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It was the first time Bella had been home since the funeral. Haverton Manor in February was like a winter wonderland, with a recent fall of snow clinging to the limbs of the ancient beech and elm trees that fringed the long driveway leading to the Georgian mansion. The rolling fields and woods beyond were shrouded in a thin blanket of white, and the lake shone like a sheet of glass in the distance as she brought her sports car to a stop in front of the formal knot garden. Fergus, her late father's Irish wolfhound, gingerly rose from his resting place in the sun and came over to greet her with a slow wag of his tail.
'Hiya, Fergs,' Bella said and gave his ears a gentle scratch. 'What are you doing out here all by yourself? Where's Edoardo?'
Bella swung round at the sound of that deep, rich, velvet-smooth voice, her heart giving a funny little jump in her chest as her eyes took in Edoardo Silveri's tall figure standing there. She hadn't seen him face-to-face for a couple of years, but he was just as arresting as ever.
Not handsome in a classical sense; he had too many irregular features for that. His nose was slightly crooked from a fist fight, and one of his dark eyebrows had a scar through it, like a jagged pathway cut through a hedge, both hoofmarks of his troubled adolescence.
He was wearing sturdy work-boots, faded blue denim jeans and a thick black sweater that was pushed up to his elbows, showcasing his strong, muscular arms. His wavy, soot-black hair was brushed off his face, and dark stubble peppered his lean jaw, giving him an intensely masculine look that for some reason always made the back of her knees tingle. She took in a little jerky breath and met his startling blue-green eyes, almost putting her neck out to do it. 'Hard at work?' she said, adopting the aristocrat-to-servant tone she customarily used with him.
Bella couldn't quite stop her gaze drifting to his mouth. It was hard and tightly set, the deep grooves either side of it indicating it was more used to containing emotion than showing it. She had once come too close to those sensually sculptured lips. Only the once, but it was a memory she had desperately tried to erase ever since. But even now she could still recall the head-spinning taste of him: salt, mint and hot-blooded male. She had been kissed lots of times, too many times to recall each one, but she could recall Edoardo's in intimate, spine-tingling detail.
Was he remembering it too, how their mouths had slammed together in a scorching kiss that had left both of them breathless? How their tongues had snaked around each other and duelled and danced with earthy, brazen intent?
Bella tore her eyes away and glanced at the damp dirt on his hands from where he had been pulling at some weeds in one of the garden beds. 'What happened to the gardener?' she asked.
'He broke his arm a couple of weeks ago,' he said. 'I told you about it when I emailed you the share-update information.'
She frowned. 'Did you? I didn't see it. Are you sure you sent it to me?'
The right side of his top lip came up in a mocking tilt, the closest he ever got to a smile. 'Yes, Bella, I'm sure,' he said. 'Perhaps you missed it in amongst all the messages from your latest lover. Who is it this week? The guy with the failing restaurant, or is it still the banker's son?'
'It's neither,' she said with a lift of her chin. 'His name is Julian Bellamy and he's studying to be a minister.'
She gave him an imperious look. 'Of religion.'
He threw back his head and laughed. It wasn't quite the reaction Bella had been expecting. It annoyed her that he found her news so amusing. She wasn't used to him showing any emotion, much less amusement. He rarely smiled, apart from those mocking tilts of his mouth, and she couldn't remember the last time she had heard him laugh out loud. She found his reaction over the top and completely unnecessary. How dared he mock the man she had decided she was going to marry? Julian was everything Edoardo was not. He was sophisticated and cultured; he was polite and considerate; he saw the good in people, not the bad.
And he loved her, rather than hating her, as Edoardo did.
'What's so funny?' she asked with an irritated frown.
He swiped at his eyes with the back of his hand, still chuckling. 'I can't quite see it somehow,' he said.
She sent him a narrowed glare. 'See what?'
'You handing around tea and scones at Bible study,' he said. 'You don't fit the mould of a preacher's wife.'
