At first Rocco thought Julie would be a gold digger, but her unexpected innocence is arousing. When it's proved that Julie is actually the boy's aunt, the sensual Sicilian changes the rules of his game. He's got more than one good reason to keep this inexperienced waif captiveand make her his wife!
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About the Author
After reading a serialized Mills & Boon book in a magazine, Penny Jordan quickly became an avid fan! Her goal, when writing romance fiction, is to provide readers with an enjoyment and involvement similar to that she experienced from her early reading – Penny believes in the importance of love, including the benefits and happiness it brings. She works from home, in her kitchen, surrounded by four dogs and two cats, and welcomes interruptions from her friends and family.
Read an Excerpt
A loud bang from a noisy exhaust somewhere in the street had Julie glancing over her shoulder and then checking automatically to see that her shabby shoulder bag was tucked in against her body. This was a down-at-heel and often unsafe neighbourhood. Only the other day she had been warned by the woman in charge of the nursery never to leave any personal documents in her flat as there had been a spate of robberies, with passports especially being targeted. As a result, she was now carrying their passports with her in her handbag.
Julie gasped with shock. She had been so busy looking over her shoulder that she hadn't seen the man who was now standing in front of her, blocking her way to the entrance of the converted house where she rented a small flat.
One look at him, though, told her that this was no thief. Not with that expensive car parked right next to them, which she hadn't noticed before and which she suspected must be his.
Warily she nodded her head.
And this is your child?'
Now she could feel herself tensing, hesitating, as she held on tightly to her orphaned baby nephew whilst she fought off her feeling of apprehension. Josh was her child after allnow.
The icy March rain that had started when she had left the local eight-until-ten shop where she worked part-time to walk to the nursery to collect Josh had soaked through her thin coat, turning the fine silver-blonde silkiness of her hair into lank rats' tails whilst the cold had left her skin blue-white and bloodless, and now she was trapped here on the street with a man who was asking her questions she did not want to answer. The weight of Josh, plus his nappy bag and her handbag, were already making her thin arms ache.
'If you're a debt collector ' she began. Her voice might be thin with disdain and exhaustion, but it was fear that was making her heart thud so painfully. Josh was hers. There was no reason for her to feel that this manthis strangersomehow threatened her right to call Josh her child, even if she wasn't actually Josh's birth mother. That was what living a hand-to-mouth existence and constantly fearing the arrival of another demand for money did for you: it made you feel guilty and on edge even when you had no cause to do so.
If it was money that this man was after then he was wasting his time. Julie's chin unconsciously lifted with the pride she knew he would believe she no longer had the right to have. There was no point in anyone sending in any more bailiffs as there was nothing left to take. Even Josh's buggy had been claimed against her dead sister's debts. There was no point feeling sorry for herself or wishing that her parents had thought to make a proper will. Ultimately, as their now only surviving child, she should inherit somethingenough, she hoped, to clear all Judy's debts and buy a small house for herself and Josh. But according to her solicitor a final settlement of everything could be some time away, given the complications of the situation.
The fact was that her parents, her sister, Jamesher sister's fiancéand his parents had all died, along with twenty other people in the same fatal train crash. It had been such a terrible shock, and had left Julie with the task of supporting herself and her late sister's child whilst being hounded to pay Judy's debts. And, of course, cope with James's death.
The funerals had been in their way even worse than the news of the deaths itself. She, of course, as the only adult living member of her own family, had had to make the arrangements for the burial of her parents and her sister. She had thought that maybe Judy should be buried with James, but Annette, James's elder sister and only relative, had refused to entertain the idea, insisting that James was buried with their parents.
With the funeral two days after her family's, Julie had been able to attendand she had found that Annette was exactly as James had once described his elder sister to her. Polished and expensively dressedher husband was a bankerand very cold.
'Keep that child away from me,' she had said sharply, stepping back from Julie. 'My coat cost a fortune, it's pure cashmere.'
