THROUGH THE FOG of a deeply sated sleep Leah heard familiar muffled grunts coming from the baby monitor. She stirred, her body twisting inside the tight embrace of tangled limbs, and as she opened her eyes she suddenly remembered where she was. In Jaco’s bed. In Jaco’s arms. With her face pressed so tightly against his neck that she could see nothing but the pink blur of his skin.
She blinked, feeling her eyelashes brush against him, inhaling his warm scent. Lifting her head, she squirmed until she had enough space to look up. And straight into the dark oblivion of Jaco’s remarkable eyes.
‘Buongiorno.’ He smiled down at her, using his little finger to brush away a strand of her hair that had stuck to her lip.
‘Good morning.’ She elbowed herself more upright. ‘How long have you been awake?’
‘Awhile. But I didn’t want to disturb you. I figured that after last night you probably needed the sleep.’ A wicked twinkle lit his eyes.
‘I guess we both did.’
She matched his smile as the memory of the night they had spent together came rushing back in glorious Technicolor. The passion, the tenderness, the sheer erotic explosion of them coming together—it had been truly wonderful. She could still taste it on her lips, feel it in the weight of her limbs, sense the faint throb in the very core of her.
‘But I suspect our son has no such compunction about waking his mother.’ Gabriel’s soft grunts were rapidly increasing in volume. ‘I’ll go and get him.’
Dropping a tender kiss onto Leah’s upturned mouth, Jaco extricated his arms and legs from around her body and pushed back the tangled sheet.
‘No, really.’ Forcing herself back to reality, Leah stretched out a hand to his back. ‘I’ll go. It might confuse him if he sees you.’
‘Well, the more he sees me, the less confused he will be.’ Pulling on a pair of boxers, he turned and sat down on the edge of the bed. ‘I mean to play an active role in my son’s life. You know that, don’t you?’
‘Yes.’ Leah nodded. ‘Yes, I do.’
‘Bene.’ He stood up, then hesitated. ‘And I’m hoping to play a pretty active role in his mamma’s life too.’
Bending to cup her chin in his hands, he planted another kiss squarely on her lips, then touched the tip of her nose with his finger before turning to stride out of the room.
Leah waited a couple of seconds. Gabriel’s cries were now building up to full volume. Her every instinct was telling her to go to him, but Jaco was right—he did have to get to know his son. It was because of her that he hadn’t been able to forge that relationship right from the start.
Through the monitor she could hear Jaco going into her bedroom. Gabriel was quiet for a moment, then came Jaco’s soft words of greeting in Sicilian, the rustle as he picked him up, and a distinct gurgle of pleasure from Gabriel. Leah held herself very still, listening. She had to hand it to Jaco. Somehow—and she had no idea how he’d done it—he had already won his son’s heart.
Slipping out of bed, she went into the en suite bathroom and, finding a man’s towelling bathrobe on the back of the door, shrugged it on, turning back the cuffs and belting it tightly around her waist.
After rinsing her hands under the tap she splashed water on her face, staring at her reflection in the mirror. She looked tousled and satisfied...like a woman who had just spent a wild night of passion with the sexiest man in the world. Which she supposed she had. She looked—and this was the biggest shock of all—happy. There was a light gleaming in her mascara-smudged eyes that had been missing for far too long.
Making her way back to her bedroom, she stopped in the doorway, grinning widely at the sight that met her eyes. Gabriel was lying on the bed, wriggling and kicking for all he was worth, while Jaco was trying to put a nappy on him.
‘Come on, buddy, work with me here.’
He tried to slide the nappy under Gabriel’s bottom, but Gabriel was having none of it, half rolling onto his side, squirming so that the tab fastener stuck to one chubby buttock.
‘Jeez...’ Jaco scratched his bed-ruffled hair. ‘How hard can this be?’
‘Having trouble?’ Leah stepped into the room, laughing.
‘Whatever makes you think that?’ Jaco gave her his most innocent expression.
‘Um...this.’ Picking up Gabriel, Leah held him aloft and they both stared at the dangling nappy.
‘Well, yeah...’ Jaco frowned at his handiwork. ‘Maybe there is room for improvement.’
‘Just a bit.’ Laying Gabriel down again, Leah gripped hold of his ankles and expertly repositioned the nappy. ‘Why don’t you go and make us some coffee while I give him a feed?’
