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'So what's the script on this place?' Antonio Cavelli asked his accountant as the limousine pulled up outside the glass-fronted restaurant.
Tom Roberts referred to his notes. 'We purchased the building last summer, the leaseholder is one Victoria Heart. So far she has turned down two offers from us to buy her out, so we've increased her rent. She's now struggling to remain open. So I think she'll sign on the dotted line this time.'
Antonio frowned. He'd just flown in from his office in Verona, and he'd only been in Australia for a few hours but already he was questioning Tom's handling of his business. 'This should have been a straightforward purchase,' he growled. And we are now six months down the line—what are you playing at?'
The accountant's face turned an interesting shade of purple and he brushed a hand nervously through his thinning hair. 'It's all under control, I assure you,' he muttered nervously. 'We've had a few problems, I know… but…'
Antonio's mobile phone rang and he halted Tom's stuttering apologies midsentence as he saw that it was his lawyer on the line. Right now he had more pressing problems than the simple takeover of an insignificant little restaurant. Right now the whole future of his company was hanging in the balance, as his father attempted to play out the most bizarre and ridiculous charade in order to bend him to his will.
Antonio's mouth tightened in an angry line. Nobody told him what to do, he thought as he snapped open the phone. Nobody—least of all the one man in the world for whom he felt nothing but contempt.
'Ricardo, have you got good news for me?' He switched to his native Italian language as he addressed his lawyer.
The silence at the other end of the line was answer enough.
'I've been through all our options a million times, Antonio,' the lawyer said finally, his voice heavy with regret. And there's not much we can do. We could take him to court— human rights, and all. But in my opinion all that's going to do is make for one hell of a media splash. You'll be sensationalizing the family's personal business, opening up the rift between you and your father for the world's scrutiny, and at the end of the day we probably won't win. The fact of the matter is that you may have built up the company into the success story it is today, but your father still owns sixty percent of Cavelli Enterprises. It's his to do what he wants with.'
Antonio's dark eyes flared with fire. He didn't care if the entire world knew what he thought of his father, but he did care that it would be opening up his mother's name to the humiliation of the past—and he couldn't do that. She'd suffered enough at the hands of his father already. Her memory should be left with dignity.
So how should he handle this? As Antonio's anger simmered, his sharp business mind kicked in to look for an answer. He wasn't going to allow his father to win this battle. Luc Cavelli may be the chairman of the company but he was a mere figurehead these days—Antonio was the brain, the one who had turned his father's provincial chain of Italian hotels into a global success story. He smiled to himself, because he had done so very much against his father's will. Luc hadn't wanted to expand the company—he had liked being a big fish in a small pond, able to control and manipulate everyone. But Antonio had forced his hand when he'd inherited his mother's shares, had dragged the company forward and had enjoyed doing it—had enjoyed seeing his father get further and further out of his depth until he was floundering.
So what now? He could call his father's bluff, sell his forty percent and walk away, leaving the old man to follow through with his threat and sell off the rest of the company. He would find it wasn't worth as much without him at the helm, anyway. But why should he, he thought furiously, when he had put so many years of his life into building it all up? 'There will be a way around this.' He spoke in a low tone, almost to himself.
'Well, if there is I can't see it. I've read your father's correspondence to you and the bottom line, Antonio, is that if you are not married and have not produced a child by the time you are thirty-five your father will sell his shares. He thinks that, as you are his only son, you have a duty to ensure the future of the Cavelli family. He also says that he wants to see you happily settled down.'
A curl of contempt swirled inside of Antonio. What a hypocrite! This was the man who had walked out on him and his mother when he'd been just ten years of age. He hadn't given a damn about family commitment back then, had been too busy humiliating his wife by parading his string of mistresses in public.
'He seems very determined,' his lawyer added softly.
'Yes, well, not as determined as I am to thwart him.'
'Hmm…' There was a moment's silence. 'The good news is that if you do comply with his wishes he will immediately sign over all of his shares in the company to you. I have it in writing.'
'Have you now…' A cold hard resolve closed around Antonio's heart. OK, if his father wanted to play these games, then he would rise to the challenge. But he would not allow him to win. He would find a way around this and gain control of everything—and then he would make him regret the day and hour he had tried to dictate terms to him. 'And I will be pleased to take control of his shares, but not by doing exactly as he wants.'
'Well, I can't see any other way around it. Your father wants you to get married and produce a child. And, in effect, he's served notice on you. Given you two years.'
'There is a solution to every problem Ricardo. Email or fax me with the relevant documentation so that I can see exactly what he has put in writing, and I'll speak to you later.'Antonio hung up and looked across at the man sitting opposite. 'So where were we…?' he enquired, switching to perfect English as he compartmentalized the problem of his father and focused on the business at hand.
Tom looked at him warily. He hadn't understood a word his boss had just said but he'd seen the anger in his eyes and he knew he should now tread very carefully. Antonio Cavelli had a reputation for being fair in business but also a reputation for being ruthless when it came to getting rid of people who didn't attain his high standards or displeased him in any way. 'I… I was just saying that I will sort the purchase of the restaurant out—'
Ah, yes,'Antonio cut across him. 'This is dragging on too long, Tom. And frankly I'm starting to question your handling of the situation.'
'Sir, I realize this is taking longer than you would want but I assure you I am handling the matter in the best way possible.' The accountant shifted earnestly forward on the leather seat. 'For instance, I've made sure that Ms Heart doesn't realize your involvement or interest in her business. I've used your subsidiary company, Lancier, for all communications with her.'
