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"Steady, baby, there is no rush. We have all the time in the world." Cristiano Verón shifted his weight over Gisele's back, the touch of his hand on her neck as deeply soothing as his voice. Between his legs, she quivered with contained excitement as their pace eased to a smooth, rolling rhythm.
"Good girl," he murmured. Another slow caress from ear to shoulder echoed his praise. "Perfect."
Gisele was so responsive, so biddable, so willing to please. So unlike the other females in his life, although that cynical observation did not dampen his bone-deep pleasure of this moment nor dim his satisfied smile. The verdant scent of spring filled his nostrils. Glorious sunshine warmed his back and arms for the first time in weeks. And when he swung his polo stick, the smack of contact with the ball fired exhilaration through his body.
Not better than sex, but hitting the polo fieldeven stick-and-balling aloneranked second on Cristo's personal pleasure scale.
Lately there'd been too few opportunities for pleasure. He could not recall the last weekend that wasn't built around business or family obligations, or the last Sunday he'd spent at his Hertfordshire estate. And, Dios, he missed his stables, he missed his ponies, he missed the passion and the controlled aggression of this game.
With a light press of his thighs, Cristo guided the favourite of his ponies through a series of sure-footed turns. As always, she responded sweetly, answering every command without argument. If only that were true of
The thought stopped dead. Cristo's eyes narrowed on the lone figure standing dead centre of his practice pitch. Not one of the females hell-bent on driving him loco, but a near relation.
Hugh Harrington, his sister's fiancé.
Resigned to the interruption Cristo swore softly but without heat. It wasn't that he disliked his future brother-in-law. Hugh had pursued Amanda with the same single-minded purpose he displayed on the polo pitch, and that steadfast attitude had earned Cristo's grudging approval. Now if Hugh were standing midfield in his polo kit, Cristo would have welcomed his arrival with unbridled delight. But no, the younger man wore business clothes and an expression of grim determination on his pretty-boy face.
Another wedding drama, Cristo predicted. The damned event had turned into a circus of mammoth dimensions, and since Cristo was writing the cheques, he also suffered through the daily crises reported by Amanda and their mother.
He reminded himself it would be over in less than a month. Amanda would lose the manic bride-to-be tic. Vivi would resume her pursuit of husband number five. Life would return to normal.
Just twenty-eight more days
Easing Gisele to a halt, he greeted his unexpected visitor with a laconically raised brow. "I thought you were casting your eye over a property in Provence."
"Finished the appraisal, flew home last night," Hugh said. Straightening his shoulders, he drew a breath that puffed out his chest. "I'm sorry to intrude on your practice, and on a Sunday. I won't keep you long, but I have to speak with you."
"That sounds ominous. What is it this time?" Cristo asked mildly. "Roses refusing to bloom? Caterer resigned in a snit? Another bridesmaid turned up pregnant?"
Hugh's south-of-France tan blanched. "Not a bridesmaid," he muttered.
"No, another woman. I don't know who she is," Hugh said in an agitated rush. "Except she's Australian and she called while I was away and left this bloody message on my voice mail. She says she's pregnant."
Gisele threw her head, alerting Cristo that he'd unconsciously tightened his grip on the reins. He gentled the pony's skittishness with a hand on her neck, but his gaze remained fixed on the younger man's harried countenance. "Are you telling me this woman is expecting your child?"
"That is her claim, but it's absolute bollocks."
"You said you don't know who she is." Cristo spoke slowly, each word a clear bite of disbelief. His voice was no longer mild. "Are you saying you have never met?"
"How can I say that for sure? You know I was in Australia for almost a month earlier this year, preparing for the Hillier estate sale."
Hugh travelled widely and often as a representative of his family's auction house, but Cristo did specifically remember the trip because of his lovelorn sister's response to her fiancé's long absence. Amanda was a firm believer in the adage of misery loves company.
"I daresay I met hundreds of people," Hugh continued.
"Some of them women, no doubt."
"I didn't meet them in that way. I was pointing out that I may have met this woman, but I don't recall her by name. Since I asked Amanda to be my wife, I haven't looked at anyone else. Why would I risk everything that is my happiness?"
If not for his cynicism toward love and marriage, Cristo might have swallowed that ardently delivered speech. But he also subscribed to one of his stepfather's oft-quoted beliefs: Where there's smoke, there is fire. "Does anyone else know about this woman's claim?" he asked.
