The Italian’s Bargain for His Bride by Chantelle Shaw
Franco Zambrotta slammed his hand down on the desk.
‘She has spent most of her life in England, disconnected from her Italian heritage. Her ill-advised marriage swiftly followed by a divorce proved that she is headstrong. In my opinion, Marcello’s granddaughter is not suitable to take charge of Morante Group. I am sure I do not need to remind you, Daniele, that the company is a global brand with a multibillion-dollar annual revenue. It cannot be entrusted to a girl who has no experience of running a business.’
‘With respect, Franco, your opinion on this matter is irrelevant.’ Daniele Berardo spoke in his customary, calm manner, hiding his dislike of the other man. It amazed him that Marcello Morante, the founder of Morante Group, who had been renowned for his charisma as much as for his brilliant business acumen, had been related to the distinctly charmless Franco.
In the past twenty-four hours since Marcello had collapsed on the golf course and died on the way to the hospital, Daniele hadn’t had a chance to assimilate the loss of the man who had been his mentor and close friend. His priority was to ensure that the media did not learn of Marcello’s death before his granddaughter had been informed. But Paloma Morante, the sole heiress to her grandfather’s vast fortune, had disappeared.
The conversation with the man Paloma called Great-Uncle Franco was pointless and a waste of Daniele’s time when he urgently needed to find her, but his enigmatic expression revealed none of his frustration as he said imperturbably, ‘It was Marcello’s wish that Paloma would eventually succeed him. However, he stipulated in his will that if he died before his granddaughter was twenty-five, Morante Group must be managed by the board of trustees until Paloma comes of age to take control of the company. Do I need to remind you, Franco, that your duty as the president of the board is to work in collaboration with the other trustees and run Morante Group until Paloma’s twenty-fifth birthday?’
Franco snorted. ‘Several of the board members have expressed their concern that Paloma lacks the qualities of leadership. I intend to call for a vote of no confidence in her and propose that I am instated as Marcello’s permanent successor.’
The imperceptible tightening of Daniele’s jaw was the only indication that he was disturbed by Franco’s threat of a power struggle. He had never trusted Marcello’s much younger half-brother. Franco was the product of their mother’s second marriage after Marcello’s father had died relatively young, it was rumoured from a drug overdose. Marcello had been the sole Morante heir and later had given his half-brother a senior role in the company. Admittedly, Paloma’s only experience of working at Morante Group had been during a gap year while she had been at university. It was possible that Franco would win a majority vote from the board of trustees to displace her. Daniele recalled the last words Marcello had said to him.
‘Will you promise to take care of my granddaughter? I have come to regard you as the grandson I never had, Daniele. I beg you to think of Paloma as your sister and protect her from the sharks who will want a piece of her when I have gone.’
How was he supposed to think of Paloma as his sister? Daniele wondered grimly. He had tried not to think about her at all for the past three years.
Paloma had been a coltish teenager the first time he had met her, although even then she had shown signs that she would be a great beauty. Daniele had noticed her, but he had been trying to rebuild his life and hadn’t paid her much attention.
When Paloma was twenty-one, she had come to Livorno on the west coast of Tuscany to take up an internship with Morante Group. The luxury leather goods business had grown to be a market leader, in part due to Daniele, who had established the company’s online presence.
Daniele had been blown away by the beautiful young woman Paloma had become. He pictured her slender figure, chestnut-brown hair and milky pale skin as perfect as the finest porcelain. Paloma possessed an inherent elegance that spoke of her aristocratic heritage spread across three European countries. Her grandfather was a marchese. Marcello’s wife, who had died tragically young, had been the daughter of a French duke, and Paloma’s English mother was linked, albeit distantly, to the British royal family.
Daniele had found it impossible to resist the chemistry that had flared between him and Paloma. He had tried to keep his distance, conscious that he was twelve years older than her, and his position on the board of Morante Group made him her superior at work.
But on the night of a grand ball held in Marcello’s opulent palazzo, Paloma had flirted with him, and when she had instigated a kiss, Daniele’s self-control had cracked, and he’d succumbed to her sensual allure. He could still recall how soft her lips had felt beneath his. But he had been brought to his senses by the certainty that her grandfather would not have approved. Marcello had often spoken of his hope that Paloma would make a good marriage within the Italian nobility.
Daniele had not seen Paloma since that night when he had rejected her, but he had often found himself thinking about her. She had lodged like a bur in his skin, and for the past three years, his fascination with her had not faded. However, he was determined to keep his promise to Marcello to act like a brother to Paloma. But first he had to find her and break the terrible news that her grandfather had died.
He knew she lived in London, where she kept a low profile. She had adamantly refused her grandfather’s plea to have a bodyguard. But Marcello’s death meant that Paloma was a billionairess. Her life was going to be different from now on, and she would have to accept the protection of a security team.
Daniele had been given Paloma’s contact details by Marcello’s PA, but her mobile phone was switched off. When he’d called her landline number, he had been informed by her flatmate that Paloma was away at a yoga retreat somewhere in Ireland.
‘Paloma should be here at Morante Group’s headquarters.’ Franco’s terse voice interrupted Daniele’s thoughts. ‘You asked me to delay making a formal announcement of Marcello’s death to give his granddaughter time to prepare for the inevitable media attention. But I will not wait any longer and risk the news being leaked to the press. Strong leadership is vital at this time.’
‘You must understand that Paloma is shocked and distressed.’ Daniele was sure she would be devastated, but he was not going to admit to Franco that he did not know her whereabouts, or that Paloma was still unaware of Marcello’s death. ‘I insist that she must be given more time to come to terms with her loss. Only the board of trustees and a handful of medical staff who treated Marcello know he is dead. I have taken out a legal injunction to prevent anyone talking to the media without my permission.’
‘You had no right to go behind my back,’ Franco said furiously.
‘I had to act quickly to ensure the stability of the company. Marcello appointed me as lifelong vice president of the board in recognition of my loyalty to him and Morante Group.’ Daniele knew that Franco had disapproved of Marcello’s decision, and now he wondered if Marcello had suspected the other man might try to seize control of the company. ‘In the next few days, I will bring Paloma to Livorno so that she can make a statement to the press.’
‘I am Paloma’s only living relative apart from her mother and I would like to offer her my condolences if you will tell me where she is.’ Franco’s tone had changed, and he showed no sign of his earlier hostility, but Daniele did not warm to him or trust him.
‘I must respect Paloma’s desire for privacy.’ As he strode out of Franco’s office, he was planning to visit every damn yoga retreat in Ireland, in search of the missing heiress.
Daniele’s phone rang and he quickly answered it when he saw that Paloma’s flatmate, whom he had spoken to earlier, was calling him. ‘Laura?’
‘Mr Berardo, I lied when I said that Paloma is in Ireland. She works for a charity and is teaching at a school in west Africa. There has been civil unrest and violence in Mali for many years, and Paloma didn’t tell her grandfather what she was doing because he would worry about her. As a safety precaution, we set up a code word, and if Paloma ever sent me the code, I was to call you and tell you that she is in Mali.’
Daniele frowned. ‘Why did Paloma ask you to call me?’
‘She said that her grandfather trusts you implicitly and she has faith in his judgement.’ The urgency in the young woman’s voice sent a ripple of unease through Daniele. ‘A few minutes ago, I received a text from Paloma and it’s the code word. I’m worried that she is in some kind of trouble.’