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She didn't want to be here.
Despite the icy blast of the air-conditioning, Aisling could feel a trickle of sweat sliding down between her breasts. But that was the effect he had on her. The effect he had on all women. Some people called it charm, others manipulation. Whatever it wasit was as potent as hell.
The richly accented purr of Gianluca Palladio's voice washed into her thoughts like liquid silk, and Aisling composed herself as she turned away from the vast window and its spectacular view of the Roman skyline to the infinitely more distracting sight of the dark-haired man sitting at the desk. The man they called Il Tigrebecause he was fierce and powerful, and because he hunted alone
Today his legendary talons were sheathed and Gianluca Palladio looked very much the urban tiger, in a charcoal suit whose dark colour emphasised the impressive breadth of shoulders and the hard, lean body beneath. His shirt was blueas blue as the bright sky outside the windowand his tie was of gold, as if someone had fashioned it from molten metal and then tied it around his neck where it looked almost dull when compared to the rich olive glow of his skin.
It didn't matter how many times her work brought her into contact with him, it never seemed to destroy the sheer exhilarating pleasure which sizzled through Aisling's body whenever she saw him. But it was a dangerous attraction and Aisling had learnt to suppress it. To present to him the impartial face her job demanded. Doing just that, she curved her lips into a cool smile.
'You were lost in thought,' he observed softly, his black eyes luminous.
'I was just admiring the view.' Gianluca been enjoying his own private viewbecause Aisling Armstrong's back was far more inviting than her rather intimidating front would suggest. When she leaned forward to peer out at the spectacular panorama like that, then the swell of her bottom brushed against the very uninteresting skirt she was wearing and hinted at the ripeness of the carefully concealed body beneath.
For once she looked almost feminine and softan image which was banished when she turned around and presented him with that rather stern and forbidding expression of hers. But then, he wasn't employing her for her decorative qualities, was he?
'It is a wonderful vista, sì?' questioned Gianluca softly. 'The best in the world.' His smile was that of a man who was used to only the very best thingswho had spent his whole life getting them. Yet Gianluca understood the strange twist in human natureof not valuing things when they came too easily.
His black eyes flickered to the elaborate white marble construction which rose up behind her, with its row upon row of white marble columns and abundance of statues, and he raised his dark brows in elegant query. 'Perhaps you are taking particular pleasure in looking at the monument of Vittorio Emanuele?' he observed. 'The building which we Romans love to hate and which we call the "Wedding Cake".'
Did his black eyes tease her and his luscious lips caress those last words as if he were eating a morsel of cake himself? Or was it simply that Aisling was a tad sensitive about the subject of marriage, after a summer which had seen her attending three of her friends' weddings. And left her feeling very slightly shell-shockedas if she'd missed a bus she hadn't even been aware of waiting for.
She looked directly into his eyes, wondering how they managed to be almost soft and yet glitteringly bright at the same time, and then could have kicked herself. Stop it, she thoughtwith something approaching despair. Stop fantasising about him. Of course his eyes are gorgeous. So is his face. And his body. That rare and interesting smile. Everything about himeven that careless arrogance which he wears like a mantle. And he's a billionaire playboy who's way out of your league in every way that countsso get real, Aisling.
'I thought that most Romans compared it to a set of false teeth?' she questioned coolly.
Gianluca laughed as he sat back, gesturing to the chair in front of him. He admired her work anda little reluctantlyhe admired her way with words, too.
He had not expected he would employ a woman for such a prestigious role as head-hunter within the hotel arm of his vast organisation, but she had undoubtedly been the best candidate. Yet Aisling Armstrong was the antithesis of everything he sought in a woman.
With her buttoned-up lips and ice-blue eyesshe was so uptight! It was true that her lashes were darkbut did she not realise that a little make-up flattered even the most beautiful of women? Not that anyone would put the icy Ms Armstrong in that category. He often wondered why she insisted on concealing her hair like thatyanking it back into such a severe style that it clung to her head like a centurion's helmet. How did you get a woman like this to act like a woman? he found himself wondering.
'You compare this fine monument to a set of false teeth?' he queried, and shook his head, affecting outrage. 'Ah, but I am Italian and I prefer the more romantic version, don't you?'
