I call it dating, because I am happy to provide dinner, tickets to fancy functions, and pricey gifts... even though the only part of a woman’s companionship that I truly desire is the sex. Which is why I choose the women I do.

They are happy to take what I can give them, and do not sulk when we part ways.

The American girl—she is different. She is sweet. Untainted by my darkness.

It makes me want to possess her.

It would ruin her.

Inside the vast building now, I stride through the lobby, past reception, past security. From the corner of my eye I see them scramble to stand at attention, to show me the very best sides of themselves.

I do not care. They are not individuals to me, and never will be, and that is because when they look at me, they do not see Matteo the person. They simply see Carmine’s heir, the man they think I am.

Most days I could care less. I have vast wealth, great power. Anything a man of twenty-five could ever dream of.

But today—today as I enter the packed boardroom on the highest floor, I feel like a poor imitation of the man whose loins gave me life. Like I will never live up to his greatness. A sad thing, when I am one of the few people who knows that behind closed doors he was not great at all.

“Matteo.” The company lawyer, Fabio Rossi, nods at me over his laptop as I suck in a deep breath and push through the thick glass doors of the massive conference room. I could frost over the transparent walls of the room with the press of a button for privacy, but I never do. I have found that people work harder when they are nervous, and watching large meetings like this take place make them so, even though they have no reason to be.

“Rossi.” Nodding back at the lawyer, I stride to the head of the table, take a seat in the plush chair that was once my father’s. It irritates me that he addresses me by my first name in front of the board, but then again, he has known me since I was a small child. I could make it an issue, insist he address me with more respect.

I know that it will not break his habit, and so I do not push. But it is one of many ways in which the people who surround me show me that they do not think me my father’s equal.

Emilia is seated to my left. She has come straight here from the airport, I know, but must have changed in her office. She is wearing a snakeskin suit, her hair pulled back in the severe style that she favors at work. She wears no blouse beneath her blazer, a trap of sorts, I know.

Those men she meets who dismiss her as just another pretty face, who allow themselves to be distracted by the view that she offers down the front of that suit jacket—in her opinion, they deserve to be crushed by her razor sharp intelligence and her ruthless method of doing business.

I don’t disagree. In fact, I approve. Really, she is the perfect match for me, and I have lusted after her ever since my father married her mother.

Apart from a few steamy kisses, some petting before we were old enough to gain control of our hormones, I haven’t touched her. Not that I am not tempted to, every day. Her body is a work of art, and mutual lust underlies our entire relationship.

But after ten years I know that she is fully capable of consuming my soul, of dragging me fully into the dark that I have battled my entire life. It isn’t worth the risk.

Still, she is a valuable employee. And my stepsister, though neither of us have any parents left. So I nod to her as I settle back in my chair, then direct my attention to the lawyer.

“What is so important that it could not wait for next month’s meeting, Rossi? I’m all ears.” I smile, coldly. Not only does this man refuse to address me with respect, but he has forced my hand here, called for another of the meetings that I hate, though it is only two weeks until the next.

I’m not happy, and I want him to know it.

Rossi sputters a bit, pushing his glasses up on his nose. I see him the bruise on my cheekbone left by Riley’s fist, and just dare him to say something.

He does not, instead drawing in a deep breath, much as I did before entering the board room, and suddenly I’m certain that I’m not going to like whatever it is he needs to say.

“Your twenty-five birthday was yesterday,” he starts, and from his briefcase pulls a folder. When he opens it I see that the top sheet of paper looks like a legal document of some sort, something fancy and embossed.

I nod, feeling a gentle trickle of relief. The last details of Carmine’s will are still being addressed. I have always known that I would inherit the lion’s share of the company when my father died, but if that happened before I turned twenty-five—which it did—I would serve as the CEO with a board of directors until I came of age.

The relief now, as I turn it over in my head, is huge. Coming of age—being the legal head of the company...

No more board to answer to. I can make any change that want.

I can stop feeling as though I am playing dress up in my father’s shoes. Emilia stands to inherit shares as well—she and my father were always frustratingly close—but the majority comes to me.

“What papers do I need to sign?” I hold out a hand for the folder. Rossi meets my stare and holds on to it.

The relief begins to chill into dread as he shifts, clearly uncomfortable.

“I would like you to understand that I advised your father against adding this clause. It is highly unusual and not, to my mind at least, something on which he should hang the future of his empire.”

Pinpricks of cold rise on my skin, and I slowly lower my hand.

“Out with it.” I order, doing my best to ignore the rest of the board. I wish that I could order them from the room, but if they are here during the unveiling of a clause from Carmine’s will, then I am certain that it is because he insisted it be so.

Still controlling me, even from beyond the grave.

“The company is yours, Matteo, in its entirety.” I feel shock like a punch to my stomach, even though Rossi is still eyeing me with apprehension. “Provided you fulfill one requirement.”

It’s all mine? What?

And what requirement?

“What is it?” My stomach sinks. I know I’m not going to like this.

“You must marry within thirty days of your twenty-fifth birthday.”

The world drops out from beneath me. Stunned, I turn to look at Emilia. She looks as outraged as I feel, though for different reasons, I’m sure.

For a split second I feel a surge of triumph—despite how close she and Carmine always were, I have won—but then the enormity of the terms hits me.

“And if I won’t marry?” I won’t. I can’t. My mother was destroyed from the inside out by marriage to my father. I won’t do that to any woman.

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