Authors: Helen Brooks
He let her precede him, and it was the hardest thing she’d ever done to walk in front of him. She knew his eyes were on her bottom, she could feel their heat burning into her skin, but it was better than if he was facing her because the air on her wet costume had turned her nipples into hard peaks pressing against the thin fabric. She felt as though she was in a porn movie.
It seemed like for ever before she reached the hammock and grabbed the sarong, wrapping it round her and tying it firmly over the top of her breasts so she was covered to her knees.
Vittorio set the tray on a table next to his sun-lounger, his voice lazy when he murmured, ‘Better?’ and glanced at her.
Her colour had just begun to subside. Now it flared into brighter life again at the knowledge he’d sensed her embarrassment and the reason for it. ‘I’m sorry?’ she said icily.
‘You are feeling better now you are out of the glare of the sun and under the shade of the trees?’ he drawled softly. ‘The English skin is sensitive,
? It burns easily.’
It wasn’t what he had meant, and he knew that she knew it. She could tell from the wicked amusement in his eyes. Struggling for composure, she told herself not to rise to his bait. ‘I’ve been in Italy for a few days now. My skin is beginning to acclimatise. Besides which I’m fortunate in that I go brown very easily and rarely burn.’
‘This is good.’ He patted the sun-lounger next to his. ‘Come and enjoy your cocktail and relax before you change for dinner.’
wasn’t an option. Not with acres of hard male flesh causing difficulty with her breathing. And Vittorio was so very much at ease with his body, which didn’t help. He made her feel gauche in the extreme. No doubt the women he’d spoken of earlier would have been quite in command of themselves and the situation, and more than willing to flaunt themselves.
Somehow she found the aplomb to walk over to the sun-lounger and sit down with a certain grace, a polite smile on her face as she accepted the cocktail he handed
her. In any other circumstances, with any other man, she would be enjoying this brief interlude out of real life, she thought regretfully, as she took a sip of her drink.
‘Wow!’ As the cocktail hit her tastebuds she gasped. ‘Whatever’s this?’ It was delicious but lethal.
‘It is called “Love in the Afternoon”,’ said Vittorio, deadpan. ‘Do you like it?’
She stared at him suspiciously. ‘Is it really called that?’
‘But of course.’ He smiled. ‘It is one of my own concoctions for lazy summer afternoons like this one.’
That explained it. She’d dare bet he never sat here drinking it by himself! She had to swallow hard before she said primly, ‘It’s very nice, but it tastes rather potent.’
One male eyebrow slanted provocatively. ‘As one would expect, surely?’
He smiled that sexy smile but she refused to respond.
His shoulders were muscled and wide. He was muscled all over, but without an inch of fat on his lean frame. He hadn’t moved since passing her the cocktail, but ridiculously Cherry felt she wanted to edge away. She didn’t of course.
Clearing her throat, she took another tentative sip. ‘What’s in it?’
‘Gin, dry orange curacao liqueur, chilled champagne, fresh lime juice and pressed pineapple. Little more than a fruit punch, really,’ he said gently.
A fruit punch guaranteed to do exactly what the name suggested after a glass or two, she’d be bound. Cherry eyed him severely. ‘Hardly your average fruit punch. In England—’
‘Ah, but you are not in England now, are you,
?’ he murmured. ‘England is such a cold country, I have found. Even your summers are full of rain and
chilly winds, and you need the fire to keep you warm. I have no doubt your English punch lacks the passion and heat of Italy.’
He made it sound as though everyone and everything in England was as cold as ice, and she had no doubt he was having a none too subtle dig at her. She knew she ought to leave it, but somehow she couldn’t. ‘I can assure you English people are just as impassioned as Italians about things that matter,’ she said tightly. ‘Admittedly we don’t wear our hearts on our sleeves all the time, but that doesn’t mean we don’t feel deeply.’
‘I thought we were talking about punch?’
‘Punch and other things.’
His frown smoothed to a quizzical ruffle. ‘I see. So, while we are on the subject, are
passionate about things that matter, Cherry? And, if so, what makes your heart beat faster?’
She took a long sip of her drink, needing its boost. ‘All sorts of things.’ She eyed him warily.