'What's the point of that?' Antonio's eyes narrowed. 'I don't do business by the back door, Tom.'
'I can assure you that this is all perfectly legal and above board!' The man sat up straight now. 'What I have managed to do is keep the price down for you, as she has no idea of the strategic importance her building has for us.'
'Just increase the offer, Tom, and wrap the deal up,' Antonio told him dismissively. He had more important matters to deal with than this.
'With respect, sir, we don't need to increase the offer. I think Ms Heart's reticence to sell has been down to the fact that she is emotionally attached to her business—oh, and she's worried about her staff losing their jobs.'
'Well, then, arrange for their redeployment somewhere else within my company. I'm opening a new hotel next door to her, for heaven's sakes. I'll leave it with you.' Antonio picked up his briefcase and reached for the door handle. 'Meanwhile I'll take lunch here.'
'Here?' Tom looked startled.
'Why not, it looks like a fairly decent restaurant and I'm right outside it. I suggest you go back to the office, crunch numbers and finalize the agreement this afternoon.'
The heat of the street hit Antonio like warm nectar after the air-conditioned cool of the car. It was pleasant to be outside after the long flight from Europe, pleasant to be away from Tom Roberts. The guy really was a barracuda. But then that was why he was employing him, Antonio reminded himself sharply. He needed men on the ground at each location overseeing things. Tom was his man in Sydney. His remit was to keep the company lean, mean and able to survive the tough economic climate. And on the whole he was doing a good job. They had expanded down under; this was their tenth hotel on the Australasian continent. However, the man did need reining in—he seemed to enjoy the power trip of his position too much at times.
Antonio took his time and strolled across the wide pavement, taking in the aspects of the restaurant. Ms Heart certainly had picked herself a good location; the restaurant was on a main road beside a small leafy park, yet close enough to the sea to have sweeping views of it from the upstairs terrace. Pity it happened to be practically tagged onto the side of the building he had just purchased. If he raised his head he could see the new Cavelli hotel towering behind her restaurant, taking up more than two blocks of the Sydney street. He was having the place completely remodelled with no expense spared. The Cavelli name was synonymous with luxury and elegance and it was already booked out ahead of the doors opening in two months' time.
Ms Heart was literally a thorn in his side. Her restaurant had to go to make way for some designer boutiques and a new side entrance.
As he entered the main reception area he noticed with some surprise the polished wooden floors and the pale sofas strategically placed to overlook the greenery of the park. Ms Heart had good taste; the layout and design was impressive. And from what he could see the main body of the restaurant was fairly busy, with a clientele that seemed to consist mainly of business people taking lunch. But there were a few spare tables.
There was no one behind the reception desk and he was about to go straight through to the restaurant when the door behind the desk opened and a young woman came out. She had a pile of files in one hand, a pen in the other and looked as if she were deep in contemplation.
'Good afternoon, sir, can I help you?' She asked the question distractedly without looking over at him as she put the files down.
'Yes, I'd like a table for lunch.'
'How many for?' Still she didn't look at him; she seemed to be searching for something amongst the files.
'Just for one.' His gaze moved slowly over her. He guessed she was in her early twenties but the dark suit she wore was more the preserve of an older woman and did nothing for her slender figure, whilst the white blouse beneath was buttoned securely up to the neck.
She looked rather like an old-fashioned schoolmarm, or a librarian from the early nineteenth century, he thought with amusement. Her long dark hair was swept severely back from her face and secured into a tight chignon, and she was wearing dark-rimmed spectacles that seemed too heavy for her small face.
Victoria found the file she was looking for and glanced up, intercepting his detailed critical analysis of her appearance. And suddenly she found herself blushing.
She'd already decided he was Italian with an accent that was bone-meltingly sexy, but the fact that he was also incredibly attractive made her feel even more acutely embarrassed. Why was he looking at her like that? How dare he!
'So do you think you could fit me in?' he asked nonchalantly.
'Maybe… just one second and I'll take a look.' She knew very well that she had several spare tables. But it didn't do any harm to bluff a little. 'Yes…' She traced an imaginary line in her appointments book. 'Yes, you are in luck.'
He looked amused at that. And she had the feeling that he knew very well that she hadn't really needed to consult the book.
He was very irritating, she decided vehemently. And those bold, piercing dark eyes of his were unnerving her completely.
OK, he was probably the most handsome man she had ever set eyes on—but didn't he just know it. The suit he was wearing looked designer and expensive and he had the most perfect, powerful physique.
Quickly she pulled herself together; she didn't want to give him the satisfaction of thinking that she was interested in him, because she wasn't. He was well out of her league— a man like him would only date the world's most beautiful women and that certainly wasn't her.
But anyway, she had more important things to think about—namely, trying to save her restaurant. She had a meeting with her bank in an hour and she needed to be able to convince them that she could ride out this recession, otherwise…well… otherwise she could lose everything.
'I'll get someone to show you to your table.' Hastily she looked around for her receptionist, Emma, but she was nowhere in sight.
Where was she? Victoria wondered anxiously. She really didn't want to leave the security of the desk. There was something about the way this man was looking at her that was making her unbearably self-conscious.
Their eyes clashed across the counter. 'Sorry about this— won't be a minute.'
'Perhaps you should show me to the table,' he said briskly. 'I'm on a tight schedule.'
'Oh… yes, of course.' Annoyed with herself for being so pathetic, Victoria tipped her chin up and moved. She didn't know what was wrong with her. One of her strengths was that she had good people skills. She dealt with customers every day without a bother; in fact, her regular clientele loved it when she was front of house because she always remembered them and was able to engage them in conversations about themselves.