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Грэхем Линн

The Veranchetti Marriage

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“I WANT to discuss Nicky with you.”

Kerry sank nervously down on to an overstuffed chesterfield and studied Alex’s hand-stitched shoes. Icy fingers of dread were clutching at her heart. “I don’t feel so great today,” she muttered apologetically. “Couldn’t we leave this to some other time?”

Alex expelled his breath harshly. “No, we cannot.”

“My throat’s sore.” She edged up shakily again on the limp lie. “I’m going to make coffee. Do you want one?”


She walked out of the room and slid down heavily again on to a chair in the kitchen. Alex was here to tell her that he intended to take Nicky away from her. It would be very like Alex to deliver the death-blow personally. It still astonished her that he had not sought custody when Nicky was born. In an Italian court, as a foreigner with a charge of adultery hanging over her, she would not have had a prayer of retaining her son. Last night she had not let herself think about what he might mean. She had blocked the fear out. But was it likely that Alex would condescend to visit merely to discuss nursery education? Who was she trying to kid?

“I don’t want coffee,” Alex said icily from somewhere behind her.

“I don’t really care what you want or don’t want,” she admitted without even turning her head. “But you are not getting Nicky. I’ll fight you to the death before I’ll let you have him.”

“This is scarcely a discussion.”

“Look it up in a dictionary, Alex,” she advised tonelessly. “You’ll discover you have never had one.”

He pulled out a chair opposite and sat down. He looked alien against the backdrop of her homely kitchen. In the pin-drop silence she studied the scarred pine table surface. Alex twice in twenty-four hours was too much to be borne. He should not have come without the prior warning he had promised. Overly conscious of her sleepy, make-up-bare face and jeans, she was mortified. It annoyed her to think that he was probably looking at her now and reflecting that he had had a lucky escape.

“Have you finished?”

She wanted to smash something. The derisive tone bit like acid. “Just get on with what you came to say,” she prompted thinly. “I’ve got to be at the showroom for eleven.”

The dark-lashed brilliance of his eyes clashed with hers. She was too angry to try and veil the loathing in her own gaze. His proud bone structure hardened. “I believe you know what I am here to…talk about.”

She went back to scrutinising the table, her slight frame taut as a drawn bow.

“I’m no longer prepared to play so minor a part in my son’s life. Once he starts school, how often will I be able to see him?”

“Holidays…weekends,” she supplied woodenly.

“Apart from the fact that that is insufficient, I happen to live abroad. When he is at school he won’t be able to fly hundreds of miles just for a couple of days. It is time that changes were made,” he delivered in the same coolly measured tone. “Why should I suffer my son to become a stranger to me? It is not my fault that we are divorced. I remind you of that not out of any desire to be unpleasant. I merely state a fact.”

Kerry had gone very pale. Beneath her sweater a trickle of perspiration ran down between her breasts. He knew exactly how and when to insert the knife. Alex considered himself wronged.

She was the sinner, but she was most unfairly the guardian of their son.

“What is this man Glenn to you?”

Her Titian head flew back in surprise. “Steven? What has Steven got to do with this?” she demanded blankly.

Alex lounged back in the chair, perfectly calm, one brown hand resting loosely on the table. He might have been sitting in on a board meeting. “I asked you a question.”

“Well, you can go sing for the answer!” she snapped lunging jerkily out of her chair. Suddenly she saw what Alex was getting at. If he took her to court, he would do whatever he had to do to put up the toughest fight. If that meant smearing her reputation to suggest that she was an unfit mother, he would not retreat from the challenge. When Alex went out to get anything, he put his whole heart in the venture.

Steven was a good friend and her partner. Occasionally he ate here. Sometimes he took her out for a meal when Nicky was away, but those social pairings took place with his girlfriend Barbara’s agreement. A nurse with the International Red Cross, Barbara spent very little time in England. They had been in love since they were teenagers, but it was an erratic relationship, spiced by long periods of silence because Steven was reluctant to embrace the responsibility of marriage. He was content as he was, and too lazy to stray when Barbara was unavailable. But why should Kerry explain Steven’s love life to Alex? It was none of Alex’s business.

