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It was the very last thing Claire was expecting. She stared at the lawyer for several seconds, her brain whirling, her heart suddenly beating too fast and too hard. 'What do you mean, he wouldn't agree to it?' she said.
The lawyer gave her a grim look. 'Your husband flatly refused to sign or even to accept the papers for a divorce,' she said. 'He was absolutely adamant. He insists on a meeting with you first.'
Claire gnawed at her lip for a moment. She had hoped to avoid all contact with Antonio Marcolini during his lecture tour of Sydney. It wasn't supposed to happen this way. Five years had passed; a divorce after such a long separation was surely just a matter of a bit of paperwork? Leaving it in the lawyer's hands was meant to make it easier for her to move on.
She had to move on.
'Unless you have specific reasons not to meet with him, I suggest you get it over withand soon,' Angela Reed advised. 'It may well be he wants to end things on a more personal note, rather than formally through the legal system. Ultimately he will not be able to prevent a divorce, of course, but he could make things drag onwhich would incur even more legal fees for you.'
Claire felt a familiar twist of panic deep inside at the thought of more bills to pay. She was sailing far too close to the wind as it was; a long drawn-out legal process would just about sink her. But why on earth would Antonio want to see her after all this time? The circumstances under which their relationship had ended were hardly conducive to a friendly cup of coffee and a chat about old times.
She took a deep breath and met the lawyer's speculative gaze. 'I guess one face to face meeting won't hurt,' she said, with a sinking feeling deep in the pit of her stomach.
'Think of it as closure,' Angela said, as she pushed back her chair and rose to her feet, signalling the consultation was at an end.
Closure, Claire thought wryly as she made her way out to the street a short time later. That was why she had activated the divorce proceedings in the first place. It was well and truly time to put the past behind her. She owed it to herself to embrace life once more.
The phone was ringing as she unlocked the door of her flat and, dropping her bag and keys on the lumpy sofa, she picked up the receiver. 'Hello?'
Claire gripped the phone in her suddenly damp hand, trying to suppress the groundswell of emotion that assailed her as soon as she heard the smooth, even tones of Antonio's accented voice. Oh, God, if this was how she was going to be just listening to him, how on earth was she going to cope with seeing him? Tiny beads of perspiration broke out on her upper lip; her heart was hammering and her breathing becoming shallow and uneven.
'Claire.' He repeated her name, the velvet stroke of his deep tone making every pore of her skin lift beneath the layers of her winter-weight clothes, and the blood to kick start in her veins.
She swallowed tightly and, closing her eyes, released his name on a stuttering breath. 'Antonio I was er just about to call you '
'I take it you have spoken with your lawyer?' he asked.
'Then you will know I will not take no for an answer,' he said, as if she hadn't spoken. 'No meeting, no divorce.'
Claire felt her back come up at his arrogance. 'You think you can order me about like some sort of puppet?' she asked. 'Well, damn you, Antonio. I am not'
'Face to face, Claire,' he said, in the same indomitable tone. 'I believe there is no better way to do business.'
Claire felt tiny footsteps of ice-cold fear tiptoe up her spine at his words. 'II thought you were here for a lecture tour, not to socialise with your soon to be ex-wife,' she said, trying for a cool and unaffected tone but failing miserably.
She glanced to where she had left the newspaper announcing his arrival, lying open, even though every time she walked past, it drove a stake through her heart to see his handsome features smiling as if everything was right with his world.
'It is true I am spending the next three months in Australia, lecturing and operating for the charity I began in Italy,' he said.
It had not been the first time Claire had read about his charity, called FACEFacial and Cranial Endowmentwhich raised millions of dollars for the surgical reconstruction of patients with severe facial injuries. She had followed the progress of some of the cases he had operated on via his website, marvelling at the miracles he performed for his patients. But then miracles only seemed to happen to other people, Claire reminded herself bitterly. Her brief marriage to Antonio had taught her that if nothing else.
'But I must say I find it rather strange you did not expect me to want to see you in person,' he continued.
'I find it inappropriate, given the circumstances,' she returned a little coldly. 'We have nothing to say to each other. I think we said it all the last time we were together.'
And how, Claire thought as she recalled the bitter words she had thrown at him. Angry, bitter words that had done nothing to ease the pain of her loss and the final barbarous sting of his betrayal. He had been so cold, so distant, and clinically detached in that doctor way of his, making her feel as if she had no self-control, no maturity and precious little dignity.
'I beg to differ, Claire,' he countered. 'The last time we were together you did the speaking, and all the accusing and name-calling, if I recall. This time I would like to be the one who does the talking.'
Claire's already white-knuckled fingers tightened around the phone, her heart skipping in her chest. 'Look, we've been separated for five'
'I know how long we have been separated,' he interrupted yet again. 'Or estranged, as I understand is the more correct term, since there has been no formal division of assets between us. That is one of the reasons I am here now in Australia.'
Claire felt her stomach tilt. 'I thought you were here to promote your charity you know to raise its profile globally.'
'That is true, but I do not intend to spend the full three months lecturing,' he said. 'I plan to have a holiday while I am here, and of course to spend some time with you.'
'Why?' The word came out clipped with the sharp scissors of suspicion.
'We are still legally married, Claire.'
Claire clenched her teeth. 'So let me guess.' She let the words drip off her tongue, each one heavily laced with scorn. 'Your latest mistress didn't want to travel all this way so you are looking for a three-month fill-in. Forget it, Antonio. I'm not available.'
'Are you currently seeing anyone?' he asked.
Claire bristled at the question. How he could even think she would be able to move on from the death of their child as he had so easily done was truly astonishing. 'Why do you want to know?' she asked.