He swung his legs on to the floor, finishing his cocktail in a couple of gulps and putting the glass on the tray before he sat studying her with unnerving concentration. ‘Name one.’
His change of position had brought him so close she felt enveloped by his body warmth even though he wasn’t touching her. He was so near that she could see the tiny black hairs under his skin on the hard jawline, the amazing thickness of his long lashes. He had the most beautiful mouth, she thought dazedly. Firm, strong, sensual.
Blaming the thought on the cocktail, she made a Herculean effort to pull herself together. ‘I love animals,’ she said weakly. ‘Reading, eating out with friends—’
He interrupted her with scathing abruptness. ‘I did
not ask for the sort of details you put on a CV. I asked about the real you.’
She glared at him. ‘That is the real me.’ Part of the real her anyway. The only bit she was prepared to share with him.
‘And what about love? Romance? Is there anyone special at home in your cold England? A sweetheart waiting for you?’
She wasn’t aware of the stiffening of her expression, the blink of her eyes, the slight lift of her chin, but the piercing grey gaze took in every nuance of her body language. ‘No.’ It was too abrupt and she realised it immediately, adding in what she sincerely hoped was a light voice, ‘Not at the moment.’
‘But there was until recently? Is that why you came to Italy? To escape from him?’
Anger provided a welcome shot of adrenaline. Cherry’s glare magnified until her blue eyes flashed sparks. ‘I don’t think that is any of your business, but as it happens there was no “escape” about it. I have chosen to take a few months exploring the continent at a time when I am footloose and fancy-free, without any ties. It’s really very straightforward.’
‘You have not answered my question,’ he said gently.
Cherry plonked her glass on the low table at the side of her, spilling some of the cocktail, and stood up. ‘I’m very grateful for your hospitality,’ she said icily, her face burning, ‘but, like I said, my personal life is absolutely none of your business.’
He’d risen too, and without a word took her into his arms and kissed her. It was a warm, experimental kiss at first, and she was so taken aback she let it happen. By the time it deepened into an invasive probing she couldn’t
have moved if she’d wanted to. His touch had fired a hundred tingling signals to her senses. It was the sort of kiss she’d dreamed of as an adolescent, sweet and hot.
He placed a hand in the small of her back to steady her, drawing her closer into his lean frame until she was moulded to the hard planes of his body. The rough magic of his body hair teased her silky-smooth skin as his mouth fuelled the rush of sensation his lips and tongue were producing, tiny sharp needles of pleasure injecting desire into her veins like a forbidden drug.
‘Delicious…’ he murmured softly against her lips as the deliberate assault on her senses continued, the mouth she had thought so beautiful sensuously coaxing.
The warm fragrant air, the shadows of light and dark against her closed eyelids, the ache in the core of her all contributed to the feeling of dreamlike unrealness that had taken Cherry over. The last months had been hard and painful and humiliating, and this fantasy interlude was all the more seductive because of it. She felt desirable, womanly, and it was heady.
She shifted in his arms, but only so that she could lift her hands to his broad shoulders, abandoning herself to his lovemaking with an eagerness that would have shocked her if she had been capable of rational thought. But she didn’t want to think. She’d done enough thinking since the moment she’d learned Liam had betrayed her to last a lifetime. She just wanted to
Vittorio’s thighs were hard against her soft curves as the hand on her back slid lower, moving her hips forward to fit her body into his. And it was this, the unmistakable feel of his hot arousal, that jerked Cherry back into sanity. Her hands pushed at his chest as she wrenched herself
free, taking a step backwards, and her breath was a sob as she whispered, ‘Don’t. I don’t want this.’
He made no attempt to reach for her again. He was breathing hard and took a moment to compose himself before he spoke. His voice was dry. ‘Finish your cocktail,
,’ he murmured, ‘while I take the equivalent of a cold shower.’ And with that he turned, walked swiftly to the edge of the pool, and dived into its cool depths.
didn’t even wait for Vittorio to surface before she grabbed her glass and dashed back towards the house. The gardens were slumbering in the early evening sunshine, and the heat of the day was still making itself felt, but she covered the distance quicker than an Olympic athlete, terrified he might call to her. And she couldn’t bear to face him right now.
