Seduced - Colours of Love - Kathryn Taylor - E-Book

Seduced - Colours of Love E-Book

Kathryn Taylor

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Beschreibung

NEW LOCATION. NEW LOVE STORY. SAME Kathryn Taylor. A trip to Rome? For young Sophie Conroy, a visit to Italy's enchanting capital is always a treat. As a fine art dealer, Sophie has learned to put the family business first. But when she encounters the seductive art professor Matteo Bertani, Sophie's life takes an unexpected turn to ecstasy. Matteo turns Sophie on to new heights of pleasure, shattering her sense of balance. Soon, Sophie finds herself captive to her feelings, teetering on the brink of losing herself to desire. Despite their unbridled passion, Matteo remains cool and aloof, leaving Sophie to wonder if his heart is really invested. But when Sophie's family livelihood is threatened, she must decide what matters most. Sensual. Romantic. Provocative. Kathryn Taylor at her best. Seduced - Colours of Love follows on the heels of Kathryn Taylor's successful COLOURS OF LOVE series including, UNBOUND, UNCOVERED, and UNLEASHED. In SEDUCED Sophie and Matteo's tangled love story heats up, with cameo appearances by the beloved Grace and Jonathan. If you love E.L. James' "Fifty Shades of Grey," Silvia Day's "Crossfire" series, or Jodi Ellen Malpas' "This Man" trilogy, then COLOURS OF LOVE will thrill your desire for sensual romance. Even as a little girl, Kathryn Taylor wanted to write. She published her first story at age 11. After a few detours in life, she found her own happily ever after. UNBOUND - COLOURS OF LOVE was her first novel.

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Contents

Cover

About the Book

About the Author

Title

Copyright

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

10

11

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24

Preview

About the Book

A trip to Rome? For young Sophie Conroy, a visit to Italy’s enchanting capital is always a treat. But when she encounters the sinfully seductive Art Professor Matteo Bertani, Sophie’s life takes an unexpected turn to ecstasy. Matteo turns Sophie on to new heights of pleasure, shattering her sense of balance — in a most delicious way. Soon, Sophie finds herself captive to her feelings, teetering on the brink of losing herself to desire. Despite their unbridled passion, Matteo remains cool and aloof, leaving Sophie to wonder if his heart is really invested. Sensual. Romantic. Provocative. Kathryn Taylor at her best.

About the Author

Even as a little girl, Kathryn Taylor wanted to write. She published her first story at age 11. After a few detours in life, she found her own happily ever after. UNBOUND — COLOURS OF LOVE was her first novel. There are five total novels in the COLOURS OF LOVE series.

Kathryn Taylor

SEDUCED

Colours of Love

Translated byIona Italia

»be« by BASTEI ENTERTAINMENT

Digital original edition

»be« by Bastei Entertainment is an imprint of Bastei Lübbe AG

Copyright © 2017 by Bastei Lübbe AG, Schanzenstraße 6-20, 51063 Cologne, Germany

Written by Kathryn Tayor

Translated by Iona Italia

Edited by Sonya Diehn

Project management: Lori Herber

Cover design: Sandra Taufer, Munich

Cover illustration: © shutterstock/HamsterMan

eBook production: Urban SatzKonzept, Düsseldorf

ISBN 978-3-7325-3810-2

www.be-ebooks.com

1

I’m floating. And, although I know that I need to get myself out of this state, I can’t. Not yet. First, I need to calm my heart, which is beating alarmingly fast. Just a second ago, I was about to break my neck, falling down those stairs.

I need to breathe, to take a few deep breaths, since I’m OK. But I can’t. Somehow I seem to have forgotten how to fill my lungs with air. All I can do is stare at the man who is looking down at me with a frown.

His dark blonde hair shimmers like gold in the evening sunlight streaming in through the window. It complements his unusual eyes, which glow a warm amber. And that face — was it chiselled out of stone? High cheekbones, a straight nose, rounded lips. Like one of those male statues made of marble that are so plentiful here in Rome. Maybe his hair is a little too long. It’s falling into his eyes. But still … no one looks that amazing in real life. For a moment, I’m afraid that I really did fall, and have been in a coma ever since.

“Tutto a posto?” the man asks in a deep and very real voice, turning his head slightly to peer down at me — probably in order to convince himself that I really am OK. As he does, I notice a scar on the side of his neck. It’s pale and jagged and begins just above his collarbone. I can’t see how far across his chest it extends because it disappears into the open neckline of his white shirt — but the wound that caused it must have been no laughing matter. I wonder what happened. In any case, the scar doesn’t disfigure him. It actually makes him more real.

He is real, Sophie. I tell myself, as feeling suddenly returns to my body, after the brief numbness of the shock. Suddenly I feel the man’s large hands on my back, and I notice for the first time that my own hands are intuitively gripping the sleeves and lapel of his beige suit jacket.

After a few seconds, I realise exactly what happened and how reckless I was, going onto tiptoes on the step, without holding on to anything. I wanted to take a closer look at the picture hanging on the wall, but when I took another little step forward, my foot snagged on the fabric of my long dress, causing me to topple over. And now, I’m lying in the arms of the man who was coming up the stairs behind me and who, luckily, caught me before anything worse could happen. In the arms of this stranger, so disturbingly close to him that he can look right down my cleavage. The thought helps me catch my breath again.

“Yes, I’m fine,” I mumble. My cheeks are burning as I try to get to my feet again. He helps me up, and even when I’m standing he keeps holding on to my upper arms, as if he doesnn’t trust me to stand on my own. Unfortunately, his guess is correct: I’m feeling pretty shaky. Other guests are walking past us, up the stairs. The reception is probably already in full swing. They look at him and at me, intrigued.

