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Грэхем Линн

Challenging Dante

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TOPSY GOT UP and walked through to the adjoining cloakroom to put the cut roses in water and then she answered the knock on the door that preceded the housekeeper, Carmela’s entrance with a tray of coffee and cakes. The grey-haired older woman reacted to Dante as though he were the prodigal son with a fatted calf to be slaughtered to celebrate his return.

Topsy returned to her seat while Vittore arranged a table beside his wife so that she could pour the coffee. While that was going on, Topsy studied Dante. Those eyes, fringed by long black lashes in that lean dark face were utterly stunning, she conceded grudgingly, unsettled that such a thought should even occur to her for he was not the type of man who should ever appeal to her. He wore his elegant business suit like a second skin and his sleek aura of well-groomed arrogance and command reminded her strongly of her bossy brothers-in-law. Dante Leonetti, she reflected abstractedly, would have all the imagination of a stone and would only think in terms of power and profit. Money was all important to him and undoubtedly the yardstick by which he judged other men. She suspected that had Vittore Ravallo been a rich and powerful man, Dante might well have welcomed him into the family.

How could anyone dislike someone as sweet and inoffensive as Vittore? Even so, although Dante might be offensive he was still, indisputably, a stunningly beautiful man. The shock of that second disturbing acknowledgement almost floored Topsy where she sat, for she had never been the susceptible sort, impressed by outward appearance. After all, her sisters were married to handsome men and she was accustomed to their looks. But no matter how hard she tried to concentrate on something else her attention remained hopelessly locked to Dante, noting the arrow-straight flare of his nose, the level black brows, the spectacular bone structure and the strong stubborn jaw line already darkening with stubble. She shifted uneasily where she sat, shocked by the sensations flooding her treacherous body and appalled to realise that for the first time in her life she was greedily wondering if a man would look as good naked as he did clothed. Her lashes fluttered as she tried to suppress that embarrassingly intimate thought while still guiltily engaged in mentally mapping the impressive breadth of his shoulders, the muscular width of the chest flexing beneath his silk shirt and the neat fit of his expensive trousers pulled taut over his long, powerful thighs.

Dante’s handsome dark head whipped round and he met her wide dark gaze in a head-on collision. Topsy felt her face flame red as fire, mortification claiming her entire body in a scorching blush as she literally tore her scrutiny from him, lowering her head as awkward as a schoolgirl caught out, only to find that her wretched gaze accidentally fell on the very last part of him she should be studying: the prominent masculine bulge at his crotch. It was as if Dante Leonetti put out sexual pheromones that fried her brain cells and all she could think about was touching him, tracing that arrogant blade of a nose, caressing that roughened jaw line, smoothing hands in worshipping exploration of places she had never touched before but longed to discover.

‘Excuse me...’ Dante sprang upright and strode over to the window, turning his back to them and thrusting the latch open to filter in fresh air to the stuffy room. Madre di Dio... He had never known temptation could come in such a small unexpected package, had never dreamt that involuntary arousal could seize him when he was in every way an adult in full control of his libido. What the hell was happening to him? Why was Topsy Marshall having this effect on him? It was not as though he were sex-starved or had even had much interest in that direction of recent. He ground his perfect white teeth together in bemused frustration, striving not to picture the diamond-hard pointed buttons of her nipples indenting her tee shirt, the mere hint of a shadowy vee between her creamy thighs as the hem of her skirt rode up. It was like being shot back screaming to the teen years when his control over his own body had been a bad joke. So exactly what was it about her that got to him? A tiny, shapely brunette, years his junior, not a raving beauty by any means but sexy, impossibly, outrageously sexy.

‘Are you feeling all right, Dante?’ his mother asked curiously.

‘I was too warm,’ Dante murmured flatly. ‘Would you mind if I took a run over to see how the work is progressing on your house? I feel like some fresh air.’

‘Of course I wouldn’t mind and if you don’t mind taking Topsy with you, Vittore and I will be able to have lunch together,’ his mother remarked. ‘Topsy has to see my decorator and check that he’s redone the kitchen the way I wanted it. I don’t know what I would have done without her help. For a while there, I had far too much on my plate.’

