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«Dark Angel» - Линн Грэхем

Knight in shining armour… or avenging angel?International businessman Luciano de Valenza saved the Linwood family's failing wine business and swept beautiful Kerry Linwood off her feet. Yet Kerry secretly feared Luciano didn't want her, but the wine empire she would inherit. When money was embezzled from the business Luciano was locked up along with Kerry’s heart.Five years later, Luciano is back and out to clear his name. He’s certain that he was framed by the Linwoods and he’s planning to take everything that’s theirs—beginning with Kerry. He might have loved her in the past, but now he’s more determined than ever to have her…for revenge!
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Dark Angel Lynne Graham

is one of Mills & Boon’s most popular and bestselling novelists. Her writing was an instant success with readers worldwide. Since her first book, Bittersweet Passion, was published in 1987, she has gone from strength to strength and now has over ninety titles, which have sold more than thirty-five million copies, to her name.

In this special collection, we offer readers a chance to revisit favourite books or enjoy that rare treasure—a book by a favourite writer—they may have missed. In every case, seduction and passion with a gorgeous, irresistible man are guaranteed!

LYNNE GRAHAM was born in Northern Ireland and has been a keen Mills & Boon® reader since her teens. She is very happily married, with an understanding husband who has learned to cook since she started to write! Her five children keep her on her toes. She has a very large dog, which knocks everything over, a very small terrier, which barks a lot, and two cats. When time allows, Lynne is a keen gardener.

Dark Angel

Lynne Graham



CRUSH barriers held back the baying media horde brandishing cameras and microphones outside the Royal Courts of Justice.

As Luciano da Valenza emerged, surrounded by his triumphant legal team, his new security men rushed to block those climbing the barriers in an effort to reach him. Standing six feet four tall with the lithe, powerful build of an athlete, Luciano dwarved his companions. For a split-second he stilled, stunning golden eyes brilliant in his lean, bronzed face, the only outward sign of the strong emotions gripping him.

He was free: no handcuffs on his wrists, no guards by his side, no prison van waiting to return him to a cell eight feet wide by ten feet deep. For the first time in five hellish years, the right to liberty and dignity was his again. But the moment was soured by the reality that nothing could bring those years back, or alter the harsh fact that the English legal system might have set aside his conviction as unsafe but had stopped short of declaring him innocent.

‘What will you do now?’ an Italian journalist shouted above the general mêlée.

‘I will fight on.’ Responding by instinct to a fellow countryman, Luciano was none-the-less amazed at the naivety of that question, for it was unthinkable to him that he might rest before his name was cleared and his enemies had paid the price for what he had endured.

‘Your immediate plans?’ The same paparazzo was quick to press his advantage.

A dangerous smile slashed Luciano’s lean, darkly handsome features. ‘A glass of 1925 Brunello Riserva and a woman.’

That declaration was met by a burst of appreciative laughter from those who understood enough Italian to translate that audacious declaration of intent.

On the sidelines, Luciano’s lawyer, Felix Carrington, wondered which of the many women who appeared to find his dynamic client irresistible would qualify for that ultimate accolade. Costanza, the sleek Italian brunette, who was surely the most devoted and discreet personal assistant in existence? Rochelle, the sexy blonde beauty, who had withdrawn her evidence on the grounds that she had been drunk and distraught when she had made her original statement? Or even Lesley Jennings, the fiercely intelligent and attractive solicitor in Felix’s own legal firm, whose determination to win Luciano’s release had become a crusade? More probably, Felix decided, a fresh face would capture the younger man’s interest: one of the glossy media or society females who had taken up his cause with such vigour.

Yet five years earlier, when Luciano da Valenza had been tried, found guilty and imprisoned, only a few lines in a local newspaper had reported the event. A foreign troubleshooter headhunted from Rome by the Linwoods, he had been better known in Italy as the up-and-coming aggressive young business blood that he was. But by slow degrees, Luciano’s plight had assumed a much more colourful guise.

In the aftermath of the original trial, Count Roberto Tessari, an Italian nobleman of enormous wealth and unblemished integrity, had come out of nowhere to engage Carrington and Carrington to supply a top-flight defence team on Luciano’s behalf. The older man had also secured Luciano’s assets against the fines imposed by his conviction by paying them out of his own pocket before pledging his bottomless bank account to the long, tough battle of appealing Luciano’s conviction and gaining his release.

In spite of Tessari’s painfully embarrassing efforts to keep his involvement a matter of total blanket confidentiality, someone somewhere had talked. When the rumours had begun, a prominent newspaper had printed a double-page spread on Luciano da Valenza. Their investigation of his background had helpfully delivered those elements beloved of the popular Press: secrecy, illegitimacy, suffering and poverty. At that timely moment, Luciano had then proved that he was indeed an unusual criminal. While recovering from a savage beating by fellow inmates, who resented the attention he was receiving, he had risked his own life to rescue an officer from a fire in the prison hospital. A television documentary questioning his guilt had followed and, if it had lingered a little too lovingly and often on the lady producer’s clear admiration for Luciano’s dark-angel good looks and heroic stature, certainly the programme had generated an amount of interest in his cause which had done him no harm.

