Christmas at the Castello

By: Jennifer Hayward

CHAPTER ONE

  FOR A MAN who thought life was wrapped in a sea of irony, this had to take the cake.

  Coburn Grant, heir to an automotive fortune and the newly minted CEO of Grant Industries, gave his silk tie a tug so it didn’t feel as if he was choking on his own cynicism. Attending his best friend Tony’s engagement party on the eve of his own divorce was impeccable timing that only he could manage. Having to give a speech to the happy couple in thirty minutes that spoke of hope and rainbows? The icing on that exceedingly unpalatable cake.

  He could do this. He could. He just needed one more stiff Scotch in his hand. That and a big set of rose-colored glasses.

  “You okay, Grant?” Rory Delaney, the big, brawny Australian who had been a close friend since they’d attended Yale together, lifted an amused brow. “You look a bit green.”

  Coburn adopted one of his patented entertained-by-life expressions, the only mask he ever let the world see. “Never better.”

  And why wouldn’t he be? He was the leader of the Fortune 500 company he’d helped rebuild after his father’s death, his brother, Harrison, was campaigning for the White House, which was only adding to Grant Industries’ global appeal, and he had a particularly beautiful, slightly wild blonde warming his bed every night—convenient when she lived only two doors down.

  Heaven was what he called it.

  Rory, a tall, handsome pro basketball player who was immensely popular with the ladies himself, gave a reassured shake of his head. “So glad to hear that, Grant. Right at this particular moment, in fact.”

  Rory’s tone was a blend of sarcasm and warning. He was worrying Coburn was still hung up over his soon-to-be ex, who had left him a year ago. Which was so entirely wrong. His marriage to Diana had been a foolish, rash endeavor to numb the pain he’d been in over his father’s death, a passionate, all-consuming obsession with which to direct his emotions. Exactly what he’d needed at the time. Exactly what he needed to get rid of now.

  He lifted a shoulder. “I’m not twenty-five anymore, Ror. An amazing body and a smart mouth don’t do it for me any longer.”

  Rory’s face tightened in warning as his friend’s definitive elocution carried throughout the room. “Coburn—”

  He waved him off. “I don’t know what you’re getting yourself so worked up about. I’ve got this speech in my back pocket.”

  Rory gave a spot behind him a pointed look. “Diana is behind you. Three o’clock.”

  He felt the color drain from his face. “My soon-to-be ex-wife Diana?”

  “Bingo.”

  His heart stuttered in his chest, his fingers gripping tighter around the tumbler of whiskey. He’d been ready for this confrontation to happen tomorrow when they had the divorce papers in front of them. When he was prepared to see the woman who had walked out on him without a backward glance twelve months ago, not to be seen since because she’d ensured their schedules never overlapped. Which wasn’t a mean feat in a city like Manhattan, where social circles tended to remain with like social circles.

  But then again, Diana didn’t socialize. She worked all the time. Which made it all the more surprising she was here tonight...

  Rage surged through him, swift and all encompassing. It moved upward, through his chest, erupting into his brain to turn it a hazy gray until he thought his head might blow off his shoulders. How dare she show up here? How dare she spoil this night for him? These were his friends, not hers.

  He drew in a breath through his nose, exhaling slowly as Rory watched him as if he was an overly antagonized bull ready to charge. His turn when he moved was unhurried and deliberate. Unfazed. The stricken ebony eyes that stared back at him revealed she’d heard what he’d said. His gaze moved past his outrageously beautiful wife to the group of people standing beside her. They’d all heard what he’d said. Well, too bad. He wasn’t taking the words back. He’d meant them from the bottom of his heart.

  The only thing he did regret was showing his hand like that. He’d intended on approaching tomorrow with a calm detachment Diana would have found unnerving. To demonstrate the man she was now dealing with wasn’t anything like the one she’d married. That he wasn’t a fool for her anymore.

  He shifted his attention back to his wife. Her eyes had lost that vulnerable edge now, hardening into the dark, bottomless pools it had once been his life’s mission to get to the bottom of. He never had. She was angry. Furious. Too bloody bad. It had been her decision to come.

  The entire party was staring at them now, waiting for a reaction from one of them. Mouth tightening, he turned his back on them, but not before cataloging the fact that his soon-to-be ex was even more strikingly beautiful than he remembered her to be. As if life away from him had enhanced her devastating appeal.

