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The bed on which they both lay naked was high, draped with richly sensuous silk fabric. But its touch against her flesh was nowhere near as sensuously erotic as his touch, nor could the whisper of the fabric's kiss compare with the fierce passion of his kiss.
His face was in the shadows, but she knew its features by heart—from the burning intensity of his dark eyes through the arrogance of his profile to the explicit sensuality of his mouth. Excited pleasure curled and then kicked through her. Simply looking at him awoke and aroused the woman in her in a way and at a level that no other man ever could. Just as she was the only woman who was woman enough to truly complement him as a man. They were made for one another, a perfect match, and they both knew it. Only here, with him, could she truly be herself and let down her guard to share her longing and her love.
He made her ache for him in a thousand—no, a hundred thousand different ways, and the way his knowing smile lifted the corners of his mouth told her that he knew that her whole body shuddered in mute delight at the slow, deliberate stroke of his fingertips along the curve of her breast.
She sucked in her breath and closed her eyes. His stroking hand moved lower, over her quivering belly, and then lower
Guiltily Leonora shook herself out of her daydream and warned herself that if she didn't start getting ready and stop wasting time she was going to be late.
What a fool she was. Her brothers would certainly think so. She could just imagine the hoots of derision with which they would have greeted her fantasy—and the secret of her own deeply sensual nature.
That was the trouble with growing up a girl sandwiched in the middle of two brothers. The three of them had been born so close together that Piers was only eighteen months older than her, and Leo a year younger. The fact that they had lost their mother so early, killed by a speeding driver as she was on her way to meet them from junior school, had naturally affected them all—including their father, an ex-professional sportsman who had retired from his sport to manage and then take over a sportswear manufacturing company. Their father had believed in fostering competition between his children as a way of preparing them for the adult world. He was also very much a stiff-upper-lip kind of man. After their mother's death Leonora had felt she had to work even harder at being 'one of the boys' for her father's sake, so that she wouldn't let the side down by crying like a girl.
Her father loved them all very much, but he was an old-fashioned man's man, and he hadn't been very good at showing that love to a motherless daughter. Not that Leonora blamed him for anything. In fact she was fiercely defensive of both him and her brothers, and they were even as adults a close-knit family. But not so close knit that they hadn't welcomed their new stepmother when their father had remarried three years ago. But watching her father unbend and get in touch with his emotions under the gentle tutelage of his second wife had reinforced for Leonora how much she had lost with her mother.
It was only her pride that kept her going sometimes, as she struggled with her growing need to be the woman she instinctively knew she might have been against the often harsh reality of being the competitive tomboy girl her father had taught her to be. Sometimes she felt so helpless and lost that she was afraid that she would never find her real self. Sometimes when she was being true to her real self and one of her brothers laughed at her she felt so crushed that she retreated immediately into the combative sibling hostility of their childhood.
And sometimes, like now, she took refuge in private dreams.
The fact that she needed to fantasise about being with a man who loved and desired her, and with whom she could have wonderful sensual sex, instead of actually knowing what it felt like from first-hand experience was, of course, partly a result of the way she had grown up. Listening to her brothers discussing their own sexual experimentation had made her wary of being judged and found wanting, as they so often seemed to judge other girls.
Leonora didn't consider herself to be the cringing, oversensitive type, but there was something about the way her brothers, as pubescent boys, had talked about girls—giving them scores for availability, looks and sexual skill—that had made her believe that she never, ever wanted to wonder if some boy was talking to his friends about her in the way that her brothers had about girls. Because of that she had fought against and denied the depth of her own passionate nature, concealing it instead with a jokey 'one of the boys' manner.
Whilst other girls had been learning to be confident with their sexuality on their way to becoming women, somehow she had learned to fear hers.
It was different now, of course. Her brothers had grown up and, at twenty-seven and twenty-four, were well past the teenage stage of discussing their sex lives and their girlfriends with anyone.
She had grown up too, and at twenty-five felt uncomfortably self-conscious about her still-virginal state, and very thankful that no one, most especially her brothers, knew about it. Not that she allowed herself to think about her lack of sexual experience very often, other than in that self-protective jokey way she had developed. She had more important things to worry about, such as getting a job. Or rather getting the job, she admitted, as she stepped into the shower and turned on the water.
As children, all three of them had been skinny and tall. Whilst Piers and Leo had broadened out, Leonora—whilst not skinny—was still very slender for her five-feet-nine-inch height. But her skin was still golden from a late October holiday in the Canary Islands the previous year, and her breasts were softly rounded, with dark pert nipples, and just that bit too full for her to go braless. In her tomboy days she had longed to be able to do so, hating the unwanted restriction of 'girls' clothes' as she struggled to compete with her elder brother and at the same time make sure that her younger brother knew his place.
The life-long fate of the poor middle child, she thought ruefully, and a struggle that was still ongoing now.
She was out of the shower as speedily as she had stepped into it, crossing her bedroom floor on long, slim legs and drying herself as she did so, her long dark hair a tangle of damp curls.
Her pilot's uniform lay on the bed, and her heart did a somersault as she looked at it. Leo had complained so much about the loss of his spare uniform over Christmas, when they had all gone home to Gloucestershire to spend Christmas, that she had felt sure that someone in the family would suspect her—especially as Leo had already promised to let her take his place. But luckily nothing had been said.
Poor Mavis, who worked at the dry cleaners two streets away from the tiny London flat Leonora rented, had protested that there was no way she could adjust the jacket to fit her, never mind the hat. But Leonora had told her that she had every faith in her, and ultimately that faith had been rewarded.