Jaco pulled her into a kiss before turning to leave.
* * *
When he returned a short while later, Leah was sitting up in bed with Gabriel at her breast. He paused to take in the scene, his breath catching in his throat. Gabriel had reached out to grasp a lock of Leah’s hair, and was holding it in his closed fist while Leah cradled his body against hers, singing softly under her breath. For the first time he didn’t feel excluded, shut out. For the first time he saw them as a family. His family. And he felt his heart swell with pride.
‘Come on—move up.’ Firmly putting a lid on the sentiment, Jaco set Leah’s mug down on her bedside table, then walked around the other side of the bed to get in.
Leah looked up, surprise in her eyes, but did as she was told, shifting across to make room beside her and Gabriel.
‘That’s better.’ Holding his mug in both hands, Jaco took a sip. ‘How’s he doing?’ He reached across to stroke the soft dark curls of his son’s hair.
‘Almost done, I’d say.’ As she spoke Gabriel’s mouth slackened on her nipple and he wriggled in the constraints of her arms as she tried to pat him on the back to wind him.
‘You want me to take him while you drink your coffee?’
‘Oh, yes, please.’ She passed him across, adjusting her dressing gown before reaching for her mug.
Jaco settled Gabriel in the crook of his arm and gazed down at his son. Why did this feel so right, all of a sudden? So natural? He had never given much thought to the idea of having kids except as something that might happen in the way distant future. He had certainly never envisaged himself changing nappies!
All his adult life had been spent doing deals, making money and then reaping the rewards of that success: buying luxury properties, eating in the best restaurants, dating a succession of beautiful women. He’d assumed that was the life he wanted, the life he would pick up again once he had dealt with the Garalinos. But now... Now, as he felt the warm, solid weight of his son in his arms, and glanced across at the dishevelled sunlit beauty of the woman in bed beside him, he felt a strange sense of contentment creep over him.
And something else—something that was so unfamiliar he had to search around to put a name to it. Happiness. That was what it was.
Jaco realised he’d never even missed it. Since the death of his parents he had just assumed that true happiness was the prerogative of other people, or maybe it didn’t even exist. His brutal upbringing at the hands of the Garalino family had certainly left no room for any sort of joy, and since then he had channelled all his efforts into making something of his life. Which he had succeeded in doing—big-time. But happiness... Nah, that was only for the very young or the very deluded.
As if to demonstrate his theory, Jaco felt the chill of a cloud pass over that chink of sunlight. The niggle at the back of his mind had fought its way forward. There was something he needed to know...
‘So...’ He took Gabriel’s perfect little hand in his, turning it over to stare at the tiny shell-like fingernails. ‘Don’t take this the wrong way, but there is something I have to ask you.’
‘What’s that?’ Leah turned to look at him, the smile in her eyes dying at the sight of his serious face.
‘Other men. Have there been any?’
‘Ha!’ She carefully placed her coffee mug down on the table. ‘You mean in between finding out I was pregnant, going into hiding, giving birth and then being bundled off to this island, have I found time to take a couple of lovers?’
‘Yes, Leah.’ A muscle twitched in his jaw. ‘That’s exactly what I mean.’
‘Then let me put your mind at rest.’ With an audible huff, she folded her arms across her chest. ‘The answer to your question is no.’
Grazie Dio. Just the idea of Leah in the arms of another man was enough to shake the very foundations of his control.
‘What about you?’
She’d posed the question as more of a counter-attack than a quest for the truth, but the way she chewed the inside of her lip gave her away.
‘No doubt there has been a veritable stream of beauties hopping in and out of your bed.’
‘No.’ Jaco shook his head.
‘So, just one or two?’
She looked at him with such hope that Jaco felt his heart melt.
‘Not even that.’
‘What? No one? Really?’ Incredulity mixed with wary relief danced in her eyes.
‘No one, Leah.’
‘Wow!’ She gave him a megawatt smile.
Carefully setting Gabriel down on the bed in front of him, Jaco drew her into his arms, the need to hold her against him suddenly overpowering. Something about her vulnerability had touched him in a place he hadn’t even known existed, more deeply than he had ever thought possible. And now, as they were locked in this close embrace, it occurred to him that his feelings for this woman had the potential to change his life. That so far he had allowed himself to do no more than skim the surface.
