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Лоренс Ким

In a Storm of Scandal

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POPPY having finally managed to fan the flames of the open fire in the cavernous fireplace into life, had peeled off her gloves—she had no intention of relinquishing her padded jacket—and was warming her fingers by the flickering flames when the sound of the brass door knocker hitting the oak door once, twice and then again made her fall back on her heels. Eyes on the door, she scrambled to her feet, rubbing her hands on the seat of her pants.

On finding the place deserted when she had arrived earlier, she had frantically searched the castle from top to bottom, her hunt extending outside until the weather had closed in and forced her to retreat.

Was this the rescue party she had been praying for?

Or better still was it Gran herself who would stroll in and demand to know what all the fuss was about?

Had her grandmother been out there all along? It would be just like her not to allow the elements to interfere with her daily constitutional.

‘Gran?’ Heart thudding hopefully, she left the warmth of the fire. Even though Poppy hadn’t bolted the massive metal-banded oak door or turned the big old-fashioned key in the lock—there hadn’t seemed any point—it seemed to take her an age to manipulate the latch and open the door.

The door swung inwards painfully slowly, then, caught by a gust of wind, almost knocked her over before it hit the stone wall with a tremendous crash to reveal, not her grandmother, but the tall sinister outline of a man—a large man.

It was a situation where an active imagination became a curse and Poppy’s immediately went into overdrive. She flinched and sucked in a deep breath as the tall figure was suddenly backlit by a flash of lightning that illuminated the sky for a brief moment.

A scream locked in her throat, Poppy stood there nailed to the spot by a stab of visceral fear while her heart tried to batter its way out of her chest and a bass toll of thunder cracked in perfect horror movie tradition overhead.

The scream emerged as a choked gasp when the figure, without saying a word, took a step forward. Jolted free of the fear-induced paralysis that had gripped her, Poppy shadowed the step hastily retreating, one hand pressed to her throat, before she turned and ran back to the fireplace.

She lifted the heavy poker that lay there. It took both hands to raise it and she whirled back to face the intruder warning fiercely, ‘I’m not alone!’ The normally husky timbre of her voice became shrill as she warned darkly, ‘It’s true!’

Not the best of time to discover that the people who had claimed she couldn’t lie convincingly if her life depended on it were right.

‘I’m glad to hear it.’ Gianluca scanned the room. Of his godmother there was no immediate sign, just the weapon-wielding figure in a thick padded jacket. His glance moved to the face framed by a knitted hat complete with furry earflaps.

The resulting jolt of recognition sent a pulse of shock zigzagging through his body with the strength of a lightning bolt. The last time he had looked directly at those spectacular, exotically slanted green eyes they had been filled with sad tears.

It was an image he had spent years trying to bury.

‘And don’t think I’m afraid to use this because I’m not—’ She stopped abruptly, her eyes widening … that voice … deep with the faint foreign inflection … no. Her heartbeat rocketed and her stomach dropped into a big black hole.

Calm down, Poppy, she counselled herself. You’re imagining things. It can’t be … Could it?

Still brandishing her weapon, she tilted her head back, directing a wary look at the intruder’s face. The furrow in her brow deepened and her arms began to ache with the effort of maintaining her defensive pose as she struggled in the gloom to see the man’s face.

Frustratingly all she could make out was an undefined blur and the impression of strong angles, sharp planes and dramatic hollows. Then the figure, not apparently deterred by her threats, stepped forward into a convenient pool of candlelight.

Poppy shook her head in a negative motion, intensifying the dizzy sensation.

‘No! You can’t be here.’ She began to cough as the candle on the table beside her guttered, sending up a plume of acrid smoke. ‘Luca?’

As if there could be two men that looked like this!

Poppy had no doubt that one day she would be able to look back on the last occasion they had spoken and not feel physically sick, but seven years and that day had definitely not come!

