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Rocco Volpe was bored and, as it was not a sensation he was accustomed to feeling, he was much inclined to blame his hosts for that reality.
When the banker, Harris Winton, had invited him to his country home for the weekend, Rocco had expected stimulating company. People invariably went to a great deal of trouble to entertain Rocco. But then he could hardly have foreseen that Winton would miss his flight home from Brussels, leaving his unfortunate guests at the mercy of his wife, Kaye.
Kaye, the youthful trophy wife, who looked at Rocco with a hunger she couldn't hide. His startlingly handsome features were expressionless as his hostess irritated him with simpering flattery and far too much attention. He had never liked small women with big eyes, he reflected. Memory stirred, reminding him why that was so. Swiftly, he crushed that unwelcome recollection out.
'So tell me what's it like being one of the most eligible single men in the world?' Kaye asked fatuously.
'Pretty boring.' Watching her redden without remorse, Rocco strolled over to the window like a tiger sheathing his claws with extreme reluctance.
'I suppose it must be,' the beautiful brunette then agreed in a cloying tone. 'How many men have your power, looks and fabulous wealth?'
Striving not to wince while telling himself that if he ever married his wife would have a brain, Rocco surveyed the well-kept gardens. Fading winter sunlight gleamed over the downbent head of a gardener raking up leaves on the extensive front lawn. There was something familiar about that unusual honey shade of blonde that was the colour of toffee in certain lights. He stiffened as the figure turned and he realised it was a woman and ?
'Your gardener is a woman?' Not a shade of the outraged incredulity and anger consuming Rocco was audible in his deep, dark drawl. But someone ought to warn Winton that he had a potential tabloid spy working for him, he thought grimly. Harris would never recover from the humiliation of the media exposing one of his wife's affairs.
His keen hostess drew level with him and wrinkled her nose. 'We have trouble getting outside staff. Harris says people don't want that kind of work these days.'
'I imagine he's right. Has she been with you long?'
'only a few weeks.' The brunette studied him with a perplexed frown.
'Will you excuse me? I have an urgent call to make.'
Amber's back was sore.
It was icy cold but the amount of energy she had expended had heated her up to the extent that she was working in a light T-shirt. She could hardly believe that within ten days it would be Christmas. Her honey-blonde hair caught back in a clip from which strands continually drifted loose, she straightened and stretched to ease her complaining spine. About five feet three in height, she was slim, but at breast and hip she was lush and feminine in shape.
It would be another hour before she finished work and she couldn't wait. Only a few months back, she would have said she loved the great outdoors, but working for the Win-tons had disenchanted her fast. Nothing but endless back-breaking labour and abysmally low pay. Her rich employers did not believe in spending money on labour-saving devices like leaf blowers. On the other hand, Harris Winton was a perfectionist, who demanded the highest standards against impossible odds.
'Brush up the leaves as they fall,' he had told her with a straight face, seeming not to grasp that, with several acres of wooded and lawned grounds, that was like asking her to daily stem an unstoppable tide.
You're turning into a right self-pitying moan, her conscience warned her as she emptied the wheelbarrow. So once she had had nice clothes, pretty, polished fingernails and a career with a future. She might no longer have any of those things but she did have Freddy, she reminded herself in consolation.
Freddy, the pure joy in her life, who could squeeze her heart with one smile. Freddy, who had filled her with so much instant love that she could still barely accept the intensity of her own feelings. Freddy, who might not be the best conversationalist yet and who loved to wake her up to play in the middle of the night, but who still made any sacrifice worthwhile.
'Buon giorno, Amber what an unexpected pleasure!'
At the sound of that dark, well-modulated voice coming out of nowhere at her, Amber jerked rigid with fright. Blinking rapidly, disbelief engulfing her, she spun round, refusing to accept her instinctive recognition of that rich-accented drawl.
'Strange but somehow extraordinarily apt that you should be grubbing round a compost heap,' Rocco remarked with sardonic amusement.
A wave of stark dizziness assailed Amber. As she focused in paralysed incredulity on the formidably tall, well-built male standing beneath the towering beech trees a few yards away, her heart was beating at such an accelerated rate that she could hardly get breath into her lungs. She turned white as milk, every ounce of natural colour evaporating from her fine features, her clear green eyes huge.
