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THE picture on the computer screen seemed to fill the room with humour and good cheer. It showed a young man of strikingly attractive looks, fair, shaggy hair, dark blue glowing eyes and a smile that hinted at mischief.
"Oh, wow!" Jackie sighed. "Just look at him!" Della chuckled indulgently. Her secretary was young and easily moved by male beauty. She, herself, tried to be more detached.
"He's not bad," she conceded. "Not bad?" Jackie echoed, scandalised. "He's a dream."
"But I need more than a pretty face. I need a man who really knows his stuff, preferably one who's already made a name for himself."
"Della, this is a TV series you're producing. It matters how he looks."
"Yes, it matters that he looks like a serious expert and not a mere boy. Carlo Rinucci can't be more than about twenty-five."
"According to his data he's thirty," Jackie said, thumbing through papers. "And he has a big reputation in ruins and bones and things like that."
"But he's Italian. I can't have him fronting an English television series."
"Some of which will be based in Italy. Besides, it says here that he speaks perfect English, and you've said yourself that you have to sell the series internationally if it's to make any money."
This was true. In the world of television Della was a big shot, with her own production company and a brilliant reputation. Her programmes were in great demand. Even so, she had to consider the practicalities.
She studied Carlo Rinucci's face again, and had to admit that he had a lot going for him. He wasn't merely handsome. His grin had a touch of delightful wickedness, as though he'd discovered a secret hidden from the rest of the world.
"I had an uncle once," Jackie said. "He was a travelling salesman with a girl in every town and a line in flattery that would charm the birds off the trees. And no matter what he did everyone forgave him, just for the sake of his smile. Dad used to say Uncle Joe hadn't just eaten the Apple of Life, he'd gone to live in the tree."
"And you think he's the same?" Della mused, scrutinising Carlo's laughing face.
"I'd take a bet on it."
Privately Della agreed, but she kept that thought to herself. Her hard-won caution was warning her not to go overboard for this young man just because he looked good. Very good. Marvellous.
His resumé was certainly impressive. George Franklin, her assistant, who was helping to research this series, had e-mailed her.
Don't be misled by his youth. Carlo Rinucci is the up-andcoming man in his field. He's done some impressive work and written a couple of books that have attracted attention. His opinions are often unorthodox, but his work is sound.
He'd added a few notes about Carlo Rinucci's current project at Pompeii, the little town just south of Naples, buried long ago in the lava of the erupting volcano Vesuvius, and he'd finished with the words: Believe me, he's worth investigating.
"Worth investigating," Della murmured. "I'll investigate him for you," Jackie said eagerly. "I could get the next plane to Naples, look him over and report back."
"Nice try," Della said, amused. "You mean you've already bagged him for yourself?"
"I mean," Della said severely, "that I shall consider all the options in a serious and practical way, make my evaluation, and decide what is best for the programme."
"That's what I said. You've bagged him for yourself." Della laughed and dropped her formal tone. "Well, there has to be some advantage in being the boss," she said.
"No kidding! If you use him the ratings will go through the roof. Every country will want to buy the programme. You'll have a great reputation."
"Some people think I already have a reputation," Della said in mock offence.
"Not like the one you'll have if he's working for you."
"So you think I should hire him to make my name for me? Thanks a lot, but I don't need help from him or any other pretty boy getting through life on his charm."
"You don't know that he's char"
"Just look at the time! You should be going home." Jackie departed, but not without one final lingering look at the computer screen.
"Behave yourself," Della commanded, laughing. "He's not that gorgeous."
"Oh, yes, he is," Jackie sighed as she retreated and closed the door.
For Della there was no journey to and from work, as she ran her business from her own homea houseboat moored on the Thames, near Chelsea. She treasured it, not only for its own sake, but also as a symbol of the distance she'd travelled since the day she'd started out with almost nothing.
Now that it was six o'clock her working day hadn't ended, merely moved into a new phasemaking calls to the other side of the world in different time zones. She kicked off her shoes and settled down.
Carlo Rinucci's face was still on the screen, but she refused to allow him to distract her. She reached out for the mouse, ready to click him into cyberspace, but her hand paused of its own accord.
Right from the start she'd insisted that the presenter for her series about places of great historical events must be someone with an impressive academic name.
"I don't want a handsome talking head who's going to reveal himself as a dumb cluck the minute he doesn't have a script," she'd said. "In fact, I'll expect him to write a lot of the script."
She'd reviewed a host of possibilities, both male and female, all serious people with impressive reputations. One woman had aroused great hopes, but in the audition she became pompous. One man had seemed a real possibility in his forties, elegant, serious, yet attractively suaveuntil he stood in front of a camera and became tongue-tied.
"I'll bet you're never lost for words," she said, addressing the screen. "Just looking at you, I know that. You can talk the hind legs off a donkey, which probably helped you get some of those fine-sounding qualifications."
