‘Che cavolo! No! No! No! This will not do. Only an anorexic model could wear something that resembles a straw,’ thundered Massimilliano Balforni, CEO of Emporio Balforni, Milan’s most prestigious fashion house. His coal black brows knitted in a fierce line as he looked with disdain at the scatter of sketches the young designer splayed on Max’s 15th Century walnut desk.
His protégé began to protest but one piercing look from the maestro forced his lips shut. His body stiffened as if frozen to the floor, reminded that his employer’s wrath was more dangerous than black ice
‘Alexandria Gorbetz is a real woman, the world’s richest woman, and someone like me that demands perfection.’
Max’s mouth curved in a controlled smile. Was that fear he detected in the young man’s face as Max pierced him with his dark gaze? He had every reason to be afraid. Enemies and friends alike knew Max had destroyed promising careers for lesser transgressions. Infinitesimal precision, extraordinary control, unrivaled beauty—Max suffered nothing less.
Pressing his fingertips to the smooth, cool parchment, he paused momentarily as a childhood memory stirred in his consciousness. He sucked in a breath and swept his hands brusquely across the page. He was no longer the lonely child who furtively sketched movie stars in beautiful clothes and dreamed of a Hollywood life.
What was once an escape was now a thriving commercial enterprise with insatiable demands. Max flourished his gold fountain pen across the page, adding a sweep of curves to the hips and breasts of the bespoke wedding gown his fashion house had been commissioned to design.
Now at the helm of his multi-billion dollar empire, Max was no longer a hands-on designer, but nothing went out the door without his final veto. Some called him a control freak and this he took not as a criticism but as the highest compliment.
He waited to feel the rush of joy he used to feel when drawing as a child. He stopped to await the all-consuming love that arose from knowing that no one possessed his raw talent and genius. He paused to feel the pride that came years later from knowing he designed dresses perfectly, to satisfy only one client on her most important day. There was nothing.
It shouldn’t have surprised him. He had long ago accepted that he was unable to feel the joy that other people did. He’d turned off that part of himself years ago and had vowed never again to succumb to vulnerability. In its place, carefully groomed aloofness and instilling fear in others were traits he prized and relentlessly cultivated.
As his protégé braced for the consequences Max forced his thoughts back to the commission. While he felt nothing in his heart, what he did experience as he looked at the drawing of the wedding dress executed to his design was a coolly detached appreciation that satisfied the perfectionist in him.
The lines and structure now conformed absolutely to his definition of ideal. The controlled steel gray pallet reflected his personality and every detailed aspect had been meticulously executed as he had commanded. No randomness or chaos anywhere.
Having witnessed his parents’ brutal marriage and subsequent divorce, Max had no misguided notions of happily-ever-after, nor any desire to marry.
Perfection in relationships was simply unattainable. But the knowledge that he was at the helm of an empire that created exquisite, extraordinarily elegant gowns admired by the world’s most elite, at the same time preserving a historic tradition, filled him with a degree of pride.
But as for the rest of his life—the personal, emotional side—he felt nothing. And that suited him perfectly.
Max’s long supple fingers drummed an impatient rhythm on the armrest of his chair. ‘Allora?’ Well? People react to fear, not love, he reminded himself as he kept his voice soft, but somehow containing all the might of the towering spires of the Duomo looming beyond his window.
A slither of fear crept into the young designer’s hushed apology. ‘I should have thought more about the woman beneath the dress.’
‘Thinking is not enough,’ Max commanded, his voice a dark, stark thing in the quiet of his office. ‘You must apply.’ Taking the drawings in both hands he tore the pages down the middle. ‘Begin again, and this time bring me excellence.’
Ignoring the tiny pin like tremors piercing his chest Max pushed back from the desk and rose to his feet as the young man retrieved the torn fragments and scuttled quickly toward the door. Striding across the room Max willed his racing heart to cede to his control.
‘Calm yourself, please Maxie,’ Sophia Balforni said, sweeping into his office she cast the young man a sympathetic look as their paths crossed. ‘Have you thought about what I suggested?’ she asked, gesturing to the art therapy brochure peeking from beneath a pile of contracts.
