Ravelli's Defiant Bride(6)

By: Lynne Graham


Belle’s own father had been a violent drunk, renowned for his foul-mouthed harangues and propensity for getting into fights. One night he had stepped out in front of a car when under the influence and few had mourned his demise, least of all Belle, who had been terrified of her father’s vicious temper and brutal fists. Mother and daughter had believed they were embarking on a new and promising life when Mary became the Mayhill housekeeper. Sadly, however, Mary had fallen madly in love with her new boss and her reputation had been destroyed from the instant Belle’s eldest half-sibling, Bruno, had been born.

Someone like Cristo Ravelli, Belle reflected bitterly, could have absolutely no grasp of how other less fortunate mortals lived. Cristo was handsome, brilliant and obscenely successful. He had grown up in a golden cocoon of cash, the son of a very wealthy Italian princess who was renowned as a leading society hostess. His stepfather was a Hungarian banker, his home a Venetian palace and he had attended an exclusive school from which he had emerged literally weighed down with academic and athletic honours. It was hardly surprising that Cristo was a dazzling star of success in every corner of his life. After all, he didn’t know what it was to be humiliated, ignored or mocked and she’d bet he had never had to apologise for his parentage.

On the other hand Bruno had only been thirteen when Gaetano first accused his son of being gay because that was the only way Gaetano could interpret Bruno’s burning desire to be an artist. Belle’s little brother had been devastated by that destructive indictment from a father whom he had long been desperate to impress. His growing unhappiness at school where he was being bullied had resulted in a suicide attempt. Belle still got the shivers recalling it, having come so terrifyingly close to losing her little brother for ever. Bruno needed his family for support. Bruno, just like his siblings, needed love and commitment to grow into a contented, well-adjusted adult. There was nothing Belle would not have done to ensure that her siblings remained happy and together.

Having delivered his warning, Mark was taking his leave when she returned downstairs.

‘I’ll get supper on,’ Belle’s grandmother declared.

‘You’re not serious about trying to pretend to be Mary, are you?’ Mark pressed on the doorstep.

Belle straightened her slight shoulders. ‘If that’s what it takes to keep the family together, I’d do it in a heartbeat!’

* * *

The evening light was fast fading when Cristo’s car finally turned up the long driveway to Mayhill.

He had never visited Gaetano’s Irish bolt hole before because Gaetano had never invited any of his relatives to visit him there or, indeed, anywhere else. His father had never bothered to maintain relationships and the minute he was bored he had headed for pastures new and wiped the slate clean of past associations.

A woman with a little dog running at her heels was walking across the sweeping front lawn. Cristo frowned; he didn’t like trespassers. But a split second later he was staring, watching that cloud of colourful curls float back from a stunning heart-shaped face, noting the way her loose top blew back to frame her lush full breasts and a sliver of pale flat stomach, exposing the denim shorts that hugged her derriere and accentuated her long, long shapely legs. She took his breath away and the pulse at his groin reacted with rampant enthusiasm. He gritted his teeth, trying to recall when he had last been with a woman, and when he couldn’t blamed that oversight for his sudden arousal. In reality, Cristo always chose work over sex for work challenged and energised him while he regarded sex as a purely stress-relieving exercise.

He unlocked the massive wooden front door and stepped over the top of a pile of untouched post into a large black-and-white-tiled hall. His protection team composed of Rafe and John moved past him. ‘We’ll check the house.’

A fine layer of dust coated the furniture within view and Cristo was not surprised when Rafe confirmed that the house was vacant. But then, what exactly had he expected? Mary Brophy and her five children occupying the property? Yes, that was exactly what he had expected and why he had used his keys to emphasise the fact that he had the right of entry. He strode through the silent rooms, eventually ending up in the kitchen with its empty fridge standing wide open, backed by the sound of a dripping tap. His handsome mouth curved down as he noted the phone on the wall. One of the buttons was labelled ‘housekeeping’. Lifting the phone, he stabbed the button with exasperated force.

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