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LEONE ANDRACCHI lounged back in his comfortable leather chair and surveyed the woman whom he would use as a weapon in his quest for revenge.
Across the busy room, Misty Carlton was keeping her catering staff hard at work dispensing refreshments. She wore her copper hair in a no-nonsense style. Her grey suit and sensible shoes were neither feminine nor flattering and her pale face was unadorned by make-up. Her whole appearance suggested a businesslike and serious young woman keen not to draw attention to her sex, and her cover seemed to work for Leone had yet to see a single one of his executives attempt to flirt with her.
Was every man in the room with the exception of himself blind? Did only he see the promise of those silver-grey eyes and the voluptuous fullness of that lush pink mouth? Dressed in appropriate clothing, she would be stunning, far more arresting than any conventional beauty for her colouring gave her a fey, sensual quality that was unusual. He was already picturing her slender curves embellished by silk lingerie and her long, slim, coltish legs sheathed in cobweb-fine stockings and complemented by very high heels. She was tall but he was taller still and she would not need to wear flat shoes around him. A self-mocking smile lurked in the depths of Leone's dark-as-night eyes as he conceded that he had yet to mentally clothe her beyond the level of her undergarments. But then he was a Sicilian to the backbone and all Sicilian men knew how to truly appreciate an attractive woman.
Within a couple of weeks at most, Misty Carlton would be one of the most talked-about women in London. As his mistress, she'd find her name would hit the gossip columns and the paparazzi would go digging into her background and if their quest was inefficient, he would ensure that a tip was dropped in the right quarter. Having established her identity to his own satisfaction, he had left the revealing links in place. Indeed, everything that would happen in the near future had been decided almost six months earlier when he had first found her and worked out how best to lure her into the position of a sitting duck waiting for him to take aim and fire. Which was right where she was at this particular moment, Leone savoured.
Misty Carlton was the illegitimate daughter of the man against whom Leone had sworn vengeance in his sister's name: Oliver Sargent. The smooth-talking politician, who had founded his reputation as a respectable family man by preaching moral standards and who lived an exceedingly nice life on his inherited wealth. Oliver Sargent, who was a hypocrite, a seducer of teenagers and ultimately little better than a murderer. Oliver Sargent, who had left Battista to die alone in the shattered remnants of her car sooner than call the emergency services and risk a scandal.
Leone's dark, chiselled face was sombre. Though it was almost a year since his sister's funeral, Leone's gut still twisted with pain whenever he allowed himself to remember how Battista's life had been wilfully, cruelly and mercilessly sacrificed. The doctors had told him that had she been discovered sooner she might have survived the crash. That summer, she had only been nineteen years old, a politics student doing research work on Sargent's staff.
A beautiful, idealistic girl with bright brown eyes, long black curly hair and a very trusting nature. Within weeks of her beginning her volunteer placement, Leone had been heartily sick of the sound of Sargent's name but it had not occurred to him that a bad case of hero worship might put Battista at risk. After all, Oliver Sargent was a married man and a quarter of a century older than his kid sister. He had overlooked the fact that Sargent was a handsome charmer, who could easily pass for being a great deal younger than he actually was.
Unaware of quite how intimidating his grim expression was, Leone focused in some surprise on the pastries being offered to him, for the almond biscuits and custard tarts were traditional Sicilian treats. The slender hand holding the plate was shaking almost imperceptibly but his gaze was keen. He glanced up into Misty Carlton's drawn face, recognising the marks of strain there in the bluish shadows beneath her eyes and the tense set of her delicate jawbone. She had brown lashes as long as a child's and she was trembling. But then she was desperate. He knew that for he had planned it that way. She was on the very brink of losing the business that she had worked so hard to build up. He held her in the palm of his hand.
"Thank you," Leone murmured, dark deep drawl rather mocking for if she fondly imagined that he was likely to be impressed by so unsubtle an attempt at downright flattery, she was very much mistaken. Contracts were awarded on the basis of price, efficiency and reliability and, whether she liked it or not and through no fault of his, she had broken more than one of the basic rules of setting up a new business. "Nucatoli and pasta ciotti. What a pleasant surprise. You are spoiling me."
A tiny betraying pulse was flickering like mad just below her fragile collar-bone, drawing his attention to the fine, delicate skin of her throat. "I like to experiment…that's all," Misty said breathlessly.at him: the dilated dark pupils, the flush on her cheeks, the moist pink of her parted lips. He turned her on and, had he not known what he did know about her, he might have believed that she was too innocent to hide those sexual signals of availability. But he knew better, felt free to assume that, had the room been empty, he might have pulled her down onto his for his with her willing encouragement. His own sex threatened to betray him with primitive male urgency but he thought about revenge instead and his blood cooled fast. He had no intention of bedding Oliver Sargent's daughter. She would be his mistress in name only.
