Confessions of His Christmas Housekeeper by Sharon Kendrick
THEREHADTObe some kind of mistake.
Giacomo Dante Volterra stared, unable to believe the evidence of his own eyes. He shook his head in disbelief. He was one of the richest men in Italy. He owned a plane, many homes, fabulous art and fast cars. In the past he had embraced daredevil and extreme sports. His mouth hardened. Just not any more.
Yet now he was confused as he stared at the woman who was emerging through a door leading into the office where he sat, slightly impatiently—for he did not like to be kept waiting—and rehearsed the momentous thing he was about to say to her.
But the words remained unsaid. They stuck in his throat like dust. And although these past months he had learned to live with confusion as a regular companion, this time it was off the scale.
Could this woman really be his wife?
His eyes narrowed, because, judging from the sudden pallor of her face and the open-mouthed shock she made no attempt to hide, on balance he would say that, yes, she probably was—though there could be another reason for her shock, he reminded himself grimly. But the fact remained that she was not what he had been expecting to see. How could any wife of his look like this?
She wore a garish pink uniform, which hugged the curving outline of her petite body, and her dark hair was piled up on top of her head and covered snugly in an ugly white hairnet. She wore flat black shoes—his mouth twisted with distaste, for he had always preferred heels—and no jewellery whatsoever. Certainly not a wedding ring. He guessed he should be grateful for that. Because wouldn’t that make his proposition even trickier, if she was sentimentally holding on to a brief period in her life which he had completely forgotten?
He found himself wondering why she wasn’t covered from head to foot in designer clothes, dripping with diamonds and living in a fancy London apartment—while filling up the lazy hours with trips to the gym and girlie lunches. Yet his bank account showed no payments to his estranged wife, which meant she had made no claim on his fortune and was obviously supporting herself. Which was surprising because he was used to picking up the bill. It was one of the many things which were predictable when you had as much money as he did.
It seemed inexplicable that any wife of his was working for a catering firm in a small village not far from Heathrow airport. The narrow streets seemed to be competing for the dubious honour of displaying the most garish Christmas decorations he had ever seen, and there was an illuminated sleigh stuck to the front of one of the houses.
‘Giacomo,’ she said in a low voice, sounding as if his name were a substitute for the word ‘devil’.
But he noticed the way she bit her lip, as if her question were underpinned with something else other than suspicion and faint hostility, and idly he wondered what that might be.
‘What are you doing here?’
‘Hello, Louise,’ he said carefully, as if he were trying out a word in a new language. ‘Good to see you, too.’
Louise didn’t answer. She didn’t dare. She couldn’t think. Couldn’t speak. Her head was buzzing and so were her thoughts. She had felt an unstoppable kind of excitement when she had walked in and seen him sitting there, the most beautiful and sexy man she had ever set eyes on. The man she had—unbelievably—been married to for about a nanosecond, before it all went horribly wrong. But the use of her proper name told her that this was not Giacomo turning up and telling her he’d made a terrible mistake and please could they try again. She wouldn’t have wanted that anyway, would she?
A sense of resolve rushed through her veins as she met the blackness of his eyes. No, she most certainly would not. She was better off without him because he was wrong for her on so many levels. Incapable of giving or receiving love, Giacomo Volterra had pushed her away with all the chilly force of an east wind. He had never been there for her when she had needed him most.
But she felt a sharp pang of sadness all the same, because the past always had the power to make you feel unbearably poignant. It could wrap itself around your heart with its dark tentacles and squeeze and squeeze until you felt a sharp pain. She was no longer Lulu, she recognised dully. His Lulu. She was Louise—and as soon as she could bring herself to file for divorce, her surname would be Greening again and not Volterra. And that would be a good thing. Hadn’t she told herself that over and over?
