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Claimed For The Leonelli Legacy

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MORNING DAWNED—but not before Max, who had slept fitfully on his lumpy mattress on a frame that creaked with every slight movement of his body.

He had risen early, craved his usual black coffee and had had to start his day without it. He had immediately contacted his PA to plan for the dog and organise various other bookings.

‘Take her to Rio and kit her out,’ Andrew had urged effusively on the phone the night before. ‘She’s a woman. Never met one that didn’t like clothes.’

Max’s eloquent sensual mouth hardened. He doubted that Andrew would have been quite so chirpy on the subject had he seen for himself how very poorly his grandchild was dressed. Yet her father had visited his daughter and must not have cared. Max marvelled at the hypocrisy of a man who had apparently done much genuine good in the world and yet had utterly neglected his own child. That was at an end though, he reminded himself grimly. Tia’s new chapter was only beginning, and a few months down the road she would in all likelihood cringe at what she remembered of her current lifestyle and it would no longer be mentioned because it would become a source of embarrassment to her.

Max was disconcerted at the faint stab of regret he experienced at the prospect of Tia changing radically and losing that innocent openness. She had not learnt guile or the feminine skill to tease and flirt yet.

And that was what had probably knocked him for six the night before, Max judged with a strong sense of relief at that explanation. How did he relate to a woman so different from any he had ever met before? Or slept with? Max’s experience lay solely in the field of highly sexualised flirtations that led straight to the bedroom in which there was no before and after to be considered and very little adult conversation.

He had tried to tell Andrew that his plan wasn’t going to work because Tia was far too ‘nice’ for him and he didn’t have anything in common with nice girls. Virgins were not his style. He had few inhibitions but, coming awake several times during the night, he had acknowledged that seducing a virgin would never feature on any bucket list of his.

Of course, there was a slight chance that she might not be quite that naïve, he reasoned, and then he discarded the suspicion, recalling that moment on the landing when she had looked up at him with a complete lack of any awareness.

Other men would target her and bed her without a thought, Max acknowledged grimly, anger filling him at the realisation. What the hell was the matter with him? Why was he so conflicted about this situation? He was usually very decisive. Dio mio! He could marry her or he could stand back and watch her get her heart stamped on and kicked by some bastard who only wanted her for her inheritance. He could not have it both ways. It would either be him or someone else.

He walked out of the bedroom and was surprised to see Tia seated on the landing with something on her lap. It was the dog. As he moved towards her the dog began to growl. It bared its teeth and would have leapt off her lap into attack had she not restrained the animal.

‘Good morning,’ Tia said with the most radiant smile that lit up her whole face. ‘I’ve never been able to pet Teddy properly before because I didn’t dare smuggle him in here and I fed him secretly...well, not secretly enough it seems.’

Teddy began to bark and she scolded him but Teddy had neither discipline nor manners and he strained forward, snarling at Max as he approached. He had not the slightest doubt that he would be bitten could Teddy have only got free of the piece of twine lead and the makeshift collar he now wore.

‘He’s not a friendly dog,’ Max remarked tactfully.

‘He was probably abused. He only trusts me. It’s sad,’ Tia reflected, still sunny.

‘Have you packed?’ Max prompted.

‘I didn’t have much to pack,’ she admitted. ‘But one of the sisters gave me a bag last night and I used it. I went back downstairs to say my goodbyes then to everyone...’

As her voice thickened and trailed away, tears glistening in her eyes, Max hunkered down at a safe distance from Teddy’s snappy jaws. For a tiny dog, he was ridiculously aggressive. ‘It’s all right to be upset at leaving. As you said, this has been your home for a long time,’ he murmured soothingly.

The dark rich tenor of his voice shimmied up and down Tia’s spine like a caress and she scolded herself, for she had lain awake more than she had slept the night before.

She was attracted to him, of course she was, because he was young and gorgeous and kind. But she had sworn she would not make a fool of herself over him by staring and acting foolishly as she had often seen some of the teenage schoolgirls doing over a handsome young gardener who had worked at the convent for several months. Tia told herself that she was old enough and mature enough to know better.

But meeting Max’s glorious black-lashed dark eyes only a couple of feet away convulsed her throat and unleashed the butterflies in her tummy again. She could feel the colour and the heat of a blush building in her cheeks, and as his gaze lowered to her mouth even her lips seemed to tingle with responsiveness. Never had Tia felt so out of her depth as she did at that moment or more aware of her own deficiencies. The teenagers she had once felt superior to had known much more about how to talk and behave with a man than she did. When Max got close and she looked at him, she felt almost choked by shyness and awkwardness and every feeling, every sensation she felt was magnified to quite absurd proportions.

