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‘I don’t believe you,’ he said flatly.

She saw no reason at all to give him the psychological advantage of being the one looking down on her, so she sat up in one fluid motion, with only her tangled dark curls to hide behind.

If things had been different she might have felt self-conscious about being naked, but ironically lovemaking with the patently enthusiastic Samuele had made her even more confident about her body, and anger, which she had fully embraced by now, was a very good antidote to shyness.

‘Fine. So you were present for the most important moment of my life. Is that what you want me to say?’ She rolled her eyes but didn’t quite meet his—that would have required better acting skills than she possessed. She even delivered a laugh, hiding the truth inside a joke and a series of increasingly desperate lies. ‘Look, maybe you think every woman you meet is looking for love, but me, I’m not. I’m actively avoiding it. I mean, why should you be the only one?’

Through the veil of her lashes she could see the jibe had found its mark, and she felt a stab of bleak satisfaction. ‘Virtually everyone I have ever cared for, and even those I didn’t, have abandoned me at some point in my life. Why would I set myself up for even more pain by falling in love?’ she pointed out, embracing what she had never admitted to herself before and feeling weirdly liberated because of it. ‘My own mother rejected me—twice, actually, when you think about it. She clearly never loved me, and neither did Violetta.’ Sadness filled her face as she admitted quietly, ‘My dad died when I was only a child and I was devastated because I loved him so much. My mum remarried and—well, let’s just say you’re certainly not the only person who’s seen a parent make a terrible second marriage. What did love do for her? And while my sister Beatrice is happy now, she went through absolute hell to get there.

‘Shethinks love is a price worth paying, butIdon’t. My mum and dad were blissfully happy for a few short years but when he died, I think a part of her did too, and she ended up marrying a man on the rebound who was a total control freak. He tried and almost succeeded in isolating her from everyone who cared for her, and he practically ripped our family apart doing it.

‘The truth is, I owe you a sincere debt of gratitude, Samuele.’ She saw surprise move at the backs of his eyes and felt a stab of triumph. ‘I thought that I couldn’t have sex without a relationship, that it would feel cold and wrong. But it didn’t, and it was incredible. So you have opened up a whole new world of possibilities for me.’

He isn’t rejecting me—I’m rejecting him...She repeated the confidence-enhancing mantra inside her head over and over. It didn’t matter if it was true, because it was always about how itlookedrather than how it actuallywas, and she looked totally confident as she surged gracefully to her feet. Displaying an almost balletic poise, she moved around the room, unhurriedly gathering her clothes.

It was hard to project dignity while you were untangling your bra from a lampshade, especially when you could feel a pair of jet-dark eyes following your every move, but Maya thought she pulled it off. Cool and businesslike might have been preferable, and she might well have said more than she’d intended to about her past, though the details of her big speech were already a bit of a blur. But what shehaddone was establish that she wasnotcrushed by his declaration that he wouldn’t sleep with her again. Because she was his equal. Actually, she decided, she wasbetterthan him.

Sam watched as she turned her back to him and he had a last flash of her small, high, coral-tipped breasts that had fitted so perfectly into his hands before she covered them with the tartan silk bra. Then she pushed her hair out of the way, drawing it over her shoulder to gain access to the fastening.

The Pre-Raphaelite mass of curls always made him think of an old film... He remembered it being themed rather appropriately around a young woman with incredible hair who discovered her sexuality, a view and the Italian scenery all at the same time.

Well, Maya had certainly discovered her sexuality, he thought grimly, and now she was going to be exploring it with someone else. The image of these faceless recipients of her loving sensuality sent a knife thrust of something acidic that herefusedto admit was pure, undiluted jealousy.

Recognising the source of the feeling in his gut when he imagined someone else pushing his face into her hair, breathing in the scent of her, of that someone feeling the brush of the silky cascade against his chest and belly, exciting nerve-endings into painful life, would be to admit to a vulnerability that he was unwilling to own.

Pushing away the images, he rose to his feet, watching the flexing of her shoulder blades cause a little ripple of delicately sculpted muscle under the surface of her creamy skin.

‘I need to get back to Mattio now.’ Maya tossed the information over her shoulder, feeling a stab of shame that he was her only reason for being here, and yet she’d so easily forgotten her responsibilities.

As the fastener clicked home and she was able to drop her arms, she turned to see him standing there stark naked. Her mood of defiant confidence slipped away as she stared, literally transfixed by the sight of him. There was not an ounce of surplus fat beneath his olive-toned skin to disguise the delineation of his athletic frame, the deep muscles on his long thighs, the powerful muscles of his broad shoulders and chest, and the washboard corrugation of his belly.

Things newly awoken inside her tightened and clenched. Who was she kidding? Samuele had not opened her up to a world of sensual possibility, he had justspoilther for any other man! She couldn’t even bear to contemplate the idea of another man touching her as intimately as he had...

‘Mattio will be fine,’ he said quietly. ‘And you will be a celebrity once everyone knows what happened.’

The colour slid from her face. ‘You’re going to tell them?’

‘You will, I would imagine.’

She stared at him. Why would she tell everyone she’d slept with Samuele?

‘The bruise on your face is going to take some explaining if you don’t tell them about the boar.’

She reached for her shirt then, crushing it to her front as she felt the wash of embarrassed colour rise up her neck. She would have died rather than admit the misunderstanding.

He watched her from under his lashes as he pulled his jeans up over his narrow hips, knowing the conclusion she’d just jumped to. Boast about sleeping with a virgin? Ignorance, in his mind, was no defence; he certainly wasn’t going to expose his shame. It didn’t matter which way you looked at it, he had the experience, and he’d made a move on her when she’d been at her most vulnerable, shocked and upset after almost being badly injured.

The terrible truth was that he would do it again in a heartbeat...and now he knew that Maya Monk could very quickly become his drug of choice, the only option was to go cold turkey. It disturbed him that for the first time in his life his contempt for his father, his despair for his brother, both locked into marriages that amounted to contractual humiliation, was now leavened with the smallest kernel of understanding. Not that Maya bore any resemblance to his toxic stepmother...but that only made her more dangerous to him, not less.

Having her under the same roof as him for several weeks might be a challenge, but maybe he deserved to suffer after what he’d done? Keeping an emotional distance from her wasn’t going to be painless either.

‘I’ll go first,’ he said as she walked through the door ahead of him.

‘Because you’re big and male and I’m a weak little woman?’ she jibed.

No, because I can’t take looking at your delicious rear all the way back without wanting to have you up against the nearest tree.He shrugged. ‘If you like.’

Even though he didn’t turn around he must have sensed her hesitation as they approached the trees again. ‘Don’t worry, that family of boars have probably moved on,’ he lied. In actuality he didn’t have a clue if they had or not. He’d protect Maya even if he had to pick her up and run all the way back to the castello with her.

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