The Italian Duke's Virgin Mistress (4 page)

Raphael, who had been watching her, saw her eyes widen and change colour, her face lifting towards the frescoes with an awed joy that illuminated her features and revealed the true beauty of the delicate bone structure.

His heart slammed into his ribs with a force for which he was totally unprepared. The fresco was one of his personal favourites, and her silent but open homage to it echoed his own private feelings. But how could it be possible that this woman of all people, whose behaviour said that she had no awareness of or respect for artistic beauty, should look at the fresco and react to it with all that he felt for it himself? It shouldn’t have been possible. It should not have happened. But it had, and he had witnessed it. Raphael watched her lift her hand as she took a step towards the nearest fresco, as though unable to stop herself, and then let it fall back. He hadn’t expected it of her. She hadn’t struck him as someone who was capable of feeling, never mind expressing such an emotion, and yet now he could feel her passion filling the distance between them. If he looked at her now he knew he would see her eyes had darkened to that stormy blue-green that had caught his attention earlier, and her lips would be
pressed together—soft, sensual pillows of flesh, too full to form a flat line, tempting any man who looked at them to taste them…

Raphael cursed himself under his breath. He had been without a lover for too long. But he couldn’t remember ever seeing anyone react quite so emotionally to the frescoes other than his mother, who had loved them and passed on that love to him. He could still remember how as a small child she had lifted him and held him so that he could see the frescos at close quarters, her voice filled with emotion as she talked to him about them. His life had been so happy then, so filled with love and security—before he had known about his dark inheritance.

So much beauty, Charley thought achingly. Her heart, indeed the very essence of her had gone hungry for such beauty for so long. In her imagination she tried to comprehend what it must have been like to be the pupil of such an artist, to have the privilege of watching him at work, knowing that one’s own best efforts could never hope to match his smallest brushstrokes, feeding off the joy of witnessing such artistry. Only of course the great masters had never taken on female pupils—not even tomboy female pupils.

Once she had dreamed of working amongst great works of art in one of London’s famous museums, as an art historian, but that dream had come to an end with her parents’ death.

Dragging her gaze from the frescoes, she shook her head like someone coming out of a deep dream and said slowly to Raphael, ‘Giovanni Battista Zelotti, the
most famous of all fresco painters of his era. He would never tell anyone the recipe he used for his famous blue paint, and the secret died with him.’

Raphael nodded his head. ‘My ancestor commissioned him after he had seen the fresco he painted for the Medicis in Florence.’

He looked at his watch, his movement catching Charley’s attention. His wrists were muscular, and the dark hairs on his arm underlined his maleness, making her stomach muscles tighten into a slow ache that permeated the whole of her lower body. What would it be like to be touched, held by such a man? To know the polished, controlled expertise of his stroke against her skin…? And he would be an expert at knowing what gave a woman the most pleasure…The slow ache flared into something more intense, causing Charley to catch her breath as she tried to hold her own against her body’s attack on her defences. It must be Italy that was making her feel like this—Italy, and the knowledge that she was so close to the cities she had longed to visit and their wonderful art treasures, not Raphael himself. That could not be—must not be.

CHAPTER THREE

W
ARMTH,
sunshine, a scent on the air coming in through the open balcony windows that was both unfamiliar and enticing, and a large bed with the most wonderful sheets she had ever slept in. And despite everything she had slept, Charley admitted as she luxuriated guiltily in the delicious comfort of the bed and her surroundings, having been woken only minutes earlier by a discreet knock on her bedroom door, followed by the entrance of a smiling young maid with Charley’s breakfast.

When Raphael’s housekeeper had brought her up here last night she had felt slightly daunted, but to her relief Anna, as she had told Charley she must call her, had quickly put her at her ease, organising a light meal for her, and telling her that breakfast would be sent up to her room for her because ‘Il Duce—’ as she had referred to Raphael ‘—takes his breakfast very early when he is here, so that he can go out and speak to the men whilst they are working with the vines.’

Charley was, of course, relieved that she didn’t have
to have breakfast with Raphael, and it wasn’t because she was curious about him in any way at all that as she left the bed she was drawn to the balcony windows and the view of the vines she had already seen beyond the gardens that lay immediately below them. Slipping the band she used to tie her hair back off her face over her wrist, Charley padded barefoot to the balcony in her strappy sleep top with matching shorts—a Christmas present from the twins. The outfit was loose on her, due to the weight she had lost over these last anxious weeks.

It was wonderful to feel the warmth of the sun on her bare skin. Charley turned her face up towards it, and then tensed as she heard Raphael’s voice and then saw him appear round the corner of the building, accompanied by another man with whom he was deep in conversation. Both men were dressed casually, in short-sleeved shirts and chinos, but it was to Raphael that her attention was drawn as the two men shook hands and the older man began to walk away, leaving Raphael standing alone. The blue linen of his shirt emphasised the tanned flesh of his bare forearms. A beam of sunlight touched the strong column of his throat. Charley had to curl her fingers in an attempt to quell the longing itching in them—not a desire to pick up a piece of charcoal and sketch his lean, erotically male lines, but instead a desire to touch him, to feel the warmth of the life force that lay beneath his flesh, to experience how it felt to be free to physically explore such a man.

