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Miranda wouldn't have seen him if she hadn't been hiding from the paparazzi. Not that a fake potted plant was a great hiding place or anything, she thought. She peeped through the branches of the ornamental ficus to see Leandro Allegretti crossing the busy street outside the coffee shop she was sheltering in. He didn't seem aware of the fact it was spitting with rain or that the intersection was clotted with traffic and bustling with pedestrians. It was as if a transparent cube was around him. He was impervious to the chatter and clatter outside.
She would have recognised him anywhere. He had a regal, untouchable air about him that made him stand out in a crowd. Even the way he was dressed set him apartnot that there weren't other suited men in the crowd, but the way he wore the sharply tailored charcoal-grey suit teamed with a snowy white shirt and a black-and-silver striped tie somehow made him look different. More civilised. More dignified.
Or maybe it was because of his signature frown.
Had she ever seen him without that frown? Miranda wondered. Her older twin brothers, Julius and Jake, had been boarding school buddies with Leandro. He had spent occasional weekends or school holidays and even university breaks at the Ravensdale family home, Ravensdene, in Buckinghamshire. Being a decade younger, she'd spent most of her childhood being a little intimidated by Leandro's taciturn presence. He was the epitome of the strong, silent typea man of few words and even fewer facial expressions. She couldn't read his expression at the best of times. It was hard to tell if he was frowning in disapproval or simply in deep concentration.
He came into the coffee shop and Miranda watched as every female head turned his way. His French-Italian heritage had served him well in the looks department. Imposingly tall with jet-black hair, olive skin and brown eyes three or four shades darker than hers.
But if Leandro was aware of his impact on the female gaze he gave no sign of it. It was one of the things she secretly most liked about him. He didn't trade on his appearance. He seemed largely unaware of how knee-wobblingly gorgeous he looked. It was as if it was irrelevant to him. Unlike her brother Jake, who knew he was considered arm candy and exploited it for all he could.
Leandro stood at the counter and ordered a long black coffee to take away from the young, blushing attendant, and then politely stood back to wait for it, taking out his phone to check his messages or emails.
Miranda covertly studied his tall, athletic figure with its strongly corded muscles honed from long hours of endurance exercise. The broad shoulders, the strong back, the lean hips, taut buttocks and the long legs. She had seen him many a time down at Ravensdene, a solitary figure running across the fields of the estate in all sorts of weather, or swimming endless laps of the pool in summer.
Leandro took to exercise with an intense, single-minded concentration that made her wonder if he was doing it for the health benefits or for some other reason known only to himself. But, whatever reason it was that motivated him, it clearly worked to his benefit. He had the sort of body to stop female hearts. She couldn't stop looking at him, drinking in the male perfection of his frame, her mind traitorously wondering how delicious he would look in a tangle of sheets after marathon sex. Did he have a current lover? Miranda hadn't heard much about his love life lately, but she'd heard his father had died a couple of months ago. She assumed he'd been keeping a low profile since.
The young attendant handed Leandro his coffee and as he turned to leave his eyes met Miranda's through the craggy branches of the pot plant. She saw the flash of recognition go through his gaze but he didn't smile in welcome. His lips didn't even twitch upwards. But then, she couldn't remember ever seeing him smile. Or, at least, not at her. The closest he came to it was a sort of twist of his lips that could easily be mistaken for cynicism rather than amusement. 'Miranda?' he said.
She lifted her hand in a little fingertip wave, trying not to draw too much attention to herself in case anyone lurking nearby with a smart phone recognised her. 'Hi.'
He came over to her table screened behind the pot plant. She had to crane her neck to meet his frowning gaze. She always felt like a pixie standing in front of a giant when she was around him. He was an inch shorter than her six-foot-four brothers but for some reason he'd always seemed taller.
'Are the press still hassling you?' he asked, still frowning.
