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It was the sort of funeral where no one shed a tear.
Nikki accepted everyone's condolences with a composed expression on her face, even though in spite of everything she still felt a sense of deep sadness as the coffin was lowered into the cold, dark soil.
'So sorry about Joseph,' one of the sales managers said as he shook her hand a few minutes later. 'But he wouldn't want to have lingered on any longer.'
'Thank you, Henry,' she said, even managing to crack a small, grateful smile. 'No, indeed he wouldn't.'
'Mrs Ferliani?' A journalist pushed through the small knot of mourners. 'Have you any comment on the successful takeover bid of Ferliani Fashions conducted by your late husband's stepson Massimo Androletti?'
Nikki felt a shockwave go through her body at the mention of that name. She'd already scanned the small congregation repeatedly, in case he'd had the audacity to appear, but so far she hadn't caught sight of him. 'No, I haven't,' she said coolly. 'Now, please leave; this is a private ceremony.'
'Is it true there is nothing left of your late husband's estate?' the journalist persisted. 'That Massimo Androletti now owns the business and even the house you live in?'
Nikki set her mouth. 'I have no comment.'
Another reporter joined the first. 'Our sources say Joseph Ferliani lost a fortune on the stock exchange, and in an effort to recoup the losses gambled away everything he and you owned.'
'Mrs Ferliani has already told you she has no comment to make,' a deep male voice said from just behind Nikki.
She swung around to look a long way upwards into the black, diamond gaze of Massimo Androletti. She fought hard not to reveal how seeing him after all this time affected her, but Nikki was almost certain he had noticed the tiny up-and-down movement of her throat. His expression was mask-like, but there was a glint of steely purpose in his eyes that secretly terrified her. Her stomach hollowed out, her legs began to tremble and her chest felt as if something hard and thick had lodged itself halfway down, making it almost impossible to draw in the air necessary to breathe.
'Come this way,' he said, putting a hand beneath her elbow, the touch of his fingers sending a current of tingling awareness right through the thick sleeve of her winter coat.
Nikki considered resisting his attempt to lead her away, but thought better of it when she felt the subtle tightening of his hold, as if he'd already sensed her intention. As she felt his latent strength, her heart began to thump behind the wall of her chest as she thought of being alone with him.
He led her to his waiting limousine parked outside the cemetery. 'Get in,' he commanded curtly. 'We have things to discuss.'
Nikki sat on the plush leather seat, her legs pressed tightly together as he joined her, the huge car now seeming far too small with his long legs and six-foot-three frame taking up most of the available space. Even the air inside the car seemed to have been reduced; it physically hurt to take in each breath as she tried to steady her growing panic with deep, calm breaths.
'To the house, thank you, Ricardo,' Massimo said as he leaned forward to speak through the panel.
Nikki shifted even further away as he sat back in the seat, her nostrils flaring slightly as the spicy fragrance of his aftershave drifted towards her. Her stomach gave a little flutter as her eyes went to the long, hard length of his thighs within touching distance of hers. She had once felt those strong legs entwined with hers, had felt his hard male body drive into her silky moistness, his hot, commanding mouth wreak havoc on all of her senses.
'So,' he said as he swung his cold, hard gaze towards her. 'Your plans to land yourself a fortune failed in the end, did they not?'
Nikki tightened her mouth without responding to his embittered jibe. He had a right to be bitter, she had to admit. She would have felt the same, if not worse, if he had done the same to her. But explaining her actions five years down the track would be pointless. Given the choice, she would have done the same thing again in spite of all it had cost her.
'It is true what the journalist said. I now own everything,' he said into the silence, which was taut as a violin bow. 'But then I expect the lawyer has already explained that to you.'
'No,' she said, stripping the one word of any trace of emotion. 'I haven't yet met with him, but I plan to do so tomorrow.'
His dark brows rose slightly. 'I would have thought that would have been your very first priority,' he said with a cynical glint in his eyes. 'A sluttish little gold-digger like you would surely check to see what has been left to her on her husband's death?'
Nikki refused to show the despair she was feeling at his comment. Instead she elevated her chin and sent him an arctic look. 'Joseph was far more important to me than his money,' she said. 'I don't care if he's left me nothing.'
His mouth tilted into a calculating smile. 'Such wifely devotion,' he drawled. 'But then you are very good at acting when it suits you, are you not?'
She turned her head away to stare sightlessly out of the window.
'He has left you nothing,' Massimo said into the strained silence. 'Nothing except debt, that is. Even the house is now mine.'
This time it was harder not to reveal how his statement affected her. She fought to control her expression, but she could feel the tensing of her jaw regardless as she turned back to glare at him. 'I don't believe you. Joseph promised he would provide for me.'
'The way I see it, you are in a rather precarious position,' he went on evenly, although his coal-black eyes still shone with hatred. 'You have no income unless I choose to give it to you, no car, no house, and as of a week ago, no sugar daddy.'
Nikki really loathed that term. It demeaned everything she had come to admire and respect in Massimo's stepfather.
Joseph Ferliani had had his faults; he had been a hard-nosed businessman for most of his life. But for all that, she had come to know him in a way she suspected few people ever had. The long, agonising months of his terminal illness had shown a side to him that he had kept well hidden, and most particularly from his stepson and arch-enemy Massimo Androletti.
'Your stepfather was not my sugar daddy,' she said in a clipped tone as she faced his obsidian gaze head-on.
His top lip lifted in disdain. 'What was he, then?'
'He was my husband and my friend,' she answered with quiet dignity.
Something flickered in his eyes at the word 'husband', for which again Nikki couldn't really blame him. It would gall most men to think they had been replaced by someone much older and richer than they were, and Massimo was clearly no different. She could feel his blistering rage in the air that separated them; her skin felt tight and prickly, and the hairs on the back of her neck lifted one by one as his eyes clashed with hers.
