Keelin O’Connor surveyed the lavishly decorated hotel room in the exclusive Harrington Hotel in Rome. Almost nothing was visible because exclusive shopping bags covered every surface. As a shopping novice, she hoped she’d gone far enough, not really knowing what constituted gross levels of consumerism beyond what she saw on some trashy reality TV programmes of the rich and famous.
Her fiancé – who also happened to be a complete stranger – was due any minute and she hated that the palms of her hands were sweaty with nerves when her blood still boiled with anger and humiliation at what her father expected her to do…
‘You can’t be serious.’ She’d looked at her father two weeks ago and battled a very familiar sense of angry futility.
Liam O’Connor’s expression was as hard as flint. ‘I am.’
Keelin had spoken slowly as if to make sure she wasn’t in the middle of a nightmare. ‘You’ve sold me off in some marriage deal to a complete stranger – ‘
Her father slashed a hand through the air. ‘It is not like that. Giancarlo Delucca is one of Italy’s most innovative entrepreneurs – Italian food and wine exports is booming and in the space of only three years, the Delucca name has gained respect all over Europe, not to mention tripled its profits which is unheard of at the moment.’
‘So what the hell does that have to do with me?’
Her tall father had put his hands on his desk and leant forward. ‘What is has to do with you my girl is everything. I want a merger with this man to secure the future of O’Connor Foods and as my daughter you are part of the deal.’
Keelin’s hands curled to fists but she’d barely noticed nails digging into soft skin. ‘Arranged marriages are archaic.’
Her father straightened up and said scathingly, ‘Don’t be so naïve. This is about business. Giancarlo Delucca is a young man, and good – looking. Rich. Any woman would be delighted to have him as her husband.’
Keelin had responded bitterly, ‘Any woman perhaps, with about two brain cells to rub together.’ She’d ignored her father’s darkening expression and tried to call up the little she knew of Delucca from her overheated brain. ‘Doesn’t he have links to the mafia?!’
Her father replied tautly. ‘His father had links to the mafia. And he’s dead. That’s all in the past now. Delucca is determined to put it behind him and prove to people that he’s respectable. That’s why he’s willing to marry and settle down.’
Keelin laughed but it sounded strangled and semi – hysterical. ‘Lucky me!’
Liam O’Connor’s gray gaze, so different to Keelin’s own green one narrowed on her, ‘Haven’t you always wanted me to involve you in the business?’
‘Yes,’ she’d said huskily, emotion a tight ball in her chest to be reminded of how comprehensively she’d been shut out. ‘But as the person who stands to inherit the O’Connor brand. Not as some chattel to be sold off to the highest bidder.’
Her father’s mouth had tightened. ‘You’ve hardly given me the confidence that you can be trusted to inherit anything, Keelin.’
Futile anger rose in a dizzying rush and terrified emotion might leak out of her eyes she’d stalked over to the large window which showcased an impressive view of a soaring modern bridge over the river Liffey, named after the great playwright Samuel Beckett. Dublin had sparkled benignly in the spring sunshine.
But she’d seen none of it. She’d felt only an inner tsunami of pain to be so misunderstood, still. She’d known forever that she was a disappointment to her parents: to her mother for not being the girly girl she wanted to show off. And to her father for being a girl, and not a worthier boy. And as soon as Keelin had recognised that as a distinct lack of love, it had seared a need into her psyche to get her father’s attention at all costs which had manifested in a series of teenage rebellions that had been as futile as they were excruciating to remember now.
And even though she’d matured and left those petty rebellions behind, nothing had really changed. Her parents hadn’t even deigned to come and see her graduate from university recently.
Her own reflection was distorted in the glass – pale face, huge eyes. Red hair. Too red. It had always marked her out as far too easy to pinpoint when there was trouble, unwittingly helping her to act out her pathetic bid for love and attention.
When she’d felt composed enough she’d turned around again. ‘And what about our name? If I marry him it’ll die out anyway!’
Her father had shaken his head. ‘No, it won’t. Delucca has agreed that our name and branding will remain and be passed down to your sons.’
Her sons. With a complete stranger. A gangster.
Her father had walked around the desk to come and stand a few feet away from her, his face softening slightly. Emotion had gripped her again. Was she such a sucker for any sliver of affection that she would fall for this thinly veiled act?
