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Ravelli's Defiant Bride

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«Ravelli's Defiant Bride» - Линн Грэхем

His unexpected wife!Cristo Ravelli paces the floor of his father’s Irish country estate, ruing the day he heard the Brophy name. That his father died and left a brood of illegitimate children is hardly surprising, but to silence this scandal Cristo must bring their guardian, the enchanting Belle, in line with his plans!Belle Brophy’s only concern is her half-siblings. She’ll do anything to provide them with the security she never had. So when this gorgeous Italian offers marriage she won’t say no. But once the ring is on her finger Belle quickly discovers there’s more to a marriage than saying ‘I do’!Discover more atwww.millsandboon.co.uk/lynnegraham
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‘And what about us? Where are we supposed to go?’ Belle demanded heatedly, her temper rising. ‘It takes time to relocate.’

‘And what about us? Where are we supposed to go?’ Belle demanded heatedly, her temper rising. ‘It takes time to relocate.’

‘You’ll have at least a month to find somewhere else.’ Cristo fielded her questions without perceptible sympathy while he watched the breeze push the soft clinging cotton of her top against her breasts. He clenched his teeth together, willing back his arousal.

‘That’s not very long. Five children take up a lot of space … they’re your brothers and sisters too, so you should care about what happens to them!’ Belle launched back at him in furious condemnation.

‘Which is why I’m here to suggest that we get married and make a home for them together,’ Cristo countered.

‘Married?’ Belle repeated, aghast, wondering if she’d missed a line or two in the conversation. ‘What on earth are you talking about?’

‘You said that you wanted your siblings to enjoy the Ravelli name and lifestyle. I can only make that happen by marrying you and adopting them.’

A stray shard of sunlight broke through the clouds to slant across his lean, strong face. All over again Belle studied him in wonder, because he had the smouldering dark beauty of a fallen angel. His brilliant dark eyes were nothing short of stunning below the thick screen of his lashes, and suddenly she felt breathless.


Three tenets to live by: money, power and the ruthless pursuit of passion!

Cristo Ravelli, Nik Christakis and Zarif Al Rastani know better than most the double-edged sword of their inheritance. Watching their father move from one wife to another, leaving their mothers devastated in his wake, has hardened each of these men against the lure of love.

But, despite their best efforts to live by the principles of money, power and passion, they find themselves entangled with three women who challenge the one thing they’ve protected all these years …

Their hearts!

Read Cristo’s story in:


Read Nik’s story in:


Read Zarif’s story in:



Defiant Bride

Lynne Graham


LYNNE GRAHAM was born in Northern Ireland and has been a keen Mills & Boon® reader since her teens. She is very happily married, with an understanding husband who has learned to cook since she started to write! Her five children keep her on her toes. She has a very large dog, which knocks everything over, a very small terrier, which barks a lot, and two cats. When time allows, Lynne is a keen gardener.

Recent titles by the same author:


CHALLENGING DANTE (A Bride for a Billionaire) THE BILLIONAIRE’S TROPHY (A Bride for a Billionaire) THE SHEIKH’S PRIZE (A Bride for a Billionaire)

Did you know these are also available as eBooks? Visit www.millsandboon.co.uk

For Michael and thirty-five happy years.














CRISTO RAVELLI SURVEYED the family lawyer in disbelief. ‘Is this an April fool joke falling out of season?’ he enquired with a frown.

Robert Ludlow, senior partner of Ludlow and Ludlow, did not react with amusement. Cristo, a leading investment banker specialising in venture capital, and richer than Croesus, was not a man to be teased. Indeed, if he had a sense of humour Robert had yet to see it. Cristo, unlike his late and most probably unlamented father, Gaetano Ravelli, took life very seriously.

‘I’m afraid it’s not a joke,’ Robert confirmed. ‘Your father had five children with a woman in Ireland—’

Cristo was stunned by the concept. ‘You mean, all those years he went on his fishing trips to his Irish estate—?’

‘I’m afraid so. I believe the eldest child is fifteen years old—’

‘Fifteen? But that means...’ Cristo compressed his wide sensual mouth, dark eyes flaring with anger, before he could make an indiscreet comment unsuited to the ears of anyone but his brothers. He wondered why he was even surprised by yet another revelation of his father’s notorious womanising. After all, throughout his irresponsible life Gaetano had left a trail of distraught and angry ex-wives and three legitimate sons in his wake, so why shouldn’t there have been a less regular relationship also embellished with children?