Well, that’s just brilliant, Sophie, I think, frustrated with myself for having begun this important evening with such an embarrassing gaffe. I don’t know what’s thrown me off more — the fall itself, or the fact that I tripped in the first place. Things like that don’t usually happen to me. I’m not a klutz, and I’m not one of those women who like swooning helplessly into men’s arms — that’s for sure. It was all thanks to the dress, the thin straps of which I readjust in annoyance because they’ve slipped down my shoulders yet again.

Never mind the inconvenience of the straps — the dress is to die for — long and red, made of softly draped chiffon. When I spotted it this morning, in a boutique near the Via Nazionale, I had to splurge. Back home in London, I probably wouldn’t have bought a dress like this one. There, I wear simple, classic shift dresses or suits. I’ve brought several of them with me. But here in Rome, my old wardrobe seemed so boring. And the dress had been on sale — not to mention, the colour complemented my dark hair. I had to have it. Of course, I never imagined that the long, flowing skirt would prove to be a tripping hazard.

“You can let go now,” I tell the man, who continues to gaze at me with interest, just a touch too directly for my taste. “Thank you,” I add hastily, trying to sound friendlier. It’s not his fault that I’m annoyed by my own clumsiness. Besides, I owe him. I really could’ve hurt myself, if he hadn’t been there to catch me.

Suddenly I realise that I said all that in English, and he might not even have understood me. He doesn’t look like your typical dark and brooding Italian, but his accent just now sounded pretty authentic. Just as I’m about to repeat the sentence in the local language, he smiles, revealing an extremely attractive dimple in his right cheek, and I find myself staring at him again.

“At your own risk, then,” he says in flawless English and removes his hands from my arms. Then he bends down and picks up my clutch, which is lying on the stairs. As he hands it to me, I notice the scent of his aftershave. It’s crisp and pleasant, and it’s going to my head a bit. “Just be careful,” he adds, widening his already charming smile. “Art is a wonderful thing, but you shouldn’t risk your life over it.”

He’s flirting with me. That’s pretty clear. And I’m more susceptible than usual, probably because my body is still feeling the after-effects of the shock. So I’m happy when he decides to take a step back and look up at the picture on the wall, the root of this entire mishap. He’s obviously trying to work out what it was that caused my near-fall. Following the direction of his gaze, I feel myself gripped by excitement again.

The picture is one of many artworks — paintings, drawings, and sculptures — decorating the entrance hall. Every one of them takes my breath away, but that one in particular caught my eye. If it’s what I think it is, the long trip from London to Rome had already been already worth it.

“You probably wouldn’t understand, but art is my life,” I explain, smiling, without taking my eyes off the picture. “And a Joseph Severn is definitely worth taking a few risks for.”

I’m not certain, I’d need to take a closer look at the painting. But I could swear it’s the work of an English painter best known for his close friendship with John Keats, one of the most important English poets of the Romantic period — and my personal favourite. I never would have expected to find one of Severn’s paintings here in this Roman villa but it’s made me all the more eager to see what else there might be to discover.

Oh, I hope it works out, I think, addressing a hasty prayer to heaven that our British auction house be awarded the commission so that we can be the ones to auction off the artworks in this house. Not that we are doing badly, not at all. But we’ve just recovered from some difficult financial straits and could really do with a new commission. Tensions are running high in the art market right now, and unless we can come up with some interesting offers to tempt bidders, the business will be in trouble. Besides, this would allow us to finally expand our network of contacts in Italy — an opportunity I’ve been wanting for a long time. And we’ll need a greater international presence if we want to beat our competition in the longer term. But how can we do that, if Dad and I can never be away from home for more than a few days at a time?

I hurriedly bite my lip and force myself to think about something else. Because I know it’s unfair, and because I hate self-pity. Things are the way they are and there’s no point in moaning about it.

With a gentle sigh, I turn back to the man, who hasn’t yet replied to my remark. He’s observing me again, with a different expression in his eyes. Despite his radiant smile, he was clearly only casually interested in me before. Now he’s genuinely intrigued, I can tell — and my heart starts beating a little faster as our eyes meet. It would help if I didn’t find him so attractive. But, luckily, I’ve had years of practice at not letting anyone see what’s going on inside, so hopefully I’ll be able to conceal it.

“You know a lot about art.” It’s more of a statement than a question.

“It’s a basic requirement in my line of work, so yes,” I confirm.

Many people are surprised by this at first. They obviously don’t trust a twenty-five year old to know much about the subject. But when you’ve grown up among all kinds of paintings and sculptures and the family income is dependent on being able to value and appraise them, you learn fast. While other kids were scribbling away in their colouring books, my father was explaining Van Gogh’s brush strokes to me. I could recite the differences between Impressionists and Expressionists before I could read. My life has always been defined by art. And, if I have any say, it’ll stay that way.

Then I notice that the man doesn’t look at all surprised. Actually, he looks stern. At least, his provocative smile of a moment ago has disappeared. Instead, the furrow has appeared in his brow again, deeper than before, which I find confusing.

“What do you do for a living then?” he wants to know.

I’ve only just noticed how tall he is. He’s a good bit taller than me, even though he’s standing a step below me. Beneath the elegant, light-coloured suit and open-necked white shirt he’s wearing, he has broad shoulders and a body shape that suggests he works out. That’s how he was able to catch me so easily. I swallow. The whole package is impressive, that’s for sure. If only he would stop staring at me so intensely with those amber-coloured eyes of his …

Get it together, Sophie, I admonish myself. Since when have you let a man get to you like this? I clear my throat to answer his question, and decide to introduce myself.

