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His Final Bargain

By:Melanie Milburne

His Final Bargain
Melanie Milburne


IT WAS THE meeting Eliza had been anticipating with agonising dread for  weeks. She took her place with the four other teachers in the staffroom  and prepared herself for the announcement from the headmistress.

'We're closing.'

The words fell into the room like the drop of a guillotine. The silence  that followed echoed with a collective sense of disappointment, despair  and panic. Eliza thought of her little primary school pupils with their  sad and neglected backgrounds so similar to her own. She had worked so  hard to get them to where they were now. What would happen to them if  their small community-based school was shut down? They already had so  much going against them, coming from such underprivileged backgrounds.  They would never survive in the overcrowded mainstream school system.  They would slip between the cracks, just like their parents and  grandparents had done.

Like she had almost done.

The heartbreaking cycle of poverty and neglect would continue. Their  lives-those little lives that had so much potential-would be stymied,  ruined, and possibly even destroyed by delinquency and crime.

'Is there nothing we can do to keep things going for a little while at  least?' Georgie Brant, the Year Three teacher asked. 'What about another  bake sale or a fair?'

The headmistress, Marcia Gordon, shook her head sadly. 'I'm afraid no  amount of cakes and cookies are going to keep us afloat at this stage.  We need a large injection of funds and we need it before the end of  term.'

'But that's only a week away!' Eliza said.

Marcia sighed. 'I know. I'm sorry but that's just the way it is. We've  always tried to keep our overheads low, but with the economy the way it  is just now it's made it so much harder. We have no other choice but to  close before we amass any more debt.'

'What if some of us take a pay cut or even work without pay?' Eliza  suggested. 'I could go without pay for a month or two.' Any longer than  that and things would get pretty dire. But she couldn't bear to stand  back and do nothing. Surely there was something they could do? Surely  there was someone they could appeal to for help … a charity or a  government grant.


Before Eliza could form the words Georgie had leaned forward in her  chair and spoke them for her. 'What if we appeal for public support?  Remember all the attention we got when Lizzie was given that teaching  award last year? Maybe we could do another press article showing what we  offer here for disadvantaged kids. Maybe some filthy-rich  philanthropist will step out of the woodwork and offer to keep us  going.' She rolled her eyes and slumped back in her seat dejectedly. 'Of  course, it would help if one of us actually knew someone filthy-rich.'

Eliza sat very still in her seat. The hairs on the back of her neck each  stood up one by one and began tingling at the roots. A fine shiver  moved over her skin like the rush of a cool breeze. Every time she  thought of Leo Valente her body reacted as if he was in the room with  her. Her heart picked up its pace as she brought those darkly handsome  features to mind …

'Do you know anyone, Lizzie?' Georgie asked, turning towards her.

'Um … no,' Eliza said. 'I don't mix in those sorts of circles.' Any more.

Marcia clicked her pen on and off a couple of times, her expression  thoughtful. 'I suppose it wouldn't hurt to try. I'll make a brief  statement to the press. Even if we could stay open until Christmas it  would be something.' She stood up and gathered her papers off the table.  'I'm sending the letter to the parents in tomorrow's post.' She sighed  again. 'For those of you who believe in miracles, now is a good time to  pray for one.'

Eliza saw the car as soon as she turned the corner into her street. It  was prowling slowly like a black panther on the hunt, its halogen  headlights beaming like searching eyes. It was too dark inside the car  to see the driver in any detail, but she immediately sensed it was a man  and that it was her he was looking for. A telltale shiver passed over  her like the hand of a ghost as the driver expertly guided the  showroom-perfect Mercedes into the only available car space outside her  flat.

Her breath stalled in her throat as a tall, dark-haired, well dressed  figure got out from behind the wheel. Her heart jolted against her  ribcage and her pulse quickened. Seeing Leo Valente face to face for the  first time in four years created a shockwave through her body that left  her feeling disoriented and dizzy. Even her legs felt shaky as if the  ground beneath her had suddenly turned to jelly.

