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'Of course, Madame Cole, you get to keep the jewellery and any other personal gifts Mr Cole gave to you during your marriage,' the lawyer said as he closed the thick document folder in front of him. 'But the Monte Carlo villa and the yacht, as well as Mr Cole's entire business portfolio, now belong to Signor Marcelo Castellano.'
Ava sat very still and composed in her chair. She had trained herself over the years to keep her emotions under strict control. No flicker of fear showed in her eyes, and no tremble of her neatly manicured hands as they lay elegantly on her lap betrayed her. But, deep inside her chest, her heart felt as if a large hand had closed over it and begun to squeeze it with a brutal strength. 'I understand,' she said in a coolly detached tone. 'I am in the process of making arrangements for my things to be moved from the villa as soon as possible.'
'Signor Castellano has insisted you do not leave the villa until he meets with you there,' the lawyer said. 'Apparently there are things he wishes to discuss with you to do with the handover of the property.'
This time it was almost impossible to control the widening of her eyes as she looked across the wide desk at Monsieur Letourneur. 'I am sure the household staff will be perfectly capable of giving him a guided tour,' she said, tying her hands together to stop them from fidgeting with her bag.
'Nevertheless he insisted on seeing you in person, at 8:00 p.m. this evening,' Monsieur Letourneur said. 'I believe he wants to move in immediately.'
Ava stared at the lawyer, her heart starting to flap in panic. 'Is that legal?' she asked. 'The short-term lease on an apartment I had lined up fell through and I haven't had time to search for an alternative. There's been so much to do and I'
'It is perfectly legal,' Monsieur Letourneur said with a hint of impatience. 'He has owned the villa for several months now, even before your husband passed away. In any case, a letter was sent to you a few weeks ago to inform you of Signor Castellano's intention to take possession.'
Ava felt her insides turn somersaults, not smoothly executed ones, but jerky and uncoordinated tumbles that left her feeling dizzy. She stared at the lawyer, unable to speak, barely able to think. What was she to do? Where was she to go at such short notice? She had money in her account, but certainly not enough to pay for a hotel for days, perhaps even weeks on end whilst searching for a place to live.
Right from the start Douglas had insisted on everything being in his name. That had been part of the deal he had made when insisting she become his wife. Then upon his death there had been so many expenses with the funeral and the outstanding bills he had left unattended to in the last stages of his illness.
'But I received no such letter!' she finally said when she could get her thoughts into some sort of working order. 'Are you sure one was sent?'
The lawyer opened the file in front of him and passed her a copy of a computer-written letter which confirmed her worst nightmare. Somehow the letter must have gone astray, for she had never received it. She stared at the words printed there, unable to believe this was happening to her.
'I believe you have a history with Signor Castellano, oui?' The lawyer's voice jolted her out of her anguished rumination.
'Oui, monsieur,' she said with a frown still pulling at her brow. 'Five years ago
' she swallowed tightly '
'I am sorry things did not work out better for you, Madame Cole,' the lawyer said. 'Mr Cole's wishes were for you to be well provided for, but the global financial crisis hit him very hard, as indeed it did many investors and business people. It was fortunate Signor Castellano agreed to cover the remaining debts as part of the takeover package.'
Ava's stomach suddenly dropped like a faulty elevator. 'D-debts?' The word came out of her parched mouth like a ghostly whisper. 'But I thought everything had been seen to. Douglas assured me everything was sorted out, that there would be nothing to worry about.' Even as she said the words she realised how stupid and na ve she sounded. She sounded exactly like the empty-headed trophy wife the Press had always made her out to be. But then didn't she deserve the slight? After all, she had been a na ve fool to take Douglas at his word five years ago, only to find out within hours of marrying him his word was not to be trusted.
Monsieur Letourneur looked at her gravely. 'Perhaps he did not wish to distress you with how bad things were towards the end. But let me tell you, without Signor Castellano's generous offer you would be in very deep water indeed. Every financial institution in the world is jumpy these days. Margin calls are happening almost daily. Signor Castellano has agreed to cover all future requests for payment.'
Ava quickly ran the tip of her tongue across what remained of her lip gloss, tasting a sweet and sour cocktail of strawberries and fear. 'That seems rather generous of him,' she said, keeping her shoulders straight and her spine even straighter.
'Yes, but then he is one of the richest men in Europe,' the lawyer said. 'His construction company has grown phenomenally over the last few years. He has branches all over the world, even in your country of birth, I understand. Do you intend to return to Australia now?'
Ava thought longingly of returning to her land of birth, but with her younger sister now married and based in London, she felt it was too far to relocate, especially now. Serena wasn't back on her feet after suffering from a devastating miscarriage after yet another failed IVF attempt. Ava had not long returned from visiting Serena and had promised to come back as soon as she could to help her through such a harrowing time. But going there now was out of the question. Serena would immediately sense something was up and it would not do her recovery any good to find out about the mess Ava was in. 'No,' she said. 'I have a friend I would like to visit in Scotland. I thought I might try and find a job while I am there.'
Ava could see the cynicism in the lawyer's eyes as he got to his feet. She supposed from his perspective she deserved it; after all, she had to all intents and purposes been a kept woman for the last five years. No doubt he thought finding a regular job with the sort of perks she had been used to was not going to be easy.
Ava was well aware of the precarious position she was in. It wasn't going to be easy, but she needed a regular flow of income to help her sister have the baby she so desperately wanted. Her husband, Richard Holt, earned a reasonable income as an academic, but nowhere near enough to cover the expense of repeated IVF treatments.
Ava glanced at her watch as she left the lawyer's building. She had less than three hours until she saw Marc Castellano for the first time in five years. Her stomach fluttered with feathered wings of fear as her footsteps click-clacked along the pavement.
