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Грэхем Линн

Unlocking her Innocence

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CHAPTER THREE

‘COMPLETE junk!’ Karen Harper pronounced triumphantly, laying a cushion woven with an image of a dog down on Vito’s desk. ‘Ava has made a complete pig’s ear of the Christmas list and bought ridiculous gifts! She’ll have to return the stuff and someone else will have to take charge of the list.’

An expression of exasperation crossed Vito’s face for he did not appreciate having his busy morning interrupted by inconsequential dramas. He had only given Ava the list to get her out of the office and was in no mood for fallout from that decision. He swept up the phone. ‘Ask Ava Fitzgerald to join us,’ he told his PA.

Ava was sheltering in the cloakroom, cheeks still burning after a mortifyingly public scene with the dissatisfied office manager. Having done what she had been asked to the best of her ability, Ava had been furious when Karen Harper looked over her carefully chosen purchases and labelled her ‘an idiot’ in front of her co-workers. She accepted that she was just a junior but felt that even a junior employee deserved a certain modicum of respect and consideration. Her pale heart-shaped face tight, she finished renewing her lip gloss and moved away from the mirror.

‘Mr Barbieri wants to speak to you,’ Vito’s PA, a glamorous blonde in her early thirties, informed Ava in the corridor.

Ava walked stoically back into Vito’s office. Twenty-four hours had passed since their last encounter and after the restless night she had suffered while she fretted over what could not be changed she wished it had been longer. Getting out of bed to face another day had been a challenge. Having to deal with a man who despised her was salt in an already open wound. That he was the same guy she had once loved hammered her pride to smithereens.

Vito, a devastatingly elegant figure in a charcoal grey suit expertly tailored to his tall, powerful physique, viewed her with cool precision, the sooty lashes that ringed his remarkable eyes visible even at a distance. He indicated the cushion. ‘Ava … care to explain this?’

‘Matt Aiken and his wife breed Labradors and show them at Crufts. I thought the cushions were the perfect gift.’

‘What about that ugly pottery vase?’ Karen Harper broke in.

‘Made by a charity in Mumbai that supports homeless widows,’ Ava explained. ‘Ruhina Dutta is very forthright about the needs of minorities in India. I thought she would appreciate the vase and a charitable donation more than she would appreciate perfume,’ Ava continued levelly, encountering an unreadable look from Vito that made her even tenser. She could not tell whether he approved of her outlook or not, but that lingering scrutiny sent high-wire energy shooting through her like lightning rods.

‘And that silly chain from Tiffany’s?’ Karen was in no mood to back down. ‘It doesn’t even have a proper catch—’

‘Because it’s a spectacles chain. Mrs Fox complained in a recent interview that she is always mislaying her glasses.’

Vito released a short laugh, his impatience with the subject unconcealed. Ava went pink, noting that he was now avoiding looking directly at her and feeling ignored even though she told herself that it was stupid to feel that way. Surely she no longer wanted his attention? And if he wanted to treat her like the office junior she was supposed to be, she would have to get used to receiving as much attention as the paint on the wall.

‘What about all that animal-orientated stuff you’ve bought?’ Karen demanded sharply. ‘It’s unacceptable for you to only buy gifts from your favourite charity.’

‘A lot of people on that list have pets. You told me to save money if I could.’

‘I certainly didn’t tell you to buy junk!’ Karen Harper snapped.

‘Some of the proposed gifts on the list were incredibly expensive and at a time when so many people are cutting back, those suggestions struck me as OTT,’ Ava admitted in a rueful undertone. ‘But, of course, anything I’ve bought can be changed if required.’

‘That won’t be necessary. Finish the job—you’ve obviously done your homework on the recipients,’ Vito conceded, his strong jaw line squaring as he skimmed a detached glance at Ava and extended the cushion to her. ‘But I don’t like to waste my time on trivia. Please remove this difference of opinion from my office.’

The office manager stiffened. ‘Of course, Mr Barbieri. I’m sorry I interrupted you.’

The other woman insisted on checking the remainder of the list with Ava before she went out shopping again. Ava was embarrassed when a couple of co-workers chose that same moment to return Marge’s catalogue with orders and cash attached.

‘You’re here to work, not to sell stuff for your pet charity,’ Karen said icily. ‘When you get back this afternoon I have several jobs for you to take care of, so be as quick as you can.’

When Ava returned, footsore and laden with carrier bags, Karen took her straight down to the filing cabinets in the basement and gave her enough work to keep her busy into at least the middle of the following week. Ava knew it was a punishment for stepping out of line and accepted it as such without resentment.

True the basement was lonely, dull and filled with artificial light but it was a relief to know that she need no longer fear running into Vito. Earlier he had behaved unnervingly like a stranger and she didn’t know why that should have surprised her or left her feeling ridiculously resentful. After all, he was the last man in the world from whom she could expect special treatment.

