His Sicilian Cinderella

By: Carol Marinelli

PROLOGUE

‘YOU’LL COME WITH ME?’ Matteo checked. ‘You’ll meet me and Luka at the airport this morning?’

He couldn’t quite meet Bella’s eyes—not just because there was a bruise on her cheek that his hand had made, more that last night had left him feeling more open and exposed than Matteo was used to.

And yet, for the most part, there was no sense of regret.

Bella looked up at the man who had had her heart since she was sixteen. On her first day as a chambermaid at Brezza Oceana she had started her shift feeling awkward in her uniform and missing her friends from school, but at least her closest friend Sophie had started working there that day too.

Bella and Sophie had walked along a corridor, only to see a few of Malvolio’s men coming towards them, including Matteo Santini and his half-brother Dino.

The young women had stepped back to let the group pass but even as they’d done so Bella had braced herself for what was to come.

Sophie was out of bounds. She had been promised to Luka and they would get engaged soon. Even though he lived in England, Luka was Malvolio’s son and so they didn’t say anything to her.

The lewd comments were instead all aimed at Bella, because they knew she was Maria Gatti’s daughter and were aware of her mother’s occupation.

Bella was more than used to it.

‘Hey!’ Matteo said sharply, and for a moment Bella thought he was speaking to her but then he turned to the group, his brother included, and there was anger in his rich, deep voice. ‘Déjala en paz.’

He told them to leave her alone and when Dino argued Matteo said it even more firmly. In fact, when Dino persisted, Matteo shoved him against the wall and, still holding his brother there, he briefly turned to Bella.

‘Via via...’

He had told her, not unkindly, to go away and leave them. It was the only time he had really spoken to her, but even before then he’d had a little bit of her heart—if her mother had money for Malvolio, it was Matteo she would ring to come and collect it, rather than Dino.

‘At least Matteo only takes the money,’ her mother would say.

Yes, little by little, over the years, Matteo had collected pieces of Bella’s heart and now finally he had taken it all.

Last night Matteo had made her his lover and he had been her first.

Yes, the night had started out in the cruellest of circumstances, but they had been circumstances that had been forced upon them.

The coastal town in Sicily’s wild, wild west was ruled by Malvolio.

The game was called fear and the people were his pawns.

He owned the hotel and most of the businesses and was a cruel landlord to most of the town. Despite the idyllic surroundings, there was crime and corruption at every turn and it was also a dangerous world if you did not play by Malvolio’s rules.

Yet somehow, together, they had made last night beautiful and now, this morning, Matteo had asked her to leave Bordo Del Cielo with him.

‘I’ll do my best to be there,’ Bella said.

‘We only have this one chance,’ Matteo warned. ‘If you stay, then no one can ever know that I offered for you to join me. If they know that I...’ Matteo hesitated, because with Bella he used words he was not used to hearing, let alone saying. ‘If Malvolio gets so much as a hint that I care about you then you will be in serious trouble.’

‘I’ve said that I will do my best.’

Bella watched as he knotted his tie. Matteo always dressed well, far better than the rest—his suits were made in Milan and his shoes were handmade. Last night she had found out the reason why Matteo always looked more expensive than the others.

Last night he had told her things that could possibly have them both killed.

He slipped on his jacket. His suit was dark grey, almost black, and his thick cotton shirt was relatively uncrumpled for he had carefully hung up most of his clothes last night during his slow, teasing strip.

‘I love the fabric...’ Bella ran her fingers over his jacket then slipped her hand inside to feel the cool silk lining. She was a skilled seamstress and had an eye for design, not that she got to practise it here. ‘I could make that,’ Bella said.

‘I have the best tailor come from Milan once a year,’ Matteo said, and then he chose not to argue because her nimble fingers had moved from examining his jacket and were exploring the tiny pleats beneath his leather belt and his want for her had become unrelenting because he was rising again. ‘You probably could.’

‘Come back to bed,’ Bella said.

‘No. There is no time.’

