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Leonetti's Housekeeper Bride

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«Leonetti's Housekeeper Bride» - Линн Грэхем

His innocent wife…The last thing Gaetano Leonetti wants is to be shackled in marriage, but his grandfather has decreed that if he’s to become CEO of the family’s bank Gaetano must find a nice, ordinary woman to wed.Convinced his grandfather is mad, Gaetano sets about proving him wrong with housekeeper Poppy Arnold. With her outspoken nature and unusual dress sense, she’s definitely not wife material!But it’s not long before hard-working, self-sacrificing Poppy charms his grandfather, and Gaetano’s stuck with a union he didn’t want and a bride he sinfully craves! Having set her up to fail, can he really take the precious gift of her virginity?
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‘Think about what I’m offering you. You can reclaim your life and return to being a carefree student,’ Gaetano pointed out, his persuasion insidious. ‘No more scrubbing floors or serving drinks.’

‘Stop!’ Poppy said, leaping to her feet to walk restively around the room while she battled the tempting possibilities he had placed in front of her.

Gaetano studied her from below heavily lashed eyelids. She would surrender—of course she would. As a teenager she had been ambitious, and he could still see that spirited spark of wanting more than her servant ancestors had ever wanted glowing within her.

‘And of course your ultimate goal is becoming CEO of the Leonetti Bank—and marrying me will deliver that,’ Poppy filled in slowly, her luminous green eyes skimming to his lean darkly handsome features in wonderment. ‘I can’t believe how ambitious you are.’

‘The bank is my life. It always has been,’ Gaetano admitted without apology. ‘Nothing gives me as much of a buzz as a profitable deal.’

‘I’ll give you an answer in the morning.’

Gaetano slid fluidly out of his seat and approached her. ‘But you already know the answer. You like what I do to you,’ he said huskily, with blazing confidence, running a teasing forefinger down over her cheek to stroke it along the soft curve of her full lower lip.

LYNNE GRAHAM was born in Northern Ireland and has been a keen romance reader since her teens. She is very happily married to 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 who knocks everything over, a very small terrier who barks a lot, and two cats. When time allows, Lynne is a keen gardener.

Leonetti’s Housekeeper Bride

Lynne Graham




About the Author

Title Page









GAETANO LEONETTI WAS having a very bad day. It had started at dawn, when his phone went off and proceeded to show him a series of photos that enraged him but which he knew would enrage his grandfather and the very conservative board of the Leonetti investment bank even more. Regrettably, sacking the woman responsible for the story in the downmarket tabloid was likely to be the sole satisfaction he could hope to receive.

‘It’s not your fault,’ Tom Sandyford, Gaetano’s middle-aged legal adviser and close friend, told him quietly.

‘Of course it’s my fault,’ Gaetano growled. ‘It was my house, my party and the woman in my bed at the time who organised the damned party—’

‘Celia was that soap star with the cocaine habit you didn’t know about,’ Tom reminisced. ‘Wasn’t she sacked from the show soon after you ditched her?’

Gaetano nodded, his even white teeth gritting harder.

‘It’s a case of bad luck..

.that’s all,’ Tom opined. ‘You can’t ask your guests to post their credentials beforehand, so you had no way of knowing some of them weren’t tickety-boo.’

‘Tickety-boo?’ Gaetano repeated, his lean, darkly handsome features frowning. Although he was born and raised in England, Italian had been the language of his home and he still occasionally came across English words and phrases that were unfamiliar.

‘Decent upstanding citizens,’ Tom rephrased. ‘So, a handful of them were hookers? Well, in the rarefied and very privileged world you move in, how were you supposed to find that out?’

‘The press found it out,’ Gaetano countered flatly.

‘With the usual silly “Orgy at the Manor” big reveal. It’ll be forgotten in five minutes...although that blonde dancing naked in the fountain out front is rather memorable,’ Tom remarked, scanning the newspaper afresh with lascivious intent.

