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'So. What do we know about him?' Leaning her hands, palms flat, on her no-nonsense scrubbed pine table, Eva glared, first at her older, married sister, Britt, and then at her younger sister, Leila.
Leila's cheeks flushed pink, though she was used to Eva ranting. Leila's middle sister was strong. And that was a polite way of putting it. Eva was also one hell of a pain in the neck when she was in one of her campaigning moods as she was now. Leila adored both her sisters, though she sometimes wished Eva could find a man and move out of the family home, taking her emotional pyrotechnics with her. How tranquil would life be then? Leila could only dream. But would anyone take Eva on? Both Leila and Britt had tried to interest the available men in Skavanga in Eva by extolling the many virtues of their firebrand sister, but none of the men had been interested in taking Eva anywhere, unless it was for a game of pool or darts. They had countered Leila and Britt's glowing recommendations by reminding them about Eva's famous temper and how loud she could shout, before turning their attention to quieter, more amenable companions.
'Come on!' Eva rapped, standing straight and planting her hands on her hips. 'I need answers here. It's all right for you, Brittmarried to the Black Sheikh, one of the leading lights in the consortium. I don't expect you to compromise your loyalties by having an opinion. But you, Leila? Shame. On. You. I'm surprised you can't see that, if we allow them to, the consortium will happily rampage over our polar landscape and then move on. And don't tell me I'm overreacting. That's what will happen if one of us doesn't make a stand.'
That was the thing about Eva, Leila mused as she removed herself to a quiet place in her head. Eva could have an argument all by herself without anyone else even taking part.
'I won't let the consortium have everything its own way, even if you will,' Eva continued heatedly, 'and before you say a word, Britt, let me make this quite clear. I might have seen our family business stolen from under our noses by three unscrupulous men but, unlike you, I have no intention of sleeping with one of them to make me feel better'
'That's enough,' Leila cut in with unusual fire. 'Have you forgotten your sister is married to Sheikh Sharif?'
Shaking her head, Leila smiled an apology on behalf of Eva to Britt, who shrugged. Both sisters were accustomed to Eva's tirades. What Eva needed was a curb on that temper. Her heart was in the right place, but their sister rarely thought before she spokeor acted. And that was far more worrying, as far as Leila was concerned.
'Well, you two are utterly useless,' Eva exploded as her sisters continued sipping their coffee and reading their newspapers, and generally concentrating on other things as they waited for Eva's tirade to burn itself out.
Tossing back her flame-red explosion of waist-length curls, Eva picked up the newspaper, her frown deepening as she scanned the latest developments at the mine, spearheaded by the man she had had her knife into since her nemesis, Roman Quisvada, had first shocked her into silence at Britt's wedding with his swarthy good looks and inflexible manner.
''Count Roman Quisvada?' she intoned scathingly. 'Well, that's a ridiculous name to begin with.'
'He's Italian, Eva,' Britt murmured patiently as she carried on reading her newspaper. 'And he's a bona fide count. It's an ancient title'
'Count? My foot!' Eva scoffed. 'He can count how many pickets I'm going to assemble at the mine. That should keep him busy counting!''
'And I believe he's quite strong-minded,' Britt observed mildly, flashing a glance at Leila.
'He's the same guy I slammed the door on at your wedding?' Eva peered at Roman's image in the press. 'As I remember it, he didn't take much scaring off on that occasion.'
'You can stop rubbing your hands with glee at the thought of taking him on again,' Leila warned. 'When you met him at the wedding, it was the door to the bridal suite you shut in his face, so you could hardly expect him to stick his foot in and demand entry.'
'Anyone would think he'd made an impression on you, Eva,' Britt remarked as she laid down her newspaper. 'We're certainly wasting a lot of time and energy on him if he didn't.'
Eva gave a scornful huff. 'I just can't bear being pushed around, that's all.'
'We need the money, Eva,' Britt calmly pointed out.
'We must keep the consortium on board. We cannot afford to upset this man. The mine would have gone down without the consortium's investment, throwing hundreds of people out of work. Is that what you want?'
'Of course not,' Eva protested. 'But there has to be another waya slower way, a careful way. Do you have any idea how many times I've asked this wretched man to meet with me so we can discuss my concerns about the speed of his drilling programme?'
