A Hidden Heir to Redeem Him
BOOK 1 in the Feuding Billionaire Brothers
The bastard son of a Greek tycoon, Val Casale lives down to the label. He turned his back on his father years ago and made his own fortune. Val believes he’s finally rid of Niko when he attends the reading of the will. Instead, he discovers he has a two-year-old daughter by a one-night affair with an aspiring artist, Kiara O’Neill, something Niko kept hidden from him all this time…
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“Calm down, Mother.” His tone descended to a grim, deadly rasp. “This gold-digger has also had a child.”
— Val, A Hidden Heir to Redeem Him
When I first conceived of this–conceived. Ha!–I knew I wanted a pair of heroes who were brothers, but rivals. They shared a father, but had had some kind of falling out with him. Somehow, that father had found out both of these men had impregnated women. He secretly brought the heroines to live with him and made their babies his heirs. I knew the heroes would discover this after their father’s death. I thought maybe the heroins would be his housekeeper and his nurse or something.
When Kiara hit the page, however, she came with paint brushes and canvases and dreams. After a brief affair with Val (who up and got married shortly after their night together) she was staring at giving up her artistic aspirations because she was pregnant. Enter Niko. He gave this orphan the security she longed for, a limitless future for her child, and a studio to call her own. All she had to do was wait until he died before telling Val he was a father.
It was an offer she couldn’t resist!
Val, however, has good reasons to hold a grudge against his father and when Niko dies, and he learns that Kiara kept his child secret for three years, he isn’t prepared to forgive easily. Did I mention he’s the illegitimate brother and and determined to live down to his label of ‘bastard’?
Kiara has a challenge on her hands, but fortunately, she’s adept at making a masterpiece out of raw materials.
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A Hidden Heir to Redeem Him
Valentino Casale had long ago hardened himself against useless things like feelings, but he found himself irritated by the congested streets of Athens.
Traffic was his driver’s problem, not his, but he shifted restlessly, acknowledging the real pea beneath his mattress. Returning to Greece grated on him. Being sent here as a child had always felt like a punishment and still did. And to be thrust into the space between his father’s money and his mother’s grappling for it? That was the equivalent of being thrown into a cage with a hungry tiger.
So no, he was not pleased to be here.
This will be the last time, he assured himself with a grim look at the bustling midmorning streets. At least his father wasn’t here. There was a silver lining.
If he had feelings, Val supposed he would be experiencing grief or what some called “closure.” Since receiving the news that Nikolai Mylonas had died two days ago, however, he had experienced no emotions at all, not even relief. His father would be cremated and his ashes interred on his island property. In lieu of a service that no one would attend, Nikolai’s two sons and their mothers were requested to appear in person at the reading of his will.
Val had rejected any share in his father’s wealth two decades ago. He’d built his own fortune off his own oiled back, grazie. He had even supplied his mother with a healthy allowance in hopes she would quit lusting after Niko’s money, not that it had worked.
She had continued to take Niko’s occasional checks and remained convinced that her son was entitled to all of his father’s fortune. If she absolutely had to, she would settle for his receiving exactly 50 percent.
Val still didn’t want it, as he had reiterated to his father’s lawyer when the man had called to set up this meeting. Whatever he stood to inherit could be signed over to his mother if it couldn’t be refused.
There were stipulations, he had been informed, that demanded the presence of all parties before anything could proceed.
The king was dead, but his legacy of manipulation lived on.
And yes, Val’s mother was mentioned, the lawyer had hurried to state, so it was in Val’s interest to show up and keep the wheels turning.
Who cared where the money went?
Evelina Casale, that was who. She cared about Niko’s money above all things. She most especially cared how much she would receive as compared to Niko’s ex-wife, Paloma. If the other woman was bequeathed so much as one euro more, well, Val supposed he would finally meet his half brother with pistols at dawn.
Another silver lining—
“Stop,” he commanded, lifting his head off the back of his seat as his gaze caught the frontage of an art gallery. “Let me out here.”
As he stepped from the car, his phone dinged with another text from his mother, informing him she had arrived in the lobby.
She could wait. They all could.
He shoved his phone back into his pocket and crossed the street. Habit propelled him. For three years he had been entering every gallery he glimpsed, no matter what else was on his agenda. No matter if he’d been in the same shop days before.
Perversely, he was forever on the hunt for his own naked form and was always disappointed not to find it.
It didn’t escape him that if he had wanted to embarrass his father with public nudes, he could have taken a photo down his drawers and posted it online years ago. Hell, in his heyday Val had modeled underwear so sheer and tight he might as well have been bare-assed, so any barb in such an act was long lost. At this point an unknown artist capitalizing on his notoriety by circulating a “classy” rendition of his junk was pure, pretentious vanity—which he was probably guilty of along with a multitude of other sins.
Alas, today was one more fruitless search.
He smirked at his own joke, but his humor was quickly overshadowed by aggravation. He ought to be pleased when he failed to find himself. Everyone used him to whatever extent they could. In this case he had blatantly given his permission to be exploited, but this one struggling artist hadn’t done so.
Why not? It could have been the break she needed. As three years passed, however, and he failed to glimpse anything like her work again, a niggling concern had begun roiling in him that something had happened to her.
Why that might bother him, he couldn’t fathom. His own father had died, and he had continued with the tennis game his mother’s call with the news had interrupted.
There had been something about that young artist, though. She’d been both mature and self-reliant, yet naive. Charmingly open with her opinions and genuinely curious of his, unafraid to challenge his assumptions or have her own views picked apart. She hadn’t taken anything from him, either. Not even the money he’d left for the sketch he’d ripped from her book and tucked into his briefcase so he wouldn’t lose or crumple it.
His phone buzzed again. His mother was worried she might run into Paloma and Javiero before Val arrived.
As if Val would allow them to hurry him along. He didn’t respond, only moved leisurely through the gallery, skimming his gaze across landscapes and abstracts, cats and fruit bowls and a view through a window that bore only the vaguest resemblance to the framed sketch hanging in his bedroom. The execution on this one wasn’t nearly as skilled, and the signature was not the KO he sought.
One of these days he would go to Ireland and poke around their galleries, see if he was hanging out there.
He smirked again at his double entendre, but his glimmer of amusement fell away as he walked the final few blocks through blistering heat into the ninth circle of hell, otherwise known as the Mylonas office tower. He hadn’t been here since, well, it must have been right before he’d flown to Venice three years ago, acting on a social media post that his father’s rival was vacationing there.
Val wondered yet again whether he might have backed out of his ill-fated marriage if he’d come back to his hotel room after that initial meeting and found his unassuming artist still in his bed, rather than finding all the cash he’d had in his wallet still in its tidy stack on the night table, her and her sketchbook gone.
She’d been guileless and refreshingly oblivious to his position and money. He’d been utterly relaxed as she sketched him. It seemed ridiculous to say he had felt ‘safe.’ He was a powerful man with strength and position and money, rarely at a disadvantage, but it had been a surprising relief that he hadn’t felt a need to keep his guard up with her.
He hadn’t fully appreciated that until much later and to this day, he was annoyed with himself that he’d left her that morning, giving her a chance to disappear without a trace. He hadn’t caught her last name and, with his father’s ultimatum still ringing in his ears, he’d gone through with his plan to firmly divest of the old man once and for all.
That ruthless move had been the last time he’d allowed emotion to drive him. The “marry in haste” cliché had its roots in truth. He’d found no satisfaction in his marriage, only a sexless existence with a woman whose interests were not his own. At least their divorce was finalized, and he could turn the page on that chapter in his encyclopedic collection of sordid mistakes.
“Take your time,” his mother said as he came through the revolving doors. She gave him a dismayed once-over. “Would a suit have killed you?”
