The Italian’s Pregnant Cinderella
She’d paid her debt to him…
Now they’re bound by her Italian secret!
Julienne has unfinished business with her billionaire boss, Cristiano Cassara. He saved her when she was young and penniless, and she’s never forgotten his honor, charisma or lethal good looks. Securing him the deal of a lifetime, Julienne can’t resist when the celebrations explode into the passion she’s always dreamed of…
Cristiano can’t get the unexpectedly innocent Julienne out of his head. He’s sure another night will cure him…until her bombshell destroys his fiercely controlled life! Because his onetime Cinderella is carrying the next Cassara heir…
The Italian’s Pregnant Cinderella
It was fitting, really.
Julienne Boucher had been working toward this moment with single-minded passion and bone-deep determination for the past ten years, and it made a certain sense that when she crossed the finish line at long last, she would do it here. At the Grand Hotel in Monte Carlo where she had first come ten years ago.
To sell herself.
Julienne’s perilously high heels clicked against the sumptuous marble floors of the Grand Hotel as she walked, passing the flower arrangements that had looked like colorful, exotic jungles to her unsophisticated eyes back then. The lobby had been just as smugly opulent, but the difference was that back then, she’d been terrified that everyone was looking at her. That they knew what she’d come to do. That they could see her shame and panic, and more, her determination to go ahead and do it anyway.
Because she had to.
She’d wondered if the horrible men in the village she’d come from—and had escaped earlier that same day—had been right all along. That Boucher women were made for one thing only, the whores. And if that was true, could everyone see that truth all over her? Or was it more of a bad smell…in this place that was lightly scented with ease and wealth and refinement?
Now she knew that if anyone bothered to look at her, what they would see was the elegant, self-possessed woman she’d fought so hard to become. Day by day. Year by year. A woman who was not only sophisticated, but looked as if she belonged in hotels like this one that were more properly works of art.
Because she did. She’d made sure she did.
Julienne could almost see the ghost of her former self walking beside her, reflecting all those nerves and that bone-deep desolation back from the gilt-edged, shiny surfaces, the fragrant orchids, the giddy chandeliers.
This time around, she was healthy. Well fed and well clothed instead of balancing on the precarious edge of total destruction, homeless and penniless. Most important, she was no longer a desperate teenager. No longer a scared sixteen-year-old, bleakly determined to do what she had to do to save her younger sister. Even if that meant losing herself.
Thinking of Fleurette cut through the haunting memories of ten years back and Julienne paused, there outside the famously luxurious lounge bar that catered to the world’s wealthiest. Something she had guessed at then, but knew for a fact now.
Fleurette did not believe in ghosts. She had grown these last ten years, too, and was no longer a fragile waif, sickly and scared. These days Julienne’s younger sister was a force to be reckoned with in every regard. From her brash sleeves of brightly colored tattoos to her defiant piercings and multicolored hair forever cut short, Fleurette made it clear with her every word and deed that she would never be desperate again. For anything.
You’ve finally done it, Fleurette had said with her usual brisk impatience when Julienne had called her earlier. “That last deal has to be worth billions alone. I think we can both agree that you’ve adequately repaid the man’s kindness. In spades.”
Julienne had made an assenting noise, but she wasn’t as certain as her sister. About anything, if she was honest—but particularly about this.
Because Cristiano Cassara had saved them. And not in a metaphoric sense. He had literally saved their lives that evening ten years ago when he could as easily have hastened their decline or simply ignored their predicament altogether. He had kept the two of them from a dark spiral into almost certain death on the streets—if not that night, then not long after it, because that was how that particular trajectory went. Julienne knew that all too well. But she hadn’t had to test herself against a downward slope into hell that ate girls just like her alive every day. Because Cristiano had whisked both Julienne and Fleurette away into a brand-new life, asked for nothing in return and had left them to it with no interference.
Which meant that repaying him for what he’d done had consumed Julienne’s life ever since.
She had followed him here, to the place it was rumored he came to relax once a year—though Julienne could not imagine the stern, austere head of the Cassara Corporation allowing his spine to curve the faintest inch, much less relaxing in any meaningful way. Julienne had worked for the man for almost ten full years and had never seen the faintest stirrings of a smile on his forbidding face.
Not even a hint.
Julienne blew out a long breath and checked her appearance for the hundredth time in one of the shiny mirrors that graced nearly every wall and surface, the better to reflect back to the rich and famous their most favorite view of all—themselves.
