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Santo jerked awake, his heart racing, and reached out for familiar comfort, but rather than in bed with a lover beside him, he was asleep alone on a couch.
What happened last night?
His mind was a cruel trickster.
It did not tell him what had happenedit showed him little clues.
There was an empty whisky bottle on the floor, which Santo stepped over to get to the bathroom, and when he looked down he saw that he was still wearing the wedding suit, but his tie was off and the shirt torn and undone.
He checked the inside pocket of his jacket, remembered Ella double- and triple-checking that he had them before she left and he went off to be best man at his brother's wedding.
The rings were still there.
He splashed his face with water; his face and chest were a mass of bruises.
Santo looked at his neck and grimaced, but a few love bites were the least of his concerns as yesterday's events started to come back to him.
Santo picked up the phone to arrange a driver, but he got the night receptionist who, perhaps unaware that she should not ask such questions, enquired where he wanted to go and Santo promptly hung up.
Looking out of the window, from his luxurious vantage point, Santo could see the press waiting. Rarely for Santo, he couldn't stomach facing them, or his brother, alone.
'Can you pick me up?
Despite the hour, Ella answered the phone with her eyes closed. After four months working for Santo Corretti she was more than used to being called out of hours, though he sounded particularly terrible this morning. His deep, low voice, thick with Italian accent, was still beautiful, if a touch hoarse.
Yes, beautiful and terrible just about summed Santo up.
Peeling her eyes open, she looked at the figures on her bedside clock. 'It's 6:00 a.m.,' Ella said. 'On a Sunday.' Which should have been enough reason to end the call and go back to sleep. Yet, all night, Ella had been half expecting him to ring, so much so she had sat with her giant heated rollers in last night and had already laid her clothes out. Like the rest of Sicily, Ella had watched the drama unfold on television yesterday afternoon and had seen updates on the news all night. Even her mother in Australia, watching the Italian news, would know that the much-anticipated wedding of Santo's brother, Alessandro Corretti, to Alessia Battaglia had been called off at the last minute.
Literally, at the last minute.
The bride had fled midway down the aisle and the world was waiting to see how two of Sicily's most notorious families would deal with the fallout.
Yes, Ella had had a feeling that her services might be required before Monday.
'Look, this is my day off.' She did her best to hold firm. 'I worked yesterday ' Of course, as just his PA, Ella hadn't been invited to the wedding. Instead her job had been to ensure that Santo arrived sober, on time and looking divine as he always did.
The divine part had been easySanto made a beautiful best man. It was the other two requisites that had taken up rather a lot more of her people skills.
'I need to pick up Alessandro from the police station,' Santo said. 'He was arrested last night.'
Ella lay there silently, refusing to ask for details, while privately wondering just what else had happened yesterday.
She had raised a glass to the screen as she had seen Santo arrive at the church, talking and joking with Alessandro, privately thinking that the gene pool had surely been fizzing with expensive champagne when these two were conceived.
They could, at first glance, almost be twinsboth were tall and broad shouldered, both wore their jet-black hair short, both had come-to-bed dark green eyesbut there were differences. Alessandro was the eldest, and the two years that divided the brothers were significant.
As firstborn son to the late Carlo Corretti, Alessandro was rather more ruthless, whereas Santo was a touch lighter in personality, more fun and extremely flirtybut he could still be completely arrogant at times.
'Come and pick me up now,' Santo said, as if to prove her point. Ella let out a long breath, telling herself that in a few weeks, if she got the job she had applied for, then all the scandal and drama of the Correttis would be a thing of the past. Working for Santo was nothing like she'd imagined it would be. 'The press are everywhere,' he warned, which was Santo's shorthand to remind her to look smarteven in a crisis he insisted on appearances. 'Take a taxi and then pick up my car and drive it around to the hotel entrance. Text me when you're there.'
'I hate driving your car,' Ella started, but was met again with silence. Having given his orders, Santo would assume she was jumping to the snap of his manicured fingers, and had already hung up.
'Bastard,' Ella hissed and then she heard his voice.
'You love me, really.'
Ella was too annoyed to be embarrassed. 'I love lying in on a Sunday morning.' 'Tough.'
This time he did hang up.
