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Ravelli's Defiant Bride

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BELLE DROVE DOWN to the garage shop in the village to stock up on basic necessities for the Mayhill kitchen and was taken aback by the cost of the exercise.

Cristo Ravelli was expecting her to cook but she couldn’t cook, at least not anything that required more than a microwave and a tin opener. She pondered her dilemma and decided on an omelette, salad and garlic bread. Surely even she could manage a meal that basic? She had often watched her mother and her grandmother making omelettes. Bruno was also a dab hand in the kitchen. They always ate well when he was home at weekends.

Tense as a steel girder, she drove round to the back of the house, noting that the lights weren’t on. The back door was still locked and with a groan she lugged her carrier bags round to the front, mounted the steps and pressed the doorbell.

Cristo was on the phone when the bell echoed through the hall. Brows drawing together, he went to answer the door, stepping back in surprise when a slender redhead in sky-high heels tramped in past him. The housekeeper? Not his idea of a housekeeper, he conceded, swiftly concluding his call, his brilliant dark eyes flaring over one of the shapeliest bodies he had ever seen and very probably the best ever legs. Legs that put him in mind of the girl he had seen walking across the lawn, his gaze rising to the woman’s face to note the huge anxious green eyes lost in the heavy make-up and the ripe full mouth. She was not his type, no way was she his type, too obvious, too loud, hair too red. Indeed Cristo knew to his cost that he was most attracted to tiny ice-cool blondes with big blue eyes. His conscience sliced through that thought instantaneously, reminding him that that particular image was forbidden for very good reasons. Lush black lashes shielding his grim and guilty gaze, he rested his attention quite deliberately on the redhead’s remarkable breasts. Now, those were truly a work of art like her legs, he conceded abstractedly.

Sadly accustomed to the effect her full bosom tended to have on the male sex, Belle studied Cristo Ravelli at her leisure. By any estimate, he was drop-dead gorgeous. He had luxuriant black hair closely cropped to his arrogant head, spectacular bone structure and quite stunning dark-as-charcoal eyes enhanced by absurdly long sooty lashes. A light shadow of stubble roughened his olive-skinned jaw line, adding to an already overpoweringly masculine presence.

Her pupils dilated, her heart began hammering an upbeat tempo and her tummy performed acrobatics. It was nerves, she told herself, nerves and adrenalin reacting to the challenge of the deception she was embarking on. It didn’t help that Cristo was also extremely tall, actually tall enough to make her feel small even though she was an easy five feet eight inches in height and stood even higher in heels. His shoulders were broad below the tailored jacket of his no doubt expensive business suit, his chest wide, his lean hips tapering down to legs that were very long and powerful.

‘I’ll take these down to the kitchen and start cooking,’ Belle told him, raising her arms to display the bulging carrier bags.

Her rounded breasts shimmied below the fine jersey top and Cristo’s mouth ran dry. ‘You’re my father’s housekeeper?’ he prompted because she was not at all what he had expected, having dimly imagined some feisty but sensible countrywoman of indeterminate age.

Abandoning her attempt to walk right by him, Belle set the bags on the floor at her feet and lifted her head high. ‘I’m Mary Brophy,’ she announced, thrusting up her chin in challenge.

Both disconcertion and disbelief assailed Cristo and his dark deep-set eyes narrowed to increase their searching intensity as he scrutinised her. ‘You were my father’s...mistress?’ he asked.

Nausea stirred in her tummy at that label but she could think of no more accurate description for the compromising position her late mother had occupied in Gaetano’s life and colour fired her cheeks. ‘Yes.’

A split second earlier, Cristo had been mentally undressing her and that awareness now revolted him as the ultimate in inappropriate activities now that he knew who she was. This was the woman who had occupied his father’s bed for at least fifteen years, earning a longevity that no other women had contrived to match in Gaetano’s easily bored existence. And looking at her, suddenly Cristo was not surprised by that fact because self-evidently this woman worked at her appearance. Even after giving birth to five children she still had the slender waist of a young girl and, below the make-up she seemed to trowel on as thick as paste, her fine pale skin was unlined and still taut. She was too young, way too young-looking though to match the woman he had expected to meet, he decided, his ebony brows pleating in perplexity.

‘You were also Gaetano’s housekeeper?’ Cristo questioned.