Another thing it had taken years to learn. No one in a place like this had time to look at others. Not when they were so busy gazing at themselves.
The truth was, she already knew full well that she was groomed to perfection.
That had been part of the payment she had offered her benefactor from almost the first, though he had never asked for such a thing. Nor noticed that she’d provided it.
But then, she was the one who had been there that night ten years ago, right here in this hotel. She was the one who’d taken her sister and run from the vicious little hill town where they’d been born, abandoned and repeatedly betrayed by what little family they’d had, supposed friends, and vindictive neighbors. All of whom had known what kind of women they were going to become since birth, and had always, always treated them accordingly.
Julienne had used her last handful of euros to buy the bus tickets to get the two of them out of the dead-end place, choked on the fumes of feuds ages old. She’d brazenly stolen a dress from a rack outside a boutique in the Centre Commercial de Fontvieille.
And then, she’d snuck into a bathroom, and done herself up the best she could. The pretty dress. The cheap heels. The lipstick she’d saved from their long-dead mother, though it was crumbling and sad after so long. Enough eye makeup to disguise her shame.
And hopefully her fear, too, which she’d been afraid might have a scent all its own. Acrid. Sharp. Obvious.
She’d snuck into the Grand Hotel, leaving Fleurette hidden as best she could in an alley. Terrified that she’d be grabbed and tossed out at any moment, she’d found her way to the very bar she was approaching now. Back then she’d been astonished by the place, particularly the deep, shining wood that ached with pedigrees and fat purses. Better still, it had been filled with her quarry.
Who everyone knew were more than happy to purchase anything.
Including sixteen-year-old girls desperate for some cash.
Julienne had learned that lesson back in the village, where she had declined the butcher’s offer to toss her a few coins if she “made him happy.” It wasn’t his bad teeth or that he smelled like blood, though neither had helped. It was that she’d already known what became of girls like her who listened to the promises of older men in that town. Or any men in that town. She was the result of her own mother’s bad decisions years back, and she knew where they ended. Strung out and eventually dead, leaving behind two daughters to the same fate.
If it was her fate, Julienne had decided, she would face it. But not in that place of echoes, built vertically into a cold hillside and filled with all the people who had watched her mother spiral into horror without lifting a finger to help. She would take Fleurette and go south to glittering Monaco, where at least their own inevitable spiral would gleam a good deal brighter all the way down.
Tonight Julienne bore no resemblance to that gaunt, terrified child. Her hair was a fall of fine caramel, polished to a shine, and she wore it twisted back into a deceptively effortless chignon. She was not wearing a stolen dress—the balance for which she’d left, years later, at that same boutique with a note of apology. Julienne had built herself into a sophisticated professional in these intervening years. She preferred sleek pencil skirts and the feeling of real silk against her skin, no less than what was expected for a woman with a big job at a multinational company. She favored statement heels and understated pearls at her ears, complete with a slim gold watch on her wrist.
Cristiano Cassara had done that, too. He’d given her the means not only to become the best version of herself possible, but to repay her debts. And to change her world.
Now it was time to change it again.
Julienne paused a few steps into the lush, dimly lit bar. She looked around, seeing what could have been the same old men, rich and jaded, lounging at the same tables. Then she looked toward the expanse of the bar itself, and it was as if he’d planned it.
As if he remembered, too.
Because Cristiano Cassara sat where she remembered him, there at a bar so glossy and luxurious that sixteen-year-old Julienne had gaped at it as if all those bottles lined up so prettily were precious jewels.
This time, her heart beat hard against her ribs again, but it wasn’t fear.
It was a heady mix of victory and regret, and a strong dose of anticipation, for good measure.
She headed toward him, ready to do this at last.
Cristiano Cassara had been beautiful enough ten years ago, for all he had seemed remote. Carved from the same stone as the statues that graced the wide hall that had led her here. He’d been a relatively young man then, yet already wealthier than Julienne could have possibly imagined. The heir apparent to the Cassara chocolate fortune, he had worn his wealth and consequence in the cut of the exquisite suit he’d worn and in the very breadth of his shoulders. Not to mention the way he regarded the world around him, as if it, too, belonged to him.
Not that Julienne had known any of that, then. She’d looked at him and known that he was wealthy, that was all.
Tonight, he was all of that and more, a study in sheer masculine power.
