After dealing with the scandal that threatened her family business, Sophie is back in London alone and heartbroken. She can't get Matteo out of her mind. The steamy nights and carefree days with the sensual art professor in Rome seem like a distant memory. Was it all a dream? Her longing for him torments her to breaking point. Then Sophie gets an urgent phone call and knows she must return to Italy. At first Matteo seems indifferent - almost angry about Sophie's return. But soon even he can't deny the magnetic attraction between them. Matteo lures Sophie into more daring erotic pleasure than before. But their fairytale romance is a roller coaster. Matteo is still hiding something dark, and Sophie knows she's in over her head. Will their love story have a happy end? Or will the ghosts of Matteo's past prevent him from sharing his heart? Surrendered - Colours of Love is the fifth book of Kathryn Taylor's successful series. If you love the steamy scenes in 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 passion and 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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About the Book
About the Author
After dealing with the scandal that threatened her family business, Sophie is back in London alone and heartbroken. She can’t get Matteo out of her mind. The steamy nights and carefree days with the sensual art professor in Rome seem like a distant memory. Was it all a dream? Her longing for him torments her to breaking point.
Then Sophie gets an urgent phone call and knows she must return to Italy. At first Matteo seems indifferent — almost angry about Sophie’s return. But soon even he can’t deny the magnetic attraction between them. Matteo lures Sophie into more daring erotic pleasure than before. But their fairytale romance is a roller coaster. Matteo is still hiding something dark, and Sophie knows she’s in over her head. Will their love story have a happy end? Or will the ghosts of Matteo’s past prevent him from sharing his heart?
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.
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, München
Cover illustration: © shutterstock/LI CHAOSHU
eBook production: Urban SatzKonzept, Düsseldorf
Matteo’s voice rouses me from the light slumber into which the monotonous sound of the car engine had lulled me. I bolt upright. It takes me a moment to get my bearings, and then I realise, to my surprise, that we’re surrounded by heavy traffic. When I shut my eyes, we were still cruising along the M20 from Dover to London — so I must have been out for quite a while. I can’t usually sleep like that on a journey, and I was way too nervous this time. But the long stretch of road behind us has clearly taken its toll on me.
“I’m sorry, I …,” my voice is hoarse. I have to clear my throat before I can carry on speaking. “I didn’t mean to fall asleep.” I hastily sit up, run a hand through my long, dark hair in an attempt to give it some semblance of order, and readjust my dress. But I still feel dishevelled and a little disconcerted. I hope I wasn’t snoring, I think, slightly horrified. “Why didn’t you wake me up?”
Matteo looks over from the driver’s seat and smiles in amusement, and my heart contracts with longing. Which it shouldn’t. But I just can’t help myself.
“What do you think I’m doing right now?” he says, and I curse my sleepy brain for not having thought of a more intelligent question. “According to the GPS, we’re not far from your auction house. And you wanted to let your father know when we’d be there.”
“Oh.” I’ve only just begun to pay attention to our surroundings and, to my surprise, I realise that we’re already on the South Circular. It’s only another twenty minutes at most from here to Kensington. So it probably would be a good idea to warn Dad, since he’s going to be surprised. He definitely won’t be expecting us so soon.
After all, it’s over two thousand miles from Rome to London — a considerable distance that I wasn’t expecting us to cover in just one and a half days. But Matteo has always been a fast driver and an astonishingly proficient one, too. On Monday evening, after he stopped me at the airport in Rome and told me he was going to accompany me to London after all, we made it all the way up to Florence. Following a brief overnight stay at a hotel, we set off again early yesterday morning and drove through Switzerland and France to Lille. We started early again this morning and reached the ferry at Calais. So now, at just after one o’clock, we’ve already hit London.
Which is a good thing. The fact that we couldn’t fly here already cost us quite a lot of time. And every minute is precious.
I hastily find the auction house phone number on my mobile. Dad answers immediately. It’s as if he’s been waiting for my call.
“Sophie! Good to hear from you. Where are you?” His voice sounds calm, but I know him very well, and I can detect a slight tremble. I know he’s worried, so I’m happy to be able to reassure him about one thing at least.
“We’ll be at Battersea Bridge any minute now. It’ll be another twenty minutes at most.”
“Already? Oh, that’s great.” He breathes a sigh of relief. Then I hear a rustling sound and muffled conversation. His hand is cupped over the receiver.
