The dark smudges of exhaustion beneath her hazel eyes emphasised their size, making them look extremely large in her painfully thin face. And she was wearing her hair in a strange style that all through their five months together he had never before seen.
But, even though her appearance had changed, the powerful attraction he felt for her had not diminished one jot.
It was the same as the first time he’d laid eyes on her; she’d— been standing up in front of another group of executives— in another of his companies, pitching an earlier version of the computer software she’d been selling today. He’d walked into that meeting too—with no thought in his head other than the fact that he must find out who she was.
It had suddenly been imperative that he invited her to dinner, got to know her…took her to bed.
And the urgent desire that had stormed his body back then was still surging through his veins like molten lava.
He wanted to haul her to her feet and kiss her until the rigid tension in her body melted away. He knew it would—he’d felt the way she’d responded to him earlier. Despite her protests he knew she still wanted him as much as he wanted her.
He wanted to run his hands all over her body, until she was soft and pliant against him. He wanted to release the clip at the nape of her neck and let her hair fly out in crazy curls. It had been only at the end of their most passionate love-making sessions that he’d seen her hair in its natural, untamed state. She’d always spent ages straightening it and smoothing it down into sleek, sophisticated styles. He liked it when it was wild. It made him think of rampant sex.
‘Even if I agree, I can’t be ready to travel this afternoon.’ — Lily’s voice startled him out of his thoughts. ‘There are things I must do, people I have to tell.’
‘Of course you can be ready. Leave all the technical— details to me. Once we arrive in Venice, you may call anyone you need, to inform them of your change of address.’
Vito suppressed a grim smile of satisfaction at her imminent agreement. He hadn’t allowed himself to consider the possibility that she might refuse his offer of marriage.
The fact that she had been unfaithful to him, and subsequently denied it, had proved him very wrong in his original assessment of her personality. However, he— did know what her childhood had been like. And he was confident that his frank reminders of how their uncertain situation had impacted on Lily and her mother would be enough to bring her round to accepting— his proposal.
He knew he’d hurt her feelings when he’d thrown her out, but he was sure her maternal instinct to protect her child’s future would win out in the end.
‘No, I need to—’ Lily began.
‘Presumably the equipment you brought with you for your presentation belongs to the company you were working for.’ Vito picked up the phone to make a call. ‘I’ll have it returned by courier.’
He had her in his grasp. All that was left to do was to make the arrangements as quickly as possible. Then he would tell his grandfather the news the old man had been hoping to hear for years: the Salvatore family name was to continue.
His grandfather would end his days happy, believing there was a new Salvatore heir. Then afterwards, when Lily was no longer of any use to him, Vito would exact revenge on her by ridding himself of her. And the baby.
A swift divorce, and his life would soon be back to normal. Lily, and the proof of her infidelity, would no longer have any part of it.
‘But I can’t just disappear off to Italy,’ Lily said. ‘People will worry about me.’
‘A short announcement that we are reunited and about to be married should deal with that,’ Vito replied.
‘They’ll never believe it,’ Lily said, wondering how her independent friend, Anna, would react to her decision— to marry Vito purely to ensure security and stability for her child. How would she explain that she couldn’t bear the thought of her baby enduring a childhood as tough as hers? ‘Everyone knows how badly you treated me—they won’t be fooled by any story I tell them.’
Or at least Anna wouldn’t, she thought. Somehow she’d never really got round to telling her mother any details about how she came to be back in London.
‘No.’ The word cut through the air like steel. ‘No one must ever know this is anything other than a normal marriage.’
‘But…’ Lily faltered as he took her hands and pulled her abruptly to her feet. She was standing directly in front of him, and she could feel the intensity radiating off him. Her heart jolted nervously in her chest. He was utterly serious.
‘No one will ever know.’ Vito’s voice throbbed and his eyes blazed. ‘You will make them all believe that it is a normal marriage, that the child you are carrying is mine. If you fail to do this, I will cast you and the baby out.’
Lily stared at him numbly.
She just couldn’t let her baby go through what she had experienced growing up. Vito’s words ‘dirty little secret’ rang— in her mind. He had been agonisingly accurate in his assessment of what her childhood had been like.
Living with a mother who was depressed and frequently— plagued by worries and self-doubts had been tough. Having very little money, no father figure at home, and, on top of everything else, dealing with spiteful taunts from other children had been a constant— grind.
But realising that her own father didn’t want to meet her—probably wished she’d never even been born—had quite simply been heartbreaking. She couldn’t let her child grow up never knowing its father—and she knew for sure that this baby was Vito’s.
She had to agree. For the sake of her unborn baby she had to agree to marry Vito.
LILY placed the large vase of blue cornflowers on the table. She put her handwritten note to Anna beside them and stood back, biting her lip in consternation.
She didn’t want to disappear out of her friend’s life as abruptly as she’d arrived, but she had a plane to catch, and couldn’t be there to explain in person. Besides, she had a terrible fear that if she talked to her friend face to face she would almost certainly break down and tell her everything. The future of her unborn baby depended on her playing out the charade that Vito was demanding. She couldn’t allow herself to fall at the first hurdle.
The cornflowers were gorgeous, and she knew they were Anna’s favourites. She’d spotted them outside a florist on the way back to the flat, and decided at once that she must buy a huge bunch for her friend.
Vito’s driver had tried to pay for them, but Lily was having none of that. From her time in Venice she was used to his assistants popping up beside her, cash or credit card in hand. But these flowers were a gift for a dear friend, a friend who’d been there for her in a time of trouble. She wasn’t going to let it be sullied by allowing Vito to pay for it. She might have agreed to marry him, but she wasn’t letting him buy her off.
Lily looked round the flat that had been her home for six weeks. It wasn’t really home, but she’d been so grateful for Anna’s comforting presence. There would be no one to comfort her in Venice.
It hadn’t taken her long to pack—she’d been travelling— light since leaving Venice. She turned away and started carrying her bags down to the waiting limousine. The driver hurried to help her, and in hardly any time her belongings were stowed in the boot.
She stood on the pavement, staring at the keys in her hand, suddenly reluctant to go despite the fact that she must.
‘Would you like me to take them?’ the driver politely enquired. ‘Is there a trusted neighbour I can leave them with? Or should I drop them through the letter box?’
Lily blinked and stared at him for a moment. All of Vito’s staff were honest and ready to help with anything. But this was a task she had to do herself.
‘No, thank you.’ Lily smiled at him as warmly as she could, but she knew it couldn’t look very convincing. She was utterly exhausted and felt sick to her stomach. ‘I’ll just be a moment.’
She made her way wearily back up the two flights of stairs and let herself into the flat one last time. She placed the keys on the table next to her note and the vase of cornflowers, then walked back out and pulled the door shut behind her. She pushed it automatically, just to check the lock had caught, and suddenly she felt locked out of her own life. As her fingers fell from the unyielding door, she knew she was saying goodbye to her freedom.
A few hours later she was sitting next to Vito as their plane circled the city of Venice, coming in to land across the water at the edge of the lagoon. It looked so different from the city she had flown away from six weeks ago, the day after she’d told Vito she was pregnant. By morning most of the fog had lifted, allowing the airport to reopen, but— the city had still looked eerily colourless, and the wide expanse of water had been a pale, metallic grey.
Now the sun was shining brightly, low in the western sky, and the water of the lagoon was a luxuriant blue, tinged with the gold of the approaching sunset. The island of Venice itself looked amazing from the air— like— a perfect miniature replica dropped into the open space of the lagoon. Famous landmarks stood out with incredible clarity, and for a moment Lily almost felt like she’d never left. Except now everything was different.