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It was going to be bad.
Lilly Anderson winced and put a hand to her pounding head. If she held herself in just that position, with the pressure building in her head like the vicious storms that picked up intensity across the plains of the midwest, it might not become a full-on migraine.
Except staying in the dim confines of Riccardo's Rolls-Royce, driven by his long-time driver Tony, wasn't an option tonight. She was late for her own divorce party. Excessively late for the one thing that would give her what she wanted above all else. Her freedom from her husband.
"Oh, my God."
Her twin sister Alex made a sound low in her throat. "How can they print this stuff?"
"Alex, read it to me."
"It's Jay Kaiken's column. You don't want me to."
"Okay, but I warned you." She cleared her throat. "In what's expected to be the most scandalous, juiciest, talked-about water cooler event of the season, billionaire wine magnate Riccardo De Campo and former Iowa farmgirl-turned-sports-physiotherapist Lilly De Campo host their divorce party tonight. I once suggested they were the only passionately in love couple left in New York. But apparently even that fairytale doesn't actually exist. Rumors of heartthrob Riccardo's infidelity surfaced and this once solid marriage ended up in the toilet. So it's with mixed feelings that I bid this partnership adieu tonight. I have the invite and will bring you all the salacious details."
She crumpled up the tabloid and threw it on the floor. "He's such an SOB."
Lilly closed her eyes, a fresh wave of nausea rolling over her. No matter how many times she'd envisioned this moment, this freedom from Riccardo, she had never envisioned this. Nor the insanely mixed feelings she had right about now.
"Sorry, Lil. I shouldn't have started on those."
"You're a PR person, Alex. You're addicted."
"Still, I suck. I'm really sorry."
Lilly smoothed her fuchsia silk dress over her knees. It was elegant enoughand in Riccardo's most hated color, which was an added bonusbut it felt as if it was clinging in all the wrong places. A glance in the mirror before they'd left had told her she was paper-white, with dark bags under her hazel eyes. Haunted. In fact the only thing that was right was her hair, blowdried to glossy, straight perfection by her savior of a stylist.
It was a problemthis not feeling together. She felt she was already at a disadvantage. Facing Riccardo without her mask, without all her defences in place, was never a good way to start.
"You look a little too good," Alex murmured. "I think you should have put something frumpier on. And maybe messed your hair up a bit."
Lilly took the compliment and felt a bit better. Her sister was, if nothing else, the bluntest person she'd ever met. "Now, why would I do that?"
"Because Riccardo is like a banned substance for you," her sister said drily. "And your marriage almost destroyed you. Be ugly, Lilly, it's the easiest way."
Lilly smiled, then winced as her head did another inside-out throb. "He's finally agreed to give me the divorce. You should be doing a happy dance."
"If I thought he was giving in I might be. Has he given you the papers yet?"
"I'm hoping he'll do that tonight."
Alex scowled. "It's not like him to do this. He's up to something."
Her heart dropped about a thousand feet. "Maybe he's decided it's time to replace me."
"One can only hope."
A stab of pain lanced through her. She should be elated Riccardo had finally seen the light. Seen that there was no way they could ever reconcile after everything that had happened. So why had his decree that they finally end this with an official public announcement hit her with the force of an eighteen-wheeler? She certainly hadn't been pining away the past twelve months, hoping his refusal to divorce her meant he still loved her. And there was no way she'd harbored any silly notions that he was going to come climbing through her window and carry her back home, like in some Hollywood movie, with a promise to do everything differently.
That would have been stupid and naive.
She squared her shoulders. He likely did have another prospect in mind. Everything Riccardo did was a means to an end.
"If I ever want to be free to pursue a real relationship with Harry I need Riccardo's signature on that piece of paper."
"Oh, come on, Lil." Her sister's beautiful face twisted in a grimace. "Harry Taylor might be a decorated cardiotho-racic surgeon, Doctors Without Borders and all that lovely stuff, but really? He's dull as dishwater. You might as well marry him and move back to Mason Hill."
"He's also handsome, smart and sweet," Lilly defended tartly, not needing to tell her sister there wasn't a hope in hell of her moving back to the miserable existence they'd escaped at eighteen. "I'm lucky to have him."
Alex waved a hand at her. "You can't tell me after Riccardo he doesn't seem like some watered-down versionlike grape juice instead of Cabernet."
