Authors: Helen Brooks
She sat down on the bed once she was ready, gazing round the room as she admitted to herself she was feeling a mite guilty about the way she’d behaved. It
been good of Vittorio to offer her refuge the way he had, and she didn’t think she had actually thanked him once. She bit her lip, her small white teeth gnawing at the soft flesh. It wasn’t like her to be so antagonistic—just the opposite, in fact.
She shook her head at herself, her shoulder-length brown hair, which the Italian sun had bleached almost blonde in places, shining like raw silk.
But it was him. Vittorio. He’d rubbed her up the wrong way from the minute she’d laid eyes on him—or certainly from the first time he’d opened his mouth. He was so arrogant, so sure of himself, so very
But that didn’t excuse her ingratitude. She’d have to apologise and thank him properly for coming to her rescue. She groaned softly, wriggling off the bed and standing up. But after her swim. Maybe tonight during dinner? And then once the replacement car arrived tomorrow she’d thank him again for his hospitality and put as many miles between them as she could.
She slipped on the daisy flip-flops she’d bought for the beach and walked to the door, turning round and looking at the sumptuous room again before she left. The whole situation she found herself in seemed quite surreal: one of the most—if not
most—handsome men she’d ever seen in her life, a house and gardens straight out of the pages of a glossy magazine featuring millionaire lifestyles, servants, wealth, splendour, and here she was, bang-smack in the middle of it. Even if it was just for a night. She almost felt like pinching herself to make sure it wasn’t a dream. It would be something to tell her friends.
Once downstairs, Cherry stood uncertainly, wondering which was the accepted way to the pool. A door at the far end of the hall opened and a severe-looking woman with iron-grey hair and dressed completely in black appeared. The housekeeper, Cherry surmised—rightly. And straight out of a Dickens novel.
On seeing her, the woman came gliding forward, a polite smile on her somewhat formidable face. ‘
Can I help you? There is something you require?’
Not sure if the housekeeper knew the circumstances, Cherry said quickly, ‘Mr Carella said I could use the pool. I’m staying here overnight. My car—’
Si, si, signorina
.’ It was slightly impatient. ‘I know of this. The
—he has informed me of your situation. You have everything you need in your room?’
‘Yes—yes, thank you.’ Cherry thought the housekeeper fitted in well. She was every bit as intimidating as her indomitable employer. Poor, poor Sophia.
‘You please to follow me,
.’ Without further ado the woman turned and retraced her steps, stopping at a door which led into a sunny breakfast room which again had doors leading to the garden. The housekeeper opened a cupboard stocked with massive fluffy beach-towels, taking two and handing them to Cherry as she said, ‘The pool,
?’ She pointed into the distance. ‘I will send Gilda or Rosa with the iced drink shortly,
‘Oh, no, please don’t go to any trouble on my account,’ Cherry said hastily. ‘I’ll be fine, really.’
‘Is no trouble,
The stern face hadn’t mellowed an iota, and feeling as though she was five years old and back in school again, being reprimanded by a teacher for some misdemeanour, Cherry thanked the housekeeper again and stepped out into the hot sunshine.
The quality of light and the intensity of colour she’d noticed since arriving in Italy seemed even more pronounced in the beautiful gardens she walked through to reach the pool. She breathed in the scented air, taking it deep into her lungs. The pool was huge, the water crystalline under the clear blue sky, and on the surrounding tiled
area there were several sun-loungers, hammocks and exterior sofas dotted round marble tables—some in the shade of magnolia, oleander and orange trees, and others under parasols. But a number were in the full glare of the sun. It was the perfect place for an afternoon siesta.
Throwing her towels on to a hammock in dappled shade, Cherry slipped off the sarong and walked to the edge of the pool, diving into the deep end without hesitation. The water felt icy to her heated skin, but exhilarating, and she cut through the water with powerful strokes, feeling tinglingly alive. She had always loved swimming since a small child. It was the only sport she had excelled at—unlike Angela, who had been good at everything.
Annoyed with herself that she’d let thoughts of Angela intrude, Cherry cleared her mind of everything but the sensation of the cold water and the heat of the sun above, swimming back and forth at a punishing pace until after ten minutes she was exhausted. Climbing out, she wrapped one of the towels around her middle and positioned the other one in the hammock—just as Rosa appeared with a tray holding a jug of iced fruit juice and a plate of small sugared biscuits.
