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The Italian's Wife

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«The Italian's Wife» - Линн Грэхем

Abandoned by her boyfriend and family after the birth of her son, Holly Sansom collapses in the street. Rio Lombardi, M.D.of Lombardi Industries, comes to her rescue. Rio insists that Holly stay at his luxurious home, and proceeds to lavish her and her baby with all that money can buy. But Rio's emotions are caught off guard by Holly's natural charm and indifference to his wealth. In fact, Holly would make a perfect wife…
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The Italian’s Wife Lynne Graham

is one of Mills & Boon’s most popular and

bestselling novelists. Her writing was an instant

success with readers worldwide. Since her first

book, Bittersweet Passion, was published in 1987, she has gone from strength to strength and now has over ninety titles, which have sold more than thirty-five million copies, to her name.

In this special collection, we offer readers a

chance to revisit favourite books or enjoy that rare

treasure—a book by a favourite writer—they may

have missed. In every case, seduction and passion

with a gorgeous, irresistible man are guaranteed!

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.

The Italian’s Wife

Lynne Graham













WHEN Rio Lombardi finally heard the apartment door open, his handsome mouth quirked and he sprang upright. Christabel was in for a surprise.

A breathless series of giggles and an urgent whisper which he didn’t catch sounded from the hall, making him frown. Evidently, his fiancée had a friend in tow. That was the trouble with surprises, Rio acknowledged in exasperation: their very nature made them unreliable. He should’ve warned her that he might make it back to London a day early. Surrendering his fantasy of sweeping Christabel straight off to bed for a passionate reunion, Rio crossed the spacious lounge to announce his presence and make polite social chitchat instead.

But the hall was already empty. A pair of kitten-heeled turquoise shoes and a pair of diamanté-studded black satin mules lay abandoned on the carpet. Frowning a little at the suspicion that his fiancée might not be sober again, and now also wondering if he was about to break in on some cosy girly get-together, Rio strolled down the corridor to the bedroom. He’d intended to knock on the door but it was wide open and the sight which met his eyes was so shocking, so utterly unbelievable to him, that his lean hand froze in mid-air.

Halfway out of her dress, Christabel was kissing…another woman, also half out of her dress. Paralysed to the threshold, Rio stared, his dark-as-midnight eyes totally refusing to accept what he was seeing. They were drunk, fooling about, he started to tell himself; maybe they had realised he was in the apartment and were playing some stupid tasteless joke on him. But they were locked together, breast to breast, hip to hip, Christabel’s glossy blonde hair mingling with the brunette’s darker tresses as they touched each other with the unmistakable eagerness of lovers. He was so revolted by that acknowledgement that for an instant he felt physically ill. Christabel, his woman, his lover, his bride-to-be…

Christabel drew back with a husky, sexy laugh, her fabulous face flushed with excitement, and only then did the two women realise that they had an audience poised in the doorway. Rio recognised the brunette as one of Christabel’s friends: Tammy something or other, another fashion model, also another man’s wife.

For a split-second nobody moved or spoke. Aghast, Christabel and Tammy gaped at him, and then the brunette loosed a strangled moan of horror and fled into the connecting bathroom, noisily slamming and locking the door behind her.

‘H-heavens…what a fright you gave me…’ Christabel faltered, frantically yanking up her dress to cover her bare breasts, her face now pale and stiff as marble, her wonderful green eyes glittering with fearful anxiety. ‘Please…you mustn’t misunderstand what you just saw, Rio—’

‘Misunderstand?’ Rio could never recall it taking more effort to speak one word levelly. Initial shock and disbelief were giving way to rage and an unfamiliar sense of appalled bewilderment that only stoked the rage higher.

‘We were just mucking around. Don’t be old-fashioned about this…’ Christabel urged in the charged silence as she moved closer and made a little pleading movement with her manicured hands.

Rio could not take his eyes off her. Christabel Kent, the world-famous supermodel and media darling who wore his engagement ring, her Nordic fairness and endless legs a legend in the fashion and beauty market. Perfect face, perfect body.

