Three women. Three lives. And the lies that bind them. Why is everyone afraid of the truth?
When a lonely young American woman inherits a painting she discovers her whole life was a lie. Desperate for the truth, she goes in search of her true identity. The painting is her only clue. But everyone is determined to keep its secret past repressed, including Vitaliano Rossi, the Italian gold tycoon, unnaturally suspicious of her motives, who wants the painting vanquished. How can she discover who she really is and convince him that his love means more to her than gold?
Praise for Book Two in the Gemstone Billionaire’s series—The Italian Billionaire’s Scandalous Marriage
“I loved the premise that she needs the hero to unlock the secrets to explain her past—it’s great conflict.”
“I really enjoyed this story, your writing, the characters and the kiss. Thanks!”
“What a blinking good read—more please. I was hooked from page one.”
“I want to know the secret in the painting.”
If this is the first time you have read a Gemstone Billionaire story, you can easily read each book as a standalone.
To grab your copy from Amazon, click here>> getBook.at/ScandalousMarriage
To grab your copy from iBooks, Barnes & Noble and other great bookstores, click here>>https://books2read.com/u/mVNdn5
‘You should never have responded to that email. I don’t understand you, Alexandra.’ Bitterness bled from her mother’s words.
Alex Spencer pressed her lips together, momentarily fixing her gaze on the desolate New York sky as snow began to fall. ‘Okay, so an email arrives out of the blue telling me the man who I thought was my father isn’t,’ she said, shoveling summer clothes into a well-traveled leopard-print suitcase. ‘And then I find out my real father is dead and he’s left me some valuable paintings—and I’m supposed to ignore that?’
‘Why do you insist on digging up the past? I’ve told you no good will come of it.’
Alex knew they would never agree. She wanted to say, “Mom, why are you making everything so difficult? Why won’t you talk to me about my father? Why didn’t you tell me the truth?” But she’d already tried, and every time her mother evaded answering. Despite what her mother had done, for the sake of their tie of blood, which was the only thing left between them, she had to keep the peace.
‘Why do you have to go back to New Zealand? What more do you hope to achieve that wasn’t settled six months ago? What point is there?’ Elizabeth Spencer pressed, fixing disapproving eyes on her errant daughter.
‘You know why I need to go back, Mother,’ Alex said quietly, careful to stop exasperation creeping into her voice.
Her mother’s brown eyes turned a chilly shade of black. ‘After all Charles and I have done for you,’ she spat. ‘He’s been more of a father to you than that man ever was.’ Although she would never say it, the accusation whistled through her mother’s pursed lips. Why would you want to do something so selfish?
Alex forced herself to count to ten. It was as if her mother thought keeping something so important a secret from her own daughter all these years was no big deal. It was as though she thought that replacing a real dad with a surrogate dad gave her a stable identity.
How could Alex possibly explain without severing their relationship for good? Finally, she knew why she had never felt understood, never felt accepted, never felt she belonged. And while everything was such a mystery she knew that she could never find peace until she understood her past.
‘Mom, I told you when I came back for Christmas that I’d only be here for a few weeks. Please don’t let us spend our last moments arguing.’ Alex forced an uncertain smile hoping it would melt her mother’s iciness.
Her boutique travel business meant she was never home for long. She was like those dandelions; settling for a spell then drifting away. She was no longer a child. Yet in this matter she longed for her mother’s approval.
‘Why can’t you let go of this thing you’ve got about your father?’ Her mother fired. ‘What more do you have to know, for heaven’s sake? He was an artist. He left you a few paintings. End of story.’
It wasn’t the end of the story. Far from it. In fact of the six paintings her biological father had left her in his will she knew with gut-churning clarity that only one would unlock buried secrets. Secrets her mother seemed resolute never to divulge
‘I want to know everything. I want to know about the man whose blood courses through my veins. I want to know who I am. Why can’t you understand that?’
‘There’s nothing more to say. I was young. Impulsive. He was a mistake.’
Alex’s stomach clenched. She was a mistake. Her mother didn’t have to say it but her tone made it clear.
She was the girl nobody wanted.
Alex pressed against a pillar beneath the cavernous ceiling of the Auckland art gallery, suppressing a yawn as she fought a wave of jet lag. Clutching the exhibition catalog to her chest she swept her gaze over the crowd gathered for the opening of the dazzling retrospective exhibition of her father’s lifeworks. Only yesterday she had been in icy New York and now here she was in the heat of the New Zealand summer, surrounded by Veuve Clicquot, popping corks and intoxicating works of art.
At the center of the gallery stood Clive Gacos, the art dealer who had discovered the man she now knew was her father, exchanging air kisses and handshakes. Impeccably armored in a steel-grey designer suit that complemented his trademark helmet of silver hair he looked in his element as he enthusiastically greeted a procession of art collectors and socialites.
