Wanton Heat ONLY
a Feel the Heat novel by USA TODAY bestselling author Nicola Marsh
With her job and her self-respect on the line, advertising executive and reformed bad-girl Zoe Keaton heads to Italy to score a vital business deal. Unfortunately, the guy she needs to convince is the wickedly hot—and totally closed-off—Prince Dominic Ricci, who has no intention of listening to her pitch. So with the queen’s help, Zoe does the only thing that will get the job done. She kidnaps him.
But the joke’s on her when the queen’s matchmaking strands Zoe and the prince on the royal family’s secluded island. Zoe vows not to mix business with pleasure—and prove that she’s more than a spoiled rich girl who bought her way to success—but when the prince turns up the heat, the chemistry between them ignites. Is it just sizzling sex, or could an Italian prince with a tragic past fall for a take-no-prisoners American?
Title: Wanton Heat (Feel the Heat)
Author: Nicola Marsh
Genre: Contemporary Romance
Release Date: February 2014
©2014 Nicola Marsh
Zoe Keaton had never conformed a day in her life.
At nine months, she’d defied the coddling of her parents and walked.
At three, she’d ridden her tricycle straight through a stained-glass window in their Texan mansion, because they’d told her not to go too fast.
At ten, she’d run away twice, because they wouldn’t allow her to get a Mohawk and a nose ring, in that order.
By the time she’d hit puberty, her mom had given up on her, her dad indulged his “wild child,” and she’d been the coolest kid in school.
Zoe liked being a rebel. It suited her.
Which made having to schmooze some uptight, surly, silver-spoon-up-his-ass Italian prince for business all the harder.
Zoe wasn’t a monarchist. She was an anarchist.
And the only prince she had any respect for was the Artist Formerly Known As, one of her dad’s vintage faves. Though Prince William was kinda cute. She really liked the way those tight white polo britches highlighted a guy’s assets.
That’s about the only thing Prince Dominic Ricci of Osturo—a tiny Italian island off the coast of Naples—had going for him. His assets. And she wasn’t talking about the modern sandstone castle she could see at the end of a long stone-flagged driveway.
She’d Googled the prince. Several times. Just to make sure she was fully equipped to convince Prince Pompous-Pants that the ad campaign she’d devised for the resort on one of his other islands, Ancora, was just what his kingdom needed. She’d busted her ass working on a contemporary campaign for the outdated resort, which was owned by her company’s new lucrative client Kai Kaluna. Though she could’ve achieved her research objective with one session. Instead, she’d taken one look at the prince and bookmarked him.
His Lordship was hot. Seriously hot. The type of hot that made a girl want to find a dark-haired, blue-eyed look-alike and ride him until dawn.
It was a shame she’d sworn off flings for a while. She could’ve had fun flirting with a prince. What was the point of spending a week in a castle on a gorgeous Italian island in the Mediterranean if she couldn’t indulge in some hot island nights?
But having a fling with the guy she had to do business with was a disaster waiting to happen. She’d already messed up enough recently. Hell, she’d almost made AW Advertising, the company she co-owned, go under because of her gung-ho approach with their oldest clients. The company’s most valuable clients had walked, thanks to her. And what had she done? Rather than telling her BFF and co-owner Allegra Wilks the truth, she’d accepted a partnership as a step toward making amends.
Zoe saw it as her penance. With the constant doubts plaguing her after that spectacular failure, she needed to land this ad campaign for Kai Kaluna to prove she was more than a trumped-up Texan-turned-Californian who couldn’t achieve anything without the safety net of Daddy’s new money behind her.
As for failing again and potentially pissing off Kaluna…if he walked and took his business with him, AW Advertising would be finished. They’d be screwed, and she’d be the one personally responsible.
No way would she let that happen. And that meant schmoozing a prince with bedroom eyes and a sardonically sexy smile.
Fan-fricking-tastic. The last thing she needed to be reminded of before her all-important first meeting with the prince was how hot the guy was. Bad enough she had to curb another impulse to check out that bookmarked Google page on him again before seeing him in the flesh.
