Her Venetian Secret

HEAT LEVEL:
Satisfyingly Spicy

Her night with the Italian stranger was unforgettable…because she’s pregnant with his baby! USA TODAY bestselling author Caitlin Crews thrills with this one night with consequences romance.

Cinderella’s night in Venice…
and her nine-month surprise!

Prim headmistress Beatrice hides her true self behind strict behaviour and a stricter dress code. Until she abandons her usual disguise and allows herself one intoxicating night with a stranger! Except now she’s hiding the most scandalous secret of all…

When billionaire Cesare Chiavari hires Beatrice to mind his halfsister for the summer, she accepts. Only to discover when she arrives at the palazzo that he’s the mysterious Italian she shared one passionate night with! Worse still, while the heat between them still lingers, Cesare doesn’t recognize her at all….

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Her Venetian Secret

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Chapter One

No one said no to the fearsome and ruthless Cesare Chiavari and lived to tell about it, according to all the rumors that swirled around the very idea of the man, but Headmistress Beatrice Mary Higginbotham certainly tried.

“I’m so sorry,” she told his man, who had appeared in her soon-to-be-relinquished offices at the Averell Academy in England, a desperately exclusive and extraordinarily private school for misbehaving heiresses. She was not sorry at all, but she was very good at appearing as if she might be for the benefit of the parents, guardians, and benefactors of the students. “I have no interest in private tutoring.”

Or any other kind of tutoring. For anyone, but especially not for the fifteen-year-old in question, Mattea Descoteaux, who had made quite a few names for herself at the school over the past year. All of them uncomplimentary.

It had been Mattea’s first year at Averell. Maybe it was not a coincidence that it was Beatrice’s last.

As tempting as it was to imagine such a thing, however, Beatrice knew that it wasn’t true. Though there would be some poetic justice in it if it was. She maintained her polite smile and braced herself for the inevitable argument. Because with these great, wealthy men—and their typical representatives, like the one before her now—there was always an argument.

But Cesare Chiavari’s man did not argue. He did not attempt to convince her of anything, not with words. He merely sat opposite Beatrice with a pad and a pencil and upon that pad he wrote a number. A rather large number.

Every time she demurred, he added another zero. Then another. And yet another. Until Beatrice was only continuing to murmur that she really couldn’t to see how far he would go…but he seemed to have no end point.

The result was that Beatrice felt very nearly cowed by the man’s complete indifference to the amount of money he was offering.

“Are we in agreement, then?” he asked smoothly when Beatrice could only stare at the parade of zeros, unable to let herself fully grasp how utterly and completely her life would be changed if she simply…accepted.

It wasn’t even a particularly difficult job, she reasoned, staring at that absurdity of a number. At all those zeros. Mattea was a uniquely difficult child, but then, they all were. And it was only temporary. Just for the summer. There were no metrics to measure her performance, like exams or reviews or regular slatings by families, guardians, and benefactors who expected nothing less than the total transformation of the young girls whose behavior they’d usually had a hand in crafting. All she needed to do was keep Cesare’s troublesome half sister out of trouble, which his man had told her she could broadly define as out of the papers and out of Cesare’s way, so he could marry whoever it was he planned to marry in peace.

Behind her desk, she let her hand rest on her belly—the real reason she had resigned from her position. She was still trying to wrestle with all the implications of this completely unexpected pregnancy, but she’d intended to raise the baby on the little bit of money she’d set aside for her own retirement one day. And with a different sort of teaching job, perhaps, one that did not require her—a soon-to-be single mum with no bloke in the picture—to act as any sort of moral authority the way she did here.

But that was a whole lot of maybes. How could Beatrice refuse the opportunity to drastically change her child’s circumstances, no maybes required?

“When do I start?” she asked the billionaire’s man, pressing her hand tight against the belly her pencil skirt still hid, but wouldn’t for very much longer. One of the snarkier younger girls had called her a bit hippy only the other day.

“Mr. Chiavari will be delighted to welcome you to the family estate in Tuscany in two days,” his man told her, betraying no particular satisfaction at her acquiescence. Because, she realized then, it had been a foregone conclusion to him. Which he then made clear. “All the details of your transport have been arranged. You need only present yourself at this address in London.” He wrote the address in the same sure hand, right there beneath the page of zeros. “You are expected promptly at nine o’clock in the morning with everything you will need for a summer abroad. If you have any questions, please do feel free to reach out to me at any time.”

