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Authors: Christina Hollis

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The Count of Castelfino

BOOK: The Count of Castelfino
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‘I want you, Megan,’ he whispered.

His honeyed words trickled through her body like warm water. Her hands gripped his arms. In that instant his mouth clamped over hers. It was firm and possessive, a reassurance that took away all her fears and common sense at the same time. Meg knew this was mad, dangerous and totally wrong, but for once in her life she didn’t care. She simply relaxed into his embrace and let his passion engulf her. It was far too wonderful to resist, but she knew she had to make a token effort.

‘We can’t, Gianni.
I
can’t.’

Sliding one hand beneath her chin, he lifted her face. First he placed a kiss on the tip of her nose. Then the need to kiss her properly again over-whelmed him.

Meg was powerless to stop him, and when he lifted his lips gently from hers a second time he murmured, ‘Of course we can. When I show you how good it can be you’ll never want another man.’

Christina Hollis
was born in Somerset, and now lives in the idyllic Wye valley. She was born reading, and her childhood dream was to become a writer. This was realised when she became a successful journalist and lecturer in organic horticulture. Then she gave it all up to become a full-time mother of two and run half an acre of productive country garden.

Writing Mills & Boon
®
romances is another ambition realised. It fills most of her time, between complicated rural school runs. The rest of her life is divided between garden and kitchen, either growing fruit and vegetables or cooking with them. Her daughter’s cat always closely supervises everything she does around the home, from typing to picking strawberries!

You can learn more about Christina and her writing at www.christinahollis.com

Recent titles by the same author:

THE TUSCAN TYCOON’S PREGNANT HOUSEKEEPER
THE RUTHLESS ITALIAN’S INEXPERIENCED WIFE
HER RUTHLESS ITALIAN BOSS
ONE NIGHT IN HIS BED

The Count of
Castelfino

by

Chirstina Hollis

www.millsandboon.co.uk

To Martyn, for all his help and support.

Prologue

M
EG
could hardly believe her luck. Charity Gala Night at the world-famous Chelsea Flower Show, and she was part of it! The rich and famous jetted in from all over the world for this exclusive preview. Her display of tropical flowers attracted them all, so she was getting a grandstand view of their wealth and beauty. When she heaved a sigh now, it was only to experience the fragrance of a million flowers and acres of crushed grass. Her career might be on hold, but this experience was taking her mind off her pain.

Suddenly, a strangely determined movement caught her eye. A gorgeous man was threading his way between the tycoons and movie stars. Patting a shoulder here, kissing a woman there, he looked as though he owned the place. Tall, athletic and moving with natural grace, he was born to wear a tuxedo. Meg couldn’t help following him with her eyes. His dark good looks were illuminated every few seconds by a flashing smile as yet another person tried to catch his eye. Meg wondered what it would be like to be part of his charmed circle. Watching him was her window into another world. When the crowd closed around him, hiding him from view, a light definitely went out of her evening. She dropped her gaze to the reality of her job on
the Imsey Plant Centre stand again, wondering what it would have been like to sample some of his charm for herself.

The expression froze on her face as she realised her day-dream was about to come true. Her ideal man was walking straight towards her display stand, and smiling. He obviously wanted to attract her attention. He got it—instantly.

‘Buona sera, signorina!’
He twinkled, his voice rippling with Italian delight. ‘I need beautiful presents for some…
special
people. I’ve been told this sort of plant is foolproof…’ he continued, looking down at an open note-book in his hands. Frowning briefly, he raised his eyes to hers again with a particularly devastating smile. ‘Mmm…I wonder—can
you
read this handwriting?’

He made no move to hold the little book out to her. Meg couldn’t reach it from where she stood. She might never get a better chance to approach a man like this. Glancing apprehensively all around, she nipped around the end of the Imsey stand and went to his side. She felt unbelievably shy, but it was worth it. The closer she got, the more darkly handsome he became. He wasn’t just lovely, he had everything. His designer suit was so crisp and new, a gold Rolex shone against his flawless tan, and when he moved she was engulfed in a waft of expensively discreet aftershave.

‘This is the first chance I’ve had to get out from behind this display all day, sir!’

