The Italian's Passionate Revenge Lucy Gordon Ëèòàãåíò HarperCollins EUR He will bed her. . .Elise Carlton is looking forward to having her freedom. Years as a trophy wife have left her wary. But there is one man to whom she is not immune. . . . For revenge and for pleasure!Vincente Farnese is rich and devastatingly handsome, his own special brand of dark Italian temptation! But it is no coincidence that Vincente has sought out Elise. What will she do when she discovers he wants her only for revenge? Welcome to the new collection of Harlequin Presents! Don’t miss contributions from favorite authors Michelle Reid, Kim Lawrence and Susan Napier, as well as the second part of Jane Porter’s THE DESERT KINGS series, Lucy Gordon’s passionate Italian, Chantelle Shaw’s Tuscan tycoon and Jennie Lucas’s sexy Spaniard! And look out for Trish Wylie’s brilliant debut Presents book, Her Bedroom Surrender! We’d love to hear what you think about Harlequin Presents. E-mail us at Presents@hmb.co.uk or join in the discussions at www.iheartpresents.com and www.sensationalromance.blogspot.com, where you’ll also find more information about books and authors! There are times in a man’s life… when only seduction will settle old scores! Pick up our exciting series of revenge-filled romances—they’re recommended, and red-hot! Available only from Harlequin Presents . Lucy Gordon THE ITALIAN’S PASSIONATE REVENGE TORONTO • NEW YORK • LONDON AMSTERDAM • PARIS • SYDNEY • HAMBURG STOCKHOLM • ATHENS • TOKYO • MILAN • MADRID PRAGUE • WARSAW • BUDAPEST • AUCKLAND All about the author… Lucy Gordon LUCY GORDON cut her writing teeth on magazine journalism, interviewing many of the world’s most interesting men, including Warren Beatty, Richard Chamberlain, Roger Moore, Sir Alec Guinness and Sir John Gielgud. She’s also camped out with lions in Africa, and had many other unusual experiences that have often provided the background for her books. She is married to a Venetian, whom she met while on holiday in Venice. They got engaged within two days. Two of her books have won Romance Writers of America Rita Awards, Song of the Lorelei, in 1990, and His Brother’s Child, in 1998, in the Best Traditional Romance category. You can visit her Web site at www.lucy-gordon.com CONTENTS CHAPTER ONE CHAPTER TWO CHAPTER THREE CHAPTER FOUR CHAPTER FIVE CHAPTER SIX CHAPTER SEVEN CHAPTER EIGHT CHAPTER NINE CHAPTER TEN CHAPTER ELEVEN CHAPTER TWELVE CHAPTER ONE WHOis he? Why has this stranger come to my husband’s funeral and why does he stand there, staring at me across the grave? ‘Ashes to ashes, dust to dust—’ In a corner of a London cemetery the preacher intoned the words over the open grave, while the mourners shivered in the cold February drizzle and the dead man’s widow wished it could all soon be over. Ashes and dust, she brooded. A perfect description of my marriage. Elise ventured a glance around the others and saw only blank faces, just as she’d expected. Ben Carlton had had business associates, but no friends. His life had been a litter of shady deals and shabby relationships. Including ours, Elise thought. A wretched marriage, for wretched reasons, brought to a wretched end. Many of the people here were unfamiliar. Some she’d met at the lavish dinner parties Ben had enjoyed giving, and she vaguely recalled their faces. Some she’d seen at functions hosted by his firm. Others she’d never seen. They all looked alike, except for one man. He stood on the other side of the grave, his lean face expressionless, his eyes hard as they watched her. As the last rites dragged on, Elise realised that he never looked at the coffin, only at herself. He had a fixed gaze, with something unyielding about it, as though by staring her down he could find the answer to a question. She tried to tear her eyes away, but she couldn’t. It was almost as though he was ordering her to look at him, refusing to release her. She fought him but, to her dismay, she could feel her will yielding to his. He was in his late thirties, tall, dark-haired, with a commanding air that seemed to reduce everyone else to insignificance. He spoke briefly as he stepped aside to let a lady pass. It was only a few words, but Elise heard the Continental accent and wondered if he was attached to Farnese Internationale, the great Italian-based firm that had recently hired Ben, an act that still baffled her. Elise hadn’t known much about her late husband’s business affairs, beyond a vague suspicion that others considered him an oaf. Nothing had surprised her more than seeing him head-hunted by a powerful multinational corporation. Ben had told her about it, smirking with self-congratulation. He’d known about her poor opinion of him and had relished the chance to prove her wrong. ‘You just wait until we’re living in Rome, in the lap of luxury,’ he crowed. ‘The apartment will make your eyes water.’ That was how she discovered that he’d already bought the apartment, without consulting her. Worse, he’d even sold their London home, behind her back. ‘I don’t want to go back to Rome,’ she told him furiously. ‘And I’m amazed that you do. Do you think I can forget—?’ ‘Don’t talk rubbish. That business was over long ago. I’ve got an important job and we’ll have to do a lot of entertaining. You should be looking forward to it. It’ll give you a chance to use your Italian again. You always spoke it well.’ ‘You said yourself, that was a long time ago,’ she reminded him. ‘Look, I’m going to need you,’ he said in the brusque way he always used to end arguments. ‘I don’t speak the damned language and you do, so don’t give me a hard time.’ ‘Plus you got one jump ahead by getting our money out of the country before I found out.’ He looked pleased. ‘Just in case you were getting any ideas about divorce—’ he chuckled ‘—I know what’s been flitting through your head.’ ‘Perhaps I’ll decide to go my own way and earn my own living,’ she mused. How that had made him hoot with laughter! ‘You? After all these years of living the good life? Never! You’ve gone soft.’ Elise had ignored his rudeness and selfish complacency, being used to it. Perhaps he was right and she could no longer function independently. It was a dispiriting thought. With their house sold, they’d moved into The Ritz Hotel until the day of departure. But that day had never come. Ben had died of a heart attack while enjoying an assignation in another hotel with a woman who’d called an ambulance, then vanished before it could arrive. Elise shivered. It was late afternoon and the light had faded, turning the mourners into shadows. Still she sensed the stranger watching her in the gloom. At last it was over and people began to move, reminding her to perform her duties as hostess. ‘I do hope you can come to the reception,’ she said again and again. ‘It would have meant so much to Ben.’ ‘I trust your invitation includes me,’ said the man. ‘You don’t know me, but I’d been looking forward to your husband joining my firm. My name is Vincente Farnese.’ She knew the name at once. She’d heard it often from Ben’s lips—one of the most powerful men in Italy—had the ear of government ministers—influential—rich— ‘And he wants me to join him,’ Ben had rejoiced. ‘He searched for me, said only the right man would do for the position—offered me a fortune—said it was worth anything to get me—’ Elise had smothered her astonishment that anyone should actually seek out this overblown windbag, never mind pay him over the odds. Now she stared at Vincente Farnese, searching for some clue to help solve the mystery. She found none. He was in the prime of life, with the air of a man of sense. It was inexplicable. ‘I’ve heard of you from my husband,’ she said. ‘It was good of you to take the trouble to attend his funeral. Of course you’re welcome at the reception.’ ‘You’re too kind,’ he said smoothly. A man who was never at a loss, she thought, ready with the right words, the right attitude, always ahead. So why had he bothered to come here? What could he hope to gain now Ben was dead? Suddenly she didn’t care any more, about anything. There was only a weary longing for all this to be over. She closed her eyes, swaying slightly, then felt strong hands steadying her. ‘Not much longer,’ said Vincente’s quiet voice. The words echoed her thoughts so exactly that she opened her eyes sharply and found him standing close, holding her gently. ‘Don’t give up now,’ he murmured. ‘I wasn’t—that is—’ ‘I know,’ he said, and she had the strangest feeling that he did. He began to guide her towards the car, waving away the chauffeur to open the door for her himself. Just before she got in, Elise glanced up at someone else who’d caught her eye in the cemetery. This was a woman in her thirties, attractive in a flashy way, wearing expensive black clothes that somehow managed to look blowsily overdone. It occurred to Elise that this stranger too had been regarding her oddly, with a kind of belligerence, hating her and sizing her up at the same time. But Signor Farnese had occupied her thoughts, leaving her little attention to spare. ‘Who is that lady?’ he asked, getting in beside Elise. ‘I don’t know. I’ve never seen her before.’ ‘She seems to know you, if the looks she’s been giving you are anything to go by.’ It was a short journey to The Ritz, where a lavish buffet had been laid on in the grandiose suite Ben had insisted on occupying. Elise would have preferred a quiet affair, but she’d splashed out on Ben’s funeral out of a kind of guilt. Now he was dead she felt uneasy about her hostility, no matter how much he’d deserved it. She couldn’t grieve but she could give him the kind of send-off he would have wanted, suitable for a wealthy, important man, even if the wealth had often been a conjuring trick and the importance had existed only in his head. As she entered the room a mirror told her that she looked perfect for the role of elegant widow in her neatly fitting black dress, small black hat over blonde hair, styled severely. She was an expert in the art of appearance, having once dreamed of being a clothes designer. Events had ended her training abruptly, but her skill remained. Without conceit, Elsie knew that she was beautiful. For the last eight years she’d had nothing to do except be lovely, elegant and sexy, because that was what Ben had wanted. She had been his property and he’d expected his property to be perfect. Her life had become a round of gym sessions and beauty parlours. Nature had given her the good looks to start with, a figure that was easy to keep slim, hair that was naturally blonde and luxuriant, eyes that were large and deep blue. The arts of the coiffeur and masseuse had been employed to great effect, until she’d turned into the perfect finished article. She was everything the world expected—graceful, chic, always uttering the right words. Only she knew how empty she was inside. But she did not care. There was another truth about her, but she’d lost sight of it so long ago that she’d almost forgotten it. In that hidden place there was wild feeling, death-defying emotion, passionate desire. She’d shut those away when she’d married Ben and now she could no longer find the key. Elise made her rounds, ensuring that everyone had enough to eat and drink and the proper attention. But proper for what? She no longer had any connection with these people. Soon she would be completely free. Just a little longer, she promised herself. Signor Farnese was occupying himself talking with the other guests. Networking, she thought, remembering Ben at similar gatherings. But this was different. Ben had always been trying to attract the attention of the others, seeking to impress them. With Vincente Farnese it was the opposite. Everyone knew who he was and wanted to catch his eye. If it pleased him he acknowledged their presence, otherwise he dismissed them with a brief nod, courteous but final. He was everything that Ben had wanted to be, she thought—a handsome, healthy animal, with a face that, despite its strength and good looks, was also shrewd and wary, giving him an edge of danger. His eyes were the darkest she had ever seen, yet an all-seeing light came from their depths. He looked as if he’d mastered life, and intended to go on mastering it. The chief lion in the pack, she thought. So why is he here? He was abstemious—eating nothing and making one glass of wine last for two hours—and, to her heightened imagination, there seemed something ominous even in that. The woman Elise had noticed ate and drank with gusto. Like the man, she seemed to be waiting for something. At last the goodbyes were said and Elise turned with a fixed smile to address her unknown guest. ‘I’m so sorry, we haven’t been introduced,’ she said politely. ‘It was so kind of you to—’ ‘Don’t waste time with that stuff,’ the woman interrupted rudely. ‘Don’t you know who I am?’ ‘I’m afraid I don’t. Were you a friend of my husband?’ ‘Friend? Hah! You could put it like that.’ ‘I see.’ ‘And what’s that supposed to mean?’ ‘Perhaps you were with him when he had his heart attack?’ The woman gave a squeal of laughter, full of wine. ‘No, I heard about that, but it wasn’t me. I must say I’ve got to hand it to you, cool as a cucumber in front of all these people, when you must have known what everyone was thinking.’ ‘What matters is that none of them knew what I was thinking,’ Elise said. ‘Oh, good for you! You’re diamond-hard, aren’t you?’ ‘When I have to be,’ Elise said quietly. ‘Perhaps you should be careful.’ The waiters were clearing away. Elise stood back to let them depart, then returned to what was clearly going to be a battle. Fine. She was just in the mood. ‘Who are you?’ she demanded. ‘Mary Connish-Fontain,’ said the other woman deliberately, stressing the double barrel. ‘Is that supposed to mean something to me?’ ‘It will, when I’m finished. I came here to demand justice for my son. Ben’s son!’ Out of the corner of her eye Elise was aware that Vincente Farnese had become mysteriously alert, although he never moved. ‘You had a son by my husband?’ Elise asked slowly. ‘His name’s Jerry. He’s six.’ Six. Elise had been Ben’s wife for eight years. But it wasn’t a surprise. ‘Are you saying that Ben was supporting you?’ Elise asked. ‘I don’t believe it. I’ve been through his financial affairs and there’s nothing about you or a child.’ ‘There wouldn’t be. We broke up before Jerry’s birth. He—he didn’t want to hurt you.’ If Elise had believed her before, she didn’t now. Ben had never cared about hurting her. ‘I married someone else,’ Mary went on. ‘But now we’ve split up.’ ‘What’s his name?’ Signor Farnese asked suddenly. ‘Alaric Connish-Fontain,’ Mary said, puzzled. ‘Why?’ ‘It’s an unusual name. I recognised it at once. Your husband’s crash into bankruptcy was really spectacular. No wonder you’re looking for new fish to fry.’ ‘How dare you?’ Mary snapped. ‘Forgive me. Your motives are, of course, as pure as the driven snow.’ ‘How did he feel about Ben’s son?’ Elise intervened. Mary shrugged. ‘He thought Jerry was his.’ ‘But when he lost all his money Jerry suddenly became Ben’s,’ Elise said scornfully. ‘Don’t take me for a fool.’ ‘No, don’t do that,’ agreed Signor Farnese. ‘You can say what you like,’ Mary snapped. ‘I want what’s right for my son. He should be Ben’s heir and I’m going to see that he is. You’ve got a posh house, so sell it, and I want half. What are you smiling for?’ The last words came out as a scream, for Elise had started to laugh. She shook with mirth until she felt she might choke, while her enemy regarded her in frustration. ‘I’m telling you, sell your house,’ she repeated furiously. ‘There is no house,’ Elise said, calming herself. ‘That’s why I’m living in a hotel. Ben already sold our house. It was his way of forcing me to go to Italy with him.’ ‘Then you’ve got the money. I know all about property laws—’ ‘Somehow that comes as no surprise,’ the dark Italian murmured. ‘If there’s one woman I feel I could rely on to know about property laws, it’s you.’ ‘So I’ve protected myself, so what? Husband and wife own the marital home jointly—’ ‘True,’ Elise agreed. ‘That’s why Ben went about it in a twisty way. First he took out a huge mortgage on our London home, forging my signature when necessary. Then he bought a place in Italy. By the time I found out, it was too late. The money was already out of this country.’ ‘Don’t give me that,’ Mary sneered. ‘You married Ben for his money and you’ve had eight years to put aside a nest egg for yourself.’ Sick loathing rose in Elise and for a blinding moment she nearly blurted out the truth—that she’d cared nothing for Ben’s money, had married him only to head off a threat to her beloved father, who could have gone to gaol with the evidence in Ben’s possession. But she forced herself to stay silent. The years of her dreadful marriage had taught her self-control. ‘There’s no nest egg,’ she said. ‘You can believe that or not, as you like.’ ‘And yet you’ve got enough to live here.’ Mary’s gesture took in their luxurious surroundings. ‘No, I haven’t. I’m moving out to somewhere cheaper as soon as possible.’ ‘Wherever you go, I’ll be on your tail.’ A change came over Vincente Farnese. Mary couldn’t see his face clearly but Elise could, and she thought it was like seeing someone become possessed by the devil. Whatever idea had flashed across his brain made his eyes glint and a wicked smile touch his mouth. A devil, but a humorous devil, she thought. ‘I shouldn’t do that if I were you,’ he advised, facing Mary full on. ‘She has a heart of stone and a brain of ice. She’ll outwit you every time.’ ‘You make her sound like a cold-hearted bitch,’ Mary sneered. ‘I guess you know her really well.’ ‘You’re right. I’ve learned exactly how ruthless she can be.’ Bemused, Elise regarded him. A knowing look came into Mary’s eyes. She’d misunderstood, as he’d meant her to. ‘Got her claws into you too, has she?’ she demanded coarsely. ‘I know all about her. Ben told me how she chased him for his money, then did the dirty on him when they were married.’ ‘That’s a lie!’ Elise burst out. ‘I never chased Ben. He came chasing after me, all the way to Rome—’ ‘Just as you meant him to. You knew how to make him come grovelling. As for you—’ she pointed a finger at Vincente ‘—I’ll bet your wife doesn’t know you’re here.’ ‘I have no wife,’ he retorted. ‘I’ve never been tempted into the married state and at times like this I’m deeply glad of it. Tell me, ladies, is there a woman in the world who sincerely regrets the man she’s put behind her—for one reason or another?’ Mary gave a contemptuous snort. ‘Had your fill of you, has she? And now she doesn’t care who she hurts. I don’t suppose she ever has.’ ‘That’s true,’ he said softly. ‘You don’t know how true that is.’ ‘So what are you doing here now? Think there’s something here for you? Haven’t you learned your lesson?’ Vincente shrugged and spoke with a sigh that Elise guessed was as false as his regretful manner. She had to hand it to him for a magnificent if dishonest performance. ‘There are some women who can affect a man like that,’ he mourned. ‘So that he forgets everything he knows about her and still lives in hope.’ ‘But I’m not a man,’ Mary snapped. ‘I’m not giving up until I get what’s right.’ ‘But this isn’t the way,’ he said smoothly. ‘Arm yourself with a DNA test and Mrs Carlton won’t be able to argue.’ ‘Ah, but he’s dead,’ Mary said quickly. ‘It’s too late for a test.’ ‘The hospital where he died will have blood samples,’ Elise pointed out. ‘They can be tested and then we’ll know for certain.’ Strangely, this prospect did not seem to ease Mary’s mind. ‘You don’t need a test,’ she said edgily. ‘Jerry’s Ben’s son, no doubt of it. We can sort something out between us, then I’ll go—’ ‘You’ll go now if you know what’s good for you,’ Elise snapped. ‘I wasn’t born yesterday. If you’re still here in ten seconds—’ ‘Are you threatening me?’ ‘Yes, that’s exactly what I’m doing,’ Elise flung at her in cold fury. She was possessed by the joy and satisfaction of losing her temper. It was glorious. ‘You’ll be hearing from my lawyer—’ ‘Get out!’ Whether it was something she saw in Elise’s face, or whether it was Vincente urging her towards the door, Mary suddenly couldn’t get out fast enough. ‘I’ll be back,’ she threatened. ‘You may think you’ve got away with it—’ ‘But she won’t,’ Vincente assured her. ‘There’s always justice in the end, however long the wait.’ He left the room with her and Elise could hear murmurs from the hall outside until he returned a few moments later. ‘Are you all right?’ he asked, startled by her flushed cheeks and flashing eyes. ‘Everything’s wonderful,’ she said firmly. ‘I haven’t enjoyed myself so much in years. She actually thought I’d just cave in.’ ‘How very foolish of her,’ he said, amused. ‘Another minute and I’d have lost control and done something we’d both have regretted.’ ‘Not you. You were always in control, that was why you were impressive. Pure steel. Admirable.’ ‘Thank you. But don’t tell me she just calmly left.’ ‘I’ve told her how to contact me,’ he said. ‘And gave her my best advice. She won’t trouble you for long.’ ‘I suppose it’s always possible that her son is Ben’s,’ Elise observed, not sounding greatly interested. ‘No. Last year her husband was featured in a magazine—great financier, devoted family man, et cetera. There was a picture of him and his son, with a strong likeness between them. She was trying it on with you because she needs money. Forget her.’ Elise gave a soft choke of laughter. ‘You made her think you’re going to help her.’ ‘It was the simplest way to get rid of her. Or are you so shocked at my methods that you won’t accept my help?’ ‘No—oh, no—’ The laughter was welling up in her now, uncontrollable. She’d endured the strains and tensions of the day, but having them suddenly removed was a shock that left her unsteady. ‘Signora—?’ His voice was gentle but he raised it when she didn’t seem to hear him. ‘Signora!’ She managed to shut off the sound but her whole body still shook, though whether it was laughter or trembling he was no longer sure. ‘I’m all right—really,’ she managed to say. ‘You’re not. You’re far from all right. Come here.’ He spoke brusquely and jerked her suddenly against him, holding her, not tenderly but firmly like iron, so that her flesh received a message of safety that infused her whole self, reaching her heart, making her relax. It was crazy, Elise thought. She didn’t know him but his grip had the power to steady her. She ought to push him away, not stand tamely in his arms. But the strangest feeling was creeping over her, as though here and only here was comfort and all would be well while he held her. When she spoke she could hear her voice shaking. ‘I’ll be all right when I’ve calmed down. Perhaps you should go now.’ ‘No, I won’t leave you like this. You shouldn’t be alone. Sit down.’ He guided her to a chair and left her for a moment, returning with a glass which he held out. ‘Drink this.’ Another choke of laughter burst from her. ‘It’s champagne.’ ‘It’s all I could find. They seem to have cleared everything else away.’ ‘I can’t drink champagne at my husband’s funeral.’ ‘Why not? You didn’t give a damn for him, did you?’ She looked up and found him watching her with an inscrutable expression. ‘No,’ she said after a moment. ‘I didn’t.’ Elise took the glass, drained it and held it out for a refill. He obliged and watched her drink the second glass before saying, ‘Then I wonder why you’ve been crying so much.’ ‘What do you mean? You haven’t seen me shed a tear today.’ ‘Not today, no. But when you’re alone.’ It was true. In the depths of the night she’d wept her heart out, not for Ben, but for her desolate life, her ruined hopes, above all for the laughing young man who’d come and gone so many years ago. There was nothing of him now but aching memories. It could all have been so different. If only— Desperately she shut that idea off, as she’d done so often before. But how had this man known? ‘It’s in your face,’ he said, answering her unspoken question. ‘You tried hard to conceal the truth, but make-up can only do so much.’ ‘It fooled the others.’ ‘But not me,’ he said softly. At any other time she might have thought she heard a warning. Now there was only relief that he seemed to understand so much. ‘Drink up,’ Vincente said suddenly, ‘and I’ll take you out for a meal.’ His lordly assurance that she would follow his lead irritated her. ‘Thank you, but I’d rather stay here.’ ‘No, you wouldn’t. You don’t want to be on your own in this empty place that’s much too big for you.’ ‘Ben insisted on a huge suite,’ she said instinctively. ‘So I’d have expected. He had to show off, didn’t he?’ ‘Yes, but—I won’t discuss him with you. He’s dead. Let that be an end.’ ‘But death is never really the end,’ he pointed out. ‘Not for those left behind. Don’t stay here alone. Come out with me and say all the things you couldn’t say to anyone else. You’ll feel better for it.’ Suddenly she longed to do as he suggested. After today she need never see him again, and in that was a kind of freedom. ‘All right,’ she said. ‘Why not? Yes, I’ll come,’ she repeated, as though trying to convince herself. ‘You’d better change out of that black first.’ She’d been going to do just that, but again his cool way of dictating to her made her rebellious. ‘Don’t give me orders.’ ‘I’m not. I’m only suggesting what you want to do anyway,’ he said, assuming a reasonable air that was almost as amusing as it was annoying. It was an act. Nothing about this man was reasonable. ‘Indeed? And have you any “suggestions” for what I should wear?’ ‘Something outrageous.’ ‘I don’t do “outrageous”.’ ‘You should. A woman with your face and figure can be as outrageous as she likes, and it’s her duty to make use of her gifts. Because I’m sure Ben would have preferred that. I’ll bet money that somewhere in your wardrobe there’s a “flaunt” dress that he wanted people to see you in, with him,’ Vincente said with confidence. ‘But Ben isn’t here. And if I go out with you people will say, “She’s wearing that when she’s just buried him?’’’ ‘So let them call you scandalous. What do you care?’ ‘I ought to care,’ she said, trying to conceal how shockingly tempting was the picture. ‘But you don’t. Perhaps you never did. This is no time to start.’ ‘You’ve got it all worked out.’ ‘I always plan ahead. It’s a great help in covering every angle.’ ‘You should be careful, covering too many angles. It looks suspicious,’ Elise replied. That checked him, she was glad to notice, and made him regard her uncertainly. ‘What do you mean by that?’ he asked. ‘In another age they’d have called you a wizard and burnt you at the stake.’ ‘Whereas now they call me a wizard and buy my shares. No more talking. Time to be outrageous. Hurry. Don’t keep me waiting.’ Elise went into the bedroom, thinking that it was simply indecent that he should have known about her ‘flaunt’ dress. It hung in the far corner of her wardrobe, low-cut, whispering honey-coloured silk that sparkled with every movement. Ben had chosen it. ‘You can wear it to do me proud,’ he’d declared. ‘I’d wear it if I wanted to be taken for a certain kind of woman,’ she’d protested. ‘Nonsense! If you’ve got it, flaunt it.’ He’d actually said that. She’d worn it once and felt self-conscious at the way it hugged her so tightly that it was impossible to wear anything underneath, and emphasised every movement of her hips. It was cut on the slant, clinging lovingly to her, the neckline so low as to be barely decent, the extra length at the back making a slight train. It was impossible to walk normally in such a dress. Only sashaying would do. Elise tried it, watching her own provocative movements before the mirror, and was shocked at herself for enjoying it. But tonight she was a different person. Taking a deep breath, she flung open the door and walked out. The room was empty. CHAPTER TWO LOOKING round in strong indignation, Elise realised that Vincente Farnese had made a fool of her—teasing her expectations, then leaving her stranded. But the next moment there was a knock on the door and she opened it to find him there. ‘I went upstairs to my own room to change for the evening,’ he explained. ‘You’re staying here?’ ‘Certainly. I don’t have a base in London. This seemed the best idea. May I say that you look magnificent? Each man there will envy me.’ ‘Don’t talk like that,’ she said sharply. ‘Why not? Isn’t it what every woman likes to hear?’ ‘I’m not every woman. I’m me. Ben used to say things like that, as though all that mattered was how he seemed to other people. It was horrible, and if you’re the same the whole thing’s off. In fact—’ ‘Forgive me,’ he said, interrupting her quickly. ‘You’re right, of course. I shall say no more about your beauty. My car is waiting.’ Vincente took the velvet wrap that she’d brought out, placing it delicately around her shoulders. The limousine stood by the entrance, the chauffeur holding open the rear door. Elise slid gracefully into place in the back seat and he followed her. It was a short journey to a street in Mayfair, and a door that seemed to fade unobtrusively into the wall. Set into it was a small plaque that said ‘Babylon’. Elise raised her eyebrows at one of the most exclusive nightclubs in London. Only members were admitted and membership was almost impossible to obtain. Ben’s application had been refused, much to his fury. But Vincente Farnese, despite having no base in London, was a member who received an immediate respectful greeting. ‘We’re a little early,’ he said as they descended the long stairway, ‘so we can eat in peace and talk quietly before the music starts.’ He was a skilled host, with a connoisseur’s knowledge of exquisite food and wine. Elise had thought she wasn’t hungry, but when she tried the miniature crab cakes with sauce råmoulade she discovered otherwise. For a few minutes they paid the food the tribute of silence, but she smiled and nodded in recognition of his choice. She was beginning to relax. Somehow it no longer seemed bizarre to be here on such a day, as though these hours existed in a cocoon, away from real life. Tomorrow the problems would be there, but tonight she could float free of them. ‘Why did you tell that woman I had a heart of stone?’ she asked. ‘You know nothing about me.’ ‘We needed to convince her that you were formidable.’ After a moment he added, ‘And every woman can turn her heart to stone when she needs to. I think you’ve sometimes needed to.’ ‘True. She wasn’t the only one.’ ‘Was he ever faithful to you?’ ‘I doubt it. He must have taken up with her pretty soon after our marriage.’ ‘Does that surprise you?’ ‘Nothing I discover about Ben surprises me any more.’ She shrugged. ‘Even the way he died.’ ‘I heard some strange rumours about that.’ ‘You mean the woman he was with when he had the heart attack? She vanished so nobody knows who she was.’ ‘A ship that passed in the night.’ She gave a wry smile. ‘There was a whole flotilla of those.’ ‘That must have been very hard for you.’ ‘I feel sorry for him more than anything, being left alone like that. I may not have been a very good wife, but I’d have stayed with him when he was ill.’ ‘Weren’t you a good wife?’ ‘No,’ she said shortly. ‘I wasn’t.’ ‘Surely you must have loved him at some point?’ ‘I never loved him,’ she said simply, wondering why she was telling so much to this man. ‘That’s very interesting.’ ‘I see. You’re another who thinks I married Ben for what I took to be his vast wealth. Give me patience!’ ‘I don’t—’ ‘Listen, you said yourself, I don’t care what people say about me. You’re right, and “people” includes you. Think what you like.’ Silence. ‘I apologise,’ he said quietly. ‘No, I suppose I should apologise,’ she said wryly. ‘Don’t spoil it. I’m impressed—almost as impressed as I was when you dealt with Mary. I made a note then not to get on your wrong side. Can’t you tell that I’m shaking in my shoes?’ ‘Oh, stop it,’ she said, laughing unwillingly. ‘It’s natural that your nerves should be on edge after what you’ve been through.’ ‘And stop being sympathetic and understanding. It doesn’t suit you.’ ‘How shrewd of you to have spotted that!’ Another silence, until Vincente said in a voice full of relief, ‘Ah, here’s our main course.’ It was roast tenderloin of beef with sauce Båarnaise, served with red wine, which he poured for her. Suddenly he spoke in Italian. ‘Ben told me you’d be valuable to him in Rome. He said you’d been there and spoke Italian pretty well.’ She replied in the same language. ‘I studied fashion in Rome before I married him. My Italian really isn’t that good. I haven’t spoken it for a while.’ ‘It’s not bad,’ he said, reverting to English. ‘You’d soon become fluent again. How long were you there?’ ‘Three months.’ ‘And in that time you must have had many admirers.’ He spoke in a mischievous voice and she laughed in return. ‘I had flirtations. After all, you know—Italian men…’ She shrugged, keeping it light. ‘I know that no true Italian man could look at you without wanting to become your lover,’ he said in the same tone. ‘Maybe it wasn’t just what they wanted. Perhaps my own wishes came into it as well,’ she said with a touch of irony. ‘And you’re telling me that not one young man managed to make himself agreeable to you? Ai-ai-ai! The men of my race are losing their touch. Not a single one?’ ‘I forget,’ she riposted. ‘There was such a crowd.’ He laughed aloud, his eyes gleaming with appreciation, and raised his wineglass in salute. ‘Truly you are a cold-hearted goddess. All that youthful ardour at your feet and not one young man stands out in your mind?’ ‘Not one,’ she lied. ‘How long after returning from Rome did you marry Ben?’ ‘Almost at once.’ ‘Then the mystery is solved. You were in love with him all the time and abandoned your design course to marry him.’ ‘I’ve already told you I didn’t love him.’ ‘Just why did you marry him?’ Vincente demanded abruptly. The humour had gone from his voice. ‘Why, for his money, of course,’ Elise said with a shrug. ‘I thought we settled that earlier.’ ‘Somehow that doesn’t convince me. There must have been another reason.’ Suddenly the air seemed to shiver. ‘Signor Farnese,’ Elise said coolly, ‘please stop interrogating me. None of this is your business, and I will not discuss my private affairs with you.’ ‘I’m sorry,’ he said quickly. ‘I was only making small talk.’ ‘Really? It was almost like being interviewed for a job.’ ‘Then I blame myself. I assess many people for jobs and I’m afraid it creeps into my manner in the rest of life. Forgive me.’ It was said charmingly and she let it go at that. She still sensed that there was something else going on, but it wasn’t worth pursuing. After tonight she would never meet him again. ‘What do you plan to do now?’ he asked. ‘I’m not really sure. Ben’s death was so sudden, and there’s been so much to do that I haven’t had time to think.’ ‘Come back to Rome with me.’ ‘What for? Ben won’t be working for you now.’ ‘But you own an apartment there.’ ‘An agent can sell it for me. I don’t need to be there.’ ‘Can’t you simply treat yourself to a holiday?’ When she hesitated he said urgently, ‘When you were there as a young girl, did you ever visit the Trevi Fountain?’ ‘Of course,’ she murmured. Elise had been to the great fountain in the company of a young man with a bright face and a merry laugh. ‘You must toss a coin in and make a wish,’ he told her. She’d taken out a coin, musing, ‘What shall I wish for?’ ‘There’s only one wish—that you will return to Rome.’ ‘All right.’ She tossed her coin into the water and cried aloud to the sky, ‘Bring me back.’ ‘Come back for ever,’ he urged. ‘For ever and ever!’ she cried ecstatically. ‘Never leave me, carissima.’ ‘Never in life,’ she vowed. ‘Love me always.’ ‘Until my last moment.’ A month later she’d left Rome, had left the young man, had never seen either of them again. ‘And like all visitors you tossed a coin in and wished to return to Rome?’ Vincente said now. ‘It is now the time to make that wish come true. Come with me and see if it’s still the city of your memories.’ She shook her head. ‘Memories are never the same. You can’t go back.’ ‘Are the memories so terrible that you’re afraid to confront them?’ ‘Perhaps they are.’ ‘Maybe the truth will be better than your fears?’ She shook her head. ‘That never happens,’ she said with soft violence. ‘Never!’ ‘So you’ve discovered that, have you?’ he asked sombrely. ‘Doesn’t everyone, sooner or later?’ ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I suppose you’re right.’ The heaviness in his voice made her look up quickly and for a moment she caught an unguarded expression in his eyes. It vanished at once, but it showed her something he was trying to keep hidden. Her interest grew. ‘Why are you here?’ she murmured. ‘I came to a funeral.’ ‘But why? You’re here for a purpose.’ ‘To pay my respects.’ ‘I don’t believe you. I don’t think you “do” sweetness and light. You wouldn’t head that corporation if you did.’ ‘Even in business some of us manage to behave like civilized human beings,’ Vincente observed with a slight edge to his voice. ‘But why?’ she asked, apparently wide-eyed with wonder. ‘There’s no money in it.’ ‘There can be,’ he said incautiously and was startled by the glint of mischief in her eyes. ‘Now there’s an admission!’ she said with wicked delight. ‘No admission at all. We’ve already agreed that I don’t “do” sweetness and light; we should add—unless it suits me.’ ‘One should always add that,’ she agreed solemnly. ‘You think you’ve got me sussed,’ he asked, amused. ‘You and all men. I go by a simple rule. Just think the worst. I’m never wrong.’ ‘You might be wrong about me,’ he suggested. Elise leaned back in her chair and considered him. The lights in the clubs were low, constantly changing from green to blue to red. By chance it was red that bathed him now, giving him the look of a handsome devil. Elise shook her head. ‘No, I’m not wrong. What brought you here? Revenge?’ It was a word she ventured to choose and it made him eye her sharply. ‘What did you say?’ ‘Revenge. Did Ben put one over on you in a deal? Was that why you wanted him in Rome?’ ‘Him?’ Vincente gave a bark of harsh laughter. ‘He never put one over on anyone. The man was a fool. Didn’t you know that?’ ‘I’m surprised you knew it since you hired him. What use could a fool be to you? This gets curiouser and curiouser.’ ‘Not at all.’ He gave a sardonic grin. ‘For “fool” read “donkey”. I can always find a use for a donkey.’ ‘There must be plenty of donkeys in Rome. Why Ben?’ The sound of music gave him an excuse not to answer. The musicians were in place, a young woman glided on to the stage and began to sing in a soft, throaty voice. Suddenly the floor was alive with gently swaying dancers. ‘Haven’t we talked enough?’ he asked. Elise nodded and dismissed the argument, which didn’t really interest her anyway. She took the hand he held out to her, letting him lead her on to the floor. It would have been wiser to stay in her seat, but she was beyond wisdom. She wanted to dance with him because she wanted to be held by him, held against him. That was the plain truth. And tonight she was going to please herself for the first time in years. She braced herself for the feel of his hand in the small of her back, but it was still a shock through the thin material. He drew her close so that she could feel his body, his legs moving powerfully against hers, and there was no protection against that. Had she been crazy to agree to this? Four years ago she’d thrown Ben out of her bed, and even before that her body had slept. She’d thought it was the sleep of the dead, forgetting that the dead could awaken. Now every part of her was becoming alive and the pleasure was almost painful. She resisted it, knowing that this was one man she had to confront on equal terms. But she also sensed that she had the power to catch him off guard, which could be the best way to face him down. The singer was crooning smoochy words of passion and pleasure. ‘Remembering—all the things we’ve done together—wanting you—wanting everything—’ She felt his arm tighten, silently insisting that she look up, and when she did so she found his mouth so dangerously close that for a moment they were exchanging breath. The hot whisper across her lips strained her control so that she almost reached up and kissed him. In the event, he made the first move. Or did he? His lips brushed hers so lightly that she couldn’t be sure what was dream and what was reality. Wanting everything. It was almost indecent to want everything with this stranger, but it was happening, despite her denials. His mouth was on hers, pressing lightly, then more urgently. She closed her eyes, yielding to the pure sensation, wanting more and more of it, shutting out the world. His hand moved slowly—upwards to caress the bare skin of her back, sideways to feel the flare of her hips, lower to enjoy the soft swell of her behind moving in the dance. For too long she’d lived like a nun, knowing there was no place in her life for desire. But now it came dancing out of the darkness, dazzling and overwhelming her with the lure of the strange and almost unknown. Inside, she was aching to be returned to life after the long sleep that had been more like a coma. Why now? she wondered. With him? Because he was made for seduction, her senses replied. His body was designed for sex—long, lean, hard, pared down, subtly powerful. With every touch it whispered what it could do for her, what they could do together. His movements blended with hers so that they seemed to be making love right there on the dance floor. ‘What are you doing?’ she whispered. ‘Surely you mean what are we doing?’ Vincente murmured almost against her lips. ‘There’s no mystery about it.’ ‘But—no—we ought to stop this now.’ ‘Are you sure that’s what you want?’ He spoke softly and his warm breath whispered against her face. ‘Yes…yes, it’s…what I want.’ She was lying and they both knew it. She didn’t want him to stop. She wanted him. Elise didn’t even like Vincente Farnese particularly. What little she knew of his mind stimulated her and they had formed an alliance of convenience, but she’d also sensed a watchfulness in him, a carefully preserved distance that precluded any warmth. There was no tenderness, no meeting of the emotions. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, she felt a desire that was liberated from all feelings—raw, basic, uncomplicated. She ached to be in his arms, in his bed. She wanted to undress before his hungry gaze, making a delicious performance of it. But she also wanted him to remove her clothes slowly—so slowly—heightening her excitement with every leisurely movement. She longed to join her nakedness to his, feeling his fingers explore her gently, then urgently, with passionate desire ever mounting until at last his control was destroyed and he claimed her with fierce abandon. Yes, she thought with sudden understanding, that was what she wanted most: to see this man, so sure of himself and his powers of command, lose all control because of her. That would be satisfying as nothing else would be. Everything was there in her head, tingling along her nerves, the anticipation of what he would do and what she would do. She tried to shut off the thought, fearful lest he sense it. But, of course, he’d already sensed it. That was what made him dangerous. ‘Why deny us what we both want?’ he asked, reading her thoughts again in the way he did with such terrifying ease. ‘I don’t always take what I want,’ she said slowly. ‘That’s a mistake. You haven’t had enough pleasure and satisfaction in your life. You should take it now that you’re free.’ ‘Free,’ she echoed longingly. ‘Will I ever be free?’ ‘What should stop you?’ ‘So much…so much…’ He drew her closer and laid his lips against the tender skin of her neck. ‘Take what you want,’ he whispered. ‘Take it, pay the price, but don’t waste time on regrets.’ ‘Is that how you live?’ ‘Always,’ he said, turning to guide her off the dance floor. ‘Let’s go.’ On the journey they didn’t speak, but sat together in the back of the car, watching the light and darkness flicker over each other’s faces. Conscious of eyes upon them, they walked sedately through the hotel lobby and up to her suite. Only when the door had closed behind them did he toss aside the velvet wrap and take her into his arms, raining kisses all over her neck and shoulders. Elise threw back her head, yielding herself up to the sweet sensation, welcoming it. Each touch of his lips sparked off tremors that flowed down over her skin, between her breasts, creating life where there had been only desolation before. A deep, shuddering breath escaped her and she reached for him. She didn’t know how they got into the bedroom, but she was lying down and he was beside her, casting his jacket aside, then reaching for her dress, pulling it down to uncover her breasts. For a moment his face, suffused with passion, loomed over her. She reached up, meaning to pull him down to her, but her hand seemed to have a will of its own. Instead of drawing him closer, it tensed to fend him off. ‘Wait,’ she whispered. He became still, frowning as though not sure he’d heard her properly. ‘Wait,’ she repeated. ‘What’s happening to me?’ It was the worst possible moment for an attack of common sense, but it had leapt on her without warning, freezing her blood, filling her with dismay at herself. ‘I can’t tell you that,’ Vincente said. ‘Only you know what you really want. If you’ve changed your mind, you have only to tell me to leave.’ He was breathing harshly, but he was in command of himself. ‘I’m not sure—not any more. Please let me go.’ For the briefest moment he was disconcerted, but then his eyes gleamed with respect. ‘Very clever—very subtle.’ ‘No, you’re wrong. I’m not playing tricks. It’s just that—’ She sat up and moved away from him. ‘Good grief! Today was my husband’s funeral.’ ‘Suddenly you remember that?’ ‘I guess I’m more conventional than I thought I was. I’m sorry. I just can’t do this.’ He too got up, retrieving his jacket from the floor. ‘You may be right,’ he observed. ‘It will keep until we meet again.’ ‘I doubt that we’ll ever meet again.’ In the darkness she couldn’t see his face well or read its expression, couldn’t see the bafflement, admiration and sheer blazing hatred that chased each other in swift succession through his eyes. ‘You’re wrong,’ he said softly. ‘This isn’t the end between us. There’ll come a day when you’ll remember what I told you—take what you want. And then you’ll take it because, in that, we’re the same.’ Now her thwarted passion was punishing her, making her tremble with the violence she’d done to herself. But from somewhere she found the strength to give him a challenging look and say, ‘You left something out. I’ll take it when I’m ready, and not before.’ ‘Then there’s nothing more for me to say. I will bid you goodnight.’ Before her astonished eyes, he walked calmly out of the room without a backward glance. Vincente was just closing his suitcase the next morning when his cellphone shrilled. ‘Yes?’ ‘It’s your driver. You said to let you know if I saw her. She’s just got into a taxi. I heard her tell the driver to go to the cemetery.’ ‘I’ll be right there. Have the engine running.’ He was downstairs in a moment. As they found their way through the streets, he asked tensely, ‘Are you sure you heard her correctly?’ ‘She definitely said St Agnes Cemetery, where she buried her husband yesterday. It’s natural enough if she’s grieving for him.’ Vincente didn’t answer this. His eyes were fixed on the road. By good luck he saw Elise as soon as he reached the cemetery. She’d left her taxi and was walking away. A twist in the path gave him a sideways glimpse of her, revealing that she was carrying a bouquet of glowing red roses. Red roses. The symbol of love. It defied belief that she was putting them on her husband’s grave. He followed, taking care to remain among the trees that would hide him, and managed to get close enough to see her drop to one knee before a modest grave, contrasting with the swaggering mausoleums that littered the place. She was facing him and he could see her face well enough to detect its look of unutterable sadness as she spoke to some unseen presence. He’d come to England seeking her, hating her, determined to make her pay for a long ago act of cruelty. He’d so nearly secured her through her husband, but the greedy fool had died and Vincente had to think of a new plan, fast. He’d been so sure of the kind of woman he would find, but she had been different—softer, more vulnerable, more honest. But he quickly reminded himself that this was bound to be an act. She’d had years to practise it by now. By sheer force of will he managed to keep his hatred alive. Her passion was harder to explain away. He was no stranger to feigned desire. Attracted by his wealth, women had always put themselves out to seduce him, and everything in Elise’s past warned him that she was one of that kind. But she’d turned out to be different. He’d felt her trembling in his arms and his deepest instincts had told him that she wasn’t feigning. At almost any moment he could have stripped her naked and taken her with her full-hearted consent. Until the end, when she’d fended him off with real intent, filling him with astonishment. For a moment he’d been on the verge of losing control, but he’d forced himself to calm down and leave her. He’d spent the rest of the night racked with unsatisfied desire and anger. But there had also been the dawning of respect, and that disconcerted him more than anything. Vincente stayed hidden as she rose to go, and only came out from among the trees when she was out of sight. Then he crossed quickly to where she had been and studied the graves. He spotted the red roses at once and dropped down on one knee to read the inscription. ‘George Farnaby,’ he read. He had died two months ago, in December, aged sixty-four. Frowning, Vincente reached into his pocket and drew out a small notebook. Flipping through the pages, he came to the entry he was looking for. One final note. Her father died just before Christmas. Ben Carlton’s extensive entertaining was unaffected. A guest at one of his parties says she went through the motions of being a good hostess, but looked terrible. Vincente looked at the roses that lay, fresh and blooming, against the hard stone. At last he went away. Elise had slept badly and awoken early. In the shower she’d turned the water down cold, trying to refresh herself enough to view her life clearly, but the world was still a confused place. After a light breakfast she slipped out and took a taxi to the cemetery, but not to go to Ben’s grave. He was already in the past, but the man who’d died two months earlier still seemed with her. As she laid her flowers on the grave she looked sadly at the headstone. ‘Dad,’ she whispered, ‘why did you have to die now? I put up with Ben for eight years, to stop you going to gaol. “Just a little fiddle”, you said. Only Ben got his hands on the evidence and he made it look not so little. ‘I should have left him when you died, but I was stunned. I needed time to make plans, and then everything caught up with me. Now he’s dead, I’m free, and you’d have been free too. But it’s too late. Oh, Dad, I miss you so much.’ She stayed a few minutes before walking away and getting a taxi back to the hotel. A plan was forming in her mind. First she would leave the extravagant suite Ben had insisted on hiring and move into a smaller, cheaper room for a week, while she finished tying up loose ends. Then she would find a less expensive place to live while she waited for the Rome apartment to be sold. But first she must talk to Vincente Farnese and make it clear that what had happened between them the night before had been an aberration. After that, she would refuse to see him again, no matter how long he remained in England. It would be hard to make him understand that because he knew now that he could bring her under his spell, at least for a while. But she was resolved to be firm against all the persuasions he could muster. Upstairs in her suite, she chose with care the words she would say to him, then stretched out her hand to the phone. But, before she could make the call, there was a knock at the door. Outside stood one of the hotel bellboys, holding out an envelope. ‘This was left for you, Mrs Carlton.’ Tearing it open, she found a page scrawled in a confident, masculine hand. I fear urgent business calls me back to Rome with no time to say goodbye to you. Forgive me this discourtesy. I wish you well for the future. Vincente Farnese There was silence, broken only by the sound of a piece of paper being torn to shreds. CHAPTER THREE FINDING a small hotel was easy enough and suited her mood. Elise was content to slip out of sight, unnoticed by any of the people she’d associated with during her marriage. They were acquaintances, not friends. She found a job in a shop. By day she sold flowers, in the evening she walked without worrying much where she was going. It was good to be alone. She’d been so long without peace. At the same time she was in limbo, unable to move in any direction until the Rome apartment was sold. But that should have happened before now. ‘The Via Vittorio Veneto is the heart of luxury in Rome,’ the agent had told her. ‘Anything there gets snapped up.’ But he’d been wrong. Three months had passed and for some reason there were still no takers. ‘I’ve had plenty of people to see it,’ he’d said, puzzled. ‘They say they like it, then back off. One man definitely wanted it. I tried to call to tell you but I couldn’t reach you and, by the time I could, he’d withdrawn his offer.’ ‘I just don’t understand this.’ ‘Perhaps you should come over here and move in for a while. If the place looked warm and lived in, people might like it more.’ ‘I’ll think about it,’ she said. ‘But I’m sure it’ll sell soon.’ But it hadn’t, and the day she must return to Rome was growing closer. Elise flinched from the thought. She didn’t want to see that beautiful city again, with its memories of Angelo that would be everywhere—haunting her, torturing her with what might have been. She’d told Vincente that she’d been there as a fashion student but she’d left out everything that mattered, especially the wild beauty of her love for Angelo Caroni. She could have studied in England but she’d fled abroad to get away from the overbearing Ben Carlton and for a short glorious time she thought she’d escaped him. Angelo had been as young and passionate as herself. They’d been like two kids, revelling in their first experience of love, giving each other silly nicknames. She was Peri and he was Derry. He’d lived in two rooms in Trastevere, the colourful, least expensive part of town. She’d moved in with him so that they could be together, away from the world. Then Benjamin had arrived at her college, with the evidence that could have sent her beloved father to gaol. In a frantic phone call to her father she’d begged him to deny it, but he’d tearfully admitted that it was true. At the sound of his weeping her own tears had dried. One of them had to be strong. When she’d told Angelo that it was over there was a violent quarrel, for he was hot-blooded. He’d stormed out and for two days she hadn’t seen him. Then a hand on the door had made her heart leap. But it had been Ben, who’d tracked her down in Trastevere, had come to claim her, tired of waiting. Even then, she realised, he hadn’t guessed how much he disgusted her. He’d acted like the hero of a bad movie, dragging her to the window and covering her with kisses for the world to see. But the one who’d seen was Angelo, returning to plead with her, watching in horror as he’d looked up at the window from the garden below. Ben had been exultant, yelling down at him, ‘She’s made her choice. Look!’ As long as she lived she would remember the scream Angelo had uttered before running away into the darkness. That was the last time she had ever seen him, as Ben had hustled her away and back to England that same night. She knew that to the world it would look as if she was abandoning a charming young lover for an older man who could give her a wealthier lifestyle. She cared nothing for the world’s opinion, but Angelo’s condemnation broke her heart. Her marriage had followed quickly. In the devastation of her honeymoon she had written a long impassioned letter to Angelo, telling him that she would always love him, giving him the number of her new cellphone, praying for him to call when she was alone. He never did. After two weeks she’d called his cellphone. But it wasn’t Angelo who had answered. From the other end of the line came the tearful, desperate voice of a woman, screeching, ‘Angelo e morte—morte…’ Then she’d shut off the phone. Angelo was dead. Frantically Elise had tried to call back, to find out how and when he’d died, but she’d got the engaged signal, again and again. With Ben’s jealous eyes on her, there had been no chance to discover more. Angelo had been dead for years now and still she did not know how it had happened, or why. But her fears were terrible and after Ben’s death they had been partly confirmed. Going through his possessions, she’d been horrified to discover the letter she had written long ago. Somehow he had contrived to steal it. Angelo had died without ever reading her passionately contrite words. When she’d realised that her heart had broken all over again. Feelings that had slept for years had awoken to vivid, painful life. She had loved him as only the very young know how to love, and she knew it had been the same with him. Gone for ever. For him there had been death, for her the inner death of a frozen heart. Now Elise seemed to have no energy to do anything but wait while her life was on hold. Going to Rome might have seemed sensible, but she couldn’t make herself do it. The apartment would sell, her last tie with that brilliant, painful city would be cut, and both Angelo Caroni and Vincente Farnese would be out of her life. Not that Vincente had ever been in her life. She had made a brief foray on to the Internet to learn something about his background. Farnese Internationale was a conglomerate of many firms, with branches in several countries, but all sheltering under one umbrella in the Viale Dei Parioli in Rome. At the centre of this web of power sat Vincente Farnese, who owned the largest single block of shares and had controlling power over so many others that he was almost impossible to challenge. He was the grandson of a man who had started from nothing and built a financial empire from pure genius. There were pictures of the Palazzo Marini—dilapidated, as it had been when he’d bought it, and then later, when he’d spent another fortune restoring it to glory. Its magnificence was breathtaking and she guessed he’d enjoyed showing the world how far he’d come. But it seemed to Elise that Vincente had paid the price, inheriting the empire while still in his twenties. Since then he’d devoted every moment to its preservation and increase, never finding the time to take a wife, although his name had been linked with many society beauties. Another click showed her a collection of glamorous women, sometimes alone, sometimes on his arm. She considered them, thinking that they were more interested in him than he in them. Their eyes caressed him, gloated over him. His expression was often wry, if he was looking at them at all. Suddenly she made a sound of exasperation at herself, clicked away from the site. Why was she bothering to study him? She closed down the computer. After a minute she returned to it and disconnected the electricity. She couldn’t have said why she did that, but it made her feel better. Then her job, once so pleasant, grew burdensome. Jane, the owner, became engaged to a young man called Ivor, an idler who planned to live off his wife. After his first meeting with Elise, he took to dropping in to the shop when he knew he would find her alone. Soon she was slapping his hands out of the way every few minutes. ‘I can’t help it,’ he excused himself, with an attempt at charm. ‘You’re really stunning, you know that?’ ‘And I’m not available.’ ‘Don’t give me that.’ He smirked knowingly. ‘Some women are available, even when they’re “not available”, if you know what I mean.’ She knew exactly what he meant. Ben had said much the same. ‘Sexy as hell but still a lady,’ he’d drooled. ‘That’s what gets them going.’ Elise had put up with it from him. She was damned if she was going to put up with it again. ‘Out!’ she said to him when he finally went too far. ‘You don’t mean that.’ ‘I mean exactly that.’ ‘You know your eyes sparkle when you’re angry. Come here! Ow!’ Ivor jumped back, rubbing his face where her palm had caught it. He flinched as her arm shot out again, but this time she gripped his ear between finger and thumb, propelling him ruthlessly out of the shop and depositing him on the pavement. ‘Don’t come back,’ she raged. ‘Now, look—’ ‘Beat it,’ said Vincente Farnese, hauling him to his feet. Ivor took one look at him and fled. Elise stared at the man who seemed to have appeared out of nowhere. ‘Good afternoon,’ Vincente said. It was unforgivable of him to take her unawares, so that the rush of pleasure caught her off guard before she could brace herself. She even found herself smiling, which made her really cross with him. ‘Every time I see you,’ he observed, ‘you seem to be disposing of some enemy with an efficiency that makes me nervous. Last time it was that woman; this time it was—?’ ‘My boss’s fiancå.’ ‘It’s nearly six o’clock,’ he added. ‘Will you soon be finished for the day?’ ‘Yes, I’m just closing the shop.’ ‘Then let’s go for a coffee.’ She fetched her coat, locked up and led him down the street, which was inexpensive and functional, rather than elegant. They found a cheap coffee house. ‘Not your normal style, I’m afraid,’ she said. ‘Is this a chance meeting?’ ‘I never leave anything to chance,’ he said simply. ‘I got your address from the hotel, who had it for sending on your mail. I went to your home first.’ ‘Really!’ she said wryly, trying to picture him looking at the shabby little hotel. ‘What did you think of it?’ ‘I can’t imagine what you’re doing there.’ ‘It’s all I can afford. I keep getting bills that Ben should have settled, and I have to work to pay them.’ ‘You need to escape.’ ‘So I will when I’ve sold the apartment.’ ‘How is that going?’ She eyed him cynically, her lips twitching. ‘This is the man who just told me he never leaves anything to chance. It would be easy for you to find out that it’s still on the market.’ ‘You’re right. I really meant—why is it still for sale?’ She sighed. ‘You tell me. Everyone says it’s in a desirable location, but either people don’t offer, or they do but it falls through.’ ‘Well, you know my advice. Come and sell it yourself. Make it look like a home.’ ‘That’s what the agent said.’ ‘And he knows his business. You should heed him.’ ‘Maybe I should,’ she said with a brief laugh. ‘I’m probably out of a job.’ He grinned. ‘Good. We leave tomorrow.’ ‘Not so fast—’ ‘What’s to keep you here?’ Vincente’s words brought the truth home to her starkly. There was nothing for her here any longer. ‘All right,’ she said softly. ‘I’ll come.’ ‘Excellent. Where shall we dine tonight?’ ‘I’m staying at home. I have loose ends to tie up. I’ll be waiting for you tomorrow morning.’ He gave her a curious look. ‘Will you? Or will I arrive to find that you’ve slipped away like a phantom?’ But it was he who’d slipped away like a phantom last time; she nearly said so, but checked herself. That would be admitting that she minded, conceding a point, which her instincts warned her not to do. He was handsome, charming and more dangerous than ever. ‘If I say I’ll be there, I’ll be there.’ She spoke in a cool tone that set him at a distance. She felt safer that way, especially now that she knew she was doing what he had always meant her to do. Just as everyone did. He walked back to the hotel with her, where they were met by Elise’s boss, who’d been sitting there in a fury. ‘Ivor told me how you’ve been throwing yourself at him,’ she seethed. ‘What have you got to say for yourself?’ ‘Well, “goodbye” is a nice word,’ Elise said. ‘Especially if you say it to Ivor. Here’s the key of the shop. But give him the boot, Jane. You can do better than Ivor. In fact, anybody can do better than Ivor.’ Jane scowled and walked out. ‘Splendid!’ Vincente said. ‘That’s the last of your old life.’ ‘Until I come back and start a new one,’ she reminded him. ‘Goodnight, I’ll see you tomorrow. What about the flights?’ ‘I’ll take care of them.’ ‘Well, what time is take-off?’ ‘Just be ready.’ Vincente was there the next morning at nine o’clock, to find the desk manned by a bored-looking lad. ‘Please inform Mrs Carlton that I’m here,’ Vincente said. The lad lifted the phone, called the room and said, ‘Hello, Vi. Is Mrs Carlton there….? It’s a bit early for her to have left, isn’t it? Oh, checked out last night. OK.’ ‘Where is she?’ Vincente demanded sharply as the boy replaced the receiver. ‘Gone. That was the cleaner, getting the place ready for the next person.’ Vincente’s face was dark. ‘But where has she gone?’ ‘Dunno. I’ve only just come on duty. She must have been in a rush to get away though, to have left so early.’ With a sense of shock, Vincente realised that the worst had happened. He’d made the foolish mistake of trusting her and she’d given him the slip. As he turned towards the door his face was very ugly. ‘Ah, here you are!’ Lost in his furious thoughts, he almost didn’t hear the words or see the young woman who had just come in from the street. Then the black haze cleared and he grasped her wrist. ‘Where the devil have you been?’ he snapped. ‘I beg your pardon?’ Her outrage startled him and he let his hand fall. ‘Don’t ever speak to me like that again,’ she said softly. ‘I’m not accountable to you for my movements.’ ‘They said you’d checked out.’ ‘I did. I paid my bill last night to speed things up this morning. Today I cleared out of the room and put my bags in the downstairs cloakroom. I just slipped out for half an hour to say goodbye to someone.’ Too late it dawned on him that she was talking about her father. He wanted to ask her about him, but controlled himself. Everything must wait until he’d got her to Italy. Then, and only then, could he be sure of arranging matters to suit himself. And she wouldn’t be able to stop him. On that he was determined. He had waited too long for this to weaken now. ‘I thought you’d gone,’ he said harshly. ‘I told you I’d be here, and I’m here. Why are you acting as though it was the end of the world?’ He forced a smile. ‘If it seems that way I apologise. I have a strict sense of time.’ ‘Then let’s stop wasting it and go,’ she said lightly. Vincente’s chauffeur fetched her bags from the cloakroom and put them in the boot of the waiting car. ‘Only two bags?’ Vincente queried as they headed for the airport. ‘I thought you’d have more.’ ‘You mean what about my wardrobes full of fancy clothes? I sold them for whatever I could get.’ ‘Money has really been as tight as that?’ ‘Yes, but that’s not the only reason. I didn’t want memories of my marriage. It’s as though I’m a different person, and I like it.’ ‘You like living in that place?’ ‘It’s peaceful,’ she said unexpectedly. ‘But doesn’t poverty come a little hard on you?’ ‘I can pay for my air ticket,’ she said defensively. ‘There’ll be no need for that. I have my own plane.’ Of course! She should have thought of that. The twin turbojet aircraft was waiting for them, engines running. Inside, it was more like a luxury hotel than a plane. The seats had safety belts, but in all else they were plush armchairs, upholstered in pale grey velvet. After take-off, a steward appeared from the well-appointed kitchen, bearing champagne, and contriving to give her a curious look without being too obvious. Amused, Elise wondered how many women had been invited on to Vincente’s plane, and how she compared to the others. They clinked glasses. ‘To your new life,’ he said. ‘And your new freedom.’ ‘Why do you say it like that?’ she wanted to know. ‘Like what?’ ‘Freedom—you said it strangely, as though it had another meaning.’ ‘But of course it does. Freedom means something different to everyone. Only you know what it means to yourself, but I think you’ll find that Rome is full of many things that you’d never thought of.’ Still she thought she could catch the echo of another meaning, but when she looked at his face his smile was like a mask. At the airport in Rome a limousine was waiting to take them into the city. As they reached the outskirts, Elise began to watch for the places she’d known so long ago. It was easy because the car passed through Trastevere, the least expensive, most colourful part of the city. Here, she and Angelo had lived together in joy. Here, he’d seen her in Ben’s arms, and had died. ‘What is it?’ Vincente asked, looking at her with concern. ‘Nothing,’ she said quickly. ‘You closed your eyes, as if something had hurt you.’ ‘Just a headache. I didn’t sleep last night.’ That was true. ‘Not much longer until you can take possession of your new home and rest.’ Soon they were in the beautiful Via Vittorio Veneto, a wide, tree-lined avenue where the luxury apartments could sell for millions. Elise had already gulped over the price Ben had paid, but when she saw it she had to admit that the reality was worth every euro. The rooms were large, with high ceilings and tall windows. There were three bedrooms, including a master bedroom with an eight foot wide bed and its own bathroom in addition to the main bathroom. The floors were marble, the furniture largely antique, with much inlaid wood in designs of flowers and animals. The windows were hung with velvet and satin curtains. Everywhere she looked she saw lavishness and costly beauty. She noticed too that the curtains, carpets and marble floors were fresh and brilliant, as though recently cleaned. Nor was there a speck of dust in the place. ‘The agent has maintained it beautifully,’ she observed. ‘I must admit that was my doing,’ Vincente said. ‘I sent in an army of cleaners.’ ‘Would it be rude of me to ask how you got the keys to my property?’ ‘It would certainly be ungrateful.’ She smiled. ‘Of course the agent just did as you told him. Knowing you as I do, I should have assumed that.’ ‘Do you know me so well?’ he asked lightly. ‘You mean after one brief encounter months ago?’ ‘Sometimes that’s all it takes.’ ‘Don’t tell me you didn’t size me up as well. I’m just not sure why, unless—?’ ‘Unless?’ he asked tensely. ‘I think you size up everyone you meet. There’s always a part of you standing back, calculating.’ ‘I can’t help it. It’s the businessman in me.’ Êîíåö îçíàêîìèòåëüíîãî ôðàãìåíòà. Òåêñò ïðåäîñòàâëåí ÎÎÎ «ËèòÐåñ». Ïðî÷èòàéòå ýòó êíèãó öåëèêîì, êóïèâ ïîëíóþ ëåãàëüíóþ âåðñèþ (https://www.litres.ru/pages/biblio_book/?art=39919514&lfrom=390579938) íà ËèòÐåñ. Áåçîïàñíî îïëàòèòü êíèãó ìîæíî áàíêîâñêîé êàðòîé Visa, MasterCard, Maestro, ñî ñ÷åòà ìîáèëüíîãî òåëåôîíà, ñ ïëàòåæíîãî òåðìèíàëà, â ñàëîíå ÌÒÑ èëè Ñâÿçíîé, ÷åðåç PayPal, WebMoney, ßíäåêñ.Äåíüãè, QIWI Êîøåëåê, áîíóñíûìè êàðòàìè èëè äðóãèì óäîáíûì Âàì ñïîñîáîì.