Read an Excerpt
Lauren recognised the man as soon as he stepped out of the car, a shining silver monster of a thing that looked incongruous against the rustic outbuildings of the Cumbrian farmhouse and the verdant slopes of the fells above its wet slate roofline.
It was the man striding across the yard with his hair blowing like an untamed mane in the wind that her gaze was fixed on, however, as she finished securing the stable door for the night.
Tall, lean, in his early thirties, his expensive tailoring could do nothing to conceal a physique honed to prime strength and unquestionable fitness, or those shoulders which were wide enough to eclipse the moon. But he was a man she had never expected- or hoped-ever to see again, and she watched his approach now with a leap of something electric lighting her wary green gaze.
If she was lost for words, then it was only because she was shocked to see him there on her Lakeland property. A property on which her late parents had blown all their savings to chase a dream of self-sufficiency-a dream that had never quite lived up to its promise and which was a world away from the glamorous capitals of Europe and the far-flung playgrounds of the mega-rich that the man before her inhabited.
'Emiliano!' She could have kicked herself for sounding so breathless and for wishing that she was wearing something other than her vest top and dungarees, or even that she had had a chance to comb her hair. After being out in the damp air, checking on the horses she stabled for the few paying customers who helped subsidise her meagre income from the local garden centre, she knew the flaming waves were falling untidily about her shoulders in a blaze of ungoverned fire. 'What are you doing here?'
A definite wobble weakened the challenge in her voice. But then it wasn't every day that she found herself facing Emiliano Cannavaro, Italian shipping magnate and steel-hard billionaire. The man who had taken the already international freight and ferry line his grandfather had founded and turned it into a global giant, spearheaded by a fleet of luxury cruise liners. A man who had used his Continental charm and his chocolate-rich voice to lure her into his bed, only to discard her in the most degrading and humiliating way after the marriage of her sister, Vikki, to his younger brother, Angelo, two years ago.
'We have to talk,' he said.
She had forgotten how tall he was, and how, without the benefit of high heels, she only just reached his shoulder. What she hadn't forgotten was how it made her stomach flip just to look up into his olive-skinned features-features that had been redeemed from being too handsome by that slight bump in his nose, and by the glaring virility in that clean-shaven, yet heavily shadowed angular jaw.
She cupped a hand over her eyes to shield them from the low evening sun. 'What about?' Her tone was accusatory as she did her best to ignore the effect his sudden appearance was having on her.
Eyes fringed by lashes only a shade darker than her hair regarded him suspiciously. 'Danny?' Her voice cracked as she felt the burn of his hard masculine scrutiny over the flushed, perfect heart shape of her face.
With unsettling thoroughness he was taking in her rebellious green eyes, small chin and slightly turned-up nose with its cluster of freckles that her mother used to say was a sprinkling of stardust, before his gaze dropped with unconcealed insolence to her mouth. It was a full mouth, usually marked by a natural curve, but at this moment was definitely hinting at mutiny as his eyes came to rest disconcertingly on hers again.
His assessment made her feel weak, but it seemed to have no effect on him whatsoever as he gestured towards the ancient farmhouse and said, 'Shall we go inside?'
Inside? Together? Alone? With him!
Her heart-rate doubled its pace. 'Not until you tell me what this is all about.'
'All right. If you want it straight. I would like to see him.'
'Why? When you haven't come near him or even rang to enquire after his welfare in over a year?'
If she wasn't mistaken, Lauren heard him catch a breath. So he was feeling guilty. Good! she thought, cutting him no slack.
'If I have neither telephoned nor been to see him,' he responded with the firming of a mouth too sensual for any woman of child-bearing years to possibly ignore, 'it is because you allowed none of us to know where he was.'