'Discuss? Or lay down the law?' Britt demanded, cocking her chin to give her sister a look. Neither Britt nor Leila was frightened of Eva's outbursts, though, like Leila, Britt did dream of the day when Eva found a man who could provide an alternative channel for her passionate nature.
'He has to hear the truth from someone,' Eva stormed. 'And I speak Italian. So he'd got no excuse not to meet with me.'
'I believe the count speaks six languages,' Britt murmured mildly, which resulted in a contemptuous huff from Eva.
'Well, if you two won't take a stand, I will.'
'I knew we could rely on you,' Britt murmured wryly.
'Fresh coffee, anyone?' Leila, who always played the peacemaker, offered. She skirted round her middle sister as if Eva were a stick of dynamite waiting to blow.
But Eva wasn't finished yet. 'Just look at this,' she said, spreading out the local newspaper on the table. The centrefold featured a large photograph of Count Roman Quisvada, while the banner headline shrieked: Count Rescues Skavanga in extra bold type. 'It makes it sound as if he saved us from disaster single-handed.'
'That's pretty much what he did do,' Britt observed, lifting her chin to shoot a stare that curbed her sister's flow. 'Quisvada, Sharif and the third man, Raffa Leon, have saved Skavanga. And if you can't see that'
'You don't even get a mention, Britt,' Eva pointed out. 'And you're supposed to be running the mine.'
'I am running the mine,' Britt confirmed. 'And the only reason they're making a fuss of the count is because they interviewed him when he visited the mine to see for himself how his orders were being carried out'
'When he was too busy to see me, do you mean?' Eva demanded.
'He was obviously very busy seeing me,' Britt confirmed with a shrug and a wry glance at Leila.
'I'm sure the count was far too busy for distractions on that occasion,' Leila added gently.
'Oh, well, thanks a lot.' Eva chewed her lip as she stared at the photograph of her nemesis in the newspaper. 'Nice to know I qualify as a distraction. From what I can see in this article, the Skavanga family has been written out of the story altogether. All this female journalist wants to write about is Mr High and Mighty, Count Roman Quisvada.'
'Maybe because she was interviewing him?' Leila ventured.
'Maybe because she was in bed with him,' Eva countered sharply. 'I really don't care. To a man like that any woman is just another notch on his bedpost.'
'You wish,' Britt murmured.
'What was that?' Eva snapped, rounding on her older sister.
Shaking her head, Britt pressed her lips down, adopting an innocent expression as she exchanged a look with Leila, who was careful to show no emotion at all, in case it fuelled Eva's fire.
'He's a dangerous-looking individual, if you ask me,' Eva remarked, pushing the newspaper aside.
'Fortunately, we didn't ask you,' Britt said mildly.
'All hair grease and designer clothes, with a good helping of arrogance and entitlement,' Eva muttered, sliding a disparaging look at the count's photograph.
'Definitely no hair grease,' Britt argued. 'I would have noticed that. And secondly, if Sharif trusts the count with his life, then so do I.'
Eva narrowed her eyes as she contemplated, the conflict ahead of her. 'Well, I, for one, can't wait to meet up with him again.'
'I'm sure he feels exactly the same way about you,' Britt commented, tongue in cheek.
'I'm sure Eva will see sense, and reason with him,' Leila put in, clearly eager to calm things down.
'Reason?' Britt pulled a wry face. 'That's an interesting way of putting it. But just before you apply your version of reason to your exchanges with Roman, Eva, may I remind you that without his money and the money from the other two men in the consortium both our mine and the town would have died by now?'
'I haven't forgotten anything,' Eva assured her older sister. 'I just can't understand why he hasn't stayed here to see things through. Oh, I forgot,' she added acidly. 'He prefers to swan around on his private island.'
'He's on the island for the wedding of his cousin,' Britt pointed out.
'He could still have seen me before he went when I asked him to,' Eva insisted. 'If he had explained things clearly, perhaps we could all understand what's happening at the mine.'
'Perhaps if you had listened instead of protesting,' Britt suggested, but gently this time, because no one doubted Eva's genuine concern for the pristine landscape the new drilling was putting under threat. 'You can't expect him to drop everything to attend a meeting with you. He has a life, as well as all his other business interests. There are huge sums of money involved'
'Oh, yes, it always boils down to money,' Eva observed with a dismayed shake of her head.
'I'm afraid it does,' Britt agreed calmly. 'We like to keep people in jobs around here.'
