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'Well, well, well… Look who it is!'
As the honeyed sea of that mesmerising voice reached her, washing around her ankles, threatening to pull her under, Kate Richardson stared in mute shock at the man facing her across the room. Her memory of his electric blue eyes having the power to dazzle like the most flawless glinting gem-stones had not failed her, but she did not recall them having the ability to almost slice her in two even as he smiled. Uncurling her fingers from their death lock on the door handle, she knew her surprised expression must easily mirror his. But as she had barely any sensation of her facial muscles functioning at all Kate couldn't have sworn to it.
'Luca…' All she could do right then was stare in wonder, because her mental faculties seemed frigh-teningly slow in catching up with her speech.
'At least you remember my name.'
Did he really think she would ever forget it? 'The agency sent me.' Kate could barely find the words to explain her presence. 'You—you need a secretary for the next few days…apparently.' Her shoulders lifted in a nervous shrug.
His jaw hardened. No spare flesh spoilt its perfect symmetry—it was just jutting, formidable bone. 'Dio! I know perfectly well what I need! Come in and close the door!'
Kate obeyed, unable to disregard his harsh-voiced command even if she'd wanted to. Inhabiting the same electrically charged space as this man was like being swept along by a powerful current she couldn't fight, and for a moment the sensation of vulnerability this instigated was too real to combat. She'd had no idea he worked in London… none. But then what she did know about the provoking specimen of masculinity glaring at her from across the room she could probably commit to just a single sentence. In the breathtaking few hours they had spent together in Milan three months ago, they hadn't exactly immersed themselves in personal biographies. They had been held in thrall by other, far more distracting discoveries about each other instead.
His authoritative command ricocheted through the tensely strung atmosphere like a velvet gunshot. Swallowing hard, Kate pulled out the chair on the opposite side of the huge modern desk and sat. She was glad to. Her legs were suddenly about as substantial as flimsy threads of cotton.
The huge plate-glass window behind her interrogator reflected a stunning vista that included Big Ben and the London Eye, but the imposing landmarks didn't distract her. How could they when they were in unfair competition with the artfully sculpted male visage before her? Kate's heart soared and her insides fluttered as she recalled that she knew intimately that his incredible body was equally as artfully designed. And there had been an altogether shocking and unexpected price to pay for that intimate knowledge, she reflected soberly, and her stomach executed an unsettling cartwheel at the fact.
'Why did you leave without saying goodbye in Milan? Do you usually treat your lovers so casually? Leaving them in the morning without so much as the good manners to at least wait until they are awake? Do you get some kind of strange satisfaction out of such behaviour?'
Dumbstruck, Kate stared, feeling her cheeks burn in indignation and shock. 'I beg your pardon?'
'Last time we met your hearing was not impaired in any way, as far as I can recall.' His disdain was clearly intended to sting.
'I'm just a little taken aback that you would believe I do that sort of thing regularly. Let me assure you that I don't!'
'The fact of the matter is that you did it to me, Katherine… For some reason I expected better from you… but you disappointed me.'
Powerful regret washed over Kate. If she could have had that time back again would she act differently? Maybe. Hindsight was a wonderful thing.
Studying the handsome, disapproving face before her, Kate knew a sudden great desire to have him smile at her. So consuming was it that she could almost have wept in frustration, knowing that her wish was in vain. An icy chill shuddered through her. Thinking back to the party at some big-wig architect's mansion that her friend Melissa had dragged her to, courtesy of the swish property developer she worked for, Kate had considered it a mistake right from the off. It had been the last evening of her holiday, and all she had really wanted to do was spend time in quiet reflection on how she was going to rebuild her life when she got back to the UK.
How did a person learn to trust again when they had been betrayed as brutally as Kate had?
Her plans had been hijacked by her friend's insistence that she needed to 'get out and have some fun,' and instead of the quiet evening she'd had in mind she had had to endure the uncomfortable proximity of a bunch of strangers in a glamorous setting that had no power to lift her out of the despondency she'd been in. That was until the man now in front of her had appeared, cast his eyes round the room as though already bored with the faces that glanced back at him, and then shockingly rested his far too disturbing gaze on her.
Mel had been off hobnobbing somewhere else, and Kate had sensed her legs turn as weak as a newborn foal's beneath the charismatic stranger's sizzling observation. He had turned his back on several guests clearly eager to speak to him to cross the room and talk to her instead, introducing himself as 'Luca,' she recalled. Just Luca. There had been no mention of Gianluca De Rossi. And Kate had offered her name as Katherine. It was her full name, but she rarely used it, so why it had slipped out so naturally beneath his unsettling gaze was a mystery.
