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'One more take, Blaze! That's it! Toss back that glorious mane of yours and smile. Smile up at the child. She's your daughter, remember. Higher! Lift her higher! Perfect! That's beautiful, darling! Bea-u-ti-ful!'
The gushing praise from the cameraman was as synthetic, Libby thought, as the relationship between herself and the giggling baby suspended high above her head. Like the nickname someone had given her at the outset of her career that had helped propel her up the ladder to supermodel status following a chance discovery at a small fashion show she had paraded in for a local charity.
What did it matter to the Press and the public that she was weary of pretending? That behind the shining trademark of her heavy red hair, the clothes and make-up and the pure artifice in standing in a summer meadow, promoting an exclusive range of skincare, which purported to make her skin as soft as that of any baby's, she was still just Libby Vincent. Or rather Vincenzo, she thought with a pained mental grimace. An average girl from an average background, who couldn't run away from who she really was no matter how hard she tried, or from the far from average burden of guilt she carried everywhere.
'OK! That's it! Beautiful, darling. Perfect!'
With an indiscernible sigh, she brought her arms down and the child with them, mercifully relieved that the shoot was over. She didn't think she could have endured another second.
The snowy fabric of her peasant skirt brushed her slender calves as she trudged back through the long grass. The baby she was reluctantly cradling crooned up at her, revealing two small white teeth, its little button nose wrinkling as it grasped her camisole with onetiny pink hand.
Libby dragged air through her lungs, a longing of such intensity sweeping over her that for an endless moment she couldn't seem to breathe as she fought the urge to clasp the infant fiercely to her.
Keeping a tight rein on her galloping emotions, her flawless features rigid as stone, somehow she made it back to the mobile make-up unit, where the rest of the team were waiting.
'Here.' The emotion clogging her throat made her sound decidedly curt as she thrust the child towards its mother, while the baby, obviously sensing the tension in Libby, began to bawl, her eager little arms outstretched as the other woman took her, leaving Libby to spin determinedly away.
'Isn't she a cutie?' Fran, a mature brunette with two growing boys of her own, couldn't help drooling as Libby approached, seeking only the seclusion of the huge green trailer behind them.
Beneath the make-up that Fran had applied so expertly earlier, Libby's face felt like a tight, tense mask. 'If you say so.'
'You'd forgotten, Fran.' It was the cynical voice of Steve Cullum, one of the technicians who had once asked Libby out and received the same polite brush-off for which she was renowned with the opposite sex. 'Blaze doesn't do maternal. Or any other sort of relationship for that matter.'
It was something the Press often speculated about. Her past. The lack of men in her life. Even, at times, her sexuality.
"Beneath the fire, is there only ice?" one tabloid newspaper had printed after she had refused to give them an interview, share with them her views on love, on marriage, on children.
And why should she? she thought bitterly now. These things were private. Which was why, unsurprisingly, they had never found out her real name, never been able to connect her with Luca.
Anguish speared her as she thought about the boy she had married; about the tragic waste of life when he'd been killed in that car accident less than a year later. She had loved Luca; had had plenty of thoughts and feelings then. But that was a long time ago, before her emotions had been numbed by events and actions that were too damning even to think about; when loving had come naturally and she'd believed that happiness was everyone's birthrighteven hers.
Inwardly she ridiculed herself for her gross naïvety. Because of course that was before she had met the prejudice and disapproval of the Vincenzo family. Before she'd felt his father's tyranny; known the cutting censure of Luca's darkly commanding older brother.
A prickly sensation lifted the hairs on the back of her neck as the disturbing features of Romano Vincenzo reared up before her eyes. A man who was lethally attractive and ruthlessly uncompromising. A man definitely not to be crossed. It hadn't just been mutual dislike that she had shared with Romano Vincenzo. It had been something more. Something much stronger and intensely profound that she had never been able to put a name to, and which she certainly wasn't going to waste any time wondering about six years on.
It was all in the past, and over the years she had become adept at hiding her emotions, which she did now, crushing her unwelcome reverie beneath a bright smile as Fran asked, 'Are you coming to the party tonight, Blaze?'
