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Alessandro spared barely a glance for the promotional material he tossed into his out tray. His newest PA still hadn't learnt what he should see and what he had no time for. The textile manufacturing arm of the company would be represented at the upcoming trade fair. But one of his managers could handle that. It hardly needed the CEO to…
His gaze caught on a photo as a brochure landed askew, half covered by discarded papers.
Alessandro's eyes narrowed on the curve of a woman's smile, a tiny mole like a beauty spot drawing attention to a mouth that would catch any man's interest. Wide, lush, inviting.
Every muscle froze even as his pulse revved and blood roared in his ears.
Yet it wasn't sexual awareness that arrested him. A tantalising wisp of almost-memory wafted behind his conscious thoughts. A taste, sweet as ripe summer cherries, rich and addictive.
Heat filled him, despite the climate-controlled air in his spacious office. A zap of something that might have been emotion stifled the breath in his lungs. Alessandro froze, telling himself not to analyse but to relax and let the sensations surface. Willing the recollections to come.
Like a lacy curtain in a breeze, the blankness cloaking his memory of those missing months two years ago rippled. It shifted, parted, and then dropped back into place.
His hands clenched, white-knuckled on the edge of his glass and black marble desk. But Alessandro didn't register pain, just the infuriating, familiar sense of nothingness.
Only to himself would he acknowledge how helpless that void made him feel. How vulnerable. It didn't matter that he'd been assured those lost months contained nothing out of the ordinary. Other people remembered that time: what he'd done and said. But he, Alessandro Mattani, had no recall.
Swift as thought, he tugged the brochure from the papers. It was an advertisement for a luxury hotel. He turned it over. A luxury hotel in Melbourne.
Alessandro waited, but no spark of recognition came. He hadn't travelled to Melbourne.
Not that he could remember.
Impatience flared and he forced it down, breathing deeply. An emotional response wouldn't help. Even if the sense of loss, of missing something vital, sometimes threatened to drive him to the edge.
He flipped over the flyer again. A woman, a receptionist, smiled at a handsome couple as they checked in. The photo was professionally styled, yet despite its air-brushed gloss, there was something riveting about the receptionist's smile.
The setting was opulent, but Alessandro had grown up with luxury and barely bothered to notice. The woman, on the other hand… she intrigued him.
The more he stared, the more he felt an atavistic premonition that made his blood pump faster and prickled the skin at his nape. She was so familiar.
Had she smiled at him like that?
A tickle of awareness started low in his belly.
A tickle of… certainty.
Carefully he catalogued her features. Dark hair pulled back sleekly from a pleasant but unremarkable face. Her nose was pert, a trifle short. Her eyes were surprisingly light for her brunette colouring. Her mouth was wide.
She wasn't beautiful. She wasn't exotic enough to turn heads. And yet she had… something. A charisma the photographer had seen and capitalised on.
Alessandro traced the angle of her cheekbone, the gentle curve of her jaw, to pause on the lush promise of her lips.
There it was again. That tingle of presentiment. The intuition that she was no stranger. It drew every muscle and sinew in his body tight, as if in readiness for action.
Behind the opaque gauze of his faulty memory something shifted.
Sensation, soft as the tentative brush of those lips against his. That taste again, of sun-ripened cherries. Irresistible. The phantom caress of delicate fingers along his jaw, over his rapidly pulsing heart. The sound of feminine sighs, the aftermath of ecstasy.
Alessandro's chest heaved as if from intense physical exertion. Sweat prickled his nape and brow as his body stirred with arousal.
Yet instinct clamoured with a truth he couldn't ignore.
He knew her. Had met her. Held her. Made love to her.
His nostrils flared on a surge of wholly masculine possessive-ness. The primitive sense of ownership, of a male scenting his mate, was unmistakeable.
He stared at the image of a stranger from the other side of the world. If he hadn't visited Melbourne, had she travelled here to Lombardia?
Frustration at those missing months simmered.
For long minutes Alessandro considered the photograph, his thumb absently caressing the curve of her cheek.
Impossible as it seemed, the certainty grew that this woman held the key to his locked memories. Could she open them? Restore what he'd lost and obliterate the sense that he was somehow less than he'd been. The gnawing hint of dissatisfaction with his world.
Alessandro reached for the phone. He intended to have answers, no matter what it took.