A hard hand spun her round. His fingers exerted pressure upon her narrow shoulder-blade. Tawny-gold eyes glittered down at her in a mixture of barely leashed fury and disbelief. In a sense she could sympathise with his incredulity. Four years ago she would not have dared to speak to him like that. But when she looked at the situation as it was, she saw no reason to hide her antipathy and her resentment. Alex would do what he wanted to do, regardless of how she behaved. He had proved that when he had ended their marriage, he had proved it continually in the years since.

“Let go of me!” she ordered, losing confidence as she collided for a heartstopping moment with his hard appraisal. Out of nowhere an odd breathlessness afflicted her, as if his fingers were squeezing her throat instead of her shoulder. “Alex, if you don’t let go of me…I’ll slap an assault charge on you…I’ve got nothing to lose!”

Dark colour overlaid his bronzed cheekbones, and an unholy flash of naked, seething anger lit his piercing gaze. “Shall I tell you what I am going to do?” His roughened demand was thickly accented as he stared down at her, releasing his hold upon her with a carelessness which revealed his contempt for her unnecessary threat. “I am going to do what I should have done when my son was born. Take you back and make you regret the day that you ever dared to forget who you belonged to…”

Kerry backed off against the kitchen cupboard, nervously licking her dry lips. “What on earth are you talking about?”

Alex cast her a hard, contemptuous smile. With the venting of that aggressive declaration of intent, he appeared to have regained his equilibrium. “Do you doubt that I can do it? I can’t think of why I omitted to do it before. I can have my son in my home. He can even have what he wants. And Nicky wants his mother as well.”

Dazedly she surveyed him. “But we’re divorced.”

“I could marry you again. I’m prepared to do that to get my son. He’s still too young to be parted from you,” he murmured shortly.

A brittle, stifled laugh left her lips. “You’re crazy. I wouldn’t marry you again if the survival of the human race depended on it!”

A black brow lifted, a ruthless smile slanting his beautiful mouth. “But what about your survival, Kerry? How would you cope if I told your parents why I divorced you?”

Parchment-pale, her strained features reflected immediate horror. “Why should you do that? You never see them. It doesn’t matter to you what they think…”

“Yesterday it stuck in my throat to listen to your father talking about the sanctity of marriage,” he whipped back in silken derision. “Oh, I know very well what they think.

That it was I who strayed into other beds. No doubt you came home and complained at length about the frequency of my trips abroad. They reached their own conclusions. Why did I sit and listen politely in silence to your parents protesting that it is very difficult for our son to be divided between two households? I didn’t owe you that silence. I owe you nothing.”

“Alex, I…”

He cut across her, “Last night I reached a decision. I will have my son and I will have you as well in the same house.”

She was trembling. Even hating him as she did, she could still appreciate that her father’s well-meant interference must have dealt a stinging blow to Alex’s pride. Alex had nothing to apologise for in terms of marital wrongdoing…at least nothing that could be proved and nothing major. His insensitivity towards her needs had not run to verbal or physical abuse. Dear heaven, she marvelled that he had remained silent about the real facts in the face of her father’s innocent provocation. What was happening now she didn’t really comprehend. It was too immense, too unexpected and too terrifying.

“I presume you understand me.” Alex sent her still figure a fulminating appraisal. “We will remarry or I will tell your parents what you are too ashamed to tell them. Perhaps it is time they were deprived of their na;auive illusions.”

Her lips parted. “You can’t threaten me like that. It’s blackmail…”

“Why not? If one may be blackmailed by the truth, let it be so.” Alex failed to flinch from her shocked condemnation. “Why should I be deprived of my son? If I take you to court. I am unlikely to win custody. It is very rare for a mother to lose her child. If I destroy your reputation to achieve my own ends, I not only embarrass my family, I sentence my son to the possession of a mother he can only be ashamed to own to in later years. Mud sticks,” he said succinctly, a fastidious flare to his nostrils. “I would be no cleaner than you if I began such a battle, and I have more pride in my family name. I will not dis[chhonour it with lurid publicity.”

