When Rio Lombardi finally heard the apartment door open, his handsome mouth quirked and he sprang upright. Christabel was in for a surprise.
A breathless series of giggles and an urgent whisper which he didn't catch sounded from the hall, making him frown. Evidently, his fiancée had a friend in tow. That was the trouble with surprises, Rio acknowledged in exasperation: their very nature made them unreliable. He should've warned her that he might make it back to London a day early.
Surrendering his fantasy of sweeping Christabel straight off to bed for a passionate reunion, Rio crossed the spacious lounge to announce his presence and make polite social chitchat instead.
But the hall was already empty. A pair of kitten-heeled turquoise shoes and a pair of diamante-studded black satin mules lay abandoned on the carpet. Frowning a little at the suspicion that his fiancée might not be sober again, and now also wondering if he was about to break in on some cosy girly get-together, Rio strolled down the corridor to the bedroom.
He'd intended to knock on the door but it was wide open and the sight which met his eyes was so shocking, so utterly unbelievable to him, that his lean hand froze in mid-air.
Halfway out of her dress, Christabel was kissing... another woman, also half out of her dress. Paralysed to the threshold, Rio stared, his dark-as-midnight eyes totally refusing to accept what he was seeing.
They were drunk, fooling about, he started to tell himself; maybe they 6
had realised he was in the apartment and were playing some stupid tasteless joke on him, But they were locked together, breast to breast, hip to hip, Christabel's glossy blonde hair mingling with the brunette's darker tresses as they touched each other with the unmistakable eagerness of lovers. He was so revolted by that acknowledgement that for an instant he felt physically ill. Christabel, his woman, his lover, his bride-to-be...
Christabel drew back with a husky, sexy laugh, her fabulous face flushed with excitement, and only then did the two women realise that they had an audience poised in the doorway. Rio recognised the brunette as one of Christabel's friends: Tammy something or other, another fashion model, also another man's wife.
For a split-second nobody moved or spoke. Aghast, Christabel and Tammy gaped at him, and then the brunette loosed a strangled moan of horror and fled into the connecting bathroom, noisily slamming and locking the door behind her.
'H-heavens...what a fright you gave me...' Christabel faltered, frantically yanking up her dress to cover her bare breasts, her face now pale and stiff as marble, her wonderful green eyes glittering with fearful anxiety. 'Please...you mustn't misunderstand what you just saw, Rio-'
'Misunderstand?' Rio could never recall it taking more effort to speak one word levelly. Initial shock and disbelief were giving way to rage and an unfamiliar sense of appalled bewilderment that only stoked the rage higher.
'We were just mucking around. Don't be old-fashioned about this...'
Christabel urged in the charged silence as she moved closer and made a little pleading movement with her manicured hands.
Rio could not take his eyes off her. Christabel Kent, the world-famous supermodel and media darling who wore his
engagement ring, her Nordic fairness and endless legs a legend in the fashion and beauty market. Perfect face, perfect body.
'OK...I'll come clean,' Christabel continued feverishly. 'So I was missing you dreadfully and I like a change occasionally-'
'A change? You make it sound like it's nothing-'
'It isn't...it's just sex!' his fiancée interrupted, reaching for the lean, powerful hands coiled into fierce fists of self-restraint by his sides. 'Nothing for you to worry about or even think about, because if you don't like it I swear it won't ever happen again!'
Rio backed out of her reach. In his mind's eye he could still only see one image: Christabel wrapped half-naked and excited round another woman. Just sex? He felt betrayed. He felt incredulous. He felt something he wasn't used to feeling: foolish,
'All right...you're shocked and furious and I understand and I'm really sorry!' Christabel was panicking at his lack of response. 'I'll make it up to you-'
'What with? An offer to join the two of you?' Rio derided between clenched white teeth.
Christabel looked up at him, green eyes gleaming with sudden relief lightened by a shard of seductive amusement. 'Would you like that, darling?'
