Challenging Dante(3)

By: Lynne Graham

‘Go on,’ Dante urged in a raw undertone, struggling with his outrage at the image of his mother being humiliatingly betrayed by an employee and her new husband in his home.

‘My father was invited to a dinner at the castle for Vittore’s birthday. The girl was wearing a diamond necklace that my father swore is worth many, many thousands of euros.’

And both men were well aware that Marco’s father was an infallible judge of such things because he was a renowned jewellery designer.

‘Of course it could be a family heirloom,’ Marco conceded fairly.

‘But how likely is it that a young office worker would own such an item or even bring it abroad with her?’ Dante retorted, unimpressed by that argument. ‘As far as I’m concerned, when you take everything else into account, the diamonds are hard evidence of misbehaviour of some kind!’

But even if it was, what the hell was he planning to do about it? Dante asked himself angrily after his friend had taken his leave. Obviously Dante would go home to personally check out the situation and if there was anything questionable afoot he would deal with the girl with the diamond necklace.

* * *

Topsy suppressed a groan of frustration as her sister Kat continued to challenge her with worried questions on the phone. What were the family she was living with like? Were there any men coming on to her? Did she have a lock on her bedroom door?

The guilt that Topsy had initially experienced about lying to her family about what she was doing and where she was staying in Italy suddenly dissipated like a damp squib. What age did her big sister think she was? A vulnerable teenager? For goodness’ sake, she was almost twenty-four years old with a doctorate in advanced maths, scarcely a babe in arms! But Kat, just like Topsy’s twin older sisters, Emmie and Saffy, simply refused to accept that Topsy had grown up and had a life of her own to lead.

In Kat’s defence, she had been acting more as Topsy’s mother than her sister since Topsy was six years old and the sisters’ birth mother, Odette, stuck all three of her younger children in foster care so that she could reclaim her freedom as a single woman. No, Odette Taylor had had no taste for mothering and Topsy was all too well aware of how much she and her sisters owed Kat for her loving care and loyalty. Kat had taken custody of her younger siblings, whisked them off to her home in the Lake District and raised them to adulthood at her own expense. Kat’s sacrifice could never be forgotten or go unappreciated, Topsy acknowledged ruefully.

Yet here she was in Italy having run away from home and lied about her whereabouts just like the teenager she had long since left behind! Her family thought she was simply enjoying an extended break staying with an old school friend and Gabrielle was happy to provide the cover story and pretend—should she ever be challenged—that Topsy was living with her and her family in Milan.

Topsy sighed, guilt licking at her conscience again. Her siblings were so overprotective they regularly drove her to screaming point. Their marriages to rich and powerful men had only enhanced their desire and ability to interfere and control Topsy’s every move. She loved them, she truly did, indeed she adored her sisters and their closeness, but she didn’t want a job doled out by one of their husbands and she didn’t want to be landed with a pre-checked boyfriend either. She had lost count of the eligible and no doubt thoroughly vetted men produced for her benefit at parties and dinners. She had also lost count of the boyfriends she had lost, who had failed to pass the family vetting procedure. In addition the insistence on her, at one unforgettably embarrassing stage, having a bodyguard had done nothing to advance her prospects in the romantic stakes.

Either men wanted her purely because of her wealthy brothers-in-laws’ financial and business connections or all the hoopla of even dating her frightened them off. Even worse, she was now a trust-fund baby, gifted with a sizeable amount of cash on her twenty-first birthday in a generous group gift from her sisters’ husbands, so that she would always be independent and secure. Independent? Topsy grimaced at a goal long craved but always out of reach. What a joke the concept of independence was! That wretched money, which she had never wanted but which had delighted her anxious and overprotective sisters, had only trapped her more than ever in a world in which she didn’t feel she belonged. Now her sisters’ husbands would only have an even better excuse to check out any man she dated for fear he might be after her trust fund!

But then that wasn’t the only reason Topsy had come to Italy and to this particular household in Tuscany, she conceded sheepishly. Indeed if any member of her family were to discover the true nature of the deception she was engaged in, they would be justifiably furious with her. None of them would understand, she thought sadly, none of them would ever appreciate how powerful a motivation she had had to come to Italy and pretend to be something she was not. But then she was not the same as her sisters: their outlook on certain issues was directly opposed to hers. Right and wrong were not as black and white as they believed, she reasoned uncomfortably. Of course some day if things went as she hoped she would have to tell them the truth. Right now she was at the awkward dishonest outset of her mission and the false image she had set up was already discomfiting her. Before her arrival in Italy, Topsy had virtually never told a lie. She had been a squeaky clean and very logical child who recognised at an early age the inherent consequences of lies. Yet here she was all these years on and supposedly intelligent and mature and she was lying her head off all around her! And to such lovely people too, she reflected even more painfully. Why was it that the drawbacks of her mission had only occurred to her after she had taken up residence and started work? How was that for poor forward planning?

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