Read an Excerpt
It was eleven, a good two hours later than he had anticipated arriving, when Gianni eventually pulled up in the beat-up borrowed four-wheel drive. All things considered, he had decided with regret that the low-slung, sleek, powerful sports model that he enjoyed driving was not really a man-plus-child sort of vehiclenot only did young children not travel light, they were poor respecters of cream leather upholsteryand the rather more upmarket version he used to ferry his son around town was in for a service.
Besides, this was meant to be a low-profile trip; he was dropping off the radar forif Sam was true to her worda few days. It could not have come at a worse time from a business and personal perspective.
It was considered something of an honour to be asked to give the keynote lecture at the prestigious international literary festivalthe previous year the honour had gone to an ex head of state. After pulling out at the last minute as a mere head of a publishing house, no matter how globally successful a brand it had become, Gianni doubted this accolade would be coming his way any time again soon! He had hopes that the lovely young model he had had to cancel on would be more forgiving but if not. .there were other models.
He glanced into the back seat. His son had been asleep five whole minutesfive minutes of blissful silence apart from the worrying knocking noise in the ancient engine. No crying, no howling, no pathetic whimpers and, most importantly, no throwing up! A self-derisive half-smile twisted the sculpted contours of his hard mouth as Gianni reflected on the distinctly patronising note in his response when Clare, Liam's nanny, had expressed doubts about undertaking the journey without her.
'It's late, he's tiredhe'll probably sleep most of the way. While I accept you're indispensable, Clare, I think I can muddle through. Enjoy your holiday.'
Humouring her, he had accepted the proffered travel bands and even half listened to her lengthy explanation of how they should be applied to the pressure points on Liam's wrists to lessen nausea, and then he'd tuned out a great deal of the rest of the advice she gave while privately thinking, How hard can it be to strap a sleeping four-year-old child into the back seat of a car and drive a hundred miles?
He shook his dark head. He was just glad now he hadn't expressed these views out loud or he would be feeling more of a fool than he already did. He also wished he had not left those travel bands on the table in the hall or given in to Liam's requests for a burger and fries at the first rest stop. It had been all downhill from there.
Gianni winced now to recall his flippant parting shot.
'Yes, Gianni, definitely a piece of cake,' he muttered under his breath as he unclipped the harness of his son's booster seat, trying hard not to inhalethe wet wipes supplied by a sympathetic woman in the last motorway services had not removed all the smell. Gianni scooped the sleeping child into his arms and nudged the car door closed with his knee, wincing as it banged loud in the still night.
'Don't worry, kiddo, it's bedtime,' he murmured as the whiffy bundle in his arms gave a cranky protest.
The picture-postcard thatched-roofed house, a white blur against the copse of trees behind, was in darkness. Presumably Lucy, who habitually rose at some unearthly hour to feed the variety of livestock and strays she had accumulated during the past two years, was already in bed. Seeing no point in waking her, and anyway in no mood to hear her inevitable amused critique of his parenting skillshis aunt never had a problem when it came to calling a spade a spadehe made as little noise as possible as he walked across the gravel. Then, balancing Liam on one arm, he reached for the key Lucy kept on the ledge above the door.
The moonlight appeared from behind a cloud as the red-painted door swung inwards, the silvery light illuminating the hallway enough to enable Gianni to make his way upstairs without switching on the lights. After depositing Liam on the bed in the small single room in the eaves of the house, he headed back to the car to grab the bag of essentials that Clare had packed for her charge, before hurrying back.
Liam had not moved an inch. Holding his breath and crossing everything crossable, he gingerly peeled off his son's soiled clothes. To his relief the boy remained flat out, his breathing soft and even as Gianni replaced them with a pair of fresh pyjamasa bath would have to wait for the morning. Smoothing the strands of dark hair back from a hot, sticky browthe poor kid was utterly exhausteda frazzled Gianni paused, the hard lines of his handsome face softening as he stared down at the cherubic sleeping features of his son, feeling the familiar rush of pride and fierce parental protectiveness.
That he had had any part in producing something so damned perfect still filled him with a sense of astonishment and awe. It might not have been planned, but fatherhood was the best thing he had ever done and from the moment of his birth his son had become the centre of his universe.
Carefully folding down the heavy top coverit was a warm nighthe opened the leaded window a crack, pulled the curtains and cast a last glance at the sleeping child, stifling a yawn as he finally headed for the adjoining room and his own bed. Halfway there he paused. If Lucy woke before him an explanation for the unknown vehicle parked in her yard might be a good idea. Lucy, who had once been the most trusting person on the planet, had reason to be suspicious of strangers. A note, he decided, should do the trick.
The dogs asleep in the kitchen rose to greet him half-heartedly as he went in, rubbing against his legs as he propped a suitable missive up against the cereal box on the big kitchen table. Neat freak Lucy, it seemed, had relaxed a little if the general clutter on the normally pristine work surfaces was any indication. He patted the dogs and made his way back to bed, checking on the sleeping child on his way there.
Ten seconds after Gianni's head hit the feather pillow he was asleep. It was the sunlight shining through the window that awoke him.
Where am I?
The feeling of disorientation lasted only a moment; it was then followed by anothernot so momentary. This was a first.
He was thirty-two and though there had been some moments in his life he would prefer to forget, none up to this point had involved waking up with a total stranger in his bed.
And she was a stranger because that hair would not be easily forgotten, he decided, momentarily distracted by the remarkable shade of the thick mesh of curls, Titian interwoven with copper threads, spread out on the pillow beside him.
