Nobody could care about the villa more than Vittorio Tazzini. It broke his heart to see it sold to someone like Angel. Except the dark, brooding Italian hadn't even met her yet. Getting to know the real Angel Clannan, the one she'd almost forgotten herself, would change his mind. And, if he let her, she might just change his entire life .
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"LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, here we are again with your favourite TV programme, Star On My Team, when the famous—and sometimes the infamous—ha-ha!—team up with you to win fabulous prizes..."
Sitting backstage, Angel prayed for the burbling introduction to be over soon. In fact, she thought, please let the whole mindless business be over. Just as her marriage was over, and only awaited a decent burial.
The presenter was getting into his stride. "On my right, Mr and Mrs Barker, and their famous team member—" He named the star of a minor soap opera. Watching the backstage screen, Angel saw him enter, flashing his teeth and grandstanding to the audience.
Nina, her personal assistant, surveyed her with critical approval.
"You look perfect," she said.
Of course she did. Angel always looked perfect. That was her function. Long blonde hair, large, dark-blue eyes, slender figure encased in a tight gold dress, cut teasingly low. Masses of glittering, tasteless jewellery. Bling, bling!
"And now, the lady I know you're impatient to see—" Not as impatient as I am to finish this, she thought wryly, while trying to remain good-tempered. Time to get out there. Big smile!
"The one we've all been waiting for..."
Especially since my husband plastered my face all over the front pages, trying to divorce me on the cheap. Never mind. Smile!
A look in the mirror, a final adjustment of her dress to ensure that her assets were displayed to advantage, mouth widened just so far, no further. And now for the last walk to where the lights beckoned and the cameras preyed on her. It felt like a walk to the guillotine.
"Here she is. The beautiful, the fabulous—Angel!" She'd done this a hundred times before, and it should have been easy, but as she emerged and the applause washed over her, something terrible happened. The lights seemed to dim, and suddenly her mind was filled with darkness and panic.
Please, not now! I thought those attacks were over! Mercifully, the dreadful moment passed swiftly. She could cope again, just.
She advanced on the suicidally high heels, hands outstretched, voice tuned to a note of artificial ecstasy to greet the presenter.
Her fellow contestants were Mr and Mrs Strobes. She'd met them in the hospitality room before the show and it had been an endurance test.
"We're so sorry about your divorce," Mrs Strobes had said. "We think it's just terrible the way he threw you out."
"Parting was a mutual decision,'Angel had hastened to say. But what was the point, with Joe flaunting his new companion at every party and nightclub?
The audience was agog to see her, so she smiled and waved, turning this way and that so that they shouldn't be disappointed. She could almost hear the comments.
"A right sexy little piece—a bit of all right."
That was what her husband had wanted from her. For him she'd been a 'right sexy little piece' for eight years, and suddenly eight years felt like a very long time.
The show started. The questions were ridiculously easy, but even so she gave a performance of racking her brains, giggling at her own 'ignorance'. They wanted 'dumb blonde' so that was what she would give them.
The soap actor on the other side seemed to be genuinely dumb, and Angel's team was soon in the lead. The clincher came when the host burbled, "And now, Angel, here's a real tough one for you. Who painted the Sistine Chapel? Was it
a) Maisie the Mouse, b) Michelangelo, or c) MarkAntony?" She did her bit, putting her dainty fingertips to her mouth and giving an 'Angel' giggle.
"Ooh, dear! I don't know. I never studied music." Roars of laughter from the audience. "Could you repeat the question, please?"
He did so and she gave a little squeal. "You always give me the hard ones. I'll have to guess. Michelangelo."
"Michelangelo is right, and you have won."
Cheers, applause, her team mates bouncing with joy. It would be finished soon. Cling to that thought.
At last it was over and she could escape. Nina was waiting for her with the car, so that she could make a speedy escape from all the prying eyes.
Nina had been with her for eight years, secretary, maid, gofer and good, solid friend. She was a little younger than Angel, plain, funny, and a rock to cling to.
When they were on their way, Angel let out a long sigh of relief.
"At least that's over," Nina said. "With luck you'll never have to do another one."
"Not once I'm living in Italy," Angel agreed. "Amalfi, here I come."
"I really wish I could come with you." 'So do I," Angel said, meaning it. "I'll miss you, but I shan't need a secretary, even if I could afford one now. I'm going to live a very quiet life."
"Joe called me today and asked me to go back to work for him. He said "darling Merry" needs me. Merry! I ask you. Her name's Meredith."
"And mine's Angela, but I let him rename me Angel for the sake of his image."
"I told him I'd found another job. As though I'd work for him again—a great, stupid vulgarian who thinks he's somebody because he's rich."
"Mind how you talk about my ex-husband," Angel said mildly.
"You object?" 'Certainly. "Great, stupid vulgarian" doesn't begin to do him justice."
"How about, "coarse, spiteful, bullying thug"?" 'That's much better,'Angel said with a wry little laugh. "You're well shot of him.And, even if he did cheat you out of a proper settlement, you got an Italian palace out of it."
