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Authors: Celia Juliano

Tags: #Contemporary, #Holidays, #Literature & Fiction, #Contemporary Fiction, #Romance

Always

BOOK: Always
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Always

San Francisco Brides Book One

 

 

Celia Juliano

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This book is a work of fiction. Any references to historical events, real people, or real locales are used fictitiously. Other names, characters, places, incidents, and scenarios are products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, places, or events is coincidental.

Always
Copyright © 2013 Celia Juliano

Bonus Excerpt Copyright © 2014 Celia Juliano

 

All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced in any format without the author’s consent.

First Digital Edition August 2013

Second, Revised Digital Edition December 2014

 

Cover design by Christy of Gilded Heart Design: gildedheartdesign.com

Cover photo via Fotolia: ©javiindy

 

 

 

Dedicated to Grandpa Steve, Grandma Lee, Mom, Aunt Judy and Uncle Scott, Lisa, Cheryl, Jessi, Marik, and all my family and friends who always believed in me. Special thanks to beta readers Sarah and Megan for their time and insightful comments, and to Jessa at Red Circle Ink for her thoughtful edits. I am grateful to you all—you are my everyday angels.

***

The last place Vincente DeGrazia wants to be on Valentine’s Day is at a charity bachelor auction. But he participates to honor the memory of his mother, who died of heart disease when he was a teen. His grandpop, who took Vincente in after his parents’ deaths, pushes him onto the stage with the assurance that Vincente’s dream woman is out there. And when Vincente spots a woman in white—who wins the bid for him—he wonders if Grandpop is right.

Gina D’Angelo comes home to San Francisco with one plan—to save her family’s ailing business by uncovering the truth about the DeGrazias. But her plan goes up in flames when her attraction to Vincente burns out of control. After a night together, Gina and Vincente struggle to discover the truth about each other, and to solve the decades-long conflict between their families. As Vincente realizes he needs Gina in his life, Gina sees that Vincente isn’t the man she thought he was—and they’re ready to fight for their always, together.

135 pages; Heat level: sensual, some graphic language and scenes

Always
introduces the main families of the San Francisco Brides series--the DeGrazias and the D'Angelos. All books can stand alone, but might be enjoyed more if read as a series.

 

Books by Celia Juliano
:

San Francisco Brides series

Ready for You
(A San Francisco Brides Book)

Book 1:
Always

Book 2:
Believe

Book 2.5:
Mistletoe Magic
(A San Francisco Brides Short Story)

Book 3:
Dare

 

Other:

Spankified (Spankies #1)

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter One

 

Vincente cringed at the sounds of whistling and screeching women. Tugging at his tux coat, he shrugged, trying to ease the grip of this damn suit. The jacket tightened across his shoulders and back like a hostile bodyguard had him pinned. He rolled his shoulders forward. He hadn’t even worn a suit at his own wedding. He rocked his neck side to side. His life was different now. His wife, and the man he’d been, were gone.

He pushed out a breath and checked his tie. If he had to wear this, he’d at least make sure it was smooth and his tie straight.

“Your grandpop’s getting some reaction,” Joey D’Angelo said. He held the curtain to the stage open slightly to see out.

Vincente looked over Joey’s shoulder at Grandpop striding across the stage. The old man worked the room like a pro. Which he was, a legend at charming women. It was a rippling bay of waving hands and red dresses out there. Even younger women were bidding on Grandpop. Vincente’d probably be greeted with silence. Just as well. Then he could leave. Vincente tilted his head to the ceiling, praying for patience. Better yet, a way to get the hell out of this.

Joey let the curtain fall and turned to Vincente, a wide grin on his face. Women found Joey’s smile disarming but to Vincente it said: Better luck next time, buddy. “You’re up next.”

Vincente shook his head and stepped toward the exit. He shouldn’t have agreed to do this. He should’ve just donated a few hundred to the women’s heart health group instead of getting roped into doing a bachelor auction. But Grandpop and Uncle Enzo were right. Vincente’s parents would want him to do it, to honor his mom’s memory and raise money so someday no one would go through what his parents had.

But for it to be on Valentine’s Day, his anniversary, no less. Throw the widower out there as a cheery Valentine’s date? Not that he was still grieving after five years. He rubbed his palms on his slacks. He liked chance meetings, a slow build, not online dating, not set-ups, and definitely not being bought at auction. But, as Grandpop had pointed out so many times, Vincente’s old-fashioned ways weren’t producing results.

“If I’m doing this, so are you,” Joey said, shoving him toward the backstage curtain. Joey’s mom, Sophia, was notorious for trying to set him, and Vincente, up on dates. She’d convinced Joey to participate tonight.

