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Грэхем Линн

Roccanti's Marriage Revenge

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THE farmhouse sat a good distance from the mountain road, accessed by a track that stretched almost a kilometre into dense woods. Built of soft ochre-coloured stone and roofed in terracotta, the property was surrounded by a grove of olive trees with silvery foliage that seemed to shimmer in the fading light.

‘Very picturesque,’ Zara pronounced breathlessly, belatedly registering that she had allowed herself to be brought to an isolated place in the countryside by a man whom she knew almost nothing about! She mentally chastised herself for her lack of caution.

As her lips parted to suggest that she would prefer a hotel—at her own expense—a plump little woman in an apron appeared at the front door and smiled widely.

‘My housekeeper, Guiseppina, has come out to welcome you. Be warned, she will try to fatten you up,’ Vitale remarked teasingly as he swung out of the car.

The appearance of another woman relieved much of Zara’s concern, although a stubborn thought at the back of her mind was already leafing through various murders in which the killers had enjoyed female companionship and support in which to commit their crimes. Her colourful imagination had often been considered one of her biggest flaws by her teachers. ‘I think I would prefer to be in a hotel—I’ll settle my own bills,’ she muttered tautly.

In considerable surprise, for he was accustomed to women seizing on every opportunity to enjoy his full attention, Vitale recognised her apprehension and murmured, ‘If you would be more comfortable staying in this house alone I will use my city apartment while you are here. It is not a problem.’

Flushing in embarrassment, afraid that she might have sounded a little hysterical while also being soothed by his offer, Zara hastened to recant. ‘No, that’s really not necessary. I think it’s the fact I know virtually nothing about you except that you’re a property developer—’

‘But I’m not … a property developer,’ Vitale confided in a ludicrous tone of apology.

Zara studied his lean bronzed features with a bemused frown. ‘You’re … not?’ A helpless laugh bubbled out of her throat because there was something very amusing about the way in which he had broken that news.

‘I’m a banker,’ Vitale admitted.

‘Oh …’ Zara exclaimed, nonplussed by that level admission, there being nothing flashy, threatening or indeed exciting about bankers in her past experience.

‘The property developing is only a pastime.’ Her patent lack of interest in his admission set his teeth on edge a little. Had he been spoilt by all the women who hung on his every word and eagerly tried to find out everything about him?

Bubbling Italian like a fountain, Giuseppina was a bustling whirlwind of a woman and she instantly took centre stage. Although Zara didn’t understand much of what she was saying, it didn’t inhibit Giuseppina’s chatter. She drew Zara eagerly into the house and straight up the creaking oak staircase to a charming bedroom with painted furniture and crisp white bed linen. Zara glanced with satisfaction at the en suite bathroom. The walls might be rustic brick and the furniture quirky and antique but, like the Villa di Sole, every contemporary comfort had been incorporated.

A light knock sounded on the ajar door. Vitale set her bag down on the wide-planked floor. ‘Dinner will be served in an hour and a half. I hope you’re hungry. I bring guests here so rarely that Giuseppina seems determined to treat us to a banquet.’

Zara glanced at him and for an instant, as she collided with dark eyes that glowed like the warmest, deepest amber in the fading light, it was as though her every defence fell down and she stood naked and vulnerable. For a terrifying energising moment she was electrified by the breathtaking symmetry and beauty of his face regardless of the five o’clock shadow of stubble steadily darkening his jaw line. She wondered what it would feel like to kiss him and the passage of blood through her veins seemed to slow and thicken while her heart banged behind her ribs and her breath dragged through her tight throat.

As Giuseppina took her leave, her sturdy shoes ringing out her descent of the stairs, Vitale held Zara’s gaze, his eyes scorching gold, lashes dipping low as though to conceal them. ‘I’ll see you at dinner,’ he told her huskily, backing away.

As the door shut on his departure Zara was trembling. She felt too warm. Unfreezing, she darted into the bathroom to splash her face with cold water. Her hands shook as she snatched up the towel to dry herself again. Never before had she felt so aware of a man. The feelings that had drawn her to Julian as a teenager paled utterly in comparison. She stripped where she stood to go for a shower. What was happening to her? She had decided a long time ago that she just wasn’t that sexual a being. Only once had a man made Zara want to surrender her virginity and that man had been Julian, but if she was truthful she had only been willing to sleep with him because she had assumed that it was expected. When in fact Julian had put greed ahead of lust in his priorities, Zara had been left a virgin and a very much sadder and wiser one. So what was different about Vitale Roccanti?

