Willed to Wed Him
Her father’s will is excruciatingly clear…
Marry — or lose everything!
To save her family legacy, Annika Schuyler must tie herself to the one man who infuriates her most. But though she knows intimidating Ranieri Furlan is marrying her in cold blood, he ignites a fire in her she never dreamed possible…
CEO Ranieri will fulfill his mentor’s dying wish, but no matter how much he desires innocent Annika he can never love her. Yet behind the doors of his Manhattan penthouse, their convenient marriage becomes something more. Something that threatens to melt even this billionaire’s frozen heart!
Willed to Wed Him
Annika Schuyler stared across the disturbingly overpolished conference room table in disbelief.
“That’s impossible,” she said.
Not for the first time. Possibly not even for the tenth time, which would have embarrassed her if she wasn’t so beside herself.
“Your father made his wishes excruciatingly clear,” said the head lawyer, Stanley Something-or-other, who distinguished himself from the crowd of them who cluttered up the whole of the opposite side of the table by managing to look sorrowful. As if this turn of events had taken him, personally, by surprise.
Judging by the avid, too-shrewd expressions on all the other faces staring back at her, Annika suspected that she was the only one who was actually shocked.
“His wishes might be clear,” she managed to say, “but I’m pretty sure they’re not actually legal.”
Annika tried to settle herself, but panic and something a lot like desperation clawed at her as she sat there at the long table. Everyone else in the nosebleed-high law firm conference room, some fifty floors up from the New York streets, looked cool and corporate. The way she’d planned to look herself, because she’d expected the reading of her father’s will today to be tough. It didn’t matter that Bennett Schuyler, IV, had been effectively lost years before his death at the start of the month. He had still been here and now he wasn’t.
She had expected this to be painful for emotional reasons. And it was, but she couldn’t stop obsessing about the fact that in a room full of calmly suited white-collar warriors, she was nothing but disheveled. She could see her own reflection in the shiny tabletop and there was no getting around it. She’d thought it would be lovely—read: soothing, and Annika needed some of that these days—to walk down into midtown Manhattan from the Upper East Side for this meeting. Alas, she had overestimated the comfort of her cool and corporate shoes.
That situation had spiraled quickly. And so, now, her hair was disastrous, she’d had to come hobbling into the meeting while everyone else had been about masterful strides, and she was not entirely sure that her deodorant was up to the task of the overly hot September day outside, the shock of her father’s will, and, of course, him.
Ranieri Furlan, who currently stood with his back to the room, hands clasped behind him, looking out at the city splayed out at his feet in the last of the summer sunshine.
He, naturally, looked as if men’s fashion had been developed purely to celebrate his astonishing physique and that intensity of his that made grown men go doe-eyed when he walked in the room. To say nothing of what it did to weak-willed women.
If there was a more irritating man alive, Annika had yet to meet him. She had no desire to meet him.
She’d expected today to be her emancipation from this man. Not…
God, she couldn’t even think it.
“Your father has not insisted that you behave in any particular way,” Stanley, or maybe it was Stuart, was telling her. “That would certainly be legally questionable. Let me be clear. You can walk out of here today wholly unencumbered by your father’s wishes in regard to one small fraction of his estate, as the rest will pass to you. All he has done is lay out a set of conditions regarding two specific parts of his estate and certain consequences that will accrue if particular benchmarks are not reached. If, within three months of the reading of this will, an independent review by this law firm finds that you are not married, Schuyler House will be donated to the city. If, in those three months, Mr. Furlan is not married, he will forfeit his position as CEO of the Schuyler Corporation. If you are not married to each other, there will be significant penalties. You will be barred from working at Schuyler House entirely. Mr. Furlan will be officially censured.”