After thanking the maid she drank a glass of the fruit juice, ate three of the biscuits, and then positioned herself carefully in the hammock, intending to go straight to sleep. Instead she was suddenly reliving the last ugly scene with Angela and Liam, the suddenness of the onslaught taking her completely by surprise. Sitting up so quickly she was almost tipped out on to the hot tiles, she brushed wet hair out of her eyes, angry and upset at her weakness. It was over—done with. You’ve moved on, she told herself fiercely. You wouldn’t have Liam back if he came giftwrapped, so no more dredging up the past.
You’re finished with all that—and, anyway, they’re not worth it.
‘Cherry?’ The soft female voice brought her out of the maelstrom of emotion, and as her eyes focused she saw Sophia was standing in front of her, her voluptuous curves accentuated by the scarlet bikini she was wearing. ‘Are you unwell?’
Hastily composing her face into a smile, she said, ‘No, no, I’m fine. I was just thinking, that’s all.’
Sophia sat down on a sun-lounger, a few feet from the hammock. ‘Unpleasant thoughts?
‘You could say that.’
. I do not wish to pry,’ Sophia said quickly, clearly taking Cherry’s reply as a rebuff.
‘No, it’s all right.’ Cherry felt sorry for this beautiful girl who was a prisoner in her own home. ‘I was in love with someone and he dumped me for someone else. It’s as simple as that,’ she said lightly.
‘Is never simple.’ Emerald eyes surveyed her compassionately.
‘No, you’re right. It never is.’
‘Do you want to talk about it?’
Surprisingly, Cherry found she did—probably because until this point she hadn’t opened up to anyone. She had never been one to wear her heart on her sleeve. All her life the more something hurt her, the more she put on a brave face and carried on. ‘I worked with Liam,’ she said quietly, ‘and we were good friends before we started going out together. I—I thought he was different to most men, that I could trust him implicitly. We’d been together for six months and things were getting serious—talk of engagement and all that—so I thought
I’d better take him home and introduce him to my family.’
‘You had not done this before?’ Sophia was clearly amazed.
Cherry shook her head. ‘My father died a few years ago, and—and I don’t get on with my mother and sister.’ Understatement of the year, but how could she explain to a virtual stranger how it was? ‘My sister saw Liam and wanted him.’ She shrugged. ‘Within a couple of weeks he told me he’d been seeing her on the nights he didn’t see me, and that he’d fallen in love with her.’
‘Your sister did not confess?’
‘She lives at home with my mother. I live—lived—in a bedsit and we never met up. Angela…’ She tried to find the right words. ‘She’s a year older than me and was always the beautiful, clever one and my mother’s favourite. For some reason, even as a child, she always wanted what I had and my mother would insist I gave it to her. Presents, clothes, whatever. Even friends. After I’d escaped to university I never went home to live again.’
‘Had your sister done this before? With a boy?’
Cherry nodded. ‘That was the reason I didn’t introduce Liam to them until I was sure about him.’ She shrugged again. ‘But it was clearly a mistake.’
‘I think not, Cherry.’ Sophia leaned forward, her hair rippling like a black curtain. ‘This Liam—he was not for you. A man who can behave in such a way—’ she flicked her hand, Latin-style, expressing her disgust ‘—he is weak, no good. Without the backbone, you know? You deserve better.’
‘I came to that conclusion a little while ago.’ Cherry smiled at Vittorio’s sister. ‘It took some time, but one day at work I looked at him and didn’t like what I saw.
I decided I wanted a change—a real change. So I gave in my notice forthwith, told my landlady I was moving out, and took out all my savings and decided to travel for a bit. Italy is my first port of call, but I intend to see all the Mediterranean and then who knows?’ She wrinkled her nose. ‘My mother said I was having a tantrum when I rang to tell her what I was doing. She called me ridiculous and impetuous and told me not to ring her if I got into any trouble—not that I would have, of course.’
Sophia shook her head slowly. ‘They do not sound nice people, your sister and your mother.’
