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Грэхем Линн

Dark Angel

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FOUR days later, pink in the face, out of breath and all too well aware that her delayed flight out of Shannon to London had made her almost fifteen minutes late for her two o’clock appointment with Luciano, Kerry sank down in the smart reception area on the top floor of his brand-new office building.

In an effort to get a grip on her own mounting stress level, Kerry made herself concentrate on the challenge ahead. She needed to tell Luciano why the loan was in arrears and ask for more time to make good on the payments. He was first, foremost and last a businessman. If she could convince him that he would make more money letting her grandparents stay on in the castle, surely she would have a chance of winning his agreement to a stay of execution on that repossession order? With an anxious hand she checked that the business plan she had drawn up was still safe in her bag.

Striving to steady herself, she then looked around herself, desperate for anything that would take her mind off the coming confrontation. Her opulent surroundings had that classic sharp-edge design flair that distinguished a successful business. It had been eighteen months since Roberto Tessari’s death and, regardless of Luciano’s imprisonment, his father’s companies had continued trading. In those circumstances, it was hardly surprising that Luciano should have decided to set up a London base of operation for da Valenza Technology. But how it must have galled him to have to work through and rely on intermediaries rather than have access to and sole control of what was his.

Luciano had never, ever been a team player. Or, crept in the anxious thought, very hot on the forgiveness and understanding front, Kerry reflected miserably. That she had arrived late for their meeting would have struck another bad note. Luciano had an inner clock that never let him down and he equated poor timekeeping with a lack of respect.

Kerry breathed in deep, struggling to keep herself calm, but minute by minute her nerves were winding up like coiled springs. For four days solid, she had fought not to think about what it would be like to see Luciano again. But now, even before she saw him, she was finding out. It was terrifying. Her brain felt like mush and her palms were sweating.

‘Luciano will see you now…you have fifteen minutes left!’

Startled by that snappy but familiar voice, Kerry rose hurriedly to her feet.

Costanza Guiseppi strolled forward. Clad in an enviable blue cropped jacket and shift dress, Luciano’s PA looked like a million dollars. It took only one scathing glance from Costanza for Kerry to be aware that her own dated grey skirt suit was the poorest of shabby comparisons.

‘How does it feel to be a leech?’ Costanza turned her head to enquire with venom as Kerry accompanied her down the corridor.

‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ Kerry tilted her chin, telling herself that she ought to have been prepared for that attack, for the brunette was very loyal to Luciano and very fond of him. Their friendship was a close one, for Costanza had, after all, first met Luciano at school. As ambitious as Luciano was to succeed in the world, she had gone to work for him as soon as she left college.

‘I don’t suppose it even occurred to you five years ago that Luciano could have done with that loan being returned. If he’d had more funds, he could’ve afforded top-flight legal counsel and he might never have gone to prison.’ The Italian woman watched Kerry turn ashen pale in shock. ‘You cost him and you’re still costing him, and that makes you a leech on my terms!’

‘If Luciano had asked for the money back then my grandfather could still have given it back,’ Kerry protested sickly.

But Costanza wasn’t listening. ‘I’m so looking forward to viewing your Irish castle without you in it.’ The other woman savoured that assurance. ‘Your cheek in coming here today is your biggest mistake so far.’

As Costanza cast open the door ahead, Kerry walked in past her without even hearing that final taunt, for she was much too keyed-up about seeing Luciano again after so long.

‘Thank you, Costanza,’ Luciano murmured drily, knowing that the brunette’s satisfied expression meant that she had exercised her sharp tongue with barracuda-like efficiency.

As Luciano strolled forward, Kerry found herself just staring and staring. She was helpless in the grip of that overwhelming compulsion to take her visual fill. Even though she had already seen a half-dozen newspaper photos of him, the sight of him in the flesh and poised only feet from her reduced her mind to a literal wasteland.

‘Take a seat,’ Luciano suggested, his dark, deep drawl achingly familiar to her.

Her mouth running dry, her heartbeat speeded up in the taut silence but still she was looking at him. His sleek, dark business suit had the smooth, perfect fit of expensive tailoring over his wide shoulders, narrow hips and long, powerful legs. But even in that first moment she immediately recognised the changes in him: the shorter, more aggressive cut of his black hair, the cleaner, tougher angle of his proud cheekbones, the bleak, uncompromising line of his beautiful sculpted mouth. He was still extravagantly gorgeous, she thought painfully, but there was a quality of indifference stamped to his lean, dark features that was new to her.

Unwarily, Kerry tilted her head back and finally collided with narrowed dark golden eyes that stilled her in her tracks. Beautiful, bold, brilliant eyes, framed by a dense black fringe of lashes. As a tiny sliver of snaking heat curled low in her belly, she went rigid and dragged her gaze from his. Indeed a whole array of secret sensations that she had almost managed to forget she could feel assailed her in punishing reminder: the sudden melting weakness deep down inside, the stirring swell of her breasts within her bra, the feel of her skin tightening over her bones in excitement. Embarrassed colour washed her face, stark shame engulfing her.

One look was all that it had taken to strip away her defences and make her cringe at her own failure to remain untouched by his powerful magnetism.

‘It’s been a long time…’ she mumbled, sitting down in haste and trying not to wince at the inanity of her own greeting.