'That's all I care about,' Eva assured her sister. 'But I also care deeply about a land that has remained unchanged for millennia.'
'Why don't you talk to Roman face to face instead of discussing it with us?' Leila suggested.
'I've tried that.' Eva pulled a face. 'He won't see me.'
'For all the aforementioned reasons,' Britt said. 'But there's nothing to stop you trying again,' she pointed out, exchanging a hopeful look with Leila once she was sure Eva wasn't looking. They had both noticed the chemistry between Roman and Eva at the wedding as they fired angry glances at each other from opposite sides of the aisle. 'You never know, you might even get on better with him when you meet him again.'
'That's hardly likely,' Eva scoffed, tugging angry fingers through her tangle of red-gold hair. 'He's about as ready to listen to a woman like me as he is to eat tacks for breakfast.'
'You'll never know unless you try,' Leila pointed out as Britt got up to give Eva a reassuring hug.
'Come on,' Britt cajoled as she drew Eva into her arms. 'Don't get so upset about everything. Even you can't save the world single-handed.'
'But I can try.'
'That's right, you canat least, your tiny bit of it,' Britt agreed.
'Then that's what I'm going to do,' Eva mumbled, her face buried in the shoulder of her older sister.
'What are you going to do?' Britt said suspiciously, holding Eva at arm's length so she could stare into her sister's eyes. 'Should we discuss this first?'
'No. I don't think we should,' Eva said, sniffing loudly as she took a pace back. 'No more coffee for me, thank you, Leila. I've got a trip to make.'
He never drank. He chose not to lose control. Ever. He had seized the opportunity during the champagne reception following the wedding ceremony to slip away. Everyone would be getting ready for the party in the evening, which gave him a chance to shower and change, and maybe take a refreshing dip in his pool.
He stopped where he always stopped on the cliff path. It was a place of particular significance to him, for it was here on his fourteenth birthday he had contemplated throwing the gold chain he wore around his neck into the sea. And then maybe he would follow, his youthful infuriated self had seethed impotently.
Thankfully, he had proved stronger than that, and had resisted the teenage impulse to vent his grief in a way that would hurt others as much as himself.
It was a hot day for a wedding. Shrugging off his formal jacket, he opened the neck of his shirt. His hand stole to the slim gold chain. His adoptive mother had given him the necklace on his birthday. That was the same day she explained to him haltingly that his real mother had died, and had wanted Roman to have her only decent piece of jewellery.
That was the first time he heard he had a 'real' mother. What else was the woman sitting in front of him? He could still remember his shock and the pain. Discovering his father was not his father, any more than the woman he adored was his mother, had been life-changing. His adoptive father had been furious to discover Roman had learned the truth about his birth, but the damage was done by then. His adoptive father had believed Roman would crumble now he knew the facts. His adoptive mother had argued with this, knowing how strong he was. He was her son just as much as he was the son of his blood mother, and she knew him.
He had stood here on the cliff, fierce as a lion on that day, full of the passions of youth, and then he had stormed home and demanded they tell him the truthall of it. And so he had learned about his blood father, the count, the drunken gambler who had sold his son to the childless wife of a mafia don in settlement of his gambling debts.
'You're not blood so you can't take over the family business,' his adoptive father had thought it timely to explain while Roman was still reeling from these facts. 'But I couldn't love you more if you were my blood and so you will inherit my island and all my property, while your cousin takes over the business after me. Your job is to protect him'
It was only then Roman had realised how fast he could turn off his emotions. He couldn't have cared less about owning an island, or inheriting a vast property portfolio. All he cared about was his life up to now having been a lie. He'd changed on that day. His adoptive mother accused him of becoming distant and aloof. Unreachable, his adoptive father had raged with frustration, hating to see his wife devastated by Roman's treatment of her.
Roman still carried the guilt to this day and wondered if his behaviour had hastened her death. He would never know, but sometimes he could still hear her gentle voice in his head, insisting that his blood mother had no choice, and that in those days, in their society, women had no choice but to do what the men told them.
Now he thought of those two women, his mother and his adoptive mother, as sisters beneath the skin, looking down on him. His only desire was to make them happy and proud of him.
An alarm on his phone jolted him back to the present. Scanning the screen, he pressed a key. Watching for a moment, he felt a surge of anger. It would take him half an hour to reach the palazzo from here if he stuck to the path, but not if he took a short cut.