'I would not like to be cutting in on anyone else's territory,' he said. Although there are ways to deal with such obstacles, of course.'
'Yes, well, we all know how that hasn't stopped you in the past,' she clipped back. 'I seem to recall hearing about your affair with a married woman a couple of years back.'
'She was not my mistress, Claire,' he said. 'The press always makes a big deal out of anything Mario and I do. You know that. I warned you about it when we first met.'
To give him credit, Claire had to agree Antonio had done his very best to try and prepare her for the exposure she would receive as one of the Marcolini brothers' love interests. Antonio and Mario, as the sons of high-profile Italian businessman Salvatore Marcolini, could not escape the attention of the media. Every woman they looked at was photographed, every restaurant they dined at was rated, and every move they made was followed with not just one telephoto lens, but hundreds.
Claire had found it both intrusive and terrifying. She was a country girl, born and bred. She was not used to any attention, let alone the world's media. She had grown up in a quiet country town in Outback New South Wales. There had been no glitz and glamour about her and her younger brothers' lives in the drought-stricken bush, nor did Claire's life now, as a hairdresser in a small inner-city suburb, attract the sort of attention Antonio had been used to dealing with since he was a small child.
That was just one of the essential differences that had driven the wedge between them: she was not of his ilk, and his parents had made that more than clear from the first moment he had brought her home to meet them. People with their sort of wealth did not consider a twenty-three-year-old Australian hairdresser on a working holiday marriage material for their brilliantly talented son.
'I am staying at the Hammond Tower Hotel.'Antonio's voice broke through her thoughts. 'In the penthouse suite.'
'Of course,' Claire muttered cynically.
'You surely did not expect me to purchase a house for the short time I will be here, did you, Claire?' he asked, after another short but tense pause.
'No, of course not,' she answered, wishing she hadn't been so transparent in her bitterness towards him. 'It's just a penthouse is a bit over the top for someone who heads a charityor so I would have thought.'
'The charity is doing very well without me having to resort to sleeping on a park bench,' he said. 'But of course that is probably where you would like to see me, is it not?'
'I don't wish to see you at all,' Claire responded tightly.
'I am not going to give you a choice,' he said. 'We have things to discuss and I would like to do so in private your place or mine. It makes no difference to me.'
It made the world of difference to Claire. She didn't want Antonio's presence in her small but tidy flat. It was hard enough living with the memories of his touch, his kisses, and the fiery heat of his lovemaking which, in spite of the passing of the years, had never seemed to lessen. Her body was responding to him even now, just by listening to his voice. How much worse would it be seeing him face to face, breathing in the same air as him, perhaps even touching him?
'I mean it, Claire,' he said with steely emphasis. 'I can be at your place in ten or fifteen minutes, or you can meet me here. You choose.'
Claire pressed her lips together as she considered her options. Here would be too private, too intimate, but then meeting him at his hotel would be so public. What if the press were lurking about? A quick snapshot of them together could cause the sort of speculation she had thankfully avoided over the last five years.
In the end she decided her private domain was not ready to accept the disturbing presence of her estranged husband. She didn't want to look at her rumpled sofa a few days hence and think of his long, strong thighs stretched out there, and nor did she want to drink from a coffee cup his lips had rested against.
'I'll come to you,' she said, on an expelled breath of resignation.
'I will wait for you in the Piano Bar,' he said. 'Would you like me to send a car for you?'
Claire had almost forgotten the wealth Antonio took for granted. No simple little fuel-efficient hire car for himoh, nohe would have the latest Italian sports car, or a limousine complete with uniformed chauffeur.
The thought of a sleek limousine pulling up to collect her was almost laughable, given the state of her own current vehicle. She had to cajole it into starting each morning, and go through the same routine at the end of the day. It limped along, as she did, battered and bruised by what life had dished up, but somehow doggedly determined to complete the journey.
'No,' she said, with a last remnant of pride. 'I will make my own way there.'
'Fine. I will keep an eye out for you,' he said. 'Shall we say in an hour?'
Claire put the phone down after mumbling a reply, her heart contracting in pain at the thought of seeing Antonio again. Her stomach began to flutter inside with razor-winged nerves, her palms already damp in apprehension over what he had already said to her, let alone what else he had in store.
If he didn't want a divorce, what did he want? Their marriage had died, along with the reason it had occurred in the first place.
A giant wave of grief washed over her as she thought about their tiny daughter. She would have just completed her first term in kindergarten by nowwould have been five years old and no doubt as cute as a button, with her father's dark brown eyes and a crown of shiny hair, maybe ink-black and slightly wavy, like Antonio's, or chestnut-brown and riotous like hers.
Claire wondered if he ever thought of their baby. Did he lie awake at night even now and imagine he could hear her crying? Did his arms ache to hold her just one more time, as hers did every day? Did he look at the last photograph taken of her in the delivery suite and feel an unbearable pain searing through his chest that those tiny eyes had never opened to look at his face?
Probably not, she thought bitterly as she rummaged in her wardrobe for something to wear. She pulled out a black dress and held it up for inspection. It was three or four seasons old, and far too big for her, but what did it matter? She wasn't out to impress him. That was the job of the supermodels and socialites he partied with all over Europe.
The Hammond Tower Hotel was close to the city center, with stunning views over the harbour, and the sail-like wings of the iconic Sydney Opera House visible from some angles. But, unlike the other hotels the Hammond competed with, it had an old-world charm about it; the art deco design and furnishings and the immaculately uniformed attendants made Claire feel as if she was stepping back in time, to a far more gracious and glamorous era that few modern hotels could rival, in spite of their massive stainless steel and glass towers.
Claire left her car with the valet parking man, trying not to wince in embarrassment when the engine coughed and choked behind her as he valiantly tried to get it to move.