Already haunted by a youth of illegitimacy and poverty, Valente Lorenzatto never forgave Caroline Hales's abandonment of him at the altar.
But now he's made millions and claimed his aristocratic Venetian birthright--and he's poised to get his revenge. He'll ruin Caroline's family by buying out their company and throwing them out of their mansion...unless she agrees to give him the wedding night she denied him five years ago....
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May 01, 2010
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Excerpt from Virgin on Her Wedding Night by Lynne Graham
'It's all yours, signed, sealed and delivered...the business and the house and land,' the lawyer confirmed.
When Valente Lorenzatto smiled, his enemies took cover. Even his employees had learned to fear the rough passage that might lie ahead. Darkness invariably shadowed that smile and lent it a wolfish quality of threat. While he contemplated the documents set before him, the set of his wide, sensual mouth gave his breath-takingly handsome face a distinctly chilling quality. 'Excellent work, Umberto.'
'It is your own work,' the older man pointed out. 'Your acquisition plan was a triumph.'
Umberto would have given more than his annual bonus, however, to learn exactly why his fabulously wealthy employer had devoted so much time and energy to the planned downfall and purchase of an English transport firm and a piece of private property, neither of which appeared to be of sufficient financial or strategic value to justify his interest. Umberto doubted the wild rumour that Valente might once have worked there in the days before his first big deal. It was only after the high point of the latter that the haughty Barbieri family had finally chosen to recognise Valente as Count Ettore Barbieri's illegitimate grandson.
That particular revelation had caused a public sensation, very much in keeping with Valente's colourful lifestyle and his even more spectacular rise to prominence with a series of bold takeovers. Valente was exceptionally clever, and extraordinarily successful in business, but he was even more renowned for his ruthlessness. The Barbieri clan had been very lucky to find a golden goose like him in the family tree at a time when their fortunes had been in need of restoration. Valente's success in that field had proved to be of little comfort to his long-lost relatives, however, when Old Man Barbieri had begun to idolise his grandchild for his dazzling achievements. The Count had ultimately disinherited his other descendents so that he could leave everything he owned, bar his title, to Valente instead.
That development had provided months of tabloid coverage about Valente, who had been asked to take the family name to qualify for his massive inheritance. And, Valente being Valente--a rebel who did not stand for being told to do anything--had gone to court with the argument that he was very proud of his late mother's unremarkable surname, Lorenzatto, and that it would be an offence to her memory and all she had done for him to discard it. Mothers across Italy had lauded him for his attitude. He had won his case to become one of the most illustrious billionaires in the land, regularly consulted for his opinion by the great and good, with his pronouncements quoted in every part of the media. He was, of course, extremely photogenic and media savvy.
Having dismissed Umberto, and other members of his personal staff, Valente took the air on one of the splendid stone balconies that overlooked the busy thoroughfare of Venice's Grand Canal. The Barbieri family had been hugely shocked when he'd taken the ancient Palazzo Barbieri back to its medieval merchant roots and renovated it to act as his business headquarters, just as it had been originally used in the fourteenth century. He had retained only part of the vast, imposing property for accommodation. Valente was a Venetian born and bred, before he was an Italian, and he had kept faith with his late grandfather, Ettore, in doing what had to be done to preserve thepalazzo for future generations when money might not be in such liberal supply.
Valente drank his black coffee and savoured the moment for which he'd had to work five long years to bring it about. Now he owned Hales Transport, which had finally been brought to its knees by the toxic effect of Matthew Bailey's fraudulent and incompetent management. Valente had also become the owner of a crumbling old house called Winterwood. It was a deeply personal moment of boundless satisfaction for him. As a rule he was neither a patient man nor a vengeful one. After all, he had not sought revenge on his own family, who had left his ailing mother to work as a maid in order to feed and clothe her son. Indeed, if asked, Valente, who generally lived very much in the present, would have said that acts of revenge were a waste of time, and that it was better to move on and forget the past, for the future should hold a more exciting and worthwhile challenge.