Beneath the thin cotton jersey of her top her nipples
tightened, the small movement she made instinctively in rejection of her arousal dragging the fabric against their swollen sensitivity, conjuring up inside her head images of a male touch creating—indeed inciting—that sensitivity and then harvesting its sensuality, teasing her with skilled, tormenting caresses that played on her arousal, drawing it from her, making her want a closer intimacy. Behind her closed eyelids Charley could almost see the dark male hands tormenting her, making her yearn for their possession of her breasts. Instinctively she stepped forward—and then gasped, her eyes opening as she came up against the balcony railing.

Down below her Raphael looked up towards the balcony. It was too late for her to step back out of sight. He had seen her, and he would know that she had seen him. Suddenly conscious of how she must look, dressed in her sleepwear and with her hair all over the place, she plucked at the hairband on her wrist, her eyes widening in dismay as it slipped from her fingers and dropped through the railings, landing almost at Raphael’s feet.

When he bent to pick it up Charley could see the fabric of his linen shirt stretch across his shoulders. It was such a male thing that—the breadth of a man’s shoulders, the way his body tapered down in a muscular V-shape towards his hips, his chest hard and packed with muscles where her own was soft with the rounded shape of her breasts.

Raphael was straightening up, putting her hairband in his pocket, looking up at her, at her hair, her mouth,
her breasts. Charley’s toes curled into the mosaic-tiled floor of the balcony as she sucked in her stomach against the heat that flooded over her.

A mobile phone began to ring. Raphael’s, she recognised as he removed it from his pocket and began to speak into it, turning his back to her and then beginning to walk away.

It was the warmth of the sun on her sunshinestarved body that had aroused her, not Raphael. He had just happened to be there at the same time—that was all, Charley insisted to herself as she stood under the shower, determinedly not thinking of anything other than the reason she was here in Italy.

Ten minutes later, having searched through her backpack three times, Charley dropped it onto the floor in defeat. How could she not have put in a couple of spare hairbands? She never wore her hair loose.
Never.
She preferred,
needed
to have it tied back and under control. She simply wasn’t feminine enough to wear her hair loose in a mass of curls.

His call over, Raphael looked down at the hairband he had removed from his pocket, his body hardening as he studied it. Inside his head he could see Charlotte Wareham standing on the balcony, the bright morning sunshine turning the top and shorts she was wearing virtually transparent so that he could see quite plainly the flesh beneath them—her breasts round and full, shadowed by the dark aureole of flesh from which her nipples rose to push against the fabric covering them.
How different she had appeared then, without the concealment of the shapeless clothes she had been wearing the previous day. Raphael tried to dismiss the erotic image from inside his head, but instead his memory produced another picture, this time of Charlotte Wareham pressed against the balcony, her back arched, her eyes closed in a mixture of surrender and enticement, those long, long legs of hers parted, the sunlight revealing the neat covering of hair that protected her sex. How easy it would have been for a man to slide his hand up her thigh and beneath the cuff of her shorts, so that he could stroke that sensual softness and explore what it concealed. What she had been wearing—two small plain items of clothing, not suggestive at all, so one might think—had cloaked her body in such a way that their mere presence and proximity to her body had filled him with a fierce urgency to feast on all the delights her flesh had seemed to offer. He couldn’t accuse her of being deliberately provocative, Raphael knew, and it brought a sharp edge to his irritation with himself to have to admit that against all the odds, and certainly against his normal code of behaviour, his mind had somehow developed a will of its own and had transformed clothes so ordinary into garments filled with sensual promise. Just remembering now the way in which the thin shoulder straps of her top had suggested they could be easily slid down her arms, to reveal the full promise of those dark hard nipples, filled him with angry rejection of his body’s response to her. The soft, unstructured shape of the top itself, which had finished almost on her waist, revealing a
glimmer of pale flesh, had urged him to lift it up and push it out of the way, so that he could see and touch the promised soft lushness of her body. And the shorts, baggy and loose-legged…A man could take his pleasure exploring whatever part of her he chose to reveal, knowing that he had the whole of her to access as and when and how he chose to do so.

Cursing himself silently again, Raphael commanded his self-control to dispel both his thoughts and the arousal they were creating. If he needed a woman then there were plenty available to him who would make more suitable bedmates than Charlotte Wareham.

Charley longed to fasten her hair and hold it gripped off her face as she stood in front of the desk behind which Raphael was seated. She had been summoned to his presence like a miscreant about to be punished—which, of course, as far as he was concerned was exactly what she was. She couldn’t touch her hair, no matter how uncomfortable she felt with it tumbling down onto her shoulders, because if she did it might remind Raphael, and would certainly remind her, of the circumstances in which she had lost her hairband.