“A suit would have implied this meeting was important to me.”
She tsked and moved toward him from the waiting area, almost as tall as he was and still catwalk-thin at fifty-eight—though she would slay anyone who tried to claim she was a day over fifty-one. Of course, that would have made her pregnant at eighteen, when she’d been gracing the cover of swimsuit issues, but she reserved her math skills for counting calories and money.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Casale. I’m Nigel,” one of his father’s minions said. “May I escort you to the meeting room?” He waved them toward the bank of elevators.
Val turned and a megajolt of electricity shot through him as he was smacked in the eyes by the large oil behind the security desk.
“Where did that come from?” he demanded.
It hadn’t been there three years ago. He had never seen it before in his life. The seascape framed by a window was unfamiliar, although the view itself had to be Greece. The blend of colors was new to his eyes, but they were gloriously understated while providing infinite texture and depth. Something in the composition was deeply familiar to him, too. The waft of the curtain in the breeze was reminiscent of the drape of a charcoal shirt over the back of a chair.
The painting was so bizarrely evocative of her, she might as well have stood next to him, whispering in his ear, telling him that she felt safe in here, but the wildness beyond called to her. This painting was a threshold of sorts, as she contemplated moving into a new world filled with uncertainty, but also with vast and glorious new experiences.
“You can’t come back here, sir.”
He brushed past the security guard and examined the signature. Not the KO on his own sketch, but Kiara. His skin tightened all over his body.
“Where did you get this? I want to speak to this artist.” He didn’t ask himself why, but when the security guard only gave a baffled shrug, Val wanted to punch him.
“Um, sir?” Nigel the minion offered a perplexed look. “Miss O’Neill is upstairs. She arrived for your meeting ten minutes ago.”
“For the reading of my father’s will?” His scalp prickled. The sensation kept going, lifting a sharp tingle along the sides of his neck and running the length of his spine. His gut knotted and his groin twitched. His skin felt too tight for the heat that was suddenly pressurizing inside him, crystalizing the carbon in his body tissue to diamond hardness.
“Who is she?” his mother asked at a distance.
Val barely heard her over his harsh laugh of outraged, gallows humor.
“Someone who worked for Dad.” How had he missed that? Blinded by his own libido, he supposed. Cursing himself, he said, “Yes. By all means. Take me to her. I. Can’t. Wait.”
Kiara O’Neill could tell that Niko’s lawyer, Davin, was trying to put her at ease with his incessant small talk, but it wasn’t working. Maybe he thought he was charming her? They’d met several times in the past three years and he had invited her to dinner more than once, but her priorities were always her daughter and her art, in that order. If she squeezed in an evening of wine and a rom-com with her best friend, Scarlett, she considered her life complete.
Trying to fit a man into her narrow world would only complicate her to-do list. Besides, the last time she’d gone on a date, she’d wound up pregnant.
And the man in question would enter this boardroom any second.
Her whole body was soaked in a clammy sweat, her mind incapable of holding a sensible thought, let alone a conversation. Her belted dress and flowing kimono jacket, chosen so carefully to be unobtrusive and comfortable while offering an impression of quiet confidence, felt constrictive. Her unsettled stomach was full of snakes, and the feminist inside her who had happily told men to talk to her hand for three years was wringing said hands like an adolescent girl when the grad ball was announced. The cute boy was coming down the corridor and she didn’t know if she wanted him to notice her or not.
She kept thinking she should have done something different with her hair. Straightened it, maybe. She should have worn more makeup, to disguise her apprehension. Or maybe not so much, so she didn’t look so…polished. Niko had liked her to look and sound and act a certain way and she’d gone along with it because, ugh, reasons, but this wasn’t who she was.
Deep down she was still a mixed race orphan from Cork’s dodgiest neighborhood. Scarlett would point out she was actually a mother and an artist, but Kiara was faking her way through both of those things so she wasn’t sure they counted.
Val Casale had seemed like a smart man. She suspected he would see straight through to the fraud she was, no matter how she presented herself.
Although, he had seemed to think her work had genuine merit. When she had demurred, he’d said, “You really don’t know who I am, do you?”
She hadn’t. Not until much later.
It was all coming home to roost now, though.
She concentrated on not licking the lipstick off her mouth. Her throat was dry, making it impossible to swallow. All morning her heart rate had been picking up to a panicked speed, then petering out in a cold flush, leaving her light-headed and vaguely exhausted. She worried she would faint any second and reminded herself yet again to breathe. She didn’t want to be stroked out on the floor when Val walked in.
She wanted to text Scarlett to hurry back from the ladies’ room, but she had already set her phone to silent and tucked it into her clutch. Pulling it out midconversation would be rude.
With a stiff smile she fought to keep in place, she waited for Davin to pause in his rattling on, planning to say something about checking on Scarlett. Scarlett was heavily pregnant. It wasn’t strange that she pretty much lived in the ladies’ room these days, but she was taking a long time. Had she bumped into some of their guests? Was today’s meeting taking place out there without her?
Had Val already heard the news and walked away, before he’d laid eyes on her or offered her a chance to explain? Given everything she’d heard about him since, that was probably for the best, but her heart twisted in anguish on behalf of—
The door opened and the air changed in a subtle rush. A thrust of tense energy came in with the three people who entered.
“Signor and Signora Casale,” Nigel announced, glancing at his tablet as it dinged. “The other party has arrived. I’ll return with them shortly.” He melted away, closing the door.
“Davin.” Val’s mother, Evelina, sounded as frosty and cultured as she had the one time Kiara had spoken to her three years ago. In person, Evelina was the epitome of what fashion magazines deemed sexy and attractive, nearly six foot and wispy. She had ivory skin and lustrous brunette hair that shimmered as she floated down the far side of the table. Her clothes were designer, her neck and ears and fingers bedecked in glittering jewels. She greeted Davin with perfunctory air kisses.
“Evelina. Lovely to see you again,” Davin said politely before introducing Kiara. “This is Kiara O’Neill.”
Evelina’s gaze skimmed past her with a dismissive, “Water will do for now.”
Kiara might have been amused—or insulted—but a millennia’s worth of fireworks were going off inside her at the sight of Valentino Casale. Every emotion possible whistled and burst in her ears while sparks and flashes of color exploded in her vision.
He hadn’t bothered with a suit. He wore ripped jeans and a black shirt open at the throat. They clung to a frame that was every bit as athletically lean and flawless as it had been three years ago. His hair was still tousled, his jaw still in need of a shave.
His gaze was exactly as piercing and unsettling. His silvery irises—endearingly familiar—pinned onto her, unwavering and fierce.
Adrenaline urged her to run for her life, but the sting was laced with a bizarre excitement. An urge to run tohim. Between those imperatives sat a mixture of more complex emotions. Cavernous guilt and angry resentment and something like painful relief.
She had dreaded and anticipated this day from the moment she had agreed to Niko’s offer to live with him. She would finally confront Val about their daughter. She had braced for whatever consequences that might produce, but she hadn’t braced for the effect Val still had on her.
Profound attraction accosted her. She shouldn’t be surprised. The first time she’d seen him, he’d caused a stab of irresistible fascination in her. Time had stopped and her blood had sizzled as she had begun caressing the lines of his face in velvety shades of charcoal.
That same sensual yank took hold of her today, but stronger. It was deeper, immediate and sexual. Not simply a compulsion to study and re-create him on a page, but a gut-deep desire to close the distance and touch him. She wanted to feel him with her entire body and bask in the fire he lit inside her. She wanted to feel the sweep of his hands down her naked back and his strong grip on her hips.
Her body heated and tingled and grew aroused simply by standing in a room with him because she knew what making love with him felt like. She knew how he could make her feel—animalistic and alluring and good.
