The Christmas He Claimed the Secretary
Book 1 in the Outrageous Accardi Brothers Series
Their relationship may be pretend, but their chemistry can’t be faked. USA TODAY bestselling author Caitlin Crews delights with this convenient holiday relationship romance.
A show for the cameras
A desire that’s not just for Christmas!
Annie Meeks has given up her dreams in order to shoulder her sister’s debt. But one chance meeting with smoldering Tiziano Accardi and suddenly the life she’s always imagined is within reach…if she’ll play the role of the billionaire’s mistress.
To avoid the marriage being foisted upon him, playboy Tiziano needs to manufacture a love affair. Innocent secretary Annie is the perfect candidate for his ruse. Yet he’s wholly unprepared for the wild heat that rises between them… which he must attempt to restrain before it devours them both!
From Harlequin Presents: Escape to exotic locations where passion knows no bounds.
Read all The Outrageous Accardi Brothers books:
Book 1: The Christmas He Claimed the Secretary
Book 2: The Accidental Accardi Heir
The Christmas He Claimed the Secretary
It was not the first time in Tiziano Accardi’s admittedly splendid life that a woman had fallen at his feet.
The notable difference on this occasion was that the woman in question had not been gazing upon him as she tumbled, tossed to the ground at the very sight of his much-remarked-upon male beauty.
How delightfully novel.
Tiziano, never in much of a hurry at the best of times, was particularly unhurried today. His humorless and deeply boring brother—who was, unfortunately, the stalwart and responsible CEO of Accardi Industries, the keeper of the family purse strings, and, worst of all, distressingly immune to his younger brother’s much-vaunted charm no matter how Tiziano tried to win him round—had demanded that Tiziano present himself for his biweekly dressing-down. It would have been a daily occurrence, if Ago had his way, but Tiziano could not always be asked to make an appearance in the office. Not when there were far more interesting places to be. A beach in Rio or the Philippines, for example. Any of the world’s glamorous cities, from Milan to Tokyo and back. Or, really, any other place where beautiful women gathered.
He was something of a connoisseur.
But here in the dreary office he was today, against his better judgment. And will. He had woken up in London for the first time in some weeks this dreary fall, and thanks to the perfidy of his household staff, working in concert with his brother’s fearsome executive assistant, Ago knew it.
The thunderous summons had been delivered at top volume, down the phone Tiziano would never have answered had it come from his brother’s line.
It was not that Tiziano disliked his role as the company’s chief marketing executive—his official title, for his sins. On the contrary, he not only enjoyed the job, he was also—to everyone’s great surprise, apparently, given how often it was mentioned in tones of nearly insulting wonder—quite good at it.
A reality that he knew drove his brother rather round the bend.
Because it would be easier to dismiss Tiziano if the younger Accardi brother was nothing more than the empty-headed man-whore the tabloids made him out to be.
It was also true he gave said tabloids ammunition, but he was only a man, after all, and therefore tragically imperfect. He was always the first to say so. Was it his fault that so many beautiful women found him irresistible? Or that because he enjoyed a lively evening out, it was assumed that he was as vapid and fatuous as a great many of the people who tended to take part in those evenings?
The real scandal, Tiziano knew, was that he had actually participated in his brother’s bid to make the family company—the one their grandfather had started in Italy and their father had expanded into foreign markets—into the multinational corporation it was today. Complete with its own shiny, glossy headquarters in giddy London, far away from the ancient family heap outside Firenze, awash in wisteria and regret.
Not that such inconvenient facts got in his brother’s way when he wanted to deliver a stinging lecture or five. When Ago took it upon himself to roar on, stern and uncompromising and with much talk of family legacies and what is owed to the Accardi name, neither God nor man could stop him.
Tiziano, who considered himself a bit of both, if he was honest, was well used to the storm and drama of it all.
He even found it all a bit entertaining, usually. Ago did like to go on and on and Tiziano quite liked lounging about, acting as if he was as useless as most believed he was. It was a game they played. It reminded him of when they were heedless children, chasing each other across the rolling hills of Tuscany and dodging cypress trees as they ran. How could he not enjoy the adult version of that?
Especially because his brother clearly did not, growing ever more grim and disapproving in response to Tiziano’s indolence. Tiziano had imagined that at some point in the not-so-distant future, he would actually find himself sprawled out on the floor of Ago’s office, pretending to nap whilst his brother delivered his favorite lecture about optics.
In truth, he’d been looking forward to it.
