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'Meghan, there's someone here to see you.'
Meghan Selby struggled against the knot in her apron strings and sighed tiredly.
'Please tell me it's not Paulo,' she said, as the other waitress, Carla, placed a stack of dirty plates on the counter.
Carla wrinkled her nose. 'What does he look like?'
'Short, fat, greasy-haired.' She suppressed a shudder.
'Why would he come here?' Carla asked, curiosity evident in her eyes, and Meghan shrugged evasively.
'Who knows? But I don't know many other people in this town.'
'Well, it's certainly not him.' Carla's efficient fingers went to work on the knot. 'This man is tall, built, wavy-haired and asking to see you.'She released the untangled strings and grinned. 'He's gorgeous, actually. Is there somethingor someoneyou're not telling me about?'
'I wish.' Meghan slipped off her apron with a quick, grateful smile. 'It's probably just someone who's lost his wallet.'
Carla raised her eyebrows. 'Why wouldn't he askAngelo, then?'
She shrugged. The truth was, she'd no idea why a strange man would ask for her, and she didn't really want to know. She didn't want to attract attention from any men, strange or familiar. The sooner she dealt with the one waiting outside the better.
She'd been waitressing in Spoleto for six weeks, and she knew instinctively it was time to move on. She enjoyed Carla's friendship, and Angelo, who owned the trattoria, was like a doting uncle. She'd made a few friends in town, but she felt the inexorable need to shake the dust from her feet before the money ran out, before anyone got too close. Before her past caught up with her.
'I'll see you tomorrow?' Carla queried, and Meghan pretended not to hear. Best not to make any promises.
'I'd better go and see about my mystery man,' she joked, and Carla laughed.
'I can't wait to hear all about it.'
A quick glance in the bar's mirror revealed a stain on her shirt, and her hair, which had been in an almost sleek chignon this morning, was now a flyaway tangle.
'You look gorgeous, cara.'Angelo, sixty-three years old and full of spicy humour, grinned at her. 'Got a date?'
'Nope,' Meghan replied, trying for a breezy smile. She didn't plan on having any dates for a long time. She tucked a strand of hair behind her earnot that it did much to help.
'See you tomorrow.'
She nodded, still making no promises, and went outside.
The man waiting under the red and white striped awning of Trattoria di Angelo was striking even from a distance. He wore a charcoal-grey suit, excellently cut, his hands thrust into the pockets of his trousers, stretching the cloth of his jacket against an impressive pair of shoulders.
He looked up as she approached, navy eyes clashing with hers. The sheer force of those eyesthe power, the knowledge in their midnight depthsmade her take an involuntary step backwards even as her heart stumbled in beat.
She recognised him, of course, as the man who'd dined in the trattoria earlier. Someone important in business, or so Angelo's significant look had implied when he'd asked her to wait on them.
She remembered the way the man had looked at her earlier that afternoon, his eyes blazing into hers. Searing, branding.
As if he knew who she was. What she was.
That wasn't possible, Meghan reassured herself, and yet one look from beneath those dark, frowning brows told her this man had summed her upand dismissed herin a matter of seconds.
Opinions, impressions already formed, and they hadn't exchanged a word.
She straightened her shoulders, her expression hardening as a matter of instinct and self-preservation. She stopped a few feet from where he paced restlessly on the cobbled pavement.
'You wanted to see me?'
'Alessandro di Agnio,' he introduced himself brusquely, and thrust one hand out for her to shake.
Meghan inclined her head in introduction, resisting the impulsethe desireto take his hand. Long, tapered fingers, strong, square nails. No, she didn't want to touch him. Didn't want to invite that particular temptation into her life.
'I don't think I know you,' she said, for he was still staring at her, eyes narrowed, mouth thinned in what? Disapproval? Dislike? Disdain? Whatever it was, Meghan didn't like it.
He dropped his hand, smiling slightly in rueful acknowledgement of her rebuff.
'No, you don't. Not yet. But I hope you will very shortly.' His mouth curved in a small wry smile that flickered along her nerve-endings, skittered across her pulse. 'I wanted to hire your services for the evening.'
Meghan recoiled in spite of her best intentions to stay aloof. His words echoed in her brain. Hire your services. His meaning, the desire darkening his eyes, the faintly sneering curl of his lip, were plain enough.