'What's that supposed to mean?' she asked.
His eyes ran over her long black boots and designer skirt and jacket, before taking a leisurely tour of the upthrusts of her breasts, finally meeting her gaze with an insolent glint in his. 'Your skirts are too high and your morals too low.'
Bella wanted to thump him. She clenched her hands into fists to stop herself from actually doing it. She wasn't going to touch him if she could help it. Her body had a habit of doing things it shouldn't do when it came too close to his. Her nails bit into her palms as she tried to rein in her temper. 'You're a fine one to talk about morals,' she threw back. 'At least I don't have a criminal record.'
Something hardened in his gaze as it pinned hers: diamond-hard. Anger-hard. Hatred-hard. 'You want to play dirty with me, princess?' he asked.
This time Bella felt that tingly sensation at the base of her spine. She knew it had been a low blow to refer to his delinquent past, but Edoardo always triggered something dark, primal and uncontrollable in her. She didn't know what was it about him that got her back up so quickly, but he needled her like no other person.
He had always done it.
He seemed to take particular delight in getting a rise out of her. It didn't matter how much she promised herself she would keep a lid on her temper. It didn't matter how cool and sophisticated she planned to be. He always got under her skin.
Ever since that night when she was sixteen, she had done her best to avoid her father's bad-boy protege. For months, if not years, at a time she would keep her distance, barely even acknowledging him when she came home for a brief visit to her father. Edoardo brought out something in her that was deeply unsettling. In his company she didn't feel poised and in control.
She felt edgy and restless.
She thought things she should not be thinking. Like how sensual the curve of his mouth was, the way the lower lip was fuller than the top one; how his lean jaw always seemed to need a shave. How his hair looked like it had just been combed with his fingers. How he would look naked, all tanned, whipcord-lean and fit.
Like how he always looked at her with that hooded, inscrutable gaze as if he was seeing through the layers of her designer clothes to her tingling body beneath
'Why are you here?' he asked.
Bella gave him a defiant look. 'Are you going to march me off the premises for trespassing?'
A glint of something menacing lurked in his gaze. 'This is no longer your home.'
Her look hardened to a cutting glare. 'Yes, well, you certainly made sure of that, didn't you?'
'I had nothing to do with your father's decision to bequeath me Haverton Manor,' he said. 'I can only presume he thought you were never very interested in the place. You hardly ever visited him, especially towards the end.'
Bella's resentment boiled inside herresentment and guilt. She hated him for reminding her of how she had stayed away when her father had needed her the most. The permanency of death had made her run for cover. The thought of being left all alone in the world had been terrifying. The desertion of her mother just before her sixth birthday had made her deeply insecure; people she loved always left her. She had buried her head in the social scene of London rather than face reality. She had made the excuse of studying for her final exams, but the truth was she had never really known how to reach out to her father.
Godfrey had come to fatherhood late in life, and after her mother had left, he had not coped well with the role of being a single parent. Consequently their relationship had never been close, which had made her insanely jealous of the way in which her father had fostered his relationship with Edoardo. She suspected Godfrey saw Edoardo as a surrogate sonthe son he had secretly longed for. It made her feel inadequate, a feeling that was only reinforced a hundredfold when she found out the way her father had left his estate. 'I'm sure you worked my absence to your advantage,' she said, shooting him another embittered glare. 'I bet you sucked up to him every chance you could, all the while painting me as a silly little socialite with no sense of responsibility.'
'Your father didn't need me to point out how irresponsible you are,' he said with that annoying, trademark lip-curl. 'You do a fine job of that all by yourself. Your peccadilloes are splashed across the newspapers just about every week.'
Bella simmered with fury even though there was some truth in what he said. The press always targeted her, making her out to be a wild child with more money than sense. She only had to be in the wrong place at the wrong time for some ridiculous story to come out about her.
But things would be different soon.
Once she was married to Julian, the press would hopefully leave her alone. Her reputation would be spotless. 'I'd like to stay for a few days,' she said. 'I hope that won't inconvenience you?'