Sadly this fall, the lectures had turned to distressing orders to take up the old ball and chain, a dismal enterprise that Tiziano had intended to happily avoid for the rest of his life. After all, he was the spare to the Accardi fortune, thank you. Not the heir. What did it matter how he entertained himself? Empires hung from his brother’s stern, uncompromising fingers, not his.
A point Ago did not seem to think mitigated what he believed to be Tiziano’s responsibilities.
So it was possible that the sight of the woman before him—who’d been scowling down at the heap of file folders in her arms as she charged down the stairs that he’d been climbing in as desultory a fashion as possible—was far more intriguing to him than she might normally have been. Particularly when she went down on the landing as they both reached it, falling over what appeared to be her own serviceable pump, then hitting the ground. In an explosion of documents that rained down all around her, she came to a stop a scant centimeter from his big toe.
Clad in hand-tooled leather by the finest artisans in Rome, naturalmente.
“I’m well aware of the effect I have on women,” Tiziano assured her when she came to a complete stop, and the last of the documents finished its snowy descent to lie on the landing beside her. “But I must give you points for effort, cara. Making it rain with a shower of corporate documentation is a lovely touch. Truly.”
And on any other day, at any other time, he might have left it at that. He might have nimbly stepped over yet another woman prostrate at his feet and carried on taking the longest route possible to his brother’s vast executive suite at the penthouse level of this gleaming tower in the City. On any other day, he would have forgotten her before he made it to the next landing.
But then, this was not any other day.
Because Ago had declared that not only was Tiziano to marry, a horror in and of itself. But more, he was expected to marry the tediously virtuous bride of Ago’s choosing. Tiziano knew of the girl in question. Had even met her on several tiresome occasions drenched in respectability and its dire twin, responsibility. She was a nun-like virgin, according to all accounts as well as his own observation, who happened to also be the beloved daughter of one of Accardi Industries’ best clients.
Though perhaps beloved was not the right word. What was indisputable was that Victoria Cameron was her loathsome father’s only daughter. As far as Tiziano could see, the man’s fervent desire to control his daughter’s matrimonial choices, while making certain they benefited him, was nothing short of medieval. Tiziano would be very much surprised if poor, boring Victoria had ever known the touch of a man. Or had ever spent more than three seconds in the presence of one without her father looking on and jealously guarding over her.
As if an untried convent-bred girl was such a lure in these depraved times that men needed to be restrained in her presence or they might go mad with lust and longing.
It was laughable.
When Tiziano had suggested to his brother that prissy, pearl-clutching moralist Everard Cameron dispense with the theatrics and simply mount a virginity auction the way he clearly wished to do—though without calling it what it was—Ago had only glared at him in that way he did, all steel and disappointment.
That hadn’t changed the facts.
Ago intended that Tiziano should be the highest and best bidder for a prize Tiziano did not esteem in the least. What was required of Tiziano was very simple in this case, according to his brother in all his consequence and condescension, handing down dictates from on high. Tiziano need only restrain himself from the worst of his excesses and then, once married and settled and domesticated entirely, confine said excesses to the sacrament of marriage.
Given that Accardis did not divorce, because why divide up properties and assets when it was easy enough to live separate lives on said far-flung estates, his brother was delivering nothing less than a life sentence.
Tiziano liked his life as it was. He was in no particular rush to usher himself into his own cell.
That was why he was still standing there, looking down at the heap of hapless female and corporate documentation at his feet. And that was why he was there to receive the full force of the woman’s scowl when she lifted up her head, shoved back a bit of the red hair that had fallen into her eyes, and made it clear that her scowl was no mistake.
By deepening it as she beheld him.
“I can’t say it’s surprising to discover that a man dressed like you is a waste of space,” she said, incredibly. She pushed herself up and looked around, as if taking in what had become of her file folders for the first time. “How chivalrous. By all means, please keep doing whatever it is you were doing. I’m sure it’s more important than helping a woman as she falls down the stairs.”
Unused to that tone of voice when delivered by a female instead of his brother’s deep growl, it took Tiziano a moment to realize that she was scolding him.
And then, as if the scowling wasn’t enough, the woman simply…ignored him. She set about collecting all her papers, crawling about on the floor before him on her hands and knees. He might have assumed that was another bid for his attention. After all, it did give him quite a view. He had never seen the woman before, but it was clear at a glance that she was one of the innumerable faceless minions who worked here. Probably a secretary, he would wager, or something of that ilk. The pumps she had tripped over were cheap, with scuffed heels, and the undersides were worn away. The pencil skirt she wore was a shade of muddy brown that he doubted anyone would consider fashionable. And as she scuttled about on her hands and knees before him, the cream-colored blouse she had tucked into her skirt pulled up, showing him an intriguing glimpse of shocking pink lace.
