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EBONY-BLACK hair against a crisp linen pillow, brown skin against a blindingly white sheet, and tiger’s eyes burning with blatant cruelty and triumph into hers. In horrified rejection of the imagery that had sprung into her mind, Jessica shuddered violently, dimly aware that she was still in the grip of severe shock.
Abruptly, she was dredged from her turmoil by the insistent shrill of the telephone in the hall. Reluctantly she answered the summons, carefully shutting the lounge door behind her so that her father was not disturbed.
She froze, her stunningly beautiful face white as snow between the silken wings of her silver-blonde hair. Her breath caught in her throat in a strangled gasp. The receiver dropped from her nerveless fingers and swung towards the floor.
That voice, that truly unforgettable voice…deep, dark and rich as golden honey. He said her name as no one else had ever said it. She hadn’t heard him speak in six long years and yet recognition was instantaneous and terrifying. Her throat closing over, she bent down to retrieve the phone.
‘I am so sorry to have startled you,’ Carlo Saracini purred, lying between his even white teeth.
Her own teeth clenched. She wanted to reach down the telephone line and slap him stupid. And feeling that way again…feeling that alien surge of raw violent hatred which he alone invoked … scared her rigid. Her mouth went dry. ‘What do you want?’
‘I’m in a very generous mood,’ he imparted with a husky edge to his slow slightly accented drawl. ‘I’m prepared to offer you a meeting—’
Her fingers clenched like talons round the receiver. ‘A meeting … why?’
‘Can it be that you haven’t seen your father yet?’ he murmured.
She went white. ‘I’ve seen him,’ she whispered, not troubling to add that Gerald Amory was still in the room next door.
‘Embezzlement is a very serious offence.’
‘He had gambling debts,’ Jessica protested in a feverish undertone. ‘He panicked…he didn’t mean to take the money from the firm! He was borrowing it—’
‘Euphemistically speaking,’ Carlo inserted with more than an edge of mockery.
‘Amory’s used to belong to him,’ Jessica reminded him with helpless bitterness.
‘But it doesn’t now,’ Carlo traded softly. ‘Now it belongs to me.’
Jessica’s teeth gritted. Six years ago, burdened by the demands of a wife with expensive tastes, ageing machinery and falling profits, Gerald Amory had allowed Carlo to buy the family firm. Duly reinstalled as chief executive, her father had seemed content and, with new equipment and unparalleled export opportunities through the parent conglomerate, Amory Engineering had thrived.
Guilt stabbed like a knife into Jessica. If it had not been for her, Carlo Saracini would never have come into their lives. If it had not been for her the firm would still have belonged to her father. If it had not been for her, Gerald Amory would not now be facing criminal charges for embezzlement.
Nausea stirred in her stomach, churned up by a current of raw loathing so powerful, she could taste it.
‘Dad intended to repay the money… if it hadn’t have been for the audit, you wouldn’t even have found out!’ she said in desperation.
‘Why do you think I spring occasional surprise audits on my companies?’ Carlo enquired gently. ‘Employees like your father get greedy and sometimes they get caught as he has with their hands trapped in the till.’
Jessica trembled, her heartbeat thundering deafeningly in her eardrums. His deliberate cruelty appalled her. ‘He wasn’t greedy… he was desperate!’
‘I’m willing to meet you tonight. I’m staying at the Deangate Hall. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you which suite I’ll be occupying. Eight,’ he specified. ‘I will wait one minute past the hour, no more. If you’re not there, there’ll be no second chance, cara.’
Aghast at the site he had specified and absolutely enraged by his instinctive sadism, Jessica gasped, ‘Don’t waste your time! I’ll see you in hell before I set foot inside that hotel again!’
‘You must have been quite a sight limping out on one shoe that afternoon,’ Carlo mused provocatively. ‘The chambermaid found the other one under the bed. I still have it. Cinderella’s slipper—’
‘How dare you?’ she seethed down the phone in outrage.
‘And as I recall it, you damned near left something far more intimate behind,’ Carlo breathed reflectively.
Scarlet to her hairline, Jessica slammed down the receiver before she could be further reminded of her own appalling, inexcusable weakness that day. No, the very last thing she wanted to think about right now was that day at the Deangate, six years ago.
No more, she wanted to scream, no more. But of course, she wouldn’t. Jessica didn’t scream. Jessica hated to lose control. She had grown up sobbing silently behind closed doors, covering her ears from the sound of her mother screaming at her poor father. And she had sworn then that she would be different and that her own fiery temper would be subdued by every means within her power. She would be strong without passion. And if she stayed away from the passion, she would not be hurt.
The worst thing of all now had to be looking back, seeing how she had broken her own rules and how she had suffered accordingly. Struggling to escape those frightening echoes from the past, Jessica returned to her father.
Grey with strain, he glanced up and began talking again, not even acknowledging that she had been out of the room, so cocooned in his own problems that he might as well have been on another planet.
‘I had to hand over all my keys … even my car keys. I wasn’t allowed to enter my own office again,’ Gerald Amory relived painfully. “Then I was escorted out of the building by two security guards… it was a nightmare!’
Those must have been Carlo’s instructions. Hadn’t her father deserved just a little bit more consideration? Couldn’t he have been allowed to retain even a tiny sliver of dignity?
‘Dad…’ Her voice suspended by choking tears, Jessica darted across the room to offer comfort but her father pulled away from her.
‘I would have treated a thief the same way—’ The admission was stark.
‘You’re not a thief!’
But Gerald Amory made no response.
Every which way Jessica looked, she felt responsible. She should have been there for her father, should have seen that he was in trouble. A week after Carlo had bought Amory Engineering, Jessica’s mother had walked out and started a divorce. The amount of cash from the sale had proved too severe a temptation for Carole Amory. Bad as the marriage had been, Gerald Amory had been utterly devastated. Her father had adored her mother. He had been terrifyingly loyal and forgiving through her every extra-marital affair. He would have done anything to keep her … he had crawled, begged, pleaded. The only person relieved by Carole’s departure had been her daughter.
But she should have seen the immense vacuum that had opened up in her father’s life. She had watched him turn into a workaholic, living and breathing business and profit because that was all he had left. Why hadn’t it occurred to her that, as the firm thrived and made all the money her greedy mother could ever have wanted, her father must have bitterly resented the fact that the firm was no longer his and that those healthy profits had come too late to sustain his shaky marriage?
But gambling … ?
‘It was somewhere to go, something to do,’ he proffered while she stared back at him aghast. ‘And then I started losing and I thought I couldn’t go on losing forever…’
The silence went on and on and then abruptly and without any warning, Gerald Amory rose heavily from his seat and moved with the shambling gait of a much older man towards the front door.