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Authors: Kate Walker

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BOOK: The Sicilian's Wife
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‘Oh, we do!' Cesare returned darkly. ‘Believe me, I understand perfectly! And as I prefer not to stay around when it is made so patently clear that my company is not welcome, I'll say goodnight.'

‘At last! I thought you'd never leave!'

She saw his dark head go back sharply at the spite in her tone and knew with a deep, tearing sense of regret that she had succeeded far better than she had ever anticipated in making him think she couldn't stand the sight of him. The real fact was that nothing could be further from the truth.

Or did she mean that nothing could be
to the truth?

She didn't know. Couldn't decide whether she couldn't wait to see the back of him, and would frankly be delighted if she never saw or heard from Cesare Santorino again in all her life. Or if the terrible suspicion that her heart would break if he left now and never came back was in fact the true one and the determined anger only a camouflage shield, thrown up to protect herself from the truth.

‘I'll see you around.'

She was so choked up that she could only nod in response to his curt goodbye. She knew that her silence made her look even colder and more distant than ever but it was
all that she could manage. A cold, cruel hand was clutching at her throat, cutting off all her ability to speak and she knew that if she so much as opened her mouth she would burst into tears or find some other way of making a total fool of herself.

So she watched in silence as he spun on his heel and walked away from her. She had always known that the library was a big room, a long room, but never before had the walk from the bay window where she stood to the door seemed so protracted, so endless.

And Cesare seemed to be deliberately taking his time about it. Or was that her deceiving herself? Because he never paused; never hesitated or looked back. He just kept putting one foot in front of another in his determined march away from her.

Still silent, she watched him cross the polished wooden floor, then the thick dark red and cream rug, then the floor again. She almost spoke then but caught back the words, clamping her lips tight on them. She let him get to the door, watched those strong fingers close around the handle, turn it…


His name burst from her, impossible to hold back.


He had thought she was going to let him go. He told himself it was what he wanted. That he was leaving, right now, for good! He was never, ever coming back. The crazy dreams of love and marriage and forever that had been in his thoughts when he had arrived at the house had crumbled into dust. He could almost imagine he was trampling them into the ground as he walked.

He was leaving. He didn't know where he was going, but he knew it would be via the nearest bar.
, but he could do with a drink!

And then she spoke. Just his name, on a whisper so quiet and soft that at first he wasn't at all sure he had heard anything. And his march towards the door was so determined, so unstoppable that he barely hesitated. He even grasped the handle of the door and turned it.


It stopped him dead in his tracks, still with his hand on the door.

‘Please don't go!'

How could he resist the appealing in that voice; the slight, shaken tremble on the first word that had clearly escaped her in spite of her determination not to let it. For a couple of seconds, feeling fought a nasty little battle with rational thought—thought reminding him of how he had felt a moment earlier, the kicked-in-the-teeth sensation that had followed her announcement. He tried hard to revive some of the fury, the disgust, the burning jealousy. And failed.

And then, as he had known it must inevitably do, emotion won. There was no way he could resist that appeal to his sympathy. And so, letting his hand drop again, he turned back to face her.

‘What do you want, Megan?'

She was still standing exactly where he had left her, her slender body stiffly upright, fine-boned arms hanging loose at her sides. She was so pale—ashen—that her eyes seemed unnaturally dark above her bloodless cheeks, and the skin looked as if it was stretched taut over the high, slanting cheekbones.

The way that all the life seemed to have been drained out of her was shocking. She looked like a washed-out, faded, version of her real self. The only real trace of colour in her face was her mouth. Clearly those white teeth had
been worrying at her lower lip, bringing the blood rushing to the surface, so that it glowed, shockingly bright and red.

With a deep inward sigh, Cesare accepted that he would never, ever, be able to leave while she looked like this.

‘Tell me what you want and I'll do it.'

Tell me what you want and I'll do it.
Cesare's mouth spoke the words, Megan registered, but his eyes were cold, distant, dead, no trace of emotion in them. He had clearly made himself speak because he had no other option, but there was no kindness, no caring in the words.

‘Please don't leave…'

It was all she could manage and she heard his harshly indrawn sigh of impatience at her inanity.

