Ravelli's Defiant Bride(7)

By: Lynne Graham

‘Yes?’ a disembodied female voice responded when he had almost given up hope of his call being answered.

‘It’s Cristo Ravelli. I’m at the house. Why hasn’t it been prepared for my arrival?’ he demanded imperiously.

At the other end of the phone, Belle went on all systems alert at the vibrating tone of impatience in that dark, deep accented drawl and her green eyes suddenly glinted as dangerously as emeralds in firelight. ‘Do you think maybe that could be because the housekeeper’s wages were stopped the same day Mr Ravelli crashed his helicopter?’

Cristo was not accustomed to smart-mouthed replies and his wide sensual mouth hardened. ‘I didn’t make that instruction.’

‘Well, it doesn’t really matter now, does it? Regrettably nobody works for free,’ Belle told him drily.

Cristo bit back a curse. He was tired and hungry and in no mood for a war of words. ‘I gather you’re the housekeeper?’

It was the moment of truth, Belle registered, and for a split second she hesitated. An image of her siblings rehomed in an orphanage on the slippery slope to a foster home gripped her tummy and provoked nausea. ‘Er...yes,’ she pronounced tightly.

‘Then get yourself up to the house and do your job. I can assure you that you will be well paid for your time,’ Cristo informed her grittily. ‘I need food and bedding—’

‘There’s several shops in the village. You must’ve driven past them to get to the house,’ Belle protested.

‘I’m happy to pay you to take care of those tasks for me,’ Cristo fielded smoothly before returning the phone to the wall and wondering if it had been wise to recall an insolent housekeeper to her former duties. Reminding himself that he only planned to stay a couple of days before arranging to have the house sold, he dismissed the matter from mind. The housekeeper, he reflected, would be a useful source of local knowledge to have on hand.

Following that call, Belle was in an infinitely more excitable state. After all, it was now or never. She couldn’t introduce herself as Mary’s daughter and then change her mind. Either she pretended to be her mother or she went up to Mayhill and told Cristo Ravelli that his father’s former housekeeper/lover was dead. But when she thought of the influence she could potentially wield for the children’s benefit by acting as their mother, her doubts fell away and she hurried upstairs, frantically wondering how she could best make herself look more mature.

The first thing she did was take off her shorts and top. Rustling through her wardrobe, she found a short stretchy skirt and a long-sleeved tee. Her mother had never ever worn flat heels or jeans and Belle owned only one skirt. Clinging to those Mary Brophy habits as if they might prove to be a good-luck talisman, Belle pulled out a pair of high heels and hurriedly got dressed. That achieved, she went into the bathroom, pushed her hair back from her face and grimaced at her porcelain-pale complexion, which she had often suspected made her look even younger than her years. Surely if she put her hair up and went heavy on the make-up it would make her look older? Brows pleating, she recalled the smoky eye treatment that a friend had persuaded her to try on a night out and she dug deep into her make-up bag for the necessary tools.

She stroked on the different shadows with a liberal hand, blurred the edges with an anxious fingertip and added heaps of eyeliner. Well, she certainly looked different, she acknowledged uneasily, layering on the mascara before adding blush to her cheeks and outlining her mouth with bright pink gloss.

‘I was about to call you down for supper...’ Isa Kelly froze in the tiny hall to watch her granddaughter come downstairs. ‘Where on earth are you going got up like that?’

Belle stiffened. ‘Why? Do I look odd?’

‘Well, if you bent over you could probably treat me to a view of your underwear,’ Isa commented disapprovingly.

An awkward silence fell, interrupted within seconds by the noisy sound of the back door opening and closing. Children’s voices raised in shrill argument broke the silence and a dark-haired boy and girl of eight years of age hurtled into the hall still engaged in hurling insults.

‘If you don’t stop fighting, it will be early to bed tonight,’ Belle warned the twins, Pietro and Lucia.

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