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Authors: Jacqueline Baird

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BOOK: Picture of Innocence
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Suddenly the frustration that had simmered inside him since speaking with Manuel exploded inside him, and the woman hanging on to his arm was the last straw. Abruptly he hauled her against him, covered her softly pleading lips, and kissed her with all the angry frustrated feelings riding him.

Lucy did not know what had hit her. Suddenly she was held against a hard body, and his mouth slammed down on hers. For a moment she froze in shock. Then she became aware of the movement of his firm lips, the subtle male scent of him, and excitement sizzled though her heating her blood and melting her bones. She had been kissed before, but never like this. He fascinated, thrilled and overwhelmed her every sense. When he abruptly thrust her away she was stunned by the immediacy of her response, and stood in a daze simply staring at him.

Lorenzo never lost control and was shocked by what
he had done—even more shocked by the sudden tightening in his groin. He looked down at the poorly dressed girl gazing at him and noticed the telltale darkening of the pupils in her big green eyes, the flush in her cheeks, the pulse that beat frantically in her throat. He realised she was his for the taking. He also realised he had definitely been too long without a woman to actually consider seducing this one.

‘No, there is nothing you can do to make me change my mind. You are not my type,’ he said, more harshly than was warranted.

Lucy blinked, snapping out of the sexual fog that held her immobile, and really looked at him. She saw the hard, cynical smile and realised he had actually thought she was offering him her body. Having kissed her, he wasn’t impressed, and humiliation laced with a rising anger flooded through her.

‘To be brutally frank, Miss Steadman, neither I nor the bank have any wish to continue doing business with a Steadman. You have wasted your time coming to Verona and I suggest you take the next flight out. Is that clear enough for you?’

Lucy saw the determination in his cold black eyes and knew he meant every word. She had the fleeting notion this was personal, and yet he didn’t know her. But then again she’d disliked him without knowing him. Antonio had told her his brother was known as a brilliant financier and ruthless at negotiating with a hint of pride in his tone.

He’d been absolutely right, but she doubted he would have been proud of his brother had he lived to see this day. Antonio had been a gentle soul, whereas the man before her did not have one.

‘Perfectly,’ she said flatly.

Lucy was an artist, but she was also a realist. Her mother had died when she was twelve, and her father had never recovered from the loss of the love of his life. And then her brother last November. Lucy had learnt the hard way there was no point fighting against fate.

She stepped back, straightened her shoulders and, willing her legs to support her, walked past Lorenzo to the door and opened it. She turned and let her gaze sweep over him from head to toe. Big, dark and as immovable as a rock, she thought, and had to accept that short of a miracle she had little to no chance of saving Steadman Industrial Plastics.

‘I can’t say it was a pleasure meeting you, but just so you know I am in town for another day. You never know—you might change your mind.’ She said it simply to goad the man—he was such a superior devil he needed someone to deflate his ego.

‘Not this particular part of town. Security will have strict instructions not to allow you access. I want nothing to do with your business or you. Plump, brainless, badly dressed and mousy women have no appeal to me.’

‘You really are the arrogant, opinionated, ruthless bastard Antonio said you were.’ She shook her head in disgust, and left.

CHAPTER TWO

S
HOCKED
rigid, Lorenzo stood for a moment, her words ringing in his ears. Her last comment had hit a nerve. Was that what Antonio had really thought of him? Not that it mattered now his brother was dead, but it was the way he had died that still rankled, and the photographs given to him today had not helped.

At the inquest Damien Steadman had been called to give evidence, along with the rescue service personnel who had found Antonio’s body too late to save him. Damien had been the lead climber, and had reached the top of a forty-foot cliff-face when Antonio had lost his footing and been left suspended in mid-air. Damien had tried to pull him up, but had finally cut the rope binding them together, letting Antonio fall.

A few years earlier, after a television documentary about a similar incident where both men had ultimately survived, the mountaineering community had concluded cutting the rope was the correct action to take, as it enabled the lead climber to try and seek help for his companion. The same conclusion had been reached at Antonio’s inquest. Damien Steadman had been exonerated of any fault—which had enraged Lorenzo. His mother, devastated by grief, had been too ill to attend, but he had sat through the entire proceedings and not
been impressed by Damien’s vague account. When Damien had had the nerve to approach him after the inquest, to offer his sympathy on the death of his brother, Lorenzo had lost it. He had told the young man as far as he was concerned he was as guilty as hell, he hoped he rotted in hell, and a lot more besides before walking away.

