Seduced by the Italian (PAPERBACK)
Seduced by the Italian (PAPERBACK)
An emotional romance that pulls at the heart strings.
Interior designer Isabella, Contessa di Sorano, is skilled at creating beautiful facades that cover a multitude of sins, especially when it comes to herself. Behind her immaculate appearance she hides a heart-breaking secret she's determined to keep. But when she's forced to sell the Castello Romitorio and accept a lucrative contract from her ex lover, she can no longer avoid facing up to her painful past.
Seven years earlier, Luca Vittori had been rejected by Isabella and he'd left Italy. But now he's back to honor a promise he made to his grandmother to hire Isabella to redecorate the castello. He just wants it over and done with so he can return to his home in Australia. Trouble is, he hadn't planned on re-igniting a passion he'd hoped was long dead—a passion which threatens to destroy before it can heal...
- The Italian’s Perfect Lover
- Seduced by the Italian
- The Passionate Italian
- An Accidental Christmas
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He was late.
Isabella, Contessa Di Sorano, fixed her gaze on the coffin as it was lowered into the waiting grave, all the while acutely aware of the man who’d arrived only minutes earlier and now stood beside her.
Not just late, but too late.
She focused on her breathing, determined to control the anger that simmered inside her, as hot as the Tuscan sun. Why had he come now, when his grandmother was dead, when he was no longer wanted?
From beneath her broad-brimmed black hat and sunglasses she could see only his immaculately pressed black trousers and highly polished shoes that reflected back the harsh sunlight as if it had no effect on him, as if nothing could touch him.
She turned her gaze back to the coffin. Once, everything had touched him but it seemed he’d hardened over the years. She wondered briefly if his eyes—which had always been so warm and passionate—reflected the change, but she refused to shift, to look at him, to acknowledge him.
Heat enveloped her, making it hard to breathe. She felt trapped by her sleek black dress and the stiletto shoes that were as unyielding as the sun-hardened soil upon which she stood.
Sadness and anger formed a lump in her throat and a throbbing in her head that surged and retreated like the pulsing rhythm of the cicadas. She tightened her grip around the flowers she’d picked that morning, trying to distract her mind by pressing their woody, rough stems into the palms of her hands. It didn’t work.
She’d wondered how she’d feel when he returned. And now she knew—exactly the same. It was as if the seven years hadn’t passed. But there was one difference. She’d learned how to hide her feelings.
She closed her eyes so she could see nothing of him. But the tiniest shift of air brought a thread of his expensive aftershave drifting across to her. Her nostrils flared in response, her heart quickened and she swallowed. He’d never worn that before. It would have been too expensive. But now, apparently nothing was too expensive, too out of his reach, apart from spending the last few days with his grandmother.
She drew in another deep breath of air—a complex mix of his aftershave, wild oregano and the scent of the disturbed earth—and glanced at the priest who had fallen silent.
He nodded and she stepped forward and scattered a bunch of white wildflowers—beloved by her old nurse for their tenacity—on top of the casket. She looked down as if the coffin lid were not there; as if the lined and resigned face with the all-seeing eyes looked straight back up at her. Her breath caught in her throat and she gasped and stepped back abruptly, stumbling on the uneven ground.
A hand reached around her to steady her. She closed her eyes against the power of the fingers that pressed into her waist, against their warmth on her already heated body, and against the slide of his fingers across her back as he withdrew his hand, as if aware his support wasn’t wanted.
She didn’t turn around; she didn’t acknowledge his touch, simply stood looking down at the grave, trying to hold back the tide of feeling that surged inside her.
Dust hung in the air as people filed by and dropped handfuls of soil onto the coffin before walking away. When it was her turn she scooped up a handful of the dry lumpy earth that looked too hard, too rough, to drop onto her old friend. She rubbed it between her fingers, the soil working under her manicured nails, until it grew soft. Only then did she let it rain gently onto the coffin.
It was time to move on. The old lady would have understood. She’d have insisted. Isabella stepped back, hesitating for one last look at the flowers that were already bruised and wilting and then turned and walked to where her friends stood.
She felt his eyes on her. She knew only he remained behind. Let him. She had nothing to say to him.
* * *
Isabella sighed, kicked off her shoes and curled up on the window seat of the western tower of the Castello Romitorio. It had been a long day. The party continued downstairs but she couldn’t face it—nor him. Here, in this empty room, she was safe. For today, at least, because tomorrow it would be her home no longer. She closed her eyes and let her mind drift.
