard to think in terms of luck when there was nothing around but dirt. Thick trees. Birds causing commotions in the branches over her head. And the kind of crackling sounds that assured her that just because she couldn’t see any wildlife, it didn’t mean it wasn’t there.
Lauren shuddered. Then told herself she was being ridiculous as she rounded another curve in her path, and that was when she saw it.
At first, she wasn’t sure if this was the wooded, leafy version of a desert mirage—not that she’d experienced such a thing, as there were no deserts in London. But the closer she got, the more she could see that her eyes were not deceiving her, after all. There was a rustic sort of structure peeking through the trees, tucked away in a clearing.
Lauren drew closer, slowing her steps as the path led her directly toward the edge of the clearing. All she’d wanted this whole walk was a break from the encroaching forest, but now that there was a clearing, she found it made her nervous.
But Lauren didn’t believe in nerves, so she ignored the sensation and frowned at the structure before her. It was a cottage. Hewn from wood, logs interlocking and tidy. There was smoke curling up from its chimney, and there was absolutely no reason that a dedicated city dweller like Lauren should feel something clutch inside her at the sight. As if she’d spent her entire life wandering around without knowing it, half-lost in forests of wood and concrete alike, looking for a cozy little home exactly like this one.
That was ridiculous, of course. Lauren rubbed at her chest without entirely meaning to, as if she could do something about the ache there. She didn’t believe in fairy tales, but she’d read them. And if any good had ever come from seemingly perfect cottages slapped down in the middle of dangerous forests, well. She couldn’t remember that story. Usually, an enchanted cottage led straight to witches and curses and wolves baring their teeth—
But that was when she noticed that the porch in front of the cottage wasn’t empty as she’d thought at first glance. That one of the shadows there was a man.
And he was staring straight at her.
Her heart did something acrobatic and astonishing inside her chest, and she had the strangest notion that if she surrendered to it, it could topple her straight to the ground. Right there on that edge where the forest fought to take back the clearing.
But Lauren had no intention of crumpling.
No matter who was lurking about, staring at her.
“Mr. Dominik James?” she asked briskly, making her voice as crisp and clear as possible and projecting it across the clearing as if she wasn’t the slightest bit unnerved, because she shouldn’t have been.
Though she was standing stock-still, she couldn’t help but notice. As if her legs were not necessarily as convinced as she was that she could continue to remain upright. Especially while her heart kept up its racket and ache.
The man moved, stepping out from the shadow of the porch into the sunlight that filled the clearing but somehow did nothing to push back the inky darkness of the forest.
It only made her heart carry on even worse.
He was tall. Much too tall, with the kind of broad shoulders that made her palms itch to…do things she refused to let herself imagine. His hair was dark and thick, worn carelessly and much too long for her tastes, but it seemed to make his strong, bold jaw more prominent somehow. His mouth was flat and unsmiling, yet was lush enough to make her stomach flip around inside her. He was dressed simply, in a long-sleeved shirt that clung to the hard planes of his chest, dark trousers that made her far too aware of his powerful thighs, and boots that looked as if they’d been chosen for their utility rather than their aesthetics.
But it was his eyes that made everything inside Lauren ring with alarm. Or maybe it was awareness.
Because they were gray. Gray like storms, just like Matteo’s.
San Giacomo gray, Lauren thought, just like Alexandrina’s had been. Famously.
She didn’t need him to identify himself. She had no doubt whatsoever that she was looking at the lost San Giacomo heir. And she couldn’t have said why all the tiny hairs on the back of her neck stood up straight as if in foreboding.
She willed herself to forge on.
“My name is Lauren Clarke,” she informed him, trying to remember that she was meant to be efficient. Not…whatever she was right now, with all these strange sensations swishing around inside her. “I work for Matteo Combe, president and CEO of Combe Industries. If you are somehow unfamiliar with Mr. Combe, he is, among other things, the eldest son of the late Alexandrina San Giacomo Combe. I have reason to believe that Alexandrina was also your mother.”
