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'Chloe Valente, you are the most amazingly beautiful and sexy woman.'
The words were a deep, sensual purr in Chloe's ear, and a hot tingle of anticipation rippled through her body. She'd never thought of herself in that way—but as she felt Lorenzo standing close behind her, the heat of his strong body burning through her fine silk wedding gown, she knew that everything in her life had changed beyond her wildest dreams.
'Thank you for making this day so special.' She drew in a shaky breath and clung to the ornate stonework of the balcony, looking down into the fabulous ballroom, which was still buzzing with guests sipping vintage champagne. It was hard to believe that this palazzo, owned by Lorenzo's proud Venetian family for generations, was now her home. 'It's been truly wonderful. I can't imagine a more perfect wedding day.'
Venice was a magical place to be married, and a silvery dusting of snow falling from the February sky had made it seem even more enchanting and romantic. As she'd travelled back to the palazzo after the ceremony, reclining on velvet cushions in a sleek black gondola beside her breathtakingly handsome groom, she'd known that this was the happiest day of her life.
'The best is yet to come,' Lorenzo promised, his Italian accent purring in her ear as he traced his fingertips lightly along her collarbone. 'Let me take you to the bedroom and show you.'
Chloe closed her eyes for a moment and leant her head back against his shoulder, letting herself drift on a wave of pure pleasure. Simply knowing how much Lorenzo wanted her sent her heart racing and made butterflies of excitement flutter deep inside her.
Then the hum of conversation mixed with the clink of crystal glasses and angelic harp music floated up from the wedding reception below.
'We can't leave now.' She pushed his hands away weakly as she felt his sensual lips nuzzling her neck beneath the sleek blonde bob of her hair. 'What about all the people?'
'You always do the right thing,' Lorenzo said, sliding his hands down to her waist and turning her to face him. 'You were the perfect PA, always anticipating my needs and those of my associates. And even now you are thinking of our guests—of being the gracious hostess.'
She gazed up into his vibrant blue eyes and a familiar frisson of elation whispered through her. Just looking at him always made her feel like that. With his smouldering good looks and superb physique he was the most gorgeous man she had ever seen. It was almost impossible to believe that he was now her husband—that she was married to Lorenzo Valente.
She'd spent two years as his PA loving him from a distance, knowing that her feelings for her incredible Venetian boss could never be reciprocated. She was an ordinary English girl, and he was from one of Venice's oldest, most noble families, in addition to being an internationally respected billionaire businessman. They'd belonged to different worlds and Chloe had known they could never be together.
But then Lorenzo had asked her out on a date.
At first it had been hard to believe. Since the day Chloe had starting working in Lorenzo's London headquarters she'd seen an endless succession of highly polished society women draped on his arm—all tall, slender beauties with smoky come-to-bed eyes and flowing manes of dark, glossy hair.
They were all the complete opposite of Chloe, who was short, blonde and curvy, with a fair, freckled complexion and pale green eyes that looked ridiculously overdone if she experimented with more than a lick of mascara and the softest smudge of eyeliner.
But despite her initial doubts—how could someone as magnificent as Lorenzo be interested in someone as unremarkable as Chloe?—he had been impossible to resist. He'd swept into Chloe's personal life like a tornado, romancing her with the fast-track intensity that typified everything the passionate Italian did.
Before long all of Chloe's reservations had been blown away. She'd seen how he'd treated his previous women as passing diversions, and she knew that he was treating her very differently.
He'd never mentioned love, but Chloe realised he wasn't comfortable with sentimental displays of emotion. He had taken her to his home in Venice and he had talked about their future—and the children he hoped they would have together. To Chloe, that was the biggest sign of love and commitment she could have seen.
She'd accepted his proposal with joy in her heart, knowing that she was entering a new, wonderful chapter of her life—a chapter that she believed would last for ever.
'Come upstairs with me, and let me anticipate your needs, my special little Chloe,' he said huskily. 'Let me show you how pleased I am to have married you.'
Chloe looked up into his face and felt her eyes start to grow warm with unshed tears of happiness. She had never thought of herself as special—certainly never viewed herself as sexy or beautiful. That Lorenzo had called her all those things meant more than she could say.
She gazed up at him, the love and happiness fizzing through her body more potent than the champagne she had been sipping all afternoon. And there was one wonderful thought in her head.
I love you.
Just three little words, but she'd never said them out loud. Neither of them had.
In the beginning Chloe had been too shy to admit her feelings, but now everything had changed. They were married. They'd stood up together in front of a congregation and pledged themselves to each other for the rest of their lives—and now her heart was overflowing with happiness.
Suddenly she could not help saying the words that were buzzing inside her.
'I love you.'
An immediate, terrible change came over Lorenzo—a change so profound that Chloe's words seemed to freeze and splinter in the air. Iron dread stabbed into her, and she knew that she had made a terrible mistake.
'Love?' Lorenzo's voice was hard with shock. 'Why did you say that?'
'Because…because it's true…' Chloe stammered weakly, staring at his dreadful expression.
'What game are you playing?' Lorenzo demanded, his black brows twisted incredulously. 'You know—you've always known—that's not what this is about.'
'But…' Her voice petered out and she was suddenly filled with stomach-churning anxiety. What was Lorenzo saying to her?
