Read an Excerpt
IT WASN'T! It was! It was Megan. Luigi Costanzo had overheard the child telling Santa that all she wanted for Christmas was a daddy. It had aroused his curiosity, even caused a faint stir somewhere deep within him, and he'd watched her as she returned to her mother. She was a pretty little girl with long blonde hair and big blue eyes, but it was the shock of seeing who was her parent that caused him to do a double take.
Megan, whom he hadn't seen for almost four years.
What the hell?
Luigi looked from mother to daughter and his eyes narrowed. Megan still had the same shoulder-length blonde hair, the same slender figure; nothing about her had changed. She didn't even look any older. He swung on his heel, snapping his fingers at his nearest employee. 'Please follow that woman and report back to me with her address.'
If the young man was surprised he didn't show it. He spurted into immediate action. There was no arguing with the new owner of Gerards. He'd had everyone on their toes ever since he took over a few months ago.
'Sweetheart, what did you ask for?' Megan looked down at her beloved daughter, who was skipping happily along at her side. There hadn't really been time to visit Santa's grotto but Charlotte had pleaded so eloquently that Megan couldn't find it in her heart to refuse. There was always another train, even if it meant travelling home at the height of the rush hour.
'For a daddy.'
Megan hid her surprise, smiling indulgently instead. 'I don't think Santa supplies daddies.You were supposed to ask for a toy.' Her heart felt heavy as she spoke. Charlotte was right, she did need a father, and if Luigi had been different
Megan halted her thoughts. It was no good letting them run along those lines. She had been an idiot for marrying him, for allowing her parents to convince her that she could do no better. He was a man with big ambition; she would never want for anything, they had said.
She could understand their reasoning because money had been the bane of their lives, her father never able to hold down a job for long due to ill health, so for that reason she hadn't told her parents that she was leaving Luigi. She had simply disappeared, telephoning them later so that they would know she was safe, but not giving them her address. They had not been happy, telling her that she was making a big mistake. But Megan didn't think so.
Luigi's chief aim in life was making money, and he was very good at it. His wife was someone to clean his home, and cook and wash for him, and to make love to whenever the urge drove him. But there was no love in his heart; she had found that out after the first few months of marriage. She doubted he was capable of feeling any such emotion. Whereas she had loved him with a passion that had sometimes scared her.
With an effort she pushed him out of her mind, concentrating instead on her chatterbox daughter. Santa had given her a parcel and they played a guessing game all the way home as to what was inside.
Home was a rented terraced house in Greenwich, which she shared with Jenny Wilson whom she'd met when she first arrived in London. As soon as they were indoors Charlotte ripped the wrapping paper off her gift. If Megan was disappointed her daughter wasn't. She was delighted with her soldier doll.
'Look, Mummy, I can pretend he's my daddy. Wasn't Santa kind?'
It was a clear case of the boys and girls presents getting muddled but Megan hadn't the heart to tell Charlotte this. 'He certainly is, sweetheart. What are you going to call him?'
'Daddy, of course,' said Charlotte scornfully. 'Come on, Daddy, come and play with me.'
It broke Megan's heart to see her daughter being so passionate about a doll. She hadn't realised that Charlotte missed having a father. Where had the idea come from? Surely she was too young to know?
Daddy doll was a part of their lives for the next few days and on Sunday morning, when Charlotte jumped into bed beside her, the doll had to come too. Megan was sometimes tempted to conveniently lose the doll, except that she knew her daughter would be heartbroken. The trouble was, all this talk about Daddy dragged up memories she would far rather forget.
When the doorbell rang loudly and insistently she was tempted to ignore it. This was Sunday morning for heaven's sake. No one of any consequence called at this hour. It was probably for Jenny anyway, and she was spending the weekend with her fiancé. But the ringing didn't stop; whoever it was kept their finger on the button with no intention of going away until it was answered.
Impatiently Megan pulled on her dressing gown. 'Stay there and keep the bed warm,' she told her daughter. Someone was going to get a piece of her mind. But that someone robbed her of speech. She felt the colour drain from her face, and her heart skipped a couple of beats before resuming at a startling pace.
The very last person she had expected to see was her husband. After all these years she had thought she was safe. In fact she'd felt extremely secure in the knowledge that he had no idea where she was. Not that she'd expected him to come looking. He might just as well have employed a housekeeper for all the notice he'd ever taken of her.
He was still as handsome as ever, his dark Latin looks improving with age rather than fading. Black hair aggressively short, deep brown eyes intensely disturbing. There was maybe a line or two around their corners but it added rather than detracted from his appearance. His nose was strong and straight and his generous lips were at this moment compressed into a grim line.
Although there was a step up into her house he still stood a couple of inches taller. He was six three compared to her five feet six and she was glad at this moment of the extra few inches the step afforded her. He could be very intimidating when he chose.
And it looked as though this was one of those occasions.
'I've come to claim my daughter.'
