The Reluctant Wife
by Bronwen Evans
Abby Taylor walked out on her irresistible husband three years ago. Now she has no choice but to return to Italy to ask him for a favor. To pay for her grandmother’s heart operation she needs his money, but it comes with strings attached.
Conte Dante Lombardi has it all—an Italian villa, a successful family business, and a noble title. But he needs a child to carry on his legacy and time is running out. He also hopes to satisfy the desire Abby rouses in him.
As Abby uncovers why he’s in such a hurry for a child, she falls in love with him again … just as she realizes it might be impossible to keep her end of the deal.
© 2012 Bronwen Evans
“I hope he’s in a forgiving mood,” Abby muttered as she drove up to the fortress-like front door of the fifteenth-century Tuscan villa. Her flight from her home in England had been delayed, and it was later than she’d anticipated. She peered upward, searching the windows for signs of life, but there were no lights in the formal rooms overlooking the cobbled driveway. She began to open the car door, then hesitated, peering in the rearview mirror. The woman revealed by the courtesy light looked older, more confident, than the girl who had fled three years ago. She was also wiser. But was she braver, as brave as she needed to be?
Abby told herself sternly that she was there to claim what was rightfully hers. She checked her lipstick again and went over her plan in her head. She needed money for her grandmother’s operation and hewould give it to her. She had no one else, and nowhere else, to turn.
The car door opened abruptly just as she reached for the handle.
“Contessa Lombardi, it is a pleasure to have you back in Fiorenzia. I hope your journey from England was not too tiring.”
“Thank you, Pietro. Please just call me Miss Taylor.”
The elderly man made no response and offered a hand to help her from the car. The conte’s maggiordomo was nothing if not discreet.
She felt the familiar cobblestones underfoot. She looked down because didn’t want to see more than she had to of the gracious Italian house that had briefly been her home. Memories were crowding her, threatening her composure. Pietro took her coat and raised a questioning eyebrow toward the trunk. She shook her head. Luggage would presume that a welcome awaited her under the portico.
She should have put off approaching Dante, given herself at least until the morning to sleep, to think, to plan. But there was every chance he would jet away to some remote corner of his business empire before she could speak with him. Besides, arriving unannounced might give her an advantage.
“Is the conte home?” she asked Pietro as they mounted the broad, shallow steps.
“Si. He is expecting you. Security called from the gates.”
The night was warm, but a shiver snaked down her spine. She followed him inside, then stood uncertainly on the black and white marble tiles of the entrance hall. The scent from the bowls of roses on the inlaid side tables sent a slideshow of happier days flickering behind her tired eyelids. She remembered laughter and warmth and company, and, for a time, love—of every kind except that which she craved.
Pietro halted ahead of her. “The conte is in the den. I shall announce you.” He indicated with a sweep of his arm that she should precede him.
How appropriate, she thought. In his den, like a beast awaiting its prey. At the foot of the curving staircase, she took a gulp of air, but her breathing stayed erratic. She placed a hand on Pietro’s arm. “Give me a minute, will you? I need to freshen up. Then I’ll make my own way up.”
He nodded and returned her wavering smile, patting her hand. He gestured toward the cloakroom off the landing. “It is good to have you home. It will be good for him.”
This was the first time in three years that she would be in the same room as her husband, long years where she’d tried to forget him, tried to tell herself she’d made the right choice, that her business filled the void in her chest, and that knowing he’d married her without loving her no longer hurt. She believed she had conquered her feelings for the arrogant aristocrat, and yet even now she felt the physical tug of his nearness, even a flight of stairs away.
She argued sternly with herself in the gilded mirror while she repaired the more obvious ravages of travel and anxiety. “You can do this. You’re not a gullible, awestruck nineteen-year-old anymore. He’s just a man.”
She smoothed her skirt, conscious of every wrinkle, and of the way the short hemline showcased her legs. Wishing for once she were taller than her five feet five inches, she made her way slowly up the marble staircase. At the closed door of his den, her churning stomach clenched, and she was a schoolgirl again, summoned to the headmaster’s office. With an abrupt surge of anger at her cowardice, she knocked forcefully on the tall, paneled door. It was no use telling herself Conte Dante Lombardi was “just a man.” He was an iron will in an iron-hard body—and he was the man she still loved.
She heard his voice rumble, “Come.”
Braced by anger, she flung open the door of the softly lit room.