He’d sighed heavily, ‘The truth is that O’Connor Foods is struggling, like almost every other business out there.’
Keelin had frowned, she’d been aware that the company hadn’t been doing as well as in previous years but not badly enough to merit alarm. And how would she really know when she was kept firmly excluded from the inner sanctum? ‘Struggling – how do you mean?’
He’d waved a hand avoiding a direct answer. ‘Aligning with Delucca will give us the boost we need, and the protection, going forward. And then there’s you. I want to know that your future is secured.’
Keelin hadn’t been fooled for a second that he genuinely cared for her welfare even though a weak part of her yearned for it. She’d taken advantage of his softer stance to try to make him see that she was serious about wanting to be involved. ‘But my future will be secure, I can work with you to help shore up the defences, take the company forward. I’m ready to – ‘
He’d lifted a hand, any trace of softness disappearing. ‘If you truly want to prove that you can be part of this company in a meaningful way, then this marriage is the only solution, Keelin.’
A tiny flame of hope sputtered out. It mocked the defences she thought she’d honed over years of neglect. She shook her head, a sense of betrayal rising within her. ‘I won’t do it.’
Her father lashed back angrily. ‘I should have known you’d balk when it came to proving the depth of your loyalty. If you walk away from this, you can consider yourself on your own.’
For a moment she’d felt as if he’d punched her in the softest part of her belly. All she wanted was to show her loyalty to her family legacy, and she was finally being offered a chance but in exchange for her personal freedom.
She’d felt sick to think that it had come to this – the ultimate rejection, if she said no. But then, in a blinding flash of inspiration, a scenario had taken shape. A burgeoning sense of hope had filled her as she’d said slowly, ‘What if we meet and Delucca doesn’t want to marry me?’
Her father waved a hand dismissively, ‘Of course he’ll want to marry you, you’re a beautiful young woman, and you’re bringing with you the opportunity he needs to break into the global market. He won’t let that slip away.’
But Keelin had been barely listening to her father anymore, her heart palpitating at the thought of a way out of this crazy scenario without having to burn her bridges entirely….so she’d agreed to meet with Delucca…and here she was now, seconds away from that meeting.
She’d exhaustively researched him in the meantime and found that clearly he was obsessed with proving that the persistent rumour of links to the mafia were just that. In every interview he put the focus on his business concerns and moving forward. He was the epitomy of casual Italian elegance, and to Keelin’s chagrin she hadn’t been able to repress a shiver of awareness when she’d seen his photos. He was darkly gorgeous, masculine. An air of intensity about him. And also, danger.
He seemed hellbent on proving himself to be a million miles removed from the scandals of his father’s life; a man who had been brutally murdered by a rival mafia faction.
And when it came to lovers he was never pictured with the same stunning woman more than twice. They were all of the same ilk: tall, brunette, sleek and gorgeous. Discreet, and oozing effortlessly classy style. Which was in keeping with his apparent bid not to draw adverse attention to himself. True, he skirted on the edges of being known as a playboy, but was never photographed behaving badly. And there were no salacious kiss and tell stories. So the playboy moniker was pretty benign.
Evidently he didn’t let women get in his way when it came to his ruthless ambition. And respectability and discretion were important to him. So this gave Keelin all the ammunition she needed. A man like that couldn’t want a wife! And she’d decided she needed to make herself over into everything that might possibly repel him from this union. Not the most mature of approaches but she hadn’t had time to come up with anything more nuanced.
She’d ended up with an over – the – top trashy caricature of the kind of girl from her school peer group: rich, privileged. Shallow. Vain. And hopefully the kind of woman someone like Giancarlo Delucca would run screaming from.
She checked herself now in a nearby mirror – dress: short; long red hair: big; make – up: a lot. She made a face. Her mother would approve wholeheartedly. She spritzed more perfume on, swallowing back a sneeze at the overwhelming fumes.
A peremptory knock came to the hotel – room door and Keelin’s belly swooped alarmingly. She wasn’t ready for this, she felt ridiculous. He’d see through her in an instant.
The knock came again, a little sharper. She steeled herself. She had to be ready. This was a fight for her independence and future.