Dante skimmed a glance in Topsy’s direction that didn’t linger. ‘We’ll go as soon as we’ve had our coffee.’

Not best pleased by the news that she would be visiting the Casa di Fortuna in Dante’s company rather than Vittore’s, Topsy had stiffened, gripped by the most maddening self-consciousness she had ever experienced. She was afraid to look near the wretched man in case he cast a spell over her again. She wasn’t stupid: she knew she was attracted to him and that it was a stronger attraction than she had ever felt before. So superficial of her too, she scolded herself wryly, being physically drawn to a male who was a virtual stranger and with whom she would not have a thought or feeling in common. It was yet another complexity in her life that she really didn’t need, but hopefully he was only making a fleeting visit to the castle to see his mother. From what she understood, Dante spent little time in his Tuscan home and much preferred the faster, more sophisticated pace of Milan.

She listened quietly while her companions made polite conversation, Sofia mentioning recent visitors and small domestic concerns at the castle while parrying her son’s concerned questions about her mythical bout of influenza. Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practise to deceive! Sir Walter Scott’s words were as relevant to Vittore and Sofia as to Topsy. They all had their secrets from which Dante was being excluded but, watching the frown slowly darkening Dante’s face, she reckoned he was fully aware of the covert undertones.

Why, oh, why had she walked into the lion’s den without thought of what her secret might cost others? Self-loathing momentarily gripped Topsy. Her twin sisters had got by fine being ignored by their father after their parents divorced and their father remarried. Topsy’s father had not married her mother but she was still desperate to know who he was.

Perhaps that very desperation was driven by the fact that for most of her life she had mistakenly believed that she did know who had fathered her: a handsome South American polo player called Paolo Valdera, who had enjoyed a brief affair with her mother. After all, over the years she had met Paolo several times when he visited London and there had been the occasional phone call around Christmas or her birthday. Sadly, although Paolo had apparently accepted without question that he was Topsy’s father, he had been very little more interested in his supposed daughter than her mother had been.

Then when she was eighteen Paolo had discovered that he was sterile and had finally asked for DNA testing, the results of which had proved that he could not possibly be Topsy’s dad. Topsy had had to go to great lengths to get another name out of her mother and the only name she had been given was Vittore’s.

Getting close to Vittore and working out exactly what kind of a man he was had been Topsy’s main motivation in applying for the job working for Sofia. She had been driven by entirely selfish promptings, never pausing to consider that such a bombshell as the existence of an adult illegitimate daughter could damage his very new and happy marriage. For that reason, while she had learned to like Vittore Ravallo, she had done nothing to check out her mother’s story and could not even begin to imagine asking Vittore to subject himself to DNA tests to satisfy her craving to know who she was. Right now, Vittore had far more pressing concerns on his mind and Topsy was very unwilling to do or say anything that might risk upsetting Dante’s mother.

Dante rose to his full height, fluid as quicksilver for all his size. ‘We’ll leave now.’

‘Don’t pass the work that’s been done in the kitchen unless it’s perfect,’ Sofia warned her firmly.

‘Why don’t you accompany us?’ Dante asked lightly.

His mother tensed. ‘I hate the smell of paint.’

Sofia also got horribly car sick, Topsy conceded, happy to stand in for the older woman if it helped her to rest and regain her strength. Struggling to keep up with Dante’s long impatient stride, she accompanied him downstairs and out to the rear of the castle where one of the collection of high-powered cars he owned had already been extracted for his benefit from the garage block. It was a Pagani Zonda. Saffy’s husband, Zahir, owned one of these high-powered sports cars although as the king of the Arabian Gulf state of Maraban he never seemed to get the opportunity to drive himself anywhere. Boys and their toys, she thought wryly.

‘Nice wheels,’ she said, reckoning it was another nail in the coffin of her attraction to him, another reminder that they would be a poor match in every way. The gilded extras of life did not impress her although she would have been the first to admit that since Kat had assumed charge of her as a child she had never known what it was to want for anything she needed. In so many ways she had been spoiled as the baby of the family and perhaps that was why she had had to run away to grow up.

