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Shadows rippled over Kira's slight form. She stood on the lookout of ancient pine trees guarding the Bella Terra estate, all her attention focused on the other side of the valley. Far away across the rolling grassland a white streak scarred the distant hillside. It was a road, and Kira was waiting. She was watching for the telltale cloud of white Tuscan dust that meant the end of her solitude.
Her little patch of paradise was about to be changed for ever. The land surrounding her house was up for sale. And according to Bella Terra's estate agent, the most fantastic man in the world was interested in buying it.
Kira could not have cared less. She had moved to Italy to get away from all that. Everything she had heard so far about Signor Stefano Albani hadn't done anything to improve her general opinion of men. He had been due to view the Bella Terra villa and estate earlier that afternoon, but he hadn't shown up. The female estate agent had called in at Kira's cottage, looking for him. She had been breathless with excitement and full of this charming billionaire's flirty telephone manner, but Kira wasn't impressed. She guessed this rogue Albani was probably more interested in women than he was in buying a big country estate.
As time went on and he still never showed up, the estate agent's interest dwindled. She began to worry about missing her next appointment. Eventually, feeling sorry for her, Kira offered to take care of the villa's keys and details. Dealing with strangers tied her in knots, but it didn't look as though Signor Albani was coming, and her offer was only a ploy anyway. All she really wanted to do was get rid of the estate agent.
It worked. Her unwelcome visitor dashed off, leaving Kira alone once more.
That was exactly how she liked it.
And there were much worse ways of spending an afternoon than enjoying this view of the Bella Terra estate.
The scorching sun eventually slid behind a bank of clouds, heading for the wooded ridge on the western side of the valley. Kira began to relax. She felt more and more confident that Stefano the Seducer wouldn't come. That was a relief to her, in more ways than one. The fewer people who viewed the estate, the longer it would take to sell. Kira didn't care if the rambling old place stayed empty forever. Her small home was nicely isolated from the villa, although each building could see the other in the distance.
Bella Terra's last owner, Sir Ivan, had been as reserved as Kira. They had waved to each other across the valley every day, and she had looked after the estate gardens, but that was pretty much the extent of their friendship. It had suited them both, but now Sir Ivan was dead. It was odd: in the two years since she had bought La Ritirata Kira had rarely spoken to the man except on business, yet she missed him. And now she was faced with the unknown. Whoever bought La Bella Terra was unlikely to be as peaceful and unobtrusive as the old man. She hated that thought.
She wondered if the future would seem quite so threatening if she had someone to talk to. A letter had arrived from England the previous day. Kira knew she should have sent a curt reply by return, but couldn't bear to do it. The envelope lay where she had dropped it, unopened, on the kitchen table. She would have to release its tentacles of emotional blackmail sooner or later, but not just now.
With an effort, she tried to concentrate on the beautiful scene in front of her. The valley was a patchwork of flowery grassland and ancient woods. She strolled as far as the cool green shadows of the sweet chestnut wood. Thunderheads were forming over the hills. There would be a storm soon. That would cool everything down. She smiled. Rain would transform the single-track road leading to the Bella Terra villa into a quagmire. If Signor Albani was still on his way, that was almost guaranteed to put him off. The prospect of fighting a prestige sports car upstream like a salmon was sure to turn him back. Her little retreat would be safe for a while longer.
As Kira counted her blessings, she became aware of a subtle change in the air. All the birds fell silent. She looked around. The landscape was poised, waiting for something to happen. Then she felt a vibration. Faint at first, it rose from the ground beneath her feet like an earthquake. She started forward as a roe deer bounced through the trees behind her. With one bound it crossed the track and was gone. Still the shuddering increased, rising up through Kira's ribcage until she looked around for somewhere to run. Instinctively, she headed out into the summer-rich pasture. The trees surrounding it had been still in the oppressive heat. Now they swayed and bucked like a wild green sea. It wasn't an earthquake, but something even more alarming. A helicopter was sweeping in from above, and tearing Kira's peaceful valley apart.