‘Yes.’ With determination, Belle bent down to lift the bags again. ‘Omelette and salad all right for you?’ she asked, heading for the kitchen at speed.

A very decorative housekeeper, Cristo thought numbly, still quite unable to picture her as the mother of five children. Five!

‘You must have been very young when you met my father,’ Cristo commented from the kitchen doorway.

Belle stiffened as she piled the perishable food into the fridge. ‘Not that young,’ she fielded, wanting to tell him to mind his own business but reluctant to cause offence. After all, she needed his support to secure a decent future for her siblings.

Although what realistic chance did she have of gaining it? At worst, Cristo Ravelli might despise and resent his father’s illegitimate children, and at best, he might be simply indifferent to them. Adoption, for goodness’ sake, she reflected in lingering disbelief. How many people would even dare to suggest such an option?

‘I assumed you would be living here in the house,’ Cristo remarked, his attention clinging of its own volition to the amount of slender thigh on view as she crouched down to pack the fridge.

‘I only...er...lived in when Gaetano was here,’ Belle said awkwardly.

‘And the rest of the time?’ Cristo enquired, because as far as he knew his father had only come to Ireland three or four times a year and had never stayed for longer than a couple of weeks at most.

‘I live in the lodge at the gates,’ Belle admitted grudgingly, straightening to set out lettuce and eggs on the granite work counter.

Cristo gritted his teeth at the news because she and her children would have to vacate the lodge house before he could put Mayhill on the market. Of course he would have to pay her for the inconvenience of finding another home. Her hair shone bright as a beacon below the lights, displaying varying shades of gold, auburn and copper, tiny curls of hair adorning the nape of her long, elegant neck. She had very curly hair, the sort of hair he had once seen on a rag doll, he mused absently, irritated by the random nature of the thought. He studied the smooth line of her jaw and the full lush softness of her bold red-painted mouth with a persistent sense of incredulity. She had to be a lot older than she looked to be the parent of a teenager, although perhaps he was being naïve. It was perfectly possible that Mary Brophy looked so amazingly youthful because his father had paid for her to have plastic surgery.

Belle unwrapped the garlic bread and shoved it on an oven tray to cook. She wished he would go away. Standing there, all looming six feet four inches or so of him, he made her feel nervous and clumsy. She had to search through cupboards to find the utensils she wanted because she had rarely visited Mayhill since childhood. Indeed she had avoided it on principle whenever Gaetano was in residence. Her green eyes darkened as she recalled the way she and her ever-growing band of siblings would go and stay with her grandmother in the village even before Gaetano arrived, leaving her mother free to make her preparations for his arrival. Mary had always, always put Gaetano Ravelli first.

Belle remembered her mother’s excitement when Gaetano was due to arrive, the frantic exercising, hair appointments and shopping trips to ensure that Mary could look her very best for her lover. Belle had long since decided that she would rather die than want to please any man to that extent. Certainly Mary’s rather pathetic loyalty and devotion had not won her any prizes.

Belle prepared the salad quickly, heaping it into a bowl and then making up her mother’s favourite salad dressing as best she could because she couldn’t quite recall the proportions of the different ingredients. That achieved, she embarked on the omelette. Cristo had vanished by then and she heaved a sigh of relief as she walked through to set the table in the spacious dining room across the hall.

He had accepted that she was Mary Brophy without protest and why shouldn’t he? It meant nothing to him that her poor mother was gone. Mark’s father, the land agent Daniel Petrie, would eventually catch up on the local gossip and learn that the woman he had long despised was dead and buried. But Belle thought it was unlikely that Daniel would bother making an announcement of that fact to Cristo Ravelli as, not only would he feel foolish about having misinformed his employer, but he would also most likely assume that Cristo had already found out the truth. Soothing herself with such reflections, Belle returned to her cooking and struggled to control the gas burners because she was accustomed to cooking with electric.

* * *

Cristo surveyed his meal with an appetite that very quickly vanished. He prodded the omelette with a fork. It had the solid consistency of a rubber mattress but lacked the bounce. The salad had been drowned in a vat of oil. Even the garlic bread was charred although valiant attempts had been made to cut away the most burnt bits. He swallowed hard and pushed the plate away. She couldn’t cook, but presumably she and his father had dined out. Distaste suddenly filled Cristo and he stood up in a lithe movement, his lean strong face hard and taut. He didn’t want to be in Ireland. He didn’t want to deal with the wretched woman and the consequences of her sordid long-term affair with his father. But he knew that he didn’t have a choice. Mary Brophy and her children were not a problem he could afford to ignore. In any case, there was no one else to deal with the situation.