It was the draft of cooler evening air that first alerted her to his presence. A chill wave of alarm swept through her body as she snapped open her eyes to see the figure of a man standing in front of one of the large stone-framed windows. The saffron rays of the evening sun shone directly behind him, lighting up the motes of dust he’d disturbed and illuminating only his silhouette: shadowed face turned toward her, broad shoulders, elbows jutting as he thrust his hands into his trouser pockets.
“What the hell are you doing here?” Her voice was hoarse as if forced through a filter of raw emotion.
“I’ve come to see you.” His voice was deeper than she remembered.
With his face partly in shadow, she couldn’t see his expression. She didn’t want to see his expression. Awkwardly she looked down and then away, out of the window, anywhere but at him. “Well, you’ve seen me. Now perhaps you’ll leave.”
He walked up to her and she felt his presence encroaching on her space as much as his physical body. Both were more than she could deal with.
He stopped immediately behind her. “Are you ever going to look at me?”
“And why would I want to do that?”
She turned slightly toward him, her head still lowered, unwilling to reveal anything to this man who had once meant so much to her; the man who had been instrumental in bringing disaster to her and her family.
“It’s usual to be on time for your grandmother’s funeral. It’s usual to be with the woman who’d raised you when she’s dying. It’s usual to have kept in contact with her over the years. I think you have no sense of what is, and what isn’t, usual.”
She twisted in her seat and slipped her shoes back on her feet. Her hand trembled as she smoothed her already smooth hair, checking its length was intact in the perfect, low knot.
“Cara, I’ve long since come to believe that nothing is usual. Least of all my life, least of all yours.”
His voice had softened, had become a caress that melted something she’d frozen long ago. She looked up at him then and what she saw wasn’t what she’d expected to see.
While his clothes were immaculate, he looked tired and disheveled. Stubble darkened his chin, his black hair was too long and fell away from his face in rough waves and his honey-brown eyes were underscored by dark shadows. But it was his eyes that drew her. They hadn’t hardened like she’d anticipated but still held the same passion and fire she remembered, except now the heat was tempered with a maturity and sadness she’d never seen before.
She barely saw the boy she’d once known in this man; he was broader, more powerful than she remembered. But she felt he was the same: it was the same feeling his eyes gave her when she looked into them; it was the same sensation of wanting to close the gap between them, that his body gave. Her eyes stung with heat and pain.
She saw from his reaction he’d registered her unwanted emotions. His frown lifted and the brown of his eyes darkened with the unmistakable flare of desire. He pulled his hands from his pockets and started forward, as if to reach for her. She held up her hand to stop him and looked away, shifting back against the window. She had to stop this. She needed to protect herself. She took a deep breath and faced him again, prepared this time for the onslaught of emotional turmoil that just seeing him, feeling him close, brought to her.
“You’re wrong, Luca. Come on, tell me, why are you here? You failed to be with your grandmother during her last days and almost missed her funeral.”
“I had no choice.” His voice was quiet, contained by a tension in the tight lines around his mouth.
“Right. Something else came up more important than your grandmother. Business, no doubt. You’ve become your father, just as my father predicted. Business above all else. Why bother to come at all?”
His eyes narrowed dangerously—just as they used to whenever he spoke of the father who’d deserted him—and his jaw clenched as he worked at controlling the anger her words had evoked. But it was a relief to see some emotion other than the heat of desire in his eyes.
“As I said, something else came up. My grandmother knew about it.”
“Your grandmother knew? Come on, you haven’t seen her in years.”
“I kept in contact.”
“She didn’t say anything.”
“Perhaps she didn’t tell you everything. Why should she tell you about my calls, my visits? You’d made it clear you felt nothing for me, wanted nothing further to do with me.”
She had. But, despite that, she felt a flicker of betrayal at her old friend keeping this from her; allowing her to think that Luca hadn’t cared enough to see her.
“Of course. It’s none of my business anyway. But it still doesn’t explain why you’re here, now.”
“To see you; to talk with you.”
“There’s nothing to talk about.”
He exhaled roughly and walked away, his quick gaze scanning the room. “I knew you’d be here. I watched you at the funeral and knew you’d come.”
A knot tightened in her chest. “It’s just somewhere to catch my breath.”
