Venetian Masquerade, page 1
Venetian Masquerade Copyright © Suzanne Stokes, 2013
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This book is a work of fiction. While references may be made to actual places or events, the names, characters, incidents, and locations within are from the author’s imagination and are not a resemblance to actual living or dead persons, businesses, or events. Any similarity is coincidental.
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“Amy, you’re so late! The meeting’s started.” Sandra regarded her disheveled boss, handing her a comb and mirror, which Amy irritably pushed away. “Jake’s fuming.”
“I expect he is…and right now, I really don’t care. I’m exhausted, and I just backed into another car outside,” Amy replied, fighting back tears and riffling her fingers through her dark curly hair.
“I’ll go and tell them you’re on your way, shall I? Are you all right?”
“No. Yes. I don’t know. Just let me count to ten and compose myself. Give me back the comb and mirror.”
Sandra rushed down the corridor to make apologies while Amy gazed at her reflection in despair. Her mascara had smudged, her hair needed a trim, and lines of weariness were etched on her face.
“Not a pretty sight,” she muttered to herself, reaching for her makeup bag.
A few minutes later, a tidier Amy leaned on the conference room door, listening to the muted buzz of conversation behind it, before taking a deep breath, pinning a bright smile on her face, and breezing in. “Good morning, everyone. Sorry to be late. I had a minor traffic accident.”
As she had known it would, all recrimination dropped from Jake’s face as he came swiftly to her and took her arm. “Are you hurt—no whiplash or anything?”
“No, thank you, nothing like that. I’m afraid I backed into a car outside while parking and broke the lights.”
A titter ran round the five men gathered at the boardroom table, and she felt the color rising to her face. Jake lowered his considerable bulk back into his chair. “Not my car, I hope?” he said, raising an eyebrow.
“No,” she replied, tight-lipped. “It was a red Jaguar with tinted glass in the windows, and I haven’t a clue who the owner is. I left a note on the windshield with my mobile phone number. Now, shall we get on? Here are the reports you wanted, and I’ve translated them into both French and Italian.”
An hour later, the meeting ended. Jake and his colleagues left the room while Amy remained, gathering together a mountain of documents which represented yet another series of late nights. Her friend and personal assistant, Sandra, popped her head round the door. “Sorry, Amy—phone call. It’s your mother.”
Amy glanced at Sandra, feeling vaguely alarmed. Her mother never called unless there was an emergency. “Okay, put it through here, would you?”
Sandra transferred the call to the boardroom, and Amy grabbed the receiver. Speaking in French, she demanded, “Mama, what’s wrong? Has something happened to James?”
“No, no, darling, calm down. James is fine, but I had a call from Antonio, and I’m afraid Maria is now gravely ill.”
“Oh, lord, that’s awful.”
“Apparently, she’s deteriorated badly. They only give her a few days—a couple of weeks at best. She wants you to go to Venice to visit her, and I really think you should.”
“Oh, Mama, this couldn’t come at a worse time, I’m snowed under here. Look, let me think for a few minutes. I’ll call you back.”
“Amy,” Jake bellowed, re-entering the room. “The car you hit belongs to a new client, and he’s furious. How could you be so stupid? I haven’t yet told him who’s responsible—it doesn’t make a very good impression—but he’s going to find out soon enough.”
“Well, that’s just too bad. Jake, I am sorry, but I’ve a little boy at home I hardly ever see—I worked on those reports till two o’clock this morning, I haven’t had a day off for three weeks, nor a holiday in a year. Now I’ve just been told my godmother is dying. I am totally exhausted…and…and what’s more, I’m taking some leave, starting now. I need to go to Venice to be with Maria, and that’s just what I’m going to do. And if you don’t like it, you can fire me. I really don’t care anymore!” Angrily, she tried to brush away the tears streaming down her face.
Jake looked at her in amazement. “All right,” he conceded gruffly. “If things are as bad as that, you can take two weeks leave, starting now.”
“Thank you.” She accepted a handful of tissues he dragged from the box on her desk. “What about all this work?” she asked, lowering her tone a little and indicating a pile of folders on her desk.
“Janice can manage for once. I’ll take her off her current project. You knew this was a high pressure job when you took it on—if you can’t cope, perhaps…”
“I can cope, but I need a break.”
“I’m sorry. I suppose I have overloaded you recently. Take two weeks compassionate leave.”
With a sigh of relief, Amy rearranged the work pile and stuck yellow labels on the most urgent things Janice would need to organize. Finally, she picked up her bag and was about to leave the office when Sandra popped her head round the door.
“That car you hit. Turns out it belongs to an Italian client called Alessandro di Benedetto. He only came to us today, so it’s a bit embarrassing.”
Amy collapsed back into her chair, ashen-faced, her blue eyes wide with shock.
