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Someone was watching her.
The little hairs prickled on the back of Lily's neck and somehow she just knew. Lifting her head from her pastry-making, she narrowed her eyes against the brightness outside to see the powerful figure of a man standing at the far end of the garden.
He was as still as a statue. Only his thick black hair seemed to moveruffled by the same faint breeze which was drifting in through the open kitchen door as she worked. Unconsciously framed by a tumbling bower of early summer roses, he looked like a dark and indelible blot on the golden landscape and Lily's heart gave a funny little kick as he began walking towards the house.
For a moment she wondered why she didn't feel more scared. Why she wasn't screaming the place down and grabbing the nearest phone to tell the police that some dark stranger was lurking in the grounds. Maybe because the sight of him was a distraction from the troubled thoughts which kept nagging away at the corners of her mind. Or maybe there was just something about this particular stranger which overrode all normal considerations. He looked as if he had every right to be there. As if the soft summer day had been waiting just for him.
With a guilty kind of pleasure she watched the powerful thrust of his thighs against fine grey trousers as he walked across the manicured perfection of the emerald lawn. The light breeze was rippling the white shirt across his chest and defining the hard torso which lay beneath. Poetry in motion, thought Lily longinglyand could have watched him all day.
He grew closer and she could see the unashamed sensuality of his face. Thick-lashed dark eyes, which seemed to gleam with dangerous brilliance. A chiselled jaw, shadowed with virile new growth. And a pair of lips which she immediately began imagining imprinting themselves on hers. The kick in her heart became a full-scale football match as he stopped at the open doorway and Lily felt almost dizzy. How long had it been since she'd looked at a man and felt an overpowering sense of desire? And how could she have forgotten just how potent it could be?
'Can I help you?' she questioned and then, realising how passive she sounded, she glared at him. 'You scared the life out of mecreeping up on me like that!'
'I wasn't aware that I was creeping, he answered. His eyes met hers with a mocking lookas if he was perfectly aware that she had been drooling over him. 'But you look pretty capable of holding your own against any intruders.'
She realised that his gaze was now directed at her hand and that she was still holding her rolling pin, clutching onto it as if it were the latest thing in personal safety devices. Her tongue flicked out to moisten lips, which suddenly felt cracked and dry. 'I was just making pastry.'
'You don't say?' Ciro's amused glance took in the flour-covered table behind her: the fruit-filled pie-dish and sugar shaker. And suddenly his senses were alerted by more than her soft beauty. The rare smell of home-baking in the cluttered room made him think of a world he'd only ever glimpsed. A world of warmth and cosy domesticityand he felt an unexpected twist of his heart. But with habitual ruthlessness, he batted away his uncomfortable thoughts and looked at the pastry-maker instead.
She was the most old-fashioned woman he'd ever seen. The kind of female he didn't think existed any moreat least, not outside reruns of old TV shows. A tantalising composition of curves and beguiling shadows, she was wearing an apronand he couldn't remember the last time he'd seen a woman wearing one of those. Not unless you counted the French maid outfit which his last-but-one lover used to wear in the bedroom, when she suspected he was tiring of herwhich he was. That had been chosen to highlight the wearer's nakedness, but this was a much more innocent variation. A deliberately retro version in frilly cotton, it was tied tightly enough to emphasise the tiniest waist he'd ever seen.
Some people thought it was rude to starebut when a man was confronted by a beautiful woman, wasn't it an insult not to? His eyes drifted to her thick hair, which was the colour of ripened corn and piled high on her head with a haphazard collection of clips. Her skin was flushed and he was amazed that a neck that slender could possibly support the weight of all that hair. He wondered if she realised what a perfect picture of domesticity she made. And he wondered what it said about him that he should find such an image so unexpectedly sexy.
'So aren't you going to invite me in?' he drawled.
The egotistical certainty of his question made Lily spring into action. Why was she standing there like some sort of muppet while he ran those admittedly gorgeous eyes over her as if she'd been some sort of car he was considering buying? Wasn't that why men thought they could get away with arrogant behaviour, because women like her let them? Hadn't she learnt anything from her past? 'No, I am not. For all I know, you could be an axe-murderer.'
'I can assure you that murder is the last thing on my mind,' he said drily.
Their eyes met and Lily heard the sudden roar of blood in her ears.
'And you don't look in the least bit scared,' he added silkily.
She swallowed down the lump which seemed to have taken up residence in her throat. It was true she wasn't exactly frightened. Well, not in the conventional sense. But there was something about him which was making her heart race in a way which wasn't a million miles away from fear. And the clamminess on the palms of her hands was going to play havoc with her pastry if she wasn't careful. 'It is normal to introduce yourself when you burst unannounced into someone's kitchen, you know,' she said primly.
He bit back a smile because even when women didn't know who he was, they were nearly always intimidated by him. But not this one, it seemed. Intrigued by the unfamiliar, he inclined his head as if they were being formally introduced at a social function. 'My name is Ciro D'Angelo.'
She stared into the dark gleam of his eyes. 'That's an unusual name.'
'I'm an unusual man.'