“No, it’s more than that. It was always your retreat, the place you came to find yourself. And, of course, it was the place we found each other.”
“You think I’ve come here because of you?”
His eyes flickered over her face, his expression thoughtful. “Why not? Re-live the moments we shared here together.” He looked around. “But back then it was not so sparsely furnished. What happened to the old sofa?”
She swallowed hard and tried to still the hammering of her heart as the memories came flooding back to her: of the first time he slowly undid the buttons of her dress and of the brush of his finger against her skin; of the way his hair—always too long—had tickled her breasts as his lips explored her body; of the way they’d fallen in a tangle of limbs onto the old sofa, and of the feel of him inside her.
She stood up and opened the window, closing her eyes against the cooling evening breeze, trying without success to dispel the heat her thoughts had created.
“The sofa’s gone. I had to clear everything out. You know, of course, the castello was sold a year ago?”
“And that the year’s grace the owner gave us to settle our affairs has now expired?”
“You did what you had to do to pay off your father’s debts. You can make a new start for you and your sisters. You can return to England where you spent so much time with your mother’s family.”
“I may sound English, but I feel Italian. Five hundred years, Luca, half a millennium the castello has been in my family and now it’s gone. I’ve had to let it go.”
He shrugged. “Traditions are made to be broken.”
She shook her head. “You’ll never understand.”
“No, why would I? I have no traditions, no background, as your father made clear to me.” Isabella opened her mouth to speak. “You’ve no need to defend him.” Luca shrugged. “He was right.” He sighed and looked around the empty room. “But now it’s all gone anyway.” He swept his hand the length of the empty bookshelves that lined one of the walls between two of the four windows. “And the books have gone, too. But the shelves remain. I built them well.”
The silence was filled with the memories of seven years before when Luca had worked on small building jobs around the castello and had built the shelves.
“You were always good at your work.”
His hand sought out the carving on the side of the shelves. “Still here.”
“You etched it in with your pen-knife: a deeply-cut heart never fades away, no matter how much work one does to eradicate the damage.”
His hand instantly stopped moving and he frowned, turning slowly toward her again. “Depends on how deep the damage went. I can erase it if you’d like me to.”
“Please do. The castle isn’t mine any more. The new owner is to take vacant possession tomorrow and so I’m sure he, or she, would appreciate any graffiti removed.”
“Graffiti,” he murmured. “Yes, I’ll organize it for you.”
“Not for me. For the new owner. Now, if you’ll excuse me I have a meeting to attend.” She began to move away but he placed a hand lightly on her arm and she stopped dead in her tracks.
“Isabella, tell me, did she suffer?”
For the first time since he’d entered the room she looked, really looked, into his eyes and saw a raw pain that cut through everything else.
She balled her hands tightly to stop them from reaching out to him and shook her head. “No, Luca, she didn’t. We made sure of that.” She blinked to hold back the tears that threatened. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
“You were with her when she died?”
“Good. She loved you.”
Isabella gasped sharply as grief threatened to overwhelm her. “And I, her. She passed peacefully. She was just waiting to go.”
“Si, si.” He nodded, looking down at the ancient floorboards, now bare of rugs. “My grandmother was a patient woman.” He looked back at her again. “Unlike her grandson.”
Isabella felt a smile tug at her lips.
“Yes. Unlike her grandson, who could never wait for anything.”
“I waited for you.”
The atmosphere changed in a heartbeat. As the sun slipped behind the mountain ridge, a dense twilight fell on them, as heavy as the shadows of the past that still haunted her.
“Not long enough, Luca.”
“I gave you until the end of summer. How long did I have to wait until you agreed to see me? Three months, three years?”
“More than one month, more than a deadline by which time if I didn’t see you, you’d be gone. More than that.”
“No, face it, Isabella, after your father’s death you let your family persuade you I wasn’t good enough. No amount of waiting would have changed that. It was that simple.”
“Nothing is that simple.” She shook her head, with increasing impatience, increasing fear. She could scarcely control her trembling body.
“Then what was it? Tell me. I’ve a right to know. You wouldn’t see me, wouldn’t reply to my phone calls, my emails, my letters. Why?”
The words choked her throat; her mouth was unable to form the sounds that would make him understand. She pressed her hand to her chest to try to stop the quickened breathing that threatened to balloon into a full-blown panic attack. Painful memories unfurled and lashed out at her like a poisonous snake, always waiting to bite, always hungry.
