Read an Excerpt
Only a few minutes late. No need to panic.
Alighting from an overheated bus into bustling George Street on a Sydney winter morn, waiting, shivering, at the crossing lights in her little charcoal suit and her suede knee boots, making the dash with the crowd across to the opposite pavement, Lara Meadows reminded herself she was strong.
She was brave, she was still beautiful—well, in an artistic sense. From a distance. If she dived into a fountain in her underwear she could come out looking as shapely as any goddess of the silver screen, if more generously covered than some. Though only where it counted. If her hair got wet it would go limp and lose the pale spun silk effect she still managed to achieve to confound her critics, but she could still look reasonable.
Her hand flew to the scar at the base of her nape.
Not that she was competitive, by any means, or that looks meant anything in the publishing world. No, it was far more important that she was smart and professional, she was good at her job, she could speak up for herself…
So why were her insides churning like a cement mixer?
Alessandro was only a man, after all. Six years ago he hadn't been formidable. He'd been the ultimate in amusing, sophisticated and charming. Take him apart bit by bit— remove his thick black hair, his smiling dark eyes, his sensuous mouth, his voice, his long powerful limbs, his chest…and what would he be left with to make her knees knock together? She had done nothing to be ashamed of. He was the one who should be worried.
She pushed through the glass doors of the Stiletto building and sprinted across to the lift. No one else from her floor wasaround. They'd all be upstairs in the meeting room, eager to con the big bosses from across the globe into believing they were always punctual.
Eager to impress Alessandro.
She gulped in a breath. She'd meant to be early, but plaits took time, and Vivi liked them just right. Then there was the walk to school—it just didn't seem fair to rush a five-year-old fascinated by every living creature along the way.
She reminded herself of how tolerant and easy-going Alessandro was. Surely he was the last person anyone needed to fear as a boss.
Unless… She experienced a definite stab of fear. Unless it was someone who hadn't yet managed to inform him of something he might think concerned him quite dramatically.
Alessandro Vincenti accepted a file from the quavering secretary with grave thanks. The woman, bequeathed to him by the failed Managing Director of Stiletto Publishing, and possibly anxious about her future, backed towards the door, poised to scurry to safety. Alessandro sent her a reassuring smile. It had never been his pleasure to intimidate gentle creatures. Let the waters of the pond of life remain clear and unruffled.
With his habitual ease he tilted back in the leather chair and opened the folder. Australians could be an interesting people, he remembered, if a little bizarre. A nation that idolised bushrangers and ridiculed its politicians was not as uncomplicated as it might appear on the surface. What was the affectionate term they used to describe their rebels? Larrikin, that was it. They smiled at their larrikins.
In an effort to familiarise himself with the staff, on paper at least, before he soothed them with his motivational spiel, he leafed through the sparse array of pages pertaining to the various departments, if they could be called that. Dio, had anyone ever checked the record-keeping in this place? What had the MD been doing before his meltdown?
He took a moment to peruse the personnel list.
Curious, the poetry contained within names.
Halfway through the editorial section, his gaze arrested and locked to one name. A name that sprang from the page and clicked on a part of him he'd long since believed inert. A name redolent of drowsy afternoons on sun-drenched beaches, blonde silken hair and the scent of summer grass. His blood quickened to the recollection of a dusk, fragrant with honeysuckle and the promise of love.
Could it be…? Could it really be…?
'Er… Beryl.' He glanced up at the secretary, arresting her doorwards creep and causing her to jump. 'This L. Meadows now—who is he?' He held the page a little away from him between long, fastidious fingers.
The secretary's words fell over each other in her haste to please. 'She. She's a she. I mean a—a woman, Mr Vincenti. Lara Meadows. She's been with Stiletto now for about six months. Bill—I mean Mr Carmichael, our MD, I mean ex-MD, liked her very much.'
A long-dormant visceral nerve made a raw pinch in Alessandro's gut.
So. She was still in the world.
For the benefit of the secretary he allowed no facial muscle to register his shock, pretending interest in other names on the list of Scala Enterprises' most recently acquired workforce.
