SLEEP was a long time coming to Alessandro, and when at last it did he dreamed it was summer, not the subtle, sometimes chill, showery summer he’d come from, but an Australian summer, with blazing blue skies and shimmering noonday heat. As it had been the day he’d flown in to fulfil his promise, with his great-grandmother’s engagement ring burning a hole in his pocket.
He dreamed he was pursuing a woman down a leafy green lane, her hair floating out behind her like a cloud. Surely he’d dreamed this before. Then all at once it was dusk and the air was heavy with the fragrance of honeysuckle, and a poignant sense of longing. His longing, he realised, somehow standing outside himself in the dream.
The woman cast him a laughing glance over her shoulder, and he saw that it was Lara. Of course it was, who else? his outside self told him. He reached out to catch her, but just when he thought he had her, she slipped through his fingers, as elusive as a wraith. Then he realised with a sudden, gut-wrenching shock she was carrying a baby on her hip. He made a desperate effort to see the baby’s face, but, however hard he tried, the child always turned its face away from him.
He woke at dawn with a start, his heart hammering, bathed in sweat and confusion, and an intense sense of loss that haunted him for hours.
The trouble was, he reflected while shaving, that, despite all his precautions to hold the situation at bay, hearing his child’s name must have sparked something in his imagination. And if that hadn’t been bad enough, try as he might not to acknowledge it, he couldn’t completely eliminate an image of a small girl playing in that sandpit.
Later, showered and crisply shaven as he perused The Sydney Morning Herald over his coffee, it occurred to him that men had dealt with problems like this since the beginning of time. In Italy there’d have been no question that he should marry the woman at once. Her family would have demanded it, as would his own.
What his mother would say if she knew!
So what were his choices? Force an unwilling bride to the altar, or provide her with generous enough financial support that she could raise the child well on her own?
He wondered how much he could rely on what she’d said about the rules here. Certainly they didn’t seem as clear-cut as they were at home. Women seemed able to live as single parents quite happily, without apparent social punishment.
Or did they? Perhaps he didn’t know enough to interpret the subtleties woven beneath the easy-going surface of the Aussie way of life.
Anyway, a woman like Lara would almost certainly marry eventually. The only surprise was that some guy hadn’t caught her already. There’d be one along soon, eager to marry her. Prepared to take on her child.
Alessandro’s cup stilled in mid-air and stayed suspended there for moments, until he put it down. Replacing it, he must have used more force than he intended, for coffee splattered across the news page.
Passion shouldn’t linger in the senses like a narcotic. A night of sleep should neutralise the effect, and allow a woman to start the new day with a fresh canvas.
Or perhaps that was how it was for normal people, Lara mused at the editorial meeting as she sat drinking in Alessandro’s face.
Looked at in perspective, it hadn’t been much more than a couple of kisses and a caress, but-such kisses, and such a caress. She supposed a woman who’d banished her dreams and applied herself to being a mother and a singleton must be more susceptible to after-effects. Like tossing and turning, and restlessness. And thinking and imagining, and fantasising. And worrying about whether she’d done the right thing on behalf of Vivi. Should she have tried to insist he take an active role, for Vivi’s sake? Would she come to regret it later? Would Vivi?
But he was such an unpredictable force. Who’d have guessed he’d be exploding in wrath over the news one minute, then kissing her so passionately the next? This morning now, despite last night’s shock, he looked calm and relaxed, though in some subtle way buzzing with purpose and energy. Amazing for a man who’d sustained a serious blow.
Glancing around at her colleagues, it was pretty clear that as he talked them through the new editorial guidelines hardly anyone was looking at their page. Their eyes were all glued to his face as if they were soaking him in through their pores. It wasn’t too much of a stretch to guess that their tongues were near to hanging out.
The climate between boss and staff had warmed by at least a hundred degrees. Donatuila, on the other hand, while her occasional contributions were friendly, remained seated at her desk, twiddling a pencil in her hand while her watchful glance shifted from face to face.
Alessandro was deeply engaged in the task of charming the workforce. Lara had sensed the moment she walked in this morning that somehow yesterday’s unrest seemed to have calmed.