She gasped as pain seized her chest. After so long, she shouldn’t have been surprised. Standing in the doorway, Abby had to grip the handle to prevent herself from running across the room and pulling the beautiful woman out of her husband’s arms. He met her with a steely gaze.
“What a lovely surprise. My errant wife has deigned to pay me a visit. She must want something.”
At thirty-three he looked even more beautiful, in his prime now, somehow grown into his arrogance. He wore a white silk shirt against deep olive skin. His ebony hair, thick and glossy, fell almost to his collar. If Abby had hoped time might have mellowed his hostility, she was swiftly put straight. His full lips were taut with disapproval and his eyes… She shivered. Their light blue was icy, as if he couldn’t stand the sight of her.
The voluptuous redhead in his arms had the decency to look embarrassed. She looked up from the couch with pity and made to lift herself off the lean length of him, but his arm snaked out and held her to him. “Don’t leave, Carla. My wife won’t be staying.”
If he thought she’d turn tail and run, he was going to be bitterly disappointed. She refused to drop her gaze from his cold stare. Her pride somehow clothed her in the necessary armor, and she walked into the room with her chin high. “I won’t take much of your time. I see you’re busy.”
Dante continued to lounge on the couch in his opulent study, as if the wife who’d walked out on him three years ago had just sauntered back home after a walk. As if her presence or absence meant nothing to him. He would have to be in this room of all the villa’s many rooms. She knew it well. She’d been seduced on that very couch.
He made no move to rise and did not offer her a seat. She stood, taking in the roaring fire and the half-full brandy glasses, all the props for an intimate evening. The coffee table made an effective barrier between them.
“Well?” He raised a dark eyebrow.
“I’ve come to ask for a favor.”
“Ah.” His mouth flickered in the mockery of a smile.
Carla pushed out of his grasp and spoke rapidly in Italian. Once Abby would have been able to keep up, but now her Italian was rusty, and Carla’s words sped by in a jumble. Dante said nothing but his mouth firmed into a grim line, and he stood as Carla rose and left the room.
“At least someone has the decency to show some courtesy,” Abby said.
Dante’s eyes narrowed but he made no answer.
Unable to hold his frosty stare, Abby flicked her gaze around the room. It hadn’t changed. In front of the desk was the faded Oriental rug where she had stood while he told her, coldly and concisely, how their marriage would work—terms she could not, and eventually did not, accept.
The high space was imposing, stuffed with antiques and heavy, formal furnishings. His seat of power suited him and declared his values. He was a man of traditional tastes and obedience to traditional dictates. If only she’d understood this before she had accepted his proposal—but at nineteen she’d seen only his eminence, felt only her desire for him. She’d been foolishly dizzy with love.
She looked at the wall behind her husband’s head and found herself skewered by the same cold blue gaze in a row of ancestral portraits. “I see you’ve not redecorated since I was last in this room. You’re still surrounding yourself with hedonistic reminders of the past.”
He stroked the grape velvet couch on which he’d seduced her so expertly. “I like reminders of my mistakes so I don’t repeat them.”
“Mistakes? I didn’t think the powerful Conte Lombardi made mistakes. Perhaps you’re human after all.”
“At least I don’t run from them.”
She turned from his too-perceptive stare. Her eye fell on the intricate embroidered crest on the cloth covering the carved side table. Generations of history. How quickly she’d learned Dante held the honor of his ancient family above all else.
“Some mistakes take two people to fix, and your heart wasn’t in it.” She’d learned that lesson well. So she’d turned her back and walked out on him, on his family, on his name…
“My pretty English rose, you’ve wasted a journey if your favor is to ask me to speed up our divorce.” His nostrils flared and his jaw tightened. “Even I don’t have the power to hurry the Italian courts.”
Abby watched his Adam’s apple move in his throat. Her gaze drifted down. She eyed the dark arrow of hair revealed at the open neck of his shirt. Anger bubbled up, sheer fury at the habitual rush of desire triggered by a single look that made her nerve endings sizzle. And through it all, her need to feel him, touch him, and kiss him asserted itself, threatening her composure.
She lowered her gaze to her hands clasped tightly in front of her. She tried to relax. She didn’t want him to notice how wound up she was. Fat chance—he noticed everything.
Perhaps her surprise visit would unsettle him enough for her to appeal to his softer side. She knew he had one, especially where families were concerned. She raised her head and met his gaze boldly.
“No,” she whispered and shook her head. “I don’t need to knock my head repeatedly on a stone wall to discover I cannot get free of you any sooner.”
