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In order to protect baby Angelina I need a wifeyou have said so yourself.

Under the circumstances, who better to be that wife than you?'


' hat?' Alice was gripped by shoc!. '"o,' she whispered. ' e can't. I can't.' '#es, we can. e have to,' $arco insisted fiercely. '%or Angelina's sa!e.' &ere was a man who was totally dedicated to protecting the child fate had placed in his care, even to the e'tent of marrying a woman he did not love in order to do so. (he loved Angelina too. )ould she do any less? '(o far as you and I are concerned, it will simply be a business arrangement,' he told her calmly. &ow could she agree to a business arrangement of a marriage with $arco when she loved and wanted him so much? &adn't this afternoon taught her anything at all? '#es*' +hat he was the most wonderful man to be !issed by, she found herself t h i n ! i n g rec!lessly.

,-./.0U1
'GOOD luck with your interview. You're bound to get the job, thoughno one could find a better nanny than you, Alice. Your only fault is that you love children too uch!' As she returned her elder sister's war hug Alice tried to s ile. "ven though it was over a onth since she had left her #revious job she still issed her two young charges. $he did not, however, iss their father, who had ade her last few onths in the e #loy of his wife so unco fortable, with his se%ual co e&ons towards her. "ven without his unwanted attentions, Alice knew she would not have acce#ted his wife's invitation to work for the in 'ew York, where she had been relocated. (er for er e #loyer was in any ways ty#ical of so e career wo en, who whilst needing to e #loy a nanny to look after their children, often resented and even deliberately under ined their nanny's role within the household. )ut that was the #rice one #aid for the job she had chosen to do, and now she was about to fly to *lorence to be interviewed for a new #ost, that of looking after a very young babya otherless si%& onth&old baby. 'And thanks for agreeing to take +ouise with you,' her sister, ,onnie, was saying. '- know she's going to love *lorence, es#ecially with her artistic talents. +ife hasn't been very easy for her lately, so -' ho#ing that this tri# will hel# her.' .rivately Alice felt that +ouise, her sister's ste#daughter, was deter ined to e%#ress her own isery and insecurity by aking her new ste# other, ,onnie, and her father feel guilty about their arriage, and that she was deter ined that nothing they did was going to #lease her and that included the gift of a four&day tri# to *lorence. Alice had agreed to acco #any her by flying out to -taly four days ahead of her interview with the aweso ely #atrician& sounding ,onte di /incenti, who had advertised for an -talian&s#eaking "nglish nanny for 'a si%& onth&old child'. -t had been that 'a si%& onth&old child' that had not just caught Alice's eye, but ore i #ortantly had tugged at her all too vulnerable heartstrings. -t had sounded so cold and distancing, as though so ehow the i #erious conte was devoid of any kind of e otional attach ent to the baby, and that had i ediately aroused all Alice's considerable #rotective instincts. After children, languages were her second love0 she was fluent in not just -talian but *rench and Ger an as well a considerable advantage in a nanny, as her agency had a##rovingly told her. 1he last ti e she had visited *lorence had been when she had been eight and her elder sister fifteen and she had very ha##y e ories of that tri#, so why was she feeling so a##rehensive at the thought of going back2 )ecause she would be acco #anying and be res#onsible for +ouise, who was currently anifesting al ost all of the traits of teenagedo that ade her #arents des#air, or because there was so ething about the very sound of her #otential new e #loyer that sent a cold little trickle of atavistic anti#athy down her s#ine2 Alice didn't know, but what she did know was that over and above her own feelings were the needs of a otherless si%& onth&old baby.

)&A,+1- ."1
*+O3"'," was having a heat wave and the weather was even hotter than Alice had been #re#ared for. 4hilst +ouise sle#t in her hotel bed, bad&te #eredly refusing to join her, Alice had taken advantage of her solitude to e%#lore the early orning city on her own. (aving just seen an elegantly dressed young other e erging fro a sho# with her children, all triu #hantly carrying tubs of ice crea , Alice couldn't resist the te #tation of indulging in the sa e treat herself. After all, according to her guidebook *lorence was fa ous for its ice crea . ,arefully she started to ake her way across the busy street, not really #aying uch attention to the vehicle that was blocking the road, although she was aware of a bright red and very e%#ensive&looking s#orts car that was bearing down on both her and the #arked vehicle. 5ust beyond her, the street ended in a set of lights, and as they were on red she deter inedly chose to ignore the angry blare of the car's horn. (owever, she was conscious of its delayed and engine throbbing #resence behind her at the traffic lights as she gave and received her order for a tira isu ice crea her favourite -talian sweet. 1he young ale assistant serving her ade a boldly flirtatious co ent as he handed her her changebold enough to ake her face flush bright #ink, and loud enough, she realised as she turned away, for the an behind the wheel of the scarlet o#en&to##ed echanical onster still waiting for both the obstruction to be oved and the lights to change, to have heard. 1o have heard and to be thoroughly conte #tuous of, she recognised as she saw the way he looked down the length of his a6uiline nose at her, his outh curling in o#en disdain. 1otally ortified, Alice could feel her face burning even hotter, her enjoy ent of her ice crea co #letely de& stroyed by her recognition of his conte #t of her. 'o doubt he thought she was so e silly 'orthern "uro#ean tourist looking for a chea# holiday fling, she fu ed as she gave hi a look intended to be as corrosive as the one he had just given her. 7nfortunately, though, she had not allowed for the effect of the e%tre ely hot sun on her ice crea and as she turned to glower at hi , in what she had #lanned to be a rebuffing and ladylike anner, she realised that her ice was dri##ing onto her to#. And that of course was the reason why her ni##les should suddenly choose that totally inaus#icious o ent to #eak o#enly and flauntingly with addening wilfulness. And all the while she had to stand there waiting to cross the road, with his ga8e #inned with deliberate e #hasis and insulting thoroughness on the swell of her breasts. (orrible, horrid an, she designated hi under her breath, but she knew as she did so that he was also just about the ost sensually agnetic and dangerous an she had ever set eyes on. 5ust the erest link between her own be used, shocked eyes and the hooded, es eric to#a8 intensity of his would have been enough to elt a full glacier, never ind her ice crea , she reflected shakily once he had driven #ast her. And that was without hi trying. (eaven alone knew what he could do if he really tried to turn a deliberately sensual look on a wo an! 'ot that she was ever likely to know or want to know. Of course not! 'o. 'ever. Defi& nitely not! And as for that o#en&to##ed carin this heatwell, that was obviously a deliberate #ose, eant to underline his acho asculinity. $he des#ised en like that! 9en who needed to reinforce their achis o. 'ot that he had looked as though his needed uch reinforcingand no doubt that thick head of dark, dark brown but not 6uite jet& black hair would ensure that his scal# would never need #rotecting fro strong sunlight. 'Da n the wo an, where is she2' 9arco looked irritably at his watch, and then frowned as he studied the e #ty foyer of the e%clusive and e%#ensive hotel just outside *lorence, where he had arranged to eet the "nglishwo an he was su##osed to be interviewing. (e was stalking i #eriously u# and down its i #osing length with a lean and #redatory ale ani al stride that caused the fe ale hotel guest crossing the foyer to give a s all, unsto##able little hor onal shiver of a##reciation. Oblivious of his effect on her, 9arco continued to frown. 1he fact that his interviewee had neither the disci#line to be on ti e for their eeting, nor the good anners to send a essage a#ologising for her late a##earance, was not in his o#inion a good advertise ent for her #rofessional skills, des#ite the fact that she had co e so highly reco ended by her agency that it had virtually sung a #aean of #raise in her favour. (e had not been in the best of oods even before he'd reached the city. (is car, the nor ally totally reliable saloon he drove, had develo#ed so e kind of electrical #roble , which eant that it was currently being re#aired, leaving hi with no alternative but to drive the ridiculous and, to his ind, totally over the to# bright red *errari, which had belonged to his cousin Aldo, but which since Aldo's death had re ained at the palazzo.

7nlike his 9ercedes, the *errari was certainly the kind of car that attracted a good deal of attentionand the wrong kind of attention in 9arco's o#inion. (is eyes narrowed slightly as he re e bered the blonde girl he had noticed when he had driven into the city earlier in the day on his way to eet a colleague. (er body had certainly a##roved of the car, even if her eyes had flashed hi a look of urderous, 'don't you dare look at e like that' rejection, he reflected wryly. .ersonally, he would far rather have a wo an be attracted to hi for hi self than his car! Aldo, though, had not shared his feelings! 4here was this wretched girl2 1o be truthful it had irked hi a little that she had refused to stay in this hotel as he had wished. -nstead she'd insisted on staying, albeit at her own e%#ense, in a far less convenient, so far as he was concerned, hotel in the centre of *lorence itself. 1his was a##arently because she wished to do so e sightseeing and because she had been con& cerned that the hotel he had chosen was too far out of the city centre and too 6uiet. An o inous state ent, so far as 9arco was concerned! As a student at university in "ngland, he had witnessed the way in which so e "nglish girls chose to de onstrate their dislike of anything 'too 6uiet'! .erha#s it was old&fashioned of hi to abhor #ro iscuity, and to believe that a #ersonof either se%should have enough self&restraint and enough self&#ride not to treat se% as an e otionless act of #hysical gratification on a #ar with eating a bar of chocolate, but that was how he felt. -rritably he shot back the cuff of his i aculately tailored #ale grey suit and frowned. Angelina, the baby for who he was seeking the services of a nanny, would be awake and wondering where he was. 1he trau atic loss of her other had left the baby clinging to the only other adult who was a constant in her life, and who she see ed to feel safe with, and that was hi self. 9arco was not i #ressed with the standard of care or co it ent the girl who'd originally been hired by Angelina's late other was currently giving to the baby. Gri ly 9arco re inded hi self that now Angelina was his child, and that she was totally de#endent on hi in every single way. 3ight now it was Angelina who needed to co e first in his thoughts and his actions. 1hat was why he was so deter ined not to find erely 'a nanny' for her, but the right nanny, the best nannya nanny who would be #re#ared to co it herself, her ti e and to so e e%tent her future to being with Angelina. And this was where a battle was being fought inside hi . (is frown changed fro that of irritated, al ost an& tagonistic ale, to one of dee#ly concerned #rotective #aternalis . (e felt such a strong sense of fa ily and e o& tional res#onsibility to Angelina, that the only wo an he would entrust the baby with had to be so eone who could su##ly her with the love and security her other's death had de#rived her of, so eone war and loving, reliable and res#onsible. And as the baby's other had been )ritish, he had decided to advertise for an -talian s#eaking )ritish nanny for Angelina, so that she would grow u# learning both languages. 1he girl he had eventually settled on had in any ways al ost see ed to be too good to be true, she had been so highly reco ended and #raised by her agency. )ut then of course they would not necessarily be dis#assionate about her! 'ow it see ed that he had been right to be dubious. Gri ly he rechecked his watch. (is autocratic features were so arrogantly and blatantly those of a sensually ature adult -talian ale that it was no wonder the #retty girl behind the rece#tion desk was watching hi with awed longing. (e #ositively e%uded #ower and asculinity, laced with a dangerous hint of #otent se%uality. 5ust as the lean ani al grace of the way he walked failed to cloak that aleness, so too the elegant tailoring failed to cloak the fact that the body beneath it was all raw agnificence and uscle. (e #ossessed that kind of bred&into&the&bone sensuality that no wo an could fail to recognise and res#ond to, be it with longing or a##rehension. 1he kind of sensuality that went uch, uch dee#er than the ere good looks with which nature had so generously endowed hi , the kind of sensuality that neither oney nor #ower nor #osition could buy! 1here was, though, a touch of gri deter ination about the hard line of his outh that set hi a#art fro ost other en of his race, a certain cool hauteur and distance that challenged anyone who dared to co e too close to hi uninvited. At thirty&five he had behind hi over a decade of heading the vast and co #licated tangled network of his e%tended fa ily0 aunts, uncles, and cousins. (is father and other had been killed outright when his father's younger brother had crashed the #rivate #lane he had been flying. 9arco, or, to give hi his correct na e, $e #erius 9arco *rancisco ,onte di /incenti, had been twenty&five at the ti e, and freshly 6ualified as an architect, aware of the res#onsibility of the role that would ul& ti ately be his, the guardian of his fa ily's history and the guardian too of its future, but relieved to know that that res#onsibility would not truly be his for any years to co e. And then his father's une%#ected death had thrown hi head first into shouldering what had then see ed to be an e%traordinarily heavy burden.

)ut so ehow he had carried itbecause it had been his duty to do so, and if in doing so he had lost so e of the s#ontaneity, the love of life and laughter and the ability to live for the o ent alone that had so arked out his younger cousin, Aldo, like hi left fatherless by the crash, then those around hi had just had to acce#t that that had been so. $o e of the older e bers of the fa ily considered that he had allowed Aldo to take advantage of hi , he knew. )ut like hi his cousin had lost his father in the tragedy, and, at only si%teen, it surely ust have been a far harder burden for hi to bear than it had been for 9arco hi self. 9arco's frown dee#ened as he thought about his younger cousin. (e had been totally o##osed to Aldo arrying .atti, the #retty "nglish odel. 1he wedding had taken #lace within weeks of Aldo eeting her, and it had not sur#rised hi in the least to learn that they had fallen out of love with one another as 6uickly as they had fallen into it. )ut there was no #oint in dwelling on that now. Aldo had arried .atti, and baby Angelina had been conceived, even if both her #arents had by that ti e been clai ing that their arriage had been a istake and that they bitterly regretted the legal co it ent they had ade to one another. -t had been in his role of head of the fa ily that 9arco had felt obliged to invite the both to visit the at his ho e in 1uscany, in the ho#e that he could so ehow hel# the to find a way of aking their arriage work. After all, whilst he ight not have a##roved of it in the first #lace, they now had a child to consider, and in 9arco's eyes the needs of their child far outweighed the selfish carnal desires of either of her #arents. )ut, once he had left the to their own devices, an argu ent had broken out between Aldo and .atti, which had resulted in Aldo driving .atti away fro the villa in a furious te #er. 1hey would #robably never know just what had caused the fatal accident, which had clai ed their lives and left their baby an or#han, 9arco reflected so brely, but he knew just how res#onsible he felt for having been the one to have brought the both to the palazzo in the first #lace. As Aldo's ne%t of kin he had naturally taken on full res#onsibility for the or#haned baby, and now three onths later it was abundantly obvious that little Angelina had bonded strongly with 9arco. 9arco's strong #aternalistic instincts had eant that he had decided that it was both his duty and in the baby's own interests for hi to ake #ro#er arrange ents for her care. -n order to cut down on wasting ti e unnecessarily on interviews that would not lead anywhere, he had #ainstak& ingly s#ent far ore ti e than he could currently afford sifting through the a##lications he had received, to ake sure that he only interviewed the candidate or candidates who et all his strict criteria, and in the end Alice 4alsingha had been the only one to do so0 which ade it even ore infuriating that she had not even taken the trouble to turn u# for their interview. -t was eleven o'clock, half an hour #ast the ti e of their a##oint ent. (is #a& tience finally sna##ed. 1hat was it! (e had waited long enough. -f 9iss 4alsingha did ever decide to turn u#, she was ost definitely not the #erson he wanted to leave, in sole charge of his #recious child. 'ot even to hi self was 9arco #re#ared to ad it just how attached he had beco e to his cousin's baby, or how #aternal he felt towards her. As he ste##ed out of the hotel into the bright *lorentine sunshine it glinted on the darkness of his thick, well& groo ed hair, highlighting his chiselled, autocratic features, and the lean& uscled strength of his si%&foot&two fra e. Auto atically he shielded the fierceness of his to#a8 ga8e fro the harshness of the sun by #utting on dark glasses that gave hi a breath&catching air of #redatory #ower and danger. An actor studying for a role as a 9afiosi leader would have found hi an ideal odel. (e looked lean, ean and dangerous. 'o one would drea of aking a an who looked as he did any kind of offer he ight be te #ted to refuse! -rritably he returned to where he had left Aldo's *errari, which was #arked outside the hotel, and he had just cli bed into it and #ut the keys in the ignition when he suddenly re e bered that he had not left any essage for his dilatory interviewee, just in case she should choose to turn u#! +eaving the keys in the ignition, he cli bed out of the *errari and strode toward the hotel. 'Oh, for God's sake, will you sto# nagging e2 You aren't y other, you aren't anything to e. 5ust because your sister has anaged to tra# y father into arriage that doesn't give you the right to tell e what to do.' As she listened to +ouise's deliberately hostile and infla atory s#eech Alice entally counted to ten. -t was now five inutes #ast eleven, and she was over half an hour late for her interview a##oint ent, but it had been i #ossible for her to leave +ouise to her own devices after the teenager's totally unacce#table behaviour during their tri#. 1he #revious night, +ouise had sneaked out of the hotel without her, returning in the early hours very uch the worse for drink, refusing to tell Alice where she had been or who with. Alice had been beside herself with an%iety. As luck would have it, Alice had now learned that her sister's ste#daughter had s#ent the evening with a grou# of