When, eighteen months ago, Tessari had died after finally acknowledging Luciano as his son and in an apparent expiation of his guilty conscience had left him everything he possessed, Luciano had become a extremely rich man. Yet not once during the years of Luciano’s imprisonment had the noble count visited his son or even attempted direct communication with him. In addition, Felix had been forced to utilise very persuasive arguments to convince his proud and independent client that he could not afford to refuse that golden inheritance if he wanted his freedom.

‘Thank you for all that you have done,’ Luciano breathed with quiet sincerity as he took his leave of Felix Carrington with a firm handshake. ‘I’ll be in touch.’

A glass of wine and a woman? A meaningless soundbite. Who had he been trying to impress? Luciano asked himself as he swung with lithe grace into the waiting limousine.

He no longer needed to play to the gallery to secure support. A grim smile set his wide, sensual mouth, the anger he concealed at what he had withstood still as fierce as it had ever been. It seemed as though all his life he had been fighting other people’s low expectations of him.

‘What’s the point of you working so hard at school? It won’t get you any place…You’re Stephanella da Valenza’s bastard brat and nobody’s ever going to let you forget that! Don’t draw attention to yourself, just be like the other boys,’ his late mother had urged him with frowning anxiety, struggling to comprehend a twelve-year-old hungry for so many things that she herself had neither wanted nor valued.

Then, as now, Luciano had travelled his own path. To act alone was not new to him. He knew that he would not savour the Brunello Riserva, that superb vintage wine from the Tuscan hills of his childhood, until he had settled several outstanding scores to his own satisfaction. Primarily, those scores centred on the Linwood family and their supporting players. As the only outsider and expendable, he had been set up as a fall guy. In return, he would bring down the chain of wine stores on which the Linwood fortunes had been built. In fact that process had kicked off over a year earlier. Of the Linwood circle, only Rochelle would escape unscathed. In recognition of Rochelle’s belated efforts to redress the wrong she had done, he was prepared to stamp her account more or less paid.

Last but far from being least, however, came Rochelle’s little stepsister, Kerry Linwood. At the thought of his former fiancée, a hard smile set Luciano’s firm lips and his aggressive jawline clenched with formidable purpose. She had brought out his protective instincts and he had convinced himself that to offer her anything other than marriage would be an insult. Yet when the Linwoods had chosen him as the sacrifice to throw to the wolves, Kerry must have been in on that selection process.

Of course she had known he had been framed! Why else had she broken off their engagement without any adequate explanation only the day before his arrest? What he had believed he felt for her had been a rare flight of romantic fancy that had cost him dear, he acknowledged with brooding bitterness. Not a mistake he would ever make again with a woman. Kerry had betrayed him with quite outstanding completeness.

Revenge? No, it was simply payback time. Drama was not required. Luciano was prepared to allow that the volatile Italian and Sicilian genes that mingled in his family tree might dispose him more towards the darker forms of vengeful retribution. But at the same time, Luciano was very much a sophisticate. To secure the natural justice that he desired, every step he had already taken and would take in the near future had been and would continue to be both businesslike and ethical. His maternal grandfather might have fled Sicily when it became too hot to hold him but Luciano was better educated and infinitely cleverer. Even so, perhaps blood would out, Luciano conceded thoughtfully. The primal pleasure with which he looked forward to watching his victims sweat and suffer was a sensation which his brutal Sicilian grandfather would have entirely understood and approved.

‘You shouldn’t be thinking of the Linwoods,’ the slim, svelte brunette seated beside him lamented in liquid Italian, her dark eyes as soft as only a precious few could ever have seen them, for, much like himself, she was not given to revealing her emotions. ‘This is a very special day…live it, Luciano!’

As Luciano surveyed Costanza, a slow, shimmering smile illuminated his grave, dark features. He grasped the expressive hand which she had lifted in a wholly Latin gesture to accentuate her frustration. ‘We will live it together…I promise you,’ he soothed in his rich, dark drawl.

‘Then let’s go home to Italy,’ Costanza urged. ‘Right now, before one more hour passes!’

‘I’m not ready yet,’ Luciano confided equably. ‘Why don’t you allow me to treat you to a vacation instead? After working tirelessly on my behalf for more years than either of us care to count, you certainly deserve to spoil yourself for a change.’

At that suggestion, Costanza compressed her raspberry-tinted lips and said nothing. She recognised a warning when she heard one, knew exactly how far she could go with him and was always careful not to breach that boundary.