Aisling didn't react. Given everything she knew about Signor Palladio, she suspected he might be in danger of confusing sex with romance. 'I hadn't really given it a lot of thought.'
'No? Doesn't every woman imagine what her wedding cake might look like, along with what kind of dress she might wear? Is this not the dream which occupies them from childhood?'
She bet they did where he was concernedno wonder he was so insufferably arrogant. And so infuriatingly gorgeous. And wasn't that a big part of what made her feel so uncomfortablethat she, the cautiousAislingArmstrong, should have fallen for a man with such obvious charm?
'Not in this century,' she returned evenly. 'In fact, a lot of women might be insulted by your assumption that their minds should be focussed on weddings, when there are so many other things to think about.'
'Ah! You are one of these women, perhaps? Do I offend you, Aisling?'
Aisling shook her head. 'Not at all. Feel free to express whatever opinion you likeno matter how outdated it may seem. I can be very tolerant of old-fashioned behaviouryou should know that by now.'
In spiteor perhaps becauseof her stilted little reply, Gianluca laughed again. In truth, he was bored, and the prospect of some verbal sparring with this woman who always looked like a librarian was enough to whet his jaded palate.
He waved his hand towards the tray of delicious-smelling coffee which one of his assistants had just brought in and placed on the desk. 'You will sit down, and we will take some coffee together.'
'Thank you,' said Aisling, wishing she could get out of it, and that she hadn't given her young assistant the rest of the day offbut if Signor Palladio wished to take coffee with her, then she must comply.
'Now, let me see,' he mused. 'No milk and no sugar, sì?' Aisling raised her eyebrows. 'How amazing that you remembered.'
'Ah, but I remember most things,' he murmured. 'Especially with women who are so secretive about their lives.'
'I can assure you I'm not in the least bit secretive, Gianluca,' she answered evenly. 'I just can't see that it's relevant, that's all.'
He stirred his coffee. 'Don't you know that men are driven crazy by an enigmatic woman?'
'No, I don't.'She took the coffee with a hand she prayed wouldn't tremble, telling herself that he was just trying to wind her up.
Aisling sipped the strong brew. This was the part of the job which never sat well with her. She could do the rest of it standing on her headall the behind-the-scenes stuff which being a head-hunter entailed.
The quiet searches to find prospective employees. The putting out feelers and all the subsequent interviews to weed out the suitable and the unsuitable. But this bit the bit that mimicked something social with a man she would never usually have socialised with. A man she found so wretchedly attractivewell, this was much more difficult.
Last night, at the lavish party he'd thrown to celebrate the revamp of his sumptuous new Rome hotel, it had been easy to avoid getting too close to him. He had been surrounded by all the bigwigs and politicians who'd been falling over themselves to speak to the Italian billionaire.As if they were hoping that some of his indefinable stardust might brush off onto them. Stir into the mix the inevitable clutch of beautiful women who were vying for his attention and it was inevitable that Gianluca had been kept occupied all night.
Aisling had spent the evening thanking all those people who had worked away like mad behind the scenes and were often forgotten. Having started that way herself, she identified with them more than anyonebut it was also a good advertisement for her business. She knew that if any of those workers came to England looking for work, then hers would be the name they would remember
But there was no escaping him todaynowhere to look other than into the ruggedly handsome face and the gleaming ebony eyes which seemed to be silently laughing at her. Sliding into the chair opposite him, she took her coffee and sipped it, remembering the day she'd landed Gianluca's account as if it were yesterday.
Nearly two years ago nowwhere did the time go? It had been her twenty-eighth birthday, which had seemed frighteningly close to the milestone of thirty. And wasn't there something about birthdays which made you look back as well as forward, and regret all the missed opportunities and different doors closed to you for ever?
She had been trying not to think about the fact that she would be celebrating that night with friends who were all in various stages of emotional commitment, and that she had been too busy building up her business to have anything in the way of a love-life. It had come as a shock to her to realise that there was no one in her life who really mattered. Oh, she had plenty of friends, work colleagues and neighbours she knew quite well. But that was it. There was no special someone.
