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'You'll have to see him.'
Natalie could still hear the desperation and pleading in her mother's tone even as she pressed the call button for the lift leading up to Angelo Bellandini's swish London office. The words had taken up residence in her head. They had kept her awake for the last forty-eight hours. They had accompanied her like oversized baggage on the train all the way from her home in Edinburgh. They had clickety-clacked over the tracks until they had been like a mind-numbing mantra in her head.
'You'll have to see him. You'll have to see him. You'll have to see him.'
Not that she hadn't seen him in the last five years. Just about every newspaper and online blog had a photo or information about the playboy heir to the Bellandini fortune. Angelo Bellandini's fast-living lifestyle was the topic of many an online forum. His massive wealthof which, to his credit, only half was inherited; the other half had been acquired through his own hard workmade him a force to be reckoned with.
And now she had to reckon with him, on behalf of her wayward younger brother and his foolish actions.
A prickle of apprehension fluttered like a faceless, fast-footed creature down the length of her spine as she stepped into the glass and chrome capsule of the lift. Her hand shook slightly as she reached for the correct floor button.
Would Angelo even agree to see her, given the way she had walked out of his life five years ago? Would he hate her as much as he had once loved her? Would the passion and desire that had once burned in his dark brown gaze now be a blaze of hatred instead?
Her insides shifted uneasily as she stepped out of the lift and approached the reception area. Having grown up with comfortable wealth, she should not be feeling so intimidated by the plush and elegant surroundings. But when they had first met Angelo had never revealed to her the extent of his family fortune. To her he had been just a hard-working, handsome Italian guy, studying for a Master's degree in business. He had gone to considerable lengths to conceal his privileged backgroundbut then, who was she to talk?
She had revealed even less about hers.
'I'm afraid Signor Bellandini is unavailable at present,' his receptionist said in a crisp, businesslike tone in response to Natalie's request. 'Would you like to make an appointment for some other time?'
Natalie looked at the model-gorgeous young woman, with her perfectly smooth blonde hair and clear china-blue eyes, and felt her already flagging self-esteem plummet like an anchor to the basement. Even though in the lift she had reapplied lip-gloss and run her fingers through her nondescript flyaway brown hair, it was hardly the same as being professionally groomed. She was aware her clothes looked as if they had been slept in, even though she hadn't slept a wink for the last twenty-four hours, and that her normally peaches and cream complexion was grey with worry. There were damson-coloured shadows under her eyes and her cheeks had a hollow look to them. But then that happened every year at this time, and had done so since she was seven years old.
She straightened her shoulders with iron-strong resolve. She was not going to leave without seeing Angelo, even if she had to wait all day. 'Tell Signor Bellandini I'm only in London for the next twenty-four hours.' She handed her personal business card over the counter, as well as the card of the hotel she had booked for the night. 'I can be contacted on that mobile number or at my hotel.'
The receptionist glanced at the cards and then raised her eyes to Natalie's. 'You're Natalie Armitage?' she asked. 'The Natalie Armitage of Natalie Armitage Interiors?'
The receptionist's eyes sparkled with delight. 'I have some of your sheets and towels,' she said. 'I just adored your last spring collection. Because of me, all of my friends now have your stuff. It's so feminine and fresh. So original.'
Natalie smiled politely. 'Thank you.'
The receptionist leaned towards the intercom. 'Signor Bellandini?' she said. 'A Miss Natalie Armitage is here to see you. Would you like me to squeeze her in before your next client or make another appointment for later this afternoon?'
Natalie's heart stalled in that infinitesimal moment before she heard his voice. Would he sound surprised to find she was here in person? Annoyed? Angry?
'No,' he said evenly, his deep baritone and sexy accent like a silky caress on her skin. 'I will see her now.'
The receptionist led the way down an expansive corridor and smiled as she came to a door bearing a brass plaque with Angelo's name on it. 'You're very lucky,' she said in a conspiratorial undertone. 'He doesn't normally see clients without an appointment. Most people have to wait weeks to see him.' Her eyes sparkled again. 'Maybe he wants to slip between your sheets, so to speak?'
Natalie gave a weak smile and stepped through the door the receptionist had opened. Her eyes went straight to where Angelo was seated, behind a mahogany desk that seemed to have a football field of carpet between it and the door that had just clicked shut, like the door of a prison cell, behind her.
Her throat tightened. She tried to unlock it by swallowing, but it still felt as if a puffer fish was lodged halfway down.
