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Грэхем Линн

Unlocking her Innocence

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THE film of dampness in her eyes only slowly receding, Ava shook her bright head as though to clear it and glanced around herself. The office was massive with an ocean of wooden flooring surrounding a contemporary desk and one corner filled with relaxed seating and a coffee table. Everything was tidy, not one thing out of place, and it exactly depicted Vito’s organised, stripped-back style, the desk marred only by a laptop and a single sheaf of documents.

‘I couldn’t believe it when I recognised you,’ Vito admitted flatly.

‘It was just as much of a shock for me. I didn’t know you owned this business.’ Ava’s strained eyes darted over him, absorbing the strong angle of his cheekbones, the stubborn jut of his chin and then falling helpless into the melted honey of his beautiful eyes. Eyes the shade of old gold, fringed by outrageously long and luxuriant black lashes. Her heart started to pound as if he had pressed a button somewhere in her body and her mouth ran dry as a bone.

‘What are you doing here?’ he demanded sardonically. ‘I assumed you’d reapply to medical school once you were released.’

Ava froze, her facial muscles tightening. ‘No—’

Vito frowned. ‘Why not? I’ll agree you couldn’t expect the university to hold open your place until you got out of prison but you were a brilliant student and I’m sure they would be willing to reconsider you.’

Ava stared steadily back at him but she wasn’t really focusing on him any longer. ‘That time’s gone. I can’t go back there …’ She hesitated, reluctantly recalling how excited she and Olly had been when they had both received offers to study medicine at the same university. It was unthinkable to her that she could now try to reclaim what Olly had for ever lost because of her. ‘I’m here because I needed a job, a way of supporting myself.’

An enquiring ebony brow quirked in surprise. ‘Your family?’

Ava raised her chin. ‘They don’t bother with me now. I haven’t heard from any of them since I was sentenced.’

‘They are taking a very tough line,’ Vito commented, suppressing a stab of pity for her that he felt was inapt.

‘They can’t forgive me for letting them down.’

‘People forgive much worse. You were still a foolish teenager.’

Ava snatched in a shuddering breath, her hands knotting into fists by her sides. ‘Have you forgiven me?’

Vito went very still, his body rigid with sudden screaming tension, his face hard beneath his bronzed skin. His cloaked eyes lashed back to her with a hint of flaring gold, bright as an eagle hunting for prey. ‘I can’t.’

Ava felt as sick as if he had punched her and she didn’t know how she had dared to ask that crazy question or even why she had asked it. What other answer could she have expected from Olly’s brother?

‘He was the only family I had,’ Vito breathed in curt continuation, his handsome mouth compressing into a harsh line.

Ava was trembling. ‘He was pretty much irreplaceable. So what now?’ she asked baldly, forcing herself to move away from the topic of Olly before she lost control and embarrassed herself even more. ‘You can’t want me working here even temporarily.’

‘I don’t,’ Vito admitted grimly, for he had far too many unsettling memories attached to her and his brother and he hated such reminders. He swung away from her with surprising grace for so large a man and moved behind his desk. She needed the job, the chance to take up her life again. He recognised that: he just didn’t want her doing it around him. She had stolen Olly’s life and now she had her own back. Or did she? Her entire family had cut her loose. She had also given up her dream of becoming a doctor. Where was his sense of fair play? Did he usually kick people when they were already down and out? She was struggling: he could see it in the shaky set of that luscious mouth, in the fierce tension of her slim body. Given the opportunity his little brother would, he knew, have urged him not to punish Ava for what had happened. Typical Olly, always the peacemaker, Vito reflected broodingly, his even white teeth gritting as he searched inside himself for some similar strain of compassion and found only the yawning emptiness that the loss of his brother had created.

‘So do you want me to leave immediately?’ Ava enquired flatly, fighting to keep the unsteadiness out of her voice.