Heart pounding—was she going to have a heart attack?—she slowly laid the heavy poker down onto the hearth and tried frantically to marshal her rioting thoughts as she watched Luca brace his shoulder against the door and push. The wind and ancient wood resisted his efforts until, angular jaw clenched, the sinews in his brown neck standing out, with a final grunt of effort he managed to force the door that had been built to hold back armies closed with a loud bang.

The noise of the storm raging outside immediately lowered by several decibels. It was quiet enough now for Poppy to hear the click of the grandfather clock and the steady drip of the water gathering in a pool on the stone flagstones around the feet of Gianluca Ranieri.

She was here alone with Luca. Somewhere in her chest a bubble of terror burst … I can’t do this! Poppy yanked herself back from the brink of outright panic and hid her confused feelings behind a tight controlled smile.

‘I barely recognised you,’ she lied, averting her gaze from the perfect symmetry of a bronzed face bisected by a masterful nose and slashing cheekbones. ‘You’ve changed, Luca.’

This at least was not a lie. He was still the best-looking man imaginable—it was really nice to be able to make the observation with total objectivity, not soppy, misty-eyed foolishness, but the aura of power that hung around him like a second skin made him seem more aloof. And his heavy-lidded eyes, dark and fringed by incredibly long, spiky lashes—they had not in the past held a cynical gleam that suggested their owner expected the worst from the world and was rarely disappointed.

‘You haven’t.’ It was hard to tell from his abrupt delivery if this was a criticism or a compliment. ‘I did not expect you to be here.’

He didn’t add or wild horses would not have dragged me here to his vaguely accusatory statement, but he didn’t have to. He looked about as happy to see her as he had two years earlier, the night she had almost literally bumped into him as she was emerging with a group of friends from a popular West End show.

He had cut her dead.

Poppy had been left standing on the pavement, the awkward half-smile of polite acknowledgement still on her face. The public slight had not gone unnoticed.

‘Someone you know?’ one of the men in the group had asked.

Poppy had shrugged off the hurt inflicted by the chilling indifference in the dark eyes that had moved with the barest hint of recognition over her face.

‘Not really.’

Shaking some of the excess moisture from his hair, Luca moved forward into the room. Poppy responded with several backwards steps, reminding him of a jittery thoroughbred.

‘I am not, to my knowledge, infectious.’

She had no smart response to the mild sarcasm and no easy answer for why she felt the need to keep him at several arms’ lengths.

‘This is …’ she expelled a gusty sigh, her expression reflecting her dismay, and tore off her cap, tossing it on top of a pile of newspapers on a nearby armchair ‘… a total nightmare.’ There seemed very little point putting a brave face on what was an awful situation. A dangerous stranger she could have legitimately clonked on the head with a poker … what was she meant to do with Luca?

Her glance slid to the stern outline of his beautiful—it really was—mouth … A tiny sigh escaped her parted lips. She had once had a lot of ideas about what to do with and to Luca, but few, actually none, were any longer appropriate.

He tilted his head in acknowledgement. ‘The storm is bad.’

Poppy gave herself a mental shake and let his misinterpretation remain uncorrected as she struggled to make her fuzzy brain work … How … why was Luca here? ‘Was Gran expecting you?’


Gianluca’s eyes followed the golden brown waves as they continued to bounce, settling in a silky messy halo around her shoulders. It slid down her back, falling below shoulder-blade level, longer than she had used to wear it. The shaggy fringe was gone too, revealing the purity of her delicate heart-shaped face. A face still dominated, but not overwhelmed, by slanted hazel-green eyes.

‘So you don’t know where she is?’ Poppy pressed.

The furrow between his brows deepened as he registered the anxiety behind her question. ‘Don’t you?’ He struggled to focus on the situation and not on every tiny detail of her face.

Poppy bit her lip and shook her head. ‘I’ve looked everywhere and there’s no sign of her.’ She had scoured the surrounding area yelling until her throat was raw.

‘Did you look for a note?’

His glance moved in an assessing sweep around the rapidly darkening room that, though not in the grand part of the building, still had twice the square footage of an average semi.

