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Who is he? Why has this stranger come to my husband's funeral and why does he stand there, staring at me across the grave?
'Ashes to ashes, dust to dust'
In a corner of a London cemetery the preacher intoned the words over the open grave, while the mourners shivered in the cold February drizzle and the dead man's widow wished it could all soon be over.
Ashes and dust, she brooded. A perfect description of my marriage.
Elise ventured a glance around the others and saw only blank faces, just as she'd expected. Ben Carlton had had business associates, but no friends. His life had been a litter of shady deals and shabby relationships.
Including ours, Elise thought. A wretched marriage, for wretched reasons, brought to a wretched end.
Many of the people here were unfamiliar. Some she'd met at the lavish dinner parties Ben had enjoyed giving, and she vaguely recalled their faces. Some she'd seen at functions hosted by his firm. Others she'd never seen. They all looked alike, except for one man.
He stood on the other side of the grave, his lean face expressionless, his eyes hard as they watched her. As the last rites dragged on, Elise realised that he never looked at the coffin, only at herself. He had a fixed gaze, with something unyielding about it, as though by staring her down he could find the answer to a question.
She tried to tear her eyes away, but she couldn't. It was almost as though he was ordering her to look at him, refusing to release her. She fought him but, to her dismay, she could feel her will yielding to his.
He was in his late thirties, tall, dark-haired, with a commanding air that seemed to reduce everyone else to insignificance. He spoke briefly as he stepped aside to let a lady pass. It was only a few words, but Elise heard the Continental accent and wondered if he was attached to Farnese Internationale, the great Italian-based firm that had recently hired Ben, an act that still baffled her.
Elise hadn't known much about her late husband's business affairs, beyond a vague suspicion that others considered him an oaf. Nothing had surprised her more than seeing him head-hunted by a powerful multinational corporation.
Ben had told her about it, smirking with self-congratulation. He'd known about her poor opinion of him and had relished the chance to prove her wrong.
'You just wait until we're living in Rome, in the lap of luxury,' he crowed. 'The apartment will make your eyes water.'
That was how she discovered that he'd already bought the apartment, without consulting her. Worse, he'd even sold their London home, behind her back.
'I don't want to go back to Rome,'she told him furiously. 'And I'm amazed that you do. Do you think I can forget?'
'Don't talk rubbish. That business was over long ago. I've got an important job and we'll have to do a lot of entertaining. You should be looking forward to it. It'll give you a chance to use your Italian again. You always spoke it well.'
'You said yourself, that was a long time ago,' she reminded him.
'Look, I'm going to need you,' he said in the brusque way he always used to end arguments. 'I don't speak the damned language and you do, so don't give me a hard time.'
'Plus you got one jump ahead by getting our money out of the country before I found out.'
He looked pleased.
'Just in case you were getting any ideas about divorce' he chuckled 'I know what's been flitting through your head.'
'Perhaps I'll decide to go my own way and earn my own living,' she mused.
How that had made him hoot with laughter!
'You? After all these years of living the good life? Never! You've gone soft.'
Elise had ignored his rudeness and selfish complacency, being used to it. Perhaps he was right and she could no longer function independently. It was a dispiriting thought.
With their house sold, they'd moved into The Ritz Hotel until the day of departure. But that day had never come. Ben had died of a heart attack while enjoying an assignation in another hotel with a woman who'd called an ambulance, then vanished before it could arrive.
Elise shivered. It was late afternoon and the light had faded, turning the mourners into shadows. Still she sensed the stranger watching her in the gloom.
At last it was over and people began to move, reminding her to perform her duties as hostess.
'I do hope you can come to the reception,' she said again and again. 'It would have meant so much to Ben.'
'I trust your invitation includes me,' said the man. 'You don't know me, but I'd been looking forward to your husband joining my firm. My name is Vincente Farnese.'
She knew the name at once. She'd heard it often from Ben's lipsone of the most powerful men in Italyhad the ear of government ministersinfluentialrich
'And he wants me to join him,' Ben had rejoiced. 'He searched for me, said only the right man would do for the positionoffered me a fortunesaid it was worth anything to get me'
Elise had smothered her astonishment that anyone should actually seek out this overblown windbag, never mind pay him over the odds. Now she stared at Vincente Farnese, searching for some clue to help solve the mystery.
She found none. He was in the prime of life, with the air of a man of sense. It was inexplicable.
'I've heard of you from my husband,' she said. 'It was good of you to take the trouble to attend his funeral. Of course you're welcome at the reception.'
'You're too kind,' he said smoothly.
A man who was never at a loss, she thought, ready with the right words, the right attitude, always ahead.
So why had he bothered to come here? What could he hope to gain now Ben was dead?
Suddenly she didn't care any more, about anything. There was only a weary longing for all this to be over. She closed her eyes, swaying slightly, then felt strong hands steadying her.
'Not much longer,' said Vincente's quiet voice.
The words echoed her thoughts so exactly that she opened her eyes sharply and found him standing close, holding her gently.
'Don't give up now,' he murmured.
'I wasn'tthat is'
'I know,' he said, and she had the strangest feeling that he did.
