Count Valieri's Prisoner - By Sara Craven


IT WAS QUIET in the lamplit room, the only sound the occasional rustle of paper as the man seated on one side of the vast antique desk went through the contents of the file in front of him. He was unhurried, his black brows drawn together in a faint frown as he closely scanned each printed sheet in turn, then laid it aside.

The grey-haired man sitting opposite watched him, under the guise of studying his fingernails. It was over two years since they’d had cause to meet face to face, and there was no longer even a trace of the boy he had once known in the dark, incisive face bent over the documents he had brought for him only a few hours ago.

He had been welcomed with the usual courtesy, conducted by the maggiodomo to the room where he would spend the night, after which he had dined alone with his host. The food had been delicious, and on the surface, it was all charm and relaxation, but he was under no illusions.

The real business of his visit was being conducted right here and now.

Eventually, his reading concluded, the younger man looked up and gave a brief nod of approbation.

‘You have been more than thorough, Signor Massimo. I commend you. An entire life laid out for my inspection in every detail. Invaluable.’

His swift smile momentarily softened the hard lines of his mouth and brought an added glint to eyes that were almost the colour of amber, flecked with gold.

It was a proud face with a high-bridged nose, classically moulded cheekbones and an uncompromising chin.

But now too austere to be truly handsome, thought Guido Massimo as he inclined his head in polite acknowledgement. And too coldly purposeful. The face of a stranger.

He waited as the other took the photograph which was the last object remaining in the file and studied it. The girl looking back at him was blonde, her pale hair hanging in a sleek silken curtain almost to her shoulders. Her face was oval with creamy skin, her eyes a clear grey. Her nose was short and straight, her chin firm and the delicately curved lips were parted in a slight but confident smile.

‘When was this taken?’

‘A few months ago on the occasion of her engagement,’ Signor Massimo returned. ‘It appeared in a magazine published in the county where she was brought up.’ He allowed himself a discreet twinkle. ‘Che bella ragazza.’

His comment received only an indifferent shrug.

‘This cool Anglo-Saxon type has no appeal for me.’ The other’s mouth twisted. ‘Which, under the circumstances, must be deemed fortunate.’ He paused. ‘But no doubt her fidanzato will have a very different view and will pay the required price for her safe return. Or we must hope so.’

Signor Massimo murmured politely, keeping his expression impassive. He was well aware that his host’s tastes in women favoured the elegantly voluptuous, but it would have been unwise even to hint that he possessed such knowledge.

The younger man returned the photograph to the file with an air of finality and leaned back in his chair, frowning again. ‘The wedding is scheduled to take place in two months, which means there is no time to be lost. However it will make the resolution of the matter increasingly urgent, which is all to the good.’

Almost absently he began to play with the heavy gold signet ring he wore on his right hand. ‘Tell me more about this television company she works for. You say it makes programmes for various arts channels?’

‘And with some success. She is currently a researcher with a desire to move into production, but it seems marriage will end such hopes. As I have mentioned in the report, her fidanzato has already made it clear that he does not want his wife to work.’

The other nodded. ‘And this has a caused—a certain amount of friction?’

‘It seems so. As yet unresolved.’

‘Ambition versus love.’ The cool, deep voice spoke more softly. Became almost meditative. ‘Which will she choose, I wonder, when serious temptation is offered.’ He paused. ‘Are you a betting man, Signor Massimo?’

‘On rare occasions only.’

‘And where would you place your money in such a situation.’

Guido Massimo gave a faint shrug. ‘A girl soon to be a bride. She will wish to please her groom, I think.’

‘You are unexpectedly romantic, signore. But I feel you are mistaken.’ His smile was a curl of the lips. ‘Because I know the bait that will bring her to me.’

‘If I can be of further assistance...’ the