"The Villa Tazzini isn't a palace. If it had been, "Merry" would have wanted it. He bought it for her, but without letting her see it first. It was to be a wonderful surprise. But when she realised it wasn't palatial, just a large country house, she didn't think it was wonderful at all." 'Rumour says it cost him a million." 'A palace would have cost at least five million. I heard he showed her a lot of pictures he'd taken, and she ripped them up."
"I suppose Freddy told you that," said Nina, naming Joe's PA, who was secretly on Angel's side, as was everyone who'd worked for her.
"That's right. Apparently her language would have made a stevedore blush."
"And Joe let her talk to him like that?" 'She's twenty, and sexy. It boosts his ego to flaunt her—" 'Next to his fat, forty-nine-year-old self?"
Angel laughed. "Next to his fifty-two-year-old self, actually. But that's a secret. Even I only found out by accident. But the point is that as long as Merry does him proud, she can talk to him how she likes. Anyway, he finally tossed the place to me and said, "You can have that as your divorce pay-off. Take it or leave it.""
"And that's all?" 'I get a lump sum as well, but I'll have to be careful with it. It'll cover my expenses until the lemon harvest comes in. Part of the estate is an orchard, and when I sell the crop I'll have enough to get by."
"Even so, you could have fought Joe for a fair share. With his millions he's got off cheap."
"I know, but he could have tied me up for years, fighting him and his army of lawyers. I simply felt very tired, so I took it. After all, I've always loved Italy."
Once, she'd planned to study art at college, then go on to Italy to study some more. She'd even learned Italian. But that dream had come to nothing, when her beloved grandfather had fallen ill and needed her.
Now, ironically, she was going to Italy after all. But not to Rome or Florence, the centres of art. Her new home was a villa on the Amalfi coast where the cliffs plunged dizzy-ingly down to the sea.
Anything was worth it, she told herself, if she could still take care of the old man who had offered her a home after her parents died when she was eight. They had been strangers, not having seen each other for five years.
"Hello, I'm Sam," he'd said, refusing to have any truck with that 'talking down to kids nonsense," as he had called it. And Sam he'd been ever since.
They had been poor, and life had been a struggle, but they loved each other, and when Sam's health had failed all she'd cared about was looking after him. For a while she had had a boyfriend, Gavin, who had dazzled her with his handsome looks, but she had broken up with him when he made it clear there was no place for Sam in their lives.
Hoping to win a little money, she had applied to enter a television quiz show. That was how she had met Joe Clannan, a shareholder in the production company that made the show. He was a property millionaire, and, when he had proposed, she had accepted for Sam's sake.
Joe wanted a young sexy trophy wife, and he made her change her name. To him, "Angela' was dull and provincial, but 'Angel' was the sexy, young 'bit' that he wanted.
He took her to every film premiere, every fashionable restaurant opening, and she was always dressed to the nines and dripping with jewels. The idea was to show the world that coarse, vulgar Joe Clannan had a wife that other men envied him for.
She did what pleased him because she was grateful that Sam now had a comfortable life with her, cared for by two nurses. Often he didn't know who she was, but he seemed happy, and that was all she asked.
She became a minor celebrity, famous for being famous, appearing on reality TV, fluttering her eyelashes, giggling and doing all she could to make Joe proud.
But when she became pregnant Joe showed his true col-ours. He already had two grown sons from a previous marriage, and he wasn't keen on Angel losing her figure. He even suggested that there was 'no need to have it'. That provoked a fierce row in which she stood up to him so determinedly that he never mentioned it again.
But it was all for nothing. Two days later, she miscarried. In the weeks of depression that followed, she became, as he put it, poor company. He found a younger woman, a girl of twenty. He reckonedAngel was past her best, at twenty-eight.
She had always known that beneath the surface bonhomie Joe could be a very unpleasant man. Just how unpleasant she discovered during the divorce, when he drove her and Sam out of the house and gave her as little as he could get away with.
She cared nothing for the money. If it weren't for her grandfather, she would have thought herself well rid of Joe.
After the hideously gaudy mansion in the heart of London's West End where she'd once lived—"Nothing too good for my Angel!'—she now rented a small house on the edge of town, just big enough for herself, Sam and the two nurses. She'd taken it on a short-term lease, and in a few weeks she must have the Villa Tazzini ready for them all.
On the night before she left for Italy, she dropped in to Sam's room.
"I'll be leaving very early tomorrow," she told him. "Why are you going away?" he asked, puzzled. "Darling, I told you. I'm going to Italy, to see this house where we're going to live. It's my divorce settlement from Joe."
"Joe who?" 'You remember Joe—my ex-husband."
He frowned. "What became of Gavin?" 'We quarrelled. Never mind all that now. We're going to have a new home in Italy. Look, here are the pictures of it that I brought you. You'll come and join me as soon as possible."
He fixed her with the smile she loved, full of warmth and affection.
"Why are you going away?" he asked.