Fear, or was it excitement?
It was perhaps a perverse bit of both, Ava acceded. She had more or less been expecting him to contact her. She knew he would relish in the opportunity to gloat over the way things had turned out for her. The news of Douglas's death six weeks ago had gone around the world. Why Marc had waited this long to see her she supposed was all part of his plan to make the most of her very public fall.
The villa was cool after the heat of the summer sun and she released her sticky hair from the back of her collar, rolling her neck and shoulders to try and ease some of the tension that had gathered there.
The housekeeper, an older French woman called Celeste, came towards her from the main reception room at the foot of the grand staircase. 'Excusez-moi, madanie, mais vous avez un visiteur,' she said and, changing to English, continued, 'Signor Marcelo Castellano. He said you were expecting him.'
Ava felt a scuttle-like sensation pass across her scalp, like tiny panicked feet tripping through her hair. 'Merci, Celeste,' she said, placing her bag on the nearest surface with a hand that was almost but not quite steady, 'but I was led to understand he was coming much later.'
The housekeeper raised her hands in a what-would-I-know? gesture. 'He is here now, in there.' She pointed to the formal reception room that overlooked the gardens and the port and sea beyond.
Ava set her mouth, although her heart gave another flip-flop-like beat. 'You can leave now,' she said. 'I will see you in the morning. Bonsoir.'
The housekeeper gave a respectful nod of her salt-and-pepper head and backed away. Ava drew in a breath, held it for a beat or two before releasing it in a jagged stream.
The door of the reception room was closed, but she could sense Marc standing the other side of it. He wouldn't be sitting. He wouldn't be pacing impatiently either. He would be standing.
Putting one high-heeled foot in front of the other, Ava moved to the door and, opening it, walked into the room.
The first thing she noticed was his smell: citrus and sharp with an undertone of masculine body heat, it played about her nostrils, teasing them into an involuntary flare.
The next thing she noticed was his eyes. They locked on hers within a heartbeat, deep and dark as blackened coal, inscrutable and yet dangerously sexy. Fringed with thick black lashes beneath equally dark brows, his gaze was both intelligent and astute and intensely, unmistakably male. After holding hers for what seemed an eternity, his gaze then went on to sweep over her lazily, leaving a trail of blistering heat in its wake. Flames erupted beneath her skin, licking along her veins, lighting a fire of need deep and low inside her that she had thought had long ago turned to ashes.
He was wearing a dark charcoal-grey finely pinstriped suit, which showcased the breadth of his shoulders and the taut leanness of his frame. His ink-black hair was longer than he had worn it in the past, but Ava thought the slightly tousled just-out-of-bed look suited him perfectly. His crisply white shirt and silver-embossed tie emphasised his olive skin, the shiny cufflinks at his strongly boned wrists a touch of class that reminded her of how incredibly successful he had become over the last five years.
'So, we finally meet again,' Marc said in that deep, husky male tone that had always made her spine feel watery and unstable. 'I am sorry I didn't make it to the funeral or send you a card with my condolences.' He gave a small movement of his lips which belied the sincerity of his statement. 'Under the circumstances I didn't think either would be appropriate.'
Ava pulled her shoulders back to counteract his effect on her. 'I suppose you are only here now to gloat over your prize,' she said with an attempt at haughtiness.
His dark eyes glittered meaningfully. 'That depends on which prize you are referring to, ma petite.'
Ava felt her skin burn as his eyes ran over her again. It had always made her heart skip when he used French endearments in that sexy Italian accent of his.
She wondered if he knew how much it hurt to see him again. Not just emotionally, but physically. It was like an ache deep in her bones; they creaked with the memory of him holding her, kissing her, making her body explode with passion time and time again. She felt the sharp twinge of response even now by being in the same room as him. It was like strings being tugged deep inside of her, reminding her of all the heat and fire of his desire for her, and hers for him.
She had hoped he would have stopped hating her by now, but she could see the fire of it in his eyes, she could even feel it in the stance of his six-foot-four frame, the tension in his sculptured muscles, and the clenching and unclenching of his long-fingered hands as if he didn't trust himself not to reach out and shake her for how she had betrayed him. If only he knew the truth, but how could she explain it now, after all this time?
Ava raised her chin with a bravado she was nowhere near feeling. 'Let's not speak in riddles, Marc. Say what you came here to say.'
He stepped closer. It was only one step, but it halted the breath in her throat. She swallowed, but it only made the restriction tighter. She had to crane her neck, for even in her heels he towered over her. His eyes bored into hers, dark and deep pools of simmering anger.
'I am here to take possession of this villa,' he said, 'and to offer you a job for which we both know you are highly qualified.'
She frowned at him, her stomach curdling with unease, her skin tightening all over with apprehension. 'D-doing what?'
His top lip lifted, his eyes glittering with icy disdain. 'Servicing a rich man's needs. You are well known for it, are you not?'
Ava felt a tremor in her spine as his hatred smashed over her in soundless waves. 'You know nothing of my relationship with Douglas,' she said, trying to keep her voice steady and controlled.
'Your meal ticket is dead,' Marc said bluntly. 'He's left you with nothing, not even a roof over your beautiful blonde head.'
'Only because you took it all off him,' she shot back. 'You did it deliberately, didn't you? There were hundreds if not thousands of companies going for the asking, but you hunted him down and took everything off him to get at me.'
He smiled a victor's smile, but there was a hint of cruelty about it. 'I will give you a minute or two to think it over,' he said. 'I am sure you will come to see it as the most sensible course of action at this point in your life.'
'I don't need even a second to think it over,' Ava said through tight lips. 'I don't want your rubbish job.'
A lightning flash of fury lit his gaze from behind. 'Did your lawyer not explain to you how things are?'