“Good. So, why are you here? May I hope that you’ve come to your senses and returned to fulfill your obligation? It was one we undertook before God.”
She sighed inwardly. She should have expected him to start railroading her into compliance. Hadn’t that been the basis of their marriage from the start? He’d set the terms and expected her complete acquiescence.
They should have really talked more and bedded less.
“I’m not here to stay. I came for a favor that has nothing to do with our matrimonial situation.”
“You need money. Your little business not thriving?”
“My business is fine, thank you for asking.”
“I think you’ve found running a bookstore is not the fun you thought it would be.”
She should have guessed he’d know what she’d been up to. She’d naively thought that when she’d walked out and heard nothing from him he’d wiped her from his mind.
“Don’t look so surprised. Did you think I’d let a woman who still carries my name out into the world without keeping an eye on her? You of all people know how I safeguard the Lombardi name. I repeat, is your visit about money?”
“What else could it be about?”
He swept his gaze over her body, making her wish she’d worn another layer of clothes. He took a step closer. “Some women find me attractive enough to want to share my bed.”
“Been there, done that. The sex was good, but it wasn’t enough.”
His face flushed with anger. “But my name comes in handy, especially when you want a bank loan.”
How could he know about that? “I didn’t volunteer the connection. The bank assumed.”
“So, the divorce will take time, you don’t want to warm my bed once more, and the bank gave you the money for your store. Why are you here, then?”
“I need a lot more money for something else.”
“You are not making sense, mio fiore.”
“Don’t call me that.”
“Touchy. You were my little flower.” He reached and stroked a finger down her bare arm. “Like jasmine, you bloomed at night in my bed.”
She fought the urge to close her eyes and block the images of his mind-blowing lovemaking. He’d been such a fabulous lover—yet a terrible husband.
She swallowed her denial. She’d be a liar and he knew it. When they’d first married, he only had to look at her and she grew wet with desire. A single touch had her begging for him to take her. It would appear nothing had changed.
“Please, sit,” he said with a proud, satisfied smile.
“I’d rather stand, thank you.”
He shrugged his broad shoulders and took a seat back on the couch. Leaning back just a little, he crossed one long leg over the other, watching her intently. Did he notice the way her eyes followed the movement as she tried to disguise her hunger for him?
His lips broke into a lascivious smile before it died in the ensuing silence.. “What is it you want? I am a busy man and I have…company waiting for me.”
“The redhead can wait.”
He leaned forward, almost rising off the couch. “That was brilliant acting. I would almost believe you are jealous if not for the fact that you walked out on me.” He slammed his hand into the couch, sending cushions flying.
She could get angry too. “You know why I left. The choice you gave me wasn’t fair. I was nineteen. I was beginning my life. I deserved your love and support. I was petrified coming into your world.” Her shoulders slumped. “Never mind. You’ll never understand. I was a foolish young girl. I didn’t realize on our wedding day that I had neither your love nor your support.”
Abby watched his face darken in anger. He’d always been a proud man.
“I’ve had to run the Lombardi Group since I was twenty. I understand how daunting the world of Lombardis is. There has been a Lombardi male leading the company for over ten generations.” He leaned forward. “I didn’t have the luxury of running away when things got difficult. I was twenty years old and still in university when my father died, leaving me with a multinational conglomerate to run and enormous responsibilities and everyone in the family flailing and looking to me for both comfort and security. I needed to make decisions, important ones, difficult ones, on behalf of my family and I still do. Everything I do is for my family. Everything!”
“Your father would be proud of you,” she whispered.
She watched his Adam’s apple move as he swallowed. “Thank you.”
She raised her hand appealing to him. “Please, this is not why I came. I know why you married me. I think I might even understand it.”
“Do you? Really?”
She gave a choked cry. “Of course I do, because I was there.” The pain sliced at her memories. He had not married her for love.
“You think I was so desperate that I had to marry the first beautiful woman who caught my eye?”
“Suitable woman,” she mumbled, although his assertion of beauty sent tingles of warmth over her skin. Dante had thought he was getting an infatuated, quiet, and willing wife to stand by his side. A woman who was madly in love with him and his family. Once he’d made up his mind to marry, she’d had no chance of escape.
“Unbelievable. Are you listening to yourself?” He swore in Italian. “I could have married anyone, but I chose you! Although why escapes me right now.”
“Does it? Perhaps if you’d told me how you felt about me—”
“I showed you every night, usually all night. I picked you to be the mother of my children.”
