‘Lily.’ Vito dropped down onto one knee in front of her. For a moment she almost made the mistake of thinking he was concerned about her—then as her eyes came into focus she saw that his expression was just as cold as before. He had simply adopted the best position to get a good look at her. And probably to make sure she was looking at him, paying proper attention to what he had to say.
‘You’re extremely pale,’ he said. ‘Have you eaten today?’
‘Of course I’m pale.’ Lily spoke through gritted teeth. Her stomach was churning horribly, and she really thought there was a danger that she might be sick. ‘I’ve had a lot of nasty shocks this morning.’
‘Have you eaten?’ he insisted. ‘What would make you feel better?’
‘Getting away from you.’ She stood up so quickly that Vito rocked back on his heels, but the rapid movement was a mistake. A wave of nausea rolled through her again, and she clung to the desk for support, feeling her head start to spin.
‘Sit down,’ Vito barked. ‘I’m not letting you leave so that you can faint in the street—if you even get that far.’
One hand was on her shoulder, pressing her back into the chair, and the other snatched up the phone on his desk. Lily only half listened as he reeled off a list of instructions—but— she understood that he was ordering food and drink.
She closed her eyes, breathing deeply. As much as she thought she hated Vito right then, she couldn’t bear to disgrace herself by being sick in front of him. She already felt vulnerable enough, and that would just be the final humiliation on what was already turning out to be the worst day of her life so far.
Only a few minutes seemed to pass before she heard the elevator doors open, followed by Vito’s quiet footfall on the thick grey carpet as he returned across the room. She opened her eyes to see him setting a tray down on the desk.
‘Drink this,’ he instructed, holding out a large glass of iced water.
She took the water silently, unable to speak for a moment, as the memory of him preparing iced water for her on her last day in Venice flashed through her mind. He might not be the tender, concerned lover she had believed him to be—but he still knew what she liked.
In fact, apparently he knew more about her than she had realised, as she thought about the heartless way he had thrown her troubled childhood in her face.
‘You snooped into my background.’ She looked at him accusingly, expecting to see at least a hint of embarrassment— pass across his shuttered features. But there was nothing. He appeared as unmoved as ever.
‘Of course I did. You were living with me—a thorough background-check was mandatory.’ His voice was matter-of-fact. ‘You had potential access to all kinds of sensitive material.’
Lily looked at him in disgust. It would never have occurred to her to pry into his life like that. She knew he’d been married before; that was common knowledge.— But she’d never poked around, trying to discover why his marriage had ended.
‘Perhaps I should have run a background-check on you.’ Lily took a sip of icy-cold water. It was making her stomach feel a little better—but the rest of her was still a mess of unpleasant emotions. ‘I might have found out in time what kind of man I was getting involved with.’
She pushed a coil of blonde hair out of her eyes and looked away from him distractedly. She couldn’t believe how things were turning out, and her mind was a horrible whirl of conflicting thoughts.
She should never have come to L&G Enterprises that morning. She’d known Vito held controlling shares in the company. But he also had many other business interests— in London. She’d thought, if he was even in the city, what were the chances that he’d be right there in the building? That he’d walk into her presentation?
Maybe a tiny part of her deep down inside had longed to see him again, despite the unforgivable way he had treated her, but she could never have guessed that things would end up like this. That Vito, the man she’d once foolishly believed she was falling in love with, would rub her nose in the humiliating misery of her childhood. And then propose to her.
‘Being someone’s dirty little secret is not a pleasant position to be in.’ Vito’s voice was cold and unfeeling as he broke the silence. ‘Don’t make your child suffer the same fate. You don’t need to make the same choices as your mother.’
‘You’re the one making it dirty!’Lily responded hotly, her gaze flashing back to his impossibly inexpressive face. ‘And leave my mother out of it—she’s happy living in the countryside, working with the hospice patients.’
‘But you’re not happy,’ Vito said blandly. ‘And your childhood was far from happy.’
‘You don’t know anything about my childhood,’ Lily threw back at him.
‘I know that your father refused to acknowledge you,’ he said. ‘That he paid your mother off to keep her quiet. That you’ve never met him or your two halfsisters,— and that it seems unlikely that you ever will. Unless you’re prepared to let your mother lose her home and income, just to satisfy your curiosity about the man who didn’t want you.’
‘Why would I want to meet my father?’ Lily responded— automatically, despite the way she was reeling— under the onslaught of Vito’s words. ‘He’s nothing to me.’
‘You mean you’re nothing to him.’
Vito turned away to select a Danish pastry from the tray on his desk. Lily gripped her glass of iced water dangerously tightly and stared at him angrily.
‘You are utterly vile,’ she said, looking at the plate in his hand, because suddenly she couldn’t bring herself to meet his gaze.
How could he eat at a time like this? Did dishing out heartless comments over something so important to her really mean so little to him that he thought he’d combine it with a light snack?
She’d spent a lifetime trying not to think about the way her father had discarded her. And she didn’t want to think about it now. She could have searched for him, tried to make him acknowledge her. But she’d always known no good would have come of that. And, in any case, she would never, ever have done anything to cause her mother distress.
‘Here, eat this.’ Vito removed the glass of water from her grip and handed her the pastry on a highly glazed black plate. So it hadn’t been for him after all.
‘I’m not hungry,’ Lily said mutinously, trying to pass the plate back.
‘Nevertheless, you must eat,’ Vito said. ‘You’ll feel better if you boost your blood-sugar level. You really are exceptionally pale, even for you.’
‘Even for me?’ Lily snapped. ‘Don’t act like you know me. You may know my secret—a way you can coerce me into doing what you want. But that’s not really knowing someone.’
‘It’s not coercion,’ Vito said. ‘I’m merely helping you to recognise the full implications of trying to go it alone with an illegitimate child. In fact, it’s more of a reminder, really—after all, you know from first-hand experience what it can be like.’
‘It wasn’t as bad as you’re making it sound,’ Lily protested. But in her heart she knew it had been pretty tough—constantly dealing with her mother’s depression— and her own sense of abandonment and disappointment. She hated the thought of her baby growing up without a father, feeling unwanted and worthless.
‘Don’t you want to protect your child?’ Vito asked. ‘Marry me, and he or she will be free of the misery that blighted your childhood.’
‘My childhood wasn’t miserable,’ Lily insisted. She could hear the doubt in her own voice, but suddenly it felt disloyal to her mum even to let herself think it.
‘As my heir, your baby will have every opportunity,’ Vito continued. ‘And you won’t experience the difficulties— that your mother faced on her own.’
‘I don’t know,’ Lily said. Vito’s proposal was totally unexpected and overwhelming. She didn’t know what to think any more. ‘I don’t know what to say.’
Two months ago she would have been unimaginably happy to have Vito propose to her. Now things were different. It was clear he didn’t love her. He didn’t even trust her. But he was offering her a chance for her child—and wasn’t that the most important thing to consider now?
How could she deny her child the life Vito could give it?
‘You do know what to say,’ Vito said. ‘You must agree to marry me. And, in the circumstances, we must arrange the wedding for as soon as possible. We’ll fly back to Venice this afternoon.’
He looked at her, sitting so stiffly on the high-backed leather chair, and he thought that she had been right when she’d said he didn’t know her. He didn’t. The sweet, innocent girl he’d thought she was would never have taken a lover and then tried to pass off another man’s child as his.
She didn’t even look the same as the eager yet tentative— lover he had shared his home with for nearly half a year. Her defensive body-language was completely new to him, and the amount of weight she’d lost made her appear all bony angles beneath her ill-fitting linen suit.