THE ITALIAN'S WIFE
Holly Sansom has hit rock bottom. She has no way to care for herself or her eight-month-old son. Then a chance encounter with handsome CEO Rio Lombardi changes everything. Suddenly she's living in luxury, and if she accepts Rio's proposal, all her worries will be forever behind her. But is it really the perfect life if she doesn't have his love?
THE SPANISH GROOM
Dixie Robinson hasn't been good at much. The one thing she's done right is to befriend an elderly man. She'll do anything for Jasperexcept marry his godson. After all, Cesar Valverde doesn't even like her. But as Jasper is rushed to the operating room, Dixie is rushed to the altar. Is this yet another mistake, or the smartest thing Dixie has ever done?
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When Rio Lombardi finally heard the apartment door open, his handsome mouth quirked and he sprang upright. Christabel was in for a surprise.
A breathless series of giggles and an urgent whisper which he didn't catch sounded from the hall, making him frown. Evidently, his fiancée had a friend in tow. That was the trouble with surprises, Rio acknowledged in exasperation: their very nature made them unreliable. He should've warned her that he might make it back to London a day early. Surrendering his fantasy of sweeping Christabel straight off to bed for a passionate reunion, Rio crossed the spacious lounge to announce his presence and make polite social chitchat instead.
But the hall was already empty. A pair of kitten-heeled turquoise shoes and a pair of diamanté-studded black satin mules lay abandoned on the carpet. Frowning a little at the suspicion that his fiancée might not be sober again, and now also wondering if he was about to break in on some cosy girly get-together, Rio strolled down the corridor to the bedroom. He'd intended to knock on the door but it was wide open and the sight which met his eyes was so shocking, so utterly unbelievable to him, that his lean hand froze in mid-air.
Halfway out of her dress, Christabel was kissing another woman, also half out of her dress. Paralysed to the threshold, Rio stared, his dark-as-midnight eyes totally refusing to accept what he was seeing. They were drunk, fooling about, he started to tell himself; maybe they had realised he was in the apartment and were playing some stupid tasteless joke on him. But they were locked together, breast to breast, hip to hip, Christabel's glossy blonde hair mingling with the brunette's darker tresses as they touched each other with the unmistakable eagerness of lovers. He was so revolted by that acknowledgement that for an instant he felt physically ill. Christabel, his woman, his lover, his bride-to-be
Christabel drew back with a husky, sexy laugh, her fabulous face flushed with excitement, and only then did the two women realise that they had an audience poised in the doorway. Rio recognised the brunette as one of Christabel's friends: Tammy something or other, another fashion model, also another man's wife.
For a split-second nobody moved or spoke. Aghast, Christabel and Tammy gaped at him, and then the brunette loosed a strangled moan of horror and fled into the connecting bathroom, noisily slamming and locking the door behind her.
'H-heavens what a fright you gave me ' Christabel faltered, frantically yanking up her dress to cover her bare breasts, her face now pale and stiff as marble, her wonderful green eyes glittering with fearful anxiety. 'Please you mustn't misunderstand what you just saw, Rio'
'Misunderstand?' Rio could never recall it taking more effort to speak one word levelly. Initial shock and disbelief were giving way to rage and an unfamiliar sense of appalled bewilderment that only stoked the rage higher.
'We were just mucking around. Don't be old-fashioned about this ' Christabel urged in the charged silence as she moved closer and made a little pleading movement with her manicured hands.
Rio could not take his eyes off her. Christabel Kent, the world-famous supermodel and media darling who wore his engagement ring, her Nordic fairness and endless legs a legend in the fashion and beauty market. Perfect face, perfect body.
'OK I'll come clean,' Christabel continued feverishly. 'So I was missing you dreadfully and I like a change occasionally'
'A change? You make it sound like it's nothing'
'It isn't it's just sex! ' his fiancée interrupted, reaching for the lean, powerful hands coiled into fierce fists of self-restraint by his sides. 'Nothing for you to worry about or even think about, because if you don't like it I swear it won't ever happen again!'
Rio backed out of her reach. In his mind's eye he could still only see one image: Christabel wrapped half-naked and excited round another woman. Just sex? He felt betrayed. He felt incredulous. He felt something he wasn't used to feeling: foolish.
'All right you're shocked and furious and I understand and I'm really sorry!' Christabel was panicking at his lack of response. 'I'll make it up to you'
'What with? An offer to join the two of you?' Rio derided between clenched white teeth.
Christabel looked up at him, green eyes gleaming with sudden relief lightened by a shard of seductive amusement. 'Would you like that, darling?'