'Thanks, Sarah, you're a lifesaver.' Relief flooded Carys. Today everything that could go wrong had. At least this one thing, the most important, was sorted.
'No worries,' her neighbour and babysitter responded. 'Leo will be fine staying over.'
Carys knew Sarah was right, but that didn't stop the twinge of regret, sharp in her chest. When she'd taken this job at the Landford Hotel it was with the expectation she'd be home most days at a reasonable hour. Early enough to look after her son.
She didn't want Leo growing used to an absentee parent too busy with her career to spend time with him. The sort of home life Carys had taken for granted as a child.
Especially since Leo only had her.
The twinge beneath her breast intensified, catching her breath as pain ripped through her. Even after all this time she couldn't suppress the shaft of regret and longing that pierced her whenever she remembered.
She needed to toughen up. Once upon a time she'd chased her dream, but she wasn't fool enough to believe in it any more. Not after she'd learned so cruelly how futile that dream was.
'Carys? What's wrong?'
'Nothing.' Hastily she forced a smile, knowing Sarah could read her tone even over the phone. 'I owe you one.'
'You sure do. You can babysit for us next weekend. We've got plans for a night on the town, if you can mind Ashleigh.'
'Done.' She looked at her watch. She had to get back before the next crisis hit. 'Don't forget to give Leo a goodnight kiss from me.' Stupid to feel that catch in her throat because tonight she wouldn't feed him his evening meal or kiss his plump pink cheek at bedtime.
Her son was in good hands and, she told herself sternly, she was lucky to have landed a job that usually gave her regular time with him. She was grateful the management had been impressed enough to allow her reasonably family-friendly hours.
Today was the exception. The flu that ravaged the Landford's staff had hit at the worst possible time. More than a third of the staff was off sick just when there was a series of major functions.
It didn't matter that Carys had already spent more than a full day on the job. The collapse just an hour ago of David, the senior functions manager, with a soaring temperature, meant Carys had to step into that role too.
Nerves fluttered in her stomach. This was her chance to prove herself and justify David's faith in her, having taken her on despite her incomplete qualifications. He'd been a good friend and a terrific mentor. She owed him not only her position, but the hard-won self-confidence she'd slowly built since coming to Melbourne.
'I don't know what time I'll be back, Sarah. Probably in the early hours.' Steadfastly Carys refused to worry about how she'd manage the trip home. She couldn't rely on public transport at that time, and the cost of a cab was prohibitive. 'I'll see you around breakfast time, if that's OK?'
'That's fine, Carys. Don't fret. We'll see you when we see you.'
Slowly Carys replaced the phone and stretched her hunched shoulders. She'd been working at the computer and on the phone without a break for so long her body ached all over.
She glanced at the monitor before her and saw the lines of the spreadsheet she'd opened dance and jumble before her eyes. She pinched the bridge of her nose, knowing that no matter how hard she concentrated, working on the document would be a test of endurance and determination.
Sighing, she reached for her tinted reading glasses and leaned forward.
She had to finish this. Only then could she make last minute checks on the arrangements for tonight's masked ball.
Carys stood in the corner of the ballroom near the door to the kitchens, listening to the head waiter's whispered update. It was mayhem in the kitchen with more staff struck down by this virulent flu. Only a couple of the extra waitstaff had arrived to replace those who'd phoned in ill, and the chefs were barely able to cope. Fortunately, the guests hadn't noticed anything wrong. The Landford prided itself on superb service, and the staff were doing everything to live up to that reputation.
The ballroom, all black and gold, was gracious and formally elegant. Antique chandeliers sparkled, casting a glow that set jewels scintillating among the A-list crowd. The guests looked impossibly chic as befitted one of Fashion Week's major events.
The room smelled of exclusive fragrances, hothouse flowers and money. Serious money. Celebrities, designers, buyers, the crème de la crème of Australian society, were here tonight and plenty of international high-flyers too.
And they were all her responsibility.
Carys' pulse thundered and she struggled to focus on her companion's words. She must concentrate if she wanted to ensure tonight was a success. Too much was at stake.
'All right. I'll see if we can get someone else from the restaurant to help out.' She nodded, dismissing him and turning to the house phone on the wall. She reached out to hit the speed dial number for the restaurant, then froze.
