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Jet-lagged and irritable, Fabian Moritzzoni pressed his fingers between his brows and sighed heavily. Finally, in complete exasperation, he rose up from his seat. Outside, the sound of passionately raised voices sliced through the atmospherean ill-timed bombardment he was unprepared for and could well have done without. And the loudest voice of all belonged to his housekeeper, Maria.
By the time Fabian reached the twin front doors of his palatial home, the tail-lights of a battered silver Fiat were careening away at speed down the wide, gravelled drive, and Maria stood glaring after them, her hands planted firmly on her amply fleshed hips as though she was quite prepared to take on the whole Roman army if she had to.
Are we being invaded?' Fabian demanded in his native Italian. 'Because that's what it sounds like!'
'The nerve of these people! The audacity! Who do they think they are?' Turning her affronted gaze towards her employer, Maria passionately elaborated, 'They were from the press, Signor Moritzzoni. I caught them sneaking around, taking pictures of the villa. Then, when I confronted them, they demanded an interview with you about the anniversary concert and about the celebrities that are going to be there. I sent them packing with a flea in their ear, I can tell you!'
'They should be speaking to Carmela if they want an interview. No doubt she has organised something to that effect already.'
Shaking his head from side to side, Fabian sighed. Then, in spite of his irritable mood, he found himself succumbing to the wryest of grins.
'I am fortunate indeed to have you around to protect my privacy, Maria. It is better than having a personal guard! But do me a favour, eh? Keep the volume down first thing in the morning respect for my poor head, yes?'
'Of course, Signor Moritzzoni. Shall I make your coffee now and bring it to you?'
'That would be very good. Thank you.'
Taking his espresso coffee with him, Fabian followed the long, winding concrete path down to the elegant orangerie at the end of his lush private garden. Sitting down beside an intricately fashioned wrought-iron table outside on the terrace, he glanced back towards the graceful Palladian house that dazzled in the early-morning Tuscan sunshine, and at the plethora of pristine white marquees that had been erected in front of it. At the end of the coming week those marquees would be milling with the cream of Italian glitterati, as well as family and friends, all attending the now famous concert that Fabian organised every year in memory of Roberto Moritzzonihis father.
The house was, inevitably, a hive of activity, in preparation for the big event. Add to that the altercation outside earlier with the press, and he craved some time alone to drink his coffee and think his thoughts in peace. Although the notion of peace and his father definitely did not go hand in hand
The prospect of the coming concert had been playing on Fabian's mind for days now, and had induced the tension and irritation in him that he'd come to know only too well. Add to that a frightening schedule, travelling here there and everywhere, and he had to own to not receiving the same satisfaction and pleasure from his work as he normally did. As a highly successful businessman, dealing in valuable art as well as giving support to several important and worthy charities, his presence seemed to be in almost constant demand, and lately he had had the compelling notion that he ought to jump ship for a while and really look at where his life was going. God knew, a review was well overdue.
Scraping his hand through the strands of his dark gold hair, he grimaced. With such a gruelling work schedule a restorative vacation seemed light years away, never mind the possibility of the other pressing item that had been on his mind of latemarriage and children.
'So this is where you are hiding. Maria said that she'd seen you head this way.'
Her pretty mouth shaped into a teasing grin, his PA, Carmela, suddenly hove into view. He'd been so preoccupied with his thoughts that Fabian hadn't even registered her approach. Inevitably accompanied by her trusty notepad and pen, she was clearly primed and ready for work. So much for time on his own to sit in quiet contemplation!
'I have been back but one day in my own house, after my trip to America, and it is like returning to a football stadium! Apart from my private suite, I swear there is not one room anywhere that is not overflowing with people! Do you wonder that I have to hide?' Fabian grumbled.
Carmela gave him another broad grin. 'Poor Fabian! But I have some good news for you, so perhaps hearing it will cheer you up.'
And what is this good news you have to cheer me? You are not going on honeymoon just before the concert after all?'
Carmela's grin disappeared. 'Of course I am going on honeymoon, Fabian! I have already postponed it once in deference to the demands of work. Vincente is a patient man, but not that patient! No I came to tell you that my friend Laura will be arriving from the UK later on this afternoon, and I will be showing her the ropes so that she can take over from me when I leave the day after tomorrow.'
'Stepping into your shoes and handling such an important event is a big responsibility to put on the shoulders of a novice, Carmela. Are you sure this friend of yours will be up to the task?'
'She's been a music teacher for some years now, and has also organised some local concerts where she lives, so she's not exactly inexperienced. And she will, of course, be very familiar with the artistic aspect of the work.'
'Does she speak Italian?' Pressing his fingers against the tender spot between his dark gold brows again, Fabian winced, as though some medieval instrument of torture was doing its best to bring him to his knees.
'She's a very fast learner, and when I was at school with her in London she was always top of the class in languages. Anyway, your own English is practically perfect, so you won't have to worry.'
'Good just as long as she does not expect me to hold her hand and guide her every step! Quite frankly, I will be very glad when this whole tedious affair is over and my home can return to normal.'
Tossing back her head of raven curls, Carmela took instant umbrage. 'The concert is a wonderful event that raises a lot of money for the children's hospice. Surely you do not regard the privilege of holding it as "tedious", Fabian?'
'Of course not! That is not what I meant at all!' Now it was his turn to display offence. 'Okay,' he continued impatiently, 'let us get back to your friend. I am very grateful that you have found her for us. Has she been to Tuscany before?'
