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ENRICO RANIERI was striding across Hannard's foyer with his dark head lowered. He was late and he was frowning, too preoccupied with the meeting he was about to attend to notice the drop-jaw looks of recognition he and his small entourage were receiving as they passed through.
It was the finest--finest--hint of a sound crashing into his consciousness that made him lift up his head. After that he stopped dead, every important thought preceding this moment wiped clean away by the sight that met his ink-dark gaze.
She was about ten feet away, just stepping out of one of the lifts. His insides flipped and then rolled as if he'd been put into a sudden steep dive. He struggled to believe it--or did not want to. It was years since he'd so much as clapped eyes on her, yet as she uttered some small, indistinguishable sound he found himself rendered so immobile he couldn't make his brain move beyond the fact that she was right there before him in the flesh!
She had not noticed him yet because her head was lowered, her glorious mane of bright auburn hair caught up on the top of her head in one of those unflattering knots that had always challenged him to tug it free.
It challenged him again now, setting a couple of nerves flicking in his fingers, while something far more potent flicked at other parts of him.
Her name sizzled across his senses in a tight, complicated mix of hate and pleasure. Three years ago he'd kicked her out of his life without conscience, then spent the next memorable year taking that decision out on anyone who fancied taking him on. Business or pleasure, he had not been fussy. She had worked for him. He'd trusted her. No womanbefore or since had ever earned that level of trust. She'd lived in his apartment and slept in his bed. He slept alone now and any physical activities always took place somewhere else.
In fact, she'd stolen so much away from him, it was no wonder he was sizzling with hate.
But--Dio--she looked good. Even wearing that un-flattering grey suit, which looked at least one size too big for her, she was stinging his senses with first-hand knowledge of what lay hidden beneath the layers of high-street-cheap.
Like the clothes she used to wear before he'd taken her in hand and turned the scrappy sow's ear into a breathtakingly beautiful silk purse.
That odd feeling moved to his chest, turning into a swirling, coiling stab of discomfort when he remembered how she had left all the silk behind when he'd kicked her out.
Now here she was, walking towards him with her head tilted downwards as if she was as preoccupied with her thoughts as he had been with his. His eyes narrowed as he watched her come closer. A fine layer of sweat went bristling across the surface of his skin as he waited for the silken arc of her gold-tipped eyelashes to lift up and show him a pair of vivid green eyes destined to turn as dark as his own with shock.
He wanted to see her shock--needed to see it, like a man possessed with a fevered desire to watch another human being squirm.
Did she work at Hannard's? Had he unwittingly logged into a way to make the beautiful but deceiving Freya Jenson pay yet again for what she had done to him?
His white teeth came together with a snap of tension as he waited for the glinting red head to lift up. She was almost upon him. Hell, his senses were going crazy. Any second now she was going to cannon right into him! Anticipation leapt inside him like a mad, snarling wolf ready to attack.
She pulled to a stop suddenly and all of that swirling, tingling war of feeling completely blanketed him because he thought she had sensed his presence at last.
Then he heard her speak--"No, Nicky," she said. "It's no use trying to pull free of my hand when you know Mummy is not going to let it go."
Like a man hurled from a storm into a maelstrom, Enrico dropped his gaze downward. If his senses had made a violent dive when he'd first seen her, it was nothing to what he experienced now as his eyes came to rest on the small denim-clad boy who was fighting to get free of her restraining hand.
Curling black hair crowned a handsome little face, and a pair of fiercely determined ink-black eyes glared up at his mother.
Nicky, he thought.
Nicolo, he extended.
She had named her son Nicolo.
Right there in Hannard's foyer, Enrico Ranieri, hard-headed businessman and cold, ruthless operator, quite simply crashed and burned.
The 'terrible twos' were an apt label when it came to her son, Freya thought ruefully as she fought to keep a grip on his hand. Give him the chance and he'd be off causing mayhem wherever he could wreak it. Lose concentration on him for a single second and he became a terrifying danger to himself.
She was going to have to purchase leading reins, she decided as she stood waging battle with one determined little boy. They would cause serious offence to his dignity, but hanging on to a writhing, kicking two-year-old meant that she was in danger of hurting him in her effort to keep him contained.
"The park," she said, using a favoured destination as a key to unlock the door to her son's more compliant side. "Be a good boy and walk nicely, and we will go to the park."
"Monkeys," he replied. "No,'Freya returned firmly. "The monkeys live at the zoo. The park is closer."
"I like monkeys." 'I have hold of one right here," she laughed. "Be a good boy today, and we will go and see the monkeys tomorrow when we have more--" 'He's mine," a deep voice rasped like coarse sandpaper across her exposed nape.
Freya actually shivered, the blood in her veins beginning to freeze before she'd even lifted up her head and let her eyes clash with a pair of black eyes that flashed with raw hostility.