Hugh shook his head.
"You haven't told Amanda?"
"Are you serious? You know what state she is in with the wedding preparations."
Sadly, Cristo did.
"She deserves nothing less than a perfect day. What if this woman were to turn up here, on my doorstep, the day before the wedding?"
"What are you planning to do?" Cristo asked. "Pay her off?"
Hugh blinked in astonishment, as if he'd not considered that as an option. Cristo wondered if he'd considered any options. "I don't know what to do," he said, confirming that judgement. "I would have consulted Justin, but he's in New York patching up Harringtons' reputation. I couldn't lumber him with another problem on top of this last year, which is why I'm seeking your advice."
Cristo had no problem with that choice and acknowledged it with a single nod. On top of his wife's death, Hugh's elder brother was dealing with an internal scandal in the American office of his family's venerable firm. According to rumours, the fallout was not pretty.
"Why me?" Hugh shook his head with apparent bemuse-ment. "She must have chosen me for a reason."
Cristo could think of several billion. "Did she mention money?" he asked.
"She didn't mention much at all. She said she'd been trying to reach me for the past week. She asked if I remembered hereven spelt her name out, as if that were significant. Then she came right out with 'I'm pregnant.'"
"She sounds like a woman who doesn't mince words."
"She sounded like a woman who was ticked off. What should I do, Cristo? I can't risk Amanda finding out, nor can I ignore this this " Hugh raked a hand through his hair and expelled a broken breath. "Maybe it's a misunderstanding. Or a case of mistaken identity. Maybe I should just call her."
"Do you have her number?"
Hugh produced a sheet of notepaper from his inside jacket pocket. For a second, Cristo watched it shake in his hand. Despite the holiday tan, he looked wan and rattled, and Cristo had to wonder at the cause. Perhaps the old love-'em-and-leave-'em Hugh Harringtonthe one his brother Justin had been called on to rescue from numerous past scrapeshad come out to play on that lengthy business trip.
A world away from home, a few too many drinks, a beautiful temptress who didn't mince words
Perhaps that explained his reluctance to confide in Amanda, or to return the woman's call. Perhaps he'd come here today acting the part of bewildered innocence, confident that Cristo would pay off the momentary blunder and make her go away. He knew that family was everything to Cristo, that he would do anything to ensure his sister's happiness.
"Are you going to call her?" Hugh asked.
"I have a trip to Australia scheduled for early in June. I can bring it forward." Cristo made the decision on the spot, forming a plan of action as he spoke. "It would be desirable to meet this woman in person and as soon as possible. To discover exactly what she wants."
"You'd do that for me?"
"No," he replied tersely. "I'll do that for Amanda."
Leaning down, he plucked the fluttering page from Hugh's hand. Isabelle Browne, he read. Then a telephone number and what looked like a business name. "At Your Service?" Eyes narrowed, he looked up sharply. "Is this an escort agency?"
"I have no idea. I wrote that down from her message. I gather it's a business name, but it means nothing to me." Hugh's head came up a notch. A look of alarm pinched his expression. "You don't believe me, do you?"
"I don't disbelieve you, but I prefer to make up my own mind."
"By trying to find this Isabelle Browne?"
"I will find her," Cristo corrected in a lethally low voice. "And I will discover the truth behind her allegation before I walk my sister down the aisle. If it turns out you are lying, there will be no payout, no hiding the truth and no wedding."
"Everything I have said is the truth, Cristo, I swear."
"Then you have nothing to worry about, do you?"
Isabelle Browne had spent twenty-four hours convincing herself she had nothing to worry about. The man who'd booked her as his housekeeper for the next week was CEO and Chairman of a private aviation firm. Any one of Chisholm Air's high-flying clients could have recommended her by namethey were precisely the sort who employed At Your Service to make their arrangements when they visited Australia. This was not the first time she'd been handpicked. She was goodno, better than good, she was damn good at her job.
But now he'd arrived, almost an hour early, catching her on the hop and reawakening a swarm of worries. For several seconds she closed her eyes and breathed deeply until the buzzing stopped and her hands steadied. Just another client, she told herself sternly, with enough money and sense of entitlement to never accept "no" for an answer.
