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Six hours, fifteen minutes in the same hard chair at the same desk, in the same cold office, in the same northern town…
She'd lost the will to live.
Arranging a telephone conference with Signor Rigo Ruggiero in Rome was a pain, even for a young lawyer as tenacious as Katie Bannister, because first she had to get past Ruggiero's army of snooty retainers.
Let me speak to him in person, screeched inner Katie, whilst outwardly Katie was calm. Well, she had to be—she was a respected professional.
With no inner life at all.
No inner life? Hmm, wouldn't that make things easy? Unfortunately, Katie was blessed with a vivid imagination and an active fantasy life, and it was always getting her into trouble. Dumpy, plain and unprepossessing became sharp and confident in the blink of an eye—especially over the phone.
In her junior position at the small solicitor's firm, Katie wouldn't normally be expected to deal with such a high-profile client, but this was a trivial matter, according to the senior partner, and if she wanted to work her way up the profession it would be good for Katie to cut her teeth on—
At last. At last! 'Signor Ruggiero?'
The deep-pitched voice speared a shiver down her spine. But gut instinct wasn't enough. Did it prove the identity of the speaker? Spoken Italian was sexy; distractingly so. Quickly gathering her thoughts, Katie picked up her notes and went through the security checks she had drawn up.
To his credit, Signor Ruggiero answered them all accurately and politely. To her dismay her imagination insisted on working overtime as she nursed the phone—tall, dark and handsome didn't begin to cover it. Still, this was going better than she had expected after her run-in with his staff. Now it was simply a matter of informing the Italian tycoon that he was the chief beneficiary in his late brother's will.
'My late stepbrother's will,' he corrected her.
The honey-rich baritone had acquired an edge of steel. He sounded stern, cold, uninterested.
A man who was so hard to contact would hardly want chitchat, Katie reminded herself, moving up a gear. 'My apologies, Signor Ruggiero, your late .stepbrother's will…'
As the conversation continued Katie picked up more clues. If there was one thing she was good at it was reading people's voices. Time spent training to be an opera singer at one of the world's foremost music conservatoires had allowed her well-tuned ear to instantly evaluate a voice, and this one had both practised charm and a killer edge.
'Can we cut to the chase, Signorina Bannister?'
And cut out print yards of legalese? 'Certainly…'
Katie's reputation at the firm was founded on dogged persistence along with her ability to calm even the most fractious of clients, but after a long day in a cheap suit in a cold office, she was at the end of her tether. It wasn't as if she was trying to serve a writ, for goodness' sake; rather she was trying to inform Signor Ruggiero that he had come into money.
More money, Katie qualified, glancing at the magazine the girls in the office had so helpfully placed on her desk. It featured a devastatingly handsome Rigo Ruggiero on the front cover. Not that she was interested. Firming her jaw, she continued to explain to one of the richest men in Italy why she must come to see him in person. To Rome, where she had thought of going as a singer, once…
'Well, I haven't got the time to come over there—'
Katie snapped back to the present. 'Your stepbrother anticipated this…' Her heart picked up pace as she went on to read out the letter of instruction that came with the will. She was normally unflappable, but office tittle-tattle had unsettled her where Rigo Ruggiero was concerned. He was not just a successful tycoon, but a high-profile playboy who lived life in the fast lane. To say that Katie Bannister and Rigo Ruggiero were worlds apart was a massive understatement.
Everyone in the office had thought it highly amusing that the official office virgin had been appointed to deal with Italy's most notorious playboy. Katie's public face had remained unmoved through all this teasing banter, but her imagination had run riot. After her initial trepidation, she had thought, bring it on. What did she have to worry about? Rigo Ruggiero would take one look at dull little Katie Bannister and she'd be safe.
'No, I'm sorry,' she said. 'I'm afraid your late stepbrother's personal effects cannot be sent to you through the post, Signor Ruggiero.'