A long time, a very long time, yet her own grief at losing what she had once felt they had still felt as fresh as yesterday to Kerry. She had been crazily, wildly happy with him and that was impossible to forget. She had believed that he was sincere and honourable and that had proved to be a cruelly empty illusion. The day after he had been sampling the gold satin sheets in her stepsister’s bed, he had lied without hesitation about his movements. And he was one very smooth liar, she recalled painfully, for not once during that phone conversation had she sensed anything amiss. What a pathetic judge of character she had been!

Just then Luciano was recalling how long it had taken for him to stop lusting after her skinny, undersized little carcass. That same self-applied verbal-aversion therapy hastened to inform him that he could not be attracted in any way to a skinny, vertically challenged woman with child-sized feet and hands. Not even one with translucent skin as smooth as silk, eyes the clear, glorious colour of a mountain lake and a mouth as tempting and luscious as a ripe fruit. He watched her lower her head. Straying curls from the riot of Titian hair that swung clear of her slight shoulders glinted like fiery question marks against the pale, delicate curve of her cheek. He saw the faint purple shadows etched by too little sleep below her eyes. Without the smallest warning, the dark, bitter anger that he had believed he had under full control seethed up in him with formidable effect.

‘I suggest that you start talking fast,’ Luciano advised flatly.

Her brain a sea of conflicting promptings, Kerry went for what mattered most to her at that moment and broke straight into speech. ‘Costanza said that if we’d offered to return the loan after you were arrested, you could’ve hired a better lawyer to defend yourself!’

His wide, sensual mouth took on a cynical slant. ‘Untrue. Back then, I had touching faith in the British legal system. I didn’t realise that I needed a hotshot defence team. I assumed that such outrageous charges could never be made to stick.’

His rebuttal of Costanza’s contention only eased Kerry’s sick sense of guilt a little. Her conscience had always been easily stirred but she was also uncomfortably aware that the first six months after his arrest were still just a blur of unimaginable pain in her own memory. It had been a very long time before she had regained the ability to think with any clarity.

‘Even so,’ Kerry said tautly, ‘I wish that my grandfather or indeed I had thought of that angle for ourselves.’

Ironically, Luciano was inflamed by the apparent sincerity with which she expressed that regret. Why didn’t it occur to her that that oversight had been the very least of her sins of omission? Even had her decision not to marry him had no relation to his subsequent arrest, what about the faith that she should have had in him and the support she could still have offered him? Instead she had turned her back on him as totally as if he had never existed.

‘You’re not here to catch up on my life,’ Luciano derided with a roughened edge to his accented drawl. ‘It has been five years since I last saw or heard from you. But then, I imagine you felt quite secure sitting over in Ireland and ripping me off—’

‘It wasn’t like that!’ Kerry exclaimed in dismay.

‘Wasn’t it?’ Luciano sent her a flaring golden look of disagreement that was like the lick of a whip scoring tender skin. ‘I was in prison and too busy fighting for my freedom to spare the time to instigate court action over that loan. Nice one, Kerry. I get banged up for a theft I didn’t commit while you virtually steal from me!’

At that condemnation, the last remnants of colour drained from Kerry’s shaken face. ‘That’s not how it was…for a start, you agreed that loan with my grandfather, not with me,’ she reminded him angrily, rising to her feet again in a driven movement. ‘I’ve never had access to Grandpa’s financial affairs either. Although I offered to help, he insisted on dealing with the accounts and the bills himself. In fact, it’s only four days since I found out that he’d fallen behind with the loan and only then because he couldn’t keep his difficulties a secret any longer!’

Luciano elevated a doubting winged ebony brow. ‘You want to go back outside and come up with a more convincing story?’

‘Whether you want to accept it or not, that’s the truth!’ Kerry squared her shoulders but she did not look directly at him, for every time she looked her concentration fell apart again.

‘But why would I believe anything you said? Why would I trust you?’ Luciano derided harshly.

Kerry shot him a helpless look of reproach and then hurriedly veiled her confused eyes in self-protection. For if she did not trust him, how could she expect him to trust her? When he had been convicted of stealing from the family firm, hadn’t she started to believe that she owned the moral high ground and that her every worst suspicion of him had been proven true? In fact, hadn’t it suited her to believe that? But where was it written that infidelity and financial dishonesty went hand in hand? With a mighty effort of will, Kerry closed her mind down on the torrent of dangerous thoughts rushing in on her one after another.

‘Let’s recap,’ Luciano continued levelly. ‘The loan repayments stopped dead after the first six months. That’s over four years ago. Yet you’re trying to convince me that you had no suspicion whatsoever of that reality? Sorry, I’m not impressed!’

Faced with that intimidating derision, Kerry stiffened with annoyance. With every word that Luciano spoke she was receiving a daunting insight into his attitude. It was obvious that he was in no mood to give her a fair hearing. ‘You’re not really listening, though, are you?’

‘Are you getting that déjà vu feeling?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘This is how you treated me the day you told me that you’d changed your mind about marrying me. I didn’t get an explanation either and you didn’t listen to a word I said.

At that unwelcome reminder of that nightmare day, Kerry’s breath snarled up in her throat, her strained eyes darkening. She marvelled that he had the gall to refer to that occasion. ‘I thought I was here to discuss Grandpa’s loan—’

‘Which he only got in the first place because I couldn’t stand you worrying your little head off about how your grandparents were managing in their draughty castle. There’s a personal dimension here that you seem determined to ignore.’

