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Scandal at the Balfour Ball

Written by Michelle Reid

After barely a year of marriage, Alessandro and Meredith Ferrera’s relationship is already strained by careers that force them to live in different countries for weeks at a time. So it doesn’t take much to raise Alessandro’s suspicions about what his bride is up to when he’s not around!

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Chapter one

Alessandro Ferrera lay stretched out on the sofa in his Milan apartment with a glass of malt whisky balanced on the flat wall of his stomach and his eyes grimly shut.

Maria Callas wept soulfully in the background, filling the room with a tragic aria that thoroughly suited his mood. For beside him, tossed down on the low table like an insult, lay the letter he knew he should not have opened because it was not the first piece of poison he had received over the last few trust-whittling weeks.

The molded line of his mouth gave a twitch of contempt at his own lack of willpower. If he’d utilized a fraction of the tough mental strength he was known for out there in the business world, he would have binned the letter unopened with the dismissive disdain it deserved.

He had discovered, however, that mental strength and emotional strength were two separate disciplines, especially when applied to his beautiful, hot-tempered, infuriatingly independent, sensationally sexy red-haired witch of a wife.

He took a slug at the whisky.

“Si, Signora Ferrera had lunch with Signor Valente at his London apartment.” His mind fed him the confirmation he had received the only time he had sought to check out the poison. “Si, their meeting took up most of the afternoon.”

“Si.” When he’d asked her, Meredith freely admitted it to him. “We were brainstorming his next UK marketing campaign before I let my team loose on it.”

That conversation had taken place four weeks ago, and she’d looked and sounded so convincingly innocent. His exquisitely put-together bride of almost a year had mapped out her afternoon spent discussing business with his best friend Marco, while she’d undressed him. Made love to him. She’d crawled all over him and blown his mind and his wild suspicions apart with her smooth silky body and warm busy kisses and the kind of loving that made him feel like a real jealous rat for even questioning her loyalty to him.

So why was he questioning it?

Because Marco and Meredith had been an item before Alessandro had come along and grabbed her for himself. Meredith had called them just good friends and business colleagues. Marco had not been so quick to agree. But he was recalling Marco’s response with hindsight—a lousy place to revisit something when the letter was sitting there doing its damndest to poison him.

He took another slug at the whisky. Meredith was still living in London setting up the final stages of the Valente campaign. In the last two weeks they had managed to snatch one night together—one short, angry, very passionate night before he’d had to fly back here to Milan. They’d fought—about whose fault it was that they spent so much time apart. They’d made up and made love then fought again. Then he’d left. That was five days ago and if the letter had not arrived today, he would have been ready to crawl on his knees—where she liked him—to make his peace.

Now—?

In a flurry of near-mindless panic, Meredith rushed out of the bathroom and almost tripped over a huge black fluffy dog.

“Do you have to lay across every doorway, Mutt?” she muttered.

The animal didn’t bother to comment. He just watched her as she snatched up her cell phone and accessed Alessandro’s number, then dropped down on the side of the bed to fret on her lower lip while she waited for him to pick up.

She actually felt dizzy with shock. She did not know if to be happy or horrified, excited or scared. She needed to hear Alessandro’s reaction so she could—

“Ciao si—”

“Alessandro—” shooting back to her feet “—it’s me!” she announced breathlessly.

“I know it is you,” he growled impatiently. “What do you want, Merry?”

What do I want?

Thrown by the hard edge to that question, Meredith remembered too late that they’d had a fight that last time they’d been together. They’d had several fights about the usual thing—her refusal to cut back on her workload to accommodate his. Her too-gorgeous-to-live husband was an all-powerful, all-arrogant, totally self-centred, spoiled Italian male who liked to be in full control of every aspect of his life. Because she refused to let him control her life, too, she got to be spoken to like that.

“You’re still mad at me,” she said heavily.

“I am not mad at you.”

“Then why do you sound so horrid?”

”My apologies. It is very late and I was—working.”

From being high on shock and scary elation, Meredith now felt more like a burst balloon as she sank back down on the edge of the bed. He was clearly in no mood to receive the kind of news she had been about to blurt out to him, she thought, staring down at the slither of white plastic she held clutched in her trembling fingers. It wasn’t even trying to be subtle. No maybe. No perhaps. Just the downright certainty printed on the slender LCD screen.

Pregnant, it stated, 4-5 weeks.

A wild kind of quiver took hold of her stomach. She had to work at holding in a fluttery little sob as she searched for an alternative reason for calling him up.

As if she should need one, a little voice told her.

“I was calling to find out what time to expect you tomorrow,” was all that she could come up with.

“Tomorrow—?” Staring at the poisoned letter on the table, Alessandro’s mind had gone a complete blank.

“For goodness sake, what is the matter with you?” his wife shrilled out. “Are you drunk or something? We are attending the Balfour Charity Ball tomorrow evening. I’ve bought this fabulous dress! And—and I have something really important I need to tell you before—before…”

That was the point when the Callas aria reached its crescendo. Meredith responded to the sound with a strangled choke. “You’re listening to Callas. Why are you listening to Callas? You never play Callas unless you’re…”

As she stopped speaking in mid-sentence, Alessandro teethed back a filthy curse, understanding exactly what was going through her head.

They made love to Callas, preferably in a darkened room with the air-conditioning switched off and the atmosphere sultry and hot. He could even see the two of them lying stretched out on their bed with her glorious hair spread out around her and her full soft passionate mouth parted to welcome his—

Marco Valente’s face suddenly muscled in on the image, pushing Alessandro to his feet as his whole body clenched up. “Are you suggesting something specific here?” he raked out.

“No,” Meredith mumbled.

“Grazie,” he responded.

Meredith pulled in a breath. “Look, I know we argued before you left here but—”

“We did not argue, we fought, cara. You threatened to leave me and I invited you to do so.”

“So, are you happy or disappointed that I’m still hanging on in here?”

“I will let you know when I know.”

“Well, you just do that.”

She cut the connection, then just sat trembling like mad. How had things become so bad between them that they even fought over the telephone now? Hot tears burned the back of her eyes and her throat.

“Oh…” She choked, and turned to throw herself face down on the bed as the first wretched sob escaped.

Her phone burst into life.

It had to be Alessandro!

Scrambling up on her knees, she pushed her tumbling mane of hair back from her face. “I love you so much!” she sobbed out.

“Molto grazie, mia amore,” a completely different Italian man responded dryly.

“Marco,” Meredith mumbled in crushing disappointment.

Alessandro cursed. Meredith’s phone was busy.

Who was she talking to?

She’d been upset. He’d heard the quiver in her voice before she’d rung off. Now he felt like the worst kind of suspicious rat.

Who would she call up for sympathy?

The answer that hit him clenched up his muscles as he phoned Marco Valente’s number.

The line was busy.

He stood for a minute, trying not to draw the obvious conclusion, but then his eyes drifted down to the letter again.

The poisoned letter.

Picking it up he let its noxious words screw up his insides, then fisted it into a ball and hurled it like a missile across the room. Next he snatched up the remote and switched the music off. As silence fell around him like a chilly ice-front, grim clarity wiped the emotional mists from his head.

Recovering his phone again, he connected with his security chief.

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About the author

Hi, my name is Michelle Reid and I’ve been writing for Harlequin...

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Michelle Reid

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