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The Tuscan Tycoon's Pregnant Housekeeper

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The Tuscan Tycoon's Pregnant Housekeeper
Christina Hollis

Литагент HarperCollins EUR
She was caught in his piercinggaze. ‘Trust me. There’s nothingmore intimate on offer than that.’
Everything went very still. In the silence, Michelle became painfully aware of a sound inside her head. It was all her dreams, crumbling into dust.
‘Unless,’ he said slowly, ‘you have something more intimate in mind…?’
His voice lilted with danger. Michelle sensed it. Her mother might have seen off all her boyfriends in the past, but when it came to Alessandro Castiglione no previous experience was necessary.
Their swing seat rocked gently in the warm breeze, scented by low-growing thyme. Michelle hoped it would cool her flaming cheeks. Instead she felt hotter than ever. She began moving uneasily. Strange feelings flowed through her body every time she looked at him.
His arm dropped lazily along the back of the bench. ‘What’s the matter, cara?’
She stood up quickly. ‘I don’t like this.’
He laughed. It was a low, provocative sound.
‘No? I think you like it very much.’


Christina Hollis was born in Somerset, and now lives in the idyllic Wye Valley. She was born reading, and her childhood dream was to become a writer. This was realised when she became a successful journalist and lecturer in organic horticulture. Then she gave it all up to become a full-time mother of two, and to run half an acre of productive country garden. Writing Mills & Boon


romances is another ambition realised. It fills most of her time, between complicated rural school runs. The rest of her life is divided between garden and kitchen, either growing fruit and vegetables or cooking with them. Her daughter’s cat always closely supervises everything she does around the home, from typing to picking strawberries!
Recent titles by the same author:
THE RUTHLESS ITALIAN’S INEXPERIENCED WIFE

HER RUTHLESS ITALIAN BOSS ONE NIGHT IN HIS BED COUNT GIOVANNI’S VIRGIN THE ITALIAN BILLIONAIRE’S VIRGIN
THE TUSCAN TYCOON’S PREGNANT HOUSEKEEPER


BY

CHRISTINA HOLLIS

www.millsandboon.co.uk (http://www.millsandboon.co.uk)


To all carers, everywhere


CHAPTER ONE

ANY MINUTE now! Michelle thought as the prow of the Arcadia nosed around the headland of St Valere. She had been waiting for this. Even so, she took a moment to admire her employer’s vast yacht as it cut a white slit through the bright blue Mediterranean.

It would be a terrible wrench when this temporary job came to an end—if anyone could call being housekeeper at the villa Jolie Fleur ‘work’. This position was a godsend, although the thought of her contract coming to an end lurked on her horizon like a big black cloud. And right now she was watching a thunderhead arrive to join it.

The previous day, her employer’s domestic manager had rung Michelle from the yacht. Sounding tense and exasperated, the woman had warned her that an unexpected guest was going to be staying at the villa. Michelle had soon found out why. One of her employer’s grandest guests was not fitting in to life on board ship. Michelle had laughed at this, thinking it was because of seasickness. But the truth was more than that.

Billionaire art dealer Alessandro Castiglione couldn’t be confined to the ocean. He was supposed to be taking a few weeks’ complete break from work, the housekeeper had said, but her tone had told Michelle more than her words. She had known then what was in store for her, because she had seen plenty of men like him. Alessandro Castiglione would be a driven man, who drove his staff mad at the same time. He might be, as the woman had told her, ‘The best-looking thing in every magazine!’, but Michelle knew it took more than good looks to keep a tycoon at the top of his game.

Cleaning offices in central London had given her a glimpse of the brutal side of business life. So when the domestic manager had added a bit of gossip, Michelle had taken it with a pinch of salt. This man, she’d said, had recently taken over his father’s firm and sacked nearly all its employees. If that wasn’t bad enough, the woman had added in a low voice, they were all his aunts, uncles and cousins!

What sort of man would sack his relatives? Even Michelle’s mother had never done that! She thought back to the life she had been so glad to abandon a few months earlier. Working for her mother had been hell. Mrs Spicer was an absolute perfectionist. The two of them, as Spicer and Co, had built up a reputation for fast, discreet domestic service anywhere in central London. Mrs Spicer had given the orders. Michelle had been the ‘and Co’ part of their business. She did all the dirty work.

But I’m in sole charge now! Michelle thought. Despite her nervousness, she allowed herself a small smile as she waited to greet her famous house guest. However bad he was, Alessandro Castiglione couldn’t possibly be a worse task-master than her mother.
Michelle always kept Jolie Fleur spotless, so this unexpected arrival hadn’t made too much extra work for her. And what was the worst this man could do? Sack her? She only had a few weeks left in this position anyway. He might be an unexploded bomb, but Michelle had total confidence in her skills. She knew that if she worked hard and kept out of his way there would be no reason for him to lose his temper—at least not with her.

A man who dumps his own relatives will think nothing of throwing me out on my ear, and I’m not ready to leave! She thought. A keen sense of self-preservation had got her this far in life. Now she had escaped from England, she was curious to see how much further she might go.

As she watched from the clifftop overlooking the bay, a shape detached itself from the yacht’s flight deck. It was a helicopter. Michelle shaded her eyes with her hand. It was always exciting to watch it swing into the hard blue sky with the grace of a wheeling seagull. She spent so long gazing up, the helicopter was almost overhead before she remembered she ought to be in position to welcome her unwelcome guest. She walked around to the front doors of the villa, making one last check of the exterior as she did so. The windows and white paintwork gleamed in the blinding sunlight. Inside the house, everything was ready. The caretaker and the gardener were the only permanent members of staff during the holiday season, but they weren’t anywhere to be seen.

Nervously, she checked her fingernails and her uniform. Everything was clean and neat, as usual. Keeping busy was Michelle’s way of coping with the world. With nothing left to panic about, she ran through what she would do when the unexpected house guest landed.

I’ll give him a smile and a slight bow of my head, she thought. Then I’ll extend my hand for a handshake, tellhim to ring me if he needs anything, and vanish.

That didn’t sound too difficult. The tricky part was actually managing it. Michelle loved this job because it gave her the chance to spend a lot of time on her own. People always made her nervous. The prospect of meeting a man who was apparently never photographed with the same model twice—woman or car—terrified her.

The incoming helicopter’s rumble increased, until it vibrated right through her body. She looked down at the palms of her hands. Tiny beads of perspiration sparkled in their shallow creases. Absent-mindedly she ran them over the severe black skirt of her uniform and then stopped. A proper French chatelaine would never do such a thing!

I might be lucky and find he spends all his time out onthe town, she thought, desperately trying to buoy up her spirits. In that case he’ll be nocturnal, so I’ll hardly seehim. Making his stay run smoothly will be enough for me.