For a very experienced man, Max was strangely exhilarated by that blush and he studied her with a weird sense of achievement. She was not indifferent, not unaware of him. And she was doing what women had done decades before equality transformed the dating scene and waiting for him to make the moves. Flowers, Max thought for the first time in his life in a woman’s radius. She would like flowers, being old-fashioned and all that, he decided vaguely.

‘We’re being picked up in an hour.’

‘Mother Sancha has asked us to join her for coffee before we leave but I’ll get you breakfast first.’

Max gritted his teeth as Teddy glowered at him over Tia’s shoulder and bared his own in a silent snarl of warning. Hate at first sight, Max conceded with sardonic amusement. ‘If you could have one special thing, Tia...anything, what would it be? There must be things you want—’

‘A mobile phone,’ Tia told him with a haste that embarrassed her, worried that she sounded greedy.

‘You don’t have one?’ Max queried in disbelief.

‘Mother Sancha banned them. She won’t allow the girls in the school to have them here. I should explain...’ Tia hesitated. ‘When I was at school here it was a normal boarding school but that changed as the number of boarders went down. The girls who stay here now are more transient and don’t stay for as long. Their parents send them here because they’re...troubled,’ she selected uncomfortably. ‘The sisters have a good record for straightening out troubled teenagers.’

His mouth quirked at that information. ‘Yes, I imagine being sent out here to the back end of nowhere and being deprived of even a phone would have a sobering effect on most adolescents.’

‘The school fees keep the orphanage going and fund the community work the sisters do!’ Tia exclaimed repressively.

‘I wasn’t mocking the system. I was merely making an observation,’ Max challenged.

‘You sounded sarcastic,’ Tia countered.

‘I often am,’ Max admitted equably. ‘You’ll have to get used to nuances like that with people. People don’t all think and speak and act the same.’

Tia rounded on him at the foot of the stairs, her ready temper roused at being patronised as if she were still a young girl when she was a grown woman and proud of the fact. ‘Do you think I don’t know that?’ she questioned fierily, an angry tightness marking her small face.

‘I think you live in an institution where being different is frowned on and probably have little experience of what life is really like beyond the convent gate.’

‘Well, then you’d be wrong because I have often seen the consequences of alcoholism and addiction, domestic abuse and prostitution. There can be few evils that I have not some knowledge of,’ Tia argued furiously, hotly dismissing his apparent conviction that she was some naïve little flower. ‘Maybe you thought you’d find me on a hill somewhere singing among the wild flowers? Yes, I am acquainted with sarcasm, Max!’

Max was taken aback by the display: she had gone from zero to ninety in seconds and lost her temper.

‘Does that also mean you need to start shouting at me?’ he shot back at her.

Recalled to her wits but still trembling with annoyance, Tia stilled and sucked in a steadying breath, appalled at the rude way she had attacked him. ‘I’m sorry. You didn’t deserve that rant. I suppose I’m worrying about how I will appear to you and to my grandfather and that I won’t suit.’

‘You needn’t worry about that. If you had horns and a tail, Andrew would welcome you. You’re his only relative,’ he responded wryly.

‘I have a terrible temper. I’m supposed to go for a walk and practise breathing exercises when I get mad, so that I don’t lash out at people,’ Tia confided guiltily.

‘I’m pretty tough, Tia. I can take hard words,’ Max countered.

Shame engulfed Tia because this was the person trusted by her grandfather to take her to England, the man who had already ensured Teddy’s continuing health. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said again gruffly.

Max closed a hand on her arm to prevent her from walking away. ‘It’s OK,’ he breathed more forcefully. ‘You’re right in the middle of a huge upheaval in your life.’

Tia blinked back the tears that had been gathering in hot, prickly discomfort behind her eyes. ‘Don’t make excuses for me. I was horribly rude.’

‘You have fire. I like that, bella mia,’ Max admitted huskily, his dark deep intonation somehow rousing a curl of heat low in her pelvis. ‘I was being patronising and you were right to call me on it.’

‘You’re very...understanding,’ Tia breathed soft and low, locked into his stunning dark eyes as he bent towards her, Teddy’s feisty warning growls at her feet ignored by both of them.

And for a split second she actually thought he was going to kiss her and she craved that kiss as she craved water on a hot day, needing somehow to know if that soft, full lower lip of his would be hard or gentle on hers. Hard, she decided, lost in a sensual daydream for the first time in her life.

‘I have Mr Leonelli’s breakfast waiting,’ Sister Mariana called down the corridor, and Max jerked back, releasing her wrist, lifting his head again, a telling gleam of feverish colour accentuating his high cheekbones.

