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'Signore Valtieri! Wait! Please, Signore, listen to me!'
Her distraught voice sliced through the evening shadows, and Gio's heart sank. Not now, he thought. Please, not now. He really, really didn't have the energy to deal with Camilla Ponti diplomatically, and he certainly didn't have the time.
He'd already stalled his holiday once because of her, and he wasn't doing it again.
She'd been about to take action against his client, Marco Renaldo, but Marco had insisted on talking to her before the case came to court. Gio had postponed his departure for a day so they could meet this afternoon, and she'd dropped her claim.
She'd sobbed and begged and pleaded, but her former business partner had left her no choice. Drop the case, or he'd reveal her fraud and embezzlement of the company's funds. She'd given in, but she'd blamed Gio for putting him up to it, because she was convinced he'd cost her her share of the company.
It was absurd. She'd forfeited any rights to it herself. He couldn't believe she'd even thought she had a case! The meeting over, he'd sent a text to Anita arranging to pick her up at six, then, more than ready to get out of the city, he'd gone home and stripped off the exquisitely cut suit, the tasteful silk tie Anita had given him for Christmas, the blinding white shirt. He'd put away the immaculate hand-made shoes, the monogrammed cufflinks, also from Anita, and showered and pulled on his favourite jeans and sweater, the battered leather jacket and boots that had seen better days.
Then he'd pulled the refuse bag out of the kitchen waste bin, flung in the remnants of food from the fridge, tossed an empty wine bottle in on top and headed for the door.
He couldn't get out of Firenze and away from all this quick enough. His luggage was in the car, and he was looking forward to two weeks on the slopes with his family skiing, eating, and thinking about precisely nothing.
Except Anita would be there. Just thinking about it sent a tingle of anticipation through his veins. He'd missed her recently. He'd been avoiding her ever since the night of his brother's wedding when things had got a little complicatedagainbut at least with his whole family present there'd be plenty of people to diffuse the tension, and he knew a huge part of the attraction of this holiday was that she'd be there.
He couldn't get there soon enough. For some reason, the cut and thrust of his job had lost its lustre recently, and after a day like today he just felt tired and jaded.
And now this.
This woman, who'd somehow found out where he lived and was lying in wait so she could carry on their earlier conversation. Frankly, he'd heard enough.
'Signora Ponti, there is really nothing more to say,' he began, groping for diplomacy, but it was wasted on her.
'You don't understand! You have to help meplease, listen to me! I need the money'
'Signora, everyone needs money, but you can't just have it if it isn't yours, and as Signore Renaldo pointed out, you've already stolen more than enough from him'
'It wasn't like that! I had reasons'
'Everyone has reasons,' he said tiredly. 'Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm meeting someone and I'm already late.'
'But I earned that money, I really need it,' she sobbed, reaching for him with desperate hands. 'Please, you have to listen!'
He stepped back out of reach, his patience exhausted. 'No, I don't. I've heard enough,' he said flatly, and started to turn away, the bag of refuse still in his hand.
Out of the corner of his eye he saw her raise her arm, but it was too late to duck. His free arm was still coming up to shield his face when something large and heavyher handbag?crashed into his head and sent him reeling. He tripped over the edge of the kerb, twisting his ankle sharply, the pain sickening. It gave way under him, throwing him further off balance, and he felt himself falling.
He couldn't save himself.
He dropped the refuse bag, heard the tinkling sound of broken glass just too late to roll to the side, and then a sharp, searing pain in his thigh took his breath away.
On autopilot, still waiting for another blow to fall, he rolled off the bag and glared at her, but she was so distraught that he'd never be able to reason with her. It was pointless trying.
For a long moment he lay there, shocked, his eyes locked with hers, but then he became aware of something hot and wet dripping off his fingers, and he stared blankly at his hand, and then his thigh, and he realised he was in trouble.
So did she, her face crumpling as she took in what had happened.
'No! NoI'm so sorry! I didn't mean to hurt you! Pleaseoh, no !'
And turning on her heel, she ran away, leaving him there alone in the dim light of the car park, the sound of her high heels rapping sharply on the stones fading as she fled.
Relief sapping the last of his strength, he slumped back against the wall behind him and closed his eyes for a moment.
Dio, he hurt.
He looked down at his foot, bent at a strange angle. No, not his foot, he realised with relief. The boot, twisted half off where he'd tripped. But his foot was inside it and the pain was just beginning to break through all the other insults, so his relief was short-lived. Maybe not so good after all.
And there was glass sticking out of his leg. He knew he probably shouldn't pull it out, but his leg was bleeding and with the glass in there he couldn't put pressure on it, so he pulled it out anyway.
Not a good move, apparently.
