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The whole pre-wedding party thing was revving up like a gigantic engine and Lizzy had never felt less like partying in her entire life.
Now a night at La Scala, dear God, she thought heavily. For here she stood surrounded by luxury in this posh Milan hotel suite, about to put on a posh designer dress that must have cost more money than she dared let herself think about, so she could look the part for a posh gala evening spent at La Scala, while back home in England the family business was about to go under taking everything they owned along with it.
She had not wanted to come to her best friend's wedding but her father had insisted. Her brother Matthew had gone a whole step further and become really angry. 'Don't be stupid,' he'd snapped at her. 'Do you want Dad to feel worse than he already does about this mess? Go to Bianca's wedding as planned,' he'd instructed, 'and while you're there wish her all the damn best from me with her super-rich catch.'
It had been said with such bite it made Lizzy wince to recall him saying it. Matthew was never going to forgive her best friend for falling in love with another man.
Then Bianca and her parents had put even more pressure on her to come to Milan and in the end it had been easier to give in and do what everyone wanted her to do when all she'd wanted to do was to be at her father's side supporting him.
But instead she had to shimmy into this dress, Lizzy told herself, puffing back an unruly curl when it flopped across one eye as she settled the straps onto her shoulders then turned to the mirror to check out the finished effect.
What she saw reflected back at her sent instant horror pouring into her expressive face. The dress was way too clingy in all the wrong places and the silver-grey colour looked awful against her pale skin! And it was not for the first time in her twenty-two years that she wished with all her heart that she were a delicate and sweet fine-boned brunette like Bianca.
But she wasn't. She was a long curvy redhead with an unruly long mop of glossy chestnut curls that just refused to stay confined no matter how much torture she put herself through in an effort to pin them up. Add skin so startlingly white it looked dreadful against the silver-threaded grey silk and it was like looking at a ghost!
When Bianca had bought the dress a couple of months ago to wear to her betrothal party she'd looked fabulous in it pure sensation on legs. Yesterday she'd tossed it at Lizzy in disgust. 'I don't know why I bought it. I hate the colour. The length is not right and my boobs don't fill it.'
Well, there was no chance of that problem here, Lizzy thought, small white teeth biting down into her full bottom lip as she hitched the tightly fitted basque top further up the pale plump slopes of breasts and grimly thanked the boning in the bodice for helping it to stay put.
The rest, she saw on second inspection, didn't cling quite as badly as she'd first thought it did andFace it, Lizzy, she then told herself firmly, beggars cannot be choosers, girl, so you should
The sudden knock sounding at her suite door diverted her attention. 'Are you ready, Elizabeth?' Bianca's mother called out. 'We must not be late for La Scala.'
Certainly not, Lizzy thought dryly. 'Just one more minute!' she called back.
La Scala waited for no man, not even the higher echelons of Italian society she was about to mingle with, she mocked as she slid her feet into a pair of high slender heeled silver mules, then turned to apply a coating of clear gloss to her lips. She refused point-blank to use the seduction red colour Bianca had supplied along with the dress.
Standing back to give her reflection the final once-over, she suddenly found the humour in standing here in her ill-fitting borrowed feathers and laughed for the first time in weeks. All she needed now was for her best friend to toss her that fabulous diamond ring her betrothed had presented her with and she'd be sorted. All family debts paid via the first pawn brokerage she could find.
But Bianca wasn't quite that givingnot that Lizzy resented her for that. Bianca Moreno had been her closest friend since the day they had both found themselves stuck in the same strict English boarding-school feeling like a pair of aliens dropped in there from outer space. Bianca had come to the school directly from a carefree lifestyle in Sydney with her Italian born parents. They'd gone from ordinary to mega-rich overnight when an uncle in England had died suddenly making Bianca's father the main beneficiary of the London based Moreno Inc.
Whereas Lizzy, well, she had been sent to the same school after her mother had caused a terrible scandal by having an affair with their local, very married MP. She had been so mercilessly teased and bullied at her old school about the affair that her father had decided to remove her from the situation by placing her in a school hundreds of miles away from the fuss.
Did it stop the teasing? No, it didn't. Did she tell her father that? No, she did not, because he'd already been too cast down by the scandal and the fact that their mother had walked out and left them taking with her what funds she could grab. So Bianca had become her close friend and confidante. They looked out for each other. Bianca was the black-haired black-eyed spitfire with a solid grounding in good Australian spunk and Lizzy the much quieter one with her natural spirit squashed by the bullies and a mother who'd never bothered to get in touch again after she'd walked out.
From the age of twelve to their present twenty-two, she and Bianca had rarely done anything without the other one knowing about it. Now her friend was about to marry into one of Italy's finest families and, despite not wanting to be here, Lizzy was ready to shelve her own worries and do whatever it was going to take to help make Bianca's wedding day next week absolutely perfect. It was Bianca's family who'd paid to bring her over here. They had provided her with everything from room and board to clothes to suit every glittering occasion, even if they were Bianca's cast-offs.
And she was grateful to themshe was, because she could not have afforded to come otherwise, no matter what her father had said. So here she was, one week into a two-week sabbatical from family troubles, joining in the partying run-up to Bianca's glossy marriage to her super-rich, super-sophisticated beau.
Luciano Genovese Marcelo De Santis, the thirty-four-yearold supreme head of the great and vast De Santis banking empireLuc to his very close friends.
A tense little quiver made a sudden strike down Lizzy's front and in pure self-defence she snatched up a silvery silk crocheted snug from the bed and hurriedly tied it across her front while wishing to goodness that she didn't experience that same crazy tense quiver every time she let herself think about him.