young A erican students who were studying in the city, and who it see ed had thankfully ke#t a watchful eye on her whilst she had been with the . (owever, as one of the students had a little an%iously e%#lained to Alice, +ouise had s#ent a large #art of the evening in conversation with a rather unsavoury character who had attached hi self to the grou# and now it see ed +ouise had ade arrange ents to eet u# with the an. -n order to ensure that she did not do so, Alice had insisted that +ouise acco #any her to her interview. *orced to do so, +ouise had left Alice in no doubt about her feelings of resent ent and hostility, as well as delib& erately aking Alice late for her a##oint ent, but now, thank goodness, they had finally reached the hotel. $he #aid off their ta%i driver, #ri ly ignoring the a##reciative look he was giving the bothtwo slender, blonde "nglish beauties. One of who , with her face #lastered with far too uch ake&u#, looked far older than her seventeen years and the other, whose clear, soft skin was virtually free of any trace of cos etics at all, her hair a natural, soft #ale blonde unlike her charge's rebelliously dyed and streaked tousled ane, looked far, far younger than her uch ore ature twenty&si%. Although she herself was unaware of it, even the si #le skirt and to# outfit she had chosen to wear for the heat of the *lorentine sunshine ade Alice look young enough to be a teenager herself, whilst +ouise's tight jeans and id& riff&baring to# were drawing the interested ga8e of every red&blooded -talian ale who saw the . $ulkily +ouise affected not to hear what Alice was saying as she urged her to hurry into the hotel. 7nder other circu stances Alice knew that she would have enjoyed si #ly standing to ga8e in ad iration at her surroundings. According to her guidebook, this #articular hotel, once the ho e of a 3enaissance #rince, had been converted into a hotel with such sensitivity and skill by the architect in charge of its conversion that to stay in it was a #rivilege all in itself. 7nable to resist #ausing si #ly to fill her senses with its sy etry and beauty, Alice was only aware that +ouise's attention was otherwise engaged when she heard her charge e%clai ing e%citedly. '4ow, just look at that car! 4hat -'d give to be able to drive so ething like that.' 1urning her head, Alice was startled to see #arked there in front of the an o#en&to##ed scarlet s#orts car like the one she had seen earlier that orning. +ike, or the sa e2 Driven by that sa e darkly, dangerously, and wholly ale an who had looked at her as though...as though... Dragging her thoughts away fro such risky and unco fortably self&illu inating channels, Alice realised with shock that +ouise was darting across towards the driver's door of the car. '+ouise,' she cautioned her an%iously. 'Don't...' )ut it was too late. 1otally ignoring her objections, +ouise was sliding into the driver's seat, telling her triu #hantly, '1he keys are in it. -'ve always wanted to drive a car like this...' 1o Alice's horror +ouise was #ulling o#en the obviously unlocked driver's door and sliding into the driving seat. 1otally a##alled, Alice #rotested in disbelief, '+ouise, no!' unable to acce#t that +ouise could behave so irres#onsibly. 'You ustn't! You can't...' '4ho says - can't2' +ouise was challenging her as she turned the key in the ignition and Alice heard the engine roar into life. $he could see a look in +ouise's eyes that was co #letely un istakable and her heart issed a beat. (er sister had warned her that +ouise could be headstrong, and that the trau a of the break&u# of her #arents' arriage had affected her badly, as had the fact that her other's new husband had ade no secret that he did not want an ob& stre#erous teenage ste#daughter on the scene to cause hi #roble s. "ven so! '+ouise, no,' Alice #rotested, #leadingly, instinctively hurrying round to the #assenger door of the car and wrenching it o#en, not really knowing what she could do, just knowing that so ehow she had to sto# her charge fro what she was doing. )ut before she could do anything +ouise had #ut the car in gear and it was starting to ove, the ove ent jolting Alice forward. $o ehow she found that she was in the #assenger seat of the car, frantically wrestling to close the door as the car set off lurchingly toward the hotel's e%it. (er heart in her outh, Alice #leaded with +ouise to sto# the car, but everything she said only see ed to goad the younger girl on. Alice could hear the gears crashing as +ouise anoeuvred the car clu sily onto the road. $he had only just #assed her driving test, and so far had only been allowed to drive her father's sedate saloon car under his strict su#ervision. Alice, who could drive herself and who had driven considerable distances with her for er young charges, knew that she would never have had the confidence or the skill to drive a vehicle such as this. $he gas#ed in shock as +ouise started to accelerate, and only just issed hitting a #air of scooters bent on overtaking the .

1he road stretched ahead of the , unusually straight for an -talian road, and heavy with traffic, a wall, beyond which lay the river, on one side of it and a row of four&or&so&storey buildings and a narrow #ave ent full of sho##ers on the other. Alice felt sick and des#erately afraid, but so ehow she anaged to 6uell her instinctive urge to wrest the steering wheel fro +ouise's obviously ine%#ert gri#. 7# ahead of the she could see a car #ull out to overtake0 she cried out a warning to +ouise but, instead of slowing down, the younger girl increased her s#eed. Alice held her breath, tensing her body against the collision, which she knew to be inevitable. -1 4A$ the un istakable sound of Aldo's *errari's engine being ine%#ertly fired that first alerted 9arco to what was going on. $#rinting towards the ain road, he reached it just in ti e to see the two blonde heads of the fe ale thieves who had stolen the car, which was now being driven with teeth&clenching lack of e%#ertise towards the 1uscan countryside. (owever, it wasn't the lack of driving e%#ertise they were dis#laying that brought a gri look of tension to 9arco's outh. 'o, what was concerning hi was the fact that he feared an accident, and, having already lost a uch&loved cousin as well as having had to identify both his and the destroyed body of what had originally been a very #retty young wo an, he had no wish to see history re#eating itself. (e was already reaching for his obile to re#ort the theft when he heard and saw the collision he had been dreading. 1o his relief he realised i ediately that the crash was not a serious one. 1he driver of the other car was already out of his vehicle and heading for the *errari, which 9arco could see had barely been da aged by the i #act at all. ,ancelling the call, he started to run towards the scene. Above the sound of +ouise's frantic screa s, Alice could hear the sound of a##roaching -talian voices. (er head ached where she had banged it on the windscreen, and as she tried to blink the #ain away she realised that +ouise was already standing on the #ave ent, beside the car, whilst so ehow she herself was lying across both seats, with her head now against the driver's headrest. $he knew she had to get out of the car. And she knew the easiest way to do that would be to slide her legs over to the driver's side of the car, but her thoughts would only asse ble in slow and #ainful otion as they fought their way through the di88ying sickness of her shock. $o eone, #redictably a an, was co forting +ouise, who was crying hysterically, but no one, Alice noticed, was bothering to hel# her. $o ehow, though, she anaged to get herself out of the car, just as the crowd that was surrounding it #arted to allow through the tall, dark&haired and even darker&browed an who was now talking with the driver of the car they'd crashed into, handing hi his card. 1hen as he turned to look at her she recognised hi . Alice thought she was going to faint. $he would have rec& ognised that eagle&eyed, i #erious to#a8 stare anywhere, and she could tell fro the way his glance oved fro her face down to her breasts that he re e bered e%actly who she was as well. -t was the an she had seen earlier that orning, the an who.... (er head was throbbing and instinctively Alice #ressed her hand to her te #le. $he felt so di88y and sick, so unable so ehow to draw her own ga8e away fro that angry, burning hostility of #ure ale fury. 1he shock of what had ha##ened see ed to have robbed her of her nor al self&control and aturity. *eeling as though she was going to cry, she longed des#erately to have so eone to turn to, so e sturdy, reliable, #ro&Alice ale #resence there to su##ort and #rotect her. $uch unfa iliar and under ining thoughts increased her sense of alienation fro her nor al 'self. (e of the angry eyes and hard, forbidding outh was focusing on her so intently that she felt like a hel#less s#eci en tra##ed beneath a icrosco#e. -n the distance Alice could hear +ouise sobbing frantically, '-t wasn't y fault. - didn't do anything. $he was the one who was driving the car. 'ot e...' )ut although she registered what +ouise was saying it barely ade any i #act on her at all. And the reason for that was the an now standing in front of her, towering over her, all si%&foot odd, furiously cold, dangerously angry and intensely ale of hi , addressing her in icily #erfect and whi#lash shar# "nglish as he de anded, '-f you are the #er#etrator of this...this atrocity, then let e tell you now - fully intend to see that you #ay for it. (ave you any idea what you have done2 1he danger...the risk... so eone could have been killed.' (is voice beca e acidly shar# and harsh. '(ave you ever seen a victi of a serious road accident2 Do you have any idea what it can do to the hu an body2' *resh nausea overwhel ed Alice. (e wasn't saying anything to her she hadn't already thought for herself, but +ouise, who could hear hi , was now silent and ashen&faced, and instinctively Alice felt her first duty was to #rotect her. And now that she could see both cars, she could see too that surely he was overreacting. An%iously she looked

towards his car. 1he #assenger door was crushed, there was broken glass all over the road. 1he car they had hit had lost its bu #er and sustained a large dent, although fortunately its driver see ed to be unhurt, and indeed he was very evidently co forting +ouise, who was shaking uncontrollably, telling everyone who would listen to her that it had been Alice who had been driving the car and not her. Alice o#ened her outh to correct her and defend herself and then closed it again. (ow could she2 +ouise was seventeen0 she had only just #assed her driving test. +ast night she had been drinking so heavily that she #robably still had a dangerously high level of alcohol in her bloodstrea , and she was in Alice's charge... Alice had #ro ised her sister that she would take care of her... 7naware of what she was doing, she looked u# at the an confronting her in hel#less a##eal. 9arco felt hi self stiffen as he saw the look Alice was giving hi . $he looked ore like a child than a wo an, with the #ale swathe of her cheeks and her huge bruised eyes and tre bling outh0 her delicately slender body. )ut he of course already knew about the sensuality and the volu#tuousness of the breasts that were now concealed by a uch bulkier to# than the little stra##y one she had been wearing earlier in the day when he had seen her. Disconcertingly and with une%#ected force his body res#onded to that e ory and to her. ediately 9arco 6uelled his swift surge of unwanted #hysical reaction, waiting for what he already knew she was going to say to hi , the a##eal she was going to ake to hi , on behalf of herself and her co #anion. (e had seen beautiful wo en using their beauty to get what they wanted so any any ti es before. And of course the first thing this beautiful wo an was going to do was to tell hi what he had already worked out for hi self that she had not been the one who'd been driving the car. ,ynically he waited for her to say as uch, and to i #licate her friend whilst #leading her own innocence. -t was obvious to hi fro the one assessing look with which he had taken in the whole of the scene in front of hi that there was no way that this wo an could have been the one driving his car0 to anyone with even half a trained eye it was blindingly obvious that the other younger, over& ade&u# girl with her ski #y clothes and frightened, sullen face had been the driver. As he waited for the wo an facing hi to denounce her co #anion 9arco fiercely re inded hi self of all the reasons why he had been o##osed to his cousin's arriage to his "nglish odel girlfriend. ,ross&cultural arriages were always, by the very necessity of their nature, bound to be ore of a risk than those between #eo#le who shared the sa e background and u#bringing. *or those arriages to work both #arties had to be dedicated to their love and to one another, to believe in it, to be one hundred and fifty #er cent co itted to it and to be ature and strong enough to ake it work. 1hat was a very tall order indeed in today's odern cli ate. (e hi self had never been se%ually #ro iscuous. (e was too fastidious, too #roud, too controlled to ever allow his a##etites to control hi , and it added to his already short te #er to realise just how intense his #hysical reaction was to the wo an standing in front of hi . 'Are you the one who stole y car2' he de anded curtly, suddenly i #atient to get the whole thing over and done with and the wo an and her co #anion turned over to the #olice. )ut, to his disbelief, instead of i ediately denying that she was to bla e and incri inating her friend, he heard her saying in a soft, shaky voice, 'Yes... Yes, -' afraid... that...that it was e.' As she heard herself confessing to a cri e she ost certainly had not co itted Alice felt her heart lurch jokingly against her ribs. $he still felt sick and di88y and her heart was thu #ing erratically in #anic. .anic because of the trouble she was going to be in, she 6uickly insisted to herself, and not in any way because of the effect the an standing watching her with that asklike, uninterru#table, assessing look was having on her. (eavens, but he was for idable... *or idable and se%y... 1he se%iest an she had ever seen. $o se%y in fact that he was aking her feel... 'Yes2' $he could hear the fury in his voice as he re#eated her ad ission. 'Yes2' he re#eated as though he wanted to ake sure he had heard her correctly. 'Yes, it was you2' -t was al ost as though he wanted her to deny the cri e, Alice thought di88ily. )ut why2 $o that he could indulge in the #leasure of berating her, accusing her of being a liar as well as a thief2 4ell, she wasn't going to give hi that #leasure! )ravely #ushing to one side her own shock and fear, she told hi fir ly, 'Yes. -t was -. - stole your car.' $he could hear +ouise aking a soft, oaning, hiccu##ing sound and instinctively Alice looked an%iously towards her. 1he younger girl's tears had washed tracks of ake&u# fro her face, giving her a clown&like a##earance of vul& nerable youthfulness, and as she saw the #anic and fear in +ouise's eyes Alice found her heart aching with co #as& sion for her. -t ust have given her a dreadful shock when they had crashed. 'o wonder she was looking so afraid. -nstinctively, Alice felt #rotective towards her, overco ing her own feelings of shock and hostility towards the an confronting

her and the feelings he was engendering within her to tell hi 6uietly, - a#ologise for...what has ha##ened and, of course, - will ake good the da age to your car, but y... y...friend is very shocked. 4e are due to catch a flight ho e to "ngland this afternoon, and we still have to collect our luggage fro our hotel, so if there is so e way in which we can e%#edite atters... - can give you all y details. 9y na e is Alice 4alsingha and...' $he sto##ed as she saw the frown darkening his face as he listened to her. 'Your na e is what2' he challenged her softly. 'Alice...Alice 4alsingha ,' Alice re#eated, her voice starting to tre ble a little as a feeling of foreboding rushed over her like a cold inco ing tide. 9arco could hardly believe his ears. $o this was the wo an he had waited in vain to interview, this s all scra# of fe ale hu anity with her slender body, her #rovocative breasts, her #ale blonde hair, her far&too&#retty face, and her certainly far&too&dangerously #otent effect on his hor ones! 1hat such a thing should ha##en to hi and with this wo an of all wo en! A wo an who e%cited such interest in the street fro his own se% that a e ber of it was unable to refrain fro e%tolling the #leasure the sight of her body gave hi . A wo an who had been an acco #lice to the theft of his car...a wo an a##arently so careless of hu an life that she could have been an acco #lice to an accident of even ore hideous and fatal #ro#ortions than the one he had already had to endure. A wo an who had lied and i #licated herself in a theft to #rotect the true thief, who 9arco could now see when he looked at her #ro#erly was uch younger than he had first thought. A teenager, in fact. Against the urgings of his own self&#rotective instincts, he found hi self re e bering certain incidents fro his cousin Aldo's youth, certain irres#onsible actions fro which he, as Aldo's elder and fa ily entor, had been obliged to e%tricate the younger an. After all, he re inded hi self with reluctant fair& indedness, he had seen the look of disco fort on Alice's face when she had heard the ice&crea seller's full&bodied co #li ent0 and she had too looked shocked to the #oint of actual nausea after the accident. As for the effect she had on hi ! 1he one thing about Alice that had caught his attention when he'd read through her a##lication and the letters of reco endation that had acco #anied it was the e otional in#ut she #ut into caring for her charges. -t was that degree of involve ent that he wanted for Angelina! (e had e%#ected her to be an e otional wo an, and one with a dee#ly #rotective instinct, but what he had not antici#ated and what he ost certainly did not want was her totally une%#ected aura of sensuality! $he wore it as lightly and easily as though she herself was totally unaware of it, which ade it even ore of a danger than if she had wantonly flaunted it, 9arco recognised. Gri ly he turned to +ouise. 'And you,' he 6uestioned her. 'You are2' '+ouise is in y charge,' Alice answered for her, assu ing a fir ness and authority she was far fro feeling. $he had bu #ed her head on the i #act of the crash and it was aching horridly still and aking her feel very #oorly, but she had +ouise to #rotect and that had to co e before her own disco fort. '$he is only young and, as you can see, very u#set. (er #arents are e%#ecting her return on this afternoon's flight and...it is y duty... y res#onsibility to see that she is on that flight.' 'Your duty...and your res#onsibility,' 9arco e #hasised. '4here were those undoubtedly ad irable virtues, wonder, when you stole y car, risking not only your own lives, but those of other #eo#le as well2 (ave you any idea what a car s ash can do, what carnage, what...destruction it can cause2' 9arco de anded harshly as the night are i ages of the crash scene he had been called u#on to witness when Aldo had driven away fro the palazzo in the te #er that had killed both hi and his wife resurfaced. 4ith no way of knowing what he was thinking, Alice could feel her face starting to burn. '-... -t...- couldn't hel# yself,' she started to fib des#erately. '- have always loved...' (el#lessly she looked at the car for ins#iration, unable to re e ber in her #anic just what kind of car it actually was... Against his will 9arco found hi self being both intrigued and i #ossibly al ost even a used as he witnessed her confusion as she hunted wildly for a rational e%#lanation to cover both her behaviour and her #rotective fib. Anyone with any re ote #retence to being a car lover would not have had to look wildly at the bonnet to realise what ake of car they'd been driving. '9aseratis,' he su##lied dryly for her, his voice drowning out +ouise's frantically whis#ered, '*errari!' 'Yes. 9aseratis,' Alice agreed, gratefully sei8ing on the na e he had given her. '4ell, -'ve always loved the and when - saw yours, just couldn't resist. -t was so te #ting. And you had left the keys in the ignition,' she told hi re#rovingly. '$o in effect it was y fault that you stole the car,' 9arco suggested dryly. $he had the ost revealing eyes, he decided, their colour a clear blue&green that was al ost tur6uoise. '(ave you any idea just what his car eans to an -talian an2' he asked her, s#eaking swiftly in -talian. 4ithout the slightest #ause, she res#onded in the sa e language, telling hi si #ly, '- shouldn't have done it, know.'