Finally they pulled apart, and Jaco leant in to kiss her again, the stirrings of desire already making their presence felt as he breathed in the delicate fragrance of her hair, her skin, the taste of her lips. The kiss started to deepen—until a loud squawk from the third party alerted them to his existence and reluctantly Jaco pulled away.
‘To be continued...’ He gave Leah a sinful grin before getting out of bed and scooping Gabriel up in his arms. ‘Come on, mi figlio, let’s go and make your mamma some breakfast while she has a shower. If she is anything like me, she must be starving.’
Twenty minutes later Jaco surveyed his handiwork. Fruit, yoghurt, bread and jam, warm brioche rolls and a large pot of coffee, all laid on a table on the decked terrace. He had even picked a bunch of some sort of brightly coloured flowers—he had no idea what—and put them in a jug in the centre of the table.
Gabriel was propped up on an enormous beanbag in the shade, a wooden spoon in his hand, alternating between putting it in his mouth and flailing it around in an attempt to hit the upturned saucepan in front of him, his face lighting up with pleasure whenever he managed to make contact.
Jaco took in a deep breath, looking around him at the view, at his baby son, at the doorway into the living room where Leah would be appearing any minute. He could get used to this. More than that, he suddenly realised that this was what he wanted. A wife and family, kids—lots of them—so that he could give them everything he had never had. Security, happiness, love. For the first time ever it suddenly seemed possible.
Once this wretched business with the Garalinos was over he would be able to start his life afresh. He was so close to it now he could almost touch it, smell it. He just had to negotiate this last final push, see all his carefully laid plans through to conclusion, and his ordeal would be over. His and Francesca’s. And, of course, Leah’s.
Despite his macho insistence that Leah and Gabriel would be living with him whether they liked it or not, Jaco wanted Leah there of her own volition—not because he had forced her. And marriage and kids? He didn’t want them with some unspecified woman in the future. He wanted them now—with Leah. With a starburst of clarity he realised that Leah McDonald was crucial to every aspect of his future life.
As if on cue, she appeared, her cheeks pink, her hair damp from the shower.
‘Ooh.’ She looked around her, bending down to retrieve the wooden spoon that Gabriel had flung to one side and giving it back to him. ‘This looks lovely. And not a burnt steak in sight.’
‘Less of the sarcasm, young lady.’ Pulling back a chair, he gestured for her to sit with a sweep of his arm, then offered her the plate of brioche rolls. ‘I’ll have you know these rolls have been removed from the freezer and oven-baked to perfection.’
‘Mmm...’ Leah took a bite and smiled at him. ‘I won’t argue with that.’
‘So what do you eat for breakfast in Scotland?’ He leant forward to pour her a glass of orange juice. ‘Is it haggis or something?’
‘Hello—stereotypical prejudices alert!’ She gave him a mock-stern frown. ‘I’ll have you know that haggis would never be consumed until the evening meal—or high tea, as we call it.’ She smeared butter onto her roll and took another large bite. ‘Breakfast would most likely be porridge oats or something called a clootie dumpling. It’s a bit of an acquired taste.’
‘Then I look forward to acquiring it.’ Jaco gazed back at her, testing the water, aware that if he wanted to gauge her feelings he was going to have to open up himself.
‘Really?’ Leah looked at him in surprise.
‘Yes, why not? I would very much like to see your country and get to know your father. When this is all over we should pay a visit.’
‘And when will it be over, Jaco?’ Suddenly serious, Leah set down her glass and fixed him with her stunning hazel-eyed stare. ‘When are you going to tell me what all this is about? Give me back my phone? Allow me and Gabriel to leave this island?’
‘Soon—I promise.’ He reached for her hand. ‘I wouldn’t be doing this, Leah, if it wasn’t vitally important.’
‘So you keep saying.’ She looked down at his hand, covering hers, before withdrawing her own to tuck her rapidly drying hair behind one ear. ‘But I don’t understand why you can’t just tell me what’s going on now.’
Jaco hesitated. He wanted to tell her the truth. She deserved to know the truth. He saw that now.
Up until last night he had seen no reason to explain anything—not after the deceitful way she had kept his son a secret from him. But now he could see that she had had her reasons. They were all wrong, of course, but in Leah’s typical hot-headed, act-first-and-think-later way she had made a snap judgement and taken herself off without waiting for any sort of explanation. She was as impulsive as she was passionate, but Jaco could never hate her for that. Far from it.