“My father and I run an auction house in London. I’m …”

“Sophie Conroy,” the man finishes my sentence for me, as I’m about to hold out my hand in greeting. It’s a statement again. And it sounds like an accusation.

2

I drop my hand again and look at him in confusion.

“Do we know each other?” My brain frantically searches through every corner of my memory. Could I have met this man somewhere before — and have forgotten all about it? No. That’s impossible. I wouldn’t have forgotten him, definitely not.

He shakes his head, to my considerable relief. I’m not going crazy after all. But then I’m confused again. If he’s never met me before, why is he looking as though he bitterly regrets having saved me, of all people, from falling down a flight of stairs?

I’m about to ask him and I have other questions for him, too: for instance, who he actually is — but I don’t get a chance before someone interrupts us.

“Matteo?”

We both look up to see a dark-haired woman standing on the landing. She’s dazzling and is wearing expensive diamond jewellery with her emerald green evening gown, so she’s obviously one of the more affluent guests.

“There you are,” she calls out to him in Italian — I understand the language better than I speak it — and smiles at me apologetically. “Are you coming?”

The man — whose name, it seems, is Matteo — is suddenly in a hurry.

“Excuse me.” He almost growls, shooting a last long look at me, which I’m not sure how to interpret. Then he rushes up the stairs, leaping up the steps so fast that he reaches the woman in the green dress only a few moments later. He greets her with a firm hug, instead of one of the cheek kisses, which are the usual practice here, and she beams at him, clearly overjoyed to see him.

She’s older than he is — I’d guess that he’s in his early thirties, and she’s maybe in her late thirties. I can’t help but wonder if they are a couple. They must be. They certainly seem to know each other very well.

The woman looks down at me again, curious, and says something. She’s probably asking him who I am. But the man waves her question aside, as if I couldn’t be less important. Then he links arms with the woman and leads her off, away from the staircase. Away from me.

Nice, I think, when the two of them have disappeared from view. The guy hardly said another word once he’d worked out who I was. But I got the message loud and clear: he doesn’t want anything to do with me. And he gave no word of explanation, not a word about who he is, nothing. That’s more than rude. It’s left me shaken, despite my best efforts. What in God’s name could I possibly have done to him?

It’s only when the next guests walk past me — on their way up, like everyone else — that I realise that I’m still standing on the stairs, staring at the man and woman as they walk away. Irritated with myself, I gather up my dress and carry on walking upstairs — more carefully this time and without any further pit stops.

This evening is important, even if it did begin with a minor misstep. I’m not going to let that guy take the wind out of my sails. I have no idea what his problem is — and it’s really none of my business. So I do exactly what I would have done if I hadn’t tripped: I examine all the other pictures hanging in the stairwell, trying to concentrate on working out which periods they’re from. But I can’t reach my previous elation. Instead my thoughts keep returning to the mysterious Matteo and his sudden hostility.

I don’t understand it. We haven’t had any trouble with anyone at the auction house for a long time. Quite the opposite. We have an excellent reputation — which is important in our business, so it can’t have anything to do with that. So the only explanation is that it has something to do with me. But what could I have done to him, since — as he himself admitted — we hadn’t ever met until just a moment ago? I’m not the gushing type, I’m actually pretty reserved, but no one would describe me as unfriendly. What could have made him so angry with me? Or maybe I’m reading too much into it. Maybe he just found me unattractive and boring and that’s why he was in such a hurry to escape?

I resolutely suppress the depressed feeling that thought has left in its wake, and convert it instead into anger. After all, it’s not my fault if the guy doesn’t know how to behave. And since I can’t stand volatile types, no matter how attractive they might be, I should probably just make sure that I …

I stop dead when I reach the landing at the top of the stairs. In my surprise, for a moment I forget all about my fall and everything that happened afterwards. The two rooms which open up in front of me — two large connecting drawing rooms, tastefully furnished with antiques and decorated with numerous paintings and objects d’art — are full of people. I didn’t expect there to be so many guests. It was supposed to be a small reception, and I thought I would have plenty of opportunities to speak to the host in peace. Will Giacomo di Chessa have any time for me at all, with so many other people to look after?

On the other hand, of course, there are advantages to the fact that so many members of the Roman art scene accepted his invitation. As the former dean of Rome University’s Art History Institute, he must know a lot of experts and potential buyers — and, if I’m lucky, I could make a lot of new contacts here. But not on my own — which is why I’m scanning the crowd, looking for someone in particular.

I’d been hoping that Andrew would already be waiting for me. He’s the only person I know here, and I need him urgently because he promised to introduce me to the most important people here — starting with our host.

But there are no signs of Andrew. Instead, I spot my disdainful saviour again. He’s standing with his companion in front of one of the windows toward the back of the room, near some others, chatting.

I try to convince myself that he only caught my eye because I fell into him. But it’s a lie. I would definitely have spotted him anyway, if only because his height and blonde hair make him stand out from the crowd. He’s not the kind of guy you can overlook — and I bet he knows it. That’s why he’s smiling in that casual, relaxed way again. The smile he no longer had for me, as soon as he found out who I was …

“Sophie!”

I spin round at the sound of a happy voice calling my name. A man of around sixty with shoulder-length salt-and-pepper hair is coming toward me. As always, he’s wearing an understated grey suit with a very flamboyant scarf — a dark red silk one this time — and there’s a friendly glint in his pale blue eyes.