‘Don’t worry. I’ll make sure it’s worth your while.’

With a flutter of pleasure, Meg heard all sorts of unspoken promises in his voice. It didn’t take a mind reader to know that was exactly what he intended. Smiling down at her indulgently, he showed her his notebook. The first thing she noticed was the way his fingers curled around
its leather-bound cover. They were long, strong and a shade of brown more usually seen on the men who worked beside her in the greenhouses at home. There was only one difference. Unlike them, this man had fingernails that were neat and clean. Meg found herself wondering if the rest of him was equally smooth and perfect…

Her handsome customer cleared his throat. It was a soft, polite sound but Meg’s guilt made her jump. She looked back at his notebook. Most of the page was covered in staccato Italian written in a strong, clear hand. Then an expansive, old-fashioned script had added something. Meg leaned close to her visitor, trying to make out what it said. The warm night released another tantalising hint of his expensive cologne into the air. She inhaled, trying to make it sound as though she were concentrating. This was a once-in-a-lifetime moment for her. When she had served him, this stunning man would be gone from her life for ever. Meg made sure she stretched out the moment for as long as she could.

‘It’s an Imseyii hybrid, sir. They’re exclusive to my family’s nursery,’ she announced, leaning back from him with regret. She was rewarded with a look that made everything worthwhile. His dark brown eyes glittered with pleasure. Meg gazed into them, and was lost. His teasing smile was as irresistible as the rest of him and she felt herself getting warmer by the minute.

He leaned toward her with a wicked grin. ‘What I want to know is:
do women like them
?’

‘They can’t resist them, sir!’ Meg giggled, surprising herself. She had never found anything remotely funny about her work before. ‘Our orchids are the perfect impulse gift to give a lady.’

‘Or perhaps
several
ladies?’

Meg let his remark pass. There were too many people relying on her, back at home, for a flirtation to lead her astray. Turning away from the influence of his beautiful eyes, she spread her hand towards her display, inviting him to admire the carefully crafted arrangement she had made of the nursery’s best plants. Dozens of them nestled in a bed of soft green moss. Hundreds of arching stems as fine as florist’s wire trembled in the slightest movement of air. Each was set with dozens of perfect little flowers, some plain, some patterned, and in almost every colour of the rainbow. Meg was so proud of them she allowed herself another smile.

‘They’re often called “dancing delights”. Are you tempted, sir?’

Her handsome customer put his head on one side and looked at her mischievously. ‘That depends. Do you dance?’

Meg giggled again. At any other time, in any other circumstances she would have cursed herself for being so unprofessional. Tonight, it felt
right
. Simply looking at this man lightened her heart. There was something about the glitter in his sloe-dark eyes, and the life burning in his expression.

‘I don’t suppose you need to dance, with a smile like that.’

Magically, the gap between them closed. Meg couldn’t see him moving, but it was definitely happening. Confused, she looked at her plants. ‘I don’t have time for dancing, sir—or anything other than nursery work, really. Looking after all these is more than a full-time job…’

‘Then you must do it very well. Everything is looking lovely.’ He tilted his head again, and there was no mistaking his expression.

‘Thank you!’ Meg responded with a delight that overcame her shyness. And then she realised he wasn’t concentrating on the plants, but on her. Immediately a molten core of heat threatened to melt every square inch of her skin. It erupted in a blush as he trained a knowing look straight at her.

‘I’ll take a dozen. Send them around to my Mayfair apartment. That should keep my current string of beauties quiet for a day or two. My name is Gianni Bellini. Here’s my card, and thank you—these last few minutes have been a real pleasure.’ His smile was roguish, and told Meg that plants definitely took second place with him. ‘Now, I must pay.’ He pulled out a sleek leather wallet and extracted a sheaf of banknotes along with his business card. As he passed them over to her a smile animated his beautiful lips and suggestive eyes. Her blushes flared again as he took her hand in his warm, sure grip. Raising it to his lips for the soft sensuality of a kiss, he reduced her legs to jelly.

