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As soon as she laid eyes on the broad-shouldered man who had just stepped through the door of the crowded wine bar Magenta knew that he was the father of her child.
She didn't suspect, or wonder, or even hope. She simply knew.
The stem of the glass she had been wiping suddenly snapped from the tension gripping her fingers, and as she put a steadying hand to her forehead she heard Thomas, her work colleague, enquire, 'Are you all right?'
The laid-back, long-haired college graduate who, like her, was helping out part-time behind the bar until something better came along, was frowning as he came away from the cash register.
She shook her head. Not in answer, but in an attempt to make some sense of the jumble of distant memories that were leaping chaotically through her brain.
Anger. Hostility. Passion. Over all a hungry, all-consuming passion
Someone spoke to her, trying to give her an order, and she looked up at them with her velvety-brown eyes dazed and her fine features ashen against the darker sheen of her thick swept-up hair.
'Would you mind serving my customer for me?' she appealed croakily to her colleague and, dumping the two pieces of glass and the tea towel down behind the counter, made a hasty bid for the merciful seclusion of the Ladies'.
Grabbing the cracked and solitary basin, she struggled to regain her composure, her lungs dragging in air.
Andreas Visconti. Of course. How could she ever have let anyone persuade her into believing that her child might have been fathered by anyone else when she'd known in her heart that she wasn't the type of woman to sleep around, even during those lost and irretrievable months of her life?
She felt sick and stayed where she was, leaning over the basin, until the nausea subsided, trying to sort out the tangle of erratic thoughts and images in her mind.
The doctors had told her not to try and force things, and as the years had passed they had said that the memories she had lost might never come back. But they were going to. Even if they were appearing like the distorted shapes of a jigsaw puzzle she was going to have to piece together. Either way, right now, she thought, hearing the outer door open and one of the regular bar staff urgently calling to her, she had to go back out there and face the music. Even if she didn't knowor likethe tune that might be playing.
As the countless people in front of him were gradually served, and a spindly young man finally took his order, at first Andreas Visconti thought he was imagining things when his gaze drifted to the young woman who was filling glasses further along the bar.
She was slim, beautiful and flawlessly photogenic, with her magnificent hair pinned up to emphasise high cheekbones, stunning dark eyes and a lovely mouth above that long, elegant neck. The vision of her held Andreas in thrall. As if he was seeing a ghost. Or hallucinating. Both of which were pretty unlikely, he thought wryly, for a hardened cynic like himself.
Then someone called her name and he realised that he wasn't imagining things. It really was her. Magenta James. The girl to whom he had once almost sacrificed his heartand the whole of his life.
She was looking over her shoulder, listening to something a much older man, whom he guessed was the landlord, was saying, and cruel memory made a hard slash of Andreas's mouth as he caught her tight and rather strained-sounding little laugh.
The last time he had heard that sound was when she had ridiculed his lack of prospects, flaying him with accusations of trying to hold her back from the glittering career she intended to pursue. And now here was Miss High-and-Mighty James pouring drinks in a West Country wine bar! He was, he decided grimly, going to enjoy the next few minutes!
Abandoning the position he had virtually fought to secure, he allowed his curiosity to pull him through the sea of Friday-night revellers which, sensing an unspoken authority, parted effortlessly for him as he shouldered his way along the crowded bar to where she was working.
Beneath her simple black dressher only concession to colour was the red and black choker she wore around her neck Magenta's whole body stiffened.
It was inevitable, she thought, her heart racing uncontrollably, that he would notice her. Speak to her. She was unprepared, however, for what his deep, chocolate-rich voice would do to heror for the impact of his masculinity at close quarters as she turned around from returning a bottle to its shelf at the back of the mirrored bar.
' She could hardly find her voice as she met his unflinching eyes. Sapphire-blue eyes that were a legacy of his mother's English heritage. How easily she had remembered that! she thought, amazed, when her mind was struggling to remember anything else. But those eyes were glittering with a chilling clarity, and though Magenta strove to recall exactly what it was that had transpired between them she was certain of nothing beyond the feeling that they had parted on bad terms. Very bad.
'Quite a surprise,' he commented dryly. 'For both of us, I would imagine.'