‘I'm not leaving, Megan. Not if you want me here. Just tell me what you want me to do.'

‘I don't know what to do!'

It was the cry of a frightened child, and the hand that she held out towards him shook with the force of the feelings she was struggling to control.

If he touched that hand he was lost. He could still feel the softness of her skin under his fingertips. If he licked his lips he would still taste her on his tongue. The scent of her body was in his nostrils, a potent mixture of her personal perfume and the warmth of vanilla and lily that she wore on every pulse point.

Just to think of the way it had felt to hold her, to kiss her, made his libido give him a sharp, painful kick. Without the fury of frustration to distract him and push it from his thoughts, the nag of desire was like a bruise in his mind, clamouring urgently for attention. But he couldn't give in to it. There was no way he could give it free rein, indulge the need he felt.

Bitterly he cursed the fool who had appeared on the doorstep earlier that evening. He had been so sure, so full
of himself, so damn confident. He had thought that all he had to do was to walk in and Megan would be his for the taking.

Well, he'd been pretty efficiently disillusioned on that score!

But still, when she looked at him like this, there was no way he could just walk out and leave her. It would be like abandoning some baby fawn in a forest prowled by ravenous wolves.

‘You need to be practical. I take it you want to keep this baby?'

‘You take it right!' Megan replied with a slight return of something like her old spirit. ‘I'm not—'

‘And I'm not asking you to,' Cesare put in hastily, seeing the threat of tears in the suspicious brightness of her eyes. ‘It was just one of your possible options. And you're sure that the father won't help?'


Her faint shudder was expressive of just how she felt on that matter.

‘He made his opinion perfectly plain. I was just a passing fling—someone he amused himself with while he was here in England. He was a visiting lecturer at the university, over here from America. He neglected to tell anyone that he had a wife and two children back in the States. He certainly wasn't in the market for a third little Gary Rowell!'

‘He sounds a real charmer!'

‘That was the trouble—he was—charming I mean. He—'

‘I don't want to hear any more about him!'

Already the plague twist of jealousy was making his pulse throb at his temple, threatening his precarious hold on his mood. Clamping down on the dangerous thoughts, refusing to let them take root, he moved forward to take her by the hand and draw her away from the window.

‘Come and sit down. We can talk better if you're more comfortable. And you look dead on your feet.'

‘I am tired,' Megan admitted. ‘I haven't been sleeping very well.'

‘I can imagine.'

He was heading towards the burgundy settee when the awareness of her hesitation, a reluctance in her step made him realise. She wasn't exactly pulling back but still it was plain enough, without a word having to be said, that the site of their recent near lovemaking wasn't the most tactful of places to choose to discuss the delicate topics they needed to cover. So he carefully changed direction, subtly, he hoped, and settled her in a large, comfortable armchair, on the far side of the fireplace.

Oh, damnation. This was worse, if anything. From where they sat, the settee seemed to loom, unnaturally large and solid, the crushed and disordered cushions speaking disturbingly eloquently of the passion that had flared so briefly yet so hotly between them such a short time before.

Megan shot the inoffensive piece of furniture one swift, slanting look of loathing, the sort of look one might direct at a deadly snake that had appeared, before she subsided into the chair and hastily averted her eyes.

Well, that had put him well and truly in his place, Cesare reflected bitterly. If his lovemaking was so repugnant to her then he was unlikely to even think of attempting anything similar in the future.

Which meant giving up once and for all on the dream he had held for so long. As soon as the idea had formed inside his head, he knew he couldn't accept defeat so easily. But there seemed no other possible way forward.


Suddenly another idea came to him. A way that, maybe after all, he could have what he had always wanted. It
wouldn't be the perfect accomplishment of that dream perhaps, not the way he had thought it might be one day. But experience had taught him that very few things were actually ever perfect and that sometimes you just had to settle for second best or nothing at all.

‘So have you told your father?'

Megan was shocked just at the thought of it. She shook her head vehemently, unable even to think of the prospect without horror.

‘I couldn't! He has enough on his plate right now.'

‘And you are not exactly going through the easiest months of your life.'