A week later, Vito was studying his companion over lunch in a famous restaurant. By any standards Laura was beautiful with her long blonde fall of hair and almond-shaped brown eyes. She didn’t ring his bells though: he thought her mouth was too thin, her voice too sharp and she was painfully fond of bitching about the models she worked with. Was he simply bored? There had to be some reason why his mind constantly wandered, why it had suddenly become a challenge for him to sit still even long enough to eat a meal. The unease that had been nibbling bites out of his self-discipline for days returned in full force.

His day had had an unfortunate start with a call from his estate manager, Damien Keel. Damien, keen to get his festive calendar organised, had asked him if there would be a Christmas party this year at the castle. Ironically it was the first time that Vito had been asked that question since his brother’s death but Damien, a relatively new employee, had never been part of that loop. The first year, nobody had asked or expected a party and since then Vito had just quietly ignored that custom. Now, suddenly, he felt guilty about that break with tradition. His staff deserved the treat. Three years was long enough to make a public display of grief. He decided there and then that it was past time he reinstated normality. He glanced at Laura, happily engaged in a very long drawn-out story about yet another rival in the modelling world, and he suppressed his growing impatience. He knew he would be moving on from Laura as well.

Striding back into AeroCarlton, he glanced at Reception. There was no sign of Ava in the general office either. For a gopher she was keeping an exceptionally low profile. It was not that he wanted to see her, more that he was steeling himself to accept her presence. But it was a week since he had last laid eyes on her and he was getting curious.

‘Is Ava Fitzgerald still working here?’ he asked his PA.

‘I don’t know, sir …’

‘Find out,’ he instructed.

Ava was in the basement, the layout of which she now knew like the back of her hand. She had filed away entire boxes of documents, and when she had completed that task Karen had introduced her to her shiny new and fiendishly complex filing system and put her to work on it. In the distance she heard the lift clanging as the doors opened and she did not have long to wait for her visitor.

‘Since you won’t go out to lunch, I’ve brought lunch to you,’ a familiar voice announced.

Suppressing a groan, Ava spun round from the cabinet of files she was reorganising and smoothed down her skirt in a movement that came as naturally as breathing to her in Pete Langford’s radius. Of medium height and lanky build, Pete looked over her slender figure in a way that made her feel vaguely unclean. It was a few days since he had made his first call down to the basement to chat to her and even her display of indifference had failed to daunt him. Now he extended a panini and a soft drink to her while he lounged back against the bare table in the centre of the room.

‘Take a break,’ he urged, setting the items down on the table.

‘You shouldn’t have bought those.’ Her stomach growled because her tiny budget didn’t run to lunches. ‘Give them to someone else—I have some shopping to do.’

‘Do it after work. I’m here now,’ he pointed out as if she ought to drop everything to give him some attention.

Ava hated being railroaded and valued her freedom of choice. She didn’t fancy an impromptu lunch with Pete in the solitude of the basement and had no desire to drift into a situation where she would have to fight him off. He was the sort of guy who thought he was God’s gift and who believed persistence would pay off. One of her co-workers had already warned her that he went after all the new girls. ‘I’m going to take a break upstairs,’ she told him.

Pete sighed. ‘What’s your problem?’

‘I don’t have one. I’m just not interested,’ Ava told him baldly.

‘Are you gay?’ Pete demanded abruptly. ‘I mean, all that time in prison, I suppose you didn’t have much choice …’

Ava lost colour and stiffened. ‘Who told you I was in prison?’

‘Was it meant to be hush-hush? Everybody knows.

‘It’s not something I talk about,’ Ava retorted curtly, trying not to react to the news that her past was an open secret amongst her co-workers, some of whom had proved quite reluctant to speak to her. The bite of humiliation, the pain of being the oddity and distrusted while people speculated about her crime, cut deep.

‘Who told you?’ another, harsher male voice enquired from the doorway. ‘That was supposed to be confidential information.’

Ava levelled her stunned gaze on Vito. He must have used the stairs because she hadn’t heard the lift. He stood at the door, his gorgeous eyes a brilliant scorching gold, his lean strong face hard as granite as he awaited Pete Langford’s response. Having heard that last crack about Ava being gay, Vito was taut with outrage and simmering fury. He did not understand why he was so furious to find Ava with another man until it occurred to him that after her prison sentence she was probably a sitting duck for such an approach and that as her employer it surely behoved him to ensure that nobody took advantage of her vulnerability. Not that at that precise moment Ava actually looked vulnerable, he conceded abstractedly. Her eyes were sparkling with angry resentment and her slim but undeniably curvy figure was beautifully sculpted in the black pencil skirt and tight-fitting red shirt she wore. Without any warning, another image was superimposed over her: Ava, amazingly elfin cute in a lace corset top, short black leather skirt and clunky boots. Startled, he blinked, but the damage had been done and he was left willing back a surge of arousal.

.

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