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The last time Tina Henderson saw Luca Barbarigo, he was naked. Gloriously, unashamedly, heart-stoppingly naked. A specimen of virile masculine perfectionif you discounted the violent slash of red across his rigid jaw.
As for what had come afterwards
Oh God. It was bad enough to remember the last time she'd seen him. She didn't want to remember anything that came after that. She must have misheard. Her mother could not mean that man. Life could not be that cruel. She clenched a slippery hand harder around the receiver, trying to get a better grip on what her mother was asking.
who did you say again?'
'Are you listening to me, Valentina? I need you to talk to Luca Barbarigo. I need you to make him see reason.'
Impossible. She'd told herself she'd never see him again.
More than that. She'd promised herself.
'Valentina! You have to come. I need you here. Now!'
Tina pinched the bridge of her nose between her fingers trying to block the conflicting memoriesthe images that were seared on her brain from the most amazing night of her life, the sight of him naked as he'd risen from the bed, all long powerful legs, a back that could have been sculpted in marble, right down to the twin dimples at the base of his spineand then the mix master of emotions, the anger and turmoilthe anguish and despairfor what had come afterwards.
She pinched harder, seeking to blot out the dull ache in her womb, trying to direct her shocked emotions into anger. And she was angry, and not just about what had happened in the past. Because how typical was it that the first time her mother actually called her in more than a year, it wasn't to wish her a belated happy birthday, as she'd foolishly imagined, but because Lily needed something.
When did Lily not need something, whether it was attention, or money or adulation from a long and seemingly endless line of husbands and lovers?
And now she foolishly imagined Tina would drop everything and take off for Venice to reason with the likes of Luca Barbarigo?
Not a chance.
Besides, it was impossible. Venice was half a world away from the family farm in Australia where she was also needed right now. No, whatever disagreement her mother had with Luca Barbarigo, she was just going to have to sort it out for herself.
'I'm sorry,' she began, casting a reassuring glance towards her father across the room to signal everything was under control. A call from Lily put everyone on edge. 'But there's no way I can'
'But you have to do something!' her mother shrieked down the telephone line, so loud that she had to hold the receiver away from her ear. 'He's threatening to throw me out of my home! Don't you understand?' she insisted. 'You have to come!' before following it with a torrent of French, despite the fact that Lily D'Areincourt Beauchamp was English born and bred. The language switch came as no surpriseher mother often employed that tactic when she wanted to sound more impassioned. Neither was the melodrama. As long as she had known Lily, there was always melodrama.
Tina rolled her eyes as the tirade continued, not bothering to keep up and tired of whatever game her mother was playing, suddenly bone weary. A long day helping her father bring in the sheep in preparation for shearing wasn't about to end any time soon. There was still a stack of washing up waiting for her in the kitchen sink and that was before she could make a start on the piles of accounts that had to be settled before her trip to town tomorrow to see the bank manager. She rubbed her brow where the start of a headache niggled. She always hated meetings with their bank manager. She hated the power imbalance, the feeling that she was at a disadvantage from the get go.
Though right now the bank manager was the least of her problems.
Across the room Tina's father put down his stock journal on the arm of his chair where he'd been pretending to read and threw her a sympathetic smile before disappearing into the large country kitchen, no real help at all. But then, he'd broken ties with Lily almost twenty-five years ago now. It might not have been a long marriage but, knowing her mother, he'd more than served his time.
She was aware of the banging of the old water pipes as her father turned on the tap, followed by the thump of the kettle on the gas cooker and still her mother wasn't through with pleading her case. 'Okay, Lily,' she managed while her mother drew breath. 'So what makes you think Luca Barbarigo is trying to throw you out of the palazzo? He's Eduardo's nephew after all. Why would he threaten such a thing? And in English, please, if you don't mind. You know my French is rusty.'
'I told you that you need to spend more time on the Continent,' her mother berated, switching grievances as seamlessly as she switched languages, 'instead of burying yourself out there in the Australian outback.'
'Junee is hardly outback,' she argued of the mid-sized New South Wales town that was less than two hours from the semi-bright lights of Canberra. Besides, she hadn't exactly buried herself out here, more like she'd made a tactical withdrawal from a world she wanted no further part in. And then, because she was still feeling winded by her mother's demands, she added, 'It's quite civilised actually. There's even talk of a new bowling alley.'
