ARA stood in the doorway, a daunting five feet nine inches of teenage truculence. âWhy do I have to go to Aunt Janet's?'
âBecause that's what you do on Saturdays if I have to work.' Daisy shimmied her slender hips into a burgundy skirt while frantically trying to do up her blouse with her other hand, one anxious eye on her daughter, the other on the clock by the bedside. âAnd if you're at Janet's I don't have to worry about you.'
âYeah, so, like, it's not for
benefit, it's for
.' Dark brown eyes rested accusingly on her much smaller parent.
âLook, can we have this out tonight?' Daisy begged, feverishly digging through the foot of her wardrobe for two matching shoes.
âI'm thirteen and I'm not stupid. I wouldn't drink or do drugsâ'
âI should hope not,' Daisy muttered with a compulsive shudder.
âAnd I'm not like you were. I'm really sensible and mature for my ageâ'
âWhy do I sometimes get the impression that I'm no giant in your opinion?'
âMum, you're bound to be a worrier! You got taken in and rolled out by a major creep at seventeen and you've been paying for it ever since because you got stuck with me,' Tara reminded her ruefully. âBut I am not going to make the same mistake. Unless Mr Impossibly-Rich-and-Handsome comes knocking on the door while you're out, you're safe! I just want to go down to the market with Susie and buy a new top. All the best things will be gone if I have to wait until this afternoonâ'
felt stuck with you!' Daisy protested.
âMum...we haven't got time to get into that sort of stuff. The market?' Tara pleaded.
Daisy hurried through the gilded glass doors of Elite Estates exactly forty-five minutes later, breathless and feeling harassed but trying not to look it. Her boss, Giles Carter, had phoned first thing to inform her that the virus doing the rounds of the agency had knocked out the boy wonder on the sales teamâBarry the Barracuda, as Daisy thought of him in private. Her presence was required to deal with Barry's latest new client on what should have been a much cherished day off.
Daisy had worked ten years for Elite Estates and had no illusions about management chauvinism. She was the token woman on the sales staff. She had fought her way up the office ranks with the greatest difficulty, disadvantaged by her sex, her lack of height and her youthful appearance. It had taken hard sales figures to persuade Giles to take her seriously but he still ensured that she dealt only with the properties at the lowest end of the market.
âGiles has phoned down for you twice,' Joyce on Reception told her in a warning hiss. âAnd boy, have you got a treat in store...'
Daisy felt a cold chill down her back. Giles had never given her a treat in his life. She always got the difficult clients. âIt's not that old lady back again, is it? Mrs Sykes?'
Joyce laughed. âDidn't you notice the limousine out front?'
Daisy had been in too much of a hurry to notice anything. Now she looked and saw the impressive long silver vehicle parked outside.
âThe most utterly dreamy-looking guy I've ever seen got out of it,' Joyce sighed in a languishing undertone. âSadly, an utterly dreamy-looking blonde got out with him.'
A couple... Hopefully the type who still liked each other and respected each other's opinions. Daisy had had some nightmare experiences with twosomes who hadn't been able to agree on anything when it had come to the home of their dreams. Last-minute pull-outs on sales had been the result.
She knocked on the door of Giles's sumptuous office and walked straight in.
It was the woman she saw first. She was studying her watch with a little
of annoyance, a fabulous mane of corn-gold hair partially concealing her features. A tall dark male was standing with his back turned to the door. He swung fluidly round as Daisy entered but she couldn't see his face in the sunlight flooding through the windows.
Giles gave her an exasperated look. âI expected you sooner than this,' he complained ungraciously.
âSorry,' Daisy said to the room at large. âI hope you haven't been waiting too long.'
âMiss Thornton...this is Mr Leopardi and Miss Nina Franklin.' Giles introduced them in the oily voice he employed solely around wealthy clients.
. That name thudded into her brain like a sharp blow. Stunned, she stared at the large male presence now blocking out the sunlight. All she could focus on was a pale blue tie set against a slice of snowy white shirt bounded by the lapels of an exquisitely tailored charcoal-grey jacket. Numbly she tipped her silver-fair head back and looked up at him. Disbelief enclosed her in complete stasis. It
Alessio! The shock of recognition was so intense that she couldn't move a muscle. She simply stood there, all colour drained from her triangular face, her polite smile sliding away into nothingness. The hand she had begun to extend dropped weakly back to her side again.
Helplessly she collided with deep-set dark eyes fixed on her with an incredulous intensity that was as great as her own. And then luxuriant black lashes swept low, swiftly screening his gaze from her. She saw the tautness of his facial muscles beneath the gold of his dark skin, grasped the fierce control he was exerting and, with a huge effort, dragged her shattered eyes from him, fighting to regain her composure.
âMr Leopardi...' she muttered in a wobbly undertone, and began to raise her hand again with all the flair of a malfunctioning automaton.
Alessio ignored the gesture and spun on his heel to address Giles. âIs this woman the only employee you have available?' he enquired harshly.
There was a sharp little silence.
âMiss Thornton is one of our most experienced members of staff.' Giles fixed an ingratiating smile to his full lips but his dismay was obvious. âPerhaps you think she seems a little on the young side but she's actually a good deal older than she looks!'
Daisy flushed to the hairline. The beautiful blonde giggled. The thick silence pulsed like a wild thing in a room that now felt suffocatingly airless. She focused on Alessio's shoesâhand-stitched Italian loafers. She remembered him barefoot and in trainers. That was the only thought in her mind but it speedily flowed on into another.
She remembered a teenage boy,
a full-grown adult male. She knew the adult only from pictures in newsprint that fractured her peace for days afterwards. But how much more disturbing it was to be faced with Alessio in the flesh...and without any warning whatsoever. Her tummy muscles were horribly cramped up. She felt sick, physically sick, and could not have opened her mouth had her life depended on it.
