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The Italian's Christmas Child(5)

By:Lynne Graham

‘You brought a lot of food with you,’ Vito remarked from behind her.

Holly flinched because she hadn’t heard him approach and she whipped her head around. ‘I assumed I would be providing a Christmas lunch for two people.’

Walking back out of the kitchen when she had finished, she found him frowning down at the tree ornaments visible in the box.

‘What is all this stuff?’ he asked incredulously.

Holly explained. ‘Would it be all right if I put up my tree here? I mean, it is Christmas Eve and I won’t get another opportunity for a year,’ she pointed out. ‘Christmas is special to me.’

Vito was still frowning. ‘Not to me,’ he admitted flatly, for he had only bad memories of the many disappointing Christmases he had endured as a child.

Flushing, Holly closed the box and pushed it over to the wall out of the way. ‘That’s not a problem. You’re doing enough letting me stay here.’

Dio mio, he was relieved that she was only a passing stranger because her fondness for the sentimental trappings of the season set his teeth on edge. Of course she wanted to put up her Christmas tree! Anyone who travelled around wearing a Santa hat was likely to want a tree on display as well! He handed her a glass of wine, trying not to feel responsible for having doused her chirpy flow of chatter.

‘I’m heading upstairs for a shower,’ Vito told her, because even though he had worn the boots, his suit trousers were damp. ‘Will you be all right down here on your own?’

‘Of course... This is much better than sitting in a crashed car,’ Holly assured him before adding more awkwardly, ‘Do you have a sweater or anything I could borrow? I only have pyjamas and a dress with me. My foster mum’s house is very warm so I didn’t pack anything woolly.’

Vito had not a clue what was in his luggage because he hadn’t packed his own case since he was a teenager at boarding school. ‘I’ll see what I’ve got.’

Through the glass barrier of the stairs, Holly watched his long, powerful legs disappear from view and a curious little frisson rippled through her tense body. She heaved a sigh. So, no Christmas tree. What possible objection could anyone have to a Christmas tree? Did Vito share Ebenezer Scrooge’s loathing for the festive season? Reminding herself that she was very lucky not to be shivering in Pixie’s car by the side of the road, she settled down on the shaggy rug by the hearth and simply luxuriated in the warmth emanating from the logs glowing in the fire.

Vito thought about Holly while he took a shower. It was a major mistake. Within seconds of picturing her sexy little body he went hard as a rock, his body reacting with a randy enthusiasm that astonished him. For months, of course, his libido had very much taken a back seat to the eighteen-hour days he was working. This year the bank’s revenues would, he reminded himself with pride, smash all previous records. He was doing what he had been raised to do and he was doing it extremely well, so why did he feel so empty, so joyless? Vito asked himself in exasperation.

Intellectually he understood that there was more to life than the pursuit of profit but realistically he was and always had been a workaholic. An image of Holly chattering by the fire assailed him. Holly with her wonderful curves and her weird tree in a box. She was unusual, not remotely like the sort of women Vito usually met, and her originality was a huge draw. He had no idea what she was likely to say next. She wasn’t wearing make-up. She didn’t fuss with her appearance. She said exactly what she thought and felt—she had no filter. Towelling off, he tried to stop thinking about Holly. Obviously she turned him on. Equally obviously he wasn’t going to do anything about it.

Why the hell not? The words sounded in the back of his brain. That battered old car, everything about her spelled out the message that she came from a different world. Making any kind of a move would be taking advantage, he told himself grimly. Yet the instant he had seen Holly he had wanted her, wanted her with an intensity he hadn’t felt around a woman since he was a careless teenager. It was the situation. He could relax with a woman who had neither a clue who he was nor any idea of the sleazy scandal currently clinging to his name. And why wouldn’t he want her? After all, he was very probably sex-starved, he told himself impatiently as he tossed out the contents of one of his suitcases and then opened a second before finding a sweater he deemed suitable.

