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Annie rubbed her eyes. Well shaped and an intense shade of almost violet-blue, with thick long eyelashes, they were eyes any woman could be proud ofif they hadn't been aching with tiredness and feeling as though they were filled with grit. She lifted her hand, its wrist so slender that it looked dangerously fragile, pushing the heavy weight of her shoulder-length, naturally blonde and softly curling hair off her face. Normally she wore it scraped back in a neat knot, but Ollie had grabbed it earlier when she had been giving him his bath, and in the end it had been easier to leave it down. She loved her baby so much. He meant everything to her, and there was nothing she wouldn't do to protect him and keep him safe. Nothing.
She had been reading all evening. Part-time freelance research work didn't pay very wellcertainly not as well as her previous job, which had been working as a researcher for a novelist turned playwright. Tom had paid her very well indeed, and he and his wife had become good friends. Annie's face clouded. The lighting in her small one-bedroom flat didn't really give off enough light for the demanding work she was doingeven if it was energy-efficient.
Next to her work on the cramped space of the small folding table there was a letter from her stepbrother amongst the post forwarded from her old address. She shivered and looked over her shoulder, almost as though she feared that Colin himself might suddenly materialise out of the ether.
Colin was living in the house that had originally belonged to her father, which should have been hers. He had stolen it from herjust as he had stolen She flinched, not wanting to think about herstepbrother.
But there were times when she had to do so, for Ollie's safety. Her stepbrother disapproved of the fact that she had kept Ollie, instead of having him put up for adoption as he had wanted her to do. But nothing could make her willingly part with her babynot even Colin's attempts to make her feel guilty for keeping him. He had insisted, that someone elsea couplewould give him a better life than she could as a single mother. Colin could be very convincing and persuasive when he wanted to be. She had been desperately afraid that he would win others over to his cause.
Sometimes she felt that she would never be able to stop looking over her shoulder, afraid that Colin had tracked them down and that somehow he would succeed in parting her from her son.
She would never even have told him about her pregnancy, but Susie, the wife of the author she had been working for when 'it'her rape by Antonio Leopardi had happened, had thought she was doing her a favour by writing to him and telling him what had happened. Susie had been thrilled when Colin had offered her a home after Ollie's birth, and all the support she needed.
Annie had refused his offer, though. She, after all, knew him far better than Susie did. Instead she had stayed in her flat, using the excuse that she wanted Ollie to be born at the local hospital because of its excellent reputation.
Colin had refused to be put off and had insisted on continuing to visit her. Initially he had even pretended that he agreed with her decision to keep her baby once it was born, but that pretence had soon vanished once he'd realised that Antonio Leopardi was not going to respond to Colin's demand for financial support for his son.
Not that Colin had said anything of this to Susie and Tom, who had been so kind to her.
In the end Annie had begun to feel so desperate and so pressured, afraid that somehow Colin might succeed in forcing her and her baby apart, that a few weeks after Ollie's birth, whilst Colin had been away in Scotland, sorting out the affairs of an elderly cousin of his father's who had recently died, she had decided not to renew the lease on her existing flat and to move away instead, to start a new life for herself and Ollie.
Without telling anyone what she was doingnot even Susie and Tom, who had so obviously been taken in by Colinshe had found herself a new flat and new work, and then she had simply disappeared, leaving strict instructions that her forwarding address must remain confidential. It had been easy enough to do in a big city like London.
That had been five months ago now. But she still didn't feel safenot one little bit.
She had felt guilty not saying anything to Susie and Tom, but she couldn't afford to take any risks. They didn't know Colin as she did, and they didn't know what he was capable of doingor how intensely single-minded he could be. She shivered again, remembering how unhappy she had been when their parents had first married, and how she had tried to explain to her mother how apprehensive and ill at ease Colin had made her feel, with his concentrated focus on her, watching everything she did.
He had been away at university then, aged nineteen to her twelve, but after their parents had marriedhe had decided to change courses, and had ended up living at home and travelling daily to his new university.
Colin had taken a dislike to her best friend Claire, and Annie's mother had suggested to Annie that it might be better if Claire didn't come to the house any more after an incident during which Colin had nearly reversed his father's car into Claire whilst she had been riding her bike.
And now Colin had taken a dislike to Ollie. Annie shivered again.
She had never known her own father. A soldier, from a long line of army men, he had died in an ambush abroad before she had been born. But Annie had been very happy growing up with her mother.
Her father had left them very well provided forthere had been money in his family which had come down to him, and Annie's mother had always told Annie it would ultimately come down to her. But now it was Colin's, because her mother had died before her second husband, meaning that the house had passed into his hands and then into Colin's. The home that should have been hers and Oliver's was denied to them.
Automatically she looked anxiously towards her son's cot. Ollie was fast asleep. Unable to resist the temptation, she got up and went to stand looking down at him. He was so beautiful, so perfect, that sometimes just looking at him filled her with so much awe and love that she felt as though her heart would burst with the pressure of it. He was a good baby, healthy and happy, and so gorgeouswith his head of silky dark curls and his startling blue-grey eyes with thick black lashesthat people constantly stopped to admire him. He was bright too, and full of curiosity about the world around him.
They adored him at the council-run nursery where she had to leave him every weekday whilst she went off to her cleaning jobthe only other work she had been able to get without too many questions being asked. Most of the others on the team of agency cleaners she worked with were foreignhard working, but reluctant to talk very much about themselves.
