To stop a threat to expose his greatest secret, billionaire Alessio Baldini needs the very best. Lesley Fox's name is on everyone's lips, and he soon sees whyas challenging as she is alluring, she stands firm against his unyielding nature.
Thrown into Alessio's lavish world, tomboy Lesley is shocked by his extravagant excess. She may try to dislike him, but she can't stop the way her pulse races or how her body curves toward him when he's near but to give in to this need would be dangerous.
And danger always has consequences.
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Lesley Fox slowly drew to a stop in front of the most imposing house she had ever seen.
The journey out of London had taken barely any time at all. It was Monday, it was the middle of August and she had been heading against the traffic. In all it had taken her under an hour to leave her flat in crowded Ladbroke Grove and arrive at a place that looked as though it should be plastered on the cover of a House Beautiful magazine.
The wrought-iron gates announced its splendour, as had the tree-lined avenue and acres of manicured lawns through which she had driven.
The guy was beyond wealthy. Of course, she had known that. The first thing she had done when she had been asked to do this job had been to look him up online.
Alessio BaldiniItalian, but resident in the UK for a long time. The list of his various companies was vast and she had skipped over all of that. What he did for a living was none of her business. She had just wanted to make sure that the man existed and was who Stan said he was.
Commissions via friends of friends were not always to be recommended, least of all in her niche sideline business. A girl couldn't be too careful, as her father liked to say.
She stepped out of her little Mini, which was dwarfed in the vast courtyard, and took a few minutes to look around her.
The brilliance of a perfect summer's day made the sprawling green lawns, the dense copse to one side lush with lavender and the clambering roses against the stone of the mansion facing her seem almost too breathtakingly beautiful to be entirely real.
This country estate was in a league of its own.
There had been a bit of information on the Internet about where the man lived, but no pictures, and she had been ill-prepared for this concrete display of wealth.
A gentle breeze ruffled her short brown hair and for once she felt a little awkward in her routine garb of lightweight combat trousers, espadrilles and one of her less faded tee-shirts advertising the rock band she had gone to see five years ago.
This didn't seem the sort of place where dressing down would be tolerated.
For the first time, she wished she had paid a little more attention to the details of the guy she was going to see.
There had been long articles about him but few pictures and she had skimmed over those, barely noting which one he was amidst the groups of boring men in business suits who'd all seemed to wear the identical smug smiles of people who had made far too much money for their own good.
She grabbed her laptop from the passenger seat and slammed the door shut.
If it weren't for Stan, she wouldn't be here now. She didn't need the money. She could afford the mortgage on her one-bedroom flat, had little interest in buying pointless girly clothes for a figure she didn't possess to attract men in whom she had scant interestor who, she amended with scrupulous honesty to herself, had scant interest in herand she wasn't into expensive, long-haul holidays.
With that in mind, she had more than enough to be going on with. Her full-time job as a website designer paid well and, as far as she was concerned, she lacked for nothing.
But Stan was her dad's long-time friend from Ireland. They had grown up together. He had taken her under his wing when she had moved down to London after university and she owed him.
With any luck, she would be in and out of the man's place in no time at all.
She breathed in deeply and stared at the mansion in front of her.
It seemed a neverending edifice of elegant cream stone, a dream of a house, with ivy climbing in all the right places and windows that looked as though they dated back to the turn of the century.
This was just the sort of ostentatious wealth that should have held little appeal, but in fact she was reluctantly charmed by its beauty.
Of course, the man would be a lot less charming than his house. It was always the way. Rich guys always thought they were God's gift to women even when they obviously weren't. She had met one or two in her line of work and it had been a struggle to keep a smile pinned to her face.
There was no doorbell but an impressive knocker. She could hear it reverberating through the bowels of the house as she banged it hard on the front door and then stood back to wait for however long it would take for the man's butler or servant, or whoever he employed to answer doors for him, to arrive on the scene and let her in.
She wondered what he would look like. Rich and Italian, so probably dark-haired with a heavy accent. Possibly short, which would be a bit embarrassing, because she was five-eleven and a half and likely to tower over himnever a good thing. She knew from experience that men hated women who towered over them. He would probably be quite dapper, kitted out in expensive Italian gear and wearing expensive Italian footwear. She had no idea what either might look like but it was safe to say that trainers and old clothes would not feature on the sartorial menu.