James had told Julie that Roger, Annette's husband, desperately wanted a family but that Annette flatly refused to entertain the idea. They had a smart townhouse in Chelsea, where Annette entertained Roger's colleagues and clients. She was very much the corporate wife, and according to James was very ambitious for her husband. James. Julie blinked away exhausted tears. Her one and only love. Her one and only lover. It only things had been different. If only she had been the one to conceive his child. If only
Losing him still hurt so very much. Only with his death had she admitted that somewhere deep inside herself she had been cherishing the foolish hope that one day he would come back to her.
Rocco watched the shadows come and go in the woman's unusually expressive dark grey eyes. The only part of her that looked anything like alive. He had never seen such a washed-out-looking female.
'A debt collector?' He gave her a haughty look, before adding dryly, 'You could call me that,' he agreed, answering Julie's bitter question. 'Although what I'm here for is more properly a matter of repossession.'
Repossession? There wasn't anything left in the flat to repossess. The bailiffs had taken it all. She tried to look braver than she felt as she looked at the man.
The harsh street lighting gave his features a Byzantine quality of polished arrogance allied to cruelty, gilding the olive skin drawn tight over the high cheekbones. It was the face of a man without mercy or compassionthe face of a man whose heritage was rooted in the alien and the dangerous, Julie recognised.
It was hard for Rocco to see what could possibly have attracted his young half-brother to this pale plain English girl. She was thin to the point of malnourishment, whey-faced, and so far as he could see without charm or personalitybut perhaps he was being unfair. Given enough champagne and the illegal party drugs his late half-brother had favoured, maybe she had sparkled in the tawdry manner in which Antonio had liked his women to sparkle.
Distaste filled himfor his late half-brother's way of life, for the morals of the woman standing in front of him, but most of all for the duty that had been imposed upon him by his own birth and his elder brother's conscience.
He had been against this whole thing right from the start. A child's place was with its mother. But Alessandro had pointed out that the child would be with its mother, at all times, and would continue to remain with her since Rocco's task was to bring them both back to Sicily with him. In fact, now that he had seen the circumstances in which the pair of them seemed to be living, Rocco acknowledged that his intervention in their lives could only be of benefitto them both.
She was so cold, and she must get Josh insidebut he was still standing in front her. Josh still wasn't over the nasty cough he had caught at the beginning of the winter.
Poor baby, he had had so many problems since her sister had given birth to him three weeks early, in January. First there had been the fact that Judy had never wanted him in the first place. Then there had been his inability to feed properly, followed by the discovery that he was slightly tongue-tied That had led to a very minor medical procedure, after whichperhaps because Judy had not been careful enoughhe had contracted an infection, which in turn had led to further feeding problems. And then with one blow fate had robbed him of his parents and both sets of grandparents.
But somehow Julie would make it up to him. She would love him and look after him. He was, after all, all she had left of James and her family, even if he hadn't already been precious to her in his own right.
When they had come to tell her about the train accident which had killed so many people, including her own and Josh's family, she had made a silent vow to the man she loved so much to love and protect the child he had believed was his.
James had been so proud and excited when he had discovered that Judy was pregnant
Rocco was getting impatient. He was a Leopardi after all. The Leopardis had ruled their lands and dispensed their own form of law in Sicily from the time of the Crusades onwards. Rocco had grown up in an environment where to be a Leopardi meant that one's word was law.
'I don't know what it is you wish to repossess,' Julie began tiredly, 'but my my baby is cold, and I really need to get him inside.' She didn't really want to have to open her handbag in front of this stranger, but she needed to get her keys so that she could let herself into the flat. It wasn't easy, trying to surreptitiously open her handbag and at the same time hold Josh safe, and when she saw the way the man was looking at her, with a mix of male irritation and impatience, she knew that her attempt at discretion had been a waste of time.
'Let me hold the child for you.' The cool assurance in the male voice combined with the unexpected offer caused Julie's eyes to widen in astonishment. He sounded as though he was perfectly at home holding young babies.
'You've got children of your own?' Julie's face burned as she realised how personal and inappropriate her question was.