Belle was digging into the linen cupboard on the upper landing when she heard a noise behind her and whirled round to stare in dismay at the tall square-featured young man leaning back against the bannister.

He was built like a solid brick wall.

‘So this is where the bedding is hidden,’ he remarked.

‘Who are you?’ Belle demanded nervously.

‘Rafe is one of my two bodyguards,’ Cristo interposed, strolling up onto the landing. ‘Rafe and John are staying here with me.’

‘John and I need bedding. We can take care of ourselves though,’ Rafe declared, stepping past her to peruse the tidy, labelled shelves just as she emerged clutching the linen she required for the master bedroom. Conscious of Cristo Ravelli’s stare, and feeling somewhat harassed, Belle walked stiffly down the corridor. Damn the man! Why was he watching her like that? Did she have two heads all of a sudden? And why hadn’t he told her he had companions? She hadn’t bought enough food and that thought reminded her that she had to get him to settle up with her for the shopping she had done on his behalf. Dropping the linen on the bed, she dug into her pocket for the till receipt and turned to offer it to him.

‘This is what you owe me,’ she told him.

Cristo dug out his wallet and extended a banknote while still engaged in frowning at the gilded furniture and mirrors and the fantastically draped red king-size bed. ‘Is this my father’s room?’


‘I’ll sleep somewhere else. The Victorian brothel design doesn’t appeal to me,’ he informed her curtly.

The décor was dark, fussy and horrible, Belle was willing to concede. She lifted the linen again and trudged across the corridor to one of the few guest rooms that enjoyed an en suite. Mayhill was badly in need of updating.

‘When I said that about the decoration, I didn’t intend to insult you,’ Cristo remarked, standing poised by the window, thinking that at this early stage it would be most unwise to offend her. He swore to himself that he would make no cheap cracks about her role as his father’s mistress, not least because it was becoming clear that it had not been a profitable position, he reflected wryly, which was hardly surprising when Gaetano had been renowned for his stinginess. Indeed in every one of his three divorces Gaetano had made money off his ex-wives in spite of the fact that in each case the women had been the injured parties. That Gaetano’s secret mistress had still been working as his housekeeper and wore cheap off-the-peg clothing should really not come as a surprise. For that reason he found it hard to believe that Gaetano had stumped up for plastic surgery to keep his mistress looking young but, of course, he reminded himself, it was perfectly possible that there had been no cosmetic enhancement. Mary Brophy could simply be, and probably was, a very lucky woman who looked much younger than her years.

‘I’m not offended. I wasn’t involved in choosing the furnishings here. About ten years ago, Gaetano hired an interior decorator,’ Belle explained, recalling how very hurt her mother had been not to be trusted with that responsibility by her lover. But then good taste had not been her mother’s strong point either. The Lodge rejoiced in every shade of pink known to man, pink having been Mary’s favourite colour.

Cristo watched Belle crush the pillows into pillow slips, her slender figure twisting this way and that, allowing him to notice her ripe, pouting curves at breast and hip from every angle. His wide sensual mouth slowly settled into a harder and harder line as he studied her delicate flushed profile, scanning her fine brows, her subtle little nose and full pink mouth. And his body reacted accordingly, stirring with forbidden interest until he angrily turned his back on her, castigating himself for viewing his father’s mistress as if she were some kind of sex object. But then he reminded himself that she was dressed to attract in an outfit and shoes that accentuated her long legs and shapely figure, and, when all was said and done, he was still a man with all that entailed and almost guaranteed to look.

Belle shot a sidewise glance at Cristo from below her lashes. His detachment, his air of command and superiority reminded her of his father, who had barely acknowledged Belle’s existence on the rare occasions when he had seen her. Suddenly she regretted agreeing to play housekeeper because no doubt as intended it made her feel inferior. Her soft mouth tightened as she shook out the duvet with unnecessary violence and then carried the towels into the bathroom. Unfortunately she carried the image of Cristo Ravelli with her, those penetrating eyes dark as sin, that sleek bred-in-the-bone sexiness that lent him such charismatic appeal. She could feel her nipples pushing hard against the scratchy surface of her lace bra, a tightening, sliding sensation of warmth between her thighs and she was deeply disturbed by her reaction. But there was no denying it: he appealed to her; he attracted her on the most basic level. Did that mean that at heart she was as foolish as her mother had once been about Gaetano?

