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The Italian's Christmas Child(4)

By:Lynne Graham

His mother had been an only child, a daughter when his grandfather had longed for a son. At his grandfather’s request, Vito’s father had changed his name to Zaffari when he married Vito’s mother to ensure that the family name would not die out. Ciccio Sorrentino had been content to surrender his name in return for the privilege of marrying a fabulously wealthy banking heiress. There was no good reason for Vito to take the risk of identifying himself to a stranger. Right now the name Zaffari was cannon fodder for the tabloids across Europe and the news of his disappearance and current location would be worth a great deal of money to a profiteer. And if there was one gift Vito had in spades it was the gilded art of making a profit and ensuring that nobody got to do it at his expense.

His grandfather would have turned in his grave at the mere threat of his grandson plunging the family name and the family bank into such a sleazy scandal. Vito, however, was rather less naive. Having attended a board meeting before his departure, Vito was aware that he could virtually do no wrong. All the Zaffari directors cared about was that their CEO continued to ensure that the Zaffari bank carried on being the most successful financial institution in Europe.


‘YOU SAID THIS wasn’t your house,’ Holly reminded him through chattering teeth as they walked out into the teeth of a gale laced with snow.

‘A friend loaned it to me for a break.’

‘And you’re staying here alone?’


‘By choice...alone...at Christmas?’ Holly framed incredulously.

‘Why not?’ Vito loathed Christmas but that was none of her business and he saw no need to reveal anything of a personal nature. His memories of Christmas were toxic. His parents, who rarely spent time together, had squabbled almost continuously through the festive break. His mother had made a real effort to hide that reality and make the season enjoyable, but Vito had always been far too intelligent even as a child not to understand what was happening around him. He had seen that his mother loved his father but that her love was not returned. He had watched her humiliate herself in an effort to smooth over Ciccio’s bad moods and even worse temper. He had listened to her beg for five minutes of her husband’s attention. He had eventually grasped that the ideal goal composed of marriage, family and respectability could be a very expensive shrine to worship at. Had he not been made aware that it was his inherent duty to carry on the family line, nothing would have persuaded Vito into matrimony.

He studied the old car in the ditch with an amount of satisfaction that bemused him. It was a shabby ancient wreck of a vehicle. It had to mean that Holly was not a plant, not a spy or a member of the paparazzi, but a genuine traveller in trouble. Not that that reality softened his irritation over the fact that he was now stuck with her for at least one night. He had listened to the phone call she had made. Short of it being a matter of life or death, nobody was willing to come out on such a night. Of course he could have thrown his wealth at the problem to take care of it but nothing would more surely advertise his presence than the hiring of a helicopter to remove his unwanted guest, and he was doubtful that even a helicopter could fly in such poor conditions.

‘As you see...it’s stuck,’ Holly pointed out unnecessarily while patting the bonnet of the car as if it were a live entity in need of comfort. ‘It’s my friend’s car and she’s going to be really upset about this.’

‘Accidents happen...particularly if you choose to drive without taking precautions on a road like this in this kind of weather.’

In disbelief, Holly rounded on him, twin spots of high colour sparking over her cheekbones. ‘It wasn’t snowing this bad when I left home! There were no precautions!’

‘Let’s get your stuff and head back to the house.’

Suppressing the anger his tactless comment had roused with some difficulty, Holly studied him in astonishment. ‘You’re inviting me back to the house? You don’t need to. I can—’

‘I’m a notoriously unsympathetic man but even I could not leave you to sleep in a car in a snowstorm on Christmas Eve!’ Vito framed impatiently. ‘Now, may we cut the conversation and head back to the heat? Or do you want to pat the car again?’

Face red now with mortification, Holly opened the boot and dug out her rucksack to swing it up onto her back.

The rucksack was almost as big as she was, Vito saw in disbelief. ‘Let me take that.’

‘No... I was hoping you’d take the box because it’s heavier.’

Stubborn mouth flattening, Vito reached in with reluctance for the sizeable box and hefted it up with a curled lip. ‘Do you really need the box as well?’

