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Earl's Daughter bags Sicilian Billionaire!
The lurid tabloid headline caught Kristen's attention as she hurried past the newspaper kiosk at Camden Town tube station. Maybe it was the word Sicilian that made her stop and buy a copy of the paper, although it did not cross her mind that the headline could be referring to Sergio. It was only when she had jammed herself into a packed train carriage and managed to unfold the paper that she saw his photographand for a few seconds her heart stopped beating. Conflicting emotions surged through her as she stared at the image of her son's father. She had not expected Nico to bear such a strong resemblance to Sergio but the likeness between the three-year-old boy and the swarthy Sicilian was uncanny.
Kristen's first instinct was to tear her eyes from the page but curiosity compelled her to study the photograph and the caption beneath it:
Lady Felicity Denholm was spotted with her new fiance, Italian business tycoon Sergio Castellano, when the couple visited the London Palladium earlier this week.
The text beside the picture continued:
Earl Denholm is reported to be delighted that his youngest daughter is to marry one of Italy's richest men. The Castellano Group owns a chain of luxury hotel and leisure complexes around the world. Sergio heads the property development side of the business, while his twin brother Salvatore runs the family's world-famous vineyards at the Castellano estate in Sicily.
Wedged between a businessman wielding a large briefcase and a teenager wearing an enormous backpack, Kris-ten gripped the support rail as the train picked up speed. It was becoming something of a habit to learn of Sergio's marriage plans in the press, she thought bitterly. She remembered how shocked and hurt she had felt four years ago when she had read about his engagement to a beautiful Sicilian woman, barely two months after their relationship had ended. Presumably his first marriage had not lasted long if he was now about to marry a member of the English aristocracy.
In the photograph Felicity Denholm was clinging to Sergio's arm and wore the triumphant smile of a cat that had drunk all the cream, Kristen noted sourly. Sergio was even more stunningly good-looking than he had been four years ago. His black tuxedo moulded his broad shoulders and emphasised his powerful physique. But it was his face that trapped Kristen's attention. Blessed with a perfectly chiselled bone-structure, his features were leaner than she remembered. Harder. And, although in the picture he was smiling, nothing could detract from the implacable resoluteness of his jaw.
He was a man who knew his own mind and who pursued his goals with ruthless determination, proclaimed his dark, curiously expressionless eyes. They appeared to be black, but Kristen knew that his eyes were actually the colour of bitter chocolate and could, on rare occasions, soften and invite you to drown in their depths.
Memories flooded her mind of the golden summer she had spent in Sicily four years ago. She had met Sergio soon after she had arrived and the attraction between them had been instant and electrifying. She remembered the first time he had kissed her. They had been talking and laughing together, when he had suddenly dipped his head and brushed his mouth across hers. Even now, the memory was so intense that her stomach clenched. The kiss had been so beautiful and she had realised at that moment that she was in love. Foolishly, she had believed that Sergio shared the sentiment, but for him she had simply been a fleeting diversion from his jet-setting lifestyle.
It was a relief when the train pulled into Tottenham Court Road station and she shoved the newspaper into her bag as she was swept along with the throng of commuters towards the escalator. But the leaden sensation in Kristen's chest remained when she reached the street, and a few minutes later she walked through the doors of Fast-track Sports Physiotherapy Clinic and was greeted with a concerned look from her boss, Stephanie Bower.
'I take it from your expression that Nico didn't want to go to day-care again?' Steph's eyes narrowed on Kristen's tense face. 'Or are you ill? You look like you've seen a ghost.'
'Actually, I've seen Nico's father.' The words spilled from Kristen before she could prevent them, the sense of shock that still gripped her causing her to abandon her usual reticence about her private life.
Steph emitted a low whistle. 'No way? I thought you'd had no contact with him since Nico was born. Where did you see him?' She stared at the newspaper Kristen handed her.
'That's him, Nico's father,' Kristen said flatly, pointing to the photo on the front page.
'Sergio Castellano! You're kidding, right?' Steph's eyebrows disappeared beneath her fringe when Kristen shook her head. 'Jeezyou're not kidding. But how on earth did you ever get mixed up with a drop-dead sexy, hotshot playboy? Not that I'm surprised,' she added hastily. 'Let's face it, you're a gorgeous blonde and you were bound to catch his attention. But you are a physiotherapist living in Camden and he's a billionaire who likes to cruise around the Med on a luxury yacht the size of the QE2. Where did you meet him?'