In a few weeks you'll be out of it, Ella told herself as she rang for a taxi. The woman on the other end of the phone sounded half asleep as well and told Ella it would be a good fifteen minutes to half an hour, which suited her fine. She climbed out of bed and headed straight for the shower and then to the mirror, but Santo could forget it if he thought she was going to arrive in full makeup. She changed her mind, because like it or not, Santo was her boss and Ella took her work very seriously. So, instead of a slick of mascara and lipglosswhich were usual weekend fare, if she wore any make-up at all
Ella set to work with the make-up brushes and then smoothed out her hair a touch and tied it into a low po-nytail. She pulled on a dark grey skirt and sheer cream blouse and added low heels.
One good thing about working for Santo was her clothing allowance.
Actually, it was the only good thing.
And Ella wasn't even particularly interested in clothes!
Hearing the taxi toot outside her small rented flat, Ella checked her appearance one more time and then grabbed her 'Santo Bag' as she called it, making sure that she had his spare set of car keys, before heading outside. She squinted at the morning sun and took in the vivid colours of a gorgeous Palermo in May. The ocean was glistening and the city still seemed to be sleeping. No doubt the whole of Sicily had had a late night, waiting for updates in the news.
'Buongiorno.' Ella gave the taxi driver the address of the smart hotel where Santo was staying and then sat back and listened to the morning news on the radio.
Of course the jilted Corretti groom was being talked about long after the headlines had been read.
And, of course, the taxi driver was more than delighted with the news. 'Trouble!' he told her. 'As if a wedding would ever unite the Corretti and Battaglia families ' and happily he chatted some more, unaware he was driving her to meet with Santo. Ella chose not to enlighten him. Santo didn't exactly keep her informed about the goings-on in his family. If anything, his Italian picked up pace if he ever had to speak with one of them, just enough to make it almost impossible for her to work out what was being said.
'They have always fought?' Ella checked.
'Always,' the driver told her and then added that even the death of Salvatore Corretti a few weeks ago would not bring peace between the two families. 'The Cor-rettis even war with themselves.'
That much Ella knew. Even though Santo didn't reveal much about his family, Ella was forever having to deal with the feuding Corretti cousins. The family was incredibly divided and they were all constantly trying to outdo the other, under the guise of the family empire. They were all trying to outmanoeuvre one another in the bid to become top dog, not just at work, but with cars, with women, with horses. Ella was sick of it. She was tired of the dark secrets and mind games they all played.
She'd have put up with it for a while longer though, if Santo would just give her a small step onto the ladder she wanted to climb. Over and over she had asked him if she could work on just one of his films as a junior assistant director.
'Presto,' Santo would say and then, as he did all too often when he spoke to her in Italian, he would annoyingly translate for her. 'Soon.'
Well, soon, she'd be gone.
Ella asked the driver to stop while she bought some coffee and then climbed back in.
As they approached the hotel Ella told the driver that she wished to be dropped off in the underground car park. As they approached she saw that Santo was rightthere were a lot of press around and security was tight. Ella was more than happy to show her ID before paying the taxi driver and telling the concerned valet that she wanted to personally take the car up to collect her boss.
Ella slipped into the front seat and smelt not the leather, but the familiar, expensive scent of Santo. Before she started the engine she texted him, letting him know she was in the basement and on her way to collect him.
The engine growled at the merest touch of her foot and she jerked her way through the car park, doing her best to ignore the flash of cameras as the paparazzi stirred at the new activity taking place.
Come on, Santo, she muttered as she sat with the engine idling, glad of the effort she'd made as cameras clicked away, worried, too, that he might have fallen back to sleep after he had called her. But then, still wearing last night's suit, she saw him, walking just a little unsteadily towards the car. Ella's lips pressed together when she saw the state he was in. The press were going to have a field day. His suit was torn and dirty and he was wearing several fresh bruises too. His deathly pale skin only accentuated the fact that he hadn't shaved.
'Buongiorno!' Ella said loudly and brightly as he climbed in.
'Good morning, Ella.'
It was a small game that they played, one that they had partaken in since her interview. Ella, determined to show him how wonderful her Italian was, attempting to prove that just because she was Australian it didn't mean that she wasn't up for the job, had introduced herself in her very best Italian.