Cristo, of course, could not answer that question because he would never ever have risked having an illegitimate child and was shaken that his father could have done so five times over. Particularly when he had never bothered to take the slightest interest in the sons he already had. Cristo’s adult brothers, Nik and Zarif, would be equally astonished and appalled, but Cristo knew that the problem would fall heaviest on his own shoulders. Nik’s marriage breakdown had hit him hard and his own part in that debacle still gave Cristo sleepless nights. As for their youngest sibling, as the new ruler of a country in the Middle East Zarif scarcely deserved the huge public scandal that Gaetano’s immoral doings could unleash if the easily shocked media there got hold of the story.

‘Fifteen years old,’ Cristo mused, reflecting that Zarif’s mother had evidently been betrayed throughout her entire marriage to his father without even being aware of the fact. That was not a reality that Zarif would want put out on public parade. ‘I apologise for my reaction, Robert. This development comes as a considerable shock. The mother of the children—what do you know about her?’

Robert raised a greying brow. ‘I contacted Daniel Petrie, the land agent of the Irish estate, and made enquiries. He said that as far as the village is concerned the woman, Mary Brophy, has long been seen as something of a disgrace and an embarrassment,’ he framed almost apologetically.

‘But if she was the local whore she would’ve been right down Gaetano’s street,’ Cristo breathed before he could bite back that injudicious opinion, his lean, darkly handsome face grim, but it was no secret to Gaetano’s family that he had infinitely preferred bold and promiscuous women to clean-living ones. ‘What provision did my father make for this horde of children?’

‘That’s why I decided to finally bring this matter to your attention.’ Robert cleared his throat awkwardly. ‘As you will be aware, Gaetano made no mention of either the woman or the children in his will.’

‘Are you telling me that my father made no provision for these dependants?’ Cristo prompted incredulously. ‘He had five children with this...this woman over the course of many years and yet he settled no money on them?’

‘Not so much as a penny piece on any of them...ever,’ Robert confirmed uncomfortably. ‘I thought he might have made some private arrangement to take care of them but apparently not as I have received an enquiry concerning school fees from the woman. As you know, your father always thought in terms of the present, not the future, and I imagine he assumed that he would be alive well into his eighties.’

‘Instead of which he died at sixty-two years old, as foolish as ever, and tipped this mess into my lap,’ Cristo ground out, losing all patience the more he learned of the situation. ‘I’ll have to look into this matter personally. I don’t want the newspapers getting hold of the story—’

‘Naturally not,’ Robert agreed. ‘It’s a given that the media enjoy telling tales about men with multiple wives and mistresses.’

Well aware of that fact, Cristo clenched his even white teeth, dark eyes flaming pure gold with rage at the prospect. His father had been enough of an embarrassment while alive. He was infuriated by the idea that Gaetano might prove even more of an embarrassment after his death.

‘It will be my hope that the children can be put up for adoption and this whole distasteful business quietly buried,’ Cristo confided smooth as glass.

For some reason, he noted that Robert looked a little disconcerted by that idea and then the older man swiftly composed his face into blandness. ‘You think the mother will agree to that?’

‘If she’s the usual type of woman my father favoured, she’ll be glad to do as I ask for the right...compensation.’ Cristo selected the word with suggestive cool.

Robert understood his meaning and tried and failed to imagine a scenario in which for the right price a woman would be willing to surrender her children for adoption. He had no doubt that Cristo had cause to know exactly what he was talking about and he was suddenly grateful not to be living a life that had made him that cynical about human nature and greed.

But then, having handled Gaetano’s financial dealings for years, he knew that Cristo came from a dysfunctional background and would be challenged to recognise the depth of love and loyalty that many adults cherished for their offspring.

Cristo, already stressed from his recent business trip to Switzerland, squared his broad shoulders and lifted his phone to tell his PA, Emily, to book him on a flight to Dublin. He would get this repugnant business sorted out straight away and then get straight back to work.

* * *

‘I hate them!’ Belle vented in a helpless outburst, her lovely face full of angry passion. ‘I hate every Ravelli alive!’