‘But Dad is worried sick already. And if what you said is true, then he's right to be so. I can't possibly add to that. He's fighting for his life—well, the only life he's ever really known. And he hasn't been well lately. He has high blood pressure, heart problems—can you think what it would do to him if I added this to the burdens he's already dealing with?'

‘So what are you going to do? Can you support yourself?'

‘I don't know. I'll have to try. I'm sure I could find something. Though a History of Art degree isn't exactly the most practical subject to offer to a prospective employer.'

‘There is an alternative.'

‘There is?'

Megan's expression brightened considerably, a new light coming into the shadowed depths of her eyes.

Cesare nodded slowly, his expression disturbingly sombre. Whatever he was about to suggest, Megan was suddenly not at all sure she was going to like it.

‘There's marriage.'

Her glance was a bitter reproach.

‘But I told you before that Gary…'

‘Not to that rat!'

An arrogant flick of one hand dismissed the other man as not even worth the effort of remembering his name.

‘Then who? I don't exactly see a long line of suitors queuing up to ask for the honour of my hand in marriage. Nor are they likely to now!'

‘You're missing the obvious.'

‘I am?'

Bewildered, she looked into his dark, stunning face, hunting for an answer.

‘I don't—who?'

‘There's me. You could marry me.'



It was all she could manage. Shock, disbelief and pain at a very sick joke—because it had to be a joke!—combined to deprive her of any capability of speech and she cold stared at him in bitter distress, unable to believe that he could be so cruel. The brilliant ebony eyes looked back at her steadily, unwavering, totally serious. Shockingly so.

Her heart jolted, clenched in something close to panic. He couldn't mean it! But his expression said that he did.

‘You're joking!'

Al contrario
, I do not think I have been more serious in my life. It would solve both our problems at a stroke.'


She wished he wouldn't tower over her like that. She was having to crane her neck to look up at him and he seemed so powerful, so
, so intensely physical that it was scrambling her brain simply being in the same room as him. And she had to think. Had to try and consider what he had said with some sort of rationality. Because no matter how wild, how crazy, how
it seemed, she had to accept that Cesare was in deadly earnest about this.

‘What sort of problem do you have that marriage to me will help solve?'

‘My family.'

As if he had known her thoughts earlier, he now came closer, perching himself elegantly on the arm of the chair and looking down into her upturned face.

And immediately, perversely, Megan wished he was any
where but there. Every sense seemed to be on red-alert, awakening and responding to his closeness—and he was
close. Close enough to see the dark shadow on his jaw line where he needed a shave, to scent the tang of his cologne, the intensely personal fragrance of his skin. Her heartbeat was rough and uneven, making it difficult to breathe naturally.

She wanted to look away, but found she couldn't. That deep, coffee-coloured gaze held hers so that she couldn't look anywhere but into the depths of his eyes. She saw how the darkness of his iris had expanded, widening until there was nothing but the faintest rim of brown at its edges, and she didn't dare to ask herself why that might be.

‘What about your family?' she managed. ‘Why should they be involved in this?'

‘They want me to marry and have a family. Children to inherit the company, to take charge of it in the future. Everyone thought that Gio would have more children, but obviously, since Lucia died, that's not going to be so now.'

Megan nodded sombrely, recognising and understanding the shadows that suddenly clouded his eyes. His older half-brother, Gio, had been deeply in love, happily married, but then one day his beautiful wife Lucia had died unexpectedly. A brain haemorrhage, the doctors had said, something that could not be predicted, nor could anything have been done to help her.

‘But wouldn't you want a proper marriage?'

‘We could have a proper marriage. We've always got on well enough, haven't we? And what happened just now…'

His dark eyes slid to the settee, rested for a moment on the rumpled cushions that still had not been restored to order. Watching him, seeing the emotionless expression on his face, the way his lids hooded his eyes, hiding what was in them, Megan felt hot colour rise in her face and she bit
down hard on her lower lip to hold back the sound of discomfort that almost escaped her. She needed no reminder to tell her that how she had behaved in those mad, erotically charged moments, had been way out of character. She had never ever responded to anyone in that way before, not even, she admitted, to Gary, whom she thought she had loved.

