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Cesario di Silvestri could not sleep.
Events in recent months had brought him to a personal crossroads, at which he had acted with innate decisiveness: he had stripped the chaff from his life in order to focus his energy on what really mattered, only to appreciate that, while he had worked tirelessly to become an extraordinarily wealthy tycoon, he had put next to no work at all into his private life. The only close friend he fully trusted still was Stefano, the cousin he had grown up with. He'd had many women in his bed, but only one whom he'd lovedand he had treated her so carelessly that she had fallen in love with someone else. He was thirty-three years old and he had never even come close to marrying. What did that say about him?
Was he a natural loner or simply a commitment-phobe? He groaned out loud, exasperated by the constant flow of philosophical thoughts that had recently dogged him, because all his life, to date, he had been a doer rather than a thinker: a great sportsman, a dynamic and cold-blooded businessman. Giving up on sleep, Cesario pulled on some shorts and strode through his magnificent Moroccan villa, impervious to the opulent trappings of the billionaire's lifestyle that had lately come to mean so little to him. He filled a tumbler with ice cold water and drank it down thirstily.
As he had admitted to Stefano, by this age he would have liked to have had a child, only not with the kind of woman who cared more about money than anything else. For such a woman would only raise her child with the same shallow self-seeking values.
'But it's not too late for you to start a family,' Stefano had declared with conviction. 'Nothing is set in stone, Cesario. Do what you want, not as you think you should.'
Hearing the shrill of his cell phone, Cesario headed back upstairs, wondering which of his staff thought it necessary to call him in the middle of the night. But there was nothing frivolous about that call from Rigo Castello, his security chief. Rigo was phoning to tell him that he'd just been robbed: a painting, a recent acquisition worth a cool half-million pounds, had been stolen from Halston Hall, his English country home, and apparently the theft had been an inside job. Cold outrage swept Cesario at that concluding fact. He didn't get mad, he got even. He paid his employees handsomely and treated them well and in return he expected loyalty. When the guilty party was finally identified, Cesario would ensure that the full weight of the law was brought to bear on him
But, within a few minutes, his outrage and annoyance subsided to a bearable level and a grim smile began to tug at his handsome mouth as he contemplated his now inevitable visit to his beautiful Elizabethan home in England. There he would undoubtedly run into his very beautiful Madonna of the stable yard again, as his horses required her regular attention. And unlike the many women he had known and deemed to be almost interchangeable, his English Madonna did rejoice in one unique quality: she was the only woman who had ever said no to Cesario di Silvestri and utterly infuriated and frustrated him. One dinner date and he'd been history, rejected out of hand by a woman for the first time in his life and he still had no idea why. For Cesario, who was by nature fiercely competitive, she would always be a mystery and a challenge.
A small, slightly built brunette with her long dark curly hair caught up in a practical ponytail, Jess kept up a constant stream of soothing chatter while she wielded the shears over the cowering dog's matted coat.
The job had to be done. As the sheepdog's painfully emaciated body was revealed Jess's soft full mouth hardened; the suffering of animals always upset her and she had trained as a veterinary surgeon in an effort to do what she could to help in the way of welfare.
Her volunteer helper at weekends, a pretty blonde schoolgirl, helped to keep the dog steady. 'How is he?' Kylie asked with concern.
Jess sent the teenager a wry look. 'Not bad for his age. He's an old dog. He'll be fine once I've seen to his sores and fed him up a bit.'
'But the older ones are very hard to rehome.' Kylie sighed.
'You never know,' Jess said with determined optimism, though actually she did know very well. The little tribe of dogs she had personally rescued in recent years were a motley group, each of which was either older, maimed or suffering from behavioural problems. Few people were willing to take a chance on such dogs.
When Jess had embarked on her first job in the village of Charlbury St Helens, she had lived above the vet's surgery where she worked. But she'd had to find other accommodation when the practice's senior partner had decided to expand the business and turned the small flat into an office suite instead. Jess had been lucky enough to find a run-down cottage with a collection of old sheds to rent just outside the village. Although her home was not much to look at and offered only basic comforts, it came with two fields and the landlord had agreed to her opening a small animal sanctuary there. Even though she earned a good salary she was always broke, because every penny she could spare went towards animal feed and medical supplies. Even so, in doing what she loved, she was happier than she had ever been in her life. But then she would be the first to admit that she had long preferred animals to people. Shy, socially awkward and uneasy with men after a traumatic experience at university that had left her with both physical and mental scars, Jess struggled to fit in with human beings but was totally at home with four-legged beasts.
The sound of a car pulling up outside sent Kylie to the door of the shed. 'It's your dad, Jess.'
Jess glanced up in surprise; Robert Martin rarely called in on her at weekends. Recently, in fact, she had seen less than usual of her father and, when she had, he had seemed abnormally preoccupied with work. As a rule, though, he was a regular visitor, who often helped out by repairing the animal housing and the fences. A quiet man in his fifties, he was a good husband and an even better dad, for, while other family members had believed that Jess had been aiming too high in dreaming of becoming a veterinary surgeon, Robert had encouraged his daughter's dream every step of the way. His love and support meant all the more to Jess when she reflected that while Robert was the only father she had ever known he had had nothing whatsoever to do with her conception. That, however, was a secret known to few outside the family circle.
'I'll get on with the feeding,' Kylie proffered, as the stocky grey-haired older man nodded to her and entered the shed.
'I'll be with you in a minute, Dad,' Jess promised, bending over the prone dog to attend to his wounds with antiseptic ointment. 'It's not like you to call in on a Sunday morning.'
'I need to talk to you. You'll be at church later and you're often on duty in the evening at weekends,' he said gruffly, and something odd in his voice made her lift her head, her unusually light grey eyes questioning.
