loving venus (sally ann jones sexy romance)











                                               By Sally-Ann Jones


Cover design by Erin Steenson




By the author of


A Hard Man to Love

I, Rhiannon

Dragon Orchid

Beyond the Border
















                                         CHAPTER ONE


Alessandro de Rocco wasn’t sure exactly when she’d arrive. And he’d been dreading it for weeks.    

     He scowled as the village’s one battered taxi drew to a halt in the white, dusty road below. It was the first time since the funeral that a car had been anywhere near Casa dei Fiori and the young man noticed with impatience that several of the hired workmen leaning on their spades in the sunflower fields were also peering eagerly to get their first glimpse of the new heiress. For who else could afford to pay for a taxi to come all the way out here, high in the Tuscan hills?

      He knew his second cousin, his
second cousin, he reminded himself with a shudder, wouldn’t catch sight of him on the terrace, where he’d been sitting at the table, trying to make sense of the disheartening rows and rows of figures. He wouldn’t let her know he’d seen her and give her the satisfaction of knowing her imminent arrival meant anything at all to him, good or bad.

     He saw the passenger door of the road-weary taxi being flung open with imperious determination. One black-booted foot, then the other, were planted firmly, proprietorially
, on the road, followed by long, denim-clad calves. Alessandro recognized Doc Marten footwear when he saw it and an involuntary tremor of loathing shot through him. In his varied experience of women, only the very, very bossy and, yes, common, wore such thick-soled, clod-hopping, unfeminine articles.

     So far, so bad.

     Alessandro caught his breath in amazement when the rest of his second cousin emerged like a red tidal-wave from the black confines of the vehicle. Suddenly, there she was in the road, having flung her back-pack carelessly into the dirt while she paid the driver from a bulging wallet. Her waist-length auburn hair snapped and crackled around her like a flame, just as he remembered it when she was a child. But the plump, boxy little body he’d once taken so little notice of was gone.  

     She was, he saw with a sinking heart, a beauty. Hers was a beauty he knew would haunt him during every waking moment as well as in his dreams. The kind of loveliness that only surfaced every few generations. Yet, he was sure he
’d seen someone like her before – but where? Even from high up behind the crumbling villa that was now hers, his hungry body was already responding to her. Those aggressive boots she wore, her travel-stained jeans, the torn scrap of silk she’d wound around her breasts couldn’t hide her natural assets.

     He swore under his breath and shifted his weight uncomfortably as his wayward maleness strained against the confines of his tight jodhpurs. His
second cousin had bent to pick up her backpack, then straightened to wave her thanks to the taxi driver, two motions that sent her hair flying like a silken banner in the breeze and gave him the perfect view of her round, pert bottom and generous breasts swaying free under that ridiculous piece of fabric. A spasm of hot-blooded lust powered through his whole body as he watched her. Then, she opened her mouth and Alessandro recoiled in disgust.

     “Streuth!” she cursed, as she stood, legs astride, looking up at what their great-grandfather had bequeathed her. “What the hell did he think I was going to do with this old wreck?”

     Her broad Australian accent assailed his ears just as ferociously as the rest of her set every other cell in his body into an uncontrollable reaction to her unexpected sexiness. How many months – or was it years – had it been since he had felt such a lightning bolt of pure lust? He had had many lovers but this woman brought out the animal in him, even at this distance. Her combination of spirit and unblemished girlish beauty sent his hormones spinning into overdrive.

      He watched her resolutely square her shoulders then stride up the steep road to the house, the denim outlining her shapely legs and curvy thighs and hips.

     He admired women who revelled in their own femininity, who didn’t starve their bodies into stick-thin androgyny. This relation of his seemed to be composed of arcs, circles and globes, like a downy, softly-ripe peach. Her skin was luminous, her face creamy in its frame of fiery curls. Even from up here, he caught the emerald-flash of her big green eyes. But that accent! he thought with repugnance. Her body was that of a thoroughbred, but her voice betrayed her roots.