‘Of course I looked for a note.’

‘I’m assuming the candles are not for atmosphere.’ Even as he spoke Luca realised that it was a mistake to assume anything; for all he knew Poppy might be here with a boyfriend. ‘The power’s out?’ On every visit he suggested that the electrics needed an overhaul; his suggestion was inevitably met with a point-blank refusal from his frugal godmother, who was fond of saying she did not believe in change for change’s sake.

Poppy nodded and glanced at her watch, her eyes widening when she read the time. ‘Nearly two hours ago.’ Just after she had arrived.

‘Did you check the fuses?’

There was an edge in her voice as Poppy replied, ‘Of course I checked the fuses.’

‘Isn’t there still a back-up generator?’

Poppy struggled against impatience. ‘Yes, but it’s not working.’

He arched a brow. ‘And you know this how?’

‘I tried to start it.’ Though it was notoriously temperamental, the second kick generally did the trick, but not today.

She saw something flicker at the back of his dark eyes. ‘You kicked it?’

Poppy killed the beginning of a grin that tugged at the corners of her mouth and experienced a moment of panic before her instincts of self-preservation kicked in. It had taken her a very long time to put the memories they shared into cold storage; she wasn’t about to thaw out even at the most innocent of them, not now, not ever.

‘As a last resort.’

Frustrated in his attempts to read past her cool mask, he felt a stab of dissatisfaction. She might have changed remarkably little to look at—Poppy could still have passed for a teenager—but clearly she had changed.

And you expected she wouldn’t, Luca? You expected that having her heart broken would not have made her toughen up, develop a few defences?

‘And Isabel, you saw her last … when?’

Poppy responded to the question literally. ‘April.’

His dark brows drew together above the bridge of his hawkish nose. ‘I meant …’

Intercepting the impatient look, she flushed and, resenting the fact he had made her feel foolish, inserted quickly, ‘I know what you meant, and, no, I haven’t seen Gran, but I spoke to her … last night.’ Had it really only been a few hours earlier?

‘This isn’t a case of miscommunication—perhaps she went to the village to meet you?’

‘No, I said I’d catch the ferry and I’d ring when I arrived.’

‘There was no reply?’

‘The phone lines are down and I couldn’t get a signal on my mobile.

Where can she be, Luca? The only way out of here is by boat, and don’t,’ she pleaded, ‘suggest she might have walked out, because after the rock fall last winter even a four-wheel drive can’t make it up the track.’

‘I was not going to suggest she walked out. Your gran’s fit for an eighty-year-old but even she is not going to trek out along the mountain track.’

‘I have a bad feeling, Luca.’ It was just a name and what was she meant to call him—Mr Ranieri? ‘Admittedly my feelings are not infallible.’

Her feelings about Luca had been all good, they had told her that Luca was the one, that he was totally trustworthy. Annoyed with herself for allowing ancient history to divert her, Poppy gave her head a tiny negative shake of irritation. She should be focusing on Gran. She was, and realistically she couldn’t exactly ignore Luca, she just had to keep her response … proportionate.

‘There’s probably a simple explanation.’

‘Like Gran is lying out there hurt, unable to call for help … or worse? That sort of simple?’ She swallowed and pushed away the image and sucked in a steadying breath through flared nostrils. ‘Maybe I am overthinking it …? Maybe there is a simple explanation?’ She shot him a look of appeal, willing him to convince her.

Luca did not offer comfort and support, but then it wasn’t his job. Instead he gave a non-committal grunt. ‘I am assuming you are here because of the issue with the council?’

Her emerald eyes flew to his face, wide with surprise. ‘You know about that? Gran asked for your help?’ Of course she had.

And why not?

It was utterly insane to feel a sense of betrayal—there was no reason that Gran shouldn’t turn to Luca. He was her godson. Poppy knew they still had contact and she was fine with that; she didn’t want to know the details, but she was fine with it—totally.

