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Angelo van Zaal studied the nine-month-old child that the nurse had brought to him. The little girl was golden-haired with the wide, pansy-blue eyes of a china doll, and the minute she saw him she smiled in happy recognition. The innocence of that trusting smile cut Angelo as sharply as a knife, for few children could have been subjected to a tougher start in life than little Mariska. Only a dark bruise and a scratch on one cheek bore witness to the fact that she had been miraculously thrown clear in her special car seat from the accident in which both of her parents had died.
'I understand that you are not related by blood to Mariska,' the female doctor by his side remarked.
'Her father, Willem, was my stepbrother, but I thought of him as my brother and I treated him as such,' Angelo stated with the clarity for which he was famed in the business world. 'I consider Mariska to be part of my family and I'm keen to adopt her.'
'The social worker in charge of her case did mention that you have been involved in Mariska's life since she was born'
'I did what I could to support Willem and his wife, Julie. I only wish it had been enough,' he imparted with a wry twist of his mouth, as he knew that the medical staff would be well aware of the state in which Mariska's parents had been at the time of the crash. He was merely grateful that the sordid truth had not appeared in the newspapers.
Angelo van Zaal was an extraordinarily handsome man, the doctor reflected with an appreciative glance. He was also extremely wealthy, the bearer of a name famous for its benevolence in the field of philanthropy. Nevertheless, the steel magnate was equally well known for his ruthless cutting edge and success as a businessman. According to the press, a procession of international fashion models entertained him outside working hours. In looks, he had inherited his Spanish mother's black hair and darker skin tone rather than his Dutch father's fair colouring. But his eyes were a bright burning blue, as lucid as a flawless sapphire and enhanced by a frame of lush ebony lashes that gave his gaze spectacular impact. Tall, at several inches over six feet, and well built, he had attracted a good deal of notice from female staff and patients alike as they walked through the hospital to the children's ward. He was also, as far as the doctor was aware, still a single man.
'The hospital has had several enquiries about Mariska's welfare from her aunt, Flora Bennett. I understand that she is Julie's older sister.'
Angelo's superb bone structure took on a forbidding aspect. At the same time, he had a mental flash of eyes the colour of emeralds, skin as impossibly white as milk and the sort of lush full pink mouth that could plunge a man into an erotic daydream. Flora was a tall, feisty redhead with the kind of sensual appeal that would have entrapped a less wary and experienced male. As he had on previous occasions, Angelo crushed that provocative thought and shook himself free of it in exasperation. 'A half-sister,' he pronounced quietly. 'She and Julie had the same father.'
Angelo could have said a great deal more but he compressed his lips, reluctant to voice his hostility towards the other side of Mariska's family because that was a private matter. He'd had the then pregnant Englishwoman Julie Bennett and her connections investigated when Willem had decided to marry her, and his strong reservations about Julie had proved prophetic.
Had it not been for Julie's inclinations, Angelo was convinced that Willem would still be alive and, from what he had learned about Julie's elder sister at the same time, she was not to be trusted either. The same investigation had revealed that lurid scandal laced Flora's background; some years earlier she had used sleazy tactics in an attempt to advance and enrich herself in the workplace. While Flora was considerably more memorable in looks and personality than her rather more ordinary sister, she was an already proven gold-digger and Angelo knew he would go to any lengths to ensure that Willem's daughter, Mariska, was protected from her influence. Mariska would, after all, inherit her father's trust fund. As Willem had died before he'd reached the age where he could gain access to the money, his daughter would some day be a rich young woman.
Indeed, if Angelo had anything to do with the matter, Mariska would lead a very different life from that of either of her feckless parents. His wide sensual mouth hardened. He might have failed to rescue Willem from his demons, but doing the very best he could for his stepbrother's daughter would help him to sleep a little more peacefully at night.
The doctor cleared her throat as Mariska lay in Angelo's arms; he had been granted temporary custody of the child. 'Have you any plans to marry?' she enquired, unable to stifle her curiosity on that score.
Brilliant blue eyes flew straight to her blushing face. Angelo was too much of a player to reveal his thoughts but tension held him fast. 'It is possible,' he responded. 'Where this little girl is concerned, I still have much to think through.'
His acknowledgement that there might be some grounds for concern over his suitability as a single parent made the doctor give him an approving appraisal. Someone had once called Angelo van Zaal chilly but, although she would never have called him an emotional personality, he was innately practical and reliable. Many men would have shrugged off the problems of so troublesome a set of relatives, but Angelo had stood his ground and done what he could to help until the inevitable tragic end was reached. In the doctor's book, that not only made him a force to be reckoned with but also a very suitable guardian for a vulnerable child.
Flora sat rigid-backed in the taxi that had collected her from her flight into Schipol airport. Every step of her journey to Amsterdam had been organised without any input from her and, although those arrangements had made the trip easier for her, she was not only ungrateful for that assistance, but also as tense as a bowstring. At five feet eleven inches tall, she was a long-limbed coltish beauty with slender curves in elegant keeping with her height and graceful carriage. But Flora had never seen herself in that favourable light because from an early age she had been made to feel excessively large and gawky beside her dainty, diminutive mother who had often bemoaned her daughter's size.
Her thick auburn hair, which when loose fell well past her shoulders since she had decided to grow it again, was tied back with a black ribbon at her nape. Her apple-green eyes shone clear against her flawless skin, but the swollen reddened state of her eyelids betrayed the physical signs of her grief.
