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Sergio Torrente walked into the Palazzo Azzarini for the first time in ten years.
A magnificent mansion in the Tuscan hills, the palazzo was as famous for its grand Palladian architecture as for its legendary Azzarini wine label, which had spawned a massive empire with vineyards all over the world. Sadly, recent financial reverses had taken their toll: the breathtaking collection of treasures that had once filled the house was gone and the grandeur had become shabby. But it belonged to Sergio now. All of it. Every stone, every inch of rich productive earth, and he was rich enough to turn the clock back and remedy the neglect.
He had regained his birthright; it should have been a moment of supreme triumph. Yet Sergio felt nothing. He had stopped feeling a long time ago. At first it had been a defence mechanism but it had soon become an engrained habit he nourished. He liked the clean, efficient structure of his existence. He did not suffer from emotional highs and lows. When he wanted something more, when he felt the need for a certain buzz to bring him alive, he got it out of sex or physical challenge. He had climbed sheer rock faces in blizzards, trekked through jungles in appalling conditions and engaged in extreme sports. He had not found fear. But he had not found anything he really cared about, either, he acknowledged grimly.
Sergio strolled through the echoing empty entrance hall at an unhurried pace. Once the palazzo had been a happy place and he had been a loving son, who took family affection, wealth and security for granted. But the fond memories had long since been wiped out by the nightmare that had followed. He now knew more than he had ever wanted to know about the depths of human greed. His strong, handsome features set in forbidding lines, he strolled out onto the rear terrace, which overlooked the gardens. The sound of footsteps turned his head. A woman was walking towards him.
Platinum-blonde hair rippled back from Grazia's perfect face. The white slip dress clinging to her pouting nipples and outlining the mound at the junction of her thighs left little to the imagination: she was naked beneath the silk. Grazia had always known what appealed most to a man and it wasn't conversation. He got the message: it was basic and it was instant.
'Don't throw me out.' Her languorous turquoise eyes proffered an invitation that both teased and begged. 'There's nothing I won't do for a second chance with you.'
Sergio raised a derisive ebony brow. 'I don't do second chances.'
'Even if this time I offer you a free trial? No strings attached? I can say sorry with style.' With a provocative look, Grazia folded fluidly down on her knees in front of him and reached for the clasp on his belt.
For a split second, Sergio was taut and then he vented an appreciative laugh. A consummate survivor, Grazia had the morals of a whore but at least she was honest about it. To the winner went the spoils. And without a doubt she was a prize many men would kill to possess, for she was beautiful, sexually adventurous and an aristocrat born and bred. He knew exactly what Grazia was, as once she had been his. A heartbeat later, however, when his bright prospects were destroyed, she had been his brother's. Love on a budget had had zero appeal for Grazia; she went where the money was. And time had wrought dramatic changes, since Sergio was now a billionaire and the Azzarini vineyards were just one small part of his enterprises.
'You're my brother's wife,' he reminded her softly, angling his lean hips back to lounge indolently against the wall a tantalising few inches out of her reach, 'and I don't do adultery, cara mia.'
His mobile phone rang. 'Excuse me,'he murmured with perfect cool and he walked back indoors, just leaving her kneeling in sensual subservience on the tiles of the terrace.
The call was from his security chief, Renzo Catallone, in London. Sergio suppressed a sigh. Once a senior police officer, the older man took his job very seriously. Sergio had a valuable chess set on display in his London office and, a few weeks ago, he'd been startled to see that someone, in blatant disregard of the 'Do Not Touch' notice, had solved the most recent chess puzzle he had laid out on the board. Since then, every subsequent move Sergio had made had been matched.
'Look, if it's bothering you that much, hide a surveil-lance camera nearby,' Sergio suggested.
'This nonsense with the chessboard is bugging my whole team,'Renzo confessed. 'We're determined to catch this joker out.'
'What are we going to do with him when we catch him?' Sergio enquired drily. 'Charge him with challenging me to a game of chess?'
'It's more serious than you think,' the older man countered. 'That vestibule is in a private area right beside your office, yet someone is walking in and out of there whenever they like. It's a dangerous breach of security. I checked the board this afternoon but I couldn't tell if any of the pieces had been moved again.'
'Don't worry about it,' Sergio told him gently. 'I will know immediately.'
Not least because he was playing a highly innovative opponent, ready to use a game to attract his attention. The culprit could only be an ambitious member of his executive staff, keen to impress him with his strategic skills.
The young man was so busy staring at Kathy that he almost tripped over a chair on his way out of the café.
