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'That's Tamsin Stewartwalking into the ballroom now. And there's my father rushing over to her. I can't believe Daddy is making such a fool of himself. She's young enough to be his daughter, for heaven's sake!'
The waspish comment caused Bruno Di Cesare to turn his head and follow Annabel Grainger's gaze across the ballroom to the blonde who had just walked into the room. His first thought was that the woman looked nothing like he had expected, and his eyes narrowed as he lifted his glass to his lips and savoured a mouthful of vintage champagne while he studied her.
When Annabelyounger daughter of his friend and business associate James Graingerhad phoned him and sobbed that her father was involved with a 'bimbo', he'd pictured a brittle bleached blonde wearing some skimpy outfit that revealed acres of overly-tanned flesh. Tamsin Stewart was certainly blonde, but she bore no further similarity to the image in his head.
Her slender figure was emphasised by her silk dress: an elegant, floor-length navy sheath that moulded her breasts and skimmed her flat stomach and the gentle curve of her hips. Her delicate oval face was dominated by huge eyes, although he could not make out their colour from this distance, and her mouth was wide and full and deliciously tempting, coated in a pale pink gloss. Her hair was swept up into a chignon, leaving her long, slender neck exposed, and the ornate diamond necklace she was wearing was almost as eye-catching as the woman herself.
She was beautiful, Bruno conceded, irritated by his reaction to her. The last thing he had expected was to feel physically attracted to a woman he had good evidence to suggest was a callous gold-digger with her sights set on James Grainger's fortune.
Annabel snatched a champagne flute from the bar. 'Look at hershe's all over him,'she muttered disgustedly, downing half the contents of her glass in one gulp.
Bruno reminded himself that Annabel was eighteen now, and entitled to drink alcohol. Over the years that he had been friends with the Graingers he had come to regard her as a little sister, and he frowned at the stark misery on her face.
Across the room Tamsin Stewart was smiling warmly at James as she reached up and brushed a speck of confetti from his jacket. The gesture spoke of an unusual level of intimacy between employer and employee, and Bruno's jaw hardened. Initially he had dismissed Annabel's claim that her father was besotted with a woman half his age. James Grainger was one of the shrewdest businessmen Bruno had ever met, and for the last eighteen months had been grieving the death of his adored wife. It was impossible to imagine him starting a relationship with any womanespecially one who was the same age as one of his daughters.
Nevertheless, Bruno had requested a report on Miss Stewart from one of his many contacts, and he had been sufficiently concerned by what he'd learned to cancel a trip to the US and fly to England to attend James daughter's wedding.
The marriage of Earl Grainger's eldest daughter, Lady Davina, to the Right Honourable Hugo Havistock had taken place in the private chapel on the Grainger estate, followed by a sit-down meal for family members and close friends at a nearby hotel. Now another two hundred guests had arrived at the Royal Cheshunt for the evening reception, and Tamsin Stewart was one of them.
Annabel watched her father lead the beautiful blonde onto the dance floor, and then rounded on Bruno. 'You see! I'm not imagining things,'she said angrily. 'Tamsin seems to have bewitched my father.'
'If that's the case, then we will just have to find a way to release him from her spell, piccola,' Bruno murmured softly.
Annabel stared at him. 'But how can we?' Her face clouded. 'I thought Daddy had bought that necklace for me,' she choked, lifting her glass to her lips to take another long sip of champagne.
Frowning, Bruno glanced at the diamonds around Tamsin Stewart's swan-like neck.
'Daddy bought all the bridesmaids one of these,'Annabel muttered, fingering the string of pearls at her throat, 'but when I was tidying his study'she flushed faintly 'I found the diamond necklace and thought he was going to give it to me. I am the chief bridesmaid, after all,' she added sulkily. 'I couldn't believe it when he said it was for Tamsin, in thanks for her work on Davina's flat.'
'If only he hadn't decided to employ an interior designer as part of Davina and Hugo's wedding present, he would never have met her,' Annabel continued dolefully. 'Davina thinks Daddy is lonely, and just wants someone to talk to, but she's been so wrapped up in the wedding that she doesn't understand what a hold Tamsin has over him.'
Annabel drained her glass and held it out to the barman to refill it. 'Oh, Bruno, I don't know what to do. I wouldn't be surprised if Tamsin has set her sights on becoming the next Lady Grainger. Daddy has been so unhappy since Mummy died,' she said thickly. 'I couldn't bear it if she hurt him.'
'She won't, piccola, because I won't allow her to.'
Bruno caught the shimmer of tears in Annabel's eyes and a hard knot of anger settled in his chest. He had known Annabel and Davina since they were children, when Lorna and James Grainger had welcomed him into their home on his frequent business trips to England. He had been saddened by Lorna's untimely death from cancer, and understood the raw grief of the family she had left behind. He felt protective of Lorna's daughtersand in a strange way of James too, as the older man struggled to come to terms with the loss of his beloved wife.
