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It had started just like any other Monday morning. Scarlett dropped three-year-old Matthew, at crèche after the usual tearful and heart-wrenching 'don't leave me, I miss you too much' routine, before fighting her way through heavy traffic to her small interior-design studio in Woollahra. And just like any other Monday morning her business partner and best friend, Roxanne Hartley, handed her a double-strength latte on her way in the door and asked her how her weekend had been.
'Don't ask,' Scarlett said wearily, and took a reviving sip of the creamy latte.
'So I take it the blind date your sister set up for you wasn't a success?' Roxanne said as she perched on the edge of Scarlett's desk.
Scarlett rolled her eyes expressively. 'Depends what you mean by a blind date. Clearly this guy's idea was to turn up blind drunk. He slurred his way through his sob story about his ex-wife for an hour and a half, until I finally managed to escape.'
'Poor you,' Roxanne said in empathy. 'But don't give up yet. There's got to be someone decent out there for you.'
'Decent would be good,' Scarlett said, booting up her computer. 'A good father-figure for Matthew would be good, too, but as soon as men hear I have a three-year-old son they seem to lose interest.'
'Yes, well, men today can be so shallow,' Roxanne agreed. 'They won't commit, and they want sex on tap.'
'Tell me about it,' Scarlett said as she clicked on her computer mouse to activate the screen to check her list of appointments. She put her glasses on and blinked, once, twice, three times, her heart giving a quick, hard thud when she saw that name staring back at her.
'What's wrong?' Roxanne asked in aguileless tone.
Scarlett swivelled her chair to look up at her business partner, her face going pale with shock. 'You made an appointment for me to meet with Alessandro Marciano?' she choked.
Roxanne grinned at her excitedly. 'Yes. I wanted it to be a surprise, otherwise I would have called you over the weekend to tell you about it. He phoned on Friday afternoon just after you'd left. It's a huge contract, Scarlett. He's worth zillions, and if we get the deal think of what it will do for us. We'll be featured in every interior-design magazine across the globe. We won't have to pay rent any more, we'll be able to buy the building, no' She clasped her hands together in glee and added, 'we'll be able to buy the whole street!'
Scarlett sprang to her feet, almost spilling her latte over her keyboard in the process. 'I'm not seeing him,' she said through tight lips. 'I don't want the contract. I want nothing to do with it.'
Roxanne slapped the side of her head as if she couldn't believe what she had just heard. 'Have you happened to look at our financial statements recently?' she asked as she slipped down off the desk. 'Come on, Scarlett, our business loan is stretched to the limit, you know it is. I know things are often a bit slow in January, while everyone is still on summer holidays, but this is a chance in a lifetime. This is just what we need right now. Alessandro Marciano has bought the old Arlington Hotel building in the city. He's going to turn it into a luxury hotel, with three floors of penthouse apartments for the super rich. And he wants us to do the interior design. Us! Can you believe it? It's like winning the lottery.'
'I can't see him, Roxanne,' Scarlett insisted. 'Please don't ask it of me.'
A light bulb seemed to come on in Roxanne's head as she peered at Scarlett. 'Hang on a minute, what Have you dated him in the past or something?'
'More than dated,' Scarlett answered with a dark frown.
Roxanne gave her a probing look. 'What do you mean "more than dated?"'
Scarlett drew in an unsteady breath. 'He's Matthew's father.'
Roxanne's jaw dropped open, and her eyes went saucer-wide. 'He's what?' she gasped.
Scarlett's expression became rigid with tension. 'I'm not going to see him, Roxanne. No way. I hate him for what he did to me, and I am not going to'
The unmistakable throaty roar of a Maserati suddenly sounded on the street outside. Both girls looked out of the front window of the studio, and watched as the car's black, sleek body was expertly manoeuvred in between their tiny fuel-efficient vehicles parked outside.
Roxanne met her friend's startled grey-blue gaze. 'Looks like you're not going to have a choice,' she said, and added, with a little sheepish grimace as the front door opened with a cheery tinkle of the bell hanging on the back, 'Er did I forget to mention the meeting was here, at nine-fifteen?'