‘OK…I’ll come clean,’ Christabel continued feverishly. ‘So I was missing you dreadfully and I like a change occasionally—’

‘A change? You make it sound like it’s nothing—’

‘It isn’t…it’s just sex!’ his fiancée interrupted, reaching for the lean, powerful hands coiled into fierce fists of self-restraint by his sides. ‘Nothing for you to worry about or even think about, because if you don’t like it I swear it won’t ever happen again!’

Rio backed out of her reach. In his mind’s eye he could still only see one image: Christabel wrapped half-naked and excited round another woman. Just sex? He felt betrayed. He felt incredulous.

He felt something he wasn’t used to feeling: foolish.

‘All right…you’re shocked and furious and I understand and I’m really sorry!’ Christabel was panicking at his lack of response. ‘I’ll make it up to you—’

‘What with? An offer to join the two of you?’ Rio derided between clenched white teeth.

Christabel looked up at him, green eyes gleaming with sudden relief lightened by a shard of seductive amusement. ‘Would you like that, darling?’

Violence coursed through Rio in a molten wave and a shudder of angry revulsion passed through him. If she hadn’t been a woman he would have knocked her through the wall and if that was an old-fashioned reaction, tough! Yet her stupidity in assuming that his contemptuous question might have been a serious hint that all would be forgiven if he got a piece of the same action freed him from that first binding shock.

‘I’ll give you time to move out of here,’ Rio breathed with raw clarity. ‘I’ll deal with cancelling the wedding arrangements—’

‘You can’t be serious!’ Christabel gasped in stricken horror. ‘We’re perfect together!’

Rio swung on his heel and strode back down the corridor, Christabel pursuing him every step of the way, pleading with him to calm down and think again. In the hall, she shot between him and the front door to prevent his departure.

‘If you tell people about this, my career will be ruined!’

Christabel’s career had been built on her clean, wholesome image. No risqué lingerie assignments, no media coverage of Christabel whooping it up like a ladette in the clubs, no bad-ass boyfriends. Christabel liked to pose for off-the-record interviews with fluffy animals and talk about how mad she was about children, not to mention how crazy she was about the man she was to marry and how much she was looking forward to giving up work to be a full-time wife and mother…

Rio reached out and lifted her bodily out of his path. ‘Dio mio…I won’t be talking—’

That fear overcome, Christabel cried in desperation. ‘Then why can’t you forgive me? Tammy means nothing to me. It’s not like she was another man or I’m in love with her. I love you, Rio—’

She loved him? Had she ever loved him? Or had she loved his enormous wealth most of all? His sculpted mouth tightening, he recalled that Christabel had expensive tastes that far outran even her own healthy earning power. Within a week of his marriage proposal she had confessed to a string of outstanding bills and had told him how hopeless she was with money. Impressed by her honesty, he had felt hugely protective towards her and had cleared her debts without even thinking about what he was doing.

Yanking himself free of her clinging hands in growing disgust at what her every reckless word revealed about her character, Rio left the apartment and made it into the lift. He raised one of his hands and watched it shake in disbelieving outrage. Balling his fingers back into an aggressive fist, he punched the steel wall with the full force of the rage and the pain splintering through him, the savage pain he had been struggling to deny. He had loved her, he had really loved her and wanted to marry her.

Santo cielo, he might have given his children a mother who thought three-in-a-bed sex was a wonderful thrill! A woman who had contrived to hide her true nature from him so successfully that the sheer shock value of what he had witnessed and heard would linger with him for a very long time.

Just sex? Hadn’t he been enough for her? Obviously not. As his bodyguards reared up from their seats in the ground-floor reception area, their surprise at his unexpected reappearance patent, Rio was blind to them, his darkly handsome features rigid and ashen pale. Outside, he drank in deep of the frosty night air before crossing the street to his limo. Had Christabel been lying back and thinking about other women in his bed? Had even her pleasure been faked? Had the eager desire she had shown for his lovemaking all been part of one giant con to ensnare a very rich husband? How could he have known so little about a woman he had been with for almost two years?

‘Your hand’s bleeding, boss. Are you OK?’

