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Lorenzo Zanelli, owner of the centuries-old Zanelli Merchant Bank, originally bankers to Italian principalities and now a global concern, exited the elevator at his office suite on the top floor of the magnificent old building in the heart of Verona, a frown marring his broad brow.
His business lunch with Manuel Cervantes, the head of an Argentinean conglomerate whose family had been valued clients for years, had gone well, but Lorenzo was not a happy man
His secretary had called to warn him he was going to be late for his next appointment as his lunch had severely overrundespite the fact that they had completed their business quite quickly.
As soon as work was out of the way Manuel had turned to a more personal topic: the necessity of giving up his career as a mountaineer and keen photographer to take over the running of the company after the death of his father five years ago and his subsequent marriage and two children. Then finally he had shown Lorenzo some shots he had belatedly got around to printing from his last trip to the Alps.
They were pictures taken at the main base camp on Manuel's final expedition to Mont Blanc, and included by sheer chance a few shots of Lorenzo's brother, Antonio, and Damien Steadman his friend, wearing bright red jackets and even brighter grins, just arriving as Manuel's team were about to start their ascent.
The next morning Manuel's team had been on the last stage of the climb to the summit when he had received news that his father had suffered a heart attack. He'd been airlifted off the mountain by helicopter, and his last shot was a view of the mountain as he was flown down to base camp for the dash back to Argentina to be at his father's bedside. He had heard much later of Antonio's tragic death, and had thought Lorenzo would like to have what were probably the last pictures of his brother. Lorenzo was grateful, but it brought back memories he had spent years trying to forget.
Lorenzo had been looking through the photos as he'd walked back to his offices, taking in the implications of the detail in the landscape shot Manuel had pointed out to him, when he'd literally bumped into an old friend, Olivia Paglia, which had delayed him even further.
His frown deepened as he saw the fair head of a woman seated in the reception area, obviously waiting for him. He had almost forgotten about Miss Steadman, and now was not the best time to deal with her
'Lucy Steadman?' he queried, casting a dark glance her way. He remembered seeing her years ago when, on a business trip to London, he had called briefly at Antonio's apartment to check in on his little brother. She had been a plump, plain-faced little schoolgirl in a baggy sweater, with long fair pigtails, who had been visiting her brother and was leaving as Lorenzo arrived. Her brother Damien had met Antonio at university in London, and they'd become firm friends and flatmates. A friendship that had ended tragically, and one he certainly did not need reminding of for a second time today.
'Sorry for the delay, but it was unavoidable.' She rose to her feet and he noted she had scarcely changed at all. Smallshe barely reached his shoulderwith her hair scraped back in a knot on top of her head, her face free of make-up. The baggy sweater had been replaced with an equally voluminous black suit, with a long skirt that did her no favours at all. Slender ankles, he noted, and tiny feet, but the flat shoes she wore had definitely seen better days. She obviously cared little for her appearancenot a trait he admired in a woman.
Lucy Steadman looked up and up at the man standing in front of her. Antonio had told her once his brother was a lot older than him, and a staid, boring banker who did not know how to enjoy life, amongst other similarly harsh comments, and now she could see what he had meant.
Tallwell over six feethe was dressed conservatively in a dark suit, a white shirt and plain dark tie. And expensively, she guessed. His broad shoulders were outlined superbly by the well-cut jacket, and she hastily lifted her gaze from where it had drifted down to his hips and thighs to fix on his face. The man was hard and unsmiling, but Antonio had missed one attribute that was immediately obvious to Lucy, even with her limited experience of men.
Lorenzo Zanelli was a truly arresting male, with a subtle aura of animal magnetism about him that any women past puberty could not fail to recognise. Given the severity of his clothes, surprisingly his thick black hair was longer than the current fashion and brushed the white collar of his shirt. The planes of his face were firmly etched , his heavy lidded eyes were brown, almost black, and deep-set beneath thick arched brows his nose large and definitely Roman and his mouth wide and tightly controlled.
'You must be Lorenzo Zanelli,' she said, and held out her hand.
'Correct, Miss Steadman,' he responded, and took her hand.
His clasp was firm and brief, but the sudden ripple of sensation that shot up the length of her arm affected Lucy well after he had dropped her hand, and she simply stared at him. She had the oddest notion he was familiar to her, yet she had no memory of ever having met him before, and he in no way resembled his brother.
He wasn't handsome in the conventional sense, but his face was fascinating. There was strength in his bold featuresa powerful character that was undeniableand the subtle hint of sensuality about his mouth intrigued her. Her gaze lingered on the perfectly chiselled lips, the bottom fuller than the top, and she found herself imagining what his kiss would taste like
sensuous and beguiling. A tiny shudder vibrated through her body and, shocked by her physical response to an uncharacteristic flight of fantasy, she swiftly raised her eyes and ignored her strange reaction to a man she had every reason to dislike.
Lucy excused her totally unprecedented lapse with the wry thought that Lorenzo Zanelli was the sort of man to make anyone look twice. In fact she would like to paint a portrait of him, she mused, slipping back in to her professional comfort zone.
'Miss Steadman, I know why you are here.'
His deep, slightly accented voice cut into her reverie, and she blinked just in time to see his dark eyes flick disdainfully over her. She felt the colour rise in her cheeks with embarrassment at having been caught staring. 'You do?' she murmured inanely. Of course he didshe had written to him.
Her original reason for this trip to Italy was to personally deliver a portrait she had painted of an Italian countess's recently departed husband. The lady had commissioned the painting after walking into Lucy's art and craft gallery with the friend she'd been visiting in England. Lucy had received via the post dozens of photographs of the man, and she had been thrilled that her work was finally going to get some recognition beyond the local scene.
