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Pepe Mastrangelo helped himself to another glass of red wine from a passing maid and downed it in one. His aunt Carlotta, who had taken it upon herself to shadow him since they'd arrived back at his family home, was blathering on in his ear about something or other. Probably parroting her favourite inanities about when he, Pepe, was going to follow in his older brother's footsteps and settle down. Namely, when was he planning to get married and have babies?
Aunt Carlotta was not the only guilty party in this matter. The entire Mastrangelo clan, along with the Lombardis from his mother's side, all thought his private life was a matter of public consumption. Usually he took their nos-iness in good part, knowing they meant well. He would deflect their questions with a cheeky grin, a wink and a quip about how there were so many beautiful women in the world he couldn't possibly choose just one. Or words to that effect. Anything but admit he would rather swim in a pool of electric eels than marry.
Marriage was for martyrs and fools, and he was neither.
He'd almost married once, when he'd been young and foolish. His childhood sweetheart. The woman who'd ripped his heart out, torn it into shreds and left an empty shell.
Now he considered that he'd had a lucky escape. Once bitten, twice shy. Only complete idiots went back for a second helping of pain if it could be avoided.
Not that he ever shared that little titbit of information with people. Heaven forbid. They'd probably try to talk him into something ridiculous like therapy.
Today though, his usually quick repartee had deserted him. But then, he wasn't usually fielding these questions with a pair of almond-shaped green eyes following his every move. To make it even harder to concentrate, those same eyes were drilling into him with pure loathing.
He and Cara had been appointed his niece's godparents. He'd been forced to sit next to her in the church. He'd been forced to stand by her side at the font.
He'd forgotten how pretty she was-with her large eyes, tiny nose and small heart-shaped lips, she looked like a ginger geisha. Although ginger was the wrong word to describe the red flame of hair that fell down her back. Today, wearing a red crushed-velvet dress that showcased her curvy figure yet barely displayed an inch of flesh, she looked more than pretty. She looked incredibly sexy. Under normal circumstances he'd have no hesitation in spending the day in her company, flirting with her, plying her with drinks, maybe seeing if a repeat performance could be on the cards.
Being in the presence of his ex-lovers was not usually a problem, especially as his 'emotionally needy' detector was so acute. As a rule, he could spot a 'looking for marriage and babies' woman at ten paces and avoid her at all costs. As such, meeting up with an ex-lover was usually no big deal.
This time was different. Under normal circumstances he hadn't last seen them when he'd sneaked out of the hotel suite, leaving them sleeping in the very bed they'd just made love in. And usually he hadn't stolen their phone.
As soon as the date for the christening had been set a month ago, he'd known he would have to see Cara again. It was inconceivable that she wouldn't be there. She was his sister-in-law's best friend.
He'd expected the loathing that would be pointed his way. He really couldn't blame her for that. What he hadn't expected was to feel so The word that would explain the strange sickness churning in his stomach wouldn't come. Whatever the word, he did not like it at all.
A quick glance at his watch confirmed he would have to endure her laser glare for another hour before he could leave for the airport. Tomorrow he'd be taking a tour of a profitable vineyard in the Loire Valley that he'd heard through the grapevine-pun intended-was being considered for sale. He wanted to get in there and, if viable, make an offer before any competitor started digging around.
'I said, she's beautiful, isn't she?' Aunt Carlotta's voice had taken a distinctly frosty tone. Somehow, in between her non-stop nattering, she had managed to acquire Lily without him noticing. She held the baby aloft for his perusal.
He peered down at the chubby face with the black eyes staring up at him, and all he could think was how like a little dark-haired piglet she looked. 'Yes, beautiful,' he lied, forcing a wide smile.
Seriously, how could anyone think babies were beautiful? Cute at a push maybe, but beautiful? Why anyone raved about them was beyond him. They were the most boring of creatures. He quite liked toddlers though. Especially when they were getting up to mischief.
He was saved from having to fake any more enthusiasm by a great-aunt barging him out of the way so she too could coo at the poor child.
Using this momentary lapse of Aunt Carlotta's attention, he sidled away.