“Sorry,” he says, suddenly loud and clear again. “Nigel’s here. We were having lunch together. He’ll stay until you arrive. He’d like to meet your guest of honour, too.”
Nigel, I think with a sudden lump in my throat. I wasn’t expecting to encounter him again so soon. But I should have known he’d be waiting for my return, just like my father.
“OK. Well … see you shortly.” I end the call and slip the mobile back into my pocket.
Things are getting serious now, I think, a little apprehensively, as Matteo swings out onto the next roundabout.
I still can’t quite fathom the fact that he’s really here with me. Suddenly I feel gripped by nerves. I have no idea what’s going to happen over the next few days. All I know is that it all depends on Matteo. He could save us or ruin us. And, if I don’t watch out, he’ll also break my heart once and for all, I think, observing him out of the corner of my eye.
There must be women who don’t find Matteo attractive — but there can’t be many, and I’m definitely not one of them. I like everything about him. His hair, which is unusually light for an Italian. That irresistible, charming smile behind which he so often conceals what he’s really thinking or feeling. His well-honed physique and broad shoulders, accentuated by his effortlessly elegant fashion sense — I don’t know anyone who looks as relaxed and at ease in a suit as he does. Even his one flaw — the broad, jagged scar that begins at his neck and, as I now know, extends far across his chest — just makes him all the more interesting. It’s insanely easy to lose yourself in the unusual golden hue of his amber-coloured eyes. And that’s exactly what happens to me yet again when Matteo notices that I’m observing him and flashes a smile.
“What did your father say?”
“He’s already looking forward to meeting you,” I tell him, happy that he has to look ahead at the street again. Then I realise with a start that I haven’t even asked him if he’s OK with the visit, after the long drive. “But we don’t have to stop by the auction house, if you’re too tired and would rather rest before we drive to Lord Ashbury’s.”
Matteo’s smile intensifies. “A few minutes either way won’t make much difference anymore. Or do I look as if I’m about to collapse?”
No, he really doesn’t, I think, and I smile back at him, happy not to have to disappoint Dad. “OK then …” My eyes widen in horror. “Watch out!”
A white Ford Focus pulls out of a side street into our lane directly in front of us, ignoring the fact that we have right of way. It happens so fast that I don’t even have time to scream. I’m quite sure we’re only seconds away from a collision with the other vehicle.
But I’ve underestimated Matteo’s driving skills. He reacts at lightning speed, yanking his convertible Alfa Romeo sports car so violently to the right that my shoulder is pressed against the door. The tires squeal in protest. We’ve made such a sharp turn that they’ve probably lost contact with the ground. It’s a close call, really close, but somehow Matteo manages to pass the Focus unharmed. When he steers just as sharply to the left, to avoid oncoming traffic, I’m flung in the opposite direction, and this time his shoulder cushions my fall. The car fishtails for a moment because of all the centrifugal forces working on it, but then Matteo gets it under control and is driving in his lane again.
“Cretino!” he swears, casting an angry look into the rear-view mirror as a horn blares from behind — the other driver clearly thinks it was our mistake.
I’m still so shocked that I can’t say a thing. I’m just grateful when I notice Matteo stopping the car at the side of the road at the first available opportunity. I need a moment to catch my breath.
He’s shaken up, too, I can tell from his left hand, which is gripping the steering wheel so tightly that his white knuckles are protruding from beneath the skin. But he’s more in control of himself than I am. My hands are shaking as I tuck a lock of hair behind one ear. A fact that doesn’t escape Matteo’s attentive gaze.
“Is everything OK?” he asks with concern, placing a hand on my cheek. It’s just a spontaneous gesture. But when his fingers touch my skin, for a moment I can’t breathe.
No, I think. Nothing’s OK. Absolutely nothing.
Because suddenly it’s back, all of it. I can’t just feel his hand on my cheek, I also feel his lips on mine, and his hard, hot body pressing against me. I can almost taste him. I’m melting inside at the memory of the hours I’ve spent in his arms. And I immediately want him again with a ferocity I’ve never known before.
That will probably never change, I think in dismay. But we’re not in Rome anymore, and the time I was able to spend with him is over. He said it himself. Those few weeks we shared were all he could give me. He’s not ready for more — and I can’t make any compromises for his sake, either.
I had plenty of time to think everything over on the journey and, no matter how much it hurts: there’s no place for Matteo in my life — or for me in his. The distance between us is too great — and not just geographically. It’s impossible. So I’m going to have to find a way to get my feelings under control.