    Their great-grandfather might, in a moment of dementia, have willed his beloved estate to a dimly-remembered, stubborn little red-head who
’d come to visit only once, but Alessandro refused to graciously accept his crazy decision. As soon as he learnt of the contents of the old man’s final testament, he decided he would not make Annabella Smith feel welcome. With any luck, she’d be so unhappy at Casa dei Fiori, whose name in English translated as House of Flowers, that she’d catch the next plane home to her daddy’s wheat farm in Western Australia.  

     How dare the old man leave the villa and its fifty acres of surrounding forest and farmland, to this, this…Antipodean ingrate! he fumed. How could she possibly appreciate the generations of culture and discernment that had created the beautiful house and grounds? Her grandmother had been the old man’s daughter, but what was left of Annabella’s fine, Tuscan blood had been diluted by several
lines of Australian farmers, all descended from convicts.

     It should have been he, Alessandro, born in this very house thirty years before, to whom their great-grandfather left the estate. But the old man had concocted the idea of luring his beloved only daughter’s flesh and blood away from that barbaric country, back home, to Italy. 

     Alessandro started. He’d been so lost in thought he hadn’t realized Annabella was almost inside the walled garden, in the furthest corner of which, on the highest outcrop of rock, was his table, behind a shady, concealing tree had taken root two hundred years ago. He heard her surprisingly light footfall on the weed-encrusted gravel path, caught the snatch of a song she hummed under her breath.

     His heart did a somersault. The song, Bella Campagnina, was one he loved as a little boy, when his own mother sang it to him before she was killed. He hadn
’t heard it since and he swallowed hard to keep down the lump in his throat.

     She kicked the tiny stones in front of her as she walked, swinging her arms as if she were on a stroll in the countryside, not carrying an enormous, overflowing back-pack uphill. Her full breasts bounced under their silk square and, when she turned to adjust her heavy load, he caught sight of the milky-smooth underside of one. How he longed to feel the weight of it in the palm of his hand, to tease the rosy nipple until its peak was as hard as he was!

     Damn and blast her! he raged. He could have coped if she’d been an ugly creature. But she was delectable. And, damn her, she reminded him of someone but he couldn’t for the life of him think who it was. She had bedeviled him and she’d only been here a few minutes! How would he cope with her presence long-term?  He moaned, wishing she’d hurry up and go into the house so he could strip his clothes and plunge into the cold swimming pool, despite its being full of algae and goodness knows what else. The slimy green water would cool his ardour and, if he were lucky, give him a dose of something that would take his mind off this infuriating woman for several long months.

    She could at least seem overawed by her good fortune, Alessandro smouldered. And she could have dressed more modestly, more formally, for her first day as mistress of Casa dei Fiori. She looked like a…

     “Hi, Al!” she called, her sharp eyes spying him, despite the sheltering branches behind which he’d been watching. She poked her head around his tree.

     “Er…er…” he stuttered, wishing the damn rock would split open beneath his feet and swallow him up. His erection, now that she was close enough for him to reach out and pull her into his arms, was too urgent for her not to notice, even if she were myopic.

     “Is that a gun in your pocket, or are you just pleased to see me?” she asked, grinning wickedly, her eyes unashamedly lingering on the bulge between his muscular, horseman’s thighs.

     Then, realizing he was acutely embarrassed, she tore her eyes upwards, to his outrageously handsome face. “I’m sorry,” she said, her voice soft. “I’ve always wanted the opportunity to say that and it…” Again, she smiled impishly, “It came up.”

     She suppressed a giggle, her eyes alight with laughter. His heart lurched again, as he recalled those same eyes, when she had been a plump, cute twelve year-old and he a young man of seventeen. How adorable she’d seemed to him then! Almost like the little sister he never had, although, even then, he sensed that they might, in time, become closer. However, his feelings for her right at this moment were far from filial.

     Her skin, in the dappled shade, was the warm colour of almond kernels. Her mouth was luscious, the lips full and moist, sticky with nibbling at the wild strawberries that rioted everywhere. Unable to help himself, he inched forward and, before either was aware of what was happening, she was in his arms, supple and pliant against his insistent firmness.