Flesh…hard, bronzed, and ripped, from those pics she’d seen online…
Don’t go there, dumbass.
She shook her head, clasped her handbag tighter, hoisted her overnight bag higher on her shoulder, and followed the cobblestoned path toward the castle entrance. Like her mistaken assumption of the prince, whom she’d envisaged as being middle-aged, grim, and flabby, she’d imagined the castle to be a crumbly pile of old rocks.
Both her preconceptions had been blown sky-high. The L-shaped, three-story sandstone building perched on a cliff top overlooking incredible expanses of indigo Tyrrhenian Sea appeared as modern as its owner. Beautiful arched windows, immaculate manicured lawns, and an ash wood front door that would be monstrous up close.
Okay, so the fact that she had to stay here for seven days wasn’t all bad. If she could get the prince on board and her work done, maybe she could play princess in her downtime.
The thought of her lounging around a castle made her stumble, and she dropped her overnight bag. She bent to retrieve it, and when she straightened, the thing slipped out of her hand again.
Less than four feet away, dripping water onto the flagstones, stood the most gorgeous male specimen she’d ever seen.
Bare, bronzed chest glistening in the sun. Rivulets of water trickling toward a loosely knotted towel slung low on his hips. Long, lean legs. Muscled.
She dragged her gaze upward to the sizable bulge beneath the towel…
“Fuck.” The expletive slipped out before she could stop it.
Not exactly how she’d imagined her first word to Prince Dominic Ricci.
He quirked an eyebrow. “Something the matter?”
Zoe had one second to redeem herself. She could flounder and apologize and grovel. But she’d end up looking more like a fool. So she did what she did best. Revert to type.
“Nothing’s wrong.” She deliberately looked him up and down, trying her best not to linger on that towel. “In fact, all seems right with the world from where I’m standing.”
His other imperious eyebrow joined the first. “Do I know you?”
“Would you like to?”
Crap, she was flirting with royalty. Could they behead her for doing this?
To her relief, the corners of his lips curved upward. “You’re American.”
“Don’t hold that against me.” She resisted the urge to shuffle her feet under the intensity of his stare. “Born and bred Texan, but an LA girl at heart.”
He wrinkled his nose as if she’d presented him with a pile of doggy doo. “Flashy and fake.”
She puffed up in indignation. “Now hang on a minute—”
“The city, not you.”
This time it was his turn to do the surveying, and he started at her coral-painted toes and inched upward, his stare lingering on her calves, her knees, her hips. She’d opted for a sedate black-and-white fitted maxi-dress to meet the prince, but by the way her skin tingled? There was nothing sedate about his perusal.
She dragged in a breath, which drew his attention to her breasts. By the time he locked gazes with her, she could’ve sworn her heart had stopped.
She’d had her fair share of sex, had flirted and seduced, but no guy had ever made her feel so…wanton with just a look.
“You’re beautiful,” he said, closing the small distance between them. “But I think you already know that?”
Zoe would have usually thrust out her boobs and responded with an “abso-fricking-lutely.”
But there was something about this guy that made her strangely tongue-tied.
She shrugged, as if his compliment meant little. “I’ve had my fair share of flattery from guys willing to do anything to get what they want.”
“And what do you think I want, cara?”
Oh, boy. Courtesy of her crash course in Italian—the native language of Osturo—via her iPad on the plane, he’d called her “darling.”
In response to his semi-naked state, proximity, and polished Oxford accent with an underlying hint of his Italian background, she clenched her thighs together to prevent herself from collapsing at his feet and yelling, “Take me now.”
Squaring her shoulders, she flashed him her most dazzling smile. “Why don’t you tell me what you want?”
“Defiance in one so beautiful.” He touched her cheek with a fingertip. “Enchanting.”
As he trailed his fingertip toward her mouth, that simple touch short-circuited Zoe’s common sense. She had no idea if it was the surrealism of the situation, the scent of lemon blossoms in the air, the heat of his touch, or the yearning in his eyes, but she found herself taking a step forward so their bodies were an inch apart.