He looked as staggeringly gorgeous as evermaybe even more so. The landscape of his face had barely changed, apart from two deep grooves that bracketed his unsmiling mouth. His raven-black hair was shorter than it had been five years ago, but it still curled lushly against the collar of his light blue business shirt. His face was cleanly shaven, but the dark pinpricks of persistent masculine stubble were clearly visible along his lean cheeks and stubbornly set jaw. His thickly lashed eyes were the same deep, espresso coffee brown, so dark she could not make out his pupils or his mood.
He rose to his feet, but whether it was out of politeness or a desire to intimidate Natalie wasn't quite sure. At six foot four he was impressively, imposingly tall. Even in heels she had to crane her neck to maintain eye contact.
She sent the tip of her tongue out to moisten her concrete-dry lips. She had to keep her cool. She had spent most of her life keeping her emotions under the strictest control. Now was not the time to show how worried she was about the situation with her brother. Angelo would feed off that and work it to his advantage. All she had to do was pay for the damage Lachlan had caused, then get out of here and never look back.
'Thank you for seeing me at short notice,' she said. 'I understand how busy you are. I won't take up too much of your time.'
Those incredibly dark, inscrutable eyes nailed hers relentlessly as he reached across to press the intercom. 'Fiona, postpone my engagements for the next hour,' he said. 'And hold all my calls. On no account am I to be interrupted.'
Natalie blinked at him as he straightened. 'Look, there's really no need to interrupt your busy schedule'
'There is every need,' he said, still holding her gaze with the force of his. 'What your brother did to one of my hotel rooms in Rome is a criminal offence.'
'Yes,' she said, swallowing again. 'I know. But he's been going through a difficult stage just now, and I'
One of his jet-black brows lifted satirically. 'What "difficult stage" would that be?' he asked. 'Has Daddy taken away his Porsche or cut back his allowance?'
She pressed her lips together, summoning control over emotions that were threatening to spill over. How dared Angelo mock what her brother had to deal with? Lachlan was a ticking time bomb. It was up to her to stop him from self-destructing. She hadn't been able to save her baby brother all those years ago, but she would move heaven and earth to get it right this time with Lachlan.
'He's just a kid,' she began. 'He's only just left school and'
'He's eighteen,' Angelo said through tight, angry lips. 'He's old enough to vote and in my opinion old enough to face up to the consequences of his actions. He and his drunken friends have caused over a hundred thousand pounds' worth of damage to one of my most prestigious hotels.'
Natalie's stomach nosedived. Was he exaggerating? The way her mother had described it had made her think it hadn't been much more than the cost of a carpet-clean and the replacement of a few furnishingsperhaps a repaint on one of the walls.
What had Lachlan been thinking? What on earth had made him go on such a crazy rampage?
'I'm prepared to reimburse you for the damage, but before I hand over any money I'd like to see the damage for myself,' she said, with a jut of her chin.
His dark eyes challenged hers. 'So you're prepared to foot the bill personally, are you?'
She eyeballed him back, even though her stomach was churning at the menacing look in his eyes. 'Within reason.'
His top lip curled. 'You have no clue about what you're letting yourself in for,' he said. 'Do you have any idea what your brother gets up to when he's out night-clubbing with his friends?'
Natalie was all too aware, and for the last few months it had been keeping her awake at night. She knew why Lachlan was behaving the way he was, but there was little she could do to stop him. Lachlan had been the replacement child after Liam had diedthe lost son reincarnated. Since birth he had been forced to live not his own life but Liam's. All the hopes and dreams their parents had envisaged for Liam had been transferred to Lachlan, and lately he had started to buckle under the pressure. She was terrified that one day soon he would go, or be pushed too far.
She already had one death on her hands. She could not bear to have another.
'How do you know Lachlan is responsible for the damage?' she asked. 'How do you know it wasn't one of his friends?'
Angelo looked at her with dagger-sharp eyes. 'The room was booked in his name,' he said. 'It was his credit card that was presented at check-in. He is legally responsible, even if he didn't so much as knock a cushion out of place.'
Natalie suspected her brother had done a whole lot more than rearrange a few sofa cushions. She had more than once witnessed him in the aftermath of one of his drinking binges. Lachlan wasn't a sleepy drunk or a happy, loquacious one. A few too many drinks unleashed a rage inside him that was as terrifying as it was sudden. And yet a few hours later he would have no memory of the things he had said and done.
So far he had managed to escape prosecution, but only because their rich and influential father had pulled in some favours with the authorities.
But that was here in Britain.
Right now Lachlan was at the mercy of the Italian authoritieswhich was why she had come to London to appeal to Angelo on his behalf. Of all the hotels in Rome, why had he stayed at one of Angelo Bellandini's?
Natalie opened her bag and took out her chequebook with a sigh of resignation. 'All right,' she said, hunting for a pen. 'I'll take your word for it and pay for the damage.'
