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The Italian's Christmas Housekeeper by Sharon Kendrick (1)

CHAPTER ONE

SALVIO DE GENNARO stared at the lights as he rounded the headland. Flickering lights from the tall candles which gleamed in the window of the big old house. They made him think of Christmas and he didn’t want to think about it—not with still six weeks left to go. Yet here in England the shops were already full with trees and tinsel and the kind of gifts surely no sane person would want for themselves.

His mouth hardened as the dark waters of the Atlantic crashed dangerously on the rocks beneath him.

Christmas. The least wonderful time of the year in his opinion. No contest.

He slowed his pace to a steady jog as dusk fell around him like a misty grey curtain. The rain was heavier now and large drops of water had started to lash against his body but he was oblivious to them, even though his bare legs were spattered with mud and his muscles were hot with the strain of exertion. He ran because he had to. Because he’d been taught to. Tough, physical exercise woven into the fabric of his day, no matter where in the world he was. A discipline which was as much a part of him as breathing and which made him hard and strong. He barely noticed that his wet singlet was now clinging to his torso or that his shorts were plastered to his rocky thighs.

He thought about the evening ahead and, not for the first time, wondered why he had bothered coming. He was here because he wanted to buy a prime piece of land from his aristocratic host and was convinced the deal could be concluded more quickly in an informal setting. The man he was dealing with was notoriously difficult to pin down—a fact which Salvio’s assistant had remarked on, when she’d enquired whether she should accept the surprise invitation for dinner and an overnight stay.

Salvio gave a grim smile. Perhaps he should have been grateful to have been granted access to Lord Avery’s magnificent Cornish house, which stood overlooking the fierce midwinter lash of the ocean. But gratitude was a quality which didn’t come easily to him, despite his huge wealth and all the luxury it afforded him. He wasn’t particularly looking forward to dinner tonight. Not with a hostess who’d been eying him up from the moment he’d arrived—her eyes lit with a predatory hunger which was by no means unusual, although it was an attitude he inevitably found tedious. Married women intent on seduction could be curiously unattractive, he thought disdainfully.

Inhaling a lungful of sea air, he grew closer to the house, reminding himself to instruct his assistant to add a couple of names to the guest list for his annual Christmas party in the Cotswolds, the count-down to which had already begun. He sighed. His yearly holiday celebration—which always took place in his honey-stone manor house—was one of the most lusted-after invitations on the social calendar, though he would have happily avoided it, given the opportunity. But he owed plenty of people hospitality and you couldn’t avoid Christmas, no matter how much the idea appealed.

He’d learnt to tolerate the festival and conceal his aversion behind a lavish display of generosity. He bought expensive gifts for his family and staff and injected yet more cash into the charitable arm of his vast property empire. He took a trip to his native Naples to visit his family, because that was what every good Neapolitan boy did, no matter how old or successful he was. He went back to the city which he avoided as much as possible because it was the home of his shattered dreams—and who liked to be reminded of those? For him, home would always be the place where he had been broken—and the man who had emerged from the debris of that time had been a different man. A man whose heart had been wiped clean of emotion. A man who was thankfully no longer at the mercy of his feelings.

He increased his pace to a last-minute sprint as he thought about Naples and the inevitable litany of questions about why he hadn’t brought home a nice girl to marry, nor produced a clutch of bonny, black-haired babies for his mother to make a fuss of. He would be forced to meet the wistful question in her eyes and bite back the disclosure that he never intended to marry. Never. Why disillusion her?

He slowed his pace as he reached the huge house, glad he had declined his hostess’s invitation to accompany her and her husband to the local village that afternoon, where a performance of Cinderella was taking place. Salvio’s lips curved into a cynical smile. Amateur dramatics in the company of a married woman with the hots for him? Not in this lifetime. Instead, he intending making the most of the unexpected respite by trying to relax. He would grab a glass of water and go to his room. Listen to the soothing soundtrack of the ocean lashing hard against the rocks and maybe read a book. More likely still, he would chase up that elusive site in New Mexico which he was itching to develop.

But first he needed to dry off.

