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Roccanti's Marriage Revenge

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«Roccanti's Marriage Revenge» - Линн Грэхем

Engaged heiress risks all with mystery man! Vitale Roccanti’s plan was simple – sleep with the daughter to get to the father. What could go wrong? But staring at the black and white headline that announces the success of his plan doesn’t feel half as satisfying as Zara did beneath his touch.Zara Blake is shattered by the public exposé of the night she risked it all – and lost. She betrayed her father, and his plans for her marriage, for one chance at passion. But that’s nothing compared to the headline that will come in nine months’ time!
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‘I set you up,’ Vitale volunteered grimly, spelling out the facts without hesitation. ‘From start to finish. Contacting your design firm, bringing you out here—’

In receipt of that admission, Zara had slowly turned white as snow. ‘Sleeping with me?’ she interrupted jerkily, distaste scissoring through her like a blade. ‘Was that part of the set-up? If you wanted Sergios to dump me, ensuring embarrassing pictures of his future bride misbehaving appear in some tabloid rag would be a good start.’

‘I thought so too, but believe it or not,’ Vitale imparted grittily, ‘I had no wish to hurt you personally. Your father has always been my target.’

‘My father?’ Zara could feel her muscles stiffen in shock as she sat there, spine rigid, feet set as neatly together as a small child told to sit still at church, her hands so tightly clasped together in an effort at self-control that her fingers ached. ‘Why would my father have been your target?’


Three sisters wedlocked to the world’s most powerful billionaires

A brand-new trilogy from bestselling author Lynne Graham!

The Blake heiresses have lived so long under the harsh rule of their father’s iron fist even the shackles of an arranged marriage seem like a reprieve—at first!

But they go from the frying pan into the fire!

For their convenient husbands are men of the world—international, experienced, and oh-so-devastatingly sexy!


Zara’s very public engagement is hijacked by vengeful Italian billionaire Vitale Roccanti. The scandal they’ve created means there’s no way left but down—the aisle!

Read Roccanti’s Marriage Revenge in March 2012


Bee is worth her weight in gold to Greek tycoon

Sergios Demonides. But he needs her maternal skills rather than a trophy wife.

Read A Deal at the Altar in April 2012


And the series concludes with Tawny’s story in May!

About the Author

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

Recent titles by the same author:



Did you know these are also available as eBooks? Visit

Roccanti’s Marriage Revenge

Lynne Graham


VITALE ROCCANTI was a banker descended from a very old and aristocratic European family. Opening the private investigator’s file on his desk, he studied the photograph of four people seated at a dining table. The Greek billionaire, Sergios Demonides, was entertaining Monty Blake, the British owner of the Royale hotel chain, his highly ornamental wife, Ingrid and their daughter, Zara.

Zara, nicknamed Tinkerbelle by the media for her celebrity status, her silver-gilt-coloured hair and fairy-like proportions, wore what appeared to be an engagement ring. Evidently the rumours of a buyout anchored by a family alliance were true. Most probably Demonides’ loathing for publicity lay behind the lack of an official announcement but it certainly did look as though a marriage was on the cards.

Vitale, renowned for his shrewd brain and ruthless pursuit of profit, frowned. His lean, darkly handsome face hardened, his firm mouth compressing. His dark gaze flared gold with angry bitterness because it could only sicken him to see Monty Blake still smiling and at the top of his game. For a fleeting instant he allowed himself to recall the loving sister who had drowned when he was thirteen years old and his stomach clenched at the recollection of the savage loss that had left him alone in an inhospitable world. His sister had been the only person who had ever truly loved him. And the moment that he had worked towards for the better part of twenty years had finally arrived, for Blake looked to be on the brink of his greatest ever triumph. If Vitale waited any longer his prey might well become untouchable as the father-in-law of so powerful a man as Sergios Demonides. Yet how had Blake contrived to catch a fish as big as Demonides in his net? Apart from the little known fact that the Royale hotel chain had once belonged to Demonides’ grandfather, what was the connection?

