With some trepidation, Meg Imsey is traveling to Tuscany. Employed by an aged aristocrat for her horticultural skills, shy Meg intends to hide away in the greenhouses. But that's before she meets her new boss….
Since his father's death, Gianni has worn his new title warily. Much is expected of the Conte di Castelfino—not least the need to take a bride who'd make a suitable mother. So it could almost be seen as fate that this English rose has arrived—naive, nervous and at his command!
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Meg woke with a jolt and realised she was back in her aircraft seat. Her heart tumbled thirty thousand feet. A lot had happened since the Chelsea Flower Show, but the image of Gianni Bellini still haunted her. Only the thrill of starting work full-time at the Villa Castelfino could take her mind off him. She had been commuting to Tuscany regularly over the past few weeks, but from today she could properly call herself the Count di Castelfino's Curator of Exotic plants. It was the official start of her new job with her grand Italian employer. Although she was looking forward to it, Meg was very nervous. It was the first time she had lived so far away from her parents, and she didn't like leaving them to cope with their business alone. It didn't help that after sleeping on the plane she had a head full of cotton wool, and all the most uncomfortable bits of her aircraft seat imprinted on her body.
Shuffling off the plane along with everyone else, she comforted herself with the thought someone would be waiting for her in Arrivals. Once she left airside, Franco the chauffeur would be there to help with her luggage, as usual.
Meg's budding self-assurance lasted for as long as it took her to glance around the waiting area. Franco was nowhere to be seen. With a flicker of fear she wondered if this meant there was trouble at the Villa Castelfino. She had picked up enough from working alongside the Count di Castelfino to know that the old man did not get on with his son. Meg had never seen il ragazzo, as her aristocratic employer scornfully called his heir, but she had learned enough to dislike him. The Count di Castelfino loved the varied landscape of his estate with its olive groves, gnarled oaks and wildflower meadows. His son wanted to transform it into a monoculture—nothing but ordered rows of vines as far as the eye could see. As for the count's beloved plant collection—Meg smiled ruefully to herself. Life at the Villa Castelfino sounded like a continuous struggle between beauty and business. The old man's hobby was always in danger of losing out to his son's ambition.
She waited and waited, but no one arrived to collect her. It was a bad start for someone with half a ton of luggage. Time crawled past. Looking up and down the concourse, she spotted an arrow pointing towards a taxi rank. Rather than wait and worry, Meg swung into action. Pushing her trolley towards it, she waited nervously for a vacant cab, glancing in every direction. Neither help nor trouble arrived, but by the time she could scramble into the safety of a taxi she was in a state of nervous collapse.
The driver recognised the address she gave him, and let fly a delighted stream of Italian. Meg went weak with relief. At last something was going right. She tried to explain her situation, but soon used up her tiny vocabulary of halting holiday phrases. Her driver found the whole thing hilarious. Unable to understand and feeling totally isolated, Meg sank back in her seat.
I wonder what gorgeous Gianni is doing right now. Not being stood up at an airport terminal, that's for sure! she thought, imagining him shouldering aside his flock of girlfriends to rescue her. She sighed, wondering if she would ever see him again. It didn't seem very likely. Her only hope would be to persuade the Count di Castelfino to stage an exhibit of his plants at one of the big London flower shows. In her dreams, the gorgeous Gianni Bellini haunted them in search of more treats for his harem.
She spent the taxi ride imagining what it must be like to be seduced by such a charmer. It's no wonder he's got so many girls in tow, she thought. His smile had warmed her in a way she hadn't experienced for a long time. She was strictly a one-man girl, so common sense always told her to put a lot of distance between herself and men like Signor Bellini. But a wisp of wicked excitement curled through her daydreams like smoke. In her fantasies, she could do what she liked.
And so could Gianni…
While Meg simmered, the man of her dreams stared down the barrel of a gun. It might look like the neck of a crystal decanter, but it was equally deadly. Gianni Bellini knew full well that alcohol solved nothing. It would only slow him down. Going for so long without sleep was bad enough, and drinking would only make it worse. It would have a knock-on effect on him, and all his newly inherited staff, for the rest of the day. He decided against it.