‘Then you would also have to hate your own brothers and sisters,’ her grandmother reminded her wryly. ‘And you know that’s not how you feel—’

With difficulty, Belle mastered her hot temper and studied her grandmother apologetically. Isa was a small supple woman with iron-grey hair and level green eyes the same shade as Belle’s. ‘That wretched lawyer hasn’t even replied to Mum’s letter about the school fees yet. I hate the whole lot of them for making us beg for what should be the children’s by right!’

‘It’s unpleasant,’ Isa Kelly conceded ruefully. ‘But what we have to remember is that the person responsible for this whole horrible situation is Gaetano Ravelli—’

‘I’m never going to forget that!’ her granddaughter swore vehemently, leaping upright in frustration to pace over to the window that overlooked the tiny back garden.

And that was certainly the truth. Belle had been remorselessly bullied at school because of her mother’s relationship with Gaetano Ravelli and the children she had had with him. A lot of people had taken exception to the spectacle of a woman carrying on a long-running, fertile affair with a married man. Her mother, Mary, had been labelled a slut and, as a sensitive adolescent, Belle had been forced to carry the shadow of that humiliating label alongside her parent.

‘He’s gone now,’ Isa reminded her unnecessarily. ‘And so, more sadly, is your mother.’

A familiar ache stirred below Belle’s breastbone for the loss of that warm, loving presence in her family home and her angry face softened in expression. It was only a month since her mother had died from a heart attack and Belle was still not over the shock of her sudden passing. Mary had been a smiling, laughing woman in her early forties, who had rarely been ill. Yet she’d had a weak heart, and had apparently been warned by the doctor not to risk another pregnancy after the twins’ difficult birth. But when had Mary Brophy ever listened to common sense? Belle asked herself painfully. Mary had gone her own sweet way regardless of the costs, choosing passion over commitment and the birth of a sixth child triumphing over what might have been years of quiet cautious living.

Whatever anyone had said about Mary Brophy—and there had been all too many local people with a moral axe to grind about her long-term affair with Gaetano—Mary had been a hardworking, kind person, who had never had a bad word to say about anyone and had always been the first to offer help when a neighbour was in trouble. Over the years some of her mother’s most vociferous critics had ended up becoming her friends when they finally appreciated her gentle nature. But Belle had never been like the mother she had seen as oppressed: she had loved her mother and hated Gaetano Ravelli for his lying, manipulative selfishness and tight-fisted ways.

As if sensing the tension in the air, Tag whined at her feet and she stretched down a hand to soothe the family dog, a small black and white Jack Russell whose big brown adoring eyes were pinned to her. Straightening again, her colourful hair spilling across her slim shoulders, Belle pushed a straying corkscrew curl from her Titian mane out of her strained eyes and wondered when she would find the time to get it trimmed and how on earth she would ever pay for it when money was required for far more basic necessities.

At least the Lodge at the foot of the drive winding up to Mayhill House was theirs, signed over by Gaetano years earlier to give her mother a false sense of security. But how much use was a roof over their heads when Belle still couldn’t pay the bills? Even so, homelessness would have been far worse, she acknowledged ruefully, her generous mouth softening. In any case, in all likelihood she would have to sell the Lodge and find them somewhere cheaper and smaller to live. Unfortunately she was going to have to fight and fight hard for the children to receive what was rightfully theirs. Illegitimate or not, her siblings had a legal claim to a share of their late father’s estate and it was her job to take on that battle for them.

‘You must let me take charge of the children now,’ Isa told her eldest granddaughter firmly. ‘Mary was my daughter and she made mistakes. I don’t want to stand by watching you pay the price for them—’

‘The kids would be too much for you,’ Belle protested, for her grandmother might be hale and hearty but she was seventy years old and Belle thought it would be very wrong to allow her to take on such a burden.

‘You attended a university miles from here to escape the situation your mother had created and you planned to go to London to work as soon as you graduated,’ Isa reminded her stubbornly.

‘That’s the thing about life...it changes without warning you,’ Belle fielded wryly. ‘The children have lost both parents in the space of two months and they’re very insecure. The last thing they need right now is for me to vanish as well.’