‘What else can I do?’ Kerry demanded, her temper flaring.

Did he think she was a caged animal to be prodded through the bars to provide him with better entertainment? First he tossed one spoiler, then another, and every angle he took caught her by surprise. After the way he had treated her, only the cruellest of males would even have referred to their short-lived engagement. Smarting pride and pain over that reference to a personal dimension only increased her resentment.

‘Admit the truth. It’s possible that that might win you five more minutes of my time,’ Luciano delivered with crushing contempt.

‘What truth? Are you actually asking me why I broke off our engagement? You still haven’t worked that out for yourself?’ Kerry could feel her heart thumping inside her chest too fast, her outrage rising out of her control. ‘That amazes me but I’m still not going to lower myself to the level of telling you why now!’

‘Is that your last word on the subject?’

Kerry pinned her soft lips together and jerked her chin in defiant affirmation.

‘Then I don’t have any more time to give you.’ Striding past her, Luciano crossed the room, threw the door wide and dealt her a cold, hard look of expectancy.

Her eyes flew wide in disbelief and her stomach clenched. ‘That’s not fair…you can’t do that!’

Chilling golden eyes assailed hers and his jawline squared. ‘I can do anything I want to do in my own office.’

Kerry stared fixedly into space, willing back the shaken surge of tears stinging behind her eyes. So he got his kicks out of intimidation now, she told herself, hating him with every fibre of her being for forcing her into a humiliating position where she had no choice but to climb back down off her high horse. Had she really once admired that sheer ruthless force of will of his?

Luciano was still as a statue, untouched by the shock that was emanating from her slender figure in waves. He had waited what felt like half a lifetime for what he was determined to hear from her own pink lips and he would let nothing get in the way of the best opportunity he would ever have.

Kerry forced her attention back to him and clashed with challenging dark golden eyes that carried not a shade of remorse or discomfiture. Her slight shoulders rigid, she screened her gaze and with a wooden lack of expression said, ‘All right…but first you let me explain about the loan and you listen this time.’

With a fluid shift of a lean brown hand, Luciano sent the door thudding shut again. The silence that fell throbbed. Her very muscles hurt with the strength of her tension. She sank back down in her chair, stiff as a coat hanger.

‘I’m waiting…’ Luciano lounged back against the edge of his fancy glass desk with infuriating self-assurance and cool.

For an instant Kerry searched those lean, darkly handsome features, saw the strength written in the hard angles of his fantastic bone structure and, before she even knew what was happening to her, hunger leapt inside her. It was a wanton physical craving that had a life all of its own and it shook her up even more. Her concentration destroyed and furious with herself, she battled to regain it. But she was remembering the many nights she had woken up hot and ashamed of her feverish dreams of what it might have been like if he had ever made love to her…only to always be forced to recall, both during their engagement and after his imprisonment, that Rochelle had already had that pleasure ahead of her and that nothing would ever change that demeaning reality.

Without even thinking about what he was doing, reacting by male instinct to the flash of awareness he had seen in her eyes, his own male hormones already on red alert, Luciano was picturing her stripped on his office carpet, dominated by him, begging him for it. Only something in him recoiled from that crude image even as raw arousal flared through his powerful frame with a white-hot, burning ferocity that reminded him just how long it had been since he had had any woman in his bed. Five years and four months. Four months wasted on her, four months putting her needs way ahead of his own, four months waiting on a wedding night that had never happened. His lean, bronzed face paled with anger. He had to be sex-starved to still be excited by her and certifiably insane to be wondering if she could still be a virgin.

Kerry was sick at heart from what she had relived, unable to look at him and agonised that she could still be that vulnerable to his potent sexual aura. That was all it was, she told herself feverishly. He was just a very good-looking, very masculine guy and lots of women reacted the same way around him. It certainly didn’t mean that she was carrying some stupid torch for him. It just meant that she was behaving like a total idiot and that it was time she got her act together.

‘Are you still a virgin?’ Luciano enquired, choosing to travel the certifiably insane route and doing so with a question that emerged smooth as silk.

Kerry’s head tipped back on her shoulders and she stared at him with aghast blue eyes, so disconcerted that she started stammering, ‘Wh-wh-wh-wh—?’

Luciano surveyed her with grim satisfaction. ‘So that’s a yes. No, don’t bother arguing with me. If you’d loosened the lock on your mental chastity belt, you wouldn’t still be blushing or embarrassed about it.’

In furious mortification, Kerry set her teeth together and snatched in sustaining oxygen but the silence lingered while she prepared herself to speak again without that revealing hesitation over every word. ‘How many twenty-six-year-old virgins do you know?’

‘You’re in a class of your own. The loan,’ Luciano prompted, content to let the previous issue drop while he let his attention be drawn by the restive way she crossed one slim knee over the other and then changed it back again.

