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It seemed like only weeks ago that Sabrina had attended her best friend's wedding, now she was attending her funeral. Any funeral was sad, but a double one had to be the worst, she thought as Laura and her husband Ric's coffins were solemnly carried out of the church by the dark-suited pallbearers.
Sabrina caught the eye of the tallest of the men bearing Ric's coffin, but quickly shifted her gaze, her heart starting and stopping like an old engine. Those coal-black eyes had communicated much more to her than was fitting for a funeral. Even with her head well down, she could still feel the scorch of his gaze on her, the sensitive skin on the back of her neck feeling as if a thousand nerves were dancing with excitement in anticipation of the stroke of his hand, or the burning brush of his sensual lips.
Sabrina cuddled Molly close to her chest and joined the rest of the mourners outside the church, taking some comfort in the fact that at only four months old the little baby would not remember the tragic accident that had taken both her parents from her. Unlike Sabrina, Molly would not remember the sickly sweet smell of the lilies and the sight of the grief-stricken faces, nor would she remember the burial, nor watch in crushing despair as her mother was lowered into the ground, knowing that she was now all alone in the world.
The procession moved to the cemetery, and after a brief but poignant service there the mourners moved on to Laura's stepmother's house for refreshments.
Ingrid Knowles was in her element as the grieving hostess. She brandished a rarely empty glass of wine as she chatted her way through the crowd of mourners, her makeup still intact, every strand of her perfectly coiffed bottle-blonde hair lacquered firmly in place.
Sabrina kept a low profile, hovering in the background to keep Molly from being disturbed by the at-times rowdy chatter. Most of Laura and Ric's close friends had left soon after the serviceapart from Mario Marcolini. From the moment he had entered the house he had stood with his back leaning indolently against the wall near the bay window, with a brooding expression on his arrestingly handsome face, not speaking, not drinking just watching.
Sabrina tried not to look at him, but every now and again her eyes would drift back to him seemingly of their own volition, and, each time they did, she encountered his dark, cynical gaze centred on hers.
She quickly looked away again, her heart skipping a beat and her skin breaking out in a moist wave of heat as she remembered what had happened the last time they had been alone together.
She was almost glad when Molly started to become restless so she could escape to another room to see to the little baby's needs.
When Sabrina came back out a few minutes later, Mario was no longer leaning against the wall. She let out a breath of relief, assuming he had left, when all of a sudden she felt every hair on the back of her neck rise to attention when she felt a hard male body brush against her from behind.
'I did not expect to see you again so soon,' Mario said in his deeply accented, mellifluous voice.
Sabrina took a shaky step forward and slowly turned around, cradling Molly protectively against her breasts. 'No, I I guess not.' She lowered her eyes from the startling intensity of his dark brown ones, her brain scrambling for something else to say to fill the gaping silence. What was it about this man that made her feel like a nervous schoolgirl instead of a mature woman of twenty-five? He was so sophisticated, so urbane, such a man of the world, and she was soshe hated to say it but it was truegauche.
'Um, it was very good of you to come all the way back to Australia when you'd only just left,' she mumbled.
'Not at all,' he said in a tone that had a rough, sandpaper sort of quality to it. 'It was the least I could do.'
There was another loaded silence.
Sabrina moistened the parchment of her lips, trying not to look at him, trying not to think of how close he was standing to her, and how foolishly she had reacted to that closeness just a matter of weeks ago. Would she ever be able to erase that totally embarrassingno, mortifying few minutes from her mind?
'Laura's stepmother seems to be enjoying herself,' Mario commented.
Sabrina methis sardonic, midnight gaze. 'Yes. I'mkind of glad now Laura's father isn't around to see it,' she said. 'Laura would be so embarrassed if ' She bit her lip, unable to speak, fresh tears springing to her eyes as she bowed her head.
She felt a warm and very large hand touch her briefly on the shoulder, the tingling sensation it set off under her skin feeling as if a million bubbles of an effervescent liquid had been injected into her blood.
She brought her gaze back to his once more, a rueful grimace contorting her face. 'I'm sorry,' she said. 'I'm trying to be strong for Molly's sake, but sometimes I just '
'Do not apologise,' he said in that same deep, gravel-rough tone. He paused for a moment and, lowering his gaze to the sleeping baby in her arms, asked, 'Do you think Molly is aware of what is happening?'
Sabrina looked down at the tiny baby and released a sigh. 'She's only four months old, so it's hard to say. She is feeding and sleeping well, but that's probably because she is used to me looking after her occasionally.'
Another silence tightened the air, tighter, tighter and tighter, until Sabrina could feel the tension building in her throat. She felt like a hand was round her neck, the pressure slowly building and building.
'Is there somewhere we can speak together in private?' Mario asked.
Sabrina felt that same invisible hand suddenly reach inside her and clutch at her insides and squeeze. She had sworn after the last time that she would never allow herself to be alone again with Mario Marcolini. It was too dangerous. The man was a notorious playboy; even in a state of grief he was unable to shake off his air of rakish charm. She felt the warm waves of male interest washing over her even now, those sleep-with-me dark eyes of his sending a shiver of reaction racing up and down her spine every time they came into contact with hers.
Her eyes flicked briefly to his mouth, her stomach knotting all over again at the thought of how she had been tempted to taste its promise of passion in the past. Her lips had never felt quite the same since, nor had the rest of her body, which had been jammed up against him so tightly she had felt every hard, male ridge of him
Sabrina gave herself a mental shake. This was hardly the time or place to be thinking of her one and only lapse into stupidity. She squared her shoulders and nodded towards a room off the main living area. 'There's a small study through there,' she said. 'It's where I put Molly's pram and changing bag earlier.'