‘I gather Vittore drives you around quite a lot,’ Dante commented as she slid in beside him.

‘I need lifts anywhere I can’t walk or ride a bike,’ Topsy admitted. ‘I can’t drive.’

Dante frowned, his surprise unconcealed. ‘That must make doing the job a challenge.’

‘Yes,’ Topsy conceded, since it was the truth, watching a lean brown hand glide smoothly round the steering wheel, angling the powerful car through the castle gates and down through the village beyond the ancient estate walls. ‘But neither your mother nor I thought of the need for me to drive during our interview.’

‘You could learn. I’ll fix the paperwork,’ Dante informed her.

‘I’ve failed the driving test a few times at home...I don’t really want to try again,’ Topsy said truthfully.

‘How many times?’ Dante asked.

Topsy stiffened. ‘Six times. That was enough for me. I’ve got poor co-ordination and lousy spatial awareness. Everyone’s got a weakness—that’s mine and I can live with it.’

‘Any idiot can drive,’ Dante retorted, unimpressed, seeing how she could be detached from Vittore in one way at least. ‘I’ll teach you while I’m here.’

Topsy winced at the prospect. ‘Thanks but no, thanks.’

‘It wasn’t a suggestion, it was an order,’ Dante told her lethally. ‘To fully perform your duties, you should be able to drive.’

Topsy stared straight out of the windscreen at the magnificent scenery as the car descended the hill into the rolling valley studded with shapely cypresses and the serrated green lines of the vineyards, her expressive mouth silently forming a rude word of disagreement. ‘I work for your mother, not for you.

I don’t have to do what you tell me to do.’

His long fingers flexed expressively round the steering wheel and she stole a reluctant glance at him, noting the taut set of his bold bronzed profile while she doubted that he met in-your-face rebellion very often from subordinates. Momentarily, his shimmering green gaze flared in her direction and a crackling energy filled the atmosphere with tension. Topsy breathed in deep and slow, smoothed her skirt down over her slim thighs and tactfully said nothing.

‘So, tell me what qualified you for the job,’ Dante invited without skipping a beat.

Topsy was more intimidated by his self-discipline than she would have been had he snapped angrily back at her. ‘I have a lot of experience with charity committee work, volunteers and functions,’ she confided, recalling the long educational summer stays in Maraban while her sister Saffy concentrated her time on benevolent good works as befitted the wife of a ruler, not to mention her sister Kat’s ventures in the same line. ‘I also speak the language and I’m very versatile and not too proud to do whatever needs to be done. Basically I’m your mother’s gopher. I deal with all the decorating hassles at the new house as well. Your mother has a very clear picture of how she wants every room to look. I’m also handling the arrangements for the fancy-dress ball.’

His jaw line set granite hard. ‘Try to understand my surprise at your employment. My mother has never required assistance before.’

‘But then she had made her charities and your very extensive gardens into a full-time job,’ Topsy pointed out a shade drily. ‘And now the contessa wants the time to relax and be with her husband. She’s also hired another full-time gardener to help out on the estate.’

If possible, Dante’s stubborn chin and firm mouth took on an even more hostile set. ‘I know my mother.’

No, you don’t, Topsy thought silently. He was out of the inner circle now and evidently not yet to be trusted with the news that had torn Sofia’s neat and tidy life apart. Really, that aspect was none of her business either but she had no intention of betraying the contessa’s trust. Sofia had been very kind to Topsy and she was determined to be loyal and supportive in return.

The Casa di Fortuna sat on top of a hill, a square, solid stone structure surrounded by garden. It had once been the estate manager’s home but the current manager had built his own house and Sofia had decided to make the old house her new marital home. A variety of pickup trucks and vans sat in the driveway announcing the presence of builders and tradesmen.

Dante vaulted out of the car, Topsy falling in step behind him, gazing up at the sheer height and width of him, shaken afresh by the total size of him and the utter impossibility of ignoring him. They had barely walked into the hall when Gaetano Massaro, whose building company was in charge of renovating the house, descended the stairs to greet them. ‘Topsy...’ He inclined his curly dark head and grinned in his usual friendly fashion before addressing Dante and offering to show him round.