“Amy, what on Earth is wrong? Are you okay?”
“No…no, I don’t think I am. This is appalling. If there’s one person in the whole world I can’t see or have any contact with at all, it’s him.”
Concerned, Sandra came to sit by her. “Who is he? I mean, apart from being a drop-dead-gorgeous Italian property developer worth more money than I could spend in two lifetimes.”
“He’s James’s father,” Amy whispered, unable to believe what she was hearing.
“What! We’ve been friends for two years, and you’ve never mentioned him.” Sandra sat back, mouth agape, staring at Amy.
“Oh, my God, what am I going to do? He doesn’t know about James, and he must never find out.” She covered her face with shaking hands, and Sandra gave her a hug.
“Why ever not? I met him in the office and he seems a sweetie. A rich and adorable sweetie.” She rolled her eyes theatrically, fanning her face with a sheaf of papers.
“Sweetie…huh? A manipulative, lying bastard who thinks he’s God’s gift to the planet would be a better description. His family is powerful—what passes for Italian aristocracy—and ever since James was born, I’ve lived in dread they might find a way to take him away. At the very least, they’d claim the right to spend time with him, and that would mean I
“Amy, I’m stunned. But he is James’s father, and sooner or later, that’s going to become an issue with the boy. What are you going to tell him?”
“But one day, you’ll have to give him some sort of explanation. You liked Alessandro once…I mean, if you were lovers…”
“It’s a long and painful story. I can’t see him, and you are sworn to secrecy over James. I never meant to tell you—or anyone. My mother is the only one who knows the truth. If he is now a client here, at this firm of lawyers, I have to leave.” Amy jumped up and paced round the desk, tearing a handful of tissues into shreds.
“Stop panicking.” Sandra tried to pacify her. “You are going away for two weeks and you don’t have to see him today. By the time you get back, these initial meetings will be over, and I expect he will only be in contact with Jake by e-mail and telephone.”
“That’s true,” Amy conceded. “No, it isn’t! I hit his car—and I left my mobile phone number on his windscreen.”
“Whoops. But he hasn’t called you?”
“I turned my phone off in the meeting. Listen, can you go down to talk to him and pretend the car is yours?”
“He’ll need a name for the insurance…and if I give your name…well, there aren’t too many girls called Amy Hamilton in the phone book.”
“Amelie—my full name is Amelie. He may not remember that.” She ran her fingers distractedly through her hair.
“Go down and face it out, Amy,” Sandra said firmly. “It’s all you can do. Exchange numbers and insurance details, and walk away. You don’t need to get involved or tell him anything else, do you?”
“If you knew him, you’d realize that’s easier said than done.” Amy sat on her desk, anxiety oozing from every pore. “I walked out on him, and you know what Italians are like for holding grudges.”
“What did he do to upset you so much?” asked Sandra.
“I’ll tell you when you have a week or two. Oh dear…I suppose I’d better go and face him. Wish me luck.”
She went to the rest room to splash her face with water and repair her lipstick. She was horrified at the idea of coming face to face with Alessandro, and her heart was beating so violently, she felt light headed. First, she checked Jake’s office, but there was no sign of either him or Alessandro. At last, taking a deep breath, she took the lift to the ground floor. Perhaps Alessandro had simply left his number on her car and gone, she thought, crossing her fingers. Maybe he was late for another meeting and she wouldn’t be forced to face him. But when she stepped outside into the August sunshine, she knew lady luck was not on her side at all that day.
The tall, rangy figure of Alessandro di Benedetto was standing by the red Jaguar. He was talking into his mobile phone in rapid Italian, gesturing dramatically with his free hand, a habit which had always made her laugh. He didn’t see her at first, and it was a moment before she could move, so stunned was she by the impact of setting eyes on him again. Still lean, darkly tanned with almost saturnine good looks, a straight Roman nose and that deep dimple in his chin, he had changed very little in six years. He was wearing a black, immaculately tailored suit with a plain red tie and white shirt, but an image of Alessandro without his clothes on flashed, unbidden, through her mind, and Amy felt an instant heat rush through her body. She stayed out of his sight for a moment longer until she could breathe normally again, watching as several women walking by slowed down to gaze at the handsome Italian. Yes, he still has the wow factor. Swine!
As she watched, he switched off his phone, glanced at his Rolex, tapped his foot in irritation, and wandered round to examine the damage to his car.
If I just wait a bit, perhaps he will drive away. But then she realized he couldn’t move his car because she had left hers too close in front for him to pull out and a van had parked behind, almost touching his bumper. Ha! Alessandro the Great is blocked in. How humiliating, she thought with a smirk of satisfaction. Taking a deep, steadying breath, she walked up to him.
He spun to look at her and his eyes widened, then darkened, as he gazed at her in utter surprise. “Amy?”