She hadn’t calculated the effect of their connection through their child, either. She had spent over two years living with his father and his daughter. She knew so much more about Val Casale now, yet she still didn’t know him. Her brief crush and the memory of a sweet encounter had become a spellbinding enthrallment with someone who had had a profound effect on her life.
Despite the things she’d been told about him, however, and despite the fact he’d ultimately slighted and discarded her, everything within her wanted to reach out and rediscover the sexy, hedonistic man she’d glimpsed that night.
The indulgent smile of her lover was gone, though. His cynicism and contempt were palpable in the polished chrome of his gaze.
Did he know that she’d had their baby? Was that why he was throwing accusation at her like bolts of lightning with his bitter look?
His antagonism was obvious. Her stomach bottomed out as she recalled one of the first things Niko had told her about his son.
Val is a bastard, Miss O’Neill. He takes pride in the distinction and seizes every opportunity to live down to the label.
At different times Niko had used all manner of unsavory descriptors—disrespectful, rebellious, confrontational, reprehensible, vengeful.
He hadn’t been a man one contradicted, even though his view of Val that hadn’t sounded like the man she’d met. Regardless, anger with his father had prompted Val to turn his back on a fortune and marry a woman he didn’t love. That made him a man no sensible woman would cross.
And Niko might have offered her protection from Val while he’d been alive, but Niko was gone. Kiara was on her own.
Davin broke the thick silence by setting down the jug of water with a clunk. He held out the glass to Evelina, who ignored it as she stared between them.
“Do you know each other?” Evelina asked.
Kiara’s arteries stung with a fresh release of fight or flight. She looked to the door, willing Scarlett to appear.
“What are you doing here, Kiara?” Val’s voice, for all its lethal sharpness, was still deep enough to invoke a sense of curling into a soft bed under a thick quilt.
She glanced at Davin.
“When all mentioned parties are present, we’ll discuss the particulars of dispersal,” Davin said with a twitch of a smile that died on contact under Evelina’s death-ray glare.
“Do not tell me this…person…is entitled to some portion of Niko’s estate?” Evelina’s outraged gaze went down Kiara’s ample curves in pale yellow and summer-sky blue. Her lip curled with distaste.
“Not exactly,” Kiara croaked, snatching up her own glass of ice water and dampening her throat. “I should check on Scarlett.” Perhaps they could hide together in the ladies’ room until this blew over.
Before she could take a step toward the door, however, it flung open.
“Very sorry,” Nigel stammered. “There’s been a development. Miss Walker has gone to the hospital.”
“What? Why? What happened?” In her shock, Kiara misjudged the height of the table. Her glass tipped as she set it down on her way to the door. The puddle of water streaked out alongside her as the glass rolled toward Val on the other side of the table. He caught it before it fell and shattered.
“She’s in labor,” Nigel said. “SeñorRodriguez has taken her. His mother has chosen not to stay. The, uh, central message of this meeting was, um, conveyed by Miss Walker and…” Nigel glanced uncomfortably toward Evelina then swung his attention back to Kiara. “She said to tell you to finish your business here and call her when you’re able.”
Of course she had. Scarlett never thought of herself.
“I’ll leave you to it,” Nigel said, drawing the door closed on his exit.
“Do not—” Evelina flung around with ominous warning toward Davin “—tell me that some gold-digger is having Paloma’s grandchild and all of Niko’s money is going to them.” Tears of rage glittered in her eyes.
Val, on the other hand, gave an ironic snort. A dent of acrid humor twitched one corner of his mouth. “Touché, Javiero,” he drawled.
“Not…um…all of it.” Davin hurried to mollify Evelina. He flashed a cautious glance at Kiara. “Perhaps we should sit?”
“I’ll stand.” Kiara grasped the back of a chair to steady herself while the world spun off its axis around her. Her mind was splintering with concern for her best friend while her heart hammered as the moment of truth arrived like a cliff before her. Her toes curled to keep her from tumbling over it, but she was going to fall regardless.
Her eyes clung to the punishing contact in Valentino’s unrelenting stare. She watched comprehension dawn the way clouds parted and the sun suddenly pierced through in a shaft of brilliant, searing hot light.
A whooshing sensation tipped her past the point of no return. She couldn’t speak, but she didn’t have to.
“Calm down, Mother.” His tone descended to a grim, deadly rasp. “This gold-digger has also had a child.”
“Sir,” the lawyer admonished, but Val didn’t let the man’s disapproval impact him. He was suffering too sharp a sting of betrayal.
Kiara had presented herself as a sensual, self-deprecating, penniless artist with a heart that he now realized had been iron pyrite.
And he was the fool who’d believed in her.
He’d thought they’d enjoyed a chance encounter, one where he hadn’t needed to deflect or overpower the situation in order to keep control of it. He had thought they had shared, if not secrets, a lack of lies.
She had haunted him.
And she’d been working for his father the whole time.
She had been more than Eve with an apple; she’d been the snake, slithering her way into his periphery, seemingly harmless then turning on him when he least suspected it. How was he surprised? How? And of course his father had played the long con. Of course he had.
But how had they managed it? Had she already been working for his father when they met? Had Niko hired her to lure Val into bed and get her pregnant?
Nice work if you can get it. And lucky shot to make it happen in one go and only because one of the condoms broke.
“You have a child?” His mother clawed a pale hand at the diamonds around her throat.
“Yes.” Kiara’s knuckles stood out like brass bullets where her brown hands clutched the back of a chair.
Her hair was longer, parted on one side. Light played through the brown-gold mass of springs that were so fine and narrow, each strand looked as though it had been wound around a pencil or something smaller. The coils piled upon themselves in wild abandon around her oval face, accentuating her high cheekbones.
Her big eyes were pools of espresso, her mouth a round pout painted in brick red. Had she had elocution lessons? Or had the broad Irish accent she’d used that night been a put-on to trick him into believing she was the harmless backpacker she’d pretended to be?
Her teeth had been straightened, but the rest of her was still mouthwateringly curvaceous, draped in clothes of a much higher quality than the last time he’d seen her. She wore heels so she seemed taller than he remembered. A wide belt at her waist emphasized the thrust of her breasts and the generous flare of her round hips and bottom.
A very carnal memory threatened to take hold and dull his wits all over again. Sex was only sex, he reminded himself. It was a pleasant pastime to be enjoyed like dessert or sailing on a hot day, not something that should be used against others the way she had clearly used it against him—on his father’s behalf—damn her to hell.
“Since things have taken such a sharp turn, I’ll come straight to the point,” Davin said, fingering through the papers before him. “Given that both of Nikolai’s sons have renounced their claim to his fortune, he has bequeathed the bulk of his estate in equal parts to his grandchildren. Obviously, we’re wishing everything goes well with Miss Walker’s delivery. With that happy event, to the best of our knowledge, there will be two heirs who will share equally in the assets. Evelina and Paloma have been allotted a one-time, one-million-euro payment.” Davin slid a cashier’s check toward Val’s mother. “Each.”
“One— That’s not enough!” she cried.
“Sounds like you’ll have to be nicer to Kiara,” Val said, drinking deeply of that satire. “Don’t assume she’s only here to fetch your beverages, for instance.
“This can’t be right.” His mother hurried to Davin’s side and demanded to read it with her own eyes.
Val met Kiara at the end of the table.
“You understand what you’ve done?” he asked, jerking his head to indicate his mother. “She will never let you rest.” He probably should have laughed over that rookie move, but bitterness was too putrid in his throat. “I thought you were on the pill,” he recalled.
Kiara’s shoulders twitched, but any guilt was short-lived. Her gaze sparked with affront as she met his.
“We’re doing that here? Now?” Her cheeks darkened with a blush. “It was a low dose to regulate my cycle. When I spent the night with you, I missed one. Apparently, it was enough to disrupt the effectiveness. There’s no such thing as a perfect contraceptive, you know.”
