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The Italian's Christmas Child(3)

By:Lynne Graham

‘If you’re looking for a party, you’re at the wrong house,’ Vito told her loftily, recalling his friend’s warnings about how sneaky the paparazzi could be. If he’d thought about that risk, he wouldn’t have answered the door at all.

‘I’m looking for a phone. Mine has no reception here and my car went off the road at the foot of your lane,’ Holly explained in a rush. ‘Do you have a landline?’

Exasperation flashed through Vito, who had far too much sensitive information on his cell phone to consider loaning it to anyone. ‘This isn’t my house. I’ll look and see,’ he fielded drily.

As he turned on his heel without inviting her in out of the heavily falling snow, Holly grimaced and shivered because she wasn’t dressed for bad weather, having only thrown on a raincoat to cover her outfit because she had known she would be warm inside the car. Not Mr Nice Guy, anyway, she thought ruefully. She had recognised the impatience in those electrifyingly dark magnetic eyes, watched the flare of his nostrils and the tightening of his wide, sculpted mouth as he’d bit back a withering comment. She was good at reading faces, even gorgeous ones, she conceded, as she shifted her feet in a vain effort to heat the blood freezing in her veins. She didn’t think she had ever seen a more handsome man, no, not even on a movie screen, but personality-wise she reckoned that there was a good chance that he was chillier than an icicle.

‘There is a phone... You may step inside to use it,’ he invited grudgingly, his foreign accent edging every syllable in a very attractive way.

Holly reddened with discomfiture, already well aware that she was not a welcome visitor. She dug out her phone to scroll through numbers for Pixie’s car mechanic, Bill, who ran a breakdown service. As she did so, she missed seeing the step in front of her and tripped over it, falling forward with a force that would have knocked the breath from her body had not strong arms snapped out to catch her before she fell.

‘Watch out...’ Taken aback by a level of clumsiness utterly unknown to a male as surefooted as a cat, Vito virtually lifted her into the porch. As her hair briefly brushed his face he was engulfed by the scent of oranges, sweet and sun-warmed. But it was only by touching her and seeing her face below the lights that he registered that she was almost blue with cold. ‘Maledizione, you’re freezing! Why didn’t you tell me that?’

‘It’s enough of an imposition coming to the door—’

‘Yes, I would surely have been happier to trip over your frozen corpse on my doorstep in the morning!’ Vito fielded scathingly. ‘You should’ve told me—’

‘You’ve got eyes of your own and an off-putting manner. I don’t like bothering people,’ Holly said truthfully while she frantically rubbed her hands over her raincoat in an effort to get some feeling back into her fingers before she tried to work her phone again.

Vito gazed down at her from his height of six foot one. He was bemused by her criticism when he was trying to be pleasant and when he could not recall when a woman had last offered him a word of criticism. Even in the act of breaking their engagement, Marzia had contrived not to speak a word of condemnation. Either a woman of saintly tolerance or one who didn’t give a damn who he might have slept with behind her back? It was a sobering thought.

An off-putting manner? Could that be true about him? His grandfather had taught him to maintain distance between himself and others and he had often thought that a useful gift when it came to commanding a large staff, none of whom dared to take liberties with their authoritarian CEO.

Thoroughly irritated by the thoughts awakened by his visitor and that unfamiliar self-questioning mode, he swiped the phone from between her shaking fingers and said firmly, ‘Go and warm up first by the fire and then make the call.’

‘Are you sure you don’t mind?’

‘I will contrive to bear it.’

Halfway towards the wonderful blaze of the log fire illuminating the dim interior, Holly spun round with a merriment in her eyes that lit up her whole face and she laughed. ‘You’re a sarky one, aren’t you?’

In the firelight her eyes were bright as sapphires and that illuminating smile made the breath catch in his throat because it lent her incredible appeal. And Vito was not the sort of male who noticed women very often and when he did he usually swiftly stifled the impulse. But for a split second that playful tone and that radiant smile knocked him sideways and he found himself staring. He scanned the glorious dark hair that fell free of the Santa hat as she whipped it off, before lowering his appreciative gaze to the wonderfully generous thrust of her breasts above a neat little waist, right down to the hem of the shimmering dress that revealed slim knees and shapely calves incongruously encased in cowboy boots. He threw his shoulders back, bracing as the pulse at his groin beat out a different kind of tension.

