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The Italian's Christmas Child

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«The Italian's Christmas Child» - Линн Грэхем

A Christmas ConsequenceItalian tycoon Vito Zaffari is waiting out the festive season while a family scandal fades from the press. So he’s come to his friend’s snow covered English country cottage, determined to shut out the world.Until a beautiful bombshell dressed as Santa literally crashes into his Christmas! Innocent Holly Cleaver sneaks under Vito’s defences – he wants her like no other before and decides he must have her.When Vito finds her gone the next day, he’s sure she’ll be easy to forget…until he discovers that their one night of passion has a shocking Christmas consequence!
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A Christmas consequence

Italian tycoon Vito Zaffari is waiting out the festive season while a family scandal fades from the press. So he’s come to his friend’s snow-covered English country cottage, determined to shut out the world.

Until a beautiful bombshell dressed as Santa literally crashes into his Christmas! Innocent Holly Cleaver sneaks under Vito’s defenses—he wants her like no other before and decides he must have her.

When Vito finds her gone the next day, he’s sure she’ll be easy to forget...until he discovers that their one night of passion has a shocking Christmas consequence!

Vito was asking Holly to marry him...He was actually asking her to marry him! How was she supposed to react to that when she had been astonished by his proposal?

‘You should also consider the reality that eventually our son will be very rich, and growing up outside my world isn’t the best preparation for that day,’ Vito pointed out. ‘I want to be his father. A father who is there for Angelo when he needs me. A benefit neither you nor I enjoyed.’

He was making very valid points but Holly felt harassed and intimidated rather than grateful for his honesty. ‘But marriage?’ she reasoned. ‘That’s such a huge decision.’

‘And a decision only you can make. But there would be other benefits for you,’ Vito told her quietly. ‘You could set up as an interior designer and live your dream with me—’

‘You’re starting to sound like a trained negotiator,’ Holly cut in.

‘I am a trained negotiator,’ Vito conceded. ‘But I want to give our son the very best start in life he can have—with a genuine family.’

And that was the real moment that Holly veered from consternation and fell deep into his honey trap.

Mediterranean billionaires under the mistletoe

Christmas might be a time for giving, but these billionaires are thinking only of what they can take!

Vito Zaffari might have a ruthless reputation, but when Holly crashes his festive hideaway she leaves with an unexpected Christmas gift...

Apollo Metraxis has made a career of bachelorhood, but the conditions of his father’s will force him to choose a bride. Pixie might be the last wife he’d ever choose, but she’s soon the only one he wants!

Don’t miss either of these fabulous festive stories!

The Italian’s Christmas Child

November 2016

The Greek’s Christmas Bride

December 2016

The Italian’s Christmas Child

Lynne Graham

LYNNE GRAHAM was born in Northern Ireland and has been a keen romance reader since her teens. She is very happily married to 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 who knocks everything over, a very small terrier who barks a lot, and two cats. When time allows, Lynne is a keen gardener.

Books by Lynne Graham

Mills & Boon Modern Romance

Bought for the Greek’s Revenge

The Sicilian’s Stolen Son

Leonetti’s Housekeeper Bride

The Secret His Mistress Carried

The Dimitrakos Proposition

A Ring to Secure His Heir

Unlocking Her Innocence

The Notorious Greeks

The Greek Demands His Heir

The Greek Commands His Mistress

Bound by Gold

The Sheikh’s Secret Babies

The Billionaire’s Bridal Bargain

The Legacies of Powerful Men

Ravelli’s Defiant Bride

Christakis’s Rebellious Wife

Zarif’s Convenient Queen

A Bride for a Billionaire

A Rich Man’s Whim

The Sheikh’s Prize

The Billionaire’s Trophy

Challenging Dante

Visit the Author Profile page at for more titles.

Christmas is one of my favourite times of year.

It’s about family and friends, so this is dedicated to you.


Back Cover Text


Christmas with a Tycoon

Title Page

About the Author

html#uef55c23c-67e8-510d-85a8-6217d4fb21f8" id="back_uef55c23c-67e8-510d-85a8-6217d4fb21f8">Dedication















THE MOORLAND LANDSCAPE on Dartmoor was cold and crisp with ice. As the four-wheel drive turned off the road onto a rough lane, Vito saw the picturesque cottage sheltering behind winter-bare trees with graceful frosted branches. His lean, strong face grim with exhaustion, he got out of the car ahead of his driver, only tensing as he heard the sound of yet another text hitting his phone. Ignoring it, he walked into the property while the driver emptied the car.