'I'm going off-message for a couple of hours,' Stefano Albani announced into his hands-free phone. 'I've got the Milan project back on track, and if Murray's people ring, tell them the publishing tie-in is off, unless they come up with something that can really appeal to me.'
Closing the call, he sat back in his seat. There was no question of relaxing; his spine remained rigid. Flying a helicopter took a lot of concentration. He never inspected any property from ground level without making a low-level pass over it first. The Bella Terra estate looked perfect, and its aspect was a dream. Cool, shady woodlands offered sanctuary from the roasting heat of summer, while beautifully planned terraces around the house offered plenty of space for entertaining in the golden sunshine. Talking of which
A movement at the edge of the trees caught his eye. It was a girl. She was flinging her arms about, and waving papers at him. Stefano's sensuous mouth lifted in a half-smile. He had only spoken to the estate agent by phone so far, but from where he was sitting she looked as good as she sounded.
His dark features eased as he thought back to that long, teasing telephone conversation with her. Taking up where they had left off would be a good way to wind down after a high-pressure day.
He gazed down on the pretty little ragazza, and gave her a wave. As he did so, a corresponding ripple of relief passed up his arm and across his shoulders. His muscles were tense from working for far too long without a break. What he needed was distraction. A few hours in a place like this would take his mind off all those boardroom battles and investment decisions. The company of a pretty girl was a bonus he had half forgotten in all the chaos.
Stefano smiled as he set his helicopter down on the far side of the house. His few precious hours of freedom were off to a great start.
Kira was in no mood for games. Bella Terra was supposed to be a private valley, and the helicopter's racket was shockingly intrusive among all that usually undisturbed beauty. Worst of all, it felt like an omen of things to come.
'I've seen pheasants fly higher than that!' she shouted after the helicopter as it swept overhead. Her voice was totally swamped by the thundering rumble of its rotors, but it hardly mattered. Simply putting her anger into words made Kira feel better.
As she watched, hands on hips, the machine swung its nose around and dropped down behind the beautiful old villa. If the pilot's antics hadn't made her so annoyed, she might have been nervous. Instead, she saw it as a chance to catch up with him. She sprinted along the track, heading for an overgrown entrance to the Bella Terra gardens. Squeezing in through a gap in its rusty ironwork, she marched up the path.
She found the helicopter parked as neatly as a saloon car, very close to the main house. It was deserted, and silent apart from the click of cooling metalwork. There was absolutely no sign of the pilot. Confused, she circled the villa buildings in the sultry heat. From every side, ornamental broom and gorse set off their exploding pods like gunfire. Anyone with any sense would have headed straight for shade. She made for the yew walk. Reaching the north end, she glimpsed a tall, masculine figure disappearing through a gap in the hedge that led into the fountain garden. She was about to call out to him, but something about the decided, athletic grace of his movements made her pause, and when she came out into the sunlit square of the fountain garden, it was empty.
Turning her head, she strained to hear any signs of life. Only the quiet rustle of air through pine trees and the constant sniper fire of genista seeds disturbed the peace. Then, as she listened, she heard something that might have been footsteps. It was only one tiny sound, and all the interconnecting yew hedges made it difficult to decide from which direction it came. She looked around, but there was no one.
Then two strong hands slipped around her waist, and in one smooth movement she was drawn into an inescapable embrace.
'We meet at last, Miss Barrett!' a deep, delicious Italian voice purred in perfect English. 'I have been searching for you. I felt sure you would be waiting for me at Bella Terra's front door!'
His teasing words reverberated into the curve of Kira's neck. She froze, shrinking from the whisper of warm breath against her skin. The movement only drew her closer to his hard, masculine body. He was holding her so perfectly, she could barely breathe.
'When we spoke on the phone you said you were looking forward to meeting me. Remind meexactly where did you want to have dinner tonight?' There was a soft, low chuckle in his voice as he murmured, pulling her around to ravish her with a kiss.