     Neither knew who made the first move, only that their ravenous bodies sought each other. Through the wisp of silk that covered her breasts, he felt her nipples swell against his own chest, clad as it was in a fine cotton shirt. Only two pieces of summer-weight fabric separated their naked, burning flesh. He glanced down at her, at her face upturned to his, at the heavy-lidded look of lust that she unashamedly gave him.

     “Annabella!” he rasped, bringing his mouth down to taste those strawberry lips, to suck the juice from the pink tongue, to lick the sun-warmed alabaster of her neck. He was a connoisseur of women and he fully appreciated this one’s colouring, rarely seen in Tuscany. He sensed she was as fiery as her mane of hair, as quick to passion as he was, as hungry for love.

     Her mouth yielded, opened like a rose to admit his, and he was surprised and very pleased to feel her hands slide up under his shirt, across his smooth, tanned back. But, when her fingers hurried down, to where he throbbed for her, he came to his senses. She had Casa dei Fiori – he was damned if she was going to have him, too. And God knew, he thought with grim satisfaction, she wanted him.

     “No!” he bit out, pushing her from him so that she almost fell backwards. “You’re greedy. Just as I remember you. You
’ll have to look elsewhere to satisfy your appetite.”

     “Al!” she cried, her eyes asparkle with tears. “I thought you really were pleased to see me. We’re second cousins, after all.”

     “Why should I be glad? You have evicted me from my home, which I love more than anything in this whole world.”

     “I haven’t evicted you!” she snapped. Then her voice changed, softened. “You
’re more than welcome to stay here, with me. I was so looking forward to seeing you after all this time, Alessandro. I thought we could share…” She was holding out a slender, pale hand to him but he ignored it.

     “Casa dei Fiori is yours now, Annabella,” he said, cutting her short. “Enjoy it. I
’ll take my belongings and go and live in the caretaker’s cottage, down at the bottom of the hill.”

’re angry because our great-grandfather left this dump to me!” she exclaimed, her eyes as incisive as green Arctic ice. “Well, you watch me turn it into something special!” she spat.

     “Go ahead,” he retorted, his hunger for her a distant memory. “I suppose you
’ll convert it into a wheat station, complete with barbed-wire fences, windmills and dams. I hope the silly old man turns in his grave.”

     “Al!” she pleaded, but he turned and stomped away.

     He’d never admit to her that he’d always expected to be the master of Casa dei Fiori, had never even imagined ever living anywhere else. His roots were here, as surely as were those of the sheltering cyprus, and he was devoted to the place, despite its ramshackle appearance and the fact that the farm had run at a loss for decades, gradually eking away the fortune amassed by his blue-blooded ancestors.

     Alessandro had been selling off pieces of artwork to keep the place going, to prevent it falling into the hands of the receivers who would likely subdivide its precious acres and flog it to German or American tourists. He knew every stone and blade of grass on the estate as well as he knew the creases on his own palms. Every time he had to drive to Rome or Florence with a centuries-old painting or piece of sculpture, he felt he was chipping away at another piece of his heart. He
’d grown up with these beautiful things, they were part of him, they linked him to generations of past de Roccos.

     And now the estate and the villa belonged to Annabella, who cared not a fig.

     He stormed into the house. Tonia, who’d seen the heiress’ arrival, had prepared a special luncheon for the cousins and she ran into the hallway to ask him if he’d like her to serve it under the fig tree on the front lawn. But, seeing his furious face, she knew better than to disturb him and scuttled back into the kitchen, out of his way.

     Alessandro flung up the curving staircase, flinching as he always did at the pale patches in the stucco on the walls. These were places where paintings had once hung, to be admired and enjoyed by the family. At the top of the stairs, he turned to the right, marched down the wide, stone-flagged passageway and threw open a door. At once, from a wide-open doorway on the other side of the palatial room, a glorious view met his eyes. Yellow sunflowers in the foreground, purple hills beyond, with a village the colour of
the flesh of a blood grapefruit nestling in their folds. This had been his bedroom, his sanctuary, since babyhood. But he couldn’t stay here another minute.