Santo had promptly responded in Englishpulling rank and basically saying that his English was better than her Italian, which was of course right. Though, as it turned out, Ella did speak enough Italian to land the job. But when it was just the two of them, they conversed mainly in English, except for this one mutual game.
'I thought you wanted us looking smart.'
He just frowned.
'You said there were press everywhere.'
'There are,' Santo said. 'I was just warning you.'
'Here.' She handed him his coffee.
'You need to get one for Alessandro,' Santo said.
'I already did.'
'Let's go, then.'
They jerked out of the forecourt. 'Why do you have to have gears?' Ella moaned, because she always drove an automatic, though of course Santo didn't consider that real driving. Still, he didn't answer, just sat, unusually quiet, as the car moved out into the bright sunlight. Glancing over she watched him wince and, taking mild pity, Ella put her hand in her Santo Bag and handed him a pair of sunglasses. But even they didn't fully cover the purple bruise on his eye.
As the press surged, Ella inched gingerly forward, aware that one slip of her foot on Santo's accelerator could flatten the lot of them.
'Just go!' Santo cursed as they gathered for their shots and then he cursed again as Ella blasted the horn a few times and finally dispersed them.
His mood didn't improve as they drove through town. 'I hate driving in this country,' Ella muttered as she was forced to swerve and narrowly missed a Vespa. In Australia they drove on the left-hand side of the road and occasionally they even managed to follow the road rules.
Though it wasn't the traffic that was getting to Ella, nor the 6:00 a.m. wake-up call from her boss, whatever fight he had been in last night didn't account for the purple marks on his neck.
Bloody hell, she thought darkly, even in the middle of a family scandal, even as the Battaglia and Corretti families exploded, trust Santo to still be at it.
With who though?
No, Ella was not going to ask for details.
She really didn't want to know if he'd run true to form and gotten off with Taylor Carmichael, the stunning American actress who was playing the leading role in the latest film Santo was producing.
Shooting started on Monday and Santo had made it his personal mission to keep Taylor out of trouble. He had insisted that she attend yesterday's wedding to both ensure that Taylor behaved and to garner some publicity for the film. But with both their reputations, it was perhaps a forgone conclusion as to what had taken place.
It really was time to move on. If she didn't get the new job, then maybe she could head to London, or France perhaps.
Or even go home?
He asked her to stop so that he could draw out some cash to hopefully expedite getting his brother out of the lock-up and Ella closed her eyes and leant her head back on the headrest. The thought of home brought no comfort at all. It was her mother's birthday in a few days and Ella would be expected to call. She was gripped with sudden panic at the thought and opened her eyes and took a couple of deep breaths as she realised that no, she was nowhere near ready to go home.
She watched as Santo had a few attempts at the machine and then, with an irritated sigh, Ella climbed out of the car and walked over to him, tapping his number in.
'What would I do without you?' There was no endearment in his question. He turned his head for a moment and Ella felt heat rise on her cheeks, but then told herself that there was no challenge behind his words. There was no way Santo could know what she had been up to in recent days.
And, Ella consoled herself, who in her position wouldn't be looking for another job? She was tired of bailing him out, tired because now she'd had to get up at some ridiculous hour on her one day off to bail his brother out. Tired, too, of running Santo's not-so-little black booksending flowers and jewellery to his girlfriends, booking intimate tables in fantastic restaurants, organising romantic weekends and then having to calm ruffled feathers when invariably, inevitably, Santo upset them in his oh-so-usual way.
'How was Taylor?' She simply couldn't stop herself from asking, because it was imperative for the film publicity that Taylor had behaved herself last night.
'Niente dichiarazione,' Santo responded, smiling at her pursed lips. 'I am practising "no comment" for the press today. Perhaps you could practise too.'
He was so good at deflecting questions, not just about women, about everything. Always managing to shrug off things that should matter but simply didn't to Santo.
As they pulled up at the police station, Ella was relieved that there were no press waiting; at least word hadn't got out yet that Alessandro was here.
'How do you think he'll be?'
'Hungover.' Santo yawned. 'And far better off without her.'
He went to climb out and Ella, who'd assumed that she'd be sitting for half an hour, or however long it took to bail someone out, was surprised when Santo turned around and asked if she would come in with him.