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The Boss's Christmas Seduction: Unlocking her Innocence / Million Dollar Christmas Proposal / Not Just the Boss's Plaything

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«The Boss's Christmas Seduction: Unlocking her Innocence / Million Dollar Christmas Proposal / Not Just the Boss's Plaything» - Линн Грэхем

Unlocking Her InnocenceOne Christmas, Ava Fitzgerald stole what was most important to Vito Barbieri. Three years later, Vito’s latest business merger brings Ava back into his life – as his new employee! Vito is intent on revenge – but seeing Ava again is fast melting his resolve… Million Dollar Christmas Proposal Tycoon Vincenzo is determined to find his niece and nephew a new nanny by Christmas. Employee Audrey Miller isn’t a candidate – until she marches into his office to tell him he should be looking for love. But Audrey doesn’t knowVincenzo is also looking for a wife!Not Just The Boss’s PlaythingOne night of passion with Nikolai Korovin becomes so much more when Alicia Teller finds out the gorgeous tycoon is also her boss. Now, Alicia must agree to be Nikolai’s companion for the company’s Christmas ball in Prague – or lose her job!
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Table of Contents

Unlocking her Innocence

Lynne Graham

Million Dollar Christmas Proposal

Lucy Monroe

Not Just the Boss’s Plaything

Caitlin Crews

Table of Contents

Title Page

About the Author




Million Dollar Christmas Proposal

About the Author


















Not Just the Boss’s Plaything

About the Author








html#litres_trial_promo">CHAPTER SEVEN






Unlocking her Innocence

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.


CHRISTMAS. It was that time of year again. Not in a jolly mood, Vito Barbieri grimaced, his darkly handsome features hard with impatience. He had no time for it—the silliness of the festive season, the drunken antics and the extravagance, not to mention the lack of concentration, increased absenteeism and reduced productivity from his thousands of staff. January was never a good month for the profit margins.

Nor was he ever likely to forget the Christmas when he had lost his kid brother, Olly. Although three years had passed the tragedy of Olly’s horribly wasted life was still etched on his mind. His little brother, so bright and full of promise, had died because a drunk got behind a car wheel after a party, Vito’s party, where he and his brother had argued minutes before that fatal car journey. Guilt clouded his happier memories of the boy, ten years his junior, whom he had loved above all else.

But then love always hurt. Vito had learned that lesson young when his mother walked out on her husband and son for a much richer man. He never saw her again. His father had neglected him and rushed into a series of fleeting affairs. Olly had been the result of one of those affairs, orphaned at nine years old when his English mother died. Vito had offered him a home. It was probably the only act of generosity Vito had never regretted, for, much as he missed Olly, he was still grateful to have known him. His sibling’s sunny outlook had briefly enriched Vito’s workaholic existence.

Only now Bolderwood Castle, purchased purely because Olly fancied living in a gothic monstrosity complete with turrets, was no longer a home. Of course he could take a wife and watch her walk away with half his fortune, his castle and his children, a lesson so many of his friends had learned to their cost, a few years down the road. No, there would be no wife, Vito reflected grimly. When a man was as rich as Vito, greedy, ambitious women literally threw themselves at his feet. But tall or short, curvy or skinny, dark or fair, the women who met the needs of his high sex drive were virtually interchangeable. Indeed sex was steadily becoming nothing to get excited about, he acknowledged wryly. At thirty-one years of age, Vito was reviewing the attributes he used to define an attractive woman by.

He knew what he didn’t like. Airheads irritated him. He was not a patient or tolerant man. Intellectual snobs, party girls and social climbers bored him. Giggly, flirtatious ones reminded him too much of his misspent youth and tough career women rarely knew how to lighten up at the end of the day. Either that or they wanted a four point plan of any relationship laid out in advance. Did he want children? Did he actually know if he was fertile? Did he want to settle down some day? No, he didn’t. He wasn’t opening himself up to that level of disillusionment; particularly not after losing Olly had taught him how transitory life could be. He would be a very rich and cantankerous and demanding old man instead.

There was a knock on the door and a woman entered the room. Karen Harper, his office manager, Vito recalled after a momentary pause; AeroCarlton, which manufactured aeroplane parts, was a recent acquisition in Vito’s business empire and he was only just getting to know the staff.

‘I’m sorry to disturb you, Mr Barbieri. I wanted to check that you’re happy to continue endorsing the prisoner rehabilitation placement scheme we joined last year? It’s run by the charity New Start and they recommend suitable applicants who they fully check out and support. We have an office trainee starting tomorrow. Her name’s—’

‘I don’t need to know the details,’ Vito cut in smoothly, ‘I have no objection to operating such a scheme but will expect you to keep a close watch on the employee.