With difficulty, Lily decided to ignore the outrageous boastmainly because she suspected it was true. 'And you're Italian?'
'Actually, I'm Neapolitan.' He gave a lazy shrug in answer to the question in her eyes. 'It's different.'
'That might take a long time to explain, dolcezza.'
The pounding in her heart increased especially when he said dol-cezza like that, though she didn't have a clue what it meant. She wanted to him to explain why Neapolitans were different but sensed that would be straying into even more dangerous waters. Instead, she deliberately glanced at the clock which hung next to the old-fashioned cooking range. 'Time which I don't have, I'm afraid,' she said crisply. 'And I'm still none the wiser. Just what are you doing here, Mr D'Angelo? This is private property, you know.'
Ciro gave an almost imperceptible nod of satisfaction because her question pleased him. It meant that news of his purchase hadn't been made public. Which was good. He hated publicitybut he particularly hated his deals getting into the public domain before the ink had dried on the paper. Despite his legendary prowess in the world of business, he was still superstitious enough to worry about jinxing things.
But her question also made him wonder who she was. The woman selling this house was middle-aged. He frowned as he racked his brains to remember the vendor's name. Scott, yesthat was it. Suzy Scottall age-inappropriate clothes and too much make-up and a way of looking at a man which could only be described as hungry. He frowned. Was this domestic goddess old enough to be her daughter? he wondered, as he tried to work out just how old she actually was. Twenty-one? Twenty-two? With skin that clear and soft, it was hard to tell. And yet, if she was the daughter of the housesurely she would know it was about to pass into the ownership of someone else. His ownership, to be precise.
She was still looking at him questioningly and he noticed that a shiny tendril of corn-coloured hair was tickling the smooth surface of her cheek. Maybe he should just turn around and come back at a more legitimate timebut suddenly, Ciro didn't want to go anywhere. He felt as if he'd stumbled into a warm world which was so different from his own that he was curious to find out more. To discover its inevitable flaws so that he could walk away with his cynicism intact.
He gave a shrug of his powerful shoulders. 'I wasn't expecting to find anyone home.'
'You mean you have an expectation that all houses will be empty?' Aware that the pie would be ruined if she neglected it any longer, Lily curled the pastry around her rolling pin and then deftly flipped it over the top of the prepared pie-dish. 'What are yousome sort of cat burglar?'
'Do I look like a cat burglar?'
Glancing up from where her fingers were fluting the sides of the soft pastry, Lily thought not. She doubted that your average cat burglar would exhibit such a cool confidence if they'd been rumbledthough he certainly looked agile enough to accomplish the physical demands of the job. And it was frighteningly easy to imagine him clothed entirely in some sort of close-fitting black Lycra.
'You're not exactly dressed for it. I imagine that your expensive-looking suit might be ruined if you tried scaling the front of the house,' she said caustically. 'And in case you were thinking of scaling the front of this houseI can save you the time. You won't find any pr-precious jewels or baubles here.'
Viciously, she began to brush the pie crust with beaten egg, realising that she must be feeling especially vulnerable if she had just come out and told a complete stranger that. But Lily had been feeling vulnerable latelyand her stepmother's erratic behaviour hadn't helped. Never the easiest of women to get along withSuzy had recently taken to moving the house's most valuable items up to her London home. Of course, she was perfectly within her rights to do soLily knew that. Suzy could do whatever she wanted since she had inherited every last bit of her late husband's estate. All the money he'd owned was now hers and so too was this beautiful house, the Grange.
Even now, the pain and injustice of it all could still hit Lily like a savage blow. Her father's death barely nine months after his second wedding had been sudden and unexpected and had left her with a numbing feeling of insecurity. Through her own grief and the heartbreaking task of comforting her younger brother, she had tried to tell herself that of course Dad must have been planning to amend his will. No father would want to see his two children left without any financial support, would he? But the fact was that he hadn't got around to doing it and it had all gone to his much younger wife, who seemed to have taken to widowhood alarmingly well.
Even the pearl necklace which Lily had been promised by her darling mother had been ferreted away to Suzy's metropolitan home and she had a sinking feeling she would never see it again. Was that why her stepmother had recently been shifting everything of valueafraid that Lily might pawn some of the precious artefacts when her back was turned? And the terrible thing was that an instant windfall would solve some of Lily's problemsbecause wouldn't it give her brother the security he deserved?
Ciro heard the tremble in her voice and wondered what had caused it. But his attention was distracted as she bent to place the pie in the oven, his eyes riveted to the seductive curve of her bottom. Her bare legs gave off a silky sheen and the little cotton dress she wore brushed close against her thighs.
'No, I'm not a cat burglar and I'm not after your jewels or your baubles,' he said unevenly.
Lily turned around to find his dark eyes fixed on her and, even though it was wrong, it felt good to have such a gorgeous man gazing at her with unashamed interest. Didn't it make her feel desirable for a change, instead of some invisible nobody who spent her whole time fighting off unspoken fears about the future?
'Then what are you doing here?'
'For some strange reason, it's gone clean out of my mind,' he said softly. 'I don't remember.'