Violence coursed through Rio in a molten wave and a shudder of angry revulsion passed through him. If she hadn't been a woman he would have knocked her through the wall and if that was an old-fashioned reaction, tough! Yet her stupidity in assuming that his contemptuous question might have been a serious hint that all would be forgiven if he got a piece of the same action freed him from that first binding shock.
'I'll give you time to move out of here,' Rio breathed with raw clarity. 'I'll deal with cancelling the wedding arrangements'
'You can't be serious!' Christabel gasped in stricken horror. 'We're perfect together! '
Rio swung on his heel and strode back down the corridor, Christabel pursuing him every step of the way, pleading with him to calm down and think again. In the hall, she shot between him and the front door to prevent his departure.
'If you tell people about this, my career will be ruined!'
Christabel's career had been built on her clean, wholesome image. No risqué lingerie assignments, no media coverage of Christabel whooping it up in the clubs, no bad-ass boyfriends. Christabel liked to pose for off-the-record interviews with fluffy animals and talk about how mad she was about children, not to mention how crazy she was about the man she was to marry and how much she was looking forward to giving up work to be a full-time wife and mother.
Rio reached out and lifted her bodily out of his path. ''Dio mio \ won't be talking'
That fear overcome, Christabel cried in desperation. 'Then why can't you forgive me? Tammy means nothing to me. It's not like she was another man or I'm in love with her. I love you, Rio'
She loved him? Had she ever loved him? Or had she loved his enormous wealth most of all? His sculpted mouth tightening, he recalled that Christabel had expensive tastes that far outran even her own healthy earning power. Within a week of his marriage proposal she had confessed to a string of outstanding bills and had told him how hopeless she was with money. Impressed by her honesty, he had felt hugely protective towards her and had cleared her debts without even thinking about what he was doing.
Yanking himself free of her clinging hands in growing disgust at what her every reckless word revealed about her character, Rio left the apartment and made it into the elevator. He raised one of his hands and watched it shake in disbelieving outrage. Balling his fingers back into an aggressive fist, he punched the steel wall with the full force of the rage and the pain splintering through him, the savage pain he had been struggling to deny. He had loved her, he had really loved her and wanted to marry her.
Santo cielo, he might have given his children a mother who thought three-in-a-bed sex was a wonderful thrill! A woman who had contrived to hide her true nature from him so successfully that the sheer shock value of what he had witnessed and heard would linger with him for a very long time.
Just sex? Hadn't he been enough for her? Obviously not. As his bodyguards reared up from their seats in the ground-floor reception area, their surprise at his unexpected reappearance patent, Rio was blind to them, his darkly handsome features rigid and ashen pale. Outside, he drank in deep of the frosty night air before crossing the street to his limo. Had Christabel been lying back and thinking about other women in his bed? Had even her pleasure been faked? Had the eager desire she had shown for his lovemaking all been part of one giant con to ensnare a very rich husband? How could he have known so little about a woman he had been with for almost two years?
'Your hand's bleeding, boss. Are you OK?'
Rio angled a cursory glance down at his bruised and bleeding knuckles before meeting the troubled dark eyes of Ezio. The stockily built older man had been on his security team since Rio was a student and knew him too well.
''Si ' But right at that moment Rio did not know when he was ever going to feel normal again. Like Saverio Lombardi, billionaire head of one of the proudest, oldest families in Italy and the driving force behind Lombardi Industries, one of the biggest, most successful companies in the world. He felt humiliated, sick and less than a man for the first time in twenty-nine years of existence.
How was he to explain this fiasco in acceptable terms to his vulnerable mother? Alice Lombardi was literally counting the days to her son's wedding and was pitifully eager to cradle her first grandchild in her arms. She was a sick woman, crippled by arthritis, further weakened by a series of debilitating illnesses. Every week she survived was a literal gift from God and her poor health permitted her precious few pleasures in life. Now there would be no wedding, no prospect of a baby to fill the empty nursery, no bright and chatty daughter-in-law to occasionally enliven her dull, pain-filled days.
He had never openly acknowledged the reality before but he needed a wife.
'Tammy means nothing to me it's not like she was another man.' The insidious and seductive echo of Christabel's husky voice made Rio's hands clench into ferocious fists. No, he could not, would not forgive her, not for the sake of his own powerful libido, not even for the sake of the mother he adored. Christabel, the woman he had loved beyond belief, was a total sham. What did that say about his judgement? He had believed he knew his fiancée through and through, yet he had not even penetrated the surface of that calculating immoral mind of hers. He could not have chosen worse had he decided to marry a total stranger. He might as well stop and ask the first woman he met to be his bride.
