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Dante Leonetti, international banker, renowned philanthropist and the Conte di Martino to those whom such archaic titles mattered, frowned at the news that his childhood friend, Marco Savonelli, was outside his office waiting to see him. Something had to be seriously wrong to drag Marco from his village doctor's surgery all the way to the fast-moving financial centre of Milan.
Lean, darkly handsome features composed in a frown, Dante pushed long brown fingers through his luxuriant black hair in a gesture of concern rare for a man with his tough, self-disciplined temperament. Surely Marco's visit could only be related to the fund? Between them the two men were engaged in raising money by a variety of means to finance pioneering medical treatment in the USA for a village child stricken with leukaemia. From the outset, Dante had offered to cover the entire cost of the venture but Marco had persuaded him that it would be much more diplomatic to allow the village community as a whole to assume responsibility and volunteer their services to raise the thousands of euros required. Various public events had accordingly been organised and a fancy-dress ball at Dante's family home, the Castello Leonetti in Tuscany, was the next big date and indeed the grand finale on the calendar, Dante recalled grimly, for he would have preferred to make a huge donation rather than be forced to dress up in comical clothes like a child at play. He had no patience for such nonsense.
His phone pinged and although he sighed he was conditioned by years as a banker to always be on the alert. But the message was not from one of his aides warning him of some potential crisis. It was from his mistress, the beautiful Della, and he frowned down at the picture of her superb breasts, his handsome mouth curling with irritation as he deleted the shot with an impatient stab. He didn't want dirty pictures on his mobile; he was not a teenage boy, he reflected grimly. Clearly it was time to give Della the proverbial golden handshake and make a smooth exit. Unhappily the prospect of pastures new to explore held no attraction for him yet he knew he was bored with Della and even more bored with her colossal vanity and her avarice.
Yet, genuine warmth filled Dante's uncommon green eyes when he crossed his big office to greet Marco Sa-vonelli, a stockily built male in his early thirties, and the exact opposite of Dante in temperament for cheerful Marco was rarely seen without a smile on his face. Well, just this once his friend wasn't smiling, Dante noted. Indeed Marco's expressive face was unusually tense and troubled.
'I'm really sorry to disturb you like this,' Marco began awkwardly, very much a fish out of water as he took in the opulence of his surroundings. 'I didn't want to bother you'
'Relax, Marco. Take a seat and we'll have coffee,'
Dante advised, urging his old friend in the direction of the luxurious seating area.
'I had no idea how fancy your place of work would be,' the other man confided ruefully. 'To think that I thought I'd reached the height of sophistication when the practice manager installed my computer '
The coffee arrived at lightning speed. 'It's not like you to take time out from your patients,' Dante remarked, eager for Marco to tell him exactly what was wrong. 'Has someone embezzled money from the fund, something of that nature?'
Marco, evidently very much more innocent than Dante had ever been, shot him a look of horror. 'Of course not! It's nothing to do with the fund and er actually, I was coming to Milan anyway to visit my aunt Serafina on my mother's behalf, so I thought I would just drop in and see how you were while I was in the neighbourhood.'
Dante, sharp as a tack when it came to reading people, recognised a cover story coming his way and marvelled that Marco believed that he could fool someone as astute as he was. 'Is that so?'
'And as I said since I'm here anyway,' Marco continued, gathering speed like a reluctant man pushing himself towards something he would rather have avoided, 'I saw no harm in calling in for a chat.'
Trying not to laugh at his old friend's transparency, Dante murmured lazily, 'Why not?'
'Have you heard much from your mother recently?'
Dante froze, his keen intelligence taking his thoughts in a different direction. 'She phones and chats most days,' he responded with studied casualness, long black lashes dropping low in concealment over his shrewd gaze as, for the first time, honest tension clenched his big, well-built body.
'Oh, is that so? Good er excellent ' Marco countered, visibly not having expected to receive so reassuring a reply. 'But when did you last visit?'
Dante stiffened, wondering if that was a hint of censure. 'I assumed the newly-weds would prefer to be left in peace.'
'Of course of course,' Marco hastened to reassure him in a tone of apology. 'A natural assumption even at their age. And er forgive me if I cause offence, although you have never said anything on the score of your mother's remarriage, it must have come as a surprise to you.'
