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Dark brows clenched in irritation above narrowed smoke-grey eyes, Francesco Mastroianni drove through the gathering gloom of a chilly March evening. Vicious rods of rain hit the windscreen of the throatily growling Ferarri, adding to his already sour mood.
Visiting this part of rural Gloucestershire wasn't his idea of a picnic—there were too many uncomfortable memories—but there was no way he could have excused his way out of it. He was too fond of Silvana even to think of turning the weekend invitation down and spoiling her pleasure in showing off her new home.
Trouble was, his cousin Silvana and her husband Guy had recently moved from their swanky London abode to a newly renovated manor house in a county that sent a shiver through him whenever the name was mentioned.
He didn't do cringing, and he found the grossly unwelcome experience infuriating.
Per l'amor del cielo—just get over it! he instructed himself toughly, gritting his teeth until his jaw resembled something carved out of rock. However painful the experience, he'd learned a priceless lesson—hadn't he?
Francesco had been cynical where the female sex was concerned since he'd entered his late teens and learned that his family's wealth was a powerful magnet. It was hard to credit that he'd actually been besotted and bewitched into allowing himself to believe that, against all his previous expectations, he'd finally found one woman he could trust. Actually to believe she was the one woman in the world he could trust with his life and his love until the day he died.
His sweet Anna—his mouth curled with cynical derision.
He'd been well and trulysuckered! Behaving like a callow youth instead of a mature and worldly-wise hard-nosed thirty-four-year-old!
She'd turned out to be as bad as all the others who'd targeted his personal fortune—worse, even. Pretending—oh, she'd been good at pretending—that she had no idea who he was, pretending she believed he was just a regular guy, earning a crust whichever way he could by fishing, acting as a part-time tour guide, taking casual work wherever he found it. That was the impression she'd seemingly arrived at, and although he hadn't lied he hadn't disabused her, too delighted to have found himself falling for the beautiful, gentle Anna who, so it had seemed, had been in love with him, the man, not with his financial clout.
Expelling a savage hiss of breath between strong white teeth, he slowed down to a crawl at a fork in the narrow lane and peered out through the murk at the signpost.
Left towards his cousin's new home. Right towards the village where Anna the sneaky gold-digger lived. Rylands. The name of her home was burned into his brain.
He was powerless to prevent his mind flicking back to the last time he'd made this journey.
'Make your way there—I'll tell my folks to expect you and make a bed up. You will stay overnight, won't you?' She'd sounded breathless with excitement when he'd phoned from London to say he was on his way to see her. 'It's a real pain—but I won't be back until around ten. I'll be working this evening. And, no…' a breathy sigh, a sigh that had seemed to his bamboozled self to hold every last ounce of the world's regrets '…I can't cancel—wish I could! Oh, Francesco, I can't wait to see you!'
Replacing the receiver on one of the bank of phones that sat on the gleaming expanse of his desk in the glass and polished teak office of his London headquarters, he'd grinned wryly. He'd already cancelled three scheduled meetings to be with her. But that wouldn't occur to her. Why should it? She hadn't a clue that he headed the vast Mastroianni business empire that ran like well-oiled clockwork from offices in Rome, Brussels, New York and Sydney.
Buzzing through to his senior PA, he'd imparted the information that he was leaving— with a proposal bursting to trip off his tongue and a ring fit for a queen in the breast pocket of his pale grey business suit—reflecting that, though the delay of a few hours in seeing her was more than he could bear, it would at least give him the opportunity to get to know her parents.
Her father had been waiting to greet him. A large, florid figure in shabby tweeds, he'd bounded down the short flight of stone steps like a boisterous overgrown puppy, hardly giving him time to take in the proportions of the seventeenth-century building constructed of mellow golden Cotswold stone. Or the general look of dilapidation.
'So you are my little girl's fella!' His hands grasped in a knuckle-crushing grip, he'd watched the older man's eyes widen in recognition and then narrow as he as good as licked his lips. 'Welcome to the ancestral home! Anna's told us all about you!'