Raising himself on one elbow, he studied the slender back of the sleeping woman, who lay with one arm curled under her head, the other draped over the patchwork quilt. His glance travelled from the unvarnished neat nails up the curve of her arm. She had a redhead's skin, pale and milky, lightly dusted with freckles along the curve of her shoulder and the nape of her neck where there had been sun exposure.
As far as he could tell she was naked. If anyone had walked in now they would assume Was that what this was aboutsome sort of elaborate scam ?
The cynical furrow between his dark brows smoothed as he rejected the half-formed theory. Getting paranoid, Gianni, he told himself.
His eyes narrowed in effort as he kick-started his brain into sluggish life. Think, Gianni focus first, ditch conspiracy. This couldn't be a set-upnobody knew where he was. This he had made damned sure of. Gianni had tracked down enough people who had wanted to disappear to know that a secret stopped being a secret the moment you shared it.
That left ?
That left a big fat zero. Who was the naked woman with the silky-looking skin? His dark gaze caressed the smooth curve of her shoulder. Really silky focus, Gianni! More important than identity was why was she here and in his bed?
Except it wasn't his bed, was it? And it wasn't his house.
His deep-set almond-shaped eyes framed by long thick black lashes widened as an explanation occurred to him. Was it possible the girl had been in the bed when he had climbed in too tired to register the warm body lying beside him?
Not only possible, you idiotprobable!
Presumably waking and finding a stranger in her bed would not be a good way for her to meet Lucy's house guest. Gianni felt a stab of irritation. Obviously he was glad that Lucy had decided to take his advice and stop being a total reclusehe just wished that she hadn't got sociable just yet.
He reached carefully for the quilt, curling his long brown fingers around the edge as he kept a cautious eye on the sleeping woman. Removing himself from the bed before she woke up was definitely desirable. His narrowed gaze left her briefly to make an impatient sweep of the room. Where had he left his clothes last night.?
Caught half naked in a woman's bed. Gianni could see the tabloid headlines now and none of them said innocent mistake!
He spotted his clothes, but too lateat the same moment the sleeping figure yawned and stretched luxuriously, the sinuous catlike movement sending the sheet slithering lower to reveal the dip of her slender waist and feminine flare of her hips below.
Gianni winced, then, about to slide out from under the quilt, paused, fatally distracted as his eyes were drawn against his better judgement to the smooth, slender, womanly curves, lingering on the suggestion of a dimple above the swell of taut, peachy buttocks. Then the moment was goneshe murmured something and began to roll over, tugging the quilt up to her chin and snuggling down.
Gianni inhaled and prepared himself for the worst. Always, in his opinion, a good ideaa man could always be pleasantly surprised.
Let's just hope she has a sense of humour!
In the event she didn't scream. After blinking like a sleepy kitten, she smiled in warm, sleepy invitationor maybe she was just short-sighted. Either way, lust bypassed the logic channels in his brain and Gianni caught his breath and lost his sense of urgency.
She was beautiful.
As usual Miranda woke sixty seconds before the alarm was set to go off. This morning it had been set to go off early. Her house-sitting duties involved more than the feeding of the family pets she had imagined and, having a strongly developed work ethic, she was determined to fulfil every task that her new employer had outlined so meticulously in one of her liststhere were a lot of lists.
The menagerie all had names that were not quite sorted in Miranda's head yet: the ancient horse, the Shetland pony and the donkey, even the ducks and hens. Her employer had jotted down the list in her own neat hand. She had jotted a lot down, including a cleaning schedule that to Miranda, who didn't mind a bit of clutter, seemed a little excessive, but she was being paid, and paid quite well, for having what her dad had called a holiday. That was before she had admitted that actually she wasn't going back at the start of the new term; she had handed in her notice. Her paid holiday had then become a demeaning job for someone with her skills and qualifications.
Miranda sighed and wriggled a little deeper into the soft mattress, refusing to replay the argument in her head. She was escaping, not running away. The distinction was important and her actions long overdue. Think positive.
Although she hadn't welcomed it at the time Oh, all right, she had pretty much felt as though the sky had fallen in on her head and she still couldn't bring herself to say it was a good thing, but if it hadn't been for her sister Tam sweeping the man Miranda had wanted to grow old with off his feet things could have gone on as they were indefinitely, with her cutting a pathetic figure hoping that one day Oliver would notice she was something other than a dependable teacher of domestic science.
No, not dependable, exceptional, Miranda silently corrected in line with her new philosophy of 'if you've got it, flaunt it'. If she'd flaunted her not at all bad figure in the sort of designer clothes that Tam wore it was possible that Oliver would have noticed more than her raspberry muffins.
Heartbreak aside, Miranda realised she actually felt good. She normally had a problem sleeping in a strange bed but last night she had gone out like a light and, apart from some strangely realistic dreams that were already slipping away, she had slept through the night. Perhaps it was a good omen.
Eyes still closed, she rolled over towards the window set in the uneven wall where the age-blackened exposed oak beams stood out dark against the bright blue paint. There were a lot of bright colours in the cottage. It had been a combination of the view across the rolling countryside from the window and those beams that had made Miranda select this room when Lucy Fitzgerald had said she could choose any one she likedthat and the enormous, hedonistically soft bed with the carved wooden headboard.
'Lush,' she murmured sleepily under her breath as she snuggled into the layers of feather mattress. Her right hand brushed the headboard, her left touched warmth and hardness Still half asleep, she slowly turned her head.