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'There's someone here to see you. A man
Darcey looked up from her desk, surprised that her usually unflappable secretary sounded flustered.
'He says his name is Salvatore Castellano,' Sue continued. 'He has been referred to you by James Forbes and wishes to arrange speech therapy for his daughter.'
'But James knows that the unit is closing.' Darcey was puzzled. James Forbes was head of the paediatric cochlear implant programme at the hospital and he had been vociferous in his condemnation of the financial cuts affecting the speech therapy unit.
Sue shrugged. 'I explained that, but Mr Castellano is insistent that he wants to see you.' She added in a conspiratorial voice, 'I think he's used to getting his own way, and he is demanding to speak to you. He's very Mediterraneanyou know the type Dark and intense. I know I shouldn't say this when I've been married to Brian for twenty-four years, but he's hot'
He was demanding to see her? Darcey's brows rose, but she had to admit she was intrigued by this man who was responsible for turning Sue into a wilting heap of hormones. Fortunately she had no concerns that he might have the same effect on her. She was off hot men. From now on she would be perfectly happy with lukewarm and safe, perhaps even slightly boring, but definitely not a showman like her ex-husband.
She glanced out of the window and noticed a sleek black saloon car parked next to her Mini. Her contract with the health authority had been terminated and she did not have to meet this Salvatore Castellano. But what the hell? There was only an empty house waiting for her, and a solitary dinnerif she could be bothered to cook.
'You'd better show him in.'
Sue stepped back into the corridor and Darcey returned to the task of clearing the drawers in her desk. The filing cabinets had been emptied and all that remained to do was take down the certificates on the wall which gave details of her qualifications: BSc (Hons), MSc in Speech and Language Therapy and an Advanced Clinical Skills Diploma for speech and language therapists to work with the deaf.
It was a pity that being an expert in her field had not been enough to save her job, she thought ruefully. The Inner London health authority's budget had been drastically cut and she had been made redundant. Losing her job had forced her to think about her futureand acknowledge the necessity of coming to terms with her past. Her decision to take a career break for a couple of months over the summer was primarily so that she could make plans for the private practice she intended to set up. But, more importantly, she was hoping to put her divorce behind her and get over her cheating rat of an ex-husband once and for all.
Her gaze fell on the nameplate on her desk. She had become Darcey Rivers when she had married Marcus and had kept his name after the divorce because she was reluctant to revert back to her maiden name and the notoriety that went with it. It had been painfully humiliating when she had realised that Marcus had married her because he had hoped that joining the famous theatrical Hart family would boost his acting career. Unfortunately she had been so in love with him, so bowled over by his wit and charm and undeniable good looks, that with uncharacteristic impulsiveness she had accepted his proposal four months after they'd met.
Darcey walked over to the window and picked up the potted plant on the sill. She had inherited the Maidenhair Fern two years ago, when she had taken up the post of senior specialist speech and language therapist. It had been half-dead and Sue had offered to throw it outapparently this type of fern was notoriously difficult to grow successfully. But Darcey liked a challenge, and under her care the plant had thrived and was now a mass of bright green lacy leaves.
'Don't worry, I'll take you home with me,' she murmured. She had read that plants responded if you talked to them, and her words of encouragement seemed to have workedalthough that was strictly between her and the fern. After all, she was a highly educated professional and sensible was her middle name; her family and friends would be astonished if they knew that she talked to plants.
The office door opened again, and she turned her head to see Sue usher a man into the room. Sunlight streamed through the window and danced across his rugged features. Darcey's first thought was that he was nothing like Marcus. But neither was he lukewarm, and he was definitely not safe. Now she understood what Sue had meant when she had said he was hot!
He looked as though he belonged to another century, when knights on horseback had fought bloody battles and rescued damsels in distress. Startled by the wild excesses of her imagination, Darcey forced herself to study him objectively, but the image of an ancient king still remained in her mind. Perhaps it was the dangerously sexy combination of black jeans and shirt and the well-worn leather jacket that emphasised the width of his shoulders. His height was equally impressive; the top of his head brushed the door frame and she estimated that he must be several inches over six feet tall.