Was this the way people acted at all christenings? From the way his relatives were behaving, anyone would think Lily had been conceived from a virgin birth. Having not attended a christening in nearly fifteen years, he wouldn't know. Given a chance, he would have got out of this one too. But there'd been no way, not when he'd been made godfather. Luca, his brother, would have strung him up if he'd tried to avoid it.
He wondered how long it would take for Luca and Grace to try again. No doubt they would keep trying until a boy was born. His own parents had struck gold from the outset, the need for an heir immediately satisfied with Luca's birth. Pepe's own conception was more along the 'spare' lines and to give Luca a playmate.
Was he being unfair to his parents? He didn't know or care. He'd been feeling out of sorts all day, and having the red-headed geisha glaring at him as if he were the Antichrist was not helping his mood.
Forget it, he thought, reaching for another glass of red from a passing maid. No one would notice if he left earlier than was deemed polite.
'You look stressed, Pepe.'
He muttered an expletive under his breath.
He should have known he wouldn't be able to escape without her collaring him. There had been something too determined in that expression of hers.
Plastering another fake smile on his face, he turned around and faced her. 'Cara!' he exclaimed with bonhomie so fake even Lily would see through it. Grabbing her shoulder with his free hand, he pulled her into him and leaned down to kiss both her cheeks. She was so short he almost had to double over. 'How are you? Enjoying the party?'
Her dark coppery eyebrows knotted together into a glare. 'Oh, yes. I'm having a marvellous time.'
Pretending not to notice the definite edge to her voice, he nodded and raised the wattage of his grin. 'Fabulous. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have-'
'Running away again, are you?' Her Irish lilt had thickened since he'd last seen her. When they'd first met, here in Sicily three years ago, her voice had contained only the lightest of traces; by all accounts she'd left Ireland for England when she was a teenager. When he'd seduced her in Dublin four months ago, he'd noticed her accent had become more pronounced. Now there was no doubting her heritage.
'I have to be somewhere.'
'Really?' If an inflection could cut glass, that one word would have done the trick. She nodded her head in his sister-in-law's direction. 'She's the reason you stole my phone, isn't she?' It wasn't a question.
He drew in a breath before meeting Cara's stony glare. The last time he'd been with her, those eyes had been brimful of desire. 'Yes. She's the reason.'
Cara's geisha lips always drew a second glance-her bottom lip was beautifully plump, as if it had been stung by a bee. Now she drew it tightly under her teeth and bit into it. When she released it, the lip was a darker, even more kissable red. Her eyes had become a laser death stare.
'And was it my phone that led Luca to find her?'
There was no point in lying. She already knew the answers. Lying would demean them both. 'Si.'
'You came all the way to Dublin, to the auction house where I work, spent two million euros on a painting, and all to get hold of my phone?'
She shook her head, her long copper locks whipping over her shoulders. 'I take it the whole "I've always wanted to visit Dublin, please show me around" thing was also deliberate?'
'Yes.' He held her icy gaze and allowed the tiniest of softening into his tone. 'I really did have a great weekend- you're an excellent tour guide.'
'And you're an unmitigated ' She buried the curse beneath a deep breath. 'But that's by the by. You seduced me for one reason and one reason only-so you could steal my phone the minute I fell asleep.'
'That was the main reason,' he agreed, experiencing the strangest tightening in his chest. 'But I can assure you, I enjoyed every minute. And I know you enjoyed it too.'
Cara had come undone in his arms. It had been an experience that still lingered in his memories and his senses, but an experience he ruthlessly dispatched from his head now.
All he wanted was to get away from her, get away from this claustrophobic party with all the talk of babies and marriage, and find himself a few hours of oblivion.
Her cheeks coloured but her jaw hardened. 'What's enjoyment got to do with anything? You lied to me. You spent a whole weekend lying to me, pretending to enjoy my company.'
He flashed his most winning smile. 'I did enjoy your company.' He certainly wasn't enjoying it now though.
This conversation was worse than the frequent visits to the headmaster he'd endured as a schoolboy. Just because he deserved someone's censure didn't mean he had to enjoy it.