Of course the two men knew each other, not least because Gaetano was also involved in the fund-raising for the local child’s leukaemia treatment. In the airy kitchen Topsy dug her phone from her bag so that she could take photos to show Sofia. The tiles had been redone in a different shade and design at Sofia’s request. Her employer was very particular about details and Topsy fully understood why. Not only married but also a mother at the tender age of seventeen, Sofia had moved into her husband’s ancestral castle and had not been allowed to change anything to suit her own taste. By all accounts, Dante’s father had been something of a domestic tyrant and a control freak. The Casa di Fortuna, therefore, was very much the contessa’s first real home.

The decorator joined Topsy and took her into the cloakroom to inspect the illuminated mirror that had been installed. Playing safe, Topsy took a photo of it as well and then lingered in the doorway, watching Dante and Gaetano chat. Beside Dante, Gaetano looked small, slight and boyish and yet it was only three days since she had decided that Gaetano was attractive enough to date and she had agreed to have dinner with him in his family’s restaurant that very evening. Gaetano was good company, she reminded herself impatiently, which was all she required in a man. He didn’t need to send her temperature rocketing as well.

Dante crossed the hall. ‘Show me the downstairs reception area,’ he instructed, dismissing Gaetano with an almost invisible nod of his handsome dark head.

Behind Dante’s back, the builder rolled his eyes in mock amusement at the manner in which Dante had virtually ignored his offer to be his guide and Topsy coloured, narrow shoulders lifting back as if she was bracing herself while she led the way into the very large open-plan area that several rooms had been sacrificed to create. Floor-to-ceiling glass doors led out onto a terrace at the back of the house.

‘It’s much more contemporary than I was expecting,’ Dante admitted lazily, his deep accented voice fingering a trail of awareness down her taut spine. ‘For some reason I thought the two of them would recreate the Eighties here.’

‘I think your mother’s tired of living with the past and looking to the future for inspiration.’ Topsy pressed a wall button and the glass doors whirred smoothly back. ‘All this took an enormous amount of planning.’

‘How much input did Vittore have?’ Dante asked.

‘Very little...’ Strolling outside into the shade cast by the roof above, Topsy laughed softly. ‘He doesn’t have much interest in house interiors but I think he was also aware from the outset that this was very much your mother’s dream and he didn’t want to spoil it for her by imposing his views.’

‘You appear to have a high opinion of Vittore,’ he commented with a derogatory edge to his tone that suggested he didn’t share her outlook.

‘I speak as I find. I’ve yet to see or hear him do anything to detract from that opinion,’ Topsy responded easily, trying not to resent his judgemental attitude towards the older man, telling herself that was none of her business and refusing to let Dante make her feel uncomfortable.

And yet he managed that feat without even trying, she acknowledged in dismay as she looked up at him, striving to be fearless and frank rather than nervous and wary of her every word. His stunning green eyes glittered with high-voltage energy in the sunlight in which he stood, for he was much more at home in the heat of midday than she was. He looked hostile and intimidating and she was in the act of stepping back from him when his hands came out and closed round her slender forearms, halting her into a startled retreat.

The instant he made physical contact, another kind of energy hummed into being inside Topsy, taking her body out of control and into a dangerous state of extreme awareness. For a split second she couldn’t breathe. Her breasts swelled beneath her clothing, the tender tips straining into tight buds while a sensation of heat pulsed almost unbearably at her feminine core. ‘What are you doing?’ she said breathlessly, struggling to pull air into her depleted lungs as his hands trailed down her arms to close round her wrists instead.

‘What I wanted to do the minute I first saw you,’ he husked, pressing her back into the cooling shade of the wall. ‘Discover how you taste.’

‘No, thanks,’ Topsy told him thinly, fighting her weakness with all her might even though she was insanely tempted to move forward and sink into the hard muscular heat of him and find out what that mutual tasting would feel like.

A derisive smile that unnerved her slashed his hard, handsome mouth. ‘The way you look at me, do you seriously expect me to believe that?’