"You just told me Riccardo was bad news for me."
"So is Harry Taylor. He'll bore you to death."
Lilly had to steel herself not to laugh out loud, because that just would have hurt too much. "I'm through with men who make my heart pound and my palms go sweaty. It's self-destructive for me."
"The particular one you picked might have been What time were we supposed to have been there, by the way?"
Lilly checked her watch. "A half-hour ago."
Alex gave her a wicked smile. "Riccardo's going to love that."
She squirmed in her seat. She was always late. No matter how hard she tried. Because it was just in her nature to try and squeeze too much into the day, and also because her multi-million-dollar athletes kept waltzing in half an hour late. But Riccardo had never seemed to care what the reason was. He wanted what he wanted when he wanted it. And that was all.
Alex's expression shifted. "I talked to David today."
Lilly froze. Alex talking to their brother back in Iowa only meant one thing. "How's Lisbeth?"
Alex frowned. "He said she had a really bad week. The doctor is saying she needs that experimental treatment within the next few months if it's going to do any good."
Dammit. Lilly twisted her hands together in her lap, feeling that familiar blanket of hopelessness settle over her. Her youngest sister Lisbeth had leukemia. She'd been told three months ago she was out of remission, and her doctor was advocating a ground-breaking new treatment as the one thing that might give her a fighting chance. But the treatment cost a fortune.
"I can't ask Riccardo for the money, Alex. I know it's crazy, but I can't give him that kind of power over me."
"I know." Alex put her hand over hers and squeezed. "We'll figure it out. There has to be a way."
Lilly pursed her lips. "I'm going to go back to the bank tomorrow. Maybe they'll let me do it in installments."
There had to be a way. Lisbeth had to get that treatment.
Tonight, however, she had to focus on survival.
Her hands shook in her lap and her head throbbed like a jackhammer as they turned down a leafy, prestigious street toward the De Campo townhouse. She had taken one look at the beautiful old limestone mansion and fallen in love. Riccardo had taken one look at her face and bought it for her. "You love it," he'd said, not even blinking at the thirty-five-million-dollar price tag. "We'll buy it."
They swung to a halt in front of the home she'd run out of with only a suitcase twelve months ago, when she'd finally had the guts to leave him. It was the first time she'd been back and it occurred to her she was truly crazy making that time tonight. Divorce parties might be in vogue, but did she really want to detonate her and Riccardo's relationship in front of all the people who'd made her life miserable?
She didn't have a choice. She scooted over as Tony came around to open the door. Riccardo had been adamant. "We need to end this standoff," he'd said. "We need to make the state of our relationship official. Be there, Lilly, or this isn't happening."
She forced herself to grasp Tony's hand. But her legs didn't seem to recognize the need to function as she stepped out of the car on trembling limbs that wanted to cave beneath her. The long, snakelike line of limousines made her suck in a breath. The memory of Riccardo sweeping her out of this car the night of their first anniversary and carrying her upstairs made it catch in her throat. He had made love to her with an intensity that night that had promised he would love her forever.
The images of the beginning and the end collided together in an almost blinding reminder of how quickly things could turn bad.
How hearts could be shattered.
"We can still turn around," her sister said quietly, coming to stand by her side. "If Riccardo really wants this divorce he'll come to you."
No, he wouldn't. Lilly shook her head. "I need to do this."
Do this and you won't ever have to live in a world you don't belong in again.
She walked woodenly up the front path alongside Alex. A dark-haired young man in a catering uniform opened the door and ushered them inside.
"How weird to have someone invite you into your own home," Alex whispered.
"It's not my home anymore."
But everything about it was. She couldn't help but stare up at the one-of-a-kind Italian cut-glass chandelier that was the centerpiece of the entryway. She and Riccardo had chosen it together on their honeymoon in the little town of Murano, famous for its glass. They had hand-picked a crystal to have their initials carved into, which had been placed on the bottom row. Riccardo had insisted on adding two entwined hearts beside their initials.
"It symbolizes us," he'd said. "We're no longer two separate peoplewe are one."
She lurched on her high heels, feeling whatever composure she'd had disintegrate. The urge to run far away from here as fast as she could was so overwhelming she could barely keep her feet planted on the floor.
"Lilly " Alex murmured worriedly, her gaze on her face.
"I'm okay." She forced herself to smile at the young man offering to show them up the staircase to the ballroom. "We know the way."