‘I don’t remember seeing her. I left the party early to fly to New York. Everyone still had their clothes on at that stage,’ Gaetano said drily. ‘I really don’t need another scandal like this.’

‘Scandal does rather seem to follow you around. I suppose the old man and the board at the bank are up in arms as usual,’ Tom commented with sympathy.

Gaetano compressed his wide sensual mouth in silent agreement. In the name of family loyalty and respect, he was paying in the blood of his fierce pride and ambition for the latest scandal. Letting his seventy-four-year-old grandfather Rodolfo carpet him like a badly behaved schoolboy had proved to be a truly toxic experience for a billionaire whose investment advice was sought by governments both in the UK and abroad. And when Rodolfo had settled into his favourite preaching session about Gaetano’s womanising lifestyle, Gaetano had had to breathe in deeply several times and resist the urge to point out to the older man that expectations and values had changed since the nineteen forties for both men and women.

Rodolfo Leonetti had married a humble fisherman’s daughter at the age of twenty-one and during his fifty years of devoted marriage he had never looked at another woman. Ironically, his only child, Gaetano’s father, Rocco, had not taken his father’s advice on the benefits of making an early marriage either. Rocco had been a notorious playboy and an incorrigible gambler. He had married a woman young enough to be his daughter when he was in his fifties, had fathered one son and had expired ten years later after over-exerting himself in another woman’s bed. Gaetano reckoned he had been paying for his father’s sins almost from the hour of his birth. At the age of twenty-nine and one of the world’s leading bankers, he was tired of being continually forced to prove his worth and confine his projects to the narrow expectations of the board. He had made millions for the Leonetti Bank; he deserved to be CEO.

Indeed, Rodolfo’s angry ultimatum that very morning had outraged Gaetano.

‘You will never be the chief executive of this bank until you change your way of life and settle down into being a respectable family man!’ his grandfather had sworn angrily. ‘I will not support your leadership with the board and, no matter how brilliant you are, Gaetano, the board always listens to me... They remember too well how your father almost brought the bank down with his risky ventures!’

Yet what, realistically, did Gaetano’s sex life have to do with his acumen and expertise as a banker? Since when were a wife and children the only measure of a man’s judgement and maturity?

Gaetano had not the slightest interest in getting married. In fact he shuddered at the idea of being anchored to one woman for the rest of his life while living in fear of a divorce that could deprive him of half of his financial portfolio. He was a very hard worker. He had earned his academic qualifications with honours in the most prestigious international institutions and his achievements since then had been immense. Why wasn’t that enough? In comparison his father had been an academically slow and spoiled rich boy who, like Peter Pan, had refused to grow up. Such a comparison was grossly unfair.

Tom dealt Gaetano a rueful appraisal. ‘You didn’t get the old “find an ordinary girl” spiel again, did you?’

‘“An ordinary girl, not a party girl, one who takes pleasure in the simple things of life,”’ Gaetano quoted verbatim because his grandfather’s discourses always ran to the same conclusion: marry, settle down, father children with a home-loving female...and the world would then miraculously become Gaetano’s oyster with little happy unicorns dancing on some misty horizon shaped by a rainbow. His lean bronzed features hardened with grim cynicism. He had seen just how well that fantasy had turned out for once-married and now happily divorced friends.

‘Perhaps you could time travel back to the nineteen fifties to find this ordinary girl,’ Tom quipped, wondering how the era of female liberation and career women had contrived to pass Rodolfo Leonetti by so completely that he still believed such women existed.

‘The best of it is, if I did produce an ordinary girl and announce that I was going to marry her Rodolfo would be appalled,’ Gaetano breathed impatiently. ‘He’s too much of a snob.

Unfortunately he’s become so obsessed by his conviction that I need to marry that he’s blocking my progression at the bank.’

His PA entered and extended two envelopes. ‘The termination of contract on the grounds of the confidentiality clause which has been breached and the notice to quit the accommodation that goes with the job,’ she specified. ‘The helicopter is waiting for you on the roof, sir.’