She watched as he ran a hand through his jet hair and it fell into perfect shape. Soon those eyes would be behind expensive dark glasses. That was how she knew him best but in the last few hours Bella had seen the real beauty in those dark grey eyes as they had made love to her.

The suits, the clothes, the designer stubble were all an image that Matteo had created merely to survive.

This morning he was asking her to join him and his close friend Luka for a new kind of life in London.

Bella knew that Luka would have asked Sophie to come with him.

Sophie, though, had told Bella that she and Luka were over and that she was making her way to Rome tonight. She had begged Bella to join her but Bella had said no, that she could not leave her mother.

Maria, even if she was only thirty-four, was frail and sick, though she did her best not to let it show.

Matteo had said to Bella that if it was what it took to get Bella to leave then she could bring her mother along.

He would take care of them both.

Bella sat in a rumpled bed, wearing nothing but a smile on a morning when other hearts were breaking.

‘The plane leaves at nine...’ Matteo said, and he sat down on the bed and picked up a long strand of Bella’s hair and tucked it behind her ear. ‘Please be there.’ Now he looked into Bella’s vivid green eyes. They were clear, they were bright and he knew, if she stayed here in Bordo Del Cielo, very soon they would be faded and vacant.

‘If you don’t get away this morning, Malvolio will have you working in the bar tonight and I shan’t be there to...’

Save you.

He didn’t say the words out loud but they hung unsaid in the air between them.

‘If you stay,’ Matteo continued, ‘then as of tonight you’ll be working and I’m telling you now, Bella—I don’t want to date a working girl, I don’t want there to have been anyone else.’

‘Double standards, Matteo...’ Bella pointed out, given how they had arrived at this point.

‘No.’ He shook his head. ‘That is how I feel. Bella, I want to make a completely new start. I am done with this way of living. Tomorrow Malvolio wants me to start to avenge all the people who spoke against him during the trial...’

Bella shivered.

Malvolio, Luka and Sophie’s father Paulo had been in prison for the past six months awaiting trial—a lot had been said against Malvolio. The people had believed that there was enough against him that he would surely be put away for life.

Instead, he was back and taking charge again.

‘I have to get out because I don’t want to do the things he has planned for me,’ Matteo reiterated. ‘Kill once and you’ll always be a killer. It’s not who I want to be. I want an honest life and I am going to make something of myself. I’ll have enough trouble explaining my own past, I don’t want yours bringing me down.’

Harsh words perhaps but for Matteo they were honest ones.

He was offering her an out and he still did not know if she would take it so he made it very clear this was her one chance to be with him.

‘Once a whore and you’ll always...’

‘I get it,’ Bella said.

‘Good,’ he continued. ‘And, for the record, I don’t have double standards—I’ve never paid for sex. Last night was never about money.’ He said it even as he emptied his wallet for her. He took out every note that he had and this morning he had plenty. He laid the wad of cash beside her on the bed. ‘I’m giving you money to get out, not for last night. If your mother refuses to come you can give her this cash to help tide her over.’

Bella could still scarcely believe what he was offering. She was eighteen but Matteo Santini had long been her dream. Now he sat on the bed where they had made love and offered her a new life.

Was it foolish to dream that her life really would be with him? That what they had found in this room could survive the outside world?

It felt far from foolish. Now, as the clock nudged six, life felt terribly simple and as he took her naked, warm body in his arms, the future looked deliciously clear.

‘I’ll take care of you,’ Matteo said, and his kiss promised her that he would.

The wool of his suit, the sharp scent of his cologne both wrapped around her and she was lost to his mouth.

It was a slow, lingering kiss that confirmed how they were both feeling because, had time not been against them, Matteo would have shed his clothes and joined her in the bed that had provided their haven last night.

Instead, he drew her in closer to him. Her body was pliant, lazily relaxed and soft, and he smiled down when he stopped kissing her, though he didn’t release her from his firm embrace. ‘Don’t you dare go to sleep when I’m gone.’

‘I shan’t.’ Bella smiled. ‘Don’t go just yet. Surely there is a little more time.’

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