“Andrew!”

I’m incredibly happy to see him, and I return his broad smile with relief. It instantly drives away my gloomy thoughts. I often feel this way in his company, and I’m not the only one — in addition to his uncontested expertise as an art connoisseur, Andrew Abbott is known for his sense of humour and captivating personality. That’s why he has a huge circle of friends, of which my father has been a member ever since the two of them studied art history at Oxford over thirty years ago.

Andrew greets me — very effusively for a Brit, kissing me enthusiastically on both cheeks. He’s probably been living in this country for so long that he has adopted some of the more physically exuberant Italian customs.

“You look ravishing,” he says, gazing at me admiringly. “Wonderful dress.”

“Thanks.” I beam at his compliment, which has taken away at least part of my self-consciousness. Not that I’m always looking for admiration. On the contrary, I know that my slender figure, my blue-grey eyes and long dark hair, which I am wearing down today for once, are quite presentable — but remarks about my appearance tend to embarrass me. Maybe because there are so many other, more important things in my life than the physical impression I make. But this time I’m happy to be complimented, very much so in fact, and, without meaning to, my eyes wander back toward the blonde man, who is responsible for my anxious state.

But he’s not standing where he was before, and I don’t see him anywhere else. I feel a bit disappointed. I would have liked to have found out more about who he really is.

Andrew, who would almost certainly have known, links arms with me. “Let’s get started on the round of introductions — a promise is a promise,” he says. As we walk through the crowd, I can’t help thinking that he’s one of very few people who live by that principle. When Andrew Abbott promises something, he doesn’t let you down.

Back when he still lived in England, he often came to visit. I was still very young then, and I liked his visits because he always brought me whatever I’d asked him for the time before. He only brought small things — a bracelet, a hairband or a particular brand of chocolate — but he promised to remember and he never forgot, not once.

So I never forgot him either, even when he’d been in Italy for a while and we hardly ever saw him in person. He’d stayed in touch with my dad and was immediately prepared to help us when he found out that we wanted to expand our business in Italy. Since then, he’s pulled strings for me when I couldn’t make any more headway on my own. As a result, it looks as though we are close to making a genuine breakthrough. I couldn’t be more grateful to him.

“So, how’s the hotel?” he asks, as we slowly make our way through a group of people standing around together, talking and drinking wine and champagne. “Is everything at Casa Bini still as nice and cosy as I remember?”

“Oh yes,” I assure him. “Signora Bini is amazing, she seems to know exactly what I need just by looking at me. And her husband is such a great cook that this is probably the last time I’ll be able to fit into this dress. I just wish you’d given me that tip earlier.”

“You didn’t ask,” he says, grinning, and I have to admit that he’s right. On all my previous trips, staying in the bigger hotels a little outside the city centre always seemed like an economical, practical solution. But “Fortuna”, the little family-run hotel Andrew recommended to me — right in the middle of the historic old town, in the up-and-coming Monti district — is, astonishingly, not at all expensive. And the lovingly and idiosyncratically decorated guest house couldn’t be more different from the rather anonymous gargantuan modern hotels. It’s lovely to live right at the heart of town. It’s definitely brightened up my stay, and I’ve decided to enjoy my time here to the fullest. But my fun might not last long, after all — if Giacomo di Chessa decides not to entrust his collection to ‘Conroy’s’, I’ll be flying tomorrow. At that thought, I heave a deep sigh.

“Don’t worry, Giacomo will love you,” Andrew reassures me, sensing what’s on my mind and continuing to shove me through the crowd with determination.

“I don’t know.” I shrug my shoulders sceptically. “What makes you so sure about that?”

“I know him. And he trusts me.” He winks at me. “Just be yourself, Sophie, and nothing will go wrong, believe me.”

I’m still not convinced, and his cryptic instructions aren’t helping. “What am I like then?”

He stops, clearly surprised by my question. When he sees that I’m serious, he tilts his head to one side and considers. “You’re the nicest gal I know. Always friendly and unbelievably hardworking. And clever and honest — all of which are indispensable qualities in an art dealer.”

“Aha.” I furrow my brow doubtfully. I know he meant it as a compliment, but I would have preferred a few more exciting adjectives than “nice” and “hardworking”. “And what are my faults?” Perhaps they will be a bit more thrilling at least.

“You don’t have any,” he assures me, charming as ever. “Actually, you do — you’re a bit too serious sometimes,” he qualifies, stroking my arm. “But it’s hardly surprising considering you had to take on so many responsibilities at such a young age.”

Without wanting to, I can suddenly see my mother’s pale face in front of me, her sightless eyes, first turned inward and then sparkling almost feverishly. Helpless sadness rises up inside me at the thought, and I quickly suppress it again. But he’s right, I think. I probably am more serious than most people. Serious and nice. Great.

I’m still musing on why his description bothers me so much — but Andrew carries on speaking, oblivious to my gloominess.

“In any case, you love art just as passionately as Giacomo does,” he explains, beaming. “He’ll be able to tell, I’m sure he will — and he’ll really appreciate that. Because this commission isn’t going to be all that easy.”

He makes the last remark in passing, as he takes two glasses of champagne off a tray from a waiter who happens to be walking by. He hands one of them to me.

“What do you mean — not that easy?” I demand.

Andrew takes a sip from his glass and sets off again. I follow him and grab hold of his sleeve, forcing him to stop.

“Andrew?”

He smiles and puts his arm round me, only to use the hand on my back to carry on gently propelling me forward. “Just get to know each other first, Sophie. Everything else will work itself out.”