Suppressing a soundless sigh, Luciano lounged back in an elegant but deliberate sprawl in the corner of the limo. That amount of space was a luxury he had learned to live without. Piece by piece all that was soft and civilised in him had been stripped away by the prison regime while he fought the system. That unyielding system, the unspoken, unwritten and oft-denied rule that nevertheless decreed that a man who continued to plead innocence of his crime could not be seriously considered for early release by the parole board or even for the reward of a transfer to a less regimented open prison. Luciano had served his time and all of it had been hard time. Often, in prison parlance, he had been ‘banged up’ in his cell for as long as twenty-two mind-numbing hours a day, a particularly cruel torment for a male who had never lost his deep appreciation for the wide open spaces of the countryside.

Leaving that thought behind, for Luciano deemed looking back with regret to what could not be changed a weakness, he experienced a sudden fierce yearning to once again smell the delicate lemony aroma of the flowering vines flourishing on the steep slopes of the Villa Contarini estate. He had lived there until he was eight years old. He had played in the oak woods, raced around pretending to hunt wild boars, had dug without the smallest success for truffles and had brought home fresh fungi as an offering for his overworked mother, only to see his gifts continually claimed by his bone-idle grandfather instead.

But now in Luciano’s imagination, he saw himself standing high at the head of those lush green, close-planted rows of vines to look up at the bright blue cloudless sky and the endless hot sun and rejoice in what he had once taken entirely for granted. He left behind that vision with wry dark golden eyes and contemplated the astonishing fact that he now owned his childhood playground: the Villa Contarini, which stood high on the list of legendary Tuscan vineyards. Once too, he recalled without a shade of amusement, he had nourished a sentimental fantasy of bringing Kerry home as his bride to a very much smaller vineyard where he was paying a winemaker to live out what had once been the height of his own boyish dreams.

Fate gave with one hand and took with the other.

Luciano had long accepted that unavoidable fact of life. To buy the vineyard and finance the hopeful creation of a wine to be reckoned with, he had had to concentrate his talents on forging a reputation in the business world and earning serious money. But nowhere was it written that he could not now rearrange his priorities. Ironically, the father whom he had despised from the instant of their first unforgettable meeting had finally forever ensured that he need never again earn his daily crust from humble toil.

‘I kept on a skeleton staff here…I thought you might like to have someone cook for you and answer the phone when I’m not around,’ Costanza told him as they vacated the limo outside a smart townhouse in one of London’s most impressive residential squares.

Accepting the key she handed him, Luciano strove not to wince at the underwritten threat of the possessive brunette welding herself to him like a second skin. Above all else, Luciano had always revelled in his freedom of choice and the loss of that privilege for so many years had made that liberty all the more precious a commodity.

‘Mr da Valenza…’ In the spacious hall beyond the front door, a nervous older woman in a plain dark dress hurried to acknowledge his arrival. ‘I’m Mrs Coulter, your housekeeper. You have some visitors waiting for you in the drawing room.’

An exasperated frownline divided Luciano’s winged ebony brows. In a helpful gesture, Mrs Coulter opened a panelled door on the other side of the hall, for, never having even visited the house that had once belonged to Roberto Tessari, he could have had no idea where to find his uninvited guests. Entering the gracious room, he fell still at the sight of the three women seated together in silence and almost groaned out loud in frustration.

Rochelle Bailey, Harold Linwood’s blonde, beautiful and bold stepdaughter by his second marriage, dressed to telegraph pure availability in a neckline low enough and a skirt short enough to bring on a heart attack in a sex-starved male.

Lesley Jennings, the very fanciable and clever lawyer from Carrington and Carrington, whose consultation visits to the prison and keen wit and humour had enlivened many a boring hour for him.

And, finally, Paola Massone, a distant cousin and daughter of the famous but currently struggling vintner, who had inherited Roberto Tessari’s title but none of his money. Self-assured, dark-haired and undeniably gorgeous, she gave him an expectant look that demanded that he acknowledge what she clearly saw as her superior claim to his attention. The equivalent of an Italian ‘It’ girl, born from a long and illustrious if impoverished line of ancestors, Paola wanted to marry her class to his cash and make wine and…other things with him.

A mocking smile on her pink lips, Rochelle stood up. ‘So, it’s make or break time, girls. Which one of us do you want to stay, Luciano?’ she demanded with typical bluntness.

Costanza entered the fray to widen scornful dark eyes. ‘Doesn’t it occur to you that Luciano may not be in the mood for guests?’

‘Didn’t you hear what your boss said outside the court? We watched it on the lunchtime news and although getting a translation out of Paola here was like yanking out her little pearly teeth one by one, we’re all clued up now,’ Rochelle declared, tossing back her rumpled blonde mane in unashamed challenge of the PA’s contention. ‘He wants a woman…and here we are.’

Lesley Jennings simply laughed out loud in reluctant appreciation.

It was beneath Paola’s dignity to look anything other than supremely bored.

