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Perfect Obsession

Perfect Obsession

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Perfect Obsession

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Länge:
385 Seiten
6 Stunden
Freigegeben:
13. Dez. 2019
ISBN:
9781509227341
Format:
Buch

Beschreibung

Chris Summers needs purpose to come to grips with his new disability and save his own sanity. A friend's offer to get involved in an architectural photobook as the professional photographer is the only solution. The project allows him to work with his friend's sister, Julia Carlevaro, a luxury hotel heiress, who has sworn off men, love, and some other things she prefers to keep to herself.

Once on location in East Africa, Chris and Julia work long hours together to meet their looming deadline. The attraction between them is palpable but Julia sticks to her no-men resolve and to her secrets.

After a shooting accident that leaves Chris unhinged, he is forced to reveal the true nature of the incident that led to his disability. His cards are on the table, and Julia will need to show hers, or let go of their one chance for love.
Freigegeben:
13. Dez. 2019
ISBN:
9781509227341
Format:
Buch

Über den Autor

I’ve always loved to read romance and wanted to write my own book since I was thirteen. Life took various turns in the wrong direction but inadvertently supplied me with writing fodder for quite a few books. I lived in East Africa and worked in the luxury safari industry for a few years, precious time which was the catalyst for my first novel, Perfect Mistake.


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Perfect Obsession - Sophia Karlson

true.

Chapter 1

Chris Summers shifted in the taxi’s leather seat and bumped his knee against his cane. The elegant bit of wood slipped down to the floor, and he cursed the thing for the umpteenth time that day. It had been months now, and he still hadn’t quite gotten used to having it as his constant companion. He bent to pick up the cane and settled it next to him on the seat.

He’d arrived in Italy forty minutes ago, and he could tell that it was at least six degrees warmer in Rome than in London. The warmer temperature soothed his leg—maybe moving to a warmer climate would save his sanity.

Had bloody Heathrow always been so big? Traipsing from London to Rome had been more taxing than he’d expected. His leg pulsed a consistent beat of pain, reminding him that his doctors hadn’t exactly approved this trip. But he’d no longer cared. His fleet of doctors, therapists and family were competing to see who could drive him up the wall first. The best cure for him was to get out and away, as it had always been.

What he really needed was to get back on the job, in whichever form it was going to take. He gazed out of the taxi’s window, catching glimpses of Rome’s antiquities. The drive to the Carlevaro estate on the Appia Antica was riddled with photo opportunities, yet the familiar need to get out his camera and take photos was glaringly absent. What was the point?

His lack of enthusiasm was his biggest worry and one of the reasons he’d considered his friend Carlo Carlevaro’s offer. It wasn’t quite an offer yet, but after the weekend something might be on the cards.

Carlo had spoken about a hotel book, and the Carlevaros didn’t own just any hotels. It sounded like a prestigious project and would put his name back in print. But it was really the complete change of subject matter, environment, and function as photographer that he was after. He needed a burst of sunlight on his clouded soul. Something to revive the passion that had bled out of him that godforsaken day he got shot in Syria.

As they turned into the driveway to the estate, he swallowed the two painkillers he took three times a day ever since he’d gotten off the stronger injections. Today of all days they didn’t seem enough, but it was because he’d overexerted himself. Or was it?

He shrugged off the thought as the taxi pulled up under the portico. A tall blonde in jeans and a gray cashmere jersey came out of the double doors of the house; a little girl with spiral curls skipped in her wake. He couldn’t help grinning on seeing Carlo’s wife, Simone, and four-year-old daughter, Sarah, for the first time.

Chris? Simone smiled as he got out of the taxi. I’ll have you know that I’m starved for English conversation!

They shook hands. The lovely Simone, lost in Rome? Carlo’s description of Simone fitted her perfectly…a Venus who didn’t suffer from goddess syndrome.

That can only be Carlo’s one-liner. Simone laughed as she swung his laptop bag over her shoulder and took his carry-on cabin bag. Say hello to Chris, Sarah.

Sarah gave him a cheeky stare before hiding behind her mother’s legs. He winked at her, feeling lighter. Here, at least, life had allowed everything to fall perfectly into place.