‘Bruno and Donetta both go to boarding school, so they’re out of the equation aside of holiday time,’ the older woman reasoned, reluctant to cede the argument. ‘The twins are at primary school. Only Franco is at home and he’s two so he’ll soon be off to school as well—’

Shortly after her mother’s death, Belle had thought much along the same lines and had felt horribly guilty to admit, even to herself, that she felt trapped by the existence of her little brothers and sisters and their need for constant loving care. Her grandmother, Isa, had made her generous offer and Belle had kept it in reserve in the back of her mind, believing that it could be a real possibility. But that was before she got into the daily grind of seeing to her siblings’ needs and finally appreciated the amount of sheer hard graft required and that any prospect of her grandmother taking charge was a selfish fantasy. It would be too big a burden for Isa to take on when some days it was even too much for Belle at the age of twenty-three.

Someone rapped loudly on the back door, making both women jump in surprise. Frowning, Belle opened the door and then relaxed when she saw an old friend waiting on the step. Mark Petrie and Belle had gone to school together where Mark had been one of her few true friends.

‘Come in,’ she invited the slimly built dark-haired man clad in casual jeans. ‘Have a seat. Coffee?’


‘How are you doing, Mark?’ Isa asked with a welcoming smile.

‘I’m doing great. It’s Belle I’m worried about,’ Mark admitted heavily, throwing Isa’s granddaughter a look of unvarnished male admiration. ‘Look, I’ll just spit it right out. I heard my father talking on the phone this morning and he must’ve been talking to someone from Gaetano Ravelli’s family. I think it was the eldest one, Cristo—’

Tensing at the sound of that familiar name, Belle settled a mug of coffee down on the table for Mark. ‘Why do you think that?’

‘Cristo is the executor of Gaetano’s estate and my father was being asked about your mother and, of course, he doesn’t even know Mary’s dead yet. Nobody’s bothered to tell him that she passed while he and Mum were staying with my uncle in Australia—’

‘Well, your father and my mother weren’t exactly bosom pals,’ Belle reminded Mark bluntly. There had been a lot of bad blood over the years between the land agent, Daniel Petrie, and Mayhill’s housekeeper, Mary Brophy. ‘So why would anyone mention it to him?’

Cristo Ravelli, Belle was thinking resentfully. The stuffed-shirt banker and outrageously good-looking eldest son, who never ever smiled. Over the years she had often researched Gaetano’s tangled love life on the Internet, initially out of curiosity but then more often to learn the answers to the questions that her poor trusting mother had never dared to ask. She knew about the wives, the sons and the scandalous affairs and had soon recognised that Gaetano was a deceitful, destructive Svengali with the female sex, who left nothing but wreckage and regrets in his wake. Furthermore, as Gaetano had only ever married rich women, her poor misguided mother had never had a prayer of getting him to the altar.

‘The point is, evidently Ravelli’s family have decided they want Gaetano’s children with Mary to be adopted—’

‘Adopted?’ Belle interrupted, openly astonished by that suggestion coming at her out of nowhere.

‘Obviously the man’s family want the whole affair hushed up,’ Mark opined with a grimace. ‘And what better way to stage a cover-up? It would keep the story out of the papers and tidy up all the loose ends—’

‘But they’re not loose ends—they’re children with a family and a home!’ Belle argued in dismay. ‘For goodness’ sake, they belong together!’

Uncomfortable in receipt of that emotional outburst, Mark cleared his throat. ‘Are you the children’s legal guardian?’

‘Well, who else is there?’ Belle asked defensively.

‘But it’s not down legally on paper anywhere that you’re their guardian, is it?’ Mark prompted ruefully as her clear green eyes lifted to his in sudden dismay. ‘I didn’t think so. You should go and see a solicitor about your situation as soon as you can and get your claim to the children recognised with all the red tape available...otherwise you might discover that Gaetano’s family have more legal say on the subject of what happens to them than you do.’

‘But that would be ridiculous!’ Belle objected. ‘Gaetano had nothing to do with the kids even when he was here.’

‘Not according to the law. He paid the older children’s school fees, signed the Lodge over to your mother,’ Mark reminded her with all the devotion to detail inherent in his law-student studies. ‘He may have been a lousy father in the flesh but he did take care of the necessities, which could conceivably give Gaetano’s sons a bigger say than you have in what happens to the children now.’

