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GIANNI RENZETTI SWALLOWED a curse when he was informed that his father, Federico, awaited him in his office. He knew what that was about, wished he didn’t. But that was life and Gianni always met adversity head-on. As the phenomenally successful and youngest ever CEO of Renzetti Inc, he was determined to stand by his convictions.
His PA couldn’t quite meet his eyes when she relayed the news about his father’s arrival and the faintest trace of colour edged Gianni’s hard-edged cheekbones, throwing into prominence the striking bone structure and stunning dark good looks that usually granted him a second and even a third glance from women. Of course, his PA would have seen the photos in the newspaper and, momentarily, Gianni was embarrassed rather than powered by the anger that had exploded in him the instant he saw that grubby article.
Here he was, evidently, labelled for life by a moment of sexual idiocy. His wide sensual mouth compressed. Yet his strongest conviction was that his private life—for that read sex life—was an entirely confidential matter. Unfortunately, on this particular occasion, the lines had become blurred. Gianni had been set up and he had, regrettably, succumbed to temptation in a private room at a nightclub. That had resulted in attempted blackmail and the involvement of the police followed by a very sleazy spread of photos in a downmarket tabloid. When the extortion attempt failed, the story had been sold instead.
A resigned blankness in his dazzling dark eyes, Gianni entered his office. He had always had a toxic relationship with his father. His late mother had excluded his father from her will and left her vast wealth in trust for her son and Gianni was well aware of his father’s resentment on that score. What relationship the two men had had, however, had nosedived the instant that Gianni stepped into his father’s shoes at Renzetti Inc. Federico Renzetti had made several poor business decisions and the board of directors, which included his father’s two older brothers, had voted him out, preferring his son, who already ran a highly profitable company of his own. Although at the time Federico had insisted that he was keen to retire, his bitterness had only seemed to increase when his son had lifted the family company into the Fortune 500 category.
‘Federico.’ Gianni greeted his only surviving parent with the name and formality the older man preferred and extended a stiff hand.
The older man, tall but a little portly in shape from good living, surveyed his son with tight-mouthed censure. ‘I’m only here to tell you that when the board of directors vote you out at the end of the month, neither I nor your uncles will be supporting you,’ he spelt out.
Gianni froze, taken aback by that declaration of intent. He had not been aware that there was any risk of him being voted out. In his experience the directors always put profit first. But evidently, the jungle drums in the family had been busily beating behind his back. A cold chill ran down his spine. Gianni cared about few things beyond work because he was the overachiever he had been raised to be. He ate, breathed, and slept business and he not only thrived as CEO of the family company, but also deeply valued his position of responsibility.
‘This sordid episode has brought the company’s reputation into disrepute,’ Federico Renzetti ground out thinly. ‘It cannot be overlooked.’
‘It has brought me into disrepute,’ Gianni contradicted steadily. ‘I made a foolish misjudgement, and I won’t even try to defend myself.’
‘You had sex with a woman in a nightclub!’ his father slashed back at him in disgust. ‘With a camera on you!’
‘Naturally, I was not aware of the hidden camera,’ Gianni said drily. ‘But neither was I willing to give way to blackmail.’
‘You were in the wrong. You should’ve paid that scheming slut off to protect the company name!’
‘Too late now,’ Gianni responded, seeing no reason to argue and prolong the meeting. He saw in his father’s eyes that the older man was reaping a certain amount of enjoyment from his downfall and as always that cut him deep. It made him wonder, as he so often had growing up, what he had done to deserve that lack of affection.
‘You have always refused to listen to me and take my advice!’ the older man denounced bitterly. ‘If you kept a mistress, it would be discreet. There would be no surprises, no scandals.’
Gianni gritted his teeth because he had always believed that a mistress would be as suffocating an addition to his life as a wife. One exclusive woman to satisfy his every desire? Gianni enjoyed freedom and variety but even a mistress would be entitled to expect a fair degree of fidelity. Why would he sign up for that option when most of the young women he met were content to settle for a casual encounter? Furthermore, that kind of detached lifestyle reminded him too strongly of his father and he refused to make such a choice, particularly as the son of a mother who had felt humiliated by her husband’s mistresses.
‘Better still had you married by now and settled down!’ Federico Renzetti continued grimly.
‘Why on earth would I want to get married at twenty-eight?’ Gianni demanded with incredulity.
‘I was a married man at twenty-three.’
‘Back in the day,’ Gianni scoffed, resisting a cutting urge to remark that his mother had been the richest heiress in Europe and too good a prospect for his impoverished father to pass up. ‘Few adults want to settle down that young now.’
‘Had you been married, even engaged, the board would have seen some sign of hope and better behaviour on the horizon for you. But you just won’t grow up!’ Federico told him in furious condemnation. ‘What have you got against settling down?’
‘Like my mother and you were so happy settling down,’ Gianni breathed with emphatic distaste.
The older man paled at that unwelcome reminder and stepped back. ‘I am sorry that you were so aware of our difficulties.’
Discomfiture filled Gianni, for he had not intended to get that personal with his parent and he rarely referred to the mother, who had died when he was thirteen. His memories of her were too private and painful. A charged silence fell for several uneasy seconds.
‘Look.’ Federico spread his hands in hesitant appeal. ‘You could still turn this whole ghastly situation around by just choosing the right woman to marry. However, do you even know any decent women? You’re unlikely to meet them at the raunchy private clubs and wild parties you frequent,’ Federico declared with frustration. ‘She would be mature and respectable, and she would have an unblemished reputation.’