Alex crossed her arms protectively over her chest as women flashed him far too-enthusiastic smiles, and fluttered acrylic nails in shallow waves. She hated crowds at the best of times and tonight, surrounded by so much pretense, she felt doubly out of her comfort zone. Nausea crawled through her stomach as she wondered if Clive’s insistence that she exhibit the painting had been one giant mistake.
Would tonight flush out someone intimately connected to the powerful, yet haunting image? Someone who would help her unearth the past her mother and step-father were so determined to keep buried?
Her gaze drifted to the vast landscape her father had painted running the length of the far wall. Lost Love. Two words that tore her heart apart. Looking at the painting now she wondered if the name she’d given it still fitted. For some inexplicable reason, unlike all her father’s other artworks, he’d left this one unnamed. Why did he leave so few clues to its meaning?
Barely conscious of the crowd pressing around her Alex’s heart quickened as she scanned the craggy Southern Ranges, their soaring peaks troughed on the canvas with a hurtle of blue and ochre and gold. Her gaze honed in on the hauntingly beautiful face of a woman, infused within the rocks. Why had her father painted a woman’s face into the landscape? And whose was it—so beautiful?
The woman seemed to reach through time and space, lifting agonized eyes, calling Alex’s name, drawing her deeper and deeper into the painting’s mystery. Instinct told her something deeply personal had happened to inspire the painting, something that could shed light on her past? For twenty-five years her life had been a lie. Months of searching for clues to her past had ended in granite walls of silence.
Yet the way her heart pounded, her eyes pooled with tears, and every hair on her body stood on end each time she looked at the painting, told her that there was a deeper reason her father wanted the painting to remain in her possession. Alex was sure her father was enticing her to discover the painting’s secrets. Why else did he leave this particular painting in his will to the daughter he’d never met?
She tore herself away from Lost Love and stood at a distance observing people’s reactions in the hope that she would discover someone who found the painting as meaningful as she did. An older woman stared at it the longest, her eyes pooling as she fingered the elaborate gold locket at her throat.
A young man and woman holding hands stopped in front of it, and the woman slipped her palm from her partner’s as she stepped closer to study the face of the woman. A middle-aged man’s body grew hard and tense as he looked, and he passed quickly by. Another man with a receding hairline flinched as if someone had punched him in the gut. He reached a hand out to the painting, not quite touching the velvet plains of golden tussock and Rātā trees clinging fiercely to craggy rocks.
Dread wormed through her. The strange and enigmatic image evoked powerful reactions in them all, but none of them betrayed the fact they held the missing piece to her painful puzzle. She pressed her lips together, holding her face tight, as tears pricked her eyes. Showing Lost Love was a hair-brained idea, like searching for a needle in a field of grass. What real chance did she have of discovering someone who knew anything truly intimate about her dead father? Yet what else could she do? All her other inquiries had come to nothing.
Alex heaved a sigh of frustration and turned away. From across the gallery, Clive Gacos caught her anxious gaze. His fluttering fingers flourished a greeting across the room as he slithered to her side. ‘Lost Love. I still think the title’s morbid.’
He cocked his head to one side as his gaze darted from the catalog to the painting before resting on Alex. ‘Couldn’t you have come up with something more commercial?’
Alex wanted to cry out, “It’s how I feel.” Instead, she said, ‘You may be right, Mr. Gacos,’ painting a mask of detached aloofness on her face. Instinct told her Clive was only interested in his fame and glory—not her own painful story. She took his outstretched hand and felt a shiver snake through her spine as cold, steely fingers shook hers.
‘It’s a fabulous turnout, my dear.’ Bleached white teeth flashed a self-satisfied smile. “I’m absolutely delighted.’
‘Are you sure that this is the best way to unearth someone who may know something about this painting, Mr. Gacos? You know how firmly my father was against it being exhibited.’
‘Field of Dreams or Secret Passion would have been better. The right title can really boost sales,’ he said glancing at the painting.
‘That’s interesting’, Alex said flatly. ‘But Lost Love is not for sale.’
Eerie, pale eyes looked right through her. ‘My dear, everything is for sale.’
‘No, Mr. Gacos. It’s not. I’m looking for answers. A sale won’t achieve that.’ Had she been wrong to trust him? Was he just another person in a long line of people to deceive her? ’Besides you told me yourself, my father made it quite clear that the painting must never leave my possession.’