Instant warmth greeted him and he raked a weary hand through the dense blue-black hair that the breeze had whipped across his brow. There was a welcome blaze in the brick inglenook fireplace and he fought the sense of relief threatening to engulf him. He was not a coward. He had not run away as his ex-fiancée had accused him of doing. He would have stood his ground and stayed in Florence had he not finally appreciated that the pursuit of the paparazzi and outrageous headlines were only being fuelled by his continuing presence.

He had grudgingly followed his best friend Apollo’s advice and had removed himself from the scene, recognising that his mother had quite enough to deal with when her husband was in hospital following a serious heart attack without also having to suffer the embarrassment of her son’s newly acquired notoriety. Undeniably, his friend had much more experience than Vito had of handling scandals and bad publicity. The Greek playboy had led a far less restricted life than Vito, who had known from an early age that he would become the next CEO of the Zaffari Bank. His grandfather had steeped him in the history and traditions of a family that could trace its beginnings back to the Middle Ages when the Zaffari name had stood shoulder to shoulder with words like honour and principle. No more, Vito reflected wryly. Now he would be famous for ever as the banker who had indulged in drugs and strippers.

Not his style, not his style at all, Vito ruminated ruefully, breaking free of his thoughts to lavishly tip his driver and thank him. When it came to the drug allegations, he could only suppress a groan. One of his closest friends at school had taken something that had killed him at a party and Vito had never been tempted by illegal substances. And the whores? In truth Vito could barely remember when he had last had sex. Although he had been engaged until a week earlier, Marzia had always been cool in that department.

‘She’s a lady to her backbone.’ His grandfather had sighed approvingly, shortly before his passing. ‘A Ravello with the right background and breeding. She will make a superb hostess and future mother for your children.’

Not now, though, Vito thought, glancing at his phone to discover that his ex had sent him yet another text. Dio mio, what did she want from him now? He had perfectly understood her decision to break off their engagement and he had wasted no time in putting the house she had been furnishing for their future occupation back on the market. That, however, had proved to be a move that had evidently rankled, even though he had assured Marzia that she was welcome to keep every stick of furniture in the place.

What about the Abriano painting? she’d texted.

He pointed out that his grandfather’s engagement gift would have to be returned. It was worth millions—how much more compensation was he to pay in terms of damages? He had offered her the house but she had refused it.

But in spite of his generosity, he still felt guilty. He had messed up Marzia’s life and embarrassed her. For probably the first time in his life he had wronged someone. On the spur of the moment he had made a decision that had hit Marzia very hard and even the sincerest apology could not lessen the impact of it. But he could not have told his former fiancée the truth because he could not have trusted her to keep it secret. And if the truth came out, his sacrifice would be pointless and it would plunge the only woman he had ever loved into gross humiliation and heartbreak.

Vito had made a very tough choice and he was fully prepared to take the heat for it.

That, indeed, was why vanishing off-grid for a couple of weeks over Christmas still felt disturbingly gutless to Vito, whose natural instincts were pre-emptive and forceful.

* * *

‘Ritchie’s a lying, cheating scumbag!’ Holly’s flatmate and best friend, Pixie, ranted furiously down the phone.

Holly grimaced and pushed her hand through her heavy mane of black curling hair, her big blue eyes red-rimmed and sad as she checked her watch to see that she was still safely within her lunch hour. ‘You’re not going to get any argument from me on that score,’ she said ruefully.

‘He’s as bad as that last guy who borrowed all the money from you,’ Pixie reminded her with a typical lack of tact. ‘And the one before that who wanted to marry you so that you could act as a carer for his invalid mother!’

Wincing at her disheartening past history with men, Holly reflected that she could not have done worse in the dating stakes had she drawn up a specific list of selfish, dishonest losers. ‘Let’s not look back,’ she urged, keen to move on to more positive subjects.