“My father didn’t pay you to spend the night with me and get pregnant?”
“And break the condom? No.” She rocked back a step, scowling as if insulted.
“If you knew him well enough to pry half his assets out of him, you know he would be capable of something like that.” Look at the disregard Niko was showing toward the mothers of both his sons right now, throwing them a token settlement while he enriched the women who gave him grandchildren. Niko had been unswayed by sentiment. Ruthless. “Did you sleep with him?”
“No. That’s a disgusting suggestion.”
“Says the woman using a baby to get her hands on a fortune.”
Her chin came up in a tiny signal of challenge.
Challenge accepted, tesoro.
Why? He didn’t care.
He shouldn’t care, at any rate.
But he discovered that he did. Deeply. Emotions he couldn’t name were churning in his gut.
“You pretended you didn’t know who I was that night,” he accused.
She had seemed charmingly unaware when he had told her his name, but at the time he’d been weighing the idea of marriage to a stranger. Obviously, she’d taken advantage of his distraction.
“You skipped the pill on purpose, in hopes of winning the jackpot? Such tactics have been tried in the past, with limited success.” He sent a mocking wave down his front. “You’ll come to regret this.”
“Having my daughter?” she asked with another lofty notch of her chin. “I doubt it. She has a name, by the way. Would you like to hear it?”
“No.” He could have exited on that. The man he had cultivated himself into nearly always stole the last word and tossed a match over his shoulder as he walked away.
Something kept him rooted, however, listening for the name. Waiting for Kiara to take another shot at him. He didn’t know why, but he wanted both. He wanted to stay right here, feeling the streaking pinball of incendiary energy continue to heat as it bounced between them.
How could she still hold such a spell over him when he now knew her to be mercenary and devious.
“I told him to give you the money you needed to take care of it,” Evelina spat from the other side of the room. “He said you did.”
Val had been in enough scraps to duck any punch, but that one suckered him. His abs belatedly clenched as he snapped a look at his mother. “You knewabout this?”
“You didn’t?” Kiara’s gaze flashed back to his with wary confusion.
“I knew she was claiming to be pregnant with your child. I didn’t know she had it.” Evelina glared censure at Kiara.
Kiara’s lashes swept down again, and her mouth firmed as she pronounced with dignity, “Niko has given me money to take care of her.”
Evelina caught her breath as she realized how badly she had misplayed her hand.
Val should have found that hilarious, but learning of his mother’s involvement had taken him by the throat and shaken him.
“You knew she was pregnant? And you didn’t tell me?” he demanded of her.
“You were on your honeymoon.” His mother’s voice dropped to the syrupy, conciliatory tone that wheedled for him to take her side. “You didn’t need an ugly scandal.”
“Like the one I grew up in?” When had he last bothered to be angry? Truly furious? Maybe his last visit to this tower? Maybe it was the air in here that stoked his rage. The fetid stench of manipulation and jealousy and profound selfishness. “You live for making a scene. Blaming Niko for my shortcomings is your bread and butter. You could have used the baby for leverage all this time if you had— Oh, my God.”
Val hooked his hands on his hips and laughed drily toward the ceiling as he realized why she had preferred his baby be erased from existence.
“This is a new low for you, Mother.” He was uncharacteristically, profoundly astounded. And sickened. “Or should I say…Nonna?”
“Do not…” she warned in shaken outrage.
“Oh, I will. Because your precious vanity sent her to him.” He pointed at Kiara then the folder representing the fortune that had been the reason for, and the bane of, his very existence.
This situation was abhorrently reminiscent of his childhood, when something clean and precious and his would be sullied and used as leverage and snapped apart in the struggle between his parents and his half brother and his father’s ex-wife, Paloma. Val’s wants and needs had never been part of any conversation. If they had, they’d been dismissed as irrelevant.
And Kiara had played along with all of that.
“Why did you tell her instead of me?” he demanded of Kiara.
Whatever culpability flickered into Kiara’s face was quickly schooled into something more facetious. “I guess I could have left a message with your wife?”
It was a darling effort at shaming him, but, “I’ve been divorced a year. You’ve had time.”
“There were circumstances.” She shifted uncomfortably. “Niko was ill and needed us there.”
“You’ve been living with him? This whole time?”
If Val believed people were capable of true remorse, he might have thought the way Kiara bit her lip might have signaled regret.
He had played this game too long to believe she felt anything but glee, however, at claiming the pot of gold.
Walk away, he thought. Just. Walk. Away.
“He thought if you knew Aurelia existed, you would pressure me to leave the island instead of staying with him.”
Aurelia. It was the name of the villa in Venice where they’d spent their night together. The site of their lovemaking and, apparently, the conception of their daughter.
Every morning, when he gazed on Kiara’s sketch, he was back there on the bed with her, seated behind her in the rumpled sheets, teasing her into continuing with her study of the open balcony doors while he sampled the scent in her neck and tasted the smoothness of her shoulders and felt her breast rise and fall in growing excitement against his palm.
He swallowed, trying to dismiss any profundity in her bestowing that villa’s name on their child. He didn’t buckle to sentiment. It was a manipulation tactic. Everything was.
Even so, he couldn’t take his eyes off her as she turned her attention to his mother, showing no fear as she said baldly, “Niko didn’t want you or Paloma to know about her or about Scarlett’s pregnancy. He thought it would create more conflict than he could deal with in his weakened condition. Since he was terminal, we respected his wishes.”
It was so poetic, it bordered on sappy, but to keep the knowledge of his daughter from him for three years? He would never forgive any of them for this.
“We’ll wait for a DNA test before we continue this discussion.” Evelina took care to tuck her cashier’s check into her clutch. “Niko can’t overlook his son in favor of a child we’ve never seen. We’ll fight this.”
“You’ll be wasting your money,” Davin said. “There’s already a DNA test that proves Aurelia is Niko’s descendant. Her sample was correlated with the DNA test that proved Mr. Casale’s paternity. Niko was of sound mind. Further tests won’t change anything.”
Val didn’t need a test. He wasn’t so gullible as to take Kiara’s word, but his father had always been diligent about such fine points.
He didn’t care anyway, he assured himself. Not beyond how galling it was that Niko had gotten the last laugh, but so what? Val had never wanted offspring—one of the reasons his marriage had tanked—and he hadn’t wanted his father’s money, either. He had no desire to take responsibility for the child in possession of that fortune— Oh, wait. The girl was only entrusted with half. That meant any involvement he had with her would mean dealing with Javiero on some level, as well.
And all the while, his mother would continue to claw at him for her piece of the pie.
Definitely time to exit stage right. He certainly could. Kiara was financially equipped to meet the needs of his child. Nothing in his life had to change. In fact, his mother would become Kiara’s problem. The solution was elegantly simple and utterly freeing.
Yet, he remained where he was, coldly enraged. His insides were gripped by a wrath that swelled his chest with the pressure of a primal yell he couldn’t release.
He could hardly pick apart why this provoked such a volcanic rise of fury in him. It had something to do with the grotesque replay of history. While he’d been married to Tina, Kiara had been having his child, sentencing an innocent to the label he’d worn like a dead albatross until he was old enough to make damn sure he deserved the slur.
No. He might not have crafted himself into the most upstanding of men, but he was decent enough to pluck a child out of a toxic spill before she was lethally poisoned and scarred forever.
“Refuse that money,” he told Kiara. “My daughter will inherit my fortune, not his.”
“A minute ago you didn’t even want to know her name.”
“She can have mine,” he shot back. “You’re going to marry me. Today.”
“Val. Don’t be rash.” The whites of Evelina’s eyes showed. “We’ll fight this—”
“Take your money and go home, Mother. I’ll call when I’m ready to speak to you again.”