‘Of course,’ the attractive brunette declared with a bright smile of approval. ‘It feels good at this time of year to give someone in difficulty a new chance in life, doesn’t it? And the placement does only last three months.’

More goody-goody sentimental drivel, Vito thought in exasperation. He supposed the applicant had paid her debt to society through serving her sentence in prison but he was not particularly enamoured of the prospect of having a potential villain on the premises. ‘Did this person’s crime involve dishonesty?’ he queried suddenly.

‘No, we were clear that we wouldn’t accept anyone with that kind of record. I doubt if you’ll even see her, Mr Barbieri. She’ll be the office gopher. She can take care of messages, filing and man reception. At this time of year, there’s always room for an extra pair of hands.’

A momentary pang of conscience assailed Vito, for, astute as he was, he had already noticed that the manager could be a little too tough on her subordinates. Only the day before he had overheard her taking the janitor to task over a very minor infringement of his duties. Karen enjoyed her position of power and used it, but he could only assume that an ex-con would be well equipped to cope.

Ava checked the postbox as she did at least twice every day. Nothing. There was no point trying to avoid the obvious, no point in continuing to hope—her family wanted nothing more to do with her and had decided to ignore her letters. Tears pricked her bright blue eyes and she blinked rapidly, lifting her coppery head high. She had learned to get by on her own in prison and she could do the same in the outside world, even if the outside world was filled with a bewildering array of choices, disappointments and possibilities that made her head swim.

‘Don’t try to run before you can walk,’ her probation officer had advised. Sally was a great believer in platitudes.

Harvey’s tail thumped the floor at Ava’s feet and she bent down to smooth his soft curly head. A cross between a German shepherd and a poodle, Harvey was a large dog with floppy ears, a thick black curly coat and a long shaggy tail that looked as though it belonged to another breed entirely.

‘Time to get you home, boy,’ Ava said softly, trying not to think about the fact that the boarding kennels where Harvey lived could not possibly house him for much longer. During the last few months of her sentence Ava worked at the kennels—outside work was encouraged as a means of reintroducing prisoners into the community and independent life—and she was all too well aware that Harvey was living on borrowed time.

She loved Harvey with all her heart and soul. He was the one thing in her life that she dared love now, and on the days she saw him he lifted her heart as nothing else could. But Marge, the kind lady who ran the kennels and took in strays, had limited space and Harvey had already spent months in her care without finding a home. Harvey, however, was his own worst enemy because he barked at the people who might have given him a for-ever home, scaring them off before they could learn about his gentle, loyal character and clean habits. Ava knew how big the gap between appearances and reality could be; she had spent so many years putting on a false front to keep people at arm’s length, believing that she didn’t need anyone, didn’t care about other people’s opinions and was proud to be the odd one out. At home, at school, just about everywhere she went, Ava had been alone …

Except for Olly, she thought, and a fierce pang of pain and regret shot through her as sharply as a knife. Oliver Barbieri had been her best friend and she had to live with the knowledge that it was her fault he was dead. She had gone to prison for reckless driving but the memory of the trial was blurred because she had already been living in a mental hell and no court could have punished her more than she had punished herself. It hadn’t mattered that her father had thrown her out of the house in disgust or even that she had been advised not to attend Olly’s funeral and pay her last respects. She had known she didn’t deserve pity or forgiveness. Even so she did not remember the crash. During it she had sustained a head injury and was left with memory loss, meaning she recalled neither her fateful, incomprehensible decision to drive while under the influence of alcohol or the accident itself. Sometimes she thought that amnesia was a blessing, and sometimes that only fear of reliving what she had done lay behind her inability to recall the later stages of that awful night.

She had met Olly at boarding school, a trendy co-ed institution with high fees and a fantastic academic record. No price had been too high for her father to get his least-loved child out from under his roof, she acknowledged sadly. Always made to feel like the cuckoo in the family nest, Ava was the only one of three children to have been sent away from home to receive her education. It had driven yet another wedge between Ava and her sisters, Gina and Bella, and, now that she had truly become the prodigal daughter, there was no sign that anyone wanted to welcome her back to the fold. Of course her mother was dead and there was nobody left to mend fences or at least nobody who cared enough to make the effort. Her sisters had their own lives with husbands and children and careers and their ex-con sister was simply an embarrassment, a stain on the Fitzgerald family name.