Rocco Volpe, the powerful Italian financier, once christened the Silver Wolf by the gossip columns for his breathtaking good looks and fast reputation with her sex. And there was no denying that he was spectacular, with his bronzed skin and dark, dark deepset eyes contrasted with hair so naturally, unexpectedly fair it shone like polished silver. Rocco Volpe, the very worst mistake she had made in her twenty-three years of life. Her tummy felt hollow, her every tiny muscle bracing in self-defence. But her brain just refused to snap back into action. She could only wonder in amazement what on earth Rocco Volpe could possibly be doing wandering round the grounds of the Wintons' country house.
'Where did you come from?' she whispered jaggedly.
'The house. I'm staying there this weekend.'
'Oh ' Amber was silenced and appalled by that admission. Yet it was not a remarkable coincidence that Rocco should be acquainted with her employer, for both men wielded power in the same cut-throat world of international finance.
Tilting his arrogant head back, Rocco treated her to a leisurely, all-male appraisal that was as bold as he was. 'Not good news for you, I'm afraid.'
Amber was as stung by that insolent visual assessment as if he had slapped her in the face. Grubbing round the compost heap? The instant he bent the full effect of those brilliant dark eyes on her, she recalled that sarcastic comment. But a split second later thought was overpowered by the slowburn effect of Rocco skimming his intense gaze over the swell of her full breasts. Within her bra, the tender peaks of her sensitive flesh pinched tight with stark awareness. As his stirring scrutiny slid lazily down to the all-female curve of her hips, an almost forgotten ache clenched her belly.
'And what's that supposed to mean?' Amber folded her arms with a jerk, holding her treacherous body rigid as if by so doing she might drive out those mortifying responses. Only now she was horribly conscious of her wind-tossed hair, her lack of make-up and her workworn T-shirt and jeans. Once, she recalled, she had taken time to groom herself for Roc-co's benefit. Suddenly she wanted to dive into the wretched compost heap and hide! Rocco, so smooth, sophisticated and exclusive in his superb charcoal-grey business suit and black cashmere coat. He had to be wondering now what he had ever seen in her and her already battered pride writhed under that humiliating suspicion.
'Why are you working for Harris Winton as a gardener?' Rocco asked drily.
'That's none of your business.' Pale and fighting a craven desire to cringe, Amber flung her head high, determined not to be intimidated.
'But I am making it my business,' Rocco countered levelly.
Amber could not credit his nerve. Her temper was rising. 'Being one of the Wintons' guests doesn't give you the right to give me the third degree. Now, why don't you go away and leave me alone?'
'You really have changed your tune, cara,' Rocco murmured in a tone as smooth as black velvet. 'As I recall, I found persuading you to leave me alone quite a challenge eighteen months ago.'
That cruel reminder stabbed Amber like a knife in the heart. Indeed, she felt quite sick inside. She had not expected that level of retaliation and dully questioned why. Rocco was a ruthless wheeler-dealer in the money markets and as feared as he was famed for his brilliance. In automatic self-protection from that cutting tongue, she began walking away. Eighteen months ago, Rocco had dumped her. Indeed, Rocco had dumped her without hesitation. Rocco had then refused her phone calls and when she had persisted in daring to try and speak to him, he had finally called her back and asked her with icy contempt if she was now 'stalking' him!
'Where are you going?' Rocco demanded.
Amber ignored him. She had been working near the house. Obviously he had seen and recognised her and curiosity had got to him. But it struck her as strange that he should have acted on that curiosity and come outside to speak to her. A guy who had suggested that she might have stalking tendencies ought to have looked the other way. But then that had only been Rocco's brutally effective method of finally shaking her off.
Bitterness surged up inside her, the destructive bitterness she had believed she had put behind her. But, faced with Rocco again, those feelings erupted back out of her subconscious mind like a volcano. She spun back with knotted fists, her small, shapely figure taut, angry colour warming her complexion. 'I hate you I can't bear to be anywhere near you!'
Rocco elevated a cool, slanting dark brow. He looked hugely unimpressed by that outburst.
'And that is not the reaction of the proverbial woman scorned,' Amber asserted between gritted teeth, determined to disabuse him of any such ego-boosting notion. 'That is the reaction of a woman looking at you now and asking herself how the heck she could ever have been so stupid as to get involved with a rat like you!'