Evelina wasn’t rattled, but Val’s tone had Kiara shaking in her designer heels. She was doing her best to channel Scarlett, who never ruffled, but Kiara regularly lost battles against her two-year-old. She had folded like a cheap tent when Niko had dragged her into this arrangement, hadn’t she? She was no match for Val.
And marriage? Of all the reactions she had tried to anticipate… No, she wouldn’t let herself process that. She was still absorbing the fact he hadn’t known she had been pregnant. That seriously undermined her ability to resent him and take the high ground.
“Kiara can’t refuse the money,” Davin said. “It’s Aurelia’s. When she takes full control at twenty-five, Aurelia can do what she likes. Until then, the money remains in trust for her. A reasonable allowance is allocated to Miss O’Neill so she can provide Aurelia a stable home and upbringing. There’s also a provision for a financial manger’s salary. Miss Walker was intending to act in that capacity—”
“The Miss Walker currently birthing my half brother’s heir? Hell, no,” Val stated.
“Scarlett is in labor.” Kiara’s brain had been splintering with worry for her best friend this whole time. “And I’m her birth coach. I need to go to the hospital.”
She would take her friend’s place in the stirrups if it would grant her an escape from the malevolence coming off Val in waves.
“Hell no again,” he said, tone implacable. “The last time you disappeared, you had my child and conspired with my parents to hide her from me for three years.”
Kiara had one decent coping strategy for confrontation—sarcasm.
“Did we have sex today? I didn’t notice.” She blinked. “You do move fast, I recall, but I think we’re safe this time.”
Val set his hands on the table, pushing a force field over and around her, trapping her with his dangerous mood inside an airless bubble.
“Shall I recite everything I remember from our night together?”
A fluttering swirl of erotic memory accosted the pit of her belly. Heat flowed into secretive spaces and her nipples pinched. Why had she thought silk was a good choice? He could probably see the effect his words had on her. He was a practiced seducer, after all.
One who was, perhaps, entitled to his outrage. She had been hurt by his cavalier treatment, but keeping Aurelia’s birth a secret from him had never felt right. From the moment she had known she was pregnant she had wanted to tell him about their daughter. So far, his reaction wasn’t very encouraging. It wasn’t very personal, but she had always cherished a small dream that he would ultimately fall in love with their daughter.
Why? Because of her own fatherless upbringing? Ugh. Daddy issues were so clichéd.
“Replays won’t be necessary,” she mumbled as she gathered her clutch and looked for the bag she usually carried, the one bulked with art supplies and baby wipes, snacks and clean clothes. She was traveling light today, having planned for a brief meeting and a quick bolt back to the island.
“I have to make some calls,” she said, realizing she would have her first night away from her daughter while Scarlett brought her own infant into the world. “I’ll leave you to wrap up?”
Davin nodded and Evelina turned with umbrage toward him, but Val met Kiara at the door.
“Thank you,” she murmured as he held it for her.
He followed her through it and sparks condensed in the air between them as he paced her down the hall to the elevator.
“Um…” She started to ask him what he was doing, but it was obvious he was leaving.
He took out his phone to make a call as they waited for the elevator.
She took out her own phone and saw Scarlett’s texts. She read them as they stepped into the elevator.
My water broke. Help!
That one must have been sent from the ladies’ room. Kiara could have kicked herself for silencing her phone when she had entered the boardroom.
Javiero’s mother just came in. What do I do?
Javiero is taking me to hosp. Call me when you can.
Kiara bit back a groan of contrition and dialed.
Beside her, Val told someone, “I want to get married. No, not here. Italy.”
As her jaw dropped, and the elevator hit the bottom floor, rocking her on her heels, Scarlett answered in her ear.
“Are you okay?” Kiara asked her dumbly, watching Val tuck his phone into his pocket.
His gaze held hers as he leaned on the door to brace it open, trapping her where she stood.
“I’m in labor, what do you think?” Scarlett groaned. “Oh, my Gawd, how did you do this?”
“I’m on my way,” Kiara promised, forced to brush against Val’s intimidating frame as she stepped from the elevator. Another shower of tingles washed over her. “Leaving the office now.”
“Wait.” Scarlett made a helpless noise. “Javiero wants to stay with me.”
“Okay.” Kiara halted in the middle of the lobby. “What do you want?”
“I don’t know! I had to tell him everything and now he thinks you shouldn’t be here.” A small hesitation, then, “Because of Val.”
Val paused to loom beside her, probably able to hear every word.
Until today, she had understood there was animosity between the men, but after Evelina’s resentful reaction, and the grate in his words as he’d pronounced “my half brother’s spawn,” she had a clearer picture of how much genuine dislike existed between them.
“Listen.” Kiara gentled her tone as she spoke to Scarlett, reminding herself that her friend’s delivery wasn’t about her. “If you want Javiero there, that’s fine. I completely understand. If my coming to the hospital will cause you more stress than comfort, I’ll go to a hotel and stand by. If you decide you want me, call. It doesn’t matter if it’s the middle of the night. I’ll come. Sound good?”
“Thank you,” Scarlett said on a little sob. “I’m a wreck and— Oh, here comes another one.” She sucked in a breath. A male voice said something, and she replied with a petulant, “I ambreathing. What do you know about it? Oh, my God, I hate you for doing this to me.”
The call ended, presumably cut off by Javiero taking the phone from Scarlett.
Kiara frowned with concern as she tucked away her phone.
“It takes two weeks,” Val said.
“Labor? Mine was fourteen hours.”
“Marriage.” He narrowed his eyes at her remark, but continued, “We can do it faster elsewhere, like here in Greece, but I want to marry in Italy.”
“Or not at all,” she suggested with a falsely bright smile, even though a weight of anger that had been sitting on her lungs for three years had shifted and angled deeper into her heart, leaving a painful ache.
She avoided the flash in his eyes by striding across to the security desk.
“I need my car and a reservation at a hotel near the hospital.”
“My driver is here.” Val nodded at the black sedan that halted against the curb beyond the glass front of the building.
Kiara opened her mouth to protest, but he said darkly, “We’re not finished, Kiara. We haven’t even started.”
She swallowed a groan of resignation and went with him.
Beside him, Kiara was telling someone that Scarlett had gone into labor. “A little early, yes, but only a week or so. I’ll stay the night here in case she needs me. Is Aurelia napping? Call me when she’s up. I’ll text you when I have news. Thank you.”
“Where is she?” Val asked, barely processing that he had a child, still blinded by the conspiracy of lies and secrecy that had kept her hidden from him.
“The island. That was one of her nannies.”
“One of,” he repeated. “Does she even know who ‘Mama’ is?” He skimmed his glance over tailored silk and pearl buttons, a vintage handbag and a contemporary Italian designer’s shoe that featured a gold wristwatch as an ankle band. “I know couture when I see it. And I know guilt when I see it, too,” he remarked as her expression tightened.
“A mother is automatically issued a stone’s worth of guilt for every ounce of child.” Her chin notched up as she looked forward. “Especially if she works. You get double if working isn’t necessary for survival. And if the job you do is creative and doesn’t pay by the hour? I need a freight train to carry it all.”
Val’s mother had never been burdened with such inconvenient emotions as guilt, but Evelina was in a constant battle against excess weight of any kind.
Kiara didn’t diet herself skeletal. Her body was luscious and ripe.
He had thought his reaction to her three years ago had been more about burning off the tension of the decision he’d made to marry a stranger, but sitting next to her, detecting her scent beneath the light fragrance of her cosmetics, was affecting him. He had to shift to make room behind his fly, which aggravated him. He didn’t lust after any woman. He enjoyed sex, but desire was one more feeling that could be used to manipulate. He preferred free will and he sure as hell wasn’t letting this woman have any advantages over him again.