I don’t have time to muse on his words for very long, as Andrew is guiding me with great determination toward a delicate Chippendale sofa against the wall, seating two. An older woman in a beautiful, loose silk dress is sitting on the right-hand side of the sofa. The brightly-coloured pattern of her dress looks somehow familiar.

The fact that she’s sitting there on her own clearly puzzles Andrew. He furrows his brow.

“He was here just a moment ago,” he explains apologetically, looking around. Then he turns to the woman. “Valentina, carissima, dov’è Giacomo?”

The woman smiles — she looks great, despite her many wrinkles; she must have been a real beauty in her day.

“He’ll be right back,” she informs Andrew in Italian, then eyes me with curiosity. He instantly rises to the challenge.

“Valentina, may I introduce Sophie Conroy from England,” he says, in English this time. “And this is Valentina Bertani, a good friend of Giacomo’s.”

“Very pleased to meet you.” The old lady has switched to English now, too, and she’s clearly fluent, despite her strong accent. She reaches her hand out and I take hold of it, but I answer hesitantly because I’m still trying to get my thoughts in order. I know that name. And the pattern of the fabric …

“Bertani? Do you have anything to do with the Bertanis, who …”

“ … make pretty bags and shoes?” The woman has clearly been expecting the question. She laughs happily. “Oh yes. It’s our family firm. Two of my grandchildren are currently in charge. Are you familiar with our products?”

“Of course! They’re beautiful,” I retort, almost indignant. After all, everyone knows the Italian design house with the stylised seagull logo, which produces a variety of luxury items, not just shoes and bags. The Bertani name is also associated with exclusive designer furnishings, and the printed fabrics that have been at the heart of their own fashion label for a long time. The pattern on the woman’s dress is characteristic of the label, that’s why it looked so familiar — I have a weakness for design, as well as for art. And Bertani is definitely among the major players in that sector, so it’s exciting to meet someone from the company.

But Signora Bertani seems to regard the discussion of her company as over and done with. Right now, she’s more interested in me.

“And what are you doing here in Rome, darling?”

She’s not making small talk; she really does want to know. Her green eyes are sparkling attentively, making her seem very likable. She’s in amazingly good shape for her age, which I would put around eighty.

“I’m an art dealer,” I happily explain and I’m about to say more. But, before I can continue, Valentina lets out a little shriek.

“Oh yes, of course — Sophie Conroy,” she says, shaking her head, clearly annoyed at herself. “You’re from the English auction house and you’ve come to help Giacomo get rid of some of his collection, haven’t you? He told us all about it — I’d forgotten. You’ll have to forgive me. I’m old.” She smiles apologetically, indicating the free seat next to her. “Please sit here with me for a moment.”

I look round for Andrew, a little uncertain, but he’s deep in lively discussion with another man. So I accept her invitation and sit down on the dainty sofa.

“I’m so happy to meet you,” Valentina Bertani assures me, caressing my hand. “After everything Andrew has told us about you, I’ve been very curious, you know.”

I twirl the champagne glass around in my hand, a little embarrassed. “Only good things, I hope.”

She nods vehemently. “Absolutely. He sang your praises and that’s something he only does when he’s really convinced by someone. So I’m quite sure that you’ll do a fantastic job with Giacomo’s pictures.”

“We haven’t actually received the commission yet,” I respond, but she waves that away as if it were just a formality. Then she bends forward slightly, so that only I can hear her.

“You know why Giacomo wants to sell the pictures?”

I nod, because that was the first thing Andrew told me about our potential new employer: Giacomo di Chessa’s wife died more than a year ago and now, just before his retirement, he wants to leave Rome and move in with his daughter who lives with her family in England.

Valentina Bertani leans back with a sigh.

“You know; he needs this fresh start. Francesca’s death was devastating for him. Things will be easier for him once he’s living with Anna and his grandchildren, instead of here, surrounded by memories. So I’m really happy he’s decided to take the plunge and sell this house and all its contents. But he’s still two minds about it. And, besides …” She hesitates and doesn’t finish her sentence. “Oh, never mind. In any case, it’ll be good if you can support him through the process.”

“I’ll be happy to,” I assure her, looking up at the pictures decorating the walls above us. I spot a few more unusual and rare pieces among them. “I can understand why Signore di Chessa would find it hard to part with such beautiful artworks. His collection seems to be really special.”

Signora Bertani follows my gaze, smiling. “Yes, it is. I’m sure you’ve already discovered the real gems, have you?”

I shake my head, annoyed again that I wasted so much energy thinking about the mysterious Matteo, after the incident on the stairs. I really should have used my mental energy for other things.

“Unfortunately, I haven’t yet had a chance to take a closer look around.” I shrug my shoulders apologetically. “But I did notice a painting in the stairwell, which I found particularly interesting. I think it’s a Joseph Severn …”

“Indeed it is,” says a man with snow-white hair, who has suddenly appeared in front of the sofa. He’s small and rather scrawny, with sunken cheeks and a lot of wrinkles. His eyes look friendly but a little tired, and there’s a sadness in his gaze that even his smile can’t conceal.

A second before Valentina exclaims “Giacomo!” I’ve already realised that our host has returned. I leap up from the little sofa at once. This is his seat, after all.

“Thank you very much,” he says, as I step aside, and lowers himself back down onto the cushions, clearly grateful not to have to stand any longer. He looks older than he is, I think, a little shocked. I know he must be no older than his mid-sixties, since he’s just retired — but I’d have guessed mid-seventies. His weakened state clearly makes him uncomfortable. “Please excuse me, I’m a bit wobbly on my legs at the moment, hopefully it will be fine again in a bit,” he says through clenched teeth.