It’s nice to finally meet you, he said, wanting to take his bags from her, but she shook her head.

Likewise. She gave his shoulder a soft squeeze. Come on, there’s a fire going inside, and I’ve made hot chocolate.

With marshmallows, Sarah chirped.

Hot chocolate sounds great. And I love marshmallows. Chris smiled and followed them into the house.

Carlo should have been here already, but something came up at the office. Simone walked toward the elegant staircase that curved to the second floor. Sarah was halfway up the stairs already. Let me show you your room, and you can get comfortable. It’s up here.

Looking at the stairs, he stifled a disheartened groan. It was a two-story building but of old-fashioned proportions. The staircase followed suit.

Simone stopped short of the first step, turning to him.

He hesitated. This might take time.

Her eyes dropped to his cane, and she raised a hand to her lips. I’m sorry, I didn’t realize.

No problem. I can do them slowly.

She worried her bottom lip. Carlo didn’t say anything.

He…I— Chris looked away. Making a fuss was the last thing he wanted. He hadn’t seen Carlo since the incident and the operations which followed. Carlo knew what had happened but had no idea of the exact state of his leg. There was no way Simone could have a clue.

Julia’s cottage in the garden will work better. It’s mostly level, and there’s ample space. Simone nodded, seeming pleased with this idea. Carlo’s sister won’t mind.

His gut tightened. The last thing he wanted to do was to impose on someone he didn’t know, even if she was Carlo’s sister. At this rate, he’d prefer a hotel with a lift. Don’t worry about it, please, Simone. I’ll manage.

She shook her head as she pulled her mobile from her jeans pocket. You’ll be going up and down these stairs the whole weekend and wish you’d never visited. Come down, Sarah!

Simone stepped away as she made a call. He politely turned his back to give her privacy and studied an old Italian painting on the wall closest to him, trying to suppress the budding frustration at the situation he had no control over.

Simone spoke quietly for a minute then returned to him. Yes, yes…See you soon. Love you too. As she wrapped up the call she smiled at him, her embarrassment gone. It’s all arranged. Carlo will talk to Julia, and he’ll be home soon.

This time he got hold of his cabin bag before she could reach for it again.

Come on, out to the cold again, I’m afraid. She led them out of the front door.

The pavement of the driveway continued on a path which disappeared into a sculpted garden. The path was wide enough for them to walk abreast, and Simone slowed her long strides to his pace, with Sarah twirling ahead of them. Statues hid in topiary alcoves of evergreen shrubs, and even in February, the garden was vibrant.

About a hundred meters from the main house, the pathway opened to a modern building, which could hardly be described as a cottage. The stark architectural design was in such contrast to his expectations that Chris laughed.

When you said cottage, I expected something different.

I know. They got me the first time around as well. Simone chuckled as she took her daughter’s hand. Carlo’s brother designed it. It’s Angelo’s dream house, but he’s in Tanzania managing the business there.

Chris stopped for a moment to take it in. It was a single-story building, with the exception of a room which protruded over an outside sitting area, supported by nothing, floating in space. A glass-fenced swimming pool stretched the length of the house, catching the last of the afternoon light. Outside lighting illuminated the house’s exterior, casting a warm glow over the concrete walls and veranda. It’s impressive. Julia lives here alone?

Yes. Pausing, Simone took a deep breath and sighed out a cloud of warm fog into the winter air. She used to live with Carlo in the main house, but when we got married, she moved here.

Sounds fair enough.

She said she’ll look after Angelo’s place for him, but she could’ve stayed on with us. It’s not as if there is a lack of space around here.

He sensed her hesitation, as if she wanted to tell him more, but at the last moment she swallowed her thoughts before they could slip off her tongue. The cold crept into his bones, and his muscles protested. Chris shifted all his weight to his good leg, a subtle movement which caught Simone’s attention.

I’m sorry, here I ramble on and it’s so cold today. The main entrance is on the other side, but this is quicker.

They navigated the enclosed swimming pool and Simone pulled open a sliding door to let him in.

The interior of the house was equally stark and rigid. A staircase was suspended off the wall, leading to the room which hung over the outside veranda.