Now Magenta recognised a transatlantic lilt in his deep tones that she somehow knew hadn't been there six years ago, and with another kick from the darker corners of her mind she recognised that the healthy bronze of his skin owed as much to time spent living in the States as to his Anglo-Italian roots.
His well-layered hair was shining like polished jet beneath the lights, but he looked bigger, broader and tougher than the young man surfacing from her memory banks. This man was harder and more forceful. His maturity was reflected in the span of his wide shoulders, and in that commanding air that said he had done a lot of living, while his darkly shaded jaw and the dark hair that was curling above the open neckline of his casual yet beautifully tailored striped shirt seemed to scream of his virility.
'I have to admit,' he was saying, oblivious to the turmoil going on inside her, 'this isn't the sort of place I would have expected to find you.'
His thinly veiled cynicism stopped her from telling him that her job there two evenings a week was just one of her means of being gainfully employed. That she had a day job as a typist and would shortly be moving on to better things if the position she had been shortlisted for and was pinning every last hope on came good during the course of the coming week.
The need to recover those lost months of her life was more pressing than the need to maintain her self-esteem, so now, overcoming her fear of what the answer might be, she ventured to ask, 'Wh-where exactly had you expected to find me?'
His mouth jerked down at one side in a gesture of increasing cynicism. 'Is that meant to be some sort of joke?'
The hardness of his eyes made Magenta feel as though she was being touched by cold steel. But, whatever he had expected of her, he wasn't aware that she had lost her memory, was he?
She wanted to tell him but he seemed so hostile, and yet she was trying to make sense of the wildfire he'd ignited in her blood the second she had seen him walk into the bar.
Even the solid barrier of the counter between them couldn't protect her from the images which were bursting from her memory banks. Images of this man kissing her. Undressing her. Of his deep voice whispering sensual phrases that had driven her mindless for him as he'd pleasured and worshipped her body.
She might have forgotten but her body hadn't. This realisation hit her with frightening clarity. And yet the specifics of the bitter conflict that stood so obviously between them continued to elude her memory.
Trying again, she uttered almost involuntarily, 'I don't remember you,' and flinched as her flat little statement produced a sharp, incisive laugh from him.
'You mean you don't want to,' he amended with a humourless smile.
I mean I don't. I don't remember what happened.
She put her hand to her forehead, trying to smooth out the chaos of jumbled pieces that were floating up from that part of her brain that remained dormant. In denial.
'You were younger.' She brought her hand down slowly. 'Thinner.' And surely possessing only a fraction of the dynamism of the man who stood before her now?
'Most probably, as I was only twenty-three.'
And working like a slave in your father's restaurant.
Where had that come from? Magenta wondered as another recollection kicked in to bring her hand up to her head again.
'Are you all right?'
Through the buzz of conversation she caught an element of concern in the deep, masculine voice.
'Has seeing me again been too much for you? You look a little pale.'
'Well, anyone would compared to you,' she said snappily, realising that he still didn't understand or believe her. 'You look disgustingly healthy.'
' His hard mouth quirked, tugging in a gesture that was all at once familiar, lazy and disturbingly sensual. 'Life's been good.'
He seemed to need to tell her that, she decided, sifting through the chaff and debris in her mind to try and discover what it was that had brought them from lovers to this hostile place where they now found themselves. But just at that moment her gaze fell to the two tumblers that Thomas had come to put down on the counter in front of them.
A Scotch and soda for Andreas and a bottle of orange juice for.
Trying not to be too obvious, Magenta made a quick survey of the crowded space behind him, catching his mocking expression before she was able to assess who he might have brought with him. She asked quickly, 'Do you come here often?'
Had she really asked him something so trite? So totally banal? she thought, cringing.
'Never.' He was reaching into the pocket of superbly cut grey trousers as Thomas flipped the cap off the orange juice bottle.
'So what brings you here tonight?' Magenta swallowed, wondering why she was dallying with such trivia when all she wanted to do was grab him by the pristine cloth of his shirt and demand that he tell her what had happened between themexcept she was afraid of finding out.
Dragging her gaze from the glass that was being filled, she lifted her velvety-brown eyes to his. A little frisson of awareness shivered through her when she noticed him assessing the slender lines of her body, saw his lips move in a calculated smile.