“Oh, here we go again. Children! That is really what you married me for, admit it.” She moved closer. “Most couples marry because they’re madly in love with each other. You married to gain a brood mare.”
“If I’d wanted a brood mare, I could have married a local Italian girl from a Catholic family. Then there would be no stupid talk of divorce. I’ll never understand you. You used my desire for children as an excuse to run from what scared you, nothing more.”
“Perhaps I left because you think love is a dirty, four-letter word.”
His silence spoke volumes. Abby couldn’t remember Dante ever saying those three little words that hold such power. All she’d wanted was to become like any other member of his family. Loved. By him. Her husband.
“As for love and cherish…how do you think I felt when I saw you coming out of the hotel with Elena? You knew how much I wanted that job, yet you gave it to her. You wanted a child more than my happiness. You never once considered my feelings.”
“I couldn’t be seen to be doing you favors. Elena was the right person for the position.”
“But you couldn’t tell me that?”
“Would you have listened?”
“It doesn’t matter. Our marriage is over. Since we applied for our formal separation last year, even the powerful Dante Lombardi can’t stop me from divorcing a man who does not love me. Once the three uninterrupted years from now have passed, we’ve satisfied Italian law and you can find another, more suitable wife. One far less reluctant than I.”
“What was wrong in wanting my wife to have my child? To start a new family? Most woman long for children.” The way he said the words made her feel abnormal, unfeminine.
“I want a family, someday, but I had only just turned twenty when we actually married into your illustrious family. I was still finding my feet. I was nervous and scared and alone in a strange country with a new extended family.” She raised her eyes to glare at him. “You’ll never understand. You’re always so sure of yourself.”
“At least I was honest about what I wanted. You stooped to deception. Where’s the honesty in that?”
“You weren’t honest, were you? You stood in a church and swore to love me.”
His face paled under his olive skin.
She let out her breath. What had she been waiting for? For Dante to declare he did love her and wanted her back? Fool. “It doesn’t matter now. I need money. A lot of money. Well, a lot of money in my book.”
He gave a short, harsh laugh. “Women are so predictable. What do you want this money for?”
This time she looked fully into his eyes, refusing to plead for his sympathy and understanding. “For my grandmother. She needs a heart operation, but the hospital in Liverpool refuses to give her the surgery, saying due to her age she is not a priority patient. She is on a waiting list but I don’t think she has enough time.” Her eyes filled with tears. “She’s the only family I have left. I would like enough money for her to have the operation done privately, by the best surgeons.”
The doctor in her hometown of Southport, on the northwest coast of England, had been sympathetic to her grandmother’s plight, but his hands were tied. He’d advised her to get the operation done as quickly as possible and that meant privately. She held herself straight and proud. “I returned the money you sent me when I left. I’d hoped you would allow me to now accept your generous settlement.”
His voice was softer, kinder when he finally spoke. “Your grandmother must mean a lot to you, to risk the humiliation of having to come to me for this favor.”
“I owe her everything. She raised me, gave me love when I had no one else.”
“I gave you a home, a family. Yet you could walk away from that without a second glance.” His voice was cold and flat.
She closed her eyes. Fleeing home to England and walking away from him and his family was the hardest thing she’d ever had to do. Her throat constricted and she gulped back a sob. No, she thought, coming back and seeing what she had given up was harder.
Before she could get a grip on her emotions, her eyes flashed open. “It would appear you have not been short of someone to fill my bed since I left.”
He remained silent, but something like guilt flickered deep in his eyes.
“Carla is only a friend. I pretended she was more to see your reaction.”
She met the silent challenge in his gaze. “I don’t think you were in any doubt that I used to love you.”
“Past tense. I see. Did you really think I would sit around pining for you?”
Her faced flushed with warmth. Of course not. Women flocked to him. It wasn’t difficult to see why. His striking masculinity was like a beacon. He had money, but more devastating were his charisma and his power of persuasion. Now his eyes held nothing but scorn. He looked precisely like the man he’d been back then, only she’d been too blind to see past his sensual persona. He was powerful, ruthless. Lethal. Not someone with whom to tangle.
“No.” she sucked in her breath at the stabbing pain under her rib cage. “Knowing your appetites, I did not expect you to wait.”
“You are wrong. I did wait.”
She took a step back in surprise.
“Since I have waited, waited for my wife to come to her senses and return to me, I think you owe me. You owe me my son.”