His Final Bargain
Eliza Lincoln is stunned to find Leo Valente at her door; four years ago his passionate embrace was a brief taste of freedom from her suffocating engagement. Until Leo discovered her secret…
Yet he hasn’t come to rekindle their affair. He has a proposition he knows Eliza can’t refuse: she’s the only person who can help his small, motherless daughter.
Torn, Eliza can’t ignore a vulnerable child, but the last time she was near Leo her desire nearly consumed her. Is she willing to take that risk again now that the stakes are even higher?
An Excerpt from His Final Bargain
IT WAS THE meeting Eliza had been anticipating with agonising dread for weeks. She took her place with the four other teachers in the staffroom and prepared herself for the announcement from the headmistress.
The words fell into the room like the drop of a guillotine. The silence that followed echoed with a collective sense of disappointment, despair and panic. Eliza thought of her little primary school pupils with their sad and neglected backgrounds so similar to her own. She had worked so hard to get them to where they were now. What would happen to them if their small community-based school was shut down? They already had so much going against them, coming from such underprivileged backgrounds. They would never survive in the overcrowded mainstream school system. They would slip between the cracks, just like their parents and grandparents had done.
Like she had almost done.
The heartbreaking cycle of poverty and neglect would continue. Their lives—those little lives that had so much potential—would be stymied, ruined, and possibly even destroyed by delinquency and crime.
‘Is there nothing we can do to keep things going for a little while at least?’ Georgie Brant, the Year Three teacher asked. ‘What about another bake sale or a fair?’
The headmistress, Marcia Gordon, shook her head sadly. ‘I’m afraid no amount of cakes and cookies are going to keep us afloat at this stage. We need a large injection of funds and we need it before the end of term.’
‘But that’s only a week away!’ Eliza said.
Marcia sighed. ‘I know. I’m sorry but that’s just the way it is. We’ve always tried to keep our overheads low, but with the economy the way it is just now it’s made it so much harder. We have no other choice but to close before we amass any more debt.’
‘What if some of us take a pay cut or even work without pay?’ Eliza suggested. ‘I could go without pay for a month or two.’ Any longer than that and things would get pretty dire. But she couldn’t bear to stand back and do nothing. Surely there was something they could do? Surely there was someone they could appeal to for help…a charity or a government grant.
Before Eliza could form the words Georgie had leaned forward in her chair and spoke them for her. ‘What if we appeal for public support? Remember all the attention we got when Lizzie was given that teaching award last year? Maybe we could do another press article showing what we offer here for disadvantaged kids. Maybe some filthy-rich philanthropist will step out of the woodwork and offer to keep us going.’ She rolled her eyes and slumped back in her seat dejectedly. ‘Of course, it would help if one of us actually knew someone filthy-rich.’
Eliza sat very still in her seat. The hairs on the back of her neck each stood up one by one and began tingling at the roots. A fine shiver moved over her skin like the rush of a cool breeze. Every time she thought of Leo Valente her body reacted as if he was in the room with her. Her heart picked up its pace as she brought those darkly handsome features to mind…
‘Do you know anyone, Lizzie?’ Georgie asked, turning towards her.
‘Um…no,’ Eliza said. ‘I don’t mix in those sorts of circles.’ Any more.
Marcia clicked her pen on and off a couple of times, her expression thoughtful. ‘I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to try. I’ll make a brief statement to the press. Even if we could stay open until Christmas it would be something.’ She stood up and gathered her papers off the table. ‘I’m sending the letter to the parents in tomorrow’s post.’ She sighed again. ‘For those of you who believe in miracles, now is a good time to pray for one.’
* * *
Eliza saw the car as soon as she turned the corner into her street. It was prowling slowly like a black panther on the hunt, its halogen headlights beaming like searching eyes. It was too dark inside the car to see the driver in any detail, but she immediately sensed it was a man and that it was her he was looking for. A telltale shiver passed over her like the hand of a ghost as the driver expertly guided the showroom-perfect Mercedes into the only available car space outside her flat.