Pixie refused to cooperate, saying, ‘So, what on earth are you planning to do now for your festive break with me, stuck in London and Ritchie out of the picture?’

A sudden grin lit Holly’s oval face with surprising enthusiasm. ‘I’m going to make Christmas for Sylvia instead!’

‘But she’s staying with her daughter in Yorkshire over the holiday...isn’t she?’

‘No, Alice had to cancel Sylvia at the last minute. Her house has been flooded by a burst pipe. Sylvia was horribly disappointed when she found out and then when I walked in on Ritchie with his floozy today, I realised that I could take two pieces of bad luck and make something good out of them...’

‘I really hate it when you pick yourself up off the floor and come over all optimistic again.’ Pixie sighed dramatically. ‘Please tell me you at least thumped Ritchie...’

‘I told him what I thought of him...briefly,’ Holly qualified with her innate honesty, for really she had been too squeamish to linger in the presence of her half-naked boyfriend and the woman he had chosen to cheat on her with. ‘So, is it all right for me to borrow your car to go to Sylvia’s?’

‘Of course it is. How else would you get there? But watch out: there’s snow forecast—’

‘They always like to talk about snow this close to Christmas,’ Holly demurred, unimpressed by the threat. ‘By the way, I’m taking our Christmas tree and ornaments with me and I’d already bought and made all the trimmings for a festive lunch. I’m going to put on that Santa outfit you wore for the Christmas party at the salon last year. Sylvia loves a laugh. She’ll appreciate it.’

‘Sylvia will be over the moon when she finds you on the doorstep,’ her friend predicted warmly. ‘Between losing her husband and having to move because she couldn’t manage the farmhouse alone any more, she’s had a horrible year.’

Holly held firmly on to the inspiring prospect of her foster mother’s happiness at her arrival while she finished her afternoon shift at the busy café where she worked. It was Christmas Eve and she adored the festive season, possibly because she had grown up mainly in foster care and had always been painfully conscious that she did not have a real family to share the experience with. In an effort to comfort her, Pixie had assured her that family Christmases could be a nightmare and that she was in love with an ideal of Christmas rather than the reality. But some day, somehow, Holly was determined to turn fantasy into reality with a husband and children of her own. That was her dream and in spite of recent setbacks she understood that it was hanging on to her dream that essentially kept her going through more challenging times.

Both she and Pixie had been fostered by Sylvia Ware from the age of twelve and the older woman’s warm acceptance and understanding had been far superior to the uncaring and occasionally neglectful homes Holly and Pixie had endured as younger children caught up in the care system. Holly had long regretted not paying more heed to Sylvia’s lectures about studying harder at school. Over the years Holly had attended so many different schools and made so many moves that she had simply drifted through her education, accepting that she would always be behind in certain subjects. Now at almost twenty-four, Holly had redressed that adolescent mistake by attending night classes to achieve basic qualifications but the road ahead to further education seemed so long and complex that it daunted her and she had instead chosen to study for a qualification in interior design online.

‘And what use is that to you?’ Pixie, who was a hairdresser, had asked baldly.

‘I’m really interested in it. I love looking at a room and thinking about how I can improve it.’

‘But people from our sort of background don’t get hired as interior designers,’ Pixie had pointed out. ‘I mean, we’re just ordinary workers trying to pay our bills, not people with fancy careers.’

And Holly had to acknowledge as she donned her friend’s Santa outfit that there was nothing fancy or impressive about her likely to combat that discouraging assurance. Fortunately the short dress had been far too generously sized on her infinitely more slender friend. Pixie might envy Holly’s curves but Pixie could eat whatever she liked and never put on a pound while Holly was engaged in a constant struggle to prevent her curves from taking over. Her golden skin tone hailed from an unknown father. He might or might not have been someone her erratic mother had met abroad. On the other hand he might simply have been a man who lived in the same street. Her only parent had told her so many lies that Holly had long accepted that the truth of her fatherhood would never be known.

At four feet ten inches tall, Holly, like her mother, lacked height. She pulled on warm black winter tights under the bright red satin and corseted dress. Thrusting her feet into cowboy boots rather than the heels Pixie had sported for her party a year earlier, Holly scowled at her gaudy, busty reflection in the mirror and jammed on the Santa hat in a defiant move. OK, she looked comical, she acknowledged, but her appearance would make Sylvia laugh and overlook the disappointment of not having her own daughters around her to celebrate Christmas Day with, and that was what was truly important.

