Dante's Temporary Fiancée(7)

By: Day Leclaire

She wasn’t usually so slow on the uptake. Even so, none of this made the least bit of sense to her. “Temporary,” she repeated.

He took the chair across from her and leaned forward, resting his forearms on his knees. Having him so close only made it more difficult to think straight. She didn’t understand it. Of all the men in San Francisco, he should have been the very last she’d find attractive. And yet, every one of her senses had gone screaming onto high alert the instant he’d turned those brilliant jade-green eyes in her direction.

“You’d have to understand my family to fully appreciate my situation,” he said.

Larkin fought to keep her mouth shut. How many times had she gotten herself into an awkward predicament because of her particular brand of frankness? More times than she could count. Despite her determination, a few stray words slipped out. “Your family does have a knack for hitting the gossip magazines.”

To her surprise, he looked relieved. “Then you’ve read about The Inferno?”

“Yes.” Excellent. That was short and sweet, and yet truthful. Added bonus…he seemed pleased with her answer.

“Then I don’t have to explain what it is or that my family—most of them, anyway—believe implicitly in its existence.”

Something in his manner and delivery clued her in to his opinion of the matter. “But you don’t?”

A wickedly attractive smile touched his mouth. “Have I shocked you?”

“A little,” Larkin admitted. She couldn’t come up with a tactful way to ask her next question, so she tossed it out, not sure if it would land with all the explosive power of a grenade or turn out to be a dud. “What about your wife?”

“Never. We never experienced The Inferno. Nor would I have ever wanted to. Not with her.”

Larkin’s mouth dropped open. “Wait a minute—”

He cut in with cold deliberation. “Let me make this easy for you. My wife and I were about to divorce when she died. Any version of The Inferno we might have shared was the more literal, hellish kind, not this fairy tale my family’s dreamed up.”

“When you say you never want to marry again…” she probed delicately.

“It’s because I have no intention of ever experiencing that particular level of hell again.”

“Okay, I understand that.” Considering how well she’d known Leigh, she didn’t blame the poor man. “But that doesn’t explain your need for a temporary fiancée.”

“My family recently discovered that Leigh and I never felt The Inferno toward each other.”

Larkin was quick on the uptake. “And now they’re trying to find the woman who will.”

“Exactly. It’s interfering with every aspect of my life. And since they won’t stop until she’s found, I’ve decided to take care of that for them.”

His smile broadened. It would have turned his stunning good looks into something beyond spectacular if it hadn’t been for the coldness in his green eyes. The smile stopped there, revealing a wintry barrenness that tugged at Larkin’s heart. She’d always had a soft spot for strays and underdogs. In fact, some day she hoped to work full-time for an animal rescue organization. She suspected that for all his wealth and position, and despite the loving support of his large family, Rafe Dante qualified as both a stray and an underdog, which put her heart at serious risk.

“You want to pretend that you’ve experienced this Inferno with me?” she clarified.

“In a nutshell, yes. I want all of my relatives to believe it, too. We’ll become engaged, and then a few months from now, you’ll decide that you can’t marry me. I’m sure I’ll give you ample reasons for calling off our engagement. You dump me and disappear. I, of course, will be heartbroken to have found and lost my Inferno bride. Naturally, my family will be sympathetic and won’t dare throw any more women my way.” He smiled in satisfaction. “End of problem.”

“And why won’t your family throw more women your way?”

“How can they, since you were my one true soul mate?” he pointed out with ruthless logic. “They can’t have it both ways. Either you were my once-in-a-lifetime Inferno match or The Inferno isn’t real. Somehow I suspect that rather than admit that the family legend doesn’t exist, they’ll decide that my one shot at Inferno happiness decided to dump me. I’ll then have no other choice but to continue my poor, lonely, miserable existence never having found matrimonial bliss. A tragedy, to be sure, but I’ll do my best to survive it.”

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