But that’s only going to be possible if he keeps his distance — as he did on the way here. We had separate hotel rooms, and when we said goodnight to each other in the evening, he didn’t even give me a kiss on the cheek, which is customary in Italy. He hasn’t touched me the entire time — until now. And now, I honestly wish he hadn’t. Then at least I might have fostered the hope of not always treading on thin ice around him.
“Yes, everything’s fine,” I lie, hating myself for being disappointed rather than relieved when he withdraws his hand again and drives on.
We’re silent for the next few minutes, until the Battersea Bridge appears before us, leading us straight over the Thames to swanky Chelsea. From there, it’s not far to South Kensington and, shortly after that, we’re driving along King’s Road, where our auction house is located.
“You can park behind the building,” I tell him when we reach “Conroy’s.” Matteo steers the car along the driveway and into the courtyard next to the large, detached building, which stands out from the surrounding houses because of its striking yellow bricks.
The sight of our auction house warms my heart. The building, the courtyard — it’s all deeply familiar to me. This is the centre of my existence, the place where I grew up and around which my whole life revolves. I simply can’t bear the possibility of losing all this.
But that won’t happen, I reassure myself. Matteo will examine the painting we sold to Lord Ashbury, and if he establishes that it really is an Enzo di Montagna, our good reputation will be reinstated. Then we can forget this whole ugly accusation of forgery. If not … no … I won’t allow myself to even think about it.
Matteo parks the car next to Nigel’s dark blue Bentley, which is also parked here in the courtyard. When I see the two very different cars next to each other, I suddenly feel queasy.
“Dad’s not alone, by the way,” I explain to Matteo, as we head for the entrance, since I suddenly get the feeling I need to prepare him — and myself. “Nigel Hamilton’s here, too. He … would like to meet you.”
Matteo raises his eyebrows.
“The Nigel who sent you messages in Rome?”
I nod. He only witnessed that once, and I thought he’d long since forgotten about it. But I was clearly mistaken.
“Yes, exactly — that Nigel,” I reply, thrusting open the heavy double doors leading to the auction house entrance hall.
“A friend of yours?” Matteo enquires further.
“Yes,” I reply succinctly. I already told him so in Rome. But he’s not satisfied with that answer.
“A friend or your boyfriend?”
I stop and let the door fall shut again, meeting his suspicious gaze, which I find completely unreasonable. After all, we’re not together — at least not anymore so I don’t owe him any explanations.
“A friend,” I answer firmly.
“And how do you know him?”
This is beginning to feel like an interrogation. “Is it important?”
“Is it a secret?”
He gives me such a probing look that for a moment I think he might be jealous. But there’s something else in his gaze, too — something hard and defensive, which makes me swallow.
“No, it’s not,” I defend myself, though he has no right to accuse me of anything. “I’ve known him since childhood. Nigel’s father, Rupert, was a good friend of my Dad’s. After his death, we lost touch with Nigel. But I ran into him again a while ago and we’ve been close friends ever since.”
“Is he an art dealer, too?”
“No, he’s a banker. But he helps us out a lot — and we really appreciate it.”
Matteo raises his eyebrows. “A selfless banker. How interesting,” he says with an unmistakable note of sarcasm. I feel as though I’ve been caught red-handed somehow. I’m well aware that Nigel definitely doesn’t regard our relationship as purely platonic. He’d like it to develop into something more. But I’m not about to discuss that with the guy I just had the hottest sex of my life with in Rome. So I ignore Matteo’s remark, again push open the double doors to the entrance hall, and escape into the large foyer behind.
“It’s this way,” I explain and hold open the door leading to the office wing. I suspect Dad and Nigel are there and, in fact, I can hear their voices coming from Dad’s office. The door is slightly ajar. The two of them are so absorbed by their conversation that they look up in surprise when I open the door wide and enter the small room.
“Sophie! Finally!” Dad says, leaping up out of his chair. He hugs me tightly, and I nestle my cheek against the familiar rough tweed fabric of his suit.
I can’t remember when I was last away from London for so long — over the past few years, Mum’s illness has made that impossible for more than a few days, a week at most. Looking at Dad now, I notice that his black hair has gone grey at the temples. This Enzo thing must have been a blow to him, but the greying can’t have happened overnight. So I probably notice it only because I became so detached from everything here during my stay in Rome. Which makes me feel guilty again, because I left him to deal with everything on his own for weeks.