He was no callow youth and still, there was something about her that captivated him. Perhaps the way her hips moved this way and that, forcing him to contemplate the span of her waist, and how it might feel to measure her curves with his hands.
It was tempting to assume she was crawling before him for precisely this purpose. To tempt him in just this manner.
But perhaps what really intrigued him was how unselfconscious she seemed. And, more surprising by far, as if she truly could not give a toss whether he stood watching her gather up her papers or not.
It was not a sensation he had ever felt before.
He was Tiziano Accardi. He was not ignored. He could not recall a single moment in his life when he had not received as much attention as possible from everyone and anyone in his vicinity.
And he could not say that he was filled with excitement, precisely, that it was occurring now. What he discovered—as one lowering moment followed another while she continued to crawl around the landing, muttering to herself as she stacked up her documents and shoved them back into the folders they’d come from, as if she’d entirely forgotten that she wasn’t alone—was that a lifelong question had finally been answered. Here, on an ignominious stairwell landing, on a gray and unremarkable Tuesday in the midst of a gloomy autumn.
He liked to say, and often did say, that it was not his fault that he was so magnetic that no one who encountered him could help but make him their focal point in all things. How could they resist? Yet now he discovered that he really did prefer the comfort of forever knowing himself to be the center of everyone’s thoughts.
All thanks to this nameless woman who, if he was not mistaken, had actually dismissed him.
He told himself that it was in the spirit of discovery, nothing more—certainly not a childish wish to refocus attention where it clearly belonged—that he squatted down before her, relieved her of the file folder she held, then scooped up a huge pile of the remaining papers and tossed them inside.
“That’s not actually helpful,” she told him. Not quite the sweet thanks he’d expected. She pushed back from all fours so that she was kneeling before him and fixed him with a baleful glare. Another expression he had never before seen on a female face when it was pointed in his direction. Much less from her current position. “You do realize that I have to put them in order, don’t you?” But then she let out a laugh. “Who am I kidding? I doubt very much you have the slightest idea what people do with the documents that keep your company chugging along, do you?”
“So you do know who I am.” Tiziano smiled. “That is a comfort. For a terrifying moment there I could have sworn that I had become unremarkable.”
“And who, may I ask, could possibly avoid knowing you even if they wished it?” Her accent was filled with hints of the north, meaning that where she came from in this cold country was even more frigid and inhospitable than London in the dark of a late, wet autumn—though her cheeks were rosy. He found himself contemplating them with interest. “I was under the impression you dedicated yourself to becoming as ubiquitous as possible before the age of sixteen.”
“I’m delighted you noticed,” Tiziano drawled, wrenching his attention away from her cheeks. “But, cara, surely you know that as delightful as all this flirtation is to me, it is in no way wise. You must not need your job overmuch if you are willing to risk it for the chance to sharpen your claws on a man of my stature.”
As he watched, more fascinated than he cared to process at the minute, her eyes—a surprising shade of gray that put him in mind of the foggy, moody mornings that were the parts of London he loved best—looked very nearly murderous. She flushed slightly, making her cheeks all the rosier. And while in most women he would assume that was an involuntary, biological response to a perfect specimen such as himself, he rather thought that when it came to this creature, it was all temper.
And then she didn’t give in to it, which was even more impressive.
Instead, she produced a tight smile. “I must have hit my head when I fell,” she said, though Tiziano thought they both knew quite well she had done no such thing. “My apologies. As a matter of fact, I do quite need this job. Thank you for reminding me.”
“It is forgotten,” Tiziano said with a magnanimous wave of his hand. “But tell me, cara, what is it you do here?” He looked down at the file folder in his hand. “A bit of filing, is it?”
“A bit of filing and a bit of typing,” she replied, and not in the tones of a woman who revered either of those tasks. But then, neither would he. “They don’t call it the secretarial pool these days. But effectively, that’s what it is.”
“You’re a secretary?”
“I am indeed.” She cleared her throat, perhaps hearing herself echo back from the walls of the stairwell, because when she looked around again she seemed significantly more flustered than she had before. “My supervisor will not be pleased that it’s taking me so long to come back with these files. And that they’ll have to be put back in order.”
“How long have you worked here?”
She took her time looking back at him, and though she was still attempting that tight smile, her gray gaze had gone suspicious. “A year,” she said. “Well. Nearly.”