'Because…' She took a deep, steadying breath. Forget the letter of intentions—shouldn't he care a little more? And did he have to snap like that? His stepbrother had just died, for goodness' sake. Surely he was curious to learn what he'd been left in the will? 'Your stepbrother's instructions are most specific, Signor Ruggiero. He appointed the firm I represent, Flintock, Gough and Coverdale, as executors to his will, and Mr Flintock has asked me to carry out the requirements therein to the letter—'
'Do you always speak legalese to your clients, Signorina Bannister? That must be very confusing for them.' His voice was dry and amused. 'I recommend plain-speaking myself…'
No one had ever criticised her dedication to the letter of the law before and it was becoming increasingly clear that Rigo Ruggiero couldn't care a fig for his stepbrother. She could see him now, lolling back on some easy chair as he took the call— all preposterously white teeth, inky black hair and dark, mocking eyes. Closing her eyes, she willed herself to remain calm. 'What I'm trying to explain, Signor Ruggiero—'
'Don't patronise me.'
The tone of voice both stung and acted as a warning. 'I apologise. That was not my intention.'
'Then I forgive you…'
In a voice like a caress. Was he flirting with her? Unlikely as that seemed, it appeared so, and her body definitely agreed. 'So could we fix an appointment?' she suggested, returning determinedly to the point of the call.
There was silence at the other end of the line, but somehow worldly amusement managed to travel down it anyway. 'Whenever you like,' he murmured.
The throaty drawl was enough to make her body quiver with anticipation. Katie stared out of the window at the cold, autumnal Yorkshire rain. That was the swiftest return to reality she could imagine. Beneath her conventional, even plain exterior, lurked a seam of wanderlust. She had dreamed at one time that it would be the opera houses of the world she'd be visiting. Did she have the courage to make this trip to Rome in her new guise as solicitor, or would the loss of her singing voice be a reminder that was too painful to bear?
'Well,' the deep male voice demanded, 'I don't have all day, Signorina Bannister. When would you like to meet?'
She longed for a break, and she could be in Rome tomorrow. Before she could stop herself the words tumbled out. 'What about tomorrow, Signor Ruggiero? If that's convenient for you…?'
'I'll make it so,' he said.
'Thank you for your cooperation.' She could hardly breathe her heart was thundering so fast. Talking over the phone was easy, but when Signor Ruggiero saw how plain and boring she was in person… And when she saw Rome…
'I look forward to meeting you,' he said. 'You have a lovely voice, by the way.'
A lovely voice… 'Thank you…' Playboys were expected to flirt, and Signor Ruggiero couldn't be expected to know that her voice had been reduced to husky ashes after a fire in her student lodgings. She had been overjoyed in the hospital when she found out all her friends had escaped uninjured, and devastated to discover that after inhaling too much smoke her voice had been reduced for good to a croak. Oddly enough, people who didn't know her history found that husky sound attractive. But that wasn't her only legacy from the fire. She would never sing again and had enough scars on her back to ensure no one would ever see her naked. When her singing career had crashed to a close, she had set about forging a new life as a lawyer. This was a life in the shadows rather than the spotlight, but she wasn't interested in the spotlight; it was the music she missed.
'Signorina Bannister? Are you still there?'
'I beg your pardon, Signor Ruggiero. I just knocked something off my desk.'
Or wished she had, Katie thought, staring at the magazine.
A towering powerhouse of hard, tanned muscle, dressed in a sharp designer suit, stared back at her from the front cover. Rigo Ruggiero couldn't even be accused of having a smooth, rich boy's face. His verged on piratical, complete with sharp black stubble and a dangerous gleam in night-dark, emerald eyes. Add to that a shock of thick black hair and a jaw even firmer than her own—
'You haven't changed your mind about our meeting, I hope?'
There was a faint edge of challenge to his voice that her body responded to with enthusiasm. 'Not at all,' she reassured him firmly. Reaching across the desk, she was about to send the magazine flying to the floor when she paused. The cynical curve of his mouth set her teeth on edge, but she had to admit it was the perfect frame for his arrogant voice. And, as if there wasn't enough perfection in his life, the image showed him with his arm draped around the shoulders of a blonde girl so achingly lovely she looked like a doll rather than a living, breathing woman.
It would be fine, Katie told herself, straightening up. She could do this. The trip to Rome was business and no one could distract her from that.