But not a single one of them showed any sign of making a move to leave and Luciano recognised that he had a problem…unhappily for his conscience-free libido, Rochelle, who had a seriously liberal attitude to loose living, was totally out of the question. Lesley? Not when he still had current dealings with her legal firm, for, even if she was willing to risk her reputation by consorting with a male still shadowed by criminal charges, he was not willing to help her to make that mistake. And Paola? As exquisite, perfect and downright practical a proposition as she was, it was far too soon for him to contemplate that level of commitment.

Every muscle straining at the effort required, Kerry heaved the log into the wheelbarrow.

When the barrow immediately tipped over beneath the weight and the log rolled out again, she could have sat down and howled like a baby. Snatching in a steadying breath, she blinked back tears of frustration, set the wheelbarrow straight and made herself start again. The spring days and nights were cold. She had two fires to keep going for her grandparents’ benefit and only the largest, heaviest logs burned for any appreciable length of time in the massive hearths at Ballybawn Castle.

Unfortunately, her sleepless night had drained her of energy. Was it any wonder that she was still in shock about Luciano’s successful appeal against his conviction? For hours she had tossed and turned while her mind ran round in tortured circles, continually throwing her back in time to Luciano’s arrest on charges of false accounting and theft, and her own initial disbelief. But brick by brick the evidence against Luciano had mounted. When a single fingerprint had been identified as his on a damning document, she had accepted that he was guilty. Then she had also believed that fingerprinting was an exact science and irrefutable proof. How could she ever have foreseen that, five years on, respected forensic experts would enter a court of law on Luciano’s behalf and discredit the reliability of the fingerprint which had played such a heavy part in the original prosecution case?

Yet that was what had happened only yesterday, Kerry acknowledged, shaking her head in lingering bewilderment as she finally got the log into the barrow and trudged back along the wooded lane to the castle. Luciano was free…and a tension headache was pounding behind her brow. Why could she think of nothing but Luciano? What did his freedom have to do with her? But was he innocent? That was what the newspapers were saying. Could she have misjudged him on that score at least?

Yet the male being deified by the Press was the same male whom she had loved more than she had ever dreamt she could love anyone and he had hurt her more than any soul alive. He had slept with Rochelle and in her heart of hearts had she really been surprised by that? After all, her stepsister was everything she herself was not: gorgeous, sexy and irresistible to men. Even her own father preferred Rochelle, Kerry reminded herself painfully. Possibly only a woman with the looks and personality of Helen of Troy could have kept Luciano faithful.

Just as she was comforting herself with that reflection, a car slowed up behind her, drew level and then stopped. It was Elphie Hewitt, whom Kerry had been friendly with since childhood. Now an artist, Elphie rented the Georgian wing of the castle as a trompe l’oeil showroom to display the decorative special paint effects at which she excelled.

‘What are you doing with that wheelbarrow?’ Elphie questioned with a frown. ‘Didn’t Dad offer to bring you over a load of logs?’

Although embarrassed by that reminder, Kerry was reluctant to accept a favour which she could not return and, even worse, the kind of favour that the older man might well have felt obliged to repeat. ‘Your father has enough to do on the farm—’

‘He would still be glad to help out. Only the other day he was saying how sorry he felt for you,’ Elphie confided. ‘You’ve such a battle to keep the estate going. And your grandparents…bless them, they’re lovely people…but they’re a big responsibility for a woman your age!’

Kerry was mortified when she pictured the Hewitts, both of whom were her grandfather’s tenants, discussing her in such pitying terms. Not for nothing was Elphie renowned for her excessive lack of tact.

‘How’s business?’ Kerry asked in the hope of changing the subject.

Elphie groaned. ‘All right…just. The interior designers are hiring my services but I need to be working for clients direct to make a decent profit. Heck, is that the time? I’ve got an appointment!’

As soon as Elphie had driven off Kerry forgot that the conversation had even taken place, for her own restive thoughts had zoomed straight back to centre on Luciano again. In fact, only twenty minutes later, having finally carted a fresh supply of firewood into her grandmother’s sitting room, Kerry could no longer keep the lid on her own emotional turmoil.

‘How do you feel about all this stuff about Luciano in the newspapers?’ Kerry asked the older woman tautly. ‘I don’t know what to think or how I’m supposed to feel about it but I can’t get it or him out of my mind.’

‘I do so worry that you don’t sew,’ Viola O’Brien remarked in startling disregard of the subject which Kerry had opened, her gaze resting on her granddaughter with vague concern. ‘A talent with a needle and thread is so essential these days. How else can you hope to repair the torn sheets in the linen cupboard and re-cover the dining-room chairs?’

‘Grandma…’ Kerry frowned and then said gently, ‘Didn’t you read the newspapers that I gave you this morning?’

‘Yes, darling. Luciano has been set free. Of course he’s innocent. I wasn’t surprised to hear that news,’ Viola O’Brien declared in the same even tone as if the events that had shattered Kerry over the previous twenty-four hours were no more worthy of surprise than a mild change in the weather.