"Don't we all?" Leone quipped with husky suggestiveness and bit into a tiny custard tart that melted in his mouth, while she hovered like a submissive handmaiden to one side of him. A faint sardonic smile curved his masculine lips. He liked her stance. He was an old-fashioned guy and the pastry was delicious. Maybe in her spare time she would be able to occupy herself in his kitchen. Eager to please, she certainly was. Though someone ought to have warned her that even a hint of nervous desperation was likely to alert clients to an unsound business.
"It's good," Leone told her softly.
The big silver-grey eyes lit up with a surge of relief and pride. He had an erotic image of her spread across his bed in the drowsing heat of a Sicilian afternoon, glorious red hair cascading in a tangle, lush pink mouth begging for his while she writhed and moaned with pleasure beneath his expert hands. Sadly, it was not to be, he reminded himself, exasperated by the predictable effects of his own powerful libido.
She poured his coffee with her own hands. He wondered if her rock-star lover had appreciated those little touches of essential femininity calculated to make even the wimpiest male feel as though he could go out and club a lion to death before dragging it back to the connubial cave to impress her in turn. She was no fragile little flower, though. The file on her had turned up quite a few surprises for she might be only twenty-two, but she had led a chequered life and one that might have inspired his compassion had she not, it seemed, been guilty of fleecing a little old lady out of her savings. Behind those mist-coloured eyes lurked a greedy little schemer with a heart of stone.
Blood will out, Leone thought fatalistically as he accepted the coffee already sugared to his preference. She might not have the foggiest idea of who her father was and she might never have met him but he already saw a similarity between Oliver Sargent and his natural daughter in the way that she seemed to use people and reinvent herself to turn situations to her own advantage.
Melissa Carlton had grown up in a series of foster homes and trouble seemed to follow her around. She had once been engaged to a prosperous landowner and her former fiancé's mother was still congratulating herself on her success in seeing off a young woman whom she had deemed to be both mercenary and calculating. The rock-star lover had followed: an unwashed-looking yob with spiky bleach-blond hair given to screaming indecipherable lyrics into microphones while Misty had danced wildly on one side of the stage. That had not lasted long either.
"May I have a word with you, Mr Andracchi?" Misty asked tautly.
"Not just at present," Leone said, watching her flinch and pale without an ounce of remorse.
She could stew a little longer.And why not? Ultimately, she was going to get the deal of the century and profit very nicely indeed from their arrangement. Saving her skin stuck in his throat but what else could he do? She was Oliver Sargent's Achilles heel and he needed her co-operation to bring the bastard down. Not that she would know how she was helping him until it was too late. But then even the best deals came at a price and she was not a sensitive woman. Sensitive women did not rip off old ladies and leave them struggling to make ends meet while continuing to pose as a caring pseudo-daughter.
When the press identified Misty Carlton as Sargent's illegitimate child, her father's political career would go down the tubes for no man had been more sanctimonious about his moral principles than Oliver Sargent. His good-living childless wife might well pull the plug on him too but Leone had no interest in that possibility. He already knew what Sargent valued most: his power, his ambitious hopes of higher office in government, his adoring coterie of female supporters. And when the scandal broke, Oliver Sargent was going to be stripped bare of his pride and his power and his influence. It would be a brutal punishment for a man who revelled in his own importance and lived for admiration. Once Sargent's cover was blown all the other dirt would eventually surface too: his financial double-dealing and questionable friendships with dishonest businessmen. He would be ruined beyond all hope of political recovery.
It wasn't enough, though, it wasn't nearly enough to compensate for Battista's sweet life cut off in its prime, but when the axe fell Leone would be sure to let his victim know why he had destroyed him. Sargent was already nervous around him although the older man did not yet suspect that Leone knew that he had been in that car the night his kid sister had died. But then Battista's sleazy seducer had covered his tracks too well and, no matter how hard Leone had tried, proof of that fact had been impossible to obtain.
He watched Misty Carlton, who was the very picture of her late mother, marshal her staff. Unless he was very much mistaken, Oliver Sargent would begin sweating and fearing exposure the very instant he saw her and heard her name…
Misty wondered if she had ever hated anyone as much as she hated Leone Andracchi.
He had dismissed her as though she were a servant speaking up out of turn but this was the last day but one of her temporary contract and she had yet to be told whether or not it was going to be renewed for the next year. If it wasn't, she would be bankrupted. Perspiration beading her short upper lip, Misty got on with her work but, no matter where she was in the gracious room with its oppressive clubby male atmosphere, she was conscious of Leone Andracchi's brooding presence.
A real Sicilian tycoon, fabulously wealthy and famously devious and unpredictable to deal with. He dominated the room like a big black storm cloud within which lurked the threat of a lightning strike. His own executives were nervous as cats around him, eager to defer to him, keen to impress, paling if he even began to frown. Yet he was only thirty years old, young indeed to wield such enormous power. But then he was supposed to be absolutely brilliant in business.