'Shall I fetch you some champagne instead, Count?'A uniformed waiter bowed obsequiously. All he got in reply was a grunt and a dismissive wave of his new master's hand.
Barely twenty-four hours into his life sentence, Gianni was still coming to terms with what had happened. He had known this would be his destiny for as long as he could remember. Reacting by developing a strong streak of independence, he had made sure he didn't have to rely on his inherited wealth. Instead he had forged a brilliant career for himself. While his father was alive, Gianni's Castelfino vineyard had been relegated to a distant corner of the estate. That was about to change. Now Gianni was in total control, his business would take centre stage. Despite his exhaustion, he smiled. That would stop the questions, for a while at least. People knew he was obsessed with the idea of making Castelfino wines a luxury with an international reputation. They would think he was simply shelving any quest for an heir while he expanded his empire.
Now he had inherited all his father's land and property, there would be no stopping him. Every suitable inch of the Castelfino estate would be turned over to growing grapes. Production would rocket, and so would Gianni's sense of satisfaction. He enjoyed playing the part of self-made millionaire, although his playboy image was a pretty intangible asset. It was good to have a new girl every night, but they were nothing more than a perk of the job. While celebrity spotters tried to guess which one of his beautiful companions would be chosen to produce the Bellini heir, Gianni kept his real love a secret. The Castelfino vineyard was his baby. When it came to children… Gianni didn't want anything to do with them. His own childhood had been made an absolute hell by his warring parents. He couldn't stomach the idea of inflicting that on an innocent infant.
A movement outside the summer dining room caught his eye. In the far distance a dust devil spiralled along the line of the drive. It was heading for the villa. Gianni's eyes narrowed with annoyance. He really didn't need visitors right now. With an exclamation, he slid his palms back across the white linen of the tablecloth and cranked himself to his feet. His sleep-deprived brain was still functioning, but his limbs were set in concrete. Crossing the room, he went out through the open French doors and onto the terrace. However he felt, he had a duty to those arriving to pay their respects to his late father. He shut his eyes, concentrating on what he would say.
The Tuscan countryside sounded as only an afternoon in high summer could. In the still, hot air not a leaf moved. A single bird called, with the monotonous chip-chip of two parched stones tapping together. The only other sound was that single car engine, making a tunnel through the dense air as it tore towards him. Everything else held its breath.
Gianni heard the car swing around in an extravagant semicircle to stop in front of the villa's main door. Puzzled, he opened his eyes and saw—not some grand limousine, but a simple radio cab. There wasn't time to be shocked before its driver bellowed a hearty greeting and leapt out to open the car's boot.
The cabbie began hauling out suitcases and piling them on the dusty ground, while keeping up a cheerful conversation with his still invisible passenger. Gianni stared at the scene with disbelief. All the time the car radio chattered away. No one at the Villa Castelfino had raised their voice above a whisper for days. Until that moment, the vast face of the house had been blank with shutters closed against the sunshine. Now flickers of movement ran along behind many of them. This unexpected racket was mobilising Gianni's staff. Sure enough, one of the kitchen lads raced out from a side door to tackle the new arrivals. While he was busy silencing the cab driver, the brand new count got another shock.
The rear door of the taxi opened and the most beautiful woman in the world struggled out. Her skirt, already short, had ridden up during her journey exposing long, beautifully shaped legs. Her dark blonde hair moved loosely around her shoulders, shining in the sunlight. She looked dazed. As she straightened up she staggered slightly, as though pushed back against the security of the car. Gianni realised she had been caught off guard by the sudden contrast between the air-conditioned taxi and the sun-baked amphitheatre in front of the Villa Castelfino. Is it any wonder, he observed, when she's wearing tights?
With a curse, he turned away. His body had sprung to life as it always did at the sight of a pretty girl. How could it possibly play a tasteless trick on him like that, today of all days? A keen interest in all things feminine was only natural, but noticing such fine detail at a time like this was grotesque. Gianni dropped his gaze to his feet. And then he heard her laugh. It was as captivating as a charm of goldfinches.