‘What’s going on?’ Tom asked.

‘I’m flying down to Woodfield Hall to sack the housekeeper who handed over those photos to the press.’

‘It was the housekeeper?’ Tom prompted in surprise.

‘She was named in the article. Not the brightest of women,’ Gaetano pointed out drily.

* * *

Poppy leapt off her bike, kicked the support into place and ran into the village shop to buy milk. As usual she was running late but she could not drink coffee without milk and didn’t feel properly awake until she had had at least two cups. Her mane of fiery red-gold curls bounced on her slim black-clad shoulders and her green eyes sparkled.

‘Good morning, Frances,’ she said cheerfully to the rather sour-looking older woman behind the counter as she dug into her purse to pay.

‘I’m surprised you’re so bright this morning,’ the shop owner remarked in a tone laden with suggestive meaning.

‘Why wouldn’t I be?’

The older woman slapped a well-thumbed newspaper down on the counter and helpfully turned it round to enable Poppy to read the headline. Poppy paled with dismay and snatched the publication up, moving on impatiently to the next page only to groan at the familiar photo of the naked blonde cavorting in the fountain. Her brother, Damien, had definitely taken that photo on the night of that infamous party. She knew that because she had caught him showing that particular one off to his mates.

‘Seems your ma has been talking out of turn,’ Frances remarked. ‘Shouldn’t think Mr Leonetti will appreciate that...’

Glancing up to meet the older woman’s avidly curious gaze, Poppy hastily paid for the paper and left the shop. That photo? How on earth had the newspaper got hold of it? And what about the other photos? The heaving, fortunately unidentifiable bodies in one of the bedrooms? When invited to join the party by a drunken guest, had Damien taken other, even more risqué pictures? And her mother...what insanity had persuaded her to risk her job by trashing her employer to a tabloid journalist? Poppy’s soft full mouth down-curved and her shoulders slumped as she climbed back on her bike. Unfortunately Poppy knew exactly why her mother might have been so foolish: Jasmine Arnold was an alcoholic.

Poppy had once got her mother to an AA meeting and it had done her good but she had never managed to get the older woman back to a second. Instead, Jasmine just drank herself insensible every day while Poppy struggled to do her mother’s job for her as well as doing her own. What else could she do when the very roof over their heads was dependent on Jasmine’s continuing employment? And after all, wasn’t it her fault that her mother had sunk so low before Poppy realised how bad things had got in her own home and had finally come back to live with her family again?

It was very fortunate that Gaetano only visited the house once or twice a year. But then Gaetano was a city boy through and through and a beautiful Georgian country house an inconvenient distance from London was of little use or interest to him. Had he been a more regular visitor she would never have been able to conceal her mother’s condition for so long.

Poppy pumped the bike pedals hard to get up the hill before careening at speed into the driveway of Woodfield Hall. The beautiful house had been the Leonetti family home in England since the eighteenth century when the family had first come over from Venice to set up as glorified moneylenders. And if there was one thing that family were good at it, it was making pots and pots of money, Poppy reflected ruefully, shying away from the challenge of thinking about Gaetano in an any more personal way.

She and Gaetano might have virtually grown up in the same household but it would be an outright lie to suggest that they were ever in any way friendly. After all, Gaetano was six years older and had spent most of his time in posh boarding schools.

But Poppy knew that Gaetano would go crazy about the publication of those photos. He was fanatical about his privacy and if his idea of fun was a sex party, she could perfectly understand why! Her spirits sank at the prospect of the trouble looming ahead. No matter how hard she worked life never seemed to get any easier and there always seemed to be another crisis waiting to erupt round the next corner. Yet how could she look after her mother and her brother when their own survival instincts appeared to be so poor?

The Arnold family lived in a flat that had been converted from part of the original stable block at the hall. Jasmine Arnold, a tall skinny redhead in her late forties, was sitting at the kitchen table when her daughter walked in.

Poppy slapped down the paper on the table. ‘Mum? Were you out of your mind when you talked to a journalist about that party?’ she demanded, before opening the back door and yelling her brother’s name at the top of her voice.