In an attempt to distract herself she studied her surroundings. The fact that the large room was on the ground floor of the
palazzo
indicated that its original purpose would have been for business to be conducted: orders given, favours sought and deals made—the administrative centre of the ducal estate.

The ceiling was decorated with painted lozenges depicting various hereditary arms and symbols. The
polished wood of the library shelving which held huge leather-covered books, their gold lettering gleaming softly, added to the imposing air of the room. Traditionally it would no doubt have been here where those who administered the estate would come to present their accounts to the duke, to answer his questions and receive his praise—or his wrath.

Charley shivered. There was no doubt which of those things Raphael believed she deserved.

The heavy, ornately carved and inlaid desk, positioned to make the most of the light coming in through the narrow windows, was covered in papers.

Raphael looked briefly at Charley. She was wearing her hair down, and the sight of it, freshly washed, the delicately scented smell of it and of her reawakened the desire he had felt earlier. What was the matter with him? He was no mere hormone-driven boy, to be tempted and tormented by the thought of sliding his hands into those thick wild curls, of lacing his fingers through them as he covered her naked body with his own, arousing her as she had aroused him. Using the determination with which he had always so ruthlessly crushed any challenge or resistance to his self-control, Raphael closed down his unwanted thoughts as firmly as though he had trapped them behind an impregnable steel door. To allow himself to feel desire for Charlotte Wareham would be unacceptably inappropriate behaviour and, more than that, a weakness within himself that he was not prepared to tolerate. He had no idea why she should have such an effect on him. She was neither groomed nor elegant. She was not witty or sophisticated.
In short, there was nothing about her that should have had any appeal for him.

All he could think was that somehow his body had been confused by the anger she aroused within him and was thus acting inappropriately. The reality was that Charlotte Wareham was proving to be a thorn in his side in more ways than one.

‘I have copies here of the original plans for the garden. I want you to study them and see what is to be done within the garden.’

‘Yes, Il Duce.’ Charley responded through gritted teeth.

There was a small, dangerous silence, as though he knew how she had almost choked on delivering the title that in her own estimation reduced her to little more than a slave, forced to do his bidding, and how she had spoken the words with her angry contempt. She could see the thunder in the now dark grey eyes and she waited, knowing that she would be punished.

But when he spoke he shocked her by saying dismissively, ‘You will address me as Raphael and not Il Duce.’

Use his name and not his title? Charley almost told him that she would do no such thing, but just in time realised how ridiculous such a piece of defiance would be.

‘Now,’ he continued, ‘let me assure you that any attempt on your part to despoil the restoration of the garden with items of the sort I saw yesterday will result in your immediate dismissal. The garden will be restored to its full glory in every detail.’

Charley could almost feel the intensity of his commitment
. If he could make that kind of commitment to a garden then how much more intense would be the commitment he made to the woman he loved?

Her body convulsed on a small betraying shiver. Once, a long, long time ago as a girl, before she had realised that tomboys were not the kind of girls the male sex wanted to protect, she had dreamed of growing up and being loved by a man whose love for her would be so strong that it would protect her always.

An aching sense of painful loss filled her. She would never know that kind of love—Raphael’s kind of love.

Love? What on earth was going on? Love and this man had no place together in her thoughts. No place at all. She could not afford to be vulnerable. She was too vulnerable already.

A discreet but firm rap on the door broke across her thoughts and had Raphael turning towards it, commanding, ‘Come.’ It opened to admit his seriouslooking male PA, Ciro, whom Charley had met earlier, when he had introduced himself to her and told her that Raphael was waiting to speak with her.

Ciro spoke quickly and quietly to Raphael, causing him to frown slightly and then tell her, ‘I have to go and speak with the manager of the vineyard. I shall not be long. Ciro will arrange for Anna to have some coffee sent in for you whilst you wait for me to return.’

His words sounded polite enough, but Charley wasn’t deceived. What they really were was an order to her that she was to remain here until his return—when no doubt she would be subjected to more contempt and more verbal castigation, she decided as
Raphael strode through the door his PA was holding open for him, leaving Ciro to follow him.

Thanking the maid for the coffee she had just brought, Charley picked up the cup the girl had filled for her, wrapping both her hands around it for comfort—like a child holding a comfort rag or toy, Charley thought, deriding herself for her own vulnerability.

As a child it had always seemed that she had been the one to get the blame for the accidentally naughty things the three of them had sometimes done—even when Lizzie had insisted that the fault was hers. There had been many times when she had gone to bed at night crying into her pillow in silent misery, feeling misunderstood, feeling she was less worthy of parental love than her two sisters. Now the way Raphael was treating her had evoked some of that long-ago misery and sense of injustice, adding to her existing despair.

She took a quick gulp of her coffee and then got up from her chair, putting the cup down as she was drawn to the sketches and plans laid out on Raphael’s desk. Since they were of the pleasure garden, there was no reason why she should not look at them, she assured herself. She had, after all, seen the plans before, at home in England.

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