‘Surely that told you that we had one thing going for us? And at New Year…'

‘At New Year I'd had one glass too many of champagne,' Megan put in hastily, not wanting any more reminders of the foolish ways she had behaved. ‘I was lonely and unsure of myself and—well you were around.'

‘So all those protestations of undying love weren't meant?'

‘No more than your proposal just now—if it was a proposal.'

‘Yes, it was a proposal, and believe me, unlike you, I meant every single word of it. So what's your answer?'

‘What else do you think it can be but no? No, I won't marry you—as you always knew I wouldn't.'

If she hadn't known better, she would have sworn that just for a moment a flicker of something that could almost have been disappointment flashed through his eyes. But he couldn't have felt any such emotion—at least no more than he might have experienced if some business deal he had been intent on achieving had failed, when he had been sure of a very different result.

‘You're saying no?'

It brought her an absurd sense of delight and satisfaction to know that she had shocked him. Did he really think her such a naïve fool that she would fall into his arms simply because he offered? Or was he so supremely arrogant that he just couldn't imagine
woman turning him down?

‘Yes, I'm saying no!' Deliberately she adopted a tone of excessive politeness, every syllable stiff with precise English formality. ‘Thank you for your kind offer of marriage, Signor Santorino, but I'm afraid I shall have to de—to decline the—the honour…'

Somehow in the face of his unmoving, unblinking, cold-eyed scrutiny, the words seemed to get tangled up on her tongue so that she had to struggle to get them out.

‘The honour of becoming your wife. It's just not for me.'

Well, that put him in his place, Cesare reflected ruefully. And he was quite unprepared for the way it made him feel. It was ridiculous—unbelievable—that he found himself floundering, not knowing what to say. Give him a business meeting, or a contract discussion any day. He could negotiate other directors, other CEOs, under the table before breakfast and come back for more. But this one small, slight slip of a girl had him tied up in knots, unsure of which tack to try next.

But he damn well wasn't giving in. Not until he was sure he had no other argument to offer, no other enticement to persuade her to give in. And he
going to get her to surrender, he vowed. He wasn't leaving here until she agreed to become his wife. It was either that or walk away from her for ever. And that was something he was just not prepared to countenance.

He knew that in the business world there was a saying. ‘Sooner tangle with a hungry lion than with a determined Santorino.' Well, tonight Megan Ellis was going to wish she'd come up against the starving man-eater instead of him.

‘You must have known I couldn't accept.'

‘I knew no such thing.'

With an impatient movement, Cesare pushed himself up from the chair arm and strode to the huge, empty fireplace,
staring broodily down at it for a long moment. Then he swung round to face her again.

‘So would you mind telling me just what you're going to do instead?'


Megan's eyes clouded with confusion and the momentary mask of confidence she had assumed wavered sharply, threatening to dissolve and reveal the true depths of her insecurity.

‘I—I'll manage. Somehow. There'll be something…'

‘Give me an example.'

Cesare was back in attacking mode.

‘Two minutes ago, you were adrift on a black sea of fear. “I don't know what to do”.' He echoed her own cry of panic with disturbing accuracy. ‘Now suddenly you're Miss Independence personified. I'm forced to wonder what brought about the change. Is the idea of marriage to me so terribly repugnant?'

‘Of course not!'

She tried for laughter, missed it by a mile. Because the truth was that amusement was so very far from the way she was feeling. If only he knew that for years of her life, almost all the time she had been growing up, in fact, marriage to Cesare Santorino had been her one great dream. The fantasy that he might one day ask her to be his wife had been something she had hugged to herself in secret, only letting it out to look at in the late, dark hours and the privacy of her bedroom, just before she fell asleep.

‘I told you I was honoured…'

The blackly sceptical look he turned on her made the words shrivel on her tongue.

‘Could you really take on another man's child?'

‘It wouldn't be another man's child. You gave Rowell the chance to make it his; he didn't take it. He's not fit to
be the baby's father. Your child would be born inside our marriage. It would only ever know me as its father. I would take care of the baby as I would take care of you.'

‘I can take care of myself!'

‘Oh, sure!'

‘Other people manage!'

‘Other people have to,' Cesare stated flatly. ‘They have no alternative. I'm offering you a choice. You won't have to
. You'll be able to take care of your child properly, give it everything it needs.'