Rio angled a cursory glance down at his bruised and bleeding knuckles before meeting the troubled dark eyes of Ezio. The stockily built older man had been on his security team since Rio was a student and knew him too well.

‘Sì…’ But right at that moment Rio did not know whenhe was ever going to feel normal again. Like Saverio Lombardi, billionaire head of one of the proudest, oldest families in Italy and the driving force behind Lombardi Industries, one of the biggest, most successful companies in the world. He felt humiliated, sick and less than a man for the first time in twenty-nine years of existence.

How was he to explain this fiasco in acceptable terms to his vulnerable mother? Alice Lombardi was literally counting the days to her son’s wedding and was pitifully eager to cradle her first grandchild in her arms. She was a sick woman, crippled by arthritis, further weakened by a series of debilitating illnesses. Every week she survived was a literal gift from God and her poor health permitted her precious few pleasures in life. Now there would be no wedding, no prospect of a baby to fill the empty nursery, no bright and chatty daughter-in-law to occasionally enliven her dull, pain-filled days…

He had never openly acknowledged the reality before but he needed a wife.

‘Tammy means nothing to me…it’s not like she was another man.’ The insidious and seductive echo of Christabel’s husky voice made Rio’s hands clench into ferocious fists. No, he could not, would not forgive her, not for the sake of his own powerful libido, not even for the sake of the mother he adored. Christabel, the woman he had loved beyond belief, was a total sham. What did that say about his judgement? He had believed he knew his fiancée through and through, yet he had not even penetrated the surface of that calculating immoral mind of hers. He could not have chosen worse had he decided to marry a total stranger. He might as well stop and ask the first woman he met to be his bride…

With a harsh and bitter laugh at that insane idea, Rio Lombardi poured himself a large brandy from the bar in the back of the limo.

Holly was cold, hungry and scared.

It was barely one in the morning and the whole of the rest of the night hours still stretched ahead of her. For how long had she been walking? Her back and her legs ached and her vision was blurring with exhaustion but where could she possibly stop for the night that she would be safe? She had sat around in a train station for most of the day, moving seats every so often, striving not to attract the attention of anyone official, until the crude heckling of two youths had forced her to take refuge in the cloakroom. While she had been trying to freshen up there, her jacket, which had had her purse in the inside pocket, had been stolen. Her own fault for taking her jacket off, leaving it carelessly draped over Timmie’s buggy and turning her attention away for a minute.

No point approaching a policeman, not when awkward questions would be asked and an address requested.

Her purse, which had had her last few pounds in it, was gone and that was that. Like so much else that had happened to Holly since her arrival in London so full of naïve hopes seven months earlier, it was just one more kick when she was down, one more piece of bad luck in a run of bad luck that seemed endless.

As she paused to check that her eight-month-old son was still wrapped up snug against the chilly air, she shivered violently and fingered the two battered carrier bags that now contained all that she possessed in the world. She had to be the ultimate loser and failure, she decided wretchedly. Useless at everything, not even able to put the shabbiest roof over Timmie’s head and look after him as he deserved. Here she was out walking the streets, homeless and penniless, next door to being a beggar…

Yet just twenty-four hours earlier she really had tried so hard to pick up her sagging courage and get a grip on her problems. She had gone to the Social Security office to report that her landlord had tried to break into her room twice during the night and that she was terrified of him.

‘We’ve never had any complaints about him before,’ the woman behind the protective barrier had said, coolly unimpressed, not even trying to hide her suspicion that Holly was simply trying to get her accommodation upgraded. ‘If you don’t return to the lodgings we arranged for you, you will be deemed to have made yourself intentionally homeless. I advise you to think long and hard before you make that mistake, as you have a young child to consider. I’ll inform your social worker that you’re having problems—’

‘No…please don’t do that,’ Holly had begged, in terror of what such an interview might mean where Timmie was concerned. Her baby might be taken away from her and put into care. The last social worker she had spoken to had started out sympathetic but had lost patience when Holly refused to name the father of her child. But Jeff had said that if she dared to tell anyone that he was Timmie’s dad he would make her sorry that she had ever been born…

Well, she was sorry enough herself about that fact, Holly conceded miserably. She had devastated the parents who loved her by giving birth to a baby outside marriage. When she had finally admitted that she was pregnant her father had cried. As long as Holly lived she knew she would never, ever forget the sight of her father crying…or her own sick sense of guilt and bitter shame.