Damien emerged from one of the garages, wiping oil stains off his hands with a dirty cloth. ‘Where’s the fire?’ he asked irritably as his sister moved forward to greet him.

‘You gave the photos you took at that party to a journalist?’ his sister challenged in disbelief.

‘No, I didn’t,’ her kid brother countered. ‘Mum knew they were on my phone and she handed them over. She sold them. Got a pile of cash for them and the interview.’

Poppy was even more appalled. She could have excused stupidity or careless speech to the wrong person but she was genuinely shocked that her mother had taken money in return for her disloyalty to her employer.

Damien groaned at the expression on his sister’s face. ‘Poppy...you should know by now that Mum would do anything to get the money to buy her next drink,’ he pointed out heavily. ‘I told her not to hand over the photos or talk to the guy but she wouldn’t listen to me—’

‘Why didn’t you tell me what she’d done?’

‘What could you do about it? I hoped that maybe the photos wouldn’t be used or that, if they were, nobody of any importance would see them,’ Damien admitted. ‘I doubt if Gaetano sits down to read every silly story that’s written about him... I mean, he’s never out of the papers!’

‘But if you’re wrong, Mum will be sacked and we’ll be kicked out of the flat.’

Damien wasn’t the type to worry about what might never happen and he said wryly, ‘Let’s hope I’m not wrong.’

But Poppy took after her late father and she was a worrier. It was hard to credit that it was only a few years since the Arnolds had been a secure and happy family of four. Her father had been the gardener at Woodfield Hall and her mother the housekeeper. At twenty years of age, Poppy had been two years into her training at nursing school and Damien had just completed his apprenticeship as a car mechanic. And then without any warning at all their much-loved father had dropped dead and all their lives had been shattered by that cruelly sudden bereavement.

Poppy had taken time out from her course to try and help her mother through the worst of her grief and then she had returned to her studies. Unhappily and without her knowledge, things had gone badly wrong at that point. Her mother had gone off the rails and Damien had been unable to cope with what was happening in his home. Her brother had then got in with the wrong crowd and had ended up in prison. That was when Poppy had finally come home to find her mother sunk in depression and drinking heavily. Poppy had taken a leave of absence from her course, hoping, indeed expecting, that her mother would soon pull round again. Unfortunately that hadn’t happened. Although Jasmine was still drinking, Poppy’s one consolation was that, after earning early release from prison with his good behaviour, her little brother had got his act together again. Sadly, however, Damien’s criminal record had made it impossible for him to get a job.

Poppy still felt horribly guilty about the fact that she had left her kid brother to deal with her deeply troubled mother. Intent on pursuing her chosen career and being the first Arnold female in generations not to earn her living by serving the Leonettis, she had been selfish and thoughtless and she had been trying to make up for that mistake ever since.

When she returned to the flat her mother had locked herself in her bedroom. Poppy suppressed a sigh and dug out her work kit and rubber gloves to cross the courtyard and enter the hall. She turned out different rooms of the big house every week, dusting and vacuuming and scrubbing. It was deeply ironic that she had been so set against working for the Leonettis when she was a teenager but had ended up doing it anyway even if it was unofficial. Evenings she served drinks in the local pub. There wasn’t time in her life for agonising when there was always a job needing to be done.

Disturbingly however she couldn’t get Gaetano Leonetti out of her mind. He was the one and only boy she had ever hated but also the only one she had ever loved. What did that say about her? Self-evidently, that at the age of sixteen she had been really stupid to imagine for one moment that she could ever have any kind of a personal relationship with the posh, privileged scion of the Leonetti family. The wounding demeaning words that Gaetano had shot at her then were still burned into her bones like the scars of an old breakage.

‘I don’t mess around with staff,’ he had said, emphasising the fact that they were not equals and that he would always inhabit a different stratum of society.

