The C.O.O. Must Marry (The Valente Series #2)(2) by Maxine Sullivan

“Yes, I am.” She seemed to pull herself together, and an excited light entered her eyes. “And I’m so happy your father chose me to redecorate this place.”

Remembering, he shot her a dark look. “I don’t want this house redecorated. It’s fine how it is.”

Disappointment crossed her face before she gave a tiny smile that held a touch of defiance. “Then it’s as well this isn’t your house, or I wouldn’t have a job.”

Tension rocked his stomach. “Look, let’s go into the salon. I’ll get Iris to make us some coffee.”

Her expression grew wary. “I’m supposed to be working.”

“Then add an extra hour’s wages to the bill. My father can afford it.”

She tipped her head to one side, her straight blond hair swaying like a sheen of silk over her shoulders. “You’re very generous with your father’s money.”

“He wants me to talk to you.”

She tensed. “Oh. I see. He’s firing me, is he?”

“No, it’s not that at all.” But she was going to wish it was.

Relief fluttered across her face. “Then what can you possibly say to me that he can’t himself?”

Marry me.

He opened his mouth to say it but realized it would be a bit too much all in the space of a minute. No need to break a record with this.

He gestured toward the salon. “The coffee first.” He waited for her to precede him, then used the intercom to ask Iris to bring in some coffee.

When he turned to look at Sasha she was standing by the fireplace. Suddenly he couldn’t take his eyes off her. It was crazy but she looked so right standing there in tailored white pants and a soft-knit green top, slim and refined and such a contrast amongst all this heavy, ornate furniture.

“It’s not polite to stare.”

Her words broke through his thoughts. “You’re different from what I remember.” It was more than a physical difference, but he wasn’t sure what it was yet.

Her eyelids flickered. “What do you remember, Nick?”

“Our kiss.”

She gave a soft gasp. “It’s not gentlemanly of you to bring that up.”

“I was only being honest.”

“Ever heard of being too honest?”

“I don’t work like that.”

“True. You were nothing less than honest after that kiss, weren’t you?” she said, a wry twist coating her lips.

“If you mean that I didn’t profess everlasting love, then you’re right. I’d prefer not to sugarcoat things.” It had been a kiss—a stunner of a kiss—but that’s all it was. “Why, did I hurt your ego?”

“What? No way,” she said quickly, perhaps too quickly. “It was my first kiss by a man, that’s all. Up until then they’d all been boys.”

“No doubt you’ve been plenty kissed since then.”

“I’m not naive.”

“Yes, I remember Randall. You had a fling with him, didn’t you?”

Strangely, the thought of her with other men—with Randall Tremaine—had always unsettled him, but he forced himself to ignore it. She could kiss whomever she liked, make love to whomever she liked. And she had. It had nothing to do with him.

Until now.

She gave a shaky sigh. “I can’t believe the first thing we talk about after seven years is kissing.”

“I can.”

A blush rose up her cheeks but just then Iris appeared in the doorway with the tray of coffee, interrupting the moment. They exchanged a few pleasantries, then Iris put the tray down on the coffee table and left the room.

“Shall I pour?” Sasha said, taking a seat on the sofa.

“Thanks.” He sat down opposite, watching as she poured with an elegance that was innate. Once again he had the feeling she looked right in this setting. He grimaced to himself. Or perhaps it was just because his father had implanted the idea in him.

“So how long has it been since you left for London?” he asked as she passed him the cup and saucer.

“Five years.”

“You were twenty when you left. That’s young to be in a big city by yourself.”

“I wasn’t by myself,” she said, and just for a moment his breath stopped at the thought of her living with another man. “I have an aunt who lives there, so I stayed with her for a few years. Then I got my own place.” She picked up her own cup and saucer but didn’t drink from it. “Our fathers are friends. I’m sure your father would have told you all this.”

“He probably did,” he said without thinking, angry at himself for caring even for a moment that she may have lived with some guy.

“But you didn’t bother to listen, right?”

He didn’t like being put on the spot like that. He was usually the one putting people on the spot. “It’s been five years. I’d probably forgotten it long ago.”

She held his gaze for a moment. “I’m sure.” Her tone made him stiffen but before he could analyze her response, she put her coffee cup down on the table. “Now. Please give me the message from your father. I need to get back to work.”

Fine. So did he.

He placed his own cup on the table, then leaned back on the sofa, giving himself a full view of her face. He needed to see her reaction. “It’s not a message exactly. It’s more a request.”

Her smooth brow crinkled in a frown. “He wants me to do something?”

“Yes.” He paused, trying to find the words that had been going over and over in his head all night. “Did he tell you he and my mother are moving into a smaller place in the city?”

She blinked in surprise. “No, he didn’t.” Her forehead cleared. “So that’s why he wants me to redecorate. He’s planning on selling.”

“No, he’s not selling. He wants to keep it in the family. He wants me to have it.”

Her eyes lit up, making her look even more beautiful. “Oh, that’s wonderful, Nick. This place is gorgeous. I’ve always loved coming here.”

Something wavered inside him. “Then perhaps you’d like to stay.”

Her enthusiasm paused. “What do you mean? Rent it from you or something?”

“I mean share it with me.”

“Sh…share it with you?” she all but squeaked.

“He wants me to marry you, Sasha.”

She sucked in a sharp breath, then slowly let it out. “Good Lord.”

His sentiments exactly. His father’s ultimatum had been one of the few times in his life he’d had the rug pulled out from under him. He didn’t like the feeling. Not one bit.

“Why?” she said in amazement after a moment or two.

“He wants to give me this house to carry on the Valente name but he knows I don’t want to settle down so he’s blackmailing me. If I don’t marry you he’ll give the house to Matt.”

She shook her head. “No, this place doesn’t suit Matt. It suits you.”

He warmed to her.

“But Nick, I don’t understand why he’s chosen me for your wife.”

He shrugged. “For some reason he thinks you’re perfect for me.”

Her eyes softened. “He does?” Then she stiffened and began to shift uneasily. “That’s sweet of him, but we both know that’s ridiculous. I’ve just come along at the right time, that’s all.”

“It seems that way,” he agreed, happy to see she had a clear head on her shoulders. This was going to be easier than he’d expected. They wouldn’t have to get mixed up with all the emotional trappings other married couples had to worry about.

“So what are you going to do, Nick?”

“Marry you.”

The blood drained from her face but she soon gathered herself together. “Oh, really?”

He’d made up his mind to do this, and he didn’t expect any resistance to the idea. “He’s dead serious, Sasha. He wants a Valente to live in this house, and he wants our families to be joined.”

She shook her head. “No, Nick.”

“I don’t like it any more than you do. Frankly, marriage was never in my cards. I like being single.”

“So do I.”

That surprised him. Career women or not, most of his lady friends had wanted more than a sexual relationship. Most had wanted marriage, despite their declarations that they didn’t.

“You may not know this, but my father had a heart attack six months ago. It was only a mild one,” he assured her, seeing her slight alarm, “but he’s worried he’ll have a major one and won’t see me married before then. That’s why he’s come up with this plan.”

“Nick, I’m sorry about his heart attack, but I can’t do this.”

His mouth tightened. “Then this place will go to Matt. I suggest you get ready for some heavy modernization when you redecorate.”

She winced. “Talk to your father, Nick. He may let you marry someone else.”

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