She took a moment to really gaze at him, because this was not a Cassara Corporation boardroom where she’d always had too much to prove to waste her time making eyes at a man who she was fairly certain saw only numbers, profits and losses in return. In all the meetings she’d ever attended with him, Cristiano was steely, edging toward grim. He made no attempt to disguise his ruthlessness, and dispensed praise so sparingly that Julienne rather thought an actual murmur of vague approval might send her into a swoon.
Something that had never been put to the test.
Cristiano had been wealthy ten years ago. Today he was one of the richest men alive. She knew that if she looked around, she would likely find his security detail fanned out around the bar, unobtrusively keeping tabs on the man whose annual net worth was a number so vast that most people were unable to fully grasp it. There were too many zeroes. She would no doubt also see the hungry eyes of the women who trailed after him wherever he went, singed through but never quite burned to ash by all his steel and banked flame. She might even see the sneers of men who imagined him their rival, when it was obvious he was without peer.
As far as Julienne was concerned, he was perfect.
Sixteen-year-old Julienne had made a beeline for him because he was closest. And because, after her first, terrified look around this bar for a likely first client, he had been the only one in the place without gray hair. A fat belly. Or both.
She had told herself then that if she must do the thing, far better to do it with a man like him, who songs could have been written about. And likely had been.
She’d walked up to him, desperation making her bold enough to put a hand on his arm. And she had waited for him to look away from the drink that sat before him on the bar, seemingly untouched.
When he’d raised his gaze to hers, it had burned.
He was too intense, they said. Too harsh. Needlessly grim and cold for a man who made sweets.
But Julienne thought he had a poet’s mouth, for all that it was forever in that same flat line. His dark hair was thick and had yet to surrender to the ravages of age. It wasn’t only that he kept himself in such magnificent shape, though that helped add to his mystique. It was that he seemed far larger and more threatening than he was. A vast giant lurking in the form of a man. As if the shadow he cast could engulf anyone unwary enough to venture close.
But by the time Julienne had realized that ten years ago, it had been too late.
Her hand had been on his arm.
Her heart had nearly exploded from her chest.
“Would you like to buy me a drink?” Julienne had asked the man with the eyes that burned, her voice squeaking with panic.
That was what a girl said, she’d been told by brittle, hard edged Annette, who had never been much of a mother. Every time Annette went off to what she called her parties, she came back with less of herself. As if someone had reached inside her, scraped out everything in there and left her to walk around an empty hollow.
She had died when Julienne was fourteen and everyone had called it a blessing.
Julienne had intended to survive, no matter how hollow she was inside. And unlike Annette, Julienne did not plan to forget her obligations to Fleurette, who had only been ten, then. She would take care of her sister if it killed her. And she would not consign Fleurette to the same fate.
At least one of them should survive without that scraped-out emptiness. Just one.
“How old are you?” he had replied, in richly compelling French blurred slightly with an Italian accent. Julienne hadn’t expected the question. Who knew men were discerning—about anything? Her experience so far had not allowed for the possibility. She drew in a breath, prepared to claim she was a more palatable eighteen, despite the fact sixteen was perfectly legal. But his dark eyes flashed as if he knew what she meant to do. “Don’t lie to me.”
“Old enough,” she replied, trying to sound husky. Throaty. Wasn’t that how women sounded in situations like this? “Past the age of consent, if that is what you mean.”
He had looked at her, through her. In her whole life, before and since, Julienne had never felt so seen. In that moment she was certain that Cristiano Cassara could see everything. Everything. What had happened, what she’d had planned. The one-way spiral of the life before her and the squalid bleakness she’d left behind. Fleurette out there in an alley, the emptiness in Julienne’s wallet and belly alike, and what she was prepared to do to change both.
All the things she was prepared to do, starting here. With him.
More than that, she was certain he could also see the dreams and hopes she had long since jettisoned in her committed attempts to keep her sister and her warm and reasonably fed—if never safe or happy.
“I rather think not,” he had said, a quiet thunder stroke of a comment.
And then Cristiano Cassara had changed her life.
With a lift of one hand.
The déjà vu was intense tonight. Cristiano again sat at the bar, another untouched drink before him. He fiddled with it, turning it this way and that, but he did not lift it to his lips. She now knew the rumors about him—every rumor, in fact. That he never drank, that his father had loved his liquor too well but his wife and child too little, and that these were the rituals Cristiano performed when he was alone. The untouched drink. The sober vigil.
He still had that poet’s mouth, with its hint of sensuality she had never seen him succumb to, not once. Not even in the odd, stolen paparazzi shot of him when he couldn’t have known he was being watched. His face was a terrible kind of beautiful, harsh and brutal, with cheekbones that made a woman dream of saints and martyrs. And those dark, flashing eyes that still burned when he looked at a person directly.