‘Stop coming on to me, Poppy. You’re acting like a slapper.’ Oh, how she had cringed at that reading of her behaviour when in truth she had merely been too young and inexperienced to know how to be subtle about spelling out the fact that should he be interested, she was available.

‘You’re a short, curvy redhead. You could never be my type.’

It was seven years since that humiliating exchange had taken place and apart from one final demeaning encounter she had not seen Gaetano since, having always gone out of her way to avoid him whenever he was expected at the hall. So, he didn’t know that she had slimmed down and shot up inches in height, wouldn’t much care either, she reckoned with wry amusement. After all, Gaetano went for very beautiful and sophisticated ladies in designer clothes. Although the one who had thrown that shockingly wild party had not been much of a lady in the original sense of the word.

Having put in her hours at the hall in the ongoing challenge to ensure that it was always well prepared for a visit that could come at very short notice, Poppy went back home to get changed for her bar work. Jasmine was out for the count on her bed, an empty bottle of cheap wine lying beside her. Studying her slumped figure, Poppy suppressed a sigh, recalling the busy, lively and caring woman her mother had once been. Alcohol had stolen all that from her. Jasmine needed specialised help and rehabilitation but there wasn’t even counselling available locally and Poppy had no hope of ever acquiring sufficient cash to pay for private treatment for the older woman.

Poppy put on the Goth clothes that she had first donned like a mask to hide behind when she was a bullied teenager. She had been picked on in school for being a little overweight and red-haired. Heck, she had even been bullied for being ‘posh’ although her family lived in the hall’s servant accommodation. Since then, although she no longer dyed her hair or painted her nails black, she had come to enjoy a touch of individuality in her wardrobe and had maintained the basic style. She had lost a lot of weight since she started working two jobs and she was convinced that her Goth-style clothes did a good job of disguising her skinniness. For work she had teamed a dark red net flirty skirt with a fitted black jersey rock print top. The outfit hugged her small full breasts, enhanced her waist and accentuated the length of her legs.

At the end of her shift in the busy bar that was paired with a popular restaurant, Poppy pulled on her coat and waited outside for Damien to show up on his motorbike.

‘Gaetano Leonetti arrived in a helicopter this evening,’ her brother delivered curtly. ‘He demanded to see Mum but she was out of it and I had to pretend she was sick. He handed over these envelopes for her and I opened them once he’d gone. Mum’s being sacked and we have a month’s notice to move out of the flat.’

An anguished moan of dismay at those twin blows parted Poppy’s lips.

‘I guess he did see that newspaper.’ Damien grimaced. ‘He certainly hasn’t wasted any time booting us out.’

‘Can we blame him for that?’ Poppy asked even though her heart was sinking to the soles of her shoes. Where would they go? How would they live? They had no rainy-day account for emergencies. Her mother drank her salary and Damien was on benefits.

But Poppy was a fighter, always had been, always would be. She took after her father more than her mother. She was good at picking herself up when things went wrong. Her mother, however, had never fully recovered from the stillbirth she had suffered the year before Poppy’s father had died. Those two terrible calamities coming so close together had knocked her mother’s feet from under her and she had never really got up again. Poppy swallowed hard as she climbed onto the bike and gripped her brother’s waist. She could still remember her mother’s absolute joy at that unexpected late pregnancy, which in the end had become a source of so much grief and loss.

As the bike rolled past the hall Poppy saw the light showing through the front window of the library and tensed. Gaetano was staying over for the night?

‘Yeah, he’s still here,’ Damien confirmed as he put his bike away. ‘So what?’

‘I’m going to speak to him—’

‘What’s the point?’ her brother asked in a tone of defeat. ‘Why should he care?’

But Gaetano did have a heart, Poppy thought in desperation. At least he had had a heart at the age of thirteen when his father had run over his dog and killed it. She had seen the tears in Gaetano’s eyes and she had been crying too. Dino had been as much her dog as his because Dino had hung around with her when Gaetano was away at school, not that he had probably ever realised that. Dino had never been replaced and when she had asked why not in the innocent way of a child, Gaetano had simply said flatly, ‘Dogs die.’

