The Spaniard’s Last-Minute Wife
Book 2 in the Innocent Stolen Brides Series
From uninvited wedding guest…
To emergency bride!
Librarian Geraldine Casey scrapes a living whilst raising her late cousin’s infant daughter. So, when she sees the announcement for Lionel Asensio’s lavish, no-expense-spared wedding, she drops everything… To go and demand he takes responsibility for the daughter she believes is his!
Sneaking into the ceremony, Geraldine is just in time to see the ruthless Spaniard jilted. Her shocking, involuntary response is met with his furious, magnetic gaze… Perhaps that’s why when Lionel leads her to the altar, still in need of a convenient wife, innocent Geraldine finds herself saying “I do”!
- ROMANTIC THEMES: Bluestocking Heroine, Fake Relationship, Fantasies Made Real, Girl Next Door, Good Girl/Bad Boy, Governess, Guardian/Ward, High Society, Italian Hero, Mail Order Bride, Marriage of Convenience, Meddling Relatives?, Mistaken Identity, Modern Fairy Tale, Playboy Hero, Scandal!, Secret Baby, Spanish Hero, Ugly Duckling, Virgin Heroine
The Spaniard’s Last-Minute Wife
Geraldine Gertrude Casey didn’t mean to laugh.
Truly, she didn’t.
One moment she was sitting with an appropriately poker-faced expression, as suited the occasion, and the next…well. She let out what could only be termed a cackle.
A rather loud cackle, she could admit.
It was involuntary.
Really, it was—though it was also true that she’d had some or other vague notion that she might slip in her objections to the wedding today, assuming that priests here in Italy actually asked if anyone harbored any. Geraldine wasn’t certain if they did or didn’t and more, harbored no particular certainty that she would understand such a question even if it was asked, as she did not speak Italian.
But another, more salient truth was that she was delirious from flying all the way here on a remarkably uncomfortable overnight flight from Minneapolis via Chicago. She had been crammed into the back of the alarmingly oversize jumbo jet in the middle of a row of tiny, uncomfortable seats with limited recline. Her mother and she had been pressed up against each other from knee to shoulder as they’d passed the unamused baby back and forth between them while pretending that the peace between the two of them wasn’t quite so precarious in the wake of Geraldine’s decision to travel to Italy in the first place.
And while Geraldine and her mother were close, and had always been close, she was fairly sure that the last time she had been that physically close to her mother had been in the womb.
Geraldine had not been all that keen on landing so early in the morning, having slept a total of five minutes, only to have to sort herself out sufficiently to drive her mother and a screaming child from the airport outside Milan all the way to Lake Como, locate the overpriced yet aggressively bland hotel room she’d managed to secure a mere two days before, and then not collapse on one of the narrow, monastic beds waiting there. She’d left that to Mama and little Jules, who had been headed into her fifteenth tantrum that morning. Geraldine had changed into a dress, because she was crashing a wedding after all, and had set off to traipse about in the bright heat until she could find her way to this wedding chapel.
What had pleased her was that she’d found it.
Despite the fact there had been no specific information about it anywhere, which had required some next-level sleuthing skills.
Geraldine had expected some kind of security. Quite a lot of security, actually. She had assumed, the groom being the sort of nightmarishly rich billionaire that he was and the bride an heiress in her own right, that she’d be stopped well before she made it to the door of this place and would be required to argue her way inside.
She might even have been looking forward to that argument. A cross she had long been forced to bear—and had thus made it into a weapon—was that no one could ever imagine that a woman who did nothing to enhance her appearance and, in fact, was happy to wear clothing considered “dowdy” so long as it was comfortable, could ever truly be up to no good.
Even if it took a bit of effort to cross the language barrier, Geraldine had been sure that she could brown-hen her way in.
But no brown-henning had been required. There had been only a few people milling about on the narrow road that was really more of a path outside the chapel, looking only vaguely security-like, and none of them had paid her any mind. Perhaps it was because she had a certain way of marching forth, head held high, that went a long way toward convincing anyone who might look that she belonged.
Or perhaps it’s actually because you look like someone’s maiden aunt, she told herself dryly. Emphasis on maiden and aunt.