Were the oft-publicised charms of Tinkerbelle, whose brain was said to be as lightweight as her body, the only source of Blake’s unexpected good fortune? Was she truly the sole attraction? Vitale had never let a woman come between him and his wits and would have assumed that Demonides had equal common sense. His mouth curled with derision. If he ensured that the engagement was broken the business deal might well go belly up as well and he would bring down Monty Blake, who desperately needed a buyer.

Vitale had never dreamt that he would have to get personal or indeed so unpleasantly close to his quarry to gain the revenge that his very soul craved for closure, but he remained convinced that Monty Blake’s cruelty demanded an equal response. Should not the punishment be made to fit the crime? This was not the time to be fastidious, he reflected harshly. He could not afford to respect such boundaries. No, he only had one option: he would have to play dirty to punish the man who had abandoned his sister and her unborn child to their wretched fate.

A man who had always enjoyed enormous success with women, Vitale studied his prey, Tinkerbelle. His shapely mouth quirked. In his opinion she fell easily into the acceptable damage category. And wasn’t suffering supposed to form character? Huge blue eyes wide in her heart shaped face, Blake’s daughter was undeniably beautiful, but she also looked as shallow as a puddle and was anything but a blushing virgin with tender feelings. Undoubtedly she would regret the loss of so wealthy a catch as Demonides but Vitale imagined that, like her glossy mother, she had the hide of a rhinoceros and the heart of a stone and would bounce back very quickly from the disappointment. And if he left her a little wiser, that would surely only be to her advantage …

‘I can’t believe you’ve agreed to marry Sergios Demonides,’ Bee confessed, her green eyes bright with concern as she studied the younger woman.

Although Bee was only marginally taller than her diminutive half sibling, and the two women had the same father, Bee was built on very different lines. Zara looked delicate enough to blow away in a strong breeze but Bee had inherited her Spanish mother’s heavy fall of dark brown hair and olive-tinted skin and she had substantial curves. Bee was the child of Monty Blake’s first marriage, which had ended in divorce, but she and Zara were close. Monty had a third daughter called Tawny, the result of an extra-marital affair. Neither girl knew their youngest sister very well because Tawny’s mother was very bitter about the way their father had treated her.

‘Why wouldn’t I have?’ Zara shrugged a narrow shoulder, striving for a show of composure. She was very fond of Bee and she didn’t want the other woman worrying about her, so she opted for a deliberately careless response. ‘I’m tired of being single and I like kids—’

‘How can you be tired of being single? You’re only twenty-two and it’s not as if you’re in love with Demonides!’ Bee protested, scanning her sibling’s flawless face in disbelief.

‘Well … er—’

‘You can’t love him—you hardly know him, for goodness’ sake!’ Bee exclaimed, quick to take advantage of Zara’s hesitation. Although she had met Sergios Demonides only once, her shrewd powers of observation, followed up by some careful Internet research on the Greek tycoon, had warned her that he was altogether too tough a proposition for her tenderhearted sister. Demonides had a very bad reputation with women and he was equally renowned for his cold and calculating nature.

Zara lifted her chin. ‘It depends what you want out of marriage and all Sergios wants is someone to raise the children that have been left to his care—’

Bee frowned at that explanation. ‘His cousin’s three kids?’

Zara nodded. Several months earlier Sergios’ cousin and his wife had been killed in a car crash and Sergios had become their children’s legal guardian. Her future husband was a forceful, sardonic and distinctly intimidating shipping magnate, who travelled a great deal and worked very long hours. If she was honest, and there were very few people in Zara’s life whom she dared to be honest with, she had been considerably less intimidated by Sergios once he had confessed that the only reason he wanted a wife was to acquire a mother for the three orphans in his home. That was a role that Zara felt she could comfortably cope with.

The children, ranging in age from a six-month-old baby to a three-year-old, were currently being raised almost entirely by his staff. Apparently the children had not settled well in his household. Sergios might be a very rich and powerful man but his concern for the children had impressed her. The product of a dysfunctional background himself, Sergios wanted to do what was best for those children but he just didn’t know how and he was convinced that a woman would succeed where he had failed.

