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'Goodnight, Mary,' Beth Lazenby called to the receptionist as she walked out of the offices of Steel and White, the accountancy firm in the centre of London where she was a junior partner. She paused for a moment on the pavement and took a deep breath, glad to be out in the fresh airor not-so-fresh air she thought ruefully. She enjoyed her work, but just lately, and especially when she spent time at the cottage, she questioned whether she really wanted to spend the rest of her life in the city.
Beth watched the people hurrying past her, their day's work finished. It was rush hour, and when she saw the length of the queue at her usual bus stop she decided to walk to the next one. The exercise would do her good, and apart from Binkie she had nothing to hurry home for. Her friend Helen had died three years ago from cancerfour months after she had been released from prison on parole.
Dismissing the sad memory, Beth looped her bag over one shoulder and walked on. A tall, striking woman, with red hair that gleamed like fire in the evening sun, her slenderly curved body moved sinuously beneath the grey linen dress she wore as she strolled along. But Beth was oblivious to the appreciative glances of every passing male. Men did not figure large in her life. She had a successful career and was proud of what she had achieved. She was content.
Suddenly she saw a man a head taller than most of the crowd walking towards her and she almost stumbled. Her heart started to race and she swiftly averted her gaze from the black-haired man she hated with a vengeance. A man whose dark satanic image was engraved on her mind for all timethe lawyer Cannavaro, the devil himself as far as she was concerned, and he was a mere ten feet away.
She heard Helen's voice in her head. Be careful, confident and proud of the successful woman I know you will become.
Beth tilted her chin at a determined angle and carried on walking. At least Helen had lived long enough to see her success, and she would not let her down now. Cannavaro would never recognise her. The naive Jane Mason was gone for ever, and Beth Lazenby was nobody's fool. But the hairs on the back of her neck stood on end as she passed him, and out of the corner of her eye she caught the look he gave her. Did he hesitate? She didn't know and didn't care. She simply kept on walking. But her sense of well-being faded as memories of the past flooded her mind. Her full lips tightened bitterly as she wondered how many more innocent victims the vile Cannavaro had sent to prison in the past eight years.
She recalled the naive teenager she had been, standing in the dock, frightened out of her wits. Cannavaro had smiled at her, and the deep, sympathetic tone of his voice when he'd told her not to be nervous or afraid had given her hope. He'd said he and everyone else present only wanted to discover the real truth of the case . Stupidly, she had believed him. He had been her knight in shining armour, her saviour. But then Timothy Bewick and his friend James Hudson had both lied on the stand, and by the time she'd realised her mistake it was too lateshe'd been found guilty. Her last view of Cannavaro as she'd been led from the court had been of him and her lawyer talking and laughing together as if she didn't exist.
Dante Cannavaro was feeling good. He had just won a deal for his clienta multinational companyfor substantially more money than they had expected. Dismissing his waiting driver, he'd decided to walk to his apartment, where the customised Ferrari he had ordered was due to be delivered in an hour. A satisfied smile curved his lips.
Striding along the pavement he found his dark eyes caught by the flaming red hair of a beautiful woman walking towards him and he lingered, the car suddenly forgotten. She was tallabout five-nine, he guessedand wearing a conservative grey dress that ended an inch or so above her knees. The dress would have looked bland on most females, but on her it looked stunning, and his captivated gaze roamed over her slender but shapely body and long legs in primitive male appreciation.
He paused, his head automatically turning as she passed him. The gentle sway of her hips was enough to give a weaker man a coronary. In Dante's case it was not a hardening of the arteries in the heart that troubled him, but the hardening of a different part, much lower down. It wasn't surprising he had such a reaction to her, he thought. She was beautiful and sexy and he had been celibate for a month, he reasoned. Before reminding himself that he was engaged to Ellen.
As an international lawyer, Dante had offices in London, New York and Rome. He kept an apartment in all three cities, but considered his real home to be the estate in Tuscany where he'd been born, which had been in his family for generations.
