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THANKS for a fabulous time. Lara leaned across and kissed Alessandros lips. She noticed him unfastening his seat belt. No need to get out. She reached for the door handle. Ill just dash. Do I look all right?

She glanced down at herself to ensure she was decent, and lifted her bag, gathering herself for the leap out into the cold night air.

Alessandro placed his hand on her thigh. I want to see her.

Her limbs froze. After a stunned second she turned to stare at him and forced herself to reply normally. Oh. Are you sure?

He inclined his head slightly, his dark eyes cool and level. I am sure. Ill come in with you.

Oh. An unreasoning terror gripped her. Shell be asleep.

Without replying he got out of the car, and she had no option but to do the same. Walking up to the porch with him in a sort of numb trance, she thought helplessly of how it had been this time last night. Last night hed been content never to see Vivi or know a personal thing about her. Support from afar, wasnt that the agreed position?

She had the giddy sensation that all her worst nightmares were about to be realised. Once he saw her

Her heart plunged. How would he not want her?

She inserted her key into the lock, then at the last instant turned and faced him, her back to the door. Her throat felt drier than the Gibson Desert. Are you sure this is what you want? Didnt you say youd be better off not knowing anything about her?

His eyes shimmered with comprehension and she felt so ashamed to be revealing her fear, but there was no containing it.

She is already alive in my mind, he said quietly. How can I not see her?

Somehow her hand turned the key, and she opened the door.

Alessandro stepped into a foyer. It was lit by a lamp and smelled like lemon furniture polish. Inside the door was a hallstand with a mirror, various coats and hats hanging from its hooks. What struck him about it immediately and sent a pang searing through him was a small yellow raincoat.

Lara led him past a set of French doors to a flight of stairs at the rear. He noticed childish paintings pinned to the wall, then his eye followed them all the way up the staircase.

He placed his foot on the lowest stair, conscious of a sudden rise in his blood pressure. He mounted the stairs behind Lara, his anticipation increasing with every step. By the time he reached the landing on the upper floor, his heart had quickened to a ridiculous gallop.

Curiosity. It was only natural.

He stood back while Lara paused outside a white-painted door and gave a soft special knock, then followed her inside.

He was in an airy, comfortably furnished sitting room, divided by an archway from a small dining room and kitchen. French doors led to the narrow balcony hed seen from the street, but they were closed now. The room was pleasantly warm, courtesy of a fireplace with low flames leaping behind glass.

There were books, pot-plants and flowers, pictures on the walls, but he couldnt take it all in, focused as he was on one thing only.

Mum, Ive brought Alessandro.

He glanced around and saw Laras mother rise from the sofa where shed obviously been reading in the light of a standard lamp. At Laras words she exchanged a glance with her daughter, then turned her warm gaze on him.

Her shrewd blue eyes examined what felt like every atom of his soul, then she held out her hand and clasped his warmly. Good to see you, Alessandro. She glanced back at Lara. Ill leave you to it, dear. She kissed Laras cheek. See you in the morning.

Lara murmured something to her mother, then the older woman gathered her things and left, closing the door behind her.

Once he and Lara were alone, tension crackled in the room higher than the flames in the fireplace. She looked white, her face set as if for an ordeal, her eyes strained and shadowy.

Will you wait here a second? She gestured to him to stand still and not move, then left to hurry through a door leading from the dining room. She came back a few moments later, still pale, but looking resigned.

All right. She sent him an appeal in her glance. Youll-youll have to promise not to wake her.

He could hear her anxiety, but what reassurance could he offer? It was his right to see his child, and he was claiming it. He merely nodded and followed when she motioned him.

With the blood suddenly pounding in his ears he was hardly aware of the room she showed him to, just a blurred impression of deep rose and white surroundings, the narrow bed with a net canopy like the bower of a fairy-tale princess, and the little girl.

At first sight of her his heart seized. She was sleeping on her side, her cheek on the pillow, so he couldnt at once see her face in total.

A toadstool lamp by the bed shed a soft light on her head of silky dark hair. Her rosy lips were parted, and incredibly long, curly dark lashes fanned in a perfect semi-circle against the softest, purest cheek hed ever laid eyes on.

The breath constricted in his lungs. As he stared, immobilised, drinking in her exquisiteness, her long lashes gave a few rapid tremors and she made a restless movement and flung out one arm.

Shes dreaming, Lara whispered, bending to gently rescue a worn-looking doll in danger of being crushed. She replaced the covers over the girls small shoulders.

After a few thundering minutes, or it might have been hours, Lara telegraphed a querying look at him and he roused himself from his trance to gaze at her across the divide. She dropped her eyes, defensive and inaccessible, even though the naked imprint of her slim, nubile body was so freshly seared into his own.

He returned with her to the sitting room, but didnt stay to talk. With the uproar pounding in his head and the storm in his soul he needed to be alone.

The last thing he remembered was Lara standing on the staircase, watching him leave, her hands contorting before her.