Even so, his gaze snagged on her knee and he recalled vividly the softness of her skin, the way it warmed under his caress and tasted rose petal-soft against his lips. The pull in his groin sharpened.
Kiara flicked at the hem of her dress to cover her knee. Her gaze swept up to see if he had noticed and clashed into his.
Yes, he was aware of the woman beneath the clothes, he conveyed. Sex was never a power game for him, but she had started this one. And if anyone knew how to weaponize sex and win that game, it was a man who’d sold everything from fragrance to tuxedos with a bared chest and a libidinous pout.
He let his eyelids drop to a sultry half-mast and touched his tongue to his bottom lip. The muscles in his face were as well exercised and disciplined as those in his chest and abs and thighs. He softened his expression into admiration. Approval. Come hither, my beauty.
“Feel guilty for letting my father dress you,” he said of the muted yellow dress that had Niko’s stamp of conservative authority all over it. “I’ll find you more flattering colors and styles.” He indulged himself with a thorough study of her unabashed curves.
Her breasts rose in a shaken catch of breath, and the way her nipples stood up against the silk caused a responding stiffening in his pants.
She didn’t notice his reaction. Her eyes had gone so wide as she looked into his face, he could practically count each of her thickened lashes. Color darkened her cheekbones. She looked away and swallowed loud enough that he heard it.
That swift, exquisitely sensual response was exactly what had ensnared him the first time. The way she had caught her lip in a soft bite after the graze of their fingertips as they discussed her sketches. The longing in her eyes as she had traversed his nude form with her gaze, transferring what she saw to the page.
Had that reaction been real or was it something in her playbook? She was averting her eyes so he couldn’t be sure.
“Niko insisted I needed a proper wardrobe,” she stammered with an ingenue’s waver of uncertainty cracking her voice. “Since I’ve been going back and forth to Paris, we shopped there. We always take Aurelia, though.”
“We?” His naturally possessive nature rose to a new level with that tiny word.
“Scarlett and I,” she clarified with a wary flick of her glance.
“She’s really having that SOB’s kid? She does go above and beyond, doesn’t she?”
“Scarlett is having Javiero’s baby, yes.” Her spine straightened, thrusting her breasts out. “She’s also my friend so I would appreciate if you spoke more kindly about her.”
He snorted. “How did it come about? Aside from the obvious. Did Dad pay her to get knocked up?”
“No. Where do you get the idea women run around getting pregnant for money?”
“Not all women perhaps, but in this family it’s all too common. I am the embodiment of such a tactic and Paloma married my father and had Javiero because her family was broke.”
“Well I took precautions that failed and Scarlett can speak for herself on that topic if she so chooses. I won’t gossip about her, but try to have some empathy. These last weeks have been very difficult. Her pregnancy wasn’t the easiest, Niko was in his final days, and you know that Javiero just got out of the hospital?”
“I saw the headlines.”
Val wasn’t pleased that his half brother had nearlybeen killed by a jaguar. Javiero had lost an eye if reports were accurate. Sounded damned hellish, but caring in any way about what happened on that side of his father’s gene pool was a recipe for madness so Val hadn’t let himself dwell on it.
They arrived at his hotel and, moments later, he watched her get her bearings much as she had three years ago, when he had brought her into his suite in Venice. She moved through the grand space with every indication she was absorbing minute details. She touched the tassel on the corner of a cushion, lifted her gaze to ornate plaster at the top of the walls, tipped her head into a floral arrangement and moved the curtain, watching where the light fell.
She removed her kimono jacket and went to stand at the window, tilting her head as she studied the Acropolis. He hung back and let his gaze wander her soft shoulders and the tuck of her waist and that glorious bottom pressing against silk that was weightless as a cobweb against her curves.
His palms twitched and so did hers.
She glanced around, gave a muted sigh.
“Is that why you did it?” he asked, instinctively knowing she was looking for her sketch pad. Her compulsion to capture an image was as strong as her ability to do so. He’d learned that much about her in their short acquaintance. “My father supported your art? I saw the painting in the lobby.”
Her lips parted and culpability flexed across her expression.
“I gave you a stepladder,” he reminded through gritted teeth.
“And I may have resorted to selling those sketches if your father hadn’t offered to support me, but he did.” She rolled her bottom lip inward and chewed it without mercy.
“When? Were you working for him when we met?”
“No,” she insisted, but he would reserve judgment on how much truth her words held. “And I didn’t mean to get pregnant. I honestly thought I was protected. By the time I found out, you were on your honeymoon.”
“So you called my mother and told her you planned to terminate.”
“Are you judging me for that?”
“I’m judging you for telling everyone but me that you were pregnant with my child.”
“Your mother was the only person I told,” she muttered, looking at her short, unpainted fingernails. “And I only called her because I felt quite desperate, financially and emotionally.” She frowned. “I didn’t have any family or even a network of friends. I had no idea what sort of mother I might turn into since it had never been my plan to become one. I had put Venice on my credit card and had other debts. I’m not proud of that, but I’m not ashamed, either. Until I turned up pregnant, art was all that mattered to me. I took whatever job bought me a meat pie and colored pencils, not necessarily in that order. I didn’t have a flat, just a room with a shared kitchen and bath. That standard of living was fine for me, but I knew I couldn’t bring a child into it. I didn’t have the education to get a better job, though. I can barely type and even graphic designers need computer skills. Putting ‘currently pregnant’ on your CV doesn’t get you a lot of job offers. I would have had to rely on benefits from the state for years to get on my feet. I’d already spent most of my childhood on government assistance. I had to explore all my options so I called your mother. I thought that, since she’d been in a similar situation, she might have some empathy, perhaps offer other solutions.”
“Well, aren’t you charmingly naive?” Val’s mother had been Nikolai Mylonas’s long-suffering mistress right up until the day Niko had married Paloma. Val didn’t know if she had poked holes in condoms or if his father had misjudged her desire to preserve her figure, but Evelina had turned up pregnant about the time Nikolai’s bride had conceived. Val had been a deliberate effort on Evelina’s part to stake a claim on Niko’s fortune, but Niko had had two sons by two different women two days apart.
The war over rights of succession had raged ever since.
“Your mother said that my having your baby would ruin your life as well as my own and that I should never contact her again,” Kiara said somberly. “But she must have called Niko because Scarlett called me a few hours later and turned up the next day. She talked me into coming to Greece to meet him.”
Ah, Scarlett. His father’s infinitely polite and pathologically single-minded enforcer.
“Niko was in treatment and said both his sons had turned his back on him. He wanted an heir and said your child would do nicely. He offered to build me a studio. It was an offer I didn’t want to resist, but the most compelling reason I stayed was simply that he was Aurelia’s family. I wanted to give her that. I won’t say he was doting or openly loving, but he was proud of her in his way. It seemed like the right thing to do.”
“You thought it was morally correct to let him into her life even though he kept you from telling me. Her father.”
“For all I knew, you knew and didn’t care!” she said with a spark of temper. “The way you’ve reacted so far has only reinforced that Niko was right. You would have pressured me to take sides.”
“You did take a side. His.”
“I see it as taking turns.” Her strident tone came down a few notches. “Niko’s time was finite. Having Aurelia in his life brought him a sense of peace in his last days.”
“How nice for him.”
“You knew he was sick! You could have come at any time and would have learned you had a daughter.”
“Is that his oversimplified rationalization or yours? Dad knew I wouldn’t come and so did Scarlett. That logic doesn’t wash.”
“Why did you hate him so much?” she asked with bafflement.
He might have withstood the comparisons to his brother, the harsh punishments and the constant demands for good, better, best. What Val could never forgive was Niko overriding the complaint Val had made against the school’s administration. Niko had had the entire thing dismissed as ‘trouble-making’ on Val’s part so it was swept under the rug.
