Read an Excerpt
Katie had expected Tuscany to be hot and dusty. She had not expected it to be so beautiful, and perfumed with the scent of herbs basking under a hard blue sky.
'You will be expected to hit the ground running, Miss Carter. Signor Amato rarely makes allowances for anyone especially not an interior designer!' Plump, neatly suited Eduardo leaned forward and tapped on the glass separating them from the limousine's chauffeur. He issued a curt order in Italian and then settled back into the cream leather seat beside her. 'Signor Amato must visit his city office later this morning and he is attending a dinner given by an Australian delegation this evening. His day operates to the second. As his right-hand man at the Villa Antico, I must ensure that we reach there on time.'
'I'm sorry my flight was cancelled. I was supposed to land yesterday.' Katie's fingers gripped her briefcase. Of all the days to get caught up in a security alert. This dream job was really important to her. Giovanni Amato had a reputation as the world's most reclusive billionaire. When the Marchesa di San Marco's personal recommendation had secured Katie the job of restyling his ancestral home north of Florence, she had hardly been able to believe her luck. Everything had been planned down to the last detail. She had arranged to stay overnight in Milan, to make sure she was fresh for this morning meeting. Then all her arrangements had collapsed like a house of cards. Instead of being cool, calm and collected, Katie was stiff and overtired after a night spent in the airport. Her palms were suspiciously damp and her heart was racing, too. This was not how she was supposed to arrive on her first day inheaven.
Working in a place like this will be no hardship at all, she thought as they sped through rolling countryside dotted with pretty little stone and tile villages. Eventually the sleek black Amato limousine turned in at an enormous pair of wrought iron gates. The chauffeur lowered his window and checked in to security. Obediently the gates slid open. Then the car set off down a long avenue of lime trees. Katie gasped as a classic Tuscan villa loomed into view. It was only slightly smaller than Windsor Castle.
An intense young man in Armani emerged from the house as the car drew up. He opened Katie's door before the vehicle stopped, breaking into its air-conditioned comfort. The heat enveloped Katie like a thermal blanket.
'My goodness, what lovely weather,' she began, but Antico staff were not chosen for their small talk.
'Signor Amato will see you in the White Office, Miss Carter,' the butler said to Katie, then turned to Eduardo. 'She is late.'
'Show me the way and I'll run,' said Katie.
Giovanni Amato was standing with his back to the door. Windows stretched from floor to ceiling in his cathedral-like office and silhouetted his tall, muscular frame. From that first moment, Katie knew he would be a force to be reckoned with. A commanding figure in beautifully cut linen trousers and a crisp white shirt, he made a gesture of acknowledgement as she entered the room. Then he went back to pouring a flow of eloquent Italian into the tiny mobile at his ear. Katie had to wait until he finished his call before she got her first proper look at him.
'I hope I did not disturb you, Signor Amato,' she said as he turned, then stopped. He had a face that men could fear but women could not resist. One look into those intense grey eyes and she might have been lostbut for his expression. Momentarily it looked as though he had the weight of the world on his shoulders. And then the handsome, regular features broke into a practised smile.
'Not at allit's Miss Carter, isn't it? I'mpleasantly surprised to meet you. The contractors Mima usually recommends are tough Neapolitans!' he said in perfect English. Raising one hand, he ran fingers through his thick dark hair. There was no need. It was cut short enough to remain tidy without attention, but that did not stop him. He flexed his shoulders, and the cut of his shirt hinted at powerful muscles beneath. Then, stretching his left arm with lazy elegance he inspected the silver Rolex on his wrist.
'I was told you would be late, but five minutes? That is nothing.' He smiled again and for a moment there was an air of devilment about him. 'Sometimes my staff worry too much, but I am not about to criticise them. When they are working well, my days run smoothly. That is all I ask.'
Katie was speechless. He was absolutely charming and his easy manner continued as he walked around his workstation and perched on the edge, facing her.