‘Bearing in mind the headlines I attracted over the weekend, I would imagine that a decent woman would be the very last one willing to marry me at the moment,’ Gianni countered ruefully.
‘Don’t talk nonsense,’ his father advised him impatiently. ‘You’re richer than Croesus. Even the most moral woman would be tempted by all that you have to offer…although, to be frank, she might not be tempted by your conduct.’
‘And I’m not tempted by the idea of a gold-digging wife,’ Gianni responded with finality. ‘Let’s not discuss the impossible. I can’t credit that a wedding ring on my finger would silence the board’s concerns.’
‘We’re all old men on the board, Gianni. We equate settling down with growing up, with maturity and stability,’ his father fielded drily. ‘Surely even you could contemplate the picket fence if it delivers the results you want?’
Gianni gritted his teeth and said nothing. He knew party girls, bored socialites and aspiring models. But then he wasn’t seriously considering his father’s advice, was he? No, he wasn’t. He had made a misstep and he would learn by it, even if that meant learning the hard way. He wasn’t about to entangle himself in a miserable marriage to satisfy other people’s moral scruples. No, not for anything, he swore vehemently.
Her fingers crumpling the letter of refusal from the bank, Josephine Hamilton stared out of the attic window towards Belvedere, the palatial mansion adjacent to her own family home. It belonged to the Renzetti family and Gianni Renzetti was the biggest landowner and employer in the area. Technically, he was also their next-door neighbour. He owned almost every scrap of ground around them and what remained was the size of a postage stamp.
Dating back to Tudor times, Ladymead, the Hamilton family home, was dilapidated. While the Hamilton family fortunes had waned, the Renzettis’ fortunes had steadily risen. Over a century ago, someone on the maternal side of Gianni’s family tree had bought land from the Ladymead estate to build their lavish Edwardian property. Piece by piece over the years, Gianni’s ancestors had bought almost all of Ladymead’s original land. Only the walled garden, the outbuildings and the strip along the lakeshore still belonged to them, she reflected sadly, wondering if Gianni would now step in like the predator he essentially was to scoop up what was left of her home once debt forced them to sell. Ladymead would sell at a knockdown price, she conceded unhappily.
Slowly descending the rickety and narrow servant staircase, idly wondering when there had last been a servant in her dusty home, she suppressed her overwhelming sense of failure before straightening her shoulders and composing her face. She had to be strong for the sake of her nearest and dearest.
Jo settled the bank’s letter on the kitchen table in front of her grandmother and her two great-aunts, Sybil and Beatrix, better known as Trixie. It was a Hamilton family meeting.
‘Another refusal,’ her grandmother, Liz, registered in dismay, her creased and kindly face troubled beneath her halo of white hair.
‘But I lit a candle for success!’ Her witchy great-aunt, Trixie, exclaimed in furious disappointment, her earrings and bracelets clattering noisily, her long greying hair flying round her face as she shook her head. ‘Why didn’t it work?’
The third and youngest sister, Sybil, rolled her blue eyes and lifted her false eyelashes high in true femme-fatale style. ‘It didn’t work because we’re a bad financial bet for a loan,’ she said with the innate practicality that was as much a part of her as her glamorous image. ‘So, what now?’
One hand toying anxiously with the end of the long braid of her blonde hair, Jo winced, her dark blue eyes strained in her delicate pointed face. She swallowed hard. ‘I’ve made an appointment to see Gianni and ask if he’s willing to loan us the money. I’ve tried all the banks. He’s our last hope.’
‘Not sure you’ll be safe seeing him alone,’ Sybil quipped, referring to the shocking newspaper article that everyone local had read and devoured.
Jo ignored that crack. ‘I’m seeing him this evening when he’s at home for the weekend. I thought it was best to keep it casual.’
‘I bet you’re wishing now that you’d said yes to dinner when he asked you out again last Christmas.’ Sybil sighed. ‘After all, it was the second time he’d asked you and you rejected him. I shouldn’t think those rejections will dispose him to generosity.’
‘I think he would have been more shocked if I’d said yes,’ Jo countered, keen to kill that subject.
Jo knew herself well and she had always refused to allow herself to be tempted by the man she suspected was probably her equivalent of Kryptonite. Gianni was the original bad boy and she had been determined not to become another notch on his heavily marked bedpost. He tempted her when no other man had contrived to do so and she was painfully conscious that she was vulnerable with him. But she had also known Gianni since she was a child and she valued even their casual friendship too much to risk losing that unique link.
‘In some cultures, they believe that if you save a life, that person’s life belongs to you,’ Trixie mused absently. ‘Gianni hasn’t got much return from the effort he put in that day.’
Sybil’s eyes flared. ‘It didn’t happen that way, even if nobody is prepared to acknowledge it. Jo saved him from drowning, not the other way round!’ she argued.
Jo wrinkled her nose. ‘I was nine years old and he was thirteen,’ she reminded her great-aunts gently. ‘We were both stupid and we both survived. That’s all that really matters.’
Sybil parted her lips to argue and then glimpsed her eldest sister’s taut face and closed her mouth again. Liz Hamilton’s son, Abraham, had drowned himself in the lake and nobody liked to discuss that thorny subject around his mother.
Uncomfortably flushed by that reminder of the uneasy link she had formed with Gianni and the secret they had suppressed when they were both too young to do otherwise, Jo rose from the table. She had first met Gianni the year before that incident. Her grandmother had gone to visit his mother, who had endured a long struggle with cancer. Federico Renzetti had been less to everyone’s taste than his charming, friendly wife, Isabella, who had borne her illness with such stoicism. Gianni’s father had been a cold, distant man with no desire to mix in any way with the locals.