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Jillian Smith drew a deep breath as she walked along the jagged cliff overlooking the stormy Pacific Ocean, relishing the fresh air, stunning scenery and a rare moment of freedom. Things were definitely looking up.
She hadn't seen Vittorio's men in over nine months and she was certain that if she was careful, they'd never find her here, in this small, private coastal town just a few miles outside Carmel, California.
For one, she didn't use her name, Jillian Smith, anymore. She had a new identity, April Holliday, and a new look blonde, tan, as if she were a California native instead of a striking brunette from Detroit. Not that Vitt knew she was from Detroit.
Nor could he know. It was imperative she keep Vittorio, the father of her baby, as far away from her as possible.
He was so dangerous. Such a threat. To her. To Joe. To everything she held dear. She'd loved him, had come so close to imagining a future with him, only to discover that he wasn't a hero#133; wasn't a knight in shining armor but a man like her father. A man who'd made his fortune in organized crime.
Jillian drew a short breath, aware of the tension balling in her shoulders. Relax, she told herself. There's no reason to be afraid. The danger's behind you now. Vitt doesn't know where you are. He can't take the baby from you. You're safe. Everything's good.
She paused along the cliff to stare out at the dark blue water crested with foam. The waves were big today and they crashed against the dark rocks below with power and passion. The sea seemed angry, almost inconsolable, and for a moment she felt the same way.
She'd loved Vitt. And maybe they'd been together only two weeks, but in those two weeks she'd imagined a life with him. Imagined so many possibilities for them.
But then the truth emerged. He wasn't a herono prince on a white stallionbut a terrifying villain.
The first raindrops began to fall and she pushed back her long blond hair from her face, determined to put the past behind her and focus on the present as well as Joe's future. And Joe would have a great future. She'd make sure he had everything she'd never knownstability, security, a happy home.
Already she'd found a darling rental house just a quarter mile down the road on a quiet culdesac. She'd gotten an amazing job at the Highlands Inn, one of the premier hotels on the Northern California coast, assisting with their marketing and sales. And best of all, she'd found excellent child care so she could work. In fact, lovely Hannah was with Joe now.
The rain pelted down, and the brisk wind whipped at her hair, tugging at her black fisherman's sweater, but she welcomed the fierce weather, and loved its intensity. She couldn't help smiling at the ocean, and the endless horizon, imagining life's possibilities.
"Thinking of jumping, Jill?" A deep male voice spoke behind her.
Her smile vanished as she stiffened in shock, recognizing the smooth, accented voice immediately.
She hadn't heard his voice in nearly a year, but Vitt's was impossible to forget. Deep and calm, his voice was pitched to dominate lifewhether it be man or natureand it did.
But then, Vittorio Marcello d'Severano was a force of nature, a human being that inspired awe or fear in virtually everyone.
"There are solutions," he added softly, so softly that Jillian shuddered, and took a nervous step away from him, putting her closer to the cliff's edge. Her unsteady footstep sent loose rocks tumbling from the craggy point to the cove below. The falling rocks sounded like her heart shattering and Jill's throat squeezed closed.
Just when she'd felt secure.
Just when she'd thought they were safe.
"None that I would find acceptable," she answered flatly, turning slightly but avoiding looking him in the face. She knew better than to look at Vitt closely, much less meet his gaze. Vittorio was a magician, a virtual snake charmer. He could get anyone to do anything just by smiling.
He was that handsome.
He was that powerful.
"Is that all you have to say to me after months of catandmouse games?"
The rain fell harder, drenching Jillian's thick knit sweater so that it ran with rivulets of water. "I believe everything has already been said. I can't think of anything I've forgotten," she retorted, her chin tilted in defiance even though her legs shook beneath her. She was torn between fury and terror. Vittorio was just a man, and yet he could, and would, destroy her world given the chance.
And no one would stop him.
"I can. Let me suggest you begin with an apology," he said almost gently. "It would be a start."
Jillian threw back her shoulders and steeled herself against that deep, husky voice of his, forcing her gaze to his throat. What harm could there be in that? And yet it was impossible to look at his throatstrong and bronzed by sunwithout seeing the square chin or the broad shoulders encased in charcoalblack.