Her eyes swimming with tears at that painful recollection, and lost as she was in her own thoughts, Holly did not even notice that she was approaching a junction. Staring blankly ahead of her, accustomed to the noisy flow of traffic down the main road as a background, she was equally unaware of the lights of a car coming from her right.

The sudden steep drop of the pavement down onto the road took her by surprise and sent the overladen buggy lurching off-balance. As she made a frantic effort to right it, the scream of car tyres striving to brake to a halt alerted her to the danger that she and Timmie were in. In the split-second at her disposal Holly thrust Timmie’s buggy away from her with all her might in the desperate hope that it would carry him out of the car’s path to safety. But her own shaken attempt to make it back up onto the pavement was doomed as her heels hit the kerb and she lost her footing. Falling backwards, she felt a sickening explosion of pain at the base of her skull and then blackness folded in and she knew no more.

Rio Lombardi leapt out of the limousine. ‘Did we hit her?’ he demanded.

‘No!’ Ezio, who could move at the speed of light when required, was already retrieving the buggy and drawing it back from the other side of the road to a safer resting place.

‘I didn’t hit her…I saw her; I was already slowing down. But she walked out into the road without looking and just fell over!’ Rio’s chauffeur exclaimed over the top of the driver’s door, his attention lodged in horror on the still figure lying in the path of the headlights.

‘Call an ambulance…a private one from the foundation hospital; it’ll be faster,’ Rio instructed harshly, his tone of command pronounced to steady his companions.

He crouched down on the road and lifted a limp wrist to feel for a pulse, drawing in a slow deep breath of relief when he found what he sought. Although her skin felt frighteningly cold to his touch, she was alive. ‘She’s not dead…’ Springing upright again, he peeled off his suit jacket and bent down to carefully drape it over her, surveying the face of the unconscious victim for the first time. ‘Dio mio…she’s little more than a child!’

A very pretty child too, Rio found himself conceding, scanning that delicate bone-structure and the mass of bronze-coloured ringlets rioting round her small head, their vibrant colour only serving to accentuate her pallor. ‘What is she doing out with a baby at this hour? Did you see what she did for the baby? She was ready to sacrifice her own life to give it a chance—’

‘She’s probably its mother, boss,’ Ezio suggested, lowering his mobile phone, having made the requested call for immediate medical attendance at the scene. ‘It’s depressing, but kids are giving birth to kids all the time these days.’

Rio found himself strangely reluctant to accept that opinion. After a second, lengthier appraisal, he was prepared to concede that the girl could possibly be seventeen or eighteen years old. But she looked so innocent and untouched, and he had already noticed that she wore no rings. Ezio stooped to retrieve his employer’s jacket.

‘What are you doing?’ Rio demanded.

‘I got your overcoat from the car, boss. It’ll keep her warmer. There’s no point you catching pneumonia.’ Ezio had to pitch his voice higher to be heard above the noisy sobs now emanating from the depths of the covers heaped on the buggy.

‘I’m OK. I wish we could risk moving her into the limo. Giovanni…you’re a family man; comfort the child,’ Rio urged his other bodyguard as he accepted the overcoat from Ezio but chose to lay it gently over the top of his suit jacket to provide an extra layer of warmth for the girl. ‘She’s frozen through.’

‘Timmie…?’ Her head pounding fit to burst, Holly surfaced and with a heroic effort raised her head, reacting to the sound of her son’s cries. Not a pain cry though, only an anxious cry, she recognised in instant relief. ‘My baby?’

