Read an Excerpt
'I am quite certain that if I had fathered a child I would be well aware of the fact, which, needless to say, would be none of your business, as you are a complete stranger. Now take your hand off me immediately.'
Alicia Parker was still stunned into immobility by the sheer audacity of her actions, which had stopped this man in his tracks. She looked up into a face so savagely handsome that the breath left her body. All her poor muddled, overtired and overwrought brain could formulate were impressions. Tall. Broad. Dark. Gorgeous. Sexy. Powerful. Sexy. Powerful.
Eyes as cold and dark as the night stared down with uncompromising arrogance and supreme assurance that sheand her preposterous accusationwere so far removed from his gilded life that she must be certifiably mad to accost him like this. His look could have turned her to ice and yet, awfully, Alicia didn't feel cold. She felt hot. All over.
And as she watched, struck dumb by any number of things, the very least of which was his overwhelming presence, Dante D'Aquanni calmly and disdainfully extricated the expensive cloth of his suit from her white knuckle grip, flicked a glance to his minions nearby and strode off and out of the mammoth building which housed his offices in London.
He was gone, as if spirited away, without a backward glance at the petite, dishevelled woman who stood gaping at his departing back. Who'd had only the briefest of chances to get out a few words, her attempt to make him listen having failed abysmally.
Within seconds Alicia was surrounded by great hulking security guards and, without knowing exactly how, she found herself outside in the teeming rain and what had just happened seemed like a blur or a bad dream
Alicia's soft mouth tightened into a grim line. Unfortunately, that day a week ago hadn't been a bad dream. It was a stark reality and the reason why she was now seated in a tiny rental car across the road from an exclusively opulent hotel near the shores of Lake Como in Italy. She even had the remnants of a cold as a result of getting soaked to the skin that day. Dante D'Aquanni had refused to hear her out then, but he wouldn't couldn'trefuse to listen to her here
The sun had set some hours ago, but the sky was still a dark, bruised violet colour. That magical moment when day teetered into night had come and gone, its beauty unnoticed. And, across the road, the hotel quite literally glittered with luxuriousness, adding to this heightened sense of beauty.
Alicia was terrified. She was trying not to be bowled over by it. Trying not to let the pristine streets intimidate her, the unmistakable handsome foreigness of the smartly dressed people coming in and out of the hotel. But still not him yet. This was a million miles away from anywhere she'd ever been, or anywhere she was ever likely to be. She closed her eyes for a second; they were gritty with tiredness, every limb ached with exhaustion. She knew she wasn't far from collapse, but didn't have the luxury of time to sleep, to catch her breath. She was existing in a haze, anger at his recent curt dismissal and sheer nerves keeping her going.
This was the only solution, and the only way she was going to get to see him, to force him to admit his responsibility. To admit to fathering her sister's unborn child. A sudden image of Melanie's small, pale face against the hospital bed linen made Alicia's breath stop painfully. She closed her eyes but the image got stronger and she could see with alarming vividness, the scary profusion of tubes and wires that had snaked around her too thin body with its small bump. Alicia felt tears threaten; if anything happened to her She couldn't let it. Her eyes snapped open. She needed money now for Melanie's treatment and Dante D'Aquanni would be made to accept the part he'd played in this chain of events. Would be made to pay. He was their only option. Alicia was desperate.
Her sister had been involved in a horrific car crash while on her way to see this very man and somehow, miraculously, she and her baby had survived. But she had suffered a fractured pelvis, among other more minor internal injuries. With the complication of being pregnant, the result was that they desperately needed to get Melanie into the care of a consultant who had expert experience with pregnancies which had suffered trauma. He was based in central London and Alicia knew well that this kind of care came privately and with a hefty price tag.
With no other close family and no friends who had anything approaching that kind of money to call upon, it had left her no choice but to take this course of action. The ward sister, an old friend of Alicia's from her nursing training days, had assured her that Melanie was stable and could be left for a short time. That assurance had led her to feel confident enough to make this drastic, desperate step, along with the promise that she would be notified the minute that any change occurred in Mel's condition.
She looked quickly at the hotel's intricately carved doors again, afraid that she might have missed him. Nothing. She'd followed him earlier from his villa on the shores of the lake to the hotel, where he had met a stunning brunette on the steps. She could only imagine what they would be doing now and wondered if Dante D'Aquanni would be taking her back to his villa or entertaining her in an opulent suite inside. Alicia worried her lower lip. She prayed that he wouldn't bring her back Alicia needed him on his own.
Something caught the corner of her eye and she looked across the road again. A valet was bringing a low-slung, gleaming silver car to a halt outside the door, which was opening. Her eyes widened in apprehensionhis car. And then he appeared. Mere feet away. Coming out of the hotel in a black tuxedo, the bow-tie undone at his neck. Certainly looking more dishevelled than when he'd gone in. The beautiful brunette accompanied him down the steps in a glittering silver sheath of a dress, also looking sexily tousled, long, dark lustrous hair around her shoulders. She looked thoroughly bedded.
Alicia wanted to feel revolted, but as she watched the woman twine sinuous arms around his neck and press close, all she did feel was a tingling awareness and something much more disturbing. She felt bewildered for a moment by the confusing emotion. The man's overpoweringly good looks and charisma, which she could remember like a brand from the previous week reached out to her from across the road.
Like any protective, loving older sister, she believed Melanie was beautiful and that everyone else loved her too but Alicia knew well that she and her sister were not the type of women to turn this man's head. He was out of their league, on a level that hadn't even been invented yet. A grim hardness settled in her chest That was exactly why he had discarded Melanie with such callous ruthlessness.