Then again, she did that on purpose. What wasn’t on purpose was the fact that she’d made a bit of a racket coming inside the ancient building. Also, the Italian breeze had caught the door behind her, wrenched it from her grip, and slammed it shut.
But what Geraldine had noticed immediately wasn’t who was or was not glaring at her for causing a commotion. Instead, she was quite surprised to find that the bride was not only walking herself down the aisle, she was already about halfway done with the entire exercise.
And though the bride had stopped and looked back over her shoulder, all dressed in white and eyes solemn, Geraldine hadn’t seized the moment the way she should have.
The bride turned around again and had started for the altar once more.
Leaving Geraldine to slink into the last pew much more quietly than she’d entered, her mind racing.
She had shoved her glasses up her nose as she’d sat, a nervous habit she preferred to deny she possessed. Usually she wore her contacts, but she’d been sure they would dry out her eyes on that flight and she hadn’t had time to pop them back in while changing in that tiny hotel room, her mother muttering I told you so beneath her breath and little Jules in mid-tantrum.
And your contact lenses have nothing to do with anything, she had snapped at herself.
She’d reminded herself then, rather severely, that it wouldn’t do her any good to have come all this way if she wasn’t prepared to jump in as planned at any given opportunity.
Like the one she’d squandered just then.
And so she had been drumming up her courage to leap to her feet and stop the proceedings—and she’d required that courage not because she was in any doubt that her cause was just, and certainly not because she was any sort of shy or retiring mouse, but because she was Midwestern born and bred and, deep within her, had an inbred horror of causing a scene of any kind no matter the reason—when the door to the chapel had slammed wide open again.
Louder this time.
And as it did, a ferocious-looking man came striding in, dressed in black and seeming also to exude a matching black fury as he came.
He did not take the first available seat, as Geraldine had.
Instead, he’d helped himself to the bride.
He’d found her in the aisle, tossed her over his shoulder without a word, and then strode right on out again.
And Geraldine had always taken pride in her practical, rational nature—so much so that she even dressed so that said nature was what was noticed about her, first and foremost. She was a woman who had always enjoyed the company of facts and the books where those facts were so often housed. The cool, leather-bound intellect of a library was the happiest place she could imagine, and she would be back in hers right now if it weren’t for poor motherless baby Jules.
But she couldn’t claim that she was thinking about Jules after the door slammed shut behind the man and the kidnapped bride, leaving the few people left in this chapel to stare at each other blankly.
Maybe she wasn’t thinking at all.
Because she let out that cackle. And once she’d laughed, she hadn’t seen any particularly compelling reason to stop laughing.
Geraldine was still laughing, in fact.
With a little more sleep, or really any sleep, she was certain she might have controlled herself—because didn’t she always control herself?—but then again, perhaps she wouldn’t have bothered.
Because it was a certain kind of funny, wasn’t it? She had pulled together a shocking amount of money to come all this way to stop a wedding that hadn’t needed stopping after all.
If only someone had thought to mention that the bride would be abducted before the vows were spoken, Geraldine thought, and set herself off again.
She was rummaging around in her bag for the tissues she always kept close to hand—because her eyes were watering the more she laughed, another likely consequence of that endless flight—and she was making that cackling sound again, which only made her laugh more. But eventually she found a tissue. She dabbed at her eyes, like the sort of lady who didn’t go around hooting and hollering at the abortive wedding ceremonies of total strangers.
Only after she’d calmed herself slightly did she become aware of a kind of shadow that fell over her. A strange sort of shadow that made every last cell in her entire body seem to tighten of its own accord.
Only then did she look up.
And still farther up.
To find the would-be groom standing above her, a thunderous look upon his face.
This close to him, Geraldine made the entirely unwelcome discovery that he was significantly more attractive in person than she had imagined.
She had researched this man exhaustively. She had therefore spent a lot of time imagining not only him, but what she would do and say should she encounter him as she’d planned to do. She had any number of lectures in her back pocket, but the sight of him in real life was…
And he was glowering at her.
