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The words sounded as bitter as Sicilian lemons and as rich as its wine, but Jessica didn't lift her head from her task. There was a whole floor to wash and the executive cloakroom still to clean before she could go home. And besides, looking at Salvatore was distracting. She swirled her mop over the floor. Much too distracting.
'What is it with these women?' Salvatore demanded heatedly, and his eyes narrowed when he saw he was getting no response from the shadowy figure in the corner. 'Jessica?'
The question cracked out as sharply as if he had shot it from a guntaut and harsh and unconditionaland Jessica raised her head to look at the man who had fired it at her, steeling herself against his undeniable attraction, though that was easier said than done.
Even she, with her scant experience of the opposite sex, recognised that men like this were few and far between, something which might account for his arrogance and his famous short temper. Salvatore Cardini the figurehead of the powerful Cardini family. Dashing, dominant and the darling of just about every woman in London, if the gossip in the staff-room was to be believed.
'Yes, sir?' she said calmly, though it wasn't easy when he had fixed her within the powerful and intimidating spotlight of his eyes.
'Didn't you realise I was talking to you?'
Jessica put her mop into the bucket of suds and swallowed. 'Er, actually, no, I didn't. I thought you were talking to yourself.'
He glowered at her. 'I do not,' he said icily, in his accented yet flawless English, 'make a habit of talking to myself. I was expressing my angerand if you had any degree of insight then youmight have recognised that.'
And the subtext to that, Jessica supposed, was that if she possessed the kind of insight he was talking about, then she wouldn't be doing such a lowly job as cleaning the floor of his office.
But in the past months since the influential owner of Cardini Industries had flown in from his native Sicily, Jessica had wisely learnt to adapt to the great man's quirks of character. If Signor Cardini wished to talk to her, then she would let him talk away to his heart's content. The floor would always get finished when he left for the night. You ignored the head of such a successful company at your peril!
'I'm sorry, sir,' Jessica said serenely. 'Is there something I can help with?'
'I doubt it.' Moodily, Salvatore surveyed the computer screen. 'I am invited to a business dinner tomorrow night.'
Turning his dark head away from the screen, he threw her a cool stare. 'No, it is not nice' he mocked. 'Why do you English always describe things as nice? It is necessary. It makes good business sense to socialise with these people.'
Jessica looked at him a little helplessly. 'Then I'm afraid I don't really see what the problem is.'
'The problem is' Salvatore read the email again and his lips curved with disdain 'that the man I'm doing business with has a wifea rather pushy wife, it would seem. And the wife has friends. Many friends. And ' the words danced on the screen in front of him '"Amy is longing to meet you,"' he read. '"And so are her girlfriendssome of whom have to be seen to be believed! Don't worry, Salvatorewe'll have you engaged to an Englishwoman before the year is out!"'
'Well, what's wrong with that?' asked Jessica shyly, even though a stupidly misplaced pang of jealousy ran through her.
Salvatore gave a snort of derision. 'Why do people love to interfere?' he demanded. And why in Dio's name do they think that I am in need of a wife?'
Jessica gave a helpless kind of shrug. She didn't think he actually wanted an answer to this particular question and she rather hoped she didn't have to give him one. Because what could she say? That she suspected people were trying to marry him off because he was rich and well connected as well as being outrageously good-looking.
And yet despite the head-turning quality of his looks she thought his face was rather ruthless and cold when you got up close. True, the full mouth was sensual, but it rarely smiled and there was something rather forbidding about the way he could fix you with a gaze which froze you to the spot. Yet somehow, looking the way Salvatore did, he could be forgiven almost anything. And he was.
She'd seen secretaries swoon and tea-ladies get flustered in his presence. She'd observed his powerful colleagues regard him with a certain kind of deferential awe and to allow him to call all the shots. And she'd watched simply because he was a joy to watch.
He was tall and lean and his body was honed and hard, with the white silk shirt he wore hinting at the tantalising shape of the torso beneath. Raven-dark hair contrasted with glowing olive skin and completed the dramatic colour pallet of his Mediterranean allure.
But it was his eyes which were so startling. Bright bluelike the bluest sky or the sea on the most summery day of the year. Jessica had never imagined an Italian having eyes which were any other colour than black. The intensity of their hue seemed to suck all the life from his surroundings and sometimes she felt quite dizzy when they were directed on her. Like now.
And from the faintly impatient crease between his dark brows it seemed that he was expecting some kind of answer to his question.
Distracted by his presence, she struggled to remember exactly what it was he'd asked her. 'Perhaps they think you want a wife because you're er, wellyou're about the right kind of age to get married, sir.'
'You think that?' he demanded.
Jessica felt trapped. Backed into a corner. She shook her head. If he wasn't planning to whisk her off her feet, then she thought he should remain a lifelong bachelor!
'Actually, no. Your marital future is not something I've really considered,' she hedged. 'But you know what people are like. Once a man passes thirtywhich I assume you havethen everyone starts to expect marriage.'
'Sì,' said Salvatore and he ran a slow and thoughtful thumb over the hard line of his jaw where the shadow of new growth had already begun to rasp even though he had shaved that very morning. 'Exactly so. And in my own country it is the same!'
He shook his dark head impatiently. Had he really believed that things would be different here in England? Yes, of course he had. That had been one of his reasons for coming to Londonto enjoy a little uncomplicated fun before it came to the inevitable duty of choosing a suitable bride in Sicily. For once in his life he had wanted to escape all the expectations which inevitably accompanied his powerful nameparticularly at home.
Sicily was a small island where everyone knew everyone else and the subject of when and whom the oldest Cardini would marry had preoccupied too many, and for too long. On Sicily if he was seen speaking to a woman for more than a moment then her eager parents would be costing up her trousseau and casting covetous eyes over his many properties!