The valet had opened the driver's door of the open-top sports car. Dante D'Aquanni extricated himself from the woman and, with a brief kiss on her cheek, strode down the steps and to his car. After discreetly giving a tip to the valet, he slid into the driver's seat and, with a muted roar of the throttle, sped off.
The woman stood on the steps looking after the car, a look of comic chagrin on her beautiful face before she flounced back up the steps and disappeared, no doubt back to the suite from where they'd just emerged. It was only then that Alicia came to, shaken out of the crazy reverie that seemed to have taken hold. Hands shaking, she turned the key in the ignition and pulled out of her parking space. What was wrong with her? She needed all her concentration just to navigate in the unfamiliar car.
She breathed a sigh of relief when she saw red traffic lights ahead and the familiar lines of the powerful sports car. The light went green and he pulled off again.
She pictured all too easily the supreme nonchalance of his movements as he had come down the steps of the hotel just moments before. The way he'd coolly discarded the woman. It seemed to mock her now. This man didn't have a care in the world. So utterly confident that he could wreak havoc, walk away and believe himself to be protected.
Her phone rang shrilly on the seat beside her and she picked it up, listening for a second before saying briefly, 'Just follow me, I'll show you where we can get in.' She looked back and, sure enough, another car was not far behind. She cursed herself; she'd almost forgotten about the others. She couldn't let this man scramble her thoughts.
Fear gripped her at what she was about to do but she willed it down. She couldn't lose her bottle now. Not when she'd come so far. Not when she'd gone to so much trouble to find out where he was going on holiday, any one of his palatial homes being a possibility.
The road beside Lake Como at any other time might have been a magical route, but she couldn't enjoy the scenery, the way the rising moon was bathing everything in a dark, inky-blue light. All she could focus on were the car lights ahead of her.
She knew that the back of his villa faced on to the shores of the Lake, of which he had an unimpeded view. And that apparently one of his favourite times was dusk: he would watch the lights twinkle and come on across the still waters from his terrace, which was covered with antique drapes. Or at least that was the picture of the man that the gushing article had painted. Idyllic. A man who could have anything he desired at the click of his fingers. Alicia knew all about the exclusivity of the Lake Como villas. They were never advertised for sale, it was all word of mouth, buyers carefully vetted. And prices invariably soared into the high millions.
But then, for a multi-billionaire who controlled the largest, most successful construction company in the world, who would expect anything less? Her hands tightened on the steering wheel. She didn't imagine that he would have the callused hands of his workers.
His lights disappeared and Alicia had to concentrate. They were here, at the high wall of his villa. She cursed herself. She had to get it together. For Melanie. The effort it had taken her sister to say just a few words a week ago had been enough to tip her into unconsciousness. But they'd been enough.
They'd given Alicia all the information she'd needed.
She drove the car neatly into the space she had found earlier, partially hidden by an overhanging tree, and sat there for some moments waiting for the other car to draw up behind her. Alicia hadn't even known about Melanie's pregnancy until she'd come home from Africa and gone straight to the hospital after a series of panicky messages on her mobile and in their apartment had alerted her to her sister's whereabouts.
Since Melanie's best friend, the only other person likely to know her movements, was away on holiday, it had taken the hospital a day to properly identify Melanie and get in contact. And since that moment everything had been a scary blur. Alicia's thoughts revolved sickeningly on her sister's fevered words, which had led her to this place and this moment.
Melanie had gripped her hand, struggling to speak. It had made Alicia's heart break. 'Melanie, love, don't try to speak; you need to keep your strength.'
Melanie had shaken her head. 'I have to tell you. I have to see have to talk to Dante D'Aquanni He's the one '
'Melanie' Alicia's voice had been urgent 'what do you mean? Is he the one who did this to you? Is he the one you talked about?'
The communications between the remote area where she'd been working in Africa and the UK had been sporadic to say the least.
Melanie had sagged back against the pillows, her words were broken and her breath jagged. 'I was on my way to see him to tell him that I'd leave the company, do anything he wanted, if only to I was so upset and then that lorry just came out of nowhere' She closed her eyes at the memory, went paler and gripped Alicia's hand even tighter as her eyes opened again. 'You have to find him, Lissy I need him to ' Alicia had been horrified to see weak tears rolling down her sister's face. 'Oh, Lissy, I love him so much and he sent him away and I need him.'
Alicia's focus came back to the lake, lapping softly nearby. Her sister had been so feverish by then that she'd been incoherent, her words becoming jumbled. She'd obviously meant that he'd sent her away. The facts were stark and Alicia had pieced them together with little effort.
Her sister had had an affair with Dante D'Aquanni, the owner of the corporation she worked for. He had cast her aside. Melanie had been on her way to see him when the accident happened. She'd been made careless by her distraught state. Alicia's insides roiled again; she felt so guilty that she hadn't been there. She could have prevented the accident. If only she'd been able to phone more frequently. All she knew was that Melanie had been seeing someone at work. Her e-mails had been like Morse code, in an obvious effort to protect the man who had stolen her heart her innocence.
After trying and failing to get in touch with Melanie's friend, who might possibly know more, Alicia had turned to the Internet to find out what she could about this man. She'd seen that office affairs within the D'Aquanni corporation were sackable offenceshence Melanie's ridiculously secretive e-mailsand yet the man himself had seen fit to be a hypocrite of the highest order
A car door slammed behind her. She pulled back her mass of unruly hair and twisted it up, tying it with a band, putting on a battered baseball hat. Then she got out of the car, easing cramped muscles. The late summer air held the slightest of chills and she pulled on her voluminous dark sweatshirt. Then, taking her small backpack, making sure she had her phone and that it was on silent, she made her way to the two men who had just emerged from the other car.