Vito didn’t want to look at her because she was making him feel like a bully and, whatever he was, he was not that. He glanced down at his desk and inspiration struck him in the form of the Christmas list lying there. That would be perfect: it would get her out of the office and she revelled in all that Christmas bull so it could not be viewed as a punishment either.

From what he could see she had already had her punishment.

‘No, you can stay for the moment,’ he breathed harshly, thinking that he could shift her elsewhere after the festive season was over and it would cause a lot less comment. ‘I have a task I want you to take care of for me …’

Shocked by that sudden turnaround when she had been so sure he was going to sack her, Ava moved quickly forward, too quickly for her ill-fitting shoes. She stepped out of one shoe, having forgotten to clench her toes in it for staying power. ‘What is it?’

‘What is wrong with your shoes?’ Vito demanded impatiently as she lurched to an uneven halt to thrust her foot back into the item.

‘They don’t fit.’

‘Why not?’

Ava reddened. ‘Everything I’m wearing is second hand.’

Distaste filled Vito at the mere idea of wearing someone else’s clothing.

Recognising his reaction, Ava turned pale with chagrin. ‘Look, the last time I was free I was eighteen and wearing Goth clothes. I’ve grown out of that and I couldn’t turn up here to work in a pair of old jeans.’

Vito pulled his wallet out, withdrew a wad of banknotes and extended it to her. ‘Buy yourself some shoes,’ he told her drily.

Ava was aghast at the gesture. ‘I can’t take your money.’

‘You’re planning to refuse your salary?’

‘No, but that’s different,’ she argued. ‘It’s not personal.’

‘This isn’t personal either. You might try to sue us if you have an accident and you’re not much use to anyone round here when you can’t walk properly,’ Vito fielded without hesitation as he reached for the document, eager to get her back out of his office. ‘And you’ll probably be doing a lot of walking.’

‘What are you talking about?’

He handed her the sheet of paper and the money together. She was close enough to pick up on the spicy scent of his cologne and note the flexing of lean strong muscle below his shirt as he leant forward, compensating for the height difference between them. At over six feet tall, he towered over her five feet four inches. All too readily, however, she remembered the warm, solid feel of his muscular chest below her palms and she stiffened defensively. When he came close, she still wanted to touch him; it was that simple. Guilt assailed her when she thought about the way she had once behaved in his radius.

‘It’s my Christmas list for the associates we give presents to. Karen Harper will issue you with a company credit card and you will follow the suggestions and go out and gather them all up. OK?’ Vito spelt out shortly, his smouldering gaze pinned to the damp pink pout of her mouth.

What was it about her that ensnared him? Vito wondered in frustration, feeling the tight heaviness and drag of response at his groin. While she seemed naively unaware of her own sexual power he was all too aware that he found everything about her, from that peachy mouth to the tightness of her blouse over her full round breasts and the fit of her trousers, ridiculously tempting. He wanted her. He wanted to bed her so badly it almost hurt to think that he could never have her and the very thought of that shocked him afresh. It had been so long since a woman affected him on a visceral level. The last time had been with her, in fact, and that bothered him, bothered him in a way he didn’t appreciate being bothered. No, he definitely didn’t want her under his feet during his working day.

Ava looked up at him in surprise and clashed involuntarily with scorching dark golden eyes of such stormy beauty she could hardly breathe. A tingling sensation ran through her, tightening her nipples like a sudden blast of cold air, although there was nothing chilly about the well of heat building low in her pelvis.

‘You want me to go shopping?’ she queried disbelievingly. ‘But I’m not a girly girl.’

‘Nevertheless if you want to retain employment here you will do as you are told,’ Vito countered drily.

Ava flushed and nibbled at the soft underside of her lower lip, the tip of her tongue slicking out to ease the dryness there, while she swallowed back the spark of temper he had ignited. His innate dominance and self-assurance had always set her teeth on edge. His way or the highway, she got that message loud and clear and it was nothing new to her. She was used to rules now, accustomed to respecting the pecking order to stay safe. That she should have to do the same thing to stay employed should not be a surprise.