She walked quickly round to the front of the villa, the stiff sea breeze at her back. All the windows and doors were wide open, letting a cooling draught rush right through the house. Michelle thought the rich smell of the maquis was much nicer than the soulless scents pumped out by the air-conditioning system. Once she was in place, she could watch the helicopter land with a clear conscience. As it drew closer to the helipad, the racket of its rotors was almost too much to bear. Michelle turned away from the sound and moved closer to the door for protection.

Turning around again, she expected to see the helicopter on the lawn. She got a surprise. It was still hanging in the air. Something must be wrong. Gaston, the pilot, was usually in such a tearing hurry to get back to his poker game on the yacht that he plonked the machine down anywhere. Smashed shrubs and crushed flowers were painful reminders of Gaston’s previous overshoots and under-steering. Jolie Fleur’s carefully tended mixed borders weren’t so much a reminder of their English owner’s homeland, they were more of a war zone.

This time was clearly going to be different. Michelle assumed there was a new pilot at the controls. Gaston would never take so long lining up his approach. But when the helicopter suddenly swung away and made a circuit of the house to try another approach, she caught sight of the pilot’s face. It was the same old Gaston—but, from the furious look on his face, a perfectionist was schooling him in the art of landing.

By the time the helicopter finally came to rest, its skids were lined up exactly with the white letter ‘H’ stencilled in the centre of Jolie Fleur’s main lawn. The racket had been deafening. Michelle’s carefully brushed hair was blown to a thatch. As she tried to tame her mousy brown tangle, disaster struck. The helicopter’s rotors slowed and its downdraught eased. The drop in pressure meant a gust of wind off the sea got behind the villa’s door and slammed it shut behind her with a thunderous bang. Michelle jumped—or would have done, if her uniform hadn’t held her back. Its skirt had been sucked in between the heavy door and its jamb. She was trapped and could hardly move.

Tugging at it with growing horror, she realised this was the first and only low point since she’d left England—but it was bottomless. She knew the door would have locked.

Desperately hoping for a miracle, she tried the handle anyway. The door didn’t move. Her guardian angel must be on holiday.

Michelle’s pulse had been galloping with nerves all morning. Now it went into overdrive. What could she do? Wave hopefully at the tall, rangy figure unfolding itself from the helicopter? Appealing for help to a guest when she was supposed to be so efficient wouldn’t be the best start to their working relationship. Someone who could teach precision to a slap-dash pilot in one lesson was unlikely to have any time for accidents or mishaps.

Desperately, she tried working her skirt out through the crack, pulling it up and down, backwards and forwards. Nothing worked. The alternative was to tear herself free, leaving her skirt behind. That wasn’t an option. A careless housekeeper was one thing. A half-dressed one was unforgivable—and totally unforgettable. Trussed up like a chicken, she resigned herself to a roasting.

Signor Alessandro Castiglione stood on the parched lawn, his back to her, as he waited for his designer luggage to be unloaded. Michelle watched, getting hotter and hotter. Long, agonising seconds dripped away. She tensed, ready with a million explanations. Taking possession of a briefcase and laptop, her guest left Gaston to deal with everything else. Marching towards the house, he covered the distance in a terrifyingly short time.

He was nothing like as old as she’d expected, but to think such a young man was already notorious in the newspapers somehow made her situation much worse. Michelle’s spirits skidded along rock-bottom. Despite his hunched shoulders and considered pace, he was moving quickly. Instead of taking the track of scuffed, dead grass leading directly from the helipad to the house, he took a much longer route. This went by way of paved paths through banks of thyme and sage, and stretched out her agony still further. Watching bees working among the herb flowers always persuaded Michelle to relax and linger. They had absolutely no effect on this man. He was totally single-minded. Looking neither to left nor right, he homed straight in on the front door of the villa.

If Michelle hadn’t been so frantic she would have appreciated his fine features. The natural curl in his thick, dark hair, his quick brown eyes, frowning brow and heavy tread would normally have made such an impression on her she would have been struck dumb. Instead she was speechless with embarrassment. Hands behind her back, she went on easing, tugging and wheedling at her skirt to try and free it. It was no use.

The closer the newcomer got, the more frantic she felt. Her fingers throbbed from trying to break free. So did her pulse. It was so hot. She might as well have been a butterfly beating its wings against a closed window. She was well and truly stuck. If that wasn’t bad enough, she was beginning to see why this guest hadn’t fitted in on Mr Bartlett’s yacht. It was designed for holidays and having a good time. Alessandro Castiglione looked as though he didn’t know the meaning of the words. Despite the heat, he was wearing a top-quality suit and a hand-finished shirt. His only concessions to the Mediterranean were the ivory colour of his linen trousers and jacket, the open buttons at his neck, and the mulberry-coloured tie peeking from his pocket.

Michelle swallowed hard. The time for practising her welcome was over. Now for it…

‘Buongiorno, Signor Castiglione. My name is Michelle Spicer, and I’ll be looking after you during your stay here at Jolie Fleur.’

His pale, aristocratic face was compressed. ‘I don’t need looking after. That’s why I jumped ship. There were too many people running round after me. All they do is get in my way,’ he growled in faultless English, speaking with the accent of a Caesar. It drove everything from Michelle’s mind except her fear of explaining exactly how much of a fool she was.

And then, ten feet away from her, his expression changed from distracted to thoughtful. He stopped. Michelle tried to take a step backwards away from him, but her heels rattled against the firmly closed door. There was no escape. She stood and quailed, while he stood and watched her. He pressed his lips together in a tight line, matching the deep furrows on his brow. Michelle couldn’t think of a single thing to say. This was worse than she had ever imagined it would be. She was pinned to the door by his unblinking stare. Michelle tried to tell herself this was just another job and she really shouldn’t care what impression he was getting of her. The truth was, she cared very much. Staff should be invisible and silent. Here she was, pegged out with no hope of release. You couldn’t get much more visible than that.

Why does he have to be so good-looking? she thought. It wouldn’t be half so bad if he was old, or ugly,or ranted and raved at me—anything would be easierto bear than this slow, silent interrogation…

‘Well! What have we got here?’ he drawled eventually. ‘You’re trapped.’

So tell me something I don’t know! she thought, but the relish in his eyes was too obvious. Instead, she nodded and tried to smile.

‘I—I’m the housekeeper here at Jolie Fleur and I shall be doing everything I can to make your stay as pleasant as possible…’ Though how I’m going to manage it fromhere… she added silently.

It didn’t seem much of an obstacle to Alessandro Castiglione. He pinned her to the door with a knowing look.

‘Everything?’ he questioned with a mischevious twinkle. ‘You mean my wish is your command? That’s dangerous talk, signorina, when you look to be stuck fast!’

Michelle burbled something wordless, her mind melted by flames of embarrassment. She needn’t have bothered. He was far too interested in her problem.

‘I was trapped too—on that damned boat,’ he added, almost sympathetically.

After a moment’s hesitation, Michelle screwed up all her courage and tried an explanation.

