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A Night In The Palace

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«A Night In The Palace» - Кэрол Мортимер

Carole Mortimer is one of Mills & Boon’s best loved Modern Romance authors. With nearly 200 books published and a career spanning 35 years, Mills & Boon are thrilled to present her complete works available to download for the very first time! Rediscover old favourites – and find new ones! – in this fabulous collection…Bound to his will for Christmas…When school teacher Lily Barton flies to Rome to see her brother at Christmas, the last thing she expects is to be kidnapped by demanding, sinfully attractive Count Dmitri Scarletti! Captivated by his magnetic charm, can she defy his demands?Dmitri’s sister has eloped with Lily’s brother and until he finds them, he’s holding Lily hostage. But soon Lily’s fiery nature incites a white-hot heat that even the Count can’t resist. Now he has just one night beneath the mistletoe to fulfil his every desire…
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CAROLE MORTIMER is one of Mills & Boons’s® most popular and prolific authors. Since her first novel, published in 1979, this British writer has shown no signs of slowing her pace. In fact, she has published more than 170 novels!

Her strong, traditional romances, with their distinct style, brilliantly developed characters and romantic plot twists, have earned her an enthusiastic audience worldwide.

Carole was born in a village in England that she claims was so small that “if you blinked as you drove through it you could miss seeing it completely!” She adds that her parents still live in the house where she first came into the world, and her two brothers live very close by.

Carole’s early ambition to become a nurse came to an abrupt end after only one year of training due to a weakness in her back, suffered in the aftermath of a fall. Instead, she went on to work in the computer department of a well-known stationery company.

During her time there, Carole made her first attempt at writing a novel for Mills & Boon®. “The manuscript was far too short and the plotline not up to standard, so I naturally received a rejection slip,” she says. “Not taking rejection well, I went off in a sulk for two years before deciding to ‘have another go.’” Her second manuscript was accepted, beginning a long and fruitful career. She says she has “enjoyed every moment of it!”

Carole lives “in a most beautiful part of Britain” with her husband and children.

A Night in the Palace

Carole Mortimer

www.millsandboon.co.uk

Contents

About the Author

Title Page

CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FIVE

CHAPTER SIX

CHAPTER SEVEN

CHAPTER EIGHT

CHAPTER NINE

CHAPTER TEN

CHAPTER ELEVEN

CHAPTER TWELVE

Extract

Copyright

‘THIS is an urgent announcement for Ms Giselle Barton, travelling on the thirteen-thirty flight to Rome. Please come immediately to desk number six in the departure terminal. Ms Giselle Barton—go immediately to desk number six.’

Lily Barton—no one but her dearly missed mother had ever called her Giselle!—had struggled all the way through the airport terminal, dragging her wayward case behind her to desk number fifty-two to join the long queue of people waiting to book in for the flight to Rome. She now gave a disbelieving groan at the realisation that desk number six had to be all the way back where she had originally started from.

So far on this cold December morning, only two days before Christmas, Lily’s taxi had been late picking her up from her apartment, and the freezing temperatures and the snow that had been falling for most of the night had made the journey to the airport both slow and treacherous—ensuring that Lily was likely to be the very last passenger to join the queue checking in for Rome. As a consequence she would probably be allocated a lousy seat on the plane. No doubt squashed between two overweight businessmen who would spend the whole flight trying to look down the scooped neckline of her blue sweater once she had removed the heavy jacket she had worn against the freezing English weather outside!

To add to her misery, one of the wheels had decided to drop off her suitcase—an old and battered one of her mother’s—as the taxi driver pulled it out of the boot of the car outside the airport. It had then refused to be fixed back into place, meaning that Lily now carried a superfluous wheel in her over-large shoulder bag—which had already weighed a ton even before the addition of the metal wheel—and the suitcase now had a tendency to veer off to the left as she attempted to drag it along behind her.

If, for some reason, she was now going to be bumped off the flight to Rome—which was highly likely considering how late she had booked her ticket and the fact that most flights tended to be overbooked at this time of year—she was just going to sit down and howl! It really would be the last straw in an already disastrous day.

‘Ms Giselle Barton—please come immediately to desk number six in the departure terminal.’

‘All right, all right, all right!’ Lily muttered as the announcement was repeated, grabbing the handle of her suitcase to walk back to where she had started. The announcement had sounded more imperious this time, she noted, which probably meant she was definitely going to get bumped off the flight. No doubt with an offer to rebook her onto one leaving after Christmas.

Damn, damn, damn.