Drawn up short by that reminder, Kerry swallowed hard and endeavoured to rise above her fury over that demeaning taunt and concentrate on her grandparents’ plight. She had to get across certain facts in the hope that he would understand and accept that nobody had ever had the slightest intention of defrauding him in any way. ‘Grandfather’s elder brother, my great-uncle Ivor, died soon after you went into prison—’

She still had fantastic legs, Luciano conceded. Slowly his appraisal climbed, memory filling out what he could not see as she sat there: the slim but highly feminine curve of her hips, her tiny waist, the surprising fullness of her small breasts. At the speed of a bullet, sexual heat exploded in him, sentencing him to an exquisite aching discomfort that made his even white teeth clench in outraged denial.

‘I don’t remember you ever mentioning him before,’ Luciano breathed curtly.

‘I used to forget Ivor was around. He lived like a hermit in his own wing of the castle.’ Aware of the terrible tension in the atmosphere and putting it down to his reluctance even to hear her explanation, Kerry talked even faster. ‘Grandpa only inherited Ballybawn because his father disinherited Ivor for running up so many debts when he was a young man. In the 1970s, Ivor was badly hurt in an accident and he was never the same afterwards. He became antisocial and difficult, he couldn’t hold down a job and his wife, who was a lot younger than he was, went off with another man. Then about twenty years ago Ivor finally came back to Ballybawn because he was broke and he had nowhere else to go, and Grandpa took him in—’

‘Where is this long story leading?’ Luciano cut in very drily.

‘Grandpa felt very guilty that his brother had suffered so much. He wanted Ivor to feel that he had as much right to live at Ballybawn as he himself had, so…’ Kerry grimaced ‘…Grandpa signed over half of the castle to Ivor—’

‘Why am I only hearing about this now?’ Luciano growled in wrathful interruption.

‘I didn’t know either until it all blew up in Grandpa’s face.’ Finally, Kerry lifted her head to clash with shimmering dark golden eyes. Her mouth ran dry and her spinal cord notched up another inch in rigidity.

‘But you are telling me that Hunt took a loan from me knowing that he didn’t have full title to the estate?’

‘At the time, Ivor made a will leaving his half to my grandparents and their descendants,’ Kerry hurried to explain. ‘Only unfortunately, after his death, that will turned out to be invalid because it hadn’t been properly witnessed and his old will, the one drawn up while he was still married, left all his worldly goods to his ex-wife and…and she claimed half of Ballybawn.’

Wretchedly conscious of Luciano’s brooding and incredulous scrutiny, Kerry muttered tautly, ‘Grandpa settled out of court with her and everything that could be sold was sold but it meant that he could not maintain the loan repayments.’

‘Even if I was to accept this highly improbable story,’ Luciano drawled with sardonic bite, ‘why didn’t Hunt himself come forward with it long before now?’

‘He couldn’t handle it and so he tried to pretend it wasn’t happening. He blamed himself terribly for what happened with Ivor’s will and it knocked the heart out of him. I could show you an entire drawer full of letters from your accountant and your solicitor that Grandpa didn’t even open…the minute they arrived, he must’ve put them in there. Luciano…I honestly did only find out about this a few days ago!’ she told him in helpless appeal.

As the phone buzzed Luciano turned away to answer it and Kerry pleated her restive hands together, striving to gauge his reaction from his chiselled bronze profile. She studied the arrogant jut of his nose, the proud angle of his cheekbone, the unyielding edge to his wide, sensual mouth. He had been so very kind to her grandparents when they had come over to London to meet him. He had liked the older couple, had not seemed to find them as eccentric as other people did. Surely there was something of that tolerant compassion still left in him?

Replacing the phone, Luciano swung back to her, and as she dredged her troubled gaze from him her cheeks warmed with self-conscious colour.

‘In business, it’s important that you stick to the issue,’ Luciano delivered with cool golden eyes, cold anger having checked his powerful libido. ‘However, it seems that you need me to clarify what that issue is and what it isn’t. It doesn’t relate to your great-uncle Ivor or your grandfather’s foolishness or even whether I believe in either claim. But by telling me that Hunt concealed the fact that he only owned part of the estate against which the loan was secured, you’ve done his cause no favours.’

Unnerved by that caustic speech, Kerry said vehemently, ‘I thought that when things had reached such a serious climax, honesty was the best policy—’

‘What are you? A little girl in Sunday school?’ Luciano shook his proud, dark head in wonderment at her naivety, for she had just given him more ammunition for the repossession order. ‘The bleeding-heart routine doesn’t have a place here. So before I lose patience or we run out of time, I suggest you keep your end of the bargain and confess why you ditched me…and, more importantly, you have to tell me who told you to do it.’

Even as Kerry coloured at that crack about bleeding hearts, her brows pleated. ‘Who told me to do it?’ she repeated in bewilderment. ‘What are you trying to suggest?’

Luciano settled shimmering golden eyes on her with incisive force. ‘That it’s cards-on-the-table time. I had only one reason for agreeing to see you today and it had nothing to do with how much money you owe me. That reason is that the Linwood half of your family tree set me up for five years in a prison cell!’

At that far-reaching condemnation, Kerry stared back at him with astonished incomprehension. ‘How is it my family’s fault that the police didn’t investigate your case properly? And why should you believe that anyone set you up?’

‘Right out of the blue you broke off our engagement and the next morning I was arrested. Now, only a fool would credit that those two events weren’t closely connected,’ Luciano continued in the same soft, sibilant undertone that from the outset of that disturbing speech had had the most terrifyingly chilling effect on her. ‘To save you and your family from embarrassment, one of your Linwood relatives warned you to dump me and I want to know which one of them it was. Why? Because whoever did that was involved up to their throat in framing me!’