For her own part, Zara was desperately keen to do something that would finally make her parents proud of her. Her twin Tom’s tragic death at the tender age of twenty had ripped a huge hole in her family. Zara had adored her brother. She had never resented the fact that Tom was their parents’ favourite, indeed had often been grateful that Tom’s academic successes had taken parental attention away from her wounding failures. Zara had left school halfway through her A-levels because she was struggling to cope, while Tom had been studying for a business degree at university and planning to join their father in the family hotel business when he crashed his sports car, dying instantly.

Sadly for all of them, her charismatic and successful brother had been everything her parents had ever wanted and needed in a child, and since his death grief had made her father’s dangerous temper rage out of control more often. If in some way Zara was able to compensate her parents for Tom’s loss and her survival she was eager to do it. After all she had spent her life striving for parental approval without ever winning it. When Tom had died she had wondered why fate chose him rather than her as a sacrifice. Tom had often urged her to make more of her life, insisting that she shouldn’t allow their father’s low opinion of her abilities to influence her so much. On the day of Tom’s funeral she had promised herself that in honour of her brother’s memory she would in the future make the most of every opportunity and work towards making her parents happy again. And it was a sad fact that Zara’s entire education had been geared towards being the perfect wife for a wealthy man and that the only way she would ever really please her parents would be by marrying a rich high-achiever.

The children in Sergios’ London home had touched her heart. Once she had been an unhappy child so she knew something of how they felt. Looking into those sad little faces, she had felt that finally she could make a big difference in someone else’s life. Sergios might not personally need her, but those children genuinely did and she was convinced that she could make a success of her role as a mother. That was something she could do, something she could shine at and that meant a lot to Zara.

What was more, when she had agreed to marry Sergios, her father had looked at her with pride for the first time in her life. She would never forget that moment or the glow of warmth, acceptance and happiness she had felt. Her father had smiled at her and patted her shoulder in an unprecedented gesture of affection. ‘Well done,’ he had said, and she would not have exchanged that precious moment of praise for a million pounds. Zara was also convinced that marriage to Sergios would give her freedom, which she had never known. Freedom primarily from her father, whose temper she had learned to fear, but also freedom from the oppressive expectations of her perfectly groomed, socially ambitious mother, freedom from the boring repetition of days spent shopping and socialising with the right people in the right places, freedom from the egotistical men relentlessly targeting her as the next notch on their bed post … freedom—she hoped—that would ultimately allow her to be herself for the first time ever.

‘And what happens when you do meet someone you can love?’ Bee enquired ruefully in the lingering silence.

‘That’s not going to happen,’ Zara declared with confidence. She had had her heart broken when she was eighteen, and, having experienced that disillusionment, had never warmed the slightest bit to any man since then.

Bee groaned out loud. ‘You’ve got to be over that lowlife Julian Hurst by now.

‘Maybe I’ve just seen too many men behaving badly to believe in love and fidelity,’ Zara fielded with a cynical gleam in her big blue eyes. ‘If they’re not after my father’s money, they’re after a one night stand.’

‘Well, you’ve never been that,’ Bee remarked wryly, well aware that, regardless of the media reports that constantly implied that Zara had enjoyed a wide range of lovers, her sibling appeared to be sublimely indifferent to most of the men that she met.

‘But who would ever believe it? Sergios doesn’t care either way. He doesn’t need me in that department—’ Zara would not have dreamt of sharing how welcome that lack of interest was to her. Her reluctance to trust a man enough to engage in sexual intimacy was too private a fact to share, even with the sister that she loved.

Bee froze, an expression of even greater dismay settling on her expressive face. ‘My goodness, are you telling me that you’ve actually agreed to have one of those open marriages with him?’

‘Bee, I couldn’t care less what Sergios does as long as he’s discreet and that’s exactly what he wants—a wife who won’t interfere with his life. He likes it as it is.’

