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Alice Howard knew just who was at the door from the very first second she heard the bell ring.
She knew who it was; knew who was there. And she also knew that he was the last person on earth that she wanted to face. Even though, at the same time, he was the person she most wanted to see in all the world.
Just the thought of opening the door to him turned her legs to water so that she couldn't stand up or go to the window to look out and see if she was right about the identity of her unexpected visitor. But then she didn't need to. She was sure in her mind of that"and more so in her heart, where it mattered most.
The timing was right"just three days after she had sent the letter to tell him she had something important they had to talk about. Her hand slid down and curved protectively over the spot where she had only recently learned that her baby" and this man's child"was beginning to grow. Something very, very important, she had said"and it was certainly that.
The atmosphere was right too. The arrival totally out of the blue. No warning. Not even the sound of a car coming up the small country lane and pulling up outside her gate had alerted her to the fact that he was there.
And even the sound was just right. The hard, loud, unceasing ring of the bell, echoing through the quiet of the afternoon and the silence in the small house, was like an imperious, autocratic summons. As cold and proud and unyielding as Domenico himself.
There, now she'd let his name into her thoughts. She'd finally admitted who she was expecting her unwanted visitor to be.
The man whose arrival on her doorstep she was dreading most.
Or did she mean longing for most?
She couldn't answer that and shook her dark head slowly, sending her long hair flying around her pale, oval-shaped face. Sharp white teeth worried at the fullness of her bottom lip and her blue eyes were clouded by the deep shadows left by long nights, lack of sleep and that extra little secret as well.
His name slipped from Alice's lips as she sat back on the small single bed in the tiny, shabbily decorated bedroom, hands clenched tightly in her lap as she fought against the craven impulse to rush to her feet, dash across the pale green carpet and peer out of the window.
Safely hidden behind the faded velvet curtains, of course. But she didn't need to look. She already knew exactly what she would see. His image was imprinted on her mind, the strong features and powerful physique, black hair and dark gold eyes etched into her thoughts by the power of the love she had once felt for him. All the tears she had shed since their parting"and before"hadn't been enough to wipe away the memories of the man who had once meant more to her than her own life.
The man who had once held her heart in his hands, to do with as he wished. But he had been totally careless of the gift she had given him. He had treated it callously and cruelly, without a thought for the way she had made herself so vulnerable to him. And so, in the end, unable to take any more, she had had to leave.
She had thought that she had gone far enough away. That by heading back to England, to her home, to the village so many hundreds of miles away from the sophisticated Italian city of Florence where he lived, she had escaped his malign influence. That here, in the quiet of the countryside, she would have a chance to lick her wounds in private and somehow find the strength to face the world again, start over.
If she had had the slightest belief that she was wrong and that the person at the door was not who she feared, then that belief was shattered instantly at the sound of her name.
Only Domenico used her name in that way. Only he could take the simple syllables and, with the help of his musical Italian accent lengthening the i in the middle to a long, soft ee, turn them into something so lyrical that it sounded like a poem instead of just a name.
But there was nothing musical or poetic about the way he used her name right now.
His tone was the opposite of soft, the cold, slashing sound of his voice like a shower of sleet falling on the soft spring air, the barely controlled anger giving it a brutal edge.
"Open this door, damn you! I know you're there!'
He couldn't know that, Alice told herself, struggling to still the racing thud of her heart. He was simply challenging her, being deliberately provocative"being Domenico.
Domenico, who had never, to her knowledge, ever admitted to being wrong or even unsure about anything. Domenico who knew everything, understood everything, handled everything that life ever threw at him. He must have been born with that supreme self-confidence. Lying in his cot, he must have looked out on the world with the arrogance of a tiny Roman emperor, knowing he had only to make the slightest sound and his doting attendants would rush to his side.
So now he was just frustrated at the way she hadn't jumped to answer his command, the way that everyone else in his life did. He was challenging her, wanting to push her into revealing herself.