‘Confidentiality is of the utmost importance.’ His brow furrowed as he weighed up how to proceed. ‘In my experience, the fewer people you trust, the less likely you are to be let down.’
Jaco had found that out to his cost. As a naive eleven-year-old he had put his trust in the Garalino family. Worse than that, he had been prepared to love them.
Excited at being adopted into a large, powerful family of brothers and uncles, led by the charismatic Luigi Garalino, he had tried to do everything he could to please them at first, in the hope that they would show him and his little brother some of the love that had been so badly missing from their lives ever since their parents had died.
But he had soon discovered there was no love to be had from that family. And as the years had gone by it had become more and more apparent just how rotten to the core the whole lot of them were.
Years of being beaten for the slightest excuse—leaving a smear on the windscreen of the fancy limousine he had just washed, or being late back, breathless and panicking, from the errand he had run across the other side of town. Years of being denied food if he dared to answer back or tried to protect his brother. Years of being locked in the coal hole for days at a time, then beaten again when he was finally let out.
But that was nothing compared to the psychological abuse that Francesco had suffered. The pain of his beatings was nothing to the agony of seeing his little brother cowering in a corner, shaking, his clothes soiled, unable to speak, unable to move, his spirit totally broken by the Garalinos’ wicked cruelty.
The guilt of not being able to protect his sibling had lived with Jaco all his life—coloured his existence, driven him on. But at least Francesca was safe now, and very soon she would be free. And by bringing Leah and Gabriel here he had protected them too—he had done the right thing. Even though Leah most definitely didn’t see it like that.
‘So you are saying you don’t trust me? Is that it?’
Jaco watched as Leah traced a crumb around her plate before picking it up on her finger.
‘I’m saying that now, more than ever, I can’t afford to make any mistakes, or for anything to go wrong. So the fewer people who know, the better.’
Leah’s lips twitched slightly as she assimilated this information, suggesting she was far from happy with his explanation.
She raised her eyes to meet his. ‘And is it really worth it? All this plotting and subterfuge just for some business deal?’
‘This is no business deal, Leah.’ Jaco held her questioning gaze. ‘It is far more important than that.’ He hesitated again. ‘You have to understand that I am keeping you here for your own protection—yours and Gabriel’s. It is absolutely vital that no one knows where you are.’
Leah’s hands dropped down by her sides, a flush suddenly spreading over her cheeks.
‘Well, actually... I meant to say...’ She fidgeted in her seat.
‘To say what?’
‘Somebody does know.’
‘What?’ The cup in Jaco’s hand clattered down onto its saucer.
‘Last night, when you were in the kitchen, I phoned the police.’ Leah’s face crumpled apologetically.
‘You did what?’
Kicking back his chair, Jaco reared up, towering over her with thundering fury. With his body blocking out the sun it felt as if the whole world was coming to an end. Even Gabriel stopped banging his saucepan and went completely quiet.
Leah stared up at Jaco in panic. At the corded veins in his arms from the fists that were bunched like steel. At the tendons standing out in his neck...the fierce set of his jaw, the fury in his eyes.
Even though she wasn’t entirely sure her call had had any effect, she had fully intended to tell Jaco about it. Wrapped in his arms last night she had roused him to try and make her confession. But somehow other events had taken over, and in the morning, when there had still been no sign of anyone coming to ‘rescue’ them, she had put it from her mind.
Never had she imagined that he would react like this.
‘Please tell me you are joking.’ He reached down to put his hand on her shoulder. ‘Tell me you haven’t really done this.’
‘I’m afraid I have.’ Leah bit down on her lip. ‘I’m sorry, Jaco, but I found your phone on the floor and rang the emergency number. But they didn’t seem to believe me anyway.’ She clutched at this glimmer of hope, trying to calm his madness. ‘And nobody came so it must be okay...right?’
‘What did you tell them?’ His voice was a muted roar.
‘I...I said that we were being held prisoner on this island...me and Gabriel. That we wanted to be rescued.’ Her unease spread, the more she thought about it.
‘Dio, Leah.’ He ground down on his jaw. ‘Did you give them my name?’
‘Well, yes, but—’
‘What else? What else did you tell them?’
‘Nothing else.’ Leah screwed up her face, trying to remember. ‘I may have mentioned that you were part of the Garalino family. But I didn’t have time to say anything much. You came back into the room and...’
