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The Veranchetti Marriage

By:Lynne Graham

CHAPTER ONE

NICKY CAME hurtling through the crowd ahead of his escort and threw himself into his mother’s arms like a miniature whirlwind. “Missed you,” he confided, burying his dark head under her chin where unmanly tears could be decently concealed.

Kerry’s arms encircled him tightly. He had been staying with his father for an entire month. Kerry had watched the calendar through every day of his absence, resenting the unusual silence echoing round the cottage and the emptiness of her weekends. As she slowly lowered her three-year-old son to the ground, she noticed the two dark-suited men lodged several feet away. Nicky’s escorts.

One of them stepped forward coolly to say, “It really wasn’t necessary for you to come to the airport, signora. We would have brought Nicky home as we usually do.”

There was a studied insolence to the roaming sexual appraisal of his dark eyes. Involuntarily, Kerry’s magnolia skin heated. She knew that she shouldn’t allow Alex’s security staff to browbeat her. But she did. She was nobody of importance on their scale. The discarded ex-wife, who didn’t even enjoy a semicivilised post-divorce relationship with their employer. They could afford to be as rude and superior as they liked. They knew better than anybody that Alex wouldn’t even take a phone call from her. The chances of her complaining were negligible.

With a rather valiant effort she lifted her chin. “I wanted to come to the airport.”

“Mr Veranchetti prefers us to see his son safely to the door of your home, signora.”

“I’m perfectly capable of driving my own child home,” she muttered curtly, and turned deliberately away, seeking a fast escape from a confrontation in the center of Heathrow.

“Until the little boy reaches home he’s our responsibility.” A restraining hand actually fell on her tense shoulder.

She couldn’t believe this was happening to her. That she was being bullied by a hired security man, who treated her child like Little Lord Fauntleroy. Nicky was her son. He might be Alex’s as well, but did she have to stand for such treatment? It was totally destroying Nicky’s homecoming. She was aware of her son’s brown lustrous gaze fixed anxiously to her strained face, and she strove to behave calmly.

“When I’m here, he’s my responsibility,” she stated with a forced smile. “Really, this is quite ridiculous. All this argument simply because I chose to meet him off the plane…”

The other man had stepped forward too. In one hand he carried Nicky’s case. A fast exchange of Italian took place over her slightly bowed head. Murderous feelings were struggling for utterance inside her. The past four years had been very tough for Kerry. What she could never accept was that they should continue getting tougher. Alex was zealously trying to wean Nicky from her for longer and longer periods, and she had an absolute wimp of a solicitor, who was always sympathetic but equally trenchant in his view that her ex-husband was not a man to antagonise.

“Mr Veranchetti wouldn’t be pleased.” It was the older man who spoke now for the first time.

He talked as if Alex was God. Or maybe the Devil, she conceded abstractedly. People always employed that impressed-to-death tone when they referred to her ex. It had got to the stage where Kerry’s blood chilled in her veins whenever he was mentioned. Alex had turned into a remote, untouchable figure of power and incalculable influence long before he had divorced her. It was humiliating to acknowledge that Alex’s treatment of her in recent years had left her frankly petrified of him.

But today she suddenly found herself deciding that enough was enough. Nicky was hers and they were—;believe it or not—;on British soil. She didn’t have to stand here being intimidated by Alex’s henchmen. There was an angry flash in her copper-lashed green eyes as she stared at both stalwart figures. “Unfortunately, Mr Veranchetti’s wishes don’t carry the same weight with me,” she murmured shortly, and stuck out her hand challengingly for her son’s case.

After a perceptible hesitation it was handed over. The weight of it almost dislocated her wrist. She was a small woman and slenderly built. But, distinctly uplifted by her minor victory, she released a determined smile.

“Thank you,” she said quietly.

“Why are Enzio and Marco cross?” Nicky hissed up at her in a loud stage-whisper.

“Oh, I’m sure they’re not really cross,” she replied cheerfully. “Give them a wave.”

Nicky turned his curly dark head. “They’re coming after us.”

