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Rachel had waited for over an hour to meet with the proposed financial backer of her fashion label. She still hadn't quite got in front of the jet lag and had to fight to keep her eyes open on the magazine she was leafing through as she waited in the plush reception area.
At last she was led through to the corporate executive's office by his receptionist on legs that felt woolly with excitement.
This is it, she thought as she walked through the door. I won't have to lose everything I have worked so hard for.
'I am sorry, Ms McCulloch,' the late middle-aged corporate executive said with an apologetic smile even before Rachel could take a seat. 'We have changed our mind. Our company is undergoing some restructuring. We are not prepared to take a risk on such a relatively unknown designer as you. You will have to go elsewhere for the financial backing you require. We are no longer interested.'
Rachel blinked at the older man in shock. 'Not interested?' she choked. 'But I thought Your letter said But I've come all this way!'
He held up a hand as if directing the heavy traffic that rumbled over the cobbled streets of Milan outside. 'We have been advised against it by a highly respected business analysis expert,' he said. 'The board has made its final decision. I suggest you consider other options for finance.'
Other options? What other options? Rachel thought in gut-twisting despair. She had to get her evening wear label launched in Europe. Everything she had worked for, all the sacrifices she had made, all the heartache and hard work surely couldn't end like this. She would look a fool all over again if this failed. If she didn't get this money the company would go into receivership. She needed money and she needed it quickly.
She could not fail.
Rachel frowned as she addressed the executive. 'Who exactly advised against backing me?'
'I am sorry but I am unable to divulge that information,' he said.
She felt her spine go rigid, suspicion crawling over her skin like a long-legged insect. 'You said it was a highly respected business analysis expert.'
'That is correct.'
'Would that be Alessandro Vallini by any chance?' she asked with a pointed look.
'I am sorry, Miss McCulloch,' he said. 'I am not at liberty to confirm or deny anything.'
She stood up, hoisting her handbag over her shoulder with grim determination. 'Thank you for your time,' she said curtly and left.
Rachel found the address of Alessandro Vallini's Milan office on the search engine on her phone. It was a gracious-looking building, old but classy and stylish, signifying the success of the man behind the business. It was a stellar rise to the top. As self-made men went, he surely was an outstanding example of how far one could go irrespective of a disadvantageous background. Seeing him face to face was not something she had originally planned to do, but clearly he had engineered this so she would track him down.
'I would like to see Signor Vallini,' Rachel said without preamble to the smartly dressed receptionist behind the desk.
'I am sorry but Signor Vallini is currently taking an extended summer break at his villa in Positano,' the receptionist said. 'He is conducting all his business from there.'
'Then I would like to make an appointment to see him at the earliest opportunity,' Rachel said.
'Are you an existing client?' the receptionist asked.
'No, but I'
'I am sorry but Signor Vallini is not taking on any new clients until after he returns from his break,' the receptionist said. 'I could schedule something for you in late September, perhaps?'
Rachel frowned. 'But that's more than a month away. I'm only here until the end of the August.' 'I am sorry but'
'Look, I'm not really a client,' Rachel said, hoping she could pull off the little white lie. 'I'm a an old friend of his from Melbourne. He used to work for my father. I was hoping we could catch up while I am here. My name is Rachel McCulloch.'
There was a slight pause.
'I will have to speak to him first,' the receptionist said, and, picking up the receiver, added, 'If you wouldn't mind taking a seat over there?'
Rachel sat on one of the butter-soft leather sofas, trying not to think of the last time she had seen Alessandro. If her instincts were right and he had been the one to sabotage her attempt to gain financial backing it proved one thing clearly: he still hadn't forgiven her.
'I am sorry but Signor Vallini does not wish to see you,' the receptionist said.
Rachel shot to her feet. 'But I must see him,' she insisted. 'I absolutely must see him.'
'I am under strict instructions to inform you that under no circumstances will Signor Vallini agree to see you,' the receptionist said.
Rachel was outraged. He was obviously playing with her. Did he really think she would take no for an answer after what he had just done? As paybacks went it was certainly an effective one but she wasn't going to allow him to get away with it. Of course he would see her.
She would make him see her.
Rachel's stomach dipped and dived all the way down the Amalfi coast road leading towards Positano, but it had little to do with the hair-raising twists and bends the bus wove around. She had planned to hire a car but her credit card had been declined at the booking counter. It had been an embarrassing experience, one she was unlikely to forget in a hurry. The phone call to her bank back in Australia had given her little comfort. It seemed a red flag had come up on her account and it would take at least twenty-four hours to clear it given her financial history after Craig had forged her name on various loans three years ago. She needed money more than ever and she needed it now.
The bus dropped her at the foot of the road that led to the Villa Vallini set high on the cliff. But when the driver opened the luggage compartment to locate her one bag it was nowhere to be seen.
'It must have been put on one of the other buses,' the driver said, closing the compartment.
'How could that have happened?' Rachel asked, trying not to panic.
He shrugged. 'It happens now and again. I will contact head office and make sure it is delivered to your hotel. If you give me your details I will see to it.' He took out a pen and a clipboard.
'I haven't actually booked a hotel as yet,' Rachel said, chewing at her lip as she thought of her current lack of funds.
'Just give me your mobile phone number then and I will call you when we locate the bag,' he said.
Rachel stood on the roadside as the bus finally pulled away, and then her eyes went to the villa above her. The magnificent private residence was set slightly apart from its neighbours. It was centuries old, built on four levels, with luxurious terraced gardens and an infinity pool that was set high above the ocean. The sun sparkled off the brilliant blue water invitingly, making each bead of perspiration rolling down between Rachel's shoulder blades all the more unbearable. The sun pierced her eyeballs like dressmaking pins, and the vague headache she had been fighting all day now started to inflict hammer blows of pain around her temples.