Scarlett felt every pore of her skin and every hair on her body stand to attention as that imposing, darkly handsome figure stooped as he came in through the door. Her heart started going like a jackhammer, the pressure building in her chest so overwhelming she wondered if the heavy thumping would be visible through the lightweight white linen of her blouse.
His hazel eyes met hers, the brown-and-green flecks reminding her all over again of the myriad colours of a rainforest. But this time she felt as if there were mysterious shadows lurking in the depths of his gaze, as he stood looking at her in a watchful silence for what seemed like endless seconds.
'Hello, Scarlett,' he finally said in that stomach-tilting velvet drawl that had been her downfall close to four years ago.
Scarlett lifted her chin and turned to Roxanne, who was standing with her mouth opening and closing like a recently landed fish. 'Roxanne, would you please inform Mr er ' She glanced down at her diary as if to remind herself of his name, before looking back up and continuing in the same haughty tone, ' Mr Marciano that I am not taking on any new clients as I am booked up until the end of the year.'
'But' Roxanne spluttered, but was cut off by Alessandro who had stepped forward to smile at her with lethal charm.
'Miss Hartley, would you be so kind as to leave Miss Fitzpatrick and I to conduct out meeting in private?' he asked.
'No! Don't you dare leave,' Scarlett bit out hastily. Please, oh please, don't leave me with him; she silently begged the rest of the sentence with her eyes.
Roxanne pursed her mouth, and after a moment's hesitation scooped up her bag and half-finished latte. 'Sure, I can do that,' she said, smiling girlishly at Alessandro. 'I have to see a man about some tiles anyway. I'll be back at eleven.'
Scarlett sent her an 'I'm going to kill you for this' glare, before taking her place behind her desk in case her legs followed through on their current threat to fold beneath her.
The studio door opened and closed with another tinkle on Roxanne's exit, but to Scarlett it felt more like the sound of a vault locking down for good.
The silence thrummed in her ears, the air becoming so thick with it she felt as if a pair of hands was around the slim column of her throat, gradually increasing the pressure until she was sure she was going to choke.
'So you are not interested in doing business with me, Scarlett?' Alessandro asked with a coolly impersonal smile.
'No.' Her one-word response came out of her mouth like a hard pellet.
'Why ever not?' he asked with an ironic arch of one dark brow. 'I thought you would be jumping at this chance to get your hands on my money.'
She tightened her mouth even further, and forced her gaze to meet his. 'I am surprised you are interested in engaging the services of a filthy little slutthose were your words for me back then, were they not?'
There was no sign of anger in his expression, but Scarlett could sense it all the same. She had known and loved that face so well in the three months they had been together. Every nuance of it was imprinted indelibly on her brain. The smile that could melt stone, the gaze that could heat blood, the mouth that could kiss like a teasing feather, or with such hungry passion her lips had tingled and been swollen for hours afterwards. Even now, after all this time, she could still taste the salt and musk of his lips and tongue, and her lower body began to pulse with the memory of how if had felt with him plunging between her legs.
She crossed her legs under her desk, fighting the sensations brewing there. But it was almost impossible to control the hit-and-miss beat of her heart every time she encountered that brown-and-green flecked gaze.
'Your sexual proclivities, I would imagine, have no bearing on your talent at interior design,' he said with an enigmatic look. 'You have a good reputation professionally. That is why I am keen to have you wholly responsible for the project I am about to commence.'
Her chin went even higher. 'I told you, I'm not available.'
His mouth tilted slightly. 'Perhaps before you throw away this chance, Scarlett, you should at least look at what I am offering.'
'No amount of money you could dangle in front of me will induce me to conduct any sort of relationship with you again, business or otherwise,' she stated implacably.
A flicker of male interest darkened the brown in his eyes as they moved over her appraisingly. 'I was not going to suggest anything other than a business agreement between us, however ' He left the sentence suspended between them in the pulsing silence.
'Forget it, Alessandro,' she said. 'In any case, I'm already seeing someone.'