She lifted her chin, summoned her strength. 'Services? I think you're talking to the wrong woman, signore.'
There was a moment of charged silence as he regarded her in obvious distaste. 'Perhaps I am. I need to hire a waitress for a private dinner party at my villa.' He raised an eyebrow, humour and contempt mingling in those dark, knowing eyes. 'Or were you thinking of some other kind of services?'
Humiliation burned colour in her cheeks. Her stomach felt as if it were coated in ice or acid. Still Meghan glanced at him coolly, refusing to be unnerved. Condemned. 'A strange man asks to see me in the middle of the streetwants to hire my serviceswhat am I supposed to think?'
'I can hardly put myself in your place, but I would imagine most women wouldn't immediately think they'd been mistaken for a whore.'
'Most women wouldn't appreciate being looked over like a piece of meat,' Meghan replied shortly. The word echoed in her numb brain. Whore.
A faint blush stained Alessandro di Agnio's sharp cheekbones, and he gave a slight nod of acknowledgement. Meghan knew his type well enough to know there would be no apology forthcoming.
'I'm sorry,'he said, surprising her. 'You're a beautiful woman, and Italian men admire that. Some are more obvious than others. I promise you, I want to hire you as a waitress only, at my villa. It's a private dinner party for two.'
No doubt the business colleague from lunch, Meghan surmised. She'd seen the way his watery eyes had roved over her, the way his little mouth had pursed in greedy desire.
Yet she wasn't afraid of that man.
She was afraid of this one.
Afraid of his power, his effortless control, the way his eyes swept her from head to foot the way her body reacted, tensing, tingling.
He had the face of an angel, Meghan thought, with those liquid eyes and sculpted lips. Not the innocent round-faced cherubs she'd seen in frescoes, but something elemental, beautiful in its power. His jaw was square, cheek-bones chiselled. A dangerous angel.
She shook her head. 'Why me?'
'I want a pretty girl as a waitress.'He shrugged, unapologetic. Unashamed. 'Someone to lighten the atmosphere, add a bit of flair. It's not an uncommon desire.'
Meghan cringed just a little bit at his words. A pretty girl. That was all she was, all she'd ever be. So little, so damning.
'Lighten the atmosphere?' she repeated, with a scornful note of incredulity. 'I'm not an entertainer.'
'Aren't you?'His eyes burned her from head to toe, and a slow smile stole over his features.
Meghan flushed angrily. He might not have said it in so many words, but she knew what he thought. Perhaps even what he expected. 'You don't know me, signore,' she said in a voice of restrained fury. 'You don't know me.'
'No, I don't.' His eyes flicked coolly back up to her face. 'Not yet. So what will it be? I'll pay you double what you make at Angelo's.'There was an impatient edge to his voice. 'Triple. I'm sure you could use the money.' His dispassionate glance raked her again, taking in her worn white tee shirt with its tomato sauce stain, the black skirt that was cheap and shiny from wear.
Meghan refused to be embarrassed. She was a waitress; of course she was poor. Of course she could use the money.
And yet she didn't like the way Alessandro looked at her. As if he were buying goods, services, and cheap ones at that.
Meghan knew she should say no. Whatever Alessandro di Agnio said about hiring her as a waitress, she knew there were other expectations involved. A man didn't look at her like that if he just wanted her to serve food.
And yet Alessandro di Agnio hardly seemed like the kind of man who needed to purchase his pleasure.
Her stomach roiled with nerves; doubt wound tendrils around her heart. She didn't know what kind of man he was. She wasn't sure she wanted to find out.
She certainly didn't want to go to his villa alone, unprotected. Vulnerable.
Unless she could be stronger than that. Unless she could make it work to her advantage. Get through dinner, leave with euros in her pocket and a smile on her face.
Nothing changes the past.
No matter how far you run.
'One night,' Meghan clarified.
His lip curled. 'You want more?'
'Certainly not,' she snapped. 'I'm leaving Spoleto anyway.'
'Things not to your liking?'
Meghan's mouth hardened into an unforgiving line, a determination darkening her eyes. 'It's time to move on.'
'Then earn triple the last night you're here,' Alessandro suggested smoothly.