Vincente’s grandpop appeared from behind the curtain, his silver hair gleaming in the bright backlight, a broad smile on his face, his “I’m the most interesting man in the world” subtle swagger completing the picture. That guy in the beer commercial had nothing on Grandpop.

“I got them all warmed up for you,” Grandpop said. He patted Vincente’s shoulder with a vigorous smack.

“Isn’t one DeGrazia enough out there?” Vincente slid his hands over the sides of his short hair.

“Ten thousand graces is not enough in this world. Besides, your dream woman is out there.
Andiamo
!” Grandpop waved his hands.

“Yeah, go!” Joey said with a shove on Vincente’s back.

“And here, ladies, we have Vincente DeGrazia,” the announcer, an old family friend, Paolo Francis, said as Vincente stepped out from behind the heavy gold and cream curtain onto the stage. “He’s the grandson of the fabulous gentleman we just met. Vincente, come on, don’t be shy,” he goaded and motioned for Vincente to walk forward.

Vincente should be bold and work the room, like Grandpop had, but that just wasn’t him. The gold and blue Venetian Room at the Fairmont was flamboyant enough. And Paolo knew Vincente wasn’t flashy. Vincente could prank him later, but Paolo was already giving up his Valentine’s Day to do this, so he’d let it go.

“Vincente is, as you see, the strong, silent type. He’s thirty, works as foreman and general manager at DeGrazia Construction, and enjoys quiet nights by a fire…I bet he could start some fires, huh, ladies?”

Vincente shot Paolo a grimace. The dance floor in front of the stage was filled with women. Some sat at the cloth-covered tables dotting the room. A bar stood in a corner. He couldn’t wait to get another drink. He wasn’t usually a drinker, but tonight…

Paolo waved his hands up and down, urging the crowd to make some noise. Hoots and catcalls rang out. No luck on the silence. Vincente moved to the front of the stage. He stopped. In the mass of red gowns and raucous women, one caught his attention. He couldn’t tell if she was relaxed, bored, or what, but the way she leaned against a far wall in her low-cut white gown, a white feathered half-mask covering most of her face, intrigued him. No one else was masked. He wondered why. Was she a public figure, not wanting to be seen here? Or…He smoothed his jacket lapels. He wanted to see her face, if it matched the beauty of her.

Damn, she had a body on her—smooth olive skin, curves like the actresses of classic Hollywood, or some hot combination of Selma Hayek and Jennifer Lopez. He tugged at his collar and focused on the gold-damask-papered far wall, hoping to stop the blood coursing down to his lower half. Maybe Grandpop wasn’t just being a smart ass when he’d said Vincente’s dream woman was out there. He shook his head. Those couple of drinks earlier were already making him slightly irrational.

“Give us a turn, Vincente,” Paolo shouted.

Vincente stood still for a moment longer. Dammit, he was staring at the woman in white. He stepped backward, turned, and walked in a small circle.
Stay cool.
He smoothed his jacket as he faced the room again.

“What am I bid for this fine specimen of man?”

Shit. What sins had he committed to deserve this? He swallowed. Plenty. And apparently part of his payment had come due.

***

Gina signaled the auctioneer. She wouldn’t be outbid this time. With a scowl, she glanced at the older woman who’d outbid her for the—she had to admit, dashing—old man. Not that Gina’d wanted a date with him. No, she planned to find out as much as she could—about his family, his shady business, the old man’s brother getting engaged to her Grandma Celeste, and why the DeGrazias were trying to take over her family’s business.

Gina tapped her foot and waved her hand as the bids went higher. She wished she could’ve had fun tonight, catching up with the auctioneer, Paolo, who’d been her cousin Janetta’s best friend since high school. He’d gotten Gina through her awkward freshman year, and the mistakes of her sophomore year. She hunched, as images of her first boyfriends, and all the ones after, flipped through her mind. Tonight wasn’t about her past. She pulled her shoulders back. This was about the future, saving it for…For her family.

Her rhinestone-encrusted stilettos were almost as uncomfortable as the mask she wore. But both, like her sleek, low-cut white dress, were necessary to her plan. What shouldn’t be needed was to spend her paltry savings buying a date with someone she could talk to for free the next time Enzo DeGrazia invited her family to dinner. But she couldn’t do that in front of her family, especially not Grandma Celeste, who would probably spot Gina’s tactics from another room. Plus, this way, she’d paid for his time and if he tried to bail, she could sue for breach of promise. She nodded.

“Sold, to the lady in white,” Paolo shouted.

