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'Who the hell is Jess?'
Drago Cassari raked his fingers through the swathe of dark hair that had fallen forward onto his brow, concern and frustration etched onto his hard features as he stared at the motionless figure of his cousin lying in the bed in the intensive care unit. Angelo's face was grey against the white sheets. Only the almost imperceptible rise and fall of his chest indicated that he was still clinging to life, aided by the various tubes attached to his body, while the machine next to the bed recorded his vital signs.
At least he was now breathing unaided, and three days after he had been pulled from the wreckage of his car and rushed to the Venice-Mestre hospital there were indications that he was beginning to regain consciousness. He had even muttered something. Just one word. A name.
'Do you know who Angelo is referring to?' Drago turned his gaze on the two women who were standing at the end of the bed, clinging to each other and weeping. 'Is Jess a friend of Angelo's?'
His aunt Dorotea gave a sob. 'I don't know what his involvement with her is. You know how strangely he has been behaving lately. He hardly ever answered his phone when I called him. But I did manage to speak to him a few days before ' her voice shook ' before the accident, and he told me that he had given up his college course and was living with a woman called Jess Harper.'
'Then perhaps she is his mistress.' Drago was not overly surprised to hear that his cousin had dropped out of the business course he had been studying at a private London college. Angelo had been overindulged by his mother since his father's death when he had been a young boy, and he shied away from anything that approached hard work. Rather more surprising was the news that he had been living with a woman in England. Angelo was painfully lacking in self-confidence with the opposite sex, but it sounded as though he had overcome his shyness.
'Did he give you the address of where he was staying? I need to contact this woman and arrange for her to visit him.' Drago glanced across the bed to the expert neurologist who was in charge of his cousin's care. 'Do you think there is a chance that the sound of her voice might rouse Angelo?'
'It is possible,' the doctor replied cautiously. 'If your cousin has a close relationship with this woman then he might respond if she talks to him.'
Aunt Dorotea gave another sob. 'I'm not sure it would be a good idea to bring her here. I am afraid she is a bad influence on Angelo.'
Drago frowned. 'What do you mean? Surely if this Jess Harper can help to rouse him then it is imperative that she comes to Italy as soon as possible? Why do you think she is a bad influence?'
He controlled his impatience as his aunt collapsed onto a chair and wept so hard that her shoulders shook. His jaw clenched. He understood her agony. When he had first seen Angelo after he had undergone surgery to stem the bleed in his brain Drago had felt the acid burn of tears at the back of his throat. His cousin was just twenty-two, in many ways still a boyalthough when he had been that age he had already become chairman of Cassa di Cassari, with a great weight of responsibility and expectation on his shoulders, he remembered. The deaths of his father and uncle, who had been killed in an avalanche while they were skiing, had thrust Drago into the cut-throat world of big business. He had also had to take care of his devastated mother and aunt, and he had assumed the role of a father figure to his then seven-year-old cousin.
Seeing Angelo like this tore at his insides. The waiting, the wondering if the young man would be left with permanent brain damage, was torture. Drago was a man of action, a man used to being in control of every situation, but for the past three days he had felt helpless. His aunt and his mother were distraught, and he wished he could comfort them and assure them that Angelo would recover. For the past fifteen years he had done his best to look after his family, and he hated the feeling that in this situation he was powerless. He had no magic wand to bring Angelo back to consciousness, but he had the name of a woman who might be able to help.
His mother was gently patting her sister-in-law's shoulder. 'Dorotea, you must tell Drago what Angelo has done, and why you are so worried about his involvement with the Englishwoman.'
Drago stared at his aunt. 'What has he done?'
For a few moments she did not answer, but at last she choked back her sobs. 'He has given this woman money a lot of money. In fact all of the inheritance that his father left him,' Aunt Dorotea said in wavering voice. 'And that's not all. Jess Harper has a criminal record.'
'How do you know this?'