‘The door slammed shut in the helicopter’s downdraught. The key is in my pocket, but I can’t reach it,’ she said, in a voice so small she hardly recognised it.
To her surprise he gave a quick nod of understanding. ‘You must be more careful. This is a very heavy door, Michelle. You’re lucky it’s only your dress. You might have lost your fingers.’

Her heart slowed to about five hundred beats a minute. Looking into those nocciola-brown eyes was having a very strange effect on her. None of the bad things she had been told about him mattered any more. This was a man who had been through a lot. She could see that from his face. He must be in his late thirties, and creases etched between his brows added to the character of his otherwise fine features, but to Michelle he was at his loveliest when he smiled.

‘My keys—’ she tried to say, but no sound came out. Clearing her throat as delicately as she could, she tried again. ‘My keys are in my pocket, but I can’t reach them.’

‘Then it’s easily fixed,’ he said as he moved towards her.

The villa’s overhanging eaves meant she was imprisoned in the shade, but her temperature began to rise. The closer Alessandro got, the better-looking he became. Any lines on his face now were drawn by concentration. His aura of confidence should have put her at her ease, but it had exactly the opposite effect. There was nowhere for Michelle to look except straight at him. She was swept into the steady depths of his eyes and could study them all she liked. Alessandro Castiglione was far too busy to notice. He was concentrating on her waist.

‘Surely if you were to turn around—?’

‘How? I’m stuck!’

‘I’ll show you.’
He closed in on her until they were almost touching. She gazed up at him, her hazel eyes wide with anxiety. He placed his hands on her shoulders, and she flinched.

‘Michelle! Anyone would think I was a monster.’ He laughed.

‘I’m sorry,’ she muttered.

‘Don’t worry. I’ve had my quota of virgins for the day.’ With that, he turned her—not to the left, as she’d imagined, but to the right. Now she was facing the door. She couldn’t see him any more, but hardly needed to. The mere presence of him was sending out enough vibrations to tell her he meant business.

‘That’s given you more room to play with, hasn’t it?’ he asked in his deep brown voice.

Michelle tried, struggled and failed.

‘Yes, but it’s not enough. I still can’t get my hand around into my pocket.’

The fragrance of his new clothes and expensive cologne retreated a little, but then returned with full force.

‘How about if I try?’

Michelle nodded. His hand slid over her, and she was spellbound. His touch was slow and measured. Michelle felt it like a caress. She tried to steady her breathing. It was impossible. The air filling her lungs was superheated with his clean, understated fragrance.

‘No—please—don’t do that…’ Michelle’s protest sounded feeble and fake, even to her.

Alessandro’s hand stopped moving, but he didn’t take it away. She felt the warmth of it burning through the thin fabric of her uniform like a brand.

‘What is it, Michelle?’
His rich accent made even those few simple words sound beautiful.

Michelle pressed her cheek hard against the impassive face of the front door and tried to keep cool. It wasn’t easy when she could feel every one of his fingers.

‘Nothing.’ She shook her head.

Only, it’s the first real time I’ve been touched by aman, she thought to herself.

The tips of his fingers slid lazily over her, searching. When he found what he was looking for, she gasped. His hand slid into her pocket and closed over her key fold.

‘Now…I’m afraid I shall have to move in a lot closer to reach the keyhole…’

Michelle couldn’t speak. He was leaning against her as he searched for the lock. The feel of his breath on her hair was intoxicating enough. When his right hand slid around her waist the breath caught in her throat. There was a click, and the door swung open. His supporting hand fell away from her and he stood back.

‘You’re free,’ he said, nodding towards the entrance hall, smiling. It lit up his face, and she couldn’t help pausing in wonder. Then a breeze rippled around them, bringing her situation right back to life again. She flung out her hand to stop the door slamming a second time. Alessandro’s hand was already there. Electricity crackled right through her body. She felt his firm, warm fingers again—then snatched hers away.

‘Thank you, Signor Castiglione. I’ll show you to your suite. Then I’ll take you on a tour of Jolie Fleur—’ she gabbled, desperate to prove how capable she was.

‘No—I’ll be fine.’ Alessandro cut her off. ‘There’s no reason why you should worry about me. Go and do whatever you have to. I’m more than capable of finding my way around a house alone.’

‘Of course, Signor Castiglione.’

Michelle dipped her head politely and reversed away from him.

‘Where are you going?’

‘I’m going to change—this dress is all creased now. I live in the studio house. It’s in the grounds, just over there.’

He frowned. ‘Why don’t you live in the main house?’

‘I’m only temporary staff, signor. Given my position, I don’t really fit in anywhere up at the house.’

‘But Terence Bartlett told me his house was deserted—there must be plenty of spare rooms. All his staff are with him on the yacht. That’s the only reason I got him to drop me off here, rather than heading for home. I employ even more people than he does,’ he said, with a voice full of feeling.

Michelle wondered if this was before or after the redundancies, and shivered.

‘To be honest, I prefer living away from the main house, signor. I like my own company, so the studio is ideal for me.’

‘Do you mean the artist’s studio?’ he said slowly.

She nodded. ‘There’s a lot of equipment and things stored in there, signor, but none of it has been used or even opened.’

‘Terence had it built so he could dabble, but he’s never had the time to use it. Or the talent,’ he added regretfully. ‘Is it a good building?’

‘It’s wonderful, signor.’ Michelle smiled.

Living in a place where works of art might one day be made was another reason why she loved Jolie Fleur. The place was so beautiful it cried out to be drawn or painted. She wished she had one percent of the equipment that was lying abandoned in the apartment she was using. Then she reminded herself none of it was any use to her, as she lacked the nerve to try.

‘May I take a look inside this studio of yours?’

How could she refuse? Alessandro was the boss, after all. She nodded. The idea of a man intruding into her personal space would normally set her teeth on edge. And yet something about this man made agreeing to his request the most natural thing in the world. She didn’t want to cross him, but that wasn’t the only reason. In the few minutes since he’d landed Michelle had realised something. He might be used to the company of stars and billionaires, but Alessandro Castiglione was the most natural, unaffected person she had ever met. He didn’t waste words, either. That was something else in his favour. She much preferred an employer who kept quiet and let her get on with things, although the magnetic Signor Castiglione was bound to be quite a challenge. But Michelle knew her place. It was his holiday: her job was to keep him happy while keeping out of his way.

She found herself wondering whether he would be spending much time at the villa, or whether he would be travelling farther afield. And, whatever he did, would he have company? She began to think that keeping an invisible watch on this gorgeous man might be a lot more fun than hiding away from him completely…


CHAPTER TWO

MICHELLE’S heart leapt each time she saw her temporary home. It nestled in a sheltered part of the garden, and was designed so that the banks of flowers billowing on every side could be enjoyed whatever the weather. Glass made up most of the front of the building, while deep eaves shaded a swing-seat. Michelle unlocked the sliding French doors and stood aside for him to go in.

