Once upon a time, Mina had fallen in love with her boss, Cesare Falcone, and into his bed – only to find herself dismissed by him as a gold-digging tramp. But the story didn’t end there: four years later, Mina and Cesare were reunited, and he discovered that she had kept the consequences of their one night of passion to herself. Could there ever be a happy ending, now that Cesare had discovered Mina’s betrayal? For Cesare, perhaps: he proposed, and Mina discovered that his offer of marriage was just a savage charade, designed to give their daughter a name and allow him to pursue his revenge at leisure? THIS TIME, FOREVER?
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‘AND this is my executive assistant, Mina Carroll.’
Mina shook hands and smiled as yet another introduction was made by her boss, Edwin Haland. Elegantly attired in an Armani suit, her golden hair swept up into a loose Edwardian knot, she could easily have been mistaken for a wealthy patron, rather than one of the organisers of the charity benefit. Nobody would have guessed that this was the first time she had been invited to play such a prominent role or that she was a last minute stand-in for her immediate superior, who had come down with the flu.
A hand curved round her elbow, drawing her aside. ‘Where on earth did you get that suit?’ Jean, their junior PR officer, hissed. ‘Did you rob a bank?’
‘My sister’s wardrobe,’ Mina whispered with dancing amethyst eyes.
‘I wish we could swap sisters. Mine’s into Doc Martens and vampire make-up,’ Jean groaned. ‘And even if I was insane enough to want to borrow something, I’d have to mug her to get it! Yours must be an angel.’
Mina laughed. ‘Not quite.’ She frowned at the untouched buffet and the hovering waiters. ‘Why isn’t the food being served?’
‘Our VIP’s flight has been held up.’ Jean grinned. ‘Of course, I forgot. You’ve been on holiday. You won’t have met our newest sponsor yet. What a treat you have in store!’
‘He must be some VIP if Mr Haland won’t start without him.’
‘Socially prominent, mega-rich, background of family philanthropy,’ Jean told her in a mocking undertone. ‘Manna from heaven. Our directors did everything but kiss his feet. The more humble office mortals looked, longed and languished—even Polly, our man-hating tea lady.’
Mina’s beautiful face was wreathed with amusement. ‘Polly—you’re joking?’
‘Polly went out and bought a cream cake for him——’
‘You’re kidding me!’
‘I’m not. He’s drop-dead gorgeous. I was in the lift with him, praying it would break down…not that I expect he would have done anything with the opportunity.’ Jean sighed, smoothing her hands over her ample hips. ‘But you never know. Italians are supposed to like women well-stacked, and you can’t say I’m not that.’
‘He’s Italian?’ Mina had stiffened slightly.
‘And there he is.’
‘Heavens, where are your eyes?’
Mina’s searching gaze shrieked to a halt on the tall, black-haired man striding down the room, flanked by two of Earth Concern’s directors. Her heart gave a frantic leap behind her breastbone and every muscle pulled taut. She could feel the blood draining from her face, the sudden cold, clamminess of her flesh. She was in the grip of a shock so extreme she was paralysed by it.
‘Cesare Falcone,’ Jean whispered. ‘Falcone Industries. Quite a coup, don’t you think? Apparently, Mr Barry gave him a copy of our newsletter at some dinner and he was so impressed, he set up a meeting the same week! He even mentioned my article on waste recycling’
‘Did he?’ Mina unpeeled her tongue from the roof of her dry mouth. Waste recycling? Cesare?
Her stomach cramping with sudden nausea, Mina turned on her heel without a word and headed for the cloakroom. Mercifully it was empty. She braced her hands on the edge of a vanity unit and slowly breathed in, struggling to combat the sick dizziness assailing her. To see Cesare again where she had least expected to see him…when, indeed, she had never expected to see him again. Dear God, but life could be cruel, she thought with sudden raw bitterness.
Anger currented through her, squaring her shoulders, stiffening her spine. Four years ago, fresh out of college with a fistful of top grades, Mina had walked into what had appeared to be the plum job of her year. Cesare Falcone had hired her as his executive assistant. Three months down the line she had been sacked without warning and in the most humiliating way possible denied entrance to the Falcone building.
And, as if that had not been bad enough, she had been refused a reference. That refusal had put a big black question mark on her employment record. It had been well over a year before Mina had found another job and she had had to settle for a low-paid position without responsibility. Cesare Falcone had wrecked her career prospects in the City.
But he hadn’t done it alone, she conceded with painful self-loathing. She might not have deserved the brutal treatment she had been dealt but she had played a part in her own downfall. One slip…one mistake. She had fallen in love with her employer. She had become vulnerable. Her heart had got in the way of her head. Common sense had taken a hike. And when, late one evening, Cesare had broken out the champagne over a particularly successful deal, Mina had served herself up as supper…
She closed her eyes tightly, shutting out the memories, hating them, hating herself for ever having been that naïve, that reckless, that stupid. If it hadn’t been for that night, she would have sued for wrongful dismissal, but shame had choked her and kept her quiet when in any other circumstances she would have fought him to the last ditch for daring to terminate her contract on such terms. Gross misconduct. She shuddered in remembrance.