She led the way, conscious of his gaze on her with every not-quite-steady step she took. No doubt he was comparing her to all the glamorous women he cavorted with back home in Europe, she thought with a kernel of bitterness lodging in her throat. His latest mistress was a catwalk model, tall and reed-slim, with platinum-blonde hair and breasts that would have made sleeping on her stomach uncomfortable if not impossible. But then he had probably moved on to someone else by now. He was known for changing his girlfriends like some people changed their shirts.
It was a lifestyle Sabrina could not relate to at all. The three things she longed for most in life were love, stability and commitment, and she knew she would be nothing but a gullible fool if she thought for even a moment that someone like Mario Marcolini could give them to her. He might be as handsome as sin and as tempting as the devil, but he was way out of her league, and always would be. Her gauche attempt to get him to notice her at Molly's christening had more than confirmed that.
She opened the study door and, moving across to where the pram was, gently tucked Molly under the pink-bunny rug before turning to face Mario. Yet again she had to fight the urge not to stare at him. He was so impossibly good-looking it was heart-stopping even to glance at him. At six-feet-four, he towered over her five-feet-seven, and with that ink-black, glossy hair and those equally dark, glinting eyes he made her feel mousy and grey in comparison.
He closed the study door with a click that immediately dulled the sound of the chatter and clatter of the wake going on without them. It was like a volume switch suddenly being turned down; it made the silence of the study all the more intimidating, the closer confines of the room making her all too aware of the fact that he only had to take a stride or two to reach out and touch her.
His eyes met hers, holding them as if he had some sort of secret, magnetic power over her; she couldn't look away if she tried. 'We have a problem to solve and it needs to be solved quickly,' he said.
Sabrina paused for a moment to moisten her lips with the tip of her tongue. She had been preparing herself for this, but even so, now that it came to the crunch, she felt devastated. She knew what he was going to do. He was going to take Molly back to Italy with him and there would be nothing she could do to stop him. She would never see her little god-daughter again if the very rich, very powerful and very ruthless Mario Marcolini had anything to do with it.
'You have been informed that we have been appointed joint guardians of Molly, correct?' he said, still watching her with that brooding, hawk-like gaze.
Sabrina nodded, her throat moving up and down over a knot of despair. She had been informed a couple of days ago of the terms of the guardianship Laura and Ric had nominated in their wills. She had also been told it was going to be challenged by Laura's stepmother, who believed she and her new husband could offer Molly the more stable and secure future.
The lawyer had been up front about Sabrina's chances of keeping Molly in her care, and it didn't look good. The court would decide on the basis of the best interests of the child: for instance who had the most to offer in terms of security, of the child's welfare and future provision. Sabrina was not only single, but currently out of work, while Ingrid Knowles and her husband, Stanley, although on the wrong side of fifty, were more than well off and had made no secret of their wish for a child.
'Y-yes,' she said, running her tongue across her chalk-dry lips again. 'I am well aware of Laura and Ric's wishes, but the legal advice I have been given is I stand very little chance of fulfilling them due to, er, my current circumstances.'
He gave her an inscrutable look. 'Your current circumstances being that you are single, unemployed and lately labelled a home-wrecker, correct?'
As much as it galled Sabrina to agree with him, what choice did she have otherwise? The press had made her out to be a bed-hopping babysitter with her eyes on the main chance. She had wanted to defend herself, but knew she could not do so without upsetting the Roebourne children by exposing their father for the perfidious and lecherous creep he was.
'Pretty much,' she said with a grim set to her mouth. 'Laura would be heartbroken to think her stepmother will get custody of Molly. She hated Ingrid with a passion. She told me so only a few days before ' she gulped back her emotion ' before the accident.'
Mario began to slowly pace the room back and forth, like a caged lion meticulously planning an escape. Sabrina stood with her arms crossed over her chest like a shield. She kept her breathing as shallow and steady as she could, but even so she felt her nostrils flare as the exotic spices of his aftershave insinuated their way into her system, making her feel intoxicated, as if she had breathed in a powerful, aromatic drug.
'I will not allow that woman and her husband to have full custody of Ric's child,' Mario said, turning to face her, his dark eyes diamond-hard with determination. 'I will do everything, and I mean everything, in my power to prevent it.'
Sabrina felt her heart sink at his adamant statement. This was it. This was the part where he would state his intention of taking Molly back with him to Italy. Her stomach churned with anguish; how could she let this happen? Surely there was something she could do? She had grown up without her mother, without someone who loved her and understood her. How could she let the very same thing happen to little Molly?
'I have a temporary solution,' Mario said.
'Y-you have?' Sabrina's voice was barely audible.
'We are Molly's godparents, and legally appointed guardians. These are both responsibilities I intend to take very seriously.'
'I understand that but, as you say, we are both responsible for her, and I too take those responsibilities equally seriously,' she said, wishing she had sounded more determined and less intimidated. Wishing she felt less intimidated.
His eyes held hers for a tense moment. 'Then we shall have to share those responsibilities in the best way we can.'
'What are you suggesting?' Sabrina asked, conscious of a frown tugging at her forehead. 'I live in Australia, you live in Italy. It's not as if we can share custody of an infant, or at least not in what the courts will acknowledge is an acceptable way with Molly's best interests at heart. She can't be shifted back and forth between countries. She's just a baby, for God's sake. I'm not sure what it's like in your country, but here the courts are big on what is best for the child.'
His jaw was set in an intractable line, his black-brown gaze still drilling into hers. 'Ric was my best friend,' he said. 'I will not stand by and let his daughter be brought up by a couple who in my opinion are not worthy of the custody of an animal, let alone a small infant.'