‘I am surrounded by amateurs and now you want me to play like a child, mia sorella. I have never heard something so ridiculous.’
‘You’re my brother. The best brother in the world, but do you know what’s holding you back? You’re afraid of losing control. You’re afraid that without all of this, she said, sweeping her hand around the room, ‘you’re worthless.’
‘But all of this means nothing if you’re dead. And none of this means anything without someone to share your heart and soul. I hope one day you’re able to realize that you’re wonderful for who you are, not just for what you’ve accomplished. But most of all I hope you’re able to experience the unconditional love and support of someone who loves you for you.’
Max was neither given to excessive emotion nor impetuousness but his mood wrestled with his need for control. He threw open the shuttered windows of his office and inhaled the frigid Milano air with shallow, measured breaths.
He ran his hand over his broad chest, fingering momentarily the fine scar snaking across his heart. His mind had the endurance and stamina of one thousand oxen but two months ago his body had betrayed him.
His gaze swept down the Piazza then flew up the spires of the Duomo, dusted with snow and bejeweled in dazzling pre-Christmas lights as the cacophony of Vespas buzzed like irritated wasps through the open window.
Although he had always hated Christmas, he loved tradition and he loved the supreme elegance that the Milanese never failed to deliver, but it pained him to concede that never had his beloved city been so irritating. In fact, everything, and everyone was irritating. Even his designs bored him. He knew better than most that he must continually innovate or die. Grudgingly he accepted his sister was right. He needed to get away.
‘I admit it’s a little unconventional,’ Sophia said, taking an assortment of pills and vitamins from a gold embossed pillbox and, after pouring a glass of mineral water into a crystal tumbler, she passed the pills and water to Max.
‘Unconventional?’ Max tossed the pills into his mouth, took a gulp of water and threw back his head, grimacing as they slid down his throat. ‘What you are suggesting is childish.’ Childish, isn’t that exactly what his father had thrown in his face when, as a young boy, he’d first shown him his sketches. ‘If this got out to my competitors,’ he said, forcing his mind from a memory he vowed never to revisit, ‘can you imagine what it would do to my reputation?’
‘Not nearly as damaging as being paralyzed by a stroke and having to be spoon-fed, Sophia snapped. ‘And since when have you cared what others think? Besides, you have an island on the other side of the world.
‘One which you’ve been too busy to visit. Fiji is remote enough for you to step away from the constant flash of cameras and be virtually anonymous,’ she said, lowering her voice as Max’s new PA cat-walked into his office. ‘Call yourself Mr. Johnstone, or Mr. Smith, or whatever else you want, to protect your privacy.’
Beneath long-fringed lashes the PA gave Max a sultry look, trailing her gaze over his lean and muscled form, as she placed a collection of fashion magazines and media cuttings in a neat pile precisely as she’d been trained.
‘Thank you, that will be all,’ Sophia said, dismissing her.
‘A nudist camp would be vastly more appealing,’ Max’s gaze trailed after his PA as she left his office. While he had no time for relationships, that didn’t stop him from appreciating beauty. How much easier it would be to lie naked amongst a bevy of loveliness than expose his feelings to the spotlight.
Sophia rolled her eyes. ‘I can just imagine what that would do to your blood pressure. Art, unlike making a career of intimately studying the curves of women, my dear brother, is therapeutic.’
‘So you want me to go to kiddy school and make a fool of myself.’ Irritation coursed through his veins as he ran his fingers around the neck of his shirt and loosened the starched white collar.
‘You never had a childhood,’ Sophia said, her voice almost a whisper. ‘You grew up too fast. We both did. And now you’re a thirty-five-year-old man who may not see forty.’
‘I know you are trying to help but I told you I can handle it.’ And he would. He would never abandon his responsibility. Unlike his father who had tried to combine work with marriage and failed at both, Max had gladly sacrificed his personal life for his career.
Abandoned at birth by his biological parents, raised briefly by strangers, then dumped in a boarding school, he had turned what could have been a weakness into his biggest strength.
‘All this stress has engulfed you, Max. Only you can’t see it. And it scares me. You’ve become a shell of yourself—more than you were already. A man so cut off from his feelings that you are devoid of emotion. You’ve become a lighthouse of a man—lonely in a crowd, aloof and detached. Uncaring.’