Shame about the personality, Misty thought bitterly. It was just her luck that she should be forced to kowtow to a sexist dinosaur, who had taken her attentions quite as his due. My goodness, he had loved it when she'd brought him those special pastries and had practically purred like a jungle cat while she'd sugared his blasted coffee for him. Her strong pride had stung with every obsequious move, for boot-licking did not come naturally to her. Perhaps the Sicilian baking had been overkill but, really, what did she have left to lose? Beggars couldn't be choosers. She had crawled for Birdie's sake, Birdie who was going to lose her home if Misty didn't manage to pull her own irons out of the fire and get that contract confirmed. And when it came to Birdie, there was no limit to the efforts Misty was willing to make.
"That Andracchi guy is so gorgeous," her friend and employee, Clarice, groaned in a die-away voice as she stacked cups into containers by Misty's side. "Every time I look at him I feel like I've just died and gone to heaven."
"Shh." Misty reddened with annoyance, for a waitress casting languishing lustful glances at the big chief would hardly qualify as professional behaviour.
"You're always looking at him out of the corner of your eye," the chirpy and curvaceous brunette whispered back cheekily before she walked away.
All right, so she looked, but not because she was a mug for those serious dark good looks of his! No, she looked the way one looked to check a lion was still in a cage with the door safely locked. Leone Andracchi unnerved her. It had to be her imagination that she felt that he was always watching her for she had yet to catch those brooding dark golden eyes doing so, but in his radius she felt hideously self-conscious.
And yet in any normal business empire the size of Andracchi Industries, she would never even have got to meet a male as hugely important as Leone Andracchi. After all, she was only a caterer on a short trial contract to just one of his companies and surely far beneath his lofty notice. Furthermore, Brewsters was not in London but based on the outskirts of a country town in Norfolk. Yet, on a visit to Brewsters, Leone Andracchi had taken the trouble to interview her personally. He had also sent her jumping through a line of mental hoops like a circus animal he was training for his own nasty amusement.
As her wan face stiffened at the recollection, she scolded herself for the resentment that lingered. In accepting her bid for the contract and very much surprising her in so doing, Leone Andracchi had given her what had seemed to be the opportunity of a lifetime. It was hardly his fault that that opportunity had turned sour or that she had bitten off more than she could chew.
"Andracchi is what I call a real man," Clarice stressed in a feeling sigh of infuriating appreciation as she shoved past again. "All muscles and rampant energy. He just reeks of sex in the raw. You know he'd be a wicked fantasy in bed—"
"He has love rat written all over him and a lousy reputation with women!" Misty gritted in a driven undertone. "Will you please drop the subject?"
"I was only trying to give you a laugh." Her friend pulled a surprised grimace. "Lighten up, Misty."
Feeling guilty, Misty reddened, aware her nerves were jumping like electrified beans. But even her friend had no idea just how precarious her business, Carlton Catering, had become. It was ready to crash and go to the wall. If she did not get that all important contract from Andracchi Industries, the bank would refuse to extend her loan and she would not even have sufficient funds left to pay her employees at the end of the month, never mind her suppliers. Shame drenched her in a tidal wave. How had she got into such a mess?
A blond male in a smart suit approached her. "Mr Andracchi will see you now in his office."
She could see the man's barely concealed surprise that Leone Andracchi should be involving himself yet again in such a minor matter. But then as the great man himself had drawled in explanation almost four months earlier, "Lunch is an art to a Sicilian and I want the executives here to benefit from a new experience. I'm tired of watching people scoff sandwiches at their desks. I believe that a proper meal will increase productivity throughout the afternoon."
So every day she had provided a light lunch in the executive dining room that had been set up and on afternoons like this, when a major business powwow concluded, she had been asked to stay on to serve refreshments as well. Visiting the cloakroom first, she washed her hands and checked that she was still tidy. She wasn't looking her best and she knew it, which didn't help. Sleepless nights and constant worry had left their mark.
Her own fault, she told herself bitterly. She had taken a risk on Leone Andracchi's whim and on what might yet prove to be an experiment he had no intention of even continuing. Furthermore, even if he had decided to retain the lunches, there was no guarantee whatsoever that her business would win the contract. He was going to kiss her off. She knew it, could feel it in her bones. Her punishment for borrowing from the bank to expand was coming. What was it to him if her piffling little firm went into receivership? He would probably like to see her beg. Could she do it for Birdie? Beg that big, muscle-bound, arrogant jerk for mercy? She shuddered at the prospect but her only alternative was even less appetizing: Flash would haul her out of trouble without hesitation. Only it would be for a to heaven that she would never, ever sink that low…
A secretary who looked suitably cowed by the effect of a week-long visit from the tycoon boss of Andracchi Industries opened the door of a big office for her. Straightening her slight shoulders, Misty breathed in deep and walked in, striving for a look of calm confidence, which was in no way echoed by her churning tummy and her damp palms. Please, please don't let him try to shake hands, she prayed inwardly.
"Sit down, Miss Carlton."