$o she hadn't lied about her ability to s#eak his language, 9arco recognised, and des#ite all reasons he knew he should su on the #olice and set about finding hi self another nanny for Angelina, he knew that he was going to do no such thing. A wo an who for whatever reason was #re#ared to i #licate herself in a cri e to #rotect a younger #erson in her charge ust have a #rotective instinct that would kee# any child entrusted to her care safe and loved. And, so far as 9arco was concerned, what Angelina needed ore than anything else was just that very kind of security, even if it ca e wra##ed u# in a tantalising #ackage with 'danger' written all over it! ')y rights - should su on the #olice and hand you both over to the ,' he told Alice sternly, waiting for a few seconds as the colour drained fro her face and she ade a s all, instinctive sound of #rotest and distress. '(owever...you say that you are both booked on an afternoon flight back to "ngland...but you,' he told her s oothly, 'or so - thought, were su##osed to be being interviewed for a #ost here in -taly...' Alice ga#ed at hi . '(ow do you know that2' she began, and then sto##ed as the unwanted, i #ossible, a##alling truth began to see# hideously into her shocked brain. ''o!' she whis#ered, her eyes huge with des#air. ''o. You can't be!' - can't be who2' 9arco challenged her gri ly. 'ervously Alice flicked her tongue&ti# over her suddenly nervously dry li#s, a gesture which 9arco's eyes onitored whilst his body registered her action in a way that ade hi glad of the strength of will&#ower! Glad that it was strong enough to #revent hi fro covering the softness of her full li#s with his own outh. 3ichly #ink, free of ake&u#, they re inded hi unwantedly of the taut thrust of her ni##les against her to#. Angrily he #ushed his wanton thoughts away. (e had neither the ti e to waste on self&indulgent analysis of the , nor the inclination to do so. $o e things were best left undisturbed, une%a ined... (er skin would be delicately #ale, her breasts crowned with rose&red ni##les and when he touched the with his li#s she would... As Alice heard hi curse beneath his breath she ju #ed nervously. 1he heat beating down on her uncovered head was beginning to affect her. $he felt confused and u88y, and she wanted badly to be able to lie down so ewhere coolso ewhere cool that did not include this for idable, se%y, downright disturbing an, she corrected herself shakily. '-... 9y interview was with... - was su##osed to be seeing...' she began to #rotest. '9e,' 9arco su##lied for her with a softness that belied the steel&hard look he was giving her. 'Only you did not kee# our a##oint ent, which akes you unreliable as well as untrustworthyand yet according to your agency...' -&-' sorry - was late,' Alice began to sta er with what she knew to be ludicrous consternation. (e thought she had stolen his car, after all, and here she was a#ologising for being late. '1o be late is an offence against the laws of good anners, and thus #unishable by one's own conscience,' he agreed urbanely. ')ut theft is an offence against the laws of the land and as such it is #unishable by a ter in #rison...' 1he way he was looking at her, his eyes now al ost the colour of obsidian and just as e #ty of any kind of hu ane e otion as a #iece of unfeeling stone, ade her blood 6uite literally run icily cold in her veins. $hock and then fear cre#t over her in a #ainful tide. .rison! $he knew that her fear showed in her face, and only her #ride sto##ed her fro #rotesting out loud. Out of the corner of her eye she could see +ouise, silent now, her shock as obvious as Alice's own in her suddenly very youthful, drawn white face. As she struggled to find so ething to say a obile #hone started to ring i #eriously. Al ost as though she were observing the whole scene at a distance, Alice saw the an she now realised ust be her once&#ros#ective e #loyer, the aristocratically na ed ,onte di /incenti, reaching to his #ocket and re oving his #hone, swiftly res#onding to the call. 4ith her e%cellent gras# of -talian, Alice easily translated what he was saying and a fresh surge of an%iety sei8ed her body, not this ti e for herself, but on behalf of the baby, whose sudden ine%#licable and frightening sickness was the cause of the tele#hone call. $wiftly instructing that a doctor was to be called, 9arco ended the call, his face drawn into lines of harsh an%iety. 1he nurse aid Angelina's other had hired to look after the baby was not in his o#inion a suitable #erson to have charge of such a young child. )ored and slovenly, she had no #ro#er training for such a job, and so far as he could see no real love for the baby, but she was, a#art fro hi self, the only #erson who was truly fa iliar to her and for that reason, until he found a suitable re#lace ent nanny, he had felt unable to ter inate her e #loy ent and send her back to 3o e where he knew she would feel uch ore at ho e than in the 1uscan countryside. -t had been left to his housekee#er to tele#hone hi and advise hi of baby Angelina's sickness. 1he palazzo was over an hour's fast drive away, and 9arco had no ti e now to waste on a ere car accident in which ercifully no one had been hurt.

On Alice's ,/ had been the fact that she had so e nursing e%#erience, having done voluntary work in a local hos#ital, both as teenager and later too, when her e #loy ent co it ents had allowed. (ad it not been for his own too stubborn wariness where "nglishwo en were concerned, 9arco knew that Alice's obvious dedication to others would have inclined hi towards selecting her as Angelina's nanny even over ore highly 6ualified a##li& cants. (owever, now a new co #lication had entered the e6uation. 1he one thing that 9arco had not been #re#ared for when he had entally reviewed and tabulated the #ros and cons of hiring Alice was that he hi self ight find her desirable! (is reaction to her had caught hi off guard. (e had believed that he was ar oured against any wo an who was ade in the sa e ould as the free&living, free&loving girl students he had encountered in "ngland. $o what was he saying2 he asked hi self sardonically, whilst he worried about Angelina. 1hat he could not control his own libido2 'o way! :uickly 9arco ca e to a decision. (e would nor ally have been averse to having his hand forced by events, but now he wasn't concerned about that. (e did not want to e%a ine his decision ore analyticallybecause of his concern for Angelina, he told hi self. After all, his #hysical reaction to Alice was so ething he could control0 baby Angelina's sickness was not. '4hat ti e did you say your flight left2' he de anded. 4hite&faced with conte #t and disbelief, Alice stared at hi . 4hat kind of an...what kind of father was he to give so ething as inor as a s all car accident #recedence over the health of his baby daughter2 -n his shoes the last thing she would have done would be to stand here, worrying about a ere car! -nstead she would have been aking her way as fast as she could to her baby's side. $o uch for the yth that -talian en were wonderful fathers, who adored and #rotected their children! -nstinctively she felt a surge of desire to #rotect the baby and to castigate her father for his lack of concern0 to show hi just how conte #tuous she felt of hi in every way0 as a trained #rofessional, as an innocent victi of a cri e she had not co itted, and ost of all as a wo an. A wo an who had foolishly allowed herself to react to hi in a way she was deter ined not to re#eat! -gnoring her throbbing headache, she accused hi wildly, '1hat #oor baby! (ow can you be ore concerned about your wretched car than her health2' " otional tears filled her eyes, which she #roudly refused to hide. $he was not asha ed to show that she had nor al hu an feelings, no atter how conte #tuously that fact ade hi regard her. - thought that -talian en were su##osed to love children,' she threw at hi scornfully, unable to sto# herself. ')ut in your case it see s that your love of your car eans ore to you than the health of the baby.' $o ething flickered in his eyes, an e%#ression Alice could not 6uite catch, al ost as though in so e way her outburst had #leased hi , but then as she focused ore closely on hi his e%#ression changed, his hooded ga8e see ing to deliberately conceal his reaction. 1urning his back on her, he flicked on his obile and started issuing instructions into it. 4hen he had finished he turned back to her, and told her coolly, 'You are co ing with e to the palazzo. Your...friend will be escorted to the air#ort and #ut on her flight ho e...' Alice stared at hi , hardly able to credit that she had heard hi correctly. (e was aking her stay here, in -taly, at his ho e. 4hy2 $hock, #anic, fear, and a shar#, breath&snatching feeling she didn't want to na e, but that she was forced to acknowledge ca e #retty close to a for of dangerous e%cite ent, swirled the blood to her head. 4as the heat of the -talian sun so ehow affecting her brain2 -t ust be surely0 there was no other acce#table e%#lanation for that shar#, shocking, #iercingly wanton feeling burning hotly through her body. 1his an #ossessed none of the virtues she could ever want in a an0 none of the , she insisted fir ly to herself. 'You can't ake e stay in -taly.' she began warningly. $he had already ade u# her ind that she was glad that she had not had the o##ortunity to be interviewed by hi because there was totally no way she could ever countenance working for hi . (is arrogance both infuriated and antagonised her, arousing e otions within her that she was totally unfa iliar with, aking her feel, giddy, di88y, dangerously close to losing her head. -t was aking her feel very uch like a child e%#osed to danger, i ediately wanting to run fro it back to safety. $he didn't like hi . 'ot one little bit, but what she had just learned about his attitude towards his baby had aroused within her not just a furious sense of disgust and distaste for hi as a an, but also an intense surge of #ity for the s all baby who was so de#endent on hi . All she had been told about her #ros#ective e #loy ent had been that she would have virtually sole charge of a si%& onth&old baby girl whose other had recently died, and who needed a constant and loving fe ale #resence in her life. 1hat alone had been enough to ake her yearn to #rovide her #otential charge with all the #rotection and love she

could give her. 1hose feelings were still there, intensified if anything by the cold&hearted anner of the little Angelina's father. 'You can't force us to do anything,' she res#onded forcefully. ''o2' 9arco overrode her gri ly. 'You have two choices, Alice 4alsingha . "ither you co e with e now, or both you and your friend face the legal conse6uences of your cri e. And to be honest - should have thought, having read your ,/ and the re#orts fro your agency, that the decision would have been an easy and an auto atic one for you. 4hat was it they said about you2 1hat you #ossessed an e%tre ely strong nurturing instinct and a genuine love and concern for children2 -t see s to e that so ewhere along the line you ust have deceived the .' )efore she could s#eak in her own defence, Alice heard +ouise give a faint sob of terror. '.lease, Alice,' the younger girl was beseeching her. '.lease, #lease do what he wants. - can't bear the thought of going to #rison.' As she listened to her Alice knew that in reality there was no choice for her at all. 'ot really. 1here was no #oint in her aking the istake of ho#ing that the an in front of her was si #ly bluffing. $he could see that he wasn't... A large four&wheel&drive vehicle suddenly #ulled u# behind the red s#orts car. -ts driver ju #ed out and ca e hurrying towards the . +istening to the swift e%change of -talian between hi and her #ersecutor, Alice realised that the new arrival worked for the conte and that the conte was instructing hi to take care of the s#orts car, and escort +ouise to the air#ort, whilst he, the conte, drove hi self and Alice to his estate. 'Your luggage will be brought to the palazzo fro the hotel,' he infor ed Alice, without bothering to ask her what her decision was. )ut then of course why should he2 -t ust be as obvious to hi as it was to her fro +ouise's white shocked face that there was no way she could subject the younger girl to the ordeal of #olice 6uestioning and #otentially a s#ell in #rison, even if for her #ride's sake she was #re#ared to inflict such trau as on herself. 1here was barely ti e to do anything ore than e%change a swift hug with +ouise, who was now sobbing woefully, full of contrition and guilt as she hugged Alice back with genuine a##reciation and whis#ered, -' so sorry. - never eant' '$hush, it's all right,' Alice whis#ered back to her, trying to reassure her, but still warning her gently, - don't think it would be a good idea to say anything about this to ,onnie.' 1he last thing she wanted was for her sister to worry about her, es#ecially since ,onnie had hinted to her that she and $teven were #lanning to try for a baby. 1here was just ti e for the to e%change a final hug and then Alice was being fir ly drawn away by her new e & #loyer. 1o an outsider she sus#ected that the hand he had #laced around her u##er ar looked as though he were erely guiding her. )ut she knew better. $he could feel the shar# bite of those steely fingers against her flesh, she could tell too, fro the closeness with which he held her to his side, that he was not in any way guiding her, but guarding her...as in i #risoning... $he was his #risoner. (e had total control over her, and she knew that he would not hesitate to e%ercise that control should he feel the need to do so. (er whole body ached with shock. $he felt slightly sick fro the hot beat of the strong *lorentine sunshine on her e%#osed head, and fro what had ha##ened. )ut there was no way she was going to show any sign of weakness in front of this an! (ad it not been for +ouise and the #light of the baby she would certainly never have allowed hi to do inate her like this. (e was everything she hated in a an. "verything she des#ised and loathed. 1oo arrogant, too sure of hi self, too wra##ed u# in his own self&i #ortance and too da n se%y by far. Oh, yes he was certainly that all right, she acknowledged, unable to resist the i #ulse to give hi a 6uick sidelong look. And then wishing she had not given in to such te #tation as he caught her betraying glance, faultlessly returning it with a s ooth, knowing res#onse that ade her face fla e and her heart thud in denial of what she was feeling. )ut even by turning away fro hi she wasn't able to esca#e0 all she found was their reflections in the sho# win& dow. -t see ed there was no way she could esca#e fro hi nor fro the shockingly inti ate feelings he was aking her e%#erience. *iercely she tried to concentrate on realities, rather than feelings. (e was uch taller than her, i #osingly so, his whole bearing #roud and autocratic, his e%#ression hardening the chiselled #erfection of his features. $he in contrast looked s all and #ale, overwhel ed by hi . (e could have been a ra#acious 3o an centurion and she his ca#tive. A long, dangerous shiver of an e otion she wasn't #re#ared to na e shocked through her.

