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For five grim years Lucy had imagined her first day of freedom. A sky the pure blue of Italian summer. The scent of citrus in the warm air and the sound of birds.
Instead she inhaled a familiar aroma. Bricks, concrete and cold steel should have no scent. Yet mixed with despair and commercial strength detergent, they created a perfume called 'Institution'. It had filled her nostrils for years.
Lucy repressed a shudder of fear, her stomach cramping.
What if there had been a mistake? What if the huge metal door before her remained firmly shut?
Panic welled at the thought of returning to her cell. To come so close then have freedom denied would finally destroy her.
The guard punched in the release code. Lucy moved close, her bag in one clammy hand, her heart in her mouth. Finally the door opened and she stepped through.
Exhaust fumes instead of citrus. Lowering grey skies instead of blue. The roar of cars rather than birdsong.
She didn't care. She was free!
She closed her eyes, savouring this moment she'd dreamed of since the terror engulfed her.
She was free to do as she chose. Free to try taking up the threads of her life. She'd take a cheap flight to London and a night to regroup before finishing the trip to Devon. A night somewhere quiet, with a comfortable bed and unlimited hot water.
The door clanged shut and her eyes snapped open.
A noise made her turn. Further along, by the main entrance, a crowd stirred. A crowd with cameras and microphones that blared 'Press'.
Ice scudded down Lucy's spine as she stepped briskly in the opposite direction.
She'd barely begun walking when the hubbub erupted: running feet, shouts, the roar of a motorbike.
'Lucy! Lucy Knight!' Even through the blood pounding in her ears and the confusion of so many people yelling at once, there was no mistaking the hunger in those voices. It was as if the horde had been starved and the scent of fresh blood sent them into a frenzy.
Lucy quickened her pace but a motorbike cut off her escape. The passenger snapped off shot after shot of her stunned face before she could gather herself.
By that time the leaders of the pack had surrounded her, clamouring close and thrusting microphones in her face. It was all she could do not to give in to panic and run. After the isolation she'd known the eager crush was terrifying.
'How does it feel, Lucy?'
'What are your plans?'
'Have you anything to say to our viewers, Lucy? Or to the Volpe family?'
The bedlam of shouted questions eased a fraction at mention of the Volpe family. Lucy sucked in a shocked breath as cameras clicked and whirred in her face, disorienting her.
She should have expected this. Why hadn't she?
Because it was five years ago. Old news.
Because she'd expected the furore to die down.
What more did they want? They'd already taken so much.
If only she'd accepted the embassy's offer to spirit her to the airport. Foolishly she'd been determined to rely on no one. Five years ago British officials hadn't been able to save her from the grinding wheels of Italian justice. She'd stopped expecting help from there, or anywhere.
Look where her pride had got her!
Lips set in a firm line, she strode forward, cleaving a path through the persistent throng. She didn't shove or threaten, just kept moving with a strength and determination she'd acquired the hard way.
She was no longer the innocent eighteen-year-old who'd been incarcerated. She'd given up waiting for justice, much less a champion.
She'd had to be her own champion.
Lucy made no apology when her stride took her between a news camera and journalist wearing too much make-up and barely any skirt. The woman's attempt to coax a comment ended when her microphone fell beneath Lucy's feet.
Lucy looked neither right nor left, knowing if she stopped she'd be lost. The swelling noise and press of so many bodies sent her hurtling towards claustrophobic panic. She shook inside, her breathing grew choppy, her stomach diving as she fought the urge to flee.
The press would love that!
There was a gap ahead. Lucy made for it, to discover herself surrounded by big men in dark suits and sunglasses. Men who kept the straining crowd at bay.
Despite the flash of cameras and volleys of shouts, here in these few metres of space it was like being in the eye of a cyclone.
Instincts hyperalert, Lucy surveyed the car the security men encircled. It was expensive, black with tinted windows.
Curious, she stepped forward, racking her brain. Her friends had melted away in these last years. As for her familyif only they could afford transport like this!
One of the bodyguards opened the back door and Lucy stepped close enough to look inside.
Grey eyes snared her. Eyes the colour of ice under a stormy sky. Sleek black eyebrows rayed up towards thick, dark hair cropped against a well-shaped head.
The clamour faded and Lucy's breath snagged as her eyes followed a long, arrogant nose, pinched as if in rejection of the institutional aroma she carried in her pores. High, angled cheekbones scored a patrician face. A solid jaw and a firm-set mouth, thinned beyond disapproving and into the realm of pained, completed a compelling face that might have stared out from a Renaissance portrait.