The he in question was Lionel Asensio, born to a revolting amount of wealth in Spain somewhere. He was the result of generations of affluence, the very notion of which sent a bolt of dismay straight to Geraldine’s deeply understated Midwestern soul.
Lionel himself had come of age more serious by far than the family playboys and international Lotharios who had preceded him. He had spent rather longer in educational pursuits than at least the three previous generations had done. He’d gotten a double first at Cambridge, no easy task, no matter how well-connected the student. And it was with a coveted graduate degree in business from Harvard that he had marched, grim-faced if the pictures were any indication, into the sad little family business that was likely no more than a tax shelter and turned it into a vibrant multinational corporation that some spectators claimed must have tripled his inherited wealth within ten years.
In other words, he was mind-numbingly, incomprehensibly wealthy, and yet that was not her objection to him.
It was not even his excess of male beauty, which she had expected to be harsh and off-putting. Every picture she’d seen of him had featured him glowering about just as he was now, either at the people he was with or straight into the camera itself.
She’d thought he looked surprisingly pugilistic, if not downright mean, for a man who could have no battles to fight.
It was true, she saw. He still did.
But in person there was a magnetism to this man that no picture could possibly convey. She felt her whole body shiver into a shock of awareness, as if she had no choice but to sit up straighter. As if the force of his regard commanded her flesh to respond.
Worse, it seemed primed to do his bidding.
Geraldine had always taken pride in her height, inherited from any number of her possibly Viking ancestresses, because she enjoyed that she stood taller than many women in her bare feet.
But the way this man looked down at her, she felt tiny. Somehow delightfully fragile. As if he could snap her in two with no effort whatsoever and more alarming, that she might like that. Or better still, tuck her away in one of his pockets.
She had the stray, treacherous thought that he could not possibly be the man she thought he was because there was something deep in her own bones that told her otherwise, that knew better—
But it didn’t matter what her bones said, she told herself sharply. What mattered was what her poor, lost cousin Seanna had told her before she died—that there had been only one name she had ever uttered. And that Geraldine had come all the way to Italy to make certain that there would be justice for her cousin and her cousin’s daughter, one way or another.
Even if it meant going toe-to-toe with a man who made her want to quiver.
To quiver, of all things.
He rattled off some sort of dark demand in what she thought was Italian, given where they were, though it may well have been Spanish for all she understood either language. And she meant to reply, she really did, but Geraldine’s body did not seem to be interested in obeying her commands.
It was him.
It was the way he looked at her. He was dressed in his fine and elegant clothes that should have made him look fussy, but did not. Instead, it was as if they couldn’t quite contain him. As if this chapel itself was too small.
As if he carried a brooding force within him, rough and sensual, that her body recognized instinctively.
Whatever the reason, she couldn’t say a word.
“Let me guess, you speak only English,” he said in the face of her ongoing silence, in a voice that seemed to cut straight into her, sounding both faintly British and undoubtedly Spanish at once.
And also dripping with disdain.
“I have conversational French and can read German,” Geraldine retorted, stung by the disdain and the inference that she was one of those people, forever barging around the world, expecting everyone to speak her language. She’d read all about them. She would never be so conceited. “I’m also working on my Japanese. Since you asked.”
“Perhaps you will share, then—in any of those languages—what it is you find so amusing.”
“Humor is very subjective,” she demurred, spurred by a sudden sense of self-preservation she wasn’t sure she had ever felt before. It had something to do with his eyes, the color of coffee too bitter to drink. It was something about all the harshly elegant lines of his face, like old sculptures that had never been meant for the menial gaze of the peasants. It was that last notion that infuriated her enough to keep talking. “I doubt you would find it as funny as I do. What with all the cultural differences and whatnot.”
It was not request.
And Geraldine found that she had to remind herself, sharply, that she was not here for this man’s entertainment. She was not here for him to command her in any way.
She was not here for him at all. This was about Seanna. This was about the daughter her cousin had left behind.
Despite her body’s worrying reactions to Lionel Asensio in all his considerable state, she forced herself to get to her feet. Right then, to prove she was unaffected.