Not that she was seeking famerealistically, in today's world where a pickled sheep or an unmade-bed made millionsshe knew she was never going to get it, but it was nice to feel appreciated for what she did excel at. She had a natural gift for catching the likeness and character of any subject, be it a stuffed dogher first ever commission!or a person. Her paintings in oilsfull-figure or portrait, large canvas or miniaturewere good, even if she did say so herself.
She had confirmed her trip to Verona with the Countess when she had finally managed to get an appointment with Signor Zanelli. After a phone call that had got her nowhere she had written to the Zanelli Bank, asking for its support in staving off the forced buy-out of Steadman Industrial Plastics by Richard Johnson, one of the largest shareholders in her family's firm. She had received a short letter back from some manager, stating that the bank did not discuss its policy on individual investments.
She had very reluctantly, as a last resort, written another letter and marked it 'Personal and Private', addressing it to Lorenzo Zanelli himself. From all she had heard about the man she had formed the opinion he was a typical super-rich alpha male, totally insensitive to other people and with the arrogant conviction that he was always right. He never changed his mind, not even when a formal inquest said otherwise, and she disliked him intensely.
Lorenzo Zanelli had been horrible to Damien after the inquest into the mountaineering accident that had caused Antonio's death, accosting him outside the courthouse and telling him coldly that while legally he might have been found innocent of any fault as far as he was concerned Damien was as guilty as hell, and might as well have cut Antonio's throat instead of the rope. Her brother, devastated by the loss of his friend, had felt badly enough as it was. Lorenzo Zanelli had made him feel a hundred times worse and he had never really recovered.
As far as Lucy was aware there had been no contact between the two families since, and it had come as a shock to her to discover after Damien's death the Zanelli bank was a third silent partner in her family firm. Lorenzo Zanelli was the last man she wanted to ask for a favour but she had no choice. Trying to be positive, she'd told herself maybe she was wrong about Lorenzomaybe it had been his grief at losing his brother that had made him say horrible things to Damien, and with the passage of time he would have a much more balanced view.
So Lucy had swallowed her pride and written to him, blatantly mentioning her family's friendship with his brother Antonio. She had informed him she was visiting Verona for a day or two, and had almost begged for a few minutes of the man's time before finally being granted an appointment today.
The continuation of Steadman Industrial Plastics as a family firm was dependent on Lucy persuading Zanelli to agree with her point of view. Not that she had any family left, but to the residents of the small town of Dessington in Norfolk, where she'd been born and had grown up, Steadman's was the main employer, and even though she had not lived there since graduating from college she did still visit occasionally, and she did have a social consciencewhich she knew Richard Johnson did not.
She was pinning her hopes on Signor Zanelli. But now, after what she had heard about him and being faced with the man in person, she was having serious doubts.
She had arrived in Verona at ten this morningwell, not exactly in Verona. The budget airline she had travelled with had landed at an a airport almost two hours away. She'd just had time to book into her hotel and get here on time, and her flight back was tomorrow evening at eight. On her arrival at his office the great man's secretary had taken her name, made a phone call, and then told her in perfect English that Signor Zanelli was going to be delayed. She had asked her if she would like to reschedule the appointment and, flicking through a diary, had suggested three days' time.
Lucy had countered with a request for the next morning, sacrificing her plan to explore the town and the famed arena. Her appointment with the Contessa was in the afternoon. The secretary had told her it was not possible, but she could wait if she liked. She had had no choice but to agree.
He repeated her name and, startled out of her wandering thoughts, she glanced up at him, green eyes clashing with brown. The arch look he gave her was all male arrogance.
'You're a determined little thing, I'll give you that,' he drawled and, turning to his secretary, said something in Italian that sounded like 'ten minutesthen call' before throwing over his shoulder, 'Come, Miss Steadman. This will not take much time.'
Lucy bit back the response that sprang to mind. It had already taken a heck of a lot of her time. Pausing for a moment, she tried to smooth the creased black linen skirt she worea pointless exerciseand watched the broad back of the man as he disappeared into his inner sanctum, the door swinging closed behind him. He might be strikingly attractive, but he was certainly no gentleman, and her nerves tightened a notch.
'You'd better go in now,' the secretary said. 'Signor Zanelli does not like to be kept waiting.'
Given how long she had been waitingher appointment had been for two and it was now after threeZanelli had some nerve, she thought, her temper rising. Dismissing the odd effect he had on her own nerve, she squared her shoulders and, taking a few deep breaths, walked across the room and into the man's office.
He was standing behind a large antique desk, talking rapidly into a telephone which he put down when he saw her.
'Take a seat.' He indicated a chair in front of the desk as he sank into a big black leather one behind it. 'Then say what you have to say, and make it quickmy time is valuable.'
He had not waited for her to sit down. In fact he was well on the way to being the rudest man she had ever met, and she had been right to dislike him sight unseen, Lucy decided, her green eyes sparking angrily.
She said without thinking, 'I can't believe you are Antonio's brother.'
Antonio had been handsome and lovable, and her brother Damien's best friend at university. Lucy had been fourteen when her brother had brought Antonio home the first time for the mid-term break, and she had developed a terrific crush on the young Italianso besotted she had actually started taking Italian language lessons at school. Antonio, only four years older, but a decade older in experience, had not taken advantagequite the opposite. He had treated her as a friend and had not made her feel foolish at all. Unlike this hard-faced man, looking at her across the wide expanse of the desk with cold eyes and without a tender bone in his body, she was sure.
'You are nothing like him. You look nothing like him.'
Lorenzo was surprised. Lucy Steadman had spirit. Her face had flushed with colour, highlighting the delicate bone structure. She wasn't plain as he had thought, but she was angry. His mouth tightened. He did not want to fight with her, he simply wanted her out of his sight as quickly as possiblebefore his anger got the better of him and he told her in return exactly what he thought of her brother