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Angelo Falcone lay sprawled on the massive bed. Hectic, prolonged love-making had left the sheets half trailing to the floor and the rich burgundy damask quilt lay in inelegant disarray at the bottom of the bed. They had not bothered to shut the curtains and moonlight flooded the room, streaking across the heavy furniture in the room and lovingly illuminating the highly polished patina of wood.
He had properties in New York and Paris, but this apartment in Venice was by far his favourite. In every way it soothed his senses, with its unashamedly decadent opulence. It was the very opposite of the soulless minimalism that New York did so well.
And, of course, this was where he usually met her. Francesca Hayley.
Right now she was squinting down at the floor, trying to identify something she could put on amid the tangle of discarded linen and clothing that had been tossed in a pile in their mutual haste to touch one another.
He smiled at her thwarted efforts. 'You do this every time, Francesca,' he said with amusement in his voice.
'Do what?' She looked briefly at him and her whole body went hot under the lazy caress of his gaze. Crazy. She had met him thirteen months ago, had written him off as just the sort of wealthy playboy Italian she should steer clear of, and had continued to put up a determined fight until his charm, his wit, his perseverance had succeeded in crashing through her defences. It hadn't taken long. A little over a month.
'Insist on getting dressed as soon as you climb out of my bed. I like to see you naked. Why the need to cover up perfection?'
'I hate it when you say stuff like that, Angelo. I'm not perfect. No one is. Perfection doesn't exist.' She looked at him, stupidly shy in the face of his lingering appraisal. Perfection did exist. At least, physical perfection. Angelo Falcone embodied it. He was six foot two of dark, well honed, powerful male and what made him even more impressive was that his physical beauty was allied to a keen, restless intelligence. Together they formed a dangerously irresistible mix. She told herself this at regular intervals. It stopped her from harbouring unreasonable expectations.
'I beg to differ.' He folded his arms behind his head and continued to watch her. She was every red-blooded man's dream. A model without the shape of a stick insect and with a brain that often made him wonder what the hell she was doing in the superficial, fickle world of fashion.
'I still need to find some clothes.' She poked around the pile on the floor with one slender foot and gave up. 'I'm going to get something to eat. Do you want anything?'
'Come back to bed, Francesca.' He patted a spot next to him. 'You are quite capable of catering for my every appetite without getting me something from the kitchen to eat.'
Francesca grinned. 'Oh, dear. Is that the best cliché you can come up with?'
'Cliché? What cliché? I meant it.' He was almost at her before she even realised that he was sprinting out of the bed, and she spun round and headed straight out of the door towards the kitchen, shrieking as she felt him closing the distance between them. No time to switch on any of the lights, but then no need either. Every curtain was pulled back, allowing the bright night sky to fill the open spaces of the rooms.
Angelo caught her from behind, but he didn't spin her around to face him. Instead he buried his head in her hair, breathing her in, wanting her more than he could remember ever wanting anyone in his life before.
Initially, he had decided that their frequent separations, when he was away on one side of the world and she was modelling on the other side, would be a good thing. Relationships, he had discovered, were prone to becoming stale. The first flush of lust very quickly gave way to the tedium of the predictable and there was no greater death to a relationship than predictability.
Not so with her. He missed her when she wasn't around. Lately he had found himself sitting in on meetings during which his mind had been at least half preoccupied with thoughts of when he would be seeing her again.
'We need to talk,' he murmured, wrapping his arms around her. 'I'm only going to be here for three nights, then I fly to New York for two days' worth of meetings, then on to London.'
Francesca felt the familiar flutter of disappointment, which she kept to herself.
'What are your movements? Any chance that one of your shoots might coincide so you could be with me in the States?' Did that have an air of pleading about it? He hoped not. Pleading was not his style. Nor, for that matter, was asking someone to accompany him on one of his business trips. Women had always been a background presence to his work life, but the thought of another week without her while he rushed all over the globe was not a thrilling prospect.
Francesca disentangled herself from him and switched on the kitchen light.
'No chance,' she said, with her back to him as she opened the fridge door and looked inside for something wholesome and quick. She had arrived at the apartment several hours before him and had had a chance to stock up on a bit of food. Still not looking at him, she now extracted some cheese and tomatoes.
'Not that I wouldn't love to, Angelo...' She was staring into the bread bin, which was bulging with some delicious Italian bread.
'Your work schedule is even more hectic than mine,' he said, keeping his voice light. 'I wish you would look at me when I'm talking to you.'
