IT WAS STRANGE, Rodrigo thought, to have one’s first Thanksgiving at the age of thirty-seven. But no stranger than the rest of it, he supposed.
He looked down the long table, surrounded by mismatched folding chairs, in this magnificent, half-empty Manhattan penthouse overlooking Central Park. It was strange to be eating a traditional Thanksgiving dinner off the caterer’s rented china, surrounded mostly by strangers.
Rodrigo knew Prince Stefano Zacco, the luxury fashion mogul, only slightly. His only acquaintance with Cristiano Moretti was that he’d often stayed in the man’s hotels.
Rodrigo had no memory whatsoever of when Stefano’s wife, Tess, had apparently worked as a waitress at one of his cocktail parties. He’d never met Hallie before, nor Cristiano’s father who’d just come from Italy, nor Tess’s two young cousins, who looked barely old enough to be out of high school, but who apparently now ran the family bakery and, he had to admit, certainly knew how to bake.
This Thanksgiving was strange, for sure.
But in some ways, it wasn’t strange at all. It was exactly how Rodrigo had imagined it might be, when he was a child left on his own in Madrid to eat arroz con pollo with the nanny and the cook, as his mother flew off to ski in Aspen with her latest lover, and his cold, distant father disappeared to quietly rage at a film set.
Now, as Rodrigo sat at the table, listening to all of the people around him laugh and joke and tease each other, he felt like he was on a film set himself. A scene for a Thanksgiving movie, or an advertisement for any holiday that brought family and friends together for a meal. He ate the butter-basted turkey and cornbread stuffing, the mashed potatoes and gravy and fresh cranberry sauce, and it was all so delicious. After eating a huge plateful of food, he’d gone back for a second—having been told it was tradition to eat until one was utterly stuffed—and afterward, he found himself relaxing into warmth and pleasure, smiling as Lola and her friends good-naturedly fought over who got the wishbone.
“It’s mine,” Lola said ferociously, holding one side of the wishbone.
“No way, mine,” Hallie retorted, gripping the other.
“Let Lola have it,” Tess whispered to Hallie. “She needs it.”
The brunette instantly released it. “You win.”
Rodrigo looked between them in confusion. “Why does Lola need it?”
His wife flashed him a look he couldn’t read. Fear? Regret? Hope? But before he could analyze it, it was gone. She shrugged. “It’s good luck, that’s all.”
“But why do you need luck more than anyone else?” he persisted.
She gave him a crooked smile. “I’m married to you, aren’t I?”
“And I’m married to you,” he pointed out, returning her grin.
“So maybe you’re the one who needs it, then.” She held out the wishbone. “We’re supposed to wait until it dries, but I’m not that patient. Grab a side, make a wish and pull.”
As ordered, he grabbed the other side of the wishbone and pulled it, hard and fast, at the same time she did. There was a loud crack.
Rodrigo lifted his bigger piece of the wishbone. “What does this mean?”
Lola looked disconsolately at her smaller piece, then sighed. “It means you win.” She gave him a strange look. “What did you wish for?”
“I didn’t wish for anything,” he said honestly. He looked around them. “I have everything any man could want.”
Applause and approval went around the table. But he again saw that flash of emotion cross his wife’s face. An emotion that he didn’t understand. Emotion that was quickly veiled as she turned away. “It’s time for dessert.”
She was hiding something.
The insidious thought went through him like a hissing snake, twisting and curling from the base of his skull down the length of his spine.
His wife had a secret. Something she didn’t want him to know.
Lola, Tess and Hallie returned from the kitchen with six pies—two each of pumpkin, pecan and apple. With a flourish, Lola cut him a slice of each kind, covered them with whipped cream and slid the plate in front of him.
“Three slices?” he said, bemused.
“Try them all, then decide which one you like best.” Kissing his temple, she said, “I want your first Thanksgiving to be perfect.”
Rodrigo lifted his fork, to do as commanded. But as he tasted each slice of pie, all the buttery, sweet, creamy, crunchy goodness he’d anticipated tasted like ash in his mouth. As he looked at her veiled eyes, a panicked, animal suspicion skittered down his spine.