The stairs go to the master bedroom where Julia sleeps, Simone said. Angelo designed the house with the views in mind, and from up there they’re truly spectacular.

I’ll take your word for it. Chris eyed the stairs, which had no railing. He’d never suffered from vertigo, but the possibility of stumbling was a new reality he didn’t want to toy with.

I’ll put your things in the first bedroom, Simone said as she took his bag. Don’t touch anything on the tables, Sarah. Julia is busy with a project which has taken over the lounge.

He followed Sarah’s patter to the lounge. It was incongruous with the rest of the architectural splendor of the house. A shocking pink plastic doll’s house stood in one corner, next to a box overflowing with toys. Makeshift tables lined the walls, and cartons were stacked in alphabetical order on them. The lounge set was crammed into the window corner and the coffee table was piled high with glossy books.

He crossed to the tables where photos were laid out. The photos were older, taken in the seventies, early eighties. He idly fingered one of the photos; it was of a bull elephant with the longest tusks he’d ever seen.

Don’t touch nothing, a little voice peeped. It came from under the table and he suppressed a chuckle.

I’m not touching anything, Sarah. He kept his tone serious but wanted to laugh. Promise.

He cruised along the tables and paused at a photo layout of two men. They looked like brothers, smiling in several photos—in one leaning against a Land Rover, in another one of the men stood by a small aircraft with a bottle of champagne in his hand. A pile of typed notes was stacked next to it. He picked it up and started to read, when a sudden cold draft swept through the room, sending photos and notes aflutter.

Good grief, where did that come from? Simone came rushing from the corridor. Don’t get anything mixed up, Julia has been working on this for months.

He covered the quivering photos which threatened to take flight again with his hands and glanced to where Simone was closing the sliding door. For the first time, he noticed the life-size black and white framed photograph of a dancer on the double volume wall in his peripheral.

His breath caught as he took in the image. The dancer was dressed only in a heavy, long and voluminous black skirt, holding a pose with her back to the photographer, arms and hands poised in ballerina grace above her head, her left leg raised to shoulder height, balancing en pointe on the right. Her dark hair was curled into a loose bun, leaving her back naked. She was topless, the muscles of her arms and back flexed in equal grace and strength.

The visual was strikingly beautiful and utterly erotic, making his heart beat in double pace. The idea that she could turn and reveal the fullness of her breasts stirred him to his core, and his groin responded.

His body pulsed with desire. God, he wished he had taken that photo. It had been ages since he’d experienced such an intense reaction to an image. This was what every photographer wanted to create—emotions—whether the emotion was desire or something else. In an instant, all inspiration flooded back to him, and his hands itched empty without a camera.

He wanted to photograph that dancer, every inch of her. And keep the photos to himself.

****

Julia stared at the brochure of their picture-perfect tropical island resort and suppressed the nausea churning in her stomach. It was a lovely brochure, but the photos were dated. Refurbishments had changed many things at their lodges in the past year.

She was responsible for the new marketing campaign, which included an updated website and coffee table photo book. Capturing the beauty of Carlevaro’s East Africa lodges on paper wouldn’t be easy, and the thought of the task ahead twisted her stomach in a knot of stress.

The photo shoots were due to begin in two weeks, and she still hadn’t signed up a photographer. The contract for Matthias Schmidt had been burning a hole in her desk the past week. Schmidt was the perfect fit for Carlevaro International, but Carlo still hadn’t approved the contract.

Carlo was half the problem.

In frustration, she tossed the Carlevaro Private Island brochure to the corner of her desk, where it missed a line of empty espresso cups by an inch and slid to the floor. Her older brother ruled Carlevaro and had vetoed every photographer she’d proposed.

Yes, no ordinary photographer would do for their book—they needed a name, preferably a famous one. But if they kept on banging heads over who the photographer should be her project wouldn’t take off, never mind meet the deadline.

As if that was an option—they’d paid a ludicrous deposit for the book’s launch event: a gala dinner at the annual International Travel Market in London. Invitations had left the building a month ago. Five hundred of their top safari agents and the who’s who of the tourism industry would be there. They would present the new website, and the photo book had to be there, tangible, beautiful, and doing justice to the Carlevaro founders, her father and her uncle, and the heritage they’d left them.