She could feel the heat radiating off him, could smell an intoxicating blend of sea and sun and sexy male. And she couldn’t resist…
She touched him.
Her palm splayed against his chest, her hand small and insignificant against that bronze expanse.
He didn’t move, but his fingertip continued its leisurely exploration of her face. So she explored, too.
Her palm slid lower, gliding across his wet skin, tracing every tempting contour.
She heard his harsh intake of breath as her fingers skated close to the knot of the towel.
And that’s when she felt it. His hard-on nudging her hip.
Zoe bit back a moan and dragged her gaze away from his chest. She couldn’t do this. Not when so much rested on this deal going through.
“Cara?” His fingertip finally reached her bottom lip, where it lingered.
She would give anything to suck it into her mouth, to show him exactly what she wanted to do to him elsewhere.
Instead, she reluctantly stepped away.
The intimate spell enveloping them shattered when she glanced up and met his cold, steely glare.
“I was wondering how far you would go for your business proposition.” He spat the last two words, making it sound like she wanted to assassinate him.
Realization washed over her, with a healthy dose of humiliation thrown in for good measure.
He’d been baiting her? What a prick.
“Not as far as you’d like, obviously.” She pointedly stared at the front of his tented towel. “Or does that work on command like the rest of your serfs around here?”
The second the fiery comeback spilled from her lips, Zoe wished she could take it back. She shouldn’t taunt him, not when she needed him so badly. Needed his business, that is. Whatever.
Amusement flickered in those unfairly piercing blue eyes. “I test everyone who sets foot in my domain. Don’t take it personally.”
His domain? Oh, yeah, the next seven days would be peachy good fun. She could see it now: him snapping his fingers, expecting her to jump to his tune. As if.
“Zoe Keaton.” She stuck her hand out, the sensible greeting she should’ve delivered moments ago.
“From AW Advertising.” He made it sound as if she planned on opening a full-service brothel in the castle foreground as he shook her hand so quickly, she could’ve imagined it. “We’ve been expecting you.”
Was he using the royal pronoun or referring to a welcoming party that hadn’t shown up yet?
Hating how off-kilter he made her feel, she gestured at his torso. “In that case, you’re a tad underdressed.”
“Didn’t seem to bother you before,” he murmured, a flare of heat sparking the indigo of his eyes before he cleared his throat. “I expected you to be waiting inside the castle, not strolling the grounds hoping to accost me.”
“You wish,” she muttered, biting back a grin as a frown creased his brow. “My ferry docked early, so I apologize. If I’d been on time, you would’ve had plenty of opportunity to cover up all of that.”
She only just managed to avert her greedy gaze from the towel and all of that.
“Shall we?” He gestured for her to walk in front of him. “My grandmother will be waiting.”
“Lead the way,” Zoe said, eager to meet Queen Catarina Ricci, the figurehead matriarch who deferred everyday decisions to her grandson.
From Zoe’s research, she’d learned that the queen had been a rebel in her day, traipsing through Europe, partying from one end to the other. She’d married for love, had bucked tradition by raising equally free-spirited children, and continued to host lavish parties that drew A-listers from around the world. And despite losing her three sons, including Dominic’s dad, Franco, who’d died in a freak avalanche, she was renowned for her hospitality.
Too bad Catarina’s grandson hadn’t inherited some of his gran’s social graces.
“You’re wasting your time, you know.” He held out his hand for her overnight bag. “Nothing you say will convince me to allow Kaluna to make Ancora a focal point for thousands to desecrate.”
“I’ve got a week to change your mind.” She gripped her bag tighter, despite her shoulder aching from the load. “Your grandmother obviously sees the potential of positive PR for this region, and she insisted I stay seven days to explore all the possibilities an ad campaign for a rejuvenated resort could provide.”
He said something like “crazy Nonna” under his breath. “My grandmother is progressive for her age, but in the matter of promoting this region? We greatly differ.”
“I like your grandmother already,” Zoe said, glad to have at least one ally in her quest.
“And she’s going to love you,” he muttered, before rushing on. “Give me the bag.”