She garnered her determination and trudged on up the long steep steps that led to the imposing front gates of the villa. The double gates were locked and so too was the side gate for foot traffic. There was however an intercom button that was set in the stone wall beside the ornate shiny black and gold gates.
'Non ci sono visitatori,' a woman said before Rachel could say a word.
Rachel leaned closer to the speaker. 'But I'
The intercom went dead. She looked up at the villa, wincing as the sunlight stabbed again at her eyes. She clutched at the wrought iron of the gates and took a couple of deep breaths before she pressed the buzzer again.
The woman answered again, this time in heavily accented English. 'No visitors.'
'I have to see Alessandro Vallini,' Rachel said. 'I am not leaving until I do.'
'Please go away,' the woman said.
'But I have nowhere else to go,' Rachel said, almost to the point of begging. 'Could you please tell Signor Vallini that? I have nowhere else to go.'
The intercom went dead again and Rachel turned her back against the hot stone and slid down to sit in a patch of shade. She lowered her head to her bent knees, unable to believe this was happening to her. It was as if she had stepped into someone else's life. She had grown up with money, lots of money, more money than most people saw in a lifetime. For so long she had taken it for granted. She had wanted for nothing and had not for a moment thought it could all be taken away. But it had been, and, although she had worked hard to rebuild her life over the last couple of years, now she was reduced to begging at the gates of the man she had walked away from five years ago. Was this karma? Was this how fate had decided to play things? She closed her eyes and prayed for the pain in her head to ease. Then she would get up and try again and again until Alessandro finally agreed to see her.
'Is she still there?' Alessandro asked his housekeeper Lucia.
'Si, signor,' Lucia said, turning from the window. 'It has been over an hour. It is very hot out there.'
Alessandro rubbed at the tense spot in his jaw as he fought with his conscience. He was locked away in his tower while Rachel was down there in the boiling heat but his gut clenched with the dread of her seeing him like this. He hadn't expected her to arrive unannounced. He had already had his secretary refuse her an appointment. He had hoped that would be enough to put her off. How long until she gave up and went away? Why wasn't she getting the message? He didn't want to see her. He didn't want to see anyone.
'Mon Dio, I think she is going to faint!' Lucia said grabbing at the window sill with both hands.
'It is probably an act,' Alessandro said calmly, turning back to the papers on his desk, doing his best to ignore the two flick knives of guilt and anguish inside his stomach.
Lucia frowned as she stepped away from the window. 'Perhaps I should take her some water to see if she is all right.'
'Do what you like,' he said, flipping a page of the document he had lost interest in half an hour ago. 'Just keep her away from me.'
Rachel opened her eyes to see an Italian woman in her mid to late fifties holding a glass of water in one hand and a jug with ice cubes and a slice of lemon in the other.
'Would you like a drink before you move on?' she asked, passing the frosted glass through the bars of the gate.
'Thank you.' Rachel took the water and drank thirstily. 'I have the most appalling headache.'
'It is the heat,' the woman said refilling the glass Rachel had passed back. 'August is always like this. You are probably dehydrated.'
Rachel drank another glass and another before she gave the woman a grateful smile as she handed back the glass. ''Grazie. That literally saved my life.'
'Where are you staying?' the woman asked. 'In Positano or somewhere else?'
Rachel dragged herself to her feet, using the bars of the gate as leverage. 'I haven't got a place to stay,' she said. 'I've got no money to pay for anywhere. And now my luggage has gone missing.'
'You can't stay here,' the woman said. 'Signor Vallini insists on no'
'I just want five minutes with him,' Rachel said, brushing her damp hair off her face with a weary hand. 'Please? Can you organise that for me? I promise I won't keep him long. Just five minutes of his time is all I'm asking of him.'
The woman set her mouth. 'I could lose my job over this.'
'Please?' Rachel couldn't keep the pleading note out of her voice.
The Italian woman let out a long-winded breath as she put the jug and glass down on the flagstones. 'Five minutes but that is all,' she said as she unlocked the gate.
Rachel picked up her handbag and stepped through before the woman changed her mind. The gate was closed and locked behind her with a resounding click that was strangely eerie in the hot still summer air.
The gardens on either side of the entrance to the villa were magnificent. Roses of every colour imaginable bloomed in abundance from behind neatly trimmed ankle-high hedges, their heady sweet fragrance intensified by the sun. There was a huge fountain in the middle of the driveway, the cascading water as Rachel walked past throwing off a fine mist that was deliciously cool and refreshing. She wished she could just stand there and let the soothing spray ease all the tension out of her muscles.
The housekeeper set aside the jug and glass as she opened the front door of the villa. The cooler air of indoors was like a fan as soon as Rachel stepped in. The floor of the foyer was highly polished marble, as was the grand staircase that swept upwards in a two-sided arc that met on the massive landing above. Crystal chandeliers hung above her in glittering elegance, and priceless works of art hung from the walls, the stately windows in between allowing the sunlight to come in via golden shafts that gilded everything it touched.
The villa was breathtaking and so far from the background Alessandro had come from. How had he done it? How had a man who had once been a runaway street kid from the outer suburbs of Melbourne achieved so much in so little time? After working in a variety of jobs after leaving school, at around twenty-four he had started his own one-person land-scaping-gardening business while studying part time for a business degree. He had later sold his business as a franchise offering landscaping and gardening services for the top end of the market. Now at thirty-three he owned and operated a business analysis and management empire that had gone global. Had it been her rejection that had fuelled his determination to succeed or had he always been destined to achieve?