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'I never thought this moment would come, Pietro. Let's celebrate.' Rio Zaccarelli sat back as the vintage champagne was poured into his glass. Across the table, his lawyer opened his case and handed him a sheaf of papers.
'I'm not celebrating until this one is in the bag. How did you get a table here? I've never seen so many rich, powerful people in one place.' Pietro glanced discreetly over his shoulder, his gaze skimming the other diners. His eyes widened as he focused on a man in a dark grey suit. 'Isn't that?'
'Yes. Don't stare or you'll have security teams swarming over your lunch.' Rio flicked through the papers, scanning the contents. As he reached for his champagne he noticed that his hand shook slightly and he wrenched back his emotions, forcing himself to treat this like any other business deal. 'You haven't eaten here before?'
'I've been waiting a year to get a table at this restaurant and you do it in one phone call. There are times when I wish I had your influence.'
'Complete this deal and I'll get you a table. That's a promise.' Complete this deal and I'll buy you the restaurant.
'I'll hold you to that. You have to sign on the back page.' Pietro handed him a pen and Rio signed the documents with a bold scrawl.
'As usual, I owe youfor your discretion as well as your astonishing legal brain. Order the lobster. It's sublime and you've more than earned it.'
'Thank me when it's all signed and sealed and not before. I've learned not to celebrate until the ball is in the net. It's been a hard fight and this may still not be finished.' The lawyer took the wedge of papers and slipped them into his briefcase. 'The stakes are high. They haven't stopped fighting, Rio. They don't want you to win this.'
'I'm aware of that.' A red mist of anger coloured his vision and his fingers tightened on the delicate stem of the champagne flute. The tension was like steel bands around his body. 'I want to be kept updated, Pietro. Any changes, phone my personal line.'
'Understood.' Pietro snapped his case shut. 'This deal could still blow itself apart. The most important thing is that you need to keep yourself whiter than fresh snow between now and Christmas. Don't get yourself so much as a parking ticket. Not a blemish. Not a rumour. My advice as a friend who knows you? Find an isolated ski lodge and lock yourself away. No liaisons with women, no kiss and tell storiesfor the time being, sex is off the agenda.'
Rio, who hadn't gone ten days without sex since he'd lost his virginity, kept his face expressionless. 'I'll be discreet.'
'No.' Pietro leaned forward, switching from friend back to lawyer in the blink of an eye. 'If you want this deal watertight, then discretion isn't enough. I'm saying no sex, Rio. Unless it's married sex. If you happen to suddenly fall for a decent, wholesome girl whose entire objective in life is to love you and give you babies, that might actually help your case' he gave a faint smile and spread his hands in a fatalistic gesture 'but, knowing you as I do, there's not much chance of that.'
'None at all. There's no such thing as a decent, wholesome girl and if there were she'd undergo a personality change the moment she met me,' Rio drawled. 'Within minutes she'd be thinking about prenuptial agreements and record breaking divorce settlements.'
Pietro picked up the menu. 'I don't blame you for being cynical, but'
'I understand you. No sex. Sounds like I'm in for an exciting Christmas.' Rio thought of the Russian ballerina who was currently waiting in his apartment, lying on silk sheets, waiting for the visit he couldn't risk making.
He'd send her diamonds and give her the use of his private jet to fly home to Moscow for Christmas. They could pick up their relationship in the New Year. Or not. Realising that he wasn't bothered either way, he frowned.
Perhaps it was a good job he had an urgent business trip to make. He could work off his excess energy in other ways.
His eyes blank of expression, Rio stared out of the glass sided restaurant that had views over the centre of Rome, watching the crazy traffic fighting for space on the streets below.
There was nothing he wouldn't do to achieve the outcome he wanted. Even denying his libido for a short time.
Pietro put down the menu and picked up his glass, a hint of a smile on his face. 'I have a feeling this will be the hardest thing you've ever done. Go somewhere there are no women. I hear Antarctica is sparsely populated at this time of year.'
'I have to fly to London on business.'
'You are confronting Carlos?'
