Italian billionaire Raffaele de Feretti had hordes of beautiful women at his beck and call. But when he needed a fiance of convenience, the only woman for the job was his mousy housekeeper.
After Natasha's makeover, Raffaele had no idea he'd had such a beautiful, sexy woman right under his nose. She had to pretend to be his fiance, but one thing neither of them had to fake was the explosive attraction that sparked between them!
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Natasha didn't have to see his face to know something was wrong.
She could tell from the slamming of the door and the heavy footfalls in the hall. From the momentary hesitation which was not like Raffaele at all. The barely muffled curse; some Italian expletive, she thought. She listened while he hung his suit jacket up in the hall and heard him go into his study. Then silenceand something very much like fear stirred within her and she didn't understand why.
He had been away to Americawhere he owned real-estate on both the east and west coastand whenever he returned from a trip he always came to find her. To ask her how she'd been. How Sam was.
Sometimes, if he was flying by commercial rather than private jet, he would even remember to bring the child some soft toy or game that he'd bought at the airport. Once she had seen him remove a shiny gold box of perfume from his briefcase, and her heart had begun to thud with a ridiculous excitement. But she had never seen it again.
The scent had not been destined for Natasha. Presumably it had gone to the leggy supermodel he had been seeing at the timethe one who'd always used to leave a stocking or a scarf behind in the bathroom, like some territorial trophy, marking out her pitch.
The study was still ominously silent, and Natasha began making a pot of mega-strong coffeejust as Raffaele had taught her to when she'd first gone to work for him. Wasn't it crazy how memories could stay stuck fast in your head, even though they meant nothing? Natasha could still remember the shiver she'd felt as he'd bent close to her, too close for her comfort though, not, it had seemed, for his. He had been too intent on showing her what to do to notice the mousy-looking woman at his side.
His voice had dipped, like soft velvet underpinned with steel. 'In Italy we say that the coffee should look like ink and taste like heaven. Very strong and very darklike the best kind of man. You understand? Capisci?' And the black eyes had glittered at her in mocking question, as if it amused him that a woman should need to be taught how to make coffee.
But she had. Oh, she had. Back then she had needed teaching about pretty much everything that someone like Raffaele took for granted. While he was used to only the very best, she'd always been the kind of person who usually spooned instant out of a jaruntil the time had come when she'd had barely enough money to buy any. Just thinking about the mess she had found herself in still had the power to make her tremble with apprehension. She never wanted to go back thereto those days of hunger and uncertainty and real fearto before Raffaele had stepped in to save her.
Was that why she'd put him on a pedestal ever since?
Natasha placed the coffee and cup on the tray, along with two of the small almond biscuits which were Raffaele's favourites. She had learnt how to make those, too, from the Italian cookbook he had bought her one Christmas.
Then she checked her appearance in the kitchen mirror, just as any employee would do before going in to see their bosseven if they didn't happen to live in the same house, as Natasha did.
She would do. Her pale brown hair was neat, her dress carefully ironed and her features unadorned by make-up. She looked efficient and unthreatening. The way she liked it.
Going bare-faced was a habit she'd gotten into when Sam was a baby, when she'd been terrified of being judged by other people more than she already had been. She had wanted to send out the message that being a struggling single mother didn't mean she was sexually available.
Besides, Natasha had learnt that it was easier if you kept things simple. There were advantages to almost everything in lifeit all boiled down to your attitude. No make-up meant more time in the morningjust as tying her hair back did. She looked just what she hoped she wasa respected and respectable member of Raffaele's staff.
She heard his peremptory summons couched in the distinctively accented voice as it carried down to the basement. Hastily, she picked up the tray and carried it upstairs to his study, but in the doorway she paused, her attention caught and arrested by the sight of him. Natasha frowned. Her instinct had been rightthere was something wrong.
Raffaele de Feretti. Billionaire. Bachelor. Boss. And the man she had quietly loved from almost since the first time she'd set eyes on him. But who wouldn't love him? Not loving him would have presented a greater challengedespite his arrogance and that disdainful air he had sometimes, when he wasn't really listening to what you said.
He hadn't heard her now and was standing with his back to her, gazing out onto the drenched garden at the centre of the London square, where raindrops dripped down the trees like a woman's tears.
