It wasn’t an exceptionally lavish function they attended—that was the type of thing that had got the company into a mess in the first place—but it was a genuine, feel-good party and Luca was the man everyone wanted to greet. His prowess had salvaged a sinking ship and in the process had saved hundreds of jobs.
And Luca was a very nice date.
He turned off his phone the moment they arrived and he remembered to introduce her to enough people so that when he was circulating she didn’t feel like a complete spare part. He even swapped his white chocolate and nougat mousse with her when she got landed with the almond torte, and when the dancing started he didn’t ditch her just because she was a work date, even though on many occasions he could have. In fact, apart from one duty dance with the CEO’s wife and a long conversation with some potential investors, Luca for once appeared off duty.
‘Thank you…’ He held her loosely in his arms as they danced. ‘I know you had other things to do tonight.’
‘It’s actually been nice.’
‘It has,’ Luca agreed. ‘I was worried, I admit.’
‘I’m sure you’d have found someone else to join you.’
‘I meant, I was worried whether I could salvage them from bankruptcy,’ he explained, and he laughed at her blush. ‘I do think about work sometimes.’
‘Sometimes!’ Emma laughed. ‘I don’t know how you fit it all in.’
‘I just do.’ He stared down at her. ‘And so do you.’ He looked down at her for a long moment. ‘How long has he been there?’ All evening he had made no comment about her father, yet the question had hung between them.
‘You are very young for him to be…’
‘Dad was quite a bit older than Mum.’
‘He had a stroke at the beginning of the year…’ Her voice trailed off, she didn’t want to talk about it, she really, really didn’t. Yes, tonight was work, but in his arms, swaying to the music, when Luca didn’t push or press the point, really it was just a relief to be here, to be away from it all, even for just a little while.
‘I am glad it is you tonight,’ Luca said. And close to midnight, with champagne inside her, it would have been very easy to lean closer, very, worryingly easy to rest her head on that chest that was just inches from her, terribly, terribly easy to wonder at his words. So to stop herself, she reminded herself of the real reason that she was here, and couldn’t help herself from asking.
‘What happened with Ruby?’ She spoke to his lips, the same way that he was speaking to hers, and suddenly it wasn’t working. Reminding herself of his appalling reputation wasn’t keeping her safe—she was having to forcibly resist the urge to move closer to him.
‘She said those four little words.’
‘Three little words!’ Emma corrected, because occasionally his excellent English slipped.
‘No, four…’ She could see the shadow of growth on his chin, his full mouth moving as he spoke, feel his breath and wished suddenly he’d just kiss her. ‘Where is this leading?’
She could only smile at her own stupidity as realisation hit, and was so, so glad she hadn’t quickly answered what she had briefly assumed was a question, because it took a second to work out he wasn’t talking about them—he was answering her question about Ruby.
‘So I told her—nowhere!
‘Come on,’ he said as the music ended and he broke away, ‘let’s go. I’m staying at the office. We have a helicopter to catch…’ he squinted at his watch ‘…in five hours.’ Which translated to about three hours’ sleep if she went home. ‘What about you?
That extra hour actually counted when you were operating on Luca time.
Ever the gentleman, he pulled out the sofa bed in her office then retired to his luxury suite. Emma lay staring at the ceiling, thinking about him. Not once had he pounced on her, had never made her feel uncomfortable, and apart from that blistering first invitation, there had been nothing else.
Except he’d caught her looking at him earlier.
Emma squirmed in embarrassment and then consoled herself that if she’d been standing in her bra and panties, he’d have had a quick peek too.
It offered no consolation.
‘What’s the point of it all, Em?’
His voice over the intercom penetrated the darkness and made her smile. He did this every now and then.
‘So you can make pots of money,’ she responded.
‘I’ve made pots of money.’
‘So you can have any woman you want.’
There was a pensive pause.
‘I have any woman I want.’
‘I don’t know, then.’
‘So why are you here?’ Luca asked. ‘Working yourself into the ground, that cruel boss never giving you a night off?’
‘Because I love my work!’ she duly answered.
‘Rubbish!’ came the voice over the intercom, and Emma smiled. ‘Why are you here Em?’
She paused for the longest time—almost expecting the door to open and Luca to walk in. This conversation, despite taking place over an intercom, was surprisingly intimate. And lying in dark, she was almost tempted to tell him, about the bills and the house, about her dream of going to art school. About how this job was her lifeline, about how, one day, she hoped it might set her up to pursue her goals…
Which was hardly the conversation to have with your boss.
She could never have guessed but save for those two words her office door would have opened.
He liked her.
Luca stared up at the familiar ceiling, at the dimmed lights that never actually went off—and it was a measure of how much he liked her that he didn’t go to her.
It had nothing to do with Evelyn’s stern warnings—well, maybe a bit, as Evelyn was too good to lose, and her husband was getting less and less impressed with the hours his wife put in.
But it was more than that.
He didn’t want to lose Emma.
He liked her.
Not just liked her, but actually liked her.
Liked having her in his day.
She was nothing like anyone he’d met before. She brightened up the office with her chatter and her fizz and she answered him back and made him smile.
And she liked him too. In that way.
He’d actually been beginning to wonder—he’d been a bit taken aback when she’d so coolly turned him down at their first meeting. Working with him, she was so on guard, so scathing of his ways, that he’d wondered if the reason he liked her was that she was the one woman who didn’t fancy him.
Then tonight he’d seen her expression in the mirror, and in that second before she’d realised he’d caught her, he had seen the want in her eyes.
He lay racked with rare indecision.
His instinct was to let nature take its course.
With women, Luca always followed instinct—and instinct told him to go out there to where she lay, in those ugly pyjamas she wore. Luca became instantly hard at the thought of those curls on the pillow, and her soft skin.
So why the reticence?
Because it would last a couple of weeks, a couple of months perhaps—and then she’d want more from him, like they all did, like Martha had…
He closed his eyes on that sudden thought, but circles of light still danced before his eyes.
Martha had been the only one it had really hurt to let go.
It was a thought that till now had comforted him—that he had said goodbye to the one, that the hardest part of the deal he had made all those years ago was over.
So why, when he hadn’t so much as kissed Emma, was he comparing her to Martha?
He hadn’t seen anyone since Emma had joined the staff, had finally dumped Ruby, whom he’d kept dangling for weeks.
He thought about going out there to Emma—how he thought about going out there—but something stopped him: she really needed this job and for now, at least, he wanted her around.
He couldn’t have both.
‘YOUR sister is insisting that she speak with you. She’s tried your mobile, she’s been calling all morning,’ Emma said to the silence of the intercom. ‘And now she is insisting.’
‘I’m still in a meeting.’
Luca did everything the other way around from anyone else she had met: he didn’t drop a thing for family! He had several mobile phone numbers—yet his family all went directly to message bank, no exception, no deviation. Emma knew he checked them—had seen him listen, scowl and hit ‘delete’, yet unless he was in the right frame of mind, Luca refused to pick up.
Which left Emma to deal with the fallout.
‘I’m sorry, Daniela,’ she said for the umpteenth time. ‘He really can’t be disturbed—is there anything that I can help you with?’
‘You can ask why he no come, why all he can give me on my special day is two hours of his precious time, familia is everything, my own brother…’ It really was rather draining to listen to, yet she was being paid fabulously to do so. And dealing with Daniela’s histrionics was actually easier than dealing with Luca right now— as the wedding approached his mood blackened. Oh, nothing had been said, he was still his fastidious, energetic self, barking orders, making her laugh every now and then, but there was this tension to him that was palpable—this grey, gathering cloud that seemed to be following him wherever he went.