‘But Gaetano left all five of them out of his will,’ Belle pointed out, tilting her chin in challenge.

‘That doesn’t matter. The law is the law,’ Mark fielded. ‘Nobody can take their birthright away from them.’

‘Adoption...’ Eyes still stunned by that proposition, Belle sank heavily back down into her chair. ‘That’s a crazy idea. They couldn’t have tried this nonsense on if my mother were still alive!’ she exclaimed bitterly. ‘Nobody could have said their mother didn’t have the right to say what should happen to them.’

‘If only Mary had lived long enough to deal with all this,’ Isa sighed in pained agreement. ‘But maybe, as the children’s granny, I’ll have a say?’

‘I doubt it,’ Mark interposed. ‘Until you moved in here after Mary’s death, the children had never lived with you.’

‘I could pretend to be Mum...’ Belle breathed abruptly.

‘Pretend?’ Isa’s head swivelled round to the younger woman in disbelief. ‘Don’t be silly, Belle.’

‘How am I being silly? Cristo Ravelli doesn’t know Mum is dead and if he thinks she’s still alive, he’s very unlikely to try and interfere in their living arrangements.’ Belle lifted her head high, convinced she was correct on that score.

‘There’s no way you could pretend to be a woman in her forties!’ Mark protested with an embarrassed laugh at the idea.

Belle was thinking hard. ‘But I don’t need to look like I’m in my forties...I only need to look old enough to have a fifteen-year-old son and, at the age women are having children these days, I could easily only be in my early thirties,’ she reasoned.

‘It would be insane to try and pull off a deception like that,’ her grandmother told her quellingly. ‘Cristo Ravelli would be sure to find out the truth.’

‘How? Who’s going to tell him? He’s a Ravelli—he’s not going to be wandering round asking the locals nosy questions. He would have no reason to question my identity. I’ll put my hair up, use a lot of make-up...that’ll help—’

‘Belle...I know you’re game for anything but it would be a massive deception to try and pull off,’ Mark said drily. ‘Think about what you’re saying.’

The kitchen door opened and a thumb-sucking toddler with a mop of black curls stumbled in. He steadied himself against Belle’s denim-clad thigh and then clambered up clumsily into his sister’s lap, taking his welcome for granted. ‘Sleepy,’ he told her, the words slurring. ‘Hug...’

Belle cradled her youngest half-sibling gently. Franco was very affectionate and he was quick to curve his warm, solid little body into hers. ‘I’ll take him upstairs for a nap,’ she whispered, rising upright again with difficulty because he was a heavy child.

Belle tucked Franco into his cot beside her bed and for a moment stood looking out of the rear window, which provided a picturesque view of Mayhill House, a gracious grey Georgian mansion set in acres of parkland against the backdrop of the ancient oak woods. Her mother had been a widow and Belle only eight years old when Mary had first started work as Gaetano Ravelli’s housekeeper.

Belle’s own father had been a violent drunk, renowned for his foul-mouthed harangues and propensity for getting into fights. One night he had stepped out in front of a car when under the influence and few had mourned his demise, least of all Belle, who had been terrified of her father’s vicious temper and brutal fists. Mother and daughter had believed they were embarking on a new and promising life when Mary became the Mayhill housekeeper. Sadly, however, Mary had fallen madly in love with her new boss and her reputation had been destroyed from the instant Belle’s eldest half-sibling, Bruno, had been born.

Someone like Cristo Ravelli, Belle reflected bitterly, could have absolutely no grasp of how other less fortunate mortals lived. Cristo was handsome, brilliant and obscenely successful. He had grown up in a golden cocoon of cash, the son of a very wealthy Italian princess who was renowned as a leading society hostess. His stepfather was a Hungarian banker, his home a Venetian palace and he had attended an exclusive school from which he had emerged literally weighed down with academic and athletic honours. It was hardly surprising that Cristo was a dazzling star of success in every corner of his life. After all, he didn’t know what it was to be humiliated, ignored or mocked and she’d bet he had never had to apologise for his parentage.