After all, in August she was supposed to be marrying Sergios Demonides and, having thoroughly weighed up the pros and cons, she had reached that decision on her own. All right, she didn’t love the man she had promised to marry and he didn’t love her, but she did respect the commitment she had made to him. Loyalty and respect mattered to her. Was it stress that was making her feel edgy and out of sync? Or was Bee’s warning that she might fall for another man after she married working on some level of her brain to make her more than usually aware of an attractive man? Vitale was an extraordinarily handsome man and very charismatic. That was fact. Possibly she was more nervous about getting married than she had been prepared to admit even to herself.

And for all she knew Vitale Roccanti was a married man. Yanking a towel off the rail as she stepped out of the shower, she grimaced at that suspicion. At the very least he might be involved in a steady relationship. And why on earth should that matter to her? Not only did it not matter to her whether he was involved or otherwise with a woman, it was none of her business, she told herself staunchly. In the same way it was none of Vitale’s business that she was committed to Sergios. She thought it was unfortunate, though, that Sergios had chosen not to give her an engagement ring. But there was still no good reason why she should bother telling Vitale that she was getting married in three months’ time. Why was she getting so worked up?

Releasing her hair from the clip, she let the silvery strands fall loose round her shoulders and she put on the print tea dress she had packed for more formal wear. Dinner was served on the terrace at the rear of the property. A candle flickered on the beautifully set table in the shade of a venerable oak tree. Her slim shoulders unusually tense, Zara left the shelter of the house.

A glass of wine in one hand, Vitale was talking on a cell phone in a liquid stream of Italian. He was casually seated on the edge of a low retaining wall, a pair of chinos and an open shirt having replaced the suit he had worn earlier. Black hair still spiky from a shower, he had shaved, baring the sleek planes of his features and throwing into prominence his beautifully shaped mouth. Her heart seemed to take a flying leap inside her body, making it incredibly difficult to catch her breath.

‘Zara,’ he murmured softly in greeting, switching off the phone and tossing it aside.

‘I used to hate my name but suppose everyone does at some stage when they’re growing up,’ Zara confided, aware that she was chattering too much in an effort to hide her self-consciousness but quite unable to silence herself.

‘It’s a pretty name.’

Madly aware of his intense scrutiny, Zara felt her cheeks warm. For goodness’ sake, relax, she urged herself, exasperated by her oversensitive reaction to him. He sprang fluidly upright, his every physical move laced with easy strength and grace, and asked her if she would like some wine. He returned from the house bearing a glass.

It was a warm evening. She settled into the seat he pulled out from the table for her and Giuseppina appeared with the first course, a mouth-watering selection of antipasti. Her bright dark eyes danced between them with unconcealed curiosity and romantic hopes.

‘I’m twenty-nine. She thinks I ought to be married by now with a family and she keeps on warning me that all the best girls have already been snapped up,’ Vitale told her in an undertone, his eyes alive with vibrant amusement.

Surprised by his candour, Zara laughed. ‘Have they been?’

‘I don’t know. The women with wedding rings in their eyes are the ones I’ve always avoided,’ Vitale volunteered.

Zara reckoned that if she was truly the honest person she had always believed she was she would be telling him that she was within a few months of getting married herself. Yet while the admission was on her tongue she could not quite bring herself to speak up. At the same time she could not help wondering if Vitale could actually be warning her off. Was it possible that he was letting her know that he had only ever been in the market for a casual affair?

Whatever, there was no future or sense in succumbing to any kind of entanglement with him and she was far too sensible to make such a mistake. In honour of that conviction and impervious to his polite look of surprise, Zara dug her notebook out of her bag and began to quiz him about his garden preferences and his budget. The main course of steak was so tender it melted on her tongue and it was served with a tomato salad and potato and cheese croquettes. She ate with unbridled pleasure for it was, without a doubt, an exceptional meal, and when she could bring herself to set down her knife and fork she took notes.

‘This is not quite how I envisaged dining with you,’ Vitale remarked wryly. It hadn’t escaped his notice that she ignored any hint of flirtation, preferring to maintain a professional barrier he had not expected. Of course she was clever enough to know that lack of interest only made the average man keener, he decided, unwilling to concede the possibility that she might be genuinely indifferent to him.

Although he was taken aback by her eagerness to work he was pleasantly surprised by her healthy appetite and the way in which she savoured Giuseppina’s renowned cuisine, for he was accustomed to women who agonised over eating anything more calorific than a lettuce leaf. ‘You should be relaxing. You can work tomorrow.’

‘But I’m only here for a couple of days. I need to make the most of my time,’ Zara told him lightly as Guiseppina set a lemon tart on the table and proceeded to cut slices. ‘And if I do find myself with a spare couple of hours I’m hoping to try and visit the garden my aunt Edith made at the Palazzo Barigo.’