Now that her initial surprise had worn off and she had composed herself a little, she allowed herself to study him more closely and that was when she got her second shock. Because suddenly she became aware of the scar zigzagging down one of his cheeks—which marred the perfection of a sculpted face which made grown women swoon. There was another small scar over his left eyebrow—one which most people probably wouldn’t have noticed except that she used to spend so many hours fluttering kisses over his skin that sometimes she felt she knew him by touch alone. It was like seeing a once perfect porcelain jar which had shattered into many pieces before being pieced back together again. There was nothing wrong with the new version—it was just very different from the old one.
And then she looked into his eyes. Properly. Those intense eyes which could capture you in their dark spotlight and make you feel as if you were the only person on the planet he wanted to talk to. They could be sexy and caressing eyes, especially when he was slowly removing your clothes or easing himself deep inside you, but today she could see nothing but an emptiness in their depths—as if some vital light had been extinguished. It was, she thought, like looking into the eyes of a stranger. A stranger who was incongruously sitting beside a black and pink sign reading Posh Catering: service with class!
‘What are you doing here?’ she asked again, more calmly this time. ‘And what have you done with my boss?’
‘She’ll be back shortly.’ He sat back in his chair as if he owned the place, the harsh office lighting making his hair appear as dark as a raven’s wing. ‘I persuaded her to give us a few moments alone.’
She raised her eyebrows. ‘She’s usually chained to her desk—you must have been very persuasive.’
‘I am,’ he said silkily, ‘nothing if not persuasive, Louise. Surely you know that? But I needed to speak to you. Alone.’
Louise felt the prickle of something which felt uncomfortably like hope because even though you knew all the reasons why someone was bad for you, it didn’t seem to stop you from wanting them. It didn’t stop her skin from icing into goosebumps when his strangely cold, black gaze skated over her. And that was nothing but a hormonal reaction, she told herself fiercely. It’s your neglected body reminding you that here is someone capable of bringing you immeasurable pleasure.
‘Well, here’s your opportunity. Speak away. Though you’ll have to make it brief.’ She gave an entirely unnecessary glance at her wristwatch, just to illustrate the point. ‘As you can see, I’m working.’
Beneath his dark cashmere overcoat, he shrugged, drawing her unwilling attention to the width and power of his shoulders, and, with an effort, Louise pushed the thought away. How was fixating on that stuff going to help her get over him, as she’d been trying to get over him since the moment she’d realised she couldn’t keep fooling herself any longer? The moment when she’d wised up and accepted that their marriage really was over.
‘Brevity might be difficult,’ he murmured. ‘This isn’t the kind of thing which can be conveyed in a few words.’
‘That’s a pity, because I really haven’t got time to hear any more. Maybe write it all down, in a letter.’
She made to turn away but the extraordinary thing he said next stopped her in her tracks.
And Louise froze because Giacomo didn’t ask like that. Not usually. He snapped his fingers or issued terse commands and, because he looked the way he did and because he could be charming and ruthless in equal measure, people just caved in and did whatever he wanted. They rolled over and smiled. Hadn’t she done it herself—when she’d broken all her self-imposed rules and fallen into bed with him a few hours after their first meeting?
But the direct appeal in his voice was having an effect on her. She could feel herself wavering, despite her suspicions that whatever he wanted to say had the potential to make her feel wobbly. Because who in their right mind would run the risk of breaking down in floods of tears at their place of work? She supposed she could send him packing and tell him she had no desire to engage in any kind of conversation but, not only would that be immature, it would also be a bit of a giveaway. It might indicate to him that she was still vulnerable where he was concerned and she wasn’t, was she?
No. That ship had sailed. And wasn’t the truth that she was curious, wondering what had brought him back into her life when he’d been happy enough to see her go?
Which was why she found herself nodding, although she attempted to keep her words bland and non-committal. ‘I finish at five-thirty. I’ll meet you in the pub for a coffee just before six. I can give you half an hour, no more.’
‘There’s only one pub in the village, Giacomo,’ she informed him drily. ‘This is England—not the throbbing metropolis of Milan.’ She flicked a glance towards the gleaming black vehicle which hugged the kerb outside and which probably cost more than her boss earned in a year. ‘I don’t think you’ll have much trouble finding it as you roar down the main street in your fancy car, but try not to break the speed limit and get yourself a ticket. Our local policeman takes his job very seriously. And now if you’ll excuse me—I have two dozen pastry shells which need filling.’