She remembered what his arm had felt like beneath her hand as if her palm was a scar. All that hard, hot power.
And Julienne was not a child any longer. She was not a scared teenager, prepared to sell herself to the highest bidder—or any bidder at all—because she was devoid of options and out of choices.
Still, there was a particular agony to this moment, so long in coming.
She slid her bejeweled evening purse onto the glossy bar, and angled her body toward his.
And knew, without his having glanced her way or indicated he was anything but alone, that he had been aware of her all along. Perhaps even before she’d stepped inside the dark, deliberately close space.
But she was too good at making him into a myth, as Fleurette often complained. Tonight she planned to focus on the man.
Cristiano had succeeded his grandfather to become the CEO and president of the company not long after she’d met him ten years ago. More than that, and more importantly, he was Julienne’s boss. She had started at the company headquarters in Milan ten years ago, as a part-time job she fit in around the private studies Cristiano had arranged for her and Fleurette. First she’d been an intern. And then, once she’d finished her schooling at eighteen, she’d taken the lowest position offered and had worked her way steadily up.
That she was, in effect, Cristiano’s ward had never signified. It was never discussed, and Julienne often wondered if anyone else even knew how generous he was, or how she had personally benefitted from it. But then, it wasn’t as if she’d ever lived with him. He had put them up in one of his houses in Milan, complete with staff to tend to them, and in essence, they’d raised themselves.
We were too old already, Fleurette liked to say.
These days, Julienne lived across the sea in New York City. She’d fought hard to get to her position as the vice president of North American operations for Cassara Corporation, reporting directly to Cristiano himself. And she’d fought even harder to close the kind of deals that would not only pay Cristiano back for his generosity all those years ago, but give back more than he’d given.
It had taken years.
He looked at her now, that dark gaze of his cool and assessing.
But no less harsh.
She would have felt let down if it had been, she understood.
“Thank you for coming,” she said, as politely as if she was looking at him across a table in one of the Cassara Corporation’s many offices.
“You were insistent, Ms. Boucher,” he said, and there was that undercurrent of disapproval in his voice that let her know that he was astonished that she’d dared. And that she’d persisted, despite his secretary’s best efforts.
Julienne smiled, still polite and calm. “You met me here once before.”
And she knew as she said it that she was breaking all their rules. The unspoken boundaries all three of them had maintained for a decade. She and Fleurette never mentioned him or how they’d made it from a sad, half-abandoned French hill town to a lavishly appointed, semidetached townhouse in the center of Milan. He never indicated he knew either one of them. Sometimes Julienne had worried that he’d forgotten what he’d done for them—that it had meant so little to him when it had altered the whole of hers and Fleurette’s lives.
But no, she could see he hadn’t forgotten. More, she could see his astonishment, there in his eyes like a thread of gold in the brown depths. His dark brows rose, and he looked almost…arrested.
“I did.” His study of her made her want to shake. She didn’t, somehow. Not outwardly. “A meeting neither one of us has referenced in a decade. To what do I owe the pleasure of this unexpected trip down memory lane, Ms. Boucher?”
His voice was crisp. A distinct and deliberate slap, though as stern and controlled as everything else he did.
He meant her to wilt and she wanted to, but then, she had built herself in his image. She was made of sterner stuff because he was, and because she’d always assumed he expected it. She kept her cool smile on her face.
“In that decade, I have kept track of what you must have spent to rescue Fleurette and me. Then care for us.” She named a staggering number and saw that light in his eyes change again, to something far more sharp and assessing that she could feel like a fist in her belly. And lower, like heat. “With the latest deal we closed and the amount I have in a separate fund with your name on it, I believe I have repaid that sum. With interest.”
His eyes were dark brown, like the bittersweet chocolate his family made. And yet that could hardly begin to describe their ferocity, or the intense way they narrowed on her now.
“I do not recall asking for repayment. Or even acknowledgment.”
“Nonetheless.” She took a deep breath. “My resignation letter waits for you in Milan.”
He blinked. “I beg your pardon. You are resigning?”
“I am. I have.”
She reached out and did what she’d done ten years ago. She put her hand on his arm, but this time, she meant it.
Oh, how she meant it.
“Cristiano,” she said quietly. Invitingly, she hoped. “Would you like to buy me that drink?”
End of excerpt
The Italian’s Pregnant Cinderella
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