Her breath stalled in her throat as a tall, dark-haired, well dressed figure got out from behind the wheel. Her heart jolted against her ribcage and her pulse quickened. Seeing Leo Valente face to face for the first time in four years created a shockwave through her body that left her feeling disoriented and dizzy. Even her legs felt shaky as if the ground beneath her had suddenly turned to jelly.
Why was he here? What did he want? How had he found her?
She strove for a steady composure as he came to stand in front of her on the pavement, but inside her stomach was fluttering like a moth trapped in a jam jar. ‘Leo,’ she said, surprised her voice came out at all with her throat so tightly constricted with emotion.
He inclined his darkly handsome head in a formal greeting. ‘Eliza.’
She quickly disguised a swallow. His voice, with its sexy Italian accent, had always made her go weak at the knees. His looks were just as lethally attractive—tall and lean and arrestingly handsome, with eyes so dark a brown they looked almost black. The landscape of his face hinted at a man who was used to getting his own way. It was there in the chiselled line of his jaw and the uncompromising set to his mouth. He looked a little older than when she had last seen him. His jet-black hair had a trace of silver at the temples, and there were fine lines grooved either side of his mouth and around his eyes, which somehow she didn’t think smiling or laughter had caused.
‘Hi…’ she said and then wished she had gone for something a little more formal. It wasn’t as if they had parted as friends—far from it.
‘I would like to speak to you in private.’ He nodded towards her ground-floor flat, the look in his eyes determined, intractable and diamond-hard. ‘Shall we go inside?’
She took an uneven breath that rattled against her throat. ‘Um…I’m kind of busy right now…’
His eyes hardened even further as if he knew it for the lie it was. ‘I won’t take any more than five or ten minutes of your time.’
Eliza endured the silent tug-of-war between his gaze and hers for as long as she could, but in the end she was the first to look away. ‘All right.’ She blew out a little gust of a breath. ‘Five minutes.’
She was aware of him walking behind her up the cracked and uneven pathway to her front door. She tried not to fumble with her keys but the way they rattled and jingled in her fingers betrayed her nervousness lamentably. Finally she got the door open and stepped through, inwardly cringing when she thought of how humble her little flat was compared to his villa in Positano. She could only imagine what he was thinking: How could she have settled for this instead of what I offered her?
Eliza turned to face him as he came in. He had to stoop to enter, his broad shoulders almost spanning the narrow hallway. He glanced around with a critical eye. Was he wondering if the ceiling was going to come tumbling down on him? She watched as his top lip developed a slight curl as he turned back to face her. ‘How long have you lived here?’
Pride brought her chin up half an inch. ‘Four years.’
Eliza silently ground her teeth. Was he doing it deliberately? Reminding her of all she had thrown away by rejecting his proposal of marriage? He must know she could never afford to buy in this part of London. She couldn’t afford to buy in any part of London. And now with her job hanging in the balance she might not even be able to afford to pay her rent. ‘I’m saving up for a place of my own,’ she said as she placed her bag on the little hall table.
‘I might be able to help you with that.’
She searched his expression but it was hard to know what was going on behind the dark screen of his eyes. She quickly moistened her lips, trying to act nonchalant in spite of that little butterfly in her stomach, which had suddenly developed razor blades for wings. ‘I’m not sure what you’re suggesting,’ she said. ‘But just for the record—thanks but no thanks.’
His eyes tussled with hers again. ‘Is there somewhere we can talk other than out here in the hall?’
Eliza hesitated as she did a quick mental survey of her tiny sitting room. She had been sorting through a stack of magazines one of the local newsagents had given her for craftwork with her primary school class yesterday. Had she closed that gossip magazine she had been reading? Leo had been photographed at some charity function in Rome. The magazine was a couple of weeks old but it was the only time she had seen anything of him in the press. He had always fiercely guarded his private life. Seeing his photo so soon after the staff meeting had unsettled her deeply. She had stared and stared at his image, wondering if it was just a coincidence that he had appeared like that, seemingly from out of nowhere. ‘Um…sure,’ she said. ‘Come this way.’
If Leo had made the hallway seem small, he made the sitting room look like something out of a Lilliputian house. She grimaced as his head bumped the cheap lantern light fitting. ‘You’d better sit down,’ she said, surreptitiously closing the magazine and putting it beneath the others in the stack. ‘You have the sofa.’
