Her Brooding Italian Boss

From his assistant…to his muse!

Pregnant and broke, Laura Beth’s only option is to take a job with brooding yet brilliant artist Antonio Bartulocci. He may be darkly handsome, but the fiery Italian proves to be a difficult boss!

Since his wife’s betrayal, Antonio has been unable to pick up a brush. But captivated by Laura Beth’s guileless beauty, he wonders if she could be the woman to unlock the talent he thought he’d lost forever… It’s a miracle which reminds him of all that’s now good in this life: Laura Beth!

“Before you knew I was pregnant, you didn’t want me working for you. You said you don’t want a PA. But it’s clear you need one. So obviously there’s a reason you’re fighting having someone work for you.”

He sighed.

“Fine. Don’t tell me. Because I don’t care. What I do care about is earning my keep.”

He sighed again. “You are a pregnant woman who needs a rest. Just take the time here with me to have some fun.”

She raised her chin. “No. If you won’t let me work, I won’t take your charity. I’m going home.”

“You don’t have a home to go back to.”

“Then let me stay here for two weeks as your assistant. If you don’t like what I do or still feel you don’t need someone at the end of two weeks, I’ll take another two weeks to rest and then go home.”

He stalled, as if unaccustomed to someone compromising. His brow furrowed. His expression and demeanor were so different than five minutes ago, and confusion billowed through her. When they’d first begun arguing, before he’d known she was pregnant, his eyes had been sharp. Glowing. She could have sworn he wanted to kiss her. It was as if he had been daring her to step closer—

Had he been daring her to step closer?

Dear Reader,

I had such a wonderful time writing
Her Brooding Italian Boss
. Not only did I get to return to Italy, but also we took a little side trip to Spain. Boisterous, lovable billionaire Constanzo Bartulocci makes another appearance in this story about his son, Antonio, a painter who’s lost his ability to create.

The heroine is Laura Beth Matthews, the final roommate of beautiful Olivia Prentiss and Eloise Vaughn. Because her roommates are stunning beauties, Laura Beth thinks she’s an ugly duckling.

This story really resonated with me because I think this happens to a lot of us. We compare ourselves to others and wonder if we’re lacking.

It takes a sacrifice on the part of both Antonio and Laura Beth, a little time when each has to step away from his or her own troubles, before each realizes they might be the other’s miracle.

And I love that, too! Because that’s really the bottom line to life. If you hurt, look around for someone who is hurting a bit more and be that person’s miracle.

Happy reading!

HER BROODING ITALIAN BOSS

Susan Meier

Susan Meier
is the author of over 50 books for Harlequin.
The Tycoon’s Secret Daughter
was a RITA® Award finalist and
Nanny for the Millionaire’s Twins
won the Book Buyer’s Best award and was a finalist in the National Reader’s Choice awards. She is married and has three children. One of eleven children, she loves to write about the complexity of families and totally believes in the power of love.

Books by Susan Meier

HARLEQUIN ROMANCE

The Twelve Dates of Christmas
Daring to Trust the Boss
Single Dad’s Christmas Miracle
Her Pregnancy Surprise
Kisses on Her Christmas List

Mothers in a Million

A Father for Her Triplets

The Larkville Legacy

The Billionaire’s Baby SOS

First Time Dads!

Nanny for the Millionaire’s Twins
The Tycoon’s Secret Daughter

Visit the Author Profile page at
Harlequin.com
for more titles

CHAPTER ONE

L
AURA
B
ETH
M
ATTHEWS
sat on the rim of the old porcelain tub in the New York City apartment she had to vacate by the next morning. Her long brown hair had been swirled into a sophisticated French twist. Her lilac organza bridesmaid gown was an original Eloise Vaughn design. A pregnancy test shook in her right hand.

Tears pooled in her eyes. There was no question now. She was going to have a baby.

“Laura Beth! Come on!” Eloise called from the hall as she knocked on the bathroom door. “I’m the bride! I should at least get ten minutes in the bathroom to check my makeup.”