What was she hiding?
Against his will, he was flooded by memories of those other women who’d hidden secrets. Secrets that inevitably ended with Rodrigo looking at pictures of them naked in bed with other men.
He still wondered who’d sent the photographs. One of his rivals? One of his friends? Whoever it was, they’d hovered in the shadows for a decade, looking out for him. He was grateful to them.
But he also hated them.
“So which one do you like best?” said one of Tess’s cousins anxiously.
“Yes, which?” said the other.
Standing beside him at the table, Lola looked down at Rodrigo with inscrutable hazel eyes.
There was no question which woman he liked best.
He could not bear to lose Lola. Not at any price. They were married now. A family—
Stop, Rodrigo told himself angrily. He was no longer a weak boy, lonely and desperate to be loved. He’d realized the truth long ago. Anyone he loved, he lost. That was the reality, or at least his reality.
But he didn’t love Lola. Therefore, he told himself firmly, he had nothing to worry about. His investigator had already assured him she wasn’t in contact with Sergei Morozov, or any other man. And having a home and financial security for Jett meant too much to her. She’d never cheat, not when it would leave her without a penny.
His shoulders slowly relaxed.
“Well?” Lola said softly, “What is your answer?”
“Kiss me,” he said huskily, “and I’ll tell you my favorite.”
Putting her hand gently on his cheek, Lola lowered her head to his, and softly kissed him, in front of everyone. Her lips were tender and burned through his body. Through his soul. Finally, she pulled away.
“Pecan,” he said, because it was closest.
“I knew it.” One of Tess’s cousins looked at the other triumphantly. “I told you it was the best, Natalie.”
But Rodrigo wasn’t thinking about pie. He looked up at his wife.
No other woman had ever been so important to him before. His life had become better from the moment Lola had come into it. He had the sudden disquieting thought that she could destroy that happiness, if she chose.
No, he told himself fiercely. She doesn’t own me. As long as I don’t love her, I can trust her.
But he saw the evasion of Lola’s gaze, the wistfulness of her smile. And all the warmth and happiness of the day melted away.
Rodrigo suddenly knew one thing. He had to find out her secret. Before it was too late.
Before he got another anonymous photograph in the mail.
* * *
“Thank you for meeting me, Ms. Patel.” In California a few weeks later, Lola rose from the table in the outdoor patio of the beach café, holding out her hand. “It’s an honor.”
“The honor is mine,” said the other woman, shaking her hand. Lifting her designer sunglasses to her black, shiny hair, Elise Patel looked around them, blinking in the bright sunshine. “Honestly, it’s the first time I’ve left my studio in weeks.”
“Composing a new score?”
“Not just composing. Producing, too.” Dropping her expensive designer handbag carelessly to the rough wood patio floor, she got the waiter’s attention with a snap. “Triple espresso, please.”
“Triple?” Tucking Jett’s blanket around him in the nearby stroller, Lola said with a laugh, “If I drank that, I’d be awake for weeks.”
She snorted. “I wish. I’m still trying to wake up, after three hours’ sleep. I only have ten minutes before I need to get back to work.” With a slight smile, she shook her head. “Honestly, I do not have time for this.”
The famous composer did indeed look a little tired, with dark circles beneath her eyes, wearing oversized jeans and a plain black sweatshirt, though she’d driven up in a two-hundred-thousand-dollar SUV.
Lola leaned back in her chair. “So why did you agree to meet me?”
Elise Patel’s lips curved at the edges. “I was curious to meet the woman who actually managed to marry Rodrigo Cabrera.”
All around them, beautiful people were chatting, sipping their lattes at this trendy beachside café not too far from Malibu. The sun was bright in the California sky, and though it was now mid-December, the air was warm enough that, in the stroller, Jett was wearing just a T-shirt and shorts over his fat baby legs, and Lola wore a simple cotton sundress and sandals, her long blond hair in a ponytail.
“I wanted to meet you too,” Lola said, sipping her cappuccino. “I’ve already met the other two women who cheated on him, but not you.”