     He ransacked drawers, cabinets, cupboards, wardrobes, and tossed the contents over the balcony railings. Books, boots, shirts, trousers, underwear, aftershave, a toothbrush, all flew down in the fresh breeze and landed on the chamomile-starred lawn below, on the rosemary or tomato bushes, or across an old urn filled with scarlet ivy geraniums.

     When the room was cleared of his possessions, he went and stood on the balcony to take in the view one last time. He saw that the workmen were now eating their lunch, sprawled under an oak tree. He saw the river snaking below the estate, its passage etched into the towering cliffs over millennia. He saw the magenta splashes of the wild cyclamen that seeded themselves throughout the unkempt garden. And he saw his second cousin, sprawled under the flapping sheets on the washing line, weeping her heart out into the grass.

     His own heart contracted. Her noisy crying reminded him of how she had been as a child. He
’d loved her then. But, he told himself fiercely, he could not love her now. She was the cuckoo in the nest and he wanted her out.














                                                 CHAPTER TWO


Annabella sobbed out her disappointment, her salty tears falling into the long green grass under the washing line. She’d been so looking forward to seeing her charming, funny, handsome, brave second cousin again. She idolized him when she was a little girl, in those three short months her family had spent here, at Casa dei Fiori. And now he wanted nothing to do with her, resented her, even!

     She wept lustily, not caring who saw or heard her. She
’d always been the same. When she was a baby, her Italian mother had blamed her fierce temper on her red hair, which she had inherited from her paternal relations. Her father, however, had put her passionate nature down to her maternal Italian blood.

     But, from wherever it had come, there was no doubting she had a wild, untamable streak. Once, Alessandro had loved her for it.

     “Al, let’s go riding together,” she’d suggested all those years ago on her first day on their great-grandfather’s estate. “I want to see everything and I want you to show me.”

     “I’ll saddle the pony for you, then, Bella,” he
’d said, running his hand through her tangled red curls.

     “The pony! I don’t ride ponies!” she spat contemptuously. “I need a big horse, so I can see more. I don’t want to miss anything.” 

     Alessandro roared with laughter. His second cousin was so short, she hardly reached his waist, and here she was, insisting on a big horse. “Very well then,” he’d laughed, “You can ride Gregorio.”

     He took her by the hand and they walked to the stables, where several elderly animals neighed with pleasure when they saw Alessandro. Even then, it had been many years since anyone at Casa dei Fiori had been able to afford a new, young horse.

     “Meet Gregorio,” he said, leading her to a stall where a huge chestnut stood, his big head hanging over the half-door.

     Alessandro suppressed a chuckle as
Bella’s shining eyes tripled in size as they took in the twenty-hand-high monster. But he couldn’t help admiring her for her grit.

     “You’ll have to give me a leg-up,” was all she said, refusing to betray any fear. Alessandro doubted she was familiar with fright, she was such a plucky kid.

     He saddled the gentle giant for her, helped her up, made sure she was safe then leapt aboard his own spirited Arab mare, Sofia. They clip-clopped down the road, skirting the sunflower fields, then headed for the forest, where thirty-foot cliffs towered over the river.

     “Race you to that gate at the end of the wood!” she called, booting old Gregorio into a canter.

     Alessandro laughed indulgently, reining in Sofia so his diminutive relation could have the pleasure of winning. He ambled slowly behind her, marvelling at her skilful handling of the big horse, at her insouciance when she came perilously close to the edge of the rock-face. He trusted Gregorio to stay on the track that threaded its way through the oaks that grew near the side of the cliff. But he prayed his darling Annabella would stay firmly in the saddle.

     How well she remembered that wonderful day! Where had that young man gone? Although he was seventeen, with several girlfriends telephoning him at least six times a day, he
’d been more than happy to spend time with her. He’d proudly ridden into the village, Fortezza Rosa, with her and introduced her to the priest, the baker, the butcher and the green-grocer, as his
piccola cugina d’Australia
. His little Australian cousin. He’d asked her about her own farm, about school, about her friends and pets.

     And the pair of them had sat with great-grandpapa Alessandro on the lawn under the fig tree, as he told them of his youth, of the wars which had ravaged his beloved country, of his heartbreak when his daughter Elisabetta took herself off to a distant land and married a farmer. The old man’s eyes twinkled as the second-cousins sat at his feet, Annabella’s head in Alessandro’s lap as the young man idly played with her riotous hair.