'A week ago Maurio Rochas, who used to be in charge of Angelo's trust fund and still acts as his financial adviser, phoned me. He was troubled because what he had to tell me was confidential information, but he felt I should know that Angelo had withdrawn his entire inheritance fund from the bank. When I spoke to Angelo I asked him what he had done with the money. He was very abrupt with me,' Aunt Dorotea explained in a hurt voice. 'It was most unlike him. But he finally admitted that he had lent his inheritance fund to this womanJess Harperbut he did not say why she needed the money, or when it would be repaid.'
Drago knew that the bulk of his cousin's inheritance was tied up in shares and other investments, but Angelo still had a huge fortune available to himwhich he had apparently handed over to a woman who had a criminal record. It was not surprising Aunt Dorotea was concerned.
'Angelo was very cagey,' she continued. 'I felt he was hiding something from me. I was so worried that I phoned Maurio back to discuss the matter. Maurio admitted that out of concern for Angelo he had tried to find out more about this Englishwoman and had discovered that she was convicted of fraud some years ago.'
Drago swore softly and received a reproachful glance from his mother. Dio! He could not help feeling frustrated. Sometimes he wondered if his relatives would ever take charge of their own lives instead of relying on him to deal with their problems. He had encouraged his cousin to go to England to study, believing that it would do him good to be more independent. But it sounded as though Angelo had walked straight into trouble.
'What has the damned idiot done?' he muttered beneath his breath.
Unfortunately his aunt had excellent hearing.
'How can you blame Angelo? Especially when his life hangs in the balance?' she said tearfully. 'Perhaps this Jess Harper told Angelo some sob story that he fell for. You know what a soft heart he has. He is young, and I admit a little naive. But I'm sure you remember how you were conned by that Russian woman years ago, Drago. Although of course that situation was a lot worse, because your actions almost forced Cassa di Cassari into bankruptcy.'
Drago gritted his teeth at his aunt's reminder of the most humiliating episode of his life. When he had been Angelo's age his judgement had been compromised by a woman's beautiful face and sexy body. He had fallen hard for the sensual promise in Natalia Yenka's dark eyes, and he had persuaded the board members of Cassa di Cassarithe luxury homeware company that had been founded by his great-grandfatherto make a huge investment in the Russian woman's business venture. But the venture had been a scam, and the catastrophic financial loss incurred by Cassa di Cassari had resulted in Drago only narrowly escaping a vote of no confidence from the board.
Since then he had worked hard to win back their support, and he was proud that under his leadership Cassa di Cassari had grown to be one of Italy's highest-grossing businesses, with a global export market. At the recent AGM he had announced that the company would be floated on the stockmarket for a record opening share price that would raise several billion pounds.
It had been Drago's crowning momentone that he had striven for with ruthless determinationbut neither the board members nor his family knew of the personal sacrifices he had made in the pursuit of success, or of the emptiness inside him.
He shook his head as if to dismiss his thoughts, although dark memories of his past lingered in the shadows of his mind. Focusing his attention once more on his cousin, he felt a sharp pain, as if a knife blade had been thrust between his ribs. He did not think his aunt would cope if she lost her only son. This desperate waiting and hoping was intolerable, and if there was even the slightest chance that hearing the Englishwoman's voice would bring Angelo back from the abyss then Drago was convinced that he must persuade her to come to the hospital.
'Where are you going?' his aunt asked tremulously as he swung away from the bed and strode across the room.
'To find Jess Harper. And when I do you can be sure I will demand some answers,' he replied grimly.
Struggling to carry her heavy toolbox and a bulging bag of groceries, Jess let herself into her flat and stooped to pick up the post from the doormat. There were two bills, and a letter which she recognised was from the bank. For a moment her heart lurched, before she remembered that her business account was no longer in the red and she did not have to worry about paying back a hefty overdraft. Old habits died hard, she thought ruefully. She wondered if the novelty of being financially solvent would ever wear off.
On her way down the hall she glanced into Angelo's room. It was still unusually tidywhich meant that he hadn't come back. Jess frowned. It was three days since he had disappeared, and since then he hadn't answered any of her calls. Should she be worried about him? He had probably moved on to another job, like so many of the casual labourers she employed did, she told herself.