‘My dear, 40 years in the industry has taught me one thing, what an artist says and what an artist means are quite different things. If you gave me ten dollars for every time I’ve heard, “This is my favorite work, I’ll never part with it,” or some other nonsense, I’d be a hundred-fold richer.’ His reptilian eyes scanned her face as though searching for a weakness in her resolve. ‘Of course, none of this matters now that your father is dead.’
Alex’s eyes misted as the finality of the word hit her. It was ridiculous. Eleven months ago she hadn’t even known geologist, turned painter, Ted Carr, known in art circles as Jimmie Goldie, was her father and since then she’d had plenty of time to accept the fact that he was gone. But she couldn’t help feeling regret.
If only she’d known her father. If only he was by her side now. Although in a strange way he was, she mused, her eyes misting as she gazed at the painting. Infused with his energy, his passion, his spirit, Lost Love was her only link. It was as though the painting was his voice—allowing him to speak through time and space. But only to those with eyes that could see and ears that could hear, and Alex still had no idea what he was saying.
Maybe she was reading too much into it. Maybe it was just a painting. But why did her father demand it never be exhibited in public? And why did he want her to have it?
‘I expect this exhibition to arouse even more interest in Jimmie’s work, and the longer we hold off the more the painting will appreciate in value,’ Clive blabbered on, oblivious of her raw grief.
Alex clenched her teeth, shutting back a retort at his thoughtless remark. This wasn’t the time to be emotional, nor to incite conflict. She hated disharmony and discord. And although she’d been continually teased because she always chose the peaceful route, putting him in his place would only get him offside.
‘Remind me again Mr. Gacos, just how well did you know my father?’ she said gently.
‘I told you—I discovered him. Made him a sell-out success.’
‘Yes, but what was he really like?’
‘I don’t know. We never met.’
‘But you were his dealer?’
‘I deal in works of art, Miss Spencer. Not people. Besides, your father liked his privacy. I respected that.’
‘Didn’t you wonder why he hid his true identity?’
‘My dear, half the celebrities in the world use fake, made-up names. Careers live and die by people’s memorability. It’s all part of the game. Do you really think Andy Warhol’s paintings would sell for astronomical sums if he went by his real name, Andrew Warhola? Your father was smart. Jimmie Goldie, or Ted Carr—ask yourself, who’s the better investment?’
Tension knotted her shoulders. She was getting nowhere.
‘Want some advice?’
‘Take it from me. There’s no mystery—just a finely executed brand strategy. And you are the lucky beneficiary. So what? He left you this painting. Maybe his conscience got the better of him. In my opinion, it’s an exceptional piece of work, one of his finest, and tantalizingly one that the art world has never seen before. If I were you, I’d sell it. Realize the cash. Return to New York. Go live your life.’
Go live your life. She would—but not before she had her answers. Alex’s gaze drifted back to the crowd. Her only hope was that someone would reveal something in their reaction to the painting. Surely if anyone was connected intimately it would hit them with the same power-punch to the gut as it did to her every time she looked at it.
Suddenly she was distracted by a blaze of rustic color as the most ridiculously handsome man Alex had ever seen strode toward her.
His six-foot frame wore an immaculately tailored camel jacket, cut from the finest Merino wool and fashionably faded jeans gracing a powerful physique.
His skin was deeply tanned, his hair rich dark chocolate with golden highlights—wavy and slightly tousled. Not a classically handsome pasty metro-sexual like the American suitors her mother continually threw in her path. But a ruggedly handsome man, who looked as though he would be equally at home in a New York boardroom dressed in a sleek Armani suit as he would be rustling cattle in a tough New Zealand Swandri. The man oozed passion, purpose—and danger.
She watched entranced as his gaze swept the room, standing rigidly in the archway with a presence that emanated command. He had a strong, arresting face, coldly handsome with no lines of weakness. A disturbingly primitive tug of attraction quaked through her body. She could imagine this man commanding a Roman Legion, or leading a charge of Templar Knights.
He oozed the power of a leader who made his own rules, ruthlessly sweeping aside anyone who stood in opposition. A smile fluttered to her lips as she imagined the shock on her mother’s face if she married a man so raw and rugged. To her discomfort, she found the idea thrilling and quickly sanctioned her recklessness.
Whether the Adonis had read her mind Alex had no idea, but as he carved his way through the crowded gallery he slowed his stride. He paused opposite her and looked at her, a flicker of recognition glancing across his face as though he wondered if he had met her before, perhaps even bedded her.
His gaze narrowed with the level unwavering gaze of a ravenous lion. Whatever he was thinking Alex’s heart raced. It was as if he could see right through to the essence of who she really was. It was as thrilling as it was intoxicating and disturbing. Near them people glided around the paintings, the vacuous height of the vaulted gallery ceiling amplifying people’s voices, but she was trapped with him in exploding silence.
