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The voice, hesitant but insistent, jerked Ava from deep sleep. Momentarily disoriented, she pushed a swathe of Titian hair off her forehead but the nightmare that nightmare clung to the edges of her consciousness.
'I'm sorry to disturb you but Signore di Goia is on the phone. Again.' The stewardess, dressed in the emerald silk suit that displayed her employer's unique insignia, held out the sleek black phone. Ava eyed the phone, the same one she'd been presented with three times since the di Goia jet took off from Bali almost eight hours ago.
Different emotions replaced her irritation, dispersing the last of her dream-fuelled anxiety. The lingering sense of loss, which dogged her whenever she thought of Cesare, rose to mingle with the almost helpless excitement that thoughts of him elicited
For a few seconds she forgot the heart-rending devastation she'd left behind. Her mind crowded with the forceful presence of the man at the end of the phone. A man who despite being thousands of miles away, had the power to make her breath catch. The man who she knew within the depths of her soul she was losing with every second that passed.
'Please tell him, again, that I'll speak to him when we land.' She needed to conserve every ounce of her strength for what lay ahead.
The stewardess looked bewildered. 'But he insists.' No doubt she'd never encountered another living being who refused to fall at Cesare di Goia's feet. Especially when that being was currently ensconced in unspeakably sumptuous luxury that barely began to epitomise the mind-boggling scale of the di Goia experience.
All around her, from the deep burgundy leather club chairs, the shiny cream marble tables to the bespoke silk-trimmed cashmere throws that graced every seat on the jet that could easily have carried several dozen passengers, Cesare di Goia's wealth and influence made itself forcefully blatant.
'Signora?' the anxious stewardess pressed.
Guilt for her predicament made Ava reach for the phone.
'Cesare.' She held her breath.
'Now you deign to answer my calls,' came the deep, tight voice.
'Why should I take your call when you've been avoiding mine for over two weeks now? You told me you'd return to Bali last week.' The ease with which he'd put her off made her hand tighten on the phone. It was with much the same afterthought that he'd conducted their marriage for the last year.
'I was delayed in Abu Dhabi. Unavoidably,' he added tautly.
Unavoidably. How many times had she heard that before? 'Of course. Was that all?'
An exhalation of ire came down the line. 'No, that is not all. Explain yourself,' came the unyielding command.
'I take it you mean: why have I commandeered your plane?'
'Sz. This was not the plan.'
'I know, but my plans have changed too. Unavoidably,' she replied with a lightness she didn't feel.
'In what way have your plans changed?' he bit out.
'If you'd bothered to pick up the phone in the last two weeks, I would've told you.'
'We have spoken in the last two weeks' 'No, Cesare, you called twice, both times to tell me you were postponing your return ' Her voice threatened to break as memories flooded her mindher endless phone calls to Cesare's assistant to make sure his calendar was kept clear, shopping for the most enticing outfits and making sure the chef at the luxury rented villa in Bali prepared his favourite foods. She'd planned everything to the last detail all in an effort to save her marriage. Only to have it backfire spectacularly. 'Anyway, I'm saving you the trouble of making the long trip, or of coming up with another excuse. Goodbye, Cesare.'
She pressed the end button, cutting off the growled warning. She'd barely exhaled when the phone rang again. Carefully, she set it down on the table, unanswered.
The stunned look on the stewardess's face made Ava smile, despite the rush of her thundering pulse. 'Don't worry, his bark is worse than his bite.'
The woman coughed out an incoherent sound before hastily retreating to her station at the front of the plane.
With not quite steady hands, Ava poured a glass of water from the crystal-cut jug and took a tiny sip. Yes, Cesare ruled his world with unquestionable domination. But she'd never been one to ask how high? when told to jump, a fact which had, in the past, both intrigued and infuriated Ce-sare.
The past before everything had settled into a passive indifference, before Cesare had slowly withdrawn from her, and chosen to stay in Rome more and more instead of at their home in Lake Como. Before the devastation of the South Pacific earthquake had shattered the last of her dreams of salvaging her family.
The decision she'd made so bravely in Bali yesterday now caused a thread of anxiety to weave inside her. Despite her bravado, her legs shook as she pushed aside her throw and padded down the long cream-carpeted aisle of the plane towards the smaller of the two bedrooms. She turned the door handle.