He jotted off numbers for a mobile phone, presumably his, and then ripped off the paper from the pad to slide it to her across the polished surface of her desk. “Mr. Chiavari looks forward to a fruitful relationship.”

“Everyone loves a bit of fruit,” Beatrice murmured.

And if it hadn’t been for that piece of paper, she might have thought she’d imagined the whole thing.

Because it took far less time than she might have imagined to wrap up her life’s work at the school that had been the only real job she’d ever had after her teacher training. First as a member of staff, and for the last six years, as headmistress. And still it didn’t take that long to say her goodbyes to the staff members she would miss, because she had agreed not to tell any of them the real reason she was leaving. The Board of Directors had been very clear on that point. After all, how could they continue to sell themselves as standard-bearers for moral behavior in young women when the headmistress of the school had gone ahead and gotten herself knocked up with no husband in sight?

It didn’t matter what year it was in the outside world. It was always medieval on the grounds of the Averell Academy.

“Live by the sword, die by the sword,” Beatrice told herself stoutly, as she marched herself off said grounds for the last time. She had set herself up as a paragon of correct behavior. She should have known that it would only be a matter of time before behavior tripped her up, too. Wasn’t that the way things worked?

She still didn’t understand how this had happened, she thought later that same night in a hotel room in London. She’d cleared out the rooms her role at the Academy had provided for her—meaning she’d put what few belongings she had into a few sad cases and had carried them off with her when she’d left. Now she found herself sitting on her hotel bed, staring at the lot of them.

Beatrice thought that surely a woman in her thirties ought to have more worldly possessions than the contents of three medium-sized suitcases, but she didn’t. Her parents had both died when she was young. She’d had no benefactors or caring relatives, and had been raised in care. Everything she’d made of her life since she’d done on her own, with a certain ruthless single-mindedness, until four months ago.

She stretched out on her bed in the tidy room a short walk from Covent Garden. Tomorrow she would take herself on a bit of a shop for loose, voluminous clothing that could hide her condition throughout the coming months, which she did not expect to be terribly hard. In her experience, no one ever paid that much attention to the staff. And especially not wealthy people like Cesare Chiavari. She didn’t have to know him personally to know that. All she needed to do was stay beneath the radar and earn those zeros.

She owed that to the baby she’d never meant to conceive, and now planned to love ferociously and unconditionally forever, no matter how different her life was going to be once the child arrived.

It had all started innocently enough. Beatrice had been one of the chaperones on a trip to Venice with a set of their graduating girls who had distinguished themselves with their excellent behavior and comportment, turning themselves into examples of everything the Academy could do. The trip was their reward. Teachers and students stayed together in one of the grand houses that lined a quiet canal, generously donated to them for the annual trip by a grateful father of an Averell graduate. The girls went on a tour of all Venice had to offer, from art to music to glass to history. And on their last night, after a happy dinner out beneath the stars on a piazza, the girls had gathered in the grand house’s sprawling lounge and decreed that it was time to give the headmistress a makeover.

Beatrice had always kept firm boundaries between herself and the girls. It was the only way to maintain order, and she knew it. But on these trips abroad, with the deserving girls who would soon graduate, she allowed herself—and them—some slight bit of leeway. And this year had been a hard one, with Mattea Descoteaux like a troublemaking plague that infected everything. Beatrice had been in a mood for perhaps even more leeway than usual, and so she had allowed them to take down her hair and apply their curling irons and creams and gels with abandon. She’d let them take off the glasses she always wore to paint her face in a way she never had and never would again. She’d even let them cajole her into trying on a completely inappropriate dress in a shocking shade of red.

When she’d looked in the mirror, she’d seen a scandalous stranger.

“Now, miss, you must take the final step,” the boldest of the girls had declared, her cheeks red with her own daring. “You must walk out into public like this and see what happens.”

“It will be a grand adventure!” one of the more romantic girls sighed.

“I will do no such thing,” Beatrice had replied immediately, though she had been smiling. And thinking that really, she could do with a quiet glass of wine where no one knew who she was or had any expectations about what she should do. Just an hour or so of anonymity would sort her out far better than any spa, she was sure of it.

“Think of what you told us when we embarked upon our final projects,” the first girl had pressed. “Fortune only ever favors the bold.”

Beatrice had laughed at that, at the stranger in the mirror with smoky eyes. “Hoist with my own petard,” she’d agreed.

And she’d decided it was a gift, this challenge they’d set her. She would take a short walk in the sultry Venice evening on a warm spring night. She could take in the canals, the mystery of this city that seemed built entirely on imagination, and revel in the sheer joy she always felt when she was traveling.