He took another sip of champagne, following James and Tamsin's progress around the dance floor while he considered what he knew of her. She was twenty-five, and single since her divorce two years ago. After university she had worked for a top London design company, where she had gained a reputation as a talented designer, and she had recently joined her brother's property development and design company, Spectrum.
Almost certainly Tamsin's move to Spectrum would have meant a drop in her salary, but the lady had expensive tastes, and Bruno was curious to know how she had afforded her recently purchased new car and spent two weeks at an exclusive holiday complex in Mauritiusnot to mention her penchant for designer clothes. The dress she was wearing tonight was from a well-known fashion housealthough not his own, Bruno notedand he was sure it would have been out of her price range. Someone had bought it for herand Bruno had a good idea who that someone was.
He knew that James Grainger travelled to London every week to meet Tamsin. Did she persuade him to take her shopping for clothes and jewellery? Or had she seen the diamond necklace and hinted that she wanted it?
But shopping trips were one thinginvesting a huge sum of money in Tamsin's brother's company was quite another, Bruno mused grimly. A month ago Spectrum Development and Design had been facing bankruptcy, but at the last minute James had put a vast amount of money into the company to save it from collapse. Bruno knew for a fact that James's financial advisors had been strongly against the deal, but James had refused to listen.
Sexual attraction could make a fool of even the most astute man, Bruno acknowledged bitterly. His father had proved that when he had married a woman half his age. Miranda had caused Stefano Di Cesare's downfall, both professionally and personally, andeven worsethe vacuous actress with her surgically enhanced figure had engineered a rift between Bruno and his father that had not been resolved before Stefano's death.
He had been in his early twenties when his father had re-married. Old enough and mature enough to want Stefano to be happy, but still grieving for his mother, who had died less than a year earlier. Dio, he had tried his best to like Miranda, even though his instincts had warned him she was an avaricious slut. But his instincts had proved right, he thought grimly, and now they were warning him that Tamsin Stewart was another Miranda, playing on the emotions of a vulnerable older man.
Bruno had huge respect for James, and over the years they had done business together they had become close friends. But the similarity between the Earl's and his own father's situation could not be ignored. Stefano had also been a lonely widower, flattered by the attention of a pretty young womansurely James Grainger had more sense than to lose his head to a blonde sex-pot?
Across the room, Tamsin Stewart was laughing with James, her lovely face animated and her eyes sparkling as they shared a private joke, seeming oblivious to the other dancers around them.
Annabel stared at them for a moment, scowling. 'She was married to the brother of one of my friends, you know,' she muttered. 'Caroline told me how she blatantly targeted Neil once she knew that he was a successful businessman earning a fortune in the city. Apparently Neil realised he'd made a mistake soon after they marriedwhen Tamsin moaned about his long working hours but was happy to spend his money. But when he tried to end their relationship, she told him she was pregnantpresumably to make him stay with her.'
'So she has a child?' Bruno queried sharply.
'Oh, no,' Annabel replied. 'Neil divorced her, and I don't know what happened about the baby. Caroline thinks Tamsin may have made up the story about being pregnant, but it didn't work. As I said, Neil insisted on a divorce, and Caro thinks he's well shot of her.
'Daddy's latest idea is to have Ditton Hall completely refurbished,' she said dully. 'Even though Mummy loved it the way it is. And he's going to ask Tamsin to design it. Daddy says that we have to accept Mummy's gone and move on, but I couldn't bear it if Tamsin moved into Ditton Hall. I'd have to move out and live on the streets or something.'
The idea of spoilt, pampered Annabel living rough was laughable, but Bruno caught the note of real misery in her voice and his anger intensified. The young girl had been devastated by her mother's death, and was understandably hurt and dismayed by her father's relationship with Tamsin Stewart.
His mouth compressed into a hard line as he moved lithely towards the dance floor, tuggingAnnabel after him. 'Your father would never do anything to upset you, and he certainly wouldn't want you to leave Ditton Hall,' he reassured her. 'Now I think it's time you introduced me to the lovely Miss Stewart.'
Tamsin glanced at James Grainger and frowned when she noted the greyish tinge to his skin. He looked drained, she thought worriedly. 'After this dance I think you should sit down and rest. You must have been on your feet for most of the day, and you know what the doctor said about getting too tired,' she told him firmly.
James chuckled, but did not argue with her. 'Yes, Nurse. You sound as bossy as my wifeand that's saying something.' His smile faded and a flash of pain crossed his face. 'Lorna would have been in her element today, organising everything. She'd have loved it.'
'I know,' Tamsin said softly. 'But you've done a wonderful job with this wedding. Davina looks so happy, and I'm sure that neither of the girls has guessed.' She bit her lip and then murmured, 'But, James, I really think you should tell themif not now, then after Davina and Hugo get back from their honeymoon.'
'No.' James Grainger shook his head fiercely. 'Eighteen months ago they lost their mother to cancer. There's no way I'm going to tell them I've been diagnosed with the same disease. Not yet anyway,' he added, when Tamsin opened her mouth to argue. 'Not until I've seen the specialist again and discussed my prognosis. I don't want to worry them unnecessarily. Annabel is only eighteen, and she's too young to have to deal with any more traumas. Promise me you won't say anything to the girls or anyone else?' he pleaded.
