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From the first moment she saw Venice from a waterbus, Beth was entranced. La Serenissima rose from the lagoon like crystals growing up through mist. If a city could be described as being like a woman, then this one was straight out of a nineteenth-century novel. Everywhere murmured with the sound of water whispering against wood and stonework. Beth could identify with all this gentle melancholy. She was miles from home, and feeling sick with fear at the prospect of arriving at the headquarters of Francesco Fine Arts for the first time. I'll love this new job once I get there, she thought, desperately trying to convince herself. She was tired, alone and scared. There had been too many challenges over the past few years. The immortal serenity of Venice was in stark contrast to the confusion of consultants and hospitals she had needed to arrange for her father. His eventual death had been so hard to bear, and the after effects had cast her adrift from all the security she knew and loved.
A wave of excitement suddenly engulfed the other passengers in her boat. Half a dozen Venetian matrons erupted with coos of admiration, and then everyone started pointing through the fine drizzle. They were all talking at once, and it didn't take long for Beth to see why. A spectacular craft was approaching. The thoroughbred's streamlined beauty swept past them with an assurance that made it seem a whole lot faster than the speed limit. The pilot drew as many admiring looks as his boat did. He was tall, lean and concentrating like a perfectionist. The fingers of one hand splayed casually against the boat's paintwork, while the other dealt with the controls. His attitude was totally out of place in thatsoft-focus, watercolour landscape. And yet it was strangely familiar Beth's heart stopped dead, and amazement pitched her to her feet.
'Good grief! What's he doing here?' She gasped, before coming to her senses. People were looking at her, and grinning. Sinking back into her seat with an embarrassed grin, Beth muttered some apologies. I must be going mad with the stress of it all, she thought. Hallucinating about Luca should have stopped years ago. He was a career soldier on frontline duty, and the very last person who would be found piloting a luxury speedboat around Venice. As for dressing in Milan tailoring and wraparound shadesit was laughable, but that didn't dull her pain. Silenced by heartache, she watched her vision disappear into the distance, sweeping off to his own private kingdom like the royalty he obviously was.
Whoever he is, he probably didn't even see me, Beth thought.
She was right. Self-made billionaires didn't need to notice ordinary mortals. Luca Francesco was no exception. He had checked his e-mails three times already that morning, and his mind was full of schedules and appointments. Thank God Ben Simpson's pet PA was finally arriving from England today, he musedthe woman must be a saint to put up with him.
Reaching the headquarters of Francesco Fine Arts, Luca left his docking attendant to moor the craft, and strode into the building. Nodding in the direction of the reception staff, he stabbed the button of his private lift. He was still irritated by the reality of Ben Simpson. The man might be a genius in his field, but he had no common sense at all, and no social skills. Luca had merely waved through the request from FFA's Human Resources department to include Ben's girl Friday as part of his employment package. At the time, it had seemed like a harmless perk of the job. Everyone had discovered since then she must be a vital part of Ben Simpson's life-support system.
The elevator arrived. Luca stepped in, wincing as the mirrored doors clicked shut. That final glass of vin santo last night had been a mistake. He had flown to Florence, to taste Count Guido's latest vintage. As he always did, Luca had agreed with his host that the wine was even better than Guido's previous releases. He had been saying that for five years. Luca had no enthusiasm for socialising any more, but his manners were faultlessright down to accepting that last shot of alcohol. Thinking about it now made him flinch. Luckily, one of his chauffeurs had been acting as co-pilot, and had flown him back to Venice a few hours ago. There had been no time for sleep, and he had accepted Count Guido's offer of a guest wing for the night it would have pushed Luca several conversations too far.
He was a man with a thousand invitations, who had lost all desire for friendship.
And now he had to force himself to face office lifeagain.
Luca had been sharing his own PA, Andria, while they all waited for Ben Simpson's girl to sort out her 'personal problems' back in England. He was thinking of giving this shadowy wonder-woman an immediate pay rise, sight unseen. Feeling the way he did this morning, the next problem Luca met with Ben was liable to end with blood being spilled all over the executive carpet
By the time she reached her new workplace, Beth's heart was hammering so fast, she thought it might burst. Ben had arranged to meet her in the vestibule and escort her up to their office suite. He led her through a busy honeycomb of activity. Although it was set within a rambling old building, full of cubby-holes and squeaking floorboards, everything at FFA ran with the high-tech efficiency of an international multibillion-dollar business. While firewalls and virus checkers protected investments, the building's real walls were draped with tapestries. As she was shown around Beth wondered if the drapes hid any secret passages. The people who lived here in the Renaissance had been high on securityin those days, lives as well as fortunes were at stake. Ben guided her through a warren of passages, stopping every so often to ask directions back to his office. Beth didn't mind. It gave her a chance to admire her surroundings. Beautiful antique side tables and grand carved chairs were placed at regular intervals along each corridor. Her father would have loved it. He had adored treasures, and this place was stuffed with them. Each time he had gone out to buy stock, Gerald Woodbury had brought home at least one more exquisite piece he could not bear to put up for sale. Unfortunately, his bank account had emptied at much the same speed with which his beloved Rose Cottage had filled up with beautiful things.
As soon as they reached their office Beth plunged straight into her job of making Ben's life run as smoothly as possible. Their suite had been formed out of the building's old ballroom, and it did not take her long to convince him that his desk should be repositioned, right at the far end. He was too easily distracted to have his seat any closer to the door. Her workstation would stand guard there, fending off unwanted visitors.
Disaster struck only a short time after they had settled down to work. A frantic call drifted over to where Beth was setting up some computer records.
'BethBethI've just sat on my glasses!'
'The spare pair is in the top right-hand drawer of your desk, as always.'