This was the first time he had lived somewhere other than his homeland for any length of time, and it had taken little more than a few weeks to discover that, even within the relative anonymity of England, expectation still ran high when it concerned a single, eligible man. Times changed less than you thought they did, he thought wryly.
Women plotted. And they behaved like vultures when they saw a virile man with a seemingly bottomless bank account. When was the last time he had asked a woman for her phone number? He couldn't remember. These days, they all seemed to whip out their cell phones to 'key you in' before he'd even had time to discover their surname! Salvatore had fiercely traditional values about the roles of the sexes, and he made no secret of the fact. And the fact was that men should do the chasing.
'The question is what I do about it,' he mused softly.
Jessica was unsure whether or not to pick up her mop again. Probably not. He was looking at her as if he expected her to say something else and it wasn't easy to know how to respond. She knew exactly what she'd say if it was a girlfriend who was asking her, but when it was your boss, how forthright could you afford to be? 'Well, that depends what choices you have, sir,' she said diplomatically.
Salvatore's long fingers drummed against the polished surface of his desk, the sound mimicking the raindrops which were pattering against the giant windows of his top-floor office suite. 'I always could turn the dinner invitation down,' he said.
'Yes, you could, but you'd need to give a reason,' she said.
'I could claim that I had a coldhow do you say, the "man-flu"?'
Jessica's lips curved into a reluctant smile because the very idea of Salvatore Cardini being helpless and ill was impossible to imagine. She shook her head. 'Then they'll only ask you another time.'
Salvatore nodded. 'That is true,' he conceded. 'Well, then, I could rearrange the dinner so that it was on my territory and with my guest-list.'
'But wouldn't that be a little rude? To so obviously want to take control of the situation?' she ventured cautiously.
He looked at her thoughtfully. Sometimes she seemed to forget herselfto tell him what she thought instead of what he wanted to hear! Was that because he had grown to confide in herso that some of the normal rules of hierarchy were occasionally suspended?
He realised that he spoke to Jessica in a way he wouldn't dream of speaking to one of his assistants, or their secretariesfor he had seen the inherent dangers in doing that before.
An assistant or secretary often misjudged a confidencedeciding that it meant he wanted to share a lifetime of confidences with them! Whereas the gulf between himself as chairman and Jessica as cleaner was much too wide for her ever to fall into the trap of thinking something as foolish as that. Yet she often quietly and unwittingly hit on the truth. Like now. He leaned back in his chair and thought about her words.
He had no desire to offend Garth Somervillenor to appear to snub his wife or her eager friends. And what harm would it do to attend a dinner with such women present? It wouldn't be the first time it had happened, or the last.
Yet he was in no mood for the idle sport of fending off predatory females. Like a child offered nothing but copious amounts of candy, his appetite had become jaded of late. And it didn't seem to matter how beautiful the women in question were. Sex so freely and so openly offered carried with it none of the mystique which most excited him.
'Sì,' he agreed softly. 'It would be rude.'
Almost without him noticing, Jessica plucked a cloth and a small plastic bottle from the pocket of her overall and began to polish his desk. 'So it looks like you're stuck with going after all,' she observed, and gave the desk a squirt of lemon liquid.
Salvatore frowned. Not for the first time, he found himself wondering just how old she wastwenty-two? Twenty-three? Why on earth was she cleaning offices for a living? Was she really happy coming in here, night after night, wielding a mop and a bucket and busying herself around him as he finished off his paperwork and signed letters?
He watched her while she workednot that there was a lot to see. She was a plain little thing and always covered her hair with a tight headscarf, which matched the rather ugly pink overall she wore. The outfit was loose and he had never looked at her as man would automatically look at a woman. Never considered that there might be a body underneath it all, but the movement of her arm rubbing vigorous circles on his desk suddenly drew attention to the fact that the material of her overall was pulling tight across her firm young breasts.
And that there was a body beneath it. Indeed, there was the hint of a rather shapely body. Salvatore swallowed. It was the unexpectedness of the observation which hit him and made him a sudden victim to a heavy kick of lust.
'Will you make me some coffee?' he questioned unevenly.
Jessica put her duster down and looked at him and wondered if it had ever occurred to the famously arrogant boss of Cardini Industries that his huge barn of an office didn't just magically clean itself. That the small rings left by the numerous cups of espresso he drank throughout the day needed to be wiped away, and the pens which he always left lying haphazardly around the place had to be gathered up and put together neatly in the pot on his desk.
She met the sapphire ice of his piercing stare without reacting to it. She doubted it. Men like this were used to their lives running seamlessly. To have legions of people unobtrusively working for them, fading away into the background like invisible cogs powering a mighty piece of machinery.
She wondered what he would say if she told him that she was not there to make his coffee. That it wasn't part of her job description. That it was a pretty sexist request and there was nothing stopping him from making his own.
But you didn't tell the chairman of the company that, did you? And, even putting aside his position of power, there was something so arrogant and formidable about him that she didn't quite dare. As if he were used to women running around doing things for him whenever he snapped his fingers and as if those women would rejoice in the opportunity to do so.
She walked over to the coffee machine, which looked as if a small spacecraft had landed in the office, made him a cup and carried it over to his desk.
'Your coffee, sir,' she said.
As she leaned forward he got the sudden drift of the lemon cleaning fluid mixed with some kind of cheap scent and it was an astonishingly potent blend. For a second Salvatore felt it wash unexpectedly over his senses. And suddenly an idea so audacious came to him that for a moment he allowed it to dance across his consciousness.