He shook his head and walked out, the dogs at his heels.

Coral walked to the pool and stared into the glassy surface.

The door banged closed.


THE VILLA MONTEROSSINI sat in the very heart of Rome, surrounded by topiary gardens to the front, sunken gardens to the rear and paved walkways that stretched in a criss-cross of lines across sweeping lawns. Screens of perfectly pruned trees and high stone walls kept it a secret from any passing traffic or perambulating tourists.

From the second floor, through vast floor-to-ceiling windows, Coral gazed out, her eyes landing on the fountain that bubbled and flowed, sprinkling each laughing cherub with delicate spray and sending rainbows in a haze all around.

What a beautiful day to be married, she thought, sipping the last of her tea and stepping back from the windows into the silk-carpeted dressing room. What a beautiful, wretched day.

The house was already buzzing with the barely contained wonder and delight of the elite teams who’d just arrived, laden with all the accoutrements of their trades and ready to work their magic in this, the grandest villa of its kind in Rome.

She could hear whispered gasps and muffled giggles from the hallway, as a team of people set up flowers and hung swathes of fabric. In the dressing room next door she could hear the hair and beauty team relaxing and joking between themselves, telling stories about who’d had too much to drink in the hotel the night before. Along the hallway came the high shrill tones of the housekeeper, slicing the air with instructions in very terse Italian.

She walked to the sideboard, ready to replace her cup and saucer on the gilt tray, and a maid came up immediately, ready to refill it. She smiled and waved her away.

It was impossible to want for anything in this house. In the three days since she’d arrived the staff had anticipated her every wish. There were fresh flowers in every room, scented oils in her bath and every tasty morsel imaginable to tempt her. They flattered her and spoiled her rotten.

Everyone was going out of their way to make her feel at home. Everyone except the signor himself.

From the moment she’d defied him and met with her lawyers he had closed down and headed off to Shanghai. He’d spoken on the phone to her each evening in quick, monosyllabic sentences, checking firstly her health, then her movements that day, and finally any comments she might have about the baby.

He’d told her the positive result of the second DNA test as if it was yesterday’s weather forecast. And she had responded just as matter-of-factly.

He had never asked how she’d got on with the lawyers and she had never offered him any information. She’d kept back the fact that they’d told her she had a very good case.

They’d talked her through the whole process—what could go well and what might not. She’d seen the accounts, the years of work that had gone into building the cruise line from a tiny fleet to an international behemoth.

In recent years its growth had doubled and doubled again. Everyone acknowledged that Raffa was behind it, and yet he took nothing from the business—not even a director’s salary. And so the seeds of doubt that she should claim any of it had been sown.

Still, papers had been drawn up in readiness for her final decision. And soon she would give it—soon. As soon as the wedding was over.

Finally the day had come.

Her mother would be arriving within the hour, following the most difficult phone call of her life. She walked to the sofa and sat down heavily, thinking of her mother’s imminent arrival. She had expected tears and grief, but it seemed that a wedding could solve almost everyone’s worries.

Lynda had expressed concern for Coral, and sought reassurances that she knew what she was doing. Then, just as she had been about to hang up, grateful that the whole ordeal was out in the open, she’d asked that final gut-wrenching question.

‘Do you love him?’

Her mouth had formed the word before her mind had had a chance to catch up.

‘Yes,’ she’d blurted, tears springing in her eyes.

‘Well, that’s all that matters, then.’

But I don’t think he loves me back, she’d whispered to herself.

She couldn’t tell her mother that.

She could barely admit it to herself.

So Lynda Dahl would be walking with a spring in her step for the first time in twenty-five years. And Coral would be dragging her satin-covered heels all the way to the altar.

‘Are you ready to bathe?’ a maid asked, her face beaming with undisguised joy. ‘There are less than three hours before the wedding starts!’

Coral smiled and stood up slowly.

‘First I must check in with Chef about the food, and make sure everyone has everything they need.’

Tags: Bella Frances Billionaire Romance
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