'I have a question for you, Signorina Bannister.'
'Yes?' Tightening her grip on the phone, Katie realised she was still transfixed by the image of the girl's unblemished skin.
'Why you?' he rapped.
This was no playboy, but a merciless tycoon questioning the wisdom of sending such a young and inexperienced lawyer to meet with him. But he had a point. Why were they sending her? Because she spoke fluent Italian, thanks to her opera training, Katie reasoned, because she was plain, safe and unattached, and, as the newest recruit to the firm, she had little or no say when it came to apportioning work.
Better not let on she was so junior. 'I'm the only solicitor in the firm who could spare the time to come to Rome—'
'You're not much good, then?'
'Piano, piano, bella…'
Piano, bella? He was telling her to calm down—and in a voice he might use with a lover.
Italian was sexy, Katie reminded herself. The language itself had a lyrical music all its own. And when you added Rigo Ruggiero to the mix—
'So,' he said, 'I'll see you in Rome tomorrow—s ?'
See him tomorrow…
He was quicksilver to her caution, one moment stern, the next amused. But he was right to be suspicious about her credentials. She wasn't a great lawyer. She never would be a great lawyer because she didn't have the hunger for it. She sometimes wondered if the passion she'd felt for her operatic career would ever transfer to anything else. But the firm she had worked for since she had retrained as a solicitor had been good to her when her life had gone up in flames, and now she was scarred a role in the background suited her.
'I'll expect you tomorrow.'
This was exactly what she'd asked for. But since she'd suggested tomorrow her confidence had been slowly seeping away. The whole idea was ridiculous. How could she go to Rome, the city where she had dreamed of being part of the musical life, only as a second-rate lawyer to deal with one of the most acute minds around?
The only reason Katie could think of was hard, economic reality. The senior partner at her firm was talking redundancies, thanks to the economic downturn, and as last into the firm she was most likely to be first out. There was no question this trip to Rome and her meeting with someone as high-profile as Rigo Ruggiero would add some much-needed colour to her CV.
It made sense—well, to everything except her self-confidence. How could Katie Bannister, dressed by the cheapest store in town, the girl who wouldn't know a fashion must-have if she fell over it, meet with the world's most notorious playboy and come out of that meeting unscathed?
The plain and simple truth was, she had to.
'I'll book a flight,' she said, thinking out loud.
'I'd recommend it,' the man in question interrupted dryly. 'Mail me with the details and I'll make sure someone is at Fiumicino Airport to meet you—'
Katie stared at the dead receiver in her hands. How rude. Or look at it another way, she persuaded herself; this was a challenge, and she was hardly a stranger to that.
She had laughed when the other girls at the firm had insisted that Katie Bannister had hidden fire and would master the maverick playboy in less time than it took to say hold my briefs—maybe she had possessed that fire once, but not now—and the girls in the office hadn't spoken to him, a man so cold and heartless he could discuss a close relative's bequest without so much as a play of regret. And end a conversation without any of the usual niceties. Rigo Ruggiero was clearly an indulged and arrogant monster and the sooner her business with him was concluded the better she would like it.
It was just a shame her body disagreed.
She'd cope with that too. Palming her mouse, Katie brought up flight schedules to Rome. Could she make it there and back in one day? She would try her very best to do so.
Having replaced the receiver in its nest, Rigo settled back in his leather swivel chair. In spite of the unwelcome message Katie Bannister had delivered from a man he'd hoped never to hear from again, the young lawyer had made him smile. Because he liked her voice?
It had certainly scored highly in several categories: it was female; it was young; it was husky; it was sexy. Very sexy. And intelligent. And… sexy. He already had an image of her in his mind.
So, he reflected, returning to the purpose of Signorina Bannister's call, his stepbrother had left him something in his will. A poisoned chalice? Shares in a crime syndicate? What? He stood up and started pacing. Why should the man who had shown him nothing but contempt and hatred since the day he had walked into his life leave him anything at all in his will? And what was it about these personal effects that made them so precious only a representative from a solicitor's firm in England could hand-deliver them?