Annika had really hoped that she’d gone a little hysterical and had imagined the breadth and depth of the hole her father had left her in—but she had not. Her father wanted her married or he would take away Schuyler House, the museum Annika’s grandparents had made from the home that had been built for her Gilded Age ancestors. It was quirky and beautiful and filled with art and antiquities, and Annika had loved it since she was a child. She had gotten an Art History degree at Wellesley for the express purpose of dedicating her life to her family’s tangible, accessible legacy, right there on the Upper East Side in the original Schuyler family home. It was the next best thing to actually having family, she’d often thought.
She was the last Schuyler. The museum helped her feel less alone, surrounded by so much of her family over the ages. Their things. Their treasures. Their portraits. The museum connected her to all of them.
That was the part that had made her lapse off into a little bit of private hysteria. Now, as she forced herself to really pay attention this time, she realized it was much worse.
There was a fine if she was not engaged within twenty-four hours of the reading of the will. There was a fine if she was not engaged to Ranieri. There was a fine if she did not share a home with Ranieri, or whoever she was engaged to, within a week. She was not only to be married within the month, but significant financial penalties—to be taken out of the money her father had left her—applied if she did not remain married for at least a year. If she achieved any or all of these things, yet was to blame for any of them failing—whether she called off an engagement, initiated a divorce, or refused to marry—she would lose Schuyler House. She supposed it was meant to be some small comfort that if Ranieri—or, presumably, whatever other fool she could coerce into proposing to her in the next twenty-four hours, an unlikely endeavor given she wasn’t dating anyone and hadn’t in ages—faced his own set of financial penalties, to be taken out of his compensation package.
Though, of course, the penalties if the groom in question wasn’t Ranieri were less about taking things away and more about what he wouldn’t be getting. No bonuses, no stock options, no bribes at all.
Thanks a lot, Dad, Annika thought darkly.
“Do you understand?” asked Stephen, or whatever he was called. And this time, she did not find the kindly look on his face at all encouraging.
“I understood the first time,” Annika assured him. She attempted a smile, but didn’t quite pull it off. “Until today I was under the impression my father loved me.”
She realized when she said it that the army of lawyers now all thought she was terribly sad. When what she was actually struggling to keep inside was her temper.
Really, Dad, she thought then. What were you thinking?
Annika wasn’t looking at him directly and yet still she was aware that this was the moment Ranieri decided to move. He turned back around to face the long conference room, and Annika was certainly not the only one who cringed away from the ferocity he wore as easily as that dark suit, exquisitely tailored to simply exult in the lean, fine lines of his powerful body.
Ranieri Furlan came from ancient Italian stock, descended from generations upon generations of northern Italians with the same dark hair, golden eyes, and height. He was out of context here, but there, he would be unremarkable. Or so she liked to tell herself. She’d visited Milan once or twice and she’d assured herself for years that if they were strolling around the Duomo, she would lose him in a crowd. Ranieri would simply blend. He’d be mundane and run-of-the-mill over there.
Sadly, Annika knew that wasn’t true, no matter how many times she tried to convince herself otherwise. She'd wandered the whole of the north of Italy without ever clapping eyes on a man who seemed to simmer like Ranieri did. Somehow, he managed to seethe just under the surface while remaining effortlessly sophisticated all the while.
She had no idea how he did it.
He had come to the Schuyler Corporation after doing a business degree in London and then a master’s at Harvard. She had been in high school when he had so impressed her father, who had been wanting to step down from his CEO duties for some time. Ranieri had been not only driven and focused, as all those who wanted a CEO position were—he had wanted to keep the family feel of the company intact. He had believed, right from the start, that the family beginnings of Schuyler Corporation were what made it uniquely positioned to succeed in a world overrun with corporations that tended toward soullessness.
He had been speaking Bennett’s love language.
Teenage Annika had not been impressed with the interloper into her family’s affairs, but then, her father had not offered her a vote. And in the fullness of time, even Annika could grudgingly admit that under Ranieri, the Schuyler Corporation had bloomed. He had delivered higher profits every single year since he’d started, showed no sign of slowing down, and still maintained the core values that her father had believed in so deeply.