Her sister looked more disapproving than ever. ‘It won’t work. You’re far too emotional to get into a relationship like that at such a young age.’

Zara lifted her chin. ‘We made a bargain, Bee. He’s agreed that the kids and I can live in London and that as long as I don’t work full-time I can continue to run Edith’s business.’

Taken aback by that information, Bee shook her head and looked even more critical. Zara’s parents had simply laughed when Zara’s aunt, Edith, died and left her niece her small but successful garden design business, Blooming Perfect. The Blakes had sneered at the idea of their severely dyslexic daughter running any kind of a business, not to mention one in a field that required specialist knowledge. Their father had stubbornly ignored the fact that in recent years Zara, who had long shared her aunt’s love of well-groomed outdoor spaces, had successfully taken several courses in garden design. Huge arguments had broken out in the Blake household when Zara stood up to her controlling snobbish parents and not only refused to sell her inheritance but also insisted on taking a close interest in the day to day running of the business.

‘I want … I need to lead my own life,’ Zara confided with more than a hint of desperation.

‘Of course, you do.’ Full of sympathy when she recognised the tears glistening in Zara’s eyes, Bee gripped the younger woman’s hands in hers. ‘But I don’t think marrying Sergios is the way to go about that. You’re only going to exchange one prison for another. He will have just as much of an agenda as your parents. Please think again about what you’re doing,’ Bee urged worriedly. ‘I didn’t like the man when I met him and I certainly wouldn’t trust him.’

Driving away from the specially adapted house that Bee shared with her disabled mother, Zara had a lot on her mind. Zara knew that it didn’t make much sense to marry in the hope of getting a new life but she was convinced that, as a renowned entrepreneur in his own right, Sergios would be much more tolerant and understanding of her desire to run her own business than her parents could ever be. He would be even happier to have a wife with her own interests, who had no need to look to him for attention, and her parents would at last be proud of her, proud and pleased that their daughter was the wife of such an important man. Why couldn’t Bee understand that the marriage was a win-win situation for all of them? In any case, Zara could no more imagine falling in love again than she could imagine walking down the street stark naked. A marriage of convenience was much more her style because love made fools of people, she thought painfully.

Her mother, for a start, was wed to a man who regularly played away with other women. Ingrid, a former Swedish model from an impoverished background, idolised her husband and the luxury lifestyle and social status he had given her by marrying her. No matter what Monty Blake did or how often he lost his violent temper, Ingrid forgave him or blamed herself for his shortcomings. And behind closed doors, her father’s flaws were a good deal more frightening than anyone would ever have guessed, Zara thought, suppressing a shiver of recoil.

A moment later, Zara parked outside Blooming Perfect’s small nursery. Rob, the manager her father had hired, was in the cluttered little office and he got up with a grin when she came in. ‘I was just about to call you—we have a possible commission from abroad.’

‘From where?’ Zara questioned in surprise.

‘Italy. The client has seen one of the gardens your aunt designed in Tuscany and apparently he was very impressed.’

Zara frowned. They had had several potential clients who backed off again the minute they realised that her aunt was no longer alive. ‘What did he say when you told him she passed away?’

‘I told him you do designs very much in the spirit of Edith’s work, although with a more contemporary approach,’ Rob explained. ‘He was still keen enough to invite you out there on an all-expenses-paid trip to draw up a design. I gather he’s a developer and he’s renovated this house and now he wants the garden to match. By the sounds of it, it’s a big bucks project and the chance you’ve been waiting for.’

Rob passed her the notebook on his desk to let her see the details he had taken. Zara hesitated before extending a reluctant hand to accept the notebook. For the sake of appearances she glanced down at the handwriting but she was quite unable to read it. As a dyslexic, reading was always a challenge for her but she had always found that actual handwriting as opposed to type was even harder for her to interpret. ‘My goodness, what an opportunity,’ she remarked dutifully.

