The Boss's Christmas Seduction: Unlocking her Innocence / Million Dollar Christmas Proposal / Not Just the Boss's Plaything - Линн Грэхем - CHAPTER SEVEN Читать онлайн любовный роман

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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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FLOWERS would be old-fashioned, Vito reasoned five days later, during a boardroom meeting at his London headquarters that he was finding unbelievably tedious. He had another five hours to put in before he could call it a day. Impatient, he glanced at the wall clock again while his mind wandered to picture Ava clad in sexy lingerie reclining on his bed and then immediately discarded the fantasy. Unlike most of his past lovers, she would hit the roof if he gave her a gift like that. What am I? Your little sex toy? So attuned had he become to Ava’s feisty take on life, he could actually hear her saying it. No, definitely not the lingerie. What did you give a woman who acted as if your millions didn’t exist? Chocolate? Boring, predictable. Exasperation sizzled through his tall, powerful physique. He could not recall ever expending this much mental energy on anything so trivial. What did she need? Clothes. Ava was the proud possessor of the very barest of necessities. But she wouldn’t like him buying her clothes either. His big shoulders squared, his strong jaw line clenched. Dio mio, she would just have to put up with it.

‘Mr Barbieri …?’

Vito focused on the speaker with a blankness of mind he had no prior experience of in a business setting. He wondered if he was ill. Maybe he had the flu, maybe he had allowed himself to get too tired. Yes, that was it, too much sex, not enough rest, he decided, relieved by the explanation but acknowledging that he was not about to change his ways … not with Ava under his roof. He stood up lithely and offered his apologies for his sudden departure while explaining that he had somewhere else to be.

That same day, Ava made her decision over breakfast: she would go and see her father. It was a Saturday and the older man always liked to stay home and read the papers in the morning.

Fear of rejection, nerves and guilt had kept her from the door of her former family home, she acknowledged ruefully. Her court case and prison sentence along with the newspaper articles written about her fall from grace had seriously embarrassed her family and her father, who worked as a member of Vito’s accounting team, had been convinced that her role in Olly’s death had ensured that he was passed over for promotion. For those reasons, she was certainly not expecting a red carpet rolled out for her but she wanted to say sorry and discover if there was any way of restoring some kind of bond with her relations. If it crossed her mind that there never had seemed to be much of a bond between her and them, she suppressed the thought and concentrated on thinking positively.

The past week had proved incredibly busy but all the party arrangements were running smoothly and she had begun to decorate the house. She tried not to think too much about Vito while she was working. After all, in less than a week’s time she would be leaving and the affair would be over. That was not going to break her heart, she told herself firmly, but the hand in which she held her cup of coffee trembled. Hastily she set the cup down again. If she gave way to stupid feelings, started fancying that she was in love and all that nonsense she would be digging her own descent into despair by the time it ended. And no man was allowed to have that much power over Ava because in her experience, with the single exception of Olly, the people she loved had always hurt her badly. No, just as Vito didn’t do marriage, Ava didn’t do love.

Admittedly she was attached to him in some ways, she acknowledged grudgingly. He kept on trying to take her out to dinner and places which she hadn’t expected, having assumed he would be as keen as her to keep their involvement with each other under wraps. Certainly the staff must have guessed but by the time such rumours spread further afield Ava would be long gone. She had told Vito she had nothing to wear that wouldn’t embarrass them both in public but it was just an excuse to hide the fact that she didn’t want people to know they were involved. Much wiser to stay under the radar, she reflected ruefully, having no desire to attract controversy or see Vito outraged or upset by people who would be appalled that he could have fallen into bed with the woman responsible for his brother’s death. That was life and Ava had learned not to fight it.

Vito and her? It was just sex, she told herself every time he was with her. He couldn’t keep his hands off her but, to be honest, she couldn’t keep her hands off him either and the awareness that they had such a short time together had simply pushed the intensity to a whole new level. He was with her every minute he was at home and, although he was characteristically working on a Saturday, he had gradually started finishing earlier and earlier. They argued at least once a day, being both very strong-willed people. But they never let the sun go down on a row either and he stayed with her every night, dragging her up to breakfast with him at an unforgivably early hour while striding through the castle shouting for her if she wasn’t immediately available when he arrived home. She knew he liked her and that he cared about what happened to her. She respected his fair-mindedness, was even fond of him. But aside of the wild bouts of sex that took place every time they got within touching distance, that was the height of it, she told herself staunchly. With six days of the affair to go, she believed she was handling the upcoming prospect of their separation with logic and restraint rather than with the obsessive depth and despondency that would once have threatened her composure. After all, hadn’t that obsessional passion of hers for Vito once sent her running out of control into that car with tragic consequences? She knew better now.