‘This is impressive.’ Alessandro Castiglione looked around the living room, with its stacks of art boxes and storage bins. Wandering into the kitchen, he nodded appreciatively at the big stainless steel sink and double drainers that took up most of the room. ‘It wouldn’t take long to remove this partition wall to make better use of the space,’ he murmured to himself.

Michelle stood silently in a corner while he roamed around, occasionally taking something from the huge collection of equipment and supplies she had to squeeze around. Once he had studied a packet of paper, a box of pencils, an easel or some brushes, he put them back carefully in their place. Michelle was glad to see that. Most employers would have put them anywhere. They pay you to be tidy for them, her mother had always said.

She found it fascinating to watch him when she could. Each time he caught her doing it, he smiled. Michelle found herself blushing madly, and had to look away. Her guest knew exactly the effect he was having.

‘I never knew Terence had so many art books!’ He ran his finger along the spines lining the shelves, but it was a volume open on the coffee table that really caught his eye. ‘Raphael. He’s one of my favourites. Do you mind if I borrow this one and take it back to the villa with me?’

He picked it up and began flicking through the pages, from the back to front of the book. Of all the ones to choose… Michelle felt as though he had reached inside her ribcage and pulled out her heart. She knew exactly what he was thinking, because she had experienced it so often herself. As he revelled in the beautiful pictures and glowing colours, it showed clearly in his face. It was only when he reached the flyleaf that he stopped smiling.

‘“Presented to Michelle Spicer as part of the Lawrence Prize for the year’s outstanding portfolio,”’ he read aloud, and then looked at her directly. His eyes were smiling, ‘So this is yours?’

Michelle nodded, too struck by the sparkle in his eyes to speak.

‘A little light bedtime reading?’

‘It’s a bit too heavy for that, signor.’

‘For one person, maybe…although two might manage, I suppose. One could read while the other looks on?’

A vision of Alessandro Castiglione in bed came to Michelle, and it didn’t involve any art books. She managed not to gasp aloud, but couldn’t help taking a step backwards, away from him.

When he put her presentation book down on the table again Michelle was puzzled.

‘Aren’t you going to take it after all, signor?’

He shook his head. ‘I couldn’t possibly. It’s yours and must mean so much to you.’

‘It does—but if you want it…’

‘Thank you. I’ll let you have it back as soon as possible.’ Taking possession of it again with relish, he patted the cover. ‘This must be an inspiring place to work for you, as an artist. How many pictures have you done while you’ve been here?’

‘None, signor. There’s always too much work to do.’

He laughed politely, and brandished her book. ‘Where’s your portfolio now? You haven’t got it here by any chance?’

Michelle clenched her teeth at the memory. The words had to struggle out.

‘It got burned, signor.’

‘I’m sorry.’

He sounded genuinely touched. ‘I would have liked to have seen it. Never mind. I won’t be a demanding guest. You’ll have plenty of time for your art while I’m in residence here.’
He was right. Over the next few days Michelle found she actually had some spare time. It was unheard of. The Bartlett family were always thinking of bits and pieces that they’d forgotten to get delivered for their stay. Without having to drive into town several times a day, Michelle could open her own art box for the first time since arriving in France.

Her efforts at sketching around the estate weren’t very successful. Each time she caught sight of Alessandro she hid her sketchbook in case he wanted to look at her work. She couldn’t bear showing her pictures to anyone. The only reason she had won the Lawrence Prize was because a tutor had entered Michelle’s portfolio without her knowledge.

She was surprised at how often she bumped into Alessandro around the estate. He always smiled at her, and they often swapped a few words of polite, meaningless conversation. Michelle was intrigued. The Bartlett family and their other guests spent all their time indoors, bent over computer screens or mobile phones. Alessandro seemed to like fresh air as much as she did.

Once the ringing of his mobile phone joined the rustle of grasshoppers and the chirrup of birds echoing through the dusty landscape. Then it fell silent. It was only when Michelle went to fetch some water for the houseplants that she found out why. A state of the art PDA was lying in the bottom of the soft water tank. Pulling it out, she dried it off as best she could and rushed to find him. The red ‘do not disturb’ light was showing on the console beside the door of his suite, so she left the soggy device there without knocking. An hour later, Alessandro sought her out as she arranged flowers for the music room.

‘I have something for the trash.’ Taking her hand, he put the PDA in her palm and carefully closed her fingers around it. ‘They say I need a break. Now I’ve had a few days’ rest, I’m inclined to agree with them.’
All the time he was pressing her hand between both of his. It brought back memories of his touch gliding over her body as he’d searched for her keys. His grip was warm and reassuringly firm. In contrast to the grating tension in his voice when he’d arrived, his speech was now softer and lilting. He was so different from the hard-bitten workaholic she had been expecting that Michelle laughed out loud.

‘You can’t throw this away! It must have cost a fortune!’

‘Michelle, it will not work now it has got wet. It’s been nothing but a curse to me.’

Looking into the turbulence of his eyes, she could believe it. In that moment her heart went out to him. ‘Don’t worry, signor. I’ll take care of it.’ She smiled.

When he smiled back, it illuminated his face in a way that stopped Michelle’s heart. Alessandro Castiglione was gorgeous, and he was smiling at her…
Alessandro wasn’t someone to be tiptoed around, like her usual boss. He was much more approachable, but his reputation still haunted her, so she kept out of his way. All the same, every tiny sound made her glance up in case it was him. She found herself looking out for him all the time. When they passed in a corridor he’d smile at her. That simple gesture made up for the hours of worry she had endured before he arrived.

Michelle kept herself busy around the villa, which helped stop her daydreaming. But after work, when she got back to her silent apartment, her mind always went into overdrive. She’d relive every single moment of his arrival. The touch of his hands on her as he searched for her pocket. His firm grasp when he supported her as he opened the door… And, more than anything else, his beautiful dark eyes with their long, dense lashes. She tried to distract herself by getting out paper and pencils and sketching. But although she sat outside, intending to draw the garden, her pencil kept trying to catch Alessandro’s likeness instead.

One evening, strangely dissatisfied, she decided on an early night. Sleep was impossible. The memory of him filled her off-duty hours as easily as he touched every moment of her working day.

It was long after midnight before she gave up trying to get to sleep. Staggering blearily into the studio house’s kitchen, she made herself a cup of tea. Comfort eating was the only way to distract herself from thoughts of her delicious employer—or at least push him to the back of her mind—so, grabbing a packet of biscuits, she headed back to her bedroom. One look at the tangled bedclothes was enough to put her off. She decided to take her guilty pleasure out onto the veranda.

Unlocking the studio’s French doors, she opened them wide. The night air was still, and fragrant with flowers. Stepping out into the dusky garden was like the first welcome of a deliciously cool swimming pool. She shivered at the thrill. It was a perfect night with no moon; every star was visible above the darkness of the estate.