And she had been too young to really understand that outlook, that raising of the barriers against the threat of being hurt again. She had seen no tears in his remarkable eyes at his father’s funeral but he had been almost as devastated as his grandfather when his grandmother passed away. But then the older couple had been more his parents than his real parents had. Within a year of becoming a widow, his mother had remarried and moved to Florida without her son.

Poppy breathed in deep as she marched round the side of the big house with Damien chasing in her wake.

‘It’s almost midnight!’ he hissed. ‘You can’t go calling on him now!’

‘If I wait until tomorrow I’ll lose my nerve,’ she said truthfully.

Damien hung back in the shadows, watching as she rang the doorbell and waited, her hands dug in the pockets of her faux-leather flying jacket. A voice sounded somewhere close by and she flinched in surprise, turning her head as a man in a suit talking into a mobile phone walked towards her in the moonlight.

‘I’m security, Miss Arnold,’ he said quietly. ‘I was telling Mr Leonetti who was at the door.’

Poppy suppressed a rude word. She had forgotten the tight security with which the Leonetti family surrounded themselves. Of course, calling in on Gaetano late at night wouldn’t go unquestioned.

‘I want to see your boss,’ she declared.

The security man was talking Italian into the phone and she couldn’t follow a word of what he was saying. When the man frowned, she knew he was about to deliver a negative and she moved off the step and snapped, ‘I have to see Gaetano! It’s really important.’

Somewhere someone made a decision and a moment later there was the sound of heavy bolts being drawn back to open the massive front door. Another security man nodded acknowledgement and stood back for her entrance into the marble-floored hall with its perfect proportions and priceless paintings. A trickle of perspiration ran down between her taut shoulder blades and she straightened her spine in defiance of it although she was already shrinking at the challenge of what she would have to tell Gaetano. At this juncture, coming clean was her sole option.

* * *

Poppy Arnold? Gaetano’s brain had conjured up several time-faded images. Poppy as a little girl paddling at the lake edge in spite of his warnings; Poppy sobbing over Dino with all the drama of her class and no thought of restraint; Poppy looking at him as if he might imminently walk on water when she was about fifteen, a scrutiny that had become considerably less innocent and entertaining a year later. And finally, Poppy, a taunting sensual smile tilting her lips as she sidled out of the shrubbery closely followed by a young estate worker, both of them engaged in righting their rumpled, grass-stained clothing.

Bearing in mind the number of years the Arnold family had worked for his own, he felt that it was only fair that he at least saw Poppy and listened to what she had to say in her mother’s defence. He hadn’t, however, thought about Poppy in years. Did she still live with her family? He was surprised, having always assumed Poppy would flee country life and the type of employment she had soundly trounced as being next door to indentured servitude in the modern world. Touching a respectful forelock had held no appeal whatsoever for outspoken, rebellious Poppy, he acknowledged wryly. How much had she changed? Was she working for him now somewhere on the pay roll? His ebony brows drew together in a frown at his ignorance as he lounged back against the edge of the library desk and awaited her appearance.

The tap-tap of high heels sounded in the corridor and the door opened to reveal legs that could have rivalled a Vegas showgirl’s toned and perfect pins. Disconcerted by that startlingly unexpected and carnal thought, Gaetano ripped his attention from those incredibly long shapely legs and whipped it up to her face, only to receive another jolt. Time had transformed Poppy Arnold into a tall, dazzling redhead. He was staring but he couldn’t help it while his shrewd brain was engaged in ticking off familiarities and changes. The bright green eyes were unaltered but the rounded face had fined down to an exquisite heart shape to frame slanting cheekbones, a dainty little nose and a mouth lush and pink enough to star in any male fantasy. The pulse at Gaetano’s groin throbbed and he straightened, flicking his jacket closed to conceal his physical reaction while thinking that Poppy might well get the last laugh after all because the ugly duckling he had once rejected had become a swan.