Planning to spend the night on the sofa in Sylvia’s tiny living area, she packed her rucksack and carefully placed what remained of the decorations and the food into a box heavy enough to make her stagger on her final trip to the car. At least the food wouldn’t be going to waste, she thought with determined positivity, until a flashback of the ugly scene she had interrupted with Ritchie and the receptionist at his insurance office cut through her rebellious brain.

Her tummy rolled with nausea and her battered heart clenched. In the middle of the day as well, she thought with a shudder. She couldn’t imagine even having sex, never mind going at it on a desk in broad daylight. Possibly she wasn’t a very adventurous person. In fact both she and Pixie were probably pretty strait-laced. At twelve years old they had shuddered over the ugly chaos of broken relationships in their mothers’ lives and had solemnly decided to swear off men altogether. Of course once puberty had kicked in, with all its attendant confusing hormones, that rule had failed. At fourteen they had ditched their embargo on men while deciding that sex was the real danger and best avoided outside a serious relationship. A serious committed relationship. Holly’s eyes rolled at the memory of their mutual innocence. And so far neither she nor her friend had managed to have a serious committed relationship with a man.

All that considered thought about steering clear of sexual relationships hadn’t done her many favours either, Holly reflected with helpless insecurity. There had been men she really liked who ran a mile from what they saw as her outdated expectations and then there had been the others who stayed around for a few weeks or months, eager to be the first into her bed. Had she only ever been a sexual challenge to Ritchie? How long, for instance, had he been messing around with other women?

‘Did you expect me to wait for you for ever?’ Ritchie had shouted back at her, blaming her for his betrayal because she had held back on having sex with him. ‘What’s so special about you?’

Holly flinched at that ugly recollection because she had always known that there was nothing particularly special about her.

It was snowing as she drove off in the battered little hatchback that Pixie had christened Clementine, and she groaned. She loved the look of snow but she didn’t like to drive in it and she hated being cold. Thank goodness for the car, she acknowledged, as she rattled out of the small Devon town where she lived and worked.

Snow was falling fast by the time she reached Sylvia’s home, which was dismayingly dark. Perhaps the older woman was out at a church service or visiting a neighbour. Jamming down her hat over the mass of hair fighting to escape its confines, Holly rapped on the door and waited, stamping her feet to keep warm. After a couple of minutes she knocked again and then she followed the communal path to the little house next door, which was brightly lit, and knocked there instead.

‘I’m sorry to bother you but I wondered if you knew where Mrs Ware has gone and if she’ll be home soon,’ Holly asked with a friendly smile.

‘Sylvia left this afternoon. I helped her pack—she was in such a tizzy because she wasn’t expecting anyone,’ the elderly little woman at the door told her.

Holly frowned, her heart sinking. ‘So, she went to her daughter’s after all, then?’

‘Oh, no, it wasn’t the daughter who came, it was her son. Big tall chap in a suit. He’s taking her back to Bruges or Belgium or some place,’ the neighbour told her less certainly.

‘Brussels. That’s where Stephen lives. Do you know how long she’ll be away?’

‘A couple of weeks at least, she seemed to think...’

As deflated as a pricked balloon, Holly walked back to her car.

‘You watch yourself driving home,’ the old lady called after her. ‘There’s to be heavy snow tonight.’

‘Thanks, I will,’ Holly promised, forcing a smile. ‘Merry Christmas!’

And a very merry Christmas it was going to be on her own, she thought unhappily, annoyed to find that her eyes were prickling with tears. After all, Sylvia was going to have the best possible Christmas with her son and the grandchildren she rarely saw. Holly was really, really pleased that Stephen had swooped in from abroad to save the day. He and his wife were rare visitors but he had at least made the effort and now his mother wouldn’t have to spend her first Christmas as a widow alone. Holly sniffed and blinked back the tears, scolding herself for being so selfish. She was young and healthy and employed. She had nothing to complain about, nothing at all.