Of course, Leandro had heard about her father's scandal, Miranda thought. It was the topic on everyone's lips. It was splashed over every newsfeed or online blog. Could it get any more embarrassing? Was there anyone in Londonthe entire worldwho didn't know her father had sired a love child twenty-three years ago? As London theatre royalty, her parents were known for drawing attention to themselves. But this scandal of her father's was the biggest and most mortifying so far. Miranda's mother, Elisabetta Albertini, had cancelled her season on Broadway and was threatening divorce. Her father, Richard Ravensdale, was trying to get his love child into the bosom of the family but so far with zero success. Apparently Katherine Winwood had failed to be charmed by her long-lost biological father and was doing everything she could to avoid him and her half-siblings.
Which was fine by Miranda. Just fine, especially since Kat was so beautiful that everyone was calling Miranda 'the ugly sister'. Argh!
'Just a little,' Miranda said with a pained smile. 'But enough about all that. I'm so sorry about your father. I didn't know about him passing otherwise I would've come to the funeral.'
'Thank you,' he said. 'But it was a private affair.'
'So, how are things with you?' she said. 'I heard you did some work for Julius in Argentina. Great news about his engagement, isn't it? I met his fiancée Holly last night. She's lovely.' Miranda always found it difficult to make conversation with Leandro. He wasn't the small talk type. When she was around him she had a tendency to babble or ramble to fill any silence with the first thing that came into her head. She knew it made her seem a little vacuous, but he was so tight-lipped, what else was she to do? She felt like a tennis-ball machine loping balls at him but without him returning any.
Fortunately this time he did.
'Yes,' he said. 'Great news.'
'It was a big surprise, wasn't it?' Miranda said. 'I didn't even know he was dating anyone. I can't believe my big brother is getting married. Seriously, Julius is such a dark horse, he's practically invisible. But Holly is absolutely perfect for him. I'm so happy for them. Jasmine Connolly is going to design the wedding dress. We're both going to be bridesmaids, as Holly doesn't have any sisters or close friends. I don't know why she doesn't have loads of friends because she's such a sweetheart. Jaz thinks so too. You remember Jaz, don't you? The gardener's daughter who grew up with me at Ravensdene? We went to school together. She's got her own bridal shop now and'
'Can I ask a favour?'
Miranda blinked. A favour? What sort of favour? What was he going to say? Shut up? Stop gabbling like a fool? Stop blushing like a gauche twelve-year-old schoolgirl? 'Sure.'
His deep brown gaze was centred on hers, his dark brows still knitted together. 'Will you do a job for me?'
Her heart gave a funny little skip. 'Wh-what sort of job?' Stuttering was another thing she did when she was around him. What was it about this man that turned her into a gibbering idiot? It was ridiculous. She had known him all her life. He was like a brother to her
well, sort of. Leandro had always been on the fringe of her consciousness as the Ideal Man. Not that she ever allowed herself to indulge in such thoughts. Not fully. But they were there, like uninvited guests at a cocktail party, every now and again moving forward to sneak a canapé or a drink before melting back against the back wall of her mind.
'My father left me his art collection in his will,' Leandro said. 'I need someone to catalogue it before I can sell it; plus there are a couple of paintings that might need restoring. I'll pay you, of course.'
Miranda found it odd he hadn't told anyone his father had died until after the funeral was over. She wondered why he hadn't told her brothers, particularly Julius, who was the more serious and steady twin. Julius would have supported Leandro, gone to the funeral with him and stood by him if he'd needed back up.
She pictured Leandro standing alone at that funeral. Why had he gone solo? Funerals were horrible enough.
The final goodbye was always horrifically painful but to face it alone would be unimaginable. Even if he hadn't been close to his father there would still be grief for what he had missed out on, not to mention the heart-wrenching realisation it was now too late to fix it.
When her childhood sweetheart Mark Redbank had died of leukaemia, her family and his had surrounded her. Supported her. Comforted her. Even Leandro had turned up at the funeralshe remembered seeing his tall, silent dark-haired figure at the back of the church. It had touched her that he'd made the time when he'd hardly known Mark. He had only met him a handful of times.