'Signor Bellini! What a surprise! I never expected to see you again, let alone here! What a lovely surprise!'
He heard her take long, confident strides toward him across the gritty forecourt. From his vantage point on the terrace he could look down on her with the mere flick of a glance. As she noticed his bitter, twisted expression she stopped smiling. In half a dozen steps she went from delight, through puzzlement, to concern. Her steps became hesitant, and when she spoke again her voice was halting and uncertain.
'You are the man I met at the Chelsea Flower Show, aren't you?'
'S . I am Gianni Bellini.'
He dropped the words like icicles, but then recognition swept over him. This was the flower girl. Gianni never forgot a pretty face—or a curvaceous body like hers. Manufacturing a smile, he nodded a brief welcome. Details slowly came back to him. This one was not only beautiful, she was clever, too. That was enough of a novelty for her to have made a special impact on Gianni at the time, but he had never dreamed of seeing her a second time.
The force of his reply didn't stop her. She advanced with another laugh and stuck out her hand in greeting.
'Good grief, I never would have believed it. You've changed—all those girlfriends must be running you ragged, signor!'
'What are you doing here?' he enquired in a voice like cut glass. As he spoke he looked down at her outstretched hand as though he would rather shake a viper by the tail.
She frowned, looking into his face as though searching for recognition.
'I work for the Count di Castelfino. I'm moving into the Garden Cottage today. Someone usually meets me at the airport, but for some reason the chauffeur didn't turn up today.'
'That is because my father is dead. I'm the Count di Castelfino now,' he announced with crisp formality.
Her smile vanished, and she stared at him in growing horror.
'Oh…I'm so sorry.' Helplessly she looked from the taxi, to her heap of suitcases and then back to him. 'How crass of me to arrive in such a flurry like this… C-can I ask what happened?'
'He suffered a stroke some days ago, in Paris. He died yesterday—no, the day before—'
Shaking his head, Gianni raised one hand and dragged it wearily down over his face. The rasp of stubble under his palm was loud and intrusive in the horrible, thick silence.
'I—I'm so sorry…' she repeated, her voice soft and insubstantial.
Exactly like her, Gianni thought instinctively, before silently cursing his reactions again.
'You weren't to know. I didn't know you were expected. That's why no one was sent to meet you. I was only driven back here an hour ago.' Distracted, he looked across at the taxi and pulled out his wallet. 'I'm afraid you've had a wasted journey. You'll have to go back to wherever you came from. How did you get past my security guards at the gate, in any case?'
Her eyes opened wider and wider as he spoke until they looked like two clear reflections of the cobalt sky.
'They were expecting me…my name is on today's visitor list… so they just waved my taxi straight through…' Her voice was faint. As it faltered still further he had to lean closer to hear what she was saying. 'But I can't go back… all the plants here will need someone to look after them. The count—the old count—would have wanted them cared for properly…'
Gianni shook his head. 'I'm the Count di Castelfino now, and I have my own plans. It's the start of a new regime. There's no room here for anything that doesn't pay its way. Whatever projects my father may have had in mind won't be going ahead. I'm in charge now, and my interests are much more practical.'
As he spoke he saw the heaven of her eyes become cloudy and misted with tears. She shrank visibly, and when she spoke her voice was barely more than a whisper.
'You can't mean that, signor?'
'I'm afraid so. The Castelfino vineyard is my only concern. I'm interested in practical projects, not hobbies.'
Springing lightly down from the terrace, he started to walk towards the taxi. Because old habits couldn't be shaken off, he put a comforting arm around her shoulder to lead her in the same direction. 'Don't worry, signorina. I'll pay your taxi fare back to the airport. By the time you get there, my staff will have phoned through and arranged a return ticket for you. Where did you fly from, by the way?'
As they reached the open passenger door of the taxi Gianni took his arm away from her. After pressing far too much money into the taxi driver's hand, he swivelled on his heel and walked off. As he headed back to the villa he threw a few disjointed words over his shoulder at her.
'I'm sorry you've had a wasted journey, signorina. Goodbye.'