Maybe she was simply missing Pixie, she reasoned, as she drove with care on the steep, icy road that climbed up over the moors. Pixie’s kid brother was in some sort of trouble and Pixie had taken time off to go and stay with him and sort it out. It was probably financial trouble but Holly wouldn’t ask any awkward questions or offer unwelcome advice because she didn’t want to hurt her friend, who was deeply attached to her horribly self-centred sibling. Everyone had problems, she reminded herself doggedly, tensing as she felt the tyres of the car shift into a near skid on the slippery surface and slowing her speed even more. She had far fewer problems than most people and had no excuse whatsoever for feeling sorry for herself.

Ritchie? Well, that wasn’t an excuse. So, she had got hurt but then Pixie would point out that she was too soft in that line, too prone to thinking well of people and being knocked back hard when they let her down. Pixie was more of a cynic, strong on distrust as a means of self-defence, except when it came to her own brother.

Holly peered out of the windscreen because visibility was fading fast with the wipers unable to keep up with the heavy snow. She wasn’t the dramatic type, she assured herself, as the car coasted down a hill that seemed steeper than it had seemed when she drove over it earlier that evening, but the weather was foul and the light snowfall she had dimly expected now bore a closer resemblance to a blizzard.

And then without the smallest warning, and to the accompaniment of her strangled scream, the car glided in the most terrifying slow motion off the road into a ditch where it tilted over and wedged fast with a loud, nerve-racking crunch of metal. After switching off the engine, Holly breathed in slow and deep to calm herself. She was alive, no other car was involved and nobody was hurt. There was much to be thankful for, she told herself bracingly.

Sadly that was a conviction that took a beating once she climbed out with some difficulty, owing to the angle the car had crashed at, to inspect the damage. The side wing of Pixie’s elderly vehicle was crushed up against a large rock, which had presumably been placed to mark the entrance to the lane. My goodness, how much will the repairs cost? was her first fearful thought. It was her responsibility, not Pixie’s.

A spark of fear assailed her only after she had examined her surroundings. The road was deserted and lay under a covering of unbroken snow. It was a bad night and it was Christmas Eve and she didn’t think there would be much passing traffic, if any. As she stood there nursing her mobile phone and wondering what she was going to do, Holly had never felt more lonely. She had no close friend she could ring and drag out in such dreadful weather on such a special night. No, she was on her own, sink or swim. Consternation gripped her when she couldn’t get a signal on her phone to use it. Only then did she turn round to look again at the lane she stood beside and there, like a faint beacon in the darkness, she saw the lights of what could only be a house and relief filled her to overflowing. Hopefully it was occupied and the occupant had a landline she could use to call for a breakdown truck.

* * *

Vito was savouring a glass of award-winning wine and wondering what to do with the evening when the knocker on the door sounded. Taken aback, he frowned because he hadn’t heard a car and there were no lights outside. Did the local caretaker live within walking distance? He peered out through the spyhole and saw a red-and-white Santa hat. Someone was definitely at the wrong house because Vito hated Christmas. He yanked open the door and enormous blue eyes like velvet pansies looked up at him. At first he thought his visitor was a child and then his eyes dropped and took in the swell of breasts visible between the parted edges of her coat and he registered that, although she might be very small, she was all woman.

Holly stared up in wonderment at the male who appeared in the doorway. He looked like every fantasy male she had ever dreamt about meeting all rolled into one spectacular package. In fact he was so gorgeous with his black hair, designer stubble and dark, deep-set, mysterious eyes that he made her teeth clench in dismay because he didn’t look approachable or helpful or anything that might have encouraged her. That he wore a very formal dark business suit with a white shirt and natty gold tie didn’t help to relax her either.

‘If you’re looking for a party, you’re at the wrong house,’ Vito told her loftily, recalling his friend’s warnings about how sneaky the paparazzi could be. If he’d thought about that risk, he wouldn’t have answered the door at all.

‘I’m looking for a phone. Mine has no reception here and my car went off the road at the foot of your lane,’ Holly explained in a rush. ‘Do you have a landline?’

Exasperation flashed through Vito, who had far too much sensitive information on his cell phone to consider loaning it to anyone. ‘This isn’t my house. I’ll look and see,’ he fielded drily.

