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It was quiet in the lamplit room, the only sound the occasional rustle of paper as the man seated on one side of the vast antique desk went through the contents of the file in front of him. He was unhurried, his black brows drawn together in a faint frown as he closely scanned each printed sheet in turn, then laid it aside.
The grey-haired man sitting opposite watched him, under the guise of studying his fingernails. It was over two years since they'd had cause to meet face to face, and there was no longer even a trace of the boy he had once known in the dark, incisive face bent over the documents he had brought for him only a few hours ago.
He had been welcomed with the usual courtesy, conducted by the maggiodomo to the room where he would spend the night, after which he had dined alone with his host. The food had been delicious, and on the surface, it was all charm and relaxation, but he was under no illusions.
The real business of his visit was being conducted right here and now.
Eventually, his reading concluded, the younger man looked up and gave a brief nod of approbation.
'You have been more than thorough, Signor Massimo. I commend you. An entire life laid out for my inspection in every detail. Invaluable.'
His swift smile momentarily softened the hard lines of his mouth and brought an added glint to eyes that were almost the colour of amber, flecked with gold.
It was a proud face with a high-bridged nose, classically moulded cheekbones and an uncompromising chin.
But now too austere to be truly handsome, thought Guido Massimo as he inclined his head in polite acknowledgement. And too coldly purposeful. The face of a stranger.
He waited as the other took the photograph which was the last object remaining in the file and studied it. The girl looking back at him was blonde, her pale hair hanging in a sleek silken curtain almost to her shoulders. Her face was oval with creamy skin, her eyes a clear grey. Her nose was short and straight, her chin firm and the delicately curved lips were parted in a slight but confident smile.
'When was this taken?'
'A few months ago on the occasion of her engagement,' Signor Massimo returned. 'It appeared in a magazine published in the county where she was brought up.' He allowed himself a discreet twinkle. 'Che bella ragazza.'
His comment received only an indifferent shrug.
'This cool Anglo-Saxon type has no appeal for me.' The other's mouth twisted. 'Which, under the circumstances, must be deemed fortunate.' He paused. 'But no doubt her fi-danzato will have a very different view and will pay the required price for her safe return. Or we must hope so.'
Signor Massimo murmured politely, keeping his expression impassive. He was well aware that his host's tastes in women favoured the elegantly voluptuous, but it would have been unwise even to hint that he possessed such knowledge.
The younger man returned the photograph to the file with an air of finality and leaned back in his chair, frowning again. 'The wedding is scheduled to take place in two months, which means there is no time to be lost. However it will make the resolution of the matter increasingly urgent, which is all to the good.'
Almost absently he began to play with the heavy gold signet ring he wore on his right hand. 'Tell me more about this television company she works for. You say it makes programmes for various arts channels?'
'And with some success. She is currently a researcher with a desire to move into production, but it seems marriage will end such hopes. As I have mentioned in the report, her fi-danzato has already made it clear that he does not want his wife to work.'
The other nodded. 'And this has a causeda certain amount of friction?'
'It seems so. As yet unresolved.'
'Ambition versus love.' The cool, deep voice spoke more softly. Became almost meditative. 'Which will she choose, I wonder, when serious temptation is offered.' He paused. 'Are you a betting man, Signor Massimo?'
'On rare occasions only.'
'And where would you place your money in such a situation.'
Guido Massimo gave a faint shrug. 'A girl soon to be a bride. She will wish to please her groom, I think.'
'You are unexpectedly romantic, signore. But I feel you are mistaken.' His smile was a curl of the lips. 'Because I know the bait that will bring her to me.'
'If I can be of further assistance ' the older man began, but was stopped by a raised hand.
'I am grateful but I believe that from here it is better for your involvement to cease. What happens should be my responsibility, and I would not wish you to have to answer any awkward questions, so the less you know the better.'
His tone became brisker. 'Leaving just the matter of your fee to be dealt with.' He opened a drawer in the desk, extracted a bulky envelope and handed it over. 'For the same reasons, we agreed this transaction should be on a cash basis. You may of course count it.'
'I would not dream of such a thing.'
'As you please.' The other paused. 'Which means I have only to thank you once more and wish you a peaceful night. We shall meet tomorrow at breakfast.'