Leonora knew that many of her friends thought that she was very lucky to work freelance, giving private lessons in Mandarin, but it hadn't been with becoming a language coach in mind that Leonora had honed her gift for languages, adding Russian and Mandarin to her existing French and Italian.
Life just wasn't fair at times, and it seemed to treat a person even more unfairly when she was a girl with two brothers. She had been the one to say first that more than anything else she wanted to learn to fly and become an airline pilot, but it was her younger brother who was now on his way to having her dream job—piloting the privately owned jet of the billionaire owner of a private airline based near Florence—whilst she, with all her flying qualifications, was teaching Mandarin. But then, as her elder brother had commented on more than one occasion, it was her own fault for insisting on qualifying in a world in which it was always going to be difficult for a woman to make her mark.
There were women pilots, of course—any number of them, but a humdrum job flying in and out of one of Britain's regional airports wasn't what Leonora wanted. Nor was it what she had trained for. No—her aspirations went much higher than that.
As a middle child, and a girl sandwiched between two brothers, Leonora felt as though she'd had to fight all her life to make her voice heard and her presence felt. Well, today she was certainly going to be doing that, when she took her brother's place at the controls of the private jet belonging to the owner of Avanti Airlines.
Leo had tried to wriggle out of letting her do it, as she had known he would, but she had reminded him that he owed her a birthday present and a big, big favour for introducing him to Angelica, his stunningly beautiful Polish girlfriend.
'Be reasonable,' he had protested. 'I can't possibly let you take my place.'
But Leonora had no intention of being reasonable. Reasonable went with the kind of girls who were sexually self-assured, whom men adored and flirted with. Not someone like her, who had put up barriers around herself, acting the jokey tomboy, always ready for a dare. She had done it for so long that she didn't think she would ever be able to find her way back to the woman she might have been. Far easier now to simply carry on being outrageous, always ready to challenge either of her brothers—or indeed any man—at his own game and win, than to admit that sometimes she longed desperately to be a different kind of girl.
Alessandro had been frowning when he left the meeting he had come to London to attend, and he was still frowning twenty minutes later, when he got out of the limousine at the Carlton Tower Hotel, despite the fact that the meeting had gone very well.
A tall man, he carried himself with what other men often tended to think was arrogance but which women knew immediately was the confidence of a man who knew what it was to experience the true give and take of sensual pleasure. The facial features stamped onto the sun-warmed Sicilian flesh might have been those of a warrior Roman Emperor tempered by endurance into a fierce strength. They signalled that pride, and a sense of being set apart from or even above other men. His dark hair, with its strong curl, was close-cropped to his head, and the eyes set beneath dark brows and framed with thick dark lashes were an extraordinary shade of dark grey. When he moved there was a leanness about his movements, a hint of the hunter intent on the swift capture of its prey. Men treated him with wary respect. Women were intrigued by him and desired him.
The doorman recognised him and greeted him by name, and the pretty receptionist eyed him covertly as he strode through the foyer, busy with designer-clad women and their escorts, heading for the lift.
In his jacket pocket was the cause of his irritation—a formal invitation, and with it a letter that was more a command than a fraternal request, from his elder brother, reminding him that his presence would be expected at the weekend of celebrations to mark the nine-hundredth anniversary of the granting to his family of their titles. They were due to begin tomorrow evening, and were being held at the family's main residence on Sicily. His absence was not an option.
And of course whenever Falcon, the eldest of the three of them, made such a statement it was the duty of his younger siblings to support him—just as he had always supported them during the years of their shared childhood when they had suffered so much.
On this occasion, though, Rocco, their younger brother, had been granted a leave of absence from his family duty as he was on honeymoon, and Alessandro had thought that he was going to get away with not going in view of the buyout negotiations he was involved in with another airline. But Falcon's ironic sending of the formal invitation together with a letter of reminder made it plain that he expected Alessan-dro to be there.
He and Falcon would be the only two of their father's sons to attend, with Rocco away. Antonio, their younger half-brother, would not be there. He was dead, killed in a car accident, as a result of which their father, who had loved his youngest son with far more emotion and intensity than he had felt for his eldest three all put together, had developed a terminal heart condition from which he was not expected to survive for more than a year at best.
Only his own brothers could know and understand why Alessandro felt so little sorrow at the thought of his father's demise, since they had all shared the same childhood. It was Antonio their father had loved, not them. No one had loved them. Not their mother, whose death after Rocco's birth had meant that she had not been there to love them, and certainly not their father.
Alessandro gazed towards the window, not seeing the view of Carlton Gardens that lay beyond it but seeing instead the dark shadows of Castello Leopardi, and the room where he had lain staring into the darkness after his father had mocked him for crying for his dead mother.
'Only a fool and a weakling fool cries for a woman. But then that is exactly what you are—a worthless second son who will never be anything other than second best. Remember that when you are a man, Alessandro. All you will ever be is second best.'
Second best. How those words had tortured and haunted him. And how they had driven him as well.
But it had not been his first-born, Falcon, whom their father had loved beyond reason. It had been Antonio, the only child of their father's second marriage to a woman who had been his mistress for years, who had humiliated and shamed their own mother with their father's help. Antonio—sly, manipulative, well aware of the power he'd had over their father's affections and how to make use of it to his own best advantage—had not been liked by any of his three halfbrothers, but Alessandro acknowledged that he'd probably had more reason to dislike him than either of his siblings.
He might have distanced himself now from the boy he had been—the child who had grown up being told by his father that his only role in life was to play second fiddle to his elder brother, a spare heir in case anything should happen to Falcon—but the scars from having grown up always feeling that he had to justify his existence and prove that he was of value were still there.