It had been a last-minute decision to spend Christmas in Rome with her brother—Felix had moved over there to work as PA to Count Dmitri Scarletti three months ago—when Lily’s original plans for the holidays had fallen through.

She should have known better than to think that Danny, the man she had been dating for the past couple of months, would abandon his divorced mother—with whom he still lived—in order to spend Christmas with her after Miriam had made it clear she had no intention of inviting Lily to join them. The perfect time, Lily had decided ruefully, to end that particular going-nowhere relationship.

Thank goodness her emotions hadn’t been seriously involved; Danny, a fellow teacher at the secondary school where they both worked, had been fun to go out to the cinema or dinner with, but his domineering and demanding mother was a definite turn off!

Once her decision to go to Rome for Christmas had been made, Lily had felt her excitement start to grow. She had never been to Rome—or anywhere out of England, as it happened—and it would be lovely to see her brother again after all these months apart. Their parents had both died eight years ago, bringing brother and sister closer than ever, and emails and phone calls just weren’t the same as actually spending time with the irrepressible Felix.

Well...it would have been exciting to spend Christmas in Rome with her brother, after Danny had proved to be such a disappointment, but as Lily was about to be bumped off the flight she might just have to settle for a turkey meal for one in front of the television in England. Wonderful. She didn’t think!

The heating in the terminal seemed to be on full, ensuring that Lily was hot as well as bothered by the time she reached the other end of the building—only to stand in the middle of the cavernous and crowded terminal for several disorientated minutes as she endeavoured to locate desk six.

There didn’t appear to be a desk six. Desk five, yes. And a desk seven. But no desk six—

‘Miss Barton?’

Lily turned abruptly, almost falling over her own suitcase as it remained solidly in place behind her without the benefit of that second wheel. Lily blew several tendrils of platinum blond hair out of her eyes before focusing on the beautiful dark-haired flight attendant who stood up from behind an unmarked desk and towered over Lily’s five feet two inches in height as she moved to join her. ‘I’m Lily Barton, yes...’

The other woman eyed her uncertainly. ‘Lily? But—’

‘Don’t worry about it—it’s a family thing.’ Lily had absolutely no interest in explaining that as a young child her brother, unable to get his tongue around the name Giselle, had instead called her Lelly, which had eventually become Lily. And stuck fast. Thank goodness; Giselle sounded like someone’s elderly aunt. And whilst she might one day become exactly that, at only twenty-six she preferred to stick with Lily! ‘See.’ She fished her passport out of the zip pocket of her bag and held it in front of the other woman’s beautifully straight nose.

Not the most flattering photograph ever taken of her, Lily acknowledged ruefully. Oh, her long and completely straight—and completely natural—platinum-blond hair was tidy enough, but her blue eyes had widened as soon as the flash went off, giving her a slightly startled appearance. As she hadn’t been allowed to smile her face looked slightly woebegone, and her neck appeared almost too slender to support that heavy mane of hair.

‘If you’re about to tell me that I can’t fly to Rome today after all—’ she started, stashing the passport back in the pocket of her shoulder bag, ‘then I think I should first warn you that if anything else goes wrong today I’m likely to start screaming hysterically.’

The other woman’s cool demeanour softened slightly. ‘Tough morning?’

Lily raised her eyes heavenwards. ‘Let’s not even go there.’

The flight attendant’s brisk, businesslike air left her completely as she chuckled softly. ‘Then I’m glad I’m not about to make it any more difficult for you.’

‘You aren’t?’ Now it was Lily’s turn to look uncertain. As well as hopeful.

‘Not at all. Here—let me take that for you.’ The other woman took possession of the handle of Lily’s suitcase before turning to walk away, somehow managing to pull the damaged suitcase smoothly along behind her as she did so. Of course!

‘Hey!’ Lily quickly caught up with the other woman and grasped her by the arm. ‘Where are you going with my case?’

She smiled patiently. ‘I’ll check it in for you, and then take you through to the private lounge.’

Lily looked taken aback, then shook her head. ‘I think there’s been some sort of mistake.’ Although it was hard to believe there could possibly be two women called Giselle Barton—let alone both booked on today’s flight to Rome! ‘I’m booked into an economy seat, which I think entitles me—if I’m lucky—to find a seat in the crowded main departure lounge.’ She smiled ruefully.

The ebony-haired beauty returned that smile. ‘I believe your booking was changed earlier this morning.’

‘Changed?’ Lily eyed her pleadingly.

‘Please don’t tell me I’m now flying to Norway, or somewhere else guaranteed to be even colder than England is right now?’