Shock that he could study her in such a way and yet show his scorn filled her and momentarily she hesitated, struggling to compute that strange combination of desire and contempt. That tiny instant of hesitation, however, was fatal. His mouth swooped down on hers with a hard, hungry urgency that shot every sensible thought right out of her head as though it had never existed. She felt as she had never felt before, burning waves of reaction slivering through her entire body, whipped up to a storm with every carnal plunge of his tongue. Heat burst low in her pelvis, tightening her nipples to the point of pain and shooting raw stabs of need to the very heart of her. Inflamed by her own response, she strained back against him, just as he bent even more with a growl of frustration to curve his hands below her hips to lift her and pin her in place between his body and the wall behind her. She felt entrapped, excited, wild for more...

His hands roved across her back, came up to curve to the sides of her face while her fingers delved happily into his luxuriant black hair, delighting in the springy depths. The scent of him flared her nostrils, clean, hot male laced with an elusive spicy scent of soap or cologne. She breathed him in headily like an addict.

‘You’re way too small to do this standing up,’ Dante complained against her swollen, reddened mouth.

That remark cut through the haze of desire that had engulfed her, innate apprehension gripping her. Do what? Suddenly she was aware again, conscious that her legs were pinned round him and that her skirt had to be somewhere up round her waist. Shock reverberated through her like a hard wakening slap on the face. ‘Put me down!’ she exclaimed in horror. ‘We shouldn’t be doing this!’

Dante lowered her slowly, reluctantly, back down to the tiles while with frantic hands she yanked down her skirt to cover her exposed thighs. She was appalled by her own loss of control and the false message of availability she had no doubt given him by responding to him in such a way. She didn’t play around and she didn’t tease men either, and as her stomach brushed against his hard, taut length on the passage back to standing on her own feet again she knew he was in no mood to be teased. He was aroused, fully aroused, and a wave of discomfited pink engulfed her heart-shaped face. Her brain told her it had only been a kiss, but no kiss, no man’s touch had ever had that explosive an effect on Topsy before, and even as she stole a glance up at him she knew she wanted to drag him back into her arms and have him do it again. Hands unsteady, she reached for the shoulder bag that had fallen on the patio and anchored it round her shoulder again.

‘Is that a “no” in Topsy land or simply a prudent “not here, not now”?’ Dante enquired with terrifyingly smooth assurance.

‘It’s a no, never. I’m sorry. That shouldn’t have happened. I work for your mother. I don’t think she would like me—’

‘I assure you that it is many, many years since my mother worried about who I take to my bed,’ Dante sliced in very drily.

Flustered and intensely ill at ease, Topsy walked away from him on stiff legs to the edge of the patio, perspiration beading her upper lip as the hot sun beat down on her. Drowning in mortification and consternation at the passion that had exploded between them, Topsy breathed in jerkily. ‘But in the circumstances it’s not a good idea, let’s face it,’ she reasoned steadily. ‘I’ve no intention of going to bed with you anyway so there’s no point starting something that won’t go to the finish that you expect.’

‘I’ll take you into Florence this evening...we’ll dine out,’ Dante declared as though she hadn’t spoken.

Topsy froze, registering that she had made a mistake that would bring punishment home to her fast. ‘I’ve already got a date tonight.’

Ashamed as she was of her behaviour, Topsy could not resist looking at him again and the astonishment that briefly flashed across his handsome features in reaction to that admission only increased her embarrassment.

‘I don’t share—cancel him,’ Dante advised, taken aback by her statement while wondering if she was reluctant to dally with him because she already had Vittore in her sights. Certainly she could not hope to keep two men in the same household interested.

‘No, I won’t do that, not when this was a mistake...but for your information, it’s a first date. I haven’t cheated on anyone,’ she confided on a driven note of pride. ‘I wouldn’t do that.’

Dante shrugged a broad shoulder as if such restraints had no meaning for him and she was even less impressed by that attitude. ‘We’re both single. I want you and you want me—’

‘For a moment of madness,’ Topsy quipped. ‘But I’m glad it didn’t go any further.’

‘Liar...’ Dante murmured soft and low.

