The fifth book in the Marcelli Sisters of Pleasure Road series, 2007
This books exists because readers asked for Mia’s story. They asked a lot and they were extremely vocal about it. So here it is. For each of you who wanted to know what happened to the wild girl who planned to take over the world.
And to my editor, Megan McKeever, who made it so much better.
Mia Marcelli was used to sleeping alone so it came as something of a shock to wake up with a strange man in her bed. She did what any other self-actualized, self-defense-trained woman would do-she screamed and jumped to her feet.
“Big mistake,” she yelled as she backed toward the door. “You shouldn’t have broken in here. I have access to weapons, and grandmothers who don’t like this sort of thing. My brother’s a former Navy SEAL.”
The man sat up and smiled at her. “I see you still talk too much, Mia. When an unknown man appears in your bed, you should run.”
He knew her name. That startled her nearly as much as the fact that he was giving her advice. It didn’t seem like normal behavior for a guy intent on raping and pillaging. Assuming anyone really pillaged these days.
She paused by the door and pushed her bangs out of her face. There was something familiar about the man. The hair and eye color were all wrong, but the shape of his face reminded her of someone. And that mouth-she would remember it until she died.
“Diego?” she breathed, knowing this stranger couldn’t be him. Diego was dead. She’d seen the bullets hit his body, had watched him fall to the ground. There’d been so much blood.
“Am I that different?” the man asked as he stood and smiled at her. “Has so much changed?”
It was him, she thought, too stunned to do much more than gasp. “H-how is this possible? Why aren’t you dead? I saw you die. Dead people don’t have conversations.”
“It is a long story. Perhaps one I could tell you over breakfast.”
That voice. She would know it anywhere. It had haunted her dreams for the past five years.
Dead people also don’t eat. “Get back,” she said, feeling both shocked and angry. When in doubt, get pissed off. It was a philosophy she’d learned worked for her. “I don’t know what this game is, but I’m not playing it.”
“Mia, it is I. You must recognize me.”
Right now she didn’t have to do anything but keep from having a heart attack from the shock, and wish she kept a weapon in her room. Something big and scary.
The bedroom door flew open and her two grandmothers burst inside. Grandma Tessa had a fire poker in one hand, and Grammy M threatened Diego with a rolling pin.
“Call Joe,” Tessa ordered Mia. “He’ll take care of this scumbag.”
Scumbag? Someone had been watching just a little too many police dramas.
“I’m not sure he’s a scumbag,” Mia said, still finding it difficult to believe her own eyes. “I might know this guy.”
“You do know me,” he said, his voice washing over her like a familiar and welcome memory. “Mia, it is I.”
Diego? Was it possible? Conflicting emotions raced through her. She wanted to run into his arms and have him hold her forever. At the same time she wanted to grab the poker and beat him over the head with it.
“You’re supposed to be dead,” she said, still confused and angry, and maybe just a little scared. Because if this guy really was Diego, she was going to have a lot of explaining to do.
“So you keep saying,” he told her, sounding more amused than anything else. “Would you be more happy if I were?”
“It would make more sense. I don’t believe in ghosts…or vampires.”
He actually smiled. “Good, because I am neither. Mia,”-he took a step toward her-“trust your eyes and your heart. I am the man you knew as Diego.”
“We don’t trust people who pretend to be someone else,” Grandma Tessa said with surprising force despite her small stature and advanced years. “Who do you think you are now?”
“I know I am Rafael, Crown Prince of Calandria.”
Mia rolled her eyes. Great-a crazy man in her bedroom, and she hadn’t even had coffee yet. “Right, and I’m the Sleeping Beauty.”
This had gone on long enough. Mia took the poker from her grandmother and held it out in front of her. “That’s it. I don’t know who you are or what you want, but you’re in big trouble. Grammy M, call Joe.” She shook the poker at the intruder. “As for you, big guy, you stay right there or I’ll take you out. Don’t think I can’t. I’ve had professional training.”
The man who looked amazingly like Diego had the balls to smile at her again. “I’m not going anywhere, Mia. I came to see you. I’ve waited five years to be with you again. I can certainly wait until you’re willing to listen to reason.”
Reason? “Not my strong suit. I’m more into react now, say ‘Oops’ later. If you’re who you say you are, you should know that.”