)&A,+1- +&-11
A+-," woke i ediately at the first soft whi #er of baby Angelina's cry des#ite the fact that it was al ost three o'clock in the orning and she had had barely two hours' slee#. 1hey had arrived at the palazzo the #revious afternoon, just as the full la8y heat of the 5une sunshine had been bathing the crea y walls of the huge .alladian building in hot golden light. $et as it was against a agnificent back& dro# of the surrounding 1uscan countryside, the effect on Alice's finely tuned senses had al ost over#owered her, affecting her as headily as too uch indulgence in strong wine. -t was al ost too #erfect, had been her verdict as they had driven u# the +o bardy&#ine&guarded #rivate road that led to the palazzo, and then in through the delicate high wrought&iron gates #ast i #osingly for al gardens and finally into an enclosed courtyard at the rear of the palazzo which had i ediately see ed to enclose her, shutting her off fro the outside world and reality. A s all, gnarled an of about si%ty had hurried out to the car, engaging in a low&voiced conversation with the conte, of which Alice could only hear the shar#, autocratic 6uestions that her new e #loyer was throwing at hi . 'Yes, the doctor has been called,' Alice heard the older an re#lying in -talian ;but there has been an e ergency at the hos#ital and so he has not as yet arrived.' 'You have left the car in *lorence2' Alice heard the older an asking the conte, in an incredulous tone that i ediately raised Alice's hackles. (ow ty#ical of what she already knew of the conte that even his e #loyees should know that he would be ore concerned about the future of his car than that of his baby! '1here was an accident,' she heard hi re#lying gri ly, shaking his head i ediately as the other an instantly e%#ressed concern for his health. ''o. -t is all right, .ietro, - a fine,' the conte was assuring hi . Grittily, Alice watched hi . At no #oint during their hair&raising drive to the palazzo had the conte e%#ressed either interest or concern in whether or not she had been hurt in the accident, and she was certainly not going to tell hi just how 6ueasy and unco fortable she had felt during the drive, she decided #roudly. $he still felt rather weak, though, and she was relieved to be ushered into the cool interior of the palazzo, which was, as she had so ehow known it would be, decorated in an elegant and very for al style, and furnished with what she sus#ected were #riceless anti6ues. (ow on earth could a young child ever feel at ho e in a #lace like this2 she wondered ruefully, as she followed the conte and his housekee#er, .ietro's wife, 9addalena, who had now joined the , through several rece#tion roo s and into a huge for al entrance hall fro which a flight of glea ing arble stairs rose i #osingly u#ward. 1he baby's suite of roo sthere was in Alice's o#inion no other way to describe the 6uarters that had been set aside for the little girl0 certainly they were far too grand to 6ualify for the word 'nursery' as she understood it was at one end of a long corridor, and furnished e6ually i #osingly as the salons she had already seen. A nervous and very flustered young girl who was 6uite #lainly terrified of the conte a##eared fro one of the other roo s in res#onse to the conte's voice. $he was ine%#ertly clutching the baby, who was 6uite #lainly in disco fort and crying. ediately Alice's training and instincts took over, and without waiting for anyone's #er ission she ste##ed forward and fir ly re oved the baby fro the girl's an%ious gri#. 1he baby s elled of vo it and 6uite #lainly needed a na##y change. (er face was red and blotchy fro distress and as Alice gently brushed her cool fingers against her skin, whilst reassuringly co forting her, she sus#ected that she #robably had a te #erature. Out of the corner of her eye she saw the ove the conte ade towards her as she took control and cradled the baby against her shoulder. Auto atically she turned towards hi , only just anaging to su##ress a s all s ile of gri conte #t as she saw hi glance fro the baby to his own i aculate clothes. A truly loving father seeing his otherless child in such distress should have instinctively #laced the baby's need for the security of his ar s above those of his i aculate suit, es#ecially when she sus#ected that the conte was ore than wealthy enough to buy a whole wardrobe of designer suits. A baby, though, could never be re#laced0 nor, in Alice's o#inion, could a baby ever be given too uch love or security. And she i ediately ade a silent but vehe ent vow that, just so long as it was within her #ower to do so, she would ensure that little Angelina never, ever lacked for love. As she and the baby ade eye contact Alice felt a soft, s all tug of e otion #ulling on her heartstrings, her feelings reflecting o#enly in her eyes and 6uite #lain for the an watching her to see and co #rehend.

(e had heard of love at first sight, 9arco acknowledged wryly, and now had witnessed it taking #lace. :uickly he veiled his own ga8e to #revent Alice fro seeing what he was thinking. Al ost as soon as she held her, little Angelina sto##ed crying as though she had instinctively recognised the sure, knowing touch of so eone who knew what she was doing. Alice could hear the conte s#eaking to the nurse aid in -talian. Alice wondered why a an as wealthy as the conte ight choose to e #loy an untrained nanny to look after his otherless child. 1he girl looked haggard and white& faced and she had started to wring her hands as she e%#lained how the baby had started to be violently sick, shortly after she had fed her. Alice had already ade her own #rofessional diagnosis of what she sus#ected was wrong. :uietly but deter inedly she walked towards the co unicating door through which the nurse aid had a##eared. 1he roo beyond it, whilst as elegantly furnished as the one she had been in, was in total chaos, and Alice gri aced as she saw the #ile of soiled baby things hea#ed u# on the floor, and the general untidiness of the roo . -t was #lain to her that the girl who the conte had left in charge of his baby daughter had no #rofessional skills and very #robably very little e%#erience with babies. ,arrying Angelina into the bathroo adjoining the bedroo , she 6uickly started to #re#are a bath for her, all the ti e holding her securely in one ar , sensing her fear and need to be held. -t astonished her when the conte suddenly a##eared at her side, instructing her, 'Give her to e.' 1he baby started to cry again, a s all, thin, gri88ling cry of e%haustion, #ain and isery. Dubiously Alice looked at her unwanted e #loyer, but before she could say anything the baby turned her head and looked at the conte and suddenly she sto##ed crying, her eyes widening in recognition and delight as she held out her ar s towards the an watching her. 1o her own furious outrage, Alice actually felt shar#, e otional tears start to #rick her eyes at this evidence of the baby's love for her father. )ut what really shocked her was the easy way in which the conte had held his s all daughter0 whilst she #re#ared a bath for her, cradling her lovingly in his ar s, soothing her with soft ur urs of reassurance until Alice was ready to take Angelina off hi and gently re ove her soiled clothes. - think that she ay only be suffering fro a bad bout of colic,' she told the conte as she gently lowered the baby into the water, kee#ing her attention on her all the ti e to ensure that she was not beco ing in any way distressed, 'but of course - would advise that she is checked over by a doctor.' 4hat she did not want to say was that she thought that it could be the ine%#ert handling of the baby by her nurse that was res#onsible for her agitated state. (ow could anyone leave such a young child with so eone who was 6uite #lainly not 6ualified to look after her2 $urely, having lost his wife, the conte would want to do everything he could to #rotect and nurture her child2 A child who, it was already obvious to Alice, was looking hel#lessly to her father for love and security. 1he arrival of the doctor interru#ted her #rivate thoughts, and whilst he was looking at the baby the conte had dis issed the nurse aid to go downstairs and have her su##er, an act of a##arent kindness, which for so e reason only added to Alice's resent ent of hi . (e had shown no concern at all for the fact that she had not eaten in hours. 'ot that she wanted to eat #articularly0 she still felt slightly nauseous and sus#ected that she ight still be suffering fro shock. )ut just whether that shock had been caused by the accident or by the conte hi self, Alice was not #re#ared to consider. 1he doctor 6uickly confir ed Alice's own diagnosis that the baby was suffering fro colic and was #robably also slightly dehydrated. $ur#risingly he o#enly ad onished the conte for allowing such an obviously ine%#erienced girl to have charge of Angelina. - understand what you are saying, Doctor,' the conte had acce#ted, 'but - have had no real choice in the atter. 1he girl was chosen to take charge of Angelina by her other. $he has been with her since the first weeks of her birth, and - have been reluctant to re ove her fro the care of so eone so fa iliar, although - have now taken ste#s to rectify the situation since, like you, - have been concerned about the girl's ability to be res#onsible for the needs of such a s all child. '9iss 4alsingha here has been e #loyed by e to take over full charge of the nursery and of Angelina,' he told the doctor, turning to indicate Alice. '$he is "nglish, as Angelina's other was, and a fully 6ualified nanny.' 1he doctor looked at Alice a##raisingly, before turning to say with very -talian ale a##reciation, to Alice, '9ay say how fortunate - consider Angelina to be to have such a #retty co #anion.' 1he avuncular s ile he gave her be& fore turning back to the conte, along with the twinkle in his eye, reassured Alice that he was si #ly being gallant. 'You will have trouble on your hands, -' afraid, y friend,' he continued to the conte. - do not know whether to co iserate with you or envy you for having so uch distracting te #tation beneath your

roof.' Alice felt her face starting to burn. 4hat on earth was the doctor trying to i #ly...2 1hat the conte ight be te #ted. )y her2 (owever, before she was able to for ulate her own thoughts, the conte hi self res#onded to the doctor, telling hi with ra8or&shar# cris#ness, - have e #loyed 9iss 4alsingha for her #rofessional 6ualities as a nanny, and not because of her looks, and as for her ability to te #t our se%... 9iss 4alsingha 's contract with e #recludes her fro encouraging any hot&blooded and foolish young an to be te #ted by her.' 1he hard&eyed look he gave her scorched Alice's skin. 'And since she has already foolishly e%hibited to e just how irresistible she finds te #tation, - fully intend to en& sure that her will&#ower gets all the su##ort it ight need, and in whatever for she ight need it.' Alice gas#ed. (ow dared he take such a high&handed attitude with her, and in front of so eone else2 $he was acutely aware of the interested way in which the doctor was now studying both of the , his dark eyes twinkling as though he found so ething a using in the situation. 4ell, he ight do so, but Alice ost certainly did not. (owever, before she was able to s#eak the conte continued al ost brus6uely, 'it is essential that Angelina has stability in her life. $he has already lost far too uch...' (is voice had beco e so sober that i ediately Alice felt unable to take issue with hi regarding the state ent he had just ade. 'Ah, yes, that was a terrible tragedy indeed,' the doctor agreed gravely as he finished his e%a ination of the baby and handed her back to Alice. 1o her astonish ent, as she reached out to take the baby the conte forestalled her, taking hold of his daughter hi & self and saying over Alice's head to the doctor, '9iss 4alsingha was involved in a thankfully inor accident earlier today, and - think it would be a good idea if you were to check her over...' ''o. 1here's no need. -' fine,' Alice res#onded i ediately, bridling at the conte's inference that she was al ost as inca#able of aking her own decisions as the baby he was cradling against his shoulder with fatherly e%#ertise. At so e #oint he had re oved his jacket, and the fine white cotton of his shirt did very little to conceal the dark uscularity of the torso that lay beneath it. Alice could even see the shadowing of his body hair. And she actually felt her uscles threaten to go weak. *ortunately she was able to tense the against such betrayal as she forced her& self to focus on the waiting doctor and not her e #loyer. - a #erfectly all right,' she insisted. And it was, after all, the truth. 1hat nauseous headache she was still suffering had si #ly been caused by the heat and her own intense e otions. 1he inute bruise she had sustained was luckily concealed by her hair, and there re& ally hadn't been any need for the conte to draw attention to her health! :uite why she felt so resentful and hostile towards his a##arent concern for her health, she didn't know. .erha#s it had so ething to do with the anger she felt towards hi that he could actually e #loy a wo an he considered to be guilty of atte #ted theft to look after his daughter who surely should atter far, far ore to hi than any ere aterial #ossession! 3eflecting now in the iddle of the night on what had been said then, Alice re inded herself that the agency had told her before she'd left +ondon that her #ros#ective e #loyer was looking for her to ake a long&ter co it& ent to her charge, and that she would be asked to sign a contract to that effect, but she had overlooked that fact in the tur oil of the accident and its after ath. 'ow, however... :uickly she got out of her bed and walked across to Angelina's cot. $he was the reason that Alice was now awake, her instincts alert to the baby's distress even in her slee#. Angelina was lying awake, whi #ering softly. Gently Alice lifted her out, checking her te #erature and her na##y. (er skin felt reassuringly cool, but her na##y needed changing, and Alice decided this would be a good o##ortunity to give her a s all e%tra feed. $he sus#ected that she was slightly underweight and aybe even a little alnourished. -f she was a slow feeder, then her young nurse ight have beco e i #atient. (olding her tenderly against her shoulder, she #added into the roo adjacent to the nursery #ro#er, which had been converted into a te #orary but very well&e6ui##ed kitchen, with everything to eet the baby's needs. $he had already #re#ared so e bottles of for ula before going to bed, and as she re oved one fro the fridge and started to heat it she studied the baby's face. (er other ight have been "nglish but she looked co #letely -talian. $he had her father's dark hair and eyes, and Alice sus#ected she had also inherited the conte's deter ined chin. *or a baby of si% onths she was a little on the s all side. As she looked at her with grave, worried eyes Alice couldn't resist dro##ing a tender kiss on her forehead as she s oothed her baby curls. $he was adorable, but so vulnerable. Alice ached to #rotect and care for her0 so uch so, in fact, that she could al ost actually feel a soft tug on her own wo b as she held her.

.oor baby. 'o other and a father who couldn't #ossibly love her as she needed to be loved. -n his own bedroo , 9arco frowned as he heard over the interco the soft, cooing sounds of love and tenderness that Alice was aking to the baby. (e, like her, had woken at the first sound of Angelina's distress. (is concern over the nurse aid's ability to take #ro#er care of the baby had led to hi having a so#histicated baby&alar syste installed in the nursery suite so that he could hear if Angelina cried. -ndeed he had been halfway towards the bedroo door when he had realised that Alice had #icked her u#. (e'd e #loyed Alice #ri arily so that Angelina would have so eone else to bond with other than hi self, but also to give hi self the freedo to concentrate on his busy #rofessional life, so now he was sur#rised to recognise that he actually felt al ost a little #ut out at the s#eed with which the baby was res#onding to her. Alice 4alsingha ! 4hat was it about this #ale, infuriating "nglishwo an that was aking hi feel such ridiculous and unwanted things2 $howing hi such inti ate and dangerous i ages0 i ages of her lying beneath hi in the soft heat of a su er night, her blonde hair s#read against his #illows as he threaded his fingers through it and held her so that he could kiss that te #ting outh of hers into reci#rocal #assion0 i ages of her holding a dark&haired child in her ar s, a boy child who was not Angelina, but his child! 9arco didn't know whether to laugh or cry at his own folly. Alice was a young wo an who was 6uite obviously not very good at hiding her feelings, and he had seen the war& iness and hostility in her eyes when she looked at hi ! 1hose were feelings he would be wise to allow her to indulge in&for both their sakes. 1here was a considerable a ount of discreet fa ily #ressure on hi to arry. (e was after all the head of the fa ily, but as yet... 9arriage. 'ow why on earth had thinking about Alice 4alsingha sent his thoughts in that direction2 (e belonged to the odern century and there was no way he could ever feel co fortable in any kind of 'arranged' arriage, but, on the other hand, at thirty&five he had seen enough arriages and relationshi#s go wrong to feel a certain cynical wariness about the #er anence of what his conte #oraries called 'love'. Against his will he suddenly found hi self thinking that his other would have liked Alice. (e could hear the soft sucking noises Angelina was aking as Alice fed her, and with shocking, nerve&wrenching i ediacy he was suddenly once again visualising her holding a baby in her ar s, her face soft with aternal love, her breasts bare... Gri ly he banished the i age. 1hat was not the way he wanted to see her, not even in the #rivacy of his own thoughts, and it was ost certainly not the way he wanted or intended to think of her. (e was a an, he re inded hi self, and it was a long ti e since he had had a se%ual relationshi# with a wo an. 9aybe so, but that had not bothered hi until now. -n fact, when #resented with the o##ortunity to rectify such an o ission, as he had been on any, any occasions, he had not felt the slightest inclination to take it, so why was he now thinking about a wo an who he had only et a atter of hours ago in such an inti ate and s#ecific way2 Gri ly 9arco looked at his watch. -t was four o'clock in the orning. (e had to be in *lorence at ten for an i #ortant eeting0 right now what he should be doing was slee#ing and not giving in to the folly of turning his newest e #loyee into so e kind of fantasy adonna. Alice waited until the baby was a heavy slee#ing weight in her ar s before returning her to her cot. Gently laying her in it, she watched her for several inutes. 5ust looking at her ade her heart ache so. $he knew it was totally un#rofessional of her to get so involved, but she just couldn't hel# herself. All babies needed and deserved to be loved, but this one es#ecially so, she decided fiercely. After all, she had the double burden of having lost her other and having as her father the ost coldly au& tocratic and une otional, dislikeable an Alice had ever et! 1he baby was aslee# and so should she be. $he still felt u88y and headachy but it was too uch effort to bother taking anything. After checking on Angelina one ore ti e, she ade her way back to her own bed.