Nigel had been sitting in the visitor’s chair at the other side of the desk, but he’s standing up now. As he steps toward me to greet me, I realise that I see him differently, too, after the excitement of Rome. I feel more distanced from him. And somehow more objective.
Although that actually seems to work in his favour, I think. He’s in his mid-thirties, a little older than Matteo, but just as tall. He looks distinguished in his dark suit. He lacks that self-confident charm, which is such a big part of Matteo’s appeal — but he’s attractive all the same, with his dark hair and grey eyes. He radiates a stable, trustworthy quality, which I’ve always appreciated.
“It’s good to have you back, Sophie,” he says. I let him hug me and give him a quick kiss on the cheek before turning to Matteo, who has stepped into the little room behind me.
“Allow me to introduce you,” I explain nervously. “This is Matteo Bertani — and this is my father and Nigel Hamilton.”
The men shake hands, but the atmosphere in the room has suddenly turned stuffy. It isn’t Matteo’s fault; he’s relaxed and smiling. But Dad and Nigel, on the other hand, look confused. Matteo obviously isn’t what they pictured when they visualised the art expert who was going to save the auction house. If they were expecting an introverted academic, I can understand their surprise. Matteo is many things, but he’s not unremarkable. With his physique and looks, he might as well be a model out of the Bertani catalogue, in which his family presents the exclusive product range of their internationally famous designer label.
This seems to bother Nigel. He’s frowning as he observes Matteo, while Dad just seems surprised. But he pulls himself together quickly, probably because he remembers what an important role Matteo is going to play in our company’s future.
“Signore Bertani, how nice of you to have come all this way just for us! We owe you a debt of gratitude,” he emphasises.
“I haven’t done anything yet for you to be grateful for,” Matteo replies. Despite his smile, I can hear the warning in his voice, and I spot it in his gaze, too, which is now turned on me. He’s incorruptible, and he’s going to give his honest opinion of the painting — even if it isn’t an Enzo after all.
“All the same,” Dad insists, missing the nuances. Or perhaps deliberately ignoring them. “It’s a great relief that you’ve agreed to take on this appraisal for us.”
“I don’t do this kind of thing very often,” Matteo confirms, without taking his eyes off me, and a silent shudder runs down my spine because suddenly there’s something in his eyes that I hadn’t detected during the entire drive — a spark of playful defiance, which makes my heart beat faster.
“You really don’t need the job, do you?” Nigel is smiling as he says it, but the smile doesn’t include his eyes. “From what I’ve heard, your family is very well off.”
His voice sounds aggressive, almost accusatory, and I shoot him an astonished look. It’s true that the Bertanis have enjoyed worldwide success with their design company — and, of course, Matteo is financially independent as a result. But Nigel makes it sound as if it were somehow disreputable for him to go on dedicating himself to the activity closest to his heart. Except that, in fact, it just demonstrates Matteo’s commitment to his art history research. A commitment reflected in the reputation he’s made for himself in a very short time, particularly in his own area of expertise: the works of the Renaissance painter Enzo di Montagna.
But Matteo isn’t bothered. He examines Nigel with a slight, almost condescending smile.
“No, I don’t have to.”
“So why do it then?” There’s a defiant spark in Nigel’s eyes, which can’t have escaped Matteo’s notice. In fact, it clearly hasn’t since I can see a muscle twitching in his cheek, even though he still has a smile on his lips. He even smiles a little more broadly, turning his head toward me and holding my gaze.
“Because some people are worth making an exception for,” he says, placing an arm lightly around me, so his hand is resting on my hip.
Nigel turns his gaze to me, seemingly unable to believe his eyes. Dad clears his throat several times, something he always does when he feels out of his depth.
But I register it all in passing because I’m completely baffled, too. I can feel Matteo lightly touching my back, and then I melt into his eyes, which now harbour a completely different expression. One that takes my breath away …
“Well then, it’s really lucky Sophie managed to persuade you,” Dad says, rousing me from my stupor at last. I take a hasty step to one side, feeling my cheeks grow warm.
“Were you able to get hold of the art book I mentioned to you over the phone?” I ask my father hastily and he responds immediately — just as I was banking on him to.
“Yes, of course.” He turns to his desk and indicates a large, heavy book lying on the edge of the table. “This must be exactly what Signore Bertani wanted.”
This arouses Matteo’s interest. “May I take a look?”
“Be my guest.” My father nods encouragingly and as Matteo steps over to the desk I can immediately tell that it’s the right book, from the way his eyes are gleaming.