‘Don’t do that with your mouth … and don’t look at me like that,’ Vito chastised.

Look at him in what way? If the look had been inappropriate, she had been unaware of the fact and her chin came up at a mutinous angle. ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.

He dealt her an unimpressed scrutiny, dark eyes brilliant and shielded by his lush lashes. ‘Don’t play the temptress with me. Been there, done that.’

In the state of tension she was in that insolent warning was the tipping point. Lashed by memories of the humiliation he had once inflicted on her, Ava flushed as incandescent rage lit her up like an internal fireworks display. ‘Let’s get this straight now, Vito,’ she bit out furiously. ‘I’m no longer that silly infatuated girl you once called a tease! I’m a whole lot wiser than I used to be. You’re like a lot of other men—you don’t take responsibility for your own behaviour.’

‘And what’s that supposed to mean?’ Vito shot back at her rawly, unprepared for that sudden attack.

‘I’m not some fatally seductive Eve, whom no poor male can resist. What happened that night wasn’t entirely my fault. You came on to me, you kissed me because you wanted to, not because I somehow made you do it!’ Ava shot back with angry emphasis, blue eyes star-bright with condemnation. ‘Deal with your own share of the blame and don’t try to foist it on me!’

Wrath blasted through Vito like a cleansing flame, wiping away every other complex reaction that she stirred. That fast he wanted to kill her and it was not the first time she had done that to him. He had dealt with the blame a long time ago but that did not alter the fact that she had used her body around him like a lethal weapon, deliberately stoking the kind of desire that no principled adult wanted to experience in a teenager’s radius. It had been a recipe for disaster and had it not been for the car crash that had followed he would have remained satisfied by the outcome of their confrontation. But while he had tried to nip the situation in the bud Ava’s fiery temperament had ensured that it had blown up in his face instead.

‘I have no intention of discussing the past with you,’ Vito delivered crushingly. ‘Go buy the shoes and start on the Christmas list, Ava.’

It was a direct order and she was tempted to ignore it when every fibre in her body was still primed for battle. She wanted to defend herself, she had never got the chance to defend herself against his cutting allegations because Olly had interrupted them. But as she had reminded him she was no longer the teenager who had once found it almost impossible to control her emotions. She breathed in slow and deep and, giving him a look that would have daunted a lesser man, she turned round and headed for the door.

‘Yes, you have grown up,’ Vito remarked silkily, having the last word.

Her teeth clenched, her slender hands curling into tight fists but her spine stayed straight and her mouth firmly closed. Deep down inside she might want to scream at him, shake him … kiss him? The shock of that stray thought cooled her temper as nothing else could have done. Although she had got over her crush on him a long time ago, she had also spent the last three years in an all-female environment, forced to repress every sexual instinct, she reasoned impatiently. It was hardly surprising that exposure to a male of Vito’s stunning good looks and high-powered sexuality, not to mention the memory of how she had once felt about him, could now make her vulnerable. So, take a chill pill, she urged herself impatiently, you’re only human and he’s the equivalent of toxic bait to a rat. He might have spectacular packaging but he also had a brain like a computer in which actual emotion had very little input. Even at eighteen she had appreciated that Vito’s fondness for his little brother was the sole Achilles’ heel in his tough and ruthlessly maintained emotional armour. She had not required Olly’s warning to appreciate that she and Vito were chalk and cheese in every way that mattered. Money and success mattered way more to Vito than people. He kept other human beings at a distance and rarely allowed anyone into his inner circle or his private life. She did not count his affairs in that category for, according to what she had witnessed on the sidelines of his life, more sex than feeling was involved in those relationships.

Karen Harper was just replacing the phone when Ava entered her office and she wore an expression like a cat facing a saucer of sour cream. ‘Company credit card, right?’ she checked icily.