'You try and stop me!' It was a first-rate performance she was giving and she knew it; knew also that it was one she would have to keep up until she could change, get back to the Porsche and slam out of there, away from the turmoil of her unwelcome thoughts; of memoriesresurrected by a simple skin-cream commercial which she couldn't bear to face. 'After a week of staying in every night, getting up at four am and coming here to be bitten by mosquitoes,' she forced out laughingly over her shoulder, 'I'm going to party till dawn!'
* * *
Well, what had he been expecting? Romano thought, standing there in the trailer, when Libby, not looking where she was going, almost collided with him. That she had changed?
He caught her small gasp, felt her warmth and closeness and the pure femininity of her washing over him on a sensual wave.
'Buon giorno, Libby.' His senses, normally so controlled, were leaping into overdrive, making his heart race, his voice take on a husky quality as he watched the colour drain from the smooth texture of her high, Slavic cheekbones, saw her lush red mouth open in a gesture of pure shock.
'I'm sorry, Blaze ' Fran's voice followed her in, quickly contrite, breaking in on the whirling chaos of her thoughts. 'I meant to tell you. I'm sorry, Mr Vincenzo ' The woman's tone had changed in deference to the tall, tanned Italian hunk looming there in the aperture of her mobile studio and whose dark designer suit couldn't conceal the hard masculinity of the man beneath. 'I hadn't forgotten you were waiting '
Romano's sleek black hair gleamed like jet as he gave a curt nod before reaching around the stunned Libby and pulling the trailer's sliding door closed with a rattling firmness that blocked out Fran and the rest of the world.
He hadn't changed, some small functioning part of Libby silently acknowledged. A high-profile entrepreneur, with that overall impression of lithe fitness and impeccable style, he still dominated any room he happened to walk into, still held sway over others with that bred-in-the bone confidence and effortless authority.
'Wh-what are you doing here?' Struck by the ridiculous notion that her thoughts must have conjured him up, Libby found herself as she'd always been in this man's company, a mixture of tongue-tied nervousness and challenging rebellion. And then, as shock receded and rational thought took over, she was urging in a voice strung with blind panic, 'What's wrong? What is it? Is something the matter?'
Some racing emotion darkened the long green eyes gazing up at him from beneath their rich mahogany lashes as they had done from the covers of countless glossy magazines over the years.
'Not that I know of.'
He saw her eyes close, the pressing of those long, feathery lashes against the alabaster skin a response he understood and accepted, though not without a measure of surprise.
'How long have you been here?' Weak-kneed with relief from this unexpected encounter with Luca's brotherLibby tried to get a grip on her errant thoughts.
His deeply-accented voice was as rich as she remembered it, his face as hard-boned and as classically structured, from his high intellectual forehead, straight nose and that forceful, darkly shadowed jaw to those penetrating black eyes that had always seemed to probe right down into the depths of her soul.
Her nostrils flaring, guardedly she demanded, 'Why didn't you make yourself known?'
His wide masculine mouth compressed, a mouth that could curl with disdain or make a woman's bones melt in the blaze of one smile. 'And miss watching the nation's loveliest model playing at doting motherhood?'
His double-edged compliment hit home hard and she swept determinedly past him, the brush of his jacket as their shoulders collided sending a tingling friction across her bare skin.
She gave a nonchalant little shrug, her feelings held on a throttle-tight leash. 'It isn't a role I'd normally have chosen.' In fact she had tried to refuse the job, but it was her agent who had warned her of the inadvisability of turning down such opportunities and who had won in the end.
Something flickered in Romano's eyes beneath his midnight-black lashes.
'Is that why you handed the kid over like she was a sack of potatoes?'
'Did I?' It was hard trying to pretend he wasn't unsettling her when even to her own ears her voice was shaking. 'I thought I was being careful.'
The firm mouth tugged downwards. 'As careful as you were when you handed over Giorgio?'
'Giorgi?' The name escaped her like a helpless little plea. He'd said there was nothing wrong, but something had to be because in all these years he had never chosen to patronise her with so much as a social call. 'He's all right, isn't he?'