The flight attendant gave another chuckle. ‘No, you aren’t flying to Norway.’

‘Iceland? Or perhaps Siberia?’ She gave a pained grimace. December had been a particularly cold month in England this year, and although Lily appreciated the temperatures wouldn’t be in the twenties in Rome, it should at least be warmer than snow-covered England.

‘You aren’t flying to either of those two places.’ She grinned openly now. ‘You’re still booked on the flight to Rome due to depart in two hours’ time.’

‘Thank goodness for that!’ Lily frowned. ‘Look, I realise I must seem like a country bumpkin, what with the wonky suitcase and my hot and bothered appearance, but I’m really not in need of special assistance. It’s just the first time that I’ve ever flown—and I’m obviously making a complete mess of organising myself.’

The flight attendant chewed on her bottom lip in an obvious effort to stop herself from laughing again. ‘Which is why I intend checking in for you.’

‘Before taking me to a private lounge?’ Lily repeated slowly.

‘Yes. If you would just like to come this way...?’

Lily shook her head as she stood her ground. ‘I really think there’s been some sort of a mix-up. I am Giselle Barton, yes. And I’m booked on the flight to Rome. But I have an economy seat—’

‘Not any more,’ the other woman assured her briskly. ‘Count Scarletti called the airline himself this morning and changed your booking to a first class seat, as well as giving instructions that you are to be given every personal care and consideration—before and during the flight.’

Count Scarletti?

Count Dmitri Scarletti?

The same wealthy and influential man, of mixed Russian/Italian ancestry, for whom Felix was currently working in Rome? Well, there couldn’t possibly be two of them, could there? So it must be!

‘I believe there will also be a car waiting to meet you at Leonardo da Vinci airport,’ the flight attendant added enviously.

Felix was supposed to be meeting Lily at Rome airport...

Unless Count Scarletti had needed Felix to remain in his office today, rather than meeting Lily as planned, and this was the other man’s way of making up for that change in their plans?

No doubt Felix would explain everything once she arrived at the apartment he rented in the city...

* * *

Lily was feeling slightly dazed from all the ‘care and consideration’ she had received ‘before and during the flight’ by the time she disembarked the plane at Leonardo da Vinci airport several hours later.

Sonia, the original flight attendant, had duly booked in Lily’s suitcase, before escorting her to a completely private lounge set aside for VIPs. Which—upgraded or not—Lily certainly wasn’t!

Once in the lounge she’d been plied with drinks and food by yet more attendants, before being personally escorted onto the plane by one of them only minutes before the flight was due to take off. She’d been shown to her first class seat—with not an overweight businessman in sight!—and then given champagne and canapés until she couldn’t eat or drink any more. The result being that she had dropped off to sleep after her third glass of champagne, and hadn’t woken up again until the plane had landed.

And if she had thought her personal—and, she admitted, slightly embarrassing—service to be over once she was outside, then she was sadly mistaken. As soon as she stepped out into the arrivals terminal she saw her name written on a card being held up by a tall and heavily muscled man dressed in a chauffeur’s uniform—a man who looked more like a bodyguard than a chauffeur!

After introducing himself only as Marco, and ensuring that she was indeed Giselle Barton, he then proceeded to lift her heavy and broken suitcase as if it weighed nothing at all, before carrying it outside to a limousine parked in the ‘No Parking’ zone, leaving Lily with no choice but to follow him.

Her attempts to ask him questions, in a mixture of very bad Italian and English, didn’t go well. Only the mention of Felix’s name and Count Scarletti’s received a terse ‘si’ of response as Marco ensured Lily was comfortably seated in the back of the limousine before slamming the door firmly behind her and moving to place her case in the cavernous boot of the car.

All of this was being watched by several dozen pairs of curious eyes, as people obviously wondered if the woman with the long silver-coloured hair, dressed in faded blue denims and a heavy black jacket, was some sort of celebrity. Obviously a celebrity who bought her clothes from a thrift shop!

By the time Marco slid in behind the wheel of the long black car to drive smoothly away from the kerb and enter the stream of traffic, Lily was flushed with embarrassment, and the glass partition separating the front and the back of the limousine wasn’t conducive to any further attempts to question the chauffeur, either.

Left with no other choice, Lily chose to sit back in her leather seat and enjoy the scenery outside as the car sped towards the centre of Rome; if she was going to wake up from this Cinderella-like transformation any time soon then she might as well enjoy what was left of it!