Besides, she’d thought once she’d left the house as commanded, she didn’t know a soul in Venice. There was very little chance that anyone would recognize her. And this was a good thing, she assured herself when she caught another glimpse of herself in the window of a shop already closed for the evening. Because she looked nothing like a headmistress.

She turned in a different direction than the one she usually took to lead the girls toward Piazza San Marco. Then she followed her whims, turning this way and that, until she found herself walking toward a little vineria up ahead of her, with people spilling out from the brightly lit interior into the walkway.

It looked like no part of the life she knew, and so it felt perfect for this strange version of herself on this odd night. Inside it was bright and loud and happy, and she was shown to a table tucked away in the corner with a boisterous family on one side, and a lone man on the other.

Beatrice had thought about what had happened that night a thousand times, and she liked to imagine that had she been left to her own devices, she would have drunk her glass of wine and nibbled on the little plates of delicacies they’d delivered with it. Then she would have found her way back to resume her life in precisely the same way she had always lived it.

She would have told the girls a story, and maybe even embellished it, secure in the knowledge that nothing much had happened.

That was what she’d expected would happen.

But instead, the man at the table beside her turned his head, caught her gaze with his own—the darkest, deepest blue imaginable—and had changed everything.

Beatrice still couldn’t believe that it had happened. She’d been so heedless, so reckless—

But even though she liked to castigate herself in that manner, she knew better. It hadn’t been like that at all. There had been an electricity between them, so intense that they had both laughed at the impact of it. It had been the way he looked at her, perhaps. Or it was that she was playing the part of a stranger who’d felt no need to restrain herself. She did not attempt to bite back her laughter. She did not deny herself a second glass of wine, or the bites of cheese and honey he offered her from his own fingers.

The stranger in a red dress who she’d been inhabiting that night denied herself nothing.

And when he asked her if she wanted to find a place where they could dance, Headmistress Higginbotham could think of a hundred reasons or more why she should say no, but the stranger she was that night said yes instead.

They’d danced in a hot, wild place with bodies pressed in all around, though she had seen only him. They’d danced on the crest of a ponte arched above the dark water, and then over it to a fondamenta while a street musician played for the quiet canal, weaving his beauty into the night.

Beatrice had felt nothing but magic. It had to have been magic that made her feel beautiful in his arms. So beautiful that when he’d kissed her, she’d melted against him.

So beautiful that when he’d taken her to the private hotel where he was staying, she went easily. Happily.

And she’d tried ever since to tell herself that she had disgraced herself there, rolling around and around in that bed with him.

But even now, when she knew how it all would end, she still couldn’t quite bring herself to use that word. She still felt all the same magic every time she thought about the baby she carried.

The child of a man whose name she didn’t even know, making her just as bad as all the young women she attempted to mold into ladies with far better manners than she had displayed that night. Far better morals that she could claim, now, as a truly fallen woman in every sense of the term.

And still when she fell asleep that night, the same as every night, she dreamed of Venice.

The next day, Beatrice gathered herself a brand-new wardrobe that made her look round in every way, so that the rounder she became over the summer, the less likely it was anyone would notice. And the following morning she presented herself dutifully at the address she’d been given, and was swept off into a waiting car. She was swiftly driven to an airfield, where a private jet waited to whisk her away to the Chiavari estate, a location so celebrated and well-known that she was sure she’d seen pictures of it many times without even looking.

She knew the man himself by reputation only. Even though the school had been teeming with too many powerful men to name, all of them deeply concerned with the misbehavior of the young women in their care, Cesare Chiavari seemed to hold a special place in that pantheon. Beatrice saw his luxury goods everywhere. The family name was stamped on everything from chocolates to silks to buildings to sports cars. Beatrice possessed the same awareness of that branding that anyone did, by simple dint of being alive, but then Mattea had arrived at the school last fall. She had been hand-delivered by a curt woman who had spouted off her master’s instructions and made it clear that he would hold Beatrice personally responsible if the school did not live up to its many promises.

And since Mattea had gone out of her way to make sure that a tremendously difficult feat, Beatrice had spent a lot of time thinking about Cesare Chiavari ever since.

The approach to his estate was spectacular. Rolling hills undulated out beneath the azure sky. Cypress trees marched in rows up this hill and down the next. It was like a perfect postcard of an Italian masterpiece, and this was where she would be spending her summer…

With the most obnoxious fifteen-year-old alive.