The composer’s eyes flashed in irritation, then she gave a grudging smile. “You’re direct. I like that. Saves time.” She looked up at the waiter who’d arrived with her espresso. “Thank you.” Taking a sip, she sat back, then sighed with pleasure. “Delicious.” Elise lifted a dark eyebrow. “So did you just invite me here to insult me, or were you curious about me as well?”
“Curious about one thing.” Lola leaned forward. “Why did you do it?”
“Why what? Why did I cheat on him?” The other woman rolled her eyes. “That’s a rude question. There’s no reason for me to answer it. Unless you’re afraid you might do the same?”
“Of course not!” Lola said.
“It all seems so long ago.”
“Not even five years.” She knew Rodrigo had ended his engagement to Elise a year before Lola started working for him.
“Yes, five years. An eternity.” Blowing the steam off her espresso, the composer shook her head good-naturedly. “Do you know how many film scores I’ve written since then? How many awards I’ve won?”
“Yes, I know you’re very busy and very famous,” Lola said. “Is that why you cheated on Rodrigo? For the attention?”
“I loved him, I think. But I never saw him.” She took another sip of espresso. “After he proposed to me, he suddenly got very busy with work and disappeared for months. Then a gorgeous production assistant suddenly was bringing me flowers. Asking me about my work. Singing my praises. Offering me foot rubs.” She shrugged. “It happened. It’s not something I’m proud of.”
“And you ended up falling in love with the other man?”
“Love? It was just one night.” She snorted. “And the sex wasn’t even good. I regretted it instantly. I might have tried to work it out with Rodrigo, but someone sent him photographs. It was all very strange. If it was meant to be a blackmail attempt, the man never asked for money. He just disappeared.”
“Disappeared...” Prickles lifted on the back of Lola’s neck. She looked down at Jett, burbling happily in his stroller. The story was too much a duplicate of the other women’s to be a coincidence.
“Honestly, looking back I’m almost relieved it happened,” the composer said. “Since he dumped me, I’ve devoted myself to work, and it’s all paid off. Tell Rodrigo that when you see him. Tell him thanks.”
“Um...all right,” she said, a little surprised.
Tilting her head, Elise murmured, “I think I can see why he married you.”
Lola was flattered in spite of herself. “What do you mean?”
“I heard you were his assistant. You quit your job for him. So you have nothing else going on. You can just follow him around. You’re his trophy. His pet.” Her lips creased. “I think that’s what he actually wanted in a woman all along. So maybe your marriage will survive.” She finished the espresso at a gulp, then tossed a twenty-dollar bill on the table. “Thanks for the coffee.”
And the other woman left, getting into her expensive SUV and driving fast down the coastal highway.
Lola stared after her in shock.
You quit your job for him. So you have nothing else going on. You can just follow him around. You’re his trophy. His pet. I think that’s what he actually wanted in a woman all along. So maybe your marriage will survive.
She tapped her fingertips angrily on the table. His trophy, was she? His pet? As she signaled for the bill, her heart thrummed with anger. Lola was his wife! The mother of a tiny infant! She had plenty going on!
But the insult burned through her.
For most of her life, Lola had prided herself on working longer and harder than anyone else. Just as her mother once had. Being an assistant to a powerful tycoon was long, difficult work, and she’d done well. She’d thrived. And being the logistics and operations manager of their household was no joke. She—
A man walking through the restaurant patio paused as he went past her table. “Oh. Hello again.”
Still lost in her indignant thoughts, Lola looked up.
For a moment, she struggled to recognize him. Tall and blond, wearing a tight T-shirt and board shorts over his muscled body, he was handsome, tanned with a white, gleaming smile.
A chill went down her spine.
“Don’t you remember me?” the man said, drawing closer to her table. His eyes seemed to caress her, and so did his smile. “We met by chance a few weeks ago? On the beach?”
Lola rose up, trembling.
“Who sent you?” Her voice hardened. “Who hired you?”
The young man went pale beneath his tan. “What? Nobody!”