Her stomach settled in a nauseating twist; the sensation had become a permanent fixture because it was more than that. This book would make or break her, not only her fragile standing in the family business but the very essence of her being, which balanced precariously on a narrow, trembling surface.

For a moment she closed her eyes. Beyond this project, there was nothing if she didn’t prove herself. She cupped her hands to her mouth, taking in deep, slow breaths. On each exhale she let her inner voice calm her, counting, conscious of the number of days, then repeating that she’d be fine.

A knock on her open office door made her jerk up her head.

Carlo stood in the door, pulling on his coat. Come on, Julia. Call it a day.

What? She glanced at the time on her computer screen. It was only three in the afternoon, and it might be Friday, but she still hadn’t sent Schmidt’s contract to him. Her to-do list was longer than her arm, and she added more things to it daily, while hardly ticking anything off.

Chris Summers arrived from London and is at the house.

The name rang a bell, but she couldn’t place it. Who?

An old schoolmate of mine from the UK. He’s visiting for the weekend.

And? She had no idea how this impacted her. She liked her weekends clean and simple. Firstly, a good few hours of dancing each morning, and for the rest, she pottered around with Sarah, or worked on the bane of her existence: The Book Project.

Come on. Carlo had finished pulling on his coat and was playing with his car keys.

She hadn’t stirred. I still have so much to do—the contract for Matthias Schmidt, which you still haven’t signed, by the way, must be sent off today. Julia rummaged through some papers on her desk to look for the contract. Now that you’re here, can we deal with it?

I’m not signing it now. Let’s go.

Why did she sense he was never going to sign Schmidt’s contract? And why did her car need to be in for a service right now? Since Carlo got married to Simone and she’d moved out of his space, any dependence on him grated on her. Recalling how she’d leaned on him in the past made her want to bury her head in shame.

You need a break, Julia. Burning out is not going to get this project done. Carlo walked into her office and hovered. He probably wanted to pull her physically from her desk by the hand, but he would never touch her. Since that horrible night five years ago, any physical contact with Carlo had become the ultimate no-go zone. In any case, you need to come and meet Chris. He’s staying with you.

What? This was news. With me? Whatever for? The old family house where Carlo lived in Rome’s Appia Antica had room aplenty. She was in no mental space to share her house with a male, never mind an unknown one.

Simone phoned me. Chris can’t do the stairs so I promised her I’d speak to you about him staying with you instead. Carlo sighed. Now that I’ve spoken to you, can we go?

She frowned, piqued at both Carlo’s overbearing attitude and the fact that this Chris can’t do the stairs. Whyever not? But…if Chris couldn’t do the stairs in Carlo’s house, there was no way he’d be able to take the stairs in her house. He’d be on the ground floor only. She could live with that. It was only for the weekend.

Huffing out a sigh, she put the contract for Schmidt to the side, stood and gathered her handbag and coat. Is he one of your Eton cronies?

Yes. He didn’t finish school at Eton, but we’ve always kept in touch.

Well then. At least Chris Summers would be acting the gentleman, if nothing else.

Chapter 2

Chris couldn’t pull his gaze away from the ballet siren in the photo, but a little hand, waving a photograph, caught his attention.

This one fell. Sarah peeped from underneath the table.

Heavens. Simone came up right next to him and took the photo. Are there more, Sarah?

Nope. Sarah crawled through her mom’s legs, giggling as Simone made the obstacle harder by trapping her for a second.

Chris was thankful for the distraction, and his gaze circled the room. I think we’re good.

Do you want coffee? Or anything to drink? You’re welcome to come back to our side for something?

He needed to sit down and stretch his worn leg, massage the muscles a bit to keep them supple. It was part of his daily therapy, but today it seemed as if he needed a double dose of his therapist’s healing touch. I’m good, thank you. If Carlo is going to be a while, I think I’ll rest my leg. How had simple things like navigating airports become so torturous? That’s if you don’t mind.

Simone’s gaze didn’t flounder. Of course I don’t mind. I have some dinner in the oven that I need to check. I’ll send Carlo over when he arrives, but you can walk to our side anytime you’re ready.

I only need half an hour.