“Yes, that’s the one I meant,” he declares, satisfied, leafing through it for a moment.
He needs this edition as a reference work for the appraisal, and luckily my father found one from an online book shop. So I asked Dad to procure it for us.
“Is there anything else you need?” Dad enquires, but Matteo shakes his head.
“Thank you very much, but no. I’ve brought a few things with me from Rome and if I need anything else, I can take care of it myself.”
And he’ll probably be able to get whatever he wants, I think. During our hurried departure from Rome, I myself witnessed just how efficient he can be when organising something. I’d already checked in my suitcase at the airport in Rome, yet got it back in record time. And this mysterious ability isn’t about money, it’s not that he pays for “favours” like that. It’s because the ladies from ground control couldn’t resist his charms. If that’s his usual modus operandi, I don’t imagine he’ll have any difficulty getting hold of whatever he requires for the appraisal.
“How long do you think you’ll need?” Dad enquires. I can tell how tense he is. The situation is a strain on him, and he just wants it all to be over as quickly as possible.
Matteo shrugs his shoulders. “I don’t know. It depends. But it’s definitely going to take a few days, at least.”
If we’re lucky, I think apprehensively. Putting together an appraisal is normally a highly time-consuming process, partly because it’s simply a question of thoroughly examining and evaluating the work in question. You also have to reconstruct the painting’s provenance as seamlessly as possible, and corroborate it with the appropriate documentation. That can be tricky with a painting as old as the Enzo. In fact, we can only hope Matteo manages to get it done quickly enough, before rumours start making the rounds — that we put forged paintings up for sale as originals. That would be a complete disaster for our auction house.
“We’d better get going,” I urge him, suddenly in a hurry, looking meaningfully at the antique clock hanging above Dad’s office door. “I’m sure Matteo will need to rest before we drive to Lord Ashbury’s. And I wanted to look in on Mum for a moment.”
“She’s already waiting for you,” my father confirms, intensifying my guilt at my long absence.
I can’t leave London, I think, looking at the ground for a moment and feeling that old familiar weight which so often rests on my shoulders. No matter what I do — my life is here, and not in Rome or anywhere else. I’d be kidding myself if I pretended I had any alternative.
When I raise my head again, I meet Nigel’s gaze. He’s looking at me earnestly, almost sternly.
“May I speak to you in private, Sophie?”
Great. That’s all I need. But I swallow back the no that’s on the tip of my tongue and smile slightly — it’s not his fault I’m so tense right now.
My father and Matteo, who were already on their way to the door, have stopped. But Dad seems to understand that Nigel and I have a few things to clear up.
“Come on, I’ll give you a quick look at our exhibition hall,” he offers Matteo, who has no choice but to follow Dad. He does so reluctantly, looking back over his shoulder at me before shutting the door behind him.
“So it’s Matteo, is it? And he’s allowed to touch you?” Nigel asks as soon as we’re alone, looking just as reproachful as he sounds. Reproachful and disappointed. Jealous.
Which shocks me. Somehow I always assumed his feelings toward me were rather more rational in nature. I thought he appreciated me and saw me as a partner who would fit well in his life. I wouldn’t have expected such a violent reaction from him. And it also angers me, because he has no right. Yes, he’s done a lot for my father and for me, and as a result we’ve become very close over the past year. But it’s never been more than friendship, so I don’t owe him any kind of explanation.
“We got to know each other well in Rome, yes,” I explain. “If we hadn’t, he probably wouldn’t have taken on the appraisal — and where would that leave us?” Nigel’s furious expression doesn’t change, and it’s making me uncomfortable, so I change the subject. “Has Lord Ashbury kept to our agreement and not said anything to the press yet?” I think that’s a much more important question than how close I am to Matteo.
Nigel nods. “But he’s very impatient to see Professor Wunderkind from Italy,” he says sardonically, still pretty irritated. “If this Bertani guy had been able to make an exception where flying was concerned, this whole nightmare might have long since been over. But no, he had to come by car, dragging the whole thing out unnecessarily.”
There’s no way I can let that pass.
“An appraisal like this can’t be completed in two days, Nigel. Even if he’d started right away, he still wouldn’t have finished yet. And if your wife had lost her life in a plane crash, you probably wouldn’t be very fond of flying anymore, either.”
Nigel looks at me, surprised. “Is that what happened to him?”
