Challenging Dante(7)

By: Lynne Graham

‘Are you feeling all right, Dante?’ his mother asked curiously.

‘I was too warm,’ Dante murmured flatly. ‘Would you mind if I took a run over to see how the work is progressing on your house? I feel like some fresh air.’

‘Of course I wouldn’t mind and if you don’t mind taking Topsy with you, Vittore and I will be able to have lunch together,’ his mother remarked. ‘Topsy has to see my decorator and check that he’s redone the kitchen the way I wanted it. I don’t know what I would have done without her help. For a while there, I had far too much on my plate.’

Dante skimmed a glance in Topsy’s direction that didn’t linger. ‘We’ll go as soon as we’ve had our coffee.’

Not best pleased by the news that she would be visiting the Casa di Fortuna in Dante’s company rather than Vittore’s, Topsy had stiffened, gripped by the most maddening self-consciousness she had ever experienced. She was afraid to look near the wretched man in case he cast a spell over her again. She wasn’t stupid: she knew she was attracted to him and that it was a stronger attraction than she had ever felt before. So superficial of her too, she scolded herself wryly, being physically drawn to a male who was a virtual stranger and with whom she would not have a thought or feeling in common. It was yet another complexity in her life that she really didn’t need, but hopefully he was only making a fleeting visit to the castle to see his mother. From what she understood, Dante spent little time in his Tuscan home and much preferred the faster, more sophisticated pace of Milan.

She listened quietly while her companions made polite conversation, Sofia mentioning recent visitors and small domestic concerns at the castle while parrying her son’s concerned questions about her mythical bout of influenza. Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practise to deceive! Sir Walter Scott’s words were as relevant to Vittore and Sofia as to Topsy. They all had their secrets from which Dante was being excluded but, watching the frown slowly darkening Dante’s face, she reckoned he was fully aware of the covert undertones.

Why, oh, why had she walked into the lion’s den without thought of what her secret might cost others? Self-loathing momentarily gripped Topsy. Her twin sisters had got by fine being ignored by their father after their parents divorced and their father remarried. Topsy’s father had not married her mother but she was still desperate to know who he was. Perhaps that very desperation was driven by the fact that for most of her life she had mistakenly believed that she did know who had fathered her: a handsome South American polo player called Paolo Valdera, who had enjoyed a brief affair with her mother. After all, over the years she had met Paolo several times when he visited London and there had been the occasional phone call around Christmas or her birthday. Sadly, although Paolo had apparently accepted without question that he was Topsy’s father, he had been very little more interested in his supposed daughter than her mother had been.

Then when she was eighteen Paolo had discovered that he was sterile and had finally asked for DNA testing, the results of which had proved that he could not possibly be Topsy’s dad. Topsy had had to go to great lengths to get another name out of her mother and the only name she had been given was Vittore’s.

Getting close to Vittore and working out exactly what kind of a man he was had been Topsy’s main motivation in applying for the job working for Sofia. She had been driven by entirely selfish promptings, never pausing to consider that such a bombshell as the existence of an adult illegitimate daughter could damage his very new and happy marriage. For that reason, while she had learned to like Vittore Ravallo, she had done nothing to check out her mother’s story and could not even begin to imagine asking Vittore to subject himself to DNA tests to satisfy her craving to know who she was. Right now, Vittore had far more pressing concerns on his mind and Topsy was very unwilling to do or say anything that might risk upsetting Dante’s mother.

Dante rose to his full height, fluid as quicksilver for all his size. ‘We’ll leave now.’

‘Don’t pass the work that’s been done in the kitchen unless it’s perfect,’ Sofia warned her firmly.

‘Why don’t you accompany us?’ Dante asked lightly.

His mother tensed. ‘I hate the smell of paint.’

Sofia also got horribly car sick, Topsy conceded, happy to stand in for the older woman if it helped her to rest and regain her strength. Struggling to keep up with Dante’s long impatient stride, she accompanied him downstairs and out to the rear of the castle where one of the collection of high-powered cars he owned had already been extracted for his benefit from the garage block. It was a Pagani Zonda. Saffy’s husband, Zahir, owned one of these high-powered sports cars although as the king of the Arabian Gulf state of Maraban he never seemed to get the opportunity to drive himself anywhere. Boys and their toys, she thought wryly.

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