She climbed the gleaming wooden staircase alongside Alex, her heartbeat accelerating with every step she took. By the time they'd reached the top of the stairs and turned toward the glimmering ballroom it was in her mouth.
You can do this. You've done this hundreds of times before.
Except Riccardo had been by her side then. A rock in a world that had never been hers. And tonight was the beginning of LARLife After Riccardo.
She paused at the entrance, taking in the glittering colors and jewels of the beautifully dressed crowd, set off by the muted glow of a dozen priceless antique chandeliers that dated back to the English Regency period. A jazz band played in the corner of the room, but the buzz of a hundred conversations rose above it.
Her back stiffened. She hated jazz. Was Riccardo trying to make a statement? To illustrate to her how he'd moved on?
Alex grabbed her arm and propelled her forward. "You need a drink."
Or ten, Lilly thought grimly as dozens of curious gazes turned on them and a buzz ran through the crowd. She switched herself on to autopilotthe only way she knew how to function in a situation like thisand started walking.
She lifted her chin when she saw Jay Kaiken and kept walking. As they moved toward the bar at the back of the room the strangest thing happened. Like the parting of the Red Sea, the crowd moved aside, dividing down the center of the room. On her left she recognized friends and acquaintances who had chosen to keep in touch with her rather than Riccardo after their separation. On her right she saw Riccardo's business associates, his brother, cousins and political contacts.
"It's like our wedding all over again," she breathed, remembering how she'd walked into that beautiful old Catholic cathedral on the Upper East Side to find her family and friends on one sidethe neatly dressed, less-than-glamorous Iowa farm contingent alongside her girlfriends and schoolmatesand Riccardo's much larger, understatedly elegant clan on the otherall ancient bloodlines and aristocratic heritage.
As if their marriage was to be divided from the beginning.
Maybe that should have been her first clue.
She held her head high and kept walking. A tingle went down her spine. Her skin went cold. Riccardo was in the room. Watching her. She could feel it.
Turning her head, she found himlike a homing pigeon seeking its target. He looked furious. Seething. She swallowed hard, a flock of butterflies racing through her stomach. Riccardo spoke four languagesEnglish, Spanish, German and his native Italian. But he did not have to utter a single word from those sensuous, dangerous lips for her to understand the emotion radiating from his eyes.
Hell. She touched her face in a nervous gesture that drew his gaze. Only Riccardo had ever been able to pull off that passionate intensity while still calling himself a twentieth-century man.
"Don't let him intimidate you," Alex murmured. "This is your divorce party, remember? Own it."
Easier in theory than in practice. Particularly so when Riccardo relieved a waiter of two glasses of champagne and strode toward them, with a look of intent on his face that shook her to her core. She absorbed this new Riccardo. He looked as indecently gorgeous as ever in a black tux that set off his dark good looks. But it was the hard edge to him that was different. The strongly carved lines of his face seemed to have deepened, harshened. He'd shaved off the thick, dark waves that had used to fall over his forehead in favor of a short buzz cut that made him look tougher, even more dangerously attractive if that was possible. And the ruthless expession on his face, the glitter in those dark eyes, had never been used on her quite like that before.
Her tongue cleaved to the roof of her mouth, her pulse picking up into a rapid, insistent rhythm that had her nails digging into her palms. Why, after everything they'd gone through, was he still the only man who could simply look at her and make her shake in her shoes?
Alex nudged her. "Dangerous controlled substance, remember?"
Lilly squared her shoulders and pulled in a deep breath as Riccardo stopped in front of them. He leaned down and brushed a kiss against her cheek. "Late and wearing pink. One would think you're deliberately trying to antagonize me, Lilly."
Her pulse sped into overdrive. "Maybe I'm celebrating my new-found freedom."
"Ah, but you don't have it yet," he countered, moving his lips to the other cheek. "And you aren't putting me in the kind of mood to grant it to you."
Lilly was aware of all the eyes on them as he pulled back and stung her face with a reprimanding look that made her feel like a fifth-grader. "Don't play games with me, Riccardo," she said quietly. "I will turn around and walk out of here so fast you won't know what hit you."
His dark eyes glinted. His mouth tipped up at the corners. "You've already done that, tesoro, and now you're back."
Something exploded in her head. She was about to tell him exactly what she thought of his ultimatum, but he was bending down and kissing Alex.