'I'm firing him,' Rio said coldly. 'His appointment was a mistake. I've had a full report from the external management consultant I put into the hotel. I need to deal with the situation before his appalling mismanagement affects the reputation of my company.'
'I don't suppose I can persuade you to wait until after the deal is signed?'
'Carlos cannot affect this deal.'
'In theory I would agree, but' frowning, his lawyer put his glass down slowly 'this has been a difficult fight and we're not there yet. I'm uneasy.'
'That's why I'm paying you such an astronomical sum. I pay you to be uneasy, so that I can sleep.'
Pietro lifted an eyebrow. 'Since when did you start sleeping? You work harder than I do. Especially at this time of year. I assume you're planning to work right through Christmas?'
The lawyer picked up the warm, crusty bread roll from his side plate and broke it in half. 'Why do you hate this time of year so much?'
A cold, sick feeling rose in his stomach. Aware that, as always, he was the focus of attention in the restaurant, Rio sat still, his features carefully composed. Catching the eye of a pretty European princess who had been gazing at him across the restaurant since he'd arrived, he gave a brief nod of acknowledgement. Desperate for distraction, he contemplated accepting her blatant invitation, but then he remembered Pietro's warning. No sex. Whiter than white.
Instead, he drained his champagne glass and formulated an answer to the question. 'Why do I hate Christmas? Because everyone uses Christmas as an excuse to stop work,' he lied smoothly, wrestling down his emotions with sheer brute force. 'And I'm a demanding boss. I hate time wasters, you know that. But I appreciate all the hours you've put into this deal and I will heed the advice. Until this deal is closed, the only person sleeping in my bed will be me.'
'It might make for a boring Christmas, but that is exactly the way it should be. I'm serious, Rio. Stay indoors. The only things you should be touching are your laptop and your phone.' Pietro looked him in the eye. 'Don't underestimate how much could still go wrong.'
'Whiter than white,' Rio purred, a faint smile touching his mouth. 'I can do that if I really concentrate. Anyway, I'm not likely to meet a woman who interests me in London. Shall we order?'
'You can't do this to me! You can't just throw me out of my home! I can't believe you changed the locks when I was out. Don't you have any human feeling?' Evie grabbed the man's arm, almost slipping on the snow and ice as he shrugged her off and dropped his tools back into his bag.
'Life's tough. Blame your landlord, not me. Sorry, love.' But he didn't look sorry and Evie felt the panic rise as the enormity of the situation hit her.
'It's only twelve days until Christmas. I'll never find anything else at this short notice.'
The emotions she'd been suppressing for six stressful weeks suddenly broke through the front she'd been presenting to the world.
This was supposed to have been her wedding day. Tonight she would have been flying to a romantic hotel in the Caribbean on her honeymoon to make a baby. Instead, she was on her own in a big, cold city where no one seemed to care about anyone else. It was snowing and she was homeless.
'At least let me get my things.' Not that she had much. The few things she'd brought with her could probably fit into one rubbish bag.
Even as the thought wafted through her mind, the man gestured to a black bin liner leaning against the door.
'Those are your things.' The man snapped his bag shut. 'Good job you haven't got much stuff.'
Evie wondered what was good about not having much stuff. She'd thought moving to London would be exciting and full of opportunities. She hadn't realised how expensive it would be. Everything cost a fortune. And she hadn't realised how lonely it would be living in a city. She couldn't afford a social life. When a few of the girls at work had invited her out, she'd had to refuse.
The snow fluttered onto her head and neck and Evie huddled deeper inside her coat, her spirits as low as the temperature.
'Just let me stay here tonight, OK? I'll try and find somewhere tomorrow' She felt as though she was holding everything together by a single fragile thread. It had been that way since the day Jeff had texted her to tell her the wedding was off. Concerned about her grandfather's distress, she'd taken refuge in the practical, returning presents with polite notes attached, cancelling the church and the venue, explaining to all the well-wishers who arrived at the house. She'd told herself that she'd shed her tears in private, but she'd discovered that cancelling a wedding was almost as much work as organising one, without any of the excitement to drive you forward. By the time she'd fallen into her bed at night she hadn't had the energy to cry. 'Pleaseit's going to be impossible to find somewhere else to live this close to Christmas.'