The words bounced off Max’s chest like the final shards of Milan’s winter sun reflecting off the panoramic glass windows. It was true. He no longer cared.
‘What do you want from me, Sophia?’
She paused, concern pooling in her dark eyes. ‘I want what our mother wants. I want you to be happy.’
His lips curved into a tight mocking smile. When had his real mother ever cared about his happiness? He knew what she really wanted. After suddenly reappearing in his life, she wanted a daughter-in-law and she wanted a grandson. Max shook his head and gave a short exacerbated sigh. She wanted the impossible.
He plunged his hand through his hair, raking it back from his brow. He should have had it cut razor short last week. Instead, he’d thrown himself into the rollout of his retail network of 60 Massimilliano Balforni boutiques and jewelry stores throughout China, and the pending development of his luxury hotel in Dubai, with such single-minded, unrelenting focus there had been no time for indulgences.
‘I’ve done my research,’ he said, adding his signed consent to the final contracts, ‘and from every angle it all seems based on spurious psychology.’ His hand closed around the pen as he looked up sharply.
Sophia sucked her breath as though steeling herself to battle with his formidable will. ‘Unless you make some changes, and I mean massive changes,’ Sophia glanced momentarily in the direction of Cimitero Maggiore, Milan’s largest cemetery, then fixed Max with a penetrating gaze, ‘you’ll end up like our father. Morte.’
‘That will not happen to me,’ he said, balling his fingers into a fist. ‘I am nothing like our father.’
‘No, you’re not. You are loyal, honest and immensely generous to the people you care about—nothing like our father. But you are an unrelenting workaholic like he was. No better than an addict, because despite all your willpower, all your determination, all your talent, all your wealth you can’t stop working. My God, you even live above your office.’
‘Mia sorella, even if I wanted to go finger painting, which I do not, there is no way I can get away. People need me. I cannot just walk away without everything collapsing.’
‘Even geniuses need time out to replenish. Super-heroes too,’ she laughed. ‘You, Clark Kent, need a rest from being Superman, a week out of this world. Not eternity. I will take care of things until you’re back.’
The blood vessel in his temple pulsed, whether out of conviction or rebellion he didn’t know, but her suggestion was not without merit. His sister had proven herself capable in so many ways since her appointment to Director of Public Relations.
He leaned back in his chair, steepling his fingers against his lips as he savored a compelling idea. What if he could achieve several goals by leaving Italy? While he did not believe in fate, he did believe in destiny. Was it not destiny after all that had led him to this career, launching him from male model to CEO of a multi-billion dollar empire?
Max began to wonder if his recent conversation with some Fijian silk merchants was also pre-destined. Until that meeting he hadn’t known there was such a large population of Indians in Fiji, and he’d been intrigued by the innovative textile developments they had shared with him.
And he could maximize efficiencies by going undercover and checking out his hotel chain in the Pacific. Yes, he thought, warming to the idea, perhaps a change of scene, getting away from all things European might just revive his flagging spirits.
His creativity was blocked, young designers were licking at his heels. He needed to continually innovate, but nothing inspired him. The plan was worth considering after all. Nothing else had worked. Plus it would get Sophia off his case. And the art therapy gimmick she was so convinced he needed?
What could any dowdy art therapist do to him that he couldn’t control?
‘First time to Fiji?’ the porter asked art therapist Issy Riley as they wove past the rows of poolside loungers. Bronzed men and women wearing barely-there swimsuits tanned their lithe bodies beneath the last rays of the sun.
Issy was by far the most uniquely dressed, she thought euphemistically, gazing beyond the pool to the azure sea, fringed with coconut trees. Some, no doubt, would argue she was, in fact, the worst-dressed person at the resort, but then she’d never cared for fashion.
She pushed up the sleeves of the yellow shaggy pile of her jumper as two women sauntered past, tanned from crown chakra to pink toenails, their double d-cups jiggling like caramel panacottas.