'Who knows?' he murmured, deeply aware. 'Fate?'
For a moment, from the way he was looking at her and from the husky note he had infused into that beautiful voice of his, the years seemed to fall away and she was nineteen again. Free-spirited. Giddy with hope. Flighty. That was what she remembered someone calling her in those days. Yet, whatever faults or failings she might have possessed, she knew now that she had been desperately, terrifyingly besotted with the man before her.
'So what is this?' On that rather derogatory note he jerked his chin towards where she stood on the service side of the bar. 'A bit of pin money between assignments? Or didn't the modelling world quite live up to everything you were hoping for?' He tossed a note down on the counter to cover the cost of the drinks.
Of course. Her modelling career. Or lack of it, she thought wryly. Because it had never really taken off.
'Not everything works out the way we plan,' she responded quietly, absently aware of her younger colleague picking up the note before moving away to the till. Thomas was used to customers chatting her up, even if this particular customer had more wow factor than all the others put together.
'Really? So what happened to Rushford? The miracle-maker?'
The deeply intoned words burned with something corrosive, and she wasn't sure whether it was that or the sound of the name that made her suddenly shiver.
'Didn't he live up to your expectations either? And there I was, under the impression you were really going places with that guy.'
With Marcus Rushford? Magenta wanted to laugh out loud.
Instead she was suddenly despairing at how her mind could have let her forget Andreas and yet retained a nightmarish memory of the slick-talking managing agent who had been promoting her for a while.
Confusion swirled around her and she had to take a deep breath to stem the almost physical pain that trying to remember produced.
'Well, as I said.' She gave a little shrug and felt a surge of panic when she realised she had completely forgotten what it was she had been going to say. It still happened sometimes. Times like now, when she felt hot and flummoxed and abnormally stressed. 'Not
' Mercifully the words flooded back, even though she stumbled over them in attempting to get them out. 'Not
everything goes to plan.'
'Evidently not.' He glanced towards where Thomas was waiting behind the middle-aged man who clearly paid their wages, who was sorting out some problem with the cash machine.
Magenta wished he would hurry up. It was purgatory standing there talking to a man who so clearly resented her when her screaming senses were taunting her with the knowledge of how his skin had felt beneath her fingers and how he had shown her pleasure such as her untutored body had never known. If it had been untutored, she thought. As far as she knew she could have been as free with her favours as her mother had led her to believe. She had no recollection of those lost months of her life, but her torpid brain had always rejected that thought as repugnant and totally alien to her.
'So what happened to the career? Did Rushford fail to deliver on his promises? Or is that just a rumour? Like the way he cut loose because he couldn't face the responsibility of fatherhood?'
The fact that this man knew she had been expecting a baby sent Magenta's thoughts spinning in a vortex of confusion.
Her hand went to her forehead. Noticing the way it trembled, she brought it quickly down again.
'I'm sorry,' he said, sounding anything but. 'Is that still a sore point?'
His sarcasm dug deep, but she was too busy trying to stay upright to ask him why he believed Theo was Marcus Rush-ford's child.
Gripping the edge of the bar with both hands for support, and dragging in lungfuls of much-needed air, she murmured, 'I'd prefer not to discuss my son, if it's
all the same to you.' Had he detected that awkwardnessthat lack of fluency in her speech which it had taken her a long time to overcome? 'Not here. Not over a bar.'
Not anywhere, she resolved silently. Not until I know what happened. What it was I did to make you despise me, as you clearly do.
His black hair gleamed as he dipped his head in acknowledgement. 'I can't help admitting I'm surprised that the girl I knew would let a little thing like motherhood stand in the way of her plans.'
That didn't sound like her at all, Magenta thought, puzzled. She loved little Theo more than anything else in this world. He was the moon and the stars and the earth to her, she mused with a wistful little smile, and she loved him so much it hurt.
Tentatively, resting her arm on the counter and supporting her chin with her hand, she invited, 'So, tell me about the girl you knew.'
He laughed softly and leaned forward so that she caught the shiver of his breath against her hair, the subtle and yet disturbing sensuality of his personal masculine scent. 'I really don't think you'd welcome hearing it,' he murmured silkily.