Nearly forgot yourself in a convent, Max derided for his own benefit, fighting his arousal with all his might while wondering how she would react if she noticed. He was discovering that when Tia looked at him as though he could walk on water, he liked it, and that astonished him.

Tia was in a daze over breakfast. She knew all the facts about sex and had always thought the actual mechanics of the act sounded fairly disgusting: what the man did, what the woman had to allow. But Max had walked into her life the night before and even her outlook on that had changed because she was now putting Max into that couple equation and found that she was madly curious and shockingly excited by the concept. What startled her the most was the deep current of desire rippling through her whenever she looked at him, whenever she even thought about him. In his radius her body no longer felt like her own and was certainly no longer fully under her control.

‘So, where do we fly from?’ she asked as she settled into the four-wheel drive. Teddy was not impressed to be confined in the pet carrier inside it and whined in complaint but his new official owner didn’t want him biting Max and she was rather afraid that he might if given even the smallest chance. The little dog she had quietly adored for so long was revealing unexpected traits now that he was being forced to mix with other people.

As for Tia, her eyes still damp from parting from Mother Sancha who featured in her earliest childhood memories, she felt like someone at the start of an adventure and was working hard at concealing that less than cool reality.

‘Rio,’ Max told her, lifting his darkly handsome head from the tablet he had been using. ‘Sorry I’m distracted but I have work email to answer.’

‘We’re going to Rio? I thought we were going to Belém.’

‘We are, but we are flying to Rio before we head for the UK.’

‘I love Belém. It’s so big and busy,’ Tia chattered and told him about the annual boat trip the sisters took along the River Guama to see the Círio of Nazaré procession, which was the biggest and most important religious event in Brazil.

She talked a lot, Max reflected, and culture shock was likely to hit her when she saw the size of Rio de Janeiro because the city of Belém was tiny in comparison. He also wondered what he would do with her in Rio because he had work to do. It was all very well for Andrew to send him halfway across the world for Tia, but Grayson Industries did not run itself and fast decisions had to be made every day to keep Andrew’s companies running smoothly. In addition, Max worked very long hours to convince himself and anyone else who cared to quibble that he was fully capable of being CEO of Grayson Industries despite his comparative youth.

‘If we’re really going to Rio,’ Tia said breathlessly, ‘I have a school friend there whom I would love to visit. I haven’t seen Madalena since we were eighteen and she left school to go home to her family. We write to each other...well, she writes occasionally. She’s very busy.’

‘Is she one of those troubled girls you mentioned?’ Max enquired almost lazily.

‘Of course not. Madalena was Head Girl in our last year,’ Tia told him cheerfully.

‘You should spend an evening with her,’ Max suggested.

‘Yes. It would be wonderful to have the chance to catch up with what she’s been doing,’ Tia remarked, thinking that she would be listening rather than contributing at any such reunion because Madalena’s family was well-off and her former schoolmate seemed to enjoy a dynamic social life. But even so she would very much enjoy seeing the bubbly brunette again. Madalena was a lot of fun and fun was something that had been in very short supply in Tia’s life since her school days had ended.

At the airport, they boarded a private jet. Tia was astonished when Max pointed out the Grayson logo on the tail fin and explained that her grandfather owned it. When he had said ‘wealthy’ it had not occurred to her that he could mean quite that level of wealth. She sat quietly in her upholstered leather seat while she was served a delicious lunch. Max pretty much worked and she wondered if that was the norm for him or if rather, and which she felt was very likely, she simply bored him. Their lives were very different. They had nothing in common, she conceded unhappily. What could an international businessman of Max Leonelli’s stature possibly find worthy of interest in a girl who had spent her entire restricted life in a convent?

Thoroughly depressed by that thought and scolding herself for the reality, Tia petted Teddy, who had quietened down considerably after his spell in the carrier. Teddy went to sleep and Tia eventually dozed off too.

As the jet landed at Rio, Max reflected with satisfaction on his morning of work. He only belatedly recalled his passengers and the whole point of the trip to Rio de Janeiro. He was supposed to be using the opportunity to get to know Tia. Yet unlike most women he knew she had not uttered a word of complaint at being ignored. His conscience twanged as he studied her, her beautiful face tranquil in sleep, that exquisite pillowy mouth more tempting than ever in repose. Teddy’s little beady eyes snapped open as if he could sense Max’s proximity even when asleep and he bared his teeth in a silent snarl.

‘Get used to me,’ Max murmured drily. ‘I’m not going away.’