He began to guide her towards the car, waving away the chauffeur to open the door for her himself. Just before she got in, Elise glanced up at someone else who'd caught her eye in the cemetery. This was a woman in her thirties, attractive in a flashy way, wearing expensive black clothes that somehow managed to look blowsily overdone.
It occurred to Elise that this stranger too had been regarding her oddly, with a kind of belligerence, hating her and sizing her up at the same time. But Signor Farnese had occupied her thoughts, leaving her little attention to spare.
'Who is that lady?' he asked, getting in beside Elise.
'I don't know. I've never seen her before.'
'She seems to know you, if the looks she's been giving you are anything to go by.'
It was a short journey to The Ritz, where a lavish buffet had been laid on in the grandiose suite Ben had insisted on occupying. Elise would have preferred a quiet affair, but she'd splashed out on Ben's funeral out of a kind of guilt. Now he was dead she felt uneasy about her hostility, no matter how much he'd deserved it. She couldn't grieve but she could give him the kind of send-off he would have wanted, suitable for a wealthy, important man, even if the wealth had often been a conjuring trick and the importance had existed only in his head.
As she entered the room a mirror told her that she looked perfect for the role of elegant widow in her neatly fitting black dress, small black hat over blonde hair, styled severely. She was an expert in the art of appearance, having once dreamed of being a clothes designer. Events had ended her training abruptly, but her skill remained.
Without conceit, Elsie knew that she was beautiful. For the last eight years she'd had nothing to do except be lovely, elegant and sexy, because that was what Ben had wanted. She had been his property and he'd expected his property to be perfect. Her life had become a round of gym sessions and beauty parlours.
Nature had given her the good looks to start with, a figure that was easy to keep slim, hair that was naturally blonde and luxuriant, eyes that were large and deep blue. The arts of the coiffeur and masseuse had been employed to great effect, until she'd turned into the perfect finished article.
She was everything the world expectedgraceful, chic, always uttering the right words. Only she knew how empty she was inside. But she did not care.
There was another truth about her, but she'd lost sight of it so long ago that she'd almost forgotten it. In that hidden place there was wild feeling, death-defying emotion, passionate desire. She'd shut those away when she'd married Ben and now she could no longer find the key.
Elise made her rounds, ensuring that everyone had enough to eat and drink and the proper attention. But proper for what? She no longer had any connection with these people. Soon she would be completely free.
Just a little longer, she promised herself.
Signor Farnese was occupying himself talking with the other guests.
Networking, she thought, remembering Ben at similar gatherings.
But this was different. Ben had always been trying to attract the attention of the others, seeking to impress them. With Vincente Farnese it was the opposite. Everyone knew who he was and wanted to catch his eye. If it pleased him he acknowledged their presence, otherwise he dismissed them with a brief nod, courteous but final.
He was everything that Ben had wanted to be, she thoughta handsome, healthy animal, with a face that, despite its strength and good looks, was also shrewd and wary, giving him an edge of danger. His eyes were the darkest she had ever seen, yet an all-seeing light came from their depths. He looked as if he'd mastered life, and intended to go on mastering it.
The chief lion in the pack, she thought. So why is he here?
He was abstemiouseating nothing and making one glass of wine last for two hoursand, to her heightened imagination, there seemed something ominous even in that.
The woman Elise had noticed ate and drank with gusto. Like the man, she seemed to be waiting for something.
At last the goodbyes were said and Elise turned with a fixed smile to address her unknown guest.
'I'm so sorry, we haven't been introduced,' she said politely. 'It was so kind of you to'
'Don't waste time with that stuff,' the woman interrupted rudely. 'Don't you know who I am?'
'I'm afraid I don't. Were you a friend of my husband?'
'Friend? Hah! You could put it like that.'
'And what's that supposed to mean?'
'Perhaps you were with him when he had his heart attack?'
The woman gave a squeal of laughter, full of wine.
'No, I heard about that, but it wasn't me. I must say I've got to hand it to you, cool as a cucumber in front of all these people, when you must have known what everyone was thinking.'
'What matters is that none of them knew what I was thinking,' Elise said.
'Oh, good for you! You're diamond-hard, aren't you?'
'When I have to be,' Elise said quietly. 'Perhaps you should be careful.'
The waiters were clearing away. Elise stood back to let them depart, then returned to what was clearly going to be a battle. Fine. She was just in the mood.
'Who are you?' she demanded.
'Mary Connish-Fontain,' said the other woman deliberately, stressing the double barrel.
'Is that supposed to mean something to me?'
'It will, when I'm finished. I came here to demand justice for my son. Ben's son!'
Out of the corner of her eye Elise was aware that Vincente Farnese had become mysteriously alert, although he never moved.
'You had a son by my husband?' Elise asked slowly.
'His name's Jerry. He's six.'
Six. Elise had been Ben's wife for eight years. But it wasn't a surprise.
'Are you saying that Ben was supporting you?' Elise asked. 'I don't believe it. I've been through his financial affairs and there's nothing about you or a child.'
'There wouldn't be. We broke up before Jerry's birth. Hehe didn't want to hurt you.'