‘Where are you going to sit?’ he asked with a crook of one dark brow.
‘Um…I’ll get a chair from the kitchen…’
‘I’ll get it,’ he said. ‘You take the sofa.’
Eliza would have argued over it except for the fact that her legs weren’t feeling too stable right at that moment. She sat on the sofa and placed her hands flat on her thighs to stop them from trembling. He placed the chair in what little space was left in front of the sofa and sat down in a classically dominant pose with his hands resting casually on his widely set apart strongly muscled thighs.
She waited for him to speak. The silence seemed endless as he sat there quietly surveying her with that dark inscrutable gaze.
‘You’re not wearing a wedding ring,’ he said.
‘No…’ She clasped her hands together in her lap, her cheeks feeling as if she had been sitting too close to a fire.
‘But you’re still engaged.’
Eliza sought the awkward bump of the solitaire diamond with her fingers. ‘Yes…yes, I am…’
His eyes burned as they held hers, with resentment, with hatred. ‘Rather a long betrothal, is it not?’ he said. ‘I’m surprised your fiancé is so patient.’
She thought of poor broken Ewan, strapped in that chair with his vacant stare, day after day, year after year, dependent on others for everything. Yes, patient was exactly what Ewan was now. ‘He seems content with the arrangement as it stands,’ she said.
A tiny muscle flickered beneath his skin in the lower quadrant of his jaw. ‘And what about you?’ he asked with a pointed look that seemed to burn right through to her backbone. ‘Are you content?’
Eliza forced herself to hold his penetrating gaze. Would he be able to see how lonely and miserable she was? How trapped she was? ‘I’m perfectly happy,’ she said, keeping her expression under rigidly tight control.
‘Does he live here with you?’
‘No, he has his own place.’
‘Then why don’t you share it with him?’
Eliza shifted her gaze to look down at her clasped hands. She noticed she had blue poster paint under one of her fingernails and a smear of yellow on the back of one knuckle. She absently rubbed at the smear with the pad of her thumb. ‘It’s a bit far for me to travel each day to school,’ she said. ‘We spend the weekends together whenever we can.’
The silence was long and brooding—angry.
She looked up when she heard the rustle of his clothes as he got to his feet. He prowled about the room like a tiger shark in a goldfish bowl. His hands were tightly clenched, but every now and again he would open them and loosen his fingers before fisting them again.
He suddenly stopped pacing and nailed her with his hard, embittered gaze. ‘Why?’
Eliza affected a coolly composed stance. ‘Why…what?’
His eyes blazed with hatred. ‘Why did you choose him over me?’
‘I met him first and he loves me.’ She had often wondered how different her life would have been if she hadn’t met Ewan. Would it have been better or worse? It was hard to say. There had been so many good times before the accident.
His brows slammed together. ‘You think I didn’t?’
Eliza let out a little breath of scorn. ‘You didn’t love me, Leo. You were in love with the idea of settling down because you’d just lost your father. I was the first one who came along who fitted your checklist—young, biddable and beddable.’
‘I could’ve given you anything money can buy,’ he said through tight lips. ‘And yet you choose to live like a pauper while tied to a man who doesn’t even have the desire to live with you full-time. How do you know he’s not cheating on you while you’re here?’
‘I can assure you he’s not cheating on me,’ Eliza said with sad irony. She knew exactly where Ewan was and who he was with twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.
‘Do you cheat on him?’ he asked with a cynical look.
She pressed her lips together without answering. His expression was dark with anger. ‘Why didn’t you tell me right from the start? You should have told me you were engaged the first time we met. Why wait until I proposed to you to tell me you were promised to another man?’
Eliza thought back to those three blissful weeks in Italy four years ago. It had been her first holiday since Ewan’s accident eighteen months before. His mother Samantha had insisted she get away for a break.
Eliza had gone without her engagement ring; one of the claws had needed repairing so she had left it with the jeweller while she was away. For those few short weeks she had tried to be just like any other single girl, knowing that when she got back the prison doors would close on her for good.