Usually, she dismissed such attention. But this was more than a fleeting appraisal of desirability, more than an appreciation of the curvaceous femininity of her figure. It was an arrogant assessment projecting the confident knowledge that he could have her if he wanted. The only question appeared to be could he be bothered?
A frisson of danger scuttled down Alex’s spine. Under his penetrating gaze, she felt like a naked model posing for a ravenous sculptor. She picked at the black sequins of her dress, immediately regretting wearing the figure-hugging cocktail number she’d purchased for the formal opening night.
She never wore dresses ordinarily and hated wearing black, but she had wanted to blend in with the art-gallery-noir that she knew everyone else would be wearing. It was the only suitable dress she’d found at the second-hand store on Queen Street in the few hours she had to spare since arriving in Auckland. As her face flared with humiliating heat Alex tugged the bottom of the clinging dress, cursing the shimmering sequins and the above-knee length for attracting his attention.
His piercing green eyes rested for long, uneasy moments on Alex’s quivering lips. The perfect lushness of his mouth quirked dangerously as his gaze inched with leisurely thoroughness before dropping to where her dress clung to her chest.
Every whisper of hair on her body stood like sentries armed for defense. Yet to her intense humiliation she found her barriers weakened. Was it pleasure? Longing? Or desire she felt flood her body with warmth? She couldn’t be sure. It had been years since she’d been with a man, and never with anyone certainly so virile. For the briefest moment, she found herself wondering what it would be like to be taken by him. Every remnant of her rational mind fought the dangerous feeling, but the more she struggled the more her body betrayed her.
Suddenly, with an air of explosive tension, the weight of the stranger lurched forward. His face spun away from her. Alex followed the direction of his fixed gaze, piqued that his interest in her had been so totally diverted. She couldn’t see his expression but she could sense his undiluted fury.
In the next instant, he propelled himself through the crowd, a dozen lithe strides bringing him within a foot of Lost Love.
Her pulse rate ricocheted as she watched transfixed as the stranger froze as if in shock, then shook his head in disbelief. After several tense moments, he rifled through the catalog he carried. His shoulders tensed as he read the small caption, then scrutinized the painting again. He thrust his arms out as if to wrench it from the wall. His hand tightened into a closed fist crumpling the catalog, then thrust it into his pocket.
Alex’s heart pounded then took a dive. Her mind raced ahead as she struggled to understand the intensity of his reaction. Could he unravel her mysterious past?
He swung around, his face set in determined purpose, his gaze scanning quickly over the people in the room. They passed over Alex without a flicker of recognition, every muscle of his face taunt with savagery.
‘Who is he?’
‘I don’t know, but he looks important—and very wealthy.’ Clive said in a low voice. ‘Let me handle this.’
Clive was off and moving with the silent speed of a cobra toward the stranger before Alex could object. Tension jack-knifed through her chest. What should she do? Run after Clive and risk getting in the way? The stranger had dismissed any interest in her with the aloof detachment of a man who would never cede control. Instinct told Alex where she was concerned he was untamable. Like a wild wolf, the wrong move would send him running. Besides, Clive’s reputation for netting the elusive was legendary.
She reached for a glass of champagne from a passing waitress and took tiny gulps as she hovered anxiously. Would Clive find out what had incited such a powerful reaction? Would the stranger reveal why he had responded so strongly?
Perhaps the painting incited something deep within his soul, she wondered. No that was impossible. The brute didn’t appear to have a soul or he wouldn’t have dismissed her so coolly. Her heart pulsed with the sting of his rejection. He was clearly a collector like many others in the gallery. A numbers man who no doubt prided himself on his many conquests and the number of artworks he possessed.
Alex gripped the stem of the glass as she watched the scene unfold. As Clive tried to beguile him with his charming smile the stranger’s shoulders tensed. Fear rumbled through her as cataclysmic as an earthquake. Was Clive failing? She cursed herself for allowing him to take the lead. A woman with a beehive hairdo, her long neck over-saturated with Opium perfume paused in front of her obstructing her view.
‘Excuse me,’ Alex said, inhaling a heady mix of cinnamon and spice, as she pressed past the woman. The stranger was no longer in front of the painting. Her heart hammered as she stood on her tiptoes and scoured the room. Where had he gone?
A slice of golden caramel moving like a bullet caught her eye as the stranger strode toward the exit. Then, like the sun setting over the ranges in Lost Love in a blink he was gone.
Did you enjoy reading this excerpt?
Book One in the Gemstone Billionaires series available now
To grab your copy from Amazon, click here>> getBook.at/ScandalousMarriage
To grab your copy from iBooks, Barnes & Noble and other great bookstores, click here>>https://books2read.com/u/mVNdn5