“I know many things, including the fact that you once wore a silver ring bought in a market. It was a foolish trinket, yet oddly valuable to us both.”
Mia’s gaze involuntarily darted to the bottom drawer of her dresser. She remembered the ring and the man who bought it for her.
He took a step closer. “I know other things,” he said, his voice low and seductive. “I know how you like to be kissed and touched and where you like to-”
“Hey,” she said loudly, doing her best to both shut him up and break the spell he attempted to weave. “Grandmothers present. Let’s avoid too much information.”
Slowly she lowered the poker and looked at him. He was the right height and physical type. His voice was the same, as was his arrogance. His smile made her thighs go up in flames, which hadn’t happened even once in the past five years. She wanted to believe because once she’d loved him so much, she’d thought knowing he was dead was going to kill her, too.
But what about the other changes? The color of his eyes, the hair, the scar? Then she remembered her brief time in a world of deception and secrecy, where people could easily be made to look different. Contact lenses, a quick dye job, and little glue-voilá, a new man.
“I assume you have some ID on you,” she said, trying to hold on to her anger, because it was safe. Only she was feeling more confused than anything else. Shouldn’t she get coffee before an event like this? And maybe a cinnamon roll?
“Walk to the window,” he said.
She raised the poker again and shook it at him. “You walk to the window.”
He sighed. “I see you are still stubborn. Very well, Mia, we will walk together.”
She eyed him warily as he moved to the window and pulled open the drapes. Keeping him at arm’s-plus-poker length, she glanced down and saw a very shiny black car complete with what looked like flags flying from the front. Flags amazingly similar to the royal coat of arms of Calandria.
“So you have access to a limo, and an active imagination. That proves nothing.” Actually, it kind of proved something, but she wasn’t going to admit that.
He raised both hands. “As you wish. May I show you my passport?”
Her throat tightened and her mouth went dry. Man, she really wanted to brush her teeth and take a shower and get some coffee. Because after all those normal activities, none of this would be real anymore.
“Sure,” she muttered. “Whatever.”
But her heart began to beat faster. She didn’t know if she accepted the premise that he was Diego, back from the dead, but she was halfway to being convinced. Which made no sense and gave her a stomachache.
If Diego wasn’t dead, then where the hell had he been for the past five years and why hadn’t he found her and told her the truth? She’d mourned him and ached for him, and what, he’d been off being some prince?
Because that’s what scared her the most. That he really was Diego and Diego was in fact the prince of Calandria. The knowledge would rock her world and she didn’t know how she was going to recover. Because having the child of a bad boy turned art thief was one thing, but having the child of an heir to a throne was quite another.
He pulled his passport out of his suit jacket and handed it to her. She glanced at the cover, then nodded at Grandma Tessa. “Let her read it.”
Mia told herself she didn’t want to look at it because she needed to keep her attention on Diego…or possibly Prince Rafael of Calandria. But in truth, she didn’t want to see the words printed there.
Tessa opened the passport. Grammy M moved in close and stared over her shoulder.
“A very flattering picture,” Grammy M said, smiling at him.
He was all graciousness and confidence, and he didn’t seem the least bit intimidated by the poker in Mia’s hand, which made her want to bonk him with it.
Grandma Tessa stared at the print on the page, then looked at Mia. “It says he’s the prince. Crown Prince Rafael of Calandria. Prince is even listed as his occupation.”
Oh God. This couldn’t be good.
“Of course it could be a fake,” Tessa said cheerfully. “People do it all the time. A couple of hundred bucks and you have a new passport.”
Definitely too much TV, Mia thought.
“A prince,” Grammy M said, eyeing Rafael. “There’ll be a castle, then, with the title?”
He nodded. “Of course. We’re also very rich.”
Grammy M beamed at Mia. “So, maybe you’ll be inviting your friend the prince to breakfast?”
Mia wanted to scream. “He broke in to my bedroom. We don’t know who he really is. The last time I saw him, he was dead, and you want to invite him to breakfast?”
Grammy M slipped her arm through Diego’s…or Rafael’s…and walked him to the door. “So, how will you be taking your coffee?”
Mia watched them go, then dropped the poker to the floor. “Somebody shoot me now. I know matchmaking is a time-honored Marcelli tradition, but could we please first find out the man in question isn’t an ax murderer?”
Grandma Tessa handed her the passport. “You’re the one who’d know that. Is he who he says he is?”