“Tell me!” she demanded, pounding the table.
“You’re crazy,” he said, backing away nervously. He looked around the patio with its view of the ocean across the street. “She’s crazy!”
Turning, he practically ran from the café.
“Don’t ever harass me again!” Lola yelled after him.
After the man was gone, it took some moments for her to calm down. Blood pounded through her body, making her shake. Ignoring all the open stares, she knelt before the stroller to comfort the baby, who’d started to cry. Trying to comfort herself.
“Is everything all right, Mrs. Cabrera? What did that man do?”
Looking up, she saw one of their bodyguards, whom she’d purposefully left behind at the beach house today. And not even her favorite one, Tobias. “What are you doing here, Lester?”
“Boss told me to keep an eye on you.”
“To spy on me?”
The man looked uncomfortable. “He just wanted—”
“I don’t care what he wanted,” she snapped. “Stop following me.” Tossing money on the table for her cappuccino and croissant, she tucked her bag into the stroller and stomped away from the bodyguard, to her husband’s Mercedes SUV parked behind the café.
She felt sick.
Could Rodrigo have hired the handsome stranger, who looked like a cross between a surfer and out-of-work soap opera actor, to try to seduce her?
Was that why Lester was there—to follow and get pictures?
No, she told herself fiercely. But her hands shook as she buckled her baby into the SUV and tossed the stroller into the back. Taking calming breaths, she reminded herself that Rodrigo was in San Francisco on business today. He couldn’t know Lola would be at this café with his ex.
The thought reassured her as she started the engine. Then she stopped, staring out at the blue ocean.
Elise Patel’s phone number was unlisted. Lola had gotten it from Marnie yesterday. Rodrigo could have easily found out where she planned to be. He could have sent the stranger, either as some kind of loyalty test, or something more malicious.
Was it possible that Rodrigo was trying to get rid of her, just like the rest? Trying to end this marriage as cheaply and easily as he could, by luring her into an affair—or even just the appearance of one?
Fear went through her, followed by rage. She gripped the steering wheel.
Enough of this. She would ask him directly when he got home tonight.
No. She couldn’t. If Rodrigo was innocent, if this was all just a wild coincidence, he would think she was crazy, for getting so upset over two chance encounters with a man who had been, after all, merely friendly.
After she got back to the beach house, she spent hours pacing back and forth, unable to decide. She felt like she was losing her mind.
The truth seemed to be screaming in her face.
But she didn’t want it to be true. She wanted to be blind, to take whatever comfort she could, for as long as she could, while denying the evidence that was piling up all around her.
“Mrs. Cabrera?” The housekeeper looked in on her.
“What?” Lola snapped, turning on her mid-pace. At the other woman’s expression, she instantly felt bad. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Lee. Did you need something?”
“You received a letter. I’ll just leave it here.” Leaving an envelope on the gleaming wood sideboard, the housekeeper backed away.
“A letter?” Frowning, Lola came forward. Then she saw the return address. A suburban town in New York.
Heart pounding, she ripped it open.
The money she’d sent for her sisters’ college fund, the six-figure check she’d sent them as an olive branch, floated gently to the floor.
They’d returned it. Uncashed.
Lola’s heart lifted to her throat, choking her. Her sisters weren’t interested in forgiving her. They still hated her...
But there was a note. Desperately, she clutched at it. The childish uneven handwriting looped in pencil.
Thank you for sending us this college money. Our parents said we can’t accept it. We have enough and we don’t need charity.
But they said we should invite you for Christmas. And I think that’s a good idea because we could use a big sister. Not me, cause I have one, but Kelsey could. I’m sick of her always bragging about her memories of you and I’d like some, too.
I’m sorry I was scared last time. I’m not scared anymore. Please say you’ll come.
Tears rushed to Lola’s eyes as she crushed the note to her chest. A torrent of conflicting emotions rushed through her.
