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Cocooned in the pleasantly cold confines of his black Mercedes, Cristiano De Angelis surveyed the hustle and bustle of the scorchingly hot streets around him from behind a pair of dark designer sunglasses. This part of Rome was as familiar to him as his own penthouse apartment in London where he lived for most of the year, occasionally taking time out to visit his family in Italy. He had grown up here, had gone to school here, had enjoyed the gilded life of a member of the Italian elite, only spreading his wings when he had flown off to go to university in England. It was both comforting and a little claustrophobic to be back, even for a week, and it would be something of a relief to return to the relative anonymity granted him in the streets of London.
He frowned, thinking back to the conversation he had just had with his mother and his grandfather, who had conspired to remind him, over a sumptuous lunch served with unnecessary formality in the opulent dining room of his grandfather's house, of the passage of time, in so far as it affected him and the pitter patter of small De Angelis feet which they were both, it seemed, desperate to hear.
It had been a dual assault of military precision with his mother on the one side, virtually wringing her hands as she elaborated on her maternal desire that he settle down, be happy, stop playing the field, while his grandfather chipped in with guilt-inducing asides about his declining health and old age, as though he was a decrepit centenarian and not the sprightly seventy-eight-year-old man who could still command attention without uttering a word.
'There's a very nice girl ' his mother had begun, assessing whether that casual piece of information might have landed on fertile ground, but Cristiano had not been having it. While he acknowledged that he would, indeed, one day get married to someone suitable, that time had not quite arrived. He had been firm on the point and, of course, it had been regrettable that he had been forced to witness their crestfallen faces, but the pair of them, given half a chance, would have proved more unstoppable than a freight train at full speed. Any hint of softening on his part and they would have been lining up prospective candidates within minutes.
A reluctant smile of wry amusement curved his mouth and he removed his shades, dangling them from one finger as he looked at the hordes of shoppers who swarmed the elegant designer shop-lined streets, for all the world as though the words credit crunch were not part of their vocabulary.
Without giving himself time to change his mind, he tapped on the glass partition separating him from his driver and leaned forward to tell Enrico that he could let him out here.
'Take the car back to my place,' Cristiano said, grimacing at the prospect of having to brave the sweltering summer sun but recognising that if he didn't do it then he would be stuck in traffic for the foreseeable future and, comfortable though it was inside the Mercedes, he couldn't afford to waste time sitting in it for the next hour or so. 'I have to deliver this for my mother and it will be quicker for me to take to the back streets than for you to drive me there. I'll get a taxi back.' 'But sir, the sun '
Enrico, who had been the family driver for as long as Cristiano could remember, looked faint at the thought of his passenger stepping out into the sweltering heat, and Cristiano grinned.
'I'm not a swooning Victorian maiden, Enrico,' he said drily. 'I think I'll be able to withstand half an hour out there. After all, look at the shoppers. No one seems to be collapsing from heat ex haustion.'
'But sir, those are women. They are built to shop in all weather without being affected.'
Cristiano was still grinning as he strode out into the blistering sun, sunglasses firmly back in place. He was aware, and chose to ignore, the sidelong glances of women as he walked past. He was pretty sure that if he slowed his pace it wouldn't be long before some long-legged, dark-haired, pedigreed beauty approached him. Even though he no longer resided in the city, his face was well known in certain circles. Visits to Rome were seldom free from glittering invitations from women who courted his company, usually without success because, despite his mother's accusations, he was discerning in his choices. Which, as he began leaving the crowded shopping quarter, brought him right back to thinking about her matchmaking designs. He had had no scarring emotional involvements with any woman. He had nothing against the institution of marriage, per se. Nor did he envisage a life without children, despite the manner in which he had earlier brushed aside the subject with an indolent wave of his hand. Cristiano could only think that he had been thoroughly ruined by his parents' happy marriage. Was that possible? Wasn't it supposed to work the other way around? They had been childhood sweethearts, perfectly matched in every way and, as if plucked from a fairy story, had lived perfectly happy lives until his father had died five years previously. His mother still wore black, carried pictures of him in her handbag and frequently referred to him in the present tense.
In an age of quickie divorces, money-grabbing gold-diggers and women with an eye to the main chance, what hope in hell did he have of a comparable marriage?
It took him a little over twenty minutes before he was standing in front of the gracious block of apartments where he had been instructed to hand deliver a very delicate orchid to one of the women who had helped out two weeks previously on a charity fund-raiser, a belated thank you present for her contribution. His mother was leaving for their country house and the orchid, she told him, would not wait until she returned. Nor would she trust any old courier service to deliver it because those ragamuffin boys were useless when it came to delivering anything of a fragile nature.
Privately, Cristiano figured that it was her way of expressing her pique at his casual dismissal of whatever suitable candidate she had had lined up her sleeve for his perusal, but running the errand had been a small price to pay for making good his escape.
Nor had the walk been half as uncomfortable as he had imagined. He very rarely walked anywhere, he realised. His life was cushioned by the luxury of a full-time driver in London and, besides, walking for the sake of walking was a time-consuming business in a life that seemed to have little spare time as it was.
The block of opulent apartments was portered and he was pointed in the direction of the lift without question. Even dressed in casual clothes, Cristiano exuded the sort of wealth, power and confidence that ensured entry anywhere.
The porter had asked for no identification and Cristiano would have been outraged had his movements been questioned.
Rather than take the lift, though, he decided to climb the three flights up to the apartment. This was no dingy staircase. Rich turquoise carpeting ran its length and the wallpaper was cool and sophisticated. He assumed the apartment would be more of the same. In all events, several rings on the doorbell elicited no response. Nor did his mother's mobile when he called to inform her that his mission had been a waste of time.
What the hell was he to do, stranded with an overpriced hothouse plant in search of a home?
