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Keira did her best to ignore the murmur of speculative voices around her as she travelled on the tram into the city, but it was impossible to ignore the headlines on the front page of the newspaper the man sitting opposite was holding up to read.
Italian multi-millionaire Patrizio Trelini in bitter divorce wrangle with unfaithful wife.
Keira's stomach churned with guilt as the man folded the paper to read the rest of the scandal on page three. She didn't need to get up and look over his shoulder; she knew exactly what was written there. Every day for the last two months her shame had been plastered over every newspaper and every gossip magazine in the country.
The man lowered the paper and looked at her, his eyes narrowing slightly, his lips beginning to thin in contempt.
Keira got off four stops early and, with her shoulders slumping wearily, trudged the rest of the way to where the offices of Trelini Luxury Homes was situated overlooking the sinuous muddy curve of the Yarra River.
She arrived feeling sticky and uncomfortable from the unusually warm early October day, her dark hair in riotous damp curls around her face. She drew in an uneven breath as she made her way through the doors to the reception area where a perfectly groomed and coiffed receptionist sat with a chilly look on her expertly made-up face.
'He won't see you, Mrs Trelini,' Michelle informed Keira brusquely. 'I have been strictly forbidden to put your calls through to him or allow you entry. Now, if you will not leave immediately I am afraid I will have to call security.'
'Please, II have to see him,' Keira said, her mouth drying in despair, making it difficult to get the words out. 'It's it's urgent.'
The receptionist's light blue gaze was disbelieving but after a long tense moment she let out a sigh and reached for the intercom handset. 'Your er wife is here to see you,'she said, obviously uncertain how to refer to Keira in the light of what had been going on.
Keira winced when she heard the stream of invective coming from the other end but the receptionist took it in her stride. 'Yes, I know,'she said calmly. 'But she said it's urgent.'
Keira swallowed back her anguish as the receptionist put the handset back down in its cradle a few moments later. 'He will see you when he finishes the call he is currently taking,' she said as she got to her feet. 'I have a tram to catch. Mr Trelini will come and get you when he wants you.'
He doesn't want me. Keira felt the pain of mentally acknowledging the words. She had killed his love for her with one stupid act of reckless defiance.
He was never going to forgive her.
How could he when she couldn't even forgive herself?
Keira sat on the leather sofa in the reception area and looked at the magazines neatly arranged on the coffee table, her heart contracting in despair when she saw that each and every one of them had her guilt and shame splashed over the covers. She reached for the top one, where there was a photo of her leaving Garth Merrick's apartment the morning after she had
The magazine dropped out of her hand as she looked up to see Patrizio standing in front of her. She bent to retrieve it but his foot came over it.
She got to her feet, self-consciously tucking a wayward strand of hair back behind her ear. She felt so awkward, so out of place, so unrefined in his presence. She hadn't had time to change after working in the studio and she squirmed as she felt his dark-as-night gaze sweep over her. He was probably thinking she had done it deliberately to annoy him. She could almost feel the censure in his gaze as it burned over every inch of her body.
'I take it the urgent matter you wish to discuss with me has to do with your brother and my nephew,' he said. 'I was just speaking with the headmaster of their school, who informed me of what has been going on.'
Keira rolled her lips together in agitation. 'Yes I had no idea things had gone that far. I thought they were best friends in spite of what what happened '
His dark brows snapped together. 'How could you think your behaviour would not affect my nephew or indeed your own brother?' he asked incredulously. 'Your salacious affair with Garth Merrick has made me a laughing stock amongst my colleagues and associates, not to mention my family. There is a lot I am prepared to forgive, but not that.'
'I know ' she said, fighting back tears. 'I'm so sorry '
'Do not waste your breath pretending you are sorry,' he said. 'I am not going to take you back and I am not going to give you the amount of money you are vying for.'
'But I don't want'
'Forget it, Keira,' he said, cutting her off. 'Right now, you and I need to discuss this situation between the boys like two rational adults, although, having said that, I am very much aware of your limitations in that area.'
'You just can't help yourself, can you?' she asked bitterly. 'You have to have a dig at me every chance you can.'
'This is not the time to discuss my behaviour, Keira, or indeed even yours,' he said with implacable force. 'There is the very real danger of one or both of the boys being expelled during these last critical weeks of school. That is what we need to concentrate on at this point.'
Keira felt ashamed of her outburst; it seemed so petty when he put it like that. 'All right then,' she said, lowering her gaze from the laser strength of his. 'Let's discuss it.'
'Come into my office,'he said. 'I have some coffee brewing.'
She followed him down the wide hall, the fragrant aroma drawing her like a magnet. She had missed breakfast and lunch and, after she had received the call from her mother informing her of Jamie's problems at school, she hadn't had time to grab a snack to tide her over till dinner time. She felt light-headed and faint but somehow she sensed it wasn't just to do with lack of food. Being in Patrizio's presence made her feel out of her depth and desperately vulnerable.
'Do you still have milk and three sugars?' he asked as he took the pot from the stand.