‘And so, until the next time we meet,
mio dolce
…’

Dark eyes flashing, he nodded a discreet farewell. Then before Meg could gasp or laugh or speak, he withdrew his touch, turned and vanished into the crowds…

Chapter One

M
EG
woke with a jolt and realised she was back in her aircraft seat. Her heart tumbled thirty thousand feet. A lot had happened since the Chelsea Flower Show, but the image of Gianni Bellini still haunted her. Only the thrill of starting work full-time at the Villa Castelfino could take her mind off him. She had been commuting to Tuscany regularly over the past few weeks, but from today she could properly call herself the Count di Castelfino’s Curator of Exotic plants. It was the official start of her new job with her grand Italian employer. Although she was looking forward to it, Meg was very nervous. It was the first time she had lived so far away from her parents, and she didn’t like leaving them to cope with their business alone. It didn’t help that after sleeping on the plane she had a head full of cotton wool, and all the most uncomfortable bits of her aircraft seat imprinted on her body.

Shuffling off the plane along with everyone else, she comforted herself with the thought someone would be waiting for her in Arrivals. Once she left airside, Franco the chauffeur would be there to help with her luggage, as usual.

Meg’s budding self-assurance lasted for as long as it
took her to glance around the waiting area. Franco was nowhere to be seen. With a flicker of fear she wondered if this meant there was trouble at the Villa Castelfino. She had picked up enough from working alongside the Count di Castelfino to know that the old man did not get on with his son. Meg had never seen
il ragazzo
, as her aristocratic employer scornfully called his heir, but she had learned enough to dislike him. The Count di Castelfino loved the varied landscape of his estate with its olive groves, gnarled oaks and wildflower meadows. His son wanted to transform it into a monoculture—nothing but ordered rows of vines as far as the eye could see. As for the count’s beloved plant collection—Meg smiled ruefully to herself. Life at the Villa Castelfino sounded like a continuous struggle between beauty and business. The old man’s hobby was always in danger of losing out to his son’s ambition.

She waited and waited, but no one arrived to collect her. It was a bad start for someone with half a ton of luggage. Time crawled past. Looking up and down the concourse, she spotted an arrow pointing towards a taxi rank. Rather than wait and worry, Meg swung into action. Pushing her trolley towards it, she waited nervously for a vacant cab, glancing in every direction. Neither help nor trouble arrived, but by the time she could scramble into the safety of a taxi she was in a state of nervous collapse.

The driver recognised the address she gave him, and let fly a delighted stream of Italian. Meg went weak with relief. At last something was going right. She tried to explain her situation, but soon used up her tiny vocabulary of halting holiday phrases. Her driver found the whole thing hilarious. Unable to understand and feeling totally isolated, Meg sank back in her seat.

I wonder what gorgeous Gianni is doing right now. Not being stood up at an airport terminal, that’s for sure!
she thought, imagining him shouldering aside his flock of girlfriends to rescue her. She sighed, wondering if she would ever see him again. It didn’t seem very likely. Her only hope would be to persuade the Count di Castelfino to stage an exhibit of his plants at one of the big London flower shows. In her dreams, the gorgeous Gianni Bellini haunted them in search of more treats for his harem.

She spent the taxi ride imagining what it must be like to be seduced by such a charmer.
It’s no wonder he’s got so many girls in tow,
she thought. His smile had warmed her in a way she hadn’t experienced for a long time. She was strictly a one-man girl, so common sense always told her to put a lot of distance between herself and men like Signor Bellini. But a wisp of wicked excitement curled through her daydreams like smoke. In her fantasies, she could do what she liked.

And so could Gianni…

While Meg simmered, the man of her dreams stared down the barrel of a gun. It might look like the neck of a crystal decanter, but it was equally deadly. Gianni Bellini knew full well that alcohol solved nothing. It would only slow him down. Going for so long without sleep was bad enough, and drinking would only make it worse. It would have a knock-on effect on him, and all his newly inherited staff, for the rest of the day. He decided against it.

‘Shall I fetch you some champagne instead, Count?’ A uniformed waiter bowed obsequiously. All he got in reply was a grunt and a dismissive wave of his new master’s hand.