‘You mentioned the Garalinos?’
‘Yes.’ Leah nodded guiltily. ‘I’m pretty sure I did.’
‘That’s it. We are leaving.’
Sweeping past her, Jaco picked up a startled Gabriel and tucked him under his arm.
‘Right now. Get your stuff.’
Leaping to her feet, she rushed after him, following the two of them down the corridor to her room.
‘I mean, they don’t even know where we are—not really. I couldn’t give them the name of the island because I don’t even know it.’
‘They can track my phone, Leah.’ He could barely contain his rage. ‘They will know where we are.’
‘Well, no one has turned up yet.’ Still she persevered. ‘Like I said, they’ve probably forgotten all about it. Treated it as a prank call.’
‘Pack your things.’
Flinging open the wardrobe door, Jaco pulled out her suitcase and threw it onto the bed with one hand, Gabriel still held in the crook of his arm.
He glared at her, his eyes slits of fire. ‘And hurry up about it.’
Working on autopilot, Leah had started to stuff their belongings into the case when suddenly she stopped. This was ridiculous. What was she doing? She had already been forced to pack up and leave her home once, with no more than a minute’s notice, and now Jaco was doing it again. Ordering her around, giving her no explanation, expecting her to obey his every command. Well, she had had enough.
Firmly planting her feet on the floor, she folded her arms across her chest and glared at him.
‘No, Jaco. You can’t keep doing this to me. I’m sorry if I have done something wrong...got you into trouble...but I am not the one to blame here. If you had told me in the first place what was going on I would never have had to call the police and whatever all this is...’ she gestured at the clothes strewn over the bed ‘...would never have had to happen. You need to tell me right now what this is all about, or I flatly refuse to leave.’
‘Trust me—you are leaving. We all are.’ Laying Gabriel down on the bed, Jaco closed the lid of the suitcase, snapping the clasps shut. ‘Your foolish action has compromised your safety, and more importantly Gabriel’s safety. We have to leave the island immediately.’
‘Compromised our safety?’ Leah stood her ground, even though her knees were shaking and her whole body was trembling with the shock of Jaco’s violent reaction. ‘Are you sure that’s what I’ve done? Or have I simply blown your cover?’
With a sickening wave of dread, Leah suddenly realised she had hit upon the truth. These people who they had to be protected from weren’t the bad guys. He was the bad guy. Jaco Valentino—suave, sophisticated billionaire businessman, with his easy charm and his impeccable manners. The man who had so easily stolen her heart. The man she had fallen in love with so deeply, so desperately, that she would never, ever recover, was nothing more than a filthy rotten criminal.
Her mind started to fly in all directions. Was that why Jaco had to keep her and Gabriel hidden away? Because they might leave a trail for the police? Or maybe, without realising it, she had some information they could use against him. Capezzana. What if the vineyard was nothing but a front—some sort of money laundering operation that she had unwittingly been a part of?
And then there was Francesca. Someone else Jaco had hidden away. What was it that he had said? There were ‘people who would like to hurt her’. Who would want to hurt her? And why? Presumably the same people who posed a threat to herself and Gabriel? Were these the sort of people Jaco did business with? Violent criminals? Gangsters? The mafia? No wonder he was estranged from his adopted family. They were probably disgusted by the villainous path he had taken.
With her fervid imagination rushing to slot the pieces of the jigsaw into place, Leah saw a very ugly picture taking shape.
‘You have no idea what you are talking about.’
Slashing through her thoughts with blade-like ferocity, Jaco picked up the suitcase and watched with mounting impatience as Leah stuffed the last few things into her shoulder bag, then gathered Gabriel into her arms.
Herding them from the room, he marched her out of the villa and towards the helicopter that gleamed in the punishing sunshine. After making sure she was buckled in safely, with Gabriel on her lap, Jaco walked in front of the cockpit. But instead of getting in the other side straight away he strode towards the cliff-edge and, pulling his phone out of his pocket, hurled it into the sea with all his might.
With a surge of stomach-churning dread, Leah felt as if a part of her had drowned with that phone. The part that had clung to the hope that she had got this all wrong.
She had to go with him now. But the first chance she got she and her baby son were going to make a bid for freedom. She had no intention of being around this sickening man for any longer than was strictly necessary.