That fast she wanted to slap him so hard that her palm tingled and she flashed him a flaring look of such seething anger that he looked taken aback. But if Topsy was furious with him, she was equally furious with herself. She had come to Italy with a real purpose and, while she had certainly planned to enjoy the freedom of meeting men without family supervision, a fleeting affair with her employer’s son would be as inappropriate as it was humiliating. Her stubborn chin came up just as Gaetano strolled out to join them, flicking her a curious glance as if he had picked up on the tension in the air.

‘Anything I can help you with?’ he prompted Dante. ‘Do you want to see the upper floor?’

‘Another time,’ Dante deferred with no expression at all. He had known the Massaro family all his life and he was well aware that Gaetano would be out of his depth and drowning with a little schemer like Topsy. Was Gaetano being used as cover for the girl’s interest in Vittore? If his marriage crashed and burned, Vittore would be a wealthy divorcee well worth pursuing. But if money was Topsy’s goal, and what else could it be, why was she turning down Dante, who was a much more lucrative target? His face set into forbidding lines. Of course Vittore would be easier meat, he reasoned, and some women preferred older men. That suspicion still rankled with a male who had not, in living memory, been turned down by a woman.

Topsy settled back into the Pagani sports car and strove to rigorously ignore the thunderous undertones in the atmosphere. She had said no and he wasn’t pleased that she had but she had made the right decision; she knew she had. Getting involved with Dante would be disastrous even though she wasn’t foolish enough to imagine that he was considering anything more than a brief sexually entertaining fling. Although she had no doubt that he would be seriously disappointed by her lack of bedroom expertise. She knew that rich international bankers didn’t seriously date humble employees unless said humble employee was possessed of extraordinary beauty. The only exception to the rule was her sister Emmie, who had ended up marrying her Greek billionaire boss, Bastian Christou.

While Saffy, Zahir’s adored queen, and her twin Emmie could stop traffic with their looks, Topsy had long since resigned herself to being the plain one of the family, having inherited neither the height, the flawless features nor the blonde manes bestowed by their mother’s genes. Kat was a redhead and stunning as well. At an early age, Topsy had grasped that her own most notable talent was her powerful intellect but that being cleverer than most of the people around her was not so much a gift as a curse. It certainly didn’t make you popular, she reflected, thinking of the brutal bullying she had endured at primary school. Being different from the norm could entail paying a high price.

Her mobile phone rang in her bag and she dug it out to answer it.

‘It’s Mikhail. I’m in Milan and you’re not where you’re supposed to be,’ her brother-in-law told her succinctly, making her lose colour and freeze in dismay at her end of the phone, quite unprepared to deal with the bombshell that her cover story had blown up in her face when she least expected it.

‘I had no idea you were coming to Italy,’ she muttered, nervous tension gripping her for Mikhail, Kat’s husband, was not a man she felt she could lie to with impunity.

‘And unfortunately for you your school friend, Gabrielle, decided to confess and admitted that you were actually staying in Tuscany. We’ll meet in Florence tomorrow for lunch and you’ll explain then fully what’s going on,’ he decreed without an ounce of hesitation, making her feel like one of his many minions who leapt to do his bidding and fulfil his every request.

‘I’m afraid that won’t be possible,’ Topsy said stiffly.

‘Make it possible,’ her Russian brother-in-law advised in a grim tone that brooked no argument. ‘I’ll send a limo to pick you up at noon.’

‘That won’t be necessary. I’ll meet you if you tell me where to go.’

‘I decide what’s necessary and don’t feed your sisters any more nonsense or tell my wife anything that might worry her,’ he told her sternly.

Topsy swallowed her growing ire with difficulty, feeling like a dog being yanked by a choke chain, both powerless and bullied. ‘I wouldn’t risk doing that.’

‘Wouldn’t you? It would undoubtedly distress Kat to learn that you felt the need to lie to her,’ Mikhail breathed harshly and cut the connection without another word.

Topsy breathed in deep and slow and thrust her phone back in her bag. Mikhail was furious with her, for naturally he would only see the situation from his wife’s point of view and he was fanatically protective when it came to her sister. Even so, it didn’t matter what he intended to say to her in Florence, she wasn’t quitting Tuscany and returning to London on his say-so.

