Christmas in Da Conti's Bed

By: Sharon Kendrick


CHAPTER ONE

NICCOLÒ DA CONTI hated marriage, Christmas and love—but most of all he hated it when people didn’t do what he wanted them to.

An unfamiliar feeling of frustration made him bite back a graphic expletive as he paced the floor of the vast New York hotel suite. Outside, skyscrapers and stars glittered against the deepening indigo sky, though not nearly as brightly as the Christmas lights which were already adorning the city.

But Niccolò was oblivious to the party atmosphere, or even to the onset of this most hated time of year. All he could think about was his only sister and wondering why she was being so damned disobedient.

‘I do not want,’ he said, sucking in a ragged breath in an attempt to control his rapidly spiralling temper, ‘some tacky topless model acting as your bridesmaid. I have worked long and hard to establish a degree of respectability in your life, Michela. Do you understand what I’m saying? It cannot be allowed to happen, and what is more—I will not allow it to happen.’

From the other side of the glitzy New York hotel penthouse suite, Michela’s expression remained unchanged as she looked at him.

‘But you can’t stop me from having her, Niccolò,’ she said stubbornly. ‘I’m the bride and it’s my decision. That’s the thing.’

‘You think so?’ His mouth hardened and he felt another hot flicker of rage. ‘I could refuse to pay for this wedding for a start.’

‘But the man I’m marrying is rich enough to carry the cost of the marriage if you decide to take such drastic action.’ Michela hesitated. ‘Though I’m sure you wouldn’t want the world to know that Niccolò da Conti had refused to finance his only sister’s wedding, just because he doesn’t approve of her choice of bridesmaid. Wouldn’t that be a step too far in the modern world—even for a man as old-fashioned as you?’

Niccolò flexed and then relaxed his fingers, wishing there were a nearby punch-bag on which he could vent his mounting frustrations. The world usually ran according to his wishes and he was not used to having them questioned. Bad enough that Alekto Sarantos was acting like some kind of prima donna…without having to cope with the bombshell that Alannah Collins was here.

His mouth tightened with anger as he thought about his sister and the sacrifices he had made. For too long he had fought to keep their tiny family unit intact and he was not prepared to relinquish control over her just yet. Because old habits died hard. He had faced shame and tragedy and had seen them off. He had protected Michela as much as was within his power to do so, and now she was about to enter into marriage, which would see her secure for life. His careful vetting of would-be suitors had paid dividends and she was about to marry into one of the most powerful Italian-American families in New York. She would have the sanctity he had always wished for her and nothing would be allowed to tarnish the occasion. Nothing and no one.

Especially not Alannah Collins.

Even the thought of the minxy little tramp made his body react in a complicated way he found difficult to control—and he was a man who prided himself on control. A powerful combination of lust and regret flooded over him, although his overriding emotion was one of rage, and that was the one he hung onto.

‘I cannot believe that she has had the nerve to show her face,’ he bit out. ‘I can’t believe she’s even here.’

‘Well, she is. I invited her.’

‘I thought you hadn’t seen her since I withdrew you from that appalling school.’

Michela hesitated. ‘Actually, we’ve…well, we’ve stayed in touch over the years,’ she said. ‘We emailed and phoned—and I used to see her whenever I was in England. And last year she came to New York and we took a trip to the Keys and it was just like old times. She was my best friend at school, Niccolò. We go back a long way.’

‘And yet you told me nothing of this before?’ he demanded. ‘You maintain a secret friendship and then spring it on me on the eve of your marriage? Didn’t you stop to consider how it might look—to have someone as notorious as this tawdry exhibitionist playing a major role in your wedding?’

Michela lifted her hands up to the sides of her head in a gesture of frustration. ‘Are you surprised I didn’t tell you, when this is the kind of reaction I get?’

‘What does Lucas say about your connection with her?’ he demanded.

‘It happened a long time ago. It’s history, Niccolò. Most people in the States haven’t even heard of Stacked magazine—it folded ages ago. And yes, I know that a video of the original shoot seems to have found its way onto YouTube—’

‘What?’ he exploded.