If Elise had believed her before, she didn't now. Ben had never cared about hurting her.
'I married someone else,' Mary went on. 'But now we've split up.'
'What's his name?' Signor Farnese asked suddenly.
'Alaric Connish-Fontain,' Mary said, puzzled. 'Why?'
'It's an unusual name. I recognised it at once. Your husband's crash into bankruptcy was really spectacular. No wonder you're looking for new fish to fry.'
'How dare you?' Mary snapped.
'Forgive me.Your motives are, of course, as pure as the driven snow.'
'How did he feel about Ben's son?' Elise intervened.
Mary shrugged. 'He thought Jerry was his.'
'But when he lost all his money Jerry suddenly became Ben's,' Elise said scornfully. 'Don't take me for a fool.'
'No, don't do that,' agreed Signor Farnese.
'You can say what you like,' Mary snapped. 'I want what's right for my son. He should be Ben's heir and I'm going to see that he is. You've got a posh house, so sell it, and I want half. What are you smiling for?'
The last words came out as a scream, for Elise had started to laugh. She shook with mirth until she felt she might choke, while her enemy regarded her in frustration.
'I'm telling you, sell your house,' she repeated furiously.
'There is no house,' Elise said, calming herself. 'That's why I'm living in a hotel. Ben already sold our house. It was his way of forcing me to go to Italy with him.'
'Then you've got the money. I know all about property laws'
'Somehow that comes as no surprise,' the dark Italian murmured. 'If there's one woman I feel I could rely on to know about property laws, it's you.'
'So I've protected myself, so what? Husband and wife own the marital home jointly'
'True,'Elise agreed. 'That's why Ben went about it in a twisty way. First he took out a huge mortgage on our London home, forging my signature when necessary. Then he bought a place in Italy. By the time I found out, it was too late. The money was already out of this country.'
'Don't give me that,' Mary sneered. 'You married Ben for his money and you've had eight years to put aside a nest egg for yourself.'
Sick loathing rose in Elise and for a blinding moment she nearly blurted out the truththat she'd cared nothing for Ben's money, had married him only to head off a threat to her beloved father, who could have gone to gaol with the evidence in Ben's possession.
But she forced herself to stay silent. The years of her dreadful marriage had taught her self-control.
'There's no nest egg,' she said. 'You can believe that or not, as you like.'
'And yet you've got enough to live here.' Mary's gesture took in their luxurious surroundings.
'No, I haven't. I'm moving out to somewhere cheaper as soon as possible.'
'Wherever you go, I'll be on your tail.'
A change came over Vincente Farnese. Mary couldn't see his face clearly but Elise could, and she thought it was like seeing someone become possessed by the devil. Whatever idea had flashed across his brain made his eyes glint and a wicked smile touch his mouth.
A devil, but a humorous devil, she thought.
'I shouldn't do that if I were you,' he advised, facing Mary full on. 'She has a heart of stone and a brain of ice. She'll outwit you every time.'
'You make her sound like a cold-hearted bitch,'Mary sneered. 'I guess you know her really well.'
'You're right. I've learned exactly how ruthless she can be.'
Bemused, Elise regarded him.
A knowing look came into Mary's eyes. She'd misunderstood, as he'd meant her to.
'Got her claws into you too, has she?'she demanded coarsely. 'I know all about her. Ben told me how she chased him for his money, then did the dirty on him when they were married.'
'That's a lie!' Elise burst out. 'I never chased Ben. He came chasing after me, all the way to Rome'
'Just as you meant him to. You knew how to make him come grovelling. As for you' she pointed a finger at Vincente 'I'll bet your wife doesn't know you're here.'
'I have no wife,' he retorted. 'I've never been tempted into the married state and at times like this I'm deeply glad of it. Tell me, ladies, is there a woman in the world who sincerely regrets the man she's put behind herfor one reason or another?'
Mary gave a contemptuous snort. 'Had your fill of you, has she? And now she doesn't care who she hurts. I don't suppose she ever has.'
'That's true,' he said softly. 'You don't know how true that is.'
'So what are you doing here now? Think there's something here for you? Haven't you learned your lesson?'
Vincente shrugged and spoke with a sigh that Elise guessed was as false as his regretful manner. She had to hand it to him for a magnificent if dishonest performance.
'There are some women who can affect a man like that,' he mourned. 'So that he forgets everything he knows about her and still lives in hope.'
'But I'm not a man,' Mary snapped. 'I'm not giving up until I get what's right.'
'But this isn't the way,' he said smoothly. 'Arm yourself with a DNA test and Mrs Carlton won't be able to argue.'
'Ah, but he's dead,' Mary said quickly. 'It's too late for a test.'
'The hospital where he died will have blood samples,' Elise pointed out. 'They can be tested and then we'll know for certain.'
Strangely, this prospect did not seem to ease Mary's mind.
'You don't need a test,' she said edgily. 'Jerry's Ben's son, no doubt of it. We can sort something out between us, then I'll go'
'You'll go now if you know what's good for you,'Elise snapped. 'I wasn't born yesterday. If you're still here in ten seconds'
'Are you threatening me?'