Those intriguing eyes glinted dangerously again. 'Are you asking me or telling me?'
Bella put on a beseeching expression, her hatred of him tightening her spine until she could feel every knob of her vertebrae. It was positively galling to have to ask for permission to stay at her childhood home. That was one of the reasons she had turned up unannounced.
She'd figured he might not be able to turn her away with the household staff looking on. 'Please, Edoardo, may I stay for a few days?' she asked. 'I won't get in your way. I promise.'
'Do the press know where you are?' he asked.
'No one knows where I am,' she said. 'I don't want anyone to find me. That's why I came here. No one would ever dream of finding me here with you.'
His chiselled jaw was locked like a vice, a muscle on the left side moving in and out like a tiny heart beating under the skin. 'I've a good mind to send you on your way.'
Bella pushed her bottom lip out. 'It's about to snow again,' she said. 'What if I run off the road or something? My death would be on your hands.'
'You can't just turn up here and expect the red carpet to be rolled out for you,' he said with a look of stern disapproval. 'You could at least have called and asked if it was all right to stay. Why didn't you?'
'Because you would have said no,' Bella said. 'What's the problem with me staying a few days? I won't get in your way.'
The muscle tapped a little harder in his jaw. 'I don't want a bunch of voyeurs lurking about the place,' he said. 'As soon as the paparazzi turn up, you can pack your bags and leave. Got it?'
'Got it,' Bella said, inwardly seething at his overbearing manner. What did he think she was going to docall a press conference? She wanted to escape all that and lie low until Julian came back. She didn't want any more scandals in her life.
'And nor will I tolerate you bringing friends here to party all hours of the day and night,' he said, drilling her with his diamond-hard gaze. 'Understood?'
Bella gave him her best 'I'll be good' face. 'No parties.'
'I mean it, Bella,' he said. 'I'm working on a big project just now. I don't want to be distracted.'
'All right, already. I get it,' she said, flashing an irritated gaze. 'So what's the big important project? Is she female? Is she currently sleeping over? I wouldn't want to cramp your style or anything.'
'I'm not going to discuss my private life with you,' he said. 'Before I know it, you'd be spilling all to the press.'
Bella wondered who his latest lover was, but there was no way she was going to ask. Asking would imply she was interested. She didn't want him thinking she spent any time at all musing over what he was doing and whom he was doing it with. He mostly kept his private life exactly thatprivate. His enigmatic, unknowable nature made him a target for the paparazzi but somehow he managed to keep his head below the parapet. Whereas Bella couldn't seem to step outside her house in Chelsea without attracting a camera flash from the lurking paparazzi, who always painted her as a professional party girl with nothing better to do than get a spray tan.
Her engagement to Julian Bellamy would hopefully put all that to rest. She wanted a clean slate, and once she was married, she would have it. Julian was the nicest man she had ever met. He was nothing like the men she had dated in the past. He didn't attract scandal or intrigue. He didn't party or drink. He didn't have a worldly bone in his body. He wasn't interested in wealth and status, only helping others.
'Would you bring in my bags for me?' she asked Edoardo with mock sweetness. 'They're in the boot.'
Edoardo leaned against the front fender of her car, one ankle crossed over the other, his arms folded against the broad expanse of his chest. 'When do I get to meet your new lover?' he asked.
Bella pushed her chin a little higher. 'He's technically not my lover,' she said. 'We're waiting until we get married.'
He laughed again. 'Holy mother of Jesus.'
She threw him a look. 'Do you mind not blaspheming?'
He pushed himself away from her car and came to stand close enough for her to smell the heat of his ar-rantly male flesh: sweat and hard work with a grace note of citrus that swirled around her nostrils, making them involuntarily flare. She took a prickly little breath and stepped backwards but one of her heels snagged on the crushed limestone and she would have fallen but for one of his hands snaking out and capturing her by the wrist.