Led through a huge stone-flagged hall, empty apart from a solitary sorry-looking chair, he'd found himself ushered into a smallish panelled room cluttered with shabby sofas and a scuffed pine table and treated to the most blatant begging spiel he'd ever had to endure.
'Thought I'd get this in before my good lady joins us—you know how it is; they don't understand business matters, bless their pretty little heads! Thing is, old son, I've got this fantastic idea. Can't lose! Great investment opportunity for a man like you. You'd be a fool to turn it down, and from what I've read about you, you're not that!'
Dismissing the crackpot scheme—something to do with wild animals—he'd felt his heart twist with the shock of betrayal, his face stiffen with anger. So Anna had told her father all about her 'fella'? You bet she had! Got him primed and ready to swoop!
No wonder she'd sounded over the moon when he'd phoned to say he was on his way. Congratulating herself that she'd successfully reeled him in!
Had the working excuse been just that? A lie, giving her father the time and space to wheedle a million pounds from him? Would his sweet Anna have swanned in when the deal was done and dusted, widening those big green eyes and fluttering those thick lashes, exclaiming with a pout of her luscious lips that she didn't understand boring business stuff, confident that fantastic sex would hold him?
His voice like a razor, he'd cut the older man off mid-flow. 'I've never been begged for money more clumsily.' Then he'd asked for a sheet of paper. Scrawled a message for his 'Sweet Anna', and left. Despising himself. Hating her.
Hating her for turning him into the sort of fool who could be led from the heart instead of the head.
He who prided himself on his cool, calculating brain, his inborn ability to recognise a gold-digger at a hundred yards, had come within a whisker of being taken for the ride of his life.
He was deeply ashamed of himself. Gunning the engine, he took the left fork and told himself to forget the whole distasteful episode.And hoped with savage impatience that Silvana—an incorrigible matchmaker—hadn't included a wannabe billionaire's wife/mistress in her weekend invitation. He had no interest in the opposite sex. Hadn't had since—oh, forget it!
Her hands pressing against the aching small of her back, Anna Maybury regarded her feet, shod in comfy old black flatties. She was sure her ankles were swelling. One of the penalties of being seven months pregnant.
Her hands slid round to rest lightly on her bump, which was only partially disguised by her voluminous pale green working overall. Despite the discomfort, she loved her coming baby more than she'd ever thought possible.
A termination, as suggested by a couple of her friends, had been completely out of the question, and her parents' nagging on about her right to contact the father and demand financial support had been met with stubborn refusal.
This was her baby, and she loved him or her with every atom of her generous heart. She would manage without any input from its father. The very idea made her seethe. He was an utter cad! He might be more handsome than was good for any man, and, as it had turned out, filthy rotten rich, but he was still a callous, womanising louse!
Annoyed with herself for giving him space in her head, breaking the staunch vow she'd made never to think of him again, she tucked a straying strand of her mane of long blonde hair back beneath the unflattering snood and gave her attention to the makings of dinner for four. The pre-prepared items were waiting in the cool box, and the leg of lamb spiked with garlic and rosemary, for the main course, was sizzling nicely in the oven of the huge old range.
An Italian menu, as stipulated. Anna didn't want to think of anything Italian. Maybe that was why she'd dropped her mental guard and allowed herself to give her baby's father head-room—something she'd successfully avoided ever since she'd discovered she was pregnant.
Apparently her client, Silvana Rosewall, was Italian, married to some well-heeled English banker. So she'd have to get herself comfy with that and not give in to self-pity just because the lady of the house had stipulated an Italian menu.
She was a professional chef, and her home catering business was doing OK. More than OK. Though she could have done with her friend Cissie's help tonight, to take over the actual serving.
But Cissie had a promising date, and when she'd first offered to join Maybury Catering in a dogsbody and PR capacity she'd stressed that she would only be filling in time until Mr Right and Rich came over her horizon.
She had to hand it to Cissie, though. Her family had all the right social connections, and a word here and there had produced some good bookings—like tonight's—and they were infinitely preferable to the others that came in— mostly childrens' parties or buffet lunches for leisured ladies—handed to her like patronising favours because people knew her family and were sorry for them.