)&A,+1- %.UA+-," watched in loving concern as Angelina o#ened her eyes and looked at her with bewilder ent and confusion as she realised that she was a stranger to her. -t was seven o'clock in the orning and 9aria the nurse aid was hovering behind her. :uietly Alice oved away fro the cot so that Angelina could see her fa iliar face, but, instead of looking relieved when she saw her, the baby started to cry. ediately Alice #icked her u#, soothing her, feeling the #anicky thud of her tiny heart start to ease as she ac& ce#ted the loving reassurance of Alice's ar s around her. $ulkily 9aria declared, 1he baby, she does not like e.' 1ossing her head, she announced, '$he is not a good baby. stay with her only because - need the oney. And because of her #oor other.' $he crossed herself as she s#oke, watching as Alice heated Angelina's orning bottle of for ula. '$he will not drink her ilk. $he is very difficult,' she warned Alice. '- shall be glad to go back to 3o a.' '3o e!' Alice e%clai ed. '1hat is where - was working, as a...a house aid when her other told e that she needed so eone to hel# her with her baby. $he said that she could not look after her on her own and her father, he was no good. (e did not care about the baby. 1hey argued about it all the ti e. $he wished that she had not arried hi . $he told e so. (e was very unkind to her. '1here were any argu ents. $he did not want to have the baby. $he showed e any #hotogra#hs of when she was in "ngland, wearing #retty clothes.' 1he #icture her gossi# was drawing for Alice was not a ha##y one, and Alice knew that she should sto# her fro s#eaking so o#enly about the arital #roble s of the conte and his late wife, but against her will she found that she was listening to her, her indignation darkening her eyes as she reflected on the selfishness of her charge's #arents. '-t is tragic that Angelina's other was killed,' was all she would allow herself to say. '1ragic, yes,' the nurse aid agreed, giving a dis issive shrug as she told her, ')efore the accident they had 6uar& relled very badly. $he had drunk uch wine. $he told e that she was going to leave hi once they got back to 3o a.' Alice tried not to show how a##alled she was by the aid's revelations. (ow could the conte have behaved in such a way to his wife, the other of his child2 A child that neither of the had wanted, according to the nurse aid, who see ed to know in very inti ate detail about the lives of her e #loyers. '.oor baby,' Alice couldn't hel# ur uring as she started to feed Angelina. '1o have lost her other and to have such an uncaring father.' 'Yes, he was uncaring, that one,' the nurse aid agreed. As Alice had sus#ected, Angelina was a slow feeder, but Alice did not try to rush her, coa%ing and #raising her and feeling herself elt with #leasure when she finally rewarded her with an e #ty bottle and an une%#ected s ile. $he had sent 9aria downstairs with the baby's dirty laundrylater in the day she would s#eak to the housekee#er about it herself, but right now she was enjoying having Angelina to herself. $he was just in the iddle of telling her joyfully what a clever, clever baby she was when the nursery door o#ened and the conte walked in. 1he o ent she saw hi Alice could feel all her antagonis and hostility towards hi surging through her. 1his was a an who had 6uarrelled so badly with his wife that she had driven to her death0 a an who had a##arently neither loved nor wanted his child. $he tensed as he ca e towards her, standing so close to her that she could feel the cool, silky brush of his shirt sleeve against her bare ar . '(ow is she this orning2' he asked Alice as he frowned down at the baby in her ar s. '$he is tired, but she has finished her feed,' she res#onded auto atically. '$he sle#t through the night2' 1he une%#ectedness of the 6uestion caught her off guard. '4ell, no...she didn't...but then - didn't e%#ect her to do so,' she told hi al ost defensively. - a a stranger to her. And she has not been well. $he ust be so confused, #oor baby. $he has had so any changes in her life already.' '4hich is why - stressed to your agency that - want you to ake a long&ter co it ent to Angelina. 1hat co & it ent, as - a sure they will have infor ed you, re6uires you to sign a contract that would bind you to being Angelina's nanny for the ne%t five years. - have to say that - find it...unusual that a wo an like you should be #re& #ared to ake such a co it ent.' (e #aused and looked at her so slowly and deliberately that Alice knew that

both her colour and her te #er were rising. 4hat did he ean 'a wo an like you'2 $he itched to challenge hi , but her training refused to allow her to do so. (owever, no a ount of training could #revent her fro giving an angry little hiss when he continued s oothly, 'After all, even if there is no an in your life right now...' (e sto##ed and looked at her in a way that ade Alice fu e with indignation. '7nfortunately,' he told her gri ly, 'the -talian ale has a weakness for wo en of your colouring, even though e%#erience has shown e that relationshi#s between #eo& #le of different cultures are beset by difficult #roble s. And it does not hel# the situation that so any 'orthern "uro#ean wo en see to view -talian en as hot&blooded, ro antic lovers, who are ruled ore by their e otions than by their brains.' Alice couldn't control her outrage any longer. $he was a #rofessional wo an, here in her #rofessional ca#acity, not so e silly girl looking for ro ance. And if that was what he thought of her, why had he ever chosen to consider her for the job in the first #lace2 )ut before she could voice her indignation the conte was continuing coolly, '- ust ad it - had assu ed fro the #hotogra#h your agency sent e that you were far less...sensual&looking than has #roved to be the case.' $ensual&looking2 (er2 Alice didn't know whether to be offended or be used. -t was true that the #hotogra#hs the agency had of her were two years out of date, and #ortrayed her with her hair neatly drawn back off her face, and that the first ti e the conte had seen her she had been wearing it loose. -t was #robably also true that the fortnight she had s#ent in Dubai in the s#ring with her #revious e #loyers had turned her beige&blonde hair several shades lighter, and that life and the effect of running after two energetic young boys had honed her body down a dress si8e, but that was hardly her fault0 and nor, surely, was it likely to ake her attractive to the average ale who would surely #refer his wo en on the volu#tuously curvaceous side2 '*ive years is a long ti e for a wo an of your age to' the conte continued, but Alice refused to let hi finish his sentence. '1o what2' she challenged hi shar#ly. 1he conversation they were engaged in was a dangerous one. (er instincts told her that and they were telling her so ething else as well. $o ething she really did not want to acknowledge or hear. $o ething that was aking her #ulse race and beginning to fuel an unfa iliar and heady sense of e%cite ent like the frothiness of cha #agne laced with the dark allure of a highly into%icating s#iritand she, as she warned herself sternly, had no head for such things. (er body, though, didn't see #re#ared to listen to the wise cautioning of her brain! 1he stark, brooding look he was giving her ade her toes curl and her heart lurch dangerously against her ribs. 4hat was he trying to i #ly2 'You are not a nun who has taken vows of celibacy,' he told her #ointedly, 'and it is only natural that you should want' Alice had heard enough! '4hat - want,' she told hi e%#licitly, 'is to be allowed to do the job - have been e #loyed for, which, as - un& derstand it, is to bring so e easure of stability, love and security in the life of a si%& onth&old baby who has suf& fered the uni aginable trau a of losing her other. And if you think for one o ent that l have co e to -taly for any other #ur#ose' $he gave hi a scornful, #roud look, driven into the kind of frankness she would nor ally have felt far too inhibited and self&controlled to e%#ress. - a a odern wo an, Conte, and - can assure you that the last thing on y ind is either idle flirtation, or trying to find yself a husband.' '-t said on your ,/ that you love children.' (is co ent caught her off guard. 'Yes, - do,' she agreed, frowning. 9aybe, for so e reason he had changed his ind about e #loying her, #erha#s because of what had ha##ened the #revious day. -f his conscience was #ricking hi about the irres#onsibility of entrusting his daughter to a wo an who, so far as he knew, had stolen his car, then that was one thing, but if he thought she was going to allow hi to 6uestion her dedication to her work, then... 1he length of his silence and the way he was looking at her ade tiny trickles of nerve&#ricking sensation 6uiver through her body. <4ell, surely, that being the case, it is only natural that at so e stage you should want to give birth to your own.' Alice o#ened her outh and then closed it again. Of course she ho#ed so e day to have her own fa ily, and to have it with a an she loved and who loved her, but that lay in the future! -t occurred to her that what he was saying to her ight si #ly be an unorthodo% way of testing her dedication to her job. -f so, he was about to find out just how dedicated and co itted she was! 1here was only one baby in her life at the o ent and that baby was his! $o ewhere dee# inside Alice a s all, urgent voice tried to ake itself heard, but Alice was too angrily indignant to heed it. (er #rofessional #ride was at stake now!

'- a #erfectly #re#ared to sign the contract, and to co it yself to Angelina, legally, for the ne%t five years,' she told hi swiftly. .re#ared to sign it0 she wanted to sign it0 after all she was already co itted e otionally to Angelina, and nothing nothingwould te #t her into abandoning the baby into the sole care of her #atently uncaring father! Against his will 9arco found that he was focusing on the indignant heaving of her breasts as she glared furiously at hi . 1hey ade hi ache to cu# the in his hands and see if they felt as soft and sweetly rounded as they looked. Deter inedly he averted his ga8e, but not before Alice's body had recognised his interest, and, as though so ehow that knowledge had sent a secret essage to her senses, to her chagrin she suddenly felt her ni##les harden and #eak, #rovocatively thrusting against the delicate fabric of her to#, just as they had done on the first occasion on which she had seen hi . $he could feel her face burning with sha e and anger. (ow could this be ha##ening to her2 $he si #ly wasn't the sort of #erson who...to...be like this! 1o her relief 9arco was turning away fro her, de anding, '/ery well, then, we shall go straight down to y study where you can read and then sign the contract...' (owever, as Alice ade to follow hi to the door he sto##ed her, asking coldly, '(aven't you forgotten so ething2' And then to her chagrin he strode back towards the cot where the slee#ing baby lay, leaving Alice to hurry after hi . 'Don't wake her,' she whis#ered as he leaned into the cot to look at the baby. '$he needs her slee#.' - wasn't going to wake her,' he whis#ered back re#rovingly. '- si #ly wished to check that she was all right.' As he s#oke his voice softened and to her a a8e ent as she looked at hi Alice realised that he was actually s iling at the slee#ing baby. And then, even ore a a8ingly given what she knew about hi , he drew the gentlest of tender fingerti#s against the baby's soft cheek, before blowing her a kiss. -t was all done so unselfconsciously and so lovingly that Alice knew that if she hadn't known better and her only observation of his #arenting skills had been that one she would have i ediately assu ed that he was a loving and caring father. 'Oh, by the way,' he instructed her as she followed hi out of the nursery, 'the senior e bers of y household address e by y ,hristian na e of 9arco. - wish you to do the sa e.' 9arco. Alice could feel the sha#e of it filling her outh, its sound, soft and yet hard at the sa e ti e, velvet cloak& ing steel, unlike the an hi self who was 6uite un istakably steel on steel with no softening covering at all! -t disturbed Alice to have to acknowledge the effect he was having on her. Dislike, that was what it was, she assured herself hastily, but still a feeling she did not want to na e coiled itself around her heart, as insidious and dangerous as a ser#ent waiting to strike a ortal bite. - have to go out this orning. -f Angelina shows any signs of being #oorly, #lease call the doctor i ediately. 9y housekee#er, 9addalena, will give you his nu ber.' As she followed hi along the corridor and then down the i #osing flight of arble stairs Alice re inded herself that it was for Angelina's sake that she was staying here. 1he baby needed her, and there was no way that Alice could abandon her. 'ot now! 9arco's study was reached through a series of breathtakingly beautifully furnished ante&roo s, but, to Alice's sur& #rise, once he o#ened the door to it and ushered her inside she saw that the study itself was une%#ectedly #lainly fur& nished#lainly, but very stylishly and e%#ensively, she guessed shrewdly as she caught sight of the .ollock #aint& ings on one wall, and observed the clean lines of the roo 's furniture. -t was a an's roo , and the roo of a #articular an, she recognised, a roo which initially looked as though it were a designer's set #iece but which on closer ins#ection #roved to have any s all #ersonal details= a cast foot& #rint, which she guessed ust be Angelina's0 the bust of a an whose features were so ehow fa iliar, although she didn't realise why until she heard 9arco saying, '9y father. (e and y other were killed in a #lane accident. 9y uncle, his younger brother, was flying the achine at the ti e and he and y aunt were also killed.' Alice could hear her own indrawn breath of shock. 4hat he had just told her ade hi so uch ore hu an...so...so vulnerable. )ut she didn't want to think of hi like that0 didn't want to feel her heartstrings #ulled on his behalf. '-t was y father who encouraged e to train as an architect,' he continued, ore as though he was talking to hi self than to her. '(e said that although one day - would inherit fro hi , - needed to ake a life for yself, and not si #ly sit around waiting for his shoes, es#ecially since it would be a long wait.' Alice could hear the #ain in his voice. '- wish that ight have been so.' (e could talk about the loss of his #arents, and show her the #ain he obviously still felt at their loss, Alice reflected, but he see ed totally i #ervious to the loss of his wife. 'ot even when he was talking about Angelina, her baby,

did he ention her. )ecause that wound was too raw, or because he felt guilty about her death2 $he watched as he o#ened a desk drawer and re oved so e #a#ers. '1his is your contract,' he infor ed her, his eyebrows sna##ing together as he saw that she was still standing several feet away fro his desk. '-t will be easier for e to #oint out the ore i #ortant clauses in it if you co e and stand here,' he instructed her, gesturing to the s#ace beside hi . 3eluctantly Alice oved towards hi . 1he air in the roo had felt fresh and #leasantly cool when she had first walked into it, but now all at once she felt hot, unable to breathe #ro#erly, suffocatingly aware when she did do so that she was breathing in air that held a dangerously inti ate ale scent. $he tensed as 9arco oved closer to her, #utting the ty#ed docu ent down on the desk between the , waiting until she had read it before saying, '-f you are satisfied you understand and acce#t everything the contract contains, then #lease sign it.' $ilently Alice did so, watching as he added his signature to hers. '$o,' he told her softly. 'You are now in y e #loy and co itted to Angelina's future.' $he started to ove away fro hi , sto##ing as she caught her hi# on the corner of the desk to let out a s all sound of #ain. ediately he was turning towards her, asking what was wrong. $he started to assure hi that it was nothing, but to her consternation he reached out and touched her hi#, his fingerti#s cool and i #ersonal against her skirt&clad body. (is touch ight be i #ersonal but her reaction to it, to hi , ost certainly wasn't, she thought, realising her face was fla ing. $he felt hi tense, and then suddenly curse beneath his breath before reaching for her, i #risoning her u##er ar s within the fir gri# of his lean fingers as he turned her in towards his own body. Alice knew i ediately what was going to ha##en. After all, hadn't she sha ingly i agined it already a do8en, no, a hundred, ti es in the dee#est and ost #rivate recesses of her secret thoughts2 $he could feel the frantic racing of her own heartbeat, and she could feel too the heavy alely aroused thud of his. $he reached out to try to sto# hi but when her hands encountered the fine s oothness of his cotton shirt, so ehow of their own volition they s#read out against it. )eneath her s#layed fingerti#s she could feel the hardness of the torso his shirt concealed. *lesh, uscle, bone and hair, that was all it washe was... Di88ily she closed her eyes. All... -t was everything. (e was everything! 4as she going totally insane2 *rantically she o#ened the again and looked u#, her ga8e i ediately en eshed in the hot, golden&eagle&eyed shi er of his. +ike a bird of #rey he was transfi%ing her. ''o,' she whis#ered as she saw hi lowering his head towards her own, but it was already too late and his outh caught hers on the soft o#en #lea, stealing her breath, silencing her objection. (is li#s felt cool and fir against her own, their touch sending darkly chaotic thoughts and desires tu bling through her0 their ove ent against her outh was knowing and e%#erienced, first subduing her desire to fight and then luring, tantalising, tor enting her into giving hi the self&betraying res#onse he wanted. 4hy was it that just that ere brush of his outh on hers could ake her want to ove so uch closer to hi 0 ake her want to cling to hi 0 ake her want to hold onto hi and kee# his outh on hers for ever2 1he hands that had been i #risoning her were no longer doing so, instead one of the was curled behind her neck, su##orting it, whilst the fingers of the other were entwined in her hair, holding her still in willing enthral ent to the astery of his kiss. "nthral ent2 (er body was on fire... aching... longing... but so ehow she found her #anic gave her the strength to drag herself back fro the brink of the #reci#ice luring her. .ulling herself free of 9arco, she de anded with unguarded e otion, '4hat...why did you do that2' 1he look he was giving her ade her shiver. -t was dee#, dark, hooded and unfatho able. As he looked at her 9arco wondered what she would do if he told her the truth, which was that he had kissed her because he had si #ly had no o#tion. *eigning a coolness he was far fro feeling, he told her, - did it because you and - both know that it's what you've been waiting for e to do fro the first o ent - saw you. -t was inevitable that it would ha##en, and, that being the case, it will ake life si #ler for both of us that we have got it out of the way.' Alice could scarcely believe her ears. ''o,' she rejected i ediately, 'that isn't true. - never...' 'Yes,' 9arco overrode her. '4hen - saw you in the street eating your ice crea , you looked at y outh as though it

was e you wanted to taste, and #erha#s now that -'ve satisfied your curiosity we can...' Alice felt close to tears. (ow dared he suggest that she...2 ''o.' $he refused to back down, to be bullied into acce#ting the bla e for what he had begun. 'You were the one who looked at e...at...at y breasts,' she accused hi wildly. $he would never nor ally have been so forthright, but he was forcing her to do so in order to #rotect herself... ')ecause - wanted to taste the 2' he suggested softly. (e gave a s all shrug. '/ery well, then, #erha#s - did. Your to# fitted very snugly and your breasts...' Deliberately he allowed his voice to trail away eaningfully. Alice went white. 1his just wasn't the kind of conversation she was used to. (er body felt hot... cold... her ind and her e otions in total tur oil. (ow could he stand there so coolly, when she felt so...so...2 $he couldn't work for hi now, no way. (er glance fell to the contract she had just signed and, as though he had read her ind, he told her softly, '-' afraid it's too late for second thoughts now, and for regrets... You are co & itted.'