"Go away!' She mouthed the comment in the direction of the window, secure in the fact that he couldn't see her, had no proof that she was even in the house.
She had simply to stay where she was, well back from the window, hidden by the cottage's thick stone walls, and eventually his frustration would turn to boredom, boredom to anger, and he would slam himself into his car in disgust, drive away with a screech of tyres on the pebbled drive.
And she would be free of him.
For a while at least.
Oh, she knew she couldn't hope that he would get so annoyed he would leave for good"never coming back. That was too much to dream of. Domenico Parrisi didn't give up that easily. Not after just one attempt.
In fact, Domenico Parrisi didn't give up at all. He was renowned for it; his reputation for determination and refusal to surrender second to none.
He would be back, sooner rather than later. To have the talk she'd said she wanted. But at least she would have had a little more breathing space. A little more time to think, and to work out just how she was going to handle things. What she was going to say to him.
It had gone suspiciously quiet outside. The awful noise of the bell ringing on and on and on had stopped, and so had the sound of Domenico's voice. She hadn't heard the car leave" but then she hadn't heard it arrive either!
Had he gone? Had she actually been lucky this time and got away with avoiding the confrontation he'd evidently planned? She couldn't quite believe it.
Edging closer to the window, she tried to peer out but the faded green velvet curtain blocked her view. Twitching it aside by just an inch or two, she leaned forward, looked out.
And looked straight into a darkly handsome face, her startled blue eyes clashing with the burning bronze gaze of the man below.
He had moved back from the cottage door and was leaning against the bonnet of the car"something sleekly lowslung and metallic grey"his long legs crossed at the ankles, strong arms folded firmly across his broad chest. The weak spring sunlight made his jet-black hair gleam and a soft breeze lifted and ruffled the shining strands. His head was thrown back, the fierce profile in stark relief against the pale blue sky.
He was waiting and watching, like some big, powerful black cat sitting patiently by the hole in the skirting board, knowing exactly where the small, nervous mouse had disappeared. And knowing just where it ultimately would have to come out of hiding and into the open again. So he was quite content to wait and watch"and pounce if his victim so much as showed a whisker.
And he was looking straight at her. Eyes hooded, mouth" a mouth that was normally a sultry, sexual temptation"drawn into a thin, controlled line, lips compressed. The coldness in his eyes seemed to slice into her like an icy laser, cutting straight through to her heart.
And then he lifted his arm, waved a hand in an imperious gesture, pointed.
The message behind that particular signal couldn't have been clearer if he'd written it in large red letters along the length of his expensive car.
Get yourself down here, it said. And be quick about it. Immediately her mood changed. "All right," she muttered to him from the security of behind the pane of glass. "All right, I'll come down. But, I warn you, you might just regret it when I do."
So she was at home, Domenico reflected grimly, watching Alice's face disappear from the window. And a damn good thing that she was. Otherwise he would have made this journey for nothing. And he didn't have the time or inclination to waste precious hours on "nothing'.
When the detective he had hired to find Alice for him had come back with this address, he'd thought long and hard about whether it was worth making the journey all this way to seek her out.
Wouldn't it have been better to dismiss her from his thoughts just as easily as Alice had been able to dismiss the months they had spent together from hers? But the problem was that once he'd let a single thought into his head, it had been followed by others, dozens of them. Thoughts he'd told himself he'd forgotten. Memories he didn't want to recall.
Memories he damn well wasn't going to recall now!
He and Alice Howard had had a relationship. Well, he'd thought it was a relationship; she, evidently, had thought otherwise. She had just been "having fun', she'd told him in that last cold-blooded confrontation, but now it wasn't fun any more and she was leaving.
And that was that. She had packed her bags and walked. Walked out of his home, out of his life, out of his world. She hadn't spared a backward glance; hadn't given him any sort of explanation"just gone, making it plain that she no longer had any time for him or interest in him.