'This is the spare pair! I lost a lens from the other ones just after I got here '
Beth picked up the telephone on her desk and made a quick call. Then she walked over and handed Ben a note.
'Don't panic. Here are the details of your new English-speaking optician. They're expecting you.'
Ben beamed, stood up and pulled on his jacket. 'If ever Signor Francesco wants to know why I need you here, I'll tell him about little things like this!'
Seconds after Ben left, Beth came to his rescue again when the telephone on his desk rang.
'Ohhi, you must be Beth!' a friendly voice said. 'I'm Andria, Signor Francesco's assistant. Could you send Ben up to the executive lounge, please? Signor Francesco wants to see the notes for his address to the ceramics convention next month. I thought the two of them could cosy up over a latte.'
'Oh, I'm sorry, Andria, Ben's had to dash out for a while'
Beth heard a sharp intake of breath from her opposite number. That was a clear danger signal, and nothing could be allowed to blot Ben's reputation. Beth sprang into action.
'But I can deliver the notes myself. I've got them right here, and they're all ready.'
'Brilliant.' Andria's relief was audible. 'Signor Francesco is a good boss, but he's totally single-minded when it comes to work. If he thought I'd sent him on a coffee break without the chance of fitting in a bit of paperwork, I'd never hear the end of it!'
Beth laughed, printed out the document and slipped it into a cover. It sounded as though she would have her work cut out keeping Ben on the right side of his boss. No wonder he had wanted her help and support in this new job. Ben was as disorganised as he was accident-prone. She had better get out of her silly habit of wincing each time she heard the surname of their new employer.
When Ben had announced the people at Francesco Fine Arts had approached him, Beth's stomach had gone into a spin. The simple mention of a name shared by millions of people around the globe had thrown her into turmoil. Then reality had supplied a parachute, and told her not to be so stupid. Luca had been a soldier, and the original bull in a china shop. What connection could he possibly have with international fine art? The only interest he ever showed in glass was how much liquid it could hold. All the same, Beth was still not comfortable hearing the name 'Francesco'. It would be a relief to meet their new managing director at last. When his real-life image replaced the tall, dark fury that still haunted her, life would become easier.
Negotiating the maze of corridors, Beth was scared in case her rusty holiday Italian let her down, but everyone she met in the building was really friendly. She soon found the executive lounge, and walked in with a broad smile.
It evaporated the instant she saw the man who was silhouetted at the window. The impressive figure had his back to her, but she still recognised him. He was the same man who had been piloting that speedboat, and the realisation hit her heart a hammer blow. Now there could be no mistake. His sable-dark hair had not been given its regulation trim in a while and now curled almost to his collar, but it didn't matter. Beth was convinced that when the managing director of Francesco Fine Arts turned around, every word, English or Italian, would desert her. She already knew this billionaire workaholic would turn out to be the man she desired most in the world.
And the only one she would ever love.
Beth had been quiet and discreet, but Luca still heard her enter the room. He glanced over his shoulder with a smileand then stopped. In one second his open expression turned from pleasure to deep, dark distrust. Beth went cold with dread. Although he was not handsome in the way of soap stars or male models, Luca was devastating to look at. Those dark, wide-set eyes might have lashes to die for, but the effect was compelling, not sentimental. His masculinity was carved, not manufactured. It had been honed on the assault course, giving him a form every woman wanted to touch. Beth was no exception. Despite his ten-kilowatt glare, the first thing she noticed was how pale and tired he looked.
And then his quiet words tore the years away.
'Mio Dio... I must have died and gone to hell '
Beth was shattered. His eyes were like chips of black diamond. The man who meant everything to her was now trying to intimidate her, not melt her. He succeeded in no time at all, because Beth's soul still bore the indelible brand of his hard, dark anger. It had been seared into her on that last burning night in Balacha. Five years later, it still hurt.
She began inching pinches along the edge of the file she carried, measuring her embarrassment and shame.
'Luca I had no idea I would never have come here if I'd known'
He silenced her with a single, sharp gesture of his hand. Their time apart had increased his natural authority a hundredfold. His appearance had always been unconventional. Now he looked dangerous. Instead of tanned and open, his face was drawn and watchful. Those beautiful eyes with their sweeping lashes now had dark hollows beneath them. Beth was horrified, but all the old attraction was still there. She could sense it, but she could also feel waves of resentment flowing from him.
Shock and shame forced her words out in a torrent of apology. 'Look, I can hardly blame you for being angry with me, Luca. I picked up a pen a thousand times to try and write to you but'
'Don't give me any more lies, Elizabeth. Or Beth, or whatever your name is these days. I don't need your excuses.' His tone was like silk drawn over sandpaper. 'I suppose you must be this indispensable PA Ben Simpson needs to keep him in check?' He moved forward. Beth stepped back. Seeing her flinch, he exhaled angrily. 'There's no point in pretending to be afraid of me. We both know that's never been the case. Besides, what's done is done. As far as I am concerned you are part of my past, and a part that I have no wish to remember. My interest is in the here and now.'
He paused, and raised his right hand to the side of his head. Beth watched him dig his fingers into his temple before continuing. 'I won't go back on the agreement to employ you. Ben is fast becoming a world expert in ceramics. I want him on my team and, for that privilege, I am willing to endure anything. Even your presence,' he finished meaningfully.
Somehow, Beth pulled herself together. Over the past couple of years she had survived a lot, but much of it had not been of her own making. Luca's cold fury was a different thing altogether. This was entirely down to her, so she would just have to put a brave face on it.
'Don't worrynow I can see how things are, I won't be staying here for more than six months. That's the length of my initial contract with FFA, and I won't be asking you to renew it. I wouldn't dream of putting you to any trouble, Signor Francesco.' She managed to keep her voice calm, but her mind was in chaos. All she knew was that she had to escape from his presence, to get away