She didn’t turn back, not even when she heard the door close behind him, because she didn’t want to watch him leave as she had done so many times before. She was actually shaking as she went back into the small industrial kitchen at the back of the shop, shrugging off her colleague’s solicitous question about why she was looking so pale and whether she was ill.
‘No, I’m fine,’ she said, forcing a smile.
She wasn’t, of course. Her hands were shaking so much that she slopped onion marmalade on the counter and nearly dropped a dish of grated cheese. She hadn’t seen Giacomo in nearly eighteen months, when their marriage had imploded soon after she’d lost their baby. Furiously, she blinked her tears, making the rows of tartlets in front of her blur. Why fool herself? It would have imploded anyway. It was doomed from the beginning. They were mismatched. Her last contact with him had been during a terse international phone call when she’d told him that she wouldn’t be coming back and he had ended the call without another word and blocked her number.
He’d been hospitalised in Switzerland since then of course, after a skiing accident, and Louise had been surprised by just how stricken she had been on receiving the news that he’d been badly injured. Clamping down her instinct to rush to his side, she had lifted the phone to his aide to convey her hopes and prayers for his recovery and had asked whether there was anything she could do. But the response she had received had been like a knife to the chest. Paolo had gently told her that the private clinic had been besieged by hordes of females eager to provide plenty of tender loving care for the stricken patient. The aide she’d always got on so well with had seemed eager to get her off the phone. She’d supposed that had been his way of politely telling her that Giacomo had moved on and didn’t want to be bothered by her or memories of their marriage—which was possibly the only episode of failure in his star-touched and glittering existence. She had guessed he wanted to wipe her from his life, the way her teachers at school used to clean the writing from the whiteboard at the end of the day.
So why had he turned up like this, without any kind of warning, asking to see her?
She finished cooking, cleaned off the work surfaces and went to the cloakroom to remove her uniform, but as she wriggled into a pair of jeans and pulled on a sweater she could think of only one reason why he was here and she was going to need all her inner strength if her hunch proved to be true. Had he met someone else and needed a super-quick divorce so he was free to marry again? Someone he thought he was in love with this time? Someone rich and well connected like him—not an ordinary Englishwoman he’d only wed because she’d fallen pregnant after what was only ever supposed to be a few casual hook-ups.
Angrily, Louise tugged off the hairnet so that her hair tumbled around her shoulders and she ran her fingers through it to impose some sort of order on the silky mass. It shouldn’t still hurt and she must be sure not to show him that it did. She would be calm when he told her. She would maintain her dignity. She would wish him every happiness, in a very grown-up kind of way. They might even engage in a little stilted conversation over a cup of coffee—which inevitably he would compare unfavourably to the brew served in his native Milan.
How are you?he would question, with the slightly patronising attitude of the ex-partner who had moved on faster than the other.
And she would say, Me? Perhaps she would pause to magic up a smile from somewhere and try to force a little conviction into her response. Oh, I’m fine, thanks, Giacomo. You know. Just plodding along.
But the imagined conversation quickly ran out of steam and Louise knew she needed to rethink her delivery. Plodding along? Did she really want to come over to her estranged husband sounding like a superannuated carthorse?
She brushed her hair, tied it back into a thick braid and pulled on her trusty fur-trimmed anorak before stepping out into the icy December air which stung her cheeks. The night was clear and emerging stars were visible in the indigo sky as she made her way towards the pub, her boots clipping over pavements already glittering with a diamond dusting of frost. Outside the Black Duck she could see a jolly life-size Santa swaying slightly in the breeze and there were fairy lights draped around every window of the pub. With just a few days to go until Christmas, the build-up of excitement and expectation in the little village was almost palpable and Louise steeled herself as she pushed open the door, because Christmas could be uncomfortably nostalgic at the best of times. She must be prepared to listen to corny seasonal songs, which would inevitably tug at her heartstrings, and not react to them. In fact, she must not show any emotion no matter what he had to say, because Giacomo didn’t engage with emotion.