Today the garden was deserted, but on fine days you could see nannies with their boisterous young charges running around the paths to the tiny playground section at the far end. Or mothers with prams, before they went back to workas many of the mothers around this affluent part of the city seemed to do whether it was because they needed the variety or because they wanted the independence. Natasha could never quite work it out. She used to think that it would be bliss not to have to work, but that was probably because the option had never been open to her.
Natasha used to take Sam to the garden when he was youngerfeeling very privileged to be able to do so, but slightly nervous, too, as if someone was about to move her on, to tell her she had no right to be there. Her son, of course, had been unaware of the exclusive location of his playground, but every time her beloved little boy had patted his bucket and squealed with delight as sand flew out, Natasha had thanked a benevolent fate for bringing Raffaele de Feretti into her life.
'Raffaele?' she said quietly.
But Raffaele didn't look round. Not even when she put the tray down on his desk with a little clatter. His tall, lean body just remained thereas unmoving as a statue and as silent as a rockand there was something so perturbing and so alien about his stance that Natasha cleared her throat.
'Raffaele?' she prompted again.
Her soft English accent filtered into his fractured thoughts and slowly Raffaele turned round, his eyes taking in her familiar face and the gentle concern in her eyes. He sighed. Natasha. As ever-present and un-threatening as the air he breathed. He frowned, brought back to the present with a jolt. He had been miles away. 'What is it?'
'I've brought you your coffee,'
Coffee? Had he asked for any? Probably notbut he could certainly do with some. How like her to guess. He nodded, gesturing for her to pour some and then he sat down in the leather chair at his desk, running his fingertips along the dark rasp of his jaw, the way he always did when something was on his mind. It was usually a high-profile takeover of some big company, but today it happened to be something much bigger. His mouth hardenedbecause unlike corporate affairs, which he could practically deal with in his sleep, this particular problem was something he usually steered clear of. The personal.
'Has anyone called this morning?' he demanded. 'Not a soul.'
'No.' The tabloids had upped the ante ever since a reality-TV star had claimed that Raffaele had bedded her in a 'Five Times a Night!' romp, when he had barely met the woman. The matter was currently in the hands of his lawyers, and just the thought of it made Natasha feel quite sick, even though she knew it wasn't true. She tried a joke, to try to help ease that terrible tension which was tightening the face she knew so well. 'Well, no visible pressI guess, there could always be a couple of reporters hiding in the bushes. It's happened before!'
But he didn't laugh. 'You've been in the whole time?'
Natasha nodded. 'Except when I dropped Sam off at school, of coursebut I was back by nine-thirty.' Her mouth softened with concern. This close, she could see he looked somehow different. His brilliant black eyes were shadowed and the tiny lines which fanned outwards from them seemed somehow more pronounced. As if he had gone without sleep while he'd been away. 'Why? Were you expecting someone?'
Not exactly expectingbecause that might imply that he had invited someone, and there had categorically been no invitation issued. Raffaele gave a small shake of his head. He was a man who did not give his trust easilyhis suspicions had been fuelled by a lifetime of mixing with people who wanted something from him. Sex or money or powerthe magical trinity which he had in spades. With Natasha he had come pretty close to implicit trustbut he was still aware of the dangers of confiding in others except when absolutely necessary.
The more people you told, the weaker you became. Because knowledge was powerand, surely, this quiet Englishwoman already knew far too much about how he lived his life. For now, he had her loyalty, because she owed him a great debtbut what if greed reared its ugly head and persuaded her to sell out, as he had seen happen so many times in the past? What if she discovered that she could make enough to keep her in comfort for many years if she sold her story to the papers, who were always hungry to find out more about him?
'No, NatashaI wasn't expecting anyone,' he said, with blunt honesty.
'You're back from America early.'
'I haven't been in America. I flew to Italy, instead.'
'Oh? Any special reason?' She pushed the sugar towards him, knowing that she was being unusually persistentbut she had never seen him look quite so troubled before.
'It doesn't matter.'
But, because she loved him, Natasha chose to ignore the sudden dark, repressive tone of his voice. 'Something's wrongisn't it, Raffaele?'
Inexplicably, he felt the flicker of temptation for one brief moment, before his mouth curved with an aristocratic disdain he rarely used on her. 'It is not your place to ask me such a question,' he answered coolly. 'You know that.'
