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Leaning back in the wide leather chair, he glanced at her name amongst the appointments in his electronic diary. When his PA had come to him last month, asking if he would agree to see her, he had immediately deduced what it was that she wanted. He knew only something like this would bring her back to Rome. But she needn't have bothered making the trip. How she stated her case would make no difference. He smiled wryly. It amused him that she actually believed he might be willing to help her. Like hell he would. But then why would she consider any outcome other than the one that she wanted? She never had before. He doubted six years had changed her. Yet it had changed him. The once angelic English waitress with the come-to-bed eyes no longer posed a danger. This time he knew she was a witch.
'Miss Matteson is here, Mr Valenti,' his receptionist purred over the intercom, interrupting his thoughts.
Dante stood up, preparing to savour the revenge. 'Send her in.'
Nothing had changed, then, Faye thought to herself as she took a deep breath and sank down tentatively on the pristine sofa indicated by the svelte redhead—the final obstacle between herself and his office. His empire might have grown, but the set-up was the same: employees still orbited around him and every woman gravitated in hisdirection like flowers towards the sun. No doubt he still plucked whoever took his fancy and then left them to wilt.
Faye shuddered and tried to relax her shoulders. The tension was only partly due to the after-effects of the cramped seating on last night's flight. Now was not the time to dwell on back then. She looked around the luxurious reception area. This world—his world—was unfamiliar to her now. Had she ever really been a part of it? She suspected that was just another delusion. There was no point even wondering. She had not stayed a part of it. After all these years she doubted he even recalled her name. But then it had dawned on her during the metro journey here that Dante Valenti did not allow his PA to make appointments for anyone he had not fully vetted first. So he must remember, and he had agreed for her to come anyway. Which meant What did it mean? That the past was nothing to him, she supposed, and that business came first. And business is all that matters now, she berated herself silently. It's about time you started thinking the same way. The fact that he had agreed to see her surely meant there was a chance that he at least might be willing to help, didn't it? And there was no way she was going to blow Matteson's last hope by dwelling on a stupid, childish disappointment.
Faye checked her watch for the third time, catching sight of her freshly manicured nails, so alien to her, clutching the proposal. This had to work. It had to. She watched the immaculate redhead murmur into the intercom, feeling self-conscious, and swept a tendril of her own fair hair back into the clip which held it away from her face. Her budget had not stretched to a professional cut too. This would have to do.
'Mr Valenti will see you now.' The woman spoke as if bestowing upon her an undeserved honour, and ushered her towards the elaborately panelled door.
Faye smoothed down the skirt of her new grey suit unnecessarily, her heart racing, the pressure echoing at her temples. She had spent over six years believing she would never have to lay eyes on him again, and now she had brought it upon herself. But what choice did she have? Over the course of the last year she had appealed to every bank, every possible investor she could think of, but no one would lend her a penny. At first it had been disheartening, worrying. Now it was desperate. There was no other choice—because it was this or watch her family's restaurant go bankrupt before her eyes. And that wasn't an option. Not just because she felt instinctively that it was her daughterly duty to prevent that happening, but because she loved the business. So much so that she was sure even if she had been born into an entirely different family she would always have been drawn—like a bird to the south—to the simple yet deep pleasure which came from seeing other people sit together around her table, enjoying good food. The way people once had at every table in Matteson's. Which was why there was nothing left to do but to walk, as confidently as she could feign, into the enormous room.
He did not speak at first. Faye was silently grateful. For, though she had only dared flick a glance in his direction, the action had rendered her speechless. She had prepared herself for facing the old Dante, and that had been painful enough. What she had not taken into account was how time would have changed him. It was not the plush new office—he had always exuded wealth and class—nor the atmosphere of power that seemed to emanate from the ground where he stood. No, the years had somehow refined him. His luxurious dark hair seemed thicker, the irresistible slant of his jaw more chiselled, the curve of his full lower lip even more sensual. And those dark eyes, thrown into relief by that smooth olive skin, were the most changed of all: more piercing, more commanding— like ice. And, formidable though he looked, he was still the sexiest man she had ever met, and her treacherous eyes wanted to drink in every inch of him. Her memories had been distorted in so many respects, but she had never been wrong about that. No matter how much she wished that she had been.
'To what do I owe this unexpected pleasure, Ms Matteson?' His cut-glass enunciation of the English language with its seductive Italian undertone was as impressive to her now as it had been at eighteen, and sent long-dormant senses into overdrive. 'I can only imagine.'
She raised her head tentatively, not able to focus her eyes above his broad chest. He gestured brusquely for her to sit on one of the black leather chairs flanking the enormous desk whilst he remained standing, making him seem even taller than the city buildings outside the window. She perched on the edge of the chair. She wished he'd remained silent, for she had not predicted the arousing effect that voice would have on her in spite of the damning intention of his words. She felt the blood course faster around her veins, making her aware of pulse-points even her unrelenting nerves had not discovered.
'No formalities, Faye? You need not have booked this appointment through my PA if this is, after all, a personal call.'
Faye had been more than relieved last month, when she had been able to arrange this meeting without actually speaking to Dante himself. Now she suspected this whole charade would have been easier over the phone. She had mistakenly presumed she could be more persuasive face to face, but she had she failed to anticipate the sway his physical presence seemed to have over her.
