The uncompromising italian(7)

By: Cathy Williams


‘No need.’ He briefly rested one finger on her outstretched hand and Lesley shot back as though she had been scalded. ‘Violet will tidy all this away.’

Lesley bit back an automatic retort that it was illuminating to see how the other half lived. She was no inverted snob, even though she might have no time for outward trappings and the importance other people sometimes placed on them, but he made her feel defensive. Worse, he made her feel gauche and awkward, sixteen all over again, cringing at the prospect of having to wear a frock to go to the school leaving dance, knowing that she just couldn’t pull it off.

‘I’m thinking that your mother must be a strong woman to instil such priorities in her daughter,’ he said neutrally.

‘My mother died when I was three—a hit-and-run accident when she was cycling back from doing the shopping.’

Alessio stopped in his tracks and stared down at her until she was forced uncomfortably to return his stare.

‘Please don’t say something trite like I’m sorry to hear that.’ She tilted her chin and looked at him unblinkingly. ‘It happened a long time ago.’

‘No. I wasn’t going to say that,’ Alessio said in a low, musing voice that made her skin tingle.

‘My father was the strong influence in my life,’ she pressed on in a high voice. ‘My father and my five brothers. They all gave me the confidence to know that I could do whatever I chose to do, that my gender did not have to stand in the way of my ambition. I got my degree in maths—the world was my oyster.’

Heart beating as fast as if she had run a marathon, she stared up at him, their eyes tangling until her defensiveness subsided and gave way to something else, something she could barely comprehend, something that made her say quickly, with a tight smile, ‘But I don’t see how any of this is relevant. If you lead the way to your computer, it shouldn’t take long for me to figure out who your problem pest is.’





CHAPTER TWO


THE OFFICE TO WHICH she was led allowed her a good opportunity to really take in the splendour of her surroundings.

Really big country estates devoured money and consequently were rarely in the finest of conditions. Imposing exteriors were often let down by run-down, sad interiors in want of attention.

This house was as magnificent inside as it was out. The pristine gardens, the splendid ivy-clad walls, were replicated inside by a glorious attention to detail. From the cool elegance of the hall, she bypassed a series of rooms, each magnificently decorated. Of course, she could only peek through slightly open doors, because she had to half-run to keep up with him, but she saw enough to convince her that serious money had been thrown at the place—which was incredible, considering it was not used on a regular basis.

Eventually they ended up in an office with book-lined walls and a massive antique desk housing a computer, a lap-top and a small stack of legal tomes. She looked around at the rich burgundy drapes pooling to the ground, the pin-striped sober wallpaper, the deep sofa and chairs.

It was a decor she would not have associated with him and, as though reading her mind, he said wryly, ‘It makes a change from what I’m used to in London. I’m more of a modern man myself but I find there’s something soothing about working in a turn-of-the-century gentleman’s den.’ He moved smoothly round to the chair at the desk and powered up his computer. ‘When I bought this house several years ago, it was practically derelict. I paid over the odds for it because of its history and because I wanted to make sure the owner and her daughter could be rehoused in the manner to which they had clearly once been accustomed. Before, that is, the money ran out. They were immensely grateful and only suggested one thing—that I try and keep a couple of the rooms as close as possible to the original format. This was one.’

‘It’s beautiful.’ Lesley hovered by the door and looked around her. Through the French doors, the lawns outside stretched away to an impossibly distant horizon. The sun turned everything into dazzling technicolour. The greens of the grass and the trees seemed greener than possible and the sky was blindingly turquoise. Inside the office, though, the dark colours threw everything into muted relief. He was right; the space was soothing.

She looked at him frowning in front of the computer, sitting forward slightly, his long, powerful body still managing to emanate force even though he wasn’t moving.

‘There’s no need to remain by the door,’ he said without looking at her. ‘You’ll actually need to venture into the room and sit next to me if you’re to work on this problem. Ah. Right. Here we go.’ He stood up, vacating the chair for her.