Giles cleared his throat uneasily. âI'm afraid that there isn't anyone else available this morning. If it wasn't for
â' he frowned down at the clumsy plaster cast on his foot ââI would have been delighted to personally escort you round the Blairden property. As it isâ'
âAlessio... if we don't get a move on, I'll be late for my booking,' the blonde complained petulantly, unfolding lithely from her chair to reveal a height very little short of Alessio's six feet three.
The woman was a modelâa very well-known model, Daisy recognised belatedly, her dazed eyes scanning that impossibly perfect bone structure. She had seen that same face on countless magazine covers. And what had Giles said her name was? Like a sleepwalker, she moved forward and extended her hand. âMiss Franklin...'
Manicured fingertips brushed hers only in passing. Bored green eyes flicked dismissively over her. The blonde slid her hand into Alessio's in a gesture of possessive intimacy and curved right round him to whisper something in his ear, her other hand moving caressingly up over his chest to curve finally to one broad shoulder.
Daisy went rigid and stared. Then abruptly she looked away, but every nerve in her body screamed as she did so. For a split second, as her own fingers had closed tightly in on themselves, she had been tempted to thrust their bodies apart. That insane urge shook her inside out.
âIf you'll excuse me, I'll brief Miss Thornton.' Giles closed a taut hand round Daisy's elbow and practically pulled her out into the corridor.
His heavy features were flushed and angry. âWhat's the silent act in aid of? No wonder the bloke wasn't impressed! Don't you know who he is?'
Daisy studied the wall opposite.
âThe Leopardi Merchant Bank...that's who he is! I mean, you just stood there gawking at him! Hell's teeth, why does the richest client we've had in months have to come through the door the one and only day Barry's away sick?' Giles groaned in disbelief.
And it couldn't be happening to a nicer person, Daisy found herself thinking, because it was easier to think about that than to think of what had just happened. Of all the estate agencies in the London area, why had Alessio had to choose this one? Was it because of the grovelling service Giles offered to the well-heeled? Alessio was so rich that he would get that kind of service anywhere. Her temples pounded with sick tension.
âHey...you're not coming down with this blasted virus
, are you?' Giles demanded, taking an almost comically fast step back from her.
âNo...' Daisy finally found her voice again. âI'm fine.'
âThen what's the matter withâ?' Giles fell abruptly silent as the door behind her opened.
âSince we're in a hurry, Miss Thornton's services will be adequate,' Alessio asserted flatly.
Goose-flesh prickled along the nape of Daisy's neck. She didn't turn round even though she could see Giles regarding that scarcely civil oversight with a fresh look of incomprehension.
Her teeth clenched. Fierce resentment, backed by a rolling tide of humiliation she didn't want to admit to, flared through her taut length.
Thirteen years ago she had been unceremoniously dumped and she had done nothing to deserve Alessio's brutally dismissive reaction to her in front of her boss and his girlfriend. Was it embarrassment? Or was he, just like her, fighting off a distressing surge of adolescent memories? Don't kid yourself, Daisy, a more cynical voice urged. Even at nineteen, Alessio Leopardi didn't have a sensitive bone in his body...
Rigid-backed, Daisy descended the wrought-iron spiral staircase that ran down to the ground floor, and walked out through the crowded front office. Her legs felt as if they might fold beneath her at any moment. A deep trembling was beginning inside her. Shock was setting in hard. As she emerged out onto the pavement and began turning in the direction of the staff car park, Alessio drawled from behind her, âWe'll use the limo.'
âOf course,' she managed half under her breath.
âSo tell us about this house,' Nina Franklin invited thinly as Daisy slid stiffly along the indicated seat opposite her.
Daisy's lips parted and closed again. She knew virtually nothing about the property in Blairden Square, not even if there were any offers on it. Since Giles had never allowed her to deal with what he termed the âsuperior residences' on the agency books, she had had no reason to take any interest in them. Starter homes and apartments were generally her field. But had she been in her right mind she would have checked out the facts before she'd left the office.
A glossy brochure landed squarely on her lap. She jumped. Startled violet eyes switched to the male she had been rigorously avoiding looking at.
âTime to bone up,' Alessio said very drily, his expressive mouth as hard as iron.
âYou're not very efficient, are you?' his companion remarked in cutting addition. âHigh-powered sales routines are painful but total ignorance is something else again!'
Daisy had coloured but she tilted her chin. âI'm afraid I haven't dealt with this particular property beforeâ'
âIt's a Georgian terrace,' Alessio slotted in gently. âBut don't worry about it. We can read too.'
Daisy bent her head, his smooth derision stinging like acid on her over-sensitive skin. Why was he treating her like this? Alessio was blunt but he had never been a boor. She didn't understand his apparent need to humiliate her. Surely he couldn't
be blaming her after all these years? And it was so ridiculous to be forced to pretend that they were strangers. Was that her fault...or his? He had made no attempt to acknowledge their previous relationship either. But then why should he have? Why should either of them want to? That relationship was all but lost in the mists of time, she told herself, until intelligence intervened. How could that long-ago summer ever be lost for her when she had Tara? Her stomach cramped again into even tighter knots.
The buzz of a mobile phone broke the tense silence. Daisy didn't lift her head. But she couldn't concentrate, couldn't even begin to study the brochure. It was as if her whole brain had gone into a state of suspended animation, as if the world had stopped dead the instant she'd glanced up and seen Alessio in Giles's office. No longer the long, lean youth she recalled but, if anything, even more heartbreakingly handsome...