'It's a dog eat dog world, love.'
Evie recoiled. 'I love dogs. I'd never eat a dog! And it's supposed to be the season of goodwill.'
'I feel plenty of goodwill. Thanks to landlords like yours, I have a job.'
'Well, it's nice to know I'm supporting someone through the credit crunch' Feeling a vibrating in her pocket, Evie dug out her phone, her anxiety doubling when she saw the number. 'Just wait there a moment and don't go anywhere because I have to answer this or he'll worryhe's very old andGrandpa? Why are you calling in the middle of the day? Are you OK?' She prayed he hadn't had another one of his turns. It was one thing after another. Her life was unravelling faster than a pulled thread in a sweater. She'd wanted so badly to make him proud. Instead, all she was going to do was worry him.
'Just checking up on you because I saw the pictures of the snow on the news.' Her grandfather sounded frail and Evie tightened her grip on the phone, hating the fact that he was getting older.
He was the person she loved most in the world. She owed him everything. 'I'm fine, Grandpa.' She shivered as more flakes of snow found their way inside her coat. 'You know I love the snow.'
'You always did. Built any snowmen yet? You always loved building snowmen.'
Evie swallowed. 'I I haven't had the chance yet, Grandpa. Soon, I hope. There's a huge park opposite the hotel where I'm working. It's crying out for a snowman.' She didn't tell him that no one paused to build a snowman in London. Everyone was too busy rushing from one place to another.
'Are you at work now? I don't want to bother you if you're at work, dealing with some high-powered celebrity.'
'Well er ' Her face scarlet, Evie moved away from the man who had just tipped her life into a rubbish bag and wondered whether the lie she'd told about her job was about to come back to bite her. It was one thing trying to protect her grandfather, but she'd probably gone a little over the top. Or possibly more than a little. 'Grandpa'
'I boast to everyone about you. I'm so proud of you, Evie. I told that stuffy Mrs Fitzwilliam in the room next door to mine, "My granddaughter has got herself a brilliant high-powered job. She may have been left standing at the altar"'
Evie pressed her fingers to her aching forehead. 'It wasn't at the altar, Grandpa. No one got as far as the altar'
'"but she picked herself up and now she's a receptionist at the smartest hotel in London and she never would have had that opportunity if she'd married useless Jeff." He was nothing but a dreamer. And he wasn't good enough for you, you know that, don't you? He was wet, and you don't want a man who is wet. You need a real man.'
'Any man would be a start,' Evie muttered under her breath, 'but fat chance of that.'
'What was that?'
'Nothing.' For once grateful for her grandfather's hearing aid, she changed the subject quickly. 'Are you OK? Are they treating you all right there?' Although he'd persuaded her he wanted to go into the same home as his closest friend, she still wasn't comfortable with the idea.
'My bones are aching in the damp weather and they make too much fuss here.'
Evie smiled. 'It will be summer soon. And I'm glad they're fussing.'
'I wish I could see you at Christmas but I know it's too far for you to come for just one day. I'm worrying about you on your own. I miss you, Evie.'
Flattened by homesickness, Evie felt a lump settle in her throat. 'I miss you, too. And I'll try and come up as soon as I can. And don't worry. I'm fine.' She pushed the words past her cold lips and then waved her hand frantically as the man loaded his tools into his van. Was he really just going to drive away and leave her here, standing on a snowy pavement in the dark? What had happened to chivalry? Her fiancé broke up with her by text and this man was about to leave a vulnerable woman alone in a big, scary city with nowhere to spend the night. Where were all the knights in shining armour when you needed them? Her grandfather was rightshe needed a real man. Down with rats, wimps and cowards.
'So how's the job going?' Her grandfather used his most bracing voice. 'I told Mrs Fitzwilliam that you have Hollywood stars staying and that you'll be meeting and greeting them personally. That shut her up. Nosy old madam.'