'Is it the same man you were involved with in Italy?' he asked, piercing her gaze with his. 'Dylan Kirby was his name, was it not?'
Scarlett felt her blood begin to simmer in her veins. 'I was travelling with him, not sleeping with him.'
Cynicism burned in his gaze. 'Ah, yes, that old story. I remember it well.'
'It's not a story, it's the truth,' she insisted. 'I met Dylan, Joe and Jessica on a bus tour. I told you all this four years ago. How many times do I have to repeat myself?'
'I am not interested in your lies, but I am interested in what you can do for me,' he said. 'Your business is in need of a contract as big as this, Scarlett. You would be a fool to throw it away as if it was worth nothing.'
She clenched her jaw. 'I hate to be the one to point out the irony in all this, but isn't that what you did to me?'
'I am prepared to be generous,' he said, ignoring her comment as if she meant nothing to him.
That was because she did mean nothing to him, she reminded herself. He had never spoken to her of love; he had simply enjoyed the delights of their affair while she had fallen in love with him, fallen hard.
Before she had met him she had been a little scathing at the notion of falling in love at first sight, or even of falling in love over a period of days. She had always thought the sort of love that was deep and abiding would build up over a period of time, as trust and respect grew between two people. But meeting Alessandro Marciano that hot summer morning in Milan had tipped her world upside down. Within three hours she had been kissed by him, within three days she had been sleeping with him, and within three months she had been pregnant by him.
Scarlett blinked herself back to the present when Alessandro handed her a document. She took it from him, her shaking fingers not quite able to avoid the fine-sandpaper brush of his against hers. Her whole body jolted in reaction and heat coursed through her, the thud of her pulse going at breakneck speed.
'If you are not happy with that amount, I will double it,' he said.
Scarlett looked down at the contract, her eyes almost popping out of her head at the amount printed there. It was an astonishing amount of money, although she would have to work very hard for it, she imagined. She knew enough about Alessandro Marciano to know he had exacting standards. His reputation as a hotelier was global. Guests staying at a Marciano hotel were treated to the utmost in luxury, and this one in Sydney would be no different, if the drawings his team of highly skilled architects had prepared were anything to go by.
But accepting this contract, as lucrative and career-enhancing as it was, would mean close contact with him, maybe even on a daily basis. There would be meetings with him to discuss her designs, fabrics to look over, light fittings, soft furnishings, plumbing fixturesthe list went on and on in her head. How could she get through it without damaging herself irreparably?
And more to the point how could she keep Matthew safe from knowing his father had refused to accept him as his? Although she couldn't help thinking one look at that child would remove all doubt, even in someone as cynical as Alessandro. They had the same hazel eyes, the same ink-black hair and olive skin, the same-shaped mouthalthough Matthew's was still soft with the innocence of childhood.
'I will give you a day or two to think it over.' His deep voice invaded the private torture of her tangled thoughts.
She got to her feet in one abrupt movement. 'I don't need two'
He held up one and then two long fingers against her mouth. 'Two days, Scarlett,' he said, holding her gaze. 'Think about it.'
Scarlett swallowed as her body remembered how intimately those fingers had known every pleasure spot she possessed. How she had felt that first frisson of passionate response when he had stroked the silken folds of her femininity for the first timehow she had quivered inside and out when he had explored her so thoroughly and so devastatingly with his fingers, his mouth, his tongue, and the hot, pulsing hard length of him.
He lifted his fingers, and she ran her tongue over where he had been, her stomach doing a sudden free-fall when she saw his eyes flick to her mouth.
And stay there.
The air tightened around them, as if an invisible clinging vine had silently insinuated itself into the room and was now pulling them closer and closer together.
Scarlett couldn't breathe; she wasn't game enough to draw in a breath in case he heard the betraying flutter of her pulse beneath her skin.
She stood very still as he reached out again, this time with just the index finger of his right hand, brushing it against the softness of her bottom lip, his eyes still locked on her mouth. The temptation to sweep her tongue over and around his finger was suddenly overwhelming. She had to clamp her teeth together to stop herself taking him in her mouth and sucking on him, as she had done so many times before.