As she received that discomfiting response, Kerry’s slender figure tensed even more. It was not a moment to easily bear the reminder that her grandmother had refused to contemplate the possibility that Luciano might be guilty as charged five years earlier. If Kerry had not been impressed by that partisanship at the time, it had been because she was well aware that the older woman had always been reluctant to deal with anything unpleasant in life. A burglar caught red-handed in the castle would also have received the benefit of the doubt. In much the same way, her grandmother preferred to ignore the reality that those dining chairs which she had just mentioned as requiring recovering had long since gone to the saleroom.

‘It would have been very romantic had you been waiting outside the court when Luciano emerged a free man,’ her grandmother contended in misty-eyed addition. ‘I do wish that you’d paid heed to my little hints. There are times when it would be quite improper for a young woman to be that forward but there are also special occasions when too much reticence might even appear ungracious.’

At that assurance, Kerry just closed her eyes in despair, gritted her teeth and flopped down into the worn armchair opposite. ‘I expect there are but that wasn’t one of them.’

When she opened her eyes again, Viola O’Brien was still sitting in perfect tranquillity, stitching at her embroidery. A slight woman of eighty years of age, she wore her hair in the same plaited coronet she had favoured since her girlhood and dressed in layers of fluttering draperies as though the clock had stopped ticking at some grand dinner party in the 1930s and never moved on again.

‘Well, there has to be some reason why I heard Florrie crying every night last week…Florrie usually only wails when there’s a wedding in the offing,’ Viola reminded her granddaughter of the O’Brien legend. ‘One would think that after four hundred and fifty years, Florrie could learn to be more cheerful. Still, I suppose there’s no such thing as a happy ghost.’

‘I wouldn’t know….’ Kerry sighed. ‘I’ve never heard her.’

‘I expect you tell yourself that the noise she makes is the wind in the trees.’

Breathing in deep and slow, Kerry parted her lips and said, ‘Grandma…it’s been five years since I decided not to marry Luciano.’

‘Yes, darling, I do appreciate that. Do recall too that at the time I was rather concerned that we didn’t hear Florrie when your wedding was only supposed to be a few weeks away.’

Kerry ground her teeth together so hard it hurt while also wishing that she had had the nerve to tell her grandparents the real reason why she had broken off her engagement instead of settling on the less humiliating pretext of a simple change of heart.

‘But I can’t believe that Luciano will hold your past misgivings against you. I expect he’ll make a great deal of silly noise about it in the way that men do,’ Viola opined in continuation. ‘But you remain the woman who rejected him and he will know no true happiness until he regains your love and trust—’

‘There is no question of any reconciliation between L-Luciano and me!’ Kerry broke in to protest in frustration, her voice sharp and laced with the stammer which she had overcome in her teens but which still returned to haunt her in moments of stress.

Viola O’Brien raised her fine brows in mild reproach but her clear surprise at even that slightly raised voice having been directed at her sank her granddaughter into discomfiture and won her an immediate apology.

‘I understand, darling,’ Viola murmured in instant forgiveness. ‘Having to wait for Luciano to make the first move is very tiresome and must be a considerable strain on your nerves. Unfortunately that is why putting in an appearance outside that court room yesterday would have been the easier path to follow.’

At that very trying repetition of an outrageous proposition, Kerry sprang in a restive motion out of her armchair again. She knew that the older woman could have no idea how much such fanciful suggestions and expectations could still wound and hurt. But then perhaps she herself was more at fault for being oversensitive, Kerry thought guiltily. She adored her grandparents for the unquestioning love which they had always given her. Her reluctant father, Harold Linwood, had never been prepared to offer his daughter a similiar level of affection.

‘Eventually Luciano will wend his own way over to Ireland,’ her grandmother forecast with an obvious wish to proffer that prospect as a comfort.

‘That is very unlikely.’

‘I think not, darling. After all, he does more or less own Ballybawn Castle,’ Viola countered abstractedly while she rustled for fresh embroidery thread in her hopelessly messy work basket.

Kerry studied her grandmother in open-mouthed astonishment. ‘Sorry…what did you say?’ she queried, convinced that she must have misheard that staggering statement.

‘Your grandfather will be annoyed with me…’ Viola O’ Brien’s soft brown eyes revealed dismay before she returned with almost frantic purpose to her search for thread. ‘He did ask me to keep that a secret.’

For several taut seconds Kerry hovered in sheer bewilderment, her mind refusing to handle that additional piece of supporting information.

‘It’s vulgar for a woman to discuss business,’ her grandmother declared in harassed and obvious retreat from the threat of further questioning. ‘I don’t believe I understood what your grandfather was trying to explain.’

In dismay and concern, Kerry noticed that Viola O’Brien’s thin hands were trembling and she paled at a sight she had never seen before. ‘I’m sure you didn’t,’ she forced herself to say with artificial calm.