     “When little Bella is your age, my boy, she will be…” He put his gnarled fingers to his lips and kissed them, in a gesture which even the girl understood. “She will be irresistible,

     “Yes!” Alessandro agreed, his white teeth flashing as he grinned up at their great-grandfather.

     Well, Annabella thought bitterly, her handsome relative had certainly changed his mind on that subject.

     She didn’t want the place, but it was her duty to do what the old man had desired and do her best to look after it. She
’d loved him and she wanted to make him proud of her, sure he would be watching from wherever very good people go when they die. She could understand Alessandro’s disappointment, but she wanted to share the estate with him, to shoulder the burden of it together and reap the rewards, if there were to be any.

     She felt a soft hand on her shoulder and her heart sang. Alessandro had forgiven her!

     She lifted her face from where it had been buried in the grass, but it was not his eyes hers met, but the dark, concerned ones of the woman she’d noticed working in the kitchen as she walked through the garden after getting out of the taxi.

,” the woman said, using the Italian word for “darling”. “You mustn’t cry any more. Your salty tears will kill the grass,

     Annabella smiled.

     “Come, I’ve prepared a delicious lunch for you under the fig tree. You will try to eat, for Tonia? You remember me? I was here, when you came to see the old man with your mama and papa. Thirteen years have passed since then, eh? And now, at last, you are home.”

     “I do remember you, Tonia,” Annabella smiled, recognition flashing in her eyes. “Though I must admit, I didn’t at first. But I recall that my great-grandpapa was fond of you. He said nobody could cook like Tonia. That God held your hand while you
kneaded the pasta dough.”

      Tonia’s black eyes sparkled at the mention of the old man. She dried Annabella’s tear-and-dirt-stained face with a corner of her spotless white, starched apron and the newcomer couldn
’t help but be cheered by her ministrations.

     Tonia was about seventy, Annabella guessed, with the serene beauty of a person whose life has been filled with love. Her blue-black hair was streaked with silver and around her fine, long-lashed eyes were fans of wrinkles. But age hadn
’t dimmed her loveliness.

     “Come, then, come and eat. You need your strength,” Tonia urged.

     Annabella allowed herself to be led to a cushion-filled cane chair under the sunshine-scented tree. The long table, which could easily have sat a dozen people, was laid with a snowy cloth and a single place-setting had been prepared. There was a bottle of chianti, a bowl of spaghetti with simple tomato
and grated
, cheese, another bowl of rocket drizzled with olive oil, a loaf of
bread and a platter of figs, grapes, peaches and pears.

     “I wish I had someone to eat this with,” Annabella said wistfully. “It looks so delicious and it’s a shame to enjoy it alone. Won’t you have some, too, Tonia?”

     The older woman, who hadn’t yet eaten her midday meal, took pity on the young Australian heiress. Nobody in Italy should have to dine without the seasoning of conversation and laughter.

,” she assented, “I will eat with you,

     Annabella poured two glasses of wine and the women laughed delightedly as their glasses clinked together with a resounding clang. Annabella pushed the bowl of spaghetti closer to Tonia, handed her the fork and took the spoon for herself. In this way, both dipping into the spaghetti, they emptied the bowl then proceeded to demolish the rest of the feast.

     “Aaah!” sighed Annabella, leaning back in her chair and grinning contentedly. “That was the best meal I have eaten since I was last here.”

     “Your mama is a good cook, surely?” Tonia asked worriedly. She didn
’t like to think of sweet Annabella having had to put up with bad cooking most of her life.

     The younger woman giggled. “
, my mama can cook, but everything always tastes better here, at Casa dei Fiori. The tomatoes have the flavour of sunshine and the basil is sweeter.”

     “Of course,” Tonia agreed, nodding gravely.

     “Tonia,” Annabella said, suddenly becoming serious. “May I ask you something?”

     “It is about Alessandro,

. Why does he hate me?”