“Sorry!” She swiped at her tears and quickly examined her face in the medicine cabinet mirror. No real mascara smudges yet, but the day was young.

For the first time since she, Eloise and their third original roommate, Olivia Prentiss Engle, had decided to spend the night before Eloise’s wedding together and dress together, Laura Beth regretted it. She was pregnant. The father of her child, one of Olivia’s husband’s vice presidents, had called her a slut when she’d told him she was late and they might be parents. And now she didn’t just have to smile her way through a wedding; she had to hide a pregnancy test in a tiny bathroom.

She glanced around. “I’ll be two more seconds.” Out of time, she wrapped the stick in toilet paper and tossed it in the little wastebasket. Satisfied neither Olivia nor Eloise would rummage through the trash, she sucked in a breath, pasted on a happy smile and opened the door.

Eloise stood before her, glowing, a vision in her original Artie Best gown, designed specifically by her boss, the one and only Artie Best. Smooth silk rode Eloise’s feminine curves. Rhinestones sparkled across the sweetheart neckline. And real diamonds—enough to support the population of a third-world country for a decade—glittered at her throat.

Tears pooled in Laura Beth’s eyes again, but this time they were tears of joy for her friend. Eloise, Olivia and Laura Beth had moved to New York City with stars in their eyes. Now Olivia was a married mom. Eloise would be married in a few hours. And Laura Beth was pregnant, with a deadbeat for her child’s father and twenty-four hours to vacate her apartment.

She was in deep trouble.

* * *

Antonio Bartulocci studied his shoulder-length curly black hair in the mirror. He’d gotten it cut for Ricky and Eloise’s wedding, but he still debated tying it back, out of the way. He looked to the left, then the right, and decided he was worrying over nothing. Eloise and Ricky were his friends because they liked him just as he was. They didn’t care that he was a tad bohemian. Most artists were.

He straightened his silver tie one last time before he walked out of the bedroom of his suite in his father’s Park Avenue penthouse and headed for the main room.

Comfortable aqua sofas faced each other atop a pale gray area rug, flanked by white Queen Anne chairs. A gray stone fireplace took up the back wall, and a dark walnut wet bar sat in the corner. The view of the New York City skyline from the wall of windows in the back had taken Antonio’s breath away when he first saw it. Since his wife’s death, it barely registered.

“Hurry up, Antonio,” his father called from the bar as he poured bourbon into a crystal glass. He wore a simple black suit, a white shirt and yellow striped tie that would be replaced by a tuxedo for the reception later that night. Though he was well into his seventies and a few pounds overweight, Italian billionaire Constanzo Bartulocci was a dashing man. A man whose looks spoke of money and power, who lived not in an ordinary world, but in one he could control. Unlike Antonio’s world, where passion, inspiration and luck ruled.

“I’m right behind you.”

Constanzo jumped and faced his son, his right hand over his heart. “You scare me.”

Antonio laughed. “I’ll bet I do.”

After downing his drink in one long swallow, Constanzo pointed at the door. “Let’s get going. I don’t want to end up in a crush of reporters like we did the last time we went somewhere.”

Antonio straightened his tie one more time. “Hey, you made me the paparazzi monster I am today.”

“You are not a monster.” The lilt of an Italian accent warmed his father’s voice. “You could be one of the most important painters of the twenty-first century. You are a talent.”

He knew that, of course. But having talent wasn’t what most people imagined. He didn’t put his gift away in a shiny box and take it out when he needed it. Talent, the need to paint, the breathtaking yearning to explore life on a canvas, were what drove him. But for the past two years he hadn’t even been able to pick up a brush. Forget about painting, accepting commissions, having a purpose in life. Now, he ate, drank, slept—but didn’t really live. Because he’d made millions on his art in the past few years, and, with his savvy businessman father’s help, he’d parlayed those millions into hundreds of millions through investments, money wasn’t an issue. He had the freedom and the resources to ignore his calling.

The private elevator door silently opened. Antonio and his father stepped inside. Constanzo sighed. “If you had a personal assistant, this wouldn’t have happened.”