The neat detached home that Ava’s parents had brought her up in sat behind tall clipped hedges on the outskirts of the village. Even though it was two miles from the castle, Ava walked there.

Damien Skeel had been instructed to put a car and driver at her disposal to facilitate the party arrangements but Ava didn’t want an audience to witness her being turned away from her father’s front door. As smartly dressed as she could contrive, she braced herself and rang the doorbell.

She was bewildered when a stranger answered the door and wondered in dismay if her father had moved house after her mother’s death. ‘I’m looking for Thomas Fitzgerald,’ she said to the middle-aged blonde woman. ‘Has he moved?’

‘I’m his wife. Who should I tell him is here?’ the woman responded.

Ava’s eyes widened as she tried to hide her shock that her father had remarried. ‘I’m his youngest daughter, Ava.’

‘Oh.’ The polite smile dropped away and the older woman turned her head hurriedly and called out, ‘It’s … Ava!’

Her father appeared from the direction of the kitchen, a tall thin man with grey hair and rather cold blue eyes. ‘I’ll deal with this, Janet. Ava … you’d better come in,’ he said without any sign of warmth.

But an invite to enter her former home was still more than Ava had expected after having her existence ignored for three long years, and her tension eased a tiny bit. True, it was a shock that her father had already taken a second wife but she had no resentment of the fact because her parents had never been happy together. The older man showed her into the dining room and positioned himself at the far side of the table, distancing tactics she was accustomed to and which felt dauntingly familiar.

‘I suppose you want to know what I’m doing here.’ Ava spoke first, used to the older man’s power play of always putting her in that position.

‘If you’re hoping for a handout you’ve come to the wrong place,’ Thomas Fitzgerald informed her coldly.

‘That’s not why I came, Dad. I’ve served my sentence—that’s all behind me now and, although I know I caused a lot of trouble for the family, I …’ Ava paled and struggled to find the words to express her feelings in the face of the look of icy distaste that her father wore.

‘I suppose you were sure to turn up like the proverbial bad penny sooner or later,’ he pronounced drily. ‘I’ll keep this short for both our sakes. I’m not your father and I have no obligation towards you.’

Ava felt as if the floor had dropped away below her feet. ‘Not … my father?’ she repeated thickly, incredulous at the statement. ‘What are you talking about?’

‘While your mother was alive it was a secret but thankfully there’s no need for that nonsense now,’ he told her with satisfaction. ‘My wife and your half-sisters are aware of the fact that you’re not a real member of this family. Your mother, Gemma, picked up a man one night and fell pregnant by him. And no, I know nothing about who he was or is and neither did your mother, who was … as usual … drunk.’

‘Picked up a man?’ Ava echoed, her pallor pronounced and a sick feeling curdling in her stomach.

‘Yes, it’s sordid but that’s nothing to do with me. I’m telling you the truth as your mother finally told it to me,’ Thomas Fitzgerald continued with open distaste. ‘You were DNA tested when you were seven years old and my suspicions were proven correct. You are not my child.’

‘But nobody ever said anything, even suggested that …’ Ava began jerkily, trying and failing to get her freefalling thoughts into some kind of order and comprehend the nightmare that seemed to be engulfing her. ‘Why didn’t you divorce my mother?’

‘What would have been the point of a divorce?’ the older man asked with unhidden bitterness. ‘She was an alcoholic and I had two daughters, whom I couldn’t have trusted her to raise alone, and I had my career. I didn’t want people sniggering about me behind my back either. I tried to make a go of the marriage in spite of you. I was a decent man. I fed and clothed you, educated you, did everything a father is expected to do …’

Momentarily, it was as though a veil had fallen from Ava’s perceptive powers as she looked back at her childhood and adolescence. ‘No, you didn’t. You never liked me.’

‘How was I supposed to like you?’ he shouted at her in a sudden eruption of rage. ‘Some stranger’s bastard masquerading as my own daughter? It was intolerable that I should be forced to pretend but I was responsible for your mother because I married her. There was no one else to take care of her and I had to think of Gina and Bella’s needs. I did my duty by you all but it was a lot more than your wretched mother deserved!’