She knew that the financial papers swooned over him. But the papers were neck and neck with all the single women in Manhattan, if not the world, who became giddy at the very mention of his name. Annika had served as her father’s hostess for years after her mother died, and had also served as his date for all the endless rounds of annual New York social events, where she had gotten to watch Ranieri’s effect on the average Manhattan socialite up close.
Really, she’d made a study of him.
He was beautiful, there was no denying it, but there were a lot of beautiful men in New York City. A lot of sophisticated men, too. Ranieri was different because he had that edge. There was something about the way his features came together. The dark hair, cut brutally short, as if he wanted the intense gold of his eyes to take over rooms as he entered. As if it was deliberate. She believed it was.
Ranieri knew exactly what effect he had, and used it ruthlessly. His bold nose and stark, sensual mouth were enough to make anyone’s belly flutter. His dark brows were always about to scowl or lift into a mocking arch. He was not given much to smiling. Or laughing, unless it was a short bark of laughter, designed to intimidate. Nor did he trouble himself to make any attempt to engage in anything that could possibly be confused for small talk.
And yet, when he felt like it, he could be charming. In his intense, urbane manner, focusing all of his considerable attention on the unwary person before him and making them flutter.
In a city filled with the glittery and the glamorous, Ranieri was a fierce and elegant blade—never polished enough to take away from the fact that he could kill. And easily.
He just never seemed civilized, was the thing.
And today it was even worse than usual.
It had been a rough five years. Her father’s car accident that winter had taken everyone by surprise, perhaps Annika and Ranieri most of all. At first, everyone had imagined that Bennett Schuyler would snap back quickly. Or quickly enough. He had issued his usual commands from his hospital bed and they’d followed them, never imagining that he would slip into a coma a week after his accident.
And then linger, somewhere between death and life, for years.
Annika had imagined that the makeshift guardianship her father had insisted upon would end with his death. That Ranieri would have nothing more to do with her life, thank you very much. She was just glad that she had already graduated from college at the time of her father’s accident. She wasn’t so young that she would have been truly under Ranieri’s thumb, and so he hadn’t controlled her as much as he could have. He’d simply controlled all the money. And had taken it upon himself to act as the unwanted director of the museum, too.
You don’t know what my father’s wishes were for the museum, she had argued, for years.
Neither do you, Ranieri had replied in his usual obdurate fashion.
Annika had been so certain that once the will was read, she would be well shot of the man. This was not supposed to be happening.
Ranieri surveyed the room, which had fallen silent before him, as ever.
“Leave us, please,” was all he said.
He didn’t have to be loud. He rarely was. He simply spoke, his voice deep and rich with hints of Italy and England alike, making him sound even more intense.
The entire legal team had left the room before Annika could even process the command. And then it was just the two of them.
Ranieri gazed at her then, and the look on his face was at least familiar. It was that rather frozen look he always aimed her way, as if he couldn’t quite believe that the creature he saw before him was truly the daughter of Bennett Schuyler, renowned the world over for his business acumen and social grace. Ranieri struggled with Annika’s lack of either.
She knew this because he told her so, and she could see he planned to beat that dead horse a little more today, too. Terrific.
“You look a mess,” he told her darkly, and he was correct, of course. But why did he have to say it? “This is how you choose to honor your father?”
“My father actually did love me.” She often tried to sound as ferocious as he did, but she could never pull it off. She was always too chirpy. That was what he had called it once. Her incessant chirping. “He never held me up to unrealistic standards.”
“Are the standards unrealistic?” His voice cut straight through her, as ever. Ranieri was worse than a cold winter wind howling down one of the New York streets. “I passed any number of women on my way into this conference room, all of whom were apparently capable of brushing their hair.”
Annika glanced at her reflection in the table again and could manage little more than a rueful laugh. “I did brush my hair. Thank you for asking after my morning routine. It’s just that I didn’t brush it again after walking all the way here. I would have. I meant to. It’s only that I had some shoe issues, and that made me late, and I thought you might have an aneurysm if I was seriously tardy. So really, if you want to blame someone, blame yourself.”