And even limiting herself to that very narrow region, her stomach plummeted. Because Vittorio was still everything that overwhelmed her. Impossibly physical and primal, he was the true alpha male. No one was stronger. No one more powerful. She'd tumbled into his bed within hours of meeting him and she'd never done that before. For God's sake, she'd never even come close to making love before but something about Vitt made her drop her guard. With him, she felt safe. Near him, she'd felt secure.
"If anyone ought to apologize, it should be you."
"You misrepresented yourself, Vittorio"
"and you've hunted me like an animal for the past eleven months," she said, her voice hard, her tone clipped. She would not fall to her knees. She would not beg. She would fight him to the bitter end.
He shrugged. "You chose to run. You had my son. What else did you expect me to do?"
"It must thrill you to have such power over helpless women and children!" she flashed, raising her voice to be heard over the wind and the great angry walls of water crashing onto the beach below.
"You're far from helpless, Jill. You're one of the strongest, shrewdest women I've ever met, with the skills of a professional con artist."
"I'm not a con artist."
"Then why the alias of April Holliday? And how did you manage to create such a persona? It takes money and connections to pull off what you nearly pulled off"
"Nearly. That is the key word, isn't it?"
He shrugged again. "That's for another discussion. Right now I'd like to get out of the rain"
"You're free to go."
"I'm going nowhere without you. And I don't like you standing so close to the edge of the cliff. Come away. You worry me," he said, extending a hand to her.
She ignored his hand, and glanced up instead, her gaze taking in the long, lean jaw, the angled cheekbone, the very sensual lips above his firm chin, and all it took was that one glance for her to go hot, then cold, and hot all over again.
"And you terrify me," she answered bitterly, looking swiftly away, knowing that his lips had kissed her everywhere, exploring her body with mindblowing detail. He'd brought her to her first orgasm with his mouth and tongue and she'd been mortified when she'd screamed as she came. She hadn't imagined pleasure so intense or sensation so strong. She'd never known anything could shatter her control. But then, she hadn't ever imagined a man like Vittorio.
But the truth was, she wasn't terrified of him. She was terrified of herself when around him. Because in Bellagio, Vittorio undid her. With just one look, he weakened her resolve. One kiss, and he shattered her independence. From the first time they'd made love, she wanted him far too much, realizing she needed him more than she'd ever needed anyone.
"You're ridiculous," he chided, his tone exasperated. "Have I ever hurt you, or laid a hand on youother than to pleasure you?"
She closed her eyes as her legs wobbled beneath her. During their two weeks together, two incredible weeks, he had only shown her kindness, and tenderness, and passion. Yes, he'd had his secrets. He'd been mysterious. But she'd ignored her concerns and followed her heart. "No."
"But you ran. And worse, you've kept my only child, my son, from me. How is that fair?"
She couldn't answer because already his voice was doing that strange seduction, where he peeled away her rigid control, stripping away her defenses. He'd done it that very first day she'd met him in the hotel lobby in Istanbul. One introduction, one brief conversation, one invitation to dinner and then she lost her head completely. Took leave from her job. Moved into his villa at Lake Como. Imagined she was in love
something Jillian didn't even believe in. Romantic love was silly and foolish and destructive. Romantic love was for other people, people who didn't know better. She'd thought she knew better.
But then came Vitt, and there went sanity, reason, selfpreservation.
Oh, he was too dangerous for words.
He'd destroy her. And Joe.
But no, she wouldn't let him have Joe. Wouldn't let Vitt turn Joe into a man like him.
"He's not Sicilian, Vittorio. He's American. And a baby and my son."
"I've indulged you this past year, given you time alone together, but now it's my turn"
"No!" Jillian pressed her nails into her palms, barely maintaining control. "You can't have him, you can't."
She swayed on the lip of the cliff, aware that the rain was making the soil a soggy, unstable mess, but she'd never go to Vittorio, nor would she give in to him. Far better to tumble backward into space than let Vittorio have Joe. Because at least Joe was safe with Hannah. Hannah knew if anything happened to Jillian, she was to take Joe to Cynthia, her college roommate in Bellevue, Washington. Cynthia had agreed to be Joe's guardian should the need arise and Jillian had formal papers drawn, clearing the way for adoption. Because it was Jillian's fervent wish that Joe be raised by a loving family. A normal family. A family with no ties to organized crime.