     “He doesn
’t hate you, Bella. Far from it, although he will not admit it, even to himself. He’s very upset with your great-grandfather. The old man was very ill at the end. His mind wandered. He said strange things. At the last moment, as he lay on his deathbed, he ordered Alessandro to run and get the will. And, before the priest and his great-grandson, he changed it. Everything was to belong to your second cousin but, just two minutes before he took his final breath, the old man gave it to you, Annabella. Naturally, Alessandro was shocked. And then angry. And, three weeks later, he is still angry. He’s very sad too because he adored that old man and it was hard for him to watch him slowly, slowly fade away. But, don’t you worry, I believe your great-grandfather knew exactly what he was doing and I know that, in the end, your second-cousin will be glad of what he did.”

     “I wish I could be so sure, Tonia. I remember Casa dei Fiori as it was when I came here as a child with my parents. It was better cared-for, almost prosperous-looking. Now it’s a crumbling old ruin. How am I going to repair it? Where will I find the money? Even the crops of sunflowers look as if they need a good dose of fertiliser. The soil itself is hungry.”

     At that moment, both women caught sight of Alessandro struggling towards the cottage at the bottom of the hill, a massive cardboard carton under one arm, a guitar, easel and bundle of paintbrushes under the other. One of the huge white Maremma sheepdogs, native to Tuscany, which Annabella remembered lived at the stables, came bounding over to greet him, leaping up at his chest. The load he was carrying wobbled precariously then scattered across the grass in a jumble.

    He was already on his knees, retrieving books and socks, when she reached him and she darted about, whisking up papers, letters, bills, receipts, magazines and newspapers before they were flung skywards by the wind.

     “You don’t have to do this,” he snapped, as their hands accidentally brushed when they were throwing everything haphazardly back in the box.

     “Would you rather lose everything?” she bit back.

     “I already have,” he said, his brown eyes holding her green ones.

     She looked away, confused. What
the old man been playing at, when he willed the property to her? Had he had any idea of the pain his decision would have caused Alessandro?

     From the corner of her eye, she glimpsed another piece of paper spiralling towards the clouds and leapt up to catch it. When it was safely in her hand, she looked at it. It was a photograph of herself and her second cousin, aged twelve and seventeen. They had their arms around each other and were smiling into each other’s eyes, oblivious of the camera. She wore a crown of daisies in her hair and she remembered Alessandro had made the garland just a few minutes before their great-grandfather had asked Tonia to fetch his camera for him.

     They were completely, perfectly happy that day, wanting nobody else’s company, two people revelling in an unexpected friendship. Until they met, neither had expected to much like the other, with five whole years separating them. But they’d been pleasantly surprised and Alessandro had purposely re-organised his busy social calendar so he could spend as much time as possible with his little second cousin.

     Just before the photograph
was shot, they’d taken a picnic and explored the woods with the dogs, Alessandro telling her the names of the trees and the flowers in Italian. Used only to the silvery-grey Australian bush with its shy wildflowers, the imaginative child believed she’d entered a fairytale world, with her second cousin that handsomest prince who ever existed. Hand in hand, they wandered through whispering pine groves along tracks that wound between yellow swathes of narcissi, splashes of paintbox-bright anemones and carpets of carmine-coloured tulips. From the highest point in these pine and ilex woods they had looked down on the village, Fortezza Rosa, whose name meant Pink Fort.  A thousand years ago there had indeed been a castle there, but now it was simply a pile of rosy-coloured stone where wildflowers flourished. Then the pair walked back to the villa for a swim and, afterwards, Alessandro had made her the crown and the old man had been so enchanted, he recorded the day forever.

     “Do you remember this, Al?” she asked, handing him the photograph.

     “No,” he said coldly, slamming it face-down into the box without a glance.

     Annabella swallowed hard to keep the tears from spilling and continued to salvage his belongings. “Unless you want to risk dropping all this again, you’ll let me help you carry your stuff to the cottage,” she said.

     He didn’t protest and they walked the short distance in silence, even the dog crestfallen.

     Alessandro, having no free hands, used a foot to shove open the back door of his new residence, a tiny stone house on the boundary of the estate. The dusty road that led to the village ran past its front door and the hill leading up to the villa could be seen from the back door. There was no magnificent view from this humble abode.