Ava nodded and presented the Christmas list. The brunette gave it a cursory glance. ‘You appreciate that I will be checking your purchases very closely,’ she spelt out warningly. ‘I also advise you to stay strictly within budget. In fact your main objective should be to save money rather than spend it.’

‘Of course.’

‘Obviously Mr Barbieri believes you’re up to the challenge because he knows your family,’ Karen commented curtly, making her own poor opinion of the decision crystal clear. ‘But unfortunately shopping is not work.’

‘I just do what I’m told to do,’ Ava fielded and turned on her heel, hoping that being at an enjoyable distance from Karen for a couple of days would ultimately do her no harm.

Ava returned to her allotted desk to go over the list and make plans. Saving money? When it came to the question of saving money she was, without a doubt, the go-to girl for she had never had enough cash to get by comfortably. Even though her family had always lived well, Ava had rarely been given money and had survived during term time at school through a series of part-time holiday jobs waiting tables and stacking shelves. Studying the list, she dug out Marge’s catalogue to see if any suitable substitutes could be found within those pages. Surely charitable gifts would be more acceptable during a period of economic austerity when most people were feeling the pinch? She did a little homework on the computer to find out what she could about the interests of the recipients and hit pay dirt several times on that score, making helpful notes beside those names. That achieved, she paused only to pin a picture of Harvey to the office noticeboard in the forlorn hope that the dog might take someone’s fancy. Marge had said Harvey could stay only two more weeks in her home as she was expecting the usual influx of abandoned and surrendered animals that followed the festive season. Ava tried to picture Harvey with a bow in his hair as a much-wanted gift and frowned: he just wasn’t cute and fluffy enough to attract that kind of owner. But he was such a loving animal, Ava reflected painfully, knowing that the dog would have to be put to sleep at the vets’ surgery if she could not find him a home. How could she have been so irresponsible as to let herself get attached to him?

When she left AeroCarlton, Ava went straight to buy a pair of shoes because the muscles in her feet were aching at the effort it took to keep the second-hand ones on. As soon as she could she would pay Vito back. Although she then made a start on the Christmas list unfortunate images continued to bombard her brain at awkward moments, scattering her thoughts and disturbing her. She didn’t want to think about the night of the party but suddenly she couldn’t think of anything else.

Every year Vito held a Christmas party for his senior staff, estate employees, tenants and neighbours. It was the equivalent of the local squire of Victorian times throwing open his grand doors to the public. That last year Ava had become so obsessed by Vito that she wouldn’t even go out on a date with anyone else.

‘It’s unhealthy to be so intense,’ Olly had told her in frustration that winter. ‘You can’t have Vito. He’s not into teenagers and never will be. In his eyes you’re only one step removed from a child.’

‘I’ll be nineteen in April and I’m mature for my age,’ she had protested.

‘Says who?’ Olly had parried unimpressed, his blond blue-eyed and open face as far removed from his half-brother’s as day is to night for he had inherited his English mother’s looks rather than his Italian father’s. ‘A mature woman would never have got that tattoo on her hip!’

And, of course, Olly had been correct on that score, Ava acknowledged ruefully. An alcohol-induced decision on a sixth form holiday abroad had resulted in that piece of nonsense. She had marked herself for life over a teenage infatuation and needed no-one to tell her how foolish that was. When she eventually worked up the courage to get naked with a guy she knew she would cringe if there was any need to make an explanation.

In the present her mind careened back to that disastrous party when, for a change, she had gone all out to look sophisticated and had abandoned her Goth attire for the evening. Not that she wasn’t fully aware at the time that her regular appearances in short black leather skirts and boots attracted Vito’s attention! Did that make her a tease? She had seen girls out on the town wearing much more provocative clothing. Admittedly Vito’s frighteningly elegant girlfriends had never appeared in such apparel. But just for once at the Christmas party Vito had been single with no eager possessive beauty clinging to his arm like a limpet and laughing and smiling at his every word.