She dived into the breakfast room and then out into the hall, skidding on the marble floor and almost ending up in one of the exquisite flower displays, before running up the stairs. It wasn’t until she had entered her room and shut the door, locking it for good measure, that she realised she was still holding her now empty glass.
Sinking down on to the bed, she placed the glass carefully on the bedside cabinet before putting her hands over her hot face. What an exhibition she’d made of herself—not only allowing him to kiss her like that but then bolting away like a scared little rabbit. She should have stayed and finished the cocktail, greeting him coolly when he returned with some casual, off hand remark to defuse any embarrassment. She groaned softly.
Not that he’d been embarrassed. She shut her eyes, but she could still see the hard inches of male arousal
straining against the material of his swimming trunks—proof that he had wanted her, right then and there. His face had shown it too, sexual knowledge turning the grey eyes hungry with anticipation. He’d clearly thought from her response to him that he was on to a good thing. She groaned again, burning with shame. And then she had pushed him away like a frightened schoolgirl and further compounded her stupidity by sprinting for the house as though the devil was after her. What on earth had she looked like?
He’d think she was a tease—one of those women who indicated she was available and ready for the taking and then backed off at the last moment. She pressed a fist to her mouth to stop herself groaning for a third time.
And how could she explain otherwise? How could she say his kiss had been the most mind-blowing experience of her life? He’d either think she was playing sexual games or, worse, that she fancied him and was trying to reel him in. Give a wolf a taste and keep him hungry. Either way it was back to the tease thing again. And she had never behaved like that in her life. She’d heard other girls—at university and later in the workplace—discuss strategies to keep a man dangling, and such manipulation disgusted her. But Vittorio wasn’t to know that.
Cherry sat for another few minutes, heaping self-denigration on herself, before walking into the bathroom. A bath. A long soak in bubbles. This was one occasion when a shower wouldn’t do. She would wash her hair and cream and pamper herself, perhaps even paint her nails with one of the bottles of varnish she’d seen earlier, and when she went downstairs for dinner she would be in full command of herself.
Her stomach cringed at the thought of facing Vittorio,
but she stared at her tragic face in the mirror and almost smiled. Why he’d wanted to kiss her in the first place she’d never know. She looked like a little waif and stray the wind had blown in. All eyes and trembling lips. But no more. She hadn’t brought much with her in the way of evening clothes—it wasn’t that sort of holiday—but she did have a couple of dresses that had cost an arm and a leg. She had bought them in the aftermath of the split with Liam, when she’d been feeling ugly and worthless, and they’d been worth every penny for the confidence they’d given her. One of those would do just fine. The deep blue viscose-crêpe one with the asymmetric lace border, perhaps. She had a pair of leather strappy sandals which would set off the cut of the dress. And she’d put her hair up. It made her look older.
An hour later she was just teasing a few silky strands from the large clip shed used to put her hair up when there was a knock at the bedroom door. Her heart somersaulted and then beat so hard she couldn’t breathe. Somehow she managed to say, ‘Yes? Who is it?’ and the relief when Sophia’s voice came a moment later was immense. She’d thought… And then she shook her head at her own fancifulness. Why would a man like Vittorio bother with her anyway? He had plenty more fish in the sea, no doubt.
When she opened the door, Sophia smiled at her. Vittorio’s sister looked even older in the green strapless dress she was wearing, her voluptuous hour-glass figure perfectly suited to the deceptively simple A-line evening frock. ‘I thought we could go down together, Cherry.’
‘Yes, of course. I just need to find my sandals.’ Cherry opened the door wider and Sophia came in, shutting it behind her. Cherry knelt down by her open case on the floor, digging inside for the sandals—the only dressy
shoes she’d brought with her. Once she had fished them out she sat back on her heels with them in her hands. ‘Sorry to keep you waiting,’ she began, turning her head, and then, her voice changing as she saw tears running down Sophia’s face, she said, ‘Oh, what is it? What’s the matter?’
She jumped up, pulling Sophia over to the bed and sitting down with her as she took the younger girl’s hands in hers. ‘Is it Santo?’ she said softly, thinking Vittorio’s sister was suddenly overcome by the situation. She was only sixteen, after all, and emotion were hard to control at that age.