Her heart gave a shocked thump against her ribcage, then almost stopped altogether. It was like being hit over the head by your worst nightmare, she likened as she stared at six feet three inches of hard masculine aggression standing right over her and threatening hell. The black hair, the black eyes, the almost-black suit covering his tightly muscled framework, even the shiny black shoes on his long, narrow feet, all screamed: The devil has come to collect.
"No,'she breathed, not wanting to believe that Enrico, of all the rotten people in the world she could possibly meet again, was standing less than two feet away.
"Madre de Dio, he is!" Enrico bit out on a hushed, driven hiss of sizzling fury.
Freya blinked, still too locked in shock to realize that he had misunderstood her choked little negative. Then she watched his eyes drop to her son and fire up with the most ungodly flame of possessive rage.
Even Nicky was affected by that fierce look. Instead of continuing to tug on Freya's hand, he clung tightly to it and shifted his wiry little body behind her legs. It was that defensive move from her normally fearless little boy that made anger burn out the deep freeze of her shock. With a lifting of her chin, Freya looked the hard, cruel, unrelenting devil right in the eye and repeated coldly, "No, he is not."
Enrico moved with a tight shift of his lean body. "Don't lie to me," he rasped out, dragging his eyes away from the little boy to fix back on his mother's face. "You ruthless witch. I am going to make you pay for this!"
Freya could see that he meant it by the murderous glint in his eyes and that thin-lipped way in which he was holding his mouth. An attractive mouth once, she found herself thinking, a gorgeously knowing and very seductive mouth. Like the rest of him: gorgeously sexy and disgustingly aware of it.
"I don't know what you're talking about," she denied stiffly.
Black eyes flared. He took a step towards her. For a horrible moment, Freya thought he was going to take hold of her by the throat. She gasped and took a step backwards, almost tripping over her son.
"Enrico..." Someone placed a warning hand on his arm.
It was only then that Freya became aware again of where it was they were standing. The whole foyer had gone silent and dozens of curious faces were turned on them. Enrico appeared to have forgotten his own entou-rage, one member of which was trying to remind him that they had an audience.
He glanced around, soot-black eyelashes flickering against fiercely jutting cheekbones. The whole structure of his lean, attractive face was savagely clenched. The atmosphere in the foyer was fizzing and popping with his barely contained violence, which he swung away from Freya and turned onto the person touching his arm.
Freya shuddered. Her grip on her son must have loosened in that mad moment of relief, because Nicky suddenly broke away from her. In the split second it took her to swing round to try and recapture the small boy he was already out of reach and heading straight for the exit like a mini-hostage suddenly set free.
Nicky knew those exit doors and exactly how to make them work: break the magic beam and they would swing open on a whole world of excitement for a small and fearless two-year-old.
"Nicky--no!" Freya cried out and went running after him.
He just gave a squeal of delight and kept going, little legs carrying him ever closer to freedom and the narrow pavement outside, which was the only point of safety between him and one of London's busiest streets. Freya was already seeing his little body crushed beneath the wheels of a double-decker bus as she ran. Her skin had gone clammy, her heart was pounding agonisingly in her breast.
Then an arm reached out and a big body bent to scoop the child right off the ground. As Freya watched it happen through a haze of wild terror, she found her eyes fixing on yet another sickeningly familiar face.
Fredo Scarsozi, Enrico's long-term bodyguard, was holding her son in a circle of formidable muscle-bound power. Her stomach rolled over. Nicky was yelling in frustrated temper while Fredo stood looking down at him--just looking.
Fredo could see the resemblance too, she realized as she skidded to a halt in front of him. "Give him to me," she demanded breathlessly, holding out her arms for her son.
Fredo switched his gaze to her face and did nothing. True, unfettered fear closed her throat off and congealed her blood. Nicky suddenly stopped yelling, the curiosity value of being held by this big man winning over his protests, and an inquisitive frown puckered his face.
"Please," Freya begged, lifting her arms higher. The husky wobble in her voice grabbed her son's attention. She was trembling all over. A restless stir was starting up around the foyer because the onlookers were uncomfortable with what was happening here, though they were not sure as to what that actually was.
Then Fredo switched his gaze to a place over her right shoulder. Icy fingers of dread stroked right down Freya's spine because she knew he was looking to Enrico for instructions. One negative glint from those angry black eyes and it would take an army to drag her son free.
"Monkey?" Nicky questioned, and startled the tough Fredo Scarsozi into glancing at him. Then the big man's mouth stretched into a reluctant grin.
"Gratzi, bambino," he murmured drily.
Nicky grinned, too, all white baby teeth and excruciating little-boy charm.
"Please give him back to me," Freya begged un-steadily.
"Do as she says," Enrico coldly put in.