'Do I look like I was born yesterday?' she shot back. 'The only reason you hooked up with me was because your brother was so desperate to find Grace.'
'My brother deserved to know where his wife had gone.'
'No, he did not. She's not his possession.'
'A lesson I can assure you he has learned. Look at them.' He nodded over to where Luca had joined his wife, his arms locked around her waist. Fools, the pair of them. 'They're happy to be back together. Everything has worked out for the best.'
'I was a virgin.'
He winced. He'd been trying his best to forget that little nugget. 'If it's an apology you're after then I apologise, but, as I explained at the time, I didn't know.'
'I told you.'
'You told me you'd never had a serious boyfriend before.'
'And as I told you before, not having a serious boyfriend does not equate to being a virgin.' 'It does-did-for me.'
'How was I supposed to know that? You're a twenty-six-year-old woman.' He'd thought virgins of that age were extinct, a thought he kept to himself. Cara's skin had gone as red as her hair. He didn't particularly fancy being on the receiving end of a punch in the face in front of his entire family, even if she would need a stepladder to reach him. There was something of a ferocious Jack Russell about her at that moment.
'You used me,' she said, almost snarling. 'You let me believe you were serious, and that we would see each other again.'
'When? Tell me, when did I say we would see each other again?'
'You said you wanted me to come to your new house in Paris so I could advise you where to place the Canaletto painting you bought in the auction.'
He shrugged. 'That was business talk. You know about art and I needed an expert's eye.' He still needed one; he'd bought his Parisian home to showcase his art collection, but the entire lot was still in storage.
'You said it while dipping your finger in champagne and then placing it in my mouth so I could suck it off.'
A flare of heat stirred in his groin. That particular moment had been during their last meal together, shortly before she'd agreed to join him in his hotel room and spend the night with him.
He cut his thoughts off the direction they were headed. The last thing he needed at that moment was to remember anything further about that night. It was becoming uncomfortable enough in his underwear as it was.
'Why didn't you steal my phone from the outset? Why string me along for a whole weekend?' Her eyes were no longer firing hostility at him. All he saw in them was bewilderment.
It had been easier dealing with Aunt Carlotta's jabbering mouth than with this. Okay, he got that Cara felt humiliated-he hardly recalled his actions that weekend with pride-but surely it was time for her to get over it?
'I couldn't steal your phone because you keep your handbag pressed so tightly to you I knew it would be impossible to steal.' Even now, she had the long strap placed diagonally over her neck and across her chest, the bag itself tucked securely under her arm.
'I'm surprised you didn't arrange for someone to mug me. I'm sure between you and your brother you know enough shady people to do the job. It would have saved you wasting a weekend of your precious time.'
'But you could have got hurt,' he argued silkily. A strange shiver rippled through his belly at the thought, a feeling dismissed before it was properly acknowledged.
He'd had enough. He'd behaved atrociously but it had been necessary. He wasn't prepared to spend the rest of the evening apologising for it. He'd never told her an actual lie-how she'd interpreted his words was nothing to do with him. 'You share a house with three other women, which made breaking into your home too risky, and you keep your phone on you when you're working. If you'd left your handbag unattended just once throughout that weekend, I would have taken it, but you didn't-you didn't let it out of your sight.'
'So now it's my fault?' she demanded, hands on hips.
Cara had to be one of the shortest people he'd ever met, certainly on a par with his great-aunt Magdalena. In the four months since he'd last seen her, she'd lost weight, making her seem more doll-like than he remembered. Yet, whether it was the long flaming hair or the ferocity blazing from her eyes, she stood tall and unapologetic before him, as if a tank would not be enough to knock her down.
He bit back another oath. 'What's done is done. I've apologised and as far as I'm concerned that's the end of the matter. It's been four months. I suggest you forget about it and move on.'
With that, he stalked away, striding towards Luca and Grace, ready to tell them he was leaving.
'Actually, it's not the end of the matter.' Something in the tone of her voice made him pause. 'It's impossible for me to "forget about it and move on"' A shiver of something that could be interpreted as fear crawled up his spine.