'You're seriously good for business.' Bridget Kirk's round, good-natured face shone with amusement. A bustling brunette of forty-one, she was the manager. 'All the men want you to serve them. When are you going to pick one of them to go out with?'
Her green eyes veiled to conceal her awkwardness at the question, Kathy forced a laugh. 'I haven't got time for a boyfriend.'
Watching the youthful redhead pull on her jacket to go home, Bridget suppressed a sigh. Kathy Galvin was drop-dead gorgeous and only twenty-three years old, but she lived like a hermit. 'You could always squeeze one in somewhere. You're only young once. All you seem to do is work and study. I hope you're not worrying about old history and how to explain it. That's all behind you now.'
Kathy resisted the urge to respond that the past was still with her all the time, physically in the shape of a livid scar on her back, haunting her in nightmares and shadowing and threatening her even during daylight hours with a sense of insecurity. She knew now that if you were unlucky you didn't even need to do anything bad to have everything taken away from you. Her life had gone badly wrong when she was nineteen years old. As far as she knew nothing she had done had contributed to that situation. Indeed, when she had been least expecting it, calamity had come out of nowhere and almost destroyed her. Although she had survived the experience it had changed her. Once she had been confident, outgoing and trusting. She had also had complete faith in the integrity of the justice system and an even deeper belief in the essential kindness of other human beings. Four years on, those convictions had taken a savage beating and now she preferred to keep herself to herself, rather than invite rejection and hurt.
Bridget squeezed the younger woman's slight shoulder. It was a stretch for her because Kathy was a good bit taller than she was. 'It is behind you now,'the brunette murmured gently. 'Stop brooding about it.'
Walking home, Kathy reflected how lucky she was to work for someone like Bridget, who accepted her in spite of her past. Unhappily, Kathy had discovered that if she wanted to work that kind of honesty was a rare luxury, and she had learnt to be inventive with her CV to explain the gap in her employment record. To survive she had two jobs: evenings as an office cleaner, day shifts as a waitress. She needed every penny to pay the bills and there was nothing left over at the end. Even so, long, frustrating months of soul-destroying unemployment had taught Kathy to be grateful for what she had. Few people were as generous and open-minded as Bridget. Although Kathy had qualifications, she'd still had to settle for unskilled and poorly paid work.
As always, it was a relief to get the door of her bedsit safely shut behind her. She loved her privacy and relished the fact that she had no noisy neighbours. She had painted the bedsit's walls pale colours to reflect the light that flooded through the window. Tigger was curled up on the sill outside awaiting her return. She let the elderly tortoiseshell cat in and fed him. He was a stray and half-wild and it had taken months for her to win his trust. Even now he would panic if she closed the window, so no matter how cold it was it stayed open for the duration of his visits. She understood exactly how he felt and his health had improved greatly since she had begun caring for him. His coat had acquired a gloss and his thin lanky frame a decent covering of flesh.
Tigger reminded her of the pet cat that her family had once cherished. An only child, Kathy had had a chequered early history. Abandoned by her birth mother in a park when she was a year old, Kathy had been adopted as a toddler. But by the time she was ten tragedy had struck again when her adoptive mother had died in a train crash, and soon afterwards a debilitating illness had begun to claim her father's health. Kathy had become a carer in her teens, struggling to cope with looking after the older man while at the same time running a home on a tight budget and keeping up with her schoolwork. Her love for her surviving parent had strengthened her and if she had any consolation now it was that her father had died before the bright academic future he had foreseen for his daughter had been destroyed.
A couple of hours later, Kathy entered the office block where she worked five nights a week. She had got to quite like cleaning. It was peaceful. As long as she got through her work on time, nobody bossed her about and there were very few men around to harass her. She had soon discovered that hardly anyone paid much heed to the maintenance staff: it was if their very lowliness made them invisible and unworthy of notice, which suited Kathy right down to the ground. She had never been comfortable with the way her looks tended to attract male attention.
As there were still some employees at work, she dealt with the public areas first. Even the stalwarts were packing up to go home when she began on the offices. She was emptying a bin when an impatient masculine voice hailed her from the far end of the corridor.
'Are you the cleaner? Come into my officeI've had a spillage!'
Kathy spun round. The man in the smart business suit didn't bother to look at her before he swung on his heel. As she hurried in his wake with her trolley he vanished through the doorway that led into the swanky private office suite where the pretentious chess set was on display. The 'Do Not Touch' notice was still in a prominent position. Her mouth quirked and her gaze skimmed the board as she moved past. Another move had been made by her unknown opponent. She would make hers during her break when she was the only person left on the floor.