I nod, feeling a pang. The fact that Matteo won’t set foot in a plane ever again showed me just how much his wife Giulia’s death must still weigh on him. Six years ago, she and her flight instructor had crashed their little sporting aircraft into the sea, and they lost their lives. Matteo never talks about it, just as he doesn’t talk about the accident that happened around the same time, which left him with that awful scar on his chest. But both events seem to be why he doesn’t let anyone outside his own family get too close to him. I would love to have gotten to the bottom of that secret, but I’m afraid I’ll no longer get the chance.
“I’m so sorry he had to go through that,” Nigel says. His initial shock has receded. “But then he ought to have stayed in Italy. I’m sure there are plenty of other art experts who are familiar with the Enzo paintings and prepared to fly to London when needed.”
“But Lord Ashbury only respects Matteo’s opinion, you know that,” I remind him. “And I can understand that — he’s definitely the best in the field.”
Nigel’s expression clouds over even more. “You really like that Bertani guy.”
He says it quietly — outbursts of any kind just aren’t his style — but it still sounds like an accusation, forcing me into a corner almost against my will.
“Matteo is helping us, even though — as you rightly pointed out — he doesn’t have to. I do respect his professional abilities. And I don’t have any reason to dislike him,” I explain coolly, not bothering to conceal my irritation. Which finally causes him to come around.
“I’m sorry.” He takes a step toward me and strokes my forearms with his hands, looking at me with remorse. “You’re right, of course. We should be happy he’s made the time to do the appraisal. I guess I’m just a little jealous. You’ve been away for so long, and now I’ve finally got you back, I have to share you again.”
He’s smiling that old familiar smile of his, which has helped me through so many stressful days and for a brief, desperate moment I wish everything could go back to the way it was before my trip to Rome. Simple. Manageable. Predictable.
But I can’t turn back time, I think, with a lump in my throat. Before I met Matteo, I definitely could have imagined Nigel and I becoming a couple. He’s the ideal man for me because he’s so reliable in every way. I always know where I am with him — and I thought I needed that. But it’s just not there anymore — that pleasant, secure feeling I always had in the past, whenever I was near him. Instead, it bothers me that he’s suddenly acting so possessive toward me.
“See you this evening?” His voice sounds hopeful. “I’ll reserve a table for us at ‘Oyster’s’ as usual, OK?”
I shake my head. “No, you’d better not. I don’t know how long it will take at Lord Ashbury’s. And I’m really tired after the long drive.” Which is why I find his question a little bit insensitive.
“What a shame,” he says despondently and suddenly I just want to escape this bizarre situation. I cast a demonstrative glance at the clock.
“We really do need to get going, otherwise we’re going to be too pressed for time,” I say, hoping Nigel won’t stop me again this time. And he doesn’t. He just follows me out into the corridor.
Dad and Matteo are standing in the entrance hall. They’ve finished their tour and Matteo is smiling at something my father is saying. And I find that oddly touching, maybe because I’ve never really been able to imagine him here, in this environment. I thought he’d never be part of my daily life in London and it’s a bit hard to fathom that he is now — for the moment at least.
“Shall we?” I ask, as I reach the others. Matteo raises his eyebrows.
“I was waiting for you,” he says, giving me another charming smile, which I find confusing.
Couldn’t he just go on keeping his distance as he did on the drive? That was painful, but I could deal with it. But if he keeps beaming at me like this, everything I just rearranged so carefully is going to fall apart again. And that wouldn’t do at all.
“Actually, I can take you home,” Nigel offers abruptly, almost as if he could read my mind. “I’ll be passing your place on the way to the bank anyway. Then Signore Bertani won’t have to make a special trip.”
“It’s really no trouble,” Matteo says at once, in a determined voice, shrugging his shoulders as we all look at him in surprise. “Otherwise we’ll have to unload and reload the luggage — it’s not worth it.” It sounds like a practical reason, but the gleam in his eyes reveals that he doesn’t want Nigel to drive me.
“He’s right,” I explain to Nigel, who is looking back at Matteo with an icy expression. I place a hand on his arm and look at him pleadingly. The last thing I need now is for the two of them to quarrel.
Luckily, Nigel concedes and lets the subject drop. But he’s not exactly thrilled to leave me to Matteo. And my father, who’s been watching all this very closely, is now looking back and forth from Matteo to Nigel, frowning.
“See you tomorrow,” I tell Dad, giving him another parting hug. I hug Nigel too, but more briefly, and then I head toward the exit with Matteo, who places his hand on my back again as we walk.
