A slender fragile beauty in a silvery green gown. Translucent skin, a mane of vibrant Titian hair and spellbinding eyes as green as peridots behind her flirtatious little mask. A hoarse, sexy little voice, sharp enough to strip paint and then sweet enough to make honey taste bitter...
'No names...no pack drill,' she had said.
'I don't want to know,' she had said, when he had tried to identify himself. 'After tonight, I'll never see you again. What would be the point?'
No woman had ever said that to Gianluca Raffacani before. No woman had ever looked on him as a one-night stand. The shock of such treatment had been profound. But her eagerness in his bed had seemed to disprove the dismissive words on her lips...until he'd wakened in the early hours and found his mystery lover gone and the Adorata ring gone with her. And then Luca had simply not been able to credit that some unscrupulous little tart had contrived to rip him off with such insulting ease.
His memory of that disastrous night in Venice almost three years earlier still biting like salt in an open wound, Luca surveyed the closed file labelled 'Darcy Fielding' on his library desk, his chiselled features chillingly cast. With the cool of a self-discipline renowned in the world of international finance, he resisted the temptation to rip open the file like an impatient boy. He had waited a long time for this moment. He could wait a little longer. 'It is her this time...you're sure?' he prompted softly.
Even swollen with pride as Benito was at finally succeeding in his search, even convinced by the facts that he had to have the right woman, Benito still found himself stiffening with uncertainty. Although the woman he had identified matched every slender clue he had started out with, by no stretch of his imagination could he see his famously fastidious and highly sophisticated employer choosing to spend a wild night of passion with the female in that photograph...
'I will only be sure when you have recognised her, sir,' Benito admitted tautly.
'You're backtracking, Benito.' With a rueful sigh that signified no great hope of satisfaction, Luca Raffacani reached out a deceptively indolent brown hand and flipped open the file to study the picture of the woman on the title page.
As Luca tensed and a frown grew on his strong dark face, setting his pure bone structure to the cold consistency of granite, Benito paled, suddenly convinced that he had made a complete ass of himself. That bedraggled female image sported worn jeans, Wellington boots, a battered rain-hat and a muddy jacket with a long rip in one sleeve. More bag lady than gorgeous seductress.
'I've been too hasty—'
'She's cut off her hair...' his employer interrupted in a low-pitched growl.
After a convulsive swallow, Benito breathed tautly, 'Are you saying that...it is the same woman?'
'Was she got up like this for a fancy dress party?'
'Signorina Fielding was feeding hens when that was taken,' Benito supplied apologetically. 'It was the best the photographer could manage. She doesn't go out much.'
'Hens...?' Bemusement pleating his aristocratic ebony brows, Luca continued to scan the photo with hard, dark deepset eyes. 'Yet it is her. Without a doubt, it is her...the devious little thief who turned me over like a professional!'
Darcy Fielding had stolen a medieval ring, a museum piece, an irreplaceable heirloom. The Raffacani family had been princes since the Middle Ages. To mark the occasion of the birth of his son, the very first principe had given his wife, Adorata, the magnificent ruby ring. Yet in spite of that rich family heritage, and the considerable value of the jewel, the police had not been informed of the theft. Initially stunned by such an omission, Benito had since become less surprised...
According to popular report within the Raffacani empire, some very strange things had happened the night of the annual masked ball at the Palazzo d'Oro. The host had vanished, for one thing. And if it was actually true that Gianluca Raffacani had vanished in order to romance the thief with something as deeply uncool for a native Venetian as a moonlit gondola tour of the city, Benito could perfectly understand why the police had been excluded from the distinctly embarrassing repercussions of that evening. No male would wish to confess to such a cardinal error of judgement.
In spite of the substantial reward which had been dangled like bait in the relevant quarters, the ring had not been seen since. Most probably it had been disposed of in England— secretly acquired by some rich collector content not to question its provenance. Benito had been extremely disappointed when the investigator failed to turn up the slightest evidence of Darcy Fielding having a previous criminal record.
'Tell me about her...' his employer invited without warning, shutting the file with a decisive snap and thrusting it aside.
Surprised by the instruction, Benito breathed in deep. 'Darcy Fielding lives in a huge old house which has been in her family for many generations. Her financial situation is dire. The house is heavily mortgaged and she is currently behind with the repayments—'
'Who holds the mortgage?' Luca incised 'softly.
Benito informed him that the mortgage had Been taken out a decade earlier with an insurance firm.
'Buy it,' Luca told him equally quietly. 'Continue...'
'Locally, the lady is well-respected. However, when the investigator went further afield, he found her late godmother's housekeeper more than willing to dish the dirt.'
Luca's brilliant eyes narrowed, his sensual mouth twisting with distaste. In an abrupt movement, he reopened the file at the photograph again. He surveyed it with renewed fascination. What he could see of her hair suggested a brutal shearing rather than the attentions of a salon. She looked a mess, a total mess, but the glow of that perfect skin and the bewitching clarity of those eyes were unmistakable.
Emerging from his uncharacteristic loss of attention, Luca discovered that he had also lost the thread of Benito's report...
'And if the lady pulls it off, she stands to inherit something in the region of one million pounds sterling,' Benito concluded impressively.
Luca studied his most trusted aide. 'Pull what off?'
'The late Signora Leeward had three goddaughters... possibly the god-daughters from hell.' Benito labelled them with rueful amusement. 'When it came to the disposing of her worldly goods, what was there to choose between the three? One living with a married man, one an unmarried mother and the other going the same way—and not a wedding ring or even the prospect of one between the lot of them!'
'You've lost me,' Luca admitted with controlled impatience.
'Darcy Fielding's rich godmother left everything to her three godchildren on condition that each of them find a husband within the year.'
'And Darcy is one of those women you described.' Luca finally grasped it, bronzed features freezing into charged stillness.
'She's the unmarried mother,' Benito volunteered.
Luca froze. 'When was the child born?'
'Seven months after her trip to Venice. The kid's just over two.'
Luca stared into space, rigidly schooling his dark face to impassivity, but it was a challenge to suppress his sheer outrage at the news. Cristo...she had even been pregnant with another man's child when she slept with him! Well, that was just one more nail in her coffin. Luca swore in disgust. Whatever was most important to her, he would take from her in punishment. He would teach her what it was like to be deceived and cheated and humiliated. As she, most unforgettably, had taught him...
'As to the identity of the kid's father...' Benito continued wryly. 'The jury's still out on that one. Apparently the locals believe that the child was fathered by the fiance, who ditched the lady at the altar. He figures as a rat of the lowest order in their eyes. But the godmother's housekeeper had a very different version of events. She contends that the fiance was abroad at the time the kid was conceived, and that he took to his heels because he realised that the baby on the way couldn't possibly be his!'
Luca absorbed that further information in even stonier silence.
'I shouldn't think the lady will remain a single parent for long,' Benito advanced with conviction. 'Not with a million pounds up for grabs. And on page six of the file you will see what I believe she is doing to acquire that money...'
Luca leafed through the file. 'What is this?' he demanded, studying the tiny print of the enclosed newspaper advertisement and its accompanying box number.