On that rebellious thought she lifted her chin, her innate obstinacy kicking in. Somehow, some way her family had to come to terms with the reality that she was an adult with a right to freedom and independence and if that meant that she made mistakes, so be it! Her sisters had had the chance to grow up and explore the world without interference. Why shouldn’t she claim the same right?

‘You seem upset...trouble?’ Dante prompted softly.

‘ exactly,’ she responded tightly.

‘Your family?’ Dante queried, shooting the Pagani off the road and into a farm track without even thinking about the sharp curiosity driving him to interrupt their journey.

Not even having noticed that the car had parked, Topsy stiffened even more defensively, reminding herself that she owed no one any explanations that she did not wish to make. ‘, an old flame,’ she fibbed, determined to retain her anonymity and persuade her fabulously wealthy relations to stay on the sidelines for once.

But a sensation like ice was already trickling down her spine because if Mikhail Kusnirovich knew where she was, she was convinced he would also have demanded an investigative report on her current living arrangements. Would he guess about Vittore? Would he realise exactly what his sister-in-law was doing at the Castello Leonetti? Could nothing in her life be considered private? Lunch had been arranged and Mikhail never entered any meeting unprepared. Suddenly ferocious resentment was bubbling up through her tiny body. She had believed she had temporarily escaped her family’s suffocating hold but their reach was longer than she had appreciated. It was typical that she had not been warned that her brother-in-law was coming to Italy and planning to visit her.

‘Are you scared of this man?’ Dante pressed, level black brows drawing together in a frown as he leant closer.

‘Of course I’m not scared!’ Topsy forced a laugh because she was undeniably afraid of the emotional blackmail her family utilised to make her toe the line, the subtle guilt-inducing reminders that she owed her happy childhood and everything she had become to their love, support and loyalty. She, alone of her sisters and owing only to her young age at the time, had escaped her mother’s neglectful care without sustaining any permanent damage and if her siblings were quite unable to accept that she no longer required their guiding hand, was that their fault? Or was it hers? Maybe it was some obvious lack in her that had convinced them she still needed to have her every move policed, she reflected worriedly.

Dante’s shrewd green eyes were pinned to the fluctuating emotions on Topsy’s intensely expressive little face. As someone who didn’t do emotion, he was fascinated, never having seen anyone betray so many changes of emotion and all within the space of seconds. Dark glossy strands of silken hair fanned her cheek, the exact match of the long flickering lashes framing her anxious amber eyes above the flushed rise of her delicate cheekbones. No, she was not a raving beauty but there was a softness about her, a seeming honesty and vulnerability that had the strangest appeal to a male accustomed to more sophisticated and controlled women. He blinked, disconcerted by that uncharacteristic thought. And that fast desire kicked in hard, tensing every lean muscle in his powerful length with an almost exquisite surge of arousal.

‘You may not be scared but you are upset,’ he contradicted, fighting to stay focused on the conversation but his mind in another place entirely as he imagined igniting all that obvious pent-up passion for his own benefit and riding her raw in his bed to sate the painfully strong hunger punching through him.

‘No, I’m was just a stupid phone call...and sometimes I overreact.’ Topsy was mesmerised by the force of his stunning green eyes holding hers and she could hardly breathe for the excitement gripping her while she scanned the handsome features above hers. In terms of the physical, he really was the most absolutely beautiful man. A supersonic quiet had fallen inside the car so that she could hear her own breathing, air sawing in and out of her throat as if she had been running a marathon, her heart racing like an express train behind breasts that were swollen and tender tipped, that same terrifying heat rising between her legs.

Dante lifted an elegant hand and slowly and with great dexterity and deceptive calm wound long fingers into the glossy mane of her hair to hold her in place. He was in a car and in broad daylight at a place where anyone might see and recognise him. He didn’t know what he was doing but would never ever have admitted that a much more primal drive than intelligence had suppressed his innate caution and freed him from inhibition. The seething hunger was clawing at him like an angry beast, the pulse at his swollen groin threatening to control him as he brought her to him and kissed her with scorching heat, his tongue delving deep, his body firing as she loosed a strangled whimper of response than only made him harder.