Barely twenty-four hours into his life sentence, Gianni was still coming to terms with what had happened. He had known this would be his destiny for as long as he could remember. Reacting by developing a strong streak of independence, he had made sure he didn’t have to rely on his inherited wealth. Instead he had forged a brilliant career for himself. While his father was alive, Gianni’s Castelfino vineyard had been relegated to a distant corner of the estate. That was about to change. Now Gianni was in total control, his business would take centre stage. Despite his exhaustion, he smiled. That would stop the questions, for a while at least. People knew he was obsessed with the idea of making Castelfino wines a luxury with an international reputation. They would think he was simply shelving any quest for an heir while he expanded his empire.

Now he had inherited all his father’s land and property, there would be no stopping him. Every suitable inch of the Castelfino estate would be turned over to growing grapes. Production would rocket, and so would Gianni’s sense of satisfaction. He enjoyed playing the part of self-made millionaire, although his playboy image was a pretty intangible asset. It was good to have a new girl every night, but they were nothing more than a perk of the job. While celebrity spotters tried to guess which one of his beautiful companions would be chosen to produce the Bellini heir, Gianni kept his real love a secret. The Castelfino vineyard was his baby. When it came to children…Gianni didn’t want anything to do with them. His own childhood had been made an absolute hell by his warring parents. He couldn’t stomach the idea of inflicting that on an innocent infant.

A movement outside the summer dining room caught
his eye. In the far distance a dust devil spiralled along the line of the drive. It was heading for the villa. Gianni’s eyes narrowed with annoyance. He really didn’t need visitors right now. With an exclamation, he slid his palms back across the white linen of the tablecloth and cranked himself to his feet. His sleep-deprived brain was still functioning, but his limbs were set in concrete. Crossing the room, he went out through the open French doors and onto the terrace. However he felt, he had a duty to those arriving to pay their respects to his late father. He shut his eyes, concentrating on what he would say.

The Tuscan countryside sounded as only an afternoon in high summer could. In the still, hot air not a leaf moved. A single bird called, with the monotonous
chip-chip
of two parched stones tapping together. The only other sound was that single car engine, making a tunnel through the dense air as it tore towards him. Everything else held its breath.

Gianni heard the car swing around in an extravagant semicircle to stop in front of the villa’s main door. Puzzled, he opened his eyes and saw—not some grand limousine, but a simple radio cab. There wasn’t time to be shocked before its driver bellowed a hearty greeting and leapt out to open the car’s boot.

The cabbie began hauling out suitcases and piling them on the dusty ground, while keeping up a cheerful conversation with his still invisible passenger. Gianni stared at the scene with disbelief. All the time the car radio chattered away. No one at the Villa Castelfino had raised their voice above a whisper for days. Until that moment, the vast face of the house had been blank with shutters closed against the sunshine. Now flickers of movement ran along behind many of them. This unexpected racket was mobilising
Gianni’s staff. Sure enough, one of the kitchen lads raced out from a side door to tackle the new arrivals. While he was busy silencing the cab driver, the brand new count got another shock.

The rear door of the taxi opened and the most beautiful woman in the world struggled out. Her skirt, already short, had ridden up during her journey exposing long, beautifully shaped legs. Her dark blonde hair moved loosely around her shoulders, shining in the sunlight. She looked dazed. As she straightened up she staggered slightly, as though pushed back against the security of the car. Gianni realised she had been caught off guard by the sudden contrast between the air-conditioned taxi and the sun-baked amphitheatre in front of the Villa Castelfino.
Is it any wonder,
he observed,
when she’s wearing tights?

With a curse, he turned away. His body had sprung to life as it always did at the sight of a pretty girl. How could it possibly play a tasteless trick on him like that, today of all days? A keen interest in all things feminine was only natural, but noticing such fine detail at a time like this was grotesque. Gianni dropped his gaze to his feet. And then he heard her laugh. It was as captivating as a charm of goldfinches.

‘Signor Bellini! What a surprise! I never expected to see you again, let alone here! What a lovely surprise!’

He heard her take long, confident strides toward him across the gritty forecourt. From his vantage point on the terrace he could look down on her with the mere flick of a glance. As she noticed his bitter, twisted expression she stopped smiling. In half a dozen steps she went from delight, through puzzlement, to concern. Her steps became hesitant, and when she spoke again her voice was halting and uncertain.