The knowledge that she would soon have to thank Angelo van Zaal for arranging her trip to Amsterdam for the double funeral made Flora grimace. She loathed him: he was such a controlling seven-letter-word of a man! His word was law within his family circle, at his offices and even beyond those boundaries, for such wealth as his carried considerable power and influence in every sphere. Flora, of course, had never liked being told what to do. She had learned to put up with it when she was an employee. She had also learned to keep her temper around bossy guests at her guest house, to nod and smile and let their arrogance wash off her again like a light rain shower.
But Angelo van Zaal could put Flora's back up without even trying. He had not even had the courtesy to phone her personally when her sister and his stepbrother had died within hours of crashing their car, she reflected bitterly. Instead he had instructed his family lawyer to ring and break the news for him. It was a dispassionate decision that was typical of his determination to keep her at arms length from events, thereby underlining his own authority and the absence of a true familial connection between them.
But if she was honestand Flora always liked to be honest with herselfher primary objection to Angelo van Zaal was that, at first glance, he had turned her head as easily as if she were a dizzy adolescent. Even though eighteen months had passed since that debilitating first encounter, her cheeks could still burn at the mere memory of the effect he had on herin spite of the fact that a man like Angelo van Zaal would never give her so much as a second glance.
Angelo was undeniably drop-dead gorgeous and Flora found it a terrible challenge not to stare at him and just float off into fantasy land. He flustered her and made her blush and stammer and, no matter how hard she tried to suppress her responses, she was already on the edge of her seat with anticipation at just the thought of seeing him again. There was no rhyme or reason to sexual attraction, she reminded herself impatiently. But all the same it exasperated her that even after her past unhappy experiences with men she could still succumb to a meaningless physical reaction. In truth, she was convinced that if sexual weakness could be inborn she had undoubtedly inherited that dangerous flaw from her womanising father. The acknowledgement that she could be drawn to someone she didn't even like shocked and affronted her, but she would have chewed off her own arm sooner than give Angelo van Zaal reason to suspect her weakness for him.
Furthermore, Angelo was severely underestimating her if he imagined that she might be willing to stand back and just allow him to claim full custody of her niece. Flora was ready to fight for the right to take Mariska back to England with her so that she could raise Julie's child as her daughter. Why should Angelo automatically assume that he would make the most appropriate guardian for a baby girl?
After all, Flora owned a comfortable detached house with a garden in the English village of Charlbury St Helens and was in a position to offer her niece her care and attention. At present, Flora, who also had a child-care qualification, ran a successful bed and breakfast business from her home. But, if need be, she could stop taking in paying guests until Mariska was of an age to attend school. Financially she could handle that temporary sacrifice of earnings because she had a good deal of money sitting untouched in the bank. She might not like to think about where that money had come from and what she'd had to go through to get it, but the very fact of its existence surely had to improve her chances of being considered a suitable adoptive parent.
As Flora detached herself from the disturbing memories of the very different life she had led as a city career woman before she'd settled into her former great-aunt's home in the village, she was painfully conscious of the ache of loss in her heart. Julie was gone and, sadly, Flora had seen all too little of her vivacious younger sister since she'd moved to the Netherlands. She had only seen Willem and Julie when they'd come over to the UK. Only once had Flora contrived to visit them in Amsterdam, for Willem and Julie had led very busy lives and it had quickly become apparent to her that they'd preferred to be guests rather than hosts.
Yet once upon a time Flora and the sibling five years her junior had been very close, although nobody who'd known the background from which both young women had come would ever have forecast that development. Flora had grown up as an only child in an unhappy marriage. Her father had been a chronic womaniser and she had few childhood memories that did not include a background of raised voices and the sound of her mother sobbing. Her emotionally fragile parent had often intimated that she would leave her unfaithful husband if only she could afford to do so, a lament that had ensured that her daughter set out to gain the highest possible educational qualifications in the hope of ensuring that she never had to rely on a man to keep a roof over her head.
Flora's parents had finally divorced while she'd been at university and she had then withstood the shock discovery that her father already had a second family, living only a few streets away from her childhood home! Evidently he had carried on an affair with Julie's mother, Sarah, almost from the outset of his marriage to Flora's mother. Her father had married Sarah straight after the divorce and there had been a huge family row when he'd insisted on introducing his daughters to each other. Even when that second marriage had also broken down in a welter of accusations of infidelity, Flora and Julie had stayed in touch, and when Julie's mother had died and Julie started college she'd moved into Flora's apartment in London. During the following two years, which had encompassed a period of great upheaval and unhappi-ness for Flora at work and in her personal life, the sisters had become close.
Flora's eyes swam with tears while she allowed herself to picture her late sister as she had last seen her. A small pretty blonde, Julie had been bubbly and chatty. Within months of meeting Willem, who had spent his gap year working in London, Julie had decided to abandon her studies so that she could live on a houseboat in Amsterdam with the handsome young Dutchman. Rejecting all Flora's cautious advice to the contrary, Julie had put love first with the wholehearted determination of the very young. Within weeks she had announced her pregnancy and soon afterwards a rather hasty marriage had taken place.
Angelo van Zaal had paid for the civil wedding and the small reception that had been held in London. Flora had only met him for the first time that day and, already warned what to expect from him by her sister, she had not been impressed by his chilly disapproval.
'I'm too common for Angelo's taste, not well enough educated and too cheeky for a woman,' Julie had told her with a scornful toss of her pretty blonde head. 'Catch me standing saying, "Yes, sir, no, sir, three bags full, sir" like Willem does! Willem is terrified of him because he's never managed to measure up to Angelo's expectations.'
And to be fair to Angelo van Zaal, he had made no attempt to pretend that he approved of her sister's relationship with his stepbrother. 'They're far too young and immature to be parents. This is a disaster,' he had pronounced with grim insensitivity after the ceremony, staring down at Flora with cold-as-ice blue eyes.