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Not desperate, no—Samuele’s eyes moved around the room—but the woman he knew would have to be very determined indeed to consider spending a night here.

‘She is a widow with a baby, who is being undermined at every move.’

‘You don’t appear totally naive.’ In his view, being idealistic was probably worse. ‘So please listen to me when I tell you that this was totally planned,cara. She played you, as they say, for a sucker.’

‘That’s ridiculous!’Was it?Little details of the previous evening surfaced in her head that she would not even have thought about if it hadn’t been for him planting seeds of doubt. ‘I saw her, she was... Why would anyone...?’ Her eyes suddenly widened. ‘What did you call me?’ Not Mia at least, said the catty voice in her head.

He shook his head in a pretty unconvincing attitude of bewildered innocence—she was pretty sure that Samuele Agosti was neither; it was hard to imagine he ever had been.

When she replayed it in her head the casual endearment on his lips sounded like honey, liquid and warm. Just thinking about it ignited another burst of heat low in her belly.

‘She isn’t coming back, you do know that?’

His expression came as near to sympathy as she’d seen, so she looked over his shoulder, refusing to allow the suspicions he had planted growing room in her head, worried because her hormones could be skewing her judgement. On the other hand, if what he said was true... Despite her determination the thought dropped into her consciousness and the ripples spread.

‘I’m not leaving without Mattio,’ Samuele stated.

I’m not leaving without Maya.

Maya swallowed past an emotional occlusion in her throat. She could suddenly see her dad so clearly, standing there smiling sunnily in response to being told that there was no parent accommodation available at the hospital—and besides, his little girl would be discharged from the overspill ward attached to the accident department after the cast that encased her broken arm had been checked by a doctor in the morning. She remembered willing him not to go and leave her in this big scary place and being glad he’d stayed even when she had cried that she wanted her mum, not him.

Mum had wanted to be there, he’d told her, but the rail strike meant she and Beatrice couldn’t get back from the town where her sister had been competing in an athletics competition until the next day.

Her eyes lifted. There was no resemblance at all between the gangly dad of her memory, with his beard and untidy gingerish hair, and this tall, impossibly handsome man. But nevertheless, they had something in common.

‘I need to see him,’ he reiterated.

She offered up a suspicious look but couldn’t bury the memories rising up in her...seeing the expression in her dad’s eyes—the one that had made someone produce a chair for him to sit on.

After a moment she found herself nodding, not, she told herself, because of an expression inanyone’seyes, but because there was nothing she actually could do to prevent him.

She stood back and opened the door.

The curtains were drawn in the room; she had never reached the point of opening them. Light seeped between them and there was a lamp on the bedside table that cast more shadow than light.

Hovering uncertainly in the doorway, she watched him move across to the travel cot. He was not a man she would associate with hesitancy, but if he’d been anyone else that was how she would have termed his approach. As he reached it and looked down at the sleeping baby he was half turned to her so she could see his face in profile.

The subdued lighting exaggerated the dramatic bone structure of his face, and maybe it did the same to his expression, but what she saw orthoughtshe saw was an almost haunted look of loss that made her feel almost as if she were intruding. Shaking her head at her irrational response as if to loosen the grip of the uncomfortable feelings, she quietly left the room without a word, wishing she could unsee that look. Empathy for him was the last thing she needed to be experiencing; she already felt bad enough for even imagining a fleeting similarity to her dad, who had been her hero. It felt like a betrayal.

She refused to concede that maybe Violetta’s monster wasn’t atotalmonster, so she focused on the indisputable fact that he quite definitely wasn’t a hero, not her definition of one anyhow. She would save her empathy for the baby caught in the middle of a conflict.

Conscience pricking, she walked into her bedroom, musing over her struggle to feel anything sisterly towards baby Mattio’s mother, despite her hot defence of the woman. She closed the door behind her, knowing that, as the walls were paper-thin between the two rooms, she’d hear a pin drop let alone someone making off with a baby.

Not that he would do that... On her way across the room she paused as she realised this confidence in him was actually based on nothing more than a very non-evidence-based gut feeling. Her self-reflective line of thought was abruptly terminated when she caught sight of herself in the mirror on the wardrobe door.Justwhen she thought things could not get worse!

She thought longingly of a shower as she left a trail of clothes in her wake, struggling to open a drawer in the tall heavy chest of drawers of stripped pine to reveal the neatly folded and brightly coloured selection of sweaters inside.

Walking out of the adjoining bedroom, Samuele was struggling to suppress immense waves of sadness, anger and guilt after looking at the child his brother had never met. Life is unfair; live it, he’d been told, except his brother hadn’t lived and life wasn’t just unfair—it wasbloodyunfair.

He hadn’t been able to protect Cristiano, but he was sure as hell going to protect his child no matter what it took. Still lost in his thoughts, he turned his head in response to a sound at the exact moment he was in line with a crack in the slightly open door, delivering an image of a slim, graceful and totally naked figure sitting back on her heels as she pulled open a cavernous drawer.

Smooth, sleek, supple, with perfect curves, she looked like an iconic art deco figure made warm flesh.

He turned his head sharply away, a stab of self-disgust piercing his conscience as his body reacted independently of his brain to the indelible image printed on it.

Flinging the pair of jeans she had grabbed backwards onto the bed, Maya sifted through the sweaters and hastily selected one.

Still resisting the pull of the shower, she turned the basin taps on full and washed her face. She fought her way into her clothes and cast another despairing glance at her image in the mirror as, brush in hand, she decided to just give up on her hair, choosing instead to secure the wild mass of dark curls at the nape of her neck.

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