He’d no longer been the skinny, bookish kid and the bullies had known it. After one particular fight, when he’d broken the nose of the ringleader and blackened the eyes of two others, they’d left him alone.

 He hadn’t wanted to hit anyone since then. Until now.


 How could anyone call Alessandra a slut?

 ‘Too many to name.’ She answered his question with a shrug.

 ‘How could they say such things? You were a child.’

 ‘I was seventeen. Old enough to know better.’

 ‘Do not tell me you blame yourself?’

 ‘Only in the respect that I swallowed Javier’s lies.’ Her eyes pierced right through him. ‘I should have known not to trust the word of a man.’

 ‘Not all men are liars.’

 ‘Aren’t they?’ She didn’t elaborate. She continued staring at him with the same piercing expression.

 ‘No!’ he said forcefully.

 ‘With the exception of my brother, all the men I’ve ever known have been liars. Trusting Javier cost me everything. My grandfather turned into my jailer, the few friends he’d permitted me to have turned their backs on me because their parents didn’t want me corrupting them and Rocco had the humiliation of reading untrue, lewd comments about his baby sister. I’m sorry, but I will never trust you, Christian. All I can do is try and have faith that your indiscretions will be discreet.’

 ‘I will never humiliate you or disrespect you.’ He rose from his seat, ignoring the throbbing pain across the front of his face, and crouched on his haunches before her. Placing a hand on her neck, he rubbed his thumb over the soft skin.

 Theos, one touch of her softness, one inhalation of her scent and his body responded, his groin tightening as memories of burying himself inside her assailed him.

 ‘You are going to be my wife.’ He spoke the words slowly. ‘If you do not believe anything else, believe that that means something to me. I will take my vows seriously.’

 ‘I’m sure Javier said the same thing to his wife.’

 Christian swore and inhaled deeply.

 Alessandra leant forward, matching the intensity of his stare, close enough for his oaky, masculine scent to swirl around her.

 His hand was still pressed against her neck, heating her skin. For a moment she lost her train of thought, suddenly pulled back to that night two months ago, his naked body covering hers...

 She blinked herself back to the present, grabbing onto his hand and lacing her fingers into his. She squeezed. ‘When Javier’s wife saw those photos of her husband kissing a girl half his age, she must have thought her heart was breaking.’

 Those dreadful, incriminating pictures.

 Her brother and grandfather had taken a business trip together to New York for a long weekend. The Mondelli housekeeper had taken the day off. Alessandra and the man who was supposed to be giving her private tuition in maths over the long summer holiday had had the villa to themselves for the very first time. They could have done anything.

 It had been her suggestion that they go out for lunch at a nearby hotel, famed for its discretion. Javier didn’t live locally. No one would know him.

 She’d longed to do something as a normal couple, not have to keep her feelings hidden away, and this had been the perfect opportunity. She’d believed him when he’d said they had to keep their love a secret until she turned eighteen and finished her schooling.

 How grown up she’d felt, walking hand in hand with her would-be lover. How naïve she’d been.

 They’d dined in the fine hotel restaurant using her allowance to pay the bill, oblivious to the fact that half a dozen paparazzi had swarmed the lobby, awaiting the rumoured arrival of one of Hollywood’s most eligible bachelors.

 While she’d been blithely oblivious, they’d recognised her in an instant. The photos they’d taken, published the next day across the whole of Italy, had been incriminating. Her and Javier holding hands, stealing kisses that looked a damn sight worse than the chaste kisses they’d actually been.

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