Then she stopped and stared. She could have sworn he'd winked at her. "Enough of that," she reproved him sternly. "I know your kind. My second husband was just like you. Talk about charm! The trouble was, charm was all Gerry hadunless you include a genius for spending other people's money."
She poured herself a drink and leaned back, contemplating the face with reluctant pleasure.
"Am I being unreasonable?" she asked him. "Am I against you just because other people are for you? I know I'm a bit contrary. At least, folk claim that I am. They say I'm difficult, awkward, stubbornand that's just my friends talking. But I've got a good life. I have a career that gives me all I want, and I'm immune to male attractionwell, sort of immune. Most of the time. You do nothing for me. Nothing at all."
But he didn't believe her. She could see that in his face. She gazed at him. He gazed back. What came next hovered inevitably in the air between them.
"So I guess," she said slowly, "there's no reason why I can't set up a meeting and look you over."
"This place looks as though a bomb had hit it," Hope Rinucci observed.
She was surveying her home: first the main room, then the dining room, then the terrace overlooking the Bay of Naples with a distant view of Vesuvius.
"Two bombs," she added, viewing the disarray.
But she did not speak with disapproval, more like satisfaction. The previous evening there had been a party, and in Hope's opinion a party that didn't leave the surroundings looking shattered was no party at all.
By that standard last night had been a triumphant success. Ruggiero, one of her younger sons, came into the room very carefully, and immediately sat down.
"It was a great night," he said faintly. "It was indeed," she said at once. "We had so much to celebrate. Francesco's new job. Primo and Olympia, with Olympia's parents over from England, and the news that she's going to have a baby. And then Luke and Minnie saying that they're going to have a baby, too."
"And then there's Carlo,"Ruggiero mused, naming his twin. "Mamma, did you ever work out which of those three young ladies was actually his girlfriend?"
"Not exactly," she said, taking him a black coffee, which he received gratefully. "They all seemed to arrive together. If only Justin and Evie could have been here as well. But she is so heavily pregnant with the twins that I can understand her not wanting to travel. She promised to bring them to see us as soon as possible after they arrive."
"So we can have another party,"Ruggiero said. "Perhaps by then Carlo will have managed to divide himself into three."
"Do you know which lady he went home with?"
"I didn't see him leave, but I have the impression that they all went together," Ruggiero said enviously. "Mio dio, but he's a brave man!"
"Who's a brave man?" Francesco asked, coming carefully into the room.
Hope smiled and poured another coffee. "Carlo,"she said. "He brought three young ladies last night. Didn't you see?"
"He didn't notice anything but that exotic redhead," Ruggiero said. "Where did you find her?"
Francesco thought for a minute before saying, "She found meI think."
"We were wondering which of his dates Carlo took home to his apartment," Ruggiero said.
"He didn't go back there," Francesco observed. "How can you possibly know that?" Hope asked. "Because he's here."
Francesco pointed to a large sofa facing the window. Leaning over the back, the others saw a young man stretched out, blissfully asleep. He was in the clothes he'd worn the previous night, his shirt open at the throat, revealing smooth, tanned skin. Everything about him radiated sensual contentment.
"Hey!" Ruggiero prodded him rudely. "Mmm?"
His twin prodded him again, and Carlo's eyes opened. It was a source of intense irritation to his brothers that Carlo didn't awake bleary-eyed and vague, like normal people. Even after sleeping off a night of indulgence he was instantly alert, bright-eyed and at his best. As Ruggiero had once remarked, it was enough to make anyone want to commit murder.
"Hallo," he said, sitting up and yawning. "What are you doing there?"Ruggiero demanded, incensed. "What's wrong with my being here? Ah, coffee! Lovely! Thanks, Mamma."
"Take no notice of this pair," Hope advised him. "They're jealous."
"Three," Ruggiero mourned. "He had three, and he slept on the sofa."
"The trouble is that three is too many," Carlo said philosophically. "One is ideal, two is manageable if you're feeling adventurous, but anything more is a just a problem. Besides, I wasn't at my best by the end of the evening, so I played safe, called a taxi for the ladies and went to sleep."
"I hope you paid their fares in advance," Hope said. "Of course I did,"Carlo said, faintly shocked. "You brought me up properly."
Francesco was aghast. "Of all the spineless, feeble"
"I know, I know." Carlo sighed. "I feel very ashamed."
"And you call yourself a Rinucci?" Ruggiero said. "That's enough," Hope reproved them. "Carlo behaved like a gentleman."
"He behaved like a wimp," Francesco growled. "True," Carlo agreed. "But there can be great benefits to being a wimp. It makes the ladies think you're a perfect gentleman, and then, when next time comes"
He drained his coffee, kissed his mother on the cheek, and escaped before his brothers vented their indignation on him.