* * *

Sinking her teeth into a large and very moist slice of chocolate cake, Molly gave a small moan of pleasure as she got her first hit from the sugary treat. She was starving. Absolutely starving. She hadn’t eaten a thing since that bowl of porridge she’d grabbed on the run first thing. Unfortunately the porridge had been lumpy and disappointing, mainly because the unpredictable oven had started playing up halfway through making it. Not for the first time, she wondered why her bosses couldn’t just have the kind of oven you simply switched on, instead of a great beast of a thing which lurked in the corner like a brooding animal and was always going wrong. She’d been working like crazy all morning, cleaning the house with even more vigour than usual because Lady Avery had been in such a state about their overnight guest.

‘He’s Italian,’ her employer had bit out. ‘And you know how fussy they are about cleanliness.’

Molly didn’t know, actually. But more worrying still was Lady Avery’s inference that she wasn’t working hard enough. Which was why Molly dusted the chandeliers with extra care and fastidiously vacuumed behind the heavy pieces of antique furniture. At one point she even got down on her hands and knees to scrub the back door porch—even if she did manage to make her hands red raw in the process. She’d put a big copper vase of scented eucalyptus and dark roses in the guest bedroom and had been baking biscuits and cakes all morning, so that the house smelt all homely and fragrant.

The Averys rarely used their Cornish house—which was one of the reasons why Molly considered being their resident housekeeper the perfect job. It meant she could live on a limited budget and use the lion’s share of her wages to pay off her brother’s debt and the frightening amount of interest it seemed to accrue. It was the reason she endured the isolated location and demanding attitude of her employer, instead of spreading her wings and finding somewhere more lively.

But the winter had made her isolation all the more noticeable and it was funny how the approach of Christmas always reminded you of the things you didn’t have. This year she was really missing her brother and trying not to worry about what he was doing in Australia. But deep down she knew she had to let go. She had to. For both their sakes. Robbie was probably having the time of his life on that great big sunny continent—and maybe she should count her blessings.

She took another bite of chocolate cake and did exactly that, reminding herself that most people would revel in the fact that when the Averys were around, they entertained all kinds of amazing people. Guests Molly actually got to meet—even if it was only in the context of turning down their beds at night or offering them a home-made scone. Politicians who worked with Lord Avery in the Palace of Westminster, and famous actors who spouted Shakespearean sonnets from the stages of London’s theatres. There were business people, too—and sometimes even members of the royal family, whose bodyguards lurked around the kitchen and kept asking for cups of tea.

But Molly had never heard Lady Avery make such a fuss about anyone as she’d done about the impending arrival of Salvio De Gennaro, who was apparently some hotshot property developer who lived mostly in London. Earlier that day she had been summoned into her boss’s office, where the walls were decked with misty photos of Lady Avery wearing pearls and a dreamy expression, in those far-off days before she’d decided to have a load of extensive work done on her face. A bad idea, in Molly’s opinion—though of course she would never have said so. Lady Avery’s plump lips had been coated in a startling shade of pink and her expression had been unnaturally smooth as she’d gazed at Molly. Only the hectic flicker in her pale eyes had hinted how excited she was by the impending visit of the Italian tycoon.

‘Everything is prepared for our guest’s arrival?’ The words were clipped out like tiny beads of crystal.

‘Yes, Lady Avery.’

‘Make sure that Signor De Gennaro’s bed linen is scented with lavender, will you?’ continued her boss. ‘And be sure to use the monogrammed sheets.’

‘Yes, Lady Avery.’

‘In fact...’ A thoughtful pause had followed. ‘Perhaps you’d better go into town and buy a new duvet.’

‘What, now, Your Ladyship?’

‘Yes. Right now.’ A varnished scarlet fingernail began tracing a circle on the sheet of blotting paper on the desk and an odd, trembling note had crept into her employer’s aristocratic voice. ‘We don’t want Signor De Gennaro complaining about the cold, do we?’

‘We certainly don’t, Lady Avery.’

The last-minute purchase of the new duvet had been the reason why Molly hadn’t been on hand to greet the Italian tycoon when he’d arrived. And when she’d returned from her shopping expedition—gasping under the bulky dimensions of a high-tog goose-down duvet—there had been no sign of him. Only his open suitcase and a few clothes strewn around his room indicated he was somewhere in the vicinity, although he was nowhere to be seen in the house. Which at least meant Molly had been able to make up his bed in peace—though her heart had started racing when she’d spotted the faded denims slung carelessly over a stool. And when she’d picked up the dark sweater which lay crumpled beside it, she had been startled by the softness of the cashmere as she’d automatically started to fold it. Briefly, her fingertips had caressed the fine wool before she had taken herself downstairs for tea and some restorative cake and she was just on her third mouthful when the kitchen door opened then slammed shut with a rush of icy air and Molly looked up to see a man framed in the doorway who could only be the Italian billionaire.