The last day Lola saw Johanna, she was just six, riding her bike happily with her older sister on the shaded street in front of their two-story white house with green shutters. When Lola had told the girls she was going to take them away, she’d expected them to cry with joy. Instead, they’d clung to their mother and the family’s golden retriever. Johanna’s face had been terrified. After that, Lola had never been able to face either of her sisters again.
Now, pain lifted in Lola’s throat, sharp as a razor blade. She blinked fast, looking out through the beach house’s windows. Jett was sleeping in the nursery. The room was shadowy and silent. In the distance, she could see the pink and orange sunset over the black ocean.
All these years, she’d been too scared to face them. She’d told herself that they’d either forgotten her, or hated her.
Only the money—and Rodrigo—had given her the courage to finally contact them, hoping they could forgive her, and let her back in their lives.
But they’d sent back the money. They didn’t want it.
They just wanted her to come for Christmas.
She closed her eyes, holding her baby sister’s note like it was a precious gift. Raw emotions were pouring through her like torrential rain.
I’m sorry I was scared last time. I’m not scared anymore.
Then she opened her eyes, as everything became suddenly very clear.
Later that night, when Rodrigo came home from his trip, she turned on the light where she’d been sitting on the sofa, waiting for him.
“Lola.” He looked surprised. “I thought you’d be asleep. What are you doing, sitting in the dark?”
Gripping her hands at her sides, she rose to her feet. “We need to talk.”
Rodrigo’s black eyes gleamed. “I’m glad you’re awake. I’ve missed you, querida.” He gave her a sensual smile. “I can hardly wait to—”
“A handsome stranger flirted with me today.”
He froze, staring at her. “What?”
She shrugged. “He was just being friendly. It would be no big deal, except it’s the second time he’s tried. And—” she paused “—it’s exactly the same thing that happened to all your other fiancées.”
His expression changed. “I heard how you spent the morning. Having coffee with Elise Patel.”
“Did Marnie tell you that?”
“She mentioned in passing you asked for Elise’s phone number. What I don’t understand is why.”
“Ulrika Lund came up to me at the awards ceremony in Madrid, while you were giving your speech.” Lola met his eyes evenly. “She had an interesting theory about why all your engagements ended.”
“Because they were unfaithful,” he said flatly.
“Yes, but why?”
He stiffened. “What kind of question is that?”
“Did you hire men to deliberately seduce them?”
Rodrigo dropped his suitcase with a loud bang against the floor. He gave a harsh laugh. “Is that some kind of joke?”
“Maybe you were just testing their loyalty. Or maybe...” Speaking her deepest fear, she whispered, “Maybe you were afraid of loving them, and wanted to get rid of them before they got too close.”
His black eyes glinted sparks in the small halo of lamplight as he came forward. “You’re insane.”
Lola set her jaw, trying desperately to appear strong, but her voice wobbled as she said, “Did you send that man to flirt with me today? Are you trying to get rid of me?”
“How can you even think such a thing?” he said in a low, dangerous voice, looking down at her. “After I decide to trust you—”
“Trust me! Is that what you call it, when you have Lester follow me?”
“That was for your own protection!”
“No!” she cried. Her chest rose and fell in quick, angry breaths. “It was for yours!”
The two of them glared at each other with matching ferocity.
Behind him, she could see the sweep of silver moonlight through the windows. He towered over her, powerful and fierce in the shadowy great room.
Reaching out, Rodrigo gripped her shoulders, searching her gaze. “Tell me this is a joke. You know I would not do such a despicable thing.”
“Tell me why, every time anyone gets close to you and starts to care, you push them away.”
“If you know about my exes, you know my reason—”
“No,” she said steadily. “It started before that. Because every time you got engaged, you disappeared. For weeks or months. And you did the same thing after you married me.”
His expression changed. Releasing her, he turned away. Going to the wet bar, he poured himself a short glass of forty-year-old Scotch. He took a drink, then finally turned to face her. “You’re right. I learned not to trust anyone long ago. When I was a boy.”
“Your parents,” she whispered, looking at him.
Rodrigo took another gulp of Scotch. The moonlight caressed the hard edges of his face. “My father wasn’t my father.”
“What?” She gasped.