She had been right about the temperature: it wasn’t exactly T-shirt weather outside, but it was definitely ten or so degrees warmer than England, with no snow in sight. And the sun was shining too, which made everything look so much brighter and warmer. Lily was so enthralled by the city of Rome that after the first couple of near misses with other cars, as drivers honked and gesticulated, only to be completely ignored by the stoic Marco, she decided it might be best to return her attention to the amazing scenery outside the window.

Every street corner seemed to have statuary, a fountain or a nativity scene—it was almost Christmas, after all—along with imposing museums that easily rivalled the history of the sludge-covered London Lily had left behind her only hours ago. Many of the outside cafés were open for business too—even if the patrons had to wear coats and scarves in order to keep warm.

No wonder Felix had so obviously fallen in love with the city. And not only the city, apparently; he had informed Lily weeks ago that he was going out with a young Italian girl named Dee, whom he wanted to introduce to her at the earliest opportunity.

Rome appeared to be a city where it would be all too easy to fall in love...

* * *

Lily frowned her confusion when, half an hour or so after leaving the airport, Marco didn’t stop the car outside an apartment building at all, but instead parked outside two imposing wooden doors, at least fifteen foot high. They slowly opened, and Marco then drove the car into the courtyard of a magnificent building that must surely once have been a royal palace.

The tall wooden doors had closed firmly behind them by the time Marco got out of the car and opened the back door for Lily.

Despite the teeming rush and bustle of the city outside, it was strangely silent inside these four walls as she slowly stepped out into the shadowed courtyard. Silent and intimidating. Eerily so.

Lily pulled her jacket more tightly about her as she turned to the chauffeur. ‘Mi scusi, signor—parla inglese?’

‘No,’ he answered abruptly, before moving to the back of the car to remove her case from the boot.

Obviously not the talkative type, she acknowledged ruefully. Which was of absolutely no help to her at all!

She realised that all the attention at the airport in England, and on the plane earlier, had lulled her into a false sense of security. She had, in fact, left Leonardo da Vinci airport with a man she didn’t know and who had hardly spoken a word to her after telling her his name. And it was she who’d mentioned Felix and the Count’s names, not Marco! Added to which, Lily had now been delivered to a building that looked as if it might once have been a palace but could just as easily have been a brothel! An expensive and exclusive brothel, obviously, but a brothel nonetheless.

Pictures flashed inside Lily’s mind of newspaper articles she had read over the years on the lucrative slave trade in blond-haired, blue-eyed young women. Women who to all intents and purposes had simply disappeared into the ether, but who had actually been whisked off somewhere and kept locked behind closed doors, their bodies used and abused, until they were no longer young enough to attract the attention of the wealthy customers. When they were either disposed of or placed in yet another brothel—one whose customers weren’t so fastidious regarding the age of the women they paid to bed.

She really was the country bumpkin she had described herself as being earlier! Shouldn’t be allowed out on her own... Certainly shouldn’t have attempted to fly to Rome on her own...

Slightly frightened now, she turned back to the chauffeur as he placed her suitcase on the cobbled stones of the courtyard. ‘Signor, I really must—’

‘That will be all, thank you, Marco.’

Lily froze for the fraction of a second it took for an icy shiver to run down the length of her spine just at the sound of that husky and yet authoritative voice, before turning sharply to look up at the gallery above. Her breath caught in her throat as she saw there was a man standing in the shadows, looking down into the courtyard from the first floor. Even squinting hard into the depths of those shadows, Lily couldn’t make out the man’s features—was aware only of an impression of height and leashed power.

The brothel master, maybe?

Oh, good grief, Lily, she instantly admonished herself. Of course he wasn’t the brothel master—because this wasn’t a brothel. There would be a perfectly sensible explanation for her having been brought here. One the man on the gallery above could obviously give her, considering that just now he had spoken in perfect, and only slightly accented English.

She turned back to thank Marco for his assistance—only for her apprehension to return with a vengeance when she realised that the chauffeur had disappeared silently into the bowels of the house while she’d stared up, mesmerised by the presence of the man in the gallery.

Which had perhaps been the intention all along? Distracting her attention, allowing Marco to disappear, and so leaving her completely alone and at the mercy of this other man?

She turned to glare up at the man on the gallery. Damn it, she was twenty-six years old, a British citizen and a teacher, with a mortgage on her small London flat and all the responsibilities that went along with those things; she certainly wasn’t going to allow herself to be intimidated by a man who was too afraid even to show his face.

‘Oh. My. Lord!’ Lily gasped softly as the man, as if sensing at least some of her tumultuous thoughts, finally stepped out of the shadows to stand against the balustrade, looking down at her.