Before he could make contact, Kira burst from his grasp with reflexes that astonished them both.
'I'm not Amanda Barrett, and I'm not very happy!' she confronted him, breathing fast. 'Please keep your hands to yourself!'
The visitor recoiled instantly, but he was far too professional to give his horror free rein. Instead, his features became a mask. With a slow, careful dip of his head, he addressed her gravely. 'Scusi, signora.'
Glaring, Kira took two steps backwards. His assault had been so swift and sure she hardly expected him to stop so suddenly. She had no idea what to do next. If this was Signor Stefano Albani, billionaire, then he was nothing like any of the rich men she had worked with in the past. They were predictable, humourless and would never have dreamed of such a stunt. In contrast, Stefano Albani looked ready for anything. He was fit and he was handsome in a tense, distracted way. Standing straight and tall before her, he seemed quite unfazed by her rebuff. He brushed his shirtsleeves down over his bare brown arms and fastened his unbuttoned cuffs.
'I mistook you for someone else, I'm sorry. It was arranged that I should meet the property agent here. Do you know where I can find her?' he asked in his softly accented English.
'She's probably at home by now, having dealt with at least two more clients in the time it took you to get here,' Kira snapped, still unsettled by the unexpected embrace. Stefano's face remained expressionless, but his eyes glittered, and suddenly Kira regretted her rudeness to this rather formidable man. Then his mouth curled with sudden humour.
'Dioit's been a long time since anyone spoke to me like that!'
In that puzzled instant, years fell away from his face and he looked much younger. Kira was momentarily thrown off balance. His beautiful eyes and quizzical expression were almost too much to bear. She had to swallow hard before she spoke again, but she'd be damned if she'd let him walk all over her just because she couldn't stop staring at his mouth.
'I'm sorry, signore, but you have turned up over three hours latewithout any apologyand flown ridiculously low over this valley, terrifying the wildlife and ruining a beautiful evening,' she said firmly, quailing slightly inside as his expression turned stormy. Someone like this didn't hear enough straight talking in his working life. He had just said as much himself.
'If I have caused offence, I apologise,' he said, slightly stiffly. 'Not having the neighbours flying in overhead all the time is a big selling point as far as I am concerned.' Then his features softened. 'I am Stefano Albani, by the way. I'm interested in buying the Bella Terra estate. That's why I assumed you were Miss Barrett, the agent. I thought you were welcoming me with cries of delight!' he joked, searching her expression as he spoke, his mocking eyes somehow piercing her outraged manner and making it irritatingly difficult to stay angry.
'Well, I wasn't,' Kira said, biting back everything else she felt like telling him. She had to tread carefully. Stefano Albani might have arrived late and lascivious, but there was, unfortunately, a chance he would become her new neighbour and there was no point in making it more difficult than it had to be.
Stefano compressed his lips at the note of accusation in her voice.
He has a really beautiful mouth, Kira caught herself thinking, before his frown dragged her attention back to the Mediterranean depths of his eyes.
'A delay put me behind schedule, and I wanted to get here as fast as I could. That meant flying. Besides, the disturbance was over in a few seconds. I'm sure the valley has recovered from much worse over the years. People always try to imprint themselves on the countryside. The land shakes them all off, sooner or later.'
Kira's alarm must have shown in her face. He quickly softened his tone and added, 'You have my promise that it won't happen again. There will be no low flying in this valley after I move in.'
His words were quite definite, but the essence of a smile still hovered around his lips. When he looked like that, it was impossible for Kira to look away. There was plenty to see. With the air cleared between them, his eyes were now the untroubled blue of a perfect Italian sky. His dark hair was a riot of soft curls, short enough to be neat but long enough to move slightly in the warm air rising from the parched earth at their feet. He was undoubtedly powerful, but it was the strength of steel hawsers rather than unsophisticated animal bulk.