Andrew has also noticed Giacomo di Chessa’s return. He quickly closes the conversation with the man he’s been talking to all this time and turns to us.

“Giacomo, may I introduce Sophie Conroy, whom I’ve told you so much about,” he says, indicating me.

I swallow hard because I know how much is riding on the impression I will make over the next few minutes.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Signore di Chessa,” I say, stretching out my hand with a smile.

“Ah, the young lady from London.” For someone who appears so fragile, he has a surprisingly firm handshake. His gaze is much more alert now, too, and completely focused on me. He examines me for a long moment until I’m just starting to get nervous, until a broad smile appears on his face.

“You really must know something about art, if you identified the Severn picture right away. You’d have to know your stuff to make such an astute attribution.” His compliment makes me happy and I’m about to reply, but he anticipates me. “But if you’re interested in it I’m afraid I will have to disappoint you. The painting is no longer among the items I wish to auction,” he adds regretfully.

I look at him, baffled. “Why not?”

“Because Giacomo just sold it to me,” says a deep voice, making me spin round in surprise.

3

The tall, dark-blonde haired man is standing behind me, very close behind me in fact, looking down at me with his lovely amber-coloured eyes, making my heart miss a beat

“Oh,” I burst out. I’m very surprised, but I immediately pull myself together. “What a … shame.”

Thoughts are racing through my head, each overtaking the next, leaving me no time to put them in order. He’s so bloody good-looking! Forget it, Sophie! Why is he talking to me — I thought I was his persona non grata? Who is he, anyway, and is it just a coincidence that he bought the very painting we were talking about on the stairs just now? And why is everyone else smiling at him, after he just barged in on our conversation? Am I the only one who doesn’t know him?

“Matteo!” cries Valentina Bertani, happily — but she suddenly seems nervous and her eyes dart back and forth a little frantically between the man and me. “This is Sophie Conroy — Andrew recommended her to Giacomo for the auction, remember?”

OK, I think. So that solves the riddle of how Amber Eyes knows my name, at least. If I’ve already been a topic of discussion between them, then all he had to do was put two and two together when he heard that I worked for a London auction house.

“And this is my grandson, Matteo Bertani,” explains the old lady — visibly proud for a moment — continuing the introductions.

He’s a Bertani, I think, astonished, and I pause in concentration because now alarm bells are ringing somewhere in my subconscious. Ringing loudly. But I just can’t manage to grab on to the memory that flared up briefly at the sound of the name.

“We’ve already met, Nonna,” Matteo Bertani informs his grandmother in that accent-free English of his again, rousing me. When I look at him in irritation, his smile becomes just a little smug and, almost immediately, I can see the picture in my mind’s eye: me lying on the stairs in his arms, feeling my stomach doing somersaults, while our eyes meet. But it only lasts a second or so, and then I turn my head away.

The guy might have helped me to get my balance on the stairs, but since then he’s had the opposite effect on my peace of mind. This kind of thing seldom happens to me — and I could do without it right now.

“You know Signore Bertani? You didn’t tell me!” Andrew intervenes, obviously feeling that this information should not have been withheld from him under any circumstances.

“We only met briefly, just now, at the entrance. But he was in a hurry, so there wasn’t time for a proper introduction.” I shoot a few angry glances in Mr. Perfect’s direction. We already know each other — pffff! He didn’t even feel the need to tell me his name before he disappeared.

But Matteo Bertani doesn’t seem to feel very guilty about it. In fact, my remark seems to amuse him, making his shamelessly attractive smile grow even broader.

“Clearly, we have some catching up to do,” he declares, holding out his hand, so I have no choice but to take hold of it. “Welcome to Rome, Miss Conroy.”

The touch of our hands and the fact that he is suddenly beaming at me so charmingly are already throwing me off track, but it gets even worse when he bends over and gives me the customary two Italian cheek kisses. I’ve received quite a few such kisses since my arrival yesterday, but in his case I’m struck by how warm his cheek feels against mine and how heady the smell of his aftershave is. So I’m happy when he takes another step backward and lets go of my hand.

“Thank you,” I say coolly.

I mean, what is he thinking? That I’ll immediately be converted into a fan of his, just because he’s smiling nicely at me? That might work on other women, but definitely not on me. Quite the contrary. If there’s one thing I hate, it’s people who are unpredictable.

However, the fact that her grandson is being so friendly toward me seems to calm Valentina Bertani. Now, she’s smiling and relaxed. The others are visibly satisfied, too — especially Andrew, who I can tell is ticking an item off his mental list.

I heave an internal groan, without altering my rather forced smile. Of course Matteo Bertani was one of the people he wanted to introduce me to — as a member of the Bertani clan, he’d be a potential buyer, which naturally makes him an important contact. So I’m to be nice to him — starting right now, apparently, since they are clearly expecting me to have a conversation with him — as I realise, to my horror. Andrew had already started to talk to Valentina and Giacomo in Italian, something about the man he was talking to before he came over to us. It seems to be a top priority for them, since the other two are listening attentively. Leaving Matteo Bertani and me on our own.

Great, I think despairingly. Why don’t you all leave me alone with Signore I-don’t-talk-to-women-who-know-about-art. But his flight reflex appears to be in complete abeyance, since he stays where he is, making me nervous again with those penetrating amber eyes.

Small talk, Sophie, I prompt myself. Ask him a question. You don’t usually find this so difficult. But my interlocutors are usually a bit more predictable than he is. In his case, clearly, you never know what’s going to happen next.