His command rankled. “Why? So you can snap your fingers and have some poor servant pop out from behind a tree to do your bidding?”
To her surprise, he laughed, a genuinely happy sound that did something strange to her chest. “You’re very outspoken.”
“It’s how I’ve always been.” She squared her shoulders, as if daring him to disagree. “I’m blunt and persistent and outrageous, but I get the job done.” She jabbed a finger in his direction. “Something you’ll see very soon.”
He muttered something in Italian that sounded distinctly derogatory. “The faster you hand over that bag, the faster you can start convincing me to ruin these islands all in the name of progress.”
“And the faster you realize your islands are financially imploding along with the rest of the Italian economy, the faster you’ll use your business brain to see that what I’m proposing can only benefit everyone.” She hoisted the bag higher and tried not to wince as her shoulder pinched.
“You’re right, you are blunt and persistent.” He scowled. “But you forgot to add ‘pain in the ass’ to the list of your dubious attributes.”
“You didn’t seem to find my attributes so repugnant five minutes ago.” She thrust out her chest for good measure in a purely childish “so there.” The part where her nipples hardened beneath his potent stare kinda undermined the point she’d been trying to make.
“Bag. Please?” He softened his command this time, and she didn’t know what was worse. The way she couldn’t stop staring at his bare chest, or the way his cajoling manner made her feel a little gooey inside.
“Fine.” She handed the bag over, silently cheering at not having to lug the thing around any more. “While we’re listing attributes, why don’t we come up with a few for you?”
She snapped her fingers. “Let’s start with domineering and demanding.”
He shrugged. “Valuable in my line of work.”
“What work’s that? Ordering subordinates to do your bidding or polishing the crown jewels?”
The second the retort popped out, Zoe wished she could take it back. She hadn’t meant it the way it sounded, because when guys “polished” their “crown jewels”…ah, hell. She may as well reboard the ferry and head back to Naples now.
She heard a stifled snort, and when she shot him a quick sideways glance, he wore the smug grin of a guy who wasn’t going to let her get away with that one.
“Polishing the crown jewels can be a lot of fun,” he said, his grin widening as she picked up the pace a little. Maybe if she broke into a run, she could ditch him completely.
“I’ll take your word for it.” She tilted her nose higher, knowing it was way too late for aloofness now.
“Maybe you’d like to help—”
“Stop right there.” She came to an abrupt halt and held up her hand. “We need to clear the air.”
She jerked a thumb over her shoulder. “What happened back there when we first met? A mistake.”
She waved her hand between them. “You and me? We’re both strong personalities used to getting our own way. So stands to reason we’re going to butt heads and verbally spar for the next week.”
Intrigue darkened his eyes to midnight. “Go on.”
“I’m a natural flirt. It’s my thing. But you…” She shook her head. “You’re the prince of Osturo, and as long as you don’t agree to my business proposal, you’re also the enemy. So quit trying to unnerve me with your hot and cold act, and your lame-ass innuendoes, got it?”
Before he could respond, she pointed to his chest. “And for fuck’s sake, put some clothes on.”
She expected him to bristle or glower or order her the hell off his property. Instead, he tilted his head, as if studying her, before giving her a brisk nod.
“If your presentation is as interesting as you, guess it wouldn’t hurt to hear you out.” With another deliberately insolent stare that swept her from head to foot, he strode away, leaving her with a tantalizing view of a firm ass she yearned to kick. Hard.
While their houseguest freshened up, Dominic paced the rooftop conservatory.
When he’d been a child needing to escape the adult cheek-pinchers at the many lavish parties his parents hosted, he’d head for this room. Perched on the third floor at the farthest corner of the west wing, it had the best views of the island and surrounding ocean. And on a clear day, if he squinted really hard, he swore he could see his favorite place on the planet.
He’d traveled the world many times, had spent several years studying economics at Oxford and later living in London, but no place was home like Ancora.
As a young boy, the weekends his parents would whisk him away there were the happiest of his life, and later, in his teens, he’d make time to chill there whenever he needed R&R. He’d spent a week there after his parents’ death, and a month after Lilia’s. Grieving. Remembering. Forgiving.