She had been correct about the height: the man stood at least a foot taller than her own five feet two inches. And about the leashed power—even wearing an expensive designer label suit over a pristine white shirt and meticulously knotted grey silk tie, the man managed to exude an aura of barely restrained strength. His shoulders were incredibly wide beneath the jacket of that suit, his waist tapered and his long, long legs were encased in perfectly tailored trousers.

But it was the face beneath that midnight black haircut, quite frankly, in a Roman style—that held Lily completely mesmerised. It was a harshly hewn olive-skinned face, dominated by light coloured eyes above a straight slash of a nose and sculptured unsmiling lips. His chin was square and starkly masculine in those arrogantly chiselled features.

He looked like something from one of Lily’s wilder fantasies—the sort of man every woman wanted to tame and claim for her own.

He raised one black and perfectly etched brow, and those sculptured lips curved in hard amusement as he responded to her earlier gasped exclamation. ‘Not even close, I am afraid, Miss Barton.’

He knew her name! ‘I’m afraid you have the advantage over me, signor.’

He gave a terse inclination of his head before walking towards the staircase leading down from the gallery into the courtyard. ‘If you will just wait there, I will come down and introduce myself—’

‘No!’

He came to an abrupt halt at the top of the stairs, that dark and arrogant brow arched higher than before. ‘No?’

‘No.’ Lily stood her ground, shoulders tensed, booted feet braced slightly apart on the cobbles. She refused to back down by so much as the flicker of an eyelid as she met that pale gaze in open challenge. ‘You can tell me exactly who and what you are from right there.’

‘Exactly who and what I am?’ he repeated, in a soft and yet slightly menacing voice.

‘Exactly.’ Lily nodded stubbornly.

He tilted his head to one side as his eyes—blue, maybe? Or green? Or possibly grey?—raked over her mercilessly, from the top of her silver head to her small booted feet, amusement glinting as he slowly moved his gaze back up to her now slightly blushing face. ‘Who do you think I am?’ he finally murmured slowly. ‘Exactly?’

Lily was glad that this man couldn’t possibly hear her heart beating twice as fast as normal from where he stood. It was bad enough that she knew how nervous she was, without him being aware of it too. Her mouth firmed. ‘Well, if I knew that I wouldn’t have needed to ask!’

The man appeared completely relaxed as he continued to stand at the top of the staircase. ‘Let me see... At the airport you climbed into a car with a man you did not know, allowing him to drive you to an unknown destination before abandoning you there—and you did all this without any knowledge as to what or who would be waiting for you at the end of that journey?’ Those pale eyes had taken on contemptuous gleam now.

Lily felt the burn of increased warmth in her cheeks; she had already realised exactly what she had done, and certainly didn’t need some arrogant and dangerously attractive—emphasis on the dangerous—Italian pointing it out to her so succinctly!

She scowled. ‘I assumed the driver was taking me to my brother’s apartment. Obviously I should have behaved with a little more caution—’

‘A little more?’ he replied disapprovingly, those dark brows low over narrowed eyes, those sculptured lips a thin and uncompromising line. ‘If you do not mind my saying so, you have been naïve in the extreme.’

‘As a matter of fact I do mind you saying so.’ Lily glared her annoyance at him. ‘And if you’ve brought me here with some idea of asking my family to pay a ransom before releasing me, then I think I should tell you that my brother—my only living relative—is as poor as I am!’

‘Indeed?’ Those sculptured features had taken on a harsh and intimidating expression.

‘Yes,’ Lily said with satisfaction. ‘Now, just tell me who you are, and what it is you want.’

He gave a slow, disbelieving shake of his head. ‘You really do not have any idea, do you?’

‘I know one thing—which is that I’m becoming increasingly irritated at your delaying tactics.’ Her hands were tightly clenched at her sides. ‘I also know I have every intention of going to the police and reporting this incident as soon as I’m released from here.’

His eyebrows quirked. ‘Then it would seem not to be in my best interests to release you, wouldn’t it?’

Lily had realised that as soon as the threat left her lips! ‘I don’t think my request for you to tell me who you are and where I am is unreasonable.’

‘Not at all,’ he drawled. ‘I am Count Dmitri Scarletti, Miss Barton.’ The darkness of his hair shone blue-black as he gave a terse nod of greeting. ‘And you are currently standing in the courtyard of the Palazzo Scarletti.’

Oh.

Her brother’s employer.

The same man who’d arranged for her to be looked after so well up until now.

And Lily had just repaid him by hurling accusations of kidnap and threats of arrest at him!

.

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