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"NO," SAID Emily. She spoke with cool clarity, but her green eyes flashed at the two lawyers on the other side of the desk. "Not a divorce.You will kindly inform your client that I want an annulment."
The younger man gasped audibly and received a reproving glance from his senior, Arturo Mazzini, who took off his glasses, wiped them and replaced them on his nose.
"But, Contessa," he said gently, "that is surely just--a question of emphasis. The important matter must be the actual dissolution of your marriage, not how it is done."
His placatory smile was not returned. "I can decide for myself what is, or is not important," said Emily. "A divorce--even the no-fault variety that your client is offering--suggests that a marriage really existed between us. I wish to make it perfectly clear to the world that it has not. That I am not, and never have been, the wife of Count Rafaele Di Salis--in the usual sense of the word," she added.
Signor Mazzini looked appalled. "Clear--to the world?" he repeated. "But you cannot mean that, Contessa. Any arrangement between yourself and the Conte Di Salis must be a private one, its terms not meant to be divulged."
"I wasn't responsible for the arrangement of my marriage," Emily told him stonily. "My father was. Nor did I offer any guarantees about the ending of it. And please don't call me Contessa,'she went on. "It's hardly appropriate under the circumstances. Miss Blake will be just fine."
There was an uneasy silence. Signor Mazzini produced a fine linen handkerchief and applied it to his forehead.
"Is it too warm in here, signore?'his antagonist asked more kindly. "Would you like me to open awindow?"
Both men repressed a shiver. There had been a sharp frost that morning and the formal gardens around Lang-borne Manor were still silvered over. Indoors, too, the elderly central heating system left a lot to be desired, although, to Signor Mazzini's certain knowledge, the Conte Di Salis had offered more than once in the past three years to have it replaced.
"You are all goodness," he returned. "But no, I thank you." There was a pause, then he leaned forward. "Contessa--Miss Blake--I beg you to reconsider. The divorce would be a mere formality and the settlement terms my client proposes are more than generous."
"I want nothing from the Count." Emily lifted her chin. "As soon as I'm twenty one, he will no longer be in control of my affairs. My father's money and this house will finally be mine. I need nothing else."
She sat back in her chair, the low winter sun slanting in through the long sash window behind her striking fire from her auburn hair.
Young Pietro Celli pretended to busy himself with the papers in the file in front of him while he studied her unobtrusively. Too thin, too pale and altogether too tense, he thought, recalling with renewed appreciation the frankly sinuous curves of the Count's latest mistress, which he had been permitted to admire on a number of occasions--although only from a discreet distance.
The slim hands were bare, he noticed, so heaven only knew what the Count's soon-to-be-ex-wife had done with His Excellency's wedding ring, or the Di Salis sapphire, which would have to be returned, of course, however the marriage reached its end.
But her eyes--Madonna mia!--they were amazing--the colour of emeralds, and with those long lashes too. However, the rest of the face--nondescript, he decided with a mental shrug.
And clearly a virago along with all her other faults. Small wonder, then, if a connoisseur of women like Rafaele Di Salis had opted for a marriage in name only. Who could blame him?
"Unless, of course, your client has gambled my entire inheritance away on some dodgy financial deal," this impossible young woman was adding lightly. "Perhaps you've been sent here to break the bad news."
Signor Mazzini bristled, while Pietro felt his jaw drop and had to hastily recover himself.
"That is a most damaging allegation, signorina," the older man said at last, his voice icy. "Your husband has dealt with the trust in an exemplary manner, have no doubt of that. You will be a wealthy young woman." Much wealthier than you deserve, the note in his voice suggested.
Emily sighed. "I wasn't serious. I'm perfectly aware that Count Di Salis is one of the stars of the world of finance." She added stiltedly, "And, naturally, I'm grateful for anything he's been able to do on my behalf."
The lawyer spread his hands, almost helplessly. "Then, if I may be permitted to ask, why not show your gratitude by acceding to the plan for a divorce?"
Emily pushed her chair back and rose. She walked over to the window and stood looking out. Her slender figure was clad in a cream woollen shirt tucked into close-fitting black cord trousers, with a wide leather belt reducing her waist to a handspan. The rich glow of her hair was drawn back to the nape of her neck and fastened with a black ribbon bow.
She said quietly, "Because, when I remarry, I wish the ceremony to be held in our parish church, but the vicar is a strong traditionalist and won't agree if I'm divorced. I also intend to wear white for the occasion so that my bridegroom will know that he isn't getting damaged goods." She paused. "Is that plain enough for your client?"
"But your present marriage is still a fact, Miss Blake." Signor Mazzini's reminder was brusque. "Is it not a little soon to be planning another wedding?"
"There is no marriage," Emily said. "Just a business deal nearing the end of its shelf life. And I can hardly be bound by that when considering my--future."
She turned back. "Now may I offer you both some tea?'Her polite smile did not reach her eyes. "I'm afraid the coffee in this house would hardly appeal to you."
Signor Mazzini rose. "I thank you, but no. I think we both need a little space--to consider. Perhaps we may have a further discussion tomorrow, signorina, in the hope you may have decided to--think again. Because, I tell you plainly, His Excellency will not agree to an annulment."