Mia stared at the picture. So much the same and yet so much different, she thought. Was it possible Diego hadn’t died that night? That he was really the Crown Prince of Calandria?
“I don’t know,” she admitted. “I don’t know anything.”
Grandma Tessa moved to the door. “He was supposed to have been killed five years ago?”
“So he’s Danny’s father.”
She nodded again.
“Then this is going to be interesting.”
Twenty minutes later Mia walked into the kitchen. She’d showered and dressed in record time. She would have been down sooner, but she’d debated both putting on makeup and blow-drying her hair. On a normal summer morning she wouldn’t have bothered with either, but this was hardly normal. Besides, if Rafael was really who he said he was, a little mascara and lip gloss were probably a good thing.
She found the man who claimed to be Diego sitting at the kitchen table, being force-fed coffee and toast. Judging from the yummy smell coming from both ovens, fresh scones and cinnamon rolls were already on the way.
“Morning,” she said as she approached the table.
Rafael immediately stood and smiled. “Mia.”
He sounded so pleased to see her, as if he’d been waiting for this moment forever. But he couldn’t have been. They’d been apart for years, and he hadn’t once gotten in touch with her. She had a feeling she was only a simple Google away from being found, so why hadn’t he looked before? And why was he here now?
“Your prince is very charming,” Grandma Tessa said as she held out a cup of coffee. “Too charming, if you ask me.”
“No one did,” Grammy M said tartly. “You’re always looking for the bruise on the apple. Sometimes there isn’t one.”
Grandma Tessa sniffed. “How can you be as old as you are and still so foolish about the world?” She narrowed her gaze as she looked at Rafael. “Crown prince or not, what do we really know about him?”
At that moment, Rafael’s lineage was the least of Mia’s problems.
“This has been fun,” she said, and grabbed Rafael’s coffee cup along with one for herself. “Let’s go for a walk.”
“Stay close to the house,” Grandma Tessa told her. “I’ve called Joe. He’ll be keeping an eye on you.”
“Joe?” Rafael asked as they left the kitchen and stepped into the sunny late June morning. There was still dew on the flowers, and the scent of grapes from the acres of vineyards filled the air.
“The ex-Navy SEAL brother I mentioned before.”
“He lives nearby?”
She handed him his coffee and nodded toward a large house on a hill, less than a quarter mile away. “He lives there.”
“A very close family,” Rafael said.
“You have no idea.” She clutched her coffee in both hands and turned to the man walking next to her. “Who are you and why are you here?”
“I told you. I am the man you knew as Diego.”
“As simple as that?” She tried to laugh, but the effort fell flat. Her mind wouldn’t accept what was happening. She didn’t know what to think, what to feel. Her anger had faded, leaving behind confusion and a sense of loss. As if seeing Diego after so long made her miss him all over again. “Nothing makes sense. You’re supposed to be dead.”
“You have mentioned that before. Are you disappointed to find otherwise?”
“I haven’t decided.” A lie. There were a thousand emotions swirling through her right now, but disappointment wasn’t one of them. “I saw you die.”
“You saw me shot and fall to the ground. There is a difference.”
Not to her. That night was forever etched in her brain. The roar of the helicopter, the way the wind whipped up by the blades slapped her. She’d been crying, screaming, afraid. And then the gunshots. Diego had staggered back before falling. The world had slowed to just that moment, as he hit the ground and the blood poured out of him.
She’d yelled for the pilot to take her back. She’d tried to jump out of the helicopter, but someone had held her in place. She’d strained and clawed but hadn’t been able to break free. They’d flown over Calandria. She remembered staring down at the bright lights, blurry through her tears, knowing that the hole his death had left in her heart would never heal.
“Mia?” He touched her arm.
His voice jerked her back to the present. She pressed her hand on his shoulder and shoved him back. “Dammit, Diego, you lied about dying? You lied and let me suffer all this time and never once thought maybe you should drop me a note saying ‘Hey, not as dead as you’d think’? I mourned you. I didn’t think I was ever going to recover.”
She wanted to hurt him the way she’d been hurt. She could handle anything but betrayal and being played for a fool. She wanted to demand to know why he hadn’t come after her, but she couldn’t seem to ask that. Maybe because his sudden return from the dead illustrated the possibility that he hadn’t loved her as much as she’d loved him.