'You know this is a purely practical arrangement,' he bit out. 'We discussed how you would be my perfect wife. How a sensible, businesslike arrangement was far superior to an overblown emotional minefield. You always knew my feelings on the subject.'
'I don't understand.' Chloe stared at him in horrible confusion, aware that her heart had started to thump with sickening jerkiness beneath her breast.
She thought back to his proposal. It was true that he hadn't gone down on one knee to ask her to marry him, but he had taken her to Paris—the most romantic city in the world. They'd been walking along the Seine, with golden-brown autumn leaves swirling around them, when he had taken both her hands in his and asked her to be his wife.
She tried to remember his exact words—to recall how the conversation had developed. But suddenly all she was aware of was Lorenzo's angry expression as he stared down at her.
'We first discussed the matter when your mother and sister were leaving for Australia,' he said. 'I asked about your father, and whether he was emigrating with them. You told me that you hadn't seen him since your seventh birthday.'
'But you and I weren't involved back then,' Chloe said, struggling to grasp the relevance of that past conversation. 'That was before you'd even asked me out.'
She remembered how he'd been sympathetic, and how he'd made her feel better by confiding in her that his mother had walked out when he was just five years old. It was the first time their relationship had pushed the boundaries of boss and PA. He'd even poured them a drink at the bar and toldher…toldher how he believed life would be much simpler without the complications of unrealistic romantic ideals.
Chloe pressed her hand over her mouth as she remembered what he'd said. She'd never, ever guessed that he was serious—that his cynical remark was more than a passing statement driven by unhappy childhood memories.
She stared up at him in shock, trying to recall if they'd ever discussed the subject again, but she knew that they hadn't. She would have remembered if he'd said anything to make her think his interest in her was driven by cold, practical matters.
He swore bitterly and raked rigid fingers through his short black hair. Two slashes of colour now burned on his high cheekbones and his blue eyes glittered with mounting fury.
'I thought you were different from the rest,' he said. 'Not another of those women trying to trap me into marriage with false declarations of love, and promises you had no intention of keeping. But now I see you are just like all the rest—worse even, because you've waited until now, our wedding day, to do this.'
His words sank into the turmoil of Chloe's mind and she struggled to make sense of what she was hearing. She realised she was shaking and folded her arms across her body, hugging herself tightly.
'It sounds as if you are saying you don't want to be loved.' Chloe could hear the confusion and doubt in her own voice, but she pressed on, determined to comprehend what Lorenzo was telling her. 'But I don't understand. It's natural to hope for love—and to look for it.'
'People who look for love are fools,' Lorenzo said with contempt, a vein pulsing on his temple.
'But what if you find love—even if you aren't looking for it?' Chloe asked. She'd never expected to fall in love with her boss, but his magnetic charisma and dynamic assurance had made it impossible for her not to.
'Love is an illusion—a false ideal that never holds true,' he grated, staring down at her through narrowed eyes.
'You are so harsh—so cynical,' Chloe gasped. 'Of course love exists—you can't deny what your heart feels.'
'And is your heart still telling you that you love me?' Lorenzo said derisively. 'Even now that we have revisited my feelings on the subject?'
'It's not something you can switch on or off,' Chloe said, dismayed by his attitude. She'd known he could be arrogant and overbearing at times, but she'd never thought of him as a cruel man.
It seemed there was a lot she didn't know about the man she had just married. Had she just made the worst mistake of her life?
'So you are sticking to your story?' Lorenzo asked. 'Perhaps for the sake of consistency you think it best to maintain the pretence for now?'
'What do you want from marriage—from your wife?' Chloe demanded, refusing to let him bully her into saying something to humiliate herself.
'I wanted someone honest and natural,' he said. 'Someone I could respect. Not another of those women whose grandiose pronouncements of love are as false as their manicured appearance.'
'I have been honest with you,' Chloe said, blinking furiously as she felt her eyes start to burn with tears. There was no way she was going to let herself cry in front of him, not after the way he was treating her. 'And if you can't respect that—can't respect me—then that's your problem.'
She lifted her chin defiantly, pressing her teeth into her lower lip to stop it quivering, and tried to push past him. But his fingers closed on her arm, biting into the flesh like a steel vice.
'Go and compose yourself,' he said, witheringly. 'But don't take too long. After all, you were the one anxious not to be rude to our wedding guests.'
Chloe drew in a startled breath, looking over her shoulder, down into the ballroom below. She had all but forgotten where she was and it was a shock to see the party still in full swing.
A wave of nausea washed through her as she wondered if anyone had seen her awful exchange with Lorenzo. But no one was looking up at them and a quick glance around assured her that they were alone on the balcony.
'There were no witnesses—which is fortunate for you—' his words were disdainful, but that did not mask the undercurrent of menace in his tone '—because I will not tolerate any further disrespect from you. Or permit you to shame me in any way.'
Chloe stared at him, suddenly unable to recognise the man she had fallen so deeply in love with. She opened her mouth to respond—to tell him that she wouldn't tolerate any more of his vile behaviour. But before she had the chance to speak he turned sharply and strode away towards his study.
She stood stock-still, watching him go—aware of the crackling emotion storming through his tall, powerful body as his long, thrusting strides bore him swiftly along the corridor. She'd never been able to look away if Lorenzo was in the room. His presence drew her gaze like a magnet.
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