Wrapping his scarf roughly around his slashed hand, he closed his fingers tight over it and rammed his fist hard down on his thigh, then rummaged for his phone. He'd call Anita. There was no point in calling either of his brothers, they and their families were already at the ski chalet, as were his sisters and his parents, but Anita was expecting him. She had a meeting with a bride and he was supposed to be picking her up any time now.
She'd help him. She always helped him, she'd always known just what to do when he'd got himself in a mess. And she'd rescue him now. Relief coursing through him, his whole body shaking, his left hand struggling to cooperate, he speed-dialled her number. It went straight to voicemail.
He listened to the message, heard the soft lilt of her voice and could have howled with frustration and despair.
'Why is it,' he said sarcastically when the cheery message finally ended, 'that I'm tripping over you all the time, and yet the one time I really need you you're not there?'
He cut off and watched the blood still slowly welling from his thigh for another few seconds before he did what he should have done in the first place. He called an ambulance.
And then he leant back against the wall behind him, and dialled her number again, and then again. He needed her, and he couldn't get her, but it was somehow comforting just to listen to the sound of her voice
Her phone was ringing.
She could feel it in her pocket, vibrating silently as she wound up her meeting. It rang again. And again.
Damn. It would be Gio, wondering where she was. He'd be foaming at the mouth if she didn't go soon.
'Right, I think I've got all I need for now,' she told her client briskly. 'I'll go and put a few ideas together for you, and then we'll get back together again when I'm back from my holiday.'
'OhI was hoping we could do it all today '
Anita's smile faltered as the phone vibrated again.
'I'm sorry, I'm already late. I'm supposed to be leaving for my holiday and I only fitted you in today because I was delayed, I should have gone yesterday. Don't worry, please, there'll be plenty of time to sort everything out. It's seven months to the wedding.'
She shut her file and stood up, effectively ending the meeting, and held out her hand to the bride.
The girl smiled reluctantly and got up, taking her hand. 'Sorry. I just want all the answers at once.'
'Everybody does. It's not possible, but it will happen. I'll see you in two weeks when I'm back from my holiday. I'll call you with a date.'
'OK. Andthank you for fitting me in. I'm sorry to be a pain.'
'You aren't a pain. I'll call you, I promise.'
And with one last brisk, professional smile she walked away, resisting the urge to pull her phone from her pocket before she'd left the cafe and was out of sight.
Six missed calls. Six?
And all from Gio. Damn. She really was late, and he'd be truly, no-holds-barred furious with her. He hated it when people were late.
Except he didn't sound furious. He sounded
She listened to her voicemail message in puzzlement, and tried to call him.
It went straight to voicemail, again and again, but she couldn't give up, because something about his message was worrying her and she didn't know what it was.
'Why is it that I'm tripping over you all the time, and yet the one time I really need you you 're not there?'
Anita frowned, and played it again. Far from angry, his voice sounded odd. Odd, and slightly desperate. As if he was in trouble
Her heart pounding now, she tried him again, and this time the phone was answered by a stranger.
'Hello? Are you Anita?'
'YesAnita Della Rossa. Where's Gio? Who are you?'
'This is a nurse in the emergency department.'
She didn't hear the rest. For a second, all she could hear was roaring in her ears from the frantic beating of her heart.
'I knew there was something wrong, I've been trying to get hold of him. What's happened to him?' she asked, desperate for information. 'Did he have an accident? Is he all right?'
'Are you family?'
She nearly lied, but there was no point, they were all too well known. 'No, but I'm an old family friend. I've known him forever.' Her voice cracked, and she tried again. 'They're all awaythey've gone skiing. We were about to join them. Please, tell me how he is.'
'He's had an accident and he's going to surgery. That's all I can tell you. Can you give us his full name and family contact details, please? We need to ring them urgently.'
Urgently? Her heart lurched in her chest, and for a second she thought she was going to be sick.
'Umyeshe's Giovanni Valtieri. His brother Luca's a doctor at the hospitala professor. Contact him. He's with the others.' She gave them Luca's number just to be certain, then raced to the hospital, her heart in her mouth. But in the hospital emergency department she met another brick wall, built, no doubt, by the same protocol.
'I spoke to a nurse,' she explained. 'I was calling Giovanni Valtieri, and the person who answered his phone said he was here. Can I see him?'
'Are you family?'
Yet again, she thought of lying, but it was pointless, so she just trowelled on the connection. 'No, but I'm an old family friend. We've been very close since we were bornalmost like brother and sister.'
And ex-lovers, she nearly added, but that was nobody else's business and she wasn't going to spread something so personal all over the hospital. Not when his brother worked there.
So they wouldn't tell her any more, but that was fine. There were strings she could pull, and she fully intended to pull every single one of them. Starting with Luca