Meeting Leo Valente had been so bittersweet. She had known all along their fling couldn’t go anywhere, but she had lived each day as if it could and would. She had been swept up in the romantic excitement of it, pretending to herself that it wasn’t doing anyone any harm if she had those few precious weeks pretending she was free. She had not intended to fall in love with him. But she had seriously underestimated Leo Valente. He wasn’t just charming, but ruthlessly, stubbornly and irresistibly determined with it. She had found herself enraptured by his intellectually stimulating company and by his intensely passionate lovemaking.
As each day passed she had fallen more and more in love with him. The clock had been ticking on their time together but she hadn’t been able to stop herself from seeing him. She had been like a starving person encountering their first feast. She had gobbled up every moment she could with him and to hell with the consequences.
‘In hindsight I agree with you,’ Eliza said. ‘I probably should’ve said something. But I thought it was just a holiday fling. I didn’t expect to ever see you again. I certainly didn’t expect you to propose to me. We’d only known each other less than a month.’
His expression pulsed again with bitterness. ‘Did you have a good laugh about it with your friends when you came home? Is that why you let me make a fool of myself, just so you could dine out on it ever since?’
Eliza got to her feet and wrapped her arms around her body as if she were cold, even though the flat was stuffy from being closed up all day. She went over to the window and looked at the solitary rose bush in the front garden. It had a single bloom on it but the rain and the wind had assaulted its velvet petals until only three were left clinging precariously to the craggy, thorny stem. ‘I didn’t tell anyone about it,’ she said. ‘When I came back home it felt like it had all been a dream.’
‘Did you tell your fiancé about us?’
She grasped her elbows a bit tighter and turned to face him. ‘He wouldn’t have understood.’
‘I bet he wouldn’t.’ He gave a little sound of disdain. ‘His fiancée opens her legs for the first man she meets in a bar while on holiday. Yes, I would imagine he would find that rather hard to understand.’
Eliza gave him a glacial look. ‘I think it might be time for you to leave. Your five minutes is up.’
He closed the distance between them in one stride. He towered over her, making her breath stall again in her chest. She saw his nostrils flare as if he was taking in her scent. She could smell his: a complex mix of wood and citrus and spice that tantalised her senses and stirred up a host of memories she had tried for so long to suppress. She felt her blood start to thunder through the network of her veins. She felt her skin tighten and tingle with awareness. She felt her insides coil and flex with a powerful stirring of lust. Her body recognised the intimate chemistry of his. It was as if she was finely tuned to his radar. No other man made her so aware of her body, so acutely aware of her primal reaction to him.
‘I have another proposal for you,’ he said.
Eliza swallowed tightly and hoped he hadn’t seen it. ‘Not marriage, I hope.’
He laughed but it wasn’t a nice sound. ‘Not marriage, no,’ he said. ‘A business proposal—a very lucrative one.’
Eliza tried to read his expression. There was something in his dark brown eyes that was slightly menacing. Her heart beat a little bit faster as fear climbed up her spine with icy-cold fingers. ‘I don’t want or need your money,’ she said with a flash of stubborn pride.
His top lip gave a sardonic curl. ‘Perhaps not, but your cash-strapped community school does.’
She desperately tried to conceal her shock. How on earth did he know? The press article hadn’t even gone to press. The journalist and photographer had only just left the school a couple of hours ago. How had he found out about it so quickly? Had he done his own research? What else had he uncovered about her? She gave him a wary look. ‘What are you offering?’
‘Five hundred thousand pounds.’
Her eyes widened. ‘On what condition?’
His eyes glinted dangerously. ‘On the condition you spend the next month with me in Italy.’
Eliza felt her heart drop like an anchor. She moistened her lips, struggling to maintain her outwardly calm composure when everything inside her was in a frenzied turmoil. ‘In…in what capacity?’
‘I need a nanny.’
A pain sliced through the middle of her heart like the slash of a scimitar. ‘You’re…married?’
His eyes remained cold and hard, his mouth a grim flat line. ‘Widowed,’ he said. ‘I have a daughter. She’s three.’
