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Now fate, or whatever you liked to call it, had thrown them together once more. Not just a nudge this time, but a full-on red-light collision, and they were connected for ever by Mattio.

He still hadn’t touched her.

‘Tuscany, outside Florence. The estate has been in our family for generations.’ And very briefly large sections temporarily not. The realisation that his father had been selling off piecemeal vast tracts of the estate and splitting up the world-renowned Agosti art collection, just to keep his second wife, Samuele’s stepmother, in private jets, luxury yachts and jewels to wear when she lost yet another fortune at the gaming tables, had caused Samuele to abandon his medical degree course midway through.

Medicine might provide status, respect and job satisfaction, but if he wanted to succeed in his determination to restore his family’s heritage he needed money, the sort of money that the financial services sector could provide for someone who was successful. And Samuele was hugely successful, his rise had been meteoric and he had never regretted his decision, not once.

Before his father’s death he had discreetly, through a series of anonymous holding companies, managed to reacquire seventy per cent of the estate that his father had sold. After his death there had been no need for discretion and the restoration of the Agosti villa in Florence had been completed the previous year.

He had expected success to feel more...victorious? He pushed the thought away. The truth was, it was hard to be enthused about anything since Cristiano’s death. And now he had someone to hand the reclaimed heritage on to. He had Mattio.

He would always put Mattio’s needs ahead of every other consideration, including his own conscience.

‘I have a private plane waiting.’ He said it in the casual way that, in Maya’s experience, only people with a lot of money spoke about such things. ‘I’ll need a nanny for Mattio.’

‘I’m not a nanny!’

‘Dio, I wasn’t offering you the job.’

He was secure in his self-control, but inviting this woman to live under the same roof as him on any sort of permanent basis, given the chemistry that existed between them, would break too many of his self-imposed boundaries when it came to allowing women into his life. And if ever he’d met a woman who was incapable of recognising a boundary, let alone staying the right side of one, Maya Monk was it.

He didn’t need a woman like her in his life—actually he didn’t need any woman. Of course, there were women he had sex with occasionally—he needed sex, the same as any man—but they never threatened his inner peace.

Another word for loneliness, mocked his inner voice, but he didn’t care if it was true. Isolation was preferable to the option both his father and brother had embraced: marrying wives who’d taken them for every penny and made them smile while they did it.

Embarrassed heat stung Maya’s cheeks. There was nothing like refusing a job you hadn’t been offered to make a girl feel stupid. ‘Oh, mistake.’ Her firm little chin lifted, defiance exuding from every pore as she added mutinously, ‘But it sounded to me like you were.’

His gaze drifted from her narrowed eyes to her sensuous mouth that couldn’t look thin and mean, even though she was clearly trying. When it came to a live-in nanny, he would definitely not choose one that looked like Maya Monk. A world where she was a permanent feature in his life without her sharing his bed was an absolute non-starter... No, the person he had in mind was sturdy and no-nonsense, radiating a comforting, calm, kind vibe. Would it be sexist to put any of those things in the ad?

‘I travel light, and I have no experience of babies,’ he admitted, thinking he had even less experience of women who made him laugh. ‘Let alone travelling with one.’ Logic told him there had to be more to that endeavour than there appeared. ‘And it’s going to take me a little time to find a suitable nanny. In the interim, I was thinking that you out with Mattio. I’ve watched you with him—you’re good with him, he knows you and you seem like pair of hands.’ With a soft heart, which of course was what he was counting on.

‘So you don’t want a nanny, you just want an unqualified, unpaid dogsbody!’

‘Are there qualifications for doing someone a favour?’ he asked with a shrug. ‘And payment isn’t an issue—name your price.’

She reacted huffily to the suggestion that she could be bought. ‘I can’t be bought.’

He fought the impulse to share his cynical view that that fact alone made her unusual, if not unique.

‘Not a very practical response, but fine, if that’s what you want, I won’t pay you.’

She threw him a narrow-eyed look of dislike. ‘I suppose you assume that just because I’m female I know about babies.’

Female... Yes, she was... The provocative blood-heating image of her slim, smooth, naked body,veryfemale naked body, floated into his head, making it hard to stick to his point. ‘You really could do with some lessons in selling yourself.’

‘I’m not trying to sell myself,’ she said, her voice barely audible beyond the sound of her low shallow breaths, which made the subsequent decibel rise all the more apparent as she suddenly added, ‘And I really don’t care whatyouor anyone else thinks about me. I care whatIthink about me.’ To his ears it had all the hallmarks of a classicshe protests way too muchdenial.

She was too busy trying to inject some much-needed neutrality into her voice to notice the thoughtful expression that slid across his face. ‘And I’ve already said no.’

‘Yes, you did.’

You didn’t have to do much reading between the lines to work out that once shehadcared about what someone thought, and that someone had done some serious damage to her self-confidence.

She had recovered because she was obviously a strong woman, but there were always scars...even if they weren’t visible. He’d come across men like that; ones who made themselves feel big to disguise the fact they were hollow and weak. He would have liked to get his hands on—

He forced himself to de-escalate his growing antagonism towards this faceless creation of his imagination, the man who’d probably tapped into the passion he sensed in Maya, who had maybe made it harder for her to enjoy it with the next man who came along.

But he was not that man.

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