Her mind whirling, Kerry left the sitting room as soon as she could. In the dim corridor, she sucked in a slow, steadying breath. How could Luciano virtually own her grandparents’ ancestral home? Yet it was evident that her grandmother believed that he did. That her grandfather should have broken the habit of a lifetime to discuss a business matter with his lady wife was a very alarming factor that suggested that the impossible might be more possible than Kerry wanted to believe.

After all, Kerry was already uneasily aware that on the strength of their brief engagement five years earlier Luciano had insisted on giving her cash-strapped grandparents a very large loan. Soon afterwards a proportion of the roof had been mended though some of it remained in disrepair. Kerry had concentrated her own energies on cutting costs and striving to raise extra income on the estate in an effort to ensure that the older couple could at least live out their lives in their vast and dilapidated home. However, her grandfather had never allowed her to take charge of the accounts or, indeed, even examine them but she had naturally assumed that the loan repayments were being kept up to date.

Perspiration dampened Kerry’s short upper lip. The very idea that Luciano might have some kind of claim on Ballybawn Castle horrified her. Could her grandfather have been struggling to handle major financial problems which he had kept from her? Regardless of his granddaughter’s degree in business and her strenuous efforts to make Ballybawn Castle a paying proposition, Hunt O’Brien still cherished the gallant if impractical outlook of a bygone age when it came to his womenfolk. He believed that even Kerry was a poor, vulnerable little woman who had to be protected at all costs from the frightening stress of monetary woes. Therefore, Kerry conceded worriedly, that the older man should even have considered mentioning such an issue to her grandmother suggested that a very serious situation had developed…

Running Hunt O’Brien to earth within his own home was rarely a challenge. In his younger days, eager to follow in his own father’s footsteps, he had been a keen inventor of elaborate mechanical devices but, sadly for him, technology had repeatedly outstripped him in pace. Abandoning his workshop, her grandfather had turned to scholarship instead and, rain or shine, he was now to be found in the library happily surrounded by books. In fact, books were heaped on the bare floor, stacked on the threadbare chairs, and his enormous desk was so covered with them that her eighty-two-year-old grandparent preferred to squeeze himself into a corner of an old sofa and use a battered antique lap desk instead. There for the past half-century he had been weightily engaged in writing his definitive multi-volume work on the history of Ireland. Nobody at Ballybawn had ever been honoured with the opportunity to read a word of his life’s work and Kerry rather doubted that any publisher would ever be permitted the privilege either.

‘Is it time for lunch, my dear?’ Having finally registered her presence, Hunt O’Brien peered at her over the top of his round-rimmed spectacles in enquiry.

Luciano, Kerry recalled with a sharp unwelcome pang, had once remarked that her grandfather must be very much in demand to play Santa Claus. Small and portly with the still-bright blue eyes that were the O’Brien inheritance, he was given a rather merry aspect by his shock of silver hair and his beard. And, in truth, he was an exceptionally kind man but possibly not very well matched to the challenges that had unexpectedly become his when he, rather than his elder brother, had inherited Ballybawn.

‘No,’ Kerry replied. ‘I’ll see to lunch soon.’

‘What’s happened to Bridget…is she ill?’ Hunt enquired absently, his eyes already roaming back to the notebook he had been writing in seconds earlier.

It was well over a year since Bridget, the very last of the stalwart old-style retainers employed as indoor staff, had entered a retirement home at the age of seventy-eight. But her grandfather had never in his life had to live without a cook in the household and continually forgot that fact. Had he not been called to meals, he would have gone without food and indeed was as incapable of looking after himself as her grandmother was. Remorseless time had ground on outside the walls of Ballybawn Castle while the elderly owners within remained trapped in the habits of the previous century.

‘Grandpa…’ Kerry cleared her throat to regain the old man’s attention. ‘Grandma said that Luciano more or less owned the castle.’

At those words, Hunt O’Brien stopped writing and his silver head jerked up at rare speed as he directed an almost schoolboyish look of guilt at her. ‘I was—er—I was p-p-p-p-planning,’ he finally contrived to get the word out in the tense waiting silence, ‘to tell you soon.’

Gooseflesh prickled at the nape of Kerry’s neck and her knees developed a scary tendency to wobble. ‘Yet you discussed this with Grandma rather than with me?’ she prompted in near disbelief.

‘Had to…no choice,’ Hunt O’Brien confided tautly. ‘I have to start preparing your grandmother for what lies ahead. At our age, bad news is better broken little by little and, as it seems that we shall all be forced to move out of the castle now—’

‘Move out…?’ Kerry echoed in unconcealed horror.

‘I’m afraid that I’ve f-f-failed you both.’ The older man removed his spectacles, rubbed his eyes and shook his head in weary self-reproach. ‘We’ve managed to live from day to day but, in spite of all your many wonderfully enterprising ventures to keep the estate out of debt, for the past four years and more there’s been nothing left over to cover that loan.’