Beatrice closed her eyes as the plane went in for its landing. She envisioned a cozy little cottage, on a stretch of beach with the sea just there. She imagined gardens filled with bright blooms in summer and a fire inside, keeping her warm when the weather was gray.

She would take all the zeros she would earn this summer and buy herself exactly such a place. She would raise her child there, far away from the concerns of billionaires, and their fifteen-year-old half sisters. She would learn how to cook. She would bake her own bread, the way she only vaguely recalled her own mother had done. She would make her baby the home she had always wished she had while she’d been in care.

All that she needed to do was survive a few short months in a true Tuscan masterpiece.

When the plane set down, she opened her eyes again, and decided that it would only be hard if she let it.

Beatrice decided then and there that she would not let it be anything of the kind.

After all, she had successfully run the Academy for years. She had ushered a great number of young women into the successful futures their families wanted for them. And she was very, very good at the job or she wouldn’t have remained employed at Averell as long as she had.

She would not fail to be just as good for a few months with one single, solitary girl, even if it was the provoking Mattea Descoteaux. How could she be anything else?

Beatrice exited the plane feeling a great deal more like herself. Which was to say, she felt like a ball of optimism in steel-toed boots, which is what she’d always told the girls. They’d always groaned in embarrassment, but eventually they’d all usually admitted that it really was the perfect description of Headmistress Higginbotham.

She found herself humming songs from The Sound of Music under her breath as she climbed into the waiting SUV that took her down tiny, winding lanes that carved their way through seas of vineyards, armies of cypress trees standing tall to mark the way, and glimpses of red-tiled roofs tucked here and there.

Though even she fell into an awed sort of silence when she saw the house come into view.

It was immediately apparent to her that it was the house. His house. Because it could be nothing else, and because she recognized it, vaguely, the way she did grand palaces in all sorts of places she’d never been.

The house spread itself out in all directions, claiming the top of one of the rolling hills. The approach was a leisurely drive along the banks of the sparkling blue lake surrounded by groves of olive trees, and it was so immediately charming and picturesque that it only made the house itself look more dramatic in the hills. It was all so pretty it almost hurt.

It was a house built to intimidate, she understood, but it was also stunning work of art.

And for some reason, she thought of that man in Venice. Her lover, as she sometimes liked to think of him, in the privacy of her bed. Because it was such an odd, old word. And because it should have had nothing at all to do with her fastidious life.

But then, perhaps that was why she liked it. It reminded her of a strange woman in a bright red dress, with her hair in a wild, deliberate snarl down to her hips.

The car pulled up before a great grand entrance where two women in starched black uniforms waited, expressionless. The driver of the car got out and opened Beatrice’s door, which left her feeling off-balance.

“Thank you,” she said as she crawled out with as much dignity as she could muster, not having spent a great deal of time in her life learning how to exit cars elegantly. “There’s no need for any fuss. You could drop me off at the servants’ entrance.”

“The master’s orders were clear,” said the older of the two women. She had what Beatrice could charitably call the face of a hatchet, and the blade of it was aimed directly in Beatrice’s direction.

Beatrice smiled, because she wasn’t afraid of a sharp edge.

“Be that as it may,” she said, serenely, “this is not the Victorian age. I’m not a gentlewoman fallen on hard times, suspended somewhere good manners cannot quite reach. I’m an educator and quite proud of what I do. I’ll need no special treatment here.”

The older woman sniffed. Next to her, the younger woman did not have the same control of her facial expressions and when her elder turned and headed toward an entry concealed beneath the grand stair, she broke completely and smiled wide.

“That’s taken the wind out of Herself,” she confided, her eyes bright. “She has spent days puffing and huffing about who is above the station, and all the rest.”

And in the spirit of friendship and the fact she had only just arrived, Beatrice did not take it upon herself to correct the woman’s language. Because she had spoken in English, which was clearly not her native tongue.

All she did was smile. “You know precisely what my station is,” she said. “And I would like to remain at that station during my stay.”

More than that, she knew a thing or two about grand households like this, having observed them many times during her travels as headmistress, forever meeting donors and future donors where they lived. And often had lived, for generations.

Even so, she couldn’t manage to wrestle her three sad cases away from the driver, who was now acting like the footman she didn’t need. All she could do was follow the older woman who was clearly the housekeeper, trailing after the woman’s unflinchingly straight back through into the bowels of the great house.

