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Harlequin
January 1, 2017


The Italian’s Pregnant Virgin

#3

You will be my wife…

Esther Abbott was backpacking across Europe when she was approached about being a surrogate. Desperately in need of the money, Esther agreed. But when the deal falls apart, she’s left pregnant and alone, with no one to turn to…except the baby’s father!

Learning he is to have a child with a woman he’s never met is a scandal Italian billionaire Renzo Valenti can’t afford. Following his recent bitter divorce and with an impeccable reputation to maintain, Renzo has no choice but to claim the child…and Esther as his wife!

Book 3 in the Heirs Before Vows trilogy

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Excerpt

“The thing is, Mr. Valenti, I’m pregnant.”

Renzo Valenti, heir to the Valenti family real estate fortune, known womanizer and chronic over-indulger, stared down at the stranger standing in his entryway.

He had never seen the woman before in his life. Of that he was nearly one-hundred percent certain.

He did not associate with women like this. Women who looked like they had spent a hot, sweaty afternoon traipsing through the streets of Rome, rather than a hot, sweaty afternoon tangled in silk sheets.

She red-cheeked and disheveled, her face void of makeup, long dark hair half-falling out of a bun that looked like an afterthought.

She was dressed the same as many American college students who flooded the city in the summer. She was wearing a form fitting black tank top and a long, ankle length skirt that nearly covered her dusty feet and flat, unremarkable sandals that appeared to be falling apart.

Had she been walking by him outside, he would never have paid her any notice. Except she was in his home. And she had just said words to him no woman had bothered to speak to him since he was sixteen years old.

But they meant nothing, as she meant nothing.

“Congratulations. Or condolences,” he said. “Depending.”

“You don’t understand.”

“No,” he said, his voice cutting through the relative silence of the grand antechamber. “I don’t. You practically burst into my home telling my housekeeper you had to see me, and now here you are, having pushed your way in.”

“I didn’t push my way in. Luciana was more than happy to let me in.”

He would never fire his housekeeper. And the unfortunate thing was, the older woman knew it. So when she had let a hysterical girl into his home he had a feeling she considered it punishment for his notorious behavior with the opposite sex.

Which was not fair. This little creature — who looked as though she would be most at home sitting on a sidewalk in the vicinity of Haight Ashbury, playing an acoustic guitar for coins — might well be some man’s unholy punishment. But she wasn’t his.

“Regardless, you’re not drawing this out and making a show, and I have no patience for either.”

“It’s your baby.”

He laughed. There was absolutely no other response for such an outrageous statement. And there was no other way to remove the strange weight, the strange tension that gripped him when she spoke the words.

He knew why it affected him. But it should not.

He could imagine no circumstance under which he would touch such a ridiculous little hippie. And even so, he had just spent the past six months devoted to the world’s most obscene farce of a marriage.

And though Ashley had been devoted to the pleasure of both herself — and other men — during their union, he had been faithful.

A woman with a small baby bump, barely showing beneath that skin tight top, claiming to be carrying his child could be absolutely nothing but ridiculous to him.

He’d had nothing at all but six months of fights, dodging vases flung in a rage by his crazy wife — who seemed to do her best to demolish the stereotype that Canadians were a nice and polite people —  and then days on end of ridiculous cooing like he was some kind of pet she was trying to tame again after a sound beating.

Little realizing that he was not a man to be tamed, and never had been. He had married Ashley to make a point to his parents, and for no other reason. As of yesterday, he was divorced and free again.

Free to take this little backpacker in any way he wanted to, if he so chose.

Though, she would find the only place he wanted to take her was out the front door, and back onto the streets she had come from.

“That, you will find, is impossible, cara mia.” Her eyes went round, liquid, shock and pain visible. What had she imagined would happen? That he would fall for this ruse? That she would find her salvation in him? “I can see how you would build some strange fantasy around the idea I might be your best bet for help,” he said, attempting to keep his tone calm. “I have a reputation with women. But I have also been married for the past six months. So whatever man is responsible for knocking you up in a bar crawling with tourists and never calling again? He is not me, nor will you ever con me into believing it is. We are divorced now, but in the time I was married I was faithful to my wife.”

“Ashley,” she said, blinking rapidly. “Ashley Bettencourt.”

He was stunned, but only momentarily, by her usage of his wife’s name. It was common knowledge so of course if she knew about him, she would know about Ashley. But if she knew he was married why not choose an easier target?

“Yes. Very good,” he said. “You’re up on your tabloid reading, I see.”

“No, I know Ashley. She’s actually the person I met in a bar crawling with tourists. She’s the one who knocked me up.”

Renzo felt like he’d been punched in the chest. “Excuse me? None of what you’re saying makes sense.”

She little woman growled, lifting her hands and gripping her head for a moment before throwing them back down at her sides, curling her fingers into fists. “I am…I am trying. But I thought you would know who I was!”

“Why would I know who you are?” he asked, feeling at a loss.

“I just…oh I should never have listened to her. But I was…oh I am just as stupid as my dad thinks I am!” She was practically wailing now, and he had to admit, this farce was inventive even if it was damned disruptive to his day.

“Right at this moment I’m on your father’s side, cara, and I will remain so until you have offered me an explanation that falls somewhere short of being as stupid as my ex-wife getting you pregnant.”