'In Sicily,' Kristen sighed. 'I'd taken a gap year from university to concentrate on trying to win a gold medal at the gymnastics world championships, but I had a bad bout of flu and fell behind with my training. My GP suggested I should go somewhere warm for a while to recuperate. My stepfather, who was also my coach, had a friend who owned a villa in Sicily which happened to have a gym. Alan rented the villa for six months, and he, Mum and I flew out there. But soon after we arrived my mum and stepdad had to return to England because Alan's father had died unexpectedly.
'I remained in Sicily.' Kristen gave a rueful smile. 'It was the first time I'd ever lived on my own. Even though I was studying at university, I still lived at home so that I could follow Alan's strict training schedule. I loved gymnastics, but I had started to feel that it had taken over my life. I'd never even had a proper boyfriend. I guess that's why I was swept off my feet by Sergio,' she said heavily. 'The Castellano estate was close to the villa where I was staying. I quite literally ran into Sergio one day on the beach and he was so sexy and charming that I was blown away by him. I couldn't believe my luck that he seemed to be attracted to me.'
She grimaced. 'I was very naive. My stepfather was a dominant figure in my life and he was determined that I would be a top gymnast. I'd had a sheltered upbringing, but suddenly I was free from Alan's influence and I rushed headlong into an affair with Sergio.'
Steph gave her a speculative look. 'But at the end of the summer I suppose you had to return to England, and you came home with more than just a suntan,' she murmured. 'I assume you fell pregnant with Nico while you were in Sicily? Didn't Castellano offer to support you when you told him you were expecting his baby? What a bastard, especially when he's loaded '
'I didn't tell him.' Kristen interrupted Steph before she could launch into one of her feminist diatribes against the male species. Fresh from an acrimonious divorce after discovering that her husband who she had adored was a serial adulterer, Steph's opinion of men was that they should all be boiled in oil.
'Sergio doesn't know about Nico. He made it very clear during our affair that he wasn't looking for a committed relationship of any kind, and I knew when I found out I was pregnant that he wouldn't be interested in his child.'
The full truth of what had happened four years ago was too complicated to explain, and too painful for Kristen to want to dwell on. Often when she looked at Nico she thought about the other baby she had lost and felt an ache of sadness. Forcing her mind from the past, she saw that Steph was concentrating on the newspaper article.
'So Nico's filthy-rich father is getting married to a spoiled socialite, and it says here that the couple will share their time between his home in Sicily, a luxury apartment in Rome and the multi-million pound house that Sergio is currently buying on Park Lane. That's when he and the lovely Lady Felicity aren't aboard his yacht or travelling on his private jet,' Steph said sardonically. 'Meanwhile you are struggling to bring up Castellano's son alone, with no financial help. It's outrageously unfair.'
Kristen shrugged. 'I'm not struggling,' she murmured, unaware of the weariness in her voice. The salary she earned as a physiotherapist covered her mortgage and bills, and although it was true that the cost of living seemed to have rocketed recently she was still able to provide Nico with everything he needed. 'It's true I can't go mad with money, but who can at the moment?'
Steph dropped the newspaper onto her desk and gave Kristen a rueful look. 'I know you're finding things more difficult now that you have to pay childcare costs since your mum died. But I'm not just talking about the fact that you are struggling financially. You're still grieving for Kathleen, and so is Nico. It's the reason he's been so clingy lately and why he cries every time you leave him at nursery.'
'His nursery worker says he stops crying after I've gone,' Kristen muttered tightly. She knew Steph was simply showing friendly concern, but she felt guilty enough about leaving Nico, and the sound of his sobs as she had walked out of the day-care centre this morning had made her feel as if her heart was being ripped out. 'What do you suggest I do? I would love to stay at home with Nico like my mum did, but I'm a single mother and I have no choice but to go to work.'
'I think you need to take a sabbatical,' Steph said firmly. 'I wouldn't be saying this if I wasn't so worried about you. Heaven knows, you're a valuable member of staff.