As he recognised that he might well still be waiting for his overly tactful friend to get to the point in another hour, Dante suppressed his innate desire to keep his every feeling and reaction private and decided to be blunt. 'More than a surprise,' he admitted flatly. 'I was shocked and worried by it. Not only was my mother's decision to remarry very sudden but I was also dismayed by her choice of husband.'
'Yet you said nothing at the time,' Marco groaned. 'If only you could have been more plainspoken with me, Dante.'
'My mother led a wretched life with my late father for more years than I care to recall. He was a bastard. That is not something I would acknowledge to anyone but you. Bearing that in mind, I am the last man alive likely to criticise her bridegroom or interfere in her attempt to, at long last, find a little happiness.'
Sympathy now etched in his kindly brown eyes, Marco visibly relaxed. 'I can understand that.'
A brooding expression on his lean features, Dante was recalling his widowed mother's sudden marriage to Vittore Ravallo. The wedding had taken place only two months earlier. Ravallo was a failed businessman and onetime womaniser, who was as poor as Sofia, Contessa di Martino, was rich. The marriage had been impulsive and improvident but Dante was a loyal and loving son and he had kept his reservations to himself. If need be he would intervene to protect his mother should the marriage prove to be the mistake he assumed it was, but in the short term he would mind his own business. Even so, that considerate restraint had proved a challenge, particularly when the happy couple was still occupying Dante's castle in Tuscany while they waited for renovations to be completed on their new home several miles away. For that reason, Dante had not been back to Castello Leonetti for a visit since the small private wedding that had sealed his mother's fate.
Marco compressed his mouth. 'Perhaps you could consider going home soon. There's something strange going on.'
Dante almost laughed out loud at that statement.
'I've never been a man to listen to gossip but we've been friends all our lives and I felt I should give you a hint about what has been happening.'
'So ' Dante summed up rather drily, not interested in his friend's penchant for drama, 'what is happening at the castle, Marco?'
'Well, you know what an energetic woman your mother has always been?' Marco remarked. 'Not any more. She's no longer involved in her usual charitable pursuits either, never leaves the castle and no longer even gardens.'
Dante frowned, unable to even imagine his very active mother suddenly abandoning the busy life she had built as widow to that extent. 'That does sound strange.'
'And then there's her new social secretary' 'Her.. what?' Dante cut in, taken aback. 'She's hired a secretary?'
'A young English girl, very attractive and apparently perfectly pleasant,' Marco recounted uncomfortably. 'But now she's standing in for the contessa at her charitable engagements and she's often been seen getting lifts from Vittore'
Dante was very still, an attitude that his employees knew as the calm before the storm, for the inclusion of a young and attractive girl in the set-up that Marco was describing had him seething with anger. Many older men were fools when it came to young girls and Dante's stepfather might very well be one of them. His heart sank on his mother's behalf. He had hoped that if the marriage failed it would do so on less wounding grounds for his parent than that of another woman. His own father's infidelity had already caused Sofia Leonetti so much pain that Dante simply could not stand by and watch it happen again.
''Is there an affair going on?' Dante demanded, hands clenching into fists by his side as he sprang upright, unable to stay seated any longer.
'I honestly don't know. There's no evidence of one, nothing more suspect than the look of things,' Marco responded ruefully. 'And we all know how misleading appearances can sometimes be. But there is one odd aspect to that girl that doesn't quite add up'
'Go on,' Dante urged in a raw undertone, struggling with his outrage at the image of his mother being hu-miliatingly betrayed by an employee and her new husband in his home.
'My father was invited to a dinner at the castle for Vittore's birthday. The girl was wearing a diamond necklace that my father swore is worth many, many thousands of euros.'
And both men were well aware that Marco's father was an infallible judge of such things because he was a renowned jewellery designer.
'Of course it could be a family heirloom,' Marco conceded fairly.
'But how likely is it that a young office worker would own such an item or even bring it abroad with her?' Dante retorted, unimpressed by that argument. 'As far as I'm concerned, when you take everything else into account, the diamonds are hard evidence of misbehaviour of some kind!'
But even if it was, what the hell was he planning to do about it? Dante asked himself angrily after his friend had taken his leave. Obviously Dante would go home to personally check out the situation and if there was anything questionable afoot he would deal with the girl with the diamond necklace.
Topsy suppressed a groan of frustration as her sister Kat continued to challenge her with worried questions on the phone. What were the family she was living with like? Were there any men coming on to her? Did she have a lock on her bedroom door?