Antonio worked to hide a wince. He didn’t have to ask what his father meant. He knew. “I’m sorry.”

“I wanted you to be the artist who did the murals for Tucker’s new building. Those works would have been seen by thousands of people. Ordinary people. You would have brought art to the masses in a concrete way. But you missed the deadline.”

“I don’t have a brain for remembering dates.”

“Which is exactly why you need a personal assistant.”

Antonio fought the urge to squeeze his eyes shut. What he needed was to be left alone. Or maybe to roll back the clock so far that he hadn’t married the woman who’d betrayed him. But that wasn’t going to happen. He was stuck in a combination of grief and guilt that paralyzed him.

Constanzo’s limousine awaited them on the street. They walked under the building portico without speaking. Antonio motioned for his father to enter first.

When he slid in behind him, soft white leather greeted him. A discreet minibar sat near the media controls. His father hit a few buttons and classical music quietly entered the space.

The driver closed the door and in less than a minute the limo pulled onto the street.

“A PA could also handle some of the Gisella problems that remain.”

Antonio’s jaw twitched.

Constanzo sighed. “Well, you don’t seem to want to handle them.” He sighed again, more deeply this time. “Antonio, it’s been two years. You cannot grieve forever.”

Antonio glanced at his father. He let his lips lift into a small smile. Pretending he was grieving had been the only way he’d survived the years since his wife’s death. Beautiful Gisella had burst into his life like a whirlwind. Twenty-four hours after they’d met they’d been in bed. Twenty-four weeks after that they were married. He’d been so smitten, so hopelessly in love, that days, weeks, months hadn’t mattered. But looking back, he recognized the signs he should have seen. Her modeling career hadn’t tanked, but it had been teetering, and marriage to the newly famous Italian painter had put her in the limelight again. Her sudden interest in international causes hadn’t cropped up until she found a way to use them to keep herself, her name, in the papers and on everybody’s lips. She’d even spoken at the UN. He’d been so proud...so stupid.

“My son, I know adult children don’t like nagging, meddling parents, but this time I am correct. You must move on.”

Without replying, he looked out the window at the hustle and bustle of New York City in the spring. Bumper-to-bumper traffic, most of it taxicabs. Optimistic residents walking up and down the sidewalk in lightweight coats. The sun glittering off the glass of towering buildings. At one time he’d loved this city more than he’d loved the Italian countryside that was his home. But she’d even ruined that for him.

“Please do not spoil Ricky and Eloise’s day with your sadness.”

“I’m not sad, Dad. I’m fine.”

The limo stopped. They exited and headed into the enormous gray stone cathedral.

The ceremony was long and Antonio’s mind wandered to his own wedding, in this same church, to a woman who hadn’t really loved him.

No, he wasn’t sad. He was angry, so furious some days his heart beat slow and heavy with it. But he couldn’t ruin the reputation of a woman who’d used him to become a cultural icon any more than he could pretend she’d been the perfect wife she’d portrayed.

Which meant he couldn’t have a PA digging through papers in his office or documents on his computer.

The ceremony ended. The priest said, “I now introduce Mr. and Mrs. Richard Langley.”

His best friend, Ricky, and his beautiful new wife, Eloise, turned and faced the crowd of friends and relatives sitting in the pews. A round of applause burst through the church and Ricky and Eloise headed down the aisle. Matron of honor Olivia Engle and best man Tucker Engle, also husband and wife, followed them out of the church. Antonio walked to the center aisle to meet his partner, Laura Beth Matthews.

Laura Beth was a sweet young woman he’d met and had gotten to know fairly well over the years when she’d visited Olivia and Tucker at their Italian villa, and every time there was a baptism, birthday or holiday party at the Engle penthouse on Park Avenue. Unfortunately, she had usually been with an annoying boyfriend, someone who didn’t fit into Tucker Engle’s world or Ricky Langley’s, but who desperately tried to.

Laura Beth slid her hand to Antonio’s elbow and he smiled at her before they walked down the aisle and out of the church.

