The Secret to Marrying MarchesiBy: Amanda Cinelli
SHE WAS DEFINITELY being followed.
Nicole tightened her grip on the stroller’s handlebar and picked up her pace. The same black Jeep had already made its way past her three times as she took her morning walk through the village. Two men sat inside, their dark sunglasses doing nothing to disguise the fact that their attention was focused entirely on her. As the vehicle slowed to a complete crawl a short distance behind her, she felt the familiar prick of ice-cold terror in her throat. It was officially time to panic.
The cobbled laneway that led up to her farmhouse was still slippery from the light April drizzle. Her ballet flats scraped against the stone as the breath whooshed from her lungs with effort. A gleeful squeal sounded from within the cocoon of pink blankets as the stroller bounced and swayed. Nicole forced herself to smile down at her daughter through tight lips, summoning an inner calm she wasn’t quite sure she possessed. They were nearly home. She would lock the door and everything would be fine.
As she rounded the last bend that led to La Petite, she slowed to a stop. The gateway was filled with vehicles, and a line of cars stretched further up the lane. A dozen figures stood in wait with cameras slung around their necks. Nicole felt a humming begin in her ears as her blood pressure instantly skyrocketed.
They had found her.
Thinking fast, she pulled off her light jacket and draped it over the stroller’s hood. They descended quickly, the crowd of men forming a circle around her as the cameras began to flash. She kept her head down, and the air seemed to stretch her lungs to breaking point as she tried to move forward. They seemed to gather more tightly around her. Apparently the addition of a child made absolutely no difference to the paparazzi’s definition of personal space.
A man stepped forward, blocking her way. ‘Come on—a quick photo of the young ’un, Miss Duvalle.’ He smile was shark-like, sharp-toothed and dangerous. ‘You’ve kept this hidden quite well, haven’t you?’
Nicole bit down hard on her bottom lip. Silence was the key here. Give them nothing and pray that they went away. The sudden jarring sound of a car horn was just what she needed as the black Jeep appeared in the lane behind her. The vehicle began pushing its way through the crowd, forcing the photographers to scatter. Taking advantage of the distraction, she moved as fast as she could, pushing hard through the throng.
It seemed like a lifetime before she crossed the gateway onto her own private property. They couldn’t enter without breaking the law, but she wasn’t so naive to think that she was somehow out of their reach.
She would never have privacy here again. The thought brought a choking sob to her throat.
She resisted the urge to look over her shoulder and focused on retrieving her keys from her handbag with trembling hands. Once she was finally inside, she slid the deadbolt into place and scooped Anna up into her arms. Her daughter’s warm cotton scent soothed her nerves, giving her a small moment of relief through the haze of blind panic. The sun shone through the windows, brightening the room and filling the space with light. Anna’s sparkling blue eyes smiled up at her, so peaceful and unknowing of the situation they were in.
She needed to find out what was going on. Now. She gently settled her daughter on a soft mat surrounded by toys, then quickly got to work. It wasn’t an easy task to fire up the ancient computer that had come with the farmhouse. One of her first resolutions upon moving to the French countryside from London had been to throw away her smartphone and stop checking the showbiz news. Still, she made sure to keep a phone charged for emergencies. One that only made and received calls—that was all she needed.
It seemed like hours before she could finally type a few keywords into the search engine on the dusty screen. She immediately wished she hadn’t bothered.
‘Billionaire Marchesi’s Secret Love Child Uncovered!’
Seeing the words in black and white filled her with ice-cold dread. She scanned through a few lines of the anonymous interview before turning away from the screen in disgust. Was her life always going to be sordid entertainment for the masses? She bit her lip hard as she dropped her head into her hands. She wouldn’t cry.