He was strangea truly intimidating mix of smoothly polished cool sophistication and lean, dark, sexy good looks. Bianca purred around him like a sleek kitten, which seemed to amuse him, but then Bianca was Italian and as a race of people they were like that, open and warm and more touchy-feely than the Britishher, Lizzy thought, making the rueful distinction.
She'd never purred around any man and couldn't envisage ever wanting towhich made the way she quivered around Luc De Santis all the more disturbing to her peace of mind. He wasn't her type. He was too much of everything. Too big and tall, too lean and dark, too sexy and handsometoo crushingly cool and terrifyingly enigmatic, she decided as she hooked up her little silver beaded evening bag and headed for the door.
They'd met only once before she's come to Milan, in London several months ago at the private dinner Bianca's parents had held to introduce their future son-in-law to their English friends. Luc had come as such a shock to Lizzy that she had not been able to stop her eyes from constantly drifting in his direction because he was so far away from her idea of the kind of man her friend liked.
'What do you think?' Bianca asked her.
'Intimidating,' she said, because that evening was the first time the tense quiver had struck. 'He scares me to death.'
Bianca just laughed, but then she'd been laughing at everything. Happyin love againhigh as a kite. 'You'll get used to him, Lizzy,' she promised. 'He isn't nearly as awesome once you get to know him.'
Want to bet?
The next time she'd met him had been just a week ago, she recalled as she pushed the button to call the lift. He'd arrived here at the hotel looking for Bianca and found Lizzy standing in Reception having just arrived in Milan. He'd come over to herof course, he would do with impeccable manners like his, she reasoned. Yet she still had not been able to stop the next quiver from making its strike.
He'd been angry that Bianca had not been at the airport to meet hershe'd seen the anger snap at his handsome dark features just before he'd blanked it out. When she'd said quickly that she hadn't been expecting to be met, his wide, sensual mouth had tugged into a telling flat line of disapproval.
Cool, calm and used to ordering people about, he'd then taken it upon himself to organise her arrival by making sure she had a nice suite of rooms and had even gone as far as to escort her up here to check the suite out for himself.
It had been the moment when his hand arrived at the base of her spine to politely usher her out of the lift that the next quiver had struck, shooting down her front like a flaming arrow and making her jerk away from him like a scalded cat, only to feel really foolish for doing it. Other than to send her one of his cool, steady looks, he'd let his hand fall to his side and thankfully made no comment.
Now here she was waiting to ride the same lift down to the mezzanine floor of the hotel where they were all gathering for drinks before they left. And if she'd avoided Luc De Santis like the absolute plague for the rest of this week Lizzy had a horrible suspicion she was not going to be able to do that tonight. The party was too small, the reserved boxes at La Scala too intimate. Her only hope was to manage to wangle it so she sat in a different box from him.
There was a mirror hanging on the wall by the lift and she diverted her attention to it to push the stray curl off her brow.
It flopped back down again like a renegade. She should not have decided to pin it all up because it just wasn't going to behave, she predicted. But giving in and letting her hair hang down around her shoulders in a tumble of loose glossy corkscrews had only made her face look paler and her grey-green eyes look too big.
Like a frightened rabbit, she likened, wrinkling her nose as she gave the errant curl a teasing tug and watched it spring back into place again.
It had to be that precise moment that the lift doors slid open to reveal none other than the great man himself. Their eyes clashed for a startled second. Knowing he'd caught her pulling silly faces at her own reflection was enough to flood colour into Lizzy's cheeks.
'Oh,'she said, just too disconcerted to keep the dismay from sounding in her voice. 'Are you staying here too? I didn't know.'
Brief amusement lit the unusual gold colour of his eyes. 'Good evening, Elizabeth.' He always called her Elizabeth in that dark, deep, slightly lilting Italian accent of his. 'Are you coming in?'
Coming inheck, she thought, letting her eyes run over him. He was wearing a conventional black silk dinner suit and was leaning casually against the rear wall of the lift, which should have helped to diminish his daunting height a little and that overwhelming sense of presence he always carried around everywhere with himbut didn't.
And the idea of stepping into a lift with him again did strange things to the nerves in her legs as she made them move. Finding a tense smile to flick his way, she then turned her back on him to watch as the doors closed them in.
Silence hummed as they waited. She could feel his eyes on her. Tension made her bite into the soft tissue of her inner lip.
'You look very beautiful tonight,' he murmured softly.
Lizzy had to fight down an inner wince. She knew what she looked like and she knew what he was seeingthe poor best friend decked out in the dress his betrothed had worn a couple of months ago at the party in London.
So, 'No I don't,' she therefore responded curtly.
It was a relief when the lift doors opened onto the elegant splendour of the hotel's mezzanine lounge bar. As she went to step out that hand arrived at the base of her spine again and this time she froze where she stood.
It just wasn't fair. Why did she always do something like this around him?
'Shall we?' he prompted smoothly.
Lizzy made herself walk forward, stingingly aware how his hand remained exactly where it was this timeas if he was taunting her silly reaction to him. The first person her eyes focused on was Bianca's mother, looking stunning in sparkling diamonds and unrelieved black.
'Oh, there you are, Lizzy,'she said, hurrying towards them with an anxious expression threatening to ruin her perfectly made-up face.
'Luciano,'she greeted, her dark eyes skimming warily over her future son-in-law's face before she returned them to Lizzy. 'I need a quick word with you, cara,' she begged.
'Of course.' Lizzy smiled, automatically softening her tone for this tiny, elegant woman whose nervous disposition made her worry about everythingand everything usually encompassed her beautiful daughter. 'What's Bianca done now?' she asked.
Meant as a light tease, it was only when the man standing behind her said coolly, 'Nothing, I hope,' that she realised she'd spoken out of turn in front of him.
Sofia Moreno went pale. Lizzy got defensive on Bianca's mamma's behalf because she'd noticed before that Sofia was not comfortable in Luc's presence.