Despite the condemnation she read there, another emotion blasted between them, an unseen ripple of heat in the charged air. A ripple that drew her flesh tight and made the hairs on her arms rise.
Air hissed from Lucy's lungs as if from a puncture wound. Her hand tightened on her case and for a moment she rocked on her feet.
Not him! This was too much.
'You recognise me?' He spoke English with the clear, rounded vowels and perfect diction of a man with impeccable lineage, wealth, power and education at his disposal.
Which meant his disapproving tone, as if she had no right even to recognise a man so far beyond her league, was deliberate.
Lucy refused to let him see how that stung. Blank-faced withdrawal was a tactic she'd perfected as a defence in the face of aggression.
How could his words harm her after what she'd been through?
'I remember you.' As if she could forget. Once she'd almost believed
No. She excised the thought. She was no longer so foolishly naive.
The sight of him evoked a volley of memories. She made herself concentrate on the later ones. 'You never missed a moment of the trial.'
The shouts of the crowd were a reminder of that time, twisting her insides with pain.
He didn't incline his head, didn't move, yet something flickered in his eyes. Something that made her wonder if he, like she, held onto control by a slim thread.
'Would you have? In my shoes?' His voice was silky but lethal. Lucy remembered reading that the royal assassins of the Ottoman sultan had used garrottes of silk to strangle their victims.
He wouldn't lower himself to assault but he wouldn't lift a finger to save her. Yet once long ago, for a fleeting moment, they'd shared something fragile and full of breathless promise.
Her throat tightened as memories swarmed.
What was she doing here, bandying words with a man who wished her only ill? Silently she turned but found her way blocked by a giant in a dark suit.
'Please, signorina.' He gestured to the open car door behind her. 'Take a seat.'
With Domenico Volpe? He personified everything that had gone wrong in her life.
A bubble of hysterical laughter rose and she shook her head.
She stepped to one side but the bodyguard moved fast. He grasped her arm, propelling her towards the car.
'Don't touch me!' All the shock and grief and dismay she battled rose within her, a roiling well of emotions she'd kept pent up too long.
No one had the right to coerce her.
Not any more.
Not after what she 'd endured.
Lucy opened her mouth to demand her release. But the crisp, clear order she'd formulated didn't emerge. Instead a burst of Italian vitriol spilled out. Words she'd never known, even in English, till her time in jail. The sort of gutter Italian Domenico Volpe and his precious family wouldn't recognise. The sort of coarse, colloquial Italian favoured by criminals and lunatics. She should know, she'd met enough in her time.
The bodyguard's eyes widened, his hand dropping as he stepped back. As if he was afraid her lashing tongue might injure him.
Abruptly the flow of words stopped. Lucy vibrated with fury but also with something akin to shame.
So much for her pride in rising above the worst degradations of imprisonment. As for her pleasure, just minutes ago, that she'd left prison behind her
Her heart fell. How long would she bear its taint? How irrevocably had it changed her?
Despair threatened but she forced it down.
Fingers curling tight around the handle of her bag, she stepped forward and the bodyguard made way. She kept going, beyond the cordon that kept Domenico Volpe from the straining paparazzi.
Lucy straightened her spine. She'd rather walk into the arms of the waiting press than stay here.
'I'm sorry, boss. I should have stopped her. But with the media watching
'It's okay, Rocco. The last thing I want is a press report about us kidnapping Lucy Knight.' That would really send Pia into a spin. His sister-in-law was already strung out at the news of her release.
He watched the crowd close round the slim form of the Englishwoman and something that felt incredibly like remorse stirred.
As if he'd failed her.
Because she'd looked at him with unveiled horror and chosen the slavering mob rather than share a car with him? That niggling sense of guilt resurfaced. Nonsense, of course. In the light of day logic assured him she'd brought on her own destruction. Yet sometimes, in the dead of night, it didn't seem so cut and dried.
But he wasn't Lucy Knight's keeper. He never had been.
Five years ago he'd briefly responded to her air of fresh enthusiasm, so different from the sophisticated, savvy women in his life. Until he'd discovered she was a sham, trying to ensnare and use him as she had his brother.
Domenico's lips firmed. She'd looked at him just now with those huge eyes the colour of forget-me-nots. A gullible man might have read fear in that look.
Domenico wasn't a gullible man.
Though to his shame he'd felt a tug of unwanted attraction to the woman who'd stood day after day in the dock, projecting an air of bewildered innocence.