Dante reached for her and lifted her out of the seat to bring her down over his spread thighs. He had never wanted anything so much as he wanted the hot, tight, wet heat of her body at that moment and the shockingly new strength of that wanting overpowering everything else inflamed him.

‘What are you doing?’ Topsy gasped, having got feverishly lost in that passionate kiss. He touched her and every sensible thought, every shred of self-discipline vanished as though it had never been. She studied that perfectly moulded, wide, sensual mouth, which felt so firm and sexy and unbelievably good on hers, and trembled, needing more, every skin cell evidently programmed to want more.

Slumberous green eyes below black lashes surveyed her. ‘I think you know the answer to that, cara mia.’

His fingers glided up the sensitive inside of her thighs and her heart rate went from fast to racing in seconds. Tell him no, a voice urged in the back of her head, but the craving for him to go further was too strong for her to fight. In conflict with herself, she shivered, breasts with beaded tips pushing against a bra that seemed too tight to contain her, inner muscles she hadn’t known she had clenching tight at the very thought of greater intimacy. She tensed as a fingertip eased beneath the lace edge of her panties and she knew she should move, knew she should be telling him, no, she wasn’t this kind of a woman. But just then, with Dante Leonetti’s hand on her all too responsive flesh, she knew she was exactly that kind of woman and she was quite unable to resist the temptation he offered. She trembled, gazed down into glittering emerald eyes as bright as gemstones and he found the place he sought, circled, teased, brushed, stroked while she moaned and tried not to lose herself in the terrible maddening pleasure of his caresses. But her body was on another plane of existence entirely, quivering and burning and leaping with new sensation.

‘D-Dante...’ she pronounced shakily at her second attempt to find her voice.

‘Sì...’ he purred like a jungle cat, yanking her head down to claim her already reddened mouth with fierce and passionate urgency. ‘Let Gaetano down gently—he’s a nice boy. I want you naked and hungry in my bed and tonight I will satisfy your every fantasy. Now come for me...’

And with a skilled flick of his hand, the quaking intensity became more than she could withstand and this great whoosh of sensational excitement engulfed her straining body, jolting her with wave after wave of almost unbearable pleasure. She heard herself cry out in ecstasy.

Even though his body was rigid with arousal and self-control, Dante was surprisingly satisfied as he rested his tousled dark head back against the head rest. He readjusted her panties, smoothed down her skirt where she knelt on his lap. He had put his mark on her: she was his now and he had no objection to admitting that she was the most exciting woman he had had in his arms in a very long time. He could not believe that she could be engaged in some sleazy relationship with Vittore at the same time as she was responding to him and, Dio mio, that was some response, he savoured sensually.

Shock and embarrassment roared through her in a head-spinning whirl and she scrambled off him in sudden horror, her face red as fire, her eyes momentarily closing in an agony of mortification. What had she done? What had she done? As she moved she saw another car parked a few yards away. ‘Oh, good grief, there’s another car nearby...we’ve been seen!’ she gasped, stricken.

Dante didn’t bat a single magnificent eyelash. ‘My bodyguards, you don’t need to worry about them.’

‘Bodyguards?’ she yelped in even greater dismay, because she knew all about bodyguards, teams of men who operated in all her sisters’ lives as protection and supervision.

‘I go nowhere without them. The bank insists,’ Dante said, unconcerned.

Biting her lip, Topsy did up her seat belt. You slut, she told herself, her body still humming with treacherous pleasure and frank astonishment at what he had made her feel. Even so, his erotic approach had made her feel ridiculously virginal and ignorant, so far out of her depth and foolish she could not even bring herself to look at him again. She would certainly never ever look in the direction of his wretched bodyguards, knowing very well that bodyguards were just as human as everybody else and equally prone to gossip. Had that not been why Mikhail moved her bodyguard Vlad to other duties when he considered that they had become too ‘friendly’. Prior to that, she had heard some very amusing tales from Vlad about his experiences, his Russian reserve crumpling around her. Mikhail had teased her about being a femme fatale for mortifying months afterwards yet nothing had ever happened between her and Vlad. If only she could say the same thing of Dante Leonetti!


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