The Christmas Eve Bride

December 1, 2001

December 1, 2001

Preview

When Rocco Volpe encounters Amber again, he follows his instincts and suggests she become his mistress.

She turns him down flat, and then changes her mind…for the sake of her little boy. Rocco might believe Amber had once betrayed him, but he still wants her – and his baby son.

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Excerpt

ROCCO VOLPE was bored and, as it was not a sensation he was accustomed to feeling, he was much inclined to blame his hosts for that reality.

When the banker, Harris Winton, had invited him to his country home for the weekend, Rocco had expected stimulating company. People invariably went to a great deal of trouble to entertain Rocco. But then he could hardly have foreseen that Winton would miss his flight home from Brussels, leaving his unfortunate guests at the mercy of his wife, Kaye.

Kaye, the youthful trophy wife, who looked at Rocco with a hunger she couldn’t hide. His startlingly handsome features were expressionless as his hostess irritated him with simpering flattery and far too much attention. He had never liked small women with big eyes, he reflected. Memory stirred, reminding him why that was so. Swiftly, he crushed that unwelcome recollection out.

‘So tell me…what’s it like being one of the most eligible single men in the world?’ Kaye asked fatuously.

‘Pretty boring.’ Watching her redden without remorse, Rocco strolled over to the window like a tiger sheathing his claws with extreme reluctance.

‘I suppose it must be,’ the beautiful brunette then agreed in a cloying tone. ‘How many men have your power, looks and fabulous wealth?’

Striving not to wince while telling himself that if he ever married his wife would have a brain, Rocco surveyed the well-kept gardens. Fading winter sunlight gleamed over the downbent head of a gardener raking up leaves on the extensive front lawn. There was something familiar about that unusual honey shade of blonde that was the colour of toffee in certain lights. He stiffened as the figure turned and he realised it was a woman and…?

‘Your gardener is a woman?’ Not a shade of the outraged incredulity and anger consuming Rocco was audible in his deep, dark drawl. But someone ought to warn Winton that he had a potential tabloid spy working for him, he thought grimly. Harris would never recover from the humiliation of the media exposing one of his wife’s affairs.

His keen hostess drew level with him and wrinkled her nose. ‘We have trouble getting outside staff. Harris says people don’t want that kind of work these days.’

‘I imagine he’s right. Has she been with you long?’

‘Only a few weeks.’ The brunette studied him with a perplexed frown.

‘Will you excuse me? I have an urgent call to make.’

AMBER’S BACK WAS sore.

It was icy cold but the amount of energy she had expended had heated her up to the extent that she was working in a light T-shirt. She could hardly believe that within ten days it would be Christmas. Her honey-blonde hair caught back in a clip from which strands continually drifted loose, she straightened and stretched to ease her complaining spine. About five feet three in height, she was slim, but at breast and hip she was lush and feminine in shape.

It would be another hour before she finished work and she couldn’t wait. Only a few months back, she would have said she loved the great outdoors, but working for the Wintons had disenchanted her fast. Nothing but endless back-breaking labour and abysmally low pay. Her rich employers did not believe in spending money on labour-saving devices like leaf blowers. On the other hand, Harris Winton was a perfectionist, who demanded the highest standards against impossible odds.

‘Brush up the leaves as they fall,’ he had told her with a straight face, seeming not to grasp that, with several acres of wooded and lawned grounds, that was like asking her to daily stem an unstoppable tide.

You’re turning into a right self-pitying moan, her conscience warned her as she emptied the wheelbarrow. So once she had had nice clothes, pretty, polished fingernails and a career with a future. She might no longer have any of those things but she did have Freddy, she reminded herself in consolation.

Freddy, the pure joy in her life, who could squeeze her heart with one smile. Freddy, who had filled her with so much instant love that she could still barely accept the intensity of her own feelings. Freddy, who might not be the best conversationalist yet and who loved to wake her up to play in the middle of the night, but who still made any sacrifice worthwhile.

‘Buon giorno, Amber…what an unexpected pleasure!’

At the sound of that dark, well-modulated voice coming out of nowhere at her, Amber jerked rigid with fright. Blinking rapidly, disbelief engulfing her, she spun round, refusing to accept her instinctive recognition of that rich-accented drawl.

‘Strange but somehow extraordinarily apt that you should be grubbing round a compost heap,’ Rocco remarked with sardonic amusement.

A wave of stark dizziness assailed Amber. As she focused in paralysed incredulity on the formidably tall, well-built male standing beneath the towering beech trees a few yards away, her heart was beating at such an accelerated rate that she could hardly get breath into her lungs. She turned white as milk, every ounce of natural colour evaporating from her fine features, her clear green eyes huge.

Rocco Volpe, the powerful Italian financier, once christened the Silver Wolf by the gossip columns for his breathtaking good looks and fast reputation with her sex. And there was no denying that he was spectacular, with his bronzed skin and dark, dark deepset eyes contrasted with hair so naturally, unexpectedly fair it shone like polished silver. Rocco Volpe, the very worst mistake she had made in her twenty-three years of life. Her tummy felt hollow, her every tiny muscle bracing in self-defence. But her brain just refused to snap back into action. She could only wonder in amazement what on earth Rocco Volpe could possibly be doing wandering round the grounds of the Wintons’ country house.

‘Where did you come from?’ she whispered jaggedly.

‘The house. I’m staying there this weekend.’

‘Oh…’ Amber was silenced and appalled by that admission. Yet it was not a remarkable coincidence that Rocco should be acquainted with her employer, for both men wielded power in the same cut-throat world of international finance.

Tilting his arrogant head back, Rocco treated her to a leisurely, all-male appraisal that was as bold as he was. ‘Not good news for you, I’m afraid.’

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