But she found that it had not been a trick of the Italian pew where she’d been sitting. It was no optical illusion. Lionel Asensio really did tower over her.
Even when she was standing tall.
“It’s not every day that you see a bride carried off from a groom who does not seem to mind a bit,” she pointed out.
As she stood there in her ill-fitting dress in this Italian chapel filled with incense and sunlight and this glowering, appallingly handsome man.
Not quite quivering.
And really, Geraldine had just thrown that last bit out there to be provoking. But as she said it, she could see that it was true. For one thing, the man was standing here, talking to her about jokes and languages. He wasn’t racing out of the chapel himself. He wasn’t ordering the people around him, all his minions if she had to guess by their deferential expressions, to chase after his bride for him. Neither he nor they were calling in the authorities.
“Who are you?” he asked her, instead of addressing what she would have assumed was the more glaring issue of his missing bride.
Yet it did not occur to her to disobey him by not answering the question. “My name is Geraldine Gertrude Casey, not that I expect that to mean anything to you.”
He did not quite incline his head. Though there was what appeared to be an infinitesimal gesture in that direction. Almost. “It does not.”
And then he infuriated her all the more by subjecting her to what could only be called an overtly thorough head-to-toe examination that was in no possible way appropriate, much less polite. That too-dark, too-intense gaze of his traveled from the top of her admittedly frazzled head all the way down to her sturdy travel shoes, then made its slow way up again, taking care to linger over her deliberately frumpy dress.
It was deliberate, she reminded herself as the urge to flush in some kind of heretofore unknown embarrassment nearly took her over. If you cared in the slightest about how dresses look upon your frame, you would have bought one that fit it.
She then told herself that when she did flush, and all over, it was from fury.
Geraldine was well used to not exactly bewitching men with her charms. Though she had many gifts in this life, and was proud of all of them, that particular skill had never been one of them. It had been her poor cousin who had possessed that talent, and nothing in Seanna’s short and largely troubled life had convinced Geraldine that she ought to think she’d missed out. She didn’t.
But it had also been a long while, possibly since she’d been in those dreadful middle school years, since anyone had dared look at her the way this man did now.
As if he was sizing her up and finding her wanting—as a woman, clearly—in every possible way.
It almost made her laugh all over again.
She was certain that mad heat bubbling up within her was laughter.
“You do not look married,” he said, and there was a note in that silk-and-steel voice of his that she could not say she liked.
The insinuation was all too obvious. He did not have to ask, Who would marry the likes of you?—and yet the question hung over the old stone floor as if it was smokier by far than the burning incense.
It got right up her nose.
Normally she would have found hilarious the very idea that some hulking billionaire found a librarian from Minnesota not to his taste.
I should hope not, she might have said with a peal of laughter. Or I would assume I’d lived the whole of my life entirely wrong.
But today Geraldine was overly tired. So tired she felt pale straight through. And she did not like being looked at and analyzed with so much derision, as if she was a bit of spoiled produce in a bargain bin set out in front of the sort of down-market grocery store that she, personally, did not frequent.
“I cannot imagine what it is you think married looks like,” she shot back at him, a bit recklessly. Maybe more than a bit, given that she was on her own here in this chapel while he had brought a selection of minions with him. “Though I would imagine that anyone married to you would likely look desperate for escape. If your previous almost-bride is any indication.”
“I will take that as a no, you are not married,” he replied, with a certain languid note in that voice of his that was even more insulting. Because how could you be? was the next question that he didn’t actually need to put into words for it to hang there between them.
Smoky and rude.
“I’m not sure that’s the issue I would be harping on if I was in your shoes,” she retorted. “I’m pretty sure we saw your bride fail entirely to put up any kind of fight at all while being carried away from you and this wedding, friend.”
And she thought she saw a flicker of something in his dark gaze at that. But before she could press him any further, or dig her own grave any deeper, more like, he silenced her simply enough—by placing his hand on her upper arm and thereby urging her to walk with him back up the aisle.
Ushering her along as if she was the one being forcibly removed from the premises, with exactly as little actual force as the previous bride had experienced on her way out.
Only they were headed in the opposite direction, not that she had it in her to care too much about that.