“Ashley hired me. I was working at a bar down by the Coliseum and she and I started talking. She was telling me about the issues in your marriage and the trouble you were having conceiving…”

The words made his gut twist. He and Ashley had never attempted to conceive. By the time they’d gotten to a place where they might discuss giving him an heir to his empire, he’d already decided that no amount of shock value made her worth it as a wife.

“I thought it was weird, her talking to me like that. But she came back the next night, and the next. We ended up talking about how I ended up in Italy and how I had no money…” she blinked. “And then she asked me if I would consider being her surrogate.”

Pressure built in Renzo’s chest until it exploded. English deserted him entirely, a string of vulgar Italian flowing from his lips like a foul river. “I don’t believe it. This is some trick that bitch has put you up to.”

“It’s not. I promise you it isn’t. I had no idea that you didn’t know. No idea at all. It was all very… what she said… It made sense. And…and she said it would be easy. Just a quick trip to Santa Firenze, where the procedure is legal and then I just have to like…be the oven. I was supposed to get paid to make the bread, so to speak, and then…well, and give it to the person I…baked it for. Someone who wanted the baby desperately enough to ask for help from a stranger.”

Panic tore through Renzo like a wild beast, savaging his chest, his throat. Making it impossible to breathe. What she was saying was impossible. It had to be. Mostly.

Ashley was…unpredictable. And God new how that might manifest. Especially since she’d been enraged by the divorce — made simple because of their marriage in Canada, which she had felt was calculated on his part. It was, of course.

But she wouldn’t have done this. She couldn’t have. Still, he pressed.

“It made sense to you that a woman pursued surrogacy, and claimed to have a husband that you never saw?”

“She said that it would be impossible for you to come to the clinic. She could only do it because she wore large sunglasses and a hat. She said that you were far too recognizable. She said you were very tall.” She swept her hand up and down. “You are. Obviously. You don’t blend. It not even sunglasses would disguise… You know what I mean.”

“I know nothing. It has become apparent to me over the past few minutes that I know less than I thought. That snakes talked you into this. How much did she pay you?”

“Well, she hasn’t given me everything yet.”

He laughed, the sound bitter. “Is that so? I hope that she paid you well for your trouble.”

“Well, the problem is that Ashley said she doesn’t want the baby anymore. Because of the problems that you’re having.”

“Problems?” The question was incredulous. “Does she mean our divorce?”

“I… I guess.”

“So, you did some cursory research on us, and then no more?”

“I don’t have Internet at the hostel,” she said flatly.

“You live in a hostel?”

“Yes,” she said, her cheeks turning a darker shade of pink. “I was just passing through. And, I ran out of money. Took a job at a bar, and I’ve been here longer than I anticipated. Then I met Ashley about three months ago.”

“How far along are you?”

“Only about eight weeks. I just… Ashley decided she didn’t want the babies anymore. And I don’t want to… I don’t want to end the pregnancy. And I thought that even though she said you didn’t want to handle any of this, because it damaged your view of the whole thing… I wanted to come to you. I needed to make sure.”

“Why is that? Because you fancy that you will raise the baby if I don’t want it?”

It was her turn to laugh. There was no humor in it, only hysteria. “No! I’m not going to raise a baby. Not now. Not ever. I don’t want children. I don’t want a husband. But, I was involved in this. I agreed to it. And I feel like… I don’t know. How can I not feel responsible? She became a friend to me almost. I mean, she was one of the first people in forever who talked to me, told me about her life. She made sure I knew how much she wanted this baby and I…now she doesn’t. She might have changed her mind, but I can’t change my feelings about it.”

“What will you do?” he asked. “What will you do if I tell you I don’t want the baby?”

“I’ll give it up for adoption,” she said, as thought it were the most obvious thing. “I was going to give birth anyway. That was part of the agreement.”

“I see.” His thoughts were racing, trying to catch up with everything that the woman in front of him – the woman whose name he still didn’t know – was saying to him. “And was Ashley planning on paying you the rest of the fee if you continued with the pregnancy?”

The woman looked down. “No.”

“So, you had to make sure that you could still collect your fee? Is that why you came to speak to me?”

“No. I came to speak to you because it seemed like the right thing to do. Because I was beginning to become concerned about your lack of involvement in the whole thing.”

Anger built inside of him, reaching its boiling point and bubbling over. “Allow me to paint a clear picture for you of what exactly happened. My ex-wife went behind my back to hire you. I still don’t understand how this happened. I don’t understand how she was able to manipulate both you and the doctor. I don’t understand how she was able to accomplish this without my knowing. I don’t understand what her endgame was, as she is now clearly backing out. Perhaps now that she has seen she will get no money from me, and I’m not worth the effort anyway she does not wish to be saddled with my child for the rest of her shallow existence. Or, perhaps it is simply Ashley. Who decided to do something on a whim, thinking that something of this magnitude would be a delightful surprise she would drop in my lap like the purchase of a new handbag. And, much like my ex feels about handbags, she has decided she is bored of this one and moved on to the next shiny thing. Regardless of her motivation, the end result is the same. I didn’t know. I did not want this baby.”

At that, she seemed to deflate. Her shoulders shrunk inward, some of her defiant posture diminishing. “Okay.” She blinked rapidly, lifting her chin and staring him down. “If you change your mind I’m at the hostel Americana. You can find me there. Unless I’m working at the bar across the street.” She turned on her heel and began to walk away from him, toward the front door. Then she paused. “You claim you’ve been in the dark this whole time. I just didn’t want you to to have that excuse anymore.”

Then she walked out of his house. And just like his ex-wife, he determined that he would think about her no more.

 

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