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Authors: Penny Jordan

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BOOK: The Perfect Lover
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There was nothing else for it. She would have to walk to the red-roofed villa she could see set in the midst of an ancient grove of poplars lower down the hill.

The walk had taken her longer than she had anticipated, the road winding its way steadily downwards. The villa's wrought-iron gates had been closed, but she'd been able to see a car parked in the driveway. As she'd opened the gates she'd realised that the car had British plates which was a relief, although the thought of appealing to an Italian family for help hadn't particularly worried her. She was fluent in the language after so many holidays spent there.

She'd been perspiring stickily from her walk, and ruefully conscious of her dusty bare legs and sunburned nose as she'd approached the villa.

When no one had answered her knock on the villa's front door she'd walked a little warily round the side of the house, and then stopped.

In front of her had been a sparkling, simple-shaped swimming pool, surrounded by an elegant paved area set out with sun loungers and decorated with huge tubs of cascading flowers.

Someone was using the pool, cutting through the water with an impressively fast crawl, brown arms neatly cleaving the water.

As she'd studied the seal-dark male head turned away from her an odd sensation had gathered in the pit of Louise's stomach, tiny quivers of unmistakable female appreciation running like quicksilver along her veins.

Irritated with herself, she'd turned away, her face suddenly warm with a heat that had
nothing
to do with the sun. The swimmer had obviously seen her, she'd recognised, because she could hear him heaving himself out of the water.

Warily she'd turned to face him, hoping her expression wouldn't betray what she had just been feeling.

'Louise! What...?'

Through the shock of recognising Gareth Simmonds' voice, two startling but totally unrelated facts hit Louise. The first was that he had instantly and immediately recognised who
she
was, even though he could quite easily have been confused as to which twin she might actually be. The second was that now, confronted with him, advancing towards her and sending droplets of pool water showering to the floor, and wearing a pair of black swimming shorts which she was breath-gulpingly sure ought only to have ever been on sale with a stern warning of the effect they might have on a vulnerable female, she knew that odd earlier frisson of awareness had
not
been a mere trick of her imagination. Dizzily she discovered that she was focusing on the exact point where the dark wet arrowing of body hair disappeared beneath the waistband of his shorts.

'My car's broken down. It won't start,' she told him breathlessly. 'I didn't...'

Quickly she fought to get control of herself, demanding aggressively, 'What are
you
doing
here...?'

The look he gave her made her glower even more ferociously at him.

'What's wrong?' he asked her dryly. 'There isn't, so -far as I know, any law that says holidaying professors aren't allowed to inhabit the same turf as their students. And I could, of course, ask you the same question. As it happens, my family own this villa.

They bought it about ten years ago, when they were holidaying here and fell in love with the area. Normally the whole family would be here, but unfortunately this year...'

'The
whole
family?' Louise questioned him, unable to stop herself.

'Mmm... I
do
have one, you know.'

'But they aren't here now...?'

'No,' he agreed.

'Have you got a large family?' Louise asked him, without knowing why she had done so. After all, why should she care?

'Mmm...sort of... I've got three sisters, all older than me and all married with children; they, along with my parents, normally descend on the villa for at least a month during the school holidays, but this year my eldest sister and her husband have taken their three children to New Zealand to see her husband's family.

My second sister and
her
husband and two boys are sailing with friends off the Greek Islands and my youngest sister and
her
husband, who, like my father, is a surgeon—there's a tradition of going into medicine in the family, and in fact I've rather broken with that tradition in electing to go into teaching rather than following my father and sisters into medicine—have gone with my parents to India. My mother is involved with UNICEF in a fund-raising capacity, and they've gone to see some of the work that's being done with the money they've raised.'

He spread out his hands in a dismissive gesture and told her dryly, 'So there you have it, a short, potted history of the Simmonds family. Oh, and I forgot, there's also my grandmother, who is very much in the tradition of a grand matriarch—though not exactly in the Italian style. My grandmother's forte lay in bringing up her three sons single-handedly after she was widowed, and in feeding their appetite for education rather than pasta—she's a Scot, so that's perhaps where
that
comes from.'

As he spoke he was reaching for a towel from one of the sun loungers, and briskly began to rub himself dry.

He had a surprisingly muscular-looking body for a university professor. Louise could have sworn that beneath his tutorial 'uniform' of soft Tattersall check shirt and well-worn cord trousers lay a body as misshapen as the old-fashioned knitted cardigans favoured by many of his older colleagues, but quite obviously she had been wrong.

He had stopped speaking briefly, and as she turned her head towards him she drew in a small, surprised gulp of air. He was rubbing his wet hair dry with the towel, his stance revealing the hard firmness of his belly and the strength of his upper arms.

Louise had no idea how long he'd been in Tuscany, but it had certainly been long enough to give his skin an undeniably warm golden tan.

'You're not feeling faint or anything, are you?'

His sharp frowning question made Louise's face burn, and she hurriedly averted her gaze from his body. What was the
matter
with her? She had grown up in the middle of a large, closely knit extended family unit, where the sight of the male body at every stage of its development, from babyhood right through adolescence, young manhood to middle age and beyond, had been so commonplace that until she had formed her crush on Saul she had been openly derisive of other girls' embarrassed and curious interest in the unclothed male form.

And yet here she was, breathing too shallowly and too fast, with a face that felt too hot and a potently explosive sensation low down in her body threatening her composure to the extent that she was having difficulty forming even the most basic coherent thought—and just because she had seen Gareth Simmonds wearing a pair of swimming shorts!

'Look, let's go inside, where it's cooler, and you can tell me exactly where your car is and I—'

'No. No, I'm all right,' Louise started to protest, but it was too late. He was already walking purposefully towards the open doorway to the house, leaving her with no alternative but to follow him inside.