Well, if they wanted to waste time trailing in her wake out to the car park, that was their affair. She should have been firmer before now, she told herself bracingly. She shouldn’t let strangers’ opinions matter to her. But it was her conscience afoot, wasn’t it? The fear that they knew why her marriage had broken up. That creepy, crawling and lowering fear that her sordid secret might be common knowledge among the higher echelons of Alex’s security staff. It was that which invariably kept her silent: shame. Shame and guilt, even after four long years. She no longer felt she was worthy of respect, so she wasn’t likely to be granted it by others.

“They’re gone,” Nicky said in some disappointment during their long trek to the van.

Kerry’s tense shoulders eased a little. She lowered the case and changed it to her other hand. It was a cold, frosty morning, and her ankle-booted feet skidded on the whitened tarmac. She hunched deeper into her electric-blue cord duffle coat and quickened her pace to the blue van parked close to the fence. By the time she had got the case stowed in the rear and had settled in behind the wheel, she was beginning to notice how quiet Nicky was. Normally he was bubbling over with disjointed stories of where he had been, who he had been with and what a fantastic time he had had. For some reason his usual buoyancy was missing.

“Did you have a good time?”

“Oh, yes.” He shot her a rather apprehensive smile as she reversed out of the space.

“So what did you do?” she encouraged.

“We went fishing ’n’ swimming…and we went up in the jet plane. Nuffin’ special,” he muttered, turning his small, serious face away.

No, she guessed it really wasn’t anything special to Nicky. From no age at all he had been flying round the globe to rendezvous with his tycoon father. When he had been a baby, Alex had flown to London and a nanny had arrived in a chauffeur-driven car to collect Nicky and ferry him away for the day. But, as Nicky became less dependent on his mother and more familiar with his father, the day trips had gradually become weekends.

He was almost four now, an extremely bright and self-assured little boy. There was no nanny in attendance these days, and a phone call or a letter from Alex’s London lawyer heralded arrangements for Nicky’s sojourns abroad. Alex had unlimited access to Nicky. When Nicky had been a baby that hadn’t bothered her. It had soon become clear that Alex did not intend to encroach too much then. The situation had changed quite rapidly over the past year, as Nicky left the toddler stage behind.

In infuriating addition, Nicky openly adored Alex. She had never been able to fathom that astonishing fact. Alex, so cold, so remote, so capable of sustaining implacable hatred for his child’s mother…how could he inspire such trust and affection in Nicky? She could not imagine Alex bending to meet a three-year-old on his level. But it seemed that he did.

“Mummy, Daddy wants me to live with him.”

Kerry’s eyes were in the mirror, dazedly glued to the sight of the silver limousine nosing dexterously in behind the van. Her foot almost hit the brake as Nicky’s statement penetrated. “What did you say?” she whispered sickly. “Say that again.”

“He asked me if I’d like that,” Nicky volunteered less abruptly.

Kerry let oxygen into her lungs again. What a sneaky, manipulative swine Alex was to ask that of a child Nicky’s age! Just a conversation, though. Possibly the sort of conversation she might have had with Nicky had she been in Alex’s shoes—;the parent who got visits rather than round-the-clock privileges. It didn’t mean that she had anything to worry about. After all, Alex hadn’t put up a fight for custody when Nicky was born. Why should he now?

“What did you tell him?” she prompted carefully.

“Only if you come too. You see, I thought and thought and thought about it,” Nicky assured her with subdued Latin melodrama. “And that’s what I’d like the best of all, an’ then I wouldn’t have to miss you or Daddy.”

Nicky’s solution was touchingly innocent and hair-raisingly practical. He didn’t understand divorce. How could he? He didn’t even understand marriage. He had yet to see his parents in the same room together. Mummy and Daddy were entirely dissimilar people, who lived vastly divergent lives and with whom he did very different things. Her eyes stung with rueful tears, and she wished the limousine containing Enzio and Marco would stop crawling up her bumper. The van did not go at great speed up hills.

“And what did Daddy say?” she couldn’t help demanding.

“Nothing. He looked cross,” Nicky recalled unhappily.

Cross would have been an understatement, she envisaged with bitter humour. Was he trying to take Nicky away from her, or was she being paranoid?

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