Authors: Helen Brooks
‘Try it. It is good.’
His deep voice interrupted her chaotic thoughts, and when she lifted her head and looked at him she saw he was tucking into his meal with every appearance of enjoyment. For a moment it took all her will-power not to kick him—hard. Here was she, in a state of virtual collapse, and he was sitting there filling his belly as if nothing had happened.
And then he looked straight at her and she read a hunger in the glittering grey eyes which had nothing to do with food—something the slash of red colour across the high chiselled cheekbones confirmed. He wanted her. He was merely better at hiding it than she was. For the life of her she didn’t know if that made her feel better or worse.
parmigiano di melanzane
was good, as was the lobster which followed, and the dessert—a sticky pastry confection full of cream, jam and almonds—melted in the mouth. Amazingly, Cherry found she’d relaxed a few mouthfuls into the meal. Mainly because Vittorio had put himself out to make her so. He had the ability to make it seem as though there was just the two of them in a crowd of people. She purposely didn’t look at Caterina again, and as a party of four had come to sit at the table next to the other couple, which blocked her view somewhat, this wasn’t difficult.
From having no appetite at the beginning of the evening she ate a hearty meal, and when the waiter brought a selection of local cheeses, tiny savoury biscuits, figs and grapes after the dessert, she made inroads into that too. As she sipped the espresso which rounded off the meal, she sighed contentedly. ‘I think I’ve just eaten more than I ever have before in the whole of my life,’ she confessed to Vittorio, who was watching her with a slumbering smile. ‘I shan’t be able to move from this table for days.’
For answer, he drew her to her feet. ‘Dance with me,’ he murmured smokily. ‘I want to feel you in my arms again.’
She didn’t argue. She’d been waiting for this moment with little thrills of anticipation.
She was aware once of Caterina and Lorenzo on the dance floor, but whether by design or accident they were not close enough to speak.
It was just after midnight when she made her way to the women’s cloakroom—an elaborate affair in cream marble with huge mirrors and small velvet chairs—and Caterina confronted her. Cherry realised she’d known she would.
Cherry came out of one of the cubicles to find the Italian woman sitting in front of a mirror, applying bright red lipstick, and immediately her stomach did a flip. She knew without a shadow of a doubt that Lorenzo’s wife had contrived that they should meet with the men out of earshot. The golden gaze surveyed her haughtily before Caterina turned on the chair to face her, her beautifully shaped but thin lips stretching in a cold smile.
she drawled smoothly. ‘You are enjoying the evening?’
Determined not to be drawn, whatever happened, Cherry smiled back. ‘Yes, thank you. Domenico has a lovely place here.’
, this is so. Thanks to Vittorio.’ Fine eyebrows rose in the perfect bone structure of her face as Caterina added, ‘You are aware that Vittorio provided the money for Domenico to buy the nightclub? No? But then there is probably much you do not know about Vittorio.’
Cherry kept the smile in place by Herculean effort. ‘Yes, I suppose so,’ she agreed lightly, wondering if it would look as if she was running away if she walked straight out of the cloakroom, and wishing someone else would come in so they were not alone. She wouldn’t put anything past this woman.
‘You are Sophia’s friend,
?’ Caterina went on, clearly feeling her way. ‘How long have you known Vittorio’s sister?’
‘Some time.’ Seven days or so, to be precise.
‘And you come to stay to help her with the wedding. It is sudden, this wedding, I think.’ There was a definite edge to Caterina’s voice. Whatever Lorenzo did or did not know, he clearly hadn’t shared it with his wife.
Cherry shrugged. ‘Sophia and Santo have known each
other all their lives and loved each other for as long, actually, so I wouldn’t say it’s sudden.’
The red-painted lips curled slightly. ‘No? And Vittorio, he is happy about his sister marrying this… farmer? I thought Sophia was going to finishing school somewhere. That was what Vittorio wanted for her.’
This woman was poison. Cherry had the feeling anything she said would be twisted in some way and used against her. Carefully, she smoothed her hair in the mirror, keeping her eyes on her reflection when she said offhandedly, ‘I don’t know about that.’