Gina flashed a smile, confident she wouldn’t be recognized from a distance, not with a mask on. With a determined stride, she made her way through the crowd to the auction table where she handed in her check. Luckily, even though Vincente DeGrazia was as handsome, and fifty years younger, than his grandfather, his woodenness on the stage had garnered less attention than his grandfather or the previous bachelors. And there were still a few to come, so no one was desperate yet. Though it might seem desperate to be here on Valentine’s Day paying for a date just to spy on the DeGrazias. But Gina had reasons enough, from passed-down family tales about the corrupt DeGrazias to the underhanded dealings of old man DeGrazia’s daughter.

“And here’s our next bachelor—Joey D’Angelo.”

Gina’s shoulders hunched again. Crap, her cousin Joey. She’d seen him—for the first time in years—at his parents’ house for dinner a couple of nights ago, the night after she’d first returned home, so he’d probably recognize her. She needed to find somewhere to hide for awhile. The dates weren’t supposed to start until the auction was over. Gina studied the room. The grand space shone with nostalgic opulence. Blue draperies and gold damask walls matched the blue and gold carpet. A cream-colored side door stood in a far corner.

Gina crossed the room and stepped out onto a patio. Potted palms rustled in the breeze and muffled the sounds of traffic from the surrounding streets. The chill night air nipped at her. She rubbed her arms. The city stretched before her, as curvaceous and alive and varied as the women inside. The skyline twinkled, San Francisco Bay shimmered in the distance. She closed her eyes and exhaled. Home, she was finally home.

She hugged her arms. Seeing her family again only made her more sure of her plan for saving D’Angelo’s Market. She’d grown up there, at Grandpa Frank’s store, helping Grandma Celeste with the baking, serving customers with her father, stocking the shelves and going over the books with her mom. The market was her home, her grandfather’s legacy. Baking had been her tenuous connection to home for the years she’d been gone. Now she wanted more.

“Cold?” a man’s deep, intense voice said.

Before she could turn, a soft but weighty coat draped around her shoulders. She warmed but her back tensed. What was she doing? Some stranger was trying to pick up on her—again. This one was doing the gentleman bit. She turned and faced Vincente DeGrazia.

Her body tingled, not from the cold, but from his intensity. His steady gaze took her in, his short black hair and clean-shaven, square-jawed face, along with the tux, made him seem even more the gentleman. His body, almost stocky, but lean, an athlete’s physique, increased the sizzle crackling through her.
No
. She stepped back, pressed into the railing. Every time she felt this way, it ended in disaster. Because, every time, she’d fallen for cheaters, liars, womanizers.

He ran his finger under his collar. Damn, he reminded her of her favorite actor crush, the guy who’d played Lorenzo Alcazar on
General Hospital
, all those years ago, when she used to watch with her Grandma Valeria. She turned again and lifted her mask to dab at her eye. She wouldn’t cry, no matter how much she missed Grandma, no matter how far her life had strayed from where she’d dreamed.

Vincente touched her shoulder. She almost gasped from the sensation—a lit fuse speeding its way to exploding.

“You okay?” He sounded genuine, concerned.

She gripped the railing. No way was she going to fall for his deception. She knew about men like him and his corrupt, immoral family. He was a mobster, a lowlife gangster. Talk about life imitating art—that’s just the kind of guy fictional Lorenzo Alcazar was. But he’d also been smoking hot, intense, ready to do anything, risk anything, for the people he loved.

She slid the mask back on. “Yeah, I’m fine.” Like hell she was. She was practically drooling over Vincente. So she hadn’t had sex in almost a year. “I thought the dates didn’t start until later.”

“It was hot in there.”

She turned in time to see him shrug. He shoved his hands in his pockets. Was he uncomfortable? Good, better to have him off-balance.

“I didn’t realize this was a masked ball,” he said in an offhand tone, but the way his lips curved slightly, she figured he was trying to tease her.

“I’m a woman of mystery,” she said.

He laughed. She hugged her arms to herself to keep from trembling at his deep, rich laugh. Making him laugh—and enjoying the sight and sound—was not part of her plan.

“Detective shows were always my favorites.” He stepped forward and leaned back against the railing next to her. The upright way he held his broad shoulders and lean frame exuded strength.

She rubbed a hand along his soft coat—cashmere, she was pretty sure.
Give it back and get down to business.
But if she gave back his coat, she could only think to snuggle next to him—his body radiated heat, called her to explore its hard lengths…She snugged the coat tighter.

“Still cold?” he said. “Want to go back inside?”

“No,” she said, too sharply. She didn’t want to risk running into her cousin Joey, not yet. “I mean, I like it out here.” She turned and faced the sparkling city skyline again.

“You from here?”

“Yeah, you?” She knew the answer, but better to play it his way and be subtle.

“Originally. But I spent most of my life on the East Coast.” He leaned further back, apparently trying to catch her eye.

BOOK: Always
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