‘I can’t believe that you’ve been thinking like this about my family and me all this time,’ Kerry admitted shakily half under her breathe, stark strain visible in the prominence of her fine facial bones. ‘But I had good reason to tell you that day that I didn’t want to marry you any more. I certainly didn’t need anyone else to tell me to end our relationship. Your behaviour did that for me all on its own.’

‘My behaviour? After what I’ve come through, I’m not prepared to swallow your insults.’ As she spoke, scorching anger had flamed in Luciano’s intent scrutiny and his lean, strong face was rigid. ‘So stop right there and think very hard about what you’re about to say to me. In fact I think you ought to sleep on it!’

Kerry gave him an even more perplexed look. ‘Sleep…on it?’

‘Your time’s up. I have a meeting to attend and I see no reason why other people should be kept waiting on your behalf,’ Luciano asserted with acerbic bite. ‘I’ll see you tomorrow morning at eleven.’

‘You can’t expect me to come back here again tomorrow!’ Kerry argued in disbelief.

‘You should’ve been on time this afternoon.’

Kerry jumped to her feet. ‘For goodness’ sake, I have a flight booked home this evening!’

‘Then you have a problem. And do think very carefully about what you plan to tell me tomorrow because you won’t get a second chance to spill the beans.’

‘What’s that supposed to mean? Hasn’t anything I’ve said today made the slightest impression on you?’ Kerry pressed in dismay.

‘Nothing,’ Luciano admitted.

At that uncompromising confirmation, her heart sank. Recognising that she had no choice whatsoever but to meet his demand that she return the next day, Kerry dug into her bag to remove the file and walked over to set it on his desk. ‘Then at least look at my business plan for Ballybawn before I come back…that is sticking to the issue and practical and should be much more your style.’

‘Kerry…one final word of advice.’ Luciano shot her a grim look of incredulity. ‘The very last thing I’m likely to be interested in is your business plan for a property that will soon be mine!’

A sense of desperation surged up so hard and fast in Kerry that it made her feel light-headed. She had got nowhere with him but then, she dimly recognised, she was not firing on all cylinders, was she?

‘I can’t quite believe that I’m here with you,’ she muttered out loud, belatedly recognising her own maddening sense of dislocation throughout their meeting. ‘It doesn’t feel real.’

Smouldering golden eyes rested on her delicate features. Not a single reference had she made to his imprisonment for a crime he had not committed. Not a single word of even insincere regret had she proffered. A story-book princess in a fairy-tale tower could not have been more detached from the hard realities of his recent past.

‘I can make it feel real,’ Luciano murmured silkily, snapping his hands over hers and drawing her close before she could even guess his intention.

‘What are you d-doing?’ Every skin cell in Kerry’s body leapt in shock as he used his strong hands to clamp her to his lean, muscular frame. Her heart felt as though it was about to burst right out of her chest.

‘Making it feel real, cara mia.’ A hard, slashing smile on his lean, dark face, Luciano looked down at her, the lush black screen of his lashes merely accentuating the fiery gold challenge of his gaze. ‘When was I ever in your radius this long without touching you?’

With those words he set free a dozen evocative memories that she never, ever allowed herself to consciously think about. In the act of bracing her hands against his sleeves to break his hold on her, Kerry met his eyes and intimate images bombarded her without mercy: sunlight on her skin, Luciano in her arms, the potent allurement of him, the wildness of her own longing and the soaring belief that she was the luckiest woman in the world.

He took her soft pink mouth in a hard, deep kiss. Faster than the speed of light, her own body reacted to the surge of heat that flared in her pelvis. Her head swam, her knees shook. She could no more have halted the chain reaction of her own desire than she could have pulled back from him. More primitive reactions had taken over, making her push herself into contact with the hard muscularity of his lithe, powerful frame. A startled whimper of burning excitement broke in her throat as his tongue ravished the tender interior of her mouth.

Luciano set her back from him. Adrenalin on full charge, he was on a complete high. At that moment, it didn’t matter that the fierce ache of his own sexual hunger was actual pain. He was getting too big a kick out of watching her stumble back from him like a blind woman to steady herself on the chair back and he was revelling in the shell-shocked look on her face. Had the entire range of his ancestors crowed in triumph with him from the heavens he would not have been surprised, for never had his Sicilian genes been more in the ascendant.

‘I see you haven’t lost your taste for me,’ Luciano murmured in husky provocation.

Kerry flinched as though he had doused her with a bucket of cold water. Paper-pale from the aftermath of her own degrading response to him, she hovered, stricken blue eyes locked to him. Bitterly aware as she was of the terrible pain that he had already caused her, her temper exploded. She slapped him hard enough to numb her hand and make her wrist ache.

‘You bastard!’ she condemned. ‘I h-hate you!’

Luciano did not even wince and, as Kerry watched the marks of her own fingers flare up red over his cheekbone, she went into deeper shock at her own behaviour. Nothing he had said excused her violence and never before had she lost control to the extent that she had struck someone else. Blinking in shaken turmoil, appalled that she had let herself down to that extent, she muttered a harried apology.