Her heart crashed against her ribcage.

The most perfect man she could have imagined.

Her mouth opened slightly but she clamped it shut and the chocolate fudge cake she’d been eating suddenly tasted like glue against the roof of her mouth.

Mud-spattered and windswept, he was standing perfectly still—his singlet and shorts surely the craziest choice of clothes he could have selected for the bitter winter day, although a fleecy top was knotted around his narrow hips. His olive skin was silky-smooth and his body was... Molly tried not to shake her head in disbelief but it took some doing, because his body was sensational—and she was certainly not the kind of woman who spent her time analysing men’s bodies. In fact, her interest had never really been sparked by anyone.

Until now.

She swallowed, the cake she was holding suddenly forgotten. It took a lot for Molly to disregard the sugar craving which had always been the bane of her life, but she forgot it now. Because she’d never seen a man like this. Not someone with a rocky torso against which his wet top clung to every sinew, as if it had been painted on with a fine-tipped brush. Nor such narrow hips and sculpted thighs whose glorious flesh was exposed by the shorts he seemed to wear so comfortably. Her eyes moved up to his face. To eyes as black as one of those moonless nights when you couldn’t ever imagine seeing daylight again. And his lips. Molly swallowed again. Oh, those lips. Sensual and full, they were hard and unsmiling as they looked at her with something it took a moment for her to recognise. Was it...disdain? Her heart pounded uncomfortably. Yes, of course it was. Men with whiplike bodies which didn’t carry an ounce of extra weight would be unlikely to approve of an overabundant female who was bulging out of her ugly uniform and stuffing a great big fix of carbohydrate into her mouth.

Flushing to the roots of her hair, she put down the half-eaten cake and rose to her feet, wondering why the ground beneath them suddenly felt as if it were shifting, the way she’d always imagined standing on quicksand might feel. ‘I’m...’ She blinked at him before trying again. ‘I’m so sorry. I wasn’t expecting anyone...’

His voice was sardonic as his gaze met hers for one heart-stopping moment, before dropping briefly to the crumb-laden plate. ‘Clearly not.’

‘You must be...’ A dark angel who has suddenly fallen into my kitchen? The most gorgeous man I’ve ever seen? Her chest felt tight. ‘You must be Signor De Gennaro?’

‘Indeed I am. Forgive me.’ Jet eyebrows were raised as he unknotted the warm top from his hips and pulled it over his head before shaking out his damp, dark curls. ‘I seem to have disturbed your snack.’

Her snack? Although his English was faultless, his richly accented voice was nearly as distracting as his body and Molly opened her mouth to say it was actually a late lunch because she’d been rushing around all morning preparing for his arrival, but something stopped her. As if someone like Salvio De Gennaro would be interested in her defence! As if he would believe her making out she was a stranger to cake when her curvy body told an entirely different story. Smoothing her uniform down over her generous hips, she tried to adopt an expression of professional interest, rather than the shame of being caught out doing something she shouldn’t. And he was still staring at her. Making her aware of every pulsing atom of her body in a way which was making her feel extremely self-conscious...but strangely enough, in a good way.

‘Can I get you anything, Signor De Gennaro?’ she questioned politely. ‘I’m afraid Lord and Lady Avery have gone to the village pantomime and won’t be back until later.’

‘I know,’ he said coolly. ‘Perhaps some water. And a coffee, if you have one.’

‘Of course. How do you take your coffee?’

He flickered her a smile. ‘Black, short, no sugar. Grazie.

Of course not, thought Molly. No sugar for someone like him. He looked as if he’d never been near anything sweet in his life. She wished he’d go. Before he noticed that her brow had grown clammy, or that her nipples had started to push distractingly against the unflattering navy-blue uniform Lady Avery insisted she wore. ‘I’ll do that right away,’ she said briskly. ‘And bring them up to your room.’

‘No need for that. I’ll wait here,’ he said.

She wanted to tell him he was making her feel awkward by standing there, like some kind of brooding, dark statue—just staring at her. As if he had read her thoughts, he strolled over towards the window and she became aware of an almost imperceptible limp in his right leg. Had he injured himself when out running and should she ask him whether he needed a bandage or something? Perhaps not. Someone with his confidence would be bound to ask for one.