     Annabella plonked her load on a not particularly clean pine table in the cramped kitchen, where saucepans, plates, forks and spoons competed for space. Everything seemed grimy and uncared-for and she hated to think of her second cousin choosing to live in such squalor because of her.

     “Al,” she begged, “Won’t you reconsider this? It’s crazy, you coming to live here when we could enjoy the villa together. It what our great-grandfather wanted…”

     “Don’t presume to know him better than I did,” he said, his voice harsh. “He didn’t know what he wanted at the end. He was crazy. This whole thing is madness, you being here. You don’t belong, Annabella. You never will. And the sooner you realise it, the better for us both.”

     “Al!” Her voice startled them both. Something inside her seemed to well up and, like a volcano, to burst to the surface. “I do belong here. I’m as much a part of Casa dei Fiori as you are. We loved each other when we were kids and I know we still do. That sort of love never dies, but it changes, it grows up, just as we have. And when I was in your arms up there on the terrace, I felt how much you love me. It was the love a man has for a woman. I’ve never been with a man before, Alessandro. But I know what I felt. And you’re a liar if you deny it.”

Chi e
?” The sultry strains of another female voice sullied the atmosphere like a smear of oil on a marble surface. “Who’s this?” she demanded again, this time in English as she strode towards Alessandro on her high stilettos.

     “Claudia. What are you doing here?” Alessandro asked, barely hiding his impatience.

     “I heard that the heiress had arrived so I wanted to be the first to welcome you to your new home, Alessandro, our old love nest,” she purred, giving Annabella a cat-like stare while sidling up to Alessandro and sliding her red-taloned hands up his chest and across his back, pulling the fabric of his shirt tight over his magnificent chest and shoulders.

     Annabella felt a frisson of desire deep inside her belly and knew the pale skin of her face and neck was betraying her by turning a rosy pink. She couldn
’t bear to watch this stranger touch her relative with such proprietary familiarity and turned away. But, if anything, what met her eyes next was even worse. She saw, through the open doorway that led from the kitchen into the rest of the cottage, a tousled double bed, silk stockings hanging over the wooden end of it, articles of male and female clothing scattered over the tiled floor. It was obvious this woman and her second cousin had been here before.

     “Aren’t you going to introduce us,
mio caro
?” Claudia simpered to Alessandro, looking Annabella up and down with obvious distaste. Claudia couldn’t have been clad more differently from Annabella. She was in a leopard-print, figure-hugging mini-dress, her tiny, tanned feet encased in shoes that seemed composed of clear plastic strips. Her long black hair bounced on her shoulders in lacquer-stiffened curls. Her lips, painted blood red, were so shiny it seemed as if they were still damp from her latest kill. Her eyelashes were so long, stiff and black they could have been composed of spiders’ legs.

      Her eyes were slightly too close together above a nose that was slightly too big while her chin was slightly too recessive. But for a micro millimeter here and there, she would have been perfect, Annabella judged, proudly drawing herself up to her full height and meeting the challenge in her competitor’s eyes. For there was absolutely no doubt in her mind that Claudia was her competitor, despite the massive rings that glinted malevolently on the fourth finger of her left hand.  

     “Claudia, may I present my second cousin, Annabella Smith. Annabella, I would like you to meet Claudia Silvestro. She is an artist who lives in Villa Claudia, next door to me … or rather, you,” Alessandro said, his eyes darkening.

     Alessandro was sure that in other circumstances he would have enjoyed the almost electric animosity between the two women, one of whom was draped across him as if she couldn
’t stand unaided while the other stood with boots astride as if she were staring at her opponent on a battle field.

Buongiorno, Signorina
,” Claudia said, her voice like rancid butter.

Buongiorno, Signora
,” Annabella replied, equally coldly polite. 

     “You must be so delighted to own Casa dei Fiori,” Claudia commented. “And your parents too, must be thrilled at your good fortune. How do you think you will like it here, an Australian in a strange country? I hope you will not be too homesick for the kangaroos and snakes.”