A tingling sensation began at the base of her spine. It burned its way up her back like the slide of hot ice on bare skin. Except her skin wasn't bare. She wore a regulation jacket and straight skirt, dark stockings and high heels.
Yet through the layers of clothing her skin sizzled, the hairs on her neck prickling.
Carys replaced the phone with stiff, unsteady fingers. She pivoted, turning to face the shifting, colourful crowd. Staff circulated with gourmet canapés and vintage champagne; groups broke and reformed.
The guests, most of them wearing exquisite handmade masks, were busy enjoying themselves or networking or showing off their finery. They wouldn't notice anyone who didn't belong in their rarefied circle.
That suited Carys. She didn't hanker for a place at a fairytale ball. Not since she'd given up on the whole Prince Charming fantasy.
Yet heat washed her cheeks. Her breath snagged in her throat and her pulse accelerated as instinct told her she was being watched.
Her heart was in her mouth as frantically she searched the throng for something, someone, familiar. Someone who could make her skin tingle and her heart race as it had before, long ago.
Briefly she shut her eyes. Madness! That was in the past. A past best forgotten.
Tiredness and nerves had simply made her imagine things.
Her path and his would never cross again. He'd made certain of that. Carys' lips twisted in a grimace as familiar pain stabbed her chest.
No! Not now. She refused to let her wayward imagination distract her. People depended on her. She had a job to do.
From across the packed room he watched her.
His fingers curled, white-knuckled, around the back of a nearby chair. Blood roared in his ears as his heart thundered out of control. The shock of recognition was so strong he shut his eyes for an instant and lightning flickered across the darkness of his closed lids.
Opening them, he saw her turn to the wall phone, her movements jerky.
It was her. Not just the woman from the brochure, but more, the woman he remembered. Correction—almost remembered.
An image teased his mind. An image of her walking away from him. Her back rigid, her steps staccato bites that ate up the ground as if she couldn't get away fast enough. Bites that echoed the rapid pulse of his drumming heart as he stood rooted to the spot. She carried a case, the taxi driver ahead of her stowing another bag in his vehicle.
Finally she paused. Alessandro's heart stopped and rose in his throat. But she didn't turn around. A moment later she was in the car as it accelerated in a spurt of gravel and swooped away down the private road from his Lake Como home.
Still he stood, prey to an alien mix of sensations. Fury, relief, disappointment, disbelief.
And hurt! Pain filled the yawning chasm inside him.
Only once before in his entire life had Alessandro felt so intensely. At five, when his mother had deserted him for a life of pampered luxury with her lover.
He stirred and shook his head, banishing the misty image, belatedly aware again of the crowded ballroom.
Yet the powerful brew of emotions still stirred in his breast.
Maddona mia! No wonder he felt vulnerable. Such feelings…
Who was this woman to awake such responses in him?
Anger mingled with impatience. That mere chance had led him here. That he could so easily have missed this opportunity to learn more.
Deliberately he flexed his fingers and let go of the chair back, feeling at last the deep imprint of curved wood score his palm.
The wait was over.
He would have his answers now. Tonight.
Surreptitiously Carys slid a foot from her shoe and wriggled her toes. Soon the ball would be over. Then she could oversee the clearing away and setting up for the next day's fashion show.
She suppressed a rising yawn. Every bone in her body ached, and she wanted nothing more than to flop into bed.
She skirted the dance floor. She'd just check on—
A hand, large, warm and insistent took hers, pulling her to a halt. Quickly she summoned a serene expression, ready to deal with the guest who'd overstepped the boundaries by touching her. She hoped he wasn't intoxicated.
Carys had just pinned a small professional smile on her face when a tug of her hand made her turn.
The carefully crafted smile slid away.
For an instant Carys' heart stopped beating as she looked up at the man before her.
Unlike most of the revellers, he still wore his mask. His dark hair was cut brutally short, sculpting a beautifully shaped head. The mask shadowed his eyes, but she caught a gleam of dark fire. His mouth was a grim slash above a strong, firm chin.
Her eyes widened, staring at that chin. It couldn't be…
Then he moved and she caught the faint tang of an unfamiliar cologne. Her heart dived.
Of course it wasn't him!
A scar snaked up his brow from the edge of the mask. The man she'd known had been as devastatingly handsome as a young god. No scars. His complexion had been golden too, olive, gilded by hours in the sun, not as pale as this stranger's.