Unhappily, however, Valente deliberated, with a harsh expression etched on his bronzed features, even after five years he had yet to meet a woman who excited him anything like as much as his former English bride-to-be, Caroline Hales, once had. His tiny artist, with her pale hair and mist-coloured eyes, who had wept incon-solably when anyone had been cruel to animals but who had, without apparent hesitation or apology, jilted him at the altar for a richer man from a more socially acceptable background.
Just five short years earlier Valente had been an ordinary working man, a truck driver, who'd worked long hours while struggling to complete a business degree in what time was left over. Life had been tough but good--until he'd made the very great mistake of falling head over heels in love with the daughter of the owner of Hales Transport. And Caro, as her adoring family called her, had played him for a fool from the outset, he acknowledged bitterly. She had strung Matthew Bailey and Valente along. And had, regardless of her claims to love Valente, ultimately married Matthew at a big, showy wedding.
Valente savoured the prospect of extracting punishment for those offences against him. He was no longer poor and powerless. Indeed, it had been the rage and aggression incited by the thought of the woman he loved lying naked and willing in another man's arms which had made Valente so fiercely determined to succeed. Soon, however, Caroline would be lying naked and willing in his arms, Valente reflected with a saturnine smile. He could only hope the grieving widow he had seen pictured clad in the unrelieved black of mourning would prove to be worth the effort and expense he had already expended on her behalf.
Still, at least he could ensure that when he peeled off the mourning clothes she was at least dressed to his taste. He unfurled his mobile phone and called the owner of Italy's most exclusive lingerie atelier to put in a special order--a Caroline-sized order, in pastel colours that would enhance her pale skin and dainty curves with the finest materials and trimmings available. Even the thought of her parading her sublimely graceful little body in such flimsy apparel for his entertainment caused a painful tightening in Valente's groin. He reckoned that he was a little too sexually hungry for comfort and coolness. He would pay a visit to his current bedmate, Agnese, before he flew to England to take possession of his new mistress and everything precious to her.
It was time.
His moment had come.
Valente punched out some numbers on his mobile phone and made the call he had been working towards for five years...
Twenty-four hours before Valente made that phone call, Caroline Bailey, formerly Hales, had been engaged in an increasingly upsetting dialogue with her parents. 'Yes, of course I realised that the firm was in trouble last year! But just when did you mortgage the house?'
'In the autumn. The firm needed capital, and pledging the house as security was the only way we could get a bank loan.' Joe Hales settled his portly frame down heavily into an armchair. 'There's nothing we can do about it now, Caro. We've lost the lot. We couldn't keep up the payments and the house has been repossessed...'
'Why on earth didn't you tell me about this at the time?' Caroline prompted in disbelief.
'It was only a few months since you had buried your husband,' her father reminded her. 'You had enough to cope with.'
'We've only been given two weeks to move out of our home!' Isabel Hales exclaimed. A small blonde woman in her late sixties, with a tight lack of facial lines and movement that suggested a good deal of surgical enhancement, she was the exact opposite in appearance of her tall, heavily built husband. 'I can't believe it. I knew the business was gone--but our home as well? It's a nightmare!'
Engaged in giving her father's heavy shoulder a comforting squeeze, Caroline resisted the urge to try and comfort her tear-stained mother with a hug. She was a touchy-feely person, and always had been, but her mother was not. While her father had grown up secure as the son of the major employer in the district, her mother had been raised by socially ambitious parents who'd been resentful of their lowly status and lack of money. Isabel was their daughter in every way, with the same aspirations and the same reverence for wealth.
Ill-matched though Joe and Isabel might initially have seemed, the only disappointment in their marriage had proved to be Isabel's infertility. The Haleses had been in their forties by the time they'd adopted Caroline at the age of three. As their only child she had enjoyed an excellent education and a stable home life, and would never have dreamt of voicing the reality that she was much closer to her kind-hearted father than her often sharply critical and pushy mother. In truth she had never shared her adoptive mother's aspirations or interests, and was uncomfortably aware that the opinions she held and the choices she made had dismayed and disappointed both her parents.