Dad and Nigel follow us as far as the car. The roof of the convertible has stayed closed until now, but Matteo folds it back because the sky has cleared and the June sunshine is pleasantly warm.
“Get in touch right away if there’s any news, won’t you, Sophie?” Dad calls out to me, as Matteo is already putting the car in reverse and turning it, and I promise I will as I wave good-bye to the two of them once more. I briefly describe how to get to my place, and Matteo merges into the heavy traffic on the King’s Road again.
“Why did you do that?” I ask brusquely. “When we were in Dad’s office just now, why did you imply there was something going on between us?”
Matteo glances briefly at me and raises the corners of his mouth. “There was something going on between us, Sophie. And I’m here because of you — I wasn’t lying,” he replies calmly, completely taking the wind out of my sails. Does that mean he wants to resume our affair? And, if so, how do Ifeel about that?
“I still wish you’d put it differently,” I say, which earns me another look that I’m not sure how to interpret. Something in his eyes is making me very nervous. So I spend the rest of the journey staring out of the window.
Luckily, it’s not far to Lennox Gardens, just a few streets really, and since Matteo is driving fast — speeding, rather, since driving seems to bring out the temperamental Italian in him — it only takes us a few minutes to reach the rows of red-clinkered houses surrounding the pretty green space after which the street was named.
“Here it is.” I point to my building — the high, two-storey houses with their many pretty gables form one single frontage, and the entrances are very similar. In fact, the only thing differentiating them are the painted colours of the wrought iron fences in front of the basement entrances and the front doors.
Matteo parks in a free space a little further up the street and fetches my suitcase from the car.
“You don’t need to carry it in for me,” I tell him, trying to take it off him — but he refuses to give it to me. He just looks at me as if I’d lost my mind. Letting me carry my own luggage is completely out of the question for him. All I can do is show him the way.
“The suitcase has wheels, by the way,” I tell him, a little irritated because Matteo is carrying it, rather than using the four little round things for their designed purpose. And because, despite myself, I’m impressed by how little the weight seems to bother him — the suitcase is not exactly light. He’s carried me often enough, I reflect, without the slightest apparent effort. But then I immediately censure myself before I can remember what context that was in. “And I generally manage to get it into the house on my own,” I add, rather stubbornly.
“Well, you’ve got me to do that now,” Matteo replies, unimpressed by my flash of feminism, grinning so shamelessly that my stomach starts turning somersaults again.
Yes, I think, sighing inwardly. But for how long …
I don’t smile back at him as I open the little gate next to the main entrance, where a staircase leads down to the basement. My parents live up in the main floor, but I moved into the flat down here a few years ago. That way, I have my own space and can still look after Mum whenever I need to.
My hands are trembling a little, but I manage to unlock the front door on my first attempt. Matteo follows me through the hallway and past the stairs leading up to my parents’ living quarters — to my flat door, which, luckily, I also manage to open without too much difficulty.
It doesn’t smell stuffy inside the flat itself — which is probably thanks to my parents’ housekeeper, Jane. She must have taken care of dusting and airing during my long absence. And she was probably the one who put the bouquet of fresh flowers into the vase on the dining table.
But otherwise, everything is just as I left it: the little living room with the open-plan kitchen on one side and the two adjoining rooms, one of which I use as a bedroom and the other as a study. And that’s it, apart from the bathroom, the little broom cupboard, and the terrace leading to the inner courtyard visible through the sitting room window, which I have all to myself. The flat isn’t very big, but it’s roomy enough for me, and I love it — if only because it’s my own, and provides me with a little bit of independence during my daily balancing act of juggling business and caring for my mother.
But now that Matteo is standing in the sitting room, dwarfing the room with his height, it seems very small indeed. And he must think so too, since he’s used to a quite different scale — with his huge, beautiful villa in the centre of Rome. And although Kensington is one of the most expensive districts in London, it doesn’t even come close to comparing with how he lives.
But he doesn’t seem to find it too bad — quite the contrary.
“Nice place you’ve got here,” he says, surveying my furniture with appreciative eyes — the pieces are almost all family heirlooms, which I have complemented with modern accessories to create a stylish combination, of which I’m rather proud. I’m really happy that Matteo, who comes from one of Italy’s most famous designer families, is also pleased with how it turned out.
But he seems rather puzzled by the choice of pictures hanging on the walls. They are almost all by virtually unknown young artists, who I found so promising that I bought their work.
“I didn’t know you had such a weakness for modern art.”
