His unexpected wife!
Cristo Ravelli paces the floor of his father’s Irish country estate, ruing the day he heard the Brophy name. That his father died and left a brood of illegitimate children is hardly surprising, but to silence this scandal Cristo must bring their guardian, the enchanting Belle, in line with his plans! Belle Brophy’s only concern is her half siblings. She’ll do anything to provide them with the security she never had. So when this gorgeous Italian offers marriage, she won’t say no. But once the ring is on her finger Belle quickly discovers there’s more to a marriage than saying “I do”!
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CRISTO RAVELLI SURVEYED the family lawyer in disbelief. ‘Is this an April fool joke falling out of season?’ he enquired with a frown.
Robert Ludlow, senior partner of Ludlow and Ludlow, did not react with amusement. Cristo, a leading investment banker specialising in venture capital, and richer than Croesus, was not a man to be teased. Indeed, if he had a sense of humour Robert had yet to see it. Cristo, unlike his late and most probably unlamented father, Gaetano Ravelli, took life very seriously.
‘I’m afraid it’s not a joke,’ Robert confirmed. ‘Your father had five children with a woman in Ireland—’
Cristo was stunned by the concept. ‘You mean, all those years he went on his fishing trips to his Irish estate—?’
‘I’m afraid so. I believe the eldest child is fifteen years old—’
‘Fifteen? But that means…’ Cristo compressed his wide sensual mouth, dark eyes flaring with anger, before he could make an indiscreet comment unsuited to the ears of anyone but his brothers. He wondered why he was even surprised by yet another revelation of his father’s notorious womanising. After all, throughout his irresponsible life Gaetano had left a trail of distraught and angry ex-wives and three legitimate sons in his wake, so why shouldn’t there have been a less regular relationship also embellished with children?
Cristo, of course, could not answer that question because he would never ever have risked having an illegitimate child and was shaken that his father could have done so five times over. Particularly when he had never bothered to take the slightest interest in the sons he already had. Cristo’s adult brothers, Nik and Zarif, would be equally astonished and appalled, but Cristo knew that the problem would fall heaviest on his own shoulders. Nik’s marriage breakdown had hit him hard and his own part in that debacle still gave Cristo sleepless nights. As for their youngest sibling, as the new ruler of a country in the Middle East Zarif scarcely deserved the huge public scandal that Gaetano’s immoral doings could unleash if the easily shocked media there got hold of the story.
‘Fifteen years old,’ Cristo mused, reflecting that Zarif’s mother had evidently been betrayed throughout her entire marriage to his father without even being aware of the fact. That was not a reality that Zarif would want put out on public parade. ‘I apologise for my reaction, Robert. This development comes as a considerable shock. The mother of the children—what do you know about her?’
Robert raised a greying brow. ‘I contacted Daniel Petrie, the land agent of the Irish estate, and made enquiries. He said that as far as the village is concerned the woman, Mary Brophy, has long been seen as something of a disgrace and an embarrassment,’ he framed almost apologetically.
‘But if she was the local whore she would’ve been right down Gaetano’s street,’ Cristo breathed before he could bite back that injudicious opinion, his lean, darkly handsome face grim, but it was no secret to Gaetano’s family that he had infinitely preferred bold and promiscuous women to clean-living ones. ‘What provision did my father make for this horde of children?’
‘That’s why I decided to finally bring this matter to your attention.’ Robert cleared his throat awkwardly. ‘As you will be aware, Gaetano made no mention of either the woman or the children in his will.’
‘Are you telling me that my father made no provision for these dependants?’ Cristo prompted incredulously. ‘He had five children with this…this woman over the course of many years and yet he settled no money on them?’
‘Not so much as a penny piece on any of them…ever,’ Robert confirmed uncomfortably. ‘I thought he might have made some private arrangement to take care of them but apparently not as I have received an enquiry concerning school fees from the woman. As you know, your father always thought in terms of the present, not the future, and I imagine he assumed that he would be alive well into his eighties.’
‘Instead of which he died at sixty-two years old, as foolish as ever, and tipped this mess into my lap,’ Cristo ground out, losing all patience the more he learned of the situation. ‘I’ll have to look into this matter personally. I don’t want the newspapers getting hold of the story—’
‘Naturally not,’ Robert agreed. ‘It’s a given that the media enjoy telling tales about men with multiple wives and mistresses.’
Well aware of that fact, Cristo clenched his even white teeth, dark eyes flaming pure gold with rage at the prospect. His father had been enough of an embarrassment while alive. He was infuriated by the idea that Gaetano might prove even more of an embarrassment after his death.
‘It will be my hope that the children can be put up for adoption and this whole distasteful business quietly buried,’ Cristo confided smooth as glass.
For some reason, he noted that Robert looked a little disconcerted by that idea and then the older man swiftly composed his face into blandness. ‘You think the mother will agree to that?’
‘If she’s the usual type of woman my father favoured, she’ll be glad to do as I ask for the right…compensation.’ Cristo selected the word with suggestive cool.
Robert understood his meaning and tried and failed to imagine a scenario in which for the right price a woman would be willing to surrender her children for adoption. He had no doubt that Cristo had cause to know exactly what he was talking about and he was suddenly grateful not to be living a life that had made him that cynical about human nature and greed. But then, having handled Gaetano’s financial dealings for years, he knew that Cristo came from a dysfunctional background and would be challenged to recognise the depth of love and loyalty that many adults cherished for their offspring.