From the first moment when Ava had met Vito Barbieri when she was sixteen there had been a buzz when their eyes met. It had taken her more than a year to reach the conclusion that he felt that buzz too but that he was fighting it tooth and nail. He had never said a word out of place and had been careful to stay out of reach and treat her more than ever like a little girl. But more than once she had been conscious of his eyes on her and the burn of satisfaction that minor triumph had given her had merely encouraged her to visit the castle when Vito was in residence. That he could be attracted to her and never do anything about it had not once crossed her mind as a possibility. It didn’t matter how often Olly warned her that she was wasting her time dreaming about Vito. As long as Ava was aware that the attraction was mutual she had cherished the hope that eventually he would succumb.

With hindsight that insouciant confidence of hers made Ava recoil in mortification. How could she ever have truly believed that Vito might date her? The daughter of one of his employees, whose father lived with his family near Bolderwood Castle? His little brother’s best friend? An eighteen-year-old still at school studying for her final exams with no experience and no decent clothes? Unfortunately, the depth of her obsession with him had ensured she ignored all common sense when he was around.

Her whole family had attended that party. Ava had worn a silver shift dress, cut down from a maxi that her sister, Gina, had put out for recycling. Somehow there had never been money to buy new clothes for Ava. The dress had been simple, even modest, and she had been careful with her make-up and her hair, keen neither to shock nor repel. She had seen Vito watching her from the doorway while she was dancing with the children she was helping to look after at their separate party in another room. Needing to stoke her confidence, she had been drinking, something she was usually more careful not to do, always fearful that her mother’s weakness might some day turn out to be hers as well.

Ava no longer remembered when she had first appreciated that her mother was different from other mothers. She had often come home from primary school and found her mother out for the count on her bed. But then Ava’s had never been a happy home because her parents fought like cat and dog. Furthermore, her mother had always been distant with her. And with a father who called her ‘Ginger’ if he called her anything, even though he knew how much it hurt her feelings to suffer that hated nickname in her own home, she had never suffered from the illusion that she was a much-wanted child. A full ten years younger than her eldest sister, Bella, Ava had often wondered if she was an unplanned accident resented by both her parents for neither of them had ever had any time for her.

But for all that she had loved her mother, Gemma Fitzgerald’s death while Ava was in prison had been a severe shock and source of grief for she had long hoped that as she got older she might finally forge a closer relationship with her parent. In her teens she had realised that her mother had a serious problem with alcohol and was sober only in the morning, getting progressively drunker throughout the day on her hidden stashes of booze round the house until she was usually slumped comatose on the sofa by early evening. Ava’s father and sisters had studiously ignored Gemma’s alcoholism and done everything they could to cover it up. Divorce had been mentioned but never rehabilitation until the night her mother was caught driving while under the influence by the police and her father’s punitive rage had known no bounds when the incident was reported in the local paper. Gemma had lost her licence and gone into rehab, returning home from the experience pale, quiet and mercifully sober.

Having noticed Vito watching her the night of the Christmas party, Ava had decided to take the bull by the horns, a decision that she would live to regret. She had tracked Vito down to the quiet of the library where he was standing by the fire with a drink in his hand. Tall, darkly beautiful and powerful, he had riveted her from the minute she walked through the door.

‘What do you want?’ he had demanded edgily.

Ava had perched on the side of the desk in a way that best displayed her long shapely legs and put her directly in front of him. As she had carefully adjusted the hem to a decent length she had felt his eyes on her as hot as the flames in the fire and excitement had filled her like a dangerous drug urging her on. ‘I want you,’ she told him boldly, no longer content to only offer lingering looks and encouraging smiles in invitation.

Vito treated her to a brooding look of derision that dented her pride right where it hurt most. ‘You couldn’t handle me,’ he countered drily. ‘Go and find some boy your own age to practise your wiles on.’