He would marry her. It was true that he hadn’t even thought of marriage before Andrew cornered him but Tia was beautiful and kind and undemanding. How could any man possibly do better than that winning combination in a woman? He had had a lot of partners in his bed over the years, had revelled in all the variety that imbued such freedom; however, Tia ticked all the right boxes. And came with a massive inheritance, the other side of his brain reminded him. But that wasn’t a box he had sought to tick because, even before he’d accepted Andrew’s offer to step temporarily into the CEO job to free Andrew up for his unsuccessful treatment, Max had been rich enough in his own right to be satisfied with his lifestyle. At the same time though he relished the daily challenge of controlling Grayson Industries. Power, he acknowledged wryly, was definitely an aphrodisiac.

Tia whooped in delight when she saw the massive Christ the Redeemer statue, Rio’s most striking landmark. Max was quick to realise that he was unlikely to escape that tourist pilgrimage and he breathed in deep. Well, at least someone was likely to appreciate the private chapel at Andrew’s country house which the older man had had meticulously restored in the hope of encouraging his devout son’s, Paul’s, return to England.

When the limousine that had collected them at the airport drew up outside the giant opulent hotel where they were to stay, Tia was momentarily overpowered. ‘This is the hotel? But it’s famous.’

‘Yes.’ A dancing smile slashed Max’s beautifully shaped mouth, his dark as night eyes gleaming. ‘I thought you would enjoy it.’

Tia felt overwhelmed. That smile engulfed her like a tidal wave, washing away clear thought, igniting afresh all the physical reactions that both thrilled and unnerved her at one and the same time. She smoothed her fingers down over her best skirt, made of cotton cloth that had once been a pristine white but which now had a creamy tinge. ‘I’m not dressed for a place like this, Max,’ she pointed out uneasily.

‘But you will be soon,’ Max told her. ‘I’ve organised a new wardrobe for you. Someone is coming to our suite to measure you and someone else will then arrive with a selection of clothing for you to choose from.’

‘Are you joking?’ Tia whispered in astonishment.

‘No. Your grandfather wants you to have whatever you want.’

‘But I didn’t ask for clothes.’ Tia reddened. ‘Well, I know I need them.’

‘Let’s not make a big deal of it, then. Andrew is a generous man,’ Max told her, nodding to the driver to open the passenger door beside her.

Flustered, Tia climbed out, smoothing her skirt again, her palms sweating as she scanned the ornate front entrance and the even more opulent interior she could see through the open doors. Inside she could see elegantly dressed people moving around and her courage almost tanked at that point because she knew how shabby and poor she had to look in comparison. What had passed muster at the convent could not even compare to the smartly uniformed staff surging towards them to pick up their luggage. Teddy was checked in to the equivalent of a luxury kennel and Tia parted with her pet with reluctance.

The dog settled, Max planted a controlling hand to the base of her spine and swept Tia back into the lift, ignoring her resistance. ‘Stop acting so nervous,’ he breathed in her ear. ‘You’re a Grayson and your grandfather has made that name something to be proud of. Clothes aren’t important.’

It was all right for him, Tia reflected on a surge of brief resentment, for Max exuded the sophisticated, exclusive lustre of a male who had only just stepped off a glossy magazine cover. Every inch of him was groomed and sleek. He reeked of money and self-assurance, neither trait being one she had ever enjoyed, but she knew that Mother Sancha would have agreed with his outlook rather than her own and she gritted her teeth. Within minutes they were ensconced in the lift with their luggage.

The magnificent suite reminded Tia of rooms she had seen on a popular Brazilian soap opera based on a very rich family. The views were stupendous, on one side looking out over the huge city and on the other out over a vast beach and the sea. Every window opened out onto a balcony and the furniture was beautifully upholstered in colours that struck her as wildly impractical for daily use. She followed the porter into a glorious bedroom, walked into an attached bathroom resplendent with marble and mirrors and gold taps. Her fingertips brushed a white fleecy towel and then trailed over the shot silk spread on the bed before withdrawing again.

‘Tia,’ Max called. ‘I have something for you.’

Tia moved forward on uncertain legs, already overcome by her luxurious surroundings and the bewildering suspicion that she had accidentally strayed into someone else’s dream. She gazed up at Max, colliding unwarily with his stunning, heavily lashed dark as night eyes. Her breath feathered in her throat and her heart slammed with sudden force against her breastbone as he extended his hand. ‘For you from me,’ he intoned. ‘It’s all charged up and ready to use.’

It was a mobile phone with a sparkly cover, the sort of cover a teenager might have admired but Tia was not fussy. With a whoop of pleasure at finally receiving what she had long wanted, Tia whirled breathlessly round the room. Madalena had kept on sending her phone number as if Tia could somehow magically conjure a phone out of thin air but she had kept her friend’s letters. ‘Thank you, Max,’ she said.