Miranda had heard via her brothers that Leandro had a complicated back story. They hadn't told her much, only that his parents had divorced when he was eight years old and his mother had taken him to England, where he'd been promptly put into boarding school with Miranda's twin brothers after his mother had remarried and begun a new family. He had been a studious child, excelling both academically and on the sporting field. He had taken that hard work ethic into his career as a forensic accountant. 'I'm so sorry for your loss,' she said.
'Did your mother go to the funeral?' Miranda asked. 'No,' he said. 'They hadn't spoken since the divorce.'
Miranda wondered if his father's funeral would have brought back painful memories of his estranged relationship with him. No son wanted to be rejected by his father. But apparently Vittorio Allegretti hadn't wanted custody after the divorce. He had handed over Leandro as a small boy and only saw him on the rare occasion he'd been in London on business. She had heard via her brothers that eventually Leandro had stopped meeting his father because Vittorio had a tendency to drink to the point of abusing others and/or passing out. There had even been one occasion where the police had had to be called due to a bar-room scuffle Leandro's father had started. It didn't surprise her Leandro had kept his distance. With his quiet and reserved nature he wasn't the sort of man to draw unnecessary attention to himself.
But there was so much more she didn't know about him. She knew he was a forensic accountanta brilliant one. He had his own consultancy in London and travelled all over the globe uncovering major fraud in the corporate and private sectors. He often worked with Jake with his business analysis company and he had recently helped Julius in exposing Holly's ghastly stepfather's underworld drug and money-laundering operations.
Leandro Allegretti was the go-to man for uncovering secrets and yet Miranda had always sensed he had one or two of his own.
'So this job
' she began. 'Where's the collection?'
'In Nice,' he said. 'My father ran an art and antiques business in the French Riviera. This is his private collection. He sold off everything else when he was first diagnosed with terminal cancer.'
'And you want to
to get rid of it?' Miranda asked, frowning at the thought of him selling everything of his father's. In spite of their tricky relationship, didn't he want a memento? 'All of it?'
The line of his mouth was flat. Hardened. Whitened. 'Yes,' he said. 'I have to pack up the villa and sell that too.'
'Why not use someone locally?' Miranda knew she was well regarded in her job as an art restorer even though she was at the early stages of her career. But she wouldn't be able to do much on site. Art restoration was more science now than art. Sophisticated techniques using x-rays, infrared technology and Raman spectroscopy meant most restoration work was done in the protective environment of an established gallery. Leandro could afford the best in the world. Why ask her?
'I thought you might like a chance to escape the hoo-hah here,' Leandro said. 'Can you take a couple of weeks' leave from the gallery?'
Miranda had already been thinking about getting out of London for some breathing space. It had been hell on wheels with her father's dirty linen being flapped in her face. She couldn't go anywhere without being assailed by press. Everyone wanted to know what she thought of her father's scandal. Had she met her half-sister? Was she planning to? Were her parents divorcing for the second time? It was relentless. Along with the press attention, she had also been subjected to her mother's bitter tirades about her father, and her father's insistence she make contact with her half-sister and play happy families.
Like that was going to happen.
This would be a perfect opportunity to escape. Besides, October on the Cote d'Azur would be preferable to the capricious weather London was currently dishing up. 'How soon do you want me?' she said, blushing when she realised her unintentional double entendre. 'I mean, I can probably get away from work by the end of next week. Is that okay?'
'Fine,' he said. 'I don't collect the keys to the villa until then anyway. I'll book your flight and email you the details. Do you have a preference for a hotel?'
'Where will you be staying?'
'At my father's villa.'
Miranda thought about the expense of staying at a hotel, not that Leandro couldn't afford it. He would put her in five-star accommodation if she asked for it. But staying in a hotel put her at risk of being found by the press. If she stayed with Leandro at his father's villa she could work on the collection without that looming threat.
Besides, it would be an opportunity to see a little of the man behind the perpetual frown.
'Is there room for me at your father's place?'
Leandro's frown deepened until two vertical lines formed between his bottomless brown eyes. 'You don't want to stay in a hotel?'
Miranda snagged her lip with her teeth, warm colour crawling further over her cheeks until her whole face felt on fire. 'I wouldn't want to intrude if you've got someone else staying
Who was his someone else?