Luciano surveyed her with lethal golden eyes and an unnerving degree of impassive cool, for he was simply chalking up one more score to be settled. ‘I’ll see you tomorrow…and don’t be late this time.’

As the door closed on Kerry’s hurried departure, a sardonic smile of intense satisfaction lit Luciano’s lean, strong features. She had lost her head. She was breaking up. He would find out what he needed to know tomorrow. And then? He finally understood why no other woman had yet been able to excite his interest. He still wanted her. Why? Had five years shut away from a world that had moved on without him left him trapped in time? In one sense, he acknowledged the truth of that. But he also thought his own urges were a lot more basic. Desire and revenge made an intoxicating combination. He hated her but he still burned to have her under him, to have those long, perfect legs wrapped round him, hear her cry out his name, learn the pleasure that he could give her…before he took it away again.

Outside the impressive building that housed da Valenza Technology, Kerry came to a sudden halt on the acknowledgement that she did not even know where she was going.

Stepping back from the milling crowds on the pavement, she attempted to still her jangling nerves. It did not help her to appreciate that she had made a complete hash of her meeting with Luciano. That kiss followed by that slap. Stupid…stupid…stupid, she told herself angrily as she noticed a café on the other side of the street and headed for the crossing.

He had accused her of trying to ignore the ‘personal dimension’ but what else could he have expected from her? Compassion? Forgiveness? Understanding? The anguish and self-blame that his infidelity had inflicted would live with her until the day she died. Just when she had been within reach of finally believing that she was someone of value, he had dashed her down lower than ever before.

The seeds of her difficult relationship with her stepsister, Rochelle, had been sown right back in childhood, Kerry acknowledged heavily. Within months of divorcing Carrie, her mother, her father had remarried. His second wife, Pamela Bailey, had been a widow with two young children. However, Harold Linwood had made no attempt to remove his four-year-old daughter from the care of her Irish grandparents. In fact, it had been six years before he thought better of that arrangement and finally came to Ireland to take Kerry back to England and into his own home.

By then, Rochelle had been twelve and the spoilt darling of the household. While her fifteen-year-old brother, Miles, had accepted Kerry, neither his mother nor his sister had been as tolerant. Rochelle had been outraged by the belated revelation that the stepfather she adored already had a daughter from a previous marriage. Yet there had never been any risk of Kerry stealing Rochelle’s place in the family. Kerry’s father had been infinitely fonder of his pretty, playful stepdaughter than he had ever been of his own child. Kerry had reminded him far too much of the ex-wife he still hated and denigrated for having humiliated him with her lovers. In addition, her stepmother had truly resented having to raise her irresponsible predecessor’s child.

The following five years had been very unhappy ones for Kerry. At home, she had endured regular taunts about her mother’s promiscuity and at school she had been relentlessly bullied by Rochelle and her friends. Finally reaching breaking point, Kerry had run away from home. When her grandfather had phoned Harold Linwood to inform him that Kerry had shown up safe and sound at Ballybawn, her furious father had washed his hands of his daughter altogether and left her there.

In spite of that, however, six years later, fresh from university and with her business degree and, if anything, even more desperate than she had once been to win acceptance from the older man, Kerry had still applied for a job at Linwoods. She had hoped that as an adult she might achieve the closer relationship with her father that she had failed to establish while she was a child. Looking back, she could only wince at her own innocence, for the older man had only employed her out of a grudging sense of duty. Blood bond or not, she had always been an outsider in the Linwood family and growing up hadn’t changed that fact.

Nor, unfortunately, had it changed Rochelle. And even more than five years after the event, Kerry still felt sick when she recalled the day that she had learnt to her horror that the man she loved, the man whose engagement ring she wore, had in fact slept with Rochelle long before she herself had even met him. Eighteen months earlier, her stepsister had enjoyed a weekend fling with Luciano while she was modelling in Italy. It had been a ghastly coincidence that nobody could have foreseen or even guarded against. Naturally, Luciano had not associated Rochelle Bailey with Linwoods, and when he had been headhunted into the task of revitalising the flagging fortunes of the Linwood wine chain Rochelle had been living in New York.

‘It was just a casual thing,’ Luciano had explained after Rochelle had walked into the office one day and all hell had broken loose when the outspoken blonde realised that Kerry was engaged to one of her own former lovers.

When, regardless of all Luciano’s efforts to comfort and calm her, Kerry had continued to be extremely distressed, he had finally studied her with frowning perturbation. ‘It was no big deal to either of us,’ he had reasoned. ‘I’m not proud of it but I’m not ashamed of it either. At times, I’ve been forced to work such long hours that it was impossible for me to sustain a longer relationship. Don’t make so much of this. It’s very unfortunate that Rochelle is your stepsister, but we’re all adults and Rochelle and I parted as friends.’

Only Rochelle had wanted more than a friendly parting. And Luciano had either been unusually obtuse in refusing to concede that fact or far too clever to highlight it. That same afternoon all Kerry’s happiness in their engagement had died, only to be replaced by a helpless sense of threat and insecurity. She had needed no crystal ball to foresee that Rochelle’s competitive instincts would soon cause trouble.