Surrounded by an ocean of virtual nakedness Issy felt prudish dressed head-to-toenails in winter discomfort. Certainly less chic than the five-year-old girl meandering past, resplendent in streaming caftan and matching overly bejeweled sandals, snapping the sunset with her iPhone.
‘Yes. First time anywhere overseas, actually,’ she ran her fingers over the roll of her turtleneck, wishing she’d thought to wear a tee-shirt so she could peel the jumper off.
As always she’d left things too late. She’d been in a mad panic to get to the plane and hadn’t even thought to pack spare clothes to change into once she’d arrived at Nadi airport.
Taking refuge beneath a palm tree Issy momentarily relaxed as a choir of Fijian men and women dressed in flowing white gowns began to sing in the open area just beyond the pool. Their voices soared through the humid air. Then suddenly realizing they were singing Christmas carols tension knotted her shoulders.
When she’d offered to help her business partner Nancy, and take this last minute client, she’d thought she could escape the festive season, dripping with tinsel and baubles, and the promise of happiness.
Her fingers tightened around the note the receptionist had passed her when she’d checked in. At least work meant she wouldn’t have to spend the holiday season at her mother’s with HIM—the traitorous, lying, three-timing control-freak of a fiancé. Make that ex-fiancé, she corrected. She had dumped him immediately, but that didn’t stop her heart from taking a hit.
Issy stared into the distance her attention diverted by a huge Christmas tree blazing with a rainbow of colored lights. She closed her eyes and sighed. Why couldn’t she find a promise-keeper?
Married by Christmas? Nope. Once again the bus of happily-ever-after failed to pull up at her stop, but to find out on Facebook that James was cheating on her weeks before their wedding? No one deserved that humiliation.
Even if her mother still thought James was the best thing since sliced toast, at least Issy had the balls to shut down his lies, the courage to confront the truth, the strength to face life on her own again. She swallowed hard as the sharp edge of betrayal ran a ragged line through her chest. She’d had a lucky escape.
The porter smiled stiffly as though sensing her discomfort. ‘Holiday?’
Issy looked longingly at people relaxing by the pool, her gaze hovering over a loved-up couple entwined on a sun-lounger. She felt a tug of disappointment. Would she ever trust enough to fall in love again? She crushed the note from her client in her hands, pressing her lips together as she turned away. ‘Business.’
All the men in her life, even her father, had let her down terribly. Work was a most welcome distraction. She didn’t need a man in her life, she reminded herself. Not anymore.
A riot of shouts from the beach pulled her attention toward a group of men jabbing at something writhing on the sand at the edge of the lagoon. Whether it was an instinctive sense of brutality etched in the men’s postures or the impact of the powerful figure brushing past her, she didn’t know, but every whisper of her body hair stood erect.
Issy watched mesmerized, adrenaline lapping her body as a 6 foot 3 Adonis with olive toned six-pack abs and a body that could easily grace a billboard strode toward the men on the beach, clad only in tiny trunks.
He looked strangely familiar in an unfamiliar sort of way, like a celebrity in a magazine, the same handsomeness, and aloof assurance, although she knew she’d never met him before. He looked like a movie star, only tougher? Certainly not a man anyone would forget.
His muscles rippled gold fire under the heat of the fading tropical sun as, with powerful, lithe steps like a panther about to lunge, the titan advanced upon the men on the beach. Fear shadowed their faces as they turned to each other, eyes widening, aware this was no normal man approaching but a warrior, a leader of men, a man not to be defied.
‘Allora! Stop!’ His rich honey-toned voice, edged with a deep sultry Italian accent, sent shivers coursing through her body.
Tearing her eyes away from this perfect specimen of a man Issy perched on her toes, squinting under the bright sun to see what the titan was so vigorously trying to protect.
‘Sea snake. Very poisonous,’ the porter said.
The warning flashed red in her mind and jackknifed through the air. Was it the snake she was afraid of or the rush of molten emotion the stranger incited?
‘Come and see,’ the porter beckoned.
She hesitated, torn between fear and fascination. Her pulse hammered, pummelled by the unexpected handsomeness of the man and stricken with curiosity. What sort of person would go to a snake’s rescue?
For the first time in forever she felt excited, alive, her body on edge, ablaze. Why, when she was officially off men, and as she walked toward him did every whisper of hair on her body stand alert?
