The Blackmail Baby (Wedlocked!) (Harlequin Presents, 2247)

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9780373122479: The Blackmail Baby (Wedlocked!) (Harlequin Presents, 2247)

When eighteen-year-old Imogen married Dracco Barrington, she did so with an open heart.

He was her deceased father's business partner, and she had loved him all her life. But shortly after the wedding ceremony, Imogen uncovered a truth about Dracco that sent her fleeing...all the way to Rio de Janeiro!

Four years later Imogen needed money. Badly. But when she returned to Dracco's London home, she received an offer that was nothing less than shocking. Dracco would pay her one million pounds to stay and be his wife...and another million if she agreed to have his baby! On the surface, Imogen seemed to be getting what she wanted— the money she urgently needed, a family she longed for and the man she desperately loved. But at what cost?

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Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Four years later

Throughout the flight from Rio Imogen had been rehearsing exactly what she was going to say, and the manner in which she was going to say it. She reminded herself as she did so that she wasn't a naïve girl of just eighteen any more, who knew virtually nothing of the real world or the shadowed, darker side of life, a girl who had been sheltered and protected by her father's love and concern. No; she was a woman now, a woman of twenty-two, who knew exactly what the real world encompassed, exactly how much pain, poverty and degradation it could hold, as well as how much love, compassion and sheer generosity of spirit.

Looking back over the last four years, it seemed almost impossible that she had anything left in common with the girl she had once been. Imogen closed her eyes and lay back in her seat, an economy-class seat, even though she could technically at least have flown home first class. You didn't do things like that when you had spent the last few years working to help destitute orphans who lived in a world where children under five would fight to the death over a scrap of bread. Now, thanks to the small private charitable organisation she worked for, some of those orphans at least were being given a roof over their heads, food, education and, most important of all in Imogen's eyes, love.

Imogen couldn't pin-point exactly when she had first started to regret turning her back on her inheritance—not in any way for her own sake, but for what it could mean to the charity she worked for and the children she so much wanted to help.

Perhaps it had begun when she had stood and watched the happiness light up the face of Sister Maria the day she had announced to them all, in a voice that trembled with thrilled gratitude, that the fund-raising they had all worked so hard on that year had raised a sum of money that was only a tithe of the income Imogen knew she could have expected from her inheritance—never mind its saleable value.

All she did know was that increasingly over recent months she had begun to question the wisdom of what she had done and just how right she was to allow pride to stand in the way of all that she could do to benefit the charity.

And, as if that weren't enough, she had begun, too, to wonder how her friends and fellow workers would view her if they knew how wilfully and indeed selfishly she was refusing to use her own assets where they could do so much good. Pride was all very well but who exactly was paying for her to have the luxury of indulging in it? These and other equally painful questions had been causing Imogen to battle within herself for far too long. And now finally she had come to a decision she felt ashamed to have taken so long in reaching.

The nuns were so kind, so gentle, so humbly grateful for every scrap of help they received. They would never blame or criticise her, Imogen knew, but she was beginning to blame and criticise herself.

During her years in Rio Imogen had learned to protect and value her privacy, to guard herself from any unwanted questions, however kindly meant. Her trust was not something she gave lightly to others any more. Her past was a taboo subject and one she discussed with no one.

She had made friends in Rio, it was true, but her past was something she had kept to herself, and the friends she had made had all been kept at something of a distance— especially the men. Falling in love, being in love—these were things that hurt too much for her to even think about, never mind risk doing. Not after Dracco. Dracco. Even now she still sometimes dreamed about him. Dreams that drained her so much emotionally that for days afterwards she ached with pain.

There was no one to whom she wanted to confide just how searing her sense of loss and aloneness had been when she had first arrived in the city, or just how often she had been tempted to change her mind and return home. Only her pride had stopped her—that and the letter she had sent to her father's solicitor a week after her arrival in Rio, informing him that she was disassociating herself completely from her past life. She had said that she wanted nothing to do with the inheritance her father had left her and that henceforward she wanted to be allowed to lead her own life, on her own. She had made her letter as formal as possible, stating that under no circumstances did she want any kind of contact with either her stepmother or Dracco.

She had, of course, omitted to put any address on the letter, and as an added precaution she had used the last of the money Dracco had given her to fly to America, where she had posted her letter before returning to Rio.