Annabelle lay fast asleep. Soft light from elegant lamps illuminated her daughter's raven hair and long limbs splayed on the bed.
Unable to resist, Ava raised the camera slung around her neck and took a few quick shots, grateful for the near-silent clicks of the digital device.
Retreating just as silently, Ava returned to her seat, desperately trying to calm the hordes of steel butterflies trying to beat their way out of her. The last thing she wanted was to return home an emotional wreck. Her grip tightened on the camera.
The past month had been tormenting enough but she needed to be stronger still. She would need to be to stop hiding and face the truth.
Marry in haste
Her insides twisted in pain and anxiety. Their coming together had been fast and furious. Right from the beginning, things had careened out of control. She'd been swept away by a passion she'd been unable to stem or understand.
But even in that maelstrom of whirlwind dates and mind-bending sex, Cesare had felt like the home she craved, the very essence of the family she'd never really had.
For a time.
This insanity needs to end! Cesare's heated confession when he'd taken her without mercy one day in a closet during a benefit dinner slammed through her mind.
Ironically, she'd found out she was pregnant with An-nabelle the very next day.
And Cesare had begun to withdraw from her.
Shaking her head, she slid up the window screen, let a sliver of morning light warm her cheek, wishing it would also thaw her through. But it was no use. Inside, she felt cold, hard pain.
TVo. She couldn'twouldn'tlet him do this to her. If for no other reason, Annabelle deserved a parent who wasn't bogged down with acrimony. She deserved a mother who was content, at the very least. The family she'd craved and thought she'd found with Cesare had been a mirage. The sexy, powerfully dynamic man she'd married had changed into a man as coldly indifferent to her as her father had been.
And in her desperate desire to hold onto the illusion of what she'd probably never had, she'd nearly lost her daughter.
Annabelle had been through enough and Ava had no intention of letting her daughter suffer any more rejection.
'What the hell do you think you're playing at?'
Cesare di Goia's deep, dark-as-sin voice had the power to arrest her in her tracks; as did his impressive, hard-packed six feet two frame. Dressed in a pristine white open-necked polo shirt and black designer jeans that hugged lean hips and disgustingly powerful thighs, he stood tall and proud like any of the hundreds of statues that graced his homeland's capital city.
His black hair, damp from a recent shower, sprang from his forehead, looking even thicker and longer than when she'd last seen him. And he still said exactly what he thought when he felt like it and to hell with whoever heard him.
'Frighten the living daylights out of my child, why don't you?' Ava invited with soft sarcasm, while trying to calm Annabelle's sleepy squirming.
Eyes the colour of burnished gold shifted to Annabelle and a small grimace crossed his face. 'She's asleep,' he stated.
'Not for long if you keep growling like that. She's been through enough, Cesare. I won't have her upset.'
Tension radiated off his darkly tanned skin, so palpable she fought not to withdraw from it. 'Don't speak as if she's a stranger to me, Ava. I know exactly what she's been through.' His tone was framed almost conversationally but, although his voice had lowered, the fury in his deep tawny eyes had escalated in direct proportion.
'Forgive me for having to remind you, only you seem to have forgotten. Just as you seem to have forgotten us. An-nabelle's emotions are still fragile, so dial back the hulk-smash attitude if you please. As to what I'm playing at, I thought I'd made myself perfectly clear.'
'Do you mean that highly informative one-line text that read: We will arrive at 2pm you sent seconds before my plane took off from Bali or the equally cryptic my plans have changed too?' he accused, making no move to shift his imposing frame from the doorway.
'Ava.' His voice was pure warning.
'Seriously, are you going to move or do you intend to carry on this conversation on the doorstep? What are you doing here, anyway? You hardly come to the villa any more.' Another sign of Cesare's withdrawal she'd ignored for far too long. She stared into his eyes, ignoring the warning that glinted in his narrowed gaze.
'What I'm doing here doesn't matter. You were supposed to wait in Bali until Annabelle was given the all-clear. Then I would've come for you.'
'The doctor gave Annabelle the all-clear three days ago.'
Surprise lit his eyes, then he looked beyond her shoulder to the car, his gaze searching. 'And Rita?'
