Authors: Suzanne Stokes
Venetian Masquerade Copyright © Suzanne Stokes, 2013
All Rights Reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without prior written permission of the publisher.
This book is a work of fiction. While references may be made to actual places or events, the names, characters, incidents, and locations within are from the author’s imagination and are not a resemblance to actual living or dead persons, businesses, or events. Any similarity is coincidental.
633 Edgewood Ave
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Published by Musa Publishing, April 2013
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my, you’re so late! The meeting’s started.” Sandra regarded her disheveled boss, handing her a comb and mirror, which Amy irritably pushed away. “Jake’s fuming.”
“I expect he is…and right now, I really don’t care. I’m exhausted, and I just backed into another car outside,” Amy replied, fighting back tears and riffling her fingers through her dark curly hair.
“I’ll go and tell them you’re on your way, shall I? Are you all right?”
“No. Yes. I don’t know. Just let me count to ten and compose myself. Give me back the comb and mirror.”
Sandra rushed down the corridor to make apologies while Amy gazed at her reflection in despair. Her mascara had smudged, her hair needed a trim, and lines of weariness were etched on her face.
“Not a pretty sight,” she muttered to herself, reaching for her makeup bag.
A few minutes later, a tidier Amy leaned on the conference room door, listening to the muted buzz of conversation behind it, before taking a deep breath, pinning a bright smile on her face, and breezing in. “Good morning, everyone. Sorry to be late. I had a minor traffic accident.”
As she had known it would, all recrimination dropped from Jake’s face as he came swiftly to her and took her arm. “Are you hurt—no whiplash or anything?”
“No, thank you, nothing like that. I’m afraid I backed into a car outside while parking and broke the lights.”
A titter ran round the five men gathered at the boardroom table, and she felt the color rising to her face. Jake lowered his considerable bulk back into his chair. “Not my car, I hope?” he said, raising an eyebrow.
“No,” she replied, tight-lipped. “It was a red Jaguar with tinted glass in the windows, and I haven’t a clue who the owner is. I left a note on the windshield with my mobile phone number. Now, shall we get on? Here are the reports you wanted, and I’ve translated them into both French and Italian.”
An hour later, the meeting ended. Jake and his colleagues left the room while Amy remained, gathering together a mountain of documents which represented yet another series of late nights. Her friend and personal assistant, Sandra, popped her head round the door. “Sorry, Amy—phone call. It’s your mother.”
Amy glanced at Sandra, feeling vaguely alarmed. Her mother never called unless there was an emergency. “Okay, put it through here, would you?”
Sandra transferred the call to the boardroom, and Amy grabbed the receiver. Speaking in French, she demanded, “Mama, what’s wrong? Has something happened to James?”
“No, no, darling, calm down. James is fine, but I had a call from Antonio, and I’m afraid Maria is now gravely ill.”
“Oh, lord, that’s awful.”
“Apparently, she’s deteriorated badly. They only give her a few days—a couple of weeks at best. She wants you to go to Venice to visit her, and I really think you should.”
“Oh, Mama, this couldn’t come at a worse time, I’m snowed under here. Look, let me think for a few minutes. I’ll call you back.”
“Amy,” Jake bellowed, re-entering the room. “The car you hit belongs to a new client, and he’s furious. How could you be so stupid? I haven’t yet told him who’s responsible—it doesn’t make a very good impression—but he’s going to find out soon enough.”
“Well, that’s just too bad. Jake, I am sorry, but I’ve a little boy at home I hardly ever see—I worked on those reports till two o’clock this morning, I haven’t had a day off for three weeks, nor a holiday in a year. Now I’ve just been told my godmother is dying. I am totally exhausted…and…and what’s more, I’m taking some leave, starting now. I need to go to Venice to be with Maria, and that’s just what I’m going to do. And if you don’t like it, you can fire me. I really don’t care anymore!” Angrily, she tried to brush away the tears streaming down her face.
Jake looked at her in amazement. “All right,” he conceded gruffly. “If things are as bad as that, you can take two weeks leave, starting now.”
“Thank you.” She accepted a handful of tissues he dragged from the box on her desk. “What about all this work?” she asked, lowering her tone a little and indicating a pile of folders on her desk.
“Janice can manage for once. I’ll take her off her current project. You knew this was a high pressure job when you took it on—if you can’t cope, perhaps…”
“I can cope, but I need a break.”
“I’m sorry. I suppose I have overloaded you recently. Take two weeks compassionate leave.”
With a sigh of relief, Amy rearranged the work pile and stuck yellow labels on the most urgent things Janice would need to organize. Finally, she picked up her bag and was about to leave the office when Sandra popped her head round the door.
“That car you hit. Turns out it belongs to an Italian client called Alessandro di Benedetto. He only came to us today, so it’s a bit embarrassing.”
Amy collapsed back into her chair, ashen-faced, her blue eyes wide with shock.
“Amy, what on Earth is wrong? Are you okay?”
“No…no, I don’t think I am. This is appalling. If there’s one person in the whole world I can’t see or have any contact with at all, it’s him.”