Five years later, with the grief and rage dimmed, he could look at the tragedy with some perspective, but it still did not sit easy with Lorenzo. He doubted he would have cut a rope on his friend, but then he had never been in that position—and Damien Steadman
had
eventually raised the alarm.

It was the
eventually
that disturbed him more now—that and the lingering taste of Lucy Steadman’s lush mouth beneath his. Where the hell had
that
thought come from? he wondered. She was far too young, never mind the rest of her faults.

His decision to sell the Steadman’s shares was the right one. His last connection to the Steadman family would be finally cut. He’d explain it to his mother somehow, and thankfully would never see Lucy Steadman again.

Banishing her from his mind, he sat down at his desk, clicked on the computer and called his secretary.

The following afternoon, after a restless night in the strange hotel bed, during which a large dark man who looked suspiciously like Lorenzo Zanelli had seemed to slip in and out of her dreams with a surprisingly erotic frequency, and a morning spent exploring Verona, Lucy exited the taxi outside a magnificent old building, feeling excited, if a little hot. But then almost every building in Verona was fabulous and old, she thought wryly.

She carefully placed her leather satchel holding the portrait on the desk in the foyer of the most luxurious apartment building in the city, according to the taxi driver who had brought her here. Looking around, she believed him as she handed her passport to the concierge at his request for identification.

She reached a hand around to rub her lower back. Carrying the satchel around all morning had not been a great idea, but she had not wanted to waste time returning to the hotel.

‘The Contessa della Scala is at home,
signorina.
Number three—the third floor. But first I must call and tell her you have arrived.’ He handed her passport back and, placing it back in her satchel, she glanced around the elegant foyer towards the elevator.

The doors opened and a man walked out—and her mouth fell open in shock as what felt like a hundred butterflies took flight in her stomach.

Dark eyes clashed with green. ‘You!’ he exclaimed, and in two lithe strides Lorenzo Zanelli was at her side. ‘What do you think you are doing, following me around?’ he demanded and grabbed her arm.

‘Following you around? You must be joking,’ Lucy jeered, the butterflies dying a sudden death at his arrogant assumption. She tried to shake off his hand, but with no luck. ‘Oh, for heaven’s sake, get over yourself and let go of me.’

‘How did you get in here? This is a secure building.’

‘Through the door. How do you think?’ she snapped.

‘And that is the way you are going out, right now—after I have had words with the incompetent concierge who allowed you to enter.’

At that moment the concierge put down the telephone
and turned back to smile at Lucy. But before he could speak Lorenzo Zanelli launched a torrent of Italian at the poor man.

Lucy’s Italian lessons had not been completely wasted, but she could only understand Italian rather than speak the language, so she didn’t try now. She watched with interest as Lorenzo’s voice slowly faded as the concierge responded. She noted the slow dark flush crawl up the tanned olive-toned face and almost laughed out loud. The superior devil was totally embarrassed, and suddenly she was free.

Lorenzo Zanelli looked down at Lucy and saw the amusement in her green eyes, and for the first time since he was a teenager he felt like a prize idiot. What on earth had possessed him to think she was following him? Probably the same irrational urge that had made him kiss her yesterday. He was acting totally out of character—usually he was the most controlled of men—and it had to stop. But she
had
told him she was going to be in town another day and suggested he might change his mind, so his assumption was not that ridiculous. Obviously he realised she had been winding him up, but however he tried to justify his behaviour he still felt like a fool.

‘I owe you an apology, Miss Steadman,’ he admitted curtly. ‘I am sorry; it seems you have every right to be here.’

‘Apology accepted—but I bet it nearly choked you,’ Lucy prompted with an irrepressible grin. There was something very satisfying in seeing the stiff-necked arrogant banker made to look a fool.

‘Not quite, but close,’ he said, his lips quirking at the corners in a self deprecating smile. ‘So how do you know the Countess della Scala? ‘ he asked.