Her gran appreciated she didn’t want to know about Luca’s life—hard not to after her response to a conversation that had opened with, ‘When Luca was here last month …’

Up until that memorable moment—memorable for all the wrong reasons—Poppy had considered herself totally over it … him … It turned out that eighteen months hadn’t been long enough.

Luca tipped his dark head in acknowledgement. ‘The bare bones, no details—my grandmother contacted me. She was concerned.’

Poppy’s tense expression was momentarily lightened as an image of a slight figure who still retained a strong Highland accent even though she had lived the last fifty years of her life in Italy flashed into her head.

‘Aunt Fiona?’ The title was honorary, the only connection being a friendship between the older women that had survived despite the disparate paths their lives had taken since their schooldays. ‘How is she?’


His eyes drifted slowly over the smooth curve of her cheeks; reaching the full curve of her lush wide mouth, he had zero control over the lustful reaction of his body.

‘She was always k-kind to me.’

The kindness had been a stark contrast to the attitude of his parents, who had acted as though she had a contagious disease when she had attended a birthday tea in a posh London hotel for Luca’s grandmother.

It had been Luca who found her crying in the cloakroom.

‘So my mum gets married a lot and is sometimes photographed without many clothes—she’s never killed anyone! I think your family are mean and horrible!’

‘Did I ever tell you about the time that my mum came out of the ladies’ room with her skirt tucked into her knickers? Or the dinner where my father thought the host was the wine waiter and told him the wine was corked?’

He had continued to tell her scandalous and probably untrue stories that made his parents look ridiculous until she had laughed.

‘Poppy …?’ Concern roughened the edges of his velvet voice.

Poppy’s eyes lifted. She blinked twice to clear her swimming vision and reminded herself she was a competent twenty-first-century woman, not some wimpy heroine in a Victorian melodrama, and even if she had needed a masculine chest to bury her face in Luca’s was already spoken for.

‘This doesn’t look good, does it?’ she said, directing a ‘give it to me straight I can take it’ look at his dark lean face.

She could hide a lot, but not the fear in her luminous eyes. Gianluca studied the emerald stare directed his way and felt something twist hard in his gut.

‘Do not jump to conclusions,’ he cautioned. ‘You always did have a tendency to be over-emotional.’ And outspoken, sentimental, not to mention extremely stubborn, but most of all Poppy had always been herself more so than any person he had ever met.

‘We all move on, Luca.’ She didn’t bother trying to make the message subtle. ‘But cross my heart I’ll do my level best not to have hysterics,’ she promised. ‘So what next?’

‘Next I dry off.’

‘You’re wet …?’ As Poppy made the belated observation her gaze travelled upwards from his feet. Hard

the word popped into her head and stayed there; greyhound lean and tough, there was no vestige of anything approaching softness in Luca.

‘Top marks for observation.’

Poppy dragged her eyes to his face. ‘But what I don’t understand … How did you get out here, with the storm …?’ Her voice trailed away as her glance shifted to the mullioned window that was being battered by a shower of freakishly large hailstones.

The ferry wasn’t running and the only person willing to ferry her here from Ullapool had refused to wait a moment after she disembarked, so anxious—with good reason as it turned out—had he been not to get caught out in open sea when the storm hit.

‘I bought a boat.’

Poppy stared. He said it the same way someone might say, ‘I bought a bar of chocolate.’ He obviously didn’t have a clue that he had said anything out of the ordinary.

‘Of course you did.’

There were plus sides to his extravagance: at least they were no longer stranded when the storm abated; at least they had an exit route that did not involve SOS signals or swimming.

‘I can’t believe you made it here in this,’ she mused, watching, her stomach performing helpless flips of appreciation, as he walked long-legged and effortlessly elegant like some jungle cat towards the fire.

‘I did. The boat didn’t.’

Poppy, her thoughts still very much involved with thoughts of his feral grace, was still joining the mental dots when he added, ‘It sank.’


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