On the other hand Bruno had only been thirteen when Gaetano first accused his son of being gay because that was the only way Gaetano could interpret Bruno’s burning desire to be an artist. Belle’s little brother had been devastated by that destructive indictment from a father whom he had long been desperate to impress. His growing unhappiness at school where he was being bullied had resulted in a suicide attempt. Belle still got the shivers recalling it, having come so terrifyingly close to losing her little brother for ever. Bruno needed his family for support. Bruno, just like his siblings, needed love and commitment to grow into a contented, well-adjusted adult. There was nothing Belle would not have done to ensure that her siblings remained happy and together.

Having delivered his warning, Mark was taking his leave when she returned downstairs.

‘I’ll get supper on,’ Belle’s grandmother declared.

‘You’re not serious about trying to pretend to be Mary, are you?’ Mark pressed on the doorstep.

Belle straightened her slight shoulders. ‘If that’s what it takes to keep the family together, I’d do it in a heartbeat!’

* * *

The evening light was fast fading when Cristo’s car finally turned up the long driveway to Mayhill.

He had never visited Gaetano’s Irish bolt hole before because Gaetano had never invited any of his relatives to visit him there or, indeed, anywhere else. His father had never bothered to maintain relationships and the minute he was bored he had headed for pastures new and wiped the slate clean of past associations.

A woman with a little dog running at her heels was walking across the sweeping front lawn. Cristo frowned; he didn’t like trespassers. But a split second later he was staring, watching that cloud of colourful curls float back from a stunning heart-shaped face, noting the way her loose top blew back to frame her lush full breasts and a sliver of pale flat stomach, exposing the denim shorts that hugged her derriere and accentuated her long, long shapely legs. She took his breath away and the pulse at his groin reacted with rampant enthusiasm. He gritted his teeth, trying to recall when he had last been with a woman, and when he couldn’t blamed that oversight for his sudden arousal. In reality, Cristo always chose work over sex for work challenged and energised him while he regarded sex as a purely stress-relieving exercise.

He unlocked the massive wooden front door and stepped over the top of a pile of untouched post into a large black-and-white-tiled hall. His protection team composed of Rafe and John moved past him. ‘We’ll check the house.’

A fine layer of dust coated the furniture within view and Cristo was not surprised when Rafe confirmed that the house was vacant. But then, what exactly had he expected? Mary Brophy and her five children occupying the property? Yes, that was exactly what he had expected and why he had used his keys to emphasise the fact that he had the right of entry. He strode through the silent rooms, eventually ending up in the kitchen with its empty fridge standing wide open, backed by the sound of a dripping tap. His handsome mouth curved down as he noted the phone on the wall. One of the buttons was labelled ‘housekeeping’. Lifting the phone, he stabbed the button with exasperated force.

‘Yes?’ a disembodied female voice responded when he had almost given up hope of his call being answered.

‘It’s Cristo Ravelli. I’m at the house. Why hasn’t it been prepared for my arrival?’ he demanded imperiously.

At the other end of the phone, Belle went on all systems alert at the vibrating tone of impatience in that dark, deep accented drawl and her green eyes suddenly glinted as dangerously as emeralds in firelight. ‘Do you think maybe that could be because the housekeeper’s wages were stopped the same day Mr Ravelli crashed his helicopter?’

Cristo was not accustomed to smart-mouthed replies and his wide sensual mouth hardened. ‘I didn’t make that instruction.’

‘Well, it doesn’t really matter now, does it? Regrettably nobody works for free,’ Belle told him drily.

Cristo bit back a curse. He was tired and hungry and in no mood for a war of words. ‘I gather you’re the housekeeper?’

It was the moment of truth, Belle registered, and for a split second she hesitated. An image of her siblings rehomed in an orphanage on the slippery slope to a foster home gripped her tummy and provoked nausea. ‘Er...yes,’ she pronounced tightly.

‘Then get yourself up to the house and do your job. I can assure you that you will be well paid for your time,’ Cristo informed her grittily. ‘I need food and bedding—’

‘There’s several shops in the village. You must’ve driven past them to get to the house,’ Belle protested.

‘I’m happy to pay you to take care of those tasks for me,’ Cristo fielded smoothly before returning the phone to the wall and wondering if it had been wise to recall an insolent housekeeper to her former duties. Reminding himself that he only planned to stay a couple of days before arranging to have the house sold, he dismissed the matter from mind. The housekeeper, he reflected, would be a useful source of local knowledge to have on hand.