Scolding herself for that demoralising flood of negative reflections, Ava strove instead to concentrate on the positives: she was out of prison, she had a job, an actual job—she still couldn’t believe her good fortune. When she had first been recommended for the New Start programme she had not held out much hope of a placement because, although she had left school with top grades, she had no relevant office work experience or saleable skills. But AeroCarlton had offered her a lifebelt, givingher the chance to rebuild her life, with a reputable firm on her CV she would have a much better chance of getting a permanent job.

Harvey’s tail dropped as he stepped through the doors of his foster home. Marge put on the kettle and shooed him out into the garden because he took up too much space indoors. Marooned there, Harvey pressed his nose to the glass of the French windows in the living room, watching Ava’s every move.

‘Here … pass this around tomorrow when you start your new job,’ Marge urged, pressing a paper catalogue on Ava. ‘A few orders would be very welcome and I’ve got to say that the work my lovely ladies have put in so far is exceptional.’

Ava glanced through the booklet of hand-knit and embroidered cushions, bookmarks, hat and scarf sets; spectacle cases, toys and even lavender bags, most of which depicted various cat and dog breeds. In an effort to raise money to fund the stray and abandoned animals currently staying in her kennels, as well as in local foster homes, Marge had set up a little cottage industry of animal-loving neighbours and supporters who knit and sewed. It was an impressive display of merchandise, nicely timed for the Christmas market, but, Ava thought ruefully, the ladies could have broadened their designs a little to appeal more to the younger market.

‘I know you walked here for Harvey’s benefit but have you got your bus fare home?’ Marge pressed anxiously, her friendly face troubled by the tiredness etched in Ava’s delicate features.

‘Of course I have,’ Ava lied, not wanting Marge to put her hand into her own far from deep purse.

‘And have you got a decent outfit to wear tomorrow?’ Marge checked. ‘You’ll have to dress smart for a big office.’

‘I picked up a trouser suit in a charity shop.’ Ava would not have dreamt of admitting that the trousers were a little too tight and the jacket unable to button over her rather too generous bust. Wearing them with a blue shirt, she would look smart enough and nobody was likely to notice that her flat black shoes were too big. She would have liked shoes with a heel but beggars couldn’t be choosers and it would take a lot of paydays to build up a working wardrobe. Once she had adored fashion, but she had given up that pursuit along with so many other interests that were no longer appropriate. Now she concentrated on the far more important challenge of simply getting by, which came down to paying rent, feeding and clothing herself as best she could. The adventurous, defiant girl who had sported the Goth look—black lace, leather and dyed black hair cut short as a boy’s—had died along with Olly in that car crash, she conceded painfully, barely recognising the very cautious and sensible young woman she had become.

Prison had taught her to seek anonymity. Standing out from the crowd there would have been dangerous. She had learned to keep her head down, follow the rules, help out when she could, keep her mouth shut when she couldn’t. Prison had shamed her, just as the judgement of the court had shamed her. Much had been made of her fall in the local newspaper because of her comfortable family background and private school education. At the time she had thought it very unfair that she should be pilloried for what she could not help. Then in prison she had met women who could barely read, write or count and she had worked with them, recognising their more basic problems. For them, getting involved in criminal activities had only been a means of survival, and Ava knew that she had never had that excuse.

So what if your father never liked you? So what if your mother never defended you or hugged you and both parents always favoured your sisters over you? So what if they labelled you a troublemaker in primary school where you got bullied? So what if your mother was an alcoholic and her problems were ignored for years?

There would never be an excuse for what she had done to Olly, whom she had loved like a brother, she thought wretchedly as she walked wearily home to her bedsit. Everything always seemed to come back round to the events of that dreadful night. But somehow she had to learn to live with her massive mistake and move on from it. She would never ever forget her best friend but she knew he would have been the first to tell her to stop tormenting herself. Olly had always been wonderfully practical and great at cutting through all the superficial stuff to the heart of a problem. Had he lived, he would have become a wonderful doctor.

‘It’s not your fault that your mother drinks … it’s not your fault that your parents’ marriage is falling apart or that your sisters are spoiled stuck-up little brats! Why do you always take on the blame for everything wrong in your family?’ Olly used to demand impatiently.

Full of anticipation, Ava laid out her clothes for the next morning. Having been assured by New Start that her history would remain confidential, she had no fear of being seen as anything other than the new office junior. She had learned to love being busy and useful because that gave her a feeling of achievement, instead of the hollow sense of self-loathing that had haunted her for months after the crash when she had had far too many idle hours in which to dwell on her mistakes.