She was fully occupied amusing herself with a variety of mental pictures when the door was pulled open without warning.
For a few seconds, Lesley Fox lost the ability to speak. Her lips parted and she stared. Stared in a way she had never stared at any man in her life before.
The guy standing in front of her was, quite simply, beautiful. Taller than her by a few inches, and wearing faded jeans and a navy-blue polo shirt, he was barefoot. Raven-black hair was combed back from a sinfully sexy face. His eyes were as black as his hair and lazily returned her stare, until she felt the blood rush to her face and she returned to Planet Earth with a feeling of sickening embarrassment.
'Who are you?'
His cool, rich, velvety voice galvanised her senses back into working order and she cleared her throat and reminded herself that she wasn't the type of girl who had ever been daunted by a guy, however good-looking he was. She came from a family of six and she was the only girl. She had been brought up going to rugby matches, watching the football on television, climbing trees and exploring the glorious countryside of wild Ireland with brothers who hadn't always appreciated their younger sister tagging along.
She had always been able to handle the opposite sex. She had lived her life being one of the lads, for God's sake!
'I'm here about your Er my name's Lesley Fox.' As an afterthought, she stuck out her hand and then dropped it when he failed to respond with a return gesture.
'I wasn't expecting a girl.' Alessio looked at her narrowly. That, he thought, had to be the understatement of the year. He had been expecting a Les FoxLes, as in a man. Les, as in a man who was a contemporary of Rob Dawson, his IT guy. Rob Dawson was in his forties and resembled a beach ball. He had been expecting a forty-something-year-old man of similar build.
Instead, he was looking at a girl with cropped dark hair, eyes the colour of milk chocolate and a lanky, boyish physique, wearing.
Alessio took in the baggy sludge-green trousers with awkward pockets and the faded tee-shirt.
He couldn't quite recall the last time he had seen a woman dressed with such obvious, scathing disregard for fashion.
Women always tried their very hardest when around him to show their best side. Their hair was always perfect, make-up always flawless, clothes always the height of fashion and shoes always high and sexy.
His eyes drifted down to her feet. She was wearing cloth shoes.
'I'm so sorry to have disappointed you, Mr Baldini. I take it you are Mr Baldini and not his manservant, sent to chase away callers by being rude to them?'
'I didn't think anyone used that term any more '
''Manservant. When I asked Dawson to provide me with the name of someone who could help me with my current little problem, I assumed he would have recommended someone a bit older. More experienced.'
'I happen to be very good at what I do.'
'As this isn't a job interview, I can't very well ask for references.' He stood aside, inviting her to enter. 'But, considering you look as though you're barely out of school, I'll want to know a little bit about you before I explain the situation.'
Lesley held on to her temper. She didn't need the money. Even though the hourly rate that she had been told about was staggering, she really didn't have to stand here and listen to this perfect stranger quiz her about her experience for a job she hadn't applied for. But then she thought of Stan and all he had done for her and she gritted back the temptation to turn on her heel, climb back into her car and head down to London without a backward glance.
'Come on in,' Alessio threw over his shoulder as she remained hovering on the doorstep and, after a few seconds, Lesley took a step into the house.
She was surrounded by pale marble only broken by the richness of a Persian rug. The walls were adorned with the sort of modern masterpieces that should have looked out of place in a house of this age but somehow didn't. The vast hall was dominated by a staircase that swept upwards before branching out in opposite directions, and doors indicated that there was a multitude of rooms winging on either side, not that she wouldn't have guessed.
More than ever, she felt inappropriately dressed. He might be casual, but he was casual in the sort of elegant, expensive way of the very wealthy.
'Big place for one person,' she said, staring around her, openly impressed.
'How do you know I haven't got a sprawling family lurking somewhere out of sight?'
'Because I looked you up,' Lesley answered truthfully. Her eyes finally returned to him and once again she was struck by his dark, saturnine good looks. And once again she had to drag her eyes away reluctantly, desperate to return her gaze to him, to drink him in. 'I don't usually travel into unknown territory when I do my freelance jobs. Usually the computer comes to me, I don't go to the computer.'
'Always illuminating to get out of one's comfort zone,' Alessio drawled. He watched as she ran her fingers through her short hair, spiking it up. She had very dark eyebrows, as dark as her hair, which emphasised the peculiar shade of brown of her eyes. And she was pale, with satiny skin that should have been freckled but wasn't. 'Follow me. We can sit out in the garden and I'll get Violet to bring us something to drink Have you had lunch?'