'Do you have artificial sweetener?' she asked.
He turned to look at her, a quizzical expression on his face. 'You are not dieting, are you?'
'Not really '
She was conscious of his dark eyes assessing her figure and had to fight with herself not to fidget under his scrutiny.
'My secretary has some in the staff room,' he said into the silence. 'I won't be a minute.'
Keira let out her breath in a ragged stream as he left the room. She sat in one of the leather chairs that faced his massive desk, her legs feeling as if the bones had been removed. Her head felt tight with the beginnings of a headache and her stomach was fluttering with a combination of nerves and uncertainty.
Her eyes went to a silver photograph frame on his desk and, leaning forward, she slowly turned it around
It physically hurt to see the love he'd had for her on their wedding day. His dark eyes had shone with it, his smile tender as he had looked down at her upturned radiant face.
'I keep that as a reminder of what can happen when you marry in haste,' he said as he came back into the room.
Keira turned the frame back around, her chest tightening painfully as she met his black diamond gaze. 'I sort of guessed you wouldn't have it there for sentimental reasons,' she said. 'Will you have a ritual burning of it or will you just toss it out with the garbage once we're finally divorced?'
He handed her the coffee, his fingers briefly touching hers. 'I am glad you brought that topic up,' he said with an enigmatic look.
She put the coffee on the desk, frightened she might spill it. 'I thought we were here to discuss Jamie and Bruno,' she said. 'Not our divorce.'
He sat in his chair behind the desk, his eyes never once leaving hers. 'I am withdrawing my request for a divorce.'
Her eyes widened. 'What?'
He gave her a cool little smile. 'Do not get too excited, Keira. I am not interested in taking you back permanently.'
'I didn't think for a moment you were suggesting'
'However' he cut across her as if she hadn't spoken 'I do think we should temporarily suspend proceedings in an effort to communicate to your brother and my nephew that we are reconciled.'
She gaped at him incredulously. 'Reconciled?'
'You are unfamiliar with the word?' He leaned back in his chair indolently and explained, 'It means to restore opposing factions to a state of harmony or friendship.'
She threw him a suspicious glance. 'What's all this about, Patrizio?' she asked. 'Why don't you get straight to the point instead of playing these stupid little dictionary games with me?'
'All right,' he said, putting his coffee cup down on the desk as he leaned forward once more. 'As you have no doubt heard, my nephew Bruno has been making life pretty miserable for your brother. I am deeply ashamed of his behaviour, which, I suspect, has come out of his loyalty to me, which of course does not excuse it, but rather explains it.'
Keira remained silent as her hands twisted into tight knots in her lap. It had always amazed her how gracious and forgiving he was towards his own flesh and blood, and yet when it came to her behaviour he could not find it in himself to overlook her one fall from grace.
'I have come to the conclusion that the only way to settle this war between them is for us to get back together,' he continued.
She jerked upright in her seat. 'You mean for real?'
'No, Keira, I do not mean for real.' His tone yet again mimicked that of an adult speaking to a particularly obtuse and inattentive child. 'We will pretend to be back together until the boys have safely completed their schooling.'
'Pretend?' She frowned at him. 'How do you propose we do that?'
His gaze was unblinking as it held hers. 'You will move back into my house immediately.'
Keira swallowed back her dread. 'You're surely not serious?'
'I am, indeed, very serious, Keira,' he said. 'The boys are not stupid. If we go out on the occasional date in the hope they will think we have settled our differences they will immediately know something is amiss. Living together again as man and wife is the best way to convince them it is for real.'
'Define what you mean by living together as man and wife,' she said, watching him guardedly. 'You're not expecting me to sleep with you, are you?'
'You will have to share my bed due to the regular presence of the household staff,' he said. 'If anyone reported to the press that we were not sharing a bedroom it would blow our cover. However,'he continued, 'I have no intention of sharing my body with you. That is something I no longer have any desire to do.'
His statement hurt far more than he could ever have realised, Keira thought. She felt the pain of his rejection in every nerve and cell in her body. He had desired her so passionately in the past, his body driving into hers with such urgency and potency she had sobbed his name in ecstasy each and every time. Her mind filled with the erotic images of their rocking bodies in every position imaginable. He had taught her so much about sensuality; nothing had been off limits. He had worshipped her as, indeed, she had worshipped him.
Keira became aware of the creeping silence, her face feeling the slow burn of shame spreading over it as she encountered that dark steely gaze.
She hadn't seen him for two months but she had not forgotten how very black his hair was, its loosely controlled style with its slight wave making her ache to run her fingers through it as she had done so many times in the past. His lean jaw was shadowed with the late-in-the-day stubble that marked him as a virile man. His shoulders were broad and his stomach flat and rock-hard from the punishing early morning physical regime he adhered to with the sort of self-discipline she admired but totally lacked herself.
His clothes hung off him with lazy grace, his tie loosened, his shirt undone at his neck giving him an air of casualness that was totally captivating and dangerously attractive.
'You have gone very quiet,'he observed. 'Were you expecting me to ask you to resume an intimate relationship with me?'