'No. I have invited her many times, but in the past few years things have been rather difficult for her, and circumstances did not allow her to make the trip. She tells me she is definitely overdue for some sunshine, and I know she will fall in love with this place and the beautiful Villa de Rosa who could not? That reminds me I must speak with Maria to check if Laura's rooms are ready. That is the other positive aspect of the situation that should help make things less stressful for you, Fabian. She'll be here on the premises whenever you need her. Shall I get you another coffee? That one looks as though it is going cold.'
'Please.' Pushing the cup in its matching cream saucer towards Carmela, Fabian could no longer suffer in silence. 'And bring me a glass of water and something for a headache, will you?'
'Perhaps you shouldn't have any more coffee if you have a headache?'
'So you are my mother now, as well as my assistant?'
'I was only trying to'
'You should know by now I am impossible without my coffee in the morning! But take heart, Carmela In a day or two you won't have to think of my needs. It will be your very fortunate husband who will command all your attention!'
Yet again her boss's wry humour prevented her from feeling too indignant, and his young assistant immediately forgave him his grouchy mood. She realised he had a lot on his plate, and that he was probably handling it a lot better than most would do in his situation.
'I will bring what you ask and make sure you are not disturbed for an hour at least will that help?'
'If you can do that you are a miracle-worker!'
'A moment ago I was your mother!'
Rolling her eyes heavenwards, Carmela hurried away, and as he watched her retreat Fabian found himself considering yet again the rather intricate subject of a wife and heir. Intricate because he was not at present in a relationship, nor intended to be. When a man had been scorched by flame once in his life he got wise to the danger, and learned never to stand so close to the fire again. But he was thirty-seven years old, and time was not standing still.
Because of his considerable wealth, and the responsibilities that came with the ownership of the palatial Villa de Rosathe home that had been in his family for centurieshe needed a son or daughter to inherit. No there simply had to be another way to get what he wanted other than embarking on some doomed love affair. Over the next few days he would seriously apply himself to finding the solution.
'It's so good to have you here at last! It's been such a long time too long! Of course I am looking forward to my honeymoon, but it would be so nice to be able to spend some time with you. Promise me you won't run off straight away when I return in two weeks' time?'
Regarding the perfectly groomed, curvaceous brunette who had been her best friend at school, Laura wondered how the intervening years since they'd last met had flown by so quickly. It had been at least ten years since they'd seen each other. Of course they'd kept in regular contact by letter and e-mail, and sometimes by phone, but it wasn't the same as seeing someone on a regular basis and having the chance to deepen your friendship with them. But now that she was here in Tuscany Laura was determined to make the best of the opportunity that had fortuitously come her way.
Carmela's offer of a jobalbeit a temporary one had been a Godsend, quite frankly. Laura didn't even mind that this was to be no holiday, because music was her absolute passion. Just to be around it would do wonders for her spirit and morale, she was certain.
'I don't have a job to return to as yet, Carmela,' she answered now. 'So I have nothing to rush back to the UK for.'
'That is good to hear. Not that you don't have a job, of course, but that you will be able to stay and visit me properly!'
'I've been looking forward to renewing our friendship for a long time.'
Laura crossed her arms over the pretty white antique lawn and lace blouse she wore with a pastel blue skirt, and her smile was genuinely heartfelt. Then, with a soft sigh, she turned her grey eyes away for a moment, drawn by the beautiful sunlit gardens she saw through the huge Palladian windows.
The white roofs of the elegant marquees glinting in the afternoon sunshine reminded her of a medieval joust, where richly dressed lords and ladies would make their entrance at any moment to take their seats for the coming performance. The sea of white made a stunning contrast against the surrounding shimmering green of the perfectly mown lawns. In the distance was an ornate white marble balustrade, with steps just beyond it leading into what was clearly a much more private section of the garden. Meanwhile, the scents of honeysuckle and wisteria drifted through the opened windows, filling the air with a soporific fusion of rare delight. It was like stepping into a dream
'And what do you think of your rooms?' the dark-haired girl pressed eagerly. 'I've put you near the back of the house, where it is a bit more private should Fabian have guests staying, and the views from your windows are quite spectacular!'
'They're lovely, Carmelajust lovely! I shall be able to indulge every girl's fantasy of being a princess with such elegant rooms to myself, as well as sleeping in that beautiful four-poster bed!'
'Carmelahave you spoken to the press yet? This morning they Excuse me. I did not realise that you had company.'
At the sound of that richly voiced Italian, Laura turned. Viewing the man that was responsible for it, she saw him momentarily hesitate, his glance sweeping over her with mild surprise, before entering the room. There was a strange kind of tension immobilising her, that made her thought-processes feel as if someone had pressed a slow motion button. Was this Carmela's boss? If it was, he was the antithesis of what she'd been expecting.
Golden-haired, blue-eyed, with a strong, lean jaw and of an imposing height, he might easily have hailed from Denmark, Sweden or even Germany. Yet the confident, slightly arrogant way he bore himself, and the way he wore his clothesas though they and he were in complete enviable accordeasily convinced her he was a true son of Italy.
Azure, they called the colour that was so reminiscent of the Mediterranean, and that was the startling hue conveyed by this man's disturbingly direct glance as he focused it on Laura. Feeling heat assail her from all sides, seh quickly looked awaytaken aback that she should experience such an emphatic reaction to someone she'd only just met.