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Грэхем Линн

Roccanti's Marriage Revenge

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AT WAR with herself, Zara tossed and turned for a good part of the night, wakening to a warm room bathed in the bright light filtering through the thin curtains. Seating her on the terrace, Giuseppina brought her a breakfast of fresh peaches, milky coffee and bread still warm from the oven served with honey. Birds were singing in the trees, bees buzzing and golden sunshine drenched the country valley below the house. It was a morning to be glad to be alive, not to brood on what could not be helped. So, a handsome Italian had made a mild pass at her, why was she agonising over the fact? The attraction had been mutual? So, she was human, fallible.

Giuseppina brought her keys to the car and the villa and Zara left the house to climb into the sturdy pickup truck parked outside. In the early morning quiet the garden of the villa was a wonderful haven of peace. Grateful that it was still relatively cool, Zara took measurements and sat down on a wrought iron chair in the shade of the house to do some preliminary sketches. She chose the most suitable site for the pool first and, that achieved, her ideas were free to flow thick and fast. For the front of the house she wanted a much more simple and soft approach than the current formal geometry of the box-edged beds. So engrossed was she that she didn’t hear the car pulling up at the front and she glanced up in surprise when she heard a door slam inside the house.

Vitale strolled outside, a vision of sleek dark masculinity sheathed in summer casuals, a sweater knotted round his shoulders with unmistakeable Italian style. She scrambled up, her heart going bang-bang-bang inside her chest and her mouth dry as a bone.

‘Time for lunch,’ he told her lazily.

Zara glanced at her watch for the first time since she had arrived and was startled to find that the afternoon was already well advanced. It had taken his reminder for her to notice that her tummy was hollow with hunger. ‘I lost track of time …’

Vitale moved closer to glance curiously at the sheaf of sketches she was gathering up. ‘Anything for me to see yet?’

‘I prefer to submit a design only when I’m finished,’ she told him evenly, accustomed to dealing with impatient clients. ‘I’ve been working on some options for the hard landscaping first.’

He studied her from beneath the dark lush screen of his lashes. Even without a speck of make-up and clad in sexless shorts and a loose shirt, she was a true beauty. Tendrils of wavy silvery hair had worked loose from the clasp she wore to cluster round her damp temples and fall against her cheekbones. Her lavender eyes were wide above heat-flushed cheeks, her temptress mouth lush and natural pink. The tightening heaviness at his groin made his teeth clench. She looked very young, very fresh and impossibly sexy. He remembered the rumour that Monty Blake had paid a fortune to suppress pornographic pictures taken by some boyfriend of hers when she was only a teenager and he reminded himself that it was quite some time since Zara Blake was in a position to claim that level of innocence.

Disturbingly conscious of his measuring appraisal, Zara packed away her sketch pad and pencils. The coarse cotton of her shirt was rubbing against her swelling nipples. As was often her way in a hot climate she had not worn a bra and in his presence her body was determined to misbehave and she was insanely aware of those tormented tips.

‘I’m taking you to the Palazzo Barigo,’ Vitale volunteered, walking her back through the house and out to the Lamborghini.

Edith’s garden, he was taking her to see Edith’s garden! Zara almost whooped with delight and a huge grin curved her soft lips; she turned shining eyes on him. ‘That’s wonderful—is it open to the public, then?’

‘Not as a rule.’

‘Of course, you said it belonged to your uncle,’ she recalled, reckoning that, had she been on her own, she might not have been granted access. ‘Thank you so much for making this possible. I really appreciate it. Should I get changed or will I do as I am? I haven’t got many clothes with me. I like to travel light.’

‘There is only staff at the palazzo at present. You can be as casual as you like,’ Vitale responded lightly.

‘What will we do about the car I drove here?’ she asked belatedly.

‘It will be picked up later.’

The Palazzo Barigo lay over an hour’s drive away. Zara used a good part of the journey to sound him out on different kinds of stone and then she discussed the need for a lighting consultant. She found him more silent and less approachable than he had seemed the night before. Had her rejection caused offence? It was probably her imagination, she thought ruefully, but once or twice she thought he seemed distinctly tense. His lean, hard-boned face was taut in profile, his handsome mouth compressed.

‘How did you spend your morning?’ she enquired when she had failed to draw him out on other topics.

‘At the office.’

‘Do you often work at weekends?’

‘I was in New York last week. Work piled up while I was away.’ His fingers flexed and tightened again round the leather steering wheel.

‘This landscape is beautiful. No wonder Edith felt inspired working here.’

‘You talk a lot, don’t you?’ Vitale sighed. The views she was admiring were painfully familiar to his grim gaze. He felt as though his world were turning full circle, bringing him back to the place where the events that had indelibly changed his life had begun. Yet conversely he was conscious that only two years earlier he had taken a step that ensured he could never hope to escape that past.

Zara could feel her face reddening. She did talk quite a bit and it wasn’t exactly intellectual stuff. Perhaps he found her boring. Annoyance leapt through her as she fiercely suppressed a sense of hurt. He wasn’t her boyfriend, he wasn’t her lover, he wasn’t anything to her and his opinion should not matter to her in the slightest.

‘I’m sorry, that was rude,’ Vitale drawled softly, shooting the powerful car off the road and below a worn stone archway ornamented with a centrally placed Grecian urn. ‘I’m afraid I’ve had a rough morning but that is not an excuse for ill humour. I find spending time with you very relaxing.’

Zara wasn’t quite convinced by that turnaround and when he parked she got out and said stiffly, ‘You know, if there’s only staff here, you could leave me to explore on my own for an hour. You don’t need to stay—’

‘I want to be with you, angelina mia,’ Vitale intoned across the bonnet, whipping off his sunglasses to view her with level dark golden eyes. ‘Why do you think I arranged this outing? Only to please you.’

As Zara could think of no good reason why he should have bothered otherwise, the anxious tension fell from her heart-shaped face. ‘I’m no good with moody guys,’ she confided with a wry look. ‘They make me uncomfortable.’

‘I’m not moody.’

Aware of the powerful personality that drove him, Zara didn’t quite believe him on that score. He might not be subject to moods as a rule but he was definitely a very driven and strong individual. She was convinced that he could be stubborn and tough and a bit of a maverick but she had no idea how she could be so sure of those traits when she had only met him the day before. And yet she was sure. In much the same way she read the strain in his dark golden gaze and realised for the first time that he wasn’t just flirting with her, he wasn’t just playing a sexual game like so many of the men she had met. Vitale Roccanti was keen to soothe the feelings he had hurt. He sincerely cared about her opinion. Heartened by that conviction, she tried not to smile.

Vitale lifted out the picnic basket Giuseppina had made up and tossed Zara a cotton rug to carry and extended his free hand to her. ‘Let’s find somewhere to eat …’

‘The orchard,’ she suggested dreamily, already mentally visualising the garden design she had often studied.

In the heat of the afternoon they strolled along gravelled paths. The clarity of her aunt’s talent as a designer was still as clear as it must have been forty years earlier when it was first created. ‘The garden’s been replanted,’ Zara registered in surprise and pleasure, for she had expected to see overgrown shrubs and trees, the once noticeable lines of her aunt’s vision blurred by many years of growth.

‘Eighteen months ago.’ Vitale’s explanation was crisp, a little distracted. As she stood there against the backdrop of a great yew tree he was remembering his sister dancing along the same path in a scarlet silk gown for a fashion photographer’s benefit, her lovely face stamped with the detached hauteur of a model, only the sparkle of her eyes revealing her true joyous mood. ‘For a while the house and garden were open as a tourist attraction.’

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