It was hard to pinpoint exactly how he’d achieved it, for he was behaving like any other managing director-one with stunning dark eyes and a mouth made to drive a woman crazy, that was. Who could kiss like the devil. He was courteous, but autocratic in his subtle way, asking some diabolically pertinent questions that had people on their toes.
More than once his eyes left the page and drifted her way, and she felt as if her face were being exposed to a solar flare, although she tried not to let her extreme consciousness of last night’s escapade in the schoolyard show.
The trouble was, it had provoked some unsettling dreams she could have done without. It did no good for a thirsty woman crawling through a desert on her hands and knees to dream of the taste of water.
Of drinking deeply. Plunging in. Wallowing.
Oh, she’d been so long in the desert. And she was only human, wasn’t she? Having been given another taste of the overwhelming physical desirability of the man who’d given her a crash course in the A to Z of love, a man who was now single and available, how could she help but be awash with yearnings?
If only it hadn’t been so complicated. Something told her that his response to the news might change when he’d had longer to process it. While her and Vivi’s fates hung in the balance, it would be madness to become involved with him again. Who knew what he might persuade her into? Could she trust herself to be strong on Vivi’s behalf?
Last night, gazing on Vivi’s innocent sleeping face after she’d arrived home, she’d been shaken with her fear of what might happen if Alessandro decided he wanted his daughter. Really wanted her. Would he be content to visit her occasionally? Or would he expect a tiny little girl to be flown across the world to him for holidays, far from her mother’s protection, nurturing and teaching? Or…
She felt a suffocating fear.
The Vincentis were a wealthy family. Alessandro could provide things for Vivi that Lara couldn’t. What if he fought her for custody in the Australian courts, citing his wealth and the advantages he could offer? She dared not risk that. She must not.
She listened to his voice with barely half an ear, torn between wondering if seeing the results of the DNA test would make him feel differently, and trying not to dwell on the passion.
She had come so close last night to succumbing. Too close. She’d been so distracted, for a moment this morning she hadn’t been able to remember if she’d slipped Vivi’s lunch into her school bag.
‘Excuse me, Mr Vincenti.’ Kirsten leaned forward in her chair. ‘How long did you say you and Ms Capelli would be with us?’
Alessandro swept them all with his dark gaze, then said quietly, ‘I will be here until I am completely satisfied that everything is-exactly as it should be.’
Lara’s pulse jumped up a notch. That wasn’t what he’d said yesterday. Then it had been a simple matter of him sorting out the finances, appointing the new MD, then moving on to his next project.
The meeting ended. Lara rose with everyone else, and as she made for the door in their wake Alessandro called her back.
‘Lara, will you stay a few minutes?’ His eyes connected with hers and something hot and primitive shimmered in their dark depths. Her heart struck a couple of heavy gongs that reverberated through her insides, her mouth dried, and for a second she thought of the pine bark pressing into her back, his hands and mouth on her willing flesh.
She sensed Donatuila’s sharp glance, and yanked herself together.
‘Of course.’ She tried to sound brisk and professional, but the memory of how it had been in his arms hummed in her blood like a witch’s potion.
The door closed behind the others.
Alessandro’s dark eyes flickered over her, and under her clothes her skin cells tingled. He leaned casually on the edge of his desk, his sexy mouth edging up a little at the corners.
‘I think you’ll agree we need to talk properly. Last night things got a little-out of control. Perhaps we should meet in a less-tempting environment. How about we try for dinner this evening?’
She moistened her dry lips, thinking rapidly about the possible arrangements she could make for Vivi. ‘Dinner. Well, I really shouldn’t, not after last night.’
‘After…?’ he said politely. ‘After making love to me in the schoolyard?’
She gasped. ‘Oh, I did not…’ She felt herself grow warm. ‘I was only…It was you.’ His brows lifted and she said quickly, ‘No, please, don’t apologise. I quite understand. It must have been the shock and everything.’
‘It might have been the shock,’ he agreed. ‘Or then it might have been your charms. And the passion. My passion for you, your passion for me.’
‘Oh, shh, shh.’ Frowning, she shook her head, then, casting a quick look towards the door, lowered her voice. ‘I wish you’d be serious. Don’t you realise how serious this is for Vivi and me?’