I clear my throat. “I heard you are running your family’s design company. That must be a very interesting job.”

The remark sounds forced, even to me — but I go on smiling bravely. I have no other choice.

“It is indeed,” Matteo Bertani answers. “But I’m afraid you’ve been misinformed. My two older brothers run the firm.”

When he sees how much this answer surprises me, he raises the corners of his mouth in bemusement — making that sexy dimple appear in his cheek again. I try to ignore it, for reasons already noted.

“So what do you do?” I add.

I hate the way he’s always one step ahead of me — and that he likes to keep me guessing. But he enjoys it, that much is clear.

He shrugs his broad shoulders. “I focus all my energies on the thing that’s always been closest to my heart: art and its development over the course of history,” he says, and once again some recollection tries to force its way up to the surface of my consciousness.

Art history. Matteo Bertani. Think, Sophie.

And then, far too late, my brain — which is so unreliable today — finally connects the dots, and I suddenly remember the articles on the Roman art scene, which I read in preparation for my visit. And my friend Sarah raving about him when she studied in Rome for some time, a good two years ago. Oh my God!

“I remember you!”

Matteo Bertani — of course! He’s cited multiple times in the articles — as an internationally recognised expert on Italian and English art history. The young professore with the pretty eyes and the unusual theories about painting, who Sarah found so amazing, the enfant terrible of the La Sapienza Art History Institute. And in addition, as I now know, a member of one of Italy’s richest families.

Bloody hell.

Important contact is the understatement of the year. He’s more like the jackpot. And he’s smiling at me in such a self-satisfied way that I would really like to punch him right in his probably incredibly toned six-pack.

“So we do know each other after all?” He raises his eyebrows mockingly.

“No, but … er … I’ve heard of you,” I stutter. Another thing I never usually do. “You work at … La Sapienza, right?” A quite normal-sounding question — you can do it, Sophie.

“I have a teaching position there, yes,” he confirms.

That actually sounds a little too modest. According to Sarah, he was and is the university’s star teacher. Apparently many students, especially female students, only sign up for art history courses because of him. And he probably doesn’t even need to be working — he’s a Bertani, and so definitely rich. So rich that he can just go ahead and buy a painting which cost him a bob or two. And that reminds me of another question that I’d completely repressed, in my shock when he suddenly wanted to talk to me after all.

“So why did you buy the Severn?”

Quite apart from the fact that I’m pretty disappointed now, that I won’t have the opportunity to study it more closely, it seems a bit odd to me. After all, it was beneath that picture that we “met” just now. I can’t shake off the feeling that there’s some connection there. He seems to confirm my suspicion by hesitating before he answers. First, he lifts up the glass of champagne in his hand and takes a sip. When he puts it down again, his smile is much less radiant and the expression in his eyes more reserved again, almost cold.

“I’d rather not say.” His gaze wanders over to his grandmother, who is still chatting with Giacomo and Andrew, as if checking whether she can hear him.

Now I’m the one to raise my eyebrows. “Really. Why not?”

“Because you won’t like my answer,” he explains, and there’s a clear touch of defiance in his amber eyes now.

“Let’s have it.”

Surely he doesn’t believe I’m going to let it drop now? I want to know what his problem is. Because even if he can suddenly turn on the charm, he clearly has some sort of problem with me. And I bet that ‘spontaneous purchase’ didn’t come out of nowhere. “It has something to do with the fact that I was looking at it when we met in the entrance hall just now, am I right?” I venture.

He’s silent for a long moment.

“Let’s put it this way: your appraising gaze reminded me that everything here is about to go under the hammer. And, since the Severn picture is important to me — as I already mentioned — I wanted to secure it before you begin to dismantle Giacomo’s collection.”

I grip my glass tightly and stare at him, shocked by the hostility in his voice. But he carries on speaking; he’s not finished yet.

“Don’t take it personally, Miss Conroy. This is not about you. But I’m one of the people who don’t think it’s a good idea for Giacomo to leave Rome. So let me give you fair warning: don’t count on my help with the auction business. If I were to get the chance to prevent the whole thing from happening, I’d do it without hesitation.”

There’s a fire burning in his amber eyes now — but the one in my own must be just as fierce. What is the guy thinking?

“Oh, I won’t take it personally, Signore Bertani. Because I’m one of those people who has no time for rude people,” I explain with a saccharine smile which barely conceals my anger. “As far as I understand, Signore di Chessa explicitly wishes to reduce his collection and, since the artworks belong to him and this is a free country, he can do whatever he likes with them. He doesn’t need your permission. And, as far as our auction house is concerned, ‘Conroy’s’ is one of the most prestigious companies in the business. You don’t need to ‘secure’ anything from us and if we put anything ‘under the hammer’, that will be completely above board. We always have our clients’ best interests at heart, and strive to obtain the best possible auction prices for the artworks entrusted to us.” I take a moment to catch my breath. “And, besides, I was not appraising the picture — I was just interested in it because I happen to appreciate Joseph Severn’s work very highly,” I added. By this point, I can barely contain my fury.

Completely unnerved by this, Matteo Bertani raises the corners of his mouth. There’s something condescending in his lopsided smile, which makes me even angrier than I already am.

“I told you, you wouldn’t like the answer,” he reminds me. “Besides, Giacomo got a good price for the picture without your help, believe me.”

“That’s good for Signore di Chessa. But if you are going to buy up every artwork I look at today, this could end up being a very expensive evening for you — because I intend to appraise everything here pretty thoroughly. Oh yes, and perhaps I should warn you, so your feelings don’t get hurt: you can do whatever you want, but if ‘Conroy’s’ get this commission, I’m pretty sure we won’t be requiring your assistance.”