He was getting through to her. She was tempted at least. He could see that from the faint wavering of that moss-green gaze, a flicker of uncertainty deep in her eyes. And there was one more argument he could use to persuade her.

‘If you like, I'll even throw in a rescue package for your father as part of the deal.'

‘You make it sound like a business deal!'

Cesare's shrug of supreme indifference dismissed her protest as totally irrelevant.

‘But like all the best business contracts, it's one in which we both get what we want.'

Taking several swift, long strides towards her, he bent his head and looked deep into her eyes.

‘What's wrong, Meggie?' he questioned softly. ‘Was my proposal too matter-of-fact for you? Not romantic enough? Would you have preferred it if I'd gone down on one knee…'

To her horror he suited action to the words, sinking gracefully down onto one knee so that his dark, handsome face was almost on a level with hers as she sat in the chair. Reaching for her hand, he folded his own, long, powerful fingers around it and clasped it firmly.

‘Megan…' he began, his voice deep and resonant, his
eyes burning into hers. ‘Would you do me the very great honour of becoming my wife?'

‘Oh, stop it!'

Shocked and distressed, Megan made a sharp movement of her hand, trying to snatch it away from his. But the hard fingers closed around hers restrained her without any effort.

‘Please be serious!'

‘I am serious. I doubt if I've ever been more serious in my life.'

It was only when the carved contours of his face began to blur in front of her that Megan became bitterly aware of the tears that were threatening, collecting at the back of her eyes and pushing to slide out, trickle revealingly down her cheeks.

Blinking hard, she struggled to force them back. She wasn't prepared to let Cesare see them; was too afraid of what they betrayed—even to herself.

It was as if she had slipped back in time. Back to a point where Cesare Santorino had been the only man in the world for her. When he had filled her waking thoughts by day, her dreams at night. And one of those recurring dreams had been of a moment just like this one, when the tall, handsome and charismatic Italian was on his knees before her, begging her to be his bride.

And now he was doing just that—but he was only proposing because he could think of no other alternative that solved both their problems, and his proposition had been made like a business pitch, no emotion involved at all. And it was the way that lack of emotion hurt, biting deep into her soul, that warned her of the real danger she was in.

‘Cesare, you must know that I can't marry you!'

‘I know that you can't do anything else. Certainly not anything that will give you the freedom and the money to be a full-time mother to your child, and help your father
out of his problems all in one go. You must know that Tom won't be able to support you—he'll be hard pushed to support himself if his business goes to the wall.'

Megan felt as if she was being sucked inexorably and irresistibly into the future that Cesare had planned for her, no matter how hard she kicked and screamed, trying desperately to drag herself away from the seductive appeal of all he offered.

‘I wouldn't want my father to support me. It would be like staying as a child all my life instead of becoming an adult.'

‘But in a marriage with me, we would be equal partners. And what could be more grown-up than being a wife and a mother?'

He had an answer for everything, it seemed, and she was fast running out of questions and objections.

‘Cesare, will you please get up off your knees!' she begged but he shook his proud head in adamant rejection of her plea.

‘Not until you give me your answer.'

‘I've given it to you!'

Even in her own ears, the slight break between the first and second words, a quiver at the end of the sentence robbed the declaration of any real strength and conviction.

‘Not the answer I want. See sense, Megan!'

Sense didn't come into it. There was a bitter irony in being handed her adolescent dream on a plate but in a way that threatened to deprive her of any happiness in it. What she had always dreamed of was having Cesare fall madly in love with her. The prospect of that happening seemed as far away as ever.

But perhaps if they were together, in close proximity, for some time? And what could be closer than to live as man and wife, sharing the same life, the same home—a cold
hand twisted in her stomach making her shiver faintly—the same

And, even as she acknowledged it, she knew that the shiver that ran through her was not one of fear, but on the contrary it had been a disturbing sense of excitement, a thrill of anticipation at just the thought of consummating what they had started here tonight.

, Megan, you must know we could make this work! We've always got on well together—we like each other, which is more than even some married couples can say! And you have to admit that the physical fire that sparked between us tonight can only mean that at least that side of things is taken care of.'

BOOK: The Sicilian's Wife
5.08Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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