When trouble comes to stay…
Unimpressed by his mother’s new companion, shrewd Italian billionaire Dante Leonetti is determined to oust the cuckoo from his castle. After all, what could this beautiful, intelligent young woman want with his family other than a slice of their fortune? Topaz Marshall’s search for her father brought her into Dante’s world and now she’s experiencing Leonetti’s ferocious reputation firsthand. Knowing Dante thinks she’s a gold digger, she is shocked when he turns on his legendary charm. Dante is determined to seduce the truth from her lips and Topaz must do everything in her power to resist.
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DANTE LEONETTI, INTERNATIONAL BANKER, renowned philanthropist and the Conte di Martino to those whom such archaic titles mattered, frowned at the news that his childhood friend, Marco Savonelli, was outside his office waiting to see him. Something had to be seriously wrong to drag Marco from his village doctor’s surgery all the way to the fast-moving financial centre of Milan.
Lean, darkly handsome features composed in a frown, Dante pushed long brown fingers through his luxuriant black hair in a gesture of concern rare for a man with his tough, self-disciplined temperament. Surely Marco’s visit could only be related to the fund? Between them the two men were engaged in raising money by a variety of means to finance pioneering medical treatment in the USA for a village child stricken with leukaemia. From the outset, Dante had offered to cover the entire cost of the venture but Marco had persuaded him that it would be much more diplomatic to allow the village community as a whole to assume responsibility and volunteer their services to raise the thousands of euros required. Various public events had accordingly been organised and a fancy-dress ball at Dante’s family home, the Castello Leonetti in Tuscany, was the next big date and indeed the grand finale on the calendar, Dante recalled grimly, for he would have preferred to make a huge donation rather than be forced to dress up in comical clothes like a child at play. He had no patience for such nonsense.
His phone pinged and although he sighed he was conditioned by years as a banker to always be on the alert. But the message was not from one of his aides warning him of some potential crisis. It was from his mistress, the beautiful Della, and he frowned down at the picture of her superb breasts, his handsome mouth curling with irritation as he deleted the shot with an impatient stab. He didn’t want dirty pictures on his mobile; he was not a teenage boy, he reflected grimly. Clearly it was time to give Della the proverbial golden handshake and make a smooth exit. Unhappily the prospect of pastures new to explore held no attraction for him yet he knew he was bored with Della and even more bored with her colossal vanity and her avarice.
Yet, genuine warmth filled Dante’s uncommon green eyes when he crossed his big office to greet Marco Savonelli, a stockily built male in his early thirties, and the exact opposite of Dante in temperament for cheerful Marco was rarely seen without a smile on his face. Well, just this once his friend wasn’t smiling, Dante noted. Indeed Marco’s expressive face was unusually tense and troubled.
‘I’m really sorry to disturb you like this,’ Marco began awkwardly, very much a fish out of water as he took in the opulence of his surroundings. ‘I didn’t want to bother you—’
‘Relax, Marco. Take a seat and we’ll have coffee,’ Dante advised, urging his old friend in the direction of the luxurious seating area.
‘I had no idea how fancy your place of work would be,’ the other man confided ruefully. ‘To think that I thought I’d reached the height of sophistication when the practice manager installed my computer…’
The coffee arrived at lightning speed. ‘It’s not like you to take time out from your patients,’ Dante remarked, eager for Marco to tell him exactly what was wrong. ‘Has someone embezzled money from the fund, something of that nature?’
Marco, evidently very much more innocent than Dante had ever been, shot him a look of horror. ‘Of course not! It’s nothing to do with the fund and…er…actually, I was coming to Milan anyway to visit my aunt Serafina on my mother’s behalf, so I thought I would just drop in and see how you were while I was in the neighbourhood.’
Dante, sharp as a tack when it came to reading people, recognised a cover story coming his way and marvelled that Marco believed that he could fool someone as astute as he was. ‘Is that so?’
‘And as I said since I’m here anyway,’ Marco continued, gathering speed like a reluctant man pushing himself towards something he would rather have avoided, ‘I saw no harm in calling in for a chat.’
Trying not to laugh at his old friend’s transparency, Dante murmured lazily, ‘Why not?’
‘Have you heard much from your mother recently?’
Dante froze, his keen intelligence taking his thoughts in a different direction. ‘She phones and chats most days,’ he responded with studied casualness, long black lashes dropping low in concealment over his shrewd gaze as, for the first time, honest tension clenched his big, well-built body.
‘Oh, is that so? Good…er…excellent…’ Marco countered, visibly not having expected to receive so reassuring a reply. ‘But when did you last visit?’
Dante stiffened, wondering if that was a hint of censure. ‘I assumed the newly-weds would prefer to be left in peace.’
‘Of course…of course,’ Marco hastened to reassure him in a tone of apology. ‘A natural assumption even at their age. And…er…forgive me if I cause offence, although you have never said anything on the score of your mother’s remarriage, it must have come as a surprise to you.’
As he recognised that he might well still be waiting for his overly tactful friend to get to the point in another hour, Dante suppressed his innate desire to keep his every feeling and reaction private and decided to be blunt. ‘More than a surprise,’ he admitted flatly. ‘I was shocked and worried by it. Not only was my mother’s decision to remarry very sudden but I was also dismayed by her choice of husband.
‘Yet you said nothing at the time,’ Marco groaned. ‘If only you could have been more plainspoken with me, Dante.’
‘My mother led a wretched life with my late father for more years than I care to recall. He was a bastard. That is not something I would acknowledge to anyone but you. Bearing that in mind, I am the last man alive likely to criticise her bridegroom or interfere in her attempt to, at long last, find a little happiness.’
Sympathy now etched in his kindly brown eyes, Marco visibly relaxed. ‘I can understand that.’
A brooding expression on his lean features, Dante was recalling his widowed mother’s sudden marriage to Vittore Ravallo. The wedding had taken place only two months earlier. Ravallo was a failed businessman and onetime womaniser, who was as poor as Sofia, Contessa di Martino, was rich. The marriage had been impulsive and improvident but Dante was a loyal and loving son and he had kept his reservations to himself. If need be he would intervene to protect his mother should the marriage prove to be the mistake he assumed it was, but in the short term he would mind his own business. Even so, that considerate restraint had proved a challenge, particularly when the happy couple was still occupying Dante’s castle in Tuscany while they waited for renovations to be completed on their new home several miles away. For that reason, Dante had not been back to Castello Leonetti for a visit since the small private wedding that had sealed his mother’s fate.
Marco compressed his mouth. ‘Perhaps you could consider going home soon. There’s something strange going on.’
Dante almost laughed out loud at that statement. ‘Strange?’
‘I’ve never been a man to listen to gossip but we’ve been friends all our lives and I felt I should give you a hint about what has been happening.