A family unlike her own.
A family unlike Vittorio's.
"Jill, give me your hand now. That ledge could give way any moment."
"I don't care. Not if it means I can protect my son."
"Protect him from whom, cara? Protect him from what?"
The concerned note in his voice drew tears to her eyes and her heart lurched within her chest. It took all of her strength to harden herself against him. He'd fooled her once, but she wouldn't be fooled again. She was smarter. She was older. And she was a mother now. Jillian wouldn't be swayed by warmth or tenderness, seduction or pleasure. This was about Joe, and only about Joe. His safety. His survival. His future.
This could have been avoided if she'd only known who she was dealing with when she accepted Vitt's dinner invitation twenty months ago.
If she'd only understood the implications of that date.
But she hadn't. Instead she'd cast Vittorio as Prince Charming and put him on a white horse and believed he was going to save her. Or at the very least, take her to an extravagant, romantic dinner and make her feel like a princess for a night.
The extravagant dinner turned into a fantasy romance. He made her feel so beautiful and desirable that she tumbled eagerly into his bed. He hadn't disappointed. He'd been an incredible lover and even now she could remember how his body had felt against hers.
She remembered the warm satin of his skin stretched over dense, sinewy muscle. Remembered his lean narrow hips and the black crisp hair low on his belly. Remembered the sensation of him extending her arms and holding her still as he slowly thrust into her and then even more slowly withdrew.
He knew how to use his body. He knew a woman's body. He'd quickly mastered hers.
For two blissful weeks she'd imagined she was falling in love with him, and fantasized about living with him, making a life with him, making a home. Yes, there were moments Vittorio was called away to take calls at strange hours, but she'd discounted those calls, telling herself it was just business, or the time difference, and that he was a CEO of a large international company so he had to work at all hours of the day.
He'd told her about his company, too, and she was fascinated by his newest acquisitionthe purchase of three venerable, fivestar hotels in Eastern Europeand she'd fantasized about leaving her hotel job in Turkey and going to work for Vitt, helping him overhaul his newest hotels. After all, hotel management was her area of expertise, and she imagined them traveling the world together, exploring, working, making love.
And then on day fourteen, one of Vitt's young housemaids shattered her illusions with the whispered question, "You're not afraid of the Mafioso?"
The word chilled Jillian's blood.
"Who?" Jill asked, striving to sound casual as the maid's eyes darted toward the bathroom door where Vittorio was showering. The maid was only there to bring fresh towels but apparently her curiosity had got the best of her.
"Your man," the maid answered, handing off the stack of plush white towels. "Signor d'Severano."
"SI. Everyone knows." And then the maid disappeared, hurrying away like a frightened field mouse.
And then the pieces fell into place. Of course. It all added up. Why hadn't she seen it before? Vittorio's immense wealth. His lavish lifestyle. His strange, secretive phone calls.
Jillian had wanted to throw up. Instead she used her phone to do a quick internet search while Vittorio dressed and the d'Severano name pulled up pages and pages of links and stories and photos.
The maid had been right. Vittorio d'Severano, of Catania, Sicily, was a very famous man. Famous, for all the wrong reasons.
Jillian ran away that very afternoon, taking just her passport and purse and leaving everything else behind. Clothes, shoes, coatsthey could all be replaced. But freedom? Safety? Sanity? Those could not.
Jillian gave up everything that day. She gave notice at the hotel, gave up her apartment, left Europe and all her friends, vanishing as if she'd never existed.
She knew how to do that, too. It was something she'd learned at twelve when her family was taken into the American government's Witness Protection Program. Since twelve she'd been an imposter of her former self.
Jillian became Heather Purcell in Banff, Canada, and worked for four months as a hotel operator at the Fairmont Hotel at Lake Louise in the Canadian Rockies. It was there in Alberta, Canada that she'd discovered she was pregnant.
"You had to know I'd eventually catch you," he added kindly. "You had to know I'd win."