Certainly the woman who had peered down at him from the first-floor window of this tiny, shabby cottage didn't appear at all enthusiastic at seeing him. In fact, everything about her gave the opposite impression. She was staring at him as if he was some particularly nasty form of life that had just crawled out of the overgrown pond in the middle of the unkempt lawn, and she appeared to have frozen into immobility, rather than making any move to let him in.
But she had walked out on him"and that was something he wasn't used to. Truth to tell, he was always"always"the one who did the walking. And that was the way he liked it. It meant that when it was over, it was over. There were no hanging, frayed loose ends.
Loose ends got in the way. They could trip you up, stop you from moving on. Domenico preferred things clear-cut. Things with Alice had been far from clear-cut.
And so he had snatched at time he didn't actually have to make the journey here. He was not going to be pleased if she stayed hidden away and didn't let him in, and the whole journey was a waste of time. He certainly didn't plan on coming back again if she changed her mind a second time and decided she did want to see him after all.
In fact, he wasn't at all sure just why he was here now. He His thoughts stopped dead at the sound of the door handle moving. The white-painted wood swung open and Alice stood in the space of the doorway.
Domenico swore under his breath as he felt the effect that her appearance alone had on him. The kick of response low down in his body told him the unwelcome truth about why he had been so reluctant"and yet so determined"to come here today.
He still wanted this woman.
He'd wanted her from the moment he'd first set eyes on her, and he still did, damn it! And he sure as hell didn't want to feel that way.
She was far more casually dressed than he had seen her for a long time. The loose lilac T-shirt was long, almost like a tunic over the top of black jeans, and she had pulled on a black cotton cardigan over the top, leaving it hanging open. The worn denim shaped the long, slender lines of her legs and the way the soft cotton of the T-shirt clung to the rounded curves of her hips made his mouth dry in the heat of sudden desire. Her feet were bare and looking down at the way that the small pink toes curled and flexed on the cool stone of the doorstep brought a sudden, blazing memory of how it had felt to have one of those narrow, soft feet slide erotically up and down the exposed skin of his own calf, over his kneealong his thigh.
"Well?" Alice said sharply.
The cold, brittle tone of the single word shattered the heated illusion that had gripped him. This was the woman who had walked out on him, he reminded himself. The woman who had done what no other woman had ever done.
"Buon giorno, Signorina Howard."
Domenico forced himself to speak, fighting against the husky sound that the dryness in his throat had created.
Perhaps it was the sombre colour against her skin, or the way that her dark hair tumbled rather wildly about her shoulders, but she looked paler than usual, the deep blue eyes like clouded pools above the slanting cheekbones. And there was a coldness in those stunning eyes that might have frozen a lesser man, leaving him incapable of speech.
But frozen was not how Domenico felt. Quite the opposite. She could never look anything but stunning, and somehow the two months' absence had increased rather than lessened the impact of her deeply sensual femininity.
He had told himself that in his memories he had exaggerated the potent appeal of her beauty, the lush curves of her body, but the instant electric sting of desire that tormented him just at seeing her revealed that unfounded confidence as the lie it was.
There was no way he was over this woman. And seeing her here, like this, had driven that point home with a force that made his head spin. Everything that was male in him responded to her femaleness on the most primitive, basic level, heating his blood and demanding satisfaction right here, right now. The impulse to march across the few metres of pebbled drive between them, snatch her up into his arms and carry her inside to the nearest bed"the nearest floor"was such a struggle to resist that the tension tightened his muscles, tied painful knots in his nerves as he fought to control it.
"I understand that you wanted to talk to me," he continued. It seemed that the strain had reached his vocal cords too, making his voice sound harsh and raw, almost brutally aggressive. But then that only matched the cold welcome she had given him.
And she showed no sign of being pleased, or even relieved to see him. Instead, those deep blue eyes were as cold and distant as the ocean"the English sea, he amended, recalling the way that the water on the coast here had been so very different from the warm blue of the Mediterranean that surrounded his own country.
"So talk," he growled in irritation.
The word"the command, for that was what it was" reverberated inside Alice's head.