He did that thing with his jaw that somehow made her think only of great stones, like monoliths set in lonely fields. “And yet you were, in fact, tardy.”
Annika waved her hand. “Five minutes doesn’t count.”
“You can take that long waiting for an elevator in a building like this.” She shrugged. “And anyway, I don’t really think the state of my hair is the issue here.”
There were a great many issues, but she chose at that moment to concentrate on one of the major ones. That being his deep and historic dislike of her.
When she’d been younger, she’d thought that she was imagining things. She’d met the man when she was sixteen. And sure, she’d watched him be his own brand of brashly charming to everyone he met, except her. But she had been so awkward. So overset by the things her friends found so easy. What to wear, how to act, how to behave as if they were at least ten years older than they were. Her mother would have helped her with these things, she was sure, but she had died when Annika was small. Annika sometimes worried she remembered only the idea of her, handed down by those with real memories. And she felt lucky if she got her dress on the right way.
The effortlessly collected Ranieri had always looked at her as if she was the human, teenage version of a tornado. As if he fully expected her to take down the foundations of any building they sat in if she wasn’t carefully watched.
As she’d gotten older, his dislike had only grown. He had made it abundantly clear that she was an embarrassment to the Schuyler name. She knew his argument. That he and her father were engaged in building that name, yet there Annika was, whirling about in her usual fashion, spreading embarrassment and chaos wherever she went. She was always too messy, too inappropriately dressed, too scatterbrained, too clumsy, too awkward.
Annika had, previous to Ranieri, considered that her own brand of charm. Her father had always smiled fondly and told her that her mother had been a tornado too—but he’d always said that like it was a good thing.
She wasn’t actually used to people disliking her. Maybe everyone she encountered didn’t love her, but they usually didn’t dislike her. She wasn’t the kind of woman who inspired strong feelings in others. She’d accepted that.
Only Ranieri made it clear that he not only didn’t like her—she was an affront to his sensibilities in every way. Only this man, of all people.
The good news was that it didn’t hurt her feelings anymore.
“I want Schuyler House and I assume you want to continue doing your CEO thing.” She aimed a polite smile his way, because it was that or sob in horror. He would consider it a weakness, so that was out. “So what do you think? Elope?”
He studied her as if she’d suggested something tawdry. And she couldn’t say she cared for the fluttery sensation that overtook her the moment she thought about tawdry things involving Ranieri Furlan. She couldn’t say she liked it at all.
“Elope?” he asked, as if he was unfamiliar with the word.
Like most things, once Annika had the idea in her head, she could do nothing at all but roll with it. “It’s a perfect solution,” she told him gaily.
He was still looming there at the bottom of the table, which she figured was probably some kind of power game. If she was feeling charitable, she might say that Ranieri didn’t try to play power games. Probably. He simply was that powerful.
But she didn’t have to attempt to compete on that level. She swiveled her chair around, and lounged back in it, gazing at him like she was some kind of fat cat herself. So replete with her own majesty that she didn’t need to stand and face him.
“I’m not sure why my father thought that matchmaking was a good use of the little time he had left,” she continued. “But I think it’s perfectly easy to obey the letter of the law without inconveniencing ourselves too much. We can elope easily enough. And that will instantly sort all the rest of it out. As far as living under one roof goes, that’s easily done. I know you have that loft downtown. There’s also the family brownstone. I’m sure both are spacious enough to allow us to live our own lives. After a year, we go our separate ways. Everyone wins.”
She gazed down the table, smiling winningly.
Ranieri appeared unmoved.
Ranieri always appeared unmoved. He was a one-man Stonehenge, only less approachable.
“And how do you think this plan of yours will look?” He asked the question as if he was interrogating her. In a court of law. In which she was a known murderer or something equally distasteful. “To the casual observer?”
She stared back at him, not comprehending either the tone or his actual words. “What does it matter?”