Cursing under his breath for having allowed himself to be virtually blackmailed into running the ridiculous errand, he finally resorted to banging on the door. Like every single mega-expensive apartment building on the face of the earth, there was an eerie silence in the hall. He knew from his own personal experience that rich people rarely emerged to chew the fat and pass the time of day with the people living in the apartments next to them. He, frankly, had no time for useless chatter on stairwells or in elevators and happily was spared such inconvenience by having a private lift to his penthouse apartment.
He banged on the door again, this time very loudly, and was rewarded with the sound of scurrying feet.
Under normal circumstances, Bethany, hearing those three ridiculously loud and incredibly rude bangs would have flown to the door, prepared to give her unwanted caller a piece of her mind, but as it was these weren't exactly normal circumstances.
She glanced down at what she was wearing and broke out in a fine film of nervous perspiration. The dress, which must have set its owner back the price of a small car, clung lovingly to her body, graceful, floaty and as utterly, utterly beautiful on as it had been hanging in the wardrobe fifteen minutes earlier.
Oh, God, why, why, why had she given in to the temptation to just try it on? What had possessed her? She had managed to resist the urge for the past three days, so why now? Because, she thought frantically, it had been so hot outside and she had come back to the apartment and had a long, luxurious bubbly bath in the splendid marbled bathroom and then she had strolled into the dressing room, which was three times the size of the poky room she had been renting at university, and she had run her hands along the magnificent gowns and dresses and jackets and coats and had stopped at this particular creation and had just not been able to resist the wicked impulse.
Now, having ignored the doorbell, there was some persistent visitor banging like mad on the door and she knew for a fact that it wouldn't be Amy, who had gone to Florence for the weekend with her boyfriend. Nor would it be a salesman because they weren't allowed to set foot into the hallowed halls of the building. Which just left. a resident or, worse yet, a friend.
The fourth bang snapped her out of her merciless daydream, which involved first and foremost losing her job as house-sitter, which was a laugh considering Amy should have been the one doing it, followed rapidly by angry Italian policemen and a stint in a cell somewhere.
She stood behind the door and opened it very, very slowly, making sure that none of her body in its borrowed garb was revealed. Her eyes travelled from the ground upwards. And upwards. From expensive tan loafers and cream trousers towards a similarly cream collared polo shirt, taking in the tanned arms, the dark hair curling round the dull silver of a very expensive make of watch, up to. the most amazing face she had ever set eyes on in her entire life. In fact, the stranger standing outside the front door was so sensationally handsome that, for a few seconds, Bethany felt literally winded.
Then reality kicked in and she remembered where she was. In an apartment that wasn't hers and decked out in clothes that weren't hers. She edged further behind the safety of the heavy door.
'Yes? May I help you?' She didn't want to stare, but she found that it was practically impossible not to. It wasn't just the man's height, and he must be over six foot, nor was it the perfection of his features or the sculpted muscularity of his body. It was the aura of power and incredible self-assurance that invested him with a potent, suffocating sex appeal.
Cristiano, initially taken aback by the woman who had answered the door, a girl when he had been expecting an ageing dowager, was now busy taking in the delicate lines of her heart-shaped face, the full mouth, the slanting green eyes and the mass of copper hair that tumbled down, almost to her waist.
'Are you hiding?' he asked and was fascinated as a tide of pale pink coloured her cheeks. Nor was she responding as women usually did at his presence, with smiles and lowered lashes and all those coy signals that indicated interest.
'Hiding?' His voice matched his looks. Deep, lazy, confident. 'I'm not hiding.' Bethany sidled a little further along so that the wretched dress was not at all visible. She didn't know who this man was but if he lived here, if he was a friend, he would know that she certainly wasn't the Amelia Doni who owned the apartment and who was in her mid forties. He might, however, know that the outrageously expensive dress would not belong to a twenty-one-year-old girl who happened to be house-sitting. 'I'm just a little surprised to have a visitor I'm sorry, I don't know your name.'
'Cristiano De Angelis.' He waited for a glimmer of recognition because any woman who owned this apartment would have heard of the De Angelis family. He wondered how it was that he had not met her before at one of the high society events that he invariably attended when he came to Rome to spend time with his family. This was a face he certainly would have remembered. She was not the usual Italian beauty, although her Italian was fluent. She looked It suddenly dawned on him why he might not have met her in the past and he smiled slowly, switching effortlessly from Italian to English.
'And now that I have introduced myself, perhaps you'd like to tell me if I'm at the right apartment Signora Doni?'
'I'm sorry. You haven't told me what you're doing here.'
Cristiano produced the orchid, the existence of which he had temporarily forgotten. 'From my mother.'
Bethany stared blankly at him and, as the cogs in her brain began whirring back into life, she realised that he didn't know who she was. He was a man on an errand and had no idea what Amelia Doni looked like. Ergo, he would not be rounding on her for having sneakily taken advantage of her second-hand house-sitting to don some fancy clothing. She relaxed slightly and stuck her hand out for the plant.
Great? Thanks? Shouldn't she be inviting him in? At least showing some semblance of interest in getting to know who he was?
'It's a little ridiculous to be having a conversation like this,' Cristiano drawled. 'Why don't you invite me in? After all, I've just spent the past twenty-five minutes in baking sun to walk over here and deliver a potted plant. I could really do with something cold to drink.' He was a little incredulous that she actually spent a few seconds mentally debating whether or not she should open the door and let him in.
'You may not have heard of me, but let me assure you that the De Angelis are a well known family in Italy. There's no need to fear for your life or your possessions.' Since when did he give long spiels about his background to anyone? In fact, when was the last time he had ever found himself in the company of a woman who looked at him as though he might leap out and attack her at any moment? In a word, never.