‘Buona sera, Michelle.’ Alessandro’s voice came to her, soft and low through the dusk.

She whirled around. He was leaning back lazily on the swing-seat outside her apartment, a glass in his hand. Immediately she tried to cover herself with her hands, conscious that the sliver of satin and lace she was wearing was hardly decent enough to wear in front of a guest—especially this guest!

‘Would you like to join me for a drink, Michelle?’ He picked up a bottle of wine from the table beside him and filled his glass. Holding it out to her, he watched her hesitant approach with a smile.

‘Me?’ she breathed.

‘I don’t see anyone else around.’

‘But—but I can’t! I’m not dressed…’

‘You look fine to me.’ His smile flashed very white in the soft glow filtering through the studio’s curtains. ‘I couldn’t sleep, and came out looking for some fresh air. Was there ever a country estate with fewer places to sit? Don’t the Bartletts use this place?’

Michelle shook her head. ‘They prefer their computers. Guests are sometimes shown around before dinner, but apart from that I’ve usually got the gardens to myself.’

He chuckled. It was a soft, intimate sound, perfectly in tune with the warm dusk. ‘I never expected you to venture out here after dark. You seem so quiet and reserved.’

‘I love it out here, and it’s perfectly safe.’

‘That’s not surprising. The security lights around the villa are triggered by every step. When I was walking on the terrace I felt as though I was in a Broadway production. I wanted somewhere relaxing.’

He was wearing an open-necked shirt, as perfectly white as the one he had arrived in. It shone like nicotiana flowers against the gloom, but the fragrance of him was altogether more sexy. It combined male musk with an elusive cologne that was expensively discreet. Michelle’s fingers clenched on the condensation-frosted glass in her hand. It wasn’t enough to cool her thoughts.

She took a sip of her drink and coughed, not accustomed to the champagne bubbles.

‘Champagne is my secret vice.’ He chuckled, and as they sat back the atmosphere relaxed. ‘I met the gardener this afternoon. He’s very proud of the estate’s strawberries. When they didn’t appear on the menu this evening, I engaged in a little private enterprise and picked some for myself. Can you think of any better way to make the best of a sleepless night?’

Michelle shook her head. Her eyes were becoming more accustomed to the dark. Now she could see there was a dish on the table, too. He took a few berries from it and dropped them into her glass of champagne. Each one made a loud plop and an indulgent fizz in the stillness.

‘The perfect finishing touch,’ he murmured, watching her.

As she raised the slender glass to her lips she wrinkled her nose with pleasure at the rich aroma of ripe fruit and vintage wine. He smiled. Women were one of his greatest pleasures, but Miss Michelle Spicer was unlike any girl he had met before. She was as refreshing as a glass of ice-cold Vernaccia. He watched her, and knew that drinking champagne must be a rarity for her, from the way that half-smile danced across her face each time she took a sip.

She had completely forgotten the low cut of her nightdress, and the way its bias-cut satin clung to the rise of her breasts. Only a woman who spent too much time studying the form of other things could be so unaware of her own beauty. Alessandro knew a lot of women. They all played on the effect they could have on a man. By contrast, Michelle seemed totally innocent.

‘You eat the strawberries when they’ve had time to marinate in the champagne.’

Michelle smiled and popped one of the ripe berries into her mouth. The strawberries were like no others she had ever tasted. There were as soft and sweet as an angel’s kiss. The thought made a connection in her mind.

As they sat together in the warm night, she looked across at Alessandro shyly. His profile was stunning as he looked up at the wide sky full of stars. In her mind, his lips promised beautiful words, spoken just for her. More than that, she fantasised about the touch of them against her skin. Sitting next to him like this was a fragile bubble of happiness. The gentle chorus of insects, the cool breeze on her skin, and the perfume of ripening fruit and flowers all added to the magic. Not even a bat, arriving to flicker around the heliotropes, could destroy this moment.

Alessandro looked to see if she was affected by it, and chuckled. ‘Strawberries, champagne and a stranger after midnight—you’re taking it all in your stride, Michelle,’ he teased her gently.

There was a bitter-chocolate quality about his voice that sent a tremor right through Michelle’s body. He noticed.

‘You’re cold—dannazione! If I’d brought my jacket I’d offer it to you. Why don’t you go inside and fetch something?’

‘I don’t have anything,’ she replied, hoping he would believe her. This was all too precious to spoil.

‘Then sit closer to me. I can shield you from any chill.’
‘I’m not cold.’ Not any more, she thought, taking in a long, slow breath.

She wondered what to do if he insisted she moved nearer to him. Torn between doing the right thing and imagining how wonderful the wrong thing would be, she was tense with indecision. Then the fragrance of night stole over her. Sultry top notes of lavender and jasmine were lightened by the sweet, more elusive scent of roses. For Michelle, this was a dream come true. With nothing to do but enjoy her surroundings, she began to lose herself in fantasy.

‘This is what I imagine a real English country garden would be like,’ she said eventually.

‘Then you are homesick, Michelle?’

‘Oh, I’m so sorry, signor! I didn’t mean to say that out loud.’

‘Don’t worry about it.’ His voice was a low, seductive sound, steady against the background crackle of insects. ‘And, as I shall be calling you Michelle, you should call me Alessandro.’

When he said that, she tensed, concentrating on the strawberries clustered at the bottom of her glass. He handed her a solid silver teaspoon. One by one she spooned them out, savouring every mouthful and every moment.

‘You didn’t answer my question, Michelle. Are you homesick?’

‘No, not at all—unless you count being sick of home.’ She stopped, remembered that part of her life was over, and smiled. ‘Although I’ve put all that behind me now. I’m a free agent.’

She saw him raise his eyebrows and rushed to explain.
‘That is—I mean—I don’t have a home in England any more. And I never did manage to get my wish of a lovely little house like this, with roses around the door.’

‘This isn’t a house, it’s a studio—and one I was hoping to use,’ he said softly.

Michelle was quick to pick up on the tinge of regret in his voice. ‘You can work from the house, signor—’

He shot her a warning look and she corrected herself, ‘I mean, Alessandro. You should have let me show you around. The whole house is set up as a satellite office. It’s got everything—’

He silenced her with a raised hand. ‘This is all I need at the moment—some peace and quiet. Tonight I want to drink in this atmosphere and the starlight.’

He gestured towards the sky. Michelle lifted her eyes, following his finger as it pointed upwards. With the coast behind them, they were looking out over the velvety blackness of the villa’s estate. Beyond its boundary walls lay miles of lavender fields and patches of undeveloped maquis. There were no disco lights to outshine the stars as they twinkled like pinpricks across the deep indigo of the night.

‘Have you ever seen anything so beautiful, Michelle?’ he asked.

She shook her head, although she thought he was more wonderful than anything else on show that night. Her emotions were in meltdown. Part of her wanted him to say more. Seduction would have been extra-sweet in this heavenly setting under the stars. Yet a spider’s web of warnings tugged at her, holding her back.