)&A,+1- %I21
,O99-11"D! $he was that all right, Alice acknowledged a cou#le of hours later as she turned away fro what she was doing to s ile at the baby who lay kicking ha##ily on the baby at that Alice had s#read on the floor for Angelina to #lay on whilst she set about bringing order to the untidy nursery. Already Angelina was gri##ing her new nanny's heart in her s all baby fist, and Alice knew there was no way she was going to #rise those s all, de#endent, but oh&so&strong little fingers free...and no way she really wanted to. )ut when it ca e to Angelina's father... $he shuddered as she re e bered that scene in his study. (ow could she have behaved like that2 $he didn't know. $he didn't want to know. *ar better to si #ly #ut the whole thing right out of her ind. *ar, far better. )ut could she do that2 $he ust, she told herself frantically. $he had to. *or Angelina's sake and her own. Alice had s#ent the orning kee#ing a careful check on her new charge, gently encouraging her to get used to her as she cuddled and talked to her, in between checking over the nursery's e6ui# ent. 1he drawers full of new and e%6uisite baby clothes ade her catch her breathin dis ay rather than ad iration0 lovely though everything was, these were what Alice #rivately called 'dress&u# clothes'. 1he ty#e that in a traditional aristocratic fa ily a baby would be dressed in to be #assed around fro one elderly relative to anotherthere was nothing re otely #ractical. 'othing a baby could wear to stretch or #lay or grow or e%#erience life in. 4hat had also struck her as slightly odd was the fact that the clothes virtually all a##eared to be new0 as though they had been #urchased en masse and by so eone who had no real hands&on e%#erience of what a baby actually needed. -n fact it see ed to Alice that everything in the nursery was new. 1he e%#ensive soft toys sitting neatly on to# of one of the dressers looked beautiful, but they would do nothing to encourage a si%& onth&old to ac6uire and #ractise new skills. -t see ed #lain to Alice that whoever had chosen these clothes and toys did not really have an infor ed idea of what a baby needed. )eautiful hand&e broidered clothes and traditional long dresses were fine for high days and holidays, but where were the dungarees, the tee shirts, and the robust clothes that an active baby needed2 At lunchti e 9arco's housekee#er, 9addalena, arrived to introduce herself and to infor Alice that she was having a light lunch sent u# to the nursery for her since 9arco had infor ed her that Alice would be dining with hi later in the day. Dining with hi ! $hakily Alice digested this nerve thrilling infor ation before telling 9addalena, - haven't seen 9aria since earlier this orning. Do you know where she is2' '.robably in 3o a by now,' the housekee#er re#lied gri ly, adding, '$he ca e downstairs and tele#honed her boyfriend there, and when she had finished she told e that she didn't want to stay here any longer.' Alice was not really sur#rised that the girl had left. $he had e%#ressed to Alice her dislike of the 6uietness of the palazzo, and her #reference for the city, and it had been obvious that she was not really attached to Angelina. 9addalena continued, ''ot that she is any loss. 'ot really u# to the job. )ut knowing the other...' $he sto##ed, her outh #ursing disa##rovingly. '1he accident ust have been a dreadful shock for all of you,' Alice said gently and tactfully. 1he housekee#er shrugged. 'As to that, we hardly knew her. $he didn't like the palazzo. $he #referred 3o a. And then when she did co e here! 4ell, all - know is that she left here in a te #er, screa ing that she had never wanted the child and that she was ruining her life. 4hat kind of other is it that leaves her baby like that, - ask you2' the housekee#er de anded indignantly of Alice. 'Angelina has two #arents,' Alice felt bound to #oint out. 1he housekee#er was certainly #ainting a very unflattering descri#tion of 9arco's wife, but there were always two sides to every story, Alice re inded herself. 4ho could say without knowing her just what had driven her to behave so recklessly2 '.#ff... 1he father was as bad as the other was.' Alice could hardly believe her ears. 1he last thing she had e%#ected was for the housekee#er to actually criticise 9arco and to her, a new e #loyee. '-t is just as well that you are here. 1he #oor little one needs so eone to take #ro#er care of her. 1hat aid...' 1he housekee#er gave a dis issive shake of her head. '$he is no loss to anyone, least of all little Angelina...' 1he housekee#er had gone before Alice could 6uestion her about whether or not Angelina #ossessed any other clothes. (is eeting over, 9arco o#ened his briefcase and re oved a letter that had arrived before he had left for the city.

(e had already read it, but he felt the need to read it again. -t was fro .auline +evinsky, the wo an who had been Alice's e #loyer #rior to her co ing to work for hi . 9arco had a##roached her through Alice's agency, wanting to check out her o#inion of Alice as a nanny. (er letter began with an a#ology for not re#lying to hi earlier, e%#laining that she had relocated to 'ew York and that his letter had been redirected to her. -t went on to tell hi that, whilst she had no wish to alar hi , she felt she ought to warn hi that although Alice had cared for her two sons, diligently and carefully, she had discovered that Alice had been slee#ing with her husband. $he had written= Of course, to so e of these odern girls having se% has no ore eaning than e%changing handshakes. -t's just a ga e they #lay. 'otches on the bed#ost. (ow any en they can seduce. $ince Alice had already tendered her notice, there see ed little #oint in threatening her with dis issal, although with hindsight - su##ose - should have re#orted her to the agency. - dare say y husband has not been the only one, and, whilst - cannot fault her care of y children, - would urge you to be on your guard. -t was too late for hi to do anything now, of course. Angelina needed Alice too uch for hi to dis iss her. .erha#s the relationshi# had eant ore to Alice than .auline +evinsky knew2 .erha#s she had actually loved the other wo an's husband2 Angrily 9arco wondered why on earth he was trying to find e%cuses for Alice. 7nlike his late cousin, 9arco was not a city lover, which was why he had chosen to work fro the palazzo rather than fro a ore centrally located office. 1hinking about Aldo ade hi frown. After his and .atti's death, 9arco had driven to 3o e in order to collect baby Angelina's things fro the a#art ent where his cousin and his wife had lived. 1he baby's cot had been cra ed into a tiny roo , her few clothes had all been in an untidy hea# on the floor, whilst the wardrobes had been cra ed with .atti's designer outfits. Disgusted by what he had found and the a##arent lack of concern for Angelina's welfare on the #art of her #arents he had felt it had revealed, he had gone straight to one of 3o e's ost e%clusive sho##ing streets, to co #letely re& e6ui# a nursery and wardrobe for her. Aldo and .atti had been arried less than si% onths when Aldo had ad itted to 9arco that 9arco had been right to counsel hi against arrying so 6uickly, and that he was now regretting his i #ulsive actions. )ut by then .atti had been #regnant, and 9arco had urged Aldo to at least try to ake a go of his arriage for the baby's sake. -f he hadn't done so, would both his cousin and .atti still be alive now2 )roodingly, 9arco acknowledged his own sense of guilt. )ut no atter how guilty he ight feel, there was one #erson who ought to feel even ore so, and that was Angelina's grand other, .atti's other, *rancine )ailey. $he had been furious when Aldo and .atti had arried. 9arco had et her for the first ti e at the #arty Aldo and .atti had given after their return fro honey oon, when she had told hi in no uncertain ter s that she wished they had not done so, infor ing 9arco that she had been aking #lans for .atti to go to +os Angeles, where there had been a #roducer who had been #re#ared to offer .atti a #art in one of his fil s. 1he o ent 9arco had been introduced to *rancine he had disliked her. -n his view it had been a great #ity that *rancine had not re oved her daughter to +os Angeles before she had et his i #ressionable cousin. $he had ade it #lain to hi at the #arty that the only virtue she'd been able to see in her daughter's arriage to his cousin was the fact that 9arco hi self was e%tre ely wealthy. $he was, in 9arco's o#inion, one of those wo en who was trying to rewrite the story of her own life through her unfortunate daughter. And *rancine had been deter ined that .atti would fulfil for her her own thwarted drea s of stardo , even if that had eant hot housing her into a vacuous blonde bi bo of a girl who'd had 'second rate' writ& ten all over her. *rancine had done everything she could to #ersuade her daughter to have her #regnancy ter inated, and in the end it had only been 9arco's intervention and his #ro ise to take on full financial res#onsibility for the little girl in every single way that had #ersuaded .atti to go through with the #regnancy, which was how he had co e to be a##ointed her te #orary guardian. As he drove out of the city 9arco resisted the te #tation to ring the palazzo to check how Angelina was. 4as that because he didn't want Alice 4alsingha to think he was checking u# on her or because he didn't want to e%#ose hi self to the dangerous #leasure of hearing her voice2 -t was too late now for hi to acknowledge that she was too dangerous0 too te #ting a co #lication in his lifehe should have known better than to invite her into it. 3ight now his #ri e concern, his only concern, had to be Angelina and her welfare. 'othing could be allowed to be ore i #ortant to hi than that, es#ecially not his own adult desires. Angelina needed the security of Alice's continued #resence in her life in these all&i #ortant early years. 1here was

no way he could allow hi self to #rejudice that. And besides, even if he had been foolish enough to feel so e sort of attraction towards her, the +evinsky wo an's letter had surely killed those feelings2 $o why was he returning ho e having cancelled an afternoon eeting he should have been attending2 4hy2 *or Angelina's sake, that was why! 9addalena had already tele#honed hi to re#ort 9aria's defection not that the aid was any real lossand naturally, as Angelina's guardian it behoved hi to ensure that she was in the best #ossible and ost caring hands, he assured hi self.

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1he gardens s#read out below the nursery windows looked te #tingly beautiful and Alice longed to e%#lore the . )abies in her o#inion needed to breathe in fresh air, although here in such a hot cli ate Angelina would need to be #rotected fro the sun. $he had found a to#&of&the&range baby stroller, clearly as yet unused, which had ade her frown a little Angelina was si% onths old! $coo#ing Angelina u# and cuddling her, she laughed in delight when Angelina s iled back at her s#ontaneously and held out her ar s to her. Alice dressed her as co fortably as she could. At least here was one good reason for not trying to get out of having dinner with 9arco this evening. $he could use the occasion to #oint out to hi that Angelina's wardrobe was in serious need of re odelling. A rueful s ile curled her outh. -n a do8en or so years, she doubted that Angelina would be willing to change her designer labels for sensible chain&store clothes! Alice liked ti eless, well&designed things herself, but right now she was dressed in a co fortable tee shirt and a soft #ractical deni skirt. (er contract had s#ecified that she was not to wear a unifor 0 9arco, it see ed, wanted so eone who was ore of a surrogate other to his little girl than a ere nanny. (aving negotiated the stairs with the stroller and finally found her way outside, with albeit so e willing hel# fro 9addalena, Alice recognised ruefully that Angelina's head wasn't the only one that should have #rotection fro the strong sun, but unfortunately she had forgotten to bring her own hat down, and there was no way she was going to either go back u#stairs with the stroller, or leave Angelina outside on her own. .rotected fro the strength of the sun Angelina gurgled ha##ily in her stroller as Alice walked her through the breathtakingly beautiful for al gardens. As she #ushed the stroller Alice talked to Angelina, co enting on every& thing she could see. '+ook, Angelina,' she told her, #ositioning the stroller so that Angelina could follow the direction in which she was #ointing. '3oses...' +ifting her out of the stroller, she held her carefully, close to the rose, breathing in its scent herself, rich, usky, sun drenched, laughing as the baby co#ied her, her eyes o#ening wide in awe. '3ose,' Alice re#eated, hugging her tightly. -n the distance she could hear water tinkling. 1urning to #ut Angelina back into the stroller, she gave a startled gas# as she realised that they were not on their own and that the doctor had arrived unannounced and was standing watching the . '4hat a delightful #icture,' he co #li ented her with old&fashioned char as he s iled at her. '- a#ologise if startled you. - thought - would call and see how our little one was doing, although - can now see that y visit was unnecessary.' A little unco fortably Alice ad itted to herself that, whereas she would have instantly resented 9arco's une%#ected a##earance, sus#ecting that he did not trust her judge ent, where the doctor was concerned she felt only gratitude for his #rofessionalis . '$he see s fine, her te #erature is down and she's finished all her for ula. -'d like to start her on so ething a little bit ore substantial, but -' a fir believer in babies having only the freshest, organically #roduced foods.' 'A view with which you will find 9arco will concur,' the doctor told her war ly. '(e is a far better father to the little one than' (e broke off e%clai ing, 'Ah, here he is hi self, so you will be able to address your concerns about Angelina's food to hi .' 1o her consternation Alice felt her face starting to #inken whilst her heart was #ounding so frantically and so erratically that it was no wonder she felt di88y. 1he heat of the garden, which five inutes ago had see ed reasonably bearable, now for so e reason ade her feel as though she could barely breathe. 9ercifully yesterday's vicious headache had eased, although she was conscious that it was still there, lurking threateningly, and that it was e%tre ely foolish of her not to have covered her un#rotected head fro the strong heat of the sun. 'Ah, 9arco,' the doctor hailed the conte, '- have just been #rivileged to witness the ost delightful scene. Your

char ing Alice was showing Angelina one of your roses.' (is char ing Alice... 1he doctor was aking it sound as though she was...they were...hurriedly, an%ious to dis iss her own thoughts, Alice rushed into a husky e%#lanation, - believe it is i #ortant for even the youngest baby to receive sensory sti ulation, of a #ositive kind, and the #erfu e of these roses...' '1hey were #lanted by y other. $he loved their scent.' $he really ought not to have co e out into the garden without so ething to cover her head, Alice acknowledged di88ily. 1he sun was far too strong for her, she was beginning to feel sickly light&headed and she knew that had she been on her own with Angelina she would have sensibly and i ediately sought out so e shade, or gone back indoors, but her #ride would not allow her in 9arco's #resence to either show any weakness or to ad it that she had ade even the s allest error of judge ent. Angelina had now seen 9arco, and a broad s ile had broken out across her s all face. ?icking e%citedly, she lifted her ar s i #eriously de anding to be #icked u#. A little to Alice's sur#rise, 9arco i ediately did so, leaning into the stroller to re ove her. *or so e reason the way he cradled her against his shoulder brought a distinct lu # of e otion to Alice's throat. (e looked the #icture of devoted fatherhood. '-t is a real #leasure to see the little one starting to thrive after all she has been through,' the doctor was saying, shaking his head as he continued. '-t is a ercy that she was not in the car.' (e sto##ed, #utting his hand on 9arco's ar as he e%clai ed softly, - a sorry, y friend, if - a distressing you. - have not forgotten that you lost so eone you loved very dee#ly in that tragedy.' Alice could scarcely believe her ears. According to everything she had been told 9arco and his wife had been on the #oint of divorcing, but now here was the doctor i #lying that 9arco had loved her very uch. Alice didn't want to dig dee#er into the un#leasant feeling that realisation was giving her! -t wasn't jealousy, was it2 5ealousy of a dead wo an because...because what2 Don't go there! her instincts warned her #rotectively. $uddenly shar#ly conscious that 9arco was watching her, she turned 6uickly away, and then gas#ed as the un& #leasant #hysical sensations she had been fighting to kee# at bay for the last few inutes abru#tly overwhel ed her. 1he knowledge that she was about to faint #anicked her, her first thought relief that she wasn't holding Angelina, and her second, and last, distress that 9arco was going to witness her weakness. 4hen she ca e round she was sitting #ro##ed u# against a tree, sheltered fro the sun by its leaves. 1he doctor was crouching at her side s iling reassuringly at her, whilst 9arco was standing gri ly to one side watching the both. An%iously she looked for Angelina. '1he baby,' she began shakily. '$afe in her stroller,' the doctor reassured her. '9arco #ut her there before he carried you over here. (ow do you feel2 You gave us both 6uite a shock...' '-...-...fine,' Alice assured hi . '- think - ust have stayed out in the sun too long...' '- a sure you are right,' the doctor agreed. ')ut...' (e #aused and looked towards 9arco. - have just infor ed the doctor about yesterday's accident. -t concerns e that you could be suffering fro concussion...' ,oncussion! Alice looked at hi in disbelief. '- worked in a hos#ital,' she re inded hi . 'And - think -'d know if - had concussion. -' sure it's nothing ore than the heat.' One dark eyebrow rose in ironic disbelief. 'And - should have thought that with your nursing e%#erience, you would also have known that you were suffering fro heatstroke or sunstroke and done so ething about it, such as wearing a hat,' he #ointed out dryly. - think it best that you are checked over. 1he doctor is on his way to our local hos#ital now and he will drive you there.' (os#ital! Alice stared at the both. ''o, that isn't necessary,' she #rotested stubbornly. '- can't go to hos#ital. 4ho will look after Angelina2' - will look after her,' 9arco infor ed her. 'And as for you not going...as your e #loyer, it is y right and y duty to insist that you do, even if - have to take you there yself,' he warned her with o inously 6uiet e #hasis. ,oncussion! 1his was ridiculous. Alice knew that she had no such thing, and that she was si #ly suffering fro the heat, but she could see that neither of the two en was going to listen to her. '9arco is right to be concerned,' the doctor told her gently, confir ing her #rivate thoughts. 'You ay believe that the accident did no da age, but it is best that we check. 7nfortunately the sy #to s #ro& duced by concussion can be si ilar to those caused by heatstroke, at least in the early stages, and - would be doing less than y duty as a doctor if - did not insist that you allow e to #ut all our inds at rest.' .ut like that, how could she continue to refuse2 Alice ad itted. $he really had no alternative other than to give in and go with the doctor. '-f you feel well enough to walk to y car,' he began courteously. Out of the corner of her eye Alice could see

