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The Playboy & Plain Jane
By Leanne Banks
Harlequin Enterprises LimitedCopyright © 2003 Harlequin Enterprises Limited
All right reserved.
Chapter OneShe'd been a blue-eyed beauty with a body that could send a man's brains straight to his crotch. She'd also had a faithless heart of glass that could cut a man to ribbons.
If Nicholas Barone had been a superstitious man, he would have admitted that the Valentine's Day curse on his family continued. Almost two years ago, on February 14, he'd bought the ring and been prepared to propose to Danielle Smithson.
He remembered using his key to enter her apartment, wanting to surprise her, only to overhear her boasting to a friend on the phone that she was going to "bag the big one tonight." Justifiably confident of her allure, Danielle had feigned an attentiveness he'd later learned was purely calculated to achieve her goal. In this case, Danielle had been willing to pretend she adored Nicholas in order to get her hands on his family's money.
Bitterness still filled him at the memory of the ugly scene that had followed. When she'd been unable to deny her deception, she'd done her feminine best to placate him. Nicholas might be American through and through, but his Italian blood ran hot, and he'd sworn he would have nothing to do with her.
Even at this moment, standing in the darkness of his daughter's nursery on this January day, he feltanger roll through him with renewed strength. He looked down at the sleeping one-year-old daughter he hadn't known existed until ten days ago. Just after Nicholas had broken up with Danielle, she'd found another man with a hefty bank account and had apparently tried to pawn Molly off as his daughter.
He took a deep breath and exhaled a fraction of his bitterness. Drawing solace from the sight of Molly's innocence and vulnerability, he heard footsteps from behind him. His mother and father, he suspected. His father would deny it, but when it came to his eight children, both of his parents were professional worriers. When Nicholas recalled the shenanigans he and his siblings had tried to pull over the years, it was a wonder his parents hadn't been driven over the edge.
Feeling his mother's hand on his arm, Nicholas turned. His father, a man who'd always managed to inspire respect despite the fact that he stood under six feet tall, shook his head as he glanced at the crib. Fierce anger emanated from him. "I'll never forgive that woman for keeping your child from you. To think you wouldn't have learned you even had a daughter if Danielle hadn't died. I can never forgive her for that."
His father's bitterness echoed Nicholas's. "We don't need to spend energy forgiving Danielle. She's dead. I have my hands full helping Molly make the adjustment to living with me and accepting me as her father."
His mother squeezed his arm again. "Molly will accept you in no time. I can still help take care of her."
Carlo Barone put his arm around his wife's shoulders. "I don't want you overdoing. You may still turn men on their ears when you walk into a room, but you shouldn't be chasing after a one-year-old all day and night."
Moira Barone might not have been born Italian, but she knew how to stand her ground. She lifted her red-haired head with a trace of defiance. "If you can continue to be CEO of the top gelati company in America, why can't I chase my one-year-old granddaughter?"
"I continue to be CEO because Nicholas is COO and I can trust him. My children have finally left home. I have earned the right to my wife's undivided attention at the end of the day. No?" he demanded.
Nicholas hid a grin at his father's possessiveness. At sixty-three, his mother was still the light of his father's life. "I appreciate you helping take care of her the past ten days and I still want you to be involved with Molly," Nicholas assured his mother. Although his mother had been perfectly willing to care for Molly, Nicholas knew his daughter was demanding. The poor child cried frequently since she'd arrived at his home.
"Because Molly has lost her mother, I know I need to create a stable environment for her. My housekeeper does an excellent job, but taking care of children isn't her forte. With my demanding position, I need a nanny. I've already contacted a couple of reputable agencies."
His mother's eyebrows knitted in concern as she glanced into the crib. "If you're sure," she said uncertainly.
"I am," Nicholas told her.
"Nicholas is right. He will take care of the bambina and we will be good grandparents," his father said.
"I can still visit her as often as I want?" his mother asked.
Nicholas's heart softened. His mother had already grown attached to her first grandchild despite Molly's crying jags. "Every day, if you like."
Moira sighed, turning to Nicholas. "She is such a beautiful child. She looks just like you when you were a baby. Curly black hair, blue eyes and a stubborn chin." She slid a sideways glance at her husband. "You got the dark hair and stubborn chin from your father. But like your father, you're a good man." She met Nicholas's gaze. "You'll be a good father. Molly's a very lucky girl."
Nicholas's heart squeezed. His mother's vote of confidence was a balm on his troubled soul. He was still reeling from the news that at thirty-five he was a father, and heaven knew, he wasn't an expert on one-year-old girls. "Thanks, Mom."
She smiled and kissed his cheek. "It's only the truth," she said, and glanced at her husband. "I'll get my coat."
Carlo squeezed his wife's hand. "I'll be with you in just a minute."
She nodded. "Just remember to keep your voice down. Sleeping baby."
As soon as his mother left, his father cleared his throat. "If you need anything, you must call me immediately."
Nicholas nodded. "I'll handle this."
"I know you will," Carlo said. "You've met every challenge put before you. I'd hoped you would find a love like the one your mother and I share ..."
Bitterness suffused Nicholas again. "I found Danielle, instead."
"You're young," Carlo protested. "Your life isn't over."
"My focus now is on providing for my daughter. With a nanny, I'll have no need for a wife."
"A nanny can't take care of all of a man's needs."
"A man doesn't have to marry to take care of those needs," Nicholas said dryly.
Excerpted from The Playboy & Plain Jane by Leanne Banks Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises Limited
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.