It was only a heartbeat before he answered, and yet it seemed an eternity.
'That hasn't worried you for the past six years. So why should it suddenly concern you now?'
She couldn't tell him how much she had grieved for the baby son she had been forced to hand over so cruelly; how much she ached to see him, know him, her concern for his welfare and her need to be with him an excruciating pain that tore at her constantly no matter how many days, weeks, months or years dragged by.
'You wouldn't be here if it didn't concern Giorgio,' Libby breathed, feeling like a slave begging for mercy from a powerful master who held the key, not just to her happiness, but also to her very existence on this earth. 'Are you going to tell me what it is?' Her eyes were dark pools against the pale oval of her face. 'Or are you taking some sort of warped satisfaction out of seeing me suffer?'
'Suffer?' A thick eyebrow arched darkly against his tanned forehead. 'You? I don't think so, Libby. A moment ago you had nothing on your mind but partying until dawn.'
Libby felt something snap inside of her and the next moment, to her own horror, she was flying at him, fingers clamping like angry claws onto the expensive cloth of his jacket, her teeth clenched in an agony of frustration.
'Are you going to tell me? Or am I going to have to rip it out of you?' she sobbed, suddenly all too conscious of his physicality and the sheer power of him, the knowledge that he could subdue her with just one gram of his latent strength should he choose to do so.
Fortunately he didn't. Instead he caught her angry hands and held them against his chest, bringing her startlingly alive to the hard warmth of him beneath the impeccable cut of his clothes.
Some hot emotion burned in the incredibly dark gaze resting on her lips, strangely at odds with the deepening furrow between his eyes. 'Easy. Take it easy,' he advised hoarsely.
If he was truthful with himself, Romano thought, he was shocked by the strength of her reaction to what had, after all, been his unprovoked taunts. But what human being wouldn't feel justified in making them? he vindicated himself with his jaw clenching. Knowing exactly what made this single-minded little opportunist tick? But perhaps that was the reason for her wild and totally unexpected outburst. Guilt, it occurred to him suddenly. She'd be less than human if what she had done hadn't left her with some measure of remorse, so perhaps she had suffered. Because she was human, and very much a woman, two aspects he was vitally aware of now as he became conscious of the slender bones of her wrists beneath the hard pressure of his fingers, felt the life that was pulsing through her like the fluttering of a frantic sparrow so that he had to harden his swerving convictions and try to focus on her as the heartless little gold-digger she had proved herself to be, because he could deal with that.
'So there's a flame beneath the fire,' he recognised mockingly, obviously wise to that unkind headline about her. 'But then we always suspected I'd be the one to bring it out in you, didn't we, cara?'
'Wh-what are you talking about?' Libby stammered. He couldn't have the slightest notion of the way he had used to affect herstill affected her!could he? she wondered hectically. Couldn't have guessed how he had plagued her troubled dreams even when she was happily married to his brother. But that was only because she had been so young, so overawed and intimated by him, she exonerated herself. Because she had loved Luca! She still loved Luca!
Her green eyes clouded over now as fear and grief, despair and a repression of feelings that she wasn't equipped to deal with coalesced with her maternal longing so that she swayed unsteadily under the weight of them.
'I think you'd better sit down.'
Catching his husky recommendation, shockingly aware of one iron-strong arm across her back, Libby did as she was told, dropping down onto the chair angled away from the mirror and Fran's pots of creams, mascara wands and lipstick phials.
Rocking back on his heels, Romano dragged in a deep breath. She wasn't going to like hearing what he had to say.
Wedging her hands between her knees to stop them trembling,
Libby stared up at him as though he had just descended from a cloud.
'Would you mind repeating that?' she whispered.
His features were passive, his eyes hard and assessing. 'I think you heard me, Libby.'
Yes, she had, she realised, stunned, disbelieving. She hadn't yet come to terms with the fact that Romano Vincenzo was actually hereon the shootlet alone got her brain round the demands he was suddenly making. In a minute, she thought, she would wake up and find that this was all some crazy dream, yet contrarily she knew he was anything but a figment of her imagination.