Her mother had always told her how untrustworthy men could be. None had stuck around for long after they’d met the fearsome Mrs Spicer, that was for sure. The result was that Michelle couldn’t fully enjoy the experience of being alone with such a wonderful man in this tempting situation. She was too busy watching for warning signs.

But if Alessandro realised how tense she was, he made no allowance for it.

‘I think this has been the most miraculous evening I’ve ever experienced.’ He took the champagne glass and spoon from her hands. Smiling, he saluted her with it. ‘Thank you for sharing it with me.’

Michelle was stunned. No one had ever said anything like that to her before. ‘If there’s ever anything you want, Alessandro, you only have to ask,’ she whispered.

He put the glass down on the table behind him.

‘That’s dangerous talk, Michelle.’ There was a provocative look in his eyes that almost stopped her heart. ‘But…if you’re sure you don’t mind…perhaps you could do me a favour?’

‘What is it?’ she asked—much too quickly.

His expression moved slowly but surely into a wide, tempting smile.

‘How would you feel about moving into the villa while I’m staying here?’


CHAPTER THREE

MICHELLE gazed at him, totally unable to form any words. Alessandro leaned forward a little, adding mischeviously, ‘I can guess how wicked it will make you feel, but don’t worry. We’ll keep it our secret. No one need know.’

That forced Michelle to find her voice. ‘What are you saying?’ Blushing, she lowered her head. Silence closed in around her. When she looked up again, his understanding smile set her tingling from head to foot.

‘I want to use your studio for my art. I know you like to keep your distance from the rest of the indoor staff, but there’s no one here right now. You could move in for a while and give me free rein.’ She was caught in his piercing gaze. ‘Trust me. There’s nothing more intimate on offer than that.’

Everything went very still. In the silence, Michelle became painfully aware of a sound inside her head. It was all her dreams crumbling into dust.

‘Unless,’ he said as an afterthought, ‘you have something more intimate in mind…?’

His voice lilted with danger. Michelle sensed it. Her mother might have seen off all her boyfriends in the past, but when it came to Alessandro Castiglione no previous experience was necessary. This man was seduction in the flesh.

Pressing his foot into the carpet of tiny sweet herbs beneath the swing-seat, he set it moving. It rocked gently in the warm breeze, scented by low-growing thyme. Michelle hoped it would cool her flaming cheeks. Instead, she felt hotter than ever. She began moving uneasily. Strange feelings flowed through her body every time she looked at him. She had never experienced anything like this before. At home, eye contact had been something to be avoided. Here, held by his steady gaze, it was to be enjoyed.

His arm dropped lazily along the back of the bench. Michelle had an overwhelming urge to lean against it. She had felt the strong security of his hands once already. To feel them a second time, in a caress rather than as a support, would be heavenly. It took a real effort to shake free from the power of his eyes.

‘What’s the matter, cara?’

She stood up quickly. ‘I don’t like this.’

He laughed. It was a low, provocative sound.

‘No…? I think you like it very much.’

Michelle couldn’t answer. Telling the truth at a time like this would only catapult her straight into trouble.

‘Tonight belongs to you and me, Michelle. There are no spectators, no listeners behind doors. We are free to be ourselves for once.’

He looked her up and down with a practised eye. She felt like a rabbit, cornered by a very attractive fox. She sat down again, faintly surprised by her new courage. A slow smile warmed his eyes. He stretched out his limbs, extending his legs across the gravel in front of the studio house. His body language and his expression were so open and inviting. He looked a completely different man from the world-weary professional who had stamped up to the villa a few days earlier.

Michelle caught her breath. He was wonderful. Wonderfully dangerous, she reminded herself. Something about that look in his eyes warned her to take care. She was only the hired help, after all. She would be mad to encourage him. He had burst into her life from nowhere, and he would vanish with the same speed.

A mischevious breeze ruffled his night-dark hair.

‘Would you like some more champagne, signor?’ she said, before he could draw her further into his orbit.

He shook his head, and she pursed her lips. He must think she was a complete innocent, talking about wine when there might be so much more on offer. It was a short step from that to imagining she was stupid. Michelle knew that wasn’t true—despite the number of times her mother had said it.

‘So—what’s your answer?’ he went on. ‘Will you move out of here so I can indulge myself in Terence’s purpose built art studio? The change would do us both a lot of good. Trust me,’ he repeated.

Michelle sensed it was the last thing she should do. On the other hand…she needed to prove she wasn’t a na?ve fool. Alessandro had looked so careworn when he’d arrived. He already looked a lot better. How much more improvement might there be if she gave in to him over this little matter? Music was supposed to work wonders as a form of therapy. Art might do the same for him.

‘All right,’ she agreed, before she could change her mind. But she knew his reputation couldn’t be allowed to frighten her into falling in with all his plans. She was determined to have boundaries.

‘Good…you’re making a work-worn billionaire very happy.’ He laughed softly.

Michelle could tell he hadn’t said it to pull rank. His words had been hollow, and his gaze told of something deeper behind his words. Michelle shivered, and he snapped out of his reverie.

‘You are cold. I can’t keep you from your bed any longer, Michelle. I must go.’ He stood up and, bending forward until his head was almost touching hers, took her hand and raised it to his lips. His parting kiss was the light touch of a butterfly dancing on her skin, but it burned like the passion that fuelled his life.

‘Buona notte, Michelle. Sweet dreams,’ he added with a flash of mischief as he swung away into the night.

Michelle watched him move away through the shadowy garden. His white shirt was visible for a long way, despite the gloom. It only disappeared when he closed the villa door behind him. It extinguished the last hold he had over her. Standing up, she went slowly into the studio house. How could she have been so wrong about him? Although there was no doubt that beneath his handsome exterior Signor Alessandro Castiglione was ruthless, tonight he had been devastatingly charming. She drifted back into the studio house in a daze.
Michelle set her alarm clock for 4:00 a.m., but was awake in time to switch it off. It would have echoed through the peace and quiet of the Jolie Fleur estate. The memory of Alessandro’s midnight visit was still hot in her mind.
It took her no time at all to pack. When she had stacked her few possessions on the doorstep of the studio house, she showered and then dressed in her bikini. It had been a long night, with not enough sleep. A swim before breakfast would perk her up. Dawn in the garden was as magical as dusk, and she could hardly wait to experience it again. She pulled on her dressing gown for the short walk to the villa’s outdoor pool. The sun was still low, and filtered by a slight sea mist.

Leaving her studio apartment for the last time, she immersed herself in the chilly dawn. Rounding the hedge sheltering the pool she stopped and stared. Alessandro was already in the water, moving through it as though he owned the element.

‘Buongiorno, Michelle.’ He raised a hand to her. Water cascaded from his long, muscular limbs. He swam to the side of the pool in a few strokes. Folding his arms on the edge, he looked up at her appreciatively.