“I’m sorry, but the long arm of coincidence has touched us. I’m afraid I am the culprit.” She gestured to the damaged cars and, making a great effort to be calm, fished around in her bag for a notepad and pen. “If you give me the number of your insurance company, I will make sure the claim is settled immediately.”
He folded his arms and leaned back against his car, staring at her in astonishment. “What are you doing here?”
“I work as an interpreter for Blake and Johnson’s…the lawyers I believe you employed today to represent you. But don’t worry. With your linguistic skills, you won’t need my services, so there will be no need for us to be in contact after today. Now, if you could give me the details…”
“Wait a minute. I need to catch my breath… After six years, you appear in front me like a ghost from the past, and all you want is the number of my insurance company?”
“That’s right.” She wished her heart rate would calm down—it was almost painful.
“Amy, I don’t believe this! Can’t we at least have dinner?”
“Coffee—there’s a coffee shop across the road?”
“No. The number, please…”
“Where did you run away to? Why did you go?”
“That has nothing to do with you.” Her eyes were bright with unshed tears. Here she was, facing James’s father after almost six long years and the pain was as acute as on the day she had left.
“On the contrary, I think it has everything to do with me,” he said, taking her arm.
“Let me go.” She stepped away from him, shaking from head to foot. “Please give me the number, Alessandro, or leave it with my assistant. If you’ll excuse me, I need to go. I have a plane to catch.”
“Where are you going?”
“Why are you so angry? It’s my car with broken headlights. You’ve only got a crack in your reversing light.” He touched her face—the merest whisper of a caress—and a million volt shock went through her. The same sensual cologne wafted past her nostrils, the same tension flooded hotly to her loins, the same urge to pull his mouth down on hers.
“No, don’t touch me.” Roughly, she pushed him away and scrabbled for her ignition key, which had sunk to the bottom of her bag. Somehow, in her anxiety to get away, the contents tipped onto the pavement. In despair, she crouched to pick up her makeup, purse, and a photo of James, which she palmed into her pocket. Alessandro took her hand, pulled her to her feet, and inspected her fingers.
“None of your business,” she gasped, tugging her fingers away. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m running late.”
“I think you and I are running late, Amy, by about six years. Don’t imagine I am going to let you escape again, at least until I find out what the hell happened.”
His gaze blazed down at her, and something between raw terror and raw desire made her heart leap in her chest.
“Get in the car.”
“Unless you want me to make the most embarrassing scene here in the street, outside your office with a dozen people almost leaning out of the window to listen, you will do as I say. I can’t kidnap you—you’ve blocked in my car.”
Glaring at him, she permitted him to open the car door and slid inside.
He climbed in the other side and sat staring at her. “I don’t believe this.”
“Neither do I.” Close proximity to him made her feel faint. It was like being in a time warp, which was why, when he reached across and pulled her violently to him, she barely resisted.
“How could you throw away what we had? Have you forgotten the love, the passion?” he demanded.
“No, nor the pain, the betrayal. You’ll never hurt me like that a
“Not quite yet.” He brought his mouth down on hers in a crushing kiss, and his hand slid between her legs, stopping halfway up her thigh. She was horrified at the shudder of anticipation passing through her and knew he felt it too. His kiss became deeper, and it was several seconds before she was able to gather the strength to push him away.
“No! How dare you presume to touch me like that? I have nothing to say to you. Haven’t you done enough damage?” She turned and began to open the car door, but he caught her hand and pulled her round to face him.
“Damage? What happened, Amy? We had so much. You have to tell me why you ran away when I know you were as much in love with me as I was with you.”
“No!” Somehow, she wriggled free, opened the car door, and fled to her own black BMW. She managed to lock herself in before he reached her side.
“I’ll call you,” he shouted through the closed window.
“Amy, you ran out of my life with no explanation, and I searched for you for a year after that. We’ve unfinished business, and I will pursue you until it’s resolved. I now know your number and where you work.”
“You finished any business between us a long time ago, you arrogant pig. Go to Hell, Alessandro. I hate you.” And she drove off into the lunchtime traffic and headed out of London to the relative peace of the Hertfordshire countryside.
The drive home seemed interminable. Even at mid-morning, traffic on the motorway was at a standstill and it was steamily hot. Frustrated, she switched on her phone and called her mother. “I’m on my way home. I’m taking two weeks leave, and Mama, I want to be on a plane tonight—this afternoon, if possible. Could you book for James and me to go to Venice? I have an account with BA, and they have my credit card numbers. Will you call me back when you’ve confirmed the flight? Thanks. I should be with you in an hour if the traffic moves.” A few minutes later, the phone rang and she answered quickly, anticipating her mother.
“Amy, where are you? Please, can we meet this evening?”
“No, we can’t, Alessandro. I told you, I’m going away.”