‘Sorry, I forgot,’ Rob groaned, belatedly registering what was amiss, for she had had to tell him about her dyslexia to work with him. He dealt with what she could not. Retrieving the notebook, he gave her the details verbally instead.

While he spoke Zara remained stiff with discomfiture because she cringed from the mortifying moments when she could not hide her handicap and colleagues were forced to make allowances for her. It took her right back to the awful days when her father had repeatedly hammered her with the word ‘stupid’ as he raged about her poor school reports. In her mind normal people could read, write and spell without difficulty and she hated that she was different and hated even more having to admit the problem to others.

But Zara’s embarrassment faded as enthusiasm at the prospect of a genuine creative challenge took its place. Apart from the designs she had worked on with Edith, her experience to date encompassed only small city gardens created on a restricted budget. A larger scheme was exactly what her portfolio lacked and, handled well, would give Blooming Perfect the gravitas it needed to forge a fresh path without relying so heavily on her late aunt’s reputation. In addition if she made such a trip now it would ensure that Sergios and her family appreciated how seriously she took her new career. Perhaps then her family would stop referring to the design firm as her hobby.

‘Phone him back and make the arrangements,’ she instructed Rob. ‘I’ll fly out asap.’

Leaving Rob, Zara drove off to check the progress of the two current jobs on their books and found one in order and the other at a standstill because a nest of piping that nobody had warned them about had turned up in an inconvenient spot. Soothing the customer and organising a contractor to take care of the problem took time and it was after six before Zara got back to her self-contained flat in her parents’ house. She would have preferred greater independence but she was reluctant to leave her mother alone with her father and very much aware that Monty Blake made more effort to control his temper while his daughter was within hearing.

Her indoor pet rabbit, Fluffy, gambolled round her feet in the hall, welcoming her home. Zara fed the little animal and stroked her soft furry head. Within ten minutes of her return, Ingrid Blake, a beautiful rake thin woman who looked a good deal younger than her forty-three years, joined her daughter in her apartment.

‘Where the heck have you been all afternoon?’ her mother demanded impatiently and at the sound of that shrill tone Fluffy bolted back into her hutch.

‘I was at the nursery and I had some jobs to check—’

‘The nursery? Jobs?’ Ingrid grimaced as if Zara had said a rude word. ‘When is this nonsense going to stop, Zara? The nursery can only ever be an interest. The real business of your life is the wedding you have to arrange—there’s dress fittings, caterers and florists to see and that’s only the beginning—’

‘I thought we had a wedding organiser to take care of most of that for us,’ Zara responded evenly. ‘I’ve made myself available for every appointment—’

‘Zara,’ Ingrid began in a tone of exasperation, ‘don’t be more stupid than you can help. A bride should take a more active role in her own wedding.’

‘Don’t be more stupid than you can help’ was a comment that could still cut deep, like a knife slicing through tender flesh, for Zara still looked back on her school years as a nightmare. Her lack of achievement during that period was, even now, a deep source of shame to her.

‘This is more your wedding than mine,’ Zara finally felt pushed into pointing out, for she couldn’t have cared less about all the bridal fuss and frills.

Ingrid clamped a thin hand to a bony hip and swivelled to study her daughter with angry eyes. ‘What’s that supposed to mean?’

‘Only that you care about that sort of thing and I don’t. I’m not being rude but I’ve got more on my mind than whether I should have pearls or crystals on my veil and Sergios won’t care either. Don’t forget that this is his second marriage,’ Zara reminded her mother gently, seeking a soothing note rather than piling logs on the fire of her mother’s dissatisfaction.

In the midst of the dispute, Rob phoned Zara to ask how soon she could fly to Italy and he kept her on the line while he reserved her a flight in only two days’ time. Too impatient to wait for Zara to give her her full attention again, Ingrid stalked out of the apartment in exasperation.