‘Mr Leonetti,’ she said as politely as though they had never met before.

‘Gaetano, please,’ he countered wryly, seeing no reason to stand on ceremony with her. ‘We have known each other since childhood.’

‘I don’t think I ever knew you,’ Poppy said frankly, studying him with bemused concentration.

She had expected to notice unappetising changes in Gaetano. After all, he was almost thirty years old now and lived a deskbound, self-indulgent and, by all accounts, decadent life. By this stage he should have been showing some physical fallout from that lifestyle. But there was no hint of portliness in his very tall, powerfully built frame and certainly no jowls to mar the perfection of his strong, stubbled jaw line. And his dense blue-black curly hair was as plentiful as ever.

An electrifying silence enclosed them and Poppy stepped restively off one foot onto the other, her slender figure tense as a drawn bow string while she studied him. Taller and broader than he had been, he was even more gorgeous than he had been seven years earlier when she had fallen for him like a ton of bricks. Silly, silly girl that she had been, she conceded ruefully, but there was no denying that even then she had had good taste because Gaetano was stunning in the way so very few men were. A tiny flicker in her pelvis made her press her thighs together, warmth flushing over her skin. His dark eyes, set below black straight brows, were locked to her with an intensity that made her inwardly squirm. He had eyes with incredibly long thick lashes, she was recalling dizzily, so dark and noticeable in their volume that she had once suspected him of wearing guy liner like some of the boys she had known back then.

‘Do you still live here with your mother and brother?’ Gaetano enquired.

‘Yes,’ Poppy admitted, fighting to banish the fog that had briefly closed round her brain. ‘You’re probably wondering why I’ve come to see you at this hour. I’m a bartender at the Flying Horseman down the road and I’ve only just finished my shift.’

Gaetano was pleasantly surprised that she had contrived to speak two entire sentences without spluttering the profanities which had laced her speech seven years earlier. Of course, right now she was probably watching her every word with him, he reasoned. A bartender? He supposed it explained the outfit, which looked as though it would be more at home in a nightclub.

‘I saw the newspaper article,’ she added. ‘Obviously you want to sack my mother for talking about the party and selling those photos. I’m not denying that you have good reason to do that.’

‘Where did the photos come from?’ Gaetano asked curiously. ‘Who took them?’

Poppy winced. ‘One of the guests invited my brother to join the party when she saw him outside directing cars. He did what I imagine most young men would do when they see half-naked women—he took pictures on his phone. I’m not excusing him but he didn’t sell those photos... It was my mother who took his phone and did that—’

‘I assume I’ll see your mother in person tomorrow before I leave. But I’ll ask you now. My family has always treated your mother well. Why did she do it?’

Poppy breathed in deep and lifted her chin, bracing herself for what she had to say. ‘My mother’s an alcoholic, Gaetano. They offered her money and that was all it took. All she was thinking about was probably how she would buy her next bottle of booze. I’m afraid she can’t see beyond that right now.’

Taken aback, Gaetano frowned. He had not been prepared for that revelation. It did not make a difference to his attitude though. Disloyalty was not a trait he could overlook in an employee. ‘Your mother must be a functioning alcoholic, then,’ he assumed. ‘Because the house appears to be in good order.’

‘No, she’s not functioning.’ Poppy sighed, her soft mouth tightening. ‘I’ve been covering up for her for more than a year. I’ve been looking after this place.’

His lean, darkly handsome features tightened. ‘In other words there has been a concentrated campaign to deceive me as to what was going on here,’ he condemned with a sudden harshness that dismayed her. ‘At any time you could have approached me and asked for my understanding and even my help—yet you chose not to do so. I have no tolerance for deception, Poppy. This meeting is at an end.’

A hundred different thoughts flashing through her mind, Poppy stared at him, her heart beating very fast with nerves and consternation. ‘But—’

‘No extenuating circumstances allowed or invited,’ Gaetano cut in with derision. ‘I have heard all I need to hear from you and there is nothing more to say. Leave.’


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