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When one was thirteen years old and a beautiful little girl with long gypsy dark hair and huge lustrous dark eyes bent down to kiss his cheek? When he'd had to swallow painfully hard against a great welling spring of barely remembered emotion? When he'd caught a dazzling glimpse of happiness, a meaning, and a purpose in life? No one outside his tragic mother had ever kissed him or moved his heart. But Clio Templeton had pulled him out of his deep emotional void that unforgettable day. In a way it had transformed him. Made up for a lot of the deprivation he had suffered. Only nine years old but little Clio Templeton had penetrated a shield so thick and strong he had thought no one could get through it. That was until she'd put her rosebud mouth very gently to his water-slicked cheek.
Clio Templeton, the only person in the world to make a breakthrough in the harrowing years since his mother had left him. He didn't believe to this day his mother had overdosed deliberately. She had loved him. And he had loved her. They had been two against the world. He had no idea who his father was, a callous man at any rate. Maybe he could go the same way. He had to physically resemble the man who had fathered him, because his mother, Carol, had been dark haired, hazel eyed and petite of stature. Whoever his biological father had been, his mother had never revealed his name. And this was the man who had destroyed her dreams, then her life, leaving him a desolate orphan.
So that was his history. His mother had died. He had been left alive with all chance of normal life slipped away. He had been left to cope with life from age five. Total incomprehension. Grief. Loneliness. Extreme isolation. They had even renamed him, picking someone from the Bible. His given name had sounded too foreign. With the years came the terrible anger. He had seethed with it. Not burying it deep. It had all been there on show. As he had grown, his body had become solid muscle. He had eventually shot up to six-three. A formidable height. A formidable body. Back then he might have been a young lion escaped from the zoo. So that was God's great plan for him, was it? he had reasoned. A probable life in prison? He no longer believed in a God. Why would he? Shunted from one home to another, juvenile detention, he had seen it all, some of it much too shocking to speak of.
He'd had to rise above his past, every rotten episode. But the monumental effort had made him depressingly hard, separating him from other people. No chinks in his armour. He knew a lot of the good people in the town backed off him. They didn't have the understanding to realize what he'd been through. Probably wouldn't believe it anyway. They after all had led charmed lives. The tropical town of Templeton was as physically beautiful and prosperous as anywhere in the Promised Land.
By the time he arrived at the Templeton mansion, the cul-de-sac that fronted the estate and the sweeping driveway was parked with luxury cars, the most expensive of them all belonging to Jimmy Crowley. Hell, Crowley was only a year older than he was. The car would have suited rich Granddaddy Crowley better, the old scoundrel, raw, ugly, powerful, but Jimmy was struggling to get across that he too could also become a man of substance. He had to be because Jimmy, along with his family, had convinced themselves Clio Templeton was Jimmy's. Who else could it be but the most beautiful girl in the world? God knew, Josh didn't disagree with that.
When he climbed out of his metallic grey Porsche, the scented summer air wrapped around him—frangi-pani, oleander, gardenia, the rich white ginger blossom and the king jasmine. He found himself gasping with the sheer pleasure of taking in the mingled fragrances. Just about every beautiful tropical flower and plant was represented in the gardens. There was no shortage of space. The Templeton mansion occupied twenty acres of prime real estate even the Templetons would be hard pressed to buy these days. The splendour of the gardens was known state wide. They were opened to the public from time to time. Leo's mother had had constructed a huge eight-acre manmade fresh-water lake—no crocs to cause concern—with an amazing waterfall spilling over extraordinary big boulders that had been found in the area or brought in. The water supply came from a dam sited well away from the house. No one looking at the lake would ever know it was artificial. The verges were surrounded by luxuriant natural grasses and bullrushes, huge stands of the pure white arum lily, Japanese water iris and groves of tree ferns. The lake was a focal point for the magnificent grounds.
He looked towards the house. The scale of the place over the years had become little short of heroic. There was a certain absurdity to that, seeing that these days only two people, Leo and his granddaughter, lived there. Leo's wife, Margaret, had died ten or more years back. The long-time housekeeper, Meg Palmer, and her husband, Tom, Leo's man Friday, had their own very comfortable and private bungalow in the grounds.
The mansion lit up was a sight to take the breath away—vast, white, tropical colonial style with touches of South East Asia that were evident in the fine timber fretwork that was featured throughout the grand residence. The festive season was coming on. Leo liked to entertain. In no time it would be Christmas, with the Templeton big annual Christmas Eve party, not that Christmas meant anything to Josh. He had no one. There had been women in his life, of course. Sex eased many tensions but real emotion evaded him. There was no woman he had wanted to allow into his daily life; no one could thaw his heart or navigate his quiet but perilous moods. Sometimes he thought he had no choice but to remain forever a loner. He knew it could happen.
One hundred of the town's richest and most influential citizens had been invited to tonight's party. It was to raise more funds for neonatal equipment, which didn't come cheap. The Templetons had actually put up most of the money for the town's highly accredited hospital. Guests were naturally expected to plunge their hands deep into their pockets. The usual sumptuous buffet would be provided. Leo had insisted he come, though he would have refused had it been anyone else, with the only exception the exquisite Clio.
Not that Clio would have invited him. He and Clio were to stay a safe distance from one another. He had got the message early. Clio was the princess. He was the pauper. Consequently they had not been allowed to grow in any way closer, though he often saw her when he visited Leo. His visits were not so frequent these days. He had reached the point early in life when he was already a millionaire a satisfying number of times over. These days he was the property man. Real estate made fortunes more than anything else short of mining and he had interests in that. The North had been enjoying a tremendous building boom. He had made the most of it, buying up broken-down properties, putting up lucrative apartments, office blocks and a new shopping mall.
