SEVASTIANO WAS ON the very brink of a satisfying sex-fest with a lissom blonde model when his mobile phone interrupted him. Usually he would’ve ignored it, but that particular ringtone had been programmed in by his sister and it was distinctive. And Annabel would never call him late at night unless something was wrong.
‘Excuse me… I have to take this,’ Sevastiano intoned, stepping back.
‘You’re joking.’ The tumbled beauty assumed a baffled resentment, her ego clearly dented by his retreat. On the other hand, getting a technology billionaire into her bed was a coup of no mean order and had to have some drawbacks. She forced an understanding smile, because women adored Sevastiano and there was a lot of competition out there.
Certainly Sevastiano Cantarelli hadn’t been standing unseen behind any door when his looks had been handed out at birth. Six feet four inches tall, he was broad of shoulder and lean and powerful in build, and the exquisite Italian designer suits he wore were perfectly tailored to his lithe, muscular frame. Olive-skinned and black-haired, he was blessed by dark deep-set eyes that gleamed like liquid bronze in the low light.
‘Annabel?’ Sevastiano probed anxiously.
Frustratingly, he couldn’t get a word of sense out of his kid sister because she was distraught, sobbing and stumbling over her explanations. He did catch the gist of the story: some huge family drama that had apparently seen her told to leave the parentally owned apartment she inhabited and deprived of her car. Could she move in with him?
Sevastiano rolled his magnificent eyes at the idea that she would even have to ask such a question. She was the only member of his English family whom he had ever cared about. He still remembered the shy and loving little girl who would slide her hand comfortingly into his when their mother was referring to him regretfully as her ‘little mistake’ or her father was shouting at him.
‘I’m sorry I have to leave…a family emergency,’ Sevastiano told the blonde without a shade of hesitation.
‘It happens…’ Donning a silky robe, the model slid off the bed to see him out.
‘Dinner tomorrow night?’ Sevastiano suggested before she could speak.
She was beautiful, but many women were beautiful and yet still none could hold Sevastiano’s mercurial interest for longer than a month and few for even that long. Courtesy, however, was as integral to his nature as his attachment to his half-sister.
In his limo being driven home, he wondered what on earth could have happened to eject Annabel from her family’s good graces, because his sister never argued with anyone. Sevastiano had left the Aiken family and social circle of his own volition and he knew he hadn’t been missed. From birth to adulthood, after all, he had been the embarrassing reminder that his mother had given birth to another man’s child. He had never belonged. He had always been an intruder, the dark changeling when everyone else around him was blonde, and a high achiever when mediocrity would have been preferred. Those harsh truths no longer bothered Sevastiano. After all, he didn’t like his snobbish, shrewish mother or his power-hungry, bullying stepfather, Sir Charles Aiken. He had even less in common with his half-brother, Devon, the pompous, extravagant heir to his stepfather’s baronetcy, but he genuinely cared about Annabel.
So what on earth could she possibly have done to enrage her family? After all, Annabel avoided conflict like the plague. She followed the rules and stayed friendly with everyone, no matter how trying their behaviour. Only when she had insisted on training in art restoration had she defied the Aiken expectations. Her mother had wanted a daughter who was a socialite and had instead been blessed with a quiet, studious young woman devoted to her museum career. What could’ve happened to distress his half-sister to such an extent? Sevastiano frowned, conceding that he had spent a great deal of time in Asia in recent months and consequently had seen much less than he usually saw of Annabel. Obviously he was out of the loop…
And once Annabel had flung herself, sobbing, into his arms at his elegant Georgian town house, confessions, recriminations and heartfelt regrets tumbling in an unstoppable flood of revelation from her tongue, Sevastiano realised that he had been so far out of the loop that he might as well have been on another planet and that the situation was much more serious than he could ever have guessed.
Annabel had fallen madly in love with a much older man and had an affair. Sevastiano was even more shocked to discover that she had met the man concerned at one of his parties: Oliver Lawson, not a friend, a business acquaintance.
Sevastiano compressed his lips with a frown. ‘But he’s—’
‘Married… I know,’ Annabel cut in, dropping her head because she was too ashamed to meet his eyes. She was a tall slender blonde with large reddened blue eyes and a drawn complexion. ‘I know that now when it’s too late. When we met he told me that he and his wife were legally separated and getting a divorce… I believed him. Why wouldn’t I have? His wife lives at their country house and never ever comes to London and there was no sign whatsoever of a woman at his apartment. Oh, Sev… I swallowed every stupid lie and excuse he gave me.’
‘Oliver may be CEO of Telford Industries, but his wife owns the business. I would say it is very unlikely that he would divorce her. Lawson must be twice your age as well!’ Sevastiano said in frank consternation. ‘His life experience made it even easier for him to take gross advantage of your trust.’
‘Age is just a number,’ Annabel mumbled heavily. ‘I feel so dirty now. I would never have got involved with him if I’d known he was still actually living with his wife. I’m not that kind of woman—I believe in fidelity and loyalty. I really loved him, Sev, but I can see now that I was a complete fool to believe his every word and promise. When I told him that I was pregnant, he tried to bully me into going for an abortion. He kept on phoning me and demanding that I do it and then he turned up at the flat to underline that he didn’t want this child and we had a huge row.’