If she had doubted that he might be telling the truth about his family, the number of photographs that crowded the flat surfaces of the heavy solid wooden furniture in the comfortably sized sitting room would soon have put her right. Even without studying them too closely Louise could immediately see the resemblance to him in the happy, affectionately close groups of people featured in the photographs. Her mother's small sitting room and her aunt Ruth's elegant small drawing room were similarly adorned with photographs of her own family, but that knowledge did nothing to alleviate the sense of anxious wariness that had gripped her ever since she had realised just whose territory she had unwittingly strayed into.

'The kitchen's this way,' Louise heard Gareth informing her as he led the way to the rear of the villa and the large, traditional farmhouse-style Tuscan kitchen.

'Sit down,' he instructed her firmly, pulling a chair out from the table and then beginning to frown as she hesitated. To get to the chair she would have to move closer to him—
too
close to him, Louise recognised. He really had the most sexy and masculine-looking arms. The kind of arms you could just imagine locking tightly around you and holding you...the kind of arms...

'Louise.'

The sharp way he said her name penetrated the totally alien fog of shockingly unexpected feminine arousal that had momentarily swamped her.

What on
earth
was happening to her? It must be the heat or something, Louise decided hastily, still refusing to sit down as she repeated huskily that she was perfectly all right.

'If I could ring my father and explain to him about the car...' she told him.

'It might be easier if I took a look at the car first,' Gareth Simmonds argued, and Louise's face flamed, not with embarrassed confusion at her own inexplicable awareness of him this time, but with quick anger that he should dare to imply that she had not properly diagnosed the problem with the car herself.

'You
won't be able to start it,' she warned him immediately, but she could see that he didn't intend to let her put him off.

'It's halfway up the hill,' she informed him. 'I'd stopped to sketch the shrine there...'

'Oh, yes, the Madonna. I know where you mean. Look, why don't you wait here, out of the heat, while I go and take a look?'

Dearly as she wanted to go with him, and see his expression when he discovered that she was right and the Fiat wasn't going to start, a small, inner, unexpectedly cautious voice warned Louise that she might be better advised to stay where she was. Even more unexpectedly, she actually found herself not just listening to it but actually agreeing with it as well.

She wasn't sure what malign fate had brought her here to be confronted by the person who, after Saul, she absolutely least wanted to see, but she
did
know that, given her extraordinary reaction to him just now, it would be extremely unwise of her to insist on doing
anything
that kept her in his company.

In fact, she knew that if she could just have summoned the strength to argue with him she would far rather have insisted on ringing her father and begging him to come over to fetch her just as soon as he possibly could.

Once Gareth had gone, having assured her that she was free to make herself as at home as she wished in his absence, she acknowledged that it was a good deal more comfortable inside the pleasant shade of the villa than outside in the full heat of the hot summer's day.

There was a bottle of Chianti on the table, and she was tempted to pour herself a glass, but, remembering what had happened the last time she and Gareth Simmonds and a bottle of wine had come together, she opted instead to pour herself a glass of water.

Taking it with her, she wandered back through the house, pausing to study the photographs in the sitting room. There was one there of Gareth Simmonds as a young boy, flanked by his parents, his grandmother and his older sisters. Hastily Louise looked away from it.

Outside, the water in the swimming pool glittered temptingly in the sunlight. If their own villa had one drawback, it was that it didn't possess its own pool; they had to share one with two other villas situated close by.

Louise licked her suddenly dry lips. With any luck Gareth Simmonds would be gone for quite some time. He hadn't struck her as a man who could ever give in easily to anything, and she judged that he would be determined not to come back until he could prove her wrong in asserting that the car wouldn't start.

Beneath the cotton fabric of her chino shorts and her top, her skin itched with heat and dust. The swimming pool looked so very, very tempting.

Narrowing her eyes, she looked longingly at it and then, recklessly dismissing the cautious voice that warned her that what she was doing was dangerous— when had that ever put her off anything?—she walked very deliberately towards the pool and quickly stripped off her shorts and top.

The weight she had lost in the months she had ached for Saul had left her looking fragilely fine- boned. Too thin, according to her mother, who had been shocked when she had first seen Louise out of her baggy shirts and in her more revealing shorts and T-shirts. She was certainly too thin for Tuscan male tastes, although she had noticed that that had not stopped Giovanni, Maria's nephew, from making an increasing number of excuses to come up to the villa and flirt heavily with both herself and Katie.

Her skin, nowhere near as tanned or healthy- looking as Gareth Simmonds', was just beginning to lose its British pallor, but was more pale honey than rich gold. Beneath her shorts she was wearing a pair of plain white briefs, and under her top—nothing. Her breasts, firm though they were, were still femininely full, their shape disguised by the looseness of the top she had been wearing. A quick glance around the pool assured her that she had the place to herself. Gracefully Louise dropped into the water, deliciously cool against her hot skin.

Blissfully she floated lazily for a few seconds, and then started to swim. One length and then another, checking at each turn that she still had the place to herself. She was bound to hear Gareth Simmonds returning. The sound of a car engine would carry perfectly on the clear hot summer air.

She did another length, and then another, and then floated again for several seconds before some sixth sense abruptly made her roll over and flounder for a few seconds in the water as she opened her eyes.

Gareth was standing at the end of the pool, watching her. Cautiously she swam to the far side, where she had left her clothes and the towel which
he
had discarded earlier. How long had he been standing there? Not long—he
couldn't
have been.

As she pulled herself out of the water she could see him starting to walk towards her. Quickly she enveloped herself in the wet towel, shivering as it touched her damp skin.

'Take this one. It's dry.'

He was standing far too close to her, Louise acknowledged as she fumbled with the damp folds of the towel wrapped around her.

BOOK: The Perfect Lover
9.45Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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