Keira moistened the parchment-dryness of her lips. 'No, of course not,'she said. 'I'm just trying to get my head around your suggestion.'
'You do not think it will work?'
She bit at her lip. 'I'm not sure Won't the boys suspect something when we get back together so suddenly?'
'Not when you recall how quickly we got together in the first place,' he pointed out neatly. 'Remember?'
Keira did and it made her skin tingle from head to foot in reaction. She had met him at a school sports day, her instant attraction to him totally overwhelming. After the final game they had taken the boys out for pizza and, instead of dropping her home, Patrizio had taken her back to his house and made her coffee. Coffee had led to kisses, kisses to caresses and caresses to consummation of their relationship. Keira hadn't had a lover before and had been expecting her first time to be uncomfortable but it was anything but. Her body had responded to his as if it had been fashioned especially for him, the pleasure she had felt in his arms something she would never be able to forgetcertainly not now with him sitting so close.
'You haven't answered, Keira,' he said. 'Does that mean you are having trouble recalling our time together or do you save your memory lapses for when you hope it will exonerate you from taking responsibility for yourshall we sayless than honourable actions?'
Keira dragged her gaze back to his, her lips growing tight with anger. She hated herself enough without having him rub her nose in it every chance he could. Couldn't he see how very distressed she was? She had begged for his forgiveness, she had cried and cried and yet he had shunned her totally, refusing to even speak to her other than through his lawyer.
'As you said earlier, we are here to discuss the boys,' she clipped out. 'Could we please stick with that topic?'
He held her gaze for interminable seconds. 'I think the plan will work,' he finally said. 'The boys were once the best of friends. Bruno will hardly continue his appalling behaviour if I tell him I have fallen in love with you again. I suspect that within days of our announcing our intention to resume our marriage they will restore their friendship.'
'But if we resume living together it will delay our divorce,' she said with a worried frown. 'We've been separated for two months. If we live together it will mean we'll have to start from scratch.'
'I realise that, but it cannot be avoided,' he said. 'The boys must be put first over our desire for a divorce.'His eyes probed hers for another lengthy moment. 'Or are you in a particular hurry to process it in order to marry someone else?'
Keira lowered her gaze to her hands in her lap, surprised to see a tiny smear of blood where one of her rough-edged nails had broken the skin. She hadn't felt a thing; the pain she was currently feeling was from much deeper inside. 'No,' she said. 'There's no one else.'
'Fine,' he said. 'That means we can get going on this without delay.'
Keira sat in silence, still twisting her hands and worrying her bottom lip with her teeth.
'Do not worry about your parents,'he said after a little pause. She looked up at him and frowned. 'You've already discussed this with them?'
'No,' he said. 'But I am well aware of your strained relationship with them.'
Keira couldn't help the rush of feeling that surged through her at his softened tone. He had always understood her difficulties relating to her strait-laced and conservative parents, and had often protected her from their criticism in the past. That had been one of the things she had missed most about him. He had been her defender, her rock and fortress. She had felt so alone without him in her lifeso achingly and desperately alone.
'Of course, while we are involved in this charade, it goes without saying that any involvement with other parties must immediately cease,' he said.
Keira shifted her gaze again. 'I'm not involved with anyone.'
'Good,' he said. 'I am between relationships as well so the timing is perfect.'
Keira had seen a photograph in the press of his new lover. Gisela Hunter was the total opposite of hera tall platinum blonde-haired beauty, with rail-thin arms and legs and the sort of smile the cost of which must have put a Ferrari in some top-notch orthodontist's garage.
She fought down her jealousy and reminded herself that she had no one but herself to blame. She had jumped to conclusions and, in her normal impulsive way, had acted on a suspicion that in the end had proved to be incorrect.
'I understand that you are currently working part-time at a café,' he said.
She brought her eyes back to his. 'Yes. It helps to pay my rent and for my painting materials.'
'You will give the café proprietor your notice immediately,' he said. 'I will pay you a wage for the duration of our mock reconciliation.'
'You don't have to do that '
'No, but I will do it all the same. I cannot have people wondering why you are slaving over a coffee machine when your husband is a multi-millionaire.'
She looked down at her hands again, knowing it would be pointless refusing. He wouldn't take no for an answer and, besides, she needed money; her rent was already two weeks in arrears. 'All right ' she said, 'if you insist.'
She heard the creak of leather as he leaned forward in his chair and she looked up to meet his eyes, her stomach giving a little shuffling movement at the dark intensity she could see reflected there.
'This is not about us, Keira,'he said. 'It is about two young boys on the threshold of adulthood who are jeopardising their futures with unnecessary bitterness.'
Her tongue moved over the dryness of her lips again. 'I understand '
'Good,'he said. 'Then you will also understand the urgency of making an announcement to the press.' He picked up his mobile from his desk and, scrolling through, pressed the name that came up on the dial.
She listened as he informed the journalist at the other end that, as of tonight, Keira and Patrizio Trelini had cancelled their acrimonious divorce proceedings and were resuming their relationship.