Except that maybe a person couldn't be expected to be totally in control of their responses when they were confronted by an aura of wealth, confidence and breathtaking good looks such as Luca was so commandingly in possession of? And maybe at that moment she had also succumbed to feeling small and insecure, and had needed the bolster of a name that sounded a bit classier than just plain Kate?
There were many reasons she'd acted so out of character that unforgettable night, and that was just the first of them… Clasping her hands in front of her now, on the polished surface of the desk, it took every bit of courage she could muster to meet the disapproving gaze Luca was still directing her way and hold it.
'I hadn't planned to leave the way I did. I just… I just didn't want to wake you. It was the last night of my holiday and I had a plane to catch. I should have mentioned it before, but—' She blushed, certain her cheeks were glowing red as ripe russet apples.
'But we were otherwise engaged at the time?' Luca suggested wryly, a visible muscle throbbing at the side of his fascinating cheekbone. 'Even so…you should have woken me—not just left without so much as leaving a phone number or an address where I could contact you!'
'I'm sorry.' Kate meant it, and there was a helpless catch in her voice. Yet part of her was reeling at the idea that a man who moved in the privileged and exclusive circles Luca did even cared that his one-night lover had not left a number or address where he might reach her. Was she wrong to have assumed he would forget her so easily? Had she just convinced herself of that so that she could get over the pain of leaving him and never seeing him again by making the cut quick and clean? Because it had pained her to leave him…
The attraction that had flared between them had smoked white-hot the second their glances had met, and even Kate's relative inexperience with men hadn't fooled her into thinking that was a common, everyday thing. And underlying that blistering magnetic pull she'd miraculously sensed the kind of soul-to-soul connection she'd long dreamed of. There had definitely been something special about Luca that Kate had not been able to forget. But at the time she'd been grieving on two counts. Grieving for the loss of her mother as well as for the loss of her fiercely guarded self-esteem—brought about by the other thing that had so devastatingly occurred back home. Both those momentous events had left Kate in no fit state either to think straight or make good decisions. And now she had to contend with the unbelievable twist of fate that had brought her right back into this man's charismatic sphere again—turning up for a temp assignment that meant she would be his personal assistant for the next couple of weeks, while his permanent PA was on holiday.
'Well… on reflection, I think it probably best that we simply forget what has happened between us in the past and concentrate on the present. It is unfortunate that this has come about, but we will just have to live with it if we are to work together over the next two weeks.'
Luca sighed, as if weighed down with too much responsibility. Beneath the fluid expensive weave of his faultless Italian tailoring, his hard lean body emitted a palpable sense of weariness, and Kate got the definite impression that work had been driving him to the exclusion of all else lately. It made her want to alleviate the burden for him somehow.
'Though I have to say,' he continued, 'it is a very strange coincidence indeed that you should turn up in my office to stand in as my secretary, is it not? Tell me the truth, Katherine. Has someone put you up to this as some kind of joke? Tell me now, before I have to take the regrettable step of calling Security and getting them to escort you out of the building!'
She gasped. 'What are you saying? Of course it's not a joke! The agency I work for sent me and that's the absolute truth! I had no idea that Gianluca De Rossi was you! How could I? You never told me your full name that night, and neither did you tell me you worked in London! I naturally assumed you worked in Milan.'
'But you could have asked anyone at the party my full name and they would have enlightened you. It was my house and my party, after all! It would have been easy if you had probed further to discover that I have an office in London as well as Milan, and that I am mainly based here.'
'For your information, apart from the friend I went with I spoke to hardly anyone else that entire evening but you! And my friend didn't know who you were. She was given the invitation by someone in her office who couldn't go, and her only information was the address! Anyway, why would I wait three months if I wanted to see you again? If I'd wanted to stay in touch it would have been far easier to leave you my details back in Milan!'
'So you are telling me that you purposely did not want to get in touch? How flattering!' Luca's mouth pursed, as though he had tasted something disagreeable. 'And now—if I am to believe what you say is true—it is fate that has conspired to bring us together again! I suppose one could conclude from that that we must have some unfinished business after all. What do you think, Katherine?'
Suddenly feeling quite faint, Kate frowned. What did he mean, exactly? She was doubly perturbed by his words when she considered the potentially explosive secret she was keeping that he didn't yet know about… She just about held on to her scant breakfast of dry toast when she thought about that.
'Unfinished business or not, I'm here to work as your secretary, and genuinely that's the only reason I'm here!'
'Then if you are to work for me, know this! I expect you to be absolutely first-class at what you do. I will not be looking upon you with any leniency because of what happened between us before! Are you up to the task, Katherine? Because if you are not then I will ring the agency now and get them to send somebody else.'
His smile was laced with mistrust as well as a deep cynicism. It wasn't at all like the one Kate had been acquainted with, that had lit up a room as brightly as a hundred-watt lightbulb. Her stomach churned with misery and shock.