‘You can make the coffee for the meeting. There will be twenty members of staff attending,’ Karen Harper pronounced with a steely smile. ‘You can make coffee?’

Ava nodded vigorously, willing to do anything to please and already sensing that pleasing Miss Harper, as she had introduced herself, might be a challenge. Shown into the small kitchen, she checked out where everything was and got busy.

At ten forty-five, Ava wheeled the trolley into the conference room where a formidably tall man was speaking to the staff surrounding the long table. There was colossal tension in the room and nobody else spoke at all. He was talking about change being inevitable but … it would not be happening overnight and redundancies looked unlikely. His voice had a mellifluous accent that was instantly recognisable and familiar to her ears: Italian. As his audience shifted in their seats with collective relief at the forecast, Ava poured the boss’s coffee with a shaking hand. Black, two sugars, according to the list. It could not be Vito, her dazed mind was telling her, it could not possibly be Vito. Fate could not have served her up a job in a company run by the man whom she had most injured. And yet she knew Vito’s voice, the deep drawl laced with a lilt over certain vowel sounds that used to make her tummy flip as if she were on a roller coaster. She did not dare look, would not allow herself to look, as she walked down the side of the room to serve the boss first and slipped right out of her too large shoes so that by the time she reached the top of the table she was barefoot!

Vito had glanced at the girl bent over the coffee trolley, noting the fiery hair glinting with gold and copper highlights wound into a knot on the top of her head, the delicacy of her profile, the elegance of her slender white hands and the tight fit of her trousers over the small curvy behind that segued down into long slim legs. There was something about her, something that captured his attention, something maddeningly familiar but what it was he could not have said until she straightened and he saw an elfin face dominated by pansy blue eyes. His breath caught in his lungs and he stopped breathing, unable to believe that it could be her. The last time he had seen her she had had black hair cropped short and the blank look of trauma in her gaze as if she couldn’t see or hear anything happening around her. Ferocious tension etched harsh lines into the almost feral beauty of his strong handsome face.

Oh dear heaven, it was Vito Barbieri! Feeling sick from shock, Ava froze with his cup of coffee rattling in her trembling hand.

‘Thank you,’ Vito breathed with no expression at all, his dark golden eyes skimming her pale shaken visage as he accepted the coffee from her.

‘Mr Barbieri, this is Ava Fitzgerald who joined the staff today,’ Karen Harper advanced helpfully.

‘We’ve already met,’ Vito pronounced with icy bite. ‘Come back when the meeting is over, Ava. I’d like to speak to you.’

Ava managed to step smoothly back into her shoes on her way back to the tea trolley. With the rigorous self-discipline she had picked up in prison, she served the rest of the coffee without mishap although her skin was clammy with perspiration and she breathed in and out rapidly to get a grip on herself.

Vito Barbieri—it was a horrible coincidence that her job opportunity should turn out to be in his business. But what on earth was he doing at AeroCarlton? She had read the company website and there had been no reference to Vito, yet he was obviously the boss. So much for her big break! Vito wouldn’t want her anywhere near him: he despised her. When she returned to that room he would tell her that she was sacked. Of course he would. What else could she expect him to do? It was her fault that Olly was dead so why would he employ her? He had been shocked to see her. The grim tightness of those lean, bronzed features had been unusually revealing. Had he known who she was in advance he would have withdrawn her placement before she’d even arrived at AeroCarlton.

Vito, the bane of her life from the age of sixteen. She clamped an uneasy hand to the tattoo seared over her left hip where it seemed to burn like a brand. She had been such a stupid and impulsive teenager, she acknowledged wretchedly, deeply shaken by the encounter that had just taken place. None of the boys at school had attracted her. She had had to go home with Olly for the weekend to see her dream guy. Ten years her senior and a fully grown adult male with the killer instincts of a business shark, her dream guy had barely noticed she was alive, let alone sitting up and begging for his attention. True, he had seemed a little taken aback by his brother’s choice of companion, taking in Ava in her Goth getup with her dyed black hair and mutinous expression. She had never stayed in a castle before and had been trying very hard to act as if she were cool with the intimidating experience.

‘Ava?’ Ava wheeled round and found Karen Harper studying her. ‘You didn’t mention that you knew Mr Barbieri …’

‘My father works for him and we lived near his home,’ Ava admitted awkwardly.

The brunette pursed her lips. ‘Well, don’t expect that to cut you any slack,’ she warned. ‘Mr Barbieri’s waiting for you. Clear the coffee cups while you’re in there.’

‘Yes. I didn’t know he … er … worked here.’