“Because I couldn’t think straight.”
“Thinking wasn’t required. If you’d had any feelings for me you’d have come to me. But you didn’t.”
She stepped away from him, needing to move, needing to ground herself in the reassurance of the familiar. But there were no lamps to turn on, nothing but emptiness.
“Don’t do this, Luca, not now.”
“While I might be impatient, you were never good at facing things, were you Isabella? You always retreated, back into your family, back into yourself, where I could never reach you.”
“Perhaps that means I don’t wish to be reached.”
“Perhaps.” The space between them was bridged swiftly as he stepped forward and stood in front of her. He was so close that she couldn’t see the whole of his face any more, just the parts: his brow drawn down as if puzzled; his eyes focusing on the individual elements of her face also, as if they were something he was only now remembering; and his lips, their tension suddenly softening.
As if in a dream he raised his hand to her hair and, so lightly she scarcely felt it, trailed the back of his finger down its sleek length. His eyes followed his finger’s movement along her cheek and neck where he stopped, his fingers curling around her chin. He looked into her eyes with a depth of sadness that surprised her.
“Perhaps,” he continued, “but I doubt it.”
She wanted to push his hand away but was stilled by the flood of long-forgotten sensations that his touch loosed. Her gaze dropped to his mouth. She licked her lips as if her tongue wanted to explore the soft swell of his lower lip but had to be content with her own. She hoped he couldn’t hear her quickened heart beat that filled her body with an urgent rhythm, compelling her to move closer to him.
“You always did think you knew me better than I knew myself.”
His mouth quirked at the corners in an echo of the mischievous smile she’d known years before. “And I was right.”
Before she could respond he’d dipped his head to hers and brushed her lips gently with his own. It was as if all the strength she’d spent years building had fled from her body and mind leaving only a clawing need. For an instant she shifted closer to him so their lips met once more but at the touch of his hands, running down the sides of her body, she was jolted back into awareness and pulled away.
She felt bereft—and humiliated. Within five minutes of being alone she’d made it plain that she was his for the taking. Had he come simply to do this? To show her up? To make a fool of her?
“Leave me be, Luca. I can’t do this. I don’t want this. You must go now. I have a meeting with my lawyer.” She dragged her gaze away, walked to the door opened it and waited for him to walk through.
He looked down at the bare floor for a long moment, before he turned to her, his eyes cool now. “So you have no regrets then, Isabella?”
“Why would I have?”
“Because we loved each other once; because you turned me away because I wasn’t good enough for you and your family; because you didn’t tell me about our child until it was too late. No regrets for any of that?”
He didn’t even sound bitter. Stated it as if he truly believed every single word.
She shook her head in confusion, unable to break through the barriers of guilt and grief and tell him the truth.
“None then. I see.”
He didn’t look at her as he walked out of the room. She heard his footfall on the spiral staircase, descending, moving away from her just as he had seven years before.
With one last glance around the beautiful room that had once witnessed the love affair that had changed her life, she closed the door.
The sharp click of her heels on the stone-flagged floor echoed around the great hall, now stripped of its priceless carpets and hangings. Numbly she passed through pools of grey twilight that crept in through arched windows, punctuating the darkness with a light that made the dark more sinister.
Part of her wanted to run away—leave immediately and go far away from here—from the memories seeing Luca again had unleashed. But the same impulse that had made her work hard at her interior design practice these past seven years to keep her sisters; the same impulse that controlled every aspect of how she appeared, of how she behaved, kept her walking toward the library. She had no choice but to carry on—to complete the paperwork on the castello and her new contract—because she still had responsibilities to her remaining family. She owed them.
She hesitated briefly outside the reception room where she heard the wine-fueled chatter and laughter of people sharing anecdotes of the past and hopes for the future as they continued to grieve for the old lady. Luca would be there. No doubt charming the villagers he’d been raised amongst with stories of his new life, lived among riches that most of them couldn’t even dream of. That was what he’d always wanted: a new life away from the old. And that’s what he’d got. Abruptly she turned and continued onto the library. Even if she had time she couldn’t risk seeing him again because she couldn’t face the memories that his presence unraveled in her.
As the heavy oak door to the library swung open, Isabella’s gaze was drawn to the lawyer, who sat to one side of the desk, his papers spread under the light of a lamp. He stood up as she entered and walked to greet her.
“Buona sera, Santino.”