'I can't look at you and slice bread at the same time.' She paused and turned to face him, though. 'I really wish I could come with you, Angelo. I'd love to see New York with you, but you know you would be busy working anyway. We probably wouldn't have much time together. And you're right, my life is too hectic.' She shrugged and smiled ruefully. 'But then, I'm twenty-four. If I can't cope with hectic now, when can I? Not to mention the small fact that I have to earn a living.'
'Do you?' He paused, letting the significance of his question fill the silent space between them. Then he strolled over to where she was busying herself with the bread and cheese and turned her round to face him. 'You hardly lead a wildly extravagant lifestyle,' he murmured, cupping her face with both his hands and bending down so that he could deliver one of his wickedly seductive kisses. When he finally drew back, that brief spurt of anger he had felt at her refusal to accompany him on his trip was replaced by the satisfaction of knowing that this woman was utterly his. He touched her and she melted, and that was something he found intensely pleasing.
'I know you have your little apartment in Paris, but you rent that. So where does your vast fortune go?'
'Vast fortune is a bit of an overstatement.' The conversation was drifting into waters best left uncharted, and she eased herself out of his embrace. Tellingly, her body was still tingling in response to his kiss.
'Is it? I thought models only got out of bed if they were guaranteed shockingly large amounts for the effort...'
She had a laugh that was infectious. It had been one of the first things Angelo had noticed about her. Standing in her little crowd of head turners, that rich, warm laughter had singled her out as the only one in touch with reality, with a sense of humour. And when she laughed she always tilted her head back slightly so that her long, straight dark hair rippled almost down to her waist. He caught her hair in his hands and curled his fingers through the silky mass.
'Are you telling me that I'm wrong?' he asked. 'I'm telling you that you're a dinosaur when it comes to snippets of information like that.'
'I'm thirty-four. A sensitive age. A man could be offended by a description like that...' He kissed the side of her neck, trailing his mouth along her shoulder blades while his free hand moved to caress one full breast.
Francesca could feel him hard against her and she moaned softly. When he lifted her fingers and began licking the taste of tomato and cheese from them, her moans became louder.
Not fair! How did he possess the ability to make her dissolve like this?
'You taste good.' He made appreciative noises that sent her senses reeling. 'Course, I can think of other places that would taste good as well, apart from your fingers. My appetite at this moment extends beyond bread, cheese and tomato...'
'Happy to oblige.' With that he ran his flattened palm over the firm lines of her belly, down to her thighs, nudging them open so that he could rub exploring fingers along her throbbing womanhood. Yes! Wet and waiting for him, and that felt so good.
He turned her to him and kissed her, a long, tender kiss that seemed to stretch into infinity.
After all these months their bodies had become attuned to each other but, for all that, there was no less of the shocking excitement whenever they touched.
He had never expected it to last as long as it had. She knew that, even though he had never said as much to her. He was a high-profile money earner who moved in high-profile circles and, as such, his reputation had preceded him.
He had moved through women like a connoisseur sampling fine wines, but only a glass at a time. A heartbreaker, one of her catwalk companions had confided. Francesca couldn't imagine ever having her heart broken, but she had still shied away from him, and even when they had become an item it had never crossed her mind that over a year later they would still be seeing one another.
She coiled her hands around his neck and returned the kiss with equal tenderness.
'Have I told you how sexy you are?'
'A number of times,' she whispered, dropping her head back, knowing that he would be unable to resist her breasts pushing against him.
Angelo propelled her towards the small, heavy kitchen table which was covered in a cloth of vibrant, swirling patterns and she lay back on to it, smiling drowsily with the anticipation of pleasure. She wondered whether whoever had fashioned this table would now approve of the unconventional use to which it was being put.
When he leaned over her and began tracing the outline of her nipple with his tongue, she had to fight the urge to maintain her control. They had already made love twice since he had entered the apartment a few hours ago, but she still wanted him now as intensely as she had when he had walked through that door into her arms.
She wanted him to smother her breasts with his mouth, and he did. And she wanted him to find other parts of her to explore, and he did, and she squirmed with pleasure when he did that.
It was still amazing for her to think that no man had ever done that act of intimacy with her before him, that her body had been embalmed in ice until he had come along and set it ablaze.
When he finally thrust into her she was on the edge of climaxing and they both came with a shudder that seemed to last for ever.
He was perspiring as he helped her sit up, just as she was.
'Better than a sandwich?' he teased, sweeping her hair away from her face and clasping it behind her neck.