Val had never felt so helpless and furious in his life. So abandoned. Out of sheer desperation, he’d begun a campaign of unrelenting fighting and pranks and drinking until the school had had to throw him out for good.
“Why the hell did you likehim? Why did you think he deserved time with my daughter more than I did?” It incensed him to imagine his father basking in the satisfaction of stealing those moments and milestones from Val.
“He was dying.” Her voice softened to a plea. “He was diagnosed right before…Venice. I know he didn’t tell you that at the time. When I met him, though, he was quite sick. Weak and scared. I didn’t plan to stay in Greece, but I couldn’t leave.”
“I’m sure it was a difficult choice.”
“It wasn’t greed,” she cried.
“Oh, I don’t blame you for taking whatever incentives he offered,” he assured her. “If he hadn’t gotten you with the honey of money, he would have moved on to more aggressive and oppressive methods.” He moved behind the bar to select a bottle of whiskey. “That’s the sort of man he was. Controlling. Demanding.”
If you leave, you’re taking your mother with you. I won’t support her. That will be up to you so button your lip and appreciate the education you’re being given.
“I rejected his fortune, so I didn’t have to bow to him the way you have. You think I don’t see him in all of this?” He drew a circle around the conservative ensemble and the way she was justifying actions that were unjustifiable. “He kept you on the island like a goat in a petting zoo.”
“That’s not the way it was!”
From a man who had compared his sons–and women!–the way a horse breeder spoke of stallions?
“It was. It’s adorable you think his interest was his grandchild, but he was getting back at me for marrying Tina against his wishes. Any ‘peace’ he was exhibiting in his last days was the gloating knowledge of the kick in the shorts he would deliver to me today.”
“How is this a kick in the shorts? You didn’t want his money.”
“I don’t.” Val’s best day ever had been his final one at boarding school, when suspension had finally turned to expulsion. He had told his father to stuff his fortune and had sought out Javiero for a final, Have it all. You need it more than I do.
Javiero had needed it. His mother’s family had been in dire straits, and resolving their issues had fallen on Javiero’s young shoulders. But Javiero possessed his own set of faults and one of them was pride. Val had known it would grate on his brother to win by default. It would soil any sense of achievement for him that Val had forfeited.
True to form, Javiero hadn’t been able to stand it. He had subsequently rejected Niko’s support and clawed his way to the top under his own steam, proving some point that escaped Val, but he had never expended much energy trying to work out what it could be.
“Niko told me once that he regretted how he handled things with your mothers,” Kiara said in a conciliatory tone. “He wished he had fought harder for a better relationship with you both.”
The top of his head nearly came off, but Val ignored the fresh knife into an old wound.
“If he had wanted a better relationship with us, he shouldn’t have used his last act to set us at odds yet again.” In the absence of being able to express his disgust at a dead man, he pointed accusingly at Kiara. “And you shouldn’t have stood by him and kept me in the dark all this time.”
“What do you want? An apology? You were married. As far as I can tell, you left me in your bed to go propose to your future wife.” Her hand flung out with agitation.
“I spoke to her father.” He dismissed that with a roll of his shoulder.
“Either way, it was clear you and I didn’t have a future.” Angry hurt flashed into her expression. “Being paid for my services didn’t make me think, Gee, I bet he can’t wait to raise a child with me. I’d better tell him straightaway. Your mother—”
“Wait. Stop.” He held up a hand. “I left you money for the sketch I took.”
“Sure. All right.” Her jaw was clenched, but offset. She turned away to hide what might have been a frown of insult. Humiliation?
A lurching sensation in his chest pulled a sickening roil from the bottom of his stomach. His conscience was so small he barely wore it at all anymore, but there were some lines he didn’t cross. Sex was very much a freely-given-or-not-at-all thing for him.
“You knew I wanted that sketch,” he reminded her harshly. “How did my leaving money for it turn into you thinking I was paying you for sex?”
Her face darkened as she flung around to confront him. “I told you I usually got thirty or forty euros. You left me five hundred.” Her eyes glittered with shame. “For something you probably threw away a week later.”
“That’s why you didn’t take the money? You didn’t think you were worth that much?”
He was talking about her work, but a flash of stark vulnerability seemed to hollow out her soul before she crossed her arms and turned back to the window.
“Obviously, I came to regret that,” she muttered.
When? Before or after she had become beholden to his father?
He poured the whiskey he’d mostly forgotten, moodily trying to assimilate this new information.
“How much are you getting these days? For your artwork,” he clarified when she stiffened.
Silence, then a reluctant, “A few hundred, but they’re fully finished oils. The one in the lobby was nearly two thousand, but that was nepotism on Niko’s part. Most haven’t sold yet. They’ve gone to my agent for my show.”
“At a gallery? Where?”
“Paris. In three weeks.” She mentioned the name, watching him for a reaction as he approached with the drinks. “My agent booked it ages ago,” she added as she took the glass he offered. “When we thought Niko had more time and before Scarlett— Right.” She shifted to set aside her glass. “I can’t drink. Scarlett might need me. In fact, I should keep my phone out so I don’t miss another call.”
Kiara used the search for her phone as an excuse to put distance between her and Val, still taking in that he hadn’t paid her for sex. It was yet another brick in her wall of defenses that had crumbled to powder, leaving her feeling in the wrong, but what choices had beenrightback then?
Her phone was annoyingly empty of notifications, not that she typically had many. On Niko’s request, she had closed her social media accounts when she had moved to Greece. Aside from emails from her agent, she typically only exchanged a few texts with Scarlett or the nannies and only when she was too lazy to walk from her studio back into the villa.
“That’s a good gallery.” Val poured her rejected drink into his own before he took up her spot by the window. “Who’s your agent?”
She told him and told herself she was only gazing on his male form as an artist, but seriously, the way his jeans hugged his butt was sublime.
“Dad really came through for you,” Val said derisively as he sipped.
She squirmed internally. Niko had, and his leg up contributed to her feeling like a fraud, not that she wanted to hand that weapon to Val.
She looked at the shoes Niko had bought her. She hadn’t liked taking all these things. She hadn’t felt entitled to live like royalty and had been aware that doing so put her in a beholden state to Niko’s implacable wishes.
The studio and agent and standard of living had all been cherries, though. The real draw had been the connection to her child’s family. Val had been out of reach and his mother hadn’t wanted her grandchild to exist, but Niko had wanted his granddaughter to be part of his life.
Kiara hadn’t been able to turn her back on that request, not when she’d spent almost her whole life without any blood ties of her own.
As for Aurelia…
“Sit on your high horse if you like, Val, but when Niko learned I was pregnant, his first reaction was to offer support. Yours was to call me a gold-digger and say you didn’t want to hear your own child’s name. Do you wantto be a father?” She brought her head up, never comfortable in confrontation, but she refused to be cast as a villain. “Or do you just want to judge me for the choices I’ve made as a mother? Does all this anger you’re spewing have anything to do with me and Aurelia? Or is it actually unresolved issues with a man who is dead?”
Val might have stiffened, but a dark smile of warning crept across his face. “Do you really want to psychoanalyze me, Kiara? You’ll be swimming with sea monsters.”
“I really want to know.” She picked up a cushion and hugged it, running her fingers over the silky tassels, dimly aware of the betraying body language in using it as a shield, hugging it the way Aurelia hugged her bear, but she needed something to bolster her. “Would you like me better if I’d relied on your money all this time instead of your father’s? Should I have scraped by in low-end jobs to prove that I’m, what? Above needing help? Would noble suffering on my part neutralize your disgust in me?”
“It would be a start.” So disparaging and sanctimonious.