  He set his glass down on a table, cocked his head toward the bar and he and Rory headed for liquid sustenance. Diana had taken so much from him. But she wasn’t ruining tonight.

  Not happening.

  * * *

  Diana wobbled in her high-heeled shoes as Coburn shut her out as easily as if she was one of his big-breasted floozies he was long done with. Except he would have been more charming with them. He’d always saved his tough love for her.

  Love. An aching knot formed in her throat. The emotion burning in his striking blue eyes just now had been crystal clear. He hated her for what she’d done to him. Still hated her. She wanted to say she hated him back, but that would have been a lie. Her feelings for Coburn had always been far more complex than that. Which was exactly why she needed him to sign the divorce papers tomorrow so she could get on that plane to Africa and forget their marriage had ever existed.

  Her hand shook slightly as she averted her gaze from the crowd and lifted her wineglass to her mouth. She knew Coburn had been talking about her. Everyone at the party knew he’d been talking about her. They’d been eating it up like vultures, waiting for the drama to ensue. It was why she hated these damn affairs so much. People with too much time on their hands to speculate and provide yet more salacious tidbits to the gossip mill tomorrow. She’d come only because Annabelle had begged her to.

  An amazing body and a smart mouth don’t do it for me any longer...

  Coburn’s words reverberated in her head. She bit back the tremble that wobbled her lower lip and took a sip of the wine. What a bastard he was. She wanted to walk over there and slap his face with the anger that had been festering for twelve months. But that would be letting him win.

  She was a surgeon—she put people back together. She would not let Coburn pull her apart. Again. Ever.

  She made an attempt to circulate, to say polite things to people she hadn’t seen in a while and really didn’t care to now, but when Coburn was in a room, he was impossible to ignore. He was too beautiful in the male definition of the term. Too tall, with muscles honed by his predilection for daredevil sports, too stunning with his dark hair and arresting blue eyes and too charismatic, with that wicked, effortless charm a woman didn’t stand a chance against.

  She removed her gaze from the muscles rippling under his shirt, his jacket long ago discarded per usual. Her husband wasn’t even that aware of his physical perfection. He traded on his charm, on his ability to get people to do the things he wanted them to do—to make them beg to do the things he wanted them to do, without even knowing they were doing it.

  Her mouth twisted. She’d never really stood a chance. Her time spent with her nose buried in medical school textbooks, then sequestered in the hospital as a young resident working 24/7 had meant zero time for relationships. When Coburn had swept her off her feet on a rare night out at another Chelsea party very much like this one, he’d just taken.

  How many people had told her to watch her heart? To use her head. She hadn’t listened to any of them. She’d married him despite her father’s advice to the contrary.

  A dull ache throbbed inside her. She shouldn’t have come. She really shouldn’t have. She comforted herself knowing soon none of it would matter. Soon she would be on that plane to another continent. She would escape her claustrophobic life with her claustrophobic parents and her claustrophobic job, which was more politics than the Hippocratic oath she’d taken to heal the sick. The suffocating feeling she got every time she remembered Coburn was still sharing this city with her...

  Her mouth twisted. If she thought she might be slightly crazy giving up her job at one of New York’s most prestigious hospitals to go work in a war-torn territory where the only certainty was complete uncertainty, she wasn’t alone. She’d been getting that sentiment a lot lately, particularly from her father, who’d forbidden her to go.

  Her gaze drifted to her husband instead of focusing on the conversation happening in the group she’d joined. It hadn’t always been bad between her and Coburn. One particular night stuck in her head, in the early days of their marriage. She’d been a rising star as a resident, demonstrating surgical skills way beyond her years. But that night, she’d lost her first patient, a sixteen-year-old boy who’d been in a horrific car accident. His parents had sat in the waiting room for almost eight hours as she and the other specialists had attempted to save him, but the hemorrhaging from his internal injuries had eventually defeated them. She’d arrived home at 7:00 a.m. bruised and battered, her face telling the whole story. Coburn had held her in his arms and rocked her until she’d fallen asleep, then put her to bed. He’d been late for his board meeting that morning, but he hadn’t cared. Then, they had been the most important thing in each other’s orbit.

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