'She was having nightmares of the earthquake. Once she was discharged from hospital, I booked her a flight home to London. She's racked with guiltshe thinks she failed Annabelle because she let go of her when the tremors started ' Recalling the nanny's inconsolable distress, a lance of painone of many that seemed ever ready to cause damagewent through her. 'I thought it was easier this way.'
Despite his grim look, Cesare nodded. 'I'll make sure she receives the proper treatment and severance package. But you didn't have to make this journey yet'
'No, Cesare. Rita wasn't the only one who needed the comfort of home. You were supposed to return to Bali two weeks ago, only you were in Singapore, then in New York.'
He shoved a hand through his hair. 'This isn't really a good time for us to be doing this.'
'There hasn't been a good time for a very long time, Cesare.' A wave of sadness threatened to drown her but she straightened her spine and stood tall.
Tendrils of hair clung to her neck. Against her bare shoulders, the late afternoon sun singed her skin. If she didn't get out of the northern Italian sun, she'd be as red as a lobster by morning. 'We're home now. You should thank me for saving you the trouble. Now, are you going to deal with it or has being under one roof with us become a problem for you?'
His nostrils flared and his gaze dropped to Annabelle. 'It isn't a problem.'
Ava's grip tightened around her precious bundle. 'That's a relief. I'd hate for you to be inconvenienced.'
With Annabelle getting heavier by the second, the weariness of trying to keep a nearly-four-year-old entertained on a twelve-hour plane journey dug bone-deep. But she struggled not to show any weakness as Cesare continued to glare at her, his impressive body blocking the massive oak doorway to the Villa di Goia.
'Ava, we should've discussed this properly'
'It's a good thing I'm not paranoid, Cesare, or I'd think you were trying to avoid me more than usual,' she snapped. When he didn't refute the allegation, a shaft of ice pierced her heart. 'I think you're right, maybe this isn't the time to do this. I'll take Annabelle to my studio for a few hours. Let me know when you leave and we'll come home.'
She'd barely moved a step when a hand closed over her arm and jerked her back. She landed against hard, lean muscle. The scent that filled her nostrils was pure Cesare. A mixture of sandalwood aftershave and man, it attacked her senses with the force of a spinning hurricane.
'No. Annabelle stays here with me.' Tension shimmered from the body plastered against hers.
'If you think I'm letting her out of my sight after what she's been through, you're seriously deluded.' She tried to pull away. He held on.
Heat spiralled upward, surging through her blood like wildfire. The sensation, familiar yet unexpected, made her stumble. Cesare's hand tightened, one hand coming to rest gently on Annabelle's back as he steadied them both.
Pulse hammering, she glanced up. Dark emotion flashed through his eyes, quickly smothered but nevertheless sparking along her every nerve ending. The breath she sucked in felt as dry as the desert. Fresh tingles shot down her spine and she forced a swallow to ease the restriction in her throat as he continued to hold her prisoner.
'I'll give you ten minutes to tell me of these new plans of yours, then'
'No, this is how it's going to work. First, I put Anna-belle down for her nap. Then we can have a civilised conversation.'
He gave a low, deadly chuckle. 'Civilised?' His warm breath brushed her ear, sending heat-filled tremors coursing through her body. 'Remember how we met, cara?'
Sensation drenched her. Instantly she was wrenched back to their first explosive meeting.
He'd almost run her down at a pedestrian crossing because she'd been distracted by the stunning architecture of a centuries-old building she'd been trying to capture on her camera. The combination of near-death experience and the impact of his stunning looks had made her slam her fists down hard on the sun-baked bonnet of his blood-red Maserati.
His fury as he'd stepped out of his car to examine the damage had swiftly morphed into something even more dangerous, forbiddingly thrilling. 'We barely exchanged names before we were tearing each other's clothes off. Dio mio, you lost your virginity to me on the bonnet of my car within hours of us meeting!'
Memory's flames burned from head to toe. 'Is there a point to this?' she rasped.
'I'm just reminding you that nothing of our time together could ever be described as civilised, so let's not hang that particular label on it.'
'Speak for yourself. You might wish to wallow in caveman-like behaviour but I don't have to stoop to your level.' Somehow, she would overcome the riotous emotions Ce-sare engendered in her. For her daughter's sake.