'Very well, Mr Valenti,' she said, mimicking his formal address though her throat was dry and constricted. 'I have come because I have a business proposition for you.'
'Really, Faye?' he counteracted. 'And what could you possibly have that would interest me?'
The colour rose in her cheeks and she felt utterly exposed—all the more so because of his hawk-like advantage over her. She could feel the intensity of his gaze burning through the fabric of her suit and she wanted to take off her jacket—but she didn't dare remove the layer of protection for fear that her cami would reveal the tingling buds of her breasts that thrust against the thin fabric against her will. Straight on with the speech, a voice inside her prompted. Don't let him see he's getting to you.
'My family and I are keen to find some additional investment for Matteson's, in return for a percentage of the profits. As someone who once showed an interest in our restaurant, I thought you might be eager to see the proposal.' Her voice trailed off as she remembered his presence there back then: the delight that his approval had given her parents, the life he had breathed into it for her. She opened her folder on the desk and pushed it towards where he was standing at the other end. He ignored the papers.
'Eager?' She did not need to look at his face to catch his sardonic tone. 'You may have been fool enough to presume I had any interest whatsoever in the restaurant back then.' Dante dipped his eyes as he spoke, shaking his head. 'But you must be plain stupid if you think I don't know that Matteson's is on its last legs.'
Faye stiffened, wondering if there was anything he could have said that would have hurt more. So it had all been a facade. He had seen the opportunity to use her, nothing more. And if he believed Matteson's was irrecoverable, she might as well give up here and now. The thought spurred her onto the defensive. 'Much as it might please you to believe me to be plain stupid, Dante, for your information Matteson's is not on its last legs. I admit we need an injection of cash to continue updating some elements, but—'
'An injection of cash?' Dante cut in. 'You need a miracle. Who in their right mind is going to pump money into a business running at a loss?'
'We are not running at a loss.'
'But let me guess—you are not making a profit either?'
The shocking accuracy of Dante's judgement caused her cheeks to burn, and the air in the room was suddenly stifling. When her father had fallen ill, he had been unable to devote the time that Matteson's demanded, and yet he had been too proud to seek extra help, too stubborn to allow Faye to pull out of university and share the responsibility. Faye swallowed down a lump in her throat; she admired her father for that as much as she regretted his obstinacy. But since his death things had gone from bad to worse. No matter how hard Faye had tried to turn things around profits had continued to fall, and if they didn't increase soon she wouldn't even be able to afford to pay the staff their wages.
'Perhaps if you had gained a little more experience before taking on this venture, you might not have found yourself in this position, sì?'
The insinuation hurt. He was exactly the reason the broadening of her experience had been cut short. 'I have had experience. Just because it wasn't all under your guidance it doesn't mean it wasn't worthwhile. There are hotels and restaurants that aren't owned by you. Or hadn't you noticed?'
'I do not doubt you have had plenty of other experience since then,' Dante said slowly, deliberately running his eyes over her figure. 'But clearly none of it was quite good enough, since here you are standing before me. And we both know that means you must be desperate.'
Faye ignored the insult. He might be right about the last part, but he would mock her all the more if he knew how wrong he was about what else he was implying.
'Every business needs capital spent on it periodically. Circumstances dictate that Matteson's needs to look for an external investor now, for the first time in fifteen years. I don't consider that a failure.'
'Then open your eyes.' She recognised the harsh professional side of him she had once respected, but had never thought she would find directed at her. 'You didn't need cash back then because Matteson's was current, contemporary.
Now it's fallen so far behind it's dropped off the radar. People need change.'
Was that his personal motto? Faye wondered bitterly. And did he really suppose she was so dense that she didn't know that? She had tried her utmost to keep the place up to date, to turn things around after her father had passed away. But there was only so far she could get using a home printer to modernise the menus, or spending her own paltry savings on paint for the walls. She knew Matteson's needed a complete overhaul, and was desperate to give it one, but to do so she needed the means.
'It is our intention to use any funding to update the kitchens, the interior—'
'It's too late.' Dante's voice seemed to echo every rejection ever thrust her way. 'Matteson's is a failing brand.'
'Then we must agree to disagree.'
Faye raised her head, and her eyes met his for just a second before she looked back at Rome's skyline. He did not speak, but finally moved from the window towards her, making the room behind him seem larger, brighter, but the space around her feel minute. At last he rested on the desk next to her, one immaculate charcoal-suited leg casually resting over the other.
She could see the powerful thrust of his thighs and smell the earthy, masculine scent that was so distinctly his that she was transported back to another afternoon, so different from this, altogether too painful to contemplate. But forcing the images from her mind did not help to ease the old familiar pooling in her belly. She rose, unable to stand his close proximity. She wanted to scream for him to get away from her, though they must be at least a metre apart. There was no point remaining here in this room with him, enduring his vehement loathing and torturing herself when there was no hope left that this meeting would have the outcome she had wished for. No matter that when she had forced herself to consider this failure in her mind, she had thought the saving grace would be that when she walked away she would know that the way she had felt about him back then was all down to schoolgirl infatuation. She ought to be accustomed to finding that she was wrong where he was concerned.
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