The big office was huge and imposing and it had a fabulous view of the London City skyline. The man had his back turned to her while he talked on the phone in a foreign language. He was very tall with broad shoulders and black hair. Those observations concluded her interest, for she finally spotted the spillage he had mentioned: a porcelain coffee jug with a broken handle that had spread its contents over a wide area. She soaked up the dark liquid as best she could and then went to fill her bucket with fresh water.
Sergio ended his phone call and sat down at his glass desk. Only then did he notice the cleaner, who was down on her knees busily scrubbing the carpet on the other side of the office. The long hair clasped at her nape was an eye-catching metallic mix of copper, amber and auburn shades.
'Thank you. I'm sure that'll do,'he told her dismissively.
Kathy glanced up. 'It'll stain if I leave it,' she warned.
She settled huge green eyes on him. They were fringed with lashes like a cartoon fawn's, Sergio found himself thinking abstractedly. Her face was heart-shaped and unusual and so spectacular in its beauty that he who never stared at a woman stared. Even a shapeless overall could not conceal the grace of her slender long-legged figure. Just as quickly he was convinced that she could not possibly be an authentic cleaner. She had to be an out-of-work actress or a model. Women that beautiful didn't scrub floors for a living. How had she got past Security?
Had one of his friends set him up for a joke? Neither of his best friends was a likely candidate, Sergio acknowledged wryly. It would be too juvenile a trick for Leonidas, and Rashad had become alarmingly unadventurous since he had acquired a wife and children. Of course he had other friends. But it was equally likely that the lady was trying to set him up for her own reasons.
For a split second when she focused on the male behind the desk, Kathy had gawped like a startled schoolgirl because he was a dazzlingly handsome guy. He had gleaming cropped black hair, brilliant eyes like polished jet set below level brows, high sculpted cheekbones and a strong patrician nose. The whole was connected by smooth planes of olive skin that roughened and darkened around his hard jaw line. Her heart slowed to a dulled heavy thud that seemed to get in the way of her breathing normally.
'The carpet?'she framed unevenly, the effort of even remembering the task she had been doing a challenge as she scrambled to her feet, ready to leave.
Sergio was committing her flawless features to memory. Stunning women were not a novelty to him. So, he was still trying to work out what it was about her face that gave it such amazingly powerful appeal that it was a challenge to look away from her. He lounged back in his seat with deceptive indolence. 'Go ahead and clean it,' he urged huskily. 'But before you do, answer one question. Which one of my friends sent you here?'
Her delicate brows pleated and she hovered with perceptible uneasiness. Pink tinting her pale ivory skin, she dragged her attention from him only to be shaken by the compulsion to look afresh. It was as though a piece of in-discernible elastic were tightening and trying to jerk her eyes back to him again by force. 'I'm sorryI don't understand. Look, I'll come back and finish this later.'
'No, do it now.' Sergio arrested her retreat in its tracks with the command. Her apparent bewilderment at his query was making him question his initial suspicions.
Arrogant, demanding, oversexed
Kathy gave him a rude label inside her head, a flush of angry embarrassment colouring her cheeks. She wanted out of his office: she wasn't stupid. She knew why he had asked if one of his friends had sent her. On another occasion a male member of staff had asked her hopefully if she was a strippergram girl. It infuriated her that such insulting assumptions should be made purely on the basis of her appearance. She was doing her job and she had the same right as anyone else to be left in peace to get on with it! As she knelt back down again she accidentally collided with black eyes that flared as golden as flames and momentarily held her transfixed. For a timeless moment she was still, breathing held in suspension, mouth running dry. Then she blinked, tore her attention free again with difficulty and discovered that her mind was a total blank, for his sensationally attractive image was now stamped there in place of rational thought.
Sergio was watching her every move and she made no effort that he could see to put on a show designed to draw his notice to her. Her clothing was unremarkable, the overall all-concealing. She was not provocative and her movements were very quiet, so why was he still watching her? There was something different about her, an unknown element that stood out and grabbed his attention. The pale pink blush of awareness that had swept her ivory complexion had sent his healthy male hormones on a rampant surge. Her amazing eyes were as green as the bitter-sweet apples his English grandfather had once grown and there was a surprisingly direct look in them. A lingering appraisal of the lush pout of her crushed strawberry mouth was sufficient to arouse him to a serious level of discomfort.