Lesley frowned. Had she? She was careless with her eating habits, something she daily promised herself to rectify. If she ate more, she knew she'd stand a fighting chance of not looking like a gawky runner bean. 'A sandwich before I left,' she returned politely. 'But a cup of tea would be wonderful.'
'It never fails to amuse me that on a hot summer's day you English will still opt for a cup of tea instead of something cold.'
'I'm not English. I'm Irish.'
Alessio cocked his head to one side and looked at her, consideringly. 'Now that you mention it, I do detect a certain twang.'
'But I'm still partial to a cup of tea.'
He smiled and she was knocked sideways. The man oozed sex appeal. He'd had it when he'd been unsmiling, but now it was enough to throw her into a state of confusion and she blinked, driving away the unaccustomed sensation.
'This isn't my preferred place of residence,' he took up easily as he led the way out of the magnificent hall and towards sprawling doors that led towards the back of the house. 'I come here to give it an airing every so often but most of my time is spent either in London or abroad on business.'
'And who looks after this place when you're not in it?'
'I have people who do that for me.' 'Bit of a waste, isn't it?'
Alessio spun round and looked at her with a mixture of irritation and amusement. 'From whose point of view?' he asked politely and Lesley shrugged and folded her arms.
'There are such extreme housing problems in this country that it seems crazy for one person to have a place of this size.'
'You mean, when I could subdivide the whole house and turn it into a million rabbit hutches to cater for down and outs?' He laughed drily. 'Did my guy explain to you what the situation was?'
Lesley frowned. She had thought he might have been offended by her remark, but she was here on business of sorts, and her opinions were of little consequence.
'Your guy got in touch with Stan who's a friend of my dad and he. Well, he just said that you had a sensitive situation that needed sorting. No details.'
'None were given. I was just curious to find out whether idle speculation had entered the equation.' He pushed open some doors and they emerged into a magnificent back garden.
Tall trees bordered pristine, sprawling lawns. To one side was a tennis court and beyond that she could see a swimming pool with a low, modern outbuilding which she assumed was changing rooms. The patio on which they were standing was as broad as the entire little communal garden she shared with the other residents in her block of flats and stretched the length of the house. If a hundred people were to stand side by side, they wouldn't be jostling for space.
Low wooden chairs were arranged around a glass-topped table and as she sat down a middle-aged woman bustled into her line of vision, as though summoned by some kind of whistle audible only to her.
Tea, Alessio instructed; something cold for him, a few things to eat.
Orders given, he sat down on one of the chairs facing her and leaned forward with his elbows resting on his knees.
'So the man my guy went to is a friend of your father's?'
'That's right. Stan grew up with my dad and when I moved down to London after university Well, he and his wife took me under their wing. Made room for me in their house until I was settledeven paid the three months' deposit on my first rental property because they knew that it would be a struggle for my dad to afford it. So, yeah, I owe Stan a lot and it's why I took this job, Mr Baldini.'
'Alessio, please. And you work as.?'
'I design websites but occasionally I work as a freelance hacker. Companies employ me to see if their firewalls are intact and secure. If something can be hacked, then I can do it.'
'Not a job I immediately associate with a woman,' he murmured and raised his eyebrows as she bristled. 'That's not meant as an insult. It's purely a statement of fact. There are a couple of women in my IT department, but largely they're guys.'
'Why didn't you get one of your own employees to sort out your problem?'
'Because it's a sensitive issue and, the less my private life is discussed within the walls of my offices, the better. So you design websites. You freelance and you claim you can get into anything.'
'That's right. Despite not being a man.'
Alessio heard the defensive edge to her voice and his curiosity was piqued. His life had settled into a predictable routine when it came to members of the opposite sex. His one mistake, made when he was eighteen, had been enough for him to develop a very healthy scepticism when it came to women. The fairer sex, he had concluded, was a misconception of stunning magnitude.
'So if you could explain the situation ' Lesley looked at him levelly, her mind already flying ahead to the thrill of solving whatever problem lay in store for her. She barely noticed his housekeeper placing a pot of tea in front of her and a plate crammed with pastries, produced from heaven only knew where.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Everything that's wrong with romance novels. She fellinlove after knoing the guy for 5 days? Even the lust felt forced. As a long time romance reader, this was disappointing.