“Do you know what disgusts me?” She threw the cushion back onto the leather sofa. “That you had the luxuryof rejecting your father and his money and did. Is your mother difficult to live with? Mine’s dead. Try hearing that at nine years old.”
She hadn’t meant to reveal that. It was her own very deep, very private anguish, but she refused to be slotted into his pigeonhole of “greedy sycophant.”
“I was given a bed in a room with three other girls and a single drawer to hold what I’d been allowed to take from my home. For the rest of my childhood, I wore used clothes from a box that arrived four times a year. I wasn’t good in school and I’m terrible at sports. I’m not outgoing, I don’t sing well and I didn’t put out. The few friends I made were as miserable as I was and moved on as soon as they could, distancing themselves from everything about that life, including me.”
He wasn’t moving, not even drinking, only watching her as though weighing every word, turning each one over, inspecting it for lies.
“But I had my art.” Her voice shook with the emotion she couldn’t suppress. “Charcoal doesn’t care if you stink like a deep-fat fryer. I worked awful jobs for awful people and lived in squalor and it never mattered because my sketch pad was my door to a better world. When you left me that money, I stared at it for a full thirty minutes before I decided it was a line I couldn’t uncross.”
“It was for the sketch,” he reiterated, swirling his drink before he took a gulp.
“When I found out I was pregnant, I didn’t care what you had paid me for,” she admitted. “I just wished I’d taken it.” She hugged herself as she recalled those bleak days as she had tried to figure out a future that wouldn’t result in being labeled an unfit mother. “My life had always been hard. I knew I would plod along one way or another, maybe see what I could get for those sketches I had of you, but your father made me an offer that meant I could give Aurelia the kind of future that would never include bedbugs and pervy landlords. If I died, she would always have something. Doesn’t your daughter deserve to live comfortably? Am I really a villain for giving her the very best start in life that was available to me?”
She was shaking and he was only staring at her with that cynical curl of disdain at the corner of his mouth.
“If you knew how many sob stories and rationalizations I’ve heard out of my mother in my lifetime,” Val drawled, throwing a healthy sting of whiskey into the back of his throat. He was trying to keep himself from swallowing all that she’d said. “The bit about wanting what’s best for your child? I’ve seen that episode more times than I can count.”
Kiara sucked in a pained breath as if he had physically struck her. She blinked. Rapidly. She had already been looking shaken enough to make it seem as though relaying the story of her deprived childhood had been difficult. And real. Now her eyes welled.
“I need the ladies’ room,” she choked.
Val frowned as she rushed away.
Tears were meant to be displayed, to sell him on how hurtful he’d been with his scathing dismissal so he would believe she’d been pouring real heartache onto the floor. That’s what his mother would have done.
Something wobbled in his chest as he watched her go, especially when she didn’t add an enticing roll of her hips, as some women might, to cloud his head.
He tried to loosen his tie only to discover he wasn’t wearing one.
Don’t fall for it, he warned himself. She was the enemy. Exactly like the rest of the people he called ‘family.’
Then why had she left the money that night?
He kept coming back to that, especially in light of what she’d said a few minutes ago.
At the time, he’d seen her leaving the money as a charming gesture, as though she had gifted him with the memory of their night by letting him have the sketch without payment.
Of course, he had fully expected her to be compensated once she sold his nudes, but as far as he could tell, she never had. Not even to support their child—although that would likely have revealed to the public her child was his, so he could see why she might have balked.
But that would have allowed her to soak him for support.
I stared at it for a full thirty minutes before I decided it was a line I could’t uncross.
If she was as mercenary as his mother, and as cold-bloodedly intent on advancing her own interests as his father, why hadn’t she taken the money he’d left and why hadn’t she come back for more?
She had taken money, of course. Later. From his father.
After trying to reach him.
She hadn’t reached out to his father. His mother had brought about that alliance.
Why did it bother him so much that she had let herself become reliant on Niko? Was he obsessed with gaining the upper hand over a man who was already dead?
If Niko and his fortune had never existed, neither would Val. Maybe the old man’s footprints weren’t the pair he wished had never trod this earth, Val thought darkly. Maybe he wished his own hadn’t.
Kiara came back, not looking at him as she found her clutch. She had washed the makeup off her face. Her hair was damp at her hairline and there were a few water spots on the front of her dress.
“Delightful as this reunion has been,” she said in a voice that still held a quaver, “I’ll ask the registration desk to find me another hotel.” Her hand trembled as she picked up her phone, voice hardening as she added, “And the fact my daughter will have the same ability to walk out on a man trying to cut her down is the reason I will neverregret taking your father’s money.”
She leveled him a look that cut past his shields to punch into his gut. It would have been an exit worthy of him if she’d managed it. Her phone buzzed in her hand, though.
Tremendous vulnerability overcame her at whatever she saw on the screen. He instinctively leaped on it as an extraordinary weakness he could exploit.
She arranged a smile on her discomfited face as she swiped. “Hi, baby.”
The most joyous, dollish voice he had ever heard said a very exuberant, “Mummy!”
“Are you having fun with Nanny?” Kiara sank onto the sofa, disappearing into the screen the way he’d seen her do once before, when she had opened her sketch pad.
The voice babbled about “bubberflies” in the garden.
“Did you see Kitty?” Kiara asked.
He couldn’t resist. He crossed toward Kiara and she lifted a gaze that held real fear. Her hand tightened on the phone and her whole body tensed.
He stayed out of the camera angle but took in the small oval face on the screen. She had a slightly lighter shade of her mother’s brown skin and Kiara’s lips. Her corkscrew hair stood around her face like dandelion fluff with sun-tipped ends. She was pointing off screen, telling a story that made no sense, but he could have listened to her earnest chatter for hours.
When she looked back at the screen, he saw pale, silvery eyes, familiar as his own in the mirror. Something heavy landed in his chest. He wanted to apologize to her for tainting her with any shred of himself. She was so damned natural and unbroken and pure.
And even though he knew he had no business soiling her existence with his own, all he could think was, Give me that child.
Why? He had never liked children even when he’d been one. They were mean and whiny and most of them were vanity projects on the part of parents who shouldn’t have been granted the license to duplicate themselves. He’d been a small adult in the workforce before he’d understood that it wasn’t normal to let people take your picture for money.
This child, though? He wanted to reach through the screen and takeher. Where? And do what? He didn’t know, only that he wanted to hold her. Curl his arms around her and ensure nothing impacted the sweetness she wore so artlessly.
“Oh, no, lovey, I’m not in my studio,” Kiara said as a joggled vision of grass appeared. “Remember? I went in the helicopter with Auntie Scarlett. I have to stay here with her. She’s having her baby.”
The image stopped and righted. Aurelia’s face appeared again. “Can I see?”
“Not yet. Soon.”
Kiara’s smile was so tender, Val found himself rubbing the heel of his hand against his breastbone, trying to ease the sensation of the hard shell around his heart being pried open, leaving breezy cracks and raw spots. Wind whistling into chasms. He had to remind himself to breathe.
“I’ll be back in the morning. One more sleep,” Kiara assured her.
“No, Mummy.” The little girl frowned with dismay. Maybe even distress. “I want you now.”
“Oh, baby.” Kiara’s eyes welled and her smile wobbled.
The nanny stepped in to distract the girl and they quickly said their goodbyes, promising to talk to Mummy at bedtime.
The call ended and Kiara pressed the phone between her breasts, drawing a breath to gather her composure.
“See?” she said with a falsely cheerful smile. She stood and wiggled the phone. “I don’t need any guilt trips from you. I’m on a permanent self-inflicted one, thanks.” She threw the phone into her handbag and started for the door.
Do you want to be a father?
He didn’t know what he wanted beyond, “I want my daughter.”