The door behind Ava opened. ‘Thomas, I think you’ve said enough,’ the female voice said quietly. ‘It’s not the girl’s fault that you had to put up with so much.’

It was his wife, Janet, her stepmother … no, not her stepmother.

These two people were actually no relation to her at all. The shock of that realisation punched through Ava and left a big hole where she felt her brain should be. She turned in a clumsy circle. ‘I should leave.’

‘I think that would be best, dear. You remind Thomas of a very unhappy time in his life,’ Janet informed Ava in a reproachful tone.

Ava walked straight back out onto the road, feeling as if she had concussion because she couldn’t think straight. The secret was out: she finally knew why her father had never liked her and her mother had always preferred her sisters. Evidently she was ‘some stranger’s bastard’, not a legitimate child of Thomas Fitzgerald’s first marriage, not to mention being a constant galling reminder of his wife’s infidelity. No longer did she need to wonder why the man had persisted in calling her ‘Ginger’, why she had been sent off to school, shunned and excluded from the family when she messed up: she wasn’t a part of the family and was barely entitled to call herself by the name Fitzgerald. All her life she had been a cuckoo in the nest and now she knew why and there was absolutely nothing she could do about it. No amends that she could make, no bridges she could possibly build. The family reunion she had prayed for was nothing more than a silly girlish pipe dream.

Vito flew back to the castle in his helicopter, warned the pilot he would be returning to London within the hour and strode from the helipad towards the front door. There he spotted Damien Skeel lounging up against the bonnet of his four-wheel estate vehicle and he frowned.

‘I suppose you don’t happen to know where Ava is?’ Damien asked hopefully. ‘I was supposed to pick her up at one but apparently she went out and she must have forgotten about the arrangement.’

‘Where were you taking her?’ Vito was relieved that he was neither insecure nor possessive when it came to women. Growing up with an emotionally unstable father had taught him to despise such behaviour.

‘To choose the Christmas tree for the castle from the estate plantation,’ his estate manager informed him with a smile. ‘And I hoped to fit in lunch.’

Ava was still keeping their affair a big dark secret, Vito registered, and his dark golden eyes smouldered at the realisation. He breathed in slow and deep. ‘I’ll choose the tree with her tomorrow,’ he heard himself declare.

The blond man frowned in surprise but nodded coolly. ‘If you see her, tell her I was sorry to miss her.’

Not as sorry as you might have been had you not missed her, Vito reflected with gritted teeth. There were times when Ava infuriated him and this was one of those occasions. Was she attracted to Skeel? Was that why she refused to acknowledge her relationship with Vito? His lovers usually went out of their way to boast about sharing his bed. Given the smallest opportunity they showed him off like a prize and proudly posed by his side for photos. But not Ava. Ava attached no strings and imposed strict boundaries. He was, in retrospect, amazed that he had been invited to share her bed. She never, ever asked him what time he would get back home. And she wouldn’t phone him, didn’t even text. He walked out of the castle in the morning and, for all she knew, he might have been dead five minutes later. But then all that made her one hundred per cent perfect for a guy like him, he reminded himself staunchly. No demands, no avaricious streak, no hidden agenda. What you saw was what you got with Ava and Vito knew how rare a quality that was.

His keen gaze tracked a sudden glimpse of movement on the drive and he registered that it was Ava. On foot and dressed like a bag lady in her jeans and horrible jacket, but even at a distance nothing could outshine her grace of movement or the delicate beauty of her features against her coppery hair. He supposed they were about to have the mother and father of all rows and felt surprisingly insouciant about the fact. He was very focused and persistent when he wanted something, he would wear her down.

‘Ava …’ Vito greeted her from the wide shallow run of steps at the castle entrance.

Lost in a reverie, Ava glanced up and blinked in surprise. Was it that time already? Surely he shouldn’t be home in broad daylight? Like a vampire he was usually only available during the hours of darkness. For a brief moment, she was snatched from her hopeless thoughts by Vito’s sheer charismatic appeal. He was truly stunning from his cropped black-as-night hair to his hand-stitched shoes and designer suit. The minute she saw him she wanted to touch him but always quenched the urge, determined not to feed his ego. If he could be cool, she could be even cooler.

Vito threw his big shoulders back and gave her a blinding smile that in a normal mood would have made her suspicious. ‘We’re going shopping …’

Her lashes fluttered because she didn’t know what he was talking about and really couldn’t be bothered asking for clarification. Everything felt so far removed from her that a glass wall might as well have separated them.