Left alone again, Zara heaved a sigh of relief. At least in Italy she would have a break from the wedding hysteria. Nothing mattered more to her mother than the appearance of things. Zara’s failure to hog the gossip columns with a string of upper class boyfriends had offended Ingrid’s pride for years and her mother had revelled in Tom’s escapades in nightclubs with his posh pals. Ingrid, however, was determined that her daughter’s wedding would be the biggest, splashiest and most talked about event of the season.

Sometimes Zara marvelled that she could have so little in common with her parents. Yet Zara and her father’s sixty-year-old unmarried sister had got on like a house on fire. Edith and Zara had shared the same joy in the tranquil beauty of a lovely garden and the same unadorned and practical outlook on the rest of life. Her aunt’s death, which had occurred within months of her brother’s car crash, had devastated Zara. Edith had always seemed so fit that her sudden death from a heart attack had come as a terrible shock.

Zara dressed with care for her flight to Italy, teaming a khaki cotton skirt and jacket with a caramel coloured tee and low-heeled shoes. She anchored her mass of pale hair on top of her head with a judicious clip and used the minimum of make-up, apprehensive that her youth and looks would work against her with the client. After all, nobody knew better than a girl christened a dumb blonde at fourteen that first impressions could count for a lot. But, at the same time, as she stepped off her flight to Pisa she knew that her brother, Tom, would have been proud of her for sticking to her guns when it came to Blooming Perfect and making it clear how close the business was to her heart.

A driver met her at the airport and she was whisked off in the air-conditioned comfort of a glossy black four-wheel drive. The stupendous rural scenery of misty wooded hillsides and ancient medieval towns soothed nerves left ragged by a last-minute difference of opinion with her mother, who had objected bitterly once she realised that Zara was flying off to Italy for a long weekend.

‘And how is your fiancé going to feel about that?’ Ingrid had fired at her daughter.

‘I have no idea. I haven’t heard from him in a couple of weeks but I left a message on his phone to let him know that I would be away,’ Zara had countered gently, for Sergios was not in the habit of maintaining regular contact with her and she perfectly understood that he saw their marriage to be staged three months hence as being more of a practical than personal connection.

‘He’s a very busy man,’ Ingrid had instantly argued on her future son-in-law’s behalf.

‘Yes and he doesn’t feel the need to keep constant tabs on me,’ Zara pointed out quietly. ‘And neither should you. I haven’t been a teenager for a long time.’

Ingrid had pursed her lips. ‘It’s not like you’re the brightest spark on the block and you know how dangerously impulsive you can be—’

Recalling that dig as she was driven through the Tuscan hills, Zara felt bitter. Only once in her life had she been dangerously impulsive and had paid in spades for that miscalculation. Even four years on, Zara still burned and felt sick at the memory of the humiliation that Julian Hurst had inflicted on her. She had grown up very fast after that betrayal, but even though she had never been so foolish again her parents continued to regularly remind her of her lowest moment.

The car turned off the road and her thoughts promptly turned to where she was headed, she sat up straighter to peer out of the windows. The lane became steep. If the house stood on a hill, as seemed likely, the garden would have wonderful views. Her first glimpse of the old stone building basking in the late afternoon sunshine made her eyes widen with pleasure. A traditional set of box-edged beds adorned the front of the villa, which was much bigger and more imposing than she had expected. Designing anything for an individual who owned such a beautiful property would be a major creative challenge and she was thrilled at the prospect.

As the driver lifted out her weekend bag the front door opened and a dark-haired woman in her thirties, elegantly dressed in a business suit, greeted her. ‘Signorina Blake? Welcome to the Villa di Sole. I’m Catarina—I work for Signore Roccanti. He will be here shortly. How was your flight?’

Ushered into an airy hall floored in pale limestone, Zara smiled and set down her bag. It was obvious that the newly renovated house was empty and she began to wonder where she would be staying the night. The chatty woman showed her round the property. Well over a hundred and fifty years old, the villa had undergone elegant modernisation. In every way it was a stunning conversion. Rooms had been opened up and extended, opulent bathrooms added and smooth expanses of natural stone flooring, concealed storage and high-tech heating, lighting and sound systems added to achieve a level of luxury that impressed even Zara.