9arco watching her, frowning. '.erfectly well enough,' she told hi with faked bree8iness and assurance. And it wasn't entirely a lie. $he fully intended to ake sure that she was well enough, even if she had to grit her teeth against a second bout of sickening di88iness when she ade to stand u#. $he could see 9arco's eyes beginning to narrow, but ercifully, before he could ake any co ent, Angelina started to cry. All three of the looked towards the stroller instinctively, but it was Alice who started to walk towards it first. (owever, 9arco 6uickly overtook her, cursing under his breath as he ordered her, '?ee# still. Do you want to faint a second ti e2 - will look after Angelina. 4ait here, #lease, and then - shall&escort you to his car, to ake sure that you get there safely.' (is high&handedness infuriated Alice0 she felt as though he was brushing her i #atiently to one side, deriding her skills, 6uestioning her judge ent and her #rofessionalis , and before she could sto# herself she heard herself de& anding scornfully, 'You ean the way you were looking after her before - arrived...leaving her to the ercy of an untrained and even less caring girl, who was virtually half starving her with her ignorance, never ind....' (orrified, she closed her outh. 4hatever her #rivate o#inions ight be, she had no right to #ublicise the . And nor ally she would not have done so, but there was so ething about her new e #loyer that got under her skin in a way that no one else she had worked for had ever done. $he was breaking all the rules about kee#ing a for al distance between the , behaving in a way that was totally un#rofessional, allowing her e otions to run riot and dictate her behaviour. Alice knew but so ehow she couldn't sto# herself! A 6uick look over her shoulder reassured her that the doctor was too far away to have heard her, thank& fullybut 9arco 6uite #lainly had. '-f by that you ean what - think you ean,' he began in a dangerously cli##ed and 6uiet voice, 'then let e assure you that - was very uch aware of the inade6uacy of the care Angelina was receiving, which was why - hired you,' he told her #ointedly. Alice knew that it would be #olitic for her to sei8e the o##ortunity he had given her and back off, letting the subject dro#, but to her own consternation she heard herself blurting out al ost aggressively, '$he needs ore clothes. 1hose she has are far too for al and i #ractical. 1hey look as though so eone has just gone out and...' $he sto##ed as she saw the way he was looking at her. ,urtly he told her, '- had no other o#tion. 1he things she already had...' (e gave a s all shrug of distaste. '.atti was not the best of housewivesor others. -f in y ine%#erience - have not #rovided Angelina with what she needs, then that can soon be rectified. -n the eanti e, if you will oblige e by going with the doctor.' .ointedly he stood between Alice and the stroller, waiting until the doctor had co e u# with the and then telling hi , '4e have delayed you enough. +et us get 9s 4alsingha safely in your car, so that you can return to the hos#ital. -f you will tele#hone e once you have the results of the necessary tests2' -t was on the ti# of Alice's tongue to say that there was no way she wanted or needed hi to check on her health, but caution #revented her fro doing so. 1he last thing she wanted to do right now was to sound even ore like a #etulant, overwrought child than she no doubt already did. After they had walked slowly to the doctor's car, and Alice was just about to get into it, she found herself wishing that she had been allowed to kiss Angelina goodbye, and then, to her astonish ent, as though he had so ehow guessed what she was thinking, 9arco turned and lifted the baby out of the stroller, holding her out to Alice! (e really was the ost co #le% an, so arrogantly hard and controlled one inute, and the ne%t see ingly al ost to understand her every e otion as keenly as though he were her ost inti ate co #anion! Deter inedly ignoring the #owerful ale ar s holding her charge, and the fact that she now s elled not just of baby #owder but of e%#ensive ale cologne as well, Alice leaned forward and kissed her tenderly on her cheek, whis#ering lovingly to her as she did so, 'Don't worry, little one, - shall be back soon.' $he was worried, though, and her face crinkled into an an%ious frown as she told 9arco, '4ho will give her her for ula2 1here is so e ade u# in the fridge, but 9aria has left and' - a #erfectly ca#able of giving her her bottle,' 9arco assured her wryly. '-t won't be the first ti e - have done so, can assure you.' 'You won't try to rush her, will you2' Alice couldn't hel# herself fro asking an%iously. 'Only she does tend to take her ti e, and' - won't rush her.' 9arco was already turning away fro her. 7nha##ily Alice closed the car door. 9arco was her e #loyer and in this instance she had to do as he was de anding, little though she liked it or thought it necessary. 1he last thing she thought as the doctor drove away was that at least now she would be s#ared the ordeal of having dinner with hi !

)&A,+1- (I3
-' 1(" solitude of her hos#ital roo , Alice started to get dressed. 5ust as she had known would be the case, the hos#ital tests had #roved that all she was suffering fro was a little too uch -talian sun. 4hen the doctor had s ilingly given her that news, she had itched for 9arco to be there so that she could say, - told you so.' )ut even ore than she wanted to do that had she wanted to be back at the palazzo with Angelina. (owever, when she had suggested as uch to the doctor he had infor ed her that 9arco had insisted that she was to re ain at the hos#ital overnight. '-t was just the heat,' Alice had #rotested, and the doctor had s iled in acknowledge ent but had then re inded her, '4hen you've witnessed the a##alling devastation of a fatal car accident as 9arco has done, it is #erha#s un& derstandable that he should be an%ious to ensure that you have not been injured.' (is gentle re#roof had left Alice with no o#tion other than to settle herself ruefully into the #rivate hos#ital roo she had been shown toat the conte's insistence it was a #rivate roo . And now here she was getting dressed and wondering just how she was going to get back to the palazzo. 4ould 9arco send so eone to collect her, or would she have to ake her own way back2 $he could hardly e%#ect the doctor, busy an as he obviously was, to drive her. )y so e iraculous eans she had woken to find that the clothes she had been wearing when she had arrived at the hos#ital had been laundered for her, and the en suite bathroo to her #rivate roo had #rovided everything she could have needed in the way of toiletries. -t was eight o'clock. (ad Angelina wondered where she was when she had woken u# or had there been so any strangers in and out of her short life that she'd si #ly acce#ted her disa##earance2 1he #revious evening Alice had been #rovided with a enu fro which to choose her breakfast, and when she heard the brief ra# on her door she assu ed that it was now being delivered, but when she called out, ',o e in,' to her consternation and shock it was 9arco who o#ened the door and walked into her roo . 1hankful that she was actually dressed, Alice de anded an%iously, '4here is Angelina2 4ho is looking after her2' '$he is here with e,' 9arco astonished her by answering, going back to the door to wedge it o#en and wheel in Angelina in her stroller. 1o Alice's joy the baby recognised her i ediately and s iled at her. Alice noticed he was dressed in i aculately clean clothes, and it see ed to Alice that she was already looking slightly #lu #er. ediately she went to her, laughing as Angelina held out her ar s to her. 7nfastening her fro the stroller, she #icked her u# to cuddle her, unselfconsciously crooning lovingly to her, '4ho's a #retty, #retty girl, then2 Did you have all your for ula2 +et e look and see that new tooth you've got co ing.' 'You don't need to see it, - can give you a categoric assurance that it has co e through,' 9arco told her feelingly, indicating a tiny little tooth& ark on his finger. Alice couldn't hel# herself, she started to laugh. '-t's no laughing atter,' 9arco told her dryly. '1hose teeth are shar#.' -t was only now seeing the baby that Alice acknowledged just how worried she had been about her. $he had woken several ti es during the night worrying about her, and now she couldn't sto# herself fro bea ing her #leasure and relief at seeing her to 9arco as she told hi guilelessly, '1hank you for bringing her. -'ve been so worried about her...' 1he bitterness of the look that 9arco gave her as she s#oke shocked her into silence. 4hat on earth was it she had said that was aking hi look so angry2 $urely as Angelina's #ri ary carer she had every right to be worried about her2 4asn't that after all why he was e #loying her2 Or had his fatherly instinct certainly beco e activated, and was he #erha#s jealous that Angelina ight beco e too attached to her2 Angrily 9arco wondered just what it was about Alice that ade it so easy for her to tug on his heartstrings. 'ever in the ad ittedly brief ti e .atti had been alive had he ever once heard her e%#ress the slightest degree of concern about her baby, and yet here was Alice, who had barely known her a full twenty&four hours, e%hibiting intense an%& iety about her. 4hich was why he'd e #loyed her, he re inded hi self, sternly. And the only reason why. 5ust as the only reason he was here right now instead of sending so eone to collect Alice was because of Angelina! 'You entioned yesterday that Angelina needed so e clothes, so - thought, since the good doctor has declared you to be fit and well, that we could go to *lorence this orning and you could #ick out yourself e%actly what you think

is needed.' (ad she actually been foolish enough to think he had co e to collect her for so e #ersonal reason2 -f so she had learned a #ainful lesson, Alice derided herself. And anyway, she challenged her e otions, why should she care2 (e eant nothing to her. $he didn't even like hi . 4ho had entioned anything as si #le as 'liking hi '2 a taunting inner voice ocked her unkindly. An hour later, shaking her head in rejection of yet another designer babywear sho#, its windows decorated with the ost beautiful and i #ractical of outfits, Alice felt her heart begin to sinkin ore ways than one. All the other wo en sho##ing in the e%#ensive street were obviously -talian and e6ually obviously stunningly well dressed, and she was beginning to feel acutely self&conscious in her clean but rather basic outfit. 9arco, of course, was i & aculately dressed, father and daughter very obviously a #air, whilst she, she sus#ected, ust e6ually obviously look an outsider. '4e shall have to go back to the palazzo soon,' she infor ed 9arco warningly. 'Angelina will be due for another feed.' - know. - brought a cou#le of bottles of her for ula with e. 1hey're here,' he told Alice, lightly ta##ing the bag attached to the stroller. Alice tried not to look as unco #osed as she felt at this usur#ation of her role. -t was on the ti# of her tongue to 6uestion just how he had ade the for ula, but so ehow she anaged to sto# herself. Angelina was 9arco's daughter, she re inded herself, and she ought to be #leased that he was being so res#onsible instead of feeling #ushed out and unnecessary. - thought we'd give it another half an hour and then take a break,' 9arco was saying. '1here's an e%cellent hotel not far fro here- know the owner.' (e would do, of course, Alice found herself thinking ruefully as they turned a corner and walked straight into a busy, bustling street arket. (er eyes shining with ischief she announced to 9arco, tongue in cheek, ''ow, this is uch better. -' sure we can find the sort of things Angelina needs here.' 1o her sur#rise, instead of i ediately refusing to take another ste#, 9arco actually nodded and started to walk in the direction of the first stall. 1he street was a seething ass of #eo#le, the stalls awash with 'factory #rice' leather goods, coats, shoes, and designer bags of s#urious #arentage and of course the ever&#resent tee&shirt stalls. 1he crowds seething through the narrow street were a i%ture of bargain&hunting tourists, guides trying to she#herd their distracted sightseeing flocks, and even a fair s attering of elegantly and e%#ensively well&heeled dedicated sho##ers, but as Alice ade to join the she felt 9arco's restraining hand on her ar . "n6uiringly she turned to look at hi , e%#ecting to hear hi e%#ress disdain for the arket and insist that they sho# elsewhere, but instead and to her confusion he told her fir ly, '1hese #laces are fun, - know, but #lease stay close to e. 1here will be #ick#ockets around. And - should hate you to be the victi of a theft.' (e was concerned for her! As she listened to hi Alice could feel the heat of his touch burning against her skin. -t shocked her that she should feel so acutely aware of hi ...far too acutely aware and in far, far too dangerous a way. 1he surge of the crowds threw her slightly off balance so that she fell against hi . ediately alar ed by the reaction of her own body to hi , she tried to #ull back. )ut it was too late. $he had already started to overbalance, and he had of course reacted instantly and reached out to steady her with both hands. 1he jostling of the crowd had brought her u# so close to hi that her breasts were flat against his chest. One of his hands had dro##ed to her hi#. $he could feel herself starting to tre ble as she realised that her lower body was resting against the hard war th of his thigh. $he was aware of hi with every #ore of her skin, every #art of her sensory syste 0 she was aware of hi in a thousand unwanted and alar ing ways. $he was aware of hi with an intensity that shocked her and was totally outside her e%#erience. & 'Angelina,' she anaged to re ind hi as she #ulled herself away fro hi . $he knew that her face was flushed and ho#ed that he would #ut it down to the heat of the sun. And that o#en, urgent #eaking of her ni##les2 4ould he #ut that down to the heat of the sun as well , or would he guess that it was caused by a heat of a very, very different nature2 :uickly she started to walk down the street, only to have to sto# when 9arco called out, '4ait.' As his hand snaked out to gras# her u##er ar Alice willed herself not to allow that dee#, intense 6uiver that had begun low down in her body, and which was threatening to s#read to every single one of her nerve endings, to betray her even further by causing her whole body to shiver in sensual overreaction.

'1his way,' 9arco co anded, drawing her towards one of the stalls. At first Alice thought he ust have seen a baby wear stall, but to her astonish ent the stall he was leading her to sold, not baby wear, but the ost e%6uisite and obviously hand ade straw hats. 'You need one of these,' he told her fir ly. '1hen you will be able to kee# your head covered fro the sun.' 'Yes, - do,' Alice agreed uncertainly. $he had already given the hats a 6uick glance and had seen i ediately fro the #rice that these were no chea# holiday ite s. As though she had guessed what she was thinking, the stallholder i ediately began to tell Alice in "nglish, '1hese hats, they are fro one of -taly's ost fa ous designers. $he has a factory not far fro here, and these are...' As she fought for the right word Alice su##lied for her in "nglish, '$econds,' and then translated the word into -talian for her, earning herself a wryly i #ressed look fro the other wo an. . . . . . . 'You s#eak -talian2' she 6uestioned Alice. 'Yes,' Alice confir ed. 'And these hats, whilst they are lovely, are far too e%#ensive for e, -' afraid.' ')ut, no, they are a bargain,' the wo an insisted. '1ry this one. -t will be #erfect for you, and - #ro ise you it will be worth its cost.' )efore Alice could sto# her, she was fir ly #lacing one of the hats on Alice's head. A soft, natural&coloured straw, it felt as soft and as su##le as fabric, and as Alice #ee#ed into the irror she was holding u# for her she was forced to ad it that both the style and the colour did suit her. '1he hat is #ossible to be folded,' the wo an began to e%#lain, and then with a s all shrug switched to -talian as she told Alice that the hat was designed to be folded away, and that it was virtually the last one she had of a very s#ecial range. Alice began to shake her head, but suddenly to her consternation she heard 9arco saying fir ly, '4e will take it.' (e was already handing over the oney, whilst the stallholder, e boldened by her success, was atte #ting to #er& suade hi that Angelina too needed a hat, '1o atch her a a's,' she announced. (er a a's! Alice looked away fro her and then wished she hadn't as her ga8e i ediately eshed with 9arco's. 4hat was it that was aking her heart ache in that darkly dangerous way2 A secret wish that Angelina, who she had already co e to love so dee#ly, was her child, or an even ore secret wish that 9arco had sired her baby2 4hat on earth was she thinking2 1hat heatstroke ust have been far ore #otent than she had realised! 1here was no way she intended to allow such thoughts to flourish! 'o way! As they left the stall Alice started to o#en her bag to find the oney with which to re#ay 9arco. '4hat are you doing2' he de anded when he saw her. 4hen Alice told hi , he sto##ed walking and frowned. '1he hat is a... a necessary ite of your wardrobe whilst you are working for e and as such it is y desire to #ay for it!' he told her coolly. ''o. - can't let you do that!' Alice #rotested. 'You can't sto# e,' 9arco infor ed her, touching her ar before she could say anything else to tell her. '1here is a sho# over there that has baby clothes.' Distracted, Alice turned to look in the direction he was #ointing. *ive inutes later, standing inside the sho# she was nodding in ha##y a##roval of the outfits its owner was showing her. '1hese are e%actly the sorts of things she needs,' she told 9arco enthusiastically. '*ine. Get whatever you think she needs,' he res#onded. ,arefully Alice chose several outfits, shaking her head when 9arco #icked u# one ite , and telling hi deter& inedly, ''o, that colour does not suit her.' 1he s ile that curled his outh along with the tender look that acco #anied it caught her off guard. 1hey were, she told herself forcefully, for Angelina and ost certainly not for her. (ow could they be2 'Are you sure that's enough2' 9arco 6uestioned her when she had finished. '$he'll be growing out of the so 6uickly, it's silly to get too any,' Alice infor ed hi . Angelina, who had been aslee#, had started to wake u#, and e%#erience told Alice that she would soon be feeling very hungry. '-f that hotel you entioned isn't too far away,' she began as 9arco #aid for their #urchases0 - think it ight be a good idea to ake our way there.' As soon as she heard Alice's voice, Angelina turned to look at her, gri88ling to be #icked u# and cuddled. Only too ha##y to res#ond, Alice re oved her fro the stroller for a cuddle as she told her, '*or ula ti e soon, honeybun...' $he had s#oken to her auto atically in -talian and the sho# owner laughed, and joined in the conversation, in& for ing Alice that she had a grandson of Angelina's age.

