His Final Bargain(2)

By: Melanie Milburne

She strove for a steady composure as he came to stand in front of her on the pavement, but inside her stomach was fluttering like a moth trapped in a jam jar. ‘Leo,’ she said, surprised her voice came out at all with her throat so tightly constricted with emotion.

He inclined his darkly handsome head in a formal greeting. ‘Eliza.’

She quickly disguised a swallow. His voice, with its sexy Italian accent, had always made her go weak at the knees. His looks were just as lethally attractive—tall and lean and arrestingly handsome, with eyes so dark a brown they looked almost black. The landscape of his face hinted at a man who was used to getting his own way. It was there in the chiselled line of his jaw and the uncompromising set to his mouth. He looked a little older than when she had last seen him. His jet-black hair had a trace of silver at the temples, and there were fine lines grooved either side of his mouth and around his eyes, which somehow she didn’t think smiling or laughter had caused.

‘Hi…’ she said and then wished she had gone for something a little more formal. It wasn’t as if they had parted as friends—far from it.

‘I would like to speak to you in private.’ He nodded towards her ground-floor flat, the look in his eyes determined, intractable and diamond-hard. ‘Shall we go inside?’

She took an uneven breath that rattled against her throat. ‘Um…I’m kind of busy right now…’

His eyes hardened even further as if he knew it for the lie it was. ‘I won’t take any more than five or ten minutes of your time.’

Eliza endured the silent tug-of-war between his gaze and hers for as long as she could, but in the end she was the first to look away. ‘All right.’ She blew out a little gust of a breath. ‘Five minutes.’

She was aware of him walking behind her up the cracked and uneven pathway to her front door. She tried not to fumble with her keys but the way they rattled and jingled in her fingers betrayed her nervousness lamentably. Finally she got the door open and stepped through, inwardly cringing when she thought of how humble her little flat was compared to his villa in Positano. She could only imagine what he was thinking: How could she have settled for this instead of what I offered her?

Eliza turned to face him as he came in. He had to stoop to enter, his broad shoulders almost spanning the narrow hallway. He glanced around with a critical eye. Was he wondering if the ceiling was going to come tumbling down on him? She watched as his top lip developed a slight curl as he turned back to face her. ‘How long have you lived here?’

Pride brought her chin up half an inch. ‘Four years.’

‘You’re renting?’

Eliza silently ground her teeth. Was he doing it deliberately? Reminding her of all she had thrown away by rejecting his proposal of marriage? He must know she could never afford to buy in this part of London. She couldn’t afford to buy in any part of London. And now with her job hanging in the balance she might not even be able to afford to pay her rent. ‘I’m saving up for a place of my own,’ she said as she placed her bag on the little hall table.

‘I might be able to help you with that.’

She searched his expression but it was hard to know what was going on behind the dark screen of his eyes. She quickly moistened her lips, trying to act nonchalant in spite of that little butterfly in her stomach, which had suddenly developed razor blades for wings. ‘I’m not sure what you’re suggesting,’ she said. ‘But just for the record—thanks but no thanks.’

His eyes tussled with hers again. ‘Is there somewhere we can talk other than out here in the hall?’

Eliza hesitated as she did a quick mental survey of her tiny sitting room. She had been sorting through a stack of magazines one of the local newsagents had given her for craftwork with her primary school class yesterday. Had she closed that gossip magazine she had been reading? Leo had been photographed at some charity function in Rome. The magazine was a couple of weeks old but it was the only time she had seen anything of him in the press. He had always fiercely guarded his private life. Seeing his photo so soon after the staff meeting had unsettled her deeply. She had stared and stared at his image, wondering if it was just a coincidence that he had appeared like that, seemingly from out of nowhere. ‘Um…sure,’ she said. ‘Come this way.’

If Leo had made the hallway seem small, he made the sitting room look like something out of a Lilliputian house. She grimaced as his head bumped the cheap lantern light fitting. ‘You’d better sit down,’ she said, surreptitiously closing the magazine and putting it beneath the others in the stack. ‘You have the sofa.’