Holly connected momentarily with eyes of gold semi-veiled by the lush black sweep of his lashes and something visceral tightened low in her pelvis as she let her attention linger on his lean, hard bone structure, which was stunningly hard and male from his level dark brows to his arrogant classic nose and his strong, sculpted jawline. Just looking at him sent the oddest flash of excitement through her and she reddened uneasily, and deliberately spun back to the fire to hold her hands out to the heat. So, he was very good-looking. That didn’t mean she had to gape like an awestruck fan at a rock star, did it? She was only inside his house to use the phone, she reminded herself in embarrassment.

She flexed her fingers. ‘Where did you put my phone?’

As she half turned it was settled neatly into her hand and she opened it and scrolled through the numbers. He handed her the handset of the house phone and she pressed out Bill’s number, lifting it to her ear while carefully not glancing again in her host’s direction.

Vito was engaged in subduing his sexual arousal and reeling in shock from the need to do so. What was he? A teenager again? She wasn’t his type...if he had a type. The women in his life had invariably been tall, elegant blondes and she was very small, very curvy and very, very sexy, he conceded involuntarily as she moved about the room while she talked, her luxuriant hair rippling across her shoulders, her rounded hips swaying. She was apologising for disturbing someone on Christmas Eve and she apologised at great length instead of getting straight to the point of her problem with her car.

What were the chances that she was a particularly clever member of the paparazzi brigade? Vito had flown into the UK on a private plane to a private airfield and travelled to the cottage in a private car. Only Apollo and his mother, Concetta, knew where he was. But Apollo had warned him that the paps went to extraordinary lengths to steal photos and find stories they could sell. His perfect white teeth gritted. At the very least, he needed to check that there was a broken-down car at the foot of the lane.

‘Boxing Day?’ Holly was practically whispering in horror.

‘And possibly only if the snowplough has been through ahead of me,’ Bill told her apologetically. ‘I’m working flat out tonight as it is. Where exactly is the car?’

The older man was local and, knowing the road well, was able to establish where she was. ‘Aye, I know the house down there—foreign-owned holiday home as far as I know. And you’re able to stay there?’

‘Yes,’ Holly said in as reassuring a tone as she could contrive while wondering if she was going to have to bed down in Pixie’s car. ‘Do you know anyone else I could ring?’

She tried the second number but there was no response at all. Swallowing hard, she set the digital phone down. ‘I’ll go back to the car now,’ she told Vito squarely.

‘I’ll walk down with you... See if there’s anything I can do—’

‘Unless you have a tractor to haul it out of the ditch I shouldn’t think so.’ Holly buttoned her coat, tied the belt and braced herself to face the great outdoors again.

As she straightened her shoulders she looked round the room with belated admiration, suddenly noticing that the opulent décor was an amazing and highly effective marriage of traditional and contemporary styles. In spite of the ancient brick inglenook fireplace, the staircase had a glass surround and concealed lights. But she also noticed that there was one glaring omission: there were no festive decorations of any kind.

Vito yanked on his cashmere coat and scarf over the suit he still wore.

‘If you don’t have boots, I can’t let you go down there with me... You’ll get your shoes soaked,’ Holly told him ruefully, glancing at the polished, city-type footwear he sported with his incredibly stylish suit, which moulded to his well-built, long-legged frame as though specifically tailored to do so.

Vito walked into the porch, which boasted a rack of boots, and, picking out a pair, donned them. Her pragmatism had secretly impressed him. Vito was extremely clever but, like many very clever people, he was not particularly practical and the challenges of rural living in bad weather lay far outside his comfort zone.

‘My name is Holly,’ she announced brightly on the porch.

‘Vito...er...Vito Sorrentino,’ Vito lied, employing his father’s original surname.