Her heart gave a jolt as she raised her eyes to his face. He was not conventionally handsome like Marcus. Not a pretty boy. He was a man in the most masculine sense: hard-faced, square-jawed, with a strong nose and dark, penetrating eyes beneath heavy brows. His eyes gave away nothing of his thoughts and his mouth was set in an uncompromising line, as if he rarely smiled. His hair was thick and so dark it was almost black, falling to his shoulders. Darcey had a feeling that he cared little about his appearance and had no inclination to visit a barber.
As she stared at him she was aware of a coiling sensation in the pit of her stomach. The feeling was entirely sexual and utterly unexpected. She had felt dead inside since she had discovered that Marcus was sleeping with a glamour model with pneumatic breasts. The lightning bolt of desire that shot through her now was so intense it made her catch her breath. She sensed the power of the stranger's formidable physique and for the first time in her life acknowledged the fundamental difference between a man and a womanmale strength and feminine weakness.
She suddenly realised that she was holding her breath and released it on a shaky sigh. Somehow she managed to regain her composure and gave Salvatore Castellano a polite smile.
'Mr Castellano? How can I help you?'
He glanced at the nameplate on her desk and frowned. 'Are you Darcey Rivers?'
He spoke with a strong accent. Italian, Darcey guessed. There was an arrogance about him that set her on the defensive.
'Yes, I am,' she said coolly.
He looked unimpressed. 'I expected someone older.'
James Forbes had said that Darcey Rivers was an experienced and dedicated senior speech therapist. The description had put into Salvatore's mind an image of a grey-haired, professional-looking woman, possibly wearing a tweed suit and spectacles. Instead he was faced with a slip of a girl with a heart-shaped face and a sleek bob of conker-brown hair that gleamed like silk in the bright sunlight pouring through the window.
He skimmed his eyes over her petite figure, noting how her fitted suit, reminiscent of the style worn in the 1940s, emphasised her tiny waist and the gentle flare of her hips. Her legs were slender and he guessed she chose to wear three-inch stiletto heels to make her appear taller. Her face was pretty rather than beautiful; her mouth was too wide and her eyes too big for her small features, giving her an elfin quality. Beneath her jacket her blouse was buttoned up to her neck and he briefly wondered if she was as prim as her appearance suggested.
Darcey flushed beneath the stranger's intent appraisal. 'I'm sorry if I've disappointed you,' she said with heavy irony.
'I am not disappointed, Miss Rivers.'
His voice was deep-timbred, with a sensual huskiness that made the hairs on the back of Darcey's neck stand on end.
'I am merely surprised. You seem young to be so highly qualified.'
Darcey knew she looked a good five years less than her age. Perhaps when she reached fifty she would be glad to look younger, but at university and at job interviews she had struggled to be taken seriously. Of course her name had not helped. Once people realised she was a member of the famous Hart family they were surprised that she had not followed her parents onto the stage. At least Salvatore Castellano was unaware of her family connection. But she felt irritated that he had mentioned her youthful appearance.
'I'm twenty-eight,' she told him tightly. 'And Rivers is my married name.'
His expression was inscrutable, 'My apologies, Mrs Rivers.'
Why on earth had she said that? Darcey asked herself. Intimating that she was married had been a subconscious response to his comment that she looked young. 'Actually, I prefer Ms Rivers.'
His shuttered expression did not alter, but she had an unsettling feeling that his dark eyes could see inside her head. Sue had gone, and he closed the door with a decisive click and walked across the office.
'I'm glad we've got that settled,' he murmured drily. 'Now, perhaps we can sit down and I will explain the reason for my visit?'
His arrogance was infuriating. Twin spots of colour flared on Darcey's cheeks and she had half a mind to tell him to get lost, but she hesitated when she noticed that he walked with a pronounced limp.
'A fractured femurthe result of a car accident,' he said curtly. 'My leg is held together with a lot of fancy metalwork.'
She was embarrassed that he had caught her staring at him. He made her feel as if she was sixteen again, immature and unsure of herself, lacking the self-confidence that the other members of her family possessed.