Eliza mentally did the sums. He must have met his wife not long after she left Italy. For some reason that hurt much more than if his marriage had been a more recent thing. He had moved on with his life so quickly. No long, lonely months of pining for her, of not eating and not sleeping. No. He had forgotten all about her, while she had never forgotten him, not even for a day. But there had been nothing in the press about him marrying or even about his wife dying. Who was she? What had happened to her? Should she ask?
Eliza glanced at his left hand. ‘You’re not wearing a wedding ring.’
His eyes continued to brutalise hers with their dark brooding intensity. ‘To my wife?’
Eliza nodded. She felt sick with anguish hearing him say those words. My wife. Those words had been meant for her, not someone else. She couldn’t bear to think of him with someone else, making love with someone else, loving someone else. She had taught herself not to think about it. It was too painful to imagine the life she might have had with him if things had been different.
If she had been free…
‘Giulia killed herself.’ He said the words without any trace of emotion. He might have been reading the evening news, so indifferent was his tone. And yet something about his expression—that flicker of pain that came and went in his eyes—hinted that his wife’s death had been a shattering blow to him.
‘I’m very sorry,’ Eliza said. ‘How devastating that must have been…must still be…’
‘It has been very difficult for my daughter,’ he said. ‘She doesn’t understand why her mother is no longer around.’
Eliza understood all too well the utter despair little children felt when a parent died or deserted them. She had been just seven years old when her mother had left her with distant relatives to go on a drugs and drinking binge that had ended in her death. But it had been months and months before her great-aunt had told her that her mother wasn’t coming back to collect her. She hadn’t even been taken to the graveside to say a proper goodbye. ‘Have you explained to your daughter that her mother has passed away?’ she asked.
‘Alessandra is only three years old.’
‘That doesn’t mean she won’t be able to understand what’s happened,’ she said. ‘It’s important to be truthful with her, not harshly or insensitively, but compassionately. Little children understand much more than we give them credit for.’
He moved to the other side of the room, standing with his back to her as he looked at the street outside. It seemed a long time before he spoke. ‘Alessandra is not like other little children.’
Eliza moistened her parchment-dry lips. ‘Look—I’m not sure if I’m the right person to help you. I work full-time as a primary school teacher. I have commitments and responsibilities to see to. I can’t just up and leave the country for four weeks.’
He turned back around and pinned her with his gaze. ‘Without my help you won’t even have a job. Your school is about to be shut down.’
She frowned at him. ‘How do you know that? How can you possibly know that? There’s been nothing in the press so far.’
‘I have my contacts.’
He had definitely done his research, Eliza thought. Who had he been talking to? She knew he was a powerful man, but it made her uneasy to think he had found out so much about her situation. What else had he found out?
‘The summer holidays begin this weekend,’ he said. ‘You have six weeks to do what you like.’
‘I’ve made other plans for the holidays. I don’t want to change them at the last minute.’
He hooked one dark brow upwards. ‘Not even for half a million pounds?’
Eliza pictured the money, great big piles of it. More money than she had ever seen. Money that would give her little primary school children the educational boost they so desperately needed to get out of the cycle of poverty they had been born into. But a month was a long time to spend with a man who was little more than a stranger to her now. What did he want from her? What would he want her to do? Was this some sort of payback or revenge attempt? How could she know what was behind his offer? He said he wanted a nanny, but what if he wanted more?
What if he wanted her?
His inscrutable eyes gave nothing away. ‘You have the qualifications I require for the post.’
It was Eliza’s turn to arch an eyebrow. ‘I just bet I do. Young and female with a pulse, correct?’
A glint of something dark and mocking entered his gaze as it held hers. ‘You misunderstand me, Eliza. I am not offering you a rerun at being my mistress. You will be employed as my daughter’s nanny. That is all that will be required of you.’
Why was she feeling as if he had just insulted her? What right did she have to bristle at his words? He needed a nanny. He didn’t want her in any other capacity.
He didn’t want her.
The realisation pained Eliza much more than she wanted it to. What foolish part of her had clung to the idea that even after all this time he would come back for her because he had never found anyone who filled the gaping hole she had left in his life? ‘I can assure you that if you were offering me anything else I wouldn’t accept it,’ she said with a little hitch of her chin.