She frowned, trying to remember any man ever having inflamed such a reaction, as his muscular arms took the sticks from the assailants. Arms that could crush an opponent or protect a woman against his powerful lean body.
‘We’re only trying to protect the resort guests from danger,’ the men shouted.
‘Che cavolo! Can you not see the baby snake?’ he jabbed his finger towards the rocks. ‘Would you deprive it of its mother?’ His eyes were a lethal shade of gunpowder blue, his gaze unyielding, freezing the men in a chilly silence. ‘She will not strike unless provoked.’
Issy’s breath caught in ragged gasps as she glanced at the tiny snake lingering in the distant shadows. Was this guy for real? Someone like her, who cared nothing for the senseless killing of animals.
‘We didn’t see it. We didn’t think,’ they said, stepping back. ‘Sorry, Sir.’
Issy smiled, her body flooding with something that felt uncomfortably like admiration. She dragged her eyes from him and focused on the snake lying washed ashore, exposed in its vulnerability.
As dangerous as the snake was alleged to be the artist in her was captivated by the beauty of its iridescent pearl and obsidian stripes. But she was wary too of its potent power. Was the snake feigning death or was it spellbound, against its will, offering herself to the giant of a man before her?
Issy’s heart seemed to freeze then pounded like the sea crashing on the distant reef. She could relate to feeling out of her depth. She stole a glance at the knight without armor standing in far too skimpy trunks as with soft, deft movements that belied his powerful physique, he gently nudged the snake toward the sea.
Issy kept her gaze firmly on the snake as it uncoiled slowly, writhing in the wet sand as Issy drew closer to its rescuer. She stood a body’s length away from him, agonizingly aware of the rich luster of his full head of blue-black wavy hair, his impeccably shaven jaw, and the intoxicating aroma of his cologne coiling through the balmy air. Earthy, sensual, exhilarating.
What was up with that, she wondered bamboozled by the commotion clanging through her mind. Her eyes recklessly savored every contoured edge of the Adonis’s body as he stood at the water’s edge watching the snake slither to freedom. She traced his broad, bronzed, well-oiled chest, before sliding down the tantalizingly playful coils of soft dark hair dividing his sculptured six pack and marching a confident line from his navel, before vanishing below the rim of his tiny ‘spray on’ trunks.
Suddenly the Adonis turned toward her and she was immediately captured in the web of his intense blue eyes.
Issy looked away quickly. Too quickly.
Her face flamed carmine red as she studied her feet, wishing the escaping waves of rose pink hair that fell over her face as she did so would hide her indefinitely. After a brief moment she glanced up, hoping he had not read her mind when she’d gawked at him. The smirk on his face and the intensity of his gaze left her in no doubt he’d registered her attraction.
‘Thank you for saving the snake Mr. Johnstone,’ said the porter, offering him a towel as he went to his side.
‘Johnstone?’ her voice eked out. Her eyes ping-ponged between the stranger and the porter. Thrusting her hand in her pocket, she unfurled the note the receptionist had given her. Issy’s stomach dived a nervous somersault that would have done an Olympic swimmer proud as she reread the message, studying the words forged in firm, confident handwriting—no sign of weakness anywhere. “Meet me at the pool. (Signed) Mr. Johnstone.”
Oh, God. Mortification coiled through her body. ‘You can’t be that Mr. Johnstone.’
He stared at her as if she was insane.
She bit her lip, holding back any attempt at an explanation for her earlier behavior that she knew would only dig a deeper hole. ‘There must be some mistake.’
Did you enjoy this excerpt?
Married By Christmas
Book One in the Passion Down Under series—available now from Amazon here: getBook.at/MarriedbyChristmas
Praise for Married by Christmas
“A good read that takes you away to a tropical island to experience the steamy heat of two people determined to stay single in case they get hurt again. Max, a sexy, jaded Italian multi-billionaire meets up with Issy, a playful children’s art therapist who has recently found out her fiancé was having an affair. Although I was initially skeptical as I usually go for historical romances, I’m glad I trusted my friend’s recommendation because this book was delightfully compelling. The emotional vulnerabilities and character quirks combined with the sexual tension kept the pages turning. A frisky novel to curl up on the couch with or take away on your next trip.”