‘The water is cold, but this is a great way to kick-start your system first thing in the morning. Come on in.’

‘Er…no, thanks. I’m not here to swim. I—I only came for a walk around the grounds.’

Alessandro threw himself backwards in a creamy foam of water. Michelle knew only too well where to look, but didn’t. The temptation was unbearable, but she tried to act as though muscular men stripped down to their Speedos were an everyday part of her life.

‘If you didn’t come to swim, why are you wearing that bikini?’

Michelle dropped her attention to the tiles at her feet. As she did so, she saw that the ties of her dressing gown had worked loose during her headlong dash to the pool. Wrapping it tightly around herself, she secured it with a firm knot.

Alessandro slid through the water like a seal to take up a position at the side of the pool again. Heat flared in Michelle’s cheeks. She went over in her mind everything that had gone on between them the night before. The embarrassment had all been on her side, the easy charm on his. As she burned, she wished with all her heart she could come up with some wonderful remark. Anything—anything—to recapture the magic of last night…

‘So? What are you waiting for? Join me.’

She twiddled the tie of her dressing gown. ‘I couldn’t possibly…I only work here. You’re a guest.’

‘And I’m only inviting you into the water. There’s no rule that says staff can’t come in with me, is there?’ He shrugged.

With her body reacting to everything Alessandro had on show, Michelle didn’t know what to do. Instinct told her to take a chance, but her sense of decency said run. She stared down at a ladybird creeping across the tiled surround of the pool. It was heading for her toes with the sort of determination she desperately needed.

‘I’m sorry, Alessandro,’ she said, with more truth that he could ever have imagined. ‘It’s not my place.’

He was floating on his back, watching her. When she said that, he stood up in a shower of droplets. Michelle’s eyes were instantly riveted on him. She couldn’t tear them away. He looked magnificent. Two metres of tightly packed muscles and smooth, flawless skin. He had the pale colouring of someone who spent all day behind a desk, but who would toast to a golden tan in no time at all. Michelle was imagining the effect already. Tiny trickles of water led her gaze down over his bunched pectorals and his flat, muscular belly.

Laughing at her expression, when he said his next words he gave her exactly the push she needed.

‘If you’re determined to be a member of staff, then I’ll stick to the rules too. I’m going to give you a direct order. It’s OK to enjoy life—so get into this pool and start,’ he called to her.

Every second of Michelle’s upbringing had been geared towards following orders. But this one sent a thrill through her.

Throwing off her dressing gown, she dived straight into the water. Once beneath its surface, the simple feeling of freedom relaxed her in a rush. The chill shock invigorated her, as Alessandro had promised. She surfaced, laughing and splashing. Looking around to orientate herself, she saw his dark head dip beneath the water again. Suddenly she felt his hands on her legs. Frictionless, they glided upwards over her body. Flipping onto her back, Michelle kicked away towards the side of the pool with frantic strokes. When she reached it, gasping, he was right beside her.

‘No—please don’t fool about, Alessandro. I’m not a very good swimmer!’

He smiled, his white teeth as perfect as his reply. ‘That dive looked pretty impressive to me.’

Michelle giggled. ‘It gets the shock over quickly. I’d rather do that than suffer inch by inch, edging down the steps.’

As she spoke, he looked down at her legs through the shimmering water. She blushed.
‘You’re an athlete.’ He nodded at the pale marks exposed by her bikini. ‘I can tell from your bronzage.’

During her few precious weeks of freedom Michelle had heard plenty of French spoken with a local accent. She had heard it spoken with an English accent, too. But this was the first time she had heard it given an Italian glow. She couldn’t help laughing at the sound.

‘No, I’m not! I just run whenever I get the time. It helps me think through my problems.’

‘I’m amazed a pretty young woman like you has any problems. The immaculate state of the villa shows how good you are at your job. What else is there to worry about?’

‘My mother died in April.’

His expression softened. ‘I’m sorry.’

Michelle mentally kicked herself for troubling a guest with her affairs, and spoke quickly to defuse the situation. ‘There’s no need to apologise. We were never exactly close.’

‘Close?’ Alessandro’s face compressed. He looked down at the fingers of his left hand as they spread out beneath the water. ‘Some relationships are a waste of good working time. My own mother couldn’t have picked me out of a police line-up.’

Michelle was so stunned she forgot to be polite. ‘You can’t mean that?’

He gazed across the water to the villa’s herb garden. She guessed it wasn’t because he was admiring the ornamental thyme.

‘Everything I’ve achieved in my life has been in spite of my family, not because of them.’

Michelle wondered if his remark had anything to do with those sacked relatives. She decided it was better not to ask.

‘Then I’m sorry for you. Even my mother wasn’t as bad as that.’

His attention snapped straight back to her. ‘Don’t waste your sympathy on me. It will only lead to trouble.’

Curious, she put her head on one side. ‘What do you mean?’

His eyes were twin pools of mystery. ‘If you keep looking at me like that, Michelle, you’ll soon find out.’

Chilly rivulets of water trickled from her hair and she shivered. The points of her nipples were rising—and not only from the cold. It was the way Alessandro’s gaze was totally focussed on her eyes. She could almost feel him searching her soul. No one had ever studied her so intently—not in her whole life. If she was honest, no one had paid any attention to her at all. They only noticed when she hadn’t done something. The interview she’d missed because her mother had destroyed her portfolio, the single occasion she had been too sick to turn out for Spicer and Co…

‘You have a fascinating face, Michelle. Let me draw you,’ he said abruptly.

In all her years of sketching Michelle had never had the nerve to ask a stranger to pose for her. She thought of all those lost opportunities and wished she could be spontaneous, like Alessandro. He had come straight out with a suggestion she would never have been brave enough to make in a million years. So many times she had felt the urge to sketch or paint a person, but had been too shy to do anything about it. Now he was showing her how it should be done.
‘I—I don’t know.’ She scraped her wet hair back from her face to give herself time to think. ‘I work for Mr Bartlett, really, and if he found out I was lounging around being drawn, when I should be busy in the house…’

Alessandro threw off her objection. ‘You’re working for me at the moment. Not Terence.’

Michelle paused. There was nothing she could say except, ‘If you put it like that, I can’t refuse.’

He smiled. ‘Yes…’ he said thoughtfully. ‘The more I see of you, Michelle, the more I realise you’re wasted here. You ought to be immortalised somehow. And I’m exactly the man to do it. Wait here. I’ll go and fetch my things.’

She had no choice. He vaulted out of the pool and picked up a robe from one of the poolside chairs. He pulled it on and walked quickly into the villa.

Michelle knew she should be feeling cold. She wasn’t. The sight of his muscles sleek with water had brought a slow-burning fire to life deep within her body. Alessandro Castiglione had a lot to answer for. From the moment he’d landed he had invaded every part of her life. First he’d stopped her sleeping. Then he’d aroused her by touch, outside the studio house. Now he had persuaded her to wait for him, wet through and waist-deep in water.