And who is this?' he continued smoothly down the list, as though Lara Meadows had never made a fool of him. Never caused him to feel—whatever it had been. Never brought him to his emotional knees like some love-crazed Don José bellowing from the opera stage about his Carmen. 'And this one? Tell me about him.'
Amazing, to find Lara after all this time. What were the odds she'd be working for the very company they'd settled on as their foothold in the southern hemisphere? He narrowed his eyes. If this were the same Lara. His Larissa.
The nerve twisted. Though surely she'd be married by now, unless she'd kept her maiden name after her marriage?
To some poor fool, some sucker who didn't mind being let down.
And of course Bill would have liked her very much. It was probably liking her that had brought the guy to his ruin. He glanced at the secretary's eager face, weighing up whether to hazard a question, then discarded the notion. It was exactly what the woman was longing for. Any tiny morsel, no matter how trivial, to whisper about the visiting boss to the staff.
And he felt no interest in Lara Meadows. That moment in time when her capricious whims, her irrational Hollywood-inspired tests had burned deep into his essential being was past. A woman incapable of valuing the sincerity of an honest man was below the radar of his consciousness.
Still, he wouldn't be human if he couldn't appreciate the irony in the situation. Whether she'd known it or not, Ms Meadows had once held his fate in her hands. Now, he held her livelihood in his. If he were one of those mediaeval Vincentis given to vendettas…
Revenge, a dish best served cold, had often been his mother's dry observation. Were six years long enough to cool a blaze that had consumed him and reduced his dignity to ashes? Or so he'd thought at the time.
Alessandro shrugged, amused at his momentary regression to youthful passion. On second thoughts, it would be interesting to see her again. See how she would look.
How she would face him.
* * *
Anyway, Lara reflected, scanning her face in the lift mirror, by this time he could be bald, or morbidly paunched. Her memories of him might have been distorted by time.
On the approach to the conference room, though, her legs grew wobbly and reluctant with dread. But face it. Despite everything, she was excited. The thought of seeing him again was rushing through her like a summer storm.
Although, could she really expect Alessandro to remember her with the same intensity as she remembered him? With what she knew about him now, he might not remember her at all. Six years was a long time for an international playboy to hold an idea.
She paused outside and made an effort to calm her breathing, but ever since the news had broken the old video show in her head wouldn't stop spinning through the reels.
Six years ago. Her first and only international book conference. The publishing company she'd been with at the time wouldn't have been able to afford to send her if it hadn't been held here in Sydney. It had been her first conference. Her first…
That initial, fantastic connection at the cocktail party. The amused glance he'd exchanged with her over the ridiculous sci-fi diva with the hair. The strawberry daiquiri he'd wangled for her. He'd screwed up his handsome face at her choice but she'd pretended to enjoy it. Then the charmed days that had followed. The long walks. The intense conversations about literature, music, Shakespeare—everything she was most passionate about.
Alessandro refused to describe himself as Italian, or Venetian. He was a citizen of the world, he'd told her with a laugh, yet he'd treated her ideas with such respect, as if they were as clever and original as his own. She'd never been so riveted by conversation with anyone. So excited, so—enchanted. Every word he'd uttered had held her on the most delicious hook.
And when she'd found out the origin of his family name…
She'd looked it up on the internet. No wonder she'd been starry-eyed. He'd been reluctant to answer her bombardment of questions at first, but he'd finally relented and told her a little about his branch of the Venetian Vincentis. His forefathers had been marquises since the earliest days of the Venetian Republic. Those early marquises had been among the noble families responsible for electing each Doge as head of the country, and had served on the Council that had assisted the Doge to govern Venice.
All the way back to the earliest records each of Alessandro's forefathers had been designated Marchese d'Isole Veneziane Minori, which meant Marquis of the Minor Venetian Isles. So beautiful. So romantic.
He'd winced when she brought it up, but when she'd grilled him over it Alessandro had eventually admitted that in terms of family inheritance, he was the current marchese.
The Marchese d'Isole Veneziane Minori. After a bit of practice, the words had just rolled off her tongue. Marquis of the Minor Venetian Isles.