Guido Massimo rose, made a slight bow and walked to the door where he hesitated. 'I must ask this. You aredetermined? Quite sure there is no other course? The girl, after all, is an innocent party in all this. Does she deserve to be treated in such a way? I only enquire, you understand.'
'I comprehend perfectly. But you must not distress yourself, my friend. Once I have what I want, your bella ragazza will be returned as good as new to her future husband.' He added unsmilingly, 'That is, of course, if she still wants him.' He rose too, tall and lithe, his hands resting on his lean hips. 'There is no necessity to pity her, I assure you.'
But I shall do so, just the same, Guido Massimo thought as he left the room. And I shall also pity the boy I once knew, and remember him in my prayers.
'Darling,' said Jeremy. 'Please tell me this is some sort of joke.'
Madeleine Lang put down her glass and stared at him across the table in the wine bar in genuine perplexity. 'A joke?' she repeated. 'I'm talking about work here and perfectly serious. Why on earth would I be joking?'
Jeremy gave a hollow laugh. 'Oh, just a small matter of a wedding for over two hundred guests to arrange. Or will that be put on hold while you roam round Italy on some wild goose chase?'
Madeleine bit her lip. 'Hardly on hold, with your stepmother so firmly in control. I doubt if my absence will even be noticed.'
There was an edgy pause, then Jeremy reached across and took her hand, his expression rueful. 'Sweetheart, I know Esme can be rather managing.'
Madeleine sighed. 'Jeremy, that's putting it mildly, and you know it. Everything I want and suggest is justbrushed aside. I don't even feel that it is our wedding any more.'
'I'm sorry, Maddie.' Jeremy's tone was coaxing. 'Butit's a really big deal for the family, and Dad wants everything to be perfect. Times may be hard but Sylvester and Co is still riding high. That kind of thing.'
'If it only was a family affair,' Madeleine muttered. She sat back, reaching for her glass. 'For one thing, where have all those guests come from? I've never even heard of two thirds of them.'
'Clients of the bank, business associates, old friends of my father.' Jeremy sounded rueful. 'But believe me it could have been very much worse. What we have now is the shortlist.'
'I don't find that particularly reassuring,' Madeleine told him candidly.
'Oh, come on, it's not that bad.' Jeremy paused awkwardly. 'But it could be if you persist with this Italian nonsense.'
She said slowly, 'I can't believe you just said that. First it was a joke, now it's nonsense. Jeremy, we're talking about my work here.'
'It used to be your work.' His tone was defensive. 'But very soon now it won't be, so what is the point in your shooting off across Europe in pursuit of some musician no-one's ever heard of?'
'But people have heard of her,' Madeleine fired back. 'Flo-ria Bartrando was said to be the most wonderful young soprano of her generation. It was predicted she was going to be another Maria Callas, and then suddenly, with no explanation, she dropped off the edge of the world. It's been a major mystery for thirty years and now I have the chance to solve it.'
'But why you?' Frowning, he refilled their glasses. 'You're not the only researcher on the team.'
'Apparently the Italian contacts saw the programme on Hadley Cunningham's last symphony,' Madeleine said lev-elly. 'The one no-one knew he'd written. I did most of the research on that. So Todd offered me this.'
Jeremy's frown deepened. 'Frankly, darling, when you said you had something to tell me I assumed you meant that you'd handed in your notice as we'd agreed.'
'I said I'd think about it,' Madeleine said quietly. 'Having done so, I'm not walking away from a job I love without good reason.' She added, 'But I have booked out our honeymoon weeks as holiday.'
Jeremy stared at her as if she'd grown an extra head. 'And I'm supposed to be grateful for that?' he asked sarcastically.
'Well, you should be,' she said cheerfully. 'After all, you'd hardly want to go to the Maldives on your own.'
'I'm sorry, but I don't find this particularly amusing.'
'And nor do I. In fact I'm perfectly serious.' She gave him a rueful look. 'Jeremy, please try to understand.'
'What's to understand?' His shrug was almost petulant. 'Clearly finding material for minority interest television channels matters more to you than being my wife.'
'And now you're talking nonsense,' Madeleine retorted hotly. 'It's the twenty-first century, for heaven's sake, and most women combine marriage and a career these days in case you hadn't noticed.'