Why was he here? What did he want? How had he found her?                       


She strove for a steady composure as he came to stand in front of her on  the pavement, but inside her stomach was fluttering like a moth trapped  in a jam jar. 'Leo,' she said, surprised her voice came out at all with  her throat so tightly constricted with emotion.

He inclined his darkly handsome head in a formal greeting. 'Eliza.'

She quickly disguised a swallow. His voice, with its sexy Italian  accent, had always made her go weak at the knees. His looks were just as  lethally attractive-tall and lean and arrestingly handsome, with eyes  so dark a brown they looked almost black. The landscape of his face  hinted at a man who was used to getting his own way. It was there in the  chiselled line of his jaw and the uncompromising set to his mouth. He  looked a little older than when she had last seen him. His jet-black  hair had a trace of silver at the temples, and there were fine lines  grooved either side of his mouth and around his eyes, which somehow she  didn't think smiling or laughter had caused.

'Hi … ' she said and then wished she had gone for something a little more  formal. It wasn't as if they had parted as friends-far from it.

'I would like to speak to you in private.' He nodded towards her  ground-floor flat, the look in his eyes determined, intractable and  diamond-hard. 'Shall we go inside?'

She took an uneven breath that rattled against her throat. 'Um … I'm kind of busy right now … '

His eyes hardened even further as if he knew it for the lie it was. 'I  won't take any more than five or ten minutes of your time.'

Eliza endured the silent tug-of-war between his gaze and hers for as  long as she could, but in the end she was the first to look away. 'All  right.' She blew out a little gust of a breath. 'Five minutes.'

She was aware of him walking behind her up the cracked and uneven  pathway to her front door. She tried not to fumble with her keys but the  way they rattled and jingled in her fingers betrayed her nervousness  lamentably. Finally she got the door open and stepped through, inwardly  cringing when she thought of how humble her little flat was compared to  his villa in Positano. She could only imagine what he was thinking: How  could she have settled for this instead of what I offered her?

Eliza turned to face him as he came in. He had to stoop to enter, his  broad shoulders almost spanning the narrow hallway. He glanced around  with a critical eye. Was he wondering if the ceiling was going to come  tumbling down on him? She watched as his top lip developed a slight curl  as he turned back to face her. 'How long have you lived here?'

Pride brought her chin up half an inch. 'Four years.'

'You're renting?'

Eliza silently ground her teeth. Was he doing it deliberately? Reminding  her of all she had thrown away by rejecting his proposal of marriage?  He must know she could never afford to buy in this part of London. She  couldn't afford to buy in any part of London. And now with her job  hanging in the balance she might not even be able to afford to pay her  rent. 'I'm saving up for a place of my own,' she said as she placed her  bag on the little hall table.

'I might be able to help you with that.'

She searched his expression but it was hard to know what was going on  behind the dark screen of his eyes. She quickly moistened her lips,  trying to act nonchalant in spite of that little butterfly in her  stomach, which had suddenly developed razor blades for wings. 'I'm not  sure what you're suggesting,' she said. 'But just for the record-thanks  but no thanks.'

His eyes tussled with hers again. 'Is there somewhere we can talk other than out here in the hall?'

Eliza hesitated as she did a quick mental survey of her tiny sitting  room. She had been sorting through a stack of magazines one of the local  newsagents had given her for craftwork with her primary school class  yesterday. Had she closed that gossip magazine she had been reading? Leo  had been photographed at some charity function in Rome. The magazine  was a couple of weeks old but it was the only time she had seen anything  of him in the press. He had always fiercely guarded his private life.  Seeing his photo so soon after the staff meeting had unsettled her  deeply. She had stared and stared at his image, wondering if it was just  a coincidence that he had appeared like that, seemingly from out of  nowhere. 'Um … sure,' she said. 'Come this way.'