But Angelo had been different from the other labourers who asked for work. Despite his assurances that he had experience as a decorator it had quickly become apparent that he did not know one end of a paintbrush from the other. Yet he was clearly intelligent and spoke perfect English, albeit with a strong foreign accent. He had explained that he was a homeless migrant. His gentle nature reminded Jess of her best friend Daniel, whom she had known at the children's home, and perhaps that was why she had impulsively offered him the spare room in her flat until he got on his feet. An-gelo had been touchingly grateful and it just wasn't like him to leave without saying goodbyeespecially as he had left his stuff, including his beloved guitar, behind.
Reporting him missing seemed like an overreaction, and although it was a long time since her troubled teenage years she still had an inherent mistrust of the police. But what if he'd had an accident and was lying in hospital with no one to visit him? Jess knew too well what it was like to feel utterly alone in the world, to know that no one cared.
If she hadn't heard from him by tomorrow she would notify the police, she decided as she dumped the bag of groceries on the kitchen worktop and dug out the frozen ready meal she'd bought for dinner. She'd missed lunch. Owing to a mix-up with paint colours, the job she was working on was behind schedulewhich was why Angelo's disappearance was so inconvenient. He might not be the best painter in the worldin fact he was the worst she'd ever knownbut to get the contract finished on time she needed all the help she could get.
The instructions on the box of pasta Bolognese said it cooked in six minutes. Jess's stomach rumbled. Six minutes sounded like an eternity when she was starving. Taking a screwdriver from her pocket, she pierced the film lid and shoved the meal into the microwave. At least it gave her enough time for a much-needed shower. A glance in the mirror revealed that she had white emulsion in her hair from where she had been painting a ceiling.
Pulling off her boots, she headed for the bathroom, stripped off her dungarees and shirt and stepped into the shower cubicle. One day, when she could afford to buy her own flat, the first thing she would do would be to install a power shower, she thought as the ferocious jet of water washed away the dust and grime of a hard day's work. For her birthday the previous week she had treated herself to a gorgeous luxury shower creme. The richly perfumed lather left her skin feeling satin-soft, and using a liberal amount of shampoo she managed to rinse the paint out of her hair.
Her team of workmen would tease her unmercifully if they found out that she had a girly side, she thought ruefully. Working in an all-male environment was tough, but so was Jessher childhood had seen to that.
The sound of the doorbell was followed almost instantly by the ping of the microwave telling her that her food was ready. Pulling on her robe as the doorbell went again, she padded barefoot back to the kitchen. Why didn't whoever was ringing the doorbell give up and go away? she wondered irritably. The microwave meal smelled unpleasantly of molten plastic, but she was too hungry to care. She peeled back the film covering and cursed as the escaping steam burnt her fingers. The doorbell rang for a third timea long, strident peal that Jess could not ignoreand it suddenly occurred to her that maybe Angelo had come back.
Drago snatched his finger from the doorbell and uttered a curse. Clearly no one was at home. He had broken the speed limit driving from the airport to Hampstead, which was where, he had learned from his aunt's lawyer, Jess Harper lived. According to Maurio Rochas the Englishwoman was a painter. Presumably she had a successful career to be able to afford to live in this attractive and affluent part of north-west London, Drago mused. He guessed that the Art Deco building had once been a magnificent house. It had been converted into six flats that must be highly sought after.
Maurio had not known any more information about the woman Angelo had been living with, and as yet the private investigator Drago had hired to run a check on her had not got back to him. But for now the question of why his cousin had given her money was unimportant. All that mattered was that he should persuade Jess Harper to visit Angelo. Hopefully the sound of her voice would rouse him from his unconscious state.
Where the hell was she? He wondered if she worked from a studiomaybe he could get the address from a neighbour. He did not have time to waste searching for her when Angelo's condition remained critical. Frustration surged through him and he pressed the doorbell again, even though he knew it was pointless. He was exhausted after spending the past three days and nights at the hospital, snatching the odd half-hour's sleep in the chair beside Angelo's bed.