‘You
are
the man I met at the Chelsea Flower Show, aren’t you?’


Sì.
I am Gianni Bellini.’

He dropped the words like icicles, but then recognition swept over him. This was the flower girl. Gianni never forgot a pretty face—or a curvaceous body like hers. Manufacturing a smile, he nodded a brief welcome. Details slowly came back to him. This one was not only beautiful, she was clever, too. That was enough of a novelty for her to have made a special impact on Gianni at the time, but he had never dreamed of seeing her a second time.

The force of his reply didn’t stop her. She advanced with another laugh and stuck out her hand in greeting.

‘Good grief, I never would have believed it. You’ve changed—all those girlfriends must be running you ragged,
signor
!’

‘What are you doing here?’ he enquired in a voice like cut glass. As he spoke he looked down at her outstretched hand as though he would rather shake a viper by the tail.

She frowned, looking into his face as though searching for recognition.

‘I work for the Count di Castelfino. I’m moving into the Garden Cottage today. Someone usually meets me at the airport, but for some reason the chauffeur didn’t turn up today.’

‘That is because my father is dead. I’m the Count di Castelfino now,’ he announced with crisp formality.

Her smile vanished, and she stared at him in growing horror.

‘Oh…I’m so sorry.’ Helplessly she looked from the taxi, to her heap of suitcases and then back to him. ‘How
crass of me to arrive in such a flurry like this…C-can I ask what happened?’

‘He suffered a stroke some days ago, in Paris. He died yesterday—
no
, the day before—’

Shaking his head, Gianni raised one hand and dragged it wearily down over his face. The rasp of stubble under his palm was loud and intrusive in the horrible, thick silence.

‘I—I’m so sorry…’ she repeated, her voice soft and insubstantial.

Exactly like her
, Gianni thought instinctively, before silently cursing his reactions again.

‘You weren’t to know. I didn’t know you were expected. That’s why no one was sent to meet you. I was only driven back here an hour ago.’ Distracted, he looked across at the taxi and pulled out his wallet. ‘I’m afraid you’ve had a wasted journey. You’ll have to go back to wherever you came from. How did you get past my security guards at the gate, in any case?’

Her eyes opened wider and wider as he spoke until they looked like two clear reflections of the cobalt sky.

‘They were expecting me…my name is on today’s visitor list…so they just waved my taxi straight through…’ Her voice was faint. As it faltered still further he had to lean closer to hear what she was saying. ‘But I can’t go back…all the plants here will need someone to look after them. The count—the
old
count—would have wanted them cared for properly…’

Gianni shook his head. ‘I’m the Count di Castelfino now, and I have my own plans. It’s the start of a new regime. There’s no room here for anything that doesn’t pay its way. Whatever projects my father may have had in
mind won’t be going ahead. I’m in charge now, and my interests are much more practical.’

As he spoke he saw the heaven of her eyes become cloudy and misted with tears. She shrank visibly, and when she spoke her voice was barely more than a whisper.

‘You can’t mean that,
signor
?’

‘I’m afraid so. The Castelfino vineyard is my only concern. I’m interested in practical projects, not hobbies.’

Springing lightly down from the terrace, he started to walk towards the taxi. Because old habits couldn’t be shaken off, he put a comforting arm around her shoulder to lead her in the same direction. ‘Don’t worry,
signorina
. I’ll pay your taxi fare back to the airport. By the time you get there, my staff will have phoned through and arranged a return ticket for you. Where did you fly from, by the way?’

‘Heathrow—but—’

As they reached the open passenger door of the taxi Gianni took his arm away from her. After pressing far too much money into the taxi driver’s hand, he swivelled on his heel and walked off. As he headed back to the villa he threw a few disjointed words over his shoulder at her.

‘I’m sorry you’ve had a wasted journey,
signorina
. Goodbye.’

Closing a mental door firmly in her face, he forced himself to push thoughts of her inviting full lips and big blue eyes right to the back of his mind. He ought to be concentrating on his plans for Castelfino Wines, not distractions like her.

BOOK: The Count of Castelfino
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