Four years and more? Shattered by that admission, Kerry removed a towering pile of books from an old armchair and sat down in front of her grandfather. ‘Try to give me all the facts,’ she urged as gently as she could. ‘Loans can be restructured. I might still be able to sort this out for you.’

‘It’s far too late for that, my dear. I know I’ve been foolish.’ Replacing his spectacles, Hunt O’Brien loosed a heavy sigh. ‘I just stopped opening the letters that came from the legal firm handling Luciano’s affairs while he was in prison. After that most unf-f-fortunate business with my late brother’s will, I simply couldn’t afford to make the loan repayments.’

‘I wish you’d told me that long ago…’ Kerry was aghast that important letters had been ignored and, well aware of the debacle that had followed her great-uncle Ivor’s death, she finally asked a question which she had often longed to ask but never before dared to press.

‘How much did you have to pay Ivor’s ex-wife to drop her claim?’

Her grandfather grimaced and whispered an amount that left Kerry bereft of what remained of her breath. No longer did she need to wonder why it had become impossible for the older man to pay all dues and still make ends meet at Ballybawn.

‘I didn’t want to upset you or your grandmother by telling you what a complete mess I’ve made of things. If truth be told,’ her grandfather continued unhappily, ‘I only accepted that loan in the first place because I believed that you and Luciano were getting married.’

Kerry paled and lowered her discomfited eyes in acceptance of that latter point.

‘I didn’t worry too much then about how I would repay it because the castle would have passed down to you and your husband anyway on my death,’ he pointed out ruefully. ‘I saw that loan in terms of Luciano making an advance stake in your future together here. I also believe that he saw it in the same light then…but of course, only a few weeks later, you decided not to marry him and everything changed.’

‘Yes…everything certainly changed,’ Kerry conceded unsteadily, thinking back to the agonising aftermath of Luciano’s conviction. She had resigned from her job working for her father’s wine-store chain, packed her bags, moved out of the Linwood home and returned to Ireland to live with her grandparents again. But neither distance nor different surroundings had eased the terrible pain of having to walk away from the guy she loved, and making a fresh start had been an even bigger challenge when Luciano’s infidelity had destroyed her self-esteem.

‘At first, I hoped that matters would improve and that I would be able to catch up with the loan arrears. When that didn’t happen, I prayed that the bank would come to our rescue.’ Rising to his feet, Hunt O’Brien went over to his desk and with some difficulty tugged out a bottom drawer. ‘I’m afraid the bank turned my request down, and yesterday while I was walking in the demesne I was approached by a young man who asked me who I was and then virtually stuffed this document into my hand!’

From the cluttered desk top, the older man lifted a folded sheet. ‘I’m facing a court order for repossession of the castle.’

In the act of looking into the drawer, which was packed to bursting point with unopened envelopes, Kerry straightened to stare in appalled silence at the legal notice that her grandfather had already been officially served with.

‘I’ve spoken to the family solicitor,’ the old man confided wearily. ‘If I don’t comply with a voluntary arrangement to settle my debts, I’ll be declared bankrupt, which I believe would be worse.’

Homeless or bankrupt? What a choice! A surge of rage blistered through Kerry’s slight, taut frame. How dared Luciano threaten to evict two harmless, helpless, elderly gentlefolk from their only home at this stage of their lives? How dared he subject her grandfather’s weak heart to the stress of fear and intimidation? How dared he make her grandmother’s hands tremble with nerves? What sort of a merciless bully had prison made out of Luciano da Valenza?

Hadn’t he done enough harm yet? Wasn’t it bad enough that he had wrecked her life? She lived like a nun sooner than risk that amount of pain and disillusionment again. She no longer trusted men. The guy she adored had gone behind her back and slept with a woman who hated her. At the age of twenty-six she was so much ‘on the shelf’, as her grandmother liked to call it, that she might as well have been nailed to it!

‘I’ll look into this, Grandpa,’ Kerry murmured in a soothing undertone, eyes as bright as sparkling turquoises in her flushed and furious face.

‘If it makes you feel better, go ahead,’ he said wryly. ‘But I assure you that nothing short of a miracle could help us now.’

‘Just you go back to your book,’ Kerry advised.

‘I am hoping that we’ll be quite comfortably off once I sell my books to a publishing firm,’ Hunt O’Brien declared, startling his granddaughter with an ambition which he had never mentioned before. ‘I’ve almost finished the eighth volume. It’s my final one, you know.’

‘Congratulations,’ Kerry told him with as much enthusiastic and matching optimism as she could muster at that instant.

‘Of course, the other seven volumes could probably do with a little tweaking.’ He settled back onto his sofa and reached for his pen with a smile, the gravity of their plight clearly wiped from his mind again as he contemplated the comforting creative challenges that still lay ahead of him.