Violence coursed through Rio in a molten wave and a shudder of angry revulsion passed through him. If she hadn't been a woman he would have knocked her through the wall and if that was an old-fashioned reaction, tough! Yet her stupidity in assuming that his contemptuous question might have been a serious hint that all would be forgiven if he got a piece of the same action freed him from that first binding shock.
'I'll give you time to move out of here,' Rio breathed 8
with raw clarity. 'I'll deal with cancelling the wedding arrangements-'
'You can't be serious!' Christabel gasped in stricken horror. 'We're perfect together!'
Rio swung on his heel and strode back down the corridor, Christabel pursuing him every step of the way, pleading with him to calm down and think again. In the hall, she shot between him and the front door to prevent his departure.
'If you tell people about this, my career will be ruined!'
Christabel's career had been built on her clean, wholesome image. No risque" lingerie assignments, no media coverage of Christabel whooping it up like a ladette in the clubs, no bad-ass boyfriends. Christabel liked to pose for off-the-record interviews with fluffy animals and talk about how mad she was about children, not to mention how crazy she was about the man she was to marry and how much she was looking forward to giving up work to be a full-time wife and mother...
Rio reached out and lifted her bodily out of his path. 'Dio mio...I won't be talking-'
That fear overcome, Christabel cried in desperation. 'Then why can't you forgive me? Tammy means nothing to me. It's not like she was another man or I'm in love with her. I love you, Rio-'
She loved him? Had she ever loved him? Or had she loved his enormous wealth most of all? His sculpted mouth tightening, he recalled that Christabel had expensive tastes that far outran even her own healthy earning power. Within a week of his marriage proposal she had confessed to a string of outstanding bills and had told him how hopeless she was with money. Impressed by her honesty, he had felt hugely protective towards her and had cleared her debts without even thinking about what he was doing.
Yanking himself free of her clinging hands in growing disgust at what her every reckless word revealed about her character, Rio left the apartment and made it into the lift. He raised one of his hands and watched it shake in disbelieving outrage. Balling his fingers back into an aggressive fist, he punched the steel wall with the full force of the rage and the pain splintering through him, the savage pain he had been struggling to deny. He had loved her, he had really loved her and wanted to marry her.
Santo cielo, he might have given his children a mother who thought three-in-a-bed sex was a wonderful thrill! A woman who had contrived to hide her true nature from him so successfully that the sheer shock value of what he had witnessed and heard would linger with him for a very long time.
Just sex? Hadn't he been enough for her? Obviously not. As his bodyguards reared up from their seats in the ground-floor reception area, their surprise at his unexpected reappearance patent, Rio was bund to them, his darkly handsome features rigid and ashen pale. Outside, he drank in deep of the frosty night air before crossing the street to his limo. Had Christabel been lying back and thinking about other women in his bed? Had even her pleasure been faked? Had the eager desire she had shown for his lovemaking all been part of one giant con to ensnare a very rich husband? How could he have known so little about a woman he had been with for almost two years?
'Your hand's bleeding, boss. Are you OK?'
Rio angled a cursory glance down at his bruised and bleeding knuckles before meeting the troubled dark eyes of Ezio. The stockily built older man had been on his security team since Rio was a student and knew him too well.
'Si...' But right at that moment Rio did not know when he was ever going to feel normal again. Like Saverio Lombardi, billionaire head of one of the proudest, oldest
families in Italy and the driving force behind Lombardi Industries, one of the biggest, most successful companies in the world. He felt humiliated, sick and less than a man for the first time in twenty-nine years of existence.
How was he to explain this fiasco in acceptable terms to his vulnerable mother? Alice Lombardi was literally counting the days to her son's wedding and was pitifully eager to cradle her first grandchild in her arms. She was a sick woman, crippled by arthritis, further weakened by a series of debilitating illnesses. Every week she survived was a literal gift from God and her poor health permitted her precious few pleasures in life. Now there would be no wedding, no prospect of a baby to fill the empty nursery, no bright and chatty daughter-in-law to occasionally enliven her dull, pain-filled days...