His gaze held hers in an assessing manner. It was unnerving to be subjected to such an intensely probing look, especially as she wasn’t entirely confident she was keeping her reaction to him concealed. ‘I wonder if that is strictly true,’ he mused. ‘Clearly your fiancé isn’t satisfying you. You still have that hungry look about you.’
‘You’re mistaken,’ she said with prickly defensiveness. ‘You’re seeing what you want to see, not what is.’ You’re seeing what I’m trying so hard to hide!
His dark brown eyes continued to impale hers. ‘Will you accept the post?’
Eliza caught at her lower lip for a brief moment. She had at her fingertips the way to keep the school open. All of her children could continue with their education. The parenting and counselling programme for single mums she had dreamt of offering could very well become a reality if there were more funds available—a programme that might have saved her mother if it had been available at the time.
‘Will another five hundred thousand pounds in cash help you come to a decision a little sooner?’
Eliza gaped at him. Was he really offering her a million pounds in cash? Did people do that? Were there really people out there who could do that?
She had grown up with next to nothing, shunted from place to place while her mother continued on a wretched cycle of drug and alcohol abuse that was her way of self-medicating far deeper emotional issues that had their origin in childhood. Eliza wasn’t used to having enough money for the necessities, let alone the luxuries. As a child she had dreamt of having enough money to get her mother the help she so desperately needed, but there hadn’t been enough for food and rent at times, let alone therapy.
She knew she came from a very different background from Leo, but he had never flaunted his wealth in the past. She had thought him surprisingly modest about it considering he was a self-made man. Thirty years ago his father had lost everything in a business deal gone sour. Leo had worked long and hard to rebuild the family engineering company from scratch. And he had done it and done it well. The Valente Engineering Company was responsible for some of the biggest projects across the globe. She had admired him for turning things around. So many people would have given up or adopted a victim mentality but he had not.
But for all the wealth Leo Valente had, it certainly hadn’t bought him happiness. Eliza could see the lines of strain on his face and the shadows in his eyes that hadn’t been there four years ago. She sent her tongue out over her lips again. ‘Cash?’
He gave a businesslike nod. ‘Cash. But only if you sign up right here and now.’
She frowned. ‘You want me to sign something?’
He took out a folded sheet of paper from the inside of his jacket without once breaking his gaze lock with hers. ‘A confidentiality agreement. No press interviews before, during or once your appointment is over.’
Eliza took the document and glanced over it. It was reasonably straightforward. She was forbidden to speak to the press, otherwise she would have to repay the amount he was giving her with twenty per cent interest. She looked up at him again. ‘You certainly put a very high price on your privacy.’
‘I have seen lives and reputations destroyed by idle speculation in the press,’ he said. ‘I will not tolerate any scurrilous rumour mongering. If you don’t think you can abide by the rules set out in that document, then I will leave now and let you get on with your life. There will be no need for any further contact between us.’
Eliza couldn’t help wondering why he wanted contact with her now. Why her? He could afford to employ the most highly qualified nanny in the world.
They hadn’t parted on the best of terms. Every time she thought of that final scene between them she felt sick to her stomach. He had been livid to find out she was already engaged to another man. His anger had been palpable. She had felt bruised by it even though he had only touched her with his gaze. Oh, those hard, bitter eyes! How they had stabbed and burned her with their hatred and loathing. He hadn’t even given her time to explain. He had stormed out of the restaurant and out of her life. He had cut all contact with her.
She could so easily have defended herself back then and in the weeks and months and years since. At any one point she could have called him and told him. She could have explained it all, but guilt had kept her silent.
It still kept her silent.
Dare she go with him? For a million pounds how could she not? Strictly speaking, the money wasn’t for her. That made it more palatable, or at least slightly. She would be doing it for the children and their poor disadvantaged mothers. It was only for a month. That wasn’t a long time by anyone’s standards. It would be over in a flash. Besides, England’s summer was turning out to be a non-event. A month’s break looking after a little girl in sun-drenched Positano would be a piece of cake.
How hard could it be?
Eliza straightened her spine and looked him in the eye as she held out her hand. ‘Do you have a pen?’