Angelina, wide awake now, started to e%ercise her new tooth on the e%#osed curve of Alice's neck. 'Oh, no, you don't, young lady,' 9arco infor ed Angelina fir ly as he saw what she was doing, and reached out to lift her out of Alice's ar s to #ut her back in the stroller. As they left the sho# Alice couldn't hel# wondering how they had looked to the sho# owner. (ad she guessed that Alice was si #ly Angelina's nanny or had she believed that she was her child0 that she and 9arco were a cou#le2 Aghast by the direction her thoughts were taking, Alice brought the to a frantic, skidding halt. 4hat she was doing was cra8y, idiotic, self&destructive and downright foolish. -t was bad enough that she had fallen in love with Angelina, without her falling in love with her father as well! *alling in love with 9arco2 (er2 'o, that was totally i #ossible! 4hen she fell in love it would be with a an she could feel co fortable and rela%ed with, not a too&se%y, too&arrogant an with one a##arently bad arriage behind hi , and an attitude toward his baby that... )ut what e%actly was 9arco's attitude towards Angelina2 3ight now he was interacting with her as though #arenting ca e as naturally to hi as breathing. '-t's this way.' 3ealising that 9arco was waiting for her to cross the road with hi , she shook herself free of her unwanted and disturbing thoughts and feelings. As they walked into the foyer of a breathtakingly elegant #rivate hotel a few inutes later, she realised she was attracting ore than one interested and a##roving look fro the en they had walked #ast. 4ithout really realising what she was doing she instinctively oved a little bit closer to 9arco and the stroller. $he could see he was frowning. )ecause he didn't want her so close to hi 2 (e hadn't ade any ove away fro her, though, and in fact he reached out to #lace his hand on her shoulder as he #ointed out a secluded table to her where they could sit and have coffee and still look out onto the busy street, with its distant view of the river. '4e'll need to ask the to heat u# Angelina's bottle,' she warned hi . 'And -'d like to change her.' "scorting her to the table he had indicated, 9arco inclined his head. '+eave everything to e,' he told her, before asking, '4ould you like to have a cu# of coffee before we order lunch2' ',offee would be lovely,' Alice agreed, busying herself oving Angelina's stroller so that the baby was tucked safely between her own chair and the window. Alice was talking softly to Angelina, the baby's eyes fi%ed adoringly on her face, when 9arco returned. (e #aused for a second watching the , his outh twisting in wry acknowledge ent of what he could no longer hide fro hi self. -t was a #ity that their children would be unlikely to inherit her blonde hair, and he wasn't sure whether or not he wanted their daughters to inherit their other's dangerously se%y soft #ink outh. -f they did, they would no doubt grow u# tor enting every an who saw the in e%actly the sa e way their other was tor enting hi right now... Alice turned her head and looked at hi . (is heart sla ed heavily against his ribs as he looked back at her. Alice felt her heart iss a beat and then flutter frantically against her chest. 4hy was 9arco looking at her like that...as though...as though...2 '-'ve had a word with the hotel anager, and he has #ut a roo at our dis#osal where you ay take Angelina when you are ready.' Alice tried not to look i #ressed. '-'ve also ordered our coffee,' 9arco told her, #ulling out a chair to sit down ne%t to her. As he leaned over to s ile at Angelina his thigh brushed against Alice's. 1he inute shudder that ran through her was i ediate and unsto##able. 1he i ages for ing in her ind were so sensual and so e%#licit that they shocked her. $hocked her and e%cited her, she acknowledged shakily. $he had never felt so se%ually aware of any an, so se%ually aware of hi and so se%ually hungry for hi ! (ow on earth had it ha##ened2 One o ent she had disliked and des#ised hi and the ne%t, or so it see ed now, her body was a tor enting ache of sensual fe ale need for his touch, for his outh, for hi ! 1heir coffee arrived, but Alice was oblivious to the ad iring look the young waiter gave her, her eyes darkening with the intensity of the #ainful inward delving of her thoughts. (ow could this unwanted transfor ation of her e otions have taken #lace2 1hat she should virtually i ediately have felt love for Angelina was, so far as she was concerned, #erfectly understandable, the baby was after all crying out for her to give and receive hu an love, but where on earth had her foolish heart got the idea that her father either needed or would reci#rocate her love2 'Your coffee's getting cold.' 1he cris#, al ost critical note in 9arco's voice ade her realise how 6uickly she had beco e sensitive to every changing ti bre of it. 'Angelina will be wanting her bottle,' she infor ed hi shakily. 'Give it to e,' 9arco instructed her. (e su oned a waiter, to who he handed the bottle Alice had re oved fro

the bag, asking hi to arrange for it to be war ed, at the sa e ti e also asking hi to bring the so e lunch enus. '"verything here is freshly #re#ared and cooked,' he told Alice once they had their enus. '1he #asta with beef is a s#eciality of the restaurant and - can reco end it. Or if you would #refer fish...' ''o, the beef sounds delicious,' Alice assured hi , turning to s ile at the waiter as he returned with Angelina's bottle. +ifting the baby out of her stroller, she settled her co fortably in her ar , s iling at her as she began to feed her. '$he's already eating uch better,' she told 9arco enthusiastically. ')abies are so sensitive to the e otions of #eo#le around the she ust be issing her other so dreadfully,' she added, her voice faltering as she realised that 9arco too ight be issing the wo an who had been his wife and the other of his child. -t was all very well for 9addalena to say that the arriage had not been a ha##y one, but that did not ean '9issing her! - don't think so,' 9arco countered Alice's co ent i ediately, his voice harshly grating and so full of su##ressed anger that it ade Alice want to flinch. '.atti never wanted Angelina, and once she was born she s#ent as little ti e with her as she could. $he even insisted on having her delivered by ,aesarean section before her actual birth date because she didn't want to iss so e shallow social event she wanted to attend!' Alice could hear the disgust 6uite o#enly in his voice. 'o, there was 6uite definitely no love there in his voice for his dead wife, Alice acknowledged. *or so e reason her eyes had started to ist with e otional tears. )linking the away, she brushed her fingerti# gently over Angelina's rosebud cheek as the baby clung to her bottle. '$he is so lovely, so #recious. - cannot...' she began, and then had to sto# as her e otions sus#ended her voice. 1here were so e things it was neither right nor fair for her to say, es#ecially about a dead wo an who was not there to defend herself. 9arco, after all, was her e #loyer and...so far as he knew Alice was the wo an who had atte #ted to steal his car and drive off in it. -t still be used her that he had actually wanted to e #loy her knowing that, although she could at least understand now just why he had been so des#erate to get a #ro#er nanny for Angelina. 1heir lunch arrived just as Angelina finished her bottle. .utting her back in her stroller, Alice saw the waiter filling her wineglass and her eyes widened. $he didn't nor ally drink at lunchti e, but it see ed churlish to ake a fuss, and the wine was deliciously s ooth on the #alate, she acknowledged as she took a s all, tentative si#. +ike the *rench, -talians knew how to enjoy their food and ake even the si #lest eal an occasion. All the tables around the had filled u#, so e with business&suited en, others with s art iddle&aged wo en carrying glossy sho##ing bags with discreet designer logos and others with fa ily grou#s, and a cheerful, ha##y bu88 of chatter filled the roo . A young other at an adjacent table s iled cons#iratorially towards Alice as she saw Angelina. (er own two toddlers were i aculately dressed and #lainly at ho e in such an adult environ ent. ''o, really, - couldn't,' Alice #rotested, refusing a final ca##uccino. $he had already eaten a full #late of #asta and beef, #lus a deliciously wicked tira isu ice crea , #lus a large glass of rich red wine, and it was no wonder that she was feeling so wonderfully rela%ed. 'ot so rela%ed, though, that she had forgotten her res#onsibilities. '-'d better take Angelina u#stairs to change her now,' she told 9arco. '/ery well.' As she stood u# so did he, hel#ing her to anoeuvre the stroller into a clear s#ace, and then #ushing it into the foyer and towards the bank of lifts. '4e're on the fourth floor,' he infor ed Alice as he #ressed the button. 'odding absently, Alice waited until the lift doors o#ened and then ste##ed out. '1his way,' 9arco instructed her, #ushing the stroller with one hand whilst he re oved an old&fashioned roo key fro his #ocket with the other. '1his hotel was originally a #rivate ho e,' he e%#lained to Alice as he #aused outside one of the heavy doors and inserted the key into the lock. 'During the conversion as any of the original features as #ossible were retained.' '-t is very beautiful,' Alice agreed, casting an ad iring look down the corridor with its frescoed walls and ornately #lastered ceiling. .ushing o#en the bedroo door, 9arco waited for her to go inside. 1he roo was huge, do inated by an enor ous king&si8ed bed. 1hrough its balcony windows Alice could see the river. '-'ll take Angelina through to the bathroo ,' she told 9arco as she lifted her out of the stroller. *or so e reason she

had not e%#ected hi to acco #any the to the roo , and now for no logical reason she could think of she felt thoroughly unnerved by his #resence and acutely aware of itand of hi . *or no logical reason aybe, but she cer& tainly e otionally knew e%actly why she was reacting to hi the way she was. "%actly why! 1he bathroo was as generously #ro#ortioned as the bedroo , and fitted with glea ing white sanitary&ware. 1hrough the half&o#en door Alice was aware of 9arco aking a call on his obile as she deftly undressed Angelina and started to change her. $he had brought the changing bag attached to the stroller into the bathroo with her, with everything that she needed. 9arco was s#eaking into his obile, and Alice tensed as she heard hi asking how long it was going to be before the *errari was ready for collection. ?issing Angelina's clean, bare skin, she started to redress her. 'You are so delicious, - could eat you,' she cooed to the baby, tenderly. 9arco listened to her. 4hat was it about this wo an that ade her so instinctively, and so da n se%ily, aternal2 1he way she ade hi feel right now eant that just to hear her, never ind look at her, ade hi ache in an entirely ale and driven way to ensure that it was his children she would be othering. 1he words he could hear her ur uring to Angelina were only a ild echo of his own far ore ele ental and tor enting longing to say the sa e thing to Alice, and not just to say it, he acknowledged gri ly as he listened to the garage's service anager e%#laining to hi that the *errari was al ost ready for collection. 9arco tensed as he saw Alice co ing out of the bathroo , carrying Angelina. - think she's ready to go back down now,' she told hi as she walked towards the stroller. As she reached hi Angelina turned in her ar s, nu88ling toward Alice's breast. 9arco knew it was an auto atic baby reaction, and e6ually auto atic was his own body's reaction to it, to the . Angelina ight not be his child, but he felt as though she were. (e loved her as though she were, and the sight of Alice gently giving her her finger to suck as she tenderly #laced her in her stroller did things to his senses he would have sworn to be i #ossible before she had co e into his life. 4ithin seconds of her #utting Angelina in her stroller, she was fast aslee#. $ iling, Alice ste##ed back fro her and then gave a s all gas# of shock as she ca e u# against so ething solid. $he hadn't realised that 9arco was standing behind her. Auto atically she started to turn round and then wished she hadn't as she realised that 9arco hadn't oved and that now they were standing body to body, and that hers was resting on hi in a way that eant it ust be i #ossible for hi not to realise just how #hysically aware of hi she was! $he could feel the air in the roo #rickling against her skin, her nerve endings felt so sensitive. $he wished she were anywhere but here0 she wished he were a thousand iles away and at the sa e ti e she wished he were a thousand illi etres closer. $he wanted.... '4hy are you looking at e like that2' she de anded shakily, saying the first thing that ca e into her head. '-f it's because of your car, - can #ay for the re#airs,' she told hi , her head lifting #roudly. '1o hell with the *errari,' 9arco res#onded to her forcefully, shocking her with the intensity of his reaction. '1his has nothing to do with any da ned car.' " otions see ed to crackle like lightning between the , but stubbornly Alice refused to give in to the . '1hen what, why...2' Alice's voice cracked nervously as she tried to ove away, but 9arco had #laced a restraining hand on her ar , and now its #al was cu##ing the ball of her shoulder, and not just cu##ing it but also actually assaging it... 7nable to sto# herself, Alice closed her eyes, swaying giddily. 1his just could not be ha##ening0 that essage of se%ually charged urgency she was getting fro his touch just couldn't be real. (el#lessly she looked u# at hi . 5ust the sight of his outh ade her feel weak and di88y. $he wanted to reach out and trace the sha#e of it, with her fingerti#, her li#s, her tongue. $he could feel her whole body reacting to hi , aching for hi ! As though it were ha##ening in slow otion she watched the downward descent of his head, his outh co ing towards her own, felt her heart sla ing against her chest wall, her body shuddering fro head to toe as he slid his hand beneath her hair, cu##ing the back of her neck, his thu b stroking the soft, sensitive skin behind her ear. $he could hear the soft, sighing half& oan, half&#urr of #leasure she was aking as though the sound were co ing fro so ewhere else, her li#s already #arting in oist eagerness, her eyes heavy and sultry with longing as she se i swooned against hi , her body drenched with sensual hunger. 1he touch of his outh on her own, instead of satisfying her need, only see ed to heighten and intensify it. 4ithout knowing what she was doing she found that she was clinging to hi , her body #ressed tightly into his, des#erately seeking its aleness as though it needed hi to co #lete it0 as though she needed hi to co #lete her. (is tongue brushed her li#s, rough, war velvet i%ed with #ure, sensual silk, a thousand unbelievable sensations

condensed into one tantalisingly brief touch. ediately her outh clung to his wanting ore, her own tongue darting boldly against his seeking the inti acy she craved. (is hand touched her breast, and i ediately she ached to be naked against hi , to feel his touch against her bare skin. As though he had read her ind, he #ushed aside her to#, his hand dark against the white fabric of her bra. (er whole body 6uivered as he #ulled the fabric away fro her breast, her flesh softly #ale against the asculine dark& ness of his. 7nable to sto# herself Alice started to oan, gas#ing for breath as she did so. (is thu b rubbed slowly against the hard nub of her ni##le and she cried out in hel#less longing, des#erate for the feel of his outh where his thu b had been, ready to offer herself u# to her desire for hi . 9arco was everything she wanted. $he cried out in shocked arousal as he dro##ed to his knees in front of her and started to kiss the e%#osed flesh above the waistband of her skirt, slowly oving u#wards as he #ushed u# her tee shirt. (er entire body was tre bling with aching longing as his outh oved closer to her breast... Another inute, another few seconds of the tor enting, achingly teasing, unbearable, erotic little kisses and his outh would be on her breast and he would... 1he sudden shar# cry that Angelina gave burst through the #rivate bubble of their utual desire, fracturing it, bringing the both into fro8en stillness, even the #revious sensual heaviness of their breathing sus#ended as they both looked towards the stroller. -t was Alice who broke away first, though, tugging down her tee shirt, her face hot with self&conscious e & barrass ent and disbelief at the way she had been behaving as she hurried over to the baby. .icking her u#, she walked over to the window with her, co forting her, and glad of the e%cuse not to have to turn round and face 9arco. 4hat was he thinking2 4as he as shocked by what had ha##ened as she now was, or was he cynically used to foolish young wo en throwing the selves at hi ...wanting hi ...2 Alice cringed as she realised what she had done. (e was her e #loyer, a newly bereaved an... a father... and if his se%ual needs had overwhel ed hi , well, no one would bla e hi for the having done so, but #eo#le would view her behaviour in a very different light. 7nfair, but true nonetheless, Alice acknowledged as she tried to recover her co #osure, telling 9arco without turning round, '-'ll take Angelina back downstairs...' 1here was no #oint in her trying to #retend to herself any longer0 so ehow or other she had been idiotic enough to fall in love with 9arco!

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Gri ly 9arco watched as Alice #ut Angelina back into the stroller, carefully kee#ing her back to hi . (ow the hell had he anaged to allow things to get so out of control2 After all, it wasn't as though he didn't know e%actly what she was under that da nably convincing ask of adonna&like innocent sensuality. $he'd had an affair with a arried an! 9aybe ore than one! 1hat kind of behaviour was totally abhorrent to hi ! 4ell, there was no way it could be allowed to ha##en again! (e was forced to concede