He never had.
She noticed him as soon as she stepped inside, but then so had everyone else. He was sitting beside a roaring log fire beneath a cascade of glittering golden tinsel, and she saw most people in the pub casting surreptitious looks in his direction, although some of the younger women were openly drooling. Mostly, people were behaving as if they’d never seen anyone quite like him in their midst and in that, they were right. Because men like Giacomo Volterra were rare enough in any setting, but practically unique in a small English village like this.
He had removed his overcoat to reveal his muscular body and it was proving to be a huge distraction. Clad in a pale silk shirt, worn with a pair of faded jeans which hugged his long and powerful legs, he managed to look supremely wealthy yet supremely casual. His black hair was a little longer than the close-cropped style she remembered and his angled jaw was shadowed with the virile hint of new beard. With those cold ebony eyes, which didn’t miss a thing, he looked like a blazing star who had fallen into the centre of this cosy little place. He outshone all the winking rainbow lights on the Christmas tree. He made every man in the place seem like only half a man. An empty coffee cup sat on the table before him and he stood up as she approached.
‘So you came,’ he said softly, his velvety voice edged with steel.
‘What would you have done if I hadn’t?’
His eyes gleamed as he acknowledged the challenge in her voice. ‘I would have come and found you and got you to change your mind.’
‘And how would you have done that?’
He shrugged. ‘By using my powers of persuasion, which—as you have already acknowledged—are considerable, cara.’
She wanted to tell him not to call her that, because she wasn’t his darling any more. It reminded her too much of things he’d murmured to her when he was deep inside her body. But words were easy to say, she reminded herself bitterly. You didn’t have to mean them. Much better to ignore his silken boast than to react to it, because that might give him a hint that he was still capable of getting underneath her skin. She gave him a bland smile and looked at him questioningly. ‘So?’
‘Coffee?’ he murmured.
‘Please.’ She slithered out of her coat and sat as far away from his seat as possible, but she couldn’t prevent her eyes from drinking him in as he went to the bar. She tried to be objective but the feelings which were coursing through her were far from objective. Suddenly she was struck by just how emotional she felt as she watched him say something which made the landlady laugh because this, after all, was the man she had thought she would spend the rest of her life with. Of course she had. Nobody ever exchanged wedding vows thinking that it wouldn’t last.
But when she thought about it now—just over two years down the line—she realised how naïve she had been. Because she had never really known him, had she? He had made sure of that. Giacomo Volterra had always kept her at arm’s length—as if by giving away anything of himself, he would be handing her too much power, and he liked to keep that all to himself.
He returned a few minutes later, bearing two cups of macchiato, and Louise took a sip and licked the froth away from her lips, before looking at him. ‘Would you like to get your critique of the coffee over and done with?’
‘No critique necessary. I was surprised. It’s very good.’ He dropped a cube of sugar into his and stirred it, returning her mocking smile with one of his own. ‘England seems to have caught up with the rest of the world. Finally.’
‘I’m sure the landlady of the Duck would be overjoyed to receive praise from such a discerning palate. Be sure to put a review up on the Internet.’ Louise put her cup down and clasped her hands together to stop them from shaking. ‘But you haven’t come all the way here to talk about the coffee, have you, Giacomo?’
‘What is it, then? You want...’ Make it easy for him, she urged herself. And by doing that you will make it easier for yourself, too. Take control. It’s easy once you try. ‘You want...’ She sucked in a deep breath and tried again. ‘You want to get married again?’
‘I want to get married again?’ he echoed, and then frowned. ‘Whatever gave you that idea?’
‘I just assumed—’
He gave a bitter laugh. ‘Assumption is never advisable, Louise. Especially in my case. But no, not me. Not marriage. Once bitten, twice shy—as I believe you say over here.’
