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Carolina Beugre is a small town girl who longs for her own upscale jewelry store. To fund her nest egg, she's created a copy of an emerald necklace, hoping the gems will be her ticket to stardom. Little does she know her decision would lead her into the hands of an intensely powerful charismatic man determined to uncover the secrets of her past.

Italian prince Gian-Paolo Montovanni risks losing his throne if he doesn't put an end to his playboy ways and produce a fiancée no later than his thirtieth birthday. The problem? His princess-to-be must be wearing the Montovanni emeralds, which haven't been seen for twenty years. When he discovers an American is selling a copy of the necklace, he will do anything to find them.

EXCERPT FROM THE BOOK

Gian-Paolo’s fingers twitched with expectancy as he carefully inspected Carolina Beugre. The masquerade costume he’d sent to her hotel room fit her figure flawlessly, helping her blend into the Machiavellian crowd. Just as he’d known it would. All but one thing had gone according to plan — Carolina had put on the necklace.

Mio Dio! She stared up at him now, stubbornly businesslike, alluringly seductive. Her vibrant green eyes reflected sparkling light from the chandeliers, cutting through him whenever she glanced up, as if she suspected him capable of stealing her soul. Good instincts! He had every intention of educating the hungry young woman eager to make the first sale of her career on the hazards of blackmail. If that was her intention. She’d already disobeyed the mandates of his contract. He had expected secrecy, confidentiality, not blatant disregard for business modus operandi. Now, as he inspected the blonde-haired rebel before him, he wanted to wring her little neck for exposing the gems to public view, and nearly uprooting all he’d tried to accomplish over the past year.

“Wearing the necklace was not part of our agreement.”

Si. I mean, no, it wasn’t,” Carolina stammered. “Senore Moretti?”

“At your service.” He gave her his best royal bow, making sure not to dislodge the large mask hiding his face. He’d outbid ten other offers for the gems with an exorbitant sum to keep them from getting into the wrong hands. Before he revealed exactly who he was, he wanted to know what she was up to.

Carolina inhaled and her bosom rose, momentarily distracting him. Gian-Paolo averted his eyes, suddenly irritated with himself for noticing her tempting curves. When he regained control, his gaze returned to her face. She smiled. No novice, she. She deserved some credit. She’d expected a business meeting, not a ball, least of all meeting a prince when she’d boarded a plane to Italy. Or had she? If she’d come for money and nothing more — why had she put on the necklace?

“It’s a pleasure to finally meet you,” she purred. Her American accent twirled about his brain, infiltrating his senses like a lover’s alluring perfume. Her full lips held his gaze. What treasures would they yield?

Piacere.” He bowed again.

Though his investigation had schooled him on her talents and habits, this was their first face-to-face meeting. His one and only close-up examination of the woman who diabolically sought to ruin everything his family had tried earnestly to protect for the past twenty years. The magnitude of the moment wasn’t lost on him. His father had died trying to retrieve what they’d lost. Now, if he failed to crack Carolina’s façade, his future and La Princepessa’s legacy were in jeopardy.

She craned her neck and boldly met his gaze. “I thought I wouldn’t be able to find you in this crowd. I don’t speak Italian. But of course, you already know that.”

Her brow lifted. Was she looking for confirmation? He nodded, and then silently waited for her to continue. Her inquisitive eyes scanned his body by slow degrees before returning to his face.

“You should have told me you’d be wearing this particular golden-horned mask.” Was she reprimanding him — a prince? “If you had, I wouldn’t have been afraid of missing you in this crowd.”

For a woman who looked more like a paramour than an entrepreneur, she was quick and to the point, a strike in her favor, a complication for him. “I had no trouble finding you.”

“I’m pleased to hear that. What now?” Her keen eyes locked onto his.

Gian-Paolo had met his quota of gold-diggers. If Carolina Beugre intended to win him over with a good first impression, she’d failed. He’d been approached by all sorts of women more original than this American. The only thing about her that drew his interest was the emerald necklace. She was just like all the others, a woman seeking to get rich quick. And worse, in order to open an exclusive store in a posh downtown Atlanta, Georgia, district, she was using the copy of his deceased mother’s gems to do it.

“What now?”

There was only one answer. He needed the emerald necklace around her neck, even if it wasn’t his mother’s, in order to produce a fiancée for his people. Parliament had given him an ultimatum. Produce an heir or step aside by his thirtieth year. With Carolina’s copy in hand, at least he could pull off a betrothal without anyone being the wiser. The copy would buy him time to locate the original — and Carolina was the only one who knew where it was kept.

Carolina tossed her golden mane aside to caress the emerald stones around her neck, stones much like the ones he’d last seen on his tenth birthday. “What do you think of the necklace? Does it meet your expectations?”

At her invitation, his gaze slid slowly down her creamy throat to the gentle dip between her breasts. He made no note of the cut or make of the gems. He’d meticulously studied photos of them and had no doubt as to their quality and value. Nor did he take delight in Carolina’s smooth, unblemished skin. Instead, he was immediately plunged back in time to the last night he’d seen the emeralds around his mother’s neck and shouts had echoed from his mother’s bedroom. Once again, his mother’s anguished cry cut him in two as he witnessed his father struggling with another man, and inevitably, his father’s collapse.

Carolina touched his arm, quickly dissolving the memory. “Are you all right, Senore Moretti?”

Madre Dio! He jerked his arm back instantly. Odd, how her touch, her voice, broke him away from the horror with little effort. He fisted his hands and inhaled a stabilizing breath. “The necklace, if you please, signorina,” he said, his voice huskier than he intended.

Carolina scanned the room furtively. Her neatly groomed nails played sensually with the stones, driving him wild with irritation — and need. What would those nimble fingers do to his anatomy?

Her next words shuttered those fanciful thoughts. “Your note said you wanted to conduct our business here.” She fingered her gown’s waistline and glanced the ballroom. “While I doubt the wisdom of that decision, I passed so many party goers coming in I began to fear I would never find you. I also worried I might lose the necklace in the crowd. Putting on the necklace,” she shrugged her gently sloping shoulders as if the decision cost her nothing, “seemed to be the only way to ensure I didn’t lose your merchandise. It also guaranteed your attention. You did mention that you were in a hurry to finalize the deal—”

“But of course.” He snapped his fingers. “The necklace, if you please.”

Did she think he was an idiot? The emeralds had only been in jeopardy once she put them on. Tonight, in keeping with centuries old tradition, everyone thought the necklace would go to either the daughter of a Swedish aristocrat or a Grecian debutante. Ultimately, it didn’t matter. Both women had impressive lineages and tonight’s proposal would secure the Montovanni dynasty. As the last living Montovanni, he needed an heir, not a love match. His heart would never be part of the bargain.

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