Oh, God, she'd been so impressed. She'd mocked him about it, teased him, but she'd been so utterly ravished Alessandro had laughed at her. It had been on that first golden afternoon at the beach.
She closed her eyes now to think of him stretched beside her, his lean, tanned body still glistening from the surf, his black hair gleaming, those deep, dark eyes, so sensual, so intent on her and her alone. That was when he'd kissed her for the first time. Afterwards, they'd had dinner, and then after that…
Even now, any mention of the Seasons hotel gave her a pang. If the walls of that suite had been able to talk…
His week had turned into two, then three, then stretched on through the summer until he could no longer put off going back for the start of his final semester at the Harvard Business School, where his firm was sending him. Her last glimpse of him before he boarded the plane had been so blurred with her tears she'd knocked over a small elderly woman, but the promise had kept her afloat.
As always when she thought of it her stomach gave a churn. She'd have kept her side of it if she could, if only Fate hadn't got in the way. Like a trusting fool, she'd have been there to meet him, just in case he had decided to come back. But there'd been the bushfires, her father, then her dreadful time in hospital. And afterwards…
Oh, God. Afterwards, a seismic shift in who and what she was.
But Alessandro didn't know that. If she could just hang onto that fact…
She steeled her nerve, and gave the conference-room door a gentle inwards push.
The small room seemed crammed. Not that Stiletto had such a large staff, only six in editorial, plus two part-time assistants, but it was rare to see everyone assembled at the same time. With the publicity staff, and the sales and production people, the numbers swelled to the twenties. Grateful to see an empty chair not too far inside the door, Lara crept to it as noiselessly as she could.
All the organised people who'd managed to arrive on time were sitting silent and watchful, listening. In the absence of Bill, their dreamy, slightly slipshod ex-Managing Director, Cinta from Sales and Marketing had volunteered to stand up on behalf of the company. Looking as sinuous as ever in a dress that had been spray-painted to her bones, Cinta was delivering a flowery welcome speech for the takeover team in the sultry voice she assumed for really attractive men.
Lara spotted him at once, her heart shaking like a quake zone. A glimpse only, a mere flash, but it was him all right, seated to one side of the lectern, right next to the terrifyingly groomed woman with the razor cut bob and the fantastic suit whom Cinta introduced as Donatuila Capelli, one of Scala's top executives from the New York office. Lara could believe it. Every thread the woman wore screamed Fifth Avenue.
Lara sat down just as Donatuila got up to deliver a few bracing words in a fabulous deep, husky Manhattan accent, before embarking on a slick presentation of the latest on Scala's product sales. Lara was thankful that, with so much going on, Alessandro wouldn't have noticed her late arrival. She was so glad she'd decided to dress up, even if her boots were killers.
At the other end of the room, Alessandro sat frozen for seconds, then deliberately relaxed his muscles and concentrated on breathing until the roaring sensation in his blood eased. It was her. No doubt of it, that late arrival was Lara Meadows. The blonde hair he remembered, if quite a lot longer now, the distinctive tilt of her chin, her graceful, willowy form. No other woman entering a room had ever had that effect on him.
And neither would she, ever again. It had simply been the shock of the initial sighting. Understandable, considering he'd scanned the room and resigned himself to believing her absent. It had even occurred to him that she might have quit rather than face him. But no, she wasn't lying low or fleeing for cover. Unlike the rest of her colleagues, she was merely late.
He had to hand it to her. That behaviour was nothing short of casual.
He made an infinitesimal lean to the right, and in a chink between the rows saw her cross her legs as she relaxed into her chair. The long, shapely legs he remembered were partially encased in long boots, drawing attention to silky, smooth knees. Sexy, but… Something like a hot needle pierced his professional composure and homed straight to that raw nerve. Insolente was the word that boiled up in him.
The sheer gall of her to be late. The gall. Of all the people in the room who should be anxious to demonstrate courtesy… Who should have left no stone unturned to ensure of meeting her obligation this morning.
Here was a woman who knew nothing of respect.