As he turned on his heel without inviting her in out of the heavily falling snow, Holly grimaced and shivered because she wasn’t dressed for bad weather, having only thrown on a raincoat to cover her outfit because she had known she would be warm inside the car. Not Mr Nice Guy, anyway, she thought ruefully. She had recognised the impatience in those electrifyingly dark magnetic eyes, watched the flare of his nostrils and the tightening of his wide, sculpted mouth as he’d bit back a withering comment. She was good at reading faces, even gorgeous ones, she conceded, as she shifted her feet in a vain effort to heat the blood freezing in her veins. She didn’t think she had ever seen a more handsome man, no, not even on a movie screen, but personality-wise she reckoned that there was a good chance that he was chillier than an icicle.

‘There is a phone... You may step inside to use it,’ he invited grudgingly, his foreign accent edging every syllable in a very attractive way.

Holly reddened with discomfiture, already well aware that she was not a welcome visitor. She dug out her phone to scroll through numbers for Pixie’s car mechanic, Bill, who ran a breakdown service. As she did so, she missed seeing the step in front of her and tripped over it, falling forward with a force that would have knocked the breath from her body had not strong arms snapped out to catch her before she fell.

‘Watch out...’ Taken aback by a level of clumsiness utterly unknown to a male as surefooted as a cat, Vito virtually lifted her into the porch. As her hair briefly brushed his face he was engulfed by the scent of oranges, sweet and sun-warmed. But it was only by touching her and seeing her face below the lights that he registered that she was almost blue with cold. ‘Maledizione, you’re freezing! Why didn’t you tell me that?’

‘It’s enough of an imposition coming to the door—’

‘Yes, I would surely have been happier to trip over your frozen corpse on my doorstep in the morning!’ Vito fielded scathingly. ‘You should’ve told me—’

‘You’ve got eyes of your own and an off-putting manner. I don’t like bothering people,’ Holly said truthfully while she frantically rubbed her hands over her raincoat in an effort to get some feeling back into her fingers before she tried to work her phone again.

Vito gazed down at her from his height of six foot one. He was bemused by her criticism when he was trying to be pleasant and when he could not recall when a woman had last offered him a word of criticism. Even in the act of breaking their engagement, Marzia had contrived not to speak a word of condemnation. Either a woman of saintly tolerance or one who didn’t give a damn who he might have slept with behind her back? It was a sobering thought.

An off-putting manner? Could that be true about him? His grandfather had taught him to maintain distance between himself and others and he had often thought that a useful gift when it came to commanding a large staff, none of whom dared to take liberties with their authoritarian CEO.

Thoroughly irritated by the thoughts awakened by his visitor and that unfamiliar self-questioning mode, he swiped the phone from between her shaking fingers and said firmly, ‘Go and warm up first by the fire and then make the call.’

‘Are you sure you don’t mind?’

‘I will contrive to bear it.’

Halfway towards the wonderful blaze of the log fire illuminating the dim interior, Holly spun round with a merriment in her eyes that lit up her whole face and she laughed. ‘You’re a sarky one, aren’t you?’

In the firelight her eyes were bright as sapphires and that illuminating smile made the breath catch in his throat because it lent her incredible appeal. And Vito was not the sort of male who noticed women very often and when he did he usually swiftly stifled the impulse. But for a split second that playful tone and that radiant smile knocked him sideways and he found himself staring. He scanned the glorious dark hair that fell free of the Santa hat as she whipped it off, before lowering his appreciative gaze to the wonderfully generous thrust of her breasts above a neat little waist, right down to the hem of the shimmering dress that revealed slim knees and shapely calves incongruously encased in cowboy boots. He threw his shoulders back, bracing as the pulse at his groin beat out a different kind of tension.

Holly connected momentarily with eyes of gold semi-veiled by the lush black sweep of his lashes and something visceral tightened low in her pelvis as she let her attention linger on his lean, hard bone structure, which was stunningly hard and male from his level dark brows to his arrogant classic nose and his strong, sculpted jawline. Just looking at him sent the oddest flash of excitement through her and she reddened uneasily, and deliberately spun back to the fire to hold her hands out to the heat. So, he was very good-looking. That didn’t mean she had to gape like an awestruck fan at a rock star, did it? She was only inside his house to use the phone, she reminded herself in embarrassment.