It was his sanctuary.
And if Zoe Keaton had her way, it would be swarming with tourists.
He continued pacing, oblivious to the polished marble-tiled floor and massive arched windows that let in the light from dawn to dusk, only pausing to stab at a button to open the retractable roof that brought the outdoors in. He liked that, the feeling of not being boxed in and confined. Freedom.
He yearned for it. A life without the heritage of hundreds of years dogging his every decision. But if the tragedy of the last five years had taught him anything, it was no use wishing for life to be different. He had to cope with the hand he’d been dealt and get on with the job. The job of ensuring that Osturo, his birthplace, and the adjoining island that his family owned, Ancora, prospered.
He’d been doing a shitty job of it so far, but that was all about to change according to that brazen American woman who’d strutted onto the castle grounds as if she were the queen instead of Catarina.
He should’ve known she was trouble the moment he caught sight of her blatantly ogling him. He should’ve given her marching orders. She was just like everyone else who entered his sphere: she wanted something.
In her case, she planned to bring tourists to Ancora. Yeah, like he’d allow that to happen. Destroying such a beautiful part of the world was sacrilege, even if he hadn’t made a promise to himself to maintain it as is. His father’s plans for the islands had been simple: preserve their pristine beauty, especially that of wild Ancora. And in honor of his dad’s memory, Dominic hadn’t touched a thing. He owed his father that much. So Kaluna’s proposed expansion and worldwide ad campaign? Not going to happen.
But because of the way she’d sparked his sexual interest, for an insane moment he’d wished she were different, that she didn’t want something from him.
He’d endured schemers his entire life and had learned over the years that people would go to any lengths to get what they wanted.
Oxford students who’d sucked up to him for entry into his world. London businessman who’d done the same. Women at parties who deliberately targeted him in the hope of gaining more than a bed partner for the night.
He’d learned to protect himself well, discounting his disastrous engagement to Lilia.
Now, a bold, attractive woman had stormed his castle, wanting something he wasn’t prepared to give. He should’ve definitely thrown her out. Instead, he’d flirted with her, and his cock had joined the party.
He’d deliberately gone for an ocean swim half an hour before her scheduled arrival, wanting to keep her waiting. He liked his adversaries off guard. But his plan had gone awry when she’d been early, and he’d been caught with his pants down. Literally.
He hadn’t expected her to be so…so…bold. The way she’d looked at him, the way she’d touched him…damn, he was hard just thinking about it.
The sooner he heard what she had to say and he sent her on her way, the better. He had no intention of letting her stay a week, despite what his meddling Nonna wanted. Zoe could check out Kaluna’s resort on Ancora, then take the ferry straight back to Naples.
And in the meantime, he’d get a PI he often used in business dealings to investigate Kaluna’s plans for Ancora. Better to be prepared than blindsided. After Lilia’s treachery? He’d never make that mistake again.
He slid his smartphone out of his suit jacket pocket, found the PI’s details, and fired off an e-mail.
No way would anyone take him for a fool again.
“I saw you chatting to our guest earlier.” His grandmother strode into the room, a nimble seventy-five and as mentally sharp as anyone half her age. “What’s she like?”
He gritted his teeth against the urge to blurt exactly what he thought of Zoe Keaton. “She’s pushy and obnoxious.”
“She’s also beautiful.” Catarina took a seat at a wrought iron table, poured herself a glass of water, and added a slice of lemon. “Smart too, if she has you this wound up.”
He accepted the glass of water she poured for him and sat opposite. “We need to be on good terms with the Kaluna Resort, and that’s the only reason I’ll meet her.”
“Yet you’re agreeing to let her stay a week?” Catarina tapped her bottom lip, pretending to ponder, while Dominic ignored that telltale matchmaking gleam in her eyes. “Interesting.”
“I only allowed that because you blackmailed me into it.” He shook his head. “If you don’t let your cardiologist check you over more regularly, I’ll kill you myself.”