With a harsh and bitter laugh at that insane idea, Rio Lombardi poured himself a large brandy from the bar in the back of the limo.
Holly was cold, hungry and scared.
It was barely one in the morning and the whole of the rest of the night hours still stretched ahead of her. For how long had she been walking? Her back and her legs ached and her vision was blurring with exhaustion but where could she possibly stop for the night that she would be safe? She had sat around in a train station for most of the day, moving seats every so often, striving not to attract the attention of anyone official, until the crude heckling of two youths had forced her to take refuge in the restroom. While she had been trying to freshen up there, her jacket, which had had her purse in the inside pocket, had been stolen. Her own fault for taking her jacket off, leaving it carelessly draped over Timmie's stroller and turning her attention away for a minute.
No point approaching a policeman, not when awkward questions would be asked and an address requested. Her purse, which had had her last few pounds in it, was gone and that was that. Like so much else that had happened to Holly since her arrival in London so full of na ve hopes seven months earlier, it was just one more kick when she was down, one more piece of bad luck in a run of bad luck that seemed endless.
As she paused to check that her eight-month-old son was still wrapped up snug against the chilly air, she shivered violently and fingered the two battered carrier bags that now contained all that she possessed in the world. She had to be the ultimate loser and failure, she decided wretchedly. Useless at everything, not even able to put the shabbiest roof over Timmie's head and look after him as he deserved. Here she was out on the street, homeless and penniless, next door to being a beggar
Yet just twenty-four hours earlier she really had tried so hard to pick up her sagging courage and get a grip on her problems. She had gone to the Social Security office to report that her landlord had tried to break into her room twice during the night and that she was terrified of him.
'We've never had any complaints about him before,' the woman behind the protective barrier had said, coolly unimpressed, not even trying to hide her suspicion that Holly was simply trying to get her accommodation upgraded. 'If you don't return to the lodgings we arranged for you, you will be deemed to have made yourself intentionally homeless. I advise you to think long and hard before you make that mistake, as you have a young child to consider. I'll inform your social worker that you're having problems'
'No please don't do that,' Holly had begged, in terror of what such an interview might mean where Tim-mie was concerned. Her baby might be taken away from her and put into foster care. The last social worker she had spoken to had started out sympathetic but had lost patience when Holly refused to name the father of her child. But Jeff had said that if she dared to tell anyone that he was Timmie's dad he would make her sorry that she had ever been born
Well, she was sorry enough herself about that fact, Holly conceded miserably. She had devastated her parents by giving birth to a baby outside marriage. When she had finally admitted that she was pregnant her father had cried. As long as Holly lived she knew she would never, ever forget the sight of her father crying or her own sick sense of guilt and bitter shame.
Her eyes swimming with tears at that painful recollection, and lost as she was in her own thoughts, Holly did not even notice that she was approaching an intersection. Staring blankly ahead of her, accustomed to the noisy flow of traffic down the main road as a background, she was equally unaware of the lights of a car coming from her right.
The sudden steep drop of the pavement down onto the road took her by surprise and sent the overladen stroller lurching off-balance. As she made a frantic effort to right it, the scream of car tires striving to brake to a halt alerted her to the danger that she and Timmie were in. In the split-second at her disposal Holly thrust Timmie's stroller away from her with all her might in the desperate hope that it would carry him out of the car's path to safety. But her own shaken attempt to make it back up onto the pavement was doomed as her heels hit the curb and she lost her footing. Falling backwards, she felt a sickening explosion of pain at the base of her skull and then blackness folded in and she knew no more.
Rio Lombardi leapt out of the limousine. 'Did we hit her?' he demanded.
'No!' Ezio, who could move at the speed of light when required, was already retrieving the stroller and drawing it back from the other side of the road to a safer resting place.
'I didn't hit her I saw her; I was already slowing down. But she walked out into the road without looking and just fell over!' Rio's chauffeur exclaimed over the top of the driver's door, his attention lodged in horror on the still figure lying in the path of the headlights.
'Call an ambulance a private one from the foundation hospital; it'll be faster,' Rio instructed harshly, his tone of command pronounced to steady his companions.
He crouched down on the road and lifted a limp wrist to feel for a pulse, drawing in a slow deep breath of relief when he found what he sought. Although her skin felt frighteningly cold to his touch, she was alive. 'She's not dead ' Springing upright again, he peeled off his suit jacket and bent down to carefully drape it over her, surveying the face of the unconscious victim for the first time. 'Dio mio she's a young woman!'