‘But it’s really quite tame by modern standards,’ said Michela quickly. ‘If you compare it to some of the music videos you see these days—well, it’s almost suitable for the kindergarten! And Alannah doesn’t do that kind of stuff any more. You’ve got her all wrong, Niccolò, she’s—’

‘She is a tramp!’ he gritted out, his Sicilian accent becoming more pronounced as his temper rose once again. ‘A precocious little tramp, who shouldn’t be allowed within ten feet of decent society. When will you get it into your head, Michela, that Alannah Collins is—’

‘Whoops!’ A cool voice cut into his angry tirade and Niccolò turned to see a woman strolling into the room without bothering to knock and suddenly his words were forgotten. If somebody had asked him his name right then, he thought he might have trouble remembering it. And yet for a moment he almost didn’t recognise her—because in his memory she was wearing very little and the woman in front of him had barely an inch of flesh on show. It was the sound of her naturally sultry voice which kick-started his memory and his libido. But it didn’t take long for his eyes to reacquaint themselves with her magnificent body—nor to acknowledge the natural sensuality which seemed to shimmer from it in almost tangible waves.

She was wearing jeans and a white shirt with a high collar, but the concealing nature of her outfit did nothing to disguise the luscious curves beneath. Thick black hair like lustrous jet hung over her shoulders, and eyes the colour of denim were studying him with a hint of mockery in their depths. Niccolò swallowed. He had forgotten the pale creaminess of her complexion and the rosiness of her lips. He had forgotten that this half-Irish temptress with an unknown father could burrow underneath his skin, without even trying.

As she moved he could see the glitter of a little blue dragonfly brooch gleaming on her shirt-collar, which matched the amazing colour of her eyes. And even though he despised her, he could do nothing about the leap of desire which made his body grow tense. She made him think of things he’d rather not think about—but mostly she made him think about sex.

‘Did I just hear my name being taken in vain?’ she questioned lightly. ‘Would you like me to walk back out and come in again?’

‘Feel free to walk out any time you like,’ he answered coldly. ‘But why don’t you do us all a favour, and skip the second part of the suggestion?’

She tilted her chin in a way which made her black hair ripple down her back, like an ebony waterfall. But the smile she slanted at him didn’t quite reach her eyes.

‘I see you’ve lost none of your natural charm, Niccolò,’ she observed acidly. ‘I’d forgotten how you could take the word “insult” and give it a whole new meaning.’

Niccolò felt a pulse begin to pound in his temple as his blood grew heated. But much worse was the jerk of lust which made his groin feel unbearably hard. Which made him want to crush his mouth down over her lips and kiss all those insolent words away and then to drive deep inside her until she screamed out his name, over and over again.

Damn her, he thought viciously. Damn her, with all her easy confidence and her louche morals. And damn those sinful curves, which would compel a grown man to crawl over broken glass just to have the chance of touching them.

‘Forgive me,’ he drawled, ‘but for a moment I didn’t recognise you with your clothes on.’

He saw the brief discomfiture which crossed her face and something primitive gave him a heady rush of pleasure to think that he might have touched a nerve and hurt her. Hurt her as she had once hurt his family and threatened to ruin their name.

But she turned the look into a bright and meaningless smile. ‘I’m not going to rise to that,’ she said as she turned instead to his sister. ‘Are you ready for your fitting, Michela?’

Michela nodded, but her eyes were still fixed nervously on Niccolò. ‘I wish you two could be civil to each other—at least until the wedding is over. Couldn’t you do that for me—just this once? Then you never need see one another again!’

Niccolò met Alannah’s speculative gaze and the thought of her smiling serenely in a bridesmaid gown made his blood boil. Didn’t she recognise that it was hypocritical for her to play the wide-eyed innocent on an important occasion such as this? Couldn’t she see that it would suit everyone’s agenda if she simply faded into the background, instead of taking on a major role? He thought of the powerful bridegroom’s elderly grandparents and how they might react if they realised that this was the same woman who had massaged her own peaking nipples, while wearing a dishevelled schoolgirl hockey kit. His mouth hardened. How much would it take to persuade her that she was persona non grata?