“I don’t really — at least, not exclusively,” I say with a sad smile, because he really struck a nerve there. “But I had to sell all the older, more valuable paintings.”
He frowns. “Why?”
“For the same reason that people usually have to part with valuable things.” I don’t like talking about it, but it’s not a secret, so there’s no reason why he shouldn’t know. “We went through a difficult patch a while back. Auction house business was sluggish. We needed money, so we auctioned off some works from our private collection.”
That’s the short version of the crisis of more than a year ago, when we suddenly found ourselves close to bankruptcy. If Nigel hadn’t helped us by having his banking firm continue to provide us with loans under favourable conditions, the renowned “Conroy’s” — which has been in our family for four generations, might have no longer existed at all. And now, after we’ve luckily recovered, things could soon be touch-and-go for us again …
I glance up to find myself looking straight into Matteo’s eyes, which are examining me carefully. Too carefully.
“That’s a great shame. You must have been attached to them.”
There’s genuine sympathy in his voice, and I have to turn my head away because, to my chagrin, tears are welling up in my eyes.
I miss the pieces, especially the two John William Waterhouse sketches I inherited from my grandfather, which I’d always really loved. And suddenly it all comes back to me: the helplessness and fear which were my constant companions in those terrible months. I thought I’d put all that behind me, but it turns out the wounds are not as healed as I thought, and the accusations we’re facing now are threatening to reopen them. I hate the fact that there’s absolutely nothing I can personally do to change our situation. It was true back then, and it’s true again now — and that drives me crazy.
“It’s not that bad,” I explain to Matteo, swallowing back my tears because I don’t want to start crying in front of him. But my smile looks too strained to be credible, and he has that devastatingly understanding look in his eyes again. As if he would like to take me into his arms and comfort me. Which is absolutely out of the question, I tell myself, trying to ignore the thought how lovely it would be if he did. I would love to allow my strong front to collapse. But I can’t, especially not around Matteo. So I clear my throat.
“You should get going now, if you want to get settled in before we have to leave for Lord Ashbury’s.” I try to remain sensible and not look too deeply into his eyes. Which isn’t at all easy. “Should I …,” I swallow, but then get my voice back under control, “explain … how to get back to Chelsea from here?”
A smile appears on his lips.
“No need, that’s what the GPS is for.” He bends a little further forward toward me. “Besides, they haven’t yet built a city I couldn’t find my way round. So don’t worry, you won’t lose me.”
Captivated I stare at his mouth, which is suddenly very close to mine. I want to kiss him so badly that I hastily take a step backwards.
“That’s … good. Because I’m going to need you,” I say and immediately regret this, as his smile grows broader and that sexy dimple I find rather irresistible appears on his cheek again. Good god, Sophie, what are you saying? “For … the appraisal,” I hastily add.
“Only for that?” he says hoarsely. His amber eyes are sparkling so seductively that for a second I’m tempted to succumb to the feeling drawing me toward him. But then I’m suddenly afraid of losing myself again. I want him, I really do. But what if I find that he’s surrounded himself with that wall of his again? He’s never going to let another woman past his defences. That’s all I can give you, he told me. An affair. Sex. And that’s not enough for me. I’ve never felt as drawn to a man as I do to him. He’s like a drug that I could get addicted to, so I have to be sensible and abstain altogether. Because I can’t have him. Not all of him. Not forever. And only getting a small piece of him might destroy me.
“Matteo, I …”
My mobile rings from inside my handbag, which I put down on the dainty Chesterfield chair. It’s my salvation.
I’m about to squeeze hastily past him, but Matteo reacts first. He turns round and strides toward the door. Obviously he doesn’t want to eavesdrop on my telephone conversation.
“I’ll be off, then.” He smiles briefly and a little wryly. “Will it leave us enough time, if I pick you up again at four o’clock?” He waits for my nod and then he’s out the door, closing it behind him. I appreciate his respect for my privacy.
I reach the armchair and get out my mobile, which is still ringing.
It’s my friend Sarah.
“I’ve just spoken to your father. So you’ve really brought him with you?” she cries excitedly when I answer. “I thought he didn’t want to take on the appraisal.”
She knows Matteo because she studied art history in Rome two years ago, and had taken a few of his courses at the university. That’s why she knows — and she’s the only one who knows — that Matteo and I have been very close, indeed.
“He changed his mind,” I say. I can hear how happy that makes her.
“Ha! I knew it. You mean more to him than he’s willing to admit.”
“I don’t think so,” I counter. “And that’s not why he’s here.”
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