"But why not?" The emerald eyes opened wide. "He must want to be rid of me, as much as I want my own freedom. And, anyway, I deserve some reward for three years of dutiful boredom," she added, shrugging. "I've acted as his hostess here and in London when required, and turned a blind eye to his notoriously public private life. A steep learning curve if ever there was one." Her tone stung. "Now he can oblige me for a change."
"In your English history, signorina, you have a custom, I think, of throwing down the gauntlet." Signor Mazzini's tone held a touch of grimness. "In this case, such a challenge to His Excellency would not be wise."
Emily's laugh held a hard note. "Oh, dear, have I insulted Count Rafaele's machismo? Dented his reputation by suggesting that there's at least one woman in the known world who doesn't find him irresistible--and that's his alleged wife?" She shrugged. "Well, any damage to his male pride is--just unfortunate, because I have no intention of changing my mind. Please make that--ultra-clear to your client."
She moved to the fireplace, where a log fire was smouldering, and rang the bell beside the mantelpiece.
"Also suggest to him that we begin proceedings to end the marriage without delay," she added crisply. "After all, my twenty-first birthday's in three months' time and I would really like to be single again by then."
"I will convey your wishes to His Excellency," Signor Mazzini said with a small stiff bow. Or, at least, a carefully edited version of them, he amended silently as the housekeeper arrived to show them out.
When she was alone, Emily dropped limply into the big leather armchair that stood to the left of the wide hearth. She'd presented a bold front to her visitors and only she knew that her stomach had been churning and her legs trembling under her throughout the interview.
But it was done and she'd taken her first shaky steps towards freedom. And now her visitors would be on their way back to Rome or New York--or wherever Raf happened to be at present--with the bad news.
If that was what it was, she thought defensively. Why should he care about one less notch on his bedpost among so many?
She curled up in the big wing-chair that had once belonged to her father and closed her eyes.
Oh, Dad, she whispered forlornly. You did me no favours at all when you pushed me into this farce of a marriage.
I should never--never have agreed to it, but what else could I do when you were so ill and made me promise?
But at least it's not a life sentence. Raf's keeping his word about that.
On the other hand, she reminded herself defensively, he's doing me no favours either. He only agreed to marry me because he was in debt to my father and this was a way of paying it off.
Because I was certainly the last bride he'd ever have considered in ordinary circumstances.
Not that I cared at the time what he thought or what he wanted. Not when I was so miserable about Simon. When I really thought he'd gone for good.
At the time I felt so lonely and humiliated that if Count Dracula had proposed I'd probably have accepted him.
Not, she told herself, lips tightening, that Raf had any vampire qualities. He was more on the lines of a black panther, roaming the financial jungles to seek his prey. And how he'd ever become involved with her father was one of life's great mysteries.
Emily had first become aware of him when she was seventeen and had just arrived home from school for the Christmas holidays.
She'd come flying into the house as usual, leaving the chauffeur to follow with her luggage, and gone straight to her father's study, flinging the door wide with an exuberant, "Pops, darling, I'm home," only to find herself confronted by a tall young man, someone she'd never seen before, rising politely from his chair at her entrance.
She halted instantly, lips parting in surprise and embarrassment, her astonished gaze registering a confused but vivid impression of black, curling hair, tawny skin and lambent hazel eyes flecked with green and gold that, she realised, were studying her closely in return. And, at the same moment, she saw the firm mouth quirk as if some sudden thought had amused him.
She felt herself bristle instinctively and said quickly, stammering a little, "Dad, I'm sorry. I didn't realise you were engaged with anyone."
"It's fine, my dear. I'm sure Count di Salis will forgive your unceremonious arrival." Her father was smiling as he came round the desk to take her hands and kiss her, but his greeting seemed faintly muted and he didn't sweep her up into the accustomed bear hug. "Isn't that so, Rafaele?"
"It was a charming interruption." The newcomer's voice was low and resonant, his English flawless. He stepped forward, taking the hand she had awkwardly proffered. "So this is your Emilia, signore."
His touch was light, but she felt a sudden jolt of awareness, as unexpected as it was unfamiliar. It was like receiving a minor electric shock, she thought, unnerved, and wanted to snatch her fingers from his clasp, at the same time telling him her name was plain 'Emily' and not some Italianised version of it which somehow made it personal to him. A notion she found oddly disturbing.
And in the same instant found her hand released, as if the Count had sensed her inner withdrawal and reacted to it instantly.
He said with perfect courtesy, "It is my pleasure to meet you, signorina," then looked across at Sir Travers Blake. "You are a fortunate man, my friend."
"I think so too.'Her father's hand rested momentarily on her shoulder. "Now, run along and get your unpacking sorted, my pet," he added quietly. "And we'll join you for tea later."
Normally, Emily thought, as she looked back, if Dad had been busy when I arrived home, I'd have kicked off my shoes and curled up in this very chair waiting for him to finish. Yet somehow I knew, even then, that I wasn't going to be allowed to say a proper 'hello' and that everything was in the process of changing.
What I didn't bargain for was the extent of that change. When she'd reluctantly emerged into the hall again, she'd found Mrs Penistone, the housekeeper, hovering and looking anxious.