Tamsin nodded reluctantly. 'Of course I won't, if that's what you want. But I'm coming to the hospital with you on Friday. The chemotherapy made you so sick last time.' She paused before adding hesitantly, 'I could be wrong, but I get the feeling that Annabel isn't happy about us meetingespecially now you can no longer pretend we're discussing my designs for Davina's flat. If she knew your trips to London are to the hospital '
'No,' James insisted again. 'She'd be scared witless. Anyway,' he added cheerfully, 'I've told her I'm meeting you to discuss ideas for refurbishing Ditton Hall.'
'Yes,'Tamsin said slowly, 'I'm afraid that's what's upset her.'
But what could she do about the situation? Tamsin fretted. She had first met James Grainger when she had been commissioned to design Davina and Hugo's flat, and had quickly realised that beneath James's friendly charm was a man teetering on the edge of despair at the loss of his wife.
Tamsin had sympathised with James, and understood his reluctance to burden his daughters with his misery when they were grieving for their mother. And so she had taken time to chat to him whenever they had met at the flat, and had gently encouraged him to talk about Lorna Grainger.
A deep friendship had developed between them, and James had confided in her when he'd gone for tests to determine if he had prostate cancer. Since the diagnosis she had faithfully kept his secret, but she had been unable to persuade him to reveal the truth to Davina and Annabel. And now she had a feeling that Annabel resented her friendship with James.
Sighing, she let her fingers stray to her neck, nervously checking the diamond necklace that hung like a heavy weight around her throat.
'Stop fiddling with it. It's fine,' James chided her.
'I'm terrified I'll lose it. I really think I should take it off and return it to you.'
'I've told you, I don't want it back. It's a present.'
'And I told you I can't accept it,' Tamsin told him firmly. 'Please understand. It must be worth a fortune, and it wouldn't be appropriate for me to keep it.'
'I just wanted to thank you for your support these past few months by giving you something special for your birthday,' James said stubbornly. 'I don't know what I would have done without you. Lorna would have liked you,' he added gruffly.
The sadness in his eyes brought a lump to Tamsin's throat, and on impulse she leaned up and kissed him lightly on the cheek. 'I help because we're friends, and I certainly don't want you to repay me with expensive jewellery.' She gave the older man a rueful look, knowing that he would be deeply hurt if she insisted on returning the necklace. 'But thank youthe necklace is beautiful and I'll treasure it.'
'Daddy, you haven't danced with me once this evening.'
At the sound of the faintly petulant voice, Tamsin glanced round. Her heart sank when she saw Annabel Grainger staring sulkily at her. She quickly stepped away from James, feeling guilty that she had monopolised his attention. But as she swung round to walk off the dance floor she cannoned into a hard wall of muscle encased in silkand when she lifted her head her eyes meshed with the midnight-dark gaze of Annabel's partner.
Her first thought was that she had never in her life seen a man like him. His stunning looks stole the breath from her body, and as his eyes locked with hers she stood stock-still and simply stared at him, absorbing the impact of his perfectly sculpted bone structure and the dark olive skin stretched taut over his high cheekbones. His jaw was square, and hinted at an implacable determination to always get his own way, but his mouth was wide and sensual, and Tamsin felt a curious longing to trace the full curve of his upper lip with her fingers.
Awareness seeped through her veins until her body throbbed with a slow, deep yearning that began in the pit of her stomach and radiated out, weakening her limbs with a desire that was shockingly fierce and utterly unexpected. The gleam in his ebony eyes warned her that he knew what she was thinking, and her face burned. Hopefully not exactly what she was thinking, she prayed fervently, and she hastily banished the fantasy of him carrying her off to the nearest empty room and making passionate love to her.
Tension coiled in the pit of her stomach, and heat suffused her whole body so that she was sure her face must be scarlet. He was exceptionally tall, sheathed in an expertly cut dark grey suit that emphasised his height and the width of his shoulders, and even when she stepped away from him, mumbling an apology, she felt overwhelmed by his powerful masculinity.
'Forgive me, pumpkin, but I thought you were enjoying yourself with your friends,' James apologised to his daughter. 'Have you been taking care of my little girl, Bruno?'
'Of course,' the man replied smoothly. 'But you know, James, now that Davina is married, and about to leave Ditton Hall, I think Annabel feels in need of her papà.' His accent was unmistakably Italian, his voice as rich and thick as clotted cream, but Tamsin caught his faintly reproving tone and James must have detected it too.
'Come and dance with me, then, darling,' he said jovially. 'Tamsin, do you mind if we swap partners? I have it on good authority that Bruno is an excellent dancer.'
An awkward silence followed, and Tamsin stiffened, unable to bring herself to meet the man's gaze. His close proximity was actually making her tremble, and she was terrified that if she danced with him he would realise the effect he had on her. 'I think I'll sit this one out,' she mumbled, keeping her eyes on James. 'You go ahead.'