It was that hand, Geraldine told herself through the strange haze that descended. It was his hand, or more precisely, that she could feel the wild heat of it. Not only where it gripped her upper arm, but all through her body.
As if the hold he had on her was nothing more than an ignition point, and everything else was ablaze.
She could feel the flames dance through her, licking this way and that along her arms and then all through the rest of her, finding every secret part of her body and setting it alight. One after the next, as if every step she took was from one bonfire to the next.
Her breasts felt heavy. And deep between her legs, something began to ache.
Then, before she knew it, Geraldine was standing at the head of the chapel’s surprisingly long aisle, staring at the priest who stood there—though she couldn’t seem to make sense of anything.
Not the priest as he began to speak in what she was certain was Italian this time. Not the rumbling sounds that seemed to come as much from the man beside her as through her, too, as if he was nothing short of an earthquake.
Except she was so hot when she had always imagined that, should she find herself confronted with the earth itself heaving about beneath her feet, she would be cold to the core, iced over with fear.
There were words exchanged, which she could understand even if she didn’t speak the language. And she was certain she tried to object, but she couldn’t seem to make her mouth—or any other part of herself—act properly.
Especially when Lionel Asensio, that impossible creature, turned to face her and while he did, pulled her hands into his.
Then held them there while out of the corners of her eyes, the chapel seemed to spin a little drunkenly.
Geraldine tried not to pay attention, which was her usual policy with actual drunks, too.
That was just as well, because all she really could manage to do was gaze stupidly at him, because his hands were on hers and she couldn’t seem to breathe, while he spoke rapidly. Almost carelessly, she might have thought, except the look in his eyes was intense.
Particularly when he slid two rings onto her finger, one after the next, then gazed at her when the priest spoke in his turn.
“You must reply,” Lionel said gravely, in English when the priest was finished. And the silence seemed to billow between them like still more smoke.
“But I…” she began. Her tongue felt too large. Her jaw too small. “I really don’t…”
“All you must say is yes,” he told her, again in that deeply serious manner.
And then, as she stared at him, fire dancing where it liked inside of her, one of his dark brows rose.
As if he was daring her.
And Geraldine was not a daring sort of person. The only thing she had done in the whole of her life that could be described as anything approaching daring was the fact that she’d come here, determined to make this very man take responsibility for what he’d done to her cousin.
Surely that alone should have had her stepping back and shaking her hands free of his, reclaiming herself from…whatever spell this was.
But his eyes were bittersweet chocolate, dark and rich. He gleamed like gold, though he was in no way blond. As if he, himself, was liquid gold from within. And that dark, aristocratic eyebrow felt like a call to arms.
She did not have it in her to do anything but whisper, “yes.”
Like the obedient soul she had always, secretly, imagined she was not.
And then everything seemed to speed up again. The priest was going on in Italian, Lionel was responding. Geraldine was beginning to frown as she stared down at her hand that no longer looked like her own—because there was now a great honking stone plunked down on her ring finger with another band, all heavy diamonds, next to it. It looked ridiculous in and of itself, a finger bedecked and bejeweled like that, given she had the sort of hands that were meant to dig fields rather than loaf about in Italian chapels.
But then the man beside her was turning her to face him, his hands on her shoulders.
Her breath vacated the premises entirely.
Because his head was descending and she almost felt as if she was dreaming, because Lionel Asensio—Lionel Asensio—was pressing his mouth to hers.
Everything inside Geraldine simply…stopped.
His lips were warm, and stern.
They pressed against hers in unmistakable command.
And everything that Geraldine was or ever had been disappeared, melting away in the face of a roaring fire unlike any she had ever known.
It was too bright.
It was too hot.
It was all too—
Everything spun around and around, and not just in her peripheral vision.
A strange sort of languor melded with the heat, invading her limbs, making her hotter by the second.
And she was so tired and it must have been the jet lag and there was too much incense everywhere and surely she hadn’t married this preposterously dark creature, so demanding and daring and—
But then everything went mercifully blank.
End of excerpt
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The Spaniard’s Last-Minute Wife
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