‘I’d appreciate the opportunity to have a private word with you here tomorrow morning,’ Cristo murmured smoothly as she emerged again. ‘Shall we say at ten?’

Belle nodded agreement. ‘When will you want to meet the children?’ she prompted.

Cristo froze, his facial bones locking tight. ‘I don’t...wish to meet them, that is,’ he extended unapologetically, dark eyes cold as black ice.

Belle paled, uncertain of how to take that statement. Was his lack of interest good or bad news for her siblings? Did that mean that the adoption idea was just a silly rumour? She scrutinised his lean, handsome features with frowning green eyes, unnerved by his icy reserve and lack of humanity. Did he think nothing of the blood tie? A lot of people would just have agreed to meet the children for the sake of it, even if they weren’t particularly interested in them, but Cristo Ravelli had chosen to spurn even that polite pretence.

In acknowledging that, Belle felt sheer loathing suddenly leap through her in a fierce wave of antagonism because she was gutted on her siblings’ behalf by his detachment. Was he refusing to accept that the children were part of the Ravelli family? Obviously. Clearly, Mary Brophy’s children were not good enough to make the grade, just as Mary had never been good enough for Gaetano to marry. Bile scoured Belle’s throat as she sped downstairs to clean up the kitchen and go home. She hoped he wasn’t expecting her to come up and cook breakfast when she found the meal she had cooked thrown in its entirety into the bin. Her face burned but her chin came up. So, it hadn’t been one of her best efforts but in her opinion it had been as much as he deserved!

After spending half the summer with Mary over twenty years earlier, Gaetano had confided that he was unhappily unmarried and Mary’s hopes of a happy ending for her romance had risen high. But Gaetano had not asked his Arabic wife for a divorce or even a separation. Over the years the media had published several stories about his extramarital affairs. Her mother had refused to believe the stories, even after Belle had shown her revealing pictures on the Internet. Mary had always been very quick to make excuses in Gaetano’s defence.

‘He feels trapped and lonely in his marriage. It’s only a business arrangement. She was a friend for years before he married her and he doesn’t love her. He needed a hostess to entertain his business colleagues and she comes from an old-fashioned country where a woman needs a husband if she wants any freedom,’ Mary had reasoned. ‘I can’t hold his marriage against him, Belle. I’m not even an educated woman. I couldn’t do what his princess can do for him.’

Mary Brophy had been hopelessly infatuated with Gaetano Ravelli from the moment she first met him and she had allowed nothing to interfere with her rosy view of their relationship. Her grief in the wake of the helicopter crash that had taken Gaetano’s life had been all-consuming.

‘I know you don’t understand,’ she had said to Belle, ‘but Gaetano was the love of my life. I know he wasn’t interested in marrying me but nothing’s perfect. I wasn’t his match in money or background and I can’t blame him for that. When you love someone, Belle, you accept their flaws and he was too much of a snob to want to marry an ordinary woman like me.’

A woman like me, Belle recalled painfully. It was little wonder that Mary had suffered from low self-esteem. She had travelled from a shotgun wedding at the age of seventeen straight into an abusive marriage and had finally ended up as a married man’s mistress. Life had always been tough for her mother, but then, as Isa was prone to reminding Belle, Mary had always made the wrong choices when it came to the men in her life.

Isa was waiting up for Belle when she got back to the Lodge.

‘Well?’ her grandmother pressed. ‘Did he actually credit the idea that you were a woman in her forties?’

‘No, he assumed I must have got involved with his father when I was very young,’ Belle advanced with a dismissive toss of her head. ‘He did do a lot of staring, though. He’s invited me up to the house to talk to him tomorrow at ten, so presumably the kids’ future will be discussed then.’

The older woman released a heavy sigh. ‘I don’t like the way you’re going about this, Belle. Honesty is always the best policy.’

‘But I won’t be dealing with a nice, honest guy.’

‘You hated Gaetano. Don’t take it out on his son.’

Belle folded her lips at that unwelcome advice. ‘He doesn’t even want to meet the kids.’

Her grandmother shook her greying head, her unhappiness at that news palpable. ‘If only your mother had thought about what she was doing and how much the children would be resented by the rest of Gaetano’s family.’