'How can we only have two weeks to move out of our home?' Caroline exclaimed, in a voice weakened by incredulity.
Joe shook his balding head wearily. 'We're lucky to get that long. A surveyor viewed the whole place last week and went back to our creditors with an offer. It wasn't a great offer, but the administrators snapped it up. They're only interested in paying off the debts and trying to save jobs. I was relieved they had found a buyer for Hales Transport.'
'But too late to be of any help to us!' Isabel Hales snapped angrily.
'I've lost my father's business,' her husband responded heavily. 'Have you any idea how ashamed that makes me feel? Everything my father worked so hard for and achieved, I've lost.'
Tears washing her eyes at his pained speech, Caroline bit her lip and restrained the urge to lament the fact that her parents had not chosen to confide in her before taking out a loan against their home. She would have warned them not to throw good money after bad. She wondered if her mother, who was profoundly attached to her imposing home and comfortable lifestyle, had put excessive pressure on her father to save the business at all costs. Sadly, sound financial judgement had never been one of her father's talents.
Her father had inherited Hales Transport from his own father, and until recently had never known what it was to worry about money. Her mother's snobbish belief that actively running a transport firm lowered their social standing had prevented Joe from assuming much of a hands-on role in the family business. Instead, urged on by his wife, Joe had hired Giles Sweetman, an excellent general manager, to take care of the firm, and had learned how to play golf and fish. For many years the firm had brought in an excellent income. It had taken just two misfortunes to bring about the current crisis.
First, Giles Sweetman had found another job and left with very little warning, and Caroline's late husband, Matthew, had replaced Giles. Although nobody had yet said it to her face, he had been a disaster in the role. The second blow had been the appearance on the local scene of a rival transport firm, hungry for business. One by one Hales had lost the contracts on which it depended for survival to Bomark Logistics, and reducing its workforce had done nothing to halt that downward slide.
'Two weeks is a ridiculously short amount of time,' Caroline protested. 'Who is the buyer? I'll ask if we can have a bit more time.'
'We're not in a position to ask for anything. We no longer own this house,' her father pointed out wryly. 'I just hope that the buyer of Hales isn't planning to make our remaining workers redundant and sell off the firm's assets to the highest bidders.'
Caroline studied her parents, painfully aware of the march of advancing years and ill-health that made them poor candidates to deal with so much stress and upheaval. Her adoptive father suffered badly from angina, and on bad days her mother's arthritic joints made even a walk across the room a painful challenge. Where on earth would they go without the cosy cocoon of financial security which they had enjoyed for so long? How would they cope and survive?
Winterwood was an enchanting, crumbling old house, built at the turn of the century for a large family with domestic staff. It had always been far too big for her parents, but Isabel Hales had been determined to impress everyone in the neighbourhood with visible evidence of her new status as the wife of a wealthy man. The new owner might well be planning to simply knock down Winterwood and redevelop the site. Even in the midst of more serious issues Caroline experienced a sharp pang at the prospect of her childhood home being razed to the ground and the gardens bulldozed.
'You should never have moved out of Matthew's family home and come back here to live with us,' Isabel Hales told her daughter thinly. 'Now you'll have to come with us, and goodness knows where we' ll end up living!'
'I still find it hard to believe that Matthew left you with nothing but debt,' Joe admitted with a shake of his head. 'I thought more of him than that. It's a man's job to ensure that his wife has something to live on when he's gone.'
'Matthew could hardly have expected to die so young.' Caroline made her usual soothing response to comments of that nature; she'd had a lot of practice in keeping the secrets of her unhappy marriage to herself. 'But I do wish he had been willing to buy a house, because then I would at least have had a home for the three of us.'
'The Baileys should have helped you more than they did,' her mother contended bitterly. 'Of course you didn't even have the sense to ask for a financial settlement from them.'
'It wasn't their fault that Matthew didn't take out insurance cover, and they did settle all his debts...And let's not forget that they had a stake in Hales as well, and have also lost a good deal of money,' Caroline reminded the older woman ruefully.