The bald statement left Megan gasping. This was her worst nightmare come true. She clung to the door handle for support as her legs threatened to buckle. 'Hhow did you know?'She felt a tightness in her throat that threatened to choke her.
'So she is mine!' he claimed triumphantly, a gleam of light entering those dark, dark eyes.
He had tricked her! Megan felt like taking a swipe at him. Or at the very least slamming the door in his face. But what good would that do? He wouldn't go away until he'd got what he came for. She dared not think what that might be.
'Can I come in or shall we negotiate on the doorstep?'
Negotiate? Negotiate what? Visiting rights? Some hope of that. He was no longer a part of her life, their lives, hers and Charlotte's. She ought to have divorced him. How had he found her? The question whirled round and round in her head.
He lived in Derbyshire; he had no connections with London. She had thought she would be safe a hundred and fifty or more miles away in a big anonymous city. So how had he discovered her whereabouts? Had he been looking for her all these years? Somehow she doubted it. He had declared he loved her before they got married but there had been very little show of affection afterwards, certainly not enough for him to take time off from his precious work to scour the country after her.
He looked as though he'd done well for himself. A short black Crombie overcoat, mohair trousers with perfectly pressed pleats, Italian leather shoes. Yes, he wasn't short of a few pennies. Not that he ever had been. But he was far more polished, far more mature and self-confident. Even the way he stood told her that.
There was not an ounce of diffidence. He was here on a mission and expected to get his own way. No, not expected, he would demand itas his right. She could see it in his expression. Dark eyes overpowered her, making her step back and invite him silently into her private domain.
She didn't want to do it but she had no choice. He was hypnotising her into obeying. Or was it because she didn't want to argue with him in full view of her neighbours? Whichever, she was going along with his wishes and she had the secret fear that she would live to regret it.
He followed her as she opened the door into her lounge-cum-dining room, standing just inside the doorway as she drew back the curtains and let the cold morning light filter in. She folded her arms and looked at him as imperiously as she was able in her purple wool dressing gown. It wasn't exactly the outfit she would have chosen for facing the enemy.
And he was her enemy if he thought he was going to take Charlotte away from her. The very notion triggered a protective parent syndrome. Her grey eyes flared hostility and her back stiffened. 'How did you find me?'
'Does it matter?' he asked coolly. 'The issue here is that you have denied me my daughter.'
'And you think you'd have made a good father?' Megan's voice was growing shriller by the second. 'You didn't even show me any affection; I had no intention of putting a child through that.'
He drew in a swift disbelieving breath. 'I was working for our future, Megan, in case you'd forgotten.'
'So I didn't matter?'
'Of course you mattered. But I thought you understood.'
'Oh, I understood all right,' she retorted. 'You thought I'd be happy taking a back seat while you headed towards making your first million. You believed that the thought of all that money would be sufficient for me to happily keep house while you spent every waking hour making more of the bloody stuff. Well, let me tell you something, dear husband of mine, I'm not interested in money. So long as I have enough to put a roof over mine and Charlotte's head and feed and clothe us, then'
'So that's my daughter's nameCharlotte. Mmm, I like it,' he cut in with a smile. 'Where is she? I'd like to'
'She's asleep,' lied Megan, 'and I'd thank you to keep your voice down.'
'I want to see her.'
'And then you'll go away?'she rasped. 'I don't think so. I didn't like it when you said you'd come to claim your daughter. What was that supposed to mean? Because I'll tell you this right now, it will be over my dead body that you take her from me.'
Megan could hear herself shrieking and knew that it was no way to conduct herself, but she couldn't help it. He wasn't going to take Charlotte; he wasn't! She would fight him tooth and nail.
'What I want,'he said, 'is for you and Charlotte to come and spend Christmas with me.'
Megan stared at him in disbelief, finally shaking her head. 'You really think we'd do that? You think I'd let my daughter spend Christmas with a stranger?'
The jibe hurt; she could see it in his eyes, but she didn't care. How dare he think he could walk in here and take over her life?
'I'm not a stranger I am her father,'he rasped, 'and as such I have rights. You must know that. And if necessary I'll implement those rights,'he added harshly. 'If you know what's good for you you'll accept that you have no alternative.'
He moved further into the room, halting a few menacing inches from her. Megan felt every hair on her skin prickle and she wanted to step back but she knew that she must show no fear or he would take advantage. Luigi could be ruthless. If he wanted something he went all out for it. She'd seen it enough times in his business life and knew that he'd be equally determined where his daughter was concerned. She was being hounded into a corner and wasn't sure which way to turn.
When his big hands gripped her shoulders she felt a powerful sensation rush through heranger, fear, desperation. All three! With a strength she didn't know she possessed, Megan pushed him away. Then out of the corner of her eye, she saw Charlotte sidling into the rooma scared-looking Charlotte.
'Mummy,' her daughter cried plaintively. 'What's that man doing to you?'
Megan immediately gathered the child into her arms. 'Nothing, sweetheart.'
'But I saw him touch you. Were you fighting?'