Concerned, Sandra came to sit by her. “Who is he? I mean, apart from being a drop-dead-gorgeous Italian property developer worth more money than I could spend in two lifetimes.”
“He’s James’s father,” Amy whispered, unable to believe what she was hearing.
“What! We’ve been friends for two years, and you’ve never mentioned him.” Sandra sat back, mouth agape, staring at Amy.
“Oh, my God, what am I going to do? He doesn’t know about James, and he must never find out.” She covered her face with shaking hands, and Sandra gave her a hug.
“Why ever not? I met him in the office and he seems a sweetie. A rich and adorable sweetie.” She rolled her eyes theatrically, fanning her face with a sheaf of papers.
“Sweetie…huh? A manipulative, lying bastard who thinks he’s God’s gift to the planet would be a better description. His family is powerful—what passes for Italian aristocracy—and ever since James was born, I’ve lived in dread they might find a way to take him away. At the very least, they’d claim the right to spend time with him, and that would mean I’d have to see Alessandro regularly.”
“Amy, I’m stunned. But he is James’s father, and sooner or later, that’s going to become an issue with the boy. What are you going to tell him?”
“But one day, you’ll have to give him some sort of explanation. You liked Alessandro once…I mean, if you were lovers…”
“It’s a long and painful story. I can’t see him, and you are sworn to secrecy over James. I never meant to tell you—or anyone. My mother is the only one who knows the truth. If he is now a client here, at this firm of lawyers, I have to leave.” Amy jumped up and paced round the desk, tearing a handful of tissues into shreds.
“Stop panicking.” Sandra tried to pacify her. “You are going away for two weeks and you don’t have to see him today. By the time you get back, these initial meetings will be over, and I expect he will only be in contact with Jake by e-mail and telephone.”
“That’s true,” Amy conceded. “No, it isn’t! I hit his car—and I left my mobile phone number on his windscreen.”
“Whoops. But he hasn’t called you?”
“I turned my phone off in the meeting. Listen, can you go down to talk to him and pretend the car is yours?”
“He’ll need a name for the insurance…and if I give your name…well, there aren’t too many girls called Amy Hamilton in the phone book.”
“Amelie—my full name is Amelie. He may not remember that.” She ran her fingers distractedly through her hair.
“Go down and face it out, Amy,” Sandra said firmly. “It’s all you can do. Exchange numbers and insurance details, and walk away. You don’t need to get involved or tell him anything else, do you?”
“If you knew him, you’d realize that’s easier said than done.” Amy sat on her desk, anxiety oozing from every pore. “I walked out on him, and you know what Italians are like for holding grudges.”
“What did he do to upset you so much?” asked Sandra.
“I’ll tell you when you have a week or two. Oh dear…I suppose I’d better go and face him. Wish me luck.”
She went to the rest room to splash her face with water and repair her lipstick. She was horrified at the idea of coming face to face with Alessandro, and her heart was beating so violently, she felt light headed. First, she checked Jake’s office, but there was no sign of either him or Alessandro. At last, taking a deep breath, she took the lift to the ground floor. Perhaps Alessandro had simply left his number on her car and gone, she thought, crossing her fingers. Maybe he was late for another meeting and she wouldn’t be forced to face him. But when she stepped outside into the August sunshine, she knew lady luck was not on her side at all that day.
The tall, rangy figure of Alessandro di Benedetto was standing by the red Jaguar. He was talking into his mobile phone in rapid Italian, gesturing dramatically with his free hand, a habit which had always made her laugh. He didn’t see her at first, and it was a moment before she could move, so stunned was she by the impact of setting eyes on him again. Still lean, darkly tanned with almost saturnine good looks, a straight Roman nose and that deep dimple in his chin, he had changed very little in six years. He was wearing a black, immaculately tailored suit with a plain red tie and white shirt, but an image of Alessandro without his clothes on flashed, unbidden, through her mind, and Amy felt an instant heat rush through her body. She stayed out of his sight for a moment longer until she could breathe normally again, watching as several women walking by slowed down to gaze at the handsome Italian.
Yes, he still has the wow factor. Swine!
As she watched, he switched off his phone, glanced at his Rolex, tapped his foot in irritation, and wandered round to examine the damage to his car.
If I just wait a bit, perhaps he will drive away
. But then she realized he couldn’t move his car because she had left hers too close in front for him to pull out and a van had parked behind, almost touching his bumper.
Ha! Alessandro the Great is blocked in. How humiliating
, she thought with a smirk of satisfaction. Taking a deep, steadying breath, she walked up to him.
He spun to look at her and his eyes widened, then darkened, as he gazed at her in utter surprise. “Amy?”
“I’m sorry, but the long arm of coincidence has touched us. I’m afraid I am the culprit.” She gestured to the damaged cars and, making a great effort to be calm, fished around in her bag for a notepad and pen. “If you give me the number of your insurance company, I will make sure the claim is settled immediately.”
He folded his arms and leaned back against his car, staring at her in astonishment. “What are you doing here?”