She realised in stricken apprehension that Alex was not only coldly serious, he had mulled over the problem in depth. This was not an angry impulse to call her to heel. He wanted Nicky and he was not foolish enough to believe that he could separate his son from his mother without causing him a great deal of pain. In acceptance of the necessity he was prepared to take the two of them.

“Do you realise that my father has a heart condition?” she whispered shakily.

“I didn’t know, but that is irrelevant to me. Perhaps you should have thought of that four years ago,” he countered with chill emphasis. “I have more concern for my son, who is my family. To gain him I am prepared to use pressure, and let me assure you, cara, if you push me to it, I will carry through the threat. Why should I leave you to bask here in parental love and independence, raising my son as a foreigner in a…” Words appeared to fail Alex as he slashed a scornful glance round her kitchen. His mouth compressed. “My son should be in my home where he belongs, and he will be there soon if it is the last thing I do.”

Kerry was breathing fast and audibly. Alex had her symbolically up against a brick wall. No matter where she turned, she could see no hope of escape. Until now she had not known the depth of his bitterness. She had his son when she had no right to such a privilege. He had suffered by the loss of Nicky when she was the one in the wrong. She had never even begun to suspect that Alex felt as strongly about the situation. But how could she have? They hadn’t talked in all these years, and all this time Alex’s indignation had been damming up. Yesterday it had reached new heights in her parents’ home, and Kerry had foolishly given him the weapon. She had revealed how afraid she was of them learning the truth.

“You can’t do this,” she said weakly again.

Alex vented a humourless laugh. “Are you going to stop me? If you put your son’s needs first, you would not need to be forced. You would see that for him to have two parents and the background to which he was born would be indisputably preferable to what he has now. Shuttled between the two of us like a parcel, confused by two languages, two completely opposing life-styles!” he enumerated in savage repudiation. “How is he to know who he is?”

She did not need to have Alex throw the drawbacks of their divorce in her face. Did he regret the divorce now? Her soft mouth set cynically. He probably regretted the poor timing of her conception scant weeks before their break-up. Had she not been pregnant, he could have severed their ties for ever and remarried without a backward glance.

“So you have your choice,” he concluded drily.

She bit her lower lip painfully. “You haven’t given me a choice!” she argued furiously.

“You have until tomorrow to give me an answer.” Golden eyes held hers with cruel mockery.

“You ruthless bastard!” she burst out unsteadily.

Lean-fingered hands enclosed her wrists. He jerked her up against his hard, boldly masculine body as if she was a rag doll. “I’ll make you pay for every insult you give me now,” he swore roughly. “In my bed…whenever and however I want you.” Her darkened green eyes widened to their fullest extent. Alex’s fingers pushed up her chin, savage amusement burning in his gaze. “I shall enjoy that. Using you as you used me. I loved you. I loved you beyond the bounds of my own intelligence,” he confessed derisively. “I was so weak in the grip of that love that I was blind. But I don’t love you any more. I don’t need you, either. You have no hold on me now. You don’t even have my respect. If I were you, I wouldn’t incite my temper any further. You’ll only pay for it at a later date.”

The raw emphasis of the assurance left her boneless. His dark-timbred drawl had almost mesmerised her into complete paralysis. But, as his meaning sank in, her stomach somersaulted in violent rejection of his intent. A loud thump which she could hardly recognise as her own heartbeat was pounding in her eardrums.

“Capisci, cara?” With a cynical smile, he released her chin. “Tomorrow afternoon you can present yourself in my office in London. A car will call for you at two. You will leave Nicky with your parents and explain that you are attending a party with me tomorrow evening and staying overnight in London. I doubt if they will place any objection to the plan.”


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