Lauren stared at him incredulously. 'Is that what your brother told you?' she exhaled, flabbergasted. 'Or is that something you dreamed up yourself? Anyway, I didn't think he mattered to you. Or to any of you Cannavaros,' she expanded bitterly, recalling how his brother had as good as disowned his six-month-old son only weeks after Vikki's death nearly a year ago. Still walking with the aid of a stick because of the injuries he had sustained in the car crash that had claimed her younger sister, Angelo Cannavaro had informed Lauren in plain, insensitive words that she could keep the baby her sister had used to trap him into marriage because he was cutting loose. That was the last time she had seen him. Or any member of the Cannavaro family! Though it had hurt her immensely for Danny's sake, she couldn't say that she hadn't been relieved. And now here was Emiliano Cannavaro turning up and accusing her of being the one at fault! 'You've got a nerve!' she breathed.
He raked his hair back from his forehead with a long, lean hand. Hands which, in one weekend, had learned the pathways of her body and the whereabouts of every erogenous zone she possessed. His face was harder than she remembered, although even back then it had been a face stamped with authority, with a high forehead and cheekbones clearly defined. Add the midnight mystery of spectacularly dark eyes, thickly arched black brows-one of which was lifting now as though in dispute of what she had accused him of- and long ebony lashes that most teenage girls would probably have killed for, and she could see why she had been rendered helpless from the moment she had laid eyes on him.
'As I suggested, could we go inside?'
His tone brooked no argument and so without a word she led him across the yard and in through the back door of the rugged little farmhouse, uncomfortably aware that he was probably enjoying a studied view of her back and the curve of her bottom and remembering
'So say what you've got to say.' A strong sexual awareness made her tone excessively curt as she rounded on him in the large but shabby kitchen. But the memory of how this man had bedded her and then treated her as if she wasn't even fit to tread the same ground as he did never failed to shame and humiliate her-even without suddenly coming face to face with him and having to relive it all over again!
'As you wish.' He didn't seem at all perturbed by her unfriendly manner. 'I shan't.. What is the term you use? Beat about the bush?' Nevertheless, he seemed to hesitate for a second before continuing. 'You are probably aware that Angelo died just over a month ago.'
She nodded. She had been shocked to read about it in one of the national newspapers. Accidental death, the verdict had been. Caused by a lethal mix of strong painkillers he'd been taking for his continuing back injury and an excessive amount of alcohol in his blood.
Lauren was sorry, but all she could say right then was, 'So what does that have to do with me?'
'Everything,' he answered succinctly. 'Because, from now on, this monopolising of Daniele is going to cease.'
'I haven't been monopolising him!' she shot back. 'At least, not intentionally. But if I have, it's only because your brother took no interest in him whatsoever, which is one of the reasons Vikki left him.' Among others, she thought with a mental grimace, before adding, 'And neither have you.'
'Something I fully intend to rectify,' he promised. 'But as I have already told you ' he was beginning to sound impatient '.I did not have the first idea where Daniele was. As you probably remember ' his hesitation was marked, calculated, Lauren was sure, to remind her of an intimacy she didn't even want to think about ' I live in Rome. But on those occasions when I visited this country, Angelo assured me that Daniele was being adequately cared for. It was only a short time before he died, when I put pressure on him to tell me where he was, that he said he had left Daniele with you and that he didn't have a clue as to where you had taken him. Why would he have told me that if it was not true?'
'Because he didn't want you to know what the truth really was!' Lauren returned hotly.
'And exactly what is the truth, Lauren?' Emiliano invited, in clearly sceptical tones.
'That he abandoned Daniele because he couldn't face the responsibility of being a father! He knew exactly where I was and how to find me. He could have come any time to see Daniele and I wouldn't have stopped him,' she fumed, hurting for her little nephew. 'But he didn't because he didn't want to give up his gambling and his womanising and everything else about the self-indulgent high life that both of you enjoy so much!'
It was a cry from the heart at the injustice of what both her and her sister had had to pay for getting mixed up with the Cannavaro brothers. Heaven knew, Vikki hadn't been any saint! But she hadn't deserved the drunken abuse and infidelity that had forced her into leaving Angelo after less than ten months of marriage. Any more than she, Lauren, had deserved his brother's scorn and bitter contempt.
'Nevertheless,' Emiliano said coldly, seemingly oblivious to her indictment of self-indulgence or to the pain that seemed to be turning her inside out, 'Daniele is his son, and therefore my nephew.'