I force myself to relax my hands again, which I’ve been clenching into fists. I hold Matteo Bertani’s gaze, which looks momentarily astonished — at least, that’s my impression. Then he suddenly grins and, for the first time this evening, I get the feeling he’s not just going through the motions; it’s real.

“Touché, Miss Conroy. But as I already told you …”

“You’re not fighting with Miss Conroy, are you, Matteo?” Valentina Bertani enquires, making us leap apart almost guiltily. I hadn’t even noticed it, but I’d been more or less squaring up to him defiantly, leaving only a few centimetres between us.

When I look around I see that the three of them have stopped their conversation and are observing us intently. Valentina and Giacomo di Chessa look concerned, while Andrew looks intrigued.

“No, we’re just chatting, Nonna,” Matteo Bertani assures her, without batting an eye, smiling that extremely radiant, charming smile of his again. He obviously doesn’t want to upset her, since she suddenly looks a little pale.

Why did she ask that at all, I wonder. It almost sounded as though she’d been expecting us to quarrel. I now interpret the way she appeared earlier as worry about how her grandson and I would react to each other. She’s probably aware of his standpoint and was already afraid there might be tension between us.

It’s only then that I notice that all eyes are suddenly on me, waiting with baited breath to see whether I’ll confirm my interlocutor’s statement. It doesn’t take me long to decide. Up till now, this evening hasn’t been going at all the way I imagined. I absolutely mustn’t be caught squabbling in public with a highly influential member of the Roman art scene.

“We were talking about the Severn picture,” I confirm, forcing myself to give a halfway believable smile. “And … the advantages of auctions,” I add, because I can’t resist the small dig, shooting Matteo Bertani a quick glance.

It doesn’t escape Giacomo di Chessa. Suddenly, he’s smiling broadly.

“Well, well. If you’ve even managed to persuade Matteo that an auction is the way to go, we’d probably better get to work as soon as possible, Miss Conroy.”

Matteo Bertani doesn’t seem to like that remark at all. The radiance of his smile, so charming just a moment ago, is visibly diminished.

“I didn’t say …” he’s about to contradict, but Valentina Bertani interrupts him.

“I’d like something to eat,” she announces firmly as she stands up, a little shakily, looking at her grandson. “Would you mind accompanying me to the buffet, Matteo?”

He drops the hand he’s been holding up, about to make some gesture of emphasis to accompany his words — which we’re no longer going to hear.

“Of course.” He reaches his grandmother in two long strides, and holds out his arm so that she can link arms with him.

“See you later,” says the old lady as they leave, and I wonder whether that applies to Matteo and to me, too, as he casts a final glance at me from over his shoulder which seems to say, ‘we’re not finished yet’.

I probably shouldn’t wish it did apply to me, because whenever he appears I seem to go to pieces. And perhaps I shouldn’t stare at him as he walks away, so he doesn’t realise how I feel. So I hastily turn my head away — to see Giacomo di Chessa’s face. He’s still smiling.

“Why don’t you sit here next to me, Miss Conroy,” he invites me, patting the spot Valentina Bertani has just vacated. “We still have a lot to talk about, and I think this would be a great opportunity.”

Andrew takes the hint, winks at me again and says his goodbyes. He heads off in the direction of the buffet. A moment later, we are alone.

I smile rather bashfully at the old man who determined the fate of La Sapienza’s Art History Institute for so many years, unsure of how to begin the conversation which will probably determine whether my trip to Rome is a success or not. I’m still too preoccupied by what just happened — and my potential new client seems to feel the same way.

“You did fight with Matteo, didn’t you?” His look tells me that he already knows I did, so I just shrug my shoulders helplessly.

“He’s …” I can’t decide how to put it, so I just heave a huge sigh.

“Impossible?” Giacomo di Chessa finishes for me, and I nod emphatically. He pretty much hit the nail on the head. I can tell from his indulgent smile, however, that he doesn’t find this as bad as I do.

“He doesn’t want you to leave Rome?” I formulate it as a question because I still don’t understand all this.

“No.” Giacomo di Chessa shakes his head. “He’s opposed to everything to do with my move — and, above all, he’s against my giving up large parts of my collection.”

“But it’s not his decision, it’s yours,” I protest, getting a little angry again, but the old man just shrugs his shoulders.

“Of course. But it’s not quite that simple, Miss Conroy. I have to confess; I’m finding it hard to leave. Because, among other things, I know how much it will affect Matteo.”

I look at him in astonishment. Up until now, I’ve been so blinded by my anger at Matteo Bertani’s presumptuous and totally brazen assertions that I haven’t even begun to consider what relationships are involved, or the possible reasons for his firm rejection of both me and my job.

“Are the two of you close then?” I ask.

Giacomo di Chessa’s smile turns a little melancholy.

“You could say that. I’ve known the Bertanis forever, we were neighbours for a long time, you know — the villa next door belongs to the family. And, despite the large age gap between us, Matteo and I are especially close, for many reasons. I’m particularly proud of having had the honour of awakening the boy’s interest in art history. Over the years, I’ve always supported him, I’ve always felt able to take credit for the discovery of his exceptional gift. But ours is much more than just a business relationship. Matteo is like a son to me. And, if it were up to him, nothing about this house would ever change — including the fact that I live here.”

I furrow my brow. Suddenly it’s all beginning to make sense. “Is that why he’s so angry with everyone who’s helping to organise your move?”

He sighs. “I’m afraid so.”