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Excerpt: The Undoing of De Luca

‘Careful with that. You’re liable to lose a finger.’

Once again Ellery jumped and whirled around, the chopping knife still brandished in one hand. Larenz stood in the doorway, looking even better than he did last night. Even in her pique, Ellery could not quite keep herself from gazing at him. He was dressed in a pair of faded jeans and a worn grey tee-shirt. Simple clothes, Saturday slumming clothes, Ellery supposed, yet Larenz Castellano looked far too good in them, the soft cotton and faded denim lovingly hugging his powerful frame, emphasizing his trim hips and muscular thighs.

‘I’m fine, thank you,’ she said crisply. ‘And if you don’t mind, I’d rather you knocked before coming into the kitchen.’

‘Sorry,’ Larenz murmured, sounding utterly unrepentant.     Ellery made herself smile and raised her chin a notch.

‘May I help you with something, Mr. de Luca? Breakfast should be ready in a few minutes.’ She glanced pointedly at the old clock hanging above the stove. It was quarter to nine.

‘Why don’t you call me Larenz?’ he suggested with a smile.

Ellery’s smile back was rather brittle. ‘I’m afraid it’s not the Manor’s policy to address guests by their first names.’ That was a complete fabrication, and from Larenz’s little smile she could tell he knew it. He was amused by it.

‘The Manor?’ he queried softly. ‘Or Lady Maddock’s?’

‘I don’t actually use my title,’ Ellery said stiffly. She hated her title, hated its uselessness, its deceit. As if she was the only one who deserved it. ‘You may simply call me Miss Dunant.’ Listening to her crisp voice, she knew she sounded too starchy, too absurd. She wished, for a fierce, unguarded moment, that she could be someone else. Sound like someone else, light, amused, mocking even. She wished she could feel that way, like things didn’t matter. As if they didn’t hurt. Instead she just bristled, and it made Larenz de Luca laugh at her.

‘Miss Dunant,’ Larenz repeated thoughtfully. ‘I’m afraid I usually prefer to be a bit more informal. But if you insist…’ He took a step closer, still giving her that lovely, lazy smile, and Ellery’s heart began to beat like a frightened rabbit’s. She sucked in a quick, sharp breath.

‘Will Miss Weyton be joining you for breakfast?’

‘No, she won’t.’ Larenz’s smile widened. ‘As a matter of fact, Miss Weyton is leaving this morning.’

‘What…?’ Ellery couldn’t keep the appalled shock from her voice. She realized she was disappointed not simply to lose the money, but to lose the company. Larenz de Luca, the most intriguing and infuriating man she’d come across in a long time. She was actually disappointed that he might be leaving.

‘Yes, she has to return to work,’ Larenz continued, sounding anything but regretful. ‘However, I’ll be staying for the rest of the weekend.’

Ellery’s breath came out in a slow hiss. ‘You’ll be staying?’ she repeated, and heard how ridiculously breathy her voice sounded. Inwardly she cringed. ‘Alone?’

Larenz had been moving slowly towards her so now he was less than a foot away. Ellery could smell the clean, citrusy tang of his aftershave, and she found her fascinated gaze resting on the steady pulse in his throat. The skin there looked so smooth and golden.

‘Well, I won’t be alone,’ Larenz murmured. He reached out to tuck an errant tendril of hair behind her ear and Ellery jerked back in shock; her skin seemed to buzz and burn where his fingers had skimmed it. Her senses were too scattered to make a reply, and seeing this, Larenz clarified, ‘I’ll be with you.’

She took a step backwards, away from both danger and temptation. She didn’t want to be tempted, not by a man she couldn’t even like. Not by a man who looked poised to use her and discard her—and any other woman--just as her father had her mother.

Or perhaps Larenz de Luca wouldn’t even get that far. Perhaps he was simply amusing himself with her, enjoying her obvious and inexperienced reactions. Perhaps he never intended to act on any of this. She didn’t know which was more humiliating. ‘I’m afraid I’ll be busy with my duties most of the weekend,’ she told him crisply, ‘but I’m assure you’ll enjoy the relaxing solitude of Maddock Manor… especially for such a busy man as yourself.’

Larenz watched her stumbling retreat with a faint, mocking little smile. ‘Am I so busy?’ he murmured and Ellery shrugged, spreading her hands wide, forgetting she was still holding a rather wicked-looking knife.

‘I’m sure—‘

‘Watch that,’ Larenz murmured, his voice still lazy despite the fact that the knife’s blade had swept scant inches from his abdomen.

‘Oh—’ Ellery returned the knife to the worktop with an inelegant clatter. Her breath came out in an agitated shudder. She hated that this man affected her so much, and she hated it even more that he knew it. ‘It’s probably better,’ she managed, turning back to her bowl of eggs so she didn’t have to face him, ‘if you leave me to finish making breakfast.’

‘As you wish,’ Larenz replied. ‘But I’m going to hold you to showing me the grounds later today.’ He left before Ellery could make a response, but she already knew she had no intention of showing Larenz de Luca anything while he was here. She intended to stay completely out of his way.

The weekend seemed as if it were getting longer by the minute.

Excerpt From: THE UNDOING OF DE LUCA by Kate Hewitt
Copyright © 2010 by Kate Hewitt
Permission granted by Harlequin Books S.A. All rights reserved.

January 2008