Caterina made a small sound in her throat which could have meant anything, but her voice was definitely venomous when she said, ‘And why should you? You are nothing to him. You are not even Italian. Vittorio has many women—beautiful Italian women—but none can keep his affection for long. That is how it is.’
She really didn’t want to listen to this. ‘Vittorio’s private life is none of my business,’ Cherry said, her voice now as cold as Caterina’s.
‘Ha—you do not fool me, little English miss.’ Suddenly all pretence at civility was gone as Caterina jumped to her feet, her voice vitriolic. ‘I know what it is you want, and you will be disappointed as many before you have been disappointed. Vittorio is the sort of man who only gives his heart once. If you do not know this, you are a fool. And his heart was captured many years ago.’ Caterina did not add,
. She didn’t have to. Both women were aware of the unspoken words. ‘You can befriend his sister but you will not inveigle your way into his life for long.’
This woman was as bad as Angela. Worse.
Cherry stared into the angry face which at that moment did
not look at all beautiful. Summoning the strategy she’d used all her life for dealing with her sister, she pulled up her emotional drawbridge and took a mental step backwards, her face cool and her voice expressing her distaste when she said, ‘Then you have nothing to worry about, Caterina, do you?’ And before the other woman could retaliate, she turned and left the cloakroom, stepping into the small carpeted corridor outside and making her way swiftly to the main room of the nightclub.
The rest of the evening was a nightmare. Cherry knew she had retreated into the emotional vacuum she’d perfected over years of heartache and confrontation, but there was nothing she could do about it—nothing she
to do about it. It was her protection, her safe place. Once she was alone she knew the tears would come, and she’d replay the incident over and over in her mind. It had always been that way. But for now her pride dictated she showed she didn’t care. And so she smiled brittle smiles, danced a few more dances, and kept up her end of the conversation with Vittorio, who kept glancing at her with puzzled eyes.
After a suitable interval she said she was tired and asked if they could leave. Mercifully Vittorio didn’t walk her across to Lorenzo and Caterina to make their goodbyes, merely raised his hand to his friend across the room, who answered in like manner. Once in the car she feigned sleepiness, pretending to doze on the way home.
Vittorio took her arm as they walked up the steps into the villa, and when they were standing in the hall turned her to face him. ‘Is anything wrong?’ His dark face was in shadow in the dimly lighted expanse. ‘Have I done something to offend you?’
‘Of course not.’ Her voice was over-bright and she
moderated it as she added, ‘I’m tired, that’s all, but I’ve had a lovely time. Thank you very much for a wonderful evening, but now I’d really like to go to bed.’
When she made to pull away, he tightened his hold on her arm. Not enough to hurt her but making it impossible to extricate herself. ‘Something has happened. I know this. You are shutting me out.’
‘Shutting you out?’ It was too much on top of everything else, and suddenly she wanted to wound as she had been wounded. ‘Can you hear yourself, Vittorio? Why do you think you have the right to question me like this anyway? I agreed to stay to help Sophia, that is all. Now, please let go of me.’
‘Not until I know why you are behaving in this way,’ he ground out angrily.
‘Then we’ll stand here all night,’ she flung back, as angry as he was. How dared he assume he had some kind of divine licence to ride roughshod over people’s thoughts and emotions? He had called Caterina beautiful, and she was, but that was just the tip of the iceberg. Underneath his old flame was spiteful and vicious and malevolent, and if he couldn’t see that then he was a fool.
But then love made fools of people.
The thought hit like a punch in the solar plexus, and a truth hammered at the back of her subconscious that she wasn’t prepared to acknowledge. Shakily now, and in a voice which was thick with tears, she said again, ‘Please let go of me.’
He swore softly under his breath but in the next moment she was free, and like a bird seeing its escape from the cat that was tormenting it she flew across the hall and up the stairs to her room, opening the door with trembling
fingers and then turning the catch to lock it once she was safely inside.
Her legs giving way, she slid down on to the carpet and put her face in her hands, wondering if he would follow her and try to speak to her.