Holly watched Vito walk down the stairs with the fluid, silent grace of a panther. He had looked amazing in his elegant business suit, but in black designer jeans and a long-sleeved red cotton tee he was drop-dead gorgeous and, with those high cheekbones and that full masculine mouth, very much in the male-model category. She blinked and stared, feeling the colour rise in her cheeks, her self-consciousness taking over, for she had literally never ever been in the radius of such a very handsome male and it was just a little like bumping into a movie star without warning.

‘Here... You can roll up the sleeves.’ Vito tossed the sweater into her lap. ‘If you want to freshen up, there’s a shower room just before you enter the kitchen.’

Holly scrambled upright and grabbed her rucksack to take his advice. A little alone time to get her giddy head in order struck her as a very good idea. When she saw herself in the mirror in the shower room she was affronted by the wind-tousled explosion of her hair and the amount of cleavage she was showing in the Santa outfit. Stripping off, she went for a shower, exulting in the hot water and the famous-name shower gel on offer. Whoever owned the cottage had to be pretty comfortably off, she decided with a grimace, which probably meant that Vito was as well. He wore a very sleek gold-coloured watch and the fit of his suit had been perfection. But then what did she know about such trappings or the likely cost of them? Pixie would laugh to hear such musings when the closest Holly had ever got to even dating an office worker was Ritchie, the cheating insurance salesman.

She pulled on the blue sweater, which plunged low enough at the neck to reveal her bra. She yanked it at the back to raise it to a decent level at the front and knew she would have to remember to keep her shoulders back. She rolled up the sleeves and, since the sweater covered her to her knees, left off her tights. Her hair she rescued with a little diligent primping until it fell in loose waves round her shoulders. Frowning at her bunny slippers, she crammed them back in her rucksack, deciding that bare feet were preferable. Cosmetics-wise she was pretty much stuck with the minimal make-up she had packed for Sylvia’s. Sighing, she used tinted moisturiser, subtle eyeliner and glossed her lips. Well, at short notice that was the best she could do. In any case it was only her pride that was prompting her to make the effort. After all, a male as sophisticated as Vito Sorrentino wouldn’t look at her anyway, she thought with a squirming pang of guilty disappointment. Why on earth was she thinking about him that way?

And thinking about Vito that way put her back in mind of Ritchie, which was unfortunate. But it also reminded her that she hadn’t taken her pill yet and she dug into her bag to remedy that, only to discover that she had left them at home. As to why a virgin was taking contraceptive precautions, she and Pixie both did on a ‘better safe than sorry’ basis. Both of their mothers had messed up their lives with early unplanned pregnancies and neither Holly nor Pixie wanted to run the same risk.

Of course a couple of years back Holly had had different and more romantic expectations. She had fondly imagined that she would eventually meet a man who would sweep her away on a tide of passion and she had believed that she had to protect herself in the face of such temptation. Sadly, nothing any boyfriend had yet made her feel could have fallen into a category that qualified as being swept away. Since then Holly had wondered if there was a distinct possibility that she herself simply wasn’t a very passionate woman. Still, Holly reasoned wryly, there was nothing wrong with living in hope, was there?

Somehow Vito had been fully expecting Holly to reappear with a full face of make-up. Instead she appeared with her face rosy and apparently untouched, his sweater drooping round her in shapeless, bulky folds, her tiny feet bare. And Vito almost laughed out loud in appreciation and relief. What remained of his innate wariness was evaporating fast because no woman he had ever yet met could possibly have put less effort into trying to attract him than Holly. Before his engagement and even since it he had been targeted so often by predatory women that he had learned to be guarded in his behaviour around females, both inside and outside working hours. His rare smile flashed across his lean, strong face.

Holly collided involuntarily with molten gold eyes enhanced by thick black lashes and then that truly heart-stopping smile that illuminated his darkly handsome features, and her heart not only bounced in her chest but also skipped an entire beat in reaction. She came to an abrupt halt, her fingers dropping from her rucksack. ‘Do you want me to make something to eat?’ she offered shakily, struggling to catch her breath.

‘No, thanks. I ate before you arrived,’ Vito drawled lazily, watching her shrug back the sweater so that it didn’t slip too low at the front. No, she really wasn’t trying to pull him and he was captivated as he so rarely was by a woman.