Catarina tsk-tsked. “Don’t waste your Italian theatrics on me.” She grinned. “Save your zeal for someone who deserves it, someone like our pretty visitor—”
“Nonna…” His warning fell on deaf ears as she reached over and patted his hand.
“Darling boy, I haven’t seen you look so…riled in a long time.” She squeezed his hand and released it. “It means this woman has sparked something inside you. A passion that has been lacking for too long—”
“It’s business, Nonna, nothing more.” He had to interrupt, before she ventured into territory he’d rather avoid.
He knew she meant well, but on the rare occasion Catarina brought up the subject of his dead fiancée and how he’d lost the love of his life, it took all his willpower not to blurt the sorry truth. His grandmother had been through enough pain in losing her sole surviving son a few years ago—no point adding to it. Besides, speaking ill of the dead would gain nothing. Best to leave the past in the past and hope to God he never made the same mistakes again.
“You spend too much time focusing on business.” She tut-tutted. “These islands don’t have to be your responsibility. Allowing Kaluna to increase tourism will allow you the freedom to explore your other ventures overseas and—”
“I’m not going anywhere, so stop trying to get rid of me.”
Dominic knew the archaic royalty system that once dominated these islands was obsolete. The Italian government had more influence than he ever would. But the Ricci family owned land on Osturo and Ancora—a lot of it—and no matter how outdated the royals were here, his father had wanted to maintain the tradition of doing what was best for the people of the islands. So that’s what he would do, too.
But he didn’t want to argue with Catarina, either. His grandmother had doted on Franco, her eldest son, and Dominic wanted to make her proud of him, too. She deserved that much for the hardships she’d faced.
It had been bad enough she’d suffered two heart attacks following his father’s death. He didn’t want her having a third one that could prove fatal. He’d seen a few worrying signs lately: her occasional pallor and an increasing frequency of angina that she tried valiantly to hide. And despite her reassurances, he wanted her to have more regular checkups.
“Well, if you’re not leaving the island to go in search of a little fun, maybe the fun can come to you.” She raised her glass in a silent cheer as he struggled not to think about how much fun Zoe Keaton might be.
The woman was a menace, but he had to admit, she was an exceptionally sexy menace. The type of woman to make a man forget his past. A woman who could make a man forget his own damn name.
She was not his type. But for several long minutes in the gardens earlier, he’d almost wished she could be.
“Nonna, how many poor saps have you tried to pair up on this island over the years?”
Catarina screwed up her brow, pretending to think. “Hmm…let me see. Six marriages. Four engagements. And several very happy tourist hookups—”
“You need to stop trying to fix me up.” He bit back a grin at her wounded expression. Truth was, his nonna was more famous for her role as matchmaker on Osturo than she was as a figurehead queen. “It never ends well.”
Catarina pouted. “Maybe because you’re so closed off you won’t let any woman close. Maybe those cool blondes you prefer, the ones I’ve tried to set you up with, aren’t right for you. Maybe I should find a different type of woman for you. Someone to challenge you. Someone like Z—”
“You should stop meddling in my personal life and concentrate on more important things, like your health.” He pointed at her heart. “You’re seeing that cardiologist in Naples next month if I have to kidnap you to do it.”
Catarina huffed and crossed her arms. “I said I would, if you let Zoe see Ancora so she can refine her campaign over the next week, listen to what she has to say, and keep an open mind.”
He nodded. “I’ll listen to her business proposal, organize a tour of Ancora with one of the guides, then send her back to the mainland.” He thumped the table for emphasis. “That’s it.”
“Sounds like you have it all planned out.” Catarina finished her drink, set her glass on the table, and stood. “I’ll let you have your meeting in peace.”
She paused at the doorway and glanced over her shoulder. “But don’t forget what I said.” She turned away, but not before Dominic heard her murmur, “You need to start living again.”
Dominic had a life. Not the one he’d envisioned, but a life nonetheless.
A life under serious threat of being disrupted by a beautiful, tousle-haired blonde with a lush mouth and sinful eyes.
The sooner he kicked her cute ass off his island, the better.