But there was only silence.
spent a wretched sleepless night in endless postmortems, and as a warm, peachy dawn banished the last of the shadows she was forced to acknowledge that she had played right into Caterina’s hands. She shouldn’t have reacted as she had, she admitted painfully. She had let the Italian woman’s poison get under her skin and into her veins. And why? Because already she was far too involved with the enigmatic master of the Carella estate. Vittorio’s relationship—past or present—with Caterina, or any other woman for that matter, was nothing to do with her. They weren’t a couple. She wasn’t going out with him. She had no rights whatsoever.
She watched the sun begin to rise in a cloudlessly brilliant blue Italian sky and faced the unpalatable fact that this fledgling feeling she felt for Vittorio was already aeons stronger than anything she’d felt before. Which meant… Here she faltered. The hard lessons of her childhood and youth and her parents’ division—her mother and Angela, she and her father—coupled with Angela’s obsessional demands to subjugate and belittle her, and the most recent episode with Liam, had made her shrink from trusting anyone or admitting her feelings. When her father had died she had been inconsolable for a time,
knowing the one person in all the world who really loved her was gone, but no one would have guessed.
She cared for Vittorio
. No—more than that. She had fallen in love with him in a way that showed her the emotion she’d felt for Liam was puppy love in comparison.
It was the biggest mistake of her life, she admitted soberly, but it had happened, so she might as well face it and get through the next few weeks without burying her head in the sand. And this morning she felt strong enough to mention the altercation with Caterina without the indignity of tears or temper. She would merely say, without going into details, that Caterina had been hurtful and it had upset her, and she hadn’t felt able to talk about it last night—hence her behaviour, which she now realised was unacceptable.
Her stomach turning cartwheels at the thought of the conversation ahead of her, she showered and dressed, applying sun protection cream, which was an essential make-up item, but not bothering with anything else, before looping her hair into a shiny ponytail. She was ready long before it was time for breakfast, and went to sit on the sweetly scented balcony, taking a book she didn’t even bother to open.
The Carella gardens were ablaze with colour, and for some minutes she simply drank in the beauty stretching in front of her, easing her troubled mind. The brilliant hues of the flowers and bushes and trees against the vivid blue backdrop of sky, the limpid green of bowling-green-smooth lawns surrounded by luxuriant foliage, the warm sun which at this time of the morning was comfortably pleasant, the twitter of birds in the cypress trees which flanked the villa all worked a magic which was bittersweet.
And then the soothing work was abruptly undone as the tall, muscled figure of Vittorio came into view. He was clearly on his way to take an early-morning dip in the pool and was wearing next to nothing—just the minuscule trunks he favoured.
He walked briskly, not looking back at the house, and she felt safe to feast her eyes on the virile male beauty, her breathing becoming quick and shallow. She saw him stop and talk to Francesco, the gardener, for a few moments, and then he continued to the pool, dropping the towel he was carrying on the tiled surround before diving straight in. Unable to tear her eyes away, she watched him cut through the blue water at Olympic speed, covering length after length in the shimmering depths. It was a punishing pace and she sat mesmerised—until she realised he was hauling himself out of the water, at which point she ducked back into the bedroom, feeling as guilty as a voyeur at a peepshow.
It took a minute or two of splashing her hot face with cool water before her colour began to subside, but even then when she looked into the bathroom mirror the lingering sexual awareness in her eyes made her groan. It was acutely humiliating to accept she’d been ogling him like a sex-starved teenager; before she had met Vittorio she wouldn’t have said her sex drive was particularly high, but now…
Groaning again, she resumed the splashing for another few moments, comforting herself with the fact Vittorio had been unaware of her lechery. One thing was for sure, she thought desperately once her hot flushes were under control, she didn’t know herself any more and she certainly wasn’t the woman she’d imagined herself to be. She had expected to fall in love with Italy—everything she’d
read or seen about the country, including its exquisitely beautiful language, had told her it would be breathtakingly memorable—but to fall in love with an
… No. That had never been on the cards. And someone like Vittorio—a man who could have any woman he wanted, a man from a different culture, a man who was out of her league in every way.