But I can see you're close to the edge. You need to take a couple of months off while you try and come to terms with losing your mum, and so that you can be a full-time mum to Nico.'
Tears filled Kristen's eyes as she thought of her mother. Kathleen had moved in with her when she'd given birth to Nico and had looked after him when Kristen had returned to work. The accident five months ago had been such a terrible shock. Kathleen had popped to the shops because they had run out of milk and been hit by a speeding car as she had crossed the road. She had been killed instantly, the policewoman who had broken the news had explained. Kristen was thankful that her mum hadn't suffered, but Steph was right, she hadn't come to terms with the tragedy and her grief was made worse because she knew that Nico desperately missed his beloved Nana.
She sighed. 'It's a nice idea, but I can't give up work. I'd have to win the Lottery first.'
'Here's your ticket.' Steph picked up the newspaper and jabbed her finger at Sergio's handsome face. 'It's only fair that Nico's father should take some responsibility for his son.'
'No!' Kristen said so fiercely that Steph gave her a curious look. 'I told you, Sergio is unaware of Nico's existence. And if he knew he had a child he wouldn't want anything to do with him. I'm certainly not going to ask him for money.'
'I'm not suggesting you demand a massive maintenance agreement,' Steph argued. 'You simply want a bit of financial help for a couple of months so that you can give Nico the care and attention he needs right now.'
'My son is my responsibility,' Kristen said in a tone that warned her friend to drop the subject. But she had to admit that Steph had made a valid point when she'd said that Nico was in need of extra care to help him deal with the loss of his grandmother. He might only be three years old, but Kristen didn't underestimate his grief. Over the past few months he had grown pale and listless and his lack of appetite was worrying.
'Give him time,' Kristen's GP had advised. 'Nico gets upset when you leave him at nursery because he's afraid, quite naturally under the circumstances, that you won't come back. Gradually he will come to accept the death of his grandmother. All you can do is to give him plenty of love and reassurance.'
She would love to rent a cottage by the sea for the summer and take Nico away for a holiday, Kristen thought wistfully. But it was impossible. The mortgage on her house would not pay itself. She pushed thoughts of the past away and forced herself to concentrate on her appointments. In her job she treated patients with a wide variety of sport-related injuries and usually she found the work absorbing. But today the clinic dragged, and even during the Pilates class she ran later in the day her mind was distracted and for once she was glad when the session was over.
The Tube was as busy at the height of the evening rush-hour as it had been in the morning but luckily there were no delays on her line and she was on time to collect Nico. He was waiting with the other children, his eyes fixed on the door as the parents filed into the nursery, and the moment he caught sight of Kristen his face lit up with a smile that tugged on her heart.
'Mummy!' He hurtled across the room and into her arms.
'Hello, Tiger. Have you had a nice day?'
Nico did not reply, but as Kristen lifted him up he linked his arms around her neck and pressed his face into her shoulder. His hair smelled of baby shampoo and felt like silk against her cheek. He was the most precious thing in her life and the intensity of her love for him brought a lump to her throat.
'I missed you.' Eyes as round and dark as chocolate buttons looked at her from beneath long, curling lashes. Nico's eyes were the exact same shade as his father's. The thought slid into Kristen's mind as she recalled the photo in the paper of Sergio and she felt a knife blade pierce her heart.
'I missed you too. But I bet you had a lovely time with all your friends,' she said encouragingly. 'Did you play in the sandpit with Sam?'
Nico stared at her solemnly. 'Can we go home now?'
Kristen set him back on his feet. 'Go and get your coat. We'll stop off at the park, as long as you promise not to climb to the top of the climbing frame.' A shudder ran through her at the memory of how he had fallen and been badly hurt on their last trip to the park. Sometimes she struggled to cope with Nico's exuberance.
As he shot off across the room, she turned to speak to his play-worker, Lizzie. 'How was he today?'
'He's been very withdrawn,' the young woman admitted. 'I tried to persuade him to join in with the activities but it's obvious he's missing his nana.' She gave Kristen a sympathetic look. 'This must be a difficult time for you and Nico. Perhaps, with the summer coming, you could take a holiday. I'm sure it would do you both good.'