The guilt that Topsy had initially experienced about lying to her family about what she was doing and where she was staying in Italy suddenly dissipated like a damp squib. What age did her big sister think she was? A vulnerable teenager? For goodness' sake, she was almost twenty-four years old with a doctorate in advanced maths, scarcely a babe in arms! But Kat, just like Topsy's twin older sisters, Emmie and Saffy, simply refused to accept that Topsy had grown up and had a life of her own to lead.
In Kat's defence, she had been acting more as Topsy's mother than her sister since Topsy was six years old and the sisters' birth mother, Odette, stuck all three of her younger children in foster care so that she could reclaim her freedom as a single woman. No, Odette Taylor had had no taste for mothering and Topsy was all too well aware of how much she and her sisters owed Kat for her loving care and loyalty. Kat had taken custody of her younger siblings, whisked them off to her home in the Lake District and raised them to adulthood at her own expense. Kat's sacrifice could never be forgotten or go unappreciated, Topsy acknowledged ruefully.
Yet here she was in Italy having run away from home and lied about her whereabouts just like the teenager she had long since left behind! Her family thought she was simply enjoying an extended break staying with an old school friend and Gabrielle was happy to provide the cover story and pretendshould she ever be challengedthat Topsy was living with her and her family in Milan.
Topsy sighed, guilt licking at her conscience again. Her siblings were so overprotective they regularly drove her to screaming point. Their marriages to rich and powerful men had only enhanced their desire and ability to interfere and control Topsy's every move. She loved them, she truly did, indeed she adored her sisters and their closeness, but she didn't want a job doled out by one of their husbands and she didn't want to be landed with a pre-checked boyfriend either. She had lost count of the eligible and no doubt thoroughly vetted men produced for her benefit at parties and dinners. She had also lost count of the boyfriends she had lost, who had failed to pass the family vetting procedure. In addition the insistence on her, at one unforgettably embarrassing stage, having a bodyguard had done nothing to advance her prospects in the romantic stakes.
Either men wanted her purely because of her wealthy brothers-in-laws' financial and business connections or all the hoopla of even dating her frightened them off. Even worse, she was now a trust-fund baby, gifted with a sizeable amount of cash on her twenty-first birthday in a generous group gift from her sisters' husbands, so that she would always be independent and secure. Independent? Topsy grimaced at a goal long craved but always out of reach. What a joke the concept of independence was! That wretched money, which she had never wanted but which had delighted her anxious and overprotective sisters, had only trapped her more than ever in a world in which she didn't feel she belonged. Now her sisters' husbands would only have an even better excuse to check out any man she dated for fear he might be after her trust fund!
But then that wasn't the only reason Topsy had come to Italy and to this particular household in Tuscany, she conceded sheepishly. Indeed if any member of her family were to discover the true nature of the deception she was engaged in, they would be justifiably furious with her. None of them would understand, she thought sadly, none of them would ever appreciate how powerful a motivation she had had to come to Italy and pretend to be something she was not. But then she was not the same as her sisters: their outlook on certain issues was directly opposed to hers. Right and wrong were not as black and white as they believed, she reasoned uncomfortably. Of course some day if things went as she hoped she would have to tell them the truth. Right now she was at the awkward dishonest outset of her mission and the false image she had set up was already discomfiting her. Before her arrival in Italy, Topsy had virtually never told a lie. She had been a squeaky clean and very logical child who recognised at an early age the inherent consequences of lies. Yet here she was all these years on and supposedly intelligent and mature and she was lying her head off all around her! And to such lovely people too, she reflected even more painfully. Why was it that the drawbacks of her mission had only occurred to her after she had taken up residence and started work? How was that for poor forward planning?
Yet how could she simply give up a cause that meant so much to her? Her sisters though would never understand that angle: they would simply fiercely disapprove.
And if they knew the lengths her mother had forced her to go to before she would finally divulge the information that Topsy craved, they would have been outraged, Topsy conceded heavily. But in her opinion, it had been worth it to finally get the truth if it was the truth. Unfortunately she was all too well aware she could not totally trust her mother's word.
Meanwhile she was living in the lap of luxury in a genuine medieval castle, which had been owned by the Leonetti family for hundreds of years. Yet her beautiful surroundings had that wonderful lived-in vibe, which made even the splendid furnishings emanate a warm and cosy ambience. No, she certainly couldn't complain about the standard of her living conditions.