‘Mr Barbieri took over AeroCarlton last week. He’s your employer.’

‘Right …’ With a polite smile that was wasted on the disgruntled woman frowning at her, Ava beat a swift retreat, nausea bubbling in the pit of her stomach. Serious bad luck seemed to follow her round like a nasty shadow! Here she was trying to adjust to being back in the world again and the one man who probably wished that the authorities had kept her locked up turned out to be her new boss.

Vito was resting back against the edge of the table and talking on the phone in fast fluid Italian when she reappeared. Nervous as a cat facing a lion, Ava used the time to quietly load the china back onto the trolley but the image of him remained welded onto her eyelids: the tailored black business suit cut to precision on his very tall, broad shouldered and lean-hipped frame, the white shirt so crisp against his bronzed skin, the gold silk tie that echoed his eyes in sunlight. He was breathtakingly good-looking and exotic from the bold thrust of his high cheekbones and strong nose to his slashing dark brows and beautifully moulded sensual mouth. He hadn’t changed. He still exuded an aura of authority and crackling energy that whipped up a tension all of its own. Olly’s big brother, she thought painfully, and if only she had listened to Olly her best friend might still have been alive.

‘Stop trying to flirt with Vito, stop throwing yourself at him!’ Olly had warned her in exasperation the night of that fatal party. ‘You’re not his type and you’re too young for him and even if you weren’t, Vito would eat you for breakfast. He’s a predator with women.’

Back then Vito’s type had been sleek, blonde, elegant and sophisticated, everything Ava was not, and the comparison had torn her up. He had been out of reach; so far above her it had broken her heart. She had become obsessed by Vito Barbieri, wildly infatuated as only a stubborn lovelorn teenager could be, cherishing every little scrap of information she could find out about him. He took sugar in his coffee and he liked chocolate. He supported several children’s charities that dispensed medical aid in developing countries. He had suffered a challenging childhood when his parents broke up and his father took to alcohol and other women to assuage his grief. He loved to drive fast and collected cars. Although he had perfect teeth he hated going to the dentist. The recollection of all those once very much prized little facts sank Ava dangerously deep into the clinging tentacles of the past she had buried.

‘We’ll talk in my office next door,’ Vito decreed, having come off the phone. He moved away from the table and opened a door on the other side of the room. ‘Leave the damn trolley!’

That impatient exclamation made her hand shoot back from the handle she had automatically been reaching for. Colour ran like a rising flag up her slender throat into her heart-shaped face, flushing her cheeks with discomfiture.

Stunning eyes narrowed, Vito studied her, his attention descending from the multicoloured topknot that was so unfamiliar to him, down over her pale perfect face with those big blue eyes, that dainty little nose and lush, incredibly tempting mouth and straight away he felt like loosening his collar because he felt too warm. Memory was pelting him with images he had put away a long time ago. Ava in a little silver shimmery slip of a dress, lithe curves only hinted at, legs that went on for ever. He breathed in slow and deep. The taste of Ava’s mouth, her hands running up beneath his jacket over his shirt in an incredibly arousing way. Sex personified and prohibited, absolutely not to be touched under any circumstances. And he had broken the rules, he who never broke such rules, who prided himself on his self-control and decency. True, it had only been a kiss but it had been a kiss that should never have happened and the fallout from it had destroyed his family.

Emerging from that disturbing flash of recollection, Vito was tense as a steel rod. He would sack her, of course he would. Having her in the same office when he would not be moving on until the reorganisation was complete was inappropriate. Utterly inappropriate, just like his thoughts. He would not keep the young woman who was responsible for his brother’s death in one of his businesses. Nobody would expect him to, nobody would condemn his reasoning. But quick as a flash he knew someone who would have done … Olly, caring, compassionate Olly, who had once acted as the voice of Vito’s unacknowledged conscience.

Ava moved unsteadily past him, bright head high, refusing to show weakness or concern. Vito was tough, hard, ruthless and brutally successful in a business environment, willing to take a risk and fly in the face of adversity, everything Olly had never been. And yet that had not been the whole story either, Ava conceded painfully, for, macho as Vito undoubtedly was he had been so supportive of the news that Olly was gay, admitting that he had already guessed. Vito had suspected why, like Ava, Olly was the odd one out at school.

And she still remembered Olly laughing and joking in enormous relief at his brother’s wholehearted acceptance.

A prickling wash of tears burned below Ava’s lowered lids and a flood of anguished grief gripped her for the voice she would never hear again, for the supportive friend she had grown to love.


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