Catarina was a blank wall as far as questions concerning the extensive grounds were concerned. She had no idea what her employer might want done with the garden or what the budget might be.

‘Signore Roccanti has discriminating taste,’ she remarked as Zara admired the fabulous view of hills covered with vineyards and olive groves.

Fine taste and plenty of cash with which to indulge it, Zara was reflecting when she heard the dulled roar of a powerful car engine at the front of the property. Catarina hurried off with a muttered apology and moments later Zara heard heavy footsteps ringing across the tiled entrance hall.

She glanced up just as a man appeared in the doorway and her breath tripped in her throat. Sunshine flooded through the windows, gleaming over his black hair and dark curling lashes while highlighting the stunning lines of his classic bone structure and beautifully modelled mouth. He was smoking hot and that acknowledgement startled her—it was rare for Zara to have such a strong, immediate response to a man.

‘A business appointment overran. I’m sorry I kept you waiting, signorina,’ he murmured smoothly, his dark reflective gaze resting on her.

‘Call me Zara, and you are … ?’ Zara was trying not to stare. She picked up the edge of strain in her voice and hoped it wasn’t equally audible to him. She extended her hand.

‘Vitale Roccanti. So, you are Edith’s niece,’ he remarked, studying her from below those outrageously long lashes, which would have looked girlie on any less masculine face, as he shook her hand and released it again, the light brush of those long brown fingers sending tingles of awareness quivering all over her body. ‘Forgive me if I comment that you don’t look much like her. As I recall she was rather a tall woman—’

Zara stilled in surprise. ‘You actually met Edith?’

‘I was living at the Palazzo Barigo with my uncle’s family when your aunt was designing the garden,’ Vitale explained, his gaze momentarily resting on her slender hand and noting the absence of an engagement ring. Had she taken it off?

As he made that connection with the woman who had taught her almost everything she knew Zara relaxed and a smile stole the tension from her delicate features. ‘It is the most wonderful garden and in all the professional design books …’

When she smiled, Vitale conceded, she shot up the scale from exceptionally pretty to exquisitely beautiful. The photos hadn’t lied but they hadn’t told the whole truth either. In the light her pale hair glittered like highly polished silver, her velvety skin was flawless and those eyes, lavender blue below arched brows, were as unusual as they were gorgeous. He reminded himself that he liked his women tall, dark and curvaceous. She was tiny and slender as a ribbon, her delicate curves barely shaping her T-shirt and skirt, but she was also, from her dainty ankles to her impossibly small waist, an incredibly feminine woman. As for that mouth, unexpectedly full and rosy and ripe, any man would fantasise about a mouth that alluring. Vitale breathed in slow and deep, willing back the libidinous surge at his groin. He had not expected her to have quite so much appeal in the flesh.

‘Have you been outside yet?’ Vitale enquired. ‘No, Catarina was showing me the house when you arrived—it’s most impressive,’ Zara remarked, her gaze following him as he pressed a switch and the wall of glass doors began to slide quietly back to allow access onto the terrace. He moved with the silent grace of a panther on the prowl, broad shoulders, narrow hips and long elegant legs defined by his beautifully tailored grey designer suit. She found it difficult to remove her attention from him. He was one of those men who had only to enter a room to command it. Even in a crowd he would have stood out a mile with his exceptional height, assurance and innate sophistication.

‘The garden should complement the house with plenty of outside space for entertaining,’ he told her.

‘I see there’s a pool,’ she remarked, glancing at the feature that was at least fifty years old and marooned like an ugly centrepiece in the lank, overgrown grass.

‘Site a replacement somewhere where it will not be the main attraction.’

Zara tried not to pull a face at the news that that landscaper’s bête noire, the swimming pool, was to feature in the design. After all, every job had its pitfalls and there was plenty of space in which to provide a well-screened pool area. ‘I have to ask you—is this going to be your home? Will a family be living here?’

‘Aim at giving the garden universal appeal,’ he advised, his face uninformative.