'And you naturally want to see him.' She had to concede that much. As the toddler's natural aunt and uncle they were equal claimants for the little boy's affections. Even so, she took some gratification out of being able to say, 'Well, I'm afraid that it's not going to be possible tonight because he's already asleep.'
She sensed the tension in him and for the first time noticed the dark smudges beneath his eyes, caused, no doubt, by the recent loss of his brother. But then he gave the slightest tilt of his head, causing his hair to fall forward again in the way she remembered it doing. Somehow it seemed to emphasise the satanic darkness of his shadowed jaw.
'I understand,' he said, surprisingly compliant all of a sudden. 'But I do not think you do, Lauren. You had, however, better know from the start what my intentions are and to be fully aware that I will be demanding much more than that.'
A queasy feeling took root in the pit of Lauren's stomach. 'Wh-what do you mean?' she asked cagily.
'The boy is a Cannavaro. Therefore it is only right that he should be with his family.'
'He is with his family!' she proclaimed, her face flushed with indignation to think he could even suggest anything else.
He was glancing around her kitchen, which she knew had seen better days with its chipped Belfast sink and genuinely distressed oak table and matching Welsh dresser that stood against the far wall, and he looked at her now with something remarkably like censure shaping the hard line of his mouth.
'You think it fitting for a child of his background to be brought up in a place like this?'
His deprecating opinion of the home she had once shared with two loving parents and her sister cut Lauren to the quick, but she was determined not to let him see.
'So it isn't the mansion that you obviously think he should be living in,' she bit back, fearful of what he intended to do about Daniele. 'But, with respect ' this last word was overlaid with sarcasm ' he'll learn more above love and basic human values in this shabby old house than he'll ever get to know in the sterile palaces your sort of people call home!'
Whether she had hit a nerve in his invincible armour, or whether it was just her audacity in speaking to him as she had that put that flush across his cheekbones and made his jaw tense as though he was clenching his teeth, Lauren wasn't sure. But she was struck by the vivid recollection of seeing him look like that before. It was the second before he had driven into her hot and eager body and had finally succumbed to the release of his, until then, frighteningly controlled passion, taking her with him on a mind-blowing excursion to a fool's heaven!
'And what would you-or your sister-have learned about basic values?' he challenged softly, as Lauren battled with spiralling and unwelcome sensations from remembering how it felt lying naked beneath this man's warm and penetrating strength.
'Nothing, according to you,' she replied, with only the slightest quiver in her voice. Because, of course, he hadn't listened to any explanation when he had labelled her and Vikki the worst kind of women, so there was no way she was going to try and convince him otherwise now, especially when he was adding child abduction to her sins as well!
'And what do you imagine is my type of home?'
Strangely, she had never been able to place him anywhere, other than in the swish resorts where the rich and famous vacationed, or in some stark, state-of-the-art high-rise office at the heart of his maritime empire.
'I don't intend wasting any unnecessary thought over it,' she retorted, wishing she wasn't letting him reduce her to the level of sniping.
'Not even to wonder where this nephew-whom you claim to be instilling with your own questionable values-is likely to be living?'
Lauren forced herself to bite her tongue. She was past caring over the last two years what Emiliano Cannavaro thought about her. Memories might shame, but they couldn't hurt her. She had learned to shrug her shoulders, grit her teeth and carry on. But Emiliano Cannavaro wasn't a memory any more. He was here- now as large as life, and he had it in his power to hurt her and would if she let him, by taking away the one thing she held most dear.
'I don't need to wonder, Emiliano,' she said determinedly. 'I know exactly where he'll be living. And that's with me. It was my sister's wish that I should take care of Danny if anything ever happened to her before he became of age.'
'Which she had no right to express or to request of you while the child's father was still alive.'
'She had every right!' Lauren shot back, affronted by his dictatorial attitude. 'Although she wouldn't have needed to if Angelo hadn't been as bad a father as he was a husband!'
'You mean the husband she saw only as the key to a life of luxury? And one she had no intention of giving up?'
I'm going to screw him for every penny I can get!