Louise was appalled at the relief which flooded over her, which quickly gave way to a sinking despair. His private life is none of your business, she told herself fiercely. But there was something else which was and there was no excuse for not having mentioned it before. She really ought to make some reference to his crash on the slope of one of Europe’s most notorious mountains. She mustn’t allow herself to be distracted by the fact that her breasts were prickling beneath her sweater as she imagined his fingers massaging them into rocky peaks. ‘I was very sorry to hear about your accident.’
His eyes narrowed and his mouth twisted into a line which was almost brutal. ‘Ah, my accident. I wondered when you’d get around to that. Does my face repel you, Louise?’ he asked softly. ‘Is that why you looked so horrified when you walked in and saw me earlier?’
Louise stared at him. He was so far off the mark it was almost laughable. She wondered how he would respond if she told him that her primary reaction to his disfigurement was one of anger and protectiveness. That she hated the thought of something slicing through his silken flesh, causing him pain. Nothing about you repels me, she wanted to say. But, of course, she didn’t.
‘Judging from the reaction you’re getting in here, I would say that, if anything, it has only enhanced your sex appeal. It gives you a distinct air of danger, which some women find so attractive.’
‘And does that include you, I wonder?’
‘My views are both irrelevant and inappropriate—especially on the subject of your sex appeal.’ She wondered if his ego was in need of a swift massage and if that was why he’d asked the question. Did he want her to say that, yes, she still found him hugely attractive and it was a pity they couldn’t go upstairs to one of the pub’s rooms which overlooked the high street, so he could rip off her panties and ride her to sweet fulfilment? Because wasn’t there a part of her which wanted that? The weak, physical part of her which wasn’t the side she needed him to see. Which was why she kept her face deadpan. ‘What we had is firmly in the past. I’m just glad to see you’re fully recovered.’
‘Well, not quite,’ he contradicted slowly and Louise went very still as she met an expression on his face which she couldn’t quite work out, because she’d never seen it before.
‘You have some lasting damage?’ she questioned, aware that she was finding it difficult to speak through the lump which had suddenly risen in her throat.
‘Some damage, sì. As to whether or not it is lasting, no lo so. I don’t know,’ he added, as if he had forgotten he was speaking in Italian. ‘But that is why I am here today, Louise—because I think you can help me.’
‘Me?’ Underneath the table, Louise clasped her fingers together. ‘How? How can I possibly help you, Giacomo?’
He lowered his voice as if he didn’t want anyone to overhear and it was only later that Louise realised he probably didn’t.
‘Because I have lost my memory. Not all of it, but some,’ he told her quietly. ‘I have what the doctors call partial amnesia. It is not life-threatening—it is not necessarily permanent, but—’
‘It is infuriating. Like a blank page in an otherwise full notebook. It is a roadblock in my memory and I don’t want to spend the rest of my life skirting round it. Nobody knows about it—except for my aide—and I want it to stay that way. On every other level I am operating normally and business is booming as never before.’ His face darkened. ‘But if any of my competitors should suspect that there is a chink in my armour, then inevitably they will capitalise on it and perhaps try to exploit it.’
‘Isn’t that a rather cynical view of the world, Giacomo?’
He flicked her a dismissive gaze. ‘You are not a businesswoman, Louise. You have no idea how these things work.’
‘Thanks for the vote of confidence,’ she said drily. ‘And for reminding me what it’s like to be patronised by a man.’
‘I did not mean to patronise you,’ he said softly. ‘Forgive me, if I have expressed myself too bluntly.’
It was probably those words—which came closer to an apology than anything Louise had ever received from him—which made her unlink her fingers and place them on the top of the scratched pub table, as if to anchor herself. ‘I don’t understand why you’re telling me all this,’ she said. ‘We’re separated. What does it have to do with me?’
‘It has everything to do with you,’ he grated and now she could hear raw passion in his voice. ‘Because you are the missing link. The person who occupied most of the year which has been wiped from my mind, like a hard drive erased from a computer. Sometimes I glimpse a fragment of my past, but I cannot catch it. It is as though that part of my life has been torn into tiny pieces and scattered on the wind—and I want you to help me put those pieces back together. I want you to help me remember, Louise.’