His terse 'No' compounded those feelings, which hardly inspired her to hand over Josh. But then her ineffectual scrabbling one-handedly in the bag suddenly caused it to tilt upwards, disgorging some of its contents onto the wet street, including her purse, an assortment of bills that belonged to Judy, her keys and their passportsJosh's a sad reminder of the honeymoon her sister had been so excited about, their first holiday as a family. Rocco frowned as he looked down at the wet pavement and saw the passports amongst the other detritus that had spilled from the woman's handbag.
Ignoring Julie's gasp of protest, he bent down to retrieve her possessions, picking up the now wet bills and the two passports before casually flicking them open. Both passports were in his handa providential accident or a potent sign that this task might after all be simpler and easier than he had thought? What kind of woman carried passports around with her? he wondered, and then grimaced as he found the answer to his own question.
Obviously the kind who expected that the opportunity to leave the country might occur at any time and wanted to be prepared for it. He imagined it was the kind of thing that would be quite common where high-class hookers were concerned.
But this pathetic and unappealing-looking woman couldn't have looked less like anything high-class. Rocco reached for her purse, frowning as he felt its emptiness, and then picked up her keys.
He was handing everything back to her, including her keys. Julie exhaled shakily in relief. She wasn't sure just what she had been fearing, but now she admitted she did feel a bit more relaxedor at least she did until he said autocractically, 'The baby needs to be out of this rain and wind.' He put his hand on her arm, nodding in the direction of his car as he told her, 'My car's over there.'
Had she moved of her own volition, or was it a combination of the wind and his hand on her arm that had somehow brought her so close to his car that she was standing with it on one side of her and him on the other, hemming her in? Julie shivered.
What were his intentions? What did he really want? Not her. Not a man like this one, whose every movement and expression suggested a certain contempt for everything and anything that was not of the very bestincluding the speed with which his hand had dropped from her arm. All she needed to do was simply ask him to move. She could even push past him. Her hand was beginning to feel numb from clinging on to her possessions, and Josh was an increasingly heavy weight on her arm, despite his slightness. Carefully she tried to adjust Josh's position to ease her arm.
'Let me take him.' He was reaching for Josh, Julie recognised immediately, all maternal anxiety, his hands long-fingered, lean and tanned against the baby's shabby suit.
'What is it you want?' she demanded. 'Who sent you here?'
'No one sends me anywhere,' he told her coldly. 'And it isn't who I am from you should be asking, but where.'
'Where? I don't understand what you're talking about.'
'No? Try this, then. I'm from the country and the family to whom the boy belongs.'
Julie's eyes were as grey and drained of warm blue as London's March sky, and they registered shock and then fear as the meaning of his words slammed into her heart, causing it to thud so heavily that she could hear its beat in her own ears.
'You're from Sicily?' she guessed.
'I'm from Sicily,' he agreed.
Of all the possibilities she might have envisaged, this had not even come close to being one of themand that alone was enough to fling her headlong into mindless panic as she demanded, 'Who are you?'
Rocco wasn't used to having his identity questioned. He looked down at her contemptuously from his six-foot-three height, folding his arms across his chest. The fine wool of his handmade Italian suit moved with him as easily as though it was his flesh.
'My name is LeopardiRocco Leopardi. And now that I have answered you perhaps you will be good enough to give me the childmy nephewand get into the car?'
His nephew. So this was not Antoniothe rich, louche Sicilian playboy with whom her sister had had an affair in the South of France early last May, which may or may not have been responsible for Josh's conceptiona fact which she had forced Julie to promise to keep a secret from James. A feeling akin to relief which there was absolutely no justification for her to feel warmed the icy sting of Julie's rain-chilled body, temporarily making her drop her guard and momentarily relax her tightly protective hold on the sleeping baby.
Fearing that she was about to drop the child, Rocco immediately reached for him, lifting him bodily out of Julie's arms before she could stop him and then opening the rear passenger door to the car.
'What are you doing?'