She remembered staring at her face in the mirror, searching for imaginary lines and wondering whether she was going to end up as a singleton career-womanand whether that might not be the best thing. She could think of a lot worse ways to spend your lifeand the women she knew who were unencumbered by demanding husbands and equally demanding babies certainly seemed serene enough.
And then she had arrived at the office and there had been a telephone call from one of Gianluca's assistants. It seemed that an existing client had recommended her to the Italian billionaire and he had a proposal for herthough not the variety which had been so preoccupying her!
Would Aisling like to work for Signor Palladio? To find him a general manager for his brand-new boutique hotel in London? At first she had thought it some elaborate kind of joke because it was the kind of job she'd dreamed of.
The chance of such a lucrative contract would have made the head of any other small firm turn bright green with envy. But she had worked hard for an opportunity like this. Sometimes she never seemed to do anything but work, and the Palladio contract had made it all seem worthwhile.
She had told herself she was the luckiest person in the world, but then she had met Gianluca and something inexplicable and unwanted had happened. Her heart had performed a kind of complicated somersault and her legs had turned to cotton wool. Symptoms of love or lustwhichever you wanted to call itthat she'd heard about, but had never experienced before during her erratic history of dating.
And at the same time instinct told her to beware. That the head of the Palladio Corporation spelt trouble of a kind which wasn't straightforward. Not simply because Gianluca was impossibly rich and ravishingly good-looking and scarily well-connected and because no sane person ever mixed business with pleasure. But there was something about him which made Aisling feel almost was frightened too strong a word?
It was the way he had of looking at you. Those slanting black eyes lazily scanning every inch of your body as if they had the arrogant right to do so. Putting her in touch with a sensuality she had spent her life repressingbecause she knew only too well the risks which sexual hunger represented. Hadn't she seen it firsthand in her motherthe havoc it could wreak?
Aisling knew that Italian men had been brought up to be openly appreciative of women, but when Gianluca did it, he made you feel as if he were stripping you bare with that intense ebony scrutiny.
He was sexy and dangerous. The type of man who collected women like trophies, who enjoyed showing them off and then, when they had lost a little of their shiny-bright newness, discarded them for the next best thing. A wealth-ier version of the kind of man her mother had been drawn to, and discarded by, over and over again.
And what does his tally of lovers have to do with you? mocked a little voice in her head. He certainly isn't known for dating women whose experience with the opposite sex could be written on the back of a postage stamp!
Aisling pinned a polite smile to her lips and tried not to react to the way Gianluca was currently studying her.
'So, Aisling.' He curled the name around his lips as if he were playing with a cherry, prior to biting into it. 'I am pleased. More than pleased. Once again, you have found just what I was looking for.'
'That's the aim.'
'Your initial choice of candidates was a surprise, I admit it,' he conceded, and he raked careless fingers through his thick black hair. 'But, as usual, your favoured applicant was perfetto.'
She inclined her head. 'Thank you.'
He frowned. Even in her thanks she was lukewarm! 'You enjoyed the party last night?' he demanded.
'Very much, thank you.'
'I didn't see you leave.'
'I slipped away.You looked like you had your hands full.'
'You should have stayed. There were a few people you could have met. We went out for dinner afterwardsyou could have come.'
'That's very sweet of you, Gianlucabut I had some paperwork I needed to do.'
Gianluca's eyes narrowed. He didn't like being described as sweet! Sweet was for those men who had manicures and were in touch with their feelings. He thought, not for the first time, how you would never know what was going on her in headnot from that unruffled face she always presented. Was she deliberately mysterious, he wondered, or was that simply a mask she wore for work? And what happened when the mask was removed? 'And business is good?' he enquired softly.
Should she tell him that business was booming? That his name had brought in a whole stack of new contracts? 'Oh, I can't complain. I have plenty to keep me busy,' she said softly, automatically tugging at the dark hem of her neatly tailored skirt, so that it covered the inch of knee it had been revealing.
Gianluca watched the unnecessary movement. The skirt was hardly indecentdidn't she realise that a man liked to look at a woman's legs? She was always like the schoolmarm, he thought impatiently. Even last night she had been wearing some stiff-looking gownappropriate and yet glaringly dull.
Gianluca had never met a woman like Aisling Armstrong before. Was that why he found her strangely fascinating?