“A year.” He tilted his head slightly to one side. “How odd. And yet I’m certain I have never seen you before.”
Then, to his amusement, he watched any number of sharp replies rise and fall in that gray gaze of hers. He had to assume each was more acid than the last.
He was oddly disappointed when she did not gift him with any of them. Instead, she smiled wider, though he was certain, somehow, that it did not come easy to her. “Every moment has been a joy.”
Tiziano laughed. “I rather doubt that. Whether they call it a secretarial pool or not, it sounds unpleasant. I can’t imagine I would enjoy it myself.”
But she was not drawn in, another first. “I apologize for my potentially concussed outburst before, sir,” she said, and it was all sweet enough. Trouble was, he didn’t believe her.
She made as if to rise but he beat her to it, getting to his feet and then reaching down to take her by the elbow and pull her up.
And there was nothing to it, the way he gripped her arm and drew her from the floor. She could have been a grandmother. A child. But he was entirely too aware that she was neither of those things. She was a woman.
More important, she was nothing at all like the exceedingly dull Victoria Cameron.
As far as Tiziano could tell, Victoria had been raised to be, at best, a particular kind of adornment. Her father came from a long line of overbred aristocrats, with various titles knocking about his closet. His daughter had been engineered since birth to appeal to the only sort of man Everard Cameron truly esteemed—that being a man like himself.
His daughter was thus innocent and untouched to suit the dynastic aspirations of a man who needed heirs. And more, wished to go about the making of them with confidence that the sons and daughters who bore his name could come only from his loins. Tiziano had no doubt that Victoria was equally capable of overseeing a variety of stately homes, staffs, and all the rest of the nonsense that went along with a certain degree of consequence in some circles. She would go about it with blameless efficiency and a minimum of fuss, selecting the appropriate friends, activities, and boarding schools for whatever heirs she produced and then taking herself off to breed corgis or take an interest in the stables.
She was most assuredly not the sort who would take up with a string of lovers once her childbearing duties were dispatched. Not Victoria. She would dedicate herself to tedious charities and saintly volunteer opportunities, piously giving back while setting an example as best she could. She was a paragon, raised to neither expect nor demand anything of the men in her life, while making a quiet sort of mark upon the world that would be remarked upon only in her obituary.
Even thinking about shackling himself to such a relentlessly irreproachable creature just about put Tiziano into a stupor.
Meanwhile, he knew a great many things about this woman who he still held in his grip, entirely too aware of the warmth of her skin against his palm.
“Did I ask you your name?” He knew he had not. “I’m certain I meant to.”
She swallowed, then lifted her chin. And he took her in, the red hair curling so wildly that it defied the clips she’d attempted to use to tame it. Those gray, expressive eyes that marked her not as a paragon, but a woman of decided tempers.
Passion, something in him whispered.
“Annie,” she said, with obvious reluctance. “My name is Annie Meeks. Sir. I take it you mean to report me?”
“I’m not going to report you,” he assured her. And then, indulging an urge he could not have named, he tested her name on his tongue. “Annie.”
This time, when she flushed, he knew it wasn’t temper. And more, that it wasn’t the sight of him that made her react that way. That it was this—her name in his mouth. Something personal to her. Something that wasn’t intimate, by any means, but also wasn’t the same, run-of-the-mill attraction every woman who crossed his path felt at the sight of him.
Tiziano fancied he felt something like it, too. And he was pleased it existed, he told himself. And better yet, that it was manageable.
Because Annie Meeks, run-of-the-mill secretary in the bowels of Accardi Industries, was in every possible way inappropriate. She was no gently bred aristocratic miss. Her broad vowels were coarse, and marked her as beneath him even if the obvious differences in their attire had not already done so. He suspected that one of his shoes could have bought her entire outfit. And whatever wardrobe went with it. Twenty times over.
“Thank you.” Annie’s tone was guarded. Her gray gaze searched his. “I wouldn’t blame you if you did report me. I’d like to assure you that I hold both you and the company in the utmost respect—”
“That is enough now,” Tiziano said with a dismissive laugh. “I’m not my brother. He is far more concerned with appearances. What is appropriate, what is not. If I were to claim that I was suddenly worried about such things that would mark me hypocrite, I fear.”
She made a neutral sort of sound, still holding herself too still. Though he could feel a slight quiver within her, there beneath his hand.
He let his gaze move over her, remembering the hint of pink lace, the indentation at her waist. The echo of that liveliness in the temper he’d seen crack like lightning through the gray of her gaze. The rosy cheeks. The spray of freckles above her nose.