~ Pauline Roberts
“This was a fun read I really enjoyed. It’s perfect for a lazy weekend. This is the first book I have read by this author but it won’t be last. I can’t wait to be more.”
“Beautifully written. The author’s vivid and descriptive writing style pulled me into a world I never wanted to leave. I loved the connection of art between two very different people and the healing it brought them both. A Very beautiful story!”
~ Hugh Harrison
“I joined Max to make the slow journey from betrayed broken-hearted individuals to the trusting and loving couple they become. Molly Mathew’s writing transports you to places she is describing where you can kick back and relax for a while as this endearing story unfolds. Her characters soon become visible through her careful picture-building. Readers will like the Kiwi vernacular Issy invoices every now and then, and I think readers will enjoy getting to know the strong characters and the beautiful islands we’re visiting. The author also tucks in some great life advice for everyone telling in the telling of this charming story. I hope you enjoy this book, too. I did.”
~ Alfie Rues
“I loved, loved, loved this book. An instantly gripping, compelling and fun read. Escapism at its best. I couldn’t put the book down and read it in one night. With exotic backdrops like Italy and Fiji and passionate characters, it made the perfect holiday read. Can kindness thaw a cold-heart? That’s the question Mollie Mathews poses in her book about second chances and learning to love again.
Issy is a funny, compassionate art therapist who wants to escape Christmas after her jerk of a fiancé cheated on her. Even though she only works with troubled children she agrees to take on a last minute client for her friend and business partner. What she doesn’t know is her client is hunky fashion house CEO Massimilliano Balforni. Sparks fly and it’s an attraction Max vows to deny. He doesn’t want Issy and her colored pencils from bringing the wounds of his childhood to the light.
Mollie Mathews skillfully creates a gripping dynamic between Issy and Max that sensually blends their animosity with undeniable attraction making the tension soar. I definitely recommend this book.”
The idea for this story was sparked when I read about a very successful Italian fashion-tycoon who said, ‘My biggest regret is that I gave my life to my job.’ It struck me as very, very sad.
I wondered why he had chosen to live his life this way. Despite all his wealth, all his mansions around the world, and all the ‘fans’ who adored him for the identity he had carefully cultivated, he loved no one and no one loved him back for who he truly was.
Although he never said it outright, he’d thrown himself into his work following the death of his life partner. His work was pure escapism—protecting him from feeling the pain of loss again.
He’d originally trained as a medic but after experiencing the horrors of war, he sought refuge in a fantasy world.
As a child, he’d loved the glitz and glamor Hollywood offered. After a brief stint in the war where he witnessed the deaths of friends, he found an escape from the harshness of reality returning to the fantasy of Hollywood
I wondered what sort of woman would be able to touch this frozen man at the deepest level. Everything in his life was controlled measured, predictably precise. I wondered what if the darkness of the past, his unhealed wounds began to impact his work, stifling his creativity and threatening to destroy everything he had fought so hard to achieve.
I wondered what if, as part of his recovery, he was forced to spend time with a woman so opposite in every way to the order he imposed in his life. And what if this woman was a children’s art therapist. A woman unimpressed by the fame and fortune he’d amassed, but who believed strongly in the power of play, fun, and spontaneity—things he considered reckless
What if this woman had the power to transform his life, and he hers—but they were both afraid. Hearts have been broken, love lost, trust betrayed. What if this woman had her own wounds? Don’t we all?
What would it take to make all the masks fall? To be vulnerable? To risk it all? What would it take, in spite of the fear, to believe you deserve, you want, you need to give love a second chance?
You’ll discover the answers in Married by Christmas. I hope you love this story as much as I loved writing it.
p.s. I took the photo below during a Christmas trip to the Warwick Resort in Fiji. You can see how the location inspired my writing. I was also inspired while staying in a beautiful cottage that is for couples only. The house was called Lomani on an exotic island called Taveuni just off Fiji’s mainland. Lomani” is the Fijian word for love. I fell in love with this idyllic slice of paradise and can’t wait to return someday.