Rio gazed down into huge anxious eyes as disconcertingly blue as a Tuscan midsummer sky. ‘Your baby’s fine. Lie still. An ambulance is on its way—’

‘I can’t go to hospital…I’ve got Timmie to take care of!’ Initially bemused by that deep dark drawl with its unexpected liquid foreign accent larding every syllable, Holly was startled when the man dropped down on a level with her and pressed on her shoulder to prevent her from lifting herself higher.

Mouth running dry, she stared up at him just as he turned his arrogant dark head away, presenting her with his bold profile and the impossibly smooth, proud lines of a high cheekbone to address someone else out of her view. ‘Have you contacted the police yet?’

‘No police…please,’ Holly broke in shakily. ‘Are you the bloke that was in the car?’

In silent response, he turned back to nod in confirmation, regarding her with dramatic dark golden eyes which could have turned a saint into a sinner overnight.

Shaken by that abstracted thought, Holly said, ‘We don’t need the police or an ambulance. I’m all right. I tripped and knocked myself out for a second…that’s all—’

‘Have you any family…a boyfriend I can contact on your behalf?’ he prompted, very much as if she hadn’t spoken.

Even though it hurt, she turned her head away in self-protection. ‘Nobody.’

‘There’s got to be somebody. A friend, a relative, surely?’ he persisted.

‘Well, maybe you’re coming down with them but I’ve got nobody,’ she muttered in a voice that wobbled in spite of all her efforts to control it.

Rio studied her in frustration. She wasn’t a Londoner. She had a pronounced country brogue with rounded vowel sounds but he could not place it, although he had a vague recollection of once hearing an exaggerated version of a similar accent in a stage comedy. First things first, he reminded himself. ‘What age are you?’

‘Twenty. I don’t want the police…do you hear me?’ Fear made her strident and she began to sit up in spite of the sick whirling sensation that engulfed her the moment she moved. If she went into hospital, the police would call in the authorities to take charge of Timmie and he would be put in a foster home.

When she swayed backwards, Rio shot a supportive arm round her narrow spine. ‘You must have medical attention. I promise you that you will not be parted from your child.’

‘How? How can you promise that?’ she gasped.

The ambulance pulled in, all flashing lights and efficiency, and the paramedics took over, forcing him into retreat.

‘Timmie!’ Holly exclaimed in panic as she was moved onto the stretcher.

Rio strode forward. ‘I’ll follow you to the hospital with him—’

Holly realised that he was asking her to trust him with her son. ‘I don’t know you—’

‘But we know him.’ For some reason, the paramedic who had spoken chuckled with decided amusement. ‘Don’t worry, love. Your kid will be safe as houses with this gentleman.’

Exhausted by the effort she had expended, and trembling, Holly mumbled her agreement.

As the ambulance drove off Ezio passed his employer his jacket and said, ‘We’ve got the name and address of a witness and we should make a statement to the police just to be on the safe side.’

‘Per meraviglia…’ Somewhat bemused at the offer he had found himself making to placate the girl’s fear on her child’s behalf, Rio strode over to stare down into the buggy. In the nest of bedding and beneath the bobble-topped woolly hat, all that could be seen was a pair of big, scared blue eyes full of tearful anxiety and a tiny upturned pink nose. ‘You see to the statement. I’ll take…Timmie the timid to the hospital—’

‘I could take care of that and the statement,’ the older man pointed out quietly. ‘You haven’t slept more than a hour since you left New York.’

Nor had he been planning to sleep for what remained of the night, Rio recalled, his strong jawline clenching hard as he registered that he had contrived to momentarily forget the climax of his unannounced visit to Christabel. Closing his mind to that grim awareness, he stooped to remove the baby from its concealing layers of bedding. Timmie emerged rigid as a stick of rock, if possible his fearful eyes growing even larger to encompass the tall, dark, powerful man cradling him with surprising dexterity.

‘I’m a push-over for babies…especially scared ones.’ Climbing into the limo, Rio watched as the rest of the baby’s possessions were piled in, including the two worn carrier bags, one of which spilled over and let a feeding bottle roll out.

Timmie let out a squeal and stretched out a hopeful hand in the direction of the bottle, little feet kicking with eagerness.