Alive with sizzling undertones and tension, the splintering silence almost seemed to shimmer around them. Glittering dark golden eyes flamed into hers in a crash-and-burn collision and she both sensed and saw the fury there that barely showed in that lean, strong face. No, he hadn't liked being called a rat.
'But you'd come back to me like a bullet if I asked you,' Rocco murmured softly.
Amber stared back at him in shock. 'Are you kidding?'
'Only making a statement of fact. But don't get excited,' Rocco advised with silken scorn. 'I'm not asking.'
Unfamiliar rage whooshed up inside Amber and she trembled. 'Tell me, are you trying to goad me into physically attacking you?'
'Possibly trying to settle a score or two.' With that unapol-ogetic admission, Rocco studied her with cloaked eyes, his hard bone-structure grim. 'But let's cut to the baseline. You can only be working here to spy on the Wintons for some sleazy tabloid story'
'I beg your pardon?' Amber cut in unevenly, her eyes very wide.
Ignoring that interruption, Rocco continued, 'Harris is a friend. I intend to warn him about you'
'What sleazy tabloid story? Warn him about me?' Amber parroted with helpless emphasis. 'Are you out of your mind? I'm not spying on anyone I'm only the gardener, for goodness' sake!'
'P-lease,' Rocco breathed with licking contempt. 'Do I look that stupid?'
Amber was gaping at him while struggling to master her disbelief at his suspicions.
'How much money did you make out of that trashy kiss-and-tell spread on me?' Rocco enquired lazily.
'Nothing ' Amber told him after a sick pause, momentarily drowning in unpleasant recollections of the events which had torn her life apart eighteen months earlier. A couple of hours confiding in an old schoolfriend and the damage had been done. What had seemed like harmless girly gossip had cost her the man she loved, the respect of work colleagues and ultimately her career.
Rocco dealt her a derisive look. 'Do you really think I'm likely to swallow that tale?'
'I don't much care.' And it was true, Amber registered in some surprise. Here she was, finally getting the opportunity to defend herself but no longer that eager to take it. But then the chance had come more than a year too late. A time during which she had been forced to eat more humble pie than was good for her. She had stopped loving him, stopped hoping he would contact her and stopped caring about his opinion of her as well. After he had ditched her, Rocco had delighted the gossip columnists with a series of wild affairs with other women. He had provided her with the most effective cure available for a broken heart. Her pride had kicked in to save her and she had pulled herself together again.
'You already have all the material you need on the Win-tons?' Rocco prompted with strong distaste.
The rage sunk beneath the onslaught of sobering memories gripped Amber again. 'Where do you get off, throwing wild accusations like this at me? What gives you the right to ignore what I say and assume that I'm lying? Your superior intellect?' Her green eyes flashed bright as emerald jewels in her heart-shaped face, her scorn palpable. 'Well, it's letting you down a bucketful right now, Rocco'
'My ESP is on overload right now. I don't think so,' Rocco mused, studying her with penetrating cool.
A hollow laugh was wrenched from Amber's dry throat. 'No, you naturally wouldn't think that you could be wrong. After all, you're the guy who's always one hundred per cent right about everything'
'I wasn't right about you, was I? I got burned, Rocco cut in with harsh clarity, hard facial bones prominent beneath his bronzed skin.
I got burned. Was that how he now viewed their former relationship? Amber was surprised to hear that, but relieved to think that the hurt, the embarrassment and the self-recriminations had not only been hers. But then he was talking about his pride, the no-doubt wounding effect of his conviction that she had somehow contrived to put one over him. He wasn't talking about true emotions, only superficial ones.
'But not enough,' Amber responded tightly, thinking wretchedly of the months of misery she had endured before she'd wised up and got on with her life without looking back to what might have been. 'I don't think you were burned half enough.'
'How the hell could you have expected to hang onto me after what you did?' Rocco demanded with a savage abruptness that disconcerted her. His spectacular eyes rested with keen effect on her surprised face.
'Only two possible explanations, aren't there?' The breeze clawing stray strands of her honey-blonde hair back from her flushed cheekbones, Amber tilted her chin, green eyes sparkling over him where he now stood only feet from her. 'Either I was a dumb little bunny who was indiscreet with an undercover journalist or I was bored out of my tiny mind with you and decided to go out of your life with a big, unforgettable bang!'
'Dio you were not bored in my bed,' Rocco growled with raw self-assurance.