A desk puts up such a barrier between people, don't you think?' Reaching behind him, he picked up a china Viola mug, tasted the contents and pulled a face. 'Cold cappuccino retains all of its caffeine but none of its pleasure. Excuse me while I ring for a replacement.'
Katie looked around the spacious office as he rang down to his kitchens. The Villa Antico's faded splendour was obvious here. All Giovanni Amato's high-tech equipment had been plonked in the centre of a gracious room full of peeling paintwork and threadbare carpets.
'The kitchens have bad news, I am afraid, Miss Carter. I am supposed to leave in ten minutes for a meeting in Milan and my super-efficient PA suggests we don't linger over coffee.' He laughed, shaking his head.
'Er yesok ' Katie floundered. This man was as serious as he was good-looking. There was clearly a time limit to this audience with him. 'Right, well, I'm Katie Carter '
'I know. You come with the highest recommendations from my friend the Marchesa di San Marco. I don't know how much she has told you, but I inherited this place from my father a while ago. When he was in residence it was allowed to decline into the pitiful condition you see all around you. Now I have decided it is time for the Villa Antico to rise again. I want to restore the high standards of the past, so all traces of its most recent occupancy are to be swept away. With no time to restyle it myself, I need a specialist. All my staff here work to the highest standards. Contractors are expected to have the same attitude.' He was lost in thought for a moment and then his lips flickered a spark of amusement at her. 'Do you know, I've just realised that in some small way I envy you, Miss Carter. Here you area self-made woman, Mima tells me, who has fought her way up from nowhere. You are responsible only for yourself. It makes me wonder how far I could have taken Amato International if I had started from scratch. Family loyalty and tradition are my driving forces, and there's no doubt I have the killer instinct necessary to protect the old firm, but what are the qualities you needed to start from nothing, I wonder?'
He gazed at her appreciatively for some moments, a half smile playing around his lips. Katie could only guess how devastating its full power might be, but his expression soon became serious again.
'The fact is that I need a base where I can retire from public life, Miss Carter. I don't intend to entertain herethat takes place on my yacht or in one of my city apartments. But when Mima visited, she was so full of the wonders you had worked at her Villa Adriatica she thought you would be good for this old place. I have never yet disappointed a lady and I was not about to begin with Mima. So here you are.' He spread his hands in a gesture of welcome.
Katie said nothing. She knew that clients always had strong ideas about what they wanted. She expected such a successful, busy man to have a list of requirements. She waited for him to reel them off. Instead, his smile remained immovable. He could have the most beautiful eyes in the world, Katie thought, if it wasn't for one thing. They were dove-grey, long-lashed and perfectbut there was a hint of something dark behind them. What was it, she wonderedpain? Suspicion? The way he shifted slightly when he mentioned his father hinted at some sort of friction in his past. There were secrets beneath all that easy, designer-dressed efficiency. Katie could sense it.
Their exchange was interrupted by the arrival of Eduardo, with a message that it was time to leave. Launching himself from the table edge, Giovanni pulled his jacket from its hanger in a cupboard and slung it over his shoulder.
'I am due in Milan, Miss Carter. Do you know the Amato building? They serve the most excellent refreshments there.' He turned to his PA. 'The young lady and I will continue our meeting on the flight, Eduardo. As we go downstairs we will be passing one of the first areas for improvement, Miss Carter. It has not been redecorated for at least thirty years, to my certain knowledge.'
He held the door open for her and they passed from the office into a warren of halls and wood-panelled passages. Katie was awestruck at the size and splendour of the place. It would take her a lifetime to find her way about. She was booked to be here for only thirty days. At the end of the long passageway, Giovanni seized the polished brass handles of a pair of double doors. As he opened them, a gust of warm air hit them. It was perfumed with beeswax polish. Katie followed him into a vast room. Shafts of sunlight from tall windows fell across ancient floorboards that centuries of polishing had given a rich golden glow.
'When you need to find this place again, it is called the Smoking Gallery,' he said, answering one of her questions before she could ask it.
'Then you are a smoker, Signor Amato?'