Our hot chocolate and marshmallows? Sarah chimed in.

I’ll be over to have mine soon. Keep it warm, will you, Sarah? He made it sound like a big responsibility, and the little girl nodded wide-eyed, her blond spirals bobbing up and down.

Simone and Sarah left by the sliding door, careful to make sure no gust of wind sent anything aflutter again.

Chris heaved a slow sigh of relief. After seeing the dancer photo, he needed time to compose himself. Get a grip on the sensations that burned through him.

He limped over to the leather sofa and relaxed into its softness. Resting his head back, he let his cane slip from his hand, forcing the strain of the day out of his muscles. The rest of his body compensated for the new way he walked, and his muscles were all knotted up.

He hadn’t sat for long when a key turned somewhere, the sound echoing through the hollow double volume house. The noise lured him back to the real world, and he startled. He’d actually drifted off. He sat straighter, feeling for his cane. His fingers fumbled, and he lost his grip, sending the cursed piece of wood to the floor with a loud clang.

The pair of heels that were clattering on the porcelain tiles broke their rhythm for an instant, then with slow caution came nearer.

He looked up to find a petite brunette coming to a halt in the doorframe. She was pulled tall, and she tilted her chin up the slightest bit before her lips broke into a shy smile.

Did I give you a fright? She chuckled as she walked over to him. She had such graceful posture, seeming to glide to him with her shoulders drawn back. You gave me the fright of my life.

Sorry, I was dozing off.

I’m sorry I woke you up. You must be Chris Summers?

The one but not the only. He smirked as he edged closer to the seat and reached for his cane with a groan. This useless thing… He couldn’t quite get hold of it, his leg refusing to bend at that exact moment.

Here. Julia went effortlessly down on her haunches and handed him the cane, not rising but studying him, keeping their faces almost level.

Her eyes were the color of melted chocolate and for a moment he wanted to sink into the depth of them, drowning in their sweetness.

Thank you.

She straightened and held her hand out to him. Julia Carlevaro, nice to meet you. Carlo thinks you’re at his house.

He took her smaller hand in his; it disappeared in his bigger one but didn’t feel delicate. They shook but neither of them let go. She raised her eyebrows at him. Do you need help getting up? You can stay right there if you want?

Her gaze was intelligent but calculated. She’d summed his situation up in seconds. The chair was too soft, his body too wrought with pain for him to get up by himself.

If you don’t mind. For some reason, he didn’t feel embarrassed. She hadn’t made the situation awkward, and he shot up a little prayer of thanks to the universe.

Her grip was strong and firm, and he pushed up with his cane. She was much stronger than her lithe frame suggested, and when he rose, he towered a good head over her. Her eyes traveled over his features for a second before she stepped away, brushing long strands of hair from her face.

Did she like what she saw? Conscious of his seven-day stubble, he regretted not shaving.

When her eyes met his own again, they held for a long second before she lowered her gaze to his cane, then jumped to his leg.

I tore my Achilles tendon once. It was hell.

The field was open for discussion, but he didn’t want to go there, not with her. And he had no idea why. For a few minutes…no, hours…he wanted to just be without this past he lugged with him. He turned away from her with an annoying shuffle as his foot dragged.

Can I walk you over to Carlo’s place? she asked softly.

He didn’t answer directly. It was where he was supposed to be, but right now he didn’t want to go anywhere. He wanted to stare back into those brown eyes and see them filled with something else besides empathy.

I must warn you, though. Carlo and Sarah play for at least an hour once he gets home from work, so you won’t get a word in edgewise.

Love at first sight between those two, was it? he asked, glad for the change of direction of the conversation.

Carlo is head over heels. We all are, to be honest. But those two…they’re thick as thieves, really.

He laughed, feeling a happiness that had long eluded him. Nobody deserved it more than Carlo. And he would leave him be, let Carlo enjoy his little girl. They tended to grow up too fast, and Carlo had already missed out too much.

Tell me about your project. He waved at the laden tables that cluttered the lounge.

Julia groaned. For that, I’ll need a drink. Do you want something? Coffee? Tea with milk in the British style? Her last words were said with a slight tease.

Whiskey?

Sure, if there is some. I’ll have to check Angelo’s drinks cupboard.