* * *

Cristo had a troubled night of sleep. He dreamt that he was pursuing a woman with the longest legs possible across a misty landscape. Every time he got close she pulled away and laughed and her resistance made him want her more than ever, lust pounding through his veins like an explosive charge. But when he finally caught up with her, she was a different woman, pale blonde hair falling back from her piquant face to highlight big blue enquiring eyes and instantaneous recoil wakened him. He had broken out in a cold sweat, angry frustration and guilt slicing through him for the one woman he couldn’t enjoy having even in his dreams...Betsy, his brother Nik’s estranged wife. His jawline rigid, Cristo sprang out of bed and went for a shower.

His eyes closed tight shut below the refreshing blast of the power shower. He hadn’t meant to wreck his brother’s marriage. There had been no intent on his part to inflict damage, he reasoned painfully. Betsy had come to him for support, devastated by what she had learned from Zarif. But, unhappily, it had been Cristo who first gave Zarif the destructive news that had ruined Nik’s relationship with his wife. Cristo had broken his brother’s confidence and spoken out of turn, but he had never ever at any stage planned to harm Nik or hoped to steal Betsy from him.

For his own benefit, however, he listed the sins he had committed. He had thought that Nik didn’t deserve a woman like Betsy. He had stood by watching while his brother took his wife for granted and he had not warned him of what he was doing. With the basest disloyalty, he had cherished feelings for his brother’s wife. That was why Gaetano’s mess in Ireland was his mess to clean up, Cristo reflected grimly. Nik already had enough on his plate to deal with and Zarif was still suffering the fallout from the loose-tongued confession that had wrecked Nik’s marriage because ever since then the three brothers had barely spoken to each other.

* * *

‘Very mumsy,’ Isa pronounced the next morning with a raised brow when she saw what Belle was wearing. ‘Did that skirt belong to your mother?’

Belle paled. ‘Yes, I kept a couple of things just to remember Mum by. It’s a little big but it looks all right with the belt.’

‘Which is more than you can say about that flapping cardigan and the beads round your neck with that fussy blouse,’ Isa groaned disapprovingly. ‘You look like a young woman trying to look older.’

‘Yes but that’s because you know the truth. It’s daylight now and I need to make a better impression than I did last night,’ Belle pointed out anxiously.

‘Even daylight couldn’t penetrate the amount of make-up you’ve got on,’ her grandmother said drily. ‘But you’re right—it does age you.’

‘Look, I accept that Cristo is eventually going to find out the truth but I want that adoption idea off the table first,’ Belle told her.

‘Even at the cost of infuriating him?’ Isa asked. ‘Gaetano had a very low threshold for provocation.’

‘Whatever happens, I’ll deal with it.’

‘I can’t see how,’ Isa said bluntly. ‘You’re pretty much powerless up against his wealth and intellect.’

Belle trudged up the drive in her high heels, striving not to feel like someone got up in fancy dress. She was not powerless. Money wasn’t everything, nor was intellect. She was not stupid. She had a first-class degree in business and economics and she had the power of the unexpected on her side. He thought she was who she had said she was and, whether he knew it or not, that meant he would be fighting with one hand tied behind his back. Where her mother would have rolled over on command for a Ravelli and said thank you very much for the attention, Belle was programmed to fight dirty.

Cristo watched her approach from the window in the drawing room. No miniskirt in evidence today, but high-heeled court shoes with pointy toes embellished those award-winning legs. He gritted his even white teeth together, stamping out that inappropriate thought. So, she was an attractive woman. It was par for the course: his father’s lovers had always been beauties even while his wives were more of the plain variety. Gaetano had always rated wealth and class above looks. Cristo wondered how much money it would take to persuade the older woman into his way of thinking. He was a skilled negotiator and envisaged few problems because Mary Brophy had not been enriched in any way by her relationship with his father and was currently penniless. Furthermore she couldn’t be the brightest star in the firmament when she had given the wily older man five children he could never have wanted and kept on slogging away for him as a humble housekeeper.

Surprisingly a rare shard of pity stabbed Cristo at that acknowledgement, making him register that where Mary Brophy was concerned he didn’t want to use a sledgehammer to crack a nut. He didn’t want to threaten or intimidate her into doing his bidding; he simply wanted a neat and tidy solution to a very messy and potentially embarrassing problem for all their sakes.


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