‘You’re pregnant,’ Sevastiano murmured flatly, striving to hide his rage from her because the concept of any man trying to browbeat Annabel into an abortion outraged him, particularly a man who had already lied and cheated his way into an inappropriate relationship with her. At twenty-three, his sister was still rather naïve, very much prone to thinking the best of everyone and making excuses for those who let her down. Obviously, she should never have got involved with Lawson in the first place while he was still married, but then his sister didn’t have much experience with men outside a first-love relationship at university with a boy-next-door type.
Even so, had she ever taken a clear unbiased look at the men in her own family circle perhaps she would have been less trusting. His mother and her father weren’t faithful to each other although they were very discreet. Her brother was married and a parent but had still enjoyed a lengthy affair with another married woman. Indeed, growing up, Sevastiano had witnessed so much infidelity that he had not the slightest intention of ever getting married. What would be the point? While he retained his freedom as a single man, he had nobody else’s needs to consider and he liked his life empty of family obligations and commitments and all the complications that went with them. Annabel and his birth father were the sole exceptions to that rule. That aside, however, he would still never have treated a woman as Oliver Lawson had treated his sister.
No intelligent man with an active sex life ignored the daunting possibility of an unplanned pregnancy and Sev had never run that risk with even a moment of carelessness, a track record he was proud to recall. But if anything did go wrong, it was a man’s responsibility to behave like an adult and support the woman’s choice, regardless of his personal feelings, he reflected grimly.
‘So, I womaned up and went home and told Mama and Papa about my baby and they went crazy!’ Annabel gasped, covering her convulsed face with her hands again. ‘I expected them to be upset but they want me to have a termination as well and when I refused they told me I had to move out of the apartment and hand my car back. And that’s fine…it really is. If I’m not living the way they want me to, I can’t expect them to help me out financially.’
‘They’re trying to bully you as well,’ Sevastiano breathed tautly. ‘Nobody has the right to tell you to have a termination. I gather that you want this baby?’
‘Very much,’ Annabel confirmed with a sudden dreamy smile. ‘I don’t want Oliver any more, not since finding out that he’s a liar and a cheat, but I still very much want my baby.’
‘Having a child alone will turn your life upside down,’ Sevastiano warned her. ‘But you can depend on me. I’ll sort out another apartment for you.’
‘I don’t want to depend on anyone. I have to stand on my own feet now.’
‘You can work on that goal once you’ve got yourself straightened out,’ Sevastiano told her soothingly. ‘You’re exhausted. You should go to bed now.’
Annabel flung herself into his arms and hugged him tight. ‘I knew I could rely on you to think outside the box. You don’t care about gossip and reputations and all that stuff! Mama says I’m ruined and that no decent man will want me now.’
‘That sounds a little strange coming from a woman who married your father while carrying another man’s child,’ Sevastiano murmured grimly.
‘Oh, don’t let my stupid mess take you back down that road,’ Annabel urged unhappily. ‘This is a completely different situation…’
And so it was, Sevastiano acknowledged after his sister had gone to bed. His Italian mother, Francesca, had been on the very brink of marrying Sevastiano’s Greek father, Hallas Sarantos, when she had met Sir Charles Aiken on a pre-wedding shopping trip to London. In Annabel’s version of the story, Francesca and Sir Charles had fallen hopelessly in love, even though Sevastiano’s mother had only recently realised that she had conceived by Hallas. In Sevastiano’s version of the story, Francesca had fallen hopelessly in love with Sir Charles’s title and social standing and his stepfather had fallen equally deeply in love with Francesca’s wealth. Two very ambitious, ruthless and shallow personalities had come together to create a social power alliance. Sevastiano would have long since forgiven both his mother and his stepfather for their choices, had they not denied him the right to get to know his birth father, who had strained bone and sinew to gain access to him, only to be denied for the sake of appearances.
What had happened to Annabel, however, was unforgivable in Sevastiano’s estimation. A much older married man had taken advantage of his half-sister and had then tried to intimidate her into having a termination against her will, a termination that would have neatly disposed of the evidence of their affair. And Oliver Lawson would pay for his sins, Sevastiano promised himself angrily as he contacted a top-flight private investigator to request a no-holds-barred examination of the other man’s life, because everyone had secrets, secrets they wanted to keep from the light of day. Sevastiano would dig deep to find Oliver’s secrets and work out where he was most vulnerable. He was pretty certain that Lawson had not the smallest suspicion that Annabel was Sevastiano’s half-sister, because he was a connection that the Aiken family never acknowledged.
The man, however, had seriously miscalculated when he chose to deceive and hurt the younger woman. At some stage of his existence, such a self-indulgent man would have made a mistake with someone else and Sevastiano would uncover that mistake and use it against his target in revenge. Sevastiano cared for very few people but he cared very deeply for his only sister, who had been the one bright spot of loving consolation in his miserable childhood. As long as he was alive neither she nor her child would ever want for anything but, first and foremost, Oliver Lawson had to be punished…