‘No, they’re not,’ Cherry said candidly, ‘but my father was a love. At least I always had an ally in him when I was growing up. He was more than a dad. He was my best friend too.’
‘A divided home.’ Sophia’s voice was soft. ‘This is not good. It must have been painful for you.’
Cherry stared at the Italian girl. Vittorio had said his sister had the mind of a sixteen-year-old and had intimated a young sixteen-year-old at that. She didn’t agree with him. Sophia was very mature for her years, and very sweet.
The other girl’s genuine sympathy and kindness brought sudden tears to her eyes, but Cherry blinked them away determinedly. ‘It wasn’t the happiest of childhoods,’ she admitted quietly, ‘but better than some. Some children have no one, do they?’
Sophia nodded. ‘I have only a vague memory of my father and mother, but we have the—how you say?—the films. Camera films? Of us as a family before the accident.’
, home movies. Vittorio, he was born a year after
my parents married, but then there were no more
, my mother—was very sad and they saw many doctors. Then when all hope was gone I was born—on Vittorio’s twenty-first birthday. Vittorio said the party went on for days, and everyone was very happy.’ She beamed at Cherry. ‘Vittorio, he says he has never had another present to equal me.’
Cherry smiled. ‘I can understand that.’
‘But then the accident—a car accident when I was six years old, just before Vittorio was going to be married.’ She shrugged. ‘Caterina, his fiancée, would not come here to live and so…’ She shrugged again. ‘Vittorio gave her the house he had bought for them in Matera and after a while Caterina married someone else. I do not like her,’ she added, somewhat venomously.
Fascinated by the story, Cherry couldn’t resist asking, ‘Do you still see Caterina, then?’
. She married one of Vittorio’s friends. Lorenzo is a nice man. He does not deserve to have such a wife.’
Sophia was certainly a girl who said what she thought. Hiding a smile, Cherry said, ‘Didn’t Vittorio mind her marrying a friend of his?’
‘I do not know. I know they quarrelled because Vittorio would not hand me over to be brought up by our grandmother. He knew my parents would have wanted me to continue to live here under my brother’s protection.’
And so he’d sacrificed his own happiness for Sophia. This revelation didn’t fit in with her summing up of Vittorio. It was disturbing. Wriggling into a more secure position on the hammock, Cherry said, ‘He must love you very much.’
. And I love Vittorio. Although he is the most…’
A string of Italian words spoken at great speed followed.
Cherry didn’t understand one, but she didn’t have to to get their meaning.
Eventually Sophia stopped, shaking her head. ‘He makes me mad,’ she said, an unnecessary statement after what had preceded it. ‘He thinks I am still a
, a child, but I am not. I know what I want and it is not to go to the finishing school he has arranged.’
Cherry thought she probably knew the answer to her next question, but she asked it anyway. ‘What
Sophia flicked her hair over her brown shoulders, her full rounded breasts straining at the thin material holding them as she did so. ‘I want to be with Santo. I want to be his wife. But—’ she sighed heavily ‘—Santo is poor. At least compared to us and the families of the girls at school. His family have a small vineyard at the edge of our property and a pretty little farmhouse—
farmhouse, you understand? They produce the Uva di Troia grape and it is very good. It gives the fine red wine,
? But Vittorio has forbidden us to meet.’
‘Perhaps he thinks you are too young to think of settling down yet?’ She actually agreed with Vittorio on that score, at least. Sophia was sixteen years old; she had years and years in front of her before marriage and all it entailed.
Sophia tossed her head. ‘I have known Santo all my life and there will be no one else for either of us. And he is not a young boy. He is nineteen years old this summer.’ This was said with an air of proving Santo was as old as Methuselah. ‘He is a man. And he is kind, good.’ The slightly defiant tone vanished in the next instant. Tears in her eyes, Sophia whispered, ‘I would run away and get married, but Santo will not hear of this. If I go
to the finishing school I shall not see Santo for a long time and I cannot bear it. I would rather kill myself,’ she finished tragically.
‘Oh, Sophia.’ Cherry slid off the hammock and knelt down beside Vittorio’s sister, taking one of her hands. ‘If you love each other as much as you say, it will work out in time. I know that’s not much comfort now, but you are still young, you know.’