She shook hands, increasingly puzzled by her lawyer’s uncharacteristic frown. Then, as he moved back to his seat, she saw Luca. He sat in the other chair in front of the desk, one foot nonchalantly resting on the other knee. Even as her body prickled with alarm, she felt the chill of control slide into place. It was habitual now; it was her only defense.
“What are you doing here?”
“Same as you. Business.”
She looked questioningly at the lawyer. He looked down, embarrassed, and nodded in agreement. “Signore Vittori is required to be here also.”
“Is that so?” She was reassured by the cool, smooth tone of her voice.
“Si, Contessa. Please be seated and we will proceed.” She hesitated but it was the lawyer’s look of deep sympathy and understanding that made her move behind the desk and take her seat. Something had shifted, changed, without her knowing.
The lawyer cleared his throat and began to speak. Isabella looked down at the papers that the lawyer nudged from side to side with his pen. She tried to focus on the words of legal jargon that fell from his lips like so many darts onto an open wound. But they began merging into one as Isabella’s mind refused to move beyond one name that kept recurring: Luca Vittori.
She held up her hand. “Please stop.” She felt sick to her stomach with the knowledge that she couldn’t yet accept. “Stop this. Just tell me in plain speech.”
“Si, Contessa. As you are aware,”—again the solicitous smile that made Isabella more fearful than anything else—“you sold the castle a year ago but now the owner requires vacant possession.”
Isabella nodded, her neck and head stiff with anticipation. “And as you are aware, Santino, the castle has been cleared of all possessions still belonging to my family. Those remaining have been purchased by the owner.”
“Indeed. And you have signed the requisite documents regarding the sale. And you have also agreed, informally, to work with the owner on the castle’s refurbishment.”
It was a statement but the lawyer looked at her expectantly. She nodded in agreement.
“Yes. For a period of three months. And I’m here to sign the paperwork for that contract. But what this has to do with Signore Vittori, I—”
“Isabella,” Luca’s voice was soft yet immediately she registered its impact and turned to him. “Don’t you understand yet? I am the owner. I bought the castle a year ago. It is me who hired you for your services.”
She knew; of course, she knew. The man who’d begun the fracturing of her family and its subsequent decline in fortune seven years before, the man who’d started all this, was now finishing it.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I had my reasons.”
“I’m sure you did. You always have a reason for everything, don’t you? And I’m sure I know the reason. You needed to take revenge on my family. The boy who had nothing has now bought out the family who spurned him. It’s a reason. But it’s a pretty pathetic reason.”
The scrape of the lawyer’s chair alerted her to his presence. “If you can sign here, contessa, signore, I will leave.”
The harsh light of the lamp leached all the color and contours from Luca’s face. It was the face of a stranger, unreadable.
“You are mistaken, Isabella. I have no thirst for revenge. I assume you say this because you’re upset.” His voice was quiet and restrained.
“I say this because it is the only logical reason I can think of.”
“Perhaps in your world of snobbery and retribution. But in mine?” He shook his head. “No. The disdain your family showed me never made me feel less of a man then, or now. I have no need to hit out, to seek revenge.”
“Then why buy the castello?”
“I made a promise to someone.”
“I don’t believe you.”
He shrugged. “It doesn’t matter what you believe. Are you going to sign the contract or not? Santino is looking uncomfortable and wishes to leave.”
A flushed smile from the lawyer confirmed Luca’s observation. The truth was, she had no choice but to accept the contract. It would give her the money for her family to begin a new life. She leaned forward and signed her name.
Luca didn’t move immediately, he simply watched her through narrowed eyes. Slowly a small smile settled on his lips and lit up his eyes with what she assumed to be satisfaction. He thought he’d won.
Anger pulsed through her veins, giving her the strength to fight back the memories his earlier tenderness had freed. Looking at him now—so sure of himself, so arrogant—the anger won and her memories receded like a low, spring tide, so distant they left no trace.
Her gaze rested easily on him now. Any lingering thought that he was there to see her—that he still felt something for her—had now vanished. He was out for revenge—whatever he might claim—and he’d achieved it. Knowing this she could face him and work for him. Her painful memories were in no danger of resurrection now.
Luca’s smile faded and he leaned forward and signed his name with a flourish, taking up twice the space of her signature.
The lawyer blotted the signatures, shuffled the papers together and made a rapid exit, leaving a chill silence between them that no longer held possibility, only distance.