Her face had been a smooth oval, rounded with youth. Her hair, straight, long and the colour of wheat in the sun, had made him want to reach out and touch.
He'd hated himself for that.
'She's some wildcat, eh, boss? The way she let fly' 'Close the door, Rocco.'
'Yes, sir.' The guard stiffened and shut the door.
Domenico sat back, watching the melee move down the street. A few stragglers remained, their cameras trained on the limousine, but the tinted windows gave privacy.
Just as well. He didn't want their lenses on him. Not when he felt
He swiped a hand over his jaw, wishing to hell Pia hadn't put him in this situation. What did the media frenzy matter? They could rise above it as always. Only the insecure let the press get to them. But Pia was emotionally vulnerable, beset by mood swings and insecurities.
It wasn't the media that disturbed him. He ignored the paparazzi. It was her, Lucy Knight. The way she looked at him.
She'd changed. Her cropped hair made her look like a raunchy pixie instead of a soulful innocent. Her face had fined down, sculpted into bone-deep beauty that had been a mere promise at eighteen. And attitude! She had that in spades.
What courage had it taken to walk back into that hungry throng? Especially when he'd seen and heard, just for a moment, the pain in her hoarse curses.
For all the weeks of the trial she'd looked as if butter wouldn't melt in her mouth. How had she hidden such violent passion, such hatred so completely?
Orthe thought struck out of nowheremaybe that dangerous undercurrent was something new, acquired in the intervening years.
Domenico sagged in his seat. He should ignore Pia's pleas and his own ambivalent reactions and walk away. This woman had been nothing but trouble since the day she'd crossed his family's threshold.
He pressed the intercom to speak to the driver. 'Drive on.'
Twenty minutes till the bus came.
Could she last? The crowd grew thicker. It took all Lucy's stamina to pretend they didn't bother her. To ignore the cameras and catcalls, the increasingly rough jostling.
Lucy's knees shook and her arm ached but she didn't dare put her case down. It held everything she owned and she wouldn't put it past one of the paparazzi to swipe it and do an expose on the state of her underwear or a psychological profile based on the few battered books she possessed.
The tone of the gathering had darkened as the press found, instead of the easy prey they'd expected, a woman determined not to cooperate. Didn't they realise the last thing she wanted was more publicity?
They'd attracted onlookers. She heard their mutterings and cries of outrage.
She widened her stance, bracing against the pushing crowd, alert to the growing tension. She knew how quickly violence could erupt.
She was just about to give up on the bus and move on when the crowd stirred. A flutter, like a sigh, rippled through it, leaving in its wake something that could almost pass for silence.
The camera crews parted. There, striding towards her was the man she'd expected never to see again: Domenico Volpe, shouldering through the rabble, eyes locked on her. He seemed oblivious to the snapping shutters as the cameras went into overdrive and newsmen gabbled into microphones.
He wore a grey suit with the slightest sheen, as if it were woven from black pearls. His shirt was pure white, his tie perfection in dark silk.
He looked the epitome of Italian wealth and breeding. Not a wrinkle marred his clothes or the elegant lines of his face. Only his eyes, boring into hers, spoke of something less than cool control.
A spike of heat plunged right through her belly as she held his eyes.
He stopped before her and Lucy had to force herself not to crane her head to look up at him. Instead she focused on the hand he held out to her.
The paper crackled as she took it.
Come with me. The words were in slashing black ink on a page from a pocketbook. I can get you away from this. You'll be safe.
Her head jerked up.
'Safe?' With him?
He nodded. 'Yes.'
Around them journalists craned to hear. One tried to snatch the note from Lucy's hand. She crumpled it in her fist.
It was mad. Bizarre. He couldn't want to help her. Yet she wasn't fool enough to think she could stay here. Trouble was brewing and she'd be at the centre of it.
Still she hesitated. This close, Lucy was aware of the strength in those broad shoulders, in that tall frame and his square olive-skinned hands. Once that blatant male power had left her breathless. Now it threatened.
But if he'd wanted to harm her physically he'd have found a way long before this.
He leaned forward. She stiffened as his whispered words caressed her cheek. 'Word of a Volpe.'
He withdrew, but only far enough to look her in the eye. He stood in her personal space, his lean body warming her and sending ripples of tension through her.
She knew he was proud. Haughty. Loyal. A powerful man. A dangerously clever one. But everything she'd read, and she'd read plenty, indicated he was a man of his word. He wouldn't sully his ancient family name or his pride by lying.
Jerkily she nodded.