'Much, much better than any sandwich and especially mine.' It was a running joke between them that her culinary skills were hopeless. He frequently told her that she would have to start learning how to cook pasta and her reply was always that a restaurant would do it better so why bother to try?
One day, she would solemnly promise, she would become a cordon bleu cook and then he would never be able to joke about her cooking skills again. 'But you're still hungry...hmm?'
'Fancy making me a sandwich?' she asked. 'What do I get in return?'
'What would you like?'
You in New York with me. You everywhere with me. 'We have something to eat and then I shall bathe you...' As in every other area of his life, when Angelo prepared something to eat he did it with style. The legacy of having an Italian father, he told her as he grated mozzarella cheese over the bread, added a touch of mustard and turned the grill on. An Italian father, an Irish mother and a childhood in downtown Chicago.
'I see the Italian,' Francesca mused, watching him as he strolled naked through the kitchen, utterly at home with his nudity. 'But where's the Irish?' He didn't often talk about his past, only dropping the odd snippet here and there, and she was hungry for more information.
'Would you have preferred me with red hair and freckles?' He handed her a plate and perched on the stool next to her.
'It might have been very fetching.' She looked at his raven-black hair, eyes almost as dark, and the harsh, angular features that spoke of his Italian ancestry. The treasured son. His parents had longed for a sprawling family and instead had had to suffice with just the one child. Now they were waiting for grandchildren. He had told her that ages ago, when she had asked him why he was still a bachelor. He was going to live it up, he had told her, and then settle down and, when he did, it would be for ever. He didn't believe in divorce.
'And would you have fallen for that very fetching look?' he asked softly, and Francesca hurriedly looked away.
Falling? No! They had never spoken about falling anywhere, had never once mentioned the word love. 'Red hair can be a bit tricky for a man to pull off,' she said, skirting around his question. 'You might have been bullied at school...' A less likely scenario she would have been hard pressed to imagine.
'You think so?' Angelo shot her a devilishly amused look from under his lashes. 'Can you imagine me being bullied?'
'No,' she said honestly. 'You're too scary.'
'You find me scary?'
'I don't, but I can see why some people might.'
'Why is that?' He caught the tail-end of her sandwich and took a bite from it.
'Don't tell me you don't intimidate people sometimes, Angelo. When you're doing one of these great deals of yours? When you're out to win something and someone's standing in your way?'
'I prefer to call it persuasion with intent.' He grinned at her. Extraordinary to imagine the freedoms she took with him. She had trampled all over his boundaries from the very start and she still did it, and he didn't care. That was the extraordinary thing. He had become cavalier with his cherished privacy and he didn't mind.
He thought about later, lying in bed, telling her what he had to tell her, picturing her face.
'Is that right?' Francesca said dryly. 'And I call eating this very fattening bread and cheese flirting with a few calories. When I put on vast amounts of weight and can no longer do my job, I shall blame you.' She stood up and headed towards the bathroom, chatting to him as she walked, knowing that he would be grinning as he looked at her from behind, appreciating every line of her body, which he refused to accept was anything but perfect.
In her quiet moments, she often thought of the price she had paid for her so-called perfection. Small lies she had told, cowardly lies that told him things she knew he wanted to hear, little images built up of her over time that bore no resemblance to the unsavoury truth. How had all those little lies become an avalanche? Francesca tried never to think about it. The temporary nature of their relationship made it easy.
'You'll have to give it up one day,' he said suddenly. 'Where did that come from?' Francesca turned to him, leaning lightly against the bathroom door, and raised her eyebrows in a question.
'A model's life is a short one by its very nature,' Angelo pointed out, pausing as he brushed past her to plant a quick kiss on her parted mouth. 'You know what they say about beauty. Here today, gone tomorrow.'
'You do know how to make a girl feel old.'
'And what will you do then?' He sat on the edge of the big free-standing bath with its clawed feet and switched on the taps, testing the water with his hands until the temperature was just right, before tipping in a liberal amount of bath foam.
The smile faded from her lips. For the first time since she had met him, he seemed different today. His mood was odd, swinging from teasing to gravity in the space of seconds, and it was disconcerting. Was she supposed to answer his question seriously? Or was she misreading him? Maybe he was tired. Exhaustion could do weird things and, face it, he had been on several long-haul flights over the past few weeks, barely leaving himself sufficient time to draw breath in between.
'Oh, I don't know,' she answered lightly, ignoring the shift in atmosphere. 'Maybe I'll start a new line of Francesca Hayley cosmetics. Isn't that what all ex-models do? Or I could go into acting...'