'Well, I want you to regard our marriage as your career,' Jeremy said, his lips tightening. 'I don't think you appreciate how hectic our social life will become, or how much entertaining we'll have to do. And I mean full blown dinner parties, not you rushing in at the last moment with a takeaway.'
She gasped. 'Is that how you see me? As some ditsy incompetent?'
'No, my sweet, of course not.' He was back in placatory mode. 'It's just that we're not sure you realise how much you'll be taking on, or how stressful you might find it.'
Maddie sat back in her seat, and gave him a straight look. 'I presume that's not the royal "we" you were using there? That you're quoting your father?'
'Naturally it's been discussed.'
She bit her lip. 'Jeremythe wedding may have got away from us, but this is our marriage, and you must make him see that.' Her voice deepened in intensity. 'I have no intention of letting you down, or failing to provide you with the support you need in your career. All I ask is that you do the same for me. Is that so very hard?'
There was a silence, then he said, 'I supposenot when you put it like that. I'll talk to Dad again. Which reminds me ' He glanced at his watch and pulled a face. 'I should be going. I'm due to meet him with some people at The Ivy.'
He paused. 'Sure you won't come with me? It's no problem.'
Maddie got to her feet, forcing a smile as she indicated the slim-fitting jeans and white shirt she was wearing. 'Except I'm not dressed for dinner at a top restaurant, which might create its own difficulty. Another time, darling.'
'So what will you do?' He sounded anxious.
She shrugged on her navy and white checked jacket and reached for her canvas shoulder bag. 'Ohhave a girlie night in, washing my hair, giving myself a manicure.'
And I have just told my fiance, the man I love, my first deliberate lie. Because actually, I'm going back to the office to do some more work on Floria Bartrando, but I doubt it would be politic to say so at this juncture.
Jeremy pulled her to him and kissed her. 'We mustn't fight,' he muttered. 'We can work things out. I know it.'
'Yes,' she said. 'Of course we can.' And kissed him back.
Outside the wine bar, she watched him hail a cab, then waved goodbye before beginning to walk slowly back towards the street where the Athene television production company was based.
She supposed that the recent confrontation had been inevitable, but knowing that made it no easier to handle. Somehow, she had to convince Jeremy that she could succeed as a working wife, a task handicapped from the outset by his father's forthright and openly expressed opinions to the contrary.
Maddie had known the Sylvesters pretty much all her life. Beth Sylvester, an old school friend of her mother, had been her godmother, and, as a child, Maddie had spent part of every summer at Fallowdene, the Sylvesters' big country house.
It had always seemed idyllic to her, but in retrospect she could see there'd been undercurrents which she'd been too young to pick up.
But somehow she'd known instinctively from the first that while her godmother would always be 'Aunt Beth', her husband would remain 'Mr Sylvester' and never become 'Uncle Nigel'.
Fallowdene was not in itself a beautiful house, yet to Mad-die it had always seemed an enchanted place, especially when Jeremy, the Sylvesters' only son, seven years her senior and light years older in every way, was there to be shadowed adoringly.
But she'd never allowed him to get away with any implication that they'd been childhood sweethearts.
'Arrant nonsense,' she'd teased, the first time it was mentioned. 'You thought I was a total pain in the neck, and went out of your way to ignore me.'
'But I've made up for it since,' he'd whispered, drawing her close. 'Admit it.'
Yet her most abiding memories were not of Jeremy at all, even though her initial crush had lasted well into her early teens.
What she recalled very vividly was the way the atmosphere of the house underwent a subtle change when Nigel Sylvester came home.
He was a man of just above medium height, who somehow gave the impression of being much taller. He had gone prematurely grey in his late twenties, or so Jeremy had told her, adding glumly, 'I hope it doesn't happen to me.'
Maddie had stroked his cheek, smiling. 'You'd look extremely distinguished.'
But if she was totally honest, she'd always found Nigel Sylvester's silver hair, which he wore slightly longer than was fashionable and swept straight back from his forehead, to be in odd and disturbing contrast to his curiously smooth, unlined face, and dark brown heavy-lidded eyes.
Nor was it just his appearance that used to unnerve her. His standards were exacting, he missed nothing, and although she had never heard him raise his voice in displeasure, Mad-die often thought it would have been better if he had shouted occasionally.