As he disappeared from sight, a chill wind rippled across the pool. Michelle’s skin contracted with the cold. Sinking beneath the wavelets, she let the water waft her feet off the floor of the pool. She knew she ought to thrash through a few lengths to warm herself up. Her heart wasn’t in it. Exercise no longer had the power to distract her. All she could think of was Alessandro. Big, strong Alessandro Castiglione. He acted the part of blasе tycoon to perfection, but his bitter-chocolate eyes told a different story. When Michelle shivered now, it was at the thought of his deep brown gaze. If only she could decode its meaning.

Twisting in the water, she saw Alessandro walking back towards the pool. He was dressed now in jeans and a tight white tee shirt. His muscles were still on display, and Michelle felt them through her fantasies. Those jeans were so well cut they were obviously made for him. ‘Casual’ still meant ‘designer chic’ in his circles. The sketchbook under his arm was bound in leather, and he was carrying a long metal container. He put this down beside one of the poolside chairs.

‘If you could swim a few lengths for me, Michelle, I’ll try out a few ideas…I need something to make my working days worthwhile. Art is my therapy.’

‘And mine. I always wanted to go to art college, but it wasn’t possible for me to finish the course,’ Michelle said shyly.

He was already rifling through the contents of his art box. Selecting a piece of willow charcoal, he made a few swift, sweeping strokes across his sketchbook.

‘A little taster for you.’ He showed her the pad. She was amazed. In a few strokes he had laid her down on his plain white sheet with nothing more than a sliver of burnt wood.

‘You swim slowly, up and down.’

As he sketched, he asked her all sorts of questions about her own work. His conversation was light and insubstantial—until he asked her something that really burst her bubble.

‘What made you give up your art course?’
She didn’t answer for a while. Then she rolled onto her back to watch him.

‘The answer to that is the same as it is to most of your other questions—my mother,’ she said at last. ‘Mum didn’t consider art to be a proper job. There was no room for anything in my life unless she thought it had value. As a child, I was a disappointment to her. If I couldn’t be beautiful, then I had to be useful.’

Alessandro frowned. Michelle was struggling to keep her mind on their conversation, but his disapproving expression helped keep her on track.

‘“Art isn’t a job, it’s almost as much a waste of timeas reading.”’ She quoted one of her mother’s favourite sayings.

Alessandro’s mood darkened further. ‘I thought you said in the studio house that you had some books?’

‘I do—and that was the problem. They’re art books, and Mum hated them most of all. If I wasn’t painting or drawing then I was reading about it. She thought I was doing it to spite her.’

This softened his expression, but only a fraction. ‘It might be for the best. I’m in the trade, and art colleges turn out far too many indifferent graduates, in my opinion.’

Alessandro worked quickly, changing medium and trying out several grades of paper. He was enjoying this. Any man could take a woman—Alessandro did, frequently—but this was something altogether different. The more he worked on his sketches of her, the more relaxed he became and his stress fell away. It was a circle of satisfaction.
Eventually he put down his work and stretched, long and luxuriously. The sun felt good.

‘Shall I stop swimming?’ Michelle called as he stood watching her, hands on his hips.

‘Yes. Come and lie on one of these loungers for a while.’

The water accepted her once again, showering her with a thousand droplets at she swam towards the steps. Alessandro watched them tumbling over her smooth wet skin. Each time she raised her arm he marvelled at the perfect curve, the sleek, easy beauty of her. Stepping out onto the hot white tiles, she slicked her wet hair back from her face. He felt his body rise in anticipation.

Grabbing a towel, he enveloped her in its folds. Michelle immediately pulled up a corner and made to rub at her hair.

‘Wait—leave that. I want you to look as though you’ve just left the water. Relaxed, and soaking up the sun.’ He took her hand to lead her over to the seats.

In a flash Michelle was swept right back to his good-night kiss. Alessandro took away her towel and, dropping it in a heap, told her to sit down on the sun lounger.

‘Do you want me to do anything special?’

‘You look just fine as you are.’ His gaze grazed her body appreciatively. ‘All you need to do is lie back and close your eyes.’

It took Michelle a little while to get comfortable, and longer to relax.

‘I feel a bit self-conscious,’ she said apprehensively. She often wore a bikini, but this was the first time she had been within touching distance of a man as gorgeous as Alessandro.
‘Don’t worry. I’ve drawn dozens of women—most of them wearing less than you are now.’

Michelle giggled. That made her feel so much more comfortable in his company. But still, when his hand reached out to arrange her wet hair, she flinched.

‘Did I hurt you, Michelle?’

‘No—not at all. I just have this thing about being touched, that’s all. I know I’m never going to be struck again, but my body isn’t so sure.’

She tried to laugh it off, but Alessandro was shocked. He withdrew a fraction, until her smile reassured him.

‘Then I shall be very careful how I position you,’ he smiled.

He was more than careful. Each time he reached out to touch her, he hesitated before making contact. She had the double pleasure of anticipation and effect. His touch when it came was so light it was evocative of their evening in the starlight. She could hardly bear it. She knew exactly how each touch would feel, because she had already imagined the grain of his fingertips drifting across her skin. When she reacted with goose pimples, it wasn’t from any chill.

Alert as ever, Alessandro fastened his attention on a droplet of water coursing over the downy skin of her forearm.

‘Tell me if you get too cold,’ he murmured, reaching for the towel. With one long, slow movement, he stroked down the entire length of her arm.

As his touch trailed away, she sighed. It was a sound of total contentment. She leaned back against a cushion and closed her eyes.

‘Before you settle down, I think I’ll have your hair over this shoulder…’ He swept her wet hair around and settled it, lock by lock.

Feeling his fingers stroking each strand into place sent shimmers of energy through Michelle’s body. Alessandro had started wiping droplets from her skin and she shivered. As a trickle of water meandered over the generous curve of her breast his fingertips reached out to trace it…


CHAPTER FOUR

A LITTLE cry of anticipation escaped from her lips.

He stopped. His hand was hovering so close to her skin she could feel its warmth. It raised her temperature faster than the sun.

‘I can see you’re getting cold.’ He leaned back, letting his hand fall onto his thigh with a slap. ‘Come on, let’s get inside—I’ve made you suffer long enough.’ His rich accent rolled over one fantasy, but with smooth assurance he replaced it with another. ‘I’ve arranged a little treat to thank you for your patience.’

‘Oh, but you shouldn’t have,’ Michelle stammered, secretly feeling very glad that he had.

Waving aside her pleasantries, Alessandro picked up two more big towels from the neatly folded pile on the poolside chair next to his. Swirling one around her shoulders, he draped a second over her wet hair. Michelle revelled in their soft, sun-warmed folds. That was luxurious enough. Then she felt his hands moving over them, blotting moisture from her shoulders and hair. She leaned into his touch, enjoying more intimacy than she had ever imagined.
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