His smile—the first she had seen from him—made her heart turn over. But, remembering their last meeting and what he was really like, she stiffened. ‘Mind your own business,’ she said bluntly. ‘As I recall you told me quite succinctly yesterday you wanted nothing to do with mine.’ And, brushing past him, she walked to the elevator and stepped inside.

The petite, elegant Countess was an absolute delight, Lucy thought ten minutes later, sitting in a comfortable chair and watching the elderly lady reclining on a sofa and examining the eighteen-by-twelve portrait of her husband that her manservant held a few feet away from her.

‘I love it—absolutely love it,’ she said, then instructed the manservant to place it on the table while she decided where to hang it. She turned back to Lucy. ‘You have captured my beloved husband perfectly. All my friends will be green with envy, and I can see a lot more commissions coming your way and a great future ahead of you.’

‘I hope so.’ Lucy grinned. ‘But thank you. I’m glad you like it, because it was a real pleasure to do—he was a very handsome man.’

‘Oh, he was—and so jolly. Nothing like Lorenzo Zanelli. The nerve of the man, trying to have you thrown out of the building. Are you sure you are all right.’

‘How on earth did you know about that?’ Lucy asked in surprise.

‘The concierge is a good friend of mine and keeps me informed of everything. Zanelli’s behaviour was disgraceful—I can’t imagine what he was thinking.’

‘I had a brief meeting with him yesterday over something his bank has an interest in, and he jumped to the
conclusion I was following him,’ Lucy said with a grin. ‘He obviously has an overblown sense of his attraction to women, or he is just paranoid. I had no idea he lived here.’

‘Ah, my dear—Lorenzo Zanelli doesn’t live here, but friends of his, Fedrico and Olivia Paglia, have an apartment here. Unfortunately Federico was injured in a hunting accident in January and has been in a rehabilitation clinic ever since. There has been the occasional rumour circulating about Lorenzo Zanelli’s involvement with the poor man’s wife, because he has visited Olivia a few times, though I can’t see it myself. He is much more likely to be taking care of her husband’s business affairs than
her.’
She chuckled. ‘Zanelli has the reputation of being a loner, a very private man and a workaholic. Olivia Paglia is a real social butterfly—which is why I can’t see the two of them together. They are like chalk and cheese.’

‘They say opposites attract,’ Lucy inserted, fascinated by the Contessa’s conversation.

‘Personally I don’t believe it. But enough gossip. When we first met I was struck by how bright you looked, wearing a brilliant blue top and white tailored trousers. Now, I hope you won’t take this the wrong way, my dear, but that black suit is ill fitting and absolutely dreadful.’

Lucy burst out laughing. ‘I know—it’s terrible. I borrowed it from a friend because turning up in jeans and a top or a colourful kaftan, which is pretty much all I own, didn’t seem very businesslike. Plus, even though I had the portrait packaged I did not want to put it in the cargo hold. It took up most of my hand luggage, and I just managed to squeeze in a spare blouse and underwear.’

An hour later, against all her attempts to refuse, Lucy left with a vintage designer dress courtesy of the Contessa, and shoes to match.

She boarded the plane back to England with a spring in her step. She might not be able to save the family firm, but at least she had a nice cheque in her purse that would help, and a dress to wear for her friend Samantha’s hen party this weekend. The following weekend was the wedding, and Lucy was to be the chief and only bridesmaid.

Lorenzo Zanelli viewed the procession down the aisle through cynical eyes. The bride, tall and attractive, looked virginal in white, with the extravagantly layered skirt of her gown cleverly concealing the fact she was pregnant. Another good man bites the dust! he thought, and wondered how James, an international lawyer and partner in his father’s London law firm, had allowed himself to be caught so easily.

He had known James for years. His father was English and his mother Italian—her family home was on the shores of Lake Garda, near the Zanelli family home. He had met James as a teenager in the summer holidays at a local sailing club, and they had been friends ever since.

Usually Lorenzo avoided weddings like the plague, but now he was grateful he had accepted James’s invitation—it could not have come at a better time. The past two weeks had seen his perfectly contented and well-ordered life severely disrupted.

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