Angelo barked out a sardonic laugh. 'You think after you scrawl your signature across that cheque I'll simply overlook this?' he asked.
She quickly disguised another swallow. 'You want more than one hundred thousand pounds?' she asked, in a voice that sounded too highsqueaky, almost.
He looked at her, his eyes meshing with hers in a lockdown that made the silence throb with palpable tension. She felt it moving up her spine, vertebrae by vertebrae. She felt it on her skin, in the ghosting of goose bumps fluttering along her flesh. She felt itshockinglybetween her thighs, as if he had reached down and stroked her there with one of his long, clever fingers.
He didn't say a word. He didn't need to. She could read the subtext of that dark, mocking gaze. He didn't give a toss about the money. It wasn't money he wanted. He had more than enough of his own.
Natalie knew exactly what he wanted. She had known it the minute she had stepped into his office and locked gazes with him.
He wanted her.
'Take it or leave it,' she said, and slammed the cheque on the desk between them.
He picked up the cheque and slowly and deliberately tore it into pieces, then let them fall like confetti on the desk, all the while holding her gaze with the implacable and glittering force of his. 'As soon as you walk out of here I'll notify the authorities in Rome to press charges,' he said. 'Your brother will go to prison. I'll make sure of it.'
Natalie's heart banged against the wall of her chest like a pendulum slammed by a prize-fighter's punch. How long would her brother last in a foreign prison?
He would be housed amongst murderers and thieves and rapists. It could be years before a magistrate heard his case. He was just a kid. Yes, he had done wrong, but it wasn't his faultnot really. He needed help, not imprisonment.
'Why are you doing this?' she asked.
His mouth lifted in a half-smile, his eyes taunting hers with merciless intent. 'You can't guess, mia pic-cola?'
She drew in a painfully tight breath. 'Isn't this taking revenge a little too far? What happened between us is between us. It has nothing to do with my brother. It has nothing to do with anyone but us.' With me, she added silently. It's always been to do with me.
His eyes glinted dangerously and his smile completely vanished until his lips were just a thin line of contempt. 'Why did you do it?' he asked. 'Why did you leave me for a man you picked up in a bar like a trashy little two-bit hooker?'
Natalie couldn't hold his gaze. It wasn't a lie she was particularly proud of. But back then it had been the only way she could see of getting him to let her go. He had fallen in love with her. He had mentioned marriage and babies. He had already bought an engagement ring. She had come across it while putting his socks away. It had glinted at her with its diamond eye, taunting her, reminding her of all she wanted but could never have.
She had panicked.
'I wasn't in love with you.' That was at least the truth sort of. She had taught herself not to love. Not to feel. Not to be at the mercy of emotions that could not be controlled.
If you loved you lost.
If you cared you got hurt.
If you opened your heart someone would rip it out of your chest when you least expected it.
The physical side of things well, that had been different. She had let herself lose control. Not that she'd really had a choice. Angelo had seen to that. Her body had been under the mastery of his from the first time he had kissed her. She might have locked down her emotions, but her physical response to him still echoed in her body like the haunting melody of a tune she couldn't forget no matter how hard she tried.
'So it was just sex?' he said.
Natalie forced herself to meet his gaze, and then wished she hadn't when she saw the black hatred glittering there. 'I was only twenty-one,' she said, looking away again. 'I didn't know what I wanted back then.'
'Do you know now?'
She caught the inside of her mouth with her teeth. 'I know what I don't want,' she said. 'Which is?'
She met his gaze again. 'Can we get to the point?' she asked. 'I've come here to pay for the damage my brother allegedly caused. If you won't accept my money, then what will you accept?'
It was a dangerous question to be asking. She knew it as soon as she voiced it. It hung in the ensuing silence, mocking her, taunting her for her supposed immunity.
She had never been immune.
It had all been an acta clever ploy to keep him from guessing how much she'd wanted to be free to love him. But the clanging chains of her past had kept her anchored in silence. She couldn't love him or anyone.
Angelo's diamond-hard gaze tethered hers. 'Why don't you sit down and we can discuss it?' he said, gesturing to a chair near to where she was standing.
Natalie sank into the chair with relief. Her legs were so shaky the ligaments in her legs felt as if they had been severed like the strings of a puppet. Her heart was pounding and her skin was hot and clammy in spite of the air conditioning. She watched as he went back to the other side of his desk and sat down. For someone so tall he moved with an elegant, loose-limbed grace. His figure was rangy and lean, rather than excessively gym-pumped, although there was nothing wrong with the shape of his biceps. She could see the firm outline of them beneath his crisp ice-blue shirt. The colour was a perfect foil for his olive-toned skin. In the past she had only ever seen him in casual clothes, or wearing nothing at all.