‘You’re hungry…OK.’ Rio rooted through the bags and discovered a packet of baby rusks but nothing of a liquid persuasion. Timmie wasn’t picky. He had no manners either. He snatched at the rusk and lodged his two tiny front teeth into it, got them stuck and then let out a mournful wail.

Rio was kept fully occupied all the way to the hospital. He discovered that affectionately dandling one of his friend’s babies while a fond mother hovered within reach to take care of all the necessities was a far different affair from actually trying to handle a real live squirming and complaining baby all on his own. With the aid of a glass tumbler and a bottle of mineral water from the built-in bar, however, he managed to quench Timmie’s thirst—but not without soaking Timmie and himself into the bargain.

He emerged from the limo at the entrance to the hospital looking something less than his usual sartorially splendid self, with rusk crumbs scattered all over him and clinging to the damp patches. He was also for the first time feeling the effects of too little sleep on top of a severe attack of jet lag.

Ezio attempted to relieve his employer of his baby burden but Timmie wasn’t impressed and lodged two frantic hands in Rio’s hair and screamed in naked panic.

‘If you don’t smile at him, he doesn’t like you,’ Rio shared wearily, rearranging Timmie in a somewhat unconventional drape over one broad shoulder, where the baby hung like a limp but relaxed sack, one large masculine hand pinned to his spine. ‘He’s a real little bag of nerves.’

Greeted like visiting royalty by the receptionist, Rio was ushered into his friend’s comfortable private office to wait and a nurse arrived at speed to remove Timmie.

‘He needs to be fed…and other things,’ Rio warned, wincing as Timmie tried to cling to his protector and then bawled blue murder at being detached from him. The high note of fear he could hear in the baby’s cry was traumatic to listen to, Rio reflected, riven with discomfiture at the child’s distress.

It was an hour before John Coulter, the senior physician at the hospital, came to join him and report back on his most recent patient.

‘I think you just saved a life tonight, Rio,’ the older man announced in his usual cheerful manner. ‘That young woman is suffering from the early stages of hypothermia. Falling in front of your car was the best thing that could’ve happened to her. She and that child might have been dead by morning—’

‘I noticed she had no coat on, but presumably she would’ve made it home before hypothermia got a grip on her,’ Rio slotted in, his tone one of casual dismissal.

‘But she was planning to spend the night walking round the streets…she’s homeless, didn’t you realise that?’

Rio frowned in surprise.

‘I’ll have to call in the duty social worker. I’ll feel a heel doing it, though,’ Dr Coulter confided ruefully. ‘She’s terrified that her baby will be put in care, and even though that is very unlikely, as Social Services work to keep mother and child together, I wasn’t able to convince her of that.’

‘How are they?’

‘The baby’s in fine fettle. But the mother’s another matter…skin and bone, needs feeding up and looking after, but there’s no sign of drug or alcohol abuse, which is something in her favour. That accent too…deepest Somerset,’ the older man remarked with a wry smile.


‘Cider with Rosie and all that,’ John Coulter quipped, referring to the classic book set in a rural area. ‘Although, come to think of it, that wasn’t Somerset. I think it’s based on Gloucestershire—’

‘John,’ Rio groaned. ‘Never mind the book.’

The older man sighed. ‘Holly’s a country girl and hasn’t a clue how to go on in a city like London. I imagine that’s why she’s in such a fix—’

‘Holly? That’s her name? Can I see her?’

‘This is your hospital—’

‘It belongs to the Lombardi Foundation, not to me personally,’ Rio said drily.

Holly lay in her comfortable bed, scanning the elegant and luxurious layout of her private room and feeling as though she had dreamt it all up. But no, Timmie lay just feet away in the cot that had been provided. The kindly nurse had rustled up a proper feed for him, changed him and tucked him in. Her son was asleep now, snug and secure with a full tummy. Her eyes prickled with weak tears of shame over her own inadequacy. Timmie had a right to be snug and secure all the time.