While the older man returned to his notebook, Kerry lifted out the entire drawer of unopened letters and carried it from the room. An hour later, after she had only got through about a third of what had been a one-sided effort at communication stretching back over more than four years, her heart was heavy. Interest and arrears had swollen the original debt to a colossal and terrifying size and her grandfather’s total lack of response to those warning letters had put him very much in the wrong. The loan had been secured against the castle, and the castle was her grandfather’s sole asset. There was no way that she could raise the kind of money that was now owed to Luciano. Nor were there any valuable family heirlooms left to sell: Great-Uncle Ivor’s grasping ex-wife had seen to that.

In the midst of those increasingly panic-stricken thoughts and in desperate need of fresh air to clear her buzzing head and restore her concentration, Kerry went outdoors and headed for the lake that lay below the castle. Her feet crunching on the lush green grass of late spring, she finally came to a halt beneath the spreading branches of the willow tree that overhung the water.

A low swirling mist was rising from the still surface of the lake to lend an eerie, dream-like quality to the reflection of the pale limestone battlemented walls and turrets of Ballybawn. For five years she had worked round the clock in an effort to make the great house pay for its own upkeep and she had honestly believed that she was on the brink of finally achieving that objective! Had it all been for nothing?

But Ballybawn meant so much more to her than a responsibility: it was the only real home she had ever had. Her mother, Carrie, had walked out of her life when she was only four years old. Prior to that, Kerry had dim memories of frightening adult scenes in which her father’s rage had made him seem, perhaps unfairly, a cruel and threatening man. When the marriage had finally ended, her mother had left England to return to Ireland and her childhood home. Although it had been more than ten years since Kerry’s mother had even spoken to her parents, the older couple had offered a warm welcome to their wayward daughter and her child. It was at the castle that Kerry had first learned what it was to be happy and, even when Carrie later went away and failed to return, the O’Briens had continued to make their granddaughter feel secure and loved.

But Luciano da Valenza had never managed to make her feel secure or loved, had he? Kerry swallowed the bitter lump in her throat. Abandoning caution and common sense, she had fallen in love with the first slick and sophisticated, handsome male who looked her way. She had refused to think about the fact that she was not beautiful or even especially sexy like Rochelle or the other women in Luciano’s past. She was five feet three inches tall and her build was what her acid-tongued stepmother had once described as ‘almost asexual’. Men did not do a double take when they saw Kerry on the street. Her infuriating ringlets ran every colour between copper, russet and orange, depending on the light or indeed the observer’s outlook on red hair.

Of course, Luciano had labelled that same colour ‘Titian’, which had been a surefire impressive winner with a girl who had gone through school tagged with less complimentary nicknames…a girl whose first boyfriend had been stolen by her stepsister, a girl who was a total dreamer for all her seeming practicality. At the age of twenty-one, however, Kerry had thought of herself as mature.

But, with hindsight, she knew that when she had first seen Luciano da Valenza springing out of his sleek sports-car her very lack of experience with men had been a handicap. Taking one stunned look at Luciano, she had been so mesmerised that she had walked backwards into a flowerbed and got soaked by the sprinkler system. He had thought that was very, very funny. She squeezed her burning eyes tight shut and told herself furiously to stop thinking about him.

Broken engagement, broken heart, broken dreams. Kerry shivered and lifted her hands to her tear-wet face in shame: she had always been too sensitive, too trusting and soft. Luciano’s infidelity had devastated her. But then, that Luciano should everhave shown an interest in her had been surprising and her own father had told her that too, hadn’t he?

‘You were never da Valenza’s type. I should’ve suspected that he had an ulterior motive. Now, if he’d gone after your stepsister, Rochelle, again, well…’ Harold Linwood had stressed meaningfully. ‘That would have been the normal thing to do.’

In frustration, Kerry breathed in deep and emptied her mind of the painful memories that still taunted her. The past was over and gone, she reminded herself squarely. Ballybawn was under threat again, but this time around the threat she had to overcome came from Luciano. Luciano, who had been outraged when she handed him back his ring and as incredulous as a predatory, prowling cat suddenly punched on the nose by a mouse. Luciano, who always played to win with ruthless, relentless purpose.

But exactly what would Luciano want with a cold, comfortless castle in the hilly wilds of Co Clare? The cosmopolitan delights of Dublin city were at a most inconvenient distance. And wasn’t it truly fortunate that Luciano had come into the reputed squillions of cash left to him by his natural father? She was relieved by the idea that Luciano had become so wealthy that flogging a tumbledown Irish castle would not enrich him to any appreciable extent.

Unhappily, those small positive elements aside, Kerry also knew that she had only one immediate option: she would have to fly over to London and see Luciano in person, for only he would have the power to stop that repossession order progressing as far as the High Court. But how could she face seeing him again? And on such demeaning terms? Coming cap in hand like a beggar to him?

Shivering at that degrading image, Kerry felt cold inside and out. Somehow she had to find the strength to do what had to be done, for, like so many other tasks around Ballybawn, there was nobody else but her available.


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