‘Have you not already seen it?’

‘I’ve never been to this area before. My parents don’t do rural holidays.’ Her sultry mouth quirked at the mere idea of her decorative mother in a countryside setting. ‘I did ask my aunt once if she would like to come back and see the garden and she said no, that gardens change with the passage of time and that she preferred to remember it as it was when it was new.

‘If I can arrange it before you leave I will take you to the Palazzo Barigo for a tour,’ Vitale drawled softly, lifting the bottle to top up her wine glass.

‘No more for me, thanks,’ Zara told him hurriedly. ‘I get giggly too easily, so I never drink much.’

Vitale was sardonically amused by that little speech. She was putting up barriers as prickly as cactus leaves and visibly on her guard. But he was too experienced not to have noticed her lingering appraisals and he was convinced that she wanted him even though she was trying to hide the fact. Erotic promise thrummed through his body, setting up a level of anticipation beyond anything he had ever experienced.

Vitale was as well travelled as Zara and they shared amusing anecdotes about trips abroad, discovering that their sense of humour was amazingly similar. He moved his hands expressively while he talked and slowly but surely she found herself watching him like a hawk. When all of a sudden she collided with his scorching golden eyes, she couldn’t even manage to swallow. The truth that she couldn’t stifle her physical response to him alarmed her. She was not in full control of her response to Vitale Roccanti and disturbingly that took her back to her ordeal with Julian. She breathed in slow and deep and steady, mentally fighting to step back from her reactions. Vitale was gorgeous but not for her. She didn’t want to dip a toe in the water, she didn’t want to get her fingers burnt either. Even if it killed her she was determined to retain her self-respect.

‘I hope you won’t think I’m being rude but I’ve had a lot of late nights this week and I would like to turn in now so that I can make an early start in the morning,’ Zara proffered with a bright smile of apology.

Vitale accepted her decision with good grace, rising immediately to his feet. Her cheeks warmed at the sudden suspicion that he might only have been entertaining her out of courtesy. Not every guy wanted to jump her bones, she reminded herself irritably.

At the foot of the stairs, she hovered, disconcertingly reluctant to leave him even though she had carefully engineered her own exit. ‘Will I see you in the morning?’ she asked breathlessly.

‘I doubt it. I’ll be leaving soon after six,’ Vitale imparted, watching her slim figure shift restively. His level of awareness was at such a pitch it was not only his muscles that ached.

Still unable to tear herself away, Zara looked up at him, focusing on the irresistible dark glitter of his stunning eyes and his perfect lips. He was downright drenched in sex appeal and she wanted to touch him so badly her fingertips tingled. The hunger he was suddenly making no attempt to hide made her feel all hot and shivery deep down inside.

‘But before we part, cara mia …’ Vitale purred, purebred predator on the hunt as he closed long, deft fingers round her arm to ease her closer.

He took Zara by surprise and she froze in dismay, nostrils flaring on the scent of his cologne. ‘No,’ she said abruptly, planting both her palms firmly to his broad chest to literally push him back from her. ‘I don’t know what you think I’m doing here but I’m certainly not here for this.’

Ditching the smile ready to play about his beautifully sculpted mouth, Vitale lifted a sardonic brow. ‘No?’

‘You have a hell of an opinion of yourself, don’t you?’ The tart rejoinder just leapt off Zara’s tongue, fierce annoyance rattling through her at his arrogant attitude. Evidently he had expected her to succumb rather than shoot him down and the knowledge infuriated her, for she had met too many men who expected her to be a pushover.

His dark, heavily lashed eyes flashed with anger and then screened. ‘Perhaps I misread the situation—’

‘Yes, you definitely did,’ Zara retorted defensively. ‘I’m grateful for your hospitality and I’ve enjoyed your company but that’s as far as it goes! Goodnight, Vitale.’

But as she hastened up the stairs and hurriedly shut her bedroom door she felt like a total fraud. Exit shocked virginal heroine stage left, she mocked inwardly, her face burning. He had not misread the situation as much as she would have liked to believe. She did find him incredibly attractive and clearly he had recognised the fact and tried to act on it. She was not the undersexed woman she had come to believe she was. But what a time to make such a discovery about herself! Why now? Why now when she was committed to marrying another man? Even though her bridegroom had no desire to share a bed with her, her susceptibility to Vitale Roccanti’s lethal dark charisma made her feel guilty and disloyal.

She lay in bed studying the crescent of the moon gleaming through the curtains. Vitale was simply a temptation she had to withstand and maybe it was good that she should be reminded now that being a married woman would demand circumspection from her. In the future she would be more on her guard. But she could not forget that even in a temper she had still not told him that she was getting married that summer.


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