She would do.
In fact, she would do quite nicely, especially if she really did need her job. Or any job, really, which Tiziano supposed applied to most secretaries and all such people who were forced to work for their living. That meant she had a price. And, happily, he was nothing if not capable of paying it.
He could pay her far more handsomely than anything she was likely to get by filing tedious documents and answering to the phalanx of beige middle managers in this place.
Because he had an idea. The kind of idea that made him a marketing genius, if he said so himself. Only in this case, it was not the company that he would be marketing. But his own private life.
“I have a proposition for you,” he said.
Her gray eyes narrowed. Once more, not quite the hosannas from on high he might have expected from another woman. But he liked the unfamiliar sting of it. “I’m honored,” she said, and he could see that this was clearly a lie. She swallowed, then forced a smile that did not reach the outrage in her gaze. “But I must immediately decline any propositions. Mr. Accardi. Sir.”
Tiziano let go of her elbow and stepped back, so he could lean against the wall and study her. And the more he looked at her, the more he was certain he’d found the answer to all of his problems. Particularly when she had her temper working. If he took her at face value, scuffed shoes and ill-fitting attempt to follow the corporate dress code, he could see her of one of these working girls who seemed to fill all the cities of the world—one indistinguishable from the next. There were veritable hordes of them traipsing about the Big Smoke, dreaming of getting on the property ladder, squeezing out a few whelps with some milksop lover, and then ascending to the dizzying heights of a semidetached in one of those indistinct English towns made mostly of cheerless bricks and the faint praise of middle-class ambitions. But if he squinted, he could see something else.
What he could make of her.
“What do you dream about, Annie Meeks?” he asked.
She blinked, her expression suspiciously bland. “A time machine. So I could go back and take the lift.”
A beat, and then he laughed, and this time in sheer delight. “But you do not understand, cara. I must congratulate you, for your life has just changed.” He paused, but she only continued to gaze at him balefully. He inclined his head. “It cannot possibly be your wish to toil away, unnoticed and unappreciated, forever. And indeed, you do not have to. Tell me what it is you dream of and I will make it happen. This I promise you.”
“I really must have a concussion,” she murmured. Nothing about the way she looked at him softened. Surely he should not have found that compelling. “Because I might not be as sophisticated as some, but I hope I’m not foolish enough to imagine that something that appears too good to be true is anything but.”
“For all you know this is an expression of my many eccentricities. Perhaps I trawl the abandoned halls and back stairs of Accardi Industries, bestowing goodwill upon whomever I pass.”
“If you’ll forgive me, I think we all know you do no such thing.”
He laughed again, because she’d said that so sweetly, and yet he could see the truth of her feelings in her gaze. “I’m starting today.”
“And what will you do with my dreams if I share them with you?” she asked, in a tone he could only call challenging. “Assuming I can remember any of them, that is. Fickle things, dreams. It’s mostly those who can afford to indulge them who ponce about, worrying over them in the first place. The rest of us have work to do.”
“What if I made it so you could afford to ponce about at will?” he countered. “Or anything else you like, for that matter?”
“And maybe tomorrow morning I’ll wake up to find myself the Queen of England,” she replied briskly. “But either way, that won’t get these files sorted or my rent paid. So if you will please excuse me—”
“Annie,” he said, liking the name more and more, each time he said it, “I want you to be my mistress.”
He thought she might collapse, perhaps. Or smile knowingly. Maybe he expected her to do as another woman might and feign a great and theatric dismay. What he did not expect was the way her brows drew together, treating him once again to that ferocious scowl.
Tiziano liked it even better this time around.
She flushed once more, and he understood that he was seeing her temper again. A bright hot flare of it, unmistakable.
He liked that even more.
“Or you’ll have me fired, is that it?” She laughed then, though it was a sharp sound and bitter besides. “No need, Mr. Accardi. I’ll save you the trouble and quit.”
Then she took the files she held and threw them on the floor. This time they didn’t go up in a plume of fluttering papers. This time they made a loud bang, and even so, it was less furious than the way she looked at him.
She took a deep breath, and something gleamed in her gray eyes, putting him in mind of a set of talons. “And having quit, let me be clear. I think you are the most—”
“You mistake the matter, I think, cara mia,” he interrupted, silkily. “You will be my mistress in name only, chiaramente. Or did you imagine that I, Tiziano Accardi, who is often seen in the adoring company of princesses and international superstars, would lower myself to propositioning women for sex in sad office stairwells?”
End of excerpt
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The Christmas He Claimed the Secretary
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