She could feel a stray strand of hair tickling the back of her neck and wished she’d had time to fix it. Or had been sitting reading some novel which might have made her look interesting, instead of scoffing cake and emphasising the fact that she was heavy and ungainly.

‘I’ll try to be as quick as I can,’ she said, reaching up into one of the cupboards for a clean glass.

‘I’m in no hurry,’ he said lazily.

Because that much was true. Salvio had decided that he was enjoying himself though he wasn’t quite sure why. Maybe it was the novelty factor of being with the kind of woman he didn’t come across very often—at least, not any more. Not since he’d left behind the backstreets of Naples, along with those women whose curves defined fecundity and into whose generous flesh a man could sink after a long, hard day. Women like this one, who blushed alluringly if they caught you looking at them.

He had waited for a moment to see if she would recognise him. If she knew who he was—or, rather, who he had been. But no. He was familiar with recognition in all its forms—from greedy delight right through to feigned ignorance—but there had been no trace of any of those on her face. And why should there be? She was much younger than him and from a different country. How would she have known that in his native Italy he had once been famous?

He watched her busying herself, her curvy silhouette reminding him of the bottles of Verdicchio which used to line the shelves of the city bar he’d swept as a boy, before the talent scouts had discovered him and ended his childhood. She turned to switch on the coffee maker and a sudden dryness turned his throat to dust because...her breasts. He swallowed. Madonna mia—what breasts! He was glad when she turned away to open the fridge door because his erection was pressing uncomfortably against his shorts, though, when she did, he then became mesmerised by her shapely bottom. He was just fantasising about what her shiny brown hair would look like loose when she turned around and surveyed him with eyes as grey as the Santissima Annunziata Maggiore—that beautiful church in Naples, which had once been an orphanage.

Their gazes clashed and mingled and something unspoken fizzled in the air as Salvio felt a leap of something he couldn’t define. The hardness in his groin was familiar but the sudden clench of his heart was not. Was it lust? His mouth twisted. Of course it was lust—for what else could it be? It just happened to be more powerful than usual because it had taken him by surprise.

Yet there was no answering hunger in her quiet, grey gaze—something which perplexed him, for when didn’t a woman look at him with desire in her eyes? She was wary, he found himself thinking, with a flicker of amusement. Almost as if she were silently reproaching him for his insolent appraisal—and maybe that sentiment was richly deserved. What was he doing surveying her curvy body, like a boy from a single-sex school who was meeting a beautiful woman for the first time?

‘You’re the cook?’ he questioned, trying to redeem himself with a safe, if rather banal question.

She nodded. ‘Sort of. Officially, I’m the housekeeper but I do a bit of everything. Answer the door to guests and make sure their rooms are serviced, that sort of thing.’ She pushed the coffee towards him. ‘Will there be anything else, Signor De Gennaro?’

He smiled. ‘Salvio. And you are?’

She looked taken aback, as if people didn’t ask her name very often. ‘It’s Molly,’ she answered shyly, in a voice so soft it felt like silk lingerie brushing against his skin. ‘Molly Miller.’

Molly Miller. He found himself wanting to repeat it, but the conversation—such as it was—was terminated by the sudden sweep of car headlights arcing powerfully across the room. As he heard the sound of a large car swishing over gravel, Salvio saw the way she flinched and automatically tugged at her drab dress so that it hung more uniformly over her wide hips.

‘That’s the Averys.’

‘I thought it must be.’

‘You’d better... You’d better go,’ she said, unable to keep the waver of urgency from her voice. ‘I’m supposed to be preparing dinner and Lady Avery won’t like finding a guest in the kitchen.’

Salvio was tempted to tell her that he didn’t give a damn what Lady Avery would or wouldn’t like but he could see the fear which had darkened her soft grey eyes. With a flicker of irritation he picked up his espresso and water and headed for the door. ‘Grazie mille,’ he said, leaving the warm and steamy kitchen and walking rapidly towards the staircase, reluctant to be around when the Averys burst into the hallway.

But once back in his own room, he was irritated to discover that the low burn of desire was refusing to leave him. So that instead of the hot shower he’d promised himself, Salvio found himself standing beneath jets of punishingly cold water as he tried to push the curves of the sweet little housekeeper from the forefront of his mind and to quell the exquisite hardness which throbbed at his groin.