Meghan lifted her chin. Her pulse raced, blood rushed in her ears. 'Maybe I will.'
His eyes fastened on hers, and Meghan saw the hunger in them turning them opaque. She saw expectation, anticipation. Satisfaction. The deep, primal look of a conqueror regarding his spoils.
And she knew that, no matter whatAlessandro said, he thought he was getting something more than a waitress for the night.
And was he?
No. For once she would prove who she was. What she was.
And what she wasn't. 'Yes, I'll do it,' she said, her voice coming out strident. 'What time do you want me to come? And where?'
'Villa Tre Querce. It's five kilometres outside of town. I'll send a car.'
'No.' She didn't want his car showing up at the grotty hostel she currently called home, and she didn't want to take anything else from Alessandro di Agnio. 'I'll take the bus.'
'The buses don't go to Tre Querce,'Alessandro informed her shortly. 'I have a car and a driver. Give me your address, and I'll send him to fetch you at seven o'clock. We'll dine at eight.'
'That doesn't give me much time,' Meghan protested. 'It must be six o'clock now.' Already there was a slight chill in the spring air, descending damply from the mountains, rolling in on a fine mist.
'All the more reason for me to send the car,'Alessandro countered, and his tone brooked no opposition. 'Tell me your address.'
Meghan shrugged. Let him see where she lived. It was dire, she knew that, but who cared?
She didn't. He certainly didn't.
'It's the Arbus Hostel on the west side of town,' she informed him coolly. 'On the Via Campelo.'
His mouth tightened in disapproval. 'I don't know it.'
'My driver will be there at seven.' He paused, his gaze flicking the length of her, taking in, no doubt, her mussed hair and stained shirt.
'You have something to wear?'
Her eyebrows lifted in challenge. 'I'm waitressing, remember? I think I have something suitable.'
'This isn't the trattoria,'Alessandro warned her. 'I expect you to dress and behave appropriately.'
The warning stung. 'It's a little late now for second thoughts, isn't it?' Meghan said, her smile cautious. 'You've already hired me.' Her voice turned ragged as she added, 'I'm not going to show up in nothing but high heels and a frilly apron, even if that's what you actually want'
'Stop it.' Alessandro's voice cut across her. 'I've told you what this position entailswaitressing and nothing more. Do you not trust me?'
Meghan dared herself to meet his eyes, to feel the force of their magnetic onslaught. Trust? What a joke. She barely knew him, and even if she did, the only trust she had was in herself, in her ability to protect herself. 'Is there any reason,' she asked quietly, 'why I should trust you?'
Alessandro gazed at her in silent consideration. He shrugged and looked away. 'No,' he said after a moment, his voice flat and expressionless, 'there isn't.'
Meghan sagged slightly. Of course there wasn't. She was walking into the lion's den, and she wasn't even armed. All she had was her dignity and her determination to prove herself, and right now they didn't count for much.
'I'll see you, then,' she said after a moment, thankful her voice was steady. She began to turn away, only to have Alessandro reach out. He put his hand on her arm, his fingers wrapping around her wrist, pulling her towards him.
Meghan stiffened with shock and a little fear. Shock at his touching her, the simple, possessive way he drew her to him. Thoughtlessly, and yet with care. As if already he expected something from her, deserved something from her.
The fear was at her own reaction. She didn't resist. She let him pull her, her legs moved woodenly, helplessly, closer. Her pulse kicked into high gear with the simple touch of those fingers on her wrist, holding her. Gently.
He kept holding onto her, a slight smile playing about his mouth, his eyes raking in her appearance, their gaze a caress and an assessment.
'I don't even know your name.'
Her lips opened soundlessly as her mind spun. 'Meghan.' He nodded. He let go of her wrist, smiling as she pulled her arm protectively inwards. 'I'll see you at seven.'
Meghan's legs trembled as she watched him walk away. She shook her head, resisting the urge to wrap her arms more tightly around herself. Had she really agreed to waitress? Why? It should have been so easy to walk away.
Yet it wasn't, and she hadn't.
She couldn't escape her past, she reflected bleakly. The exchange with Alessandro di Agnio reminded her of that. If anything happened tonight it would be nothing more than she deserved.