It was only when they all filed their way up a set of stairs that she began to get glimpses of the house’s true splendor. A great hall that rivaled the palazzos they’d toured in Venice. Chandeliers beyond description, with what looked like diamonds hanging in each and every one of them. The space was cavernous, yet elegant, arranged around an open central courtyard that rose up to an intricately frescoed ceiling.

The place was operatic.

The housekeeper continued up the servants’ stairs for another flight, but then stepped into one of the house’s main halls. There was a library on one side and great terraces on the other, opening up to let in the view that seemed to roll on in pastoral splendor as far as the eye could see. There were sitting rooms, rooms that were filled with art and fine furnishings, and by the time they stopped and the woman threw open the doors of a great suite at the far end, Beatrice was shaking her head.

“This looks very much like the sort of room given to honored guests,” she said as she peered inside, taking in the high ceilings and painted shutters flung wide to even more astonishing vistas. Not to mention the eternity pool and a riot of trellises and pagodas.

“You are a guest of the Chiavari family, are you not?” returned the housekeeper in perfectly neutral tones, but her gaze was assessing.

“I’m honored by the suggestion that I rest my head where no doubt kings and queens aplenty rested theirs before me and will again long after I cease to be a memory here,” Beatrice said, aware that with each word, the younger woman was grinning all the wider. “Yet for what I am here to do, it would be inappropriate to stay anywhere but in the servants’ quarters. Surely we can agree on this.”

Once again, the older woman said nothing, but this time Beatrice did not have to look to the younger woman as a barometer to understand that she had passed some sort of test.

She knew she had. It would have been the easiest thing in the world to make noises about knowing her station, only to take the luxurious accommodations offered her.

And it wasn’t that Beatrice had anything against luxury. She quite enjoyed it, particularly when it was something she’d earned. She imagined her seaside cottage would be the kind of luxury she loved most.

But today she had far more prosaic concerns. “This is a beautiful suite in a stunning house,” she said as she followed the older woman back toward the servants’ stairs once more. “I must assume that something so lavishly appointed is closer to the family’s rooms. That can only be unsuitable, given my circumstances here this summer.”

The older woman stopped, and so Beatrice and the younger maid stopped with her. Then they all exchanged a speaking sort of look.

“Indeed it is,” the housekeeper said after a moment or two. She inclined her head down the length of the hall. “Miss Mattea is only two doors down.”

Again, they shared a look.

Beatrice inclined her head. “I feel so much better knowing that the rooms you set aside for me can be left open for someone more deserving of such comfort.”

And she knew that while she might not have made new friends quite so quickly, she had certainly risen in the estimation of the housekeeper by simply making it clear—without being indiscreet—that she did not wish to be quite so close to her charge. Because no one in her position would…unless they thought such proximity could lead to an elevation of station.

Beatrice had just made it clear to the household staff that she, like them, was here to work. And she let out a sigh of relief when she was settled in one of the rooms beneath the eaves, spare and tidy, with precisely what she needed clean and ready for her. No dramatic reading rooms and such. Nothing more and nothing less than was necessary.

“Why don’t you settle in,” the housekeeper advised her. “Mr. Chiavari anticipates that you will meet with him when the clock strikes noon. He will be in the main hall at precisely that time. Do you intend to wear a servants’ uniform while you’re here?”

“I think not,” Beatrice said, with very real regret. “I have no wish to distinguish myself in any way, but I suspect that I will need to cling to what little authority I have over my charge. It would be better if she did not think that just because I’m here, she can order me around in a way that I would never permit her to do at the Academy.”

“Just so,” the older woman said, inclined her head. “I am Mrs. Morse. Please feel free to ask me any questions you might have.”

Then, with what seemed to be something terribly close to a click of her heels, she quit the room.

“I think you might have impressed her,” the younger girl said in tones of awe. “And she is from England and never impressed. I am Amelia. Mrs. Morse said that I am to show you the threads.”

Beatrice blinked. “The ropes, I think. She’d like you to show me the ropes, no?”

…yes, the ropes,” Amelia agreed happily. Then she straightened. “But you must not keep the master waiting. It is not done. I will guide you down to the great hall, for it is very easy to get lost. I grew up here and I still do.”

And while that did not exactly instill a great deal of confidence in Beatrice regarding Amelia’s abilities, she nodded, and when the girl stepped out, she set about freshening up with her usual efficiency. She could admit that she was curious about the master of the house, but the way she was always interested in finding out where her girls came from. Who had raised them and how. The truth was that she was well used to dealing with men like Cesare Chiavari. She’d faced down irate parents from almost every possible high-society echelon in every country around. The only real difference was that she was in this one’s ancestral home, where she would be staying for the next few months.