“My whole childhood, I always felt like my father despised me. He never hugged me. He barely looked at me.” He looked away. “At his funeral, my mother told me why. He’d known all along I wasn’t his son.” A sardonic smile traced his sensual lips. “She’d had a brief affair with the chauffeur. Just one of many. She enjoyed throwing his love for her back in his face.”
“So that’s why you wanted the paternity test,” Lola said slowly. “And why you insisted on marrying me.”
“I didn’t want my child to ever feel like I felt that day,” he said in a low voice. “Or any other days.”
Lola no longer wondered why he had trust issues. Indeed, now she could only wonder that he was able to trust anyone at all.
Rodrigo stared out the window bleakly, toward the dark, moonlit beach. “Growing up, I could hardly wait to get married. I wanted a real family, a real home. But it was never real.” He gave her a crooked smile. “With Pia, I fell in love with the role she played in a movie, not her. Ulrika and I just argued all the time. Elise—well, we both loved our careers more than each other.”
“She said to tell you thanks, by the way. For breaking up with her. Giving her more time to work.”
“That sounds like her. And I felt the same.” Looking back out the window, he said softly, “Maybe you were right. Maybe I always knew they were wrong for me. And I was glad for the excuse to leave.”
Lola swallowed. “But you didn’t—”
“Didn’t set them up to cheat on me?” He shook his head, his dark eyes luminous in the shadows. “No.”
Looking at his face, she believed him.
“Now I have a question for you.” Gulping down the last of the Scotch, he set the glass down on the end table. “Is there something you’re keeping from me? Some secret?”
“Secret?” She frowned. “I just wanted to know what happened to your engagements. If you were behind the betrayals.”
His dark gaze cut into her soul. “Why?”
“Because—” she took a deep breath “—I had to know if you were going to do the same to me.”
Rodrigo stared at her. Then he pulled her into his strong arms.
“I will never betray you, Lola.” He looked down at her fiercely. “Not in that way, nor any other. When I spoke those vows to you, I meant them.” He cupped her cheek. “To love and cherish. For the rest of our lives.”
As she stared up at him, feeling the gentle touch of his powerful hand, a rush of relief went through her so great, she almost cried. She hadn’t realized until this moment how tense she’d been. How afraid.
“I believe you,” she said.
His dark eyes turned warm. “You do?”
His hand moved softly down her neck, through her blond hair, hanging down her shoulders. “I bought you a Christmas present.”
“You did?” Just knowing that he hadn’t sabotaged his past engagements, and wasn’t trying to secretly end their marriage, was all the gift she needed. But he was looking at her so expectantly, she said, “What is it?”
He gave her a wicked smile. “You’ll have to wait and see.”
“I heard from my sisters today,” she blurted out.
He pulled back to look at her, his dark face unreadable. “You did?”
“Well, technically, it was just my youngest sister, Johanna. They sent back the college money, can you believe it? They didn’t even want it!” Picking up the check from the floor, she showed him. “They just want us to come for Christmas!”
“Christmas?” he said slowly. “In New York?”
She nodded happily. “Think of it, Rodrigo. Christmas with my sisters, then New Year’s Eve with our friends. Cristiano’s hosting a party at his new property in Times Square... What do you say?” she rushed out.
Rodrigo stared down at her, his handsome face expressionless. “It’s our first Christmas as a family. I thought we’d spend it here. I’ve made plans...”
“Please.” Her voice caught. “You don’t know what it means to me that they want to see me.”
He looked down at her in the dark, shadowed beach house. “It means so much, querida?”
“So much,” she whispered.
Rodrigo took a deep breath.
“Then of course we must go.”
Joy filled her. With a cry, Lola threw her arms around him, standing on her tiptoes to cover his face with kisses. “You won’t regret it!”
Smiling, he murmured, his voice muffled by her kisses, “I’m glad already.”
Drawing back, Lola looked up at her husband. The moon’s silver light grazed the hard edges of one side, with the lamplight’s golden glow on the other. Her heart felt bigger than the world.
And that was when she knew, she really knew, that she loved him.