Zara felt slightly foolish. Of course if the villa was to be sold which was the most likely objective for a property developer, he would have no idea who the eventual owner would be. As she began to walk down the worn steps her heel skittered off the edge of one and his hands cupped her elbow to steady her. The faint scent of a citrus-based cologne flared her nostrils in the hot still air. When she reached level ground again he removed his hand without fanfare but she remained extraordinarily aware of his proximity, the height and strength of his long, lean frame, not to mention the unmistakeable aura of raw masculinity.

She needed measurements for the garden, all sorts of details, but Vitale Roccanti did not look like the patient type, happy to stand around and wait while she took notes. She would have to contain her eagerness to start work until her next visit. The garden ran right up to the edges of woodland and merged with the dark shade cast by the trees. But the open view to the south was nothing short of breathtaking.

Vitale watched her face light up as she caught the view of the hills with the sun starting to go down, bathing the trees in a golden russet light. Her habitually wary expression was transformed into one of open enjoyment. She was not at all what he had expected, being neither flirtatious nor giggly nor even high maintenance if that plain outfit was the norm for her. No make-up that he could see either, which was an even more unusual sight for a man accustomed to decorative women, who preferred to present a highly polished image for his benefit.

As Zara turned back to him her unusual lavender eyes were shining at the prospect of the challenge before her. In such beautiful surroundings this was truly her dream job. ‘How much land does this place have?’

The purity of her heart-shaped face, lit up with the unhidden enthusiasm of a child’s, made the man watching her stare. Per amor di Dio, Vitale reflected involuntarily, what a piece of perfection she was! The unfamiliar thought jolted him and his hard bone structure tautened and shadowed.

‘The land as far as you can see belongs to the house. It was once a substantial agricultural estate,’ he explained. ‘You’ll be able to come back here to explore tomorrow. A vehicle will be placed at your disposal.’

Zara encountered stunning dark golden eyes with the shrewd watchful penetration of gold-tipped arrows. Dark-hued, deep-set, very sexy eyes surrounded by inky black lashes and blessed with extraordinary impact. Goose bumps erupted on Zara’s arms. Her mouth ran dry, her tummy executing a sudden somersault that made her tense and dizzy. ‘Thanks, that will be very helpful,’ she responded, striving to overcome the way she was feeling by making herself remember Julian and the pain and humiliation that he had inflicted on her.

‘Prego!’ Vitale answered lightly, showing her back indoors and escorting her back through the silent house.

In the hall she bent down to lift her weekend bag.

‘I have it,’ Vitale said, reaching the bag a split second in advance of her.

She followed him outside and hovered while he paused to lock up. He opened the door of the black Lamborghini outside, stowed her bag and stepped back for her to get in.

‘Where will I be staying?’ she asked as she climbed into the passenger seat, nervous fingers smoothing down her skirt as it rose a little too high above her knees.

‘With me. I have a farmhouse just down the hill. It will be a convenient base for you.’ His attention inescapably on those dainty knees and pale slim thighs, Vitale was thinking solely of parting them and he caught himself on that X-rated image with a frown.

What the hell was the matter with him? Anyone could have been forgiven for thinking that he was sex-starved, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Vitale scheduled sex into his itinerary as efficiently as business appointments. He had lovers in more than one European city, discreet, sophisticated women who knew better than to expect a lasting commitment from him. There were no emotional scenes or misunderstandings in Vitale’s well-ordered life and that was how he liked it. He had not rebuilt his life from the ground up by allowing weakness to exist in his character. He had no expectations of people and he certainly didn’t trust them. If there were no expectations there was less chance of disappointment. He had learned not to care about women, especially not to love them. Life had taught him that those you cared about moved on, died or betrayed you. In the aftermath of such experiences being alone hurt even more but it was safer not to feel anything for anyone. That credo had served him well, taking him from extreme poverty and deprivation to the comfortable cultured life of a multimillionaire, who seemed to make more money with every passing year.


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