Within forty-eight hours, Rochelle had drawn up the battle lines: her stepsister, whose loathing for daily employment was a standing joke, had signed up for a temporary office job at Linwoods and had sashayed into work in a clingy top and a very short skirt. Her stepsister had used every seductive weapon she possessed in her determination to tempt Luciano back into her bed. Kerry had stood on the sidelines like the spectre at the feast while Rochelle flirted shamelessly with Luciano, and when Kerry complained about that Luciano had groaned out loud and told her to stop being ‘paranoid’. Within the space of ten days, he had been telling her that jealousy and possessiveness were very unattractive traits.

Inevitably, Rochelle had won, Kerry reflected painfully as she sat over her untouched coffee in the café where she had taken refuge. Each memory that forced its way through the cracks in her self-discipline was more painful than the previous one…

Just a few short weeks later Kerry had returned from a brief trip back to Ballybawn, and Rochelle, having picked a very distinctive gold designer cuff-link up off her bedroom carpet, handed it to Kerry with a taunting smile of triumph.

‘Yes, Luciano slept with me last night. Why should I cover up for him?’ her stepsister asked, her amused gaze pinned to Kerry’s shattered face. ‘But don’t be too hard on him. He’s a very passionate guy. How could you think that you could hang on to a rampant stud like Luciano with that pitiful I-wanna-be-a-virgin-on-my-wedding-night routine?’

‘He told you…that?’ Kerry was sick with humiliation that something so very private should have been shared and equally aware that only Luciano could have provided that same information.

‘We had a laugh about it,’ Rochelle mocked. ‘You’re a right little goody-two-shoes. However, if it’s any consolation, the sex may have been tremendous but Luciano’s not planning to ditch you and replace you with little old me—’

‘Shut up!’ Kerry shouted, distraught, but there was no silencing Rochelle.

‘But then, I won’t come endowed with the greater part of Daddy Linwood’s chain of wine stores, will I?’ her stepsister continued spitefully. ‘Naturally Luciano has his eye on the main chance. How else do you think he clawed his way up out of the back streets to become what he is now? While you’ve got your wine-store dowry, you’ve got him. Maybe you should consider trading in your sensible underwear and unlocking the bedroom door to prevent him straying again…but then I doubt that a little prude like you could match his incredible stamina and inventiveness between the sheets!’

Choosing to conserve what little pride she had had left, Kerry had decided not to confront Luciano on the score of his infidelity and had simply returned his ring to him. Why had she done it that way? She had felt that while all three of them were still working together at Linwoods, she would suffer the greatest humiliation if Luciano’s behaviour was to become open knowledge. Had she shared that story with the rest of the family, Rochelle, brazen to the last, would have used that as an excuse to ensure that all their friends and employees also found out why Kerry’s engagement had been broken off. The next day, while she had still been steeling herself to go into work, Luciano had been arrested.

A tight, hard knot of pain over those recollections remained with Kerry as she sank back to the present and drank her cold coffee to ease her aching throat. She had loved him, she had loved him so much. She shook her head as though to clear it, angry that the past could still have such a powerful effect on her, and made herself concentrate on the practicalities of her position. Where, for instance, was she planning to spend the night? Of course, Miles would put her up. Relief travelling through her as she came up with that obvious solution, she took out her mobile phone and rang her stepbrother.

‘Of course you can stay. You don’t even have to ask. But what are you doing in London?’ her stepbrother asked in surprise. ‘And why didn’t you mention that you were coming?’

‘I had some business to take care of and I didn’t realise that I’d have to stay over until tomorrow.’ Comforted by the familiar warmth of Miles’s welcome, Kerry had to resist the urge to tell him then and there about the repossession order hanging over Ballybawn. He was at the office and she could hear voices in the background and he would not be able to speak freely.

‘I wish I’d known that you were going to be here because I’ve got a business dinner to attend with your father tonight,’ Miles complained.

In disappointment at that news, Kerry pulled a face. ‘So I’ll keep you up late when you get back.’

On the way to the train station, she shopped for a few necessities for her overnight stay. At the same time, finding that she was no longer able to block out the demeaning memory of her own wanton response in Luciano’s arms little more than an hour earlier, she cringed with shame. What on earth had come over her? He had taken her by surprise and she had been upset and on edge, she reasoned feverishly. But why had Luciano kissed her? He could only have done it out of sheer badness. It had been the mother of all put-downs, administered by a male who had raised the skill to the level of an art-form.

As Kerry boarded the train to Oxford she considered the ludicrous family-conspiracy theory which Luciano seemed to believe lay behind their broken engagement. Why had the most obvious explanation not occurred to him? Why had he not immediately grasped that she had found out about his stolen night of passion with her stepsister? And how could he possibly accuse the Linwoods of framing him?

But then, to be fair, she reflected, if Luciano had not been the thief, who had been? Having read the newspaper reports that covered his appeal in depth, she had been genuinely shocked by the number of irregularities that had undermined the original investigation of his case. It seemed that the police had targeted the man they saw as the most likely culprit and had failed to follow up conflicting evidence.

So, who else had had access to those doctored office accounts? A whole host of people, Kerry conceded, but none of them dubious characters. Her father did not even come into the equation, for he had no need to steal what he had every right to take. It would be just as crazy to consider Miles a possible suspect: she knew her stepbrother inside out and would have staked her life on his integrity. Equally, Rochelle had not worked at Linwoods long enough during that period to have been involved.