‘You want me too,’ Ava responded doggedly for, having started, she found it quite impossible to retreat with dignity and she stabbed on regardless with her suicidal mission to make him finally acknowledge what she believed already lay between them. ‘Did you think I wouldn’t notice?’

‘It’s time you went home and sobered up,’ Vito retorted with scorn. ‘This conversation is likely to embarrass you tomorrow.’

Ava continued to stare at him with unconcealed longing, her blue eyes languorous, her soft pink mouth pouting in reproach at his refusal to match her honesty. ‘I don’t embarrass that easily and I am well over the age of consent.’

‘Your body might be but your brain is way behind,’ Vito riposted, shifting closer in a fluid step that made her heart race. ‘Go home, Ava. I don’t want this nonsense.’

‘I would be much more fun than any of those women I’ve seen you bring back here!’ she challenged. ‘I’m not the clingy type.’

Vito stopped dead right in front of her. ‘I’m not looking for fun. You’ve got nothing I want … and a little word of warning. Most men prefer to do their own chasing. Your in-my-face approach is a complete turn-off.’

Colour flamed into Ava’s cheeks at his blunt rejection of what she had to offer. She snaked off the desktop in a surge of temper and wrapped her arms round his neck to prevent him from backing away from her. ‘I do not turn you off,’ she argued vehemently, gazing up into his dark golden eyes, which were spectacular in the firelight. ‘That’s a total lie! Why won’t you tell the truth for once?’

‘Ava …’ Vito groaned in frustration, reaching up to detach her hands from his neck.

But before he could do so she stretched up and kissed him with every atom of craving she possessed. The muscles in his lean, strong body turned rigid and then he suddenly crushed her lips under his, his tongue spearing hungrily down into the tender interior of her mouth to make her literally shudder with excitement and a blissful sense of coming home. That single kiss was like dynamite to her self-control. With an eager gasp of response she melted into him, bones turning to mush under the onslaught of the piercing hunger gathering low in her pelvis. A door opened but she didn’t hear it, reacting only when it slammed shut again.

‘Vito … for heaven’s sake, what are you doing?’ Olly yelled in dismay. ‘Let her go!’

Vito thrust Ava away roughly from him, the distaste on his face unmistakable. ‘You’re a calculating little tease … and you won’t take no for an answer.’

‘I’m not a t—’

Olly closed his hand round her forearm. ‘Time to go home, Ava. I’ll drive you.’

Ava’s head swivelled, her furious eyes pinned to Vito’s shuttered face in condemnation. ‘How dare you call me a tease?’ she launched at him as a sense of humiliation engulfed her, for she had made her last desperate move and he was still rebuffing her, resolutely refusing to acknowledge the sense of connection between them.

For the very first time in the immediate aftermath of that encounter Ava worried that her feelings were entirely one-sided. Was it possible that a man could be attracted to a woman without actually wanting to act on it? The same way people could admire a painting in a museum without needing to own it? That humiliating realisation came crashing down on Ava like a big black storm cloud. Her last recollection of that evening was of rushing down the steps of the castle in floods of tears with Olly chasing after her, urging her to calm down. The image that came next in her memory was waking up in hospital with a mind that was a terrifying blank, the events of the previous evening only returning slowly over the following days in jagged bits and pieces. But she had never been able to fully recall that car journey or the crash. Her defence had made much of the yawning gaps in her memory during her trial.

But ignorance had not protected her even from her own painful questions. How could she have got behind a steering wheel in the state she had been in? She had never been able to answer that question to her own satisfaction. Even more saliently, the car had belonged to Olly and he had been sober so why on earth had he allowed her to drive when she wasn’t insured to drive his car?

Shoulders bowing beneath the stress of recalling her stupid selfishness that evening, Ava focused her swimming eyes on the Christmas list and resolved to get on with the task at hand. Revisiting the past, she decided, was a very bad idea when her mistakes had resulted in indefensible behaviour and tragic consequences.


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