Leo had financed him at the beginning. He had paid Leo back with interest. Leo Templeton had made a better life possible for him. He was acutely aware how much he owed Leo, who had stepped in after the "baby Ella" incident to take on a trusteeship, a milder form of guardianship, of him. But Leo's granddaughter was too rare a creature to be tainted by his squalid past. Whatever residual feeling remained from that day years ago, both hid it so deep it might never be allowed to surface.
Clio had lived with her grandfather since Lyle Templeton, Clio's father, had remarried a few years back. Clio's mother had been killed in a yachting catastrophe when two yachts had collided at sea. Clio had been seventeen at the time, devastated by her loss and the bizarre way it had happened. They had been as close as mother and daughter could be.
There was no rapport whatever with the second Mrs. Templeton. Keeley Templeton was many years younger than Lyle, no great beauty like Clio's mother Allegra, with her aristocratic Italian background, but she had turned herself into a glamour girl with an endless flow of small talk that was good for such functions.
Inside the mansion, the entrance hall, big enough to park several cars, was filled with people who had gone through the receiving formalities and were making their way into the reception rooms. Josh was one of the last to arrive, just as he planned. Leo, still a fine, handsome man but looking frailer every time he saw him, was standing with his beautiful granddaughter, receiving their guests as they arrived. How easy it was to see Clio had been born to wealth and privilege and a mix of only the best genes. Her mother had been a member of a patrician Florentine family.
Lyle Templeton had met Allegra when he had been visiting Italy as part of his Grand Tour. Their meeting place, the iconic Uffizi, where both of them had been contemplating Botticelli's "The Birth of Venus". Allegra at that time had been a very promising art student and a highly cultured young woman. She had spoken English. He'd had no Italian but they had fallen madly in love. On sight. The classic coup de foudre. Scarred as he was within, Josh knew that could happen. The sight of Clio Templeton even as a nine-year-old was graven into his mind.
"Good to see you, Josh!" Leo beamed as the two men shook hands. Leo's pleasure was so obvious that quite a few people stopped in the middle of their conversations to wonder why the patrician Leo Templeton had taken this tall, stunningly handsome but definitely edgy young man under his wing. He might have been a gatecrasher such was their disapproval, albeit carefully hidden. No one dared to put that disapproval on plain view. No one wished to offend Leo, of course. No one wanted to offend the likes of Josh Hart.
Now they were facing each other. "Good evening, Josh." Clio addressed him in her charming voice.
"How are you, Clio?" His eyes consumed her. That was the best part of his blue eyes. They burned, or so he'd been told, but they gave away no hint of his inner emotions. That's what made him a brilliant poker player.
"I'm very well, thank you." She tilted her lovely oval face up to him.
She had beautifully marked eyebrows, her dark eyes huge. She looked exquisite, the ideal model for a fine painting. He had learned from Leo that her mother had called her Clio after the subject of one of Allegra's favourite paintings, Vermeer's The Allegory of Painting depicting the Muse of History, Clio. With that in mind he had actually taken a side trip from Rome to Vienna to check out the painting in the museum where it was held. All in all he had spent a lot of time in art museums at home and abroad. He had made it his business to educate himself way beyond his Law-Commerce Degree, which Leo had made possible, cramming so much into a few short years, vast amounts of learning and knowledge. It amused him that he was something of a natural scholar. But the beautiful Clio was to be no part of his life. He was excluded from the Templeton ranks.
Tonight she was wearing a long satin dress in a colour that beggared description. It was neither green nor gold but a blend of the two. The plaited straps that held the bodice were knotted over her collarbone. There was another knot beneath the discreetly plunging neckline; a wide black sash showed off her narrow waist. Her wonderful sable hair was arranged with the classic centre parting and drawn back from her honey-skinned face into intricate loops. Three-tiered pendant earrings swung from her ears. He thought the stones were citrine, mandarin garnet and amethyst, probably Bulgari. She looked ravishing, a sheen all over her.
Did the excitement in her presence ever go away? He wanted no other woman but her. The one woman he couldn't have.
He had only just moved from the receiving line into the living room that was so richly and elegantly furnished it could have featured in Architectural Digest when Keeley Templeton broke away from her group to come towards him with a show of enthusiasm that put him right on edge.
"Josh!" Her smile held the usual sexual come-on. "This is a surprise!" She laughed, going so far as to attempt to draw him into a hug, only he took her hand, holding it down firmly to her side.
"I don't think so, Keeley." There was a warning grate in his voice. "Your husband is over there. He mightn't like it."
"Probably not," she sighed. "But you do look wonderful, Josh. I've never seen a man look better in a dinner jacket. Terrific line and cut, and I especially love white dinner jackets in the summer."
"And you look quite exceptionally dolled up," he remarked very dryly, his eyes a startlingly blue in the golden tan of his face.
"Don't you like it?" She looked down at herself, then made a little face. She was wearing a short, strapless red dress sewn with crystals all over the bodice. It had cost the earth, and it showed off her legs, which were good. "Why don't you come join us?" she invited, glancing back to where her husband and a group of friends were in conversation. "You must want a drink."
Josh looked over her bright chestnut head with its fashionable blonde streaks, taking note of the people in the room. Many an overt stare shifted immediately when he focused on them. He knew he had a jittery effect on a lot of people. "Why is that?" he asked. "Why must I want a drink?"