She had practiced that. She had turned the words over and over in her head, then gone so far as to practice them in the mirror this morning in her little room at the inn. Because there was no point hemming and hawing and beating around the bush. Best to rip the plaster off and dive straight in, so they could get to the point as quickly as possible.
She’d expected any number of responses to her little speech. Maybe he would deny the claim. Maybe he would launch into bluster, or order her away. She’d worked out contingency plans for all possible scenarios—
But the man in front of her didn’t say a word.
He roamed toward her, forcing her to notice the way he moved. It was more liquid than it ought to have been. A kind of lethal grace, given how big he was, and she found herself holding her breath.
The closer he came, the more she could see the expression on his face, in his eyes, that struck her as a kind of sardonic amusement.
She hadn’t made any contingency plan for that.
“When Mrs. Combe passed recently, she made provisions for you in her will,” Lauren forced herself to continue. “My employer intends to honor his mother’s wishes, Mr. James. He has sent me here to start that process.”
The man still didn’t speak. He slowed when he was face-to-face with Lauren, but all he did was study her. His gaze moved all over her in a way that struck her as almost unbearably intimate, and she could feel the flush that overtook her in reaction.
As if he had his hands all over her body. As if he was testing the smoothness of the hair she’d swept back into a low ponytail. Or the thickness of the bright red wool wrap she wore to ward off the chill of flights and Hungarian forests alike. Down her legs to her pretty, impractical shoes, then back up again.
“Mr. Combe is a man of wealth and consequence.” Lauren found it was difficult to maintain her preferred crisp, authoritative tone when this man was so… Close. And when he was looking at her as if she were a meal, not a messenger. “I mention this not to suggest that he doesn’t wish to honor his commitments to you, because he does. But his stature requires that we proceed with a certain sensitivity. You understand.”
She was aware of too many things, all at once. The man—Dominik, she snapped at herself, because it had to be him—had recently showered. She could see the suggestion of dampness in his hair as it went this way and that, indicating it had a mind of its own. Worse still, she could smell him. The combination of soap and warm, clean, decidedly healthy male.
It made her feel the slightest bit dizzy, and she was sure that was why her heart was careening about inside her chest like a manic drum.
All around them, the forest waited. Not precisely silent, but there was no comforting noise of city life—conversations and traffic and the inevitable sounds of so many humans going about their lives, pretending they were alone—to distract her from this man’s curious, penetrating, unequivocally gray glare.
If she believed in nerves, she’d have said hers were going haywire.
“I beg your pardon,” Lauren said when it was that or leap away from him and run for it, so unsettled and unsteady did she feel. “Do you speak English? I didn’t think to ask.”
His stern mouth curled the faintest bit in one corner. As Lauren watched, stricken and frozen for reasons she couldn’t begin to explain to herself, he reached across the scant few inches between them.
She thought he was going to put his hand on her—touch her face, or smooth it over her hair, or run one of those bluntly elegant fingers along the length of her neck the way she’d seen in a fanciful, romantic movie she refused to admit she’d watched—but he didn’t. And she felt the sharpest sense of disappointment in that same instant he found one edge of her wrap, and held it between his fingers.
As if he was testing the wool.
“What are you doing?” Lauren asked, and any hope she’d had of maintaining her businesslike demeanor fled. Her knees were traitorously weak. And her voice didn’t sound like her at all. It was much too breathy. Embarrassingly insubstantial.
He was closer than he ought to have been, because she was sure there was no possible way she had moved. And there was something about the way he angled his head that made everything inside her shift.
Then go dangerously still.
“A beautiful blonde girl walks into the woods, dressed in little more than a bright, red cloak.” His voice was an insinuation. A spell. It made her think of fairy tales again, giving no quarter to her disbelief. It was too smoky, too deep and much too rich, and faintly accented in ways that kicked up terrible wildfires in her blood. And everywhere else. “What did you think would happen?”
Then he dropped his shockingly masculine head to hers, and kissed her.