She frowned because the older man looked pale and strained and every year of his age and more. 'What's happened?' she prompted in dismay. She had not seen him look that frightened since her mother's diagnosis of cancer the previous year.
'Finish up with your patient first.'
With difficulty Jess mastered the spasm of fear that had immediately rippled through her. Goodness, had her mother's cancer returned? That was her first panicky thought and her hands shook slightly as she finished her task. As far as she was aware, though, her mother had not had a check-up scheduled and she told herself off for being so quick to expect bad news. 'Go into the house and wait for me. I won't be long,' she told him briskly, suppressing her apprehension.
She put the dog into a pen where food was already waiting for him and briefly watched the animal tuck into what was obviously his first proper meal in weeks. After pausing in the bathroom to scrub her hands clean, she hurried on into the house and then the kitchen where Robert Martin had already seated himself at the worn pine table.
'What's wrong?' she prompted tautly, too anxious where her mother was concerned even to put her fear into words.
Her father looked up, his brown eyes full of guilt and anxiety. 'I've done something stupid, really really stupid. I'm sorry to bring it to your doorstep but I can't face telling your mother yet,' he confided tightly. 'She's been through so much lately but I'm afraid that this business will break her.'
'Just spit it out tell me what's happened,' Jess pressed gently, sitting down opposite him, convinced he had to be innocently exaggerating his predicament because she just could not imagine him doing anything seriously wrong. He was a plain-spoken man of moderate habits, well liked and respected in the neighbourhood. 'What did you do that was so stupid?'
Robert Martin shook his greying head heavily. 'Well, to start with, I borrowed a lot of money and from the wrong people.'
His daughter's eyes opened very wide, for his explanation had taken her aback. 'Money is the problem? You've got into debt?'
The older man gave a weary sigh. 'That was only the beginning. Do you remember that holiday I took your mother on after her treatment?'
Jess nodded slowly. Her father had swept her mother off on a cruise that had been the holiday of a lifetime for a couple who had never earned enough to take such breaks away from home before. 'I was surprised that you could afford it, but you said that the money came from your savings.'
Shamed by that reminder, Robert shook his head dully 'I lied. There were never any savings. I never managed to put any money aside in the way I'd hoped when I was younger. Things have always been tight for us as a family.'
'So you must have borrowed the money for that cruisewho did you borrow from?'
'Your mother's brother, Sam Welch,' Robert admitted reluctantly, watching his daughter's face tighten in consternation.
'But Sam's a loan sharkyou know he is! Mum's family are a bad lot and I've even heard you warn other people not to get mixed up with them,' Jess reminded him feelingly. 'Knowing what you do about Sam, how on earth could you have borrowed from him?'
'The bank turned me down flat when I approached them. Your uncle Sam was my only option and, because he was sorry your mother had been ill, he said he'd wait for the loan to be repaid. He was very nice, very reasonable. But now his sons have taken over his business, and Jason and Mark have a very different attitude to the people who owe them money.'
Jess groaned out loud and she was already wondering frantically how she could possibly help when she had no savings of her own. That realisation made her feel very guilty, since she earned more than either her parents or her two younger brothers, yet she was still not in a position to offer assistance. But, perhaps, she thought frantically, she might be able to take out a loan.
'The original amount I borrowed has grown and grown with the interest charges. And Jason and Mark have been at me almost every day for months now,' the older man told her heavily. 'Coming after me in the car when I was out working, phoning me at all times of the day and night, constantly reminding me how much I owe them. It's been a nightmare keeping this wretched business from your mother. Jason and Mark wore me downI was desperate to get them off my back! I had no hope of paying that money back any time soon, so when they offered me a deal'
Jess gave him a bewildered look and cut in, 'A deal?
What kind of a deal?'
'I was a bloody fool, but they said they'd write off what I owed if I helped them out.'
The look of overwhelming fear and regret in her father's face was making Jess so tense that she felt nauseous. 'What on earth did you help them to do?'
'They told me they wanted to take pictures of the inside of Halston Hall and sell them to one of those celebrity magazines.you know, the sort of thing your mother reads,' Robert extended with all the vagueness of a man who had never even bothered to look through such a publication. 'You know how Jason has always boasted that he's a really good photographer and Mark said the photos would be worth a small fortune. I didn't see any real harm in it.'
'You didn't see any harm in it?' Jess repeated incredulously. 'Letting strangers go into your employer's home? '
'I won't pretend that I didn't know that Mr di Silvestri wouldn't like it. I know how he is about his privacy. Of course I do,' her father admitted unhappily. 'But I also thoughtwronglythat there was no way anyone would ever find out that I'd been responsible for letting Jason and Mark into the house, or even that it was them who had got in.'
True comprehension finally slotted into place and Jess was impelled up out of her chair, a look of horror stamping her finely moulded features. 'Oh, my goodness, the break-in at the hall the painting that was stolen! Were you involved in the robbery?' she demanded in ringing disbelief. 'Was it your fault it happened?'
'That same evening I gave Jason and Mark my security access codes and key card for the house,' Robert admitted shakily, his complexion the colour of grey clay as he stared pleadingly at her. 'I honestly believed that it was only photos they wanted, Jess. I had no idea they were going to steal anything, but I suspect now that it was all planned and I was an idiot to swallow the story they fed me.'
'You have to go to the police right now and tell them what you know!' Jess exclaimed.
'I won't need to the police will be coming for me very soon,' Robert countered in a bleak rejoinder. 'I found out last night that Mr di Silvestri's security system is so sophisticated that the IT consultant he's bringing in will be able to tell which employee's access code was used to gain entry to the hall and switch off the alarm. Apparently we all have individual codes, so the boss will know soon enough that it was me.'