'Don't act like a timid mouse, darling girl,' had been her father's regular refrain. 'Project yourself to the audience and believe in yourselfbecause if you don't how can you expect anyone else to?'
It was all very well for her father, Darcey had often thought. Joshua Hart had earned a reputation as one of the finest Shakespearian actors in a career that had spanned three decades. Charismatic, exciting and unpredictable, he could also be distant with his children when he was focused on an acting role. As well as being an actor he was a brilliant playwright, and three of his plays had been performed in the West End. The one thing Joshua Hart certainly did not lack was self-belief.
'Acting is in your blood,' he'd often told Darcey. 'How could it not be, with the combination of genes you have inherited from your mother and me?'
Her mother, Claudia, was a gifted actress, and Darcey's brother and her two sisters had all followed their parents into the theatre. She was especially close to her younger sister Mina, and was proud of how she had overcome her disability to become a respected actress.
Only Darcey had chosen a different career path, and Joshua had not hidden his disappointment. Sometimes Darcey felt her father had taken her decision not to uphold the Hart family tradition and train at RADA as a personal affront. He had never been the easiest man to get on with, and in recent years she had sensed a divide between them that she longed to breach.
Salvatore Castellano's curt voice snapped her back to the present. Without waiting for an invitation he pulled out the chair by her desk and sat down, stretching his injured leg stiffly out in front of him. Darcey decided that she needed to take control of the situation.
'I'm afraid I can only spare you a few minutes, Mr Castellano,' she said briskly. 'I have a busy afternoon.'
His brows rose. 'You mean you are holding appointments today? James Forbes led me to believe that the speech therapy unit has closed down.'
Flushing, because in actual fact she had nothing planned for the rest of the day, Darcey walked behind her desk and sat down, placing the potted fern in front of her like a barrier. 'So it has. I'm only here today to clear my office. Once I've finished I have personal things to do.'
What kind of things? Salvatore wondered. Was she going home to her husband? Maybe to spend a lazy summer's afternoon making love? Glancing at her left hand, he was intrigued to see she was not wearing a wedding ring. He frowned. Ms Darcey Rivers's private life was of no interest to him. All he was interested in was her professional expertise.
'I have come to see you, Ms Rivers, because I wish to employ a speech therapist who specialises in working with deaf children, and specifically children who have cochlear implants,' he said abruptly. 'My five-year-old daughter had bilateral implants fitted two months ago. Rosa is profoundly deaf. She communicates using sign language but she has no audio-language skills.'
Darcey breathed in the subtle tang of his sandalwood cologne and a quiver of awareness shot through her. She wished now that she had not sat down at her desk, because rather than giving her a sense of authority all she could think was that, close up, Salvatore Castellano was devastatingly sexy.
For heaven's sake! She gave herself a mental shake and concentrated on what he had told her. 'Did your daughter have the implants fitted in England?'
'Yes. James Forbes is her audiologist.'
'Then James must have explained that although the unit here is closing the speech therapy programme will still continue at the hospital, but on a smaller scale and with fewer therapistswhich unfortunately will probably mean a longer waiting list before children can be assessed,' she said ruefully.
'James treated Rosa as a private patient. She does not qualify for the post-implant speech therapy programme provided by your National Health Service.'
'I see,' Darcey said slowly. 'In that case, why did James recommend me to you? Even if the speech therapy unit here wasn't closing, your daughter would not be eligible for me to assess her because I am employedwas employed,' she amended with a grimace, 'by the local health authority.'
'James said that you intend to establish a private practice.'
'I hope to do so in the future, but my immediate plans are to take a break from work and spend the summer in the South of France. I'm sorry I can't help you, Mr Castellano, but I can give you the names of several speech therapists who I'm sure would be willing to work with your daughter.'
Nothing on Salvatore Castellano's chiselled features indicated that he was disappointed by her response, but there was a steely implacability in his voice.
'James says you are the best in the business.' He speared Darcey with his penetrating stare. 'I want the absolute best for my daughter, and I am prepared to pay whatever fee you decide to charge for your expert knowledge.'
She frowned. 'It's not about money '
'Experience has taught me that it is always about money, Ms Rivers.'