The obvious solution to their predicament had been staring her in the face for many weeks now but she had been too much of a coward to confront it. She was not scared of social workers but she was scared of being made to look head-on at her own failings when set next to Timmie’s needs. Timmie had to come first. She had been horribly selfish. What kind of mother love put a baby on the streets in the middle of the night? She was twenty years old, and she might have left school early but she was not stupid. She knew right from wrong and she was finally accepting that all along her mother had known exactly what she was talking about…

‘If you give the baby up for adoption you can come home to us afterwards,’ her mother had promised with red-rimmed eyes full of strain and regret. ‘I won’t let you put your father through any more pain, Holly. You did what you shouldn’t have done and you’re paying the cost of it now. If you try to keep the kiddy there’ll be nothing but grief ahead of you.’

Over the past months Holly had learned the truth of words that had seemed so harsh to her at the time she had listened to them. Then she had still been foolish enough to hope that Jeff was making a home for them both in London, that he would want their child as much as she did and that he would go ahead and marry her just as he had promised. But Jeff had not made a home for them, had been outraged that she should’ve dared to give birth to a baby he did not want, and had never, ever had the smallest true intention of marrying her.

Timmie would be much better off adopted, Holly forced herself to concede. It would break her heart but it was cruel of her to keep him when she could not provide for him as he deserved. Her eyes stung with hot, prickling tears. There was no other choice available to her. She couldn’t earn enough in the employment market to pay for childcare or a proper home. Even living off the state in recent weeks, as she had been forced to do after a spate of ill health had seen her sacked from her last job, she had managed no better. Everything she had once owned had either been sold for cash or stolen. She now literally owned only what she stood up in. It was time to do the right thing for Timmie. He would have two caring parents and a decent home. How could she stand in her son’s way when she herself had so little to offer him?

The nurse bustled back in with a wide smile. ‘Mr Lombardi is planning to come and see you…now, aren’t you the lucky one?’


‘Saverio Lombardi. The man whose limousine you almost dented!’

‘A limousine…Lombardi? Isn’t that the same name as this hospital?’ Holly queried in confusion. Had he been in a limousine? He had certainly been travelling with an awful lot of people, she recalled dimly.

‘This hospital is run by the Lombardi Foundation. It’s a charitable trust set up by Mr Lombardi. We only take in local patients on emergency,’ the nurse explained. ‘People come here from all over the world for surgery that they can’t get in their home countries. The foundation covers the costs. Mr Lombardi is a very well-known philanthropist…surely you’ve heard of him?’

‘No…I didn’t notice the limo either.’ The nurse was talking about underprivileged people from less developed countries, Holly gathered in some discomfiture, charity cases. Although she had been taken aback by her luxurious surroundings, she had not realised that the hospital was private. Indeed, she had assumed that the hospital was simply brand-new and that she had got her own room either by sheer good fortune or because Timmie’s initial crying would have disturbed other patients. But now it was obvious that luck and Timmie’s lungs had had nothing to do with it. She was a charity case too.

‘Maybe you were too busy looking at those scorching tawny eyes of his,’ the other woman teased. ‘Not to mention the rest of him. Rio Lombardi is drop-dead gorgeous, and so fanciable you could kidnap him.’

On the other side of the ajar door, Rio hesitated in receipt of that unsought accolade and raised his brows in exasperation. Then, strong jawline squaring, he entered with a light warning knock on the door.

Holly jerked in dismay, her pale skin taking on instant discomfited colour as if she had been the one talking out of turn, while the night nurse scurried out with a bent head. But after just one look at the very tall, powerfully built dark male coming to a halt at the foot of her bed, Holly was challenged even to recall what had briefly embarrassed her. In all her life she had never seen a more breathtakingly handsome male and, no matter how hard she tried, she could not stop staring.

Drop-dead gorgeous had been no exaggeration. That lean, taut bone-structure, composed of flaring dark brows, proud cheekbones, wide narrow mouth and assertive jawline, was the very essence of raw masculinity. As she encountered his stunning dark golden eyes her mouth ran dry, and without any good reason at all she was suddenly very conscious that she was naked beneath the thin hospital gown she wore, suddenly hugely aware of her own female body. Her breasts seemed to ache and heat flickered deep in her pelvis, an oddly charged heat that drew her every muscle so taut that she could hardly breathe as he studied her.