'You forgot to mention he was your lover,' he pointed out with another curl of his lip. 'Or did he not come up to scratch in the bedroom?'
Nikki turned away again so he wouldn't see the way her face flamed with colour. 'I don't wish to discuss my private details with you,' she said. 'It's disrespectful, considering Joseph is not even cold in his grave, and to be quite frank it's none of your business.'
'It was my business five years ago, wasn't it, Nikki?' he reminded her. 'But little did I know then that one drink would lead to a one-night stand with my stepfather's future child bride.'
She ground her teeth together and bit out, 'I was nineteen years old, surely old enough to know my own mind?'
'You went from my bed straight to his,' he said, his dark eyes flashing with livid sparks of fury.
Nikki felt her insides twisting with anguish. 'I didn't know who you were,' she said. 'Joseph never mentioned your name to me prior to our marriage.'
'So what are you saying?' he asked with a cynical twist to his features. 'That if you had known who I was you would not have fallen into my arms at all?'
How could she defend herself? Nikki wondered. Was there any way she could package what she had done to make it more palatable? At nineteen, she had been so very young and so heavily traumatised. She had wanted something different for herself, something so far removed from the dark, spreading stain of her childhood that she had accepted Joseph Ferliani's offer of a lucrative marriage contract without really looking into the details as closely as she should have. As the enormity of what she'd been committing herself to had begun to dawn, she had insisted on a few days to call her own before she signed away her future into his hands.
One last week of freedom.
And on the very first day of it Massimo Androletti had been the right man at the wrong time .
'Can I buy you a drink?' Massimo said as she walked up to the bar the first night of her stay at the city hotel Joseph had paid for as part of their agreement.
Nikki turned her head and looked at the tall, dark, handsome man sitting with a glass of spirits half finished in front of him. He was dressed in a suit, but not just any old off-the-rack suit, one that fitted him superbly. She could tell he was taller than average by the way she had to raise her head to meet his brown, almost-black eyes as he got to his feet. She was five-foot-nine without heels, so it was a bit of a novelty to have to crane her neck for a change.
He had a thick head of curly dark hair but it was cut close to his scalp, as if he was a person who liked control. His jaw and chin were determined, if not a little forceful, and yet his smile was easy and involved his dark eyes in a totally compelling way.
'Why not?' she suddenly found herself replying. What had she got to lose? After the harrowing afternoon she'd just been through visiting her younger brother, a drink with a perfect stranger who knew nothing of her past was just what she needed. Besides, what was that quote: 'Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die'?
'What would you like to drink?' he asked, leading her to one of the plush chairs in a quiet corner.
Nikki vaguely registered the hint of an Italian accent in his slightly formal use of English. How incredibly ironic, she thought. 'Champagne,' she said, and because she was feeling uncharacteristically reckless added, 'But not the cheap stuff, it gives me a headache. I want the best there is.'
'Then the best you will have,' he said, and signalled for the bar tender.
A couple of glasses later, Nikki ended up agreeing to have dinner with him, enjoying his company in a way she hadn't expected. She had been on very few dates; she hadn't been all that comfortable in the company of men other than her brother. But Massimo was charming and polite, amusing and attentive, and she couldn't help lapping it up while it lasted. But whenever the subject drifted into the territory of her background she papered over the cracks of her conscience with the parcel of lies she had constructed ever since the day her mother had died and her brother's life had been changed for ever.
'I'm a personal assistant,' she said, which at least was true. 'I'm having a week off. I thought I'd do some shopping, have some beauty treatmentsyou know, pamper myself a bit, that sort of thing.'
'You do not need beauty treatments,' he said, running his dark gaze over her. 'You are the most naturally beautiful woman I have ever met.'
A flicker of uncertainty momentarily flashed across her features. 'Do you really think so?' she asked in a soft, breathless whisper.
He leaned forward to take one of her hands in his, the curl of his fingers around hers sending shooting sparks of heat to her most secret place. 'Of course I think so,' he said. 'I have never met a more beautiful or desirable woman in my life.'
Nikki pulled her hand out of his to reach for her champagne glass, her stomach still flip-flopping all over the place. 'I'm sure you've met plenty of women much more attractive than me,' she said, her mouth going down at the corners.
'On the contrary, I have met very few that compare with your translucent beauty,' he said. 'Your blonde hair is like a skein of silk. Your eyes are the most amazing grey-blue and you are tall, slender and graceful. You are any man's dream.'
She looked at him searchingly. 'You don't think I'm too tall?'
He gave her a reproving look. 'You are surely not going to apologise for being tall, are you? You are doing my neck a huge favour. I do not have to bend down to hear what you are saying.'
Nikki giggled, which in itself was a novelty. She couldn't remember the last time she had found anything or anyone amusing. 'You're the first man in ages that I've looked up to,' she said, still smiling. 'It's quite a change, I can tell you.'
'Is there a current man in your life?' he asked.
Nikki hesitated for a fraction of a second. How could she tell him she was engaged to be married to a man twenty-five years older than her? A man who was offering her a passport out of the shame that had haunted and hunted her for so long.
'No,' she said, rationalising that for a week at least there was no one. She was a free agent until the following Saturday, and after that she was off the market for who knew how long.
'I find that hard to believe,' he said. 'What is wrong with all the young men in Melbourne?'
She smiled at him again, and took another sip of her champagne. 'What about you?' she asked. 'Are you currently unattached?'
'Yes,' he said on a little jagged sigh. 'I was involved with a woman in Sicily a few months back, but it did not work out.'
'Have you recently arrived from Italy?' she asked.
'I have dual citizenship,' he said. 'I travel back and forth a lot on business.'
'What sort of business?'