Dante's Uncle Aldohis father's younger brother and head of Cannavaro Associates in Romehad died last March, and it had been pointed out to him at the funeral that he was now the last remaining male Cannavaro. It was time he stopped indulging his preference for international law, concentrated on the long-established family firm and settled down and had a son or twobefore the Cannavaro name died out completely.
Dante had assumed he would marry and have children some day, but now, at the age of thirty-seven, he had suddenly been made to face his duty. He wanted children, hopefully a male heir, while he was still fit enough to be an active father. And so he had chosen Ellen, because he had known and respected her in a professional capacity for a couple of years and she ticked all the boxes. She was intelligent, attractive, and she liked childrenplus, as a lawyer, she understood the demands of his work. And the sex between them was fine. It was a perfect partnership, and once Dante made a decision he never changed his mind. Other women were off the agenda for good.
But the redhead was a stunner, and it was in the male psyche to look he consoled himself.
An hour later Beth smiled as she walked down the Edwardian-style terraced street. Unlocking the door of her one-bedroom ground-floor apartment, she entered the hall and kicked off her shoes, slipping her feet into a pair of slippers. She grinned as the only male in her life strolled over and rubbed against her ankle.
'Hi, Binkie.' She bent down and picked up the ginger cat and nuzzled his neck. She walked down the hall, past her bedroom, the living room and the bathroom, to the rear of the building, and entered the largest roomthe kitchen-diner.
She put Binkie down, switched on the kettle and opened the cupboard, taking out a can of cat food.
'You must be starving,' she said, filling his bowl with the tuna flavour he loved before placing it on the floor. In seconds his head was in it. With a wry smile at the foolishness of talking to her cat, she made a cup of coffee and, taking a sip, crossed to the back door that was set in the side wall of the kitchen. Opening it, she stepped out onto the patio.
The garden was Beth's pride and joy, and the flowers she had planted in a few tubs on the patio were a blaze of colour. Strolling past them, she admired her handiwork with a sense of satisfaction, and then walked on to the lawn that was framed by a four-feet-high brick wall, with a gate opening into the garden of the two-bedroom apartment above her.
On the other side of her garden a high trellis had been fixed to the wall, and was completely covered by scented jasmine intertwined with clematis. She took another sip of coffee and looked around her with pleasure, dismissing the sighting of Cannavaro from her mind. He wasn't worth a second thought. She walked back to the patio and sat down on one of the wooden chairs that circled the matching table to drink her coffee and admire her handiwork in peace.
But just as she began to relax Beth's neighbour, Tony, appeared, leaning on the gate. Tony was sturdily built, with short fair hair and a round, cheeky face and had just turned twenty-three. Beth felt a lot more than four years older than him and his flatmate, Mike. The boys worked at the same City bank, and were a pair of fun-loving young men without a care in the world.
'Hi, Beth. I've been waiting for you to get home. Mind if I join you?'
Not waiting for an answer, Tony strolled through the gate.
'What is it this time? Sugar, milk or are you begging a meal?' she asked dryly, watching as he straddled a chair and propped his elbows on the back.
'For once, none of the above.' He grinned. 'But I wouldn't mind sex, if you're offering,' he declared with a mock-salacious grin.
Beth couldn't help it. She laughed and shook her head. 'Not in a million years, Tony Hetherington.'
'I thought not. But you can't blame a guy for trying,' he said, his blue eyes sparkling with humour. 'But, to get down to business, are you at home this weekend or are you going to the cottage again?'
'No, I'll be here for the next two weeks and then I'm taking three weeks' holiday to go down and do some much-needed decoratingand with luck get in some surfing. I'm hoping you'll keep a check on this place, as usual. You do still have the spare key?'
'Yes, of course. Consider it done. But to get back to my problem As you know, Monday was my birthday and I had dinner with my parentsboring! So on Saturday I plan to have a party for all my friends, and you are invited! We're a bit short on women, so please say you'll come.'