     “I believe there are plenty of snakes in Tuscany, Signora,” Annabella said pointedly, glaring at Claudia.

     Despite her many imperfections, Annabella was thinking, the damn woman was beautiful. She had an amazing tan against which her collection of gold and diamond jewellery gleamed luxuriously. And her figure, probably due to an expensive personal trainer, had been honed to firm muscularity.

     Annabella sucked in the belly that, thanks to Tonia’s delicious lunch, was pushing uncomfortably against the hip-band of her Levis. She knew she had round thighs and a plump bottom, but, until this second, she hadn’t particularly cared. She loved her daily three meals plus morning and afternoon snacks and she hadn’t been prepared to give them up, not for any man. She grimaced. How would she diet here, of all places, where the food tasted like nectar from heaven? She would have to enlist Tonia’s help. She knew for a fact that Tonia was on her side.

     “You must have a thousand things to do, Signorina. Please, don’t let us keep you,” Claudia said, her hand inching closer and closer to Alessandro’s belt.

     “Oh no, I have nothing planned,” Annabella retorted, clenching her own hands so hard the nails dug into the palms.

     “But your clothes. You must tell Tonia where to hang them. And surely you will take a siesta.” She paused to yawn decoratively. “I know it is not an Australian custom, but we certainly rest here in the middle of the day, when it becomes so unbearably hot that bed seems the only option.”

      She said the word “bed” so suggestively it almost sounded obscene, Annabella thought.

     “Oh I have no clothes to see to except another pair of jeans and a couple of T-shirts,” Annabella admitted breezily and truthfully.

     “But you must dress as befits your position as the heiress of Casa dei Fiori,” Claudia objected. “You can’t let people think that the family’s standards are slipping.”

     “I intend to work in the fields, Signora, to get this old place profitable again. I won’t be needing anything but what you see me in now, at least for the time being.”

     Alessandro smiled despite himself. He felt a grudging admiration for his second cousin. Not everyone had the guts to stand up to Claudia Silvestro. She had few friends and many enemies. He liked her, of course. They were neighbours, after all. They shared an interest in art and it had always been pleasant to dine with her then fall lazily into bed and wile away the hours. This cottage had witnessed their many hours together, as had her own bedroom in her luxurious home. Her husband, a fabulously wealthy businessman many years older than his wife, lived permanently in Rome, rarely deigning to visit the countryside. Alessandro knew only too well that he and his neighbour had never been in love with each other, but that fact had never got in the way of their enjoyment of each other’s company. Their friendship kept loneliness at bay, anyway.

     “I’ll take myself off for a ride,” Annabella said, realizing she couldn
’t stay here in the dirty kitchen forever merely to prevent her second cousin going to bed with Claudia.

     “A ride? What a country girl you are!” Claudia snickered. “I wouldn’t know one end of a horse from the other.”

     “I haven’t ridden for years,” Alessandro commented wistfully. He’d been too consumed with financial worries to even think about it. Yet he still donned his favourite old jodhpurs most days, perhaps subconsciously ever-hopeful of a change of fortune.

     “Why don’t you come, then?” Annabella suggested, her green eyes afire with the challenge.

      “Why not?” he agreed, surprising himself more than anyone. “Claudia, I’ll catch up with you tonight.”

     Leaving Claudia to stare open-mouthed after them, they walked to the stables, the dog bounding along beside them.

     Unfortunately, Sofia and Gregorio had long since died of peaceful old age, but there were two other horses that could be ridden. They were placid, geriatric things but it had been so long since they’d been outside their field, they were eager for a gallop.

     The cousins saddled up quickly, Alessandro’s spirits lifting for the first time since his great-grandfather’s death. The oaty smell of the animals’ breath, the creak of the leather, the feel of a warm muzzle under his hand made him feel instantly better, despite the annoying presence of his Australian relation.

     Memories flooded home to Annabella. She knew exactly how to find the path that led along the cliff through the woods, even where the jumps were that she’d insisted Gregorio leap over. And she remembered Alessandro at seventeen. At thirty, he was even more beautiful, she thought, as she swung easily into the saddle.