Her present life was a world away from the world in which she had grown up and the future she had expected to have. Ollie's childhood, unlike hers, would not be spent in a large comfortable house with its own big garden on the edge of a picturesque Dorset village. The area of the city where they lived was run-down, with large blocks of flatsonce she would have been horrified at the thought of living here, but now she welcomed its anonymity and its fellow inhabitants, who neither welcomed questions nor asked them.
Ollie opened his eyes and looked up at her, giving her a beaming smile. Annie felt her insides melt. She loved him so much. What an extraordinary thing mother love was empowering her to love her son despite the horror of his conception.
She flinched again. She tried never to think about what had happened to her in Cannes. Mercifully she had no memory of her ordeal, thanks to the drug that had been slipped into her drink. Susie, who had found her in her room, still drugged and dazed late in the morning after the night of the rape, had wanted her to go to the police but she had refusedtoo much in shock and too fearful to trust them to believe her. Susie had been wonderfully kind to her. Annie missed her kindness and her friendship.
Like Colin, Susie had felt that her rapist should be forced at least to financially support his child, and it had been Susie who had supplied her stepbrother with Antonio's namesomething Annie herself had refused to do.
Annie hadn't been surprised when Antonio had refused to do anything, and she had felt relieved when she had read in the papers about Antonio's death. Now there would never be any need for Ollie to have to learn about his father or how he had been conceived. Unless Colin found them.
Her stomach clenched. He couldn't. He mustn't. And she mustn't think about him doing so just in case somehow her thoughts enabled it to happen.
She thought of herself as a logical, realistic sort of person, well aware of the harsh reality of life, but sometimes at times like this, when she felt so dreadfully alone, she wished that there were such a thing as fairy godmothers who, with one wave of a magical wand, could somehow transport her and Ollie to a place where they could be together and safe, where Colin simply couldn't reach them.
If she believed in fairy godmothers, guardian angels and wishes then that would be her wishbut of course she didn't. And wishes couldn't come true just because one wished them.
The foyer of the five-star hotel was empty of any of its wealthy guests as Annie got down on her hands and knees to remove a piece of trodden-down chewing gum from the marble floor. Her shift was actually over, but the receptionistwho seemed to have taken a dislike to her had insisted that she pick up the litter dropped, Annie was sure quite deliberately, by the woman who had walked through the lobby a few minutes earlier. Her high heels had clacked on the marble floor, and her look of contempt for Annie had been all too plain as she'd smoothed down the skirt of her no-doubt expensive outfit and then dropped the chewing gum on the floor.
The sun was shining outside, its brilliant rays getting in Annie's eyes and dazzling her. She blinked, raising her head in an attempt to avoid the too-bright light.
Falcon wasn't in a very good mood. He had flown into London earlier in the week and had gone straight to a meeting with the head of what was supposed to be the country's best missing person tracking agency, only to be told that whilst the agency had initially managed to identify Annie Johnson as the mother of Antonio's child, she had disappeared five months ago, taking her baby with her, and they had not as yet managed to find her.
Falcon had spent a fruitless afternoon with Annie's stepbrother, to whom he had taken an instant dislike, and now he had received a message from his youngest brother Rocco, telling him that their father's health had suffered a sudden decline.
'He's stable now, and back at the castello.' Rocco had told him. 'But the hospital says that he is very frail.'
He needed to be in Sicily, Falcon knew, he had a duty to his family to be there. But he also had a duty to this child conceived so casually by his half-brother, and denied by him as though he was no more than a piece of detritus. Falcon had never liked Antonio. He hadn't thought it was possible for his contempt for him to increase, but he had been wrong.
As he stepped into the foyer of his hotel, his eyes shielded from the glare of the sun by gold-rimmed discreetly non-logoed Cartier glasses, the first thing he saw was a cleaner, kneeling on the floor beside her bucket of dirty water. She was wearing a body-shrouding, washed-out blue overall and her hair was scraped back from her make-up-free face, but when she lifted her face to avoid the sunlight glaring into her eyes, Falcon's heart turned over inside his chest and his heart started to race.
It was her. There was no mistake. After all, he'd only just left the office where her photograph had been pinned to the file in front of him. There was no mistaking those intensely blue eyes, nor that elegantly boned and beautifully structured face, with its small straight nose and its softly full moutheven if right now her skin was drained of life and her expression etched in lines of exhaustion.
The hand she'd reached out to remove the flat grey-white pat of chewing gum that someone had left on the otherwise immaculate floor was red and swollen, her wrist thin and fragile, and her scraped back hair was out of sight beneath some sort of protective cover. But it was her. By some miracle, it was her.
The receptionist was still glowering at her, causing Annie to feel a sudden rush of anger. She had worked over her allotted hours, time for which she would not be paid, and the chewing gum wasn't her responsibility. She stood up abruptlyand then gasped as her action brought her into immediate physical contact with someone. Not just someone, she recognised as male hands came out to grab her, somehow sliding up under the gaping arms of her overall to fasten round her bare skin. His intention was to fend her off, she imagined, rather than save her from stumbling, since such a man was hardly likely to care about the fate of someone like her. He was wearing an expensive suit, his eyes shielded from her inspection by dark-lensed sunglasses, and his hair were dark and his skin tanned.
He was still holding herwaiting for her to apologise for daring to breathe the same air as him, she thought bitterly. She tugged away from him, only to have his grip on her arms tighten. She looked up at him. A discomforting feeling was running through her body, its source the point of contact between his hands and her skin. Her pulse had started to jump and she was breathing too fast as her heart raced. She felt dizzy, her lungs starved of oxygen as though she had forgotten how to breathe and yet she was breathingalthough very unsteadily.