Yes, she knew thatand mainly she accepted it. Just as she accepted so many other things about his life. Like the women who sometimes shared his bed, who would wander down to breakfast in the morning, all tousle-haired and pink-cheeked, long after he had left for the City. They would giggle as they demanded she make them French toast and orange juice and Natasha's jealous heart would break into a thousand pieces.
It was true that there hadn't been any of those inter-lopers for some timein fact, he was probably gearing up for another any day now. Maybe that was what was bugging him? Was some woman giving him the run-around, for onceinstead of the other way round? In which case, why didn't he damned well tell her? At least, that way she would be able to steel her heart against the pain to come. Against the projected and mostly hidden fear that, this time, his affair might be serious.
But then Natasha felt ashamed at her self-seeking for wasn't there another part of Raffaele's life which threatened to mar its near perfection? His beautiful half sister, who was nearly a whole generation younger than him. Could that be the reason behind his unscheduled trip to Italy?
She cleared her throat. 'Elisabetta's okay, isn't she?' Raffaele stilled, the coffee cup almost to his lips. He put it down with a clatter, untasted. 'What makes you ask about my sister?' he questioned, in a voice of dangerous stealth.
She could hardly say Because, in your charm-filled life, she seems to be the one area which causes you concern. That really would be stepping over the boundaries of acceptable behaviour. Natasha shrugged, remembering the anxious phone call he had taken from Elisabetta's psychiatrist a couple of weeks ago, which had resulted in him sitting in his study until darkness had fallen. It had been left to Natasha to wander in unnoticed and gently wonder if he wanted to put the light on, to remind him that he had a dinner engagement that evening.
'Just a hunch that all wasn't well.'
'Well, don't have hunches!' he flared. 'I don't pay you to have hunches!'
She stared at him, and his words felt as if they had lanced through her heart. 'No, of course you don't. I shouldn't have said anything. I'm sorry.'
But Raffaele saw the faint tremble of her lips, which she'd tried and failed to hide, and relented with a sigh. 'No, I am the one who should be sorry, cara. I should not have spoken to you that way.'
But he hadand maybe he would continue to do soand could she bear that? Natasha pinned her shoulders back as once more she felt the distant beat of apprehensionand this time it wasn't about Raffaele, but about her.
Didn't they say that familiarity bred contempt was that why he thought he could talk to her any old way and she would just take it? Oh, yes, sometimes he called her carabut that was more a term of endearment. He certainly didn't mean it in the romantic 'darling' sense.
Was she blinding herself to the fact that her position here was slowly being eroded? Was she going to wait until it became untenable before she had the courage to walk away from him?
She was beginning to recognise that as Sam grew older he would begin to notice the things which made him different from his schoolfriends. That the sumptuous home in which he lived was not really his home, but belonged to his mother's billionaire employer. How long before that started to matter and his friends started making fun of him for being different?
'I'd better go and get on,' she said stiffly. 'I want to make a cakeSam's bringing a friend home for tea.' And she turned away before he could see the stupid tears which were threatening to prick at the corners of her eyes.
But Raffaele saw the rigid set of her shoulders and, for once, he realised he had hurt her. He knew that whatever else happened, Natasha didn't deserve that. Maybe it was time that he told someone other than his attorney. Troy saw things only in black-and-white, in the way that lawyers did. That was what they were paid to doto deal with practicalities, not emotion.
But, even for a man who had spent his life running from emotion and all its messy consequences, sometimes, like now, facing it seemed unavoidable. And Natasha was a womanthey seemed to do emotion better than men. Certainly, better than this man. Wouldn't a feminine perspective from an impartial party be useful? What possible harm could there be to run it past her?
Maybe it was true what they saidthat if you spoke the words out loud it made you see them differently.
Raffaele had spent most of his thirty-four years pressing all the right buttons and had achieved huge international success, but what he liked best was the control that success gave him and the power which came with it. But these past weeks he had felt it slipping away from himand the sensation made him uneasy.
'What?' she answered, but she didn't turn back; she was too busy blinking away the last of her tears.
Natasha would tell him the truth, even if he didn't want to hear it. 'Elisabetta's in a clinic,'he said bluntly. 'She has been secretly flown to England, and I'm terrified the press are going to find her.'
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