Max was a little disconcerted not to receive another hug, had indeed braced himself for one, but Tia, did he but know it, knew she had to be more circumspect around him once she had understood how much he attracted her. She didn’t want to behave like an infatuated schoolgirl and make a fool of herself.

The flowers were the next delivery, a gorgeous display of white lilies and foliage arranged by a maid in a crystal vase. ‘’ Tia whispered breathlessly, a fingertip stroking a velvety petal in appreciation.

‘Of course for you...’

Tia could not imagine why Max was giving her flowers when they were already in each other’s company and he had nothing to thank her for. The romantic angle, she discarded entirely as an explanation, having decided during the flight that allowing foolish fancies to take over her brain was likely only to lead to her humiliation.

Max got the message that he was not making his interest obvious enough and that was when he regretted not paying more attention to her while they were airborne. He studied her glowing face as she caressed the lily and imagined that small work-roughened hand gliding over a far more responsive part of his body and anticipation leapt through him like a sudden flame ready to burst out of control. The stirring of enthusiasm at his groin was unmistakeable and made him ache. He didn’t know why she had that instantaneous effect on him. Indeed, his lack of control around Tia annoyed him because he hadn’t suffered from the affliction of involuntary arousal since he was at school.

‘You like the flowers?’

‘Yes,’ she whispered distractedly. ‘I love flowers. I always dreamt of having a real garden of my own.’

‘I thought you wanted to be a teacher,’ Max remarked, because the Reverend Mother had shared that with him.

‘I was willing to be one to get the training and the education. In my life it’s always been a question of not what you want but what is possible,’ Tia explained. ‘There’s a teacher training college in Belém and I thought that studying there would be achievable but my father wasn’t willing to pay for it and that was that.’

‘Andrew’s country house has beautiful gardens,’ Max told her, watching the tip of her tongue steal out to moisten her full lower lip as she looked up at him and almost groaning with the force of his arousal.

His dark eyes were gleaming like gold ingots and Tia couldn’t drag her gaze from his lean, darkly beautiful face. Without even knowing what she was doing she took an infinitesimal step closer and Max reached for her almost simultaneously, hands sliding round her back and yanking her into contact with his lean, powerful body with a sexual insistence and impatience that should have shocked her but which instead thrilled her.

It was Tia’s first kiss—first everything, really—and the hard, hungry pressure of his beautiful masculine mouth crashing down on hers unleashed so many sensations in her body that she felt dizzy. The tips of her breasts tingled and stiffened, pushing against the coarse cotton material of her top. A sliding warmth prickled between her thighs and made her press them together tightly. Suddenly she was insanely conscious of a part of her body she never thought about, of the sensitivity and the shocking level of physical awareness she had never known before.

His tongue licked along the fullness of her lower lip and then nibbled at the tender swollen flesh before his tongue plunged into her mouth and withdrew. At that point her legs would have folded under her had he not literally been holding her upright with his hands because the sexual vibrations assailing her only intensified. A choked gasp was dragged from her as he spread his fingers across her narrow shoulder and held her there to kiss her breathless.

Max was fiercely fighting an insane urge to carry her into his bedroom when the knocking at the door finally penetrated the fog of his passion. What the hell was he doing? he asked himself furiously as he jerked back from her, almost overwhelmed by the passionate response he had won from her. He wanted more, he wanted so much more that it took a lot longer than the few seconds he had to get a grip on himself before he opened the door.

Four women greeted him with wide smiles and swiftly identified themselves as the team engaged to provide Tia with a new wardrobe. Shooting her a cloaked glance to note that she was very flushed and dazed in appearance, he urged her to take them into her bedroom.

Diavolo, he castigated himself as soon as the bedroom door closed. He had jumped the gun, offered too much too soon and probably shocked her, but going slowly with a woman, much like talking in a normal way, was something Max had never done before. And he had utilised all the finesse of a bull in a china shop, an awareness that infuriated him as he stomped off to change and have a cold shower to chill the fever still burning through him. It was not as though he were sex-starved, he reasoned angrily with himself, so why that lack of control? That mad grab and hold making-out session, which was not his style at all?

Relieved to escape the immediate aftermath of that embrace with Max, Tia was happy to be distracted by measurements and catalogues depicting various styles. She had only wanted jeans and tee shirts and some decent shoes but there was, she discovered in amazement, a vast area of choice from which to make selections. The little girl and disappointed teenager who had never got to have pretty clothes triumphed in the adult she had become and she went a little crazy before panicking and surging back into the other room to find Max.


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