She tended to her hair, scraping it back more firmly into its typical severe bun. She had discovered early on that the more she made herself look like a stereotypical headmistress, the more she was treated as one. She’d been wearing thick glasses only she knew weren’t prescription ever since. She blew her hair straight and pinned it up ruthlessly. She had made a study of dowdy clothes, which was why the girls in Venice had been so gleeful that she’d let them dress her up as the very antithesis of herself.

If she could have, she really would have worn the house uniform. It would allow her to disappear into the wallpaper in the eyes of all the well-to-do residents, and it did not take a terrific amount of imagination to understand why that would be a boon to a woman in her position. No one noticed if a servant grew fat or thin. Not in places like this. No one noticed the servants at all.

She merely had to inhabit a space that was somehow a little bit of a headmistress and a servant at once. She needed the authority of one and the built-in invisibility cloak of the other.

But the good news was that she only had to find that particular balancing act for the next few months.

In record time, she cleaned herself up and exited the room to find Amelia waiting as promised. She followed the girl down from the attic, only half listening as she chattered on about this and that, lapsing in and out of Italian as she went.

These grand houses really were museums, Beatrice thought as they walked through the gallery, making their way around the square of it so they could walk down the great Y-shaped stair on the far side. It was the true gallery here, because the light that poured down from above, and a great glass ceiling several floors above them, did not shine too brightly to all the works of art that graced the walls. She was sure that if she walked the length of the gallery, and the floors above, she would find formal portraits of the family, because that was the sort of thing people with money like this always seemed to have on hand. But the paintings she saw on this level of the gallery were not family portraits, historical or otherwise. They were extraordinary. Beatrice didn’t have to have a degree in art history to recognize that a great many of them were famous, and others looked as if they ought to be familiar, suggesting that she was in the presence of the Great Masters whether she could identify them or not.

Not quite the same as the sketches and photographs of old headmistresses that had been on the walls of her rooms at Averell, along with the maps of the grounds from different eras that served as her decor.

A bit hushed—she would never say awed—she started down the great stair, waved on by a suddenly bashful-looking Amelia.

And as she descended the stairs, the clock that took pride of place there on the landing where the arms of the Y met the stem, began to toll.

She marched down the left arm of the Y, turned, and there he was.

And for a moment, like a small death, everything stopped.

It was like that crowded little wine bar in Venice all over again.

Beatrice looked up, and it was as if they were all alone. There was only his gaze, like a dark blue touch, so intensely did it meet hers. There was only his face, harsh and beautiful at once, intimidating and yet its own kind of art.

She knew. She had tasted it. She had seen the kind of art he made.

And despite the parts of her that were already melting, and the riot inside her, she couldn’t seem to stop herself from taking one step, then the next. She felt her eyes widen. She felt her whole body shiver, and then the heat she recognized too well by now took its place. It wound its way through her. It filled her. It sat heavy in her breasts, between her legs.

If she knew his name it would have been on her lips, like some kind of song of praise.

She didn’t understand, but she couldn’t stop moving, and still the clock boomed on and on.

It had struck twelve as her foot finally hit the marble floor of the great hall.

And she opened her mouth to speak, but he was looking at her…quizzically, yes.

But not at all intensely the way he had that night.

That was wrong. That didn’t make sense—

“Welcome, Miss Higginbotham,” he said in that voice that she still dreamed of, all these months later. She had heard it rough in her ear, a rumble against her throat, and as a dark, deep laugh between her legs. “I’m pleased that we were able to come to an arrangement. As you are already aware, my sister is a handful. All I ask is that you maintain an appropriately tight grip on her antics until I am wed.”

It took her spinning head entirely too long to catch up. To catch on. Because this didn’t make sense. Or maybe Beatrice didn’t want it to make sense.

But all that shivery heat changed inside her as the penny dropped. It twisted all around, turned cold, then seemed to flood straight through her to hit the same hard marble floor.

She understood too many things in that moment.

Almost too much to bear—but one thing above all.

This was Cesare Chiavari. There was no doubt. And he was not only her new employer, he was the man she’d met in Venice. He was the only lover she had ever taken into her body. He was the father of the child she carried.

And she could tell by looking at him, and that vaguely impatient, arrogantly polite expression on his face, that he didn’t recognize her at all.

End of excerpt