Following that call, Belle was in an infinitely more excitable state. After all, it was now or never. She couldn’t introduce herself as Mary’s daughter and then change her mind. Either she pretended to be her mother or she went up to Mayhill and told Cristo Ravelli that his father’s former housekeeper/lover was dead. But when she thought of the influence she could potentially wield for the children’s benefit by acting as their mother, her doubts fell away and she hurried upstairs, frantically wondering how she could best make herself look more mature.

The first thing she did was take off her shorts and top. Rustling through her wardrobe, she found a short stretchy skirt and a long-sleeved tee. Her mother had never ever worn flat heels or jeans and Belle owned only one skirt. Clinging to those Mary Brophy habits as if they might prove to be a good-luck talisman, Belle pulled out a pair of high heels and hurriedly got dressed. That achieved, she went into the bathroom, pushed her hair back from her face and grimaced at her porcelain-pale complexion, which she had often suspected made her look even younger than her years. Surely if she put her hair up and went heavy on the make-up it would make her look older? Brows pleating, she recalled the smoky eye treatment that a friend had persuaded her to try on a night out and she dug deep into her make-up bag for the necessary tools.

She stroked on the different shadows with a liberal hand, blurred the edges with an anxious fingertip and added heaps of eyeliner. Well, she certainly looked different, she acknowledged uneasily, layering on the mascara before adding blush to her cheeks and outlining her mouth with bright pink gloss.

‘I was about to call you down for supper...’ Isa Kelly froze in the tiny hall to watch her granddaughter come downstairs. ‘Where on earth are you going got up like that?’

Belle stiffened. ‘Why? Do I look odd?’

‘Well, if you bent over you could probably treat me to a view of your underwear,’ Isa commented disapprovingly.

An awkward silence fell, interrupted within seconds by the noisy sound of the back door opening and closing. Children’s voices raised in shrill argument broke the silence and a dark-haired boy and girl of eight years of age hurtled into the hall still engaged in hurling insults.

‘If you don’t stop fighting, it will be early to bed tonight,’ Belle warned the twins, Pietro and Lucia.

The twins closed their mouths, ducked their tousled heads and surged up the stairs past their eldest sister.

‘You can tell me now why you’re wearing a skirt,’ Isa pressed Belle.

‘Cristo Ravelli phoned...in need of a housekeeper.’ Belle quickly explained what had transpired on the phone. ‘I need to look at least ten years older.’

As Belle spoke, Isa studied the younger woman in consternation. ‘You can’t possibly pretend to be Mary... It’s an insane idea. You’ll never get away with it.’

Belle lifted her chin. ‘But it’s worth a try if it means that Cristo Ravelli has to listen to what I have to say. He obviously knows nothing about Mum. I don’t think he even realises that she was his father’s housekeeper.’

‘I doubt if he’s that ignorant,’ Isa opined thoughtfully. ‘It could be a shrewd move. Naturally he’s going to want to meet the children’s mother as soon as possible. But I don’t want you going up there to run after the man, doing his shopping and cooking and making up his bed, especially dressed like that!’

‘What’s wrong with the way I’m dressed?’

‘It might give the man the wrong idea.’

‘I seriously doubt that,’ Belle responded, smoothing her stretchy skirt carefully down over her slim hips. ‘As far as I’m aware he’s not sex-mad like his father.’

Isa compressed her lips. ‘That kind of comment is so disrespectful, Belle.’

‘It’s a fact, not a nasty rumour.’

‘Gaetano was the children’s father. He may not have been much of a father but you still shouldn’t talk about him like that where you could be overheard,’ her grandmother rebuked her firmly.

Aware that the older woman was making a fair point, Belle reddened with discomfiture. ‘May I borrow your car, Gran?’

‘Yes, of course.’ Belatedly aware that Belle had successfully sidetracked her concern about the deception she was preparing to spring on Cristo Ravelli, Isa planted a staying hand on the front door before Belle could open it. ‘Think about what you’re about to do, Belle. Once you try to deceive this man, there’s no going back and he’ll have every right to be very angry with us all when he discovers the truth...as eventually he must,’ she reasoned anxiously.

‘Cristo is a Ravelli, Gran...shrewd, tricky and unscrupulous. I need an advantage to deal with him and the only way I can get that advantage is by pretending to be Mum.’


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