'Why am I not flattered by the invite?' Beth queried mockingly. 'Making up the numbers is bad enough, but I also remember your last party, at Christmas, when I served most of the food and drink and then ended up chasing the guests out when you and Mike passed out! Not to mention cleaning up afterwards.. '
Tony chuckled. 'That was unfortunate. But it was a great partyand it will be different this time, I promise. For a start, it's going to be a barbecue. The guests are invited for four in the afternoon until late, and we'll be outside, so no cleaning up.'
'Ah! I see. So what you really mean is can you use my garden as it is twice the length of yours?'
'Well, there is that, yesbut more importantly Mike is making a list of the food he thinks we need. Personally, I think a few dozen sausages and burgers and a bit of salad would do, but you know what he's likehe thinks he's a great cook. He's talking marinated chicken, special kebabs, fish and stuffed heaven knows what! As for the saladsyou name it and he is going make it. You have to help me, Beth,' he declared, looking at her with pleading puppy-dog eyes.
'You are such an actor,' she said dryly. 'But your boyish charm does not wash with me.'
'I know, but it was worth a go.' He grinned. 'But, honestly, I really do need your help. We had a barbecue last month, when you were away for the weekend, and it was a bit of a disaster,' he confessed sheepishly. 'I knew you wouldn't mind, but unfortunately Mike nearly poisoned half the guests with his stuffed pork loins. We will never hear the end of it from our pals at the bank.'
'Oh, my God, he didn't?' Beth exclaimed with a laugh.
'Oh, yes, he did,' Tony said wryly, getting to his feet. 'Which, when I think about it, is probably why we are short on females this time. What right minded girl is going to risk getting food poisoning again?'
'All right, all right. I'll come and help,' Beth agreed when she could stop laughing. 'On condition the barbecue is set up in your garden. I don't want any of my plants burntwhich is quite likely to happen with you two in charge. The guests can use my garden to drink, eat whatever. But my apartment is strictly out of bounds. Understood?'
'Yes, you gorgeous woman, you. We can keep the beer bins on your patio.' He grinned and walked back though the open gate. 'And thanks!' he called back, before disappearing into his own apartment.
At seven on Saturday evening the sun was shining in a clear blue sky, and a relaxed smile curved Beth's lips as she looked around the garden, which was crowded with casually dressed people. Some were eating, drinking or standing chatting, whilst others were already dancing to the music. A few more guests were upstairs in the boys' apartment, where the hard liquor was being served. Beer and white wine was stacked in big bins full of ice outside Beth's kitchen window. She had taken the precaution of locking her back door, and had the key in the pocket of her jeans.
'Alone, Beth?' A slightly inebriated Tony slid an arm around her waist. 'That will never do. Thanks to you talking Mike out of his flights of fancy over the food, the barbecue is going great and the party is really taking off. Have a drink.'
Smiling, she shook her head. 'You know I never drink.'
'Well, I'm going to get anothercatch you later.' Tony's arm fell from her waist and he half turned, then stopped. 'I don't believe it!' he exclaimed, grabbing her waist again. 'My big brother is here! I left a message at his London office, inviting him, but I never expected him to come. He's a lawyerthe intense, intellectual typeand he speaks about six languages and travels all over the world with his work. In fact he's a workaholic. I haven't seen him since last year, but Mum told me he finally got engaged a couple of months ago. I guess the woman with him must be his fiancée.'
'I didn't know you had a brother,' Beth said with a curious glance past Tony. Then she froze.
There in front of her she saw a hard, handsome face with heavy-lidded eyes that seemed to look straight at her, before the man turned to smile down at the woman by his side. Fear gripped Beth for a moment at the sight of the couple Mike had just led into the garden, and he was now indicating where she stood with Tony.
Cannavaro. It could not be! She stared in disbelief at the tall, broad-shouldered man walking towards them and felt a shiver run down her spine.