He chuckled. 'No. My great-grandfather saw some interesting architecture while visiting England a century ago. When he returned, he ordered his men to recreate some chimneys of the type he had seen there. Unfortunately, because they do not draw smoke upwards from the fire, it always blows back down.'
He walked over to a great black marble fireplace on one side of the room. Positioning one foot carefully on the fender, he pointed up at the chimney-breast. Ancient wooden panels hung there, illustrating the Amato family tree. It was decorated with brightly coloured coats of arms and ancestral flags and descended from the ceiling like a many-fingered stalactite. Names were picked out in gold leaf. Beside each one was either a shield or a banner, enamelled with the appropriate family colours.
This man had history. Katie wondered what it was. She glanced at him and was about to speak, but found his face bleak and pained. This look was replaced almost instantly with his usual charming smile. Despite that, Katie was alarmed. She looked back at the panelling to try and see what had made his expression slip.
His family tree was nothing but facts and figures. A huge span of Amato history was laid out before her. It trickled down to end on one side with the single golden name Giovanni Francisco Salvatore Amato. Her magnificent surroundings nudged Katie into a conclusion. This man had no wife and no offspringyet. That must be what concerns him, she thought. There might be advantages in being born a commoner, like her, after all. Giovanni Amato must shoulder the sole responsibility of continuing his grand family line.
Katie soon discovered it was dangerous to make any assumptions about her new employer. They were not couriered to the city by private jet. Instead, a helicopter stood on the estate's private airfield, ready to go. After helping her in, he swung himself into the pilot's seat and clipped on a headset.
'I'm surprised billionaires don't make business come to them, rather than the other way around,' Katie managed to say, despite her initial terror. He did not reply immediately, but they lifted off smoothly enough. Then he steered the machine around to give her a swallow's eye view of the Villa Antico.
'There are two reasons why I do this, Miss Carter.' He hovered, reversed, and then worked a dignified slalom around his rooftops. The helicopter was so low, Katie could have looked right down inside its barley sugar chimneysif she had not been clinging to her seat and fighting to keep her nerve.
'The first reason is that, no matter how good the satellite link, nothing replaces a handshake. People like to meet me in person. And who am I to deny them that pleasure?' With the twitch of an eyebrow, he shot a playful look straight at her heart. It scored a direct hit. The effect was obvious, but Katie knew she had to hide it. Women must turn to jelly before him all the time, and she never followed the herd.
He side-slipped the helicopter speedily to the north-west.
'Does that gasp mean you want me to slow down, Miss Carter?' With a reassuring smile he checked and levelled the machine. 'Don't worry. I've never lost a passenger yet.'
Relieved, Katie released her death-grip on the upholstery.
'You said there were two reasons, Signor Amato.'
He looked at her with a grin of pure relish.
'Oh, yes ' Making an impossibly tight turn, he dropped the helicopter again to sweep a down-draught along his venerable avenue of lime trees. 'The second reason is that I enjoy it, Miss Carter.'
Katie soon overcame her initial fear of helicopter travel. In time, she even managed to glance out sideways. Looking down was still too much of a challenge. She wondered what her mother would make of this. Poor mousy little Katie, who hated any sort of fuss, had grown up to travel in a billionaire's private helicopter!
Her wonder increased as they drew near Milan. Instead of cypress trees, city skyscrapers rose above a layer of wispy cloud.
'See that? It is the headquarters of Amato International.' Giovanni pointed out a building. As they flew closer, Katie saw a white H on its roof. She gripped her seat, nervous again as Giovanni dropped in towards it.
'It began as a local concern, centuries ago,' he told her when they had landed safely. 'Then my family was approached by merchants who were looking for investment. Things improved rapidly after that. Early in the last century, car makers had to decide how to fuel their engines. Investors were faced with a similar choice.'
'Amato International chose to support petrol?' Katie said and her host laughed in agreement. His family must have been blessed with good luck a million times over the generations, Katie thought as she followed him into the executive lift. She wondered if he appreciated it. Despite his affable nature, she guessed that Signor Giovanni Amato kept his real thoughts well and truly hidden.