‘And since you’re here, let’s leave right now,’ Vito proposed, descending the steps and closing a hand over hers.

It was second nature to Ava to yank her hand free and say in dismay, ‘No—someone might see—’

‘It’s not like I’m trying to shag you on the front lawn!’ Vito flamed back.

‘Don’t be crude,’ Ava told him.

Vito expelled his breath in a furious hiss. He thought of all the years he had spent with normal women, greedy, vain, untrustworthy women, who would never have dreamt of pushing him away. And then there was Ava. He stopped dead and closed his arms round her like a prison.

‘What you … doing?’ she mumbled, all at sea again, an odd distracted air about her.

Vito took advantage. He never failed to take advantage when the right opportunity offered because Ava didn’t drop her defences very often. He scooped her up against him so that her feet parted company with the ground and brought his mouth crashing down on hers with devouring eroticism, and that explosion of high-voltage sensation broke through her barriers and she blinked in bewilderment, suddenly depth-charged out of her state of shock. His tongue snaked against hers and a helpless shiver ran through her. He was so incredibly sexy, she thought dimly, swept away by the throbbing swelling of her breasts and the hot dart of pulsing warmth between her thighs. He just touched her and she wanted to chain him to the bed. He rocked against her, letting her know that he was equally aroused, and that was when she recalled that they were still in full view of the castle windows and she shimmied down the length of him like a fleeing cat.

‘No! I don’t want to be seen doing this with you!’

They were already more than halfway to the helicopter. Vito decided not to make an issue of it, although where had not making an issue of Harvey got him? Harvey kept on giving him a paw and nudging him expectantly. Harvey was pushy, desperate to be noticed now that he was sentenced to sleeping downstairs at night, and he stalked Vito round the castle when he was at home. ‘He likes you,’ Ava had said appreciatively but it was not an honour that Vito had sought.

‘Where are we going?’ Ava prompted suddenly.

‘London … shopping,’ Vito proffered casually, wondering why she wasn’t putting up a fight about the prospect.

‘In a helicopter?’ Her head ached with the force of the self-discipline she was utilising to hold her flailing emotions in check.

‘It’ll give us more time.’

‘I’m not really in the mood.’

‘It’s your birthday tomorrow. This is my treat,’ Vito pronounced.

Presumably he wanted to buy her a present and if he had organised the trip for her benefit she didn’t want to be difficult about it.

‘Is there anything wrong? You’re very quiet,’ Vito commented, leaning down to do up her seat belt for her when she ignored the necessity.

‘Thanks.’ Ava forced a smile, striving to behave normally. ‘No, there’s nothing wrong.’

The helicopter rose noisily into the air. Nothing short of physical force would have dragged the truth from Ava about what she had learned from Thomas Fitzgerald earlier that day, she conceded painfully. Apart from the embarrassing reality that the older man still worked for Vito, such a private and wounding revelation had no place in a casual relationship. That was not what she and Vito were about and she would adapt to the sordid discovery that she would never know who her birth father was without anyone’s help. But a shopping trip …? Strange, she reflected wearily. She had always assumed that most men didn’t like shopping, but at least the pastime would provide a useful distraction from the burden of her unhappy thoughts.

Vito had requested that a personal shopper meet them at Harrods. He cast a questioning glance at Ava as the woman tried to engage her in a discussion about her likes and dislikes but Ava’s responses were few and her lack of interest patent. Determined to make the most of the occasion, Vito got involved, chose his favourite colours, nodded and shook his handsome head when outfits were displayed on hangers and freed from the threat of Ava’s interference, announced that everything was required. With all the animation of a shop window dummy, Ava tried on several garments. That achieved, the outfits began to pile up because Vito shopped as fast as he worked. The personal shopper called in two co-workers to help while Ava continued to hover in an apparent world of her own. Vito stifled his exasperation and decided that unlike most women she had little interest in what she wore. Handbags and shoes joined the pile, along with a beautiful green velvet designer gown, which Vito knew at a glance would be perfect for the party. In the lingerie department, determined to see the back of the gingham pyjamas, he looked to Ava to finally take part in the proceedings because he could not credit that she would let him do the choosing, and he was stunned to see that silent tears were rolling down her cheeks. She seemed totally unaware that she was crying in a public place …


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