His eyes glinted, then he lowered his lashes and said gently, ‘Well, you know me, tesoro. I’m probably only concerned with how serious it is for me.’
‘Oh.’ Her blush swamped her from her toes to her scalp. ‘I’m sorry. Truly. I know you wouldn’t…I didn’t mean to imply…’
‘Of course you didn’t. So, dinner then?’
How could she refuse? How many ways were there to offend a man in a twenty-four-hour period? ‘Well…all right. I guess Mum won’t mind, though I won’t be able to stay late. I’ll meet you somewhere. Where are you staying?’
He looked surprised. ‘I’ll pick you up.’
‘No, no, that’s all right. It’s better that we meet in the city.’
‘Why is that?’ His eyes sharpened. ‘You don’t want me to come to your home?’
She hesitated. ‘Well, you know you-you don’t want to be involved with the situation. If Vivi sees you…’
She felt a sudden stillness in him, then he said easily, ‘Surely she must have been introduced to men before.’
‘Oh, well. Yes.’ Her heart started to thump, and her hands to twist. ‘Of course she has. My uncle, I s’pose, and husbands of my friends…a couple of the dads from the school…But, goodness-this wouldn’t be like that. You’re her father.’
‘You wouldn’t have to introduce me as that, though, would you?’ She could feel his steady gaze on her face. ‘You could say I was a friend.’
She widened her eyes. ‘Alessandro, as soon as she heard your name…’
Something disturbed the cool surface of his dark irises. ‘She knows my name?’
‘Well, of course. You don’t think I’d conceal the identity of her father from her, do you?’
He was silent, his lean, bronzed face as smooth and impenetrable as a wall. To fill the gap she said, her hands gesturing in appeal, ‘It would be the most terrific shock for her. I’d have to prepare her, talk to her about it. She’s only a little girl. A baby, really. She only really knows me, her grandma, her teacher at school…Her little friends, my girlfriends, Mum’s and Dad’s families.’ She felt her throat thicken. ‘It would be-quite a significant moment in her life. We couldn’t just-spring it on her.’
He scanned her face with a veiled gaze, then shrugged. To her relief he said, ‘I see. Well, then. We’d better meet in the city.’ He slipped a mobile phone from his pocket and flipped it open. ‘We should exchange numbers.’
She took out hers and he keyed in his number, while she did likewise.
He flicked a glance up at her. ‘Shall we say the bar at the Seasons at seven?’
‘Oh, the Seasons.’ Her heart made a skittery little tremor, but she enquired with polite unconcern, ‘So you’re staying there?’
‘Where else?’ He smiled then, and his eyes gleamed like the devil’s.
She turned for the door, then paused with her hand on the knob. ‘This-won’t be a date, Alessandro.’
‘Won’t it? What will it be, then?’
‘Well. You know. It’ll be-a meeting. Dinner between two adults.’
‘Two adults,’ he echoed musingly. ‘Would that be two consenting adults, tesoro?’
‘No, it would not,’ she snapped. ‘It would be two adults with a-a situation to resolve.’
As the door closed Alessandro’s smile faded, and he turned to the window and stared down at the George Street traffic. He should have known when the Sydney takeover flashed up on the head office radar that Fate was somehow involved.
However he looked at it, whether she liked it or not, he was tied to Lara Meadows.
And her child.
He wondered idly who the child resembled. Probably took after her mother. It was to be hoped so, although surely he’d read that the dark-coloured gene was more likely to be dominant in determining eye colour. He would hardly be human not to be curious.
It would be a pity, if a man happened to have created a child, just one small soul among all the zillions that had ever existed, never to see its face.
Lara tottered back to her desk and collapsed in her chair to plan what she would wear. Not that it was important. She wasn’t trying to beguile him, or anything. There was no point, if he was flying back to the other side of the world in the not too distant future.
Of course, if there’d been any possibility of him staying she might have considered having another shot at it. He still seemed very attracted, while she…And he was gorgeous, he made her heart race like a mad thing, and-She put her hands to her face.
He was the father of her child.
Funny how last night he hadn’t wanted to hear a thing about Vivi, while today…
Today she could have sworn he’d listened closely to everything she said.