'Of course not.'
'So who is he? What's he doing here?'
Megan could understand Charlotte's questions because they never had any male visitors except Jenny's boyfriend. There'd been no one in her life since Luigi, not because she'd been short of invitations; she simply wasn't interested. Her daughter filled her every waking hour and Megan was completely happyor she had been until a few minutes ago. Now she felt her happiness fading and worry begin to take its place.
It was ironic that Luigi should put in an appearance nowwhen Charlotte was crying out for a daddy. He had unknowingly timed his visit to perfection. And it looked as though he intended to do all in his power to take her beloved baby away from her. It was as clear in her head as water out of a tap that this was what he had in mind. He didn't want her, he wanted Charlotte.
I've come to claim my daughter!
Those were his exact words and they struck chill in her heart as she recalled them. And because of that how could she explain to Charlotte that this was her father? He had no part to play in their lives. Not now, not ever! But how was she to get rid of him?
'It looks as though Mummy isn't going to tell you who I am,' he said, looking down at the girl.
Megan shot him a warning glance because she knew what was going to come next, but her wishes were ignored.
'I'm your father,'he informed in a voice that held no love at all. It was a matter-of-fact statement and Megan could have cheerfully strangled him. He hadn't changed one iota.
Charlotte hung on to Megan's dressing gown, looking up at him shyly with an expression of awe and reverence on her face. 'Did Santa send you?' she asked in a tiny, breathless voice.
At that he smiled. 'Indeed he did. He told me that there was a very special little girl looking for a daddy.'
Charlotte's eyes were enormous as she turned to her mother. It was clear she thought that some miracle had happened. 'Mummy, isn't Santa wonderful?'
Megan forced herself to smile. 'He always does his best, sweetheart, but it's not Christmas yet, you know.' What else could she say? How could she burst her daughter's precious bubble of happiness? And how the hell had Luigi known?
'It's near enough,'said Luigi. 'How would you and your mummy like to come and spend Christmas with me? I have a great big house and you can help dress the Christmas tree and goodness knows how many presents you'll find under it on Christmas Day.'
'Luigi!' Megan whispered through her teeth. This was emotional blackmail at its worst. Yes, he probably would ply Charlotte with presents, but what the little girl wanted more than anything in the world was a father who loved her, a father who showed his affection in every way possible. Buying a child's love was inexcusable. And that was all he would do, all he would ever do.
And Charlotte was completely overwhelmed, hiding behind her mother's skirts, very warily peeping at Luigi.
'How dare you think you can walk in here after all these years and try to take over my life?' said Megan coldly. 'I have plans for Christmas; why should I change them because of a whim on your part?'
'I can assure you it's no whim,' he told her brusquely. 'I want both you and my daughter back where you belong. I'm giving you no choice.'
Luigi was angry, fiercely angry. His stomach was a tight, knotted ball and he wanted to lash out. He had felt bad enough when Megan left him, but for her to be carrying his child when she did so went beyond the pale. Had she hated him that much? Did she still hate him?
In truth, he hadn't realised that anything had gone wrong with their marriage. Night after sleepless night he'd racked his brains for a possible reason and come up with nothing. He'd thought she was happy, she had no reason not to be. He was a good provider; she'd never been left wanting. He'd worked long hours, yes, but she understood that. It was the only way to get anywhere.
None of her friends or even her parents had known where she'd gone, and his search had proved fruitless. Not even the police could help him. He had immersed himself more deeply into his work, hoping that one day she would get in touch. Finally, though, he'd had to accept that their marriage was over. And he'd worked even harder.
When he'd seen her in his London store he'd been stunned, and when he had looked closely at the little girl he'd known at once that it was his child. He had an old photograph somewhere of his mother at the same age and there was a distinct likeness.
Megan had denied him his daughter and now she was trying to say that he had no rights to her. Lord, she really must hate him. What the hell had he done to her? Of one thing he was sure; he wasn't going to let her get away with it. She was not going to walk out on him again.
'I have no choice?'she questioned now. 'Believe me, no one, and that includes you, makes me do anything I don't want to do.'
He admired the way she stood up for herself. Her bright eyes and prickly stance reminded him of an animal defending its young. And that was exactly what she was doing. But Charlotte was as much his as Megan's.
'Give me a reason why you don't want to spend Christmas with me.' He was sure she had none, except that she no longer loved him. But that was no excuse for depriving her daughter, his daughter. He'd never very much liked children, and he'd always worked over Christmas, but all of a sudden he found himself looking forward to taking a few days off and getting to know this beautiful little girl who kept peeping at him from behind her mother's dressing gown.
He would shower her with presents, she would want for nothing, and it would be a Christmas filled with all the good things in life.
And after that? asked his conscience.
After that he would keep her with him, of course. It was her rightful place. Both Charlotte and Megan. He would accept nothing less.
'The reason,' she told him swiftly, 'is that Charlotte doesn't know you. And, to be quite honest, I don't want her