She flexed her fingers. ‘Where did you put my phone?’

As she half turned it was settled neatly into her hand and she opened it and scrolled through the numbers. He handed her the handset of the house phone and she pressed out Bill’s number, lifting it to her ear while carefully not glancing again in her host’s direction.

Vito was engaged in subduing his sexual arousal and reeling in shock from the need to do so. What was he? A teenager again? She wasn’t his type...if he had a type. The women in his life had invariably been tall, elegant blondes and she was very small, very curvy and very, very sexy, he conceded involuntarily as she moved about the room while she talked, her luxuriant hair rippling across her shoulders, her rounded hips swaying. She was apologising for disturbing someone on Christmas Eve and she apologised at great length instead of getting straight to the point of her problem with her car.

What were the chances that she was a particularly clever member of the paparazzi brigade? Vito had flown into the UK on a private plane to a private airfield and travelled to the cottage in a private car. Only Apollo and his mother, Concetta, knew where he was. But Apollo had warned him that the paps went to extraordinary lengths to steal photos and find stories they could sell. His perfect white teeth gritted. At the very least, he needed to check that there was a broken-down car at the foot of the lane.

‘Boxing Day?’ Holly was practically whispering in horror.

‘And possibly only if the snowplough has been through ahead of me,’ Bill told her apologetically. ‘I’m working flat out tonight as it is. Where exactly is the car?’

The older man was local and, knowing the road well, was able to establish where she was. ‘Aye, I know the house down there—foreign-owned holiday home as far as I know. And you’re able to stay there?’

‘Yes,’ Holly said in as reassuring a tone as she could contrive while wondering if she was going to have to bed down in Pixie’s car. ‘Do you know anyone else I could ring?’

She tried the second number but there was no response at all. Swallowing hard, she set the digital phone down. ‘I’ll go back to the car now,’ she told Vito squarely.

‘I’ll walk down with you... See if there’s anything I can do—’

‘Unless you have a tractor to haul it out of the ditch I shouldn’t think so.’ Holly buttoned her coat, tied the belt and braced herself to face the great outdoors again.

As she straightened her shoulders she looked round the room with belated admiration, suddenly noticing that the opulent décor was an amazing and highly effective marriage of traditional and contemporary styles. In spite of the ancient brick inglenook fireplace, the staircase had a glass surround and concealed lights. But she also noticed that there was one glaring omission: there were no festive decorations of any kind.

Vito yanked on his cashmere coat and scarf over the suit he still wore.

‘If you don’t have boots, I can’t let you go down there with me... You’ll get your shoes soaked,’ Holly told him ruefully, glancing at the polished, city-type footwear he sported with his incredibly stylish suit, which moulded to his well-built, long-legged frame as though specifically tailored to do so.

Vito walked into the porch, which boasted a rack of boots, and, picking out a pair, donned them. Her pragmatism had secretly impressed him. Vito was extremely clever but, like many very clever people, he was not particularly practical and the challenges of rural living in bad weather lay far outside his comfort zone.

‘My name is Holly,’ she announced brightly on the porch.

‘ Sorrentino,’ Vito lied, employing his father’s original surname.

His mother had been an only child, a daughter when his grandfather had longed for a son. At his grandfather’s request, Vito’s father had changed his name to Zaffari when he married Vito’s mother to ensure that the family name would not die out. Ciccio Sorrentino had been content to surrender his name in return for the privilege of marrying a fabulously wealthy banking heiress. There was no good reason for Vito to take the risk of identifying himself to a stranger. Right now the name Zaffari was cannon fodder for the tabloids across Europe and the news of his disappearance and current location would be worth a great deal of money to a profiteer. And if there was one gift Vito had in spades it was the gilded art of making a profit and ensuring that nobody got to do it at his expense.

His grandfather would have turned in his grave at the mere threat of his grandson plunging the family name and the family bank into such a sleazy scandal. Vito, however, was rather less naive. Having attended a board meeting before his departure, Vito was aware that he could virtually do no wrong. All the Zaffari directors cared about was that their CEO continued to ensure that the Zaffari bank carried on being the most successful financial institution in Europe.


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