In order to support herself she had found work both as an interpreter and a teacher, and it had been through that work that she had become involved with the sisters and their children's charity.

It had taken her what was now a guilt-inducing amount of time to bring herself to take the action she was now taking, and she still felt acutely ashamed to remember the look of bemused disbelief on Sister Maria's face when she had haltingly explained to her that she was not the penniless young woman she had allowed everyone to believe she was.

Sister Maria's total lack of any attempt to question or criticise her had reinforced Imogen's determination to put matters right as speedily as she could.

Initially she had believed that it would be enough simply for her to write to her father's solicitor, explaining that she had changed her mind about the income she could receive under her father's will. She had explained in the simplest possible terms how she wished to use it to benefit Rio's pitifully needy street children. It had distressed her to receive a letter back not from Henry Fairburn but from an unknown David Bryant. He had introduced himself in the letter as Henry's successor and nephew, explaining that his uncle had died and that he had taken over the business.

As to Imogen's income from the inheritance left to her by her father, the letter had continued, he considered that because of the complications of the situation it would be necessary for her to return to England to put her wishes into action, and he had advised her to lose no time in doing so.

Of course, she had baulked at the idea of returning home. But, after all, what was there really for her to fear other than her own fear?

There was certainly no need for her to fear her long-dead love for Dracco. How could there be?

There had been no contact between them whatsoever, and for all that she knew he and Lisa could now be living together in blissful happiness. They certainly deserved one another. She had never met two people who matched one another so exactly in terms of cold-bloodedness.

It was a great pity that her father had seen fit to make Dracco one of her trustees and an even greater one that Henry, her other trustee, was no longer alive. Imogen wasn't quite sure just what the full legal position with regard to her inheritance and her rights was, but no doubt this David Bryant would be able to advise her on that. And on the other crumple in the otherwise smooth surface of her life that she really ought to get ironed out?

That small and impossible-to-blank-out fact that she and Dracco were still legally, so far as she was aware, married?

Disconcertingly the only gently chiding comment Sister Maria had made when Imogen had been explaining her situation had been a soft reminder that the vows of marriage were supposed to be for life!

Foolishly she had never bothered to get their marriage annulled. She had been far too terrified in those early days that Dracco might somehow persuade her to return home and to their marriage.

Now, of course, she had no such fear, and no need for the status of a single woman either, other than as a salve to her own pride, a final step into a Dracco-free future.

She was also looking forward to, as she had promised she would, writing to Sister Maria to tell her that everything was going smoothly and that she would soon be returning to Rio.

Her stomach muscles tensed with a nervous apprehension that she told herself firmly was entirely natural as the plane began its descent into Heathrow Airport.

The Imogen who had left Heathrow four years earlier had been pretty in a soft, still-girlish way, but the woman she had become could never in a thousand years have been described as wishy-washily pretty. The hardship of a life that was lived without any kind of luxury, a life that was spent giving one hundred and fifty per cent physical commitment and two hundred and fifty per cent emotional love, had stripped Imogen's body of its late-teenage layer of protective flesh and honed her face to a delicately boned translucency. This revealed not just her stunningly perfect features and the deep, intense amethyst of her amazing eyes, but also gave her a luminosity that was almost spiritual and that made people turn to look at her not just once but a second and then a third time.

She was dressed simply in soft chinos and a white cotton shirt, but no woman could possibly live in Rio without absorbing something of the sensuality of its people, of a culture that flagrantly and unselfconsciously worshipped the female form. Brazilian clothes were cut in a way that was unique, and not even the loose fit of what she was wearing could conceal the narrowness of Imogen's waist, the high curve of her breasts, the unexpected length of her legs, but most of all the rounded curve of her bottom. the South American sun, which had given her a warm, ripe, peachy glow. As she raised her hand to shield her eyes from the shaft of sunlight breaking through the grey cloud the gold watch her father had given her shortly before his death glinted in the light, emphasising the fragility of her wrist. A group of stewardesses walking past her looked enviously at the careless way she had tied the tangled thickness of her curls back off her face with an old white silk scarf.

Taking a deep breath, Imogen summoned a taxi. Once inside it, she studied the piece of paper she had removed from her purse, and gave the address written on it to the driver.

As he ...

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