Feeling calmer but no less curious, Isabelle pressed nearer to the window for a better view of the man emerging from the car downstairs. Absently she turned off her iPod, pulled the buds from her ears. The dance mix had been perfect to keep her moving as she prepared the house for his arrival, but now the breezy beat seemed inappropriate. Something like the theme from Jaws would be more fitting.
A sliver of heat pierced her belly as she watched him yawn and stretch his long limbs like a big cat in a patch of sun. Nothing as cold-blooded as a shark. Nothing grey, either. From the sun-goldened tips of his deep brown hair to the toes of his hand-tooled leather loafers, he looked right at home ambling around the forecourt of the Mediterranean-style villa. His entrance music would be Ravel or perhaps a Latin salsa. Something rich and vibrant, thick with the sultry beat of summer. Something befitting a Roman god.
Just another client? An ironic smile touched her lips. She wished.
With a name like Cristiano Verón, she should have been prepared for someone slightly more exotic than your average British business tycoon. Instead she'd been distracted by the British part, by the London address, by the coincidence of timing that brought his booking and request for Isabelle and only Isabelle right after that phone call to another London number.
She shook her head and reassured herself for the trillionth time. A coincidence, Isabelle. London is a big city.
Unless Apollo downstairs gave her any reason to think otherwise, she would give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he had nothing to do with Hugh Harrington. She could remain wary without paranoia. Curious without crossing personal boundaries. Watching his arrival was okay. Eyeing his godlike derriere as he leaned into the low-slung car to retrieve his luggage, not so much.
Yet Isabelle could not wrench herself away from the window.
Her fingers curled into the plush fabric of the curtains at her side as he straightened, one modest suitcase in hand, and Isabelle caught her first glimpse of his face. Sharply slanted cheekbones, bold lips, dark aviator shades. Then he turned back to lock up the car, and she wanted more, a longer look, without the sunglasses.
As if that silent wish carried across the courtyard on the fluky autumn breeze, he paused to hook the glasses in the neckline of his chocolate brown sweater. And then he looked up, right at the window where she stood.
Isabelle took a rapid step back. Her heart raced, her backed-up breath released in an audible rush. "He couldn't have known I was watching him," she murmured, shaking her head to clear the shimmering heat. "He couldn't have seen me."
Heart pounding a mile a minute, she ventured a peek beyond the magenta velvet drapes, but he'd disappeared from sight. A ridiculous punch of disappointment hollowed her belly. Slowly her fingers released their grip. Less slowly her brain snapped back into gear.
He'd disappeared because he was striding toward the front entrance. Where she should be, cool and composed and collected, to greet his arrival. Miriam Horton would tear strips from her hide if Cristiano Verón were left cooling his heels on the doorstep. She glanced down at her feet and gave a yelp. Doubly so if she opened the door still wearing her slippers.
Scooping up the matronly shoes supplied with the At Your Service housekeeper's uniform, she bolted for the stairs.
Cristo noticed the woman when he drove through the porte cochere into the open courtyard. Not clearly, but as a distinctly feminine silhouette movingno, not merely moving, she appeared to be dancingpast a window on the house's upper storey.
Sensing it was Isabelle Browne, he felt a sharp kick of anticipation. Suddenly the long trip and the business he'd spent his flight time rescheduling faded to a pin spot. Everything homed in on the woman inside the house.
When he'd discovered that At Your Service was a private concierge service favoured by the wealthy of Melbourne and their international visitors, he had found a possible link to Hugh Harrington. Tenuous, but hunches generally served him well. After contracting the agency to secure a house for his Melbourne stay, he'd tossed out the name Isabelle Browne as a recommendation from a friend. And struck pay dirt.
"I'm afraid Ms. Browne is on leave," the manager explained apologetically. "However, we do have other housekeepers with excellent references."
"Unless Ms. Browne is on sick leave," Cristo said, fishing for further information, "perhaps she could be persuaded to take this job."
"I'm sorry, Mr. Verón, but she has already turned down a position this week."
"Did that position offer double her usual wage?"
Money, as always, spoke with the sweetest of tongues. Less than an hour later, Cristo received a return call from At Your Service. He had his housekeeper of choice.
He also had a plan, one that followed the old adage about catching more flies with honey than with vinegar. By befriending her and asking the right questions, he would uncover what he needed to know about her alleged relationship with Hugh. Perhaps Isabelle Browne had worked as his housekeeper, perhaps for a house party he'd attended. Perhaps he didn't recognise her name because he hadn't bothered to ask.