Luxuriant black lashes screened his gaze as his attention lingered on her soft full mouth. In that quick upward glance he made to connect with her scrutiny again, she met the flashburn effect of those intense eyes of his and was appalled to find herself wondering how that beautiful male mouth would feel on her own.

‘How are you feeling?’ Rio Lombardi asked quietly.

‘F-f-fine,’ Holly stammered helplessly, aghast at a mind that could throw up such inappropriate thoughts, terrified that he might somehow suspect the effect he was having on her. ‘But I’ve got a concussion.’

‘I know…’ As Rio Lombardi strolled over to the cot to gaze down at her son, Holly, her face burning like a bonfire, struggled to get a grip on herself. But it was no use, for she could not drag her magnetised attention from him. He was well over six feet tall, his impressive physique lean and muscular, and in spite of his size he moved with extraordinary grace. ‘Timmie looks happy, though.’

‘Yeah…nice cosy cot,’ Holly mumbled, feeling like an idiot as soon as the inane words escaped her.

Rio Lombardi glanced up from his scrutiny of Timmie’s slumbering and peaceful little face, a faint smile still softening the hard line of his sculpted lips. ‘You shouldn’t have been on the streets with him,’ he remarked with quiet assurance.

‘I…I know,’ Holly stressed jerkily, her dilated gaze clinging to the mesmeric tawny hold of his, her heart jumping as if she had just leapt off a cliff, pounding inside her so hard she could hardly squeeze the words out.

She was still blushing as fierily as a schoolgirl, Rio registered with reluctant amusement. He had switched his attention to Timmie to give her a moment in which to compose herself but his subtlety had been wasted. He turned her on and she couldn’t hide it. Yet there was something strangely touching about her lack of artifice, her total inability to conceal what she was feeling and thinking. Those big blue eyes were like windows and that lush pink mouth betrayed her tension.

Her slight, slender body barely made a decent impression in the bed. She had the most amazing hair, though, Rio acknowledged. Released from whatever had held it in temporary subjection, her hair now cascaded in snaking corkscrew ringlets halfway to her waist, catching the light like rich, gleaming bronze. His attention strayed lower and momentarily lingered on the surprising fullness of the rounded swells pushing against the hospital-issue gown as she sat forward, the prominence of her taut nipples visible even through the barrier of starched cotton. Nice breasts, he found himself thinking, and he was startled when he felt himself hardening in urgent response, startled that even exhaustion and stress could not stifle his most basic urges.

‘I’m going to sort me and Timmie out…I r-really am,’ Holly swore earnestly in the charged silence, desperate to make him think better of her. ‘When can I get out of here?’

‘You need a couple of days of R & R,’ Rio responded, recognising the naïvety of that question when she was free to walk out the door any time she wished. But he was relieved by it and did nothing to disabuse her of her notion that she had to pay heed to some superior authority.

‘R & R?’

‘Rest and recuperation. A lady is coming to see you tomorrow.’ Recognising the flash of instant panic in her wide eyes, Rio gave her a bland smile of reassurance. ‘Nobody is going to make any arrangements against your will, but I think you’ll agree that you need some professional advice and support right now.’

Holly’s tummy muscles contracted in a sickening spasm of alarm, her thin shoulders hunching as she lost colour. At last, she gained the strength to take her eyes from him, but only because fear and deep shame over her own failure to give her son a proper home made it impossible for her to continue meeting his level gaze.

‘You’ll both be fine,’ Rio asserted in conclusion, strolling back to the door.

For an instant he hesitated as he remembered that crazy thought he had had only a few minutes before Holly fell in front of his limo. She was, indisputably, the very first woman he had met since walking out on Christabel.

Just as well he wasn’t insane enough to marry a complete stranger, he told himself with grim amusement. After all, Holly Sansom might be green as grass but she was still an unmarried mother. While he was a male who prided himself on his open mind, his family background and traditional Italian upbringing had imbued him with certain values and expectations.


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