His lips thinned. “Naturally it doesn’t matter to you. This does not surprise me. But I have a reputation to uphold, Annika. I cannot simply hurtle about through life, heedless of the way my actions reflect on the Schuyler Corporation.”
He paused, likely so she could marinate in the fact that really, he was calling her heedless. And hurtling.
But she didn’t react, because what was the point when it was always the same litany from him, so he carried on. “Having to jump through hoops like these to secure a position I have already earned is insulting.” That cold gold gaze of his was a slap. “It is distasteful in the extreme to imagine colleagues and rivals alike tittering over your father’s stipulations. Am I ever to be taken seriously again?”
Annika had always found him about as serious as a heart attack, but refrained from saying so. “We don’t have to tell anyone that these are the terms of his will if you don’t want to. I don’t care what anyone thinks about me.”
“That is quite apparent.”
She was used to his putdowns, but this one made her ears singe just that little bit. Still, she kept herself from retorting. She knew from experience that any show of temper from her produced amazement on his part that she, as ever, was so emotional.
“But that creates another quandary,” Ranieri mused, his gaze glittering. He seemed to take pleasure in looking at her, all the way down the length of his nose as well as the table, as if going out of his way to point out to her how much better he thought he was. If this was the sort of energy he brought to his business meetings, Annika wasn’t surprised that, as far she could tell, any C-suite he glanced at flung itself at his feet en masse. “It is entirely believable that you might wish to marry me.”
“Only if you’ve never met me,” Annika retorted, more stung by that than she really wanted to investigate.
And anyway, he was ignoring her. “No one will have any trouble believing that you have spent your life pining away for me,” he said, and the truly outrageous part was that he wasn’t waiting for her response. He didn’t even seem to notice her outrage. He truly believed what he was saying. She would have leaped to her feet and argued the point, because how dare he, but he skewered her with another cold glare. “But I’m afraid, Annika, that it will be impossible for anyone to believe that I would ever marry you.”
And then he laughed, as if the very idea was so absurd it was funny.
Annika opened her mouth to suggest he take a flying leap out the window behind him and concentrate on forgetting about her and anything having to do with her on the way down, but shut it again, hard.
Because she’d almost forgotten what happened if he goaded her into washing her hands of this.
But she doubted very much that he had. He was a master manipulator. It was literally his job.
“Don’t be silly,” she said instead. “Sure, your dating history is basically a Who’s Who of Fashion Week, but no one will be surprised if a man who dates supermodels exclusively ends up with a normal woman. Men like you are forever settling down with unflashy women. It’s how your type signals that you’re taking your marriage seriously. A time-honored rite of passage for a certain kind of tragically shallow man.”
“Come now, Annika.” Ranieri did something with his chin that swept over her, head to toe. “You must be realistic. It is not that you’re plain. It is that I am me.” He shook his head as if he shouldn’t have to explain this to her. “I am a man of exacting tastes. Who will ever believe, for even a moment, that I would willingly shackle myself to a woman who takes such little care with her own appearance? Who would accept that I might sport such an unsightly disaster upon my arm?”
It took her a moment to realize that the true insult here was not that he was saying these things. But that he clearly did not even register them as insults. To him, they were simply facts, not opinions.
Annika found herself gaping at him, openmouthed. Normally he would raise his dark brows and ask her if her motor skills were impaired, but today he didn’t even notice.
“It is too implausible,” Ranieri continued as if he was alone. Then again, he probably thought he always was. “Unless we wish the entire world to think that I’m conducting my own personal charity, or suffering from a head injury, we must come up with a different reason for this.”
It required all the willpower Annika had to simply sit there, close her mouth, and somehow keep herself from telling this man exactly where he could go.
“Don’t be too hasty, Ranieri,” she cautioned him. She made herself smile, lazily, as if this was her idea of entertainment. “The head injury can always be arranged.”
End of excerpt
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Willed to Wed Him
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