At the time, the firm’s chief accountant had been Kerry’s uncle, George Linwood, who had since retired. His deputy then had been his son, Steven. That branch of the family was most noted for church activity and charitable endeavours. Even the office manager and the sales director had been distant Linwood relations. At executive level, Linwoods had always been very much a family concern. Could she credit that one of them might have been embezzling from the business? Certainly someone had, but she had come full circle, considered every potential candidate and come up with precisely nothing!

Miles opened the door of his elegant apartment. Tall and slim, he had classic blond good-looks similar to Rochelle’s but his friendly hug immediately emphasised that that resemblance only ran skin-deep. ‘How’s my girl?’

‘I’ve been better,’ Kerry confided unevenly.

As her stepbrother took her into his spacious lounge and offered her a drink, she noticed that his eyes were red-rimmed with tiredness and that he was thinner than he had been when she had last seen him. But there was nothing new in that, Kerry acknowledged, for her stepbrother might work very hard but he also liked to party. A devoted follower of the belief that you were only young once, Miles had always enjoyed a frantic social life with a like-minded circle of mates and a succession of leggy girlfriends.

A soft drink clutched in her hand, Kerry plunged straight into telling her stepbrother about the arrears on Luciano’s loan and the repossession order.

‘What a bastard da Valenza is!’ Miles exclaimed with a supportive heat that warmed her. ‘But surely even he couldn’t be serious about evicting the old folk?’

‘He’s got the law on his side and that’s all he needs.’

‘In his pocket by the sound of it!’ Miles tossed back his whisky and immediately went to pour himself another. ‘He got out of prison on a forensic technicality. They should’ve left him locked up!’

Kerry frowned. ‘He did do five years. Considering that the missing money was replaced, that’s a long time to serve for a first offence and if it’s true that he’s innocent—’

‘Are you telling me that you actually believe the rubbish the papers have been printing?’ Miles demanded with sudden raw derision. ‘You’ll not be feeling so generous when do Valenza throws you all out of the castle!’

Disconcerted by that attack, Kerry studied her stepbrother in surprise and dismay.

‘Look, I’m sorry…I didn’t mean to come down on you like that,’ Miles groaned in immediate apology. ‘I’m under a lot of pressure at the office right now.’

Kerry’s troubled gaze softened.

‘Let’s concentrate on your problems,’ he suggested. ‘Any hope of the bank—?’


‘I wish that I was in a position to help but I’ve never been the type to save up for a rainy day,’ her stepbrother told her with a grimace. ‘Were you thinking of approaching your father?’

Kerry winced. ‘He’s never had any time for my grandparents.’

‘And, between ourselves, Linwoods isn’t doing very well,’ Miles volunteered. ‘The Salut chain is hitting us right where it hurts—’

‘I think I saw one of their ads on TV the last time I was over—’

‘They’re selling wine like it’s the ultimate cool lifestyle choice…Their stores are fitted out like fancy continental bars. They’re taking our customers and undercutting our prices. How they can afford to do that on top of a rapid expansion and a nationwide marketing campaign I have no idea, but your father’s giving me a lot of grief over it.’

‘I know that working for Dad isn’t easy.’

‘I don’t think you’re following me…Salut is hammering us. We’re already facing the prospect of closing our smaller outlets and cutting back on staff.’ As Miles took account of the time, he frowned and got up. ‘I’d better get changed for this dinner do.’

Fifteen minutes later, Harold Linwood arrived to pick up his stepson. When Kerry answered the door to her father, a guarded expression tightened the older man’s features. A stockily built man with greying hair in his sixties, he spoke to her much as though she was a distant acquaintance. It was even more embarrassing when Miles tried to suggest that Kerry could join them that evening and her father stiffened with visible irritation.

‘I’m so tired, I couldn’t face going out again,’ Kerry cut in hastily.

When the two men had gone, Kerry compressed her tremulous lips hard. Why was it that she was still cut to the bone by her father’s total lack of interest in her? Why was it that memory would always plunge her right back to her ten-year-old self? Unhappily, she was unlikely ever to forget overhearing her father talking to her stepmother on the phone from Ballybawn.

‘How would I describe Kerry? Set beside Miles and Rochelle, she’ll definitely be the runt of the litter. Expect red hair, buck teeth and specs. Yes, I do accept that I’m asking a lot of you, Pamela,’ Harold Linwood had snapped, ‘but how can I leave her here? No, I’m not exaggerating…the O’Briens are as nutty as fruit-cakes…if I don’t intervene now, the kid will go the same way her slut of a mother went!’

Exhaustion sent Kerry to bed long before her stepbrother’s return. She knew she would need her wits about her when she met with Luciano again. Only she had no need to sleep on what she had to tell him! But wasn’t it pitiful that she should still feel gutted and humiliated by his infidelity? For her grandparents’ sake she had to fight Luciano with every weapon she had. If he truly had no suspicion that she had found out about his night in Rochelle’s bed, he was about to be caught at a severe disadvantage. Surely that fact could be made to work in her grandparents’ favour?

Luciano would not be able to deny that he had wronged her. Wouldn’t he feel guilty? Didn’t he deserve to feel guilty? All she needed was a few months’ grace on that repossession order and one good summer season of visitors to prove that the Ballybawn estate could bring in sufficient money to start eating into those loan arrears.

Tomorrow was another day, Kerry reminded herself bracingly…


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