‘Yes, it’s got all my stuff in it...please,’ Holly urged.

Her amazingly blue eyes looked up at him and he felt strangely disorientated. Her eyes were as translucent a blue as the Delft masterpieces his mother had conserved from his grandfather’s world-famous collection. They trudged back up the lane with Vito maintaining a disgruntled silence as he carried the bulky carton.

‘Porca miseria! What’s in the box?’

‘My Christmas decorations and some food.’

‘Why are you driving round with Christmas decorations and food? Of course, you were heading to a party,’ he reasoned for himself, thinking of what she wore.

‘No, I wasn’t. I intended to spend the night with my foster mother because I thought she was going to be on her own for Christmas. But...turns out her son came and collected her and she didn’t know I was planning to surprise her, so when I went off the road I was driving home again.’

‘Where’s home?’

She named a town Vito had never heard of.

‘Where are you from?’

‘Florence...in Italy,’ he explained succinctly.

‘I do know where Florence is...it is famous,’ Holly countered, glancing up at him while the snow drifted down steadily, quietly, cocooning them in the small space lit by his torch. ‘So, you’re Italian.’

‘You do like to state the obvious, don’t you?’ Vito derided, stomping into the porch one step behind her.

‘I hate that sarcasm of yours!’ Holly fired back at him angrily, taking herself almost as much by surprise as she took him because she usually went out of her way to avoid conflict.

An elegant black brow raised, Vito removed the boots, hung his coat and scarf and then lifted the rucksack from her bent shoulders. ‘What have you got in here? Rocks?’


‘The kitchen here is packed with food.’

‘Do you always know better than everyone else about everything?’ Holly, whose besetting fault was untidiness, carefully hung her wet coat beside his to be polite.

‘I very often do know better,’ Vito answered without hesitation.

Holly spread a shaken glance over his lean, darkly handsome and wholly serious features and groaned out loud. ‘No sense of humour either.’

‘Knowing one’s own strengths is not a flaw,’ Vito informed her gently.

‘But it is if you don’t consider your faults—’

‘And what are your faults?’ Vito enquired saccharine smooth, as she headed for the fire like a homing pigeon and held her hands out to the heat.

Holly wrinkled her snub nose and thought hard. ‘I’m untidy. An incurable optimist. Too much of a people-pleaser... That comes of all those years in foster care and trying to fit in to different families and different schools.’ She angled her head to one side, brown hair lying in a silken mass against one creamy cheek as she pondered. In the red Santa get-up, she reminded him of a cheerful little robin he had once seen pacing on a fence. ‘I’m too forgiving sometimes because I always want to think the best of people or give them a second chance. I get really cross if I run out of coffee but I don’t like conflict and avoid it. I like to do things quickly but sometimes that means I don’t do them well. I fuss about my weight but I still don’t exercise...’

As Vito listened to that very frank résumé he almost laughed. There was something intensely sweet about that forthright honesty. ‘Strengths?’ he prompted, unable to resist the temptation.

‘I’m honest, loyal, hardworking, punctual... I like to make the people I care about happy,’ she confided. ‘That’s what put me on that road tonight.’

‘Would you like a drink?’ Vito enquired.

‘Red wine, if you have it...’ Moving away from the fire, Holly approached her rucksack. ‘Is it all right if I put the food in the kitchen?’

She walked through the door he indicated and her eyebrows soared along with the ceiling. Beyond that door the cottage changed again. A big extension housed an ultra-modern kitchen diner with pale sparkling granite work surfaces and a fridge large enough to answer the storage needs of a restaurant. She opened it up. It was already generously packed with goodies, mainly of the luxury version of ready meals. She arranged her offerings on an empty shelf and then walked back into the main room to open the box and extract the food that remained.

Obviously, she was stuck here in a strange house with a strange man for one night at the very least, Holly reflected anxiously. A slight frisson of unease trickled down her spine. Vito hadn’t done or said anything threatening, though, she reminded herself. Like her, he recognised practicalities. He was stuck with her because she had nowhere else to go and clearly he wasn’t overjoyed by the situation. Neither one of them had a choice but to make the best of it.