Julia walked to the open plan kitchen, and he couldn’t help observing her surreptitiously. He was fascinated by the sway of her hair, the way her skinny jeans clung to her toned butt and thighs. She was wearing boots with killer heels but still moved with a careless grace, the type some women were born with. Her thick mane of dark brown hair was so long it fell to her waist.

I can lose myself in that hair.

She opened a cupboard, and when she peeked back at him, a blush flushed her cheeks. She’d caught him staring. She must have felt him staring.

That innocent blush was going to be his undoing.

****

Julia broke her glance away from Chris’s and stared blindly at the contents of the drinks cupboard. Whiskey. Find the stupid whiskey, woman.

She hadn’t been so close to a man in years. Willingly held on to his hand for longer than necessary only to feel the heat of his skin. She avoided the other sex as much as humanly possible, so finding Chris Summers in her lounge was a bit of a mind warp, except that he didn’t pounce on her and needed her help to get up.

The other thing that surprised her was that he didn’t look like Eton material. There was nothing preppy about him. His pair of brown Chelsea boots looked as worn as if he’d had nothing else to wear for years. His jeans were faded to a point where they must be as soft as a baby’s comforter.

He had a Greek nose and a week’s worth of stubble; his hair was longer with a carefree wave to it, brushing the collar of his coat. It was the color of volcanic sand, with fading streaks, as if he’d spent a lot of time in the sun. He looked out of place in Angelo’s modern lounge, like a surfer dressed in a winter coat.

But it was his eyes that had drawn her in. Their exact color was hard to pinpoint…something blue-green with dark rims around the irises, and with his sloping eyebrows, they’d held her with the softest look she’d ever seen on a man.

She mentally shook herself out of her daze, zoning in on the honey-colored liquid labeled Whiskey. Busying herself with finding a glass and ice, she glanced over the kitchen island into the lounge.

Chris had shrugged off his coat and stood next to a table, his back toward her. Those long legs in the shabby jeans only accentuated his lean hips and broad shoulders. He was rolling up his sleeves to reveal a dusting of dark hair on his arms. His walking cane was propped against the table, looking incongruous with every other inch of him.

Why did he need the cane? Carlo hadn’t had much time to tell her more about Chris Summers, as their drive from the office to home was thankfully interrupted by a call from one of their biggest agents. Being alone in a confined space for a long time with Carlo had become awkward, and she could only put the blame for that at her own door.

When the coffee machine had finished sputtering out her espresso, she walked over to Chris. He turned as the ice jingled close to him, and she held out the whiskey.

Thank you. Taking a tentative sip, he looked at her. You’re not having a drink?

I don’t drink.

Chris tilted his face and narrowed one eye in a roguish glare, which made him look like a naughty boy. Not even tea in the British style? His voice teased her right back, using the same tone she’d used on him earlier.

He was a naughty boy, without a doubt. A chuckle escaped from deep inside. Least of all. She raised her espresso in a mock toast.

He grinned. I shouldn’t drink either, but— He clinked his glass against her cup. It’s been a long day.

You’ve no idea. This project is becoming insurmountable.

What is it?

A coffee table book of our safari lodges that must be ready for print in four months’ time. This part here—Julia indicated the tables—contains the history of Carlevaro International. Chapter one. As you can see, there’s a lot of it, and it’s still rather messy.

On the contrary. It looks like you’ve invested a lot of time.

It had taken her six months to plow through the pile of dilapidated boxes stacked in the cellars of the Carlevaros’ house. Ever since her father’s death, the towers of boxes had gotten higher as they’d moved things from the house to the cellars to wait in the shadows. She was the only one who’d had the guilt-driven guts to wade through the boxes’ dusty contents and make sense of any of it.

The wealth of data had been overwhelming. Both her father and Peppe had been keen photographers and had kept journals. There were letters, copies of government deeds with stamps, and handwritten notes. Cutting back to the essentials seemed impossible.

She stared at the photo of her father in front of her. Despite the small photo, Toni Carlevaro was still larger than life.

Julia closed her eyes briefly, regaining focus. I worked with Peppe, our uncle, while he recuperated from his heart attack. She picked up

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