As Ricky and Eloise greeted the long line of guests filing through the vestibule, Antonio turned to Laura Beth. “You look lovely.”

She glanced down at the pale purple dress. “Eloise designs the most beautiful gowns.”

“Ah, so she did this herself.”

Laura Beth nodded. When she brought her gaze back to his, though, her green eyes were dull. Not sad for the change in her life that the marriage of her last roommate would bring, but lifeless.

He caught her forearm to bring her attention to him. “Are you okay?”

She suddenly brightened. “Sure. Yes. I’m fine. Wonderful. It was just a stressful morning.”

“Tell me about it. Have you ever tried traveling with a billionaire who expects everybody and everything to be at his fingertips?”

Laura Beth laughed. “Oh, come on. I love your father! He’s not a prima donna.”

“You’ve only dealt with him when you were on vacation or at a party for one of Tucker and Olivia’s kids. Just try flying across the Atlantic with him.”

She laughed again and something lightened in Antonio’s chest. With her dark brown hair and bright green eyes, Laura Beth was much too pretty to be so—

He paused, not able to put a label on her mood. Nervous didn’t quite hit the mark. Unhappy wasn’t it either. She seemed more like distant. As if she were preoccupied.

Seeing Ricky and Eloise still had a line of guests filing out of the church, he said, “So what’s up?”

Her head snapped in his direction. “Up?”

“You’re here one minute, but your mind is gone the next. You’re obviously mulling something over. Or trying to figure something out.”

“I...um...well, I have to be out of my apartment tomorrow before noon.”

His eyebrows rose. “And you’re not packed?”

“No, I’m packed. I just don’t have anywhere to go.”

“You could stay at Constanzo’s penthouse. We leave tomorrow morning.”

She blushed. “Yeah, I could stay at Tucker and Olivia’s, too.” The red of her face deepened. “I’m always taking advantage of other people’s goodwill.”

The greeting line for wedding guests suddenly ended. Ricky and Eloise headed outside. Antonio caught Laura Beth’s hand and led her to the side door. “Let’s go. We want to be outside to toss confetti when they come out.”

* * *

When Antonio took her hand and guided her out into the warm spring day, Laura Beth’s heart tugged. With his shoulder-length curly black hair and penetrating dark eyes, he was the epitome of the sexy artist. But that wasn’t why her heart skipped a beat. His very casual way of making her feel a part of things, when her brain kept dragging her away, lifted her spirits. He was a good man, with a big heart and so much talent she almost couldn’t fathom it.

She’d had a crush on him from the day she’d met him. But she’d been dating Bruce. Then Antonio had gotten married, and two short years after that he was mourning the loss of his beautiful, equally talented, dedicated wife. So though she’d crushed on him, she’d never even let the thought of flirting with him fully form. And now, pregnant, she only let the thought flit through her brain. She absolutely wouldn’t act on it.

She should just get off her self-pity train and help Antonio enjoy the wedding, not expect him to help her.

So she made light, happy conversation while they posed for pictures as members of the wedding party, and hours later in the ballroom of the Waldorf, while they ate dinner. Antonio laughed in all the right places, but Laura Beth could see the glimmer of sadness in his eyes. As much as she wanted to be able to entertain him, she was failing. Her own troubles weighed her down, just as his dampened his mood. They’d both run out of jokes and neutral topics and even fun-filled facts. Worse, every time he turned his dark, brooding eyes on her, she wanted to flirt. Flirt! He had troubles. She had troubles. And she wanted to flirt? Ridiculous. So after the wedding party dance, she shuffled off to the ladies’ room.

She sat on the cushioned sofa along the back wall and took several deep breaths. She might be able to hide out in her apartment one more night, but then she seriously had to decide where she’d sleep tomorrow. In Tucker and Olivia’s penthouse? Or Constanzo Bartulocci’s? Once again accepting charity.

How long could she live like this? She did not have a home. She did not have a full-time job. She was
pregnant
by a man who thought her a slut. She was a failure.

Tears filled her eyes.

Oh, great. Now she’d upset herself.

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