Silence greeted that announcement and Tina imagined her mother's pursed lips and pinched expression at her daughter's inability to comprehend that in order to be considered civilised, a city needed at least half a dozen opera theatres, preferably centuries old, at a bare minimum.
'Anyway, you still haven't explained what's going on. Why is Luca Barbarigo threatening to throw you out? What kind of hold could he possibly have over you? Eduardo left you the palazzo, didn't he?'
Her mother fell unusually quiet. Tina heard the clock on the mantel ticking; heard the back door creak open and bang shut as her father went outside, probably so he didn't have to hear whatever mess Lily was involved in now. 'Well,' she said finally, her tone more subdued, 'I may have borrowed some money from him.'
'You what?' Tina squeezed her eyes shut. Luca Barbarigo had a reputation as a financier of last resort. By all accounts he'd built a fortune on it, rebuilding the coffers of his family's past fortune. She swallowed. Of all the people her mother could borrow from, of all the contacts she must have, and she had to choose him! 'But why?'
'I had no choice!' her mother asserted. 'I had to get the money from somewhere and I assumed that being family he'd take care of me. He promised he'd take care of me.'
He'd taken care of her all right. And taken advantage into the deal. 'You had to get money for what?'
'To live, of course. You know Eduardo left me with a fraction of the fortune he made out that he had.'
And you've never forgiven him for it. 'So you borrowed money from Luca Barbarigo and now he wants it back.'
'He said if I couldn't pay him, he'd take the palazzo.'
'How much money are we talking about?' Tina asked, pressure building in her temples. The centuries-old palazzo might be just off the Grand Canal, but it would still be worth millions. What kind of hold did he have over her? 'How much do you owe him?'
'Good God, what do you take me for? Why do you even have to ask?'
Tina rubbed her forehead. 'Okay. Then how can he possibly throw you out?'
'That's why I need you here! You can make him understand how unreasonable he is being.'
'You don't need me to do that. I'm sure you know plenty of people right there who can help.'
'But he's your friend!'
Ice snaked down Tina's spine. Hardly friends. In the kitchen the kettle started to whistle, a thin and shrill note and perfectly in tune with her fractured nerves and painful memories. She'd met Luca just three times in her life. The first in Venice at her mother's wedding, where she'd heard his charming words and felt the attraction as he'd taken her hand and she'd decided in an instant that he was exactly the kind of charming, good-looking rich man that her mother would bend over backwards to snare and that she wanted no part of. And when he'd asked her to spend the night with him, she'd told him she wasn't interested. After all, Lily might be her mother, but no way was Tina her mother's daughter.
The second time had been at Eduardo's seventieth birthday, a lavish affair where they'd barely done more than exchange pleasantries. Sure, she'd felt his eyes burn into her flesh and set her skin to tingling as they'd followed her progress around the room, but he'd kept his distance and she'd celebrated that fact, even if he hadn't given her the satisfaction of turning him down again. But clearly her message had struck home.
The third had been at a party in Klosters where she'd been celebrating a friend's birthday. She'd had one too many glasses of champagne and her guard was down and Luca had appeared out of the crowd and suddenly his charm was infectious and he was warm and amusing and he'd taken her aside and kissed her and every shred of self-preservation she'd had had melted away in that one molten kiss.
One night they'd spent togetherone night that had ended in disaster and anguish and that could never be blotted from her mindone night that she'd never shared with her mother. 'Who said we were friends?'
'He did, of course. He asked after you.'
Bastard! As if he cared. He had never cared. 'He lied,' she said, the screaming kettle as her choir. 'We were never friends.'
Never could be.
'Well,' her mother said, 'maybe that's preferable under the circumstances. Then you'll have nothing to risk by intervening on my behalf.'
She put a hand to her forehead, certain the screaming must be coming from somewhere inside her skull. 'Look, Lily, I don't know what good I can do. There is no way my being there will help your cause. Besides, I can't get away.
We're about to start shearing and Dad really needs me here right now. Maybe you'd be better off engaging a lawyer.'
'And just how do you think I'll be able to afford to pay for a lawyer?'
She heard the back screen door slam and her father's muttered curse before the screaming abruptly tapered off. She shook her head. 'I really don't know.' And right now she didn't care. Except to ensure she didn't have to go. 'Maybe
maybe you could sell one or two of those chandeliers you have.' God knew, from the last time she'd visited, it seemed her mother had enough of them to fill a dozen palazzos. Surely if she owed a bit of money she could afford to dispense with one or two?
'Sell my Murano glass? You must be mad! It's irreplaceable! Every piece is individual.'
'Fine, Lily,' she said, 'it was just a suggestion. But under the circumstances I really don't know what else I can suggest. I'm sorry you're having money troubles, but I'm sure I'd be no help at all. And I really am needed here. The shearers arrive tomorrow, it's going to be full-on.'
'But you have to come, Valentina! You must!'
Tina put the phone down and leaned on the receiver a while, the stabbing pain behind her eyes developing into a dull persistent throb. Why now? Why him? It was likely her mother was exaggerating the seriousness of her money problemsshe usually managed to blow any problem right out of proportionbut what if this time she wasn't? What if she was in serious financial trouble? And what could she do about it? It wasn't likely that Luca Barbarigo was going to listen to her.
Old friends? What was he playing at? Ships that crashed in the night would be closer to the mark.
'I take it your mother wasn't calling to wish you a happy birthday, love?' Her father was standing in the kitchen doorframe, a mug of coffee wrapped in each of his big paw-like hands.
She smiled, in spite of the heaviness of her heart and the sick feeling in her gut. 'You got that impression, huh?'
He held up one of the mugs in answer. 'Fancy a coffee? Or maybe you'd like something stronger?'
'Thanks, Dad,' she said, accepting a mug. 'Right now I'd kill for a coffee.'
He took a sip. Followed it with a deep breath. 'So what's the latest in Circus Lily then? The sky is falling? Canals all run dry?'
She screwed up her face. 'Something like that. Apparently someone's trying to throw her out of the palazzo. It seems she borrowed money from Eduardo's nephew and, strangely enough, he wants it back. Lily seems to think I can reason with himmaybe work out some more favourable terms.'
'And you don't?'
She shrugged her shoulders, wishing she could just as easily shrug off memories of a man who looked better naked than any man had a right to, especially when he was a man as cold and heartless as he'd turned out to be. Wishing she could forget the aftermath
'Let's just say I've met the man.' And please don't ask me how or when. 'I told her she'd be better off engaging a lawyer.'
Her dad nodded then and contemplated his coffee and Tina figured she'd put a full stop on the conversation and remembered the dishes still soaking and the accounts still to be paid. She was halfway to the sink when her father said behind her, 'So when do you leave?'
'I'm not going,' she said, her feet coming to a halt. I don't want to go. I can't go. Even though she'd told her mother she'd think about it, and that she'd call her back, when she'd never had any intention of going. She'd promised herself she'd never have to see him again and that was a promise she couldn't afford to break. Just thinking about what he'd cost her last time
'I can't go and leave you, Dad, not now, not with the shearing about to start.'
'I'll manage, if you have to go.'
'How? The shearers start arriving tomorrow. Who's going to cook for a dozen men? You can't.'
He shrugged as the corners of his mouth turned up. 'So I'll go to town and find someone who can cook. You never know, I hear Deidre Turner makes a mean roast. And she might jump at the chance to show off her pumpkin scones to an appreciative audience.' His smile slipped away, his piercing amber eyes turning serious. 'I'm a big boy, Tina, I'll manage.'
Normally Tina would have jumped at her father's mention of another woman, whatever the reasonshe'd been telling him for years he should remarrybut right now she had more important things on her mindlike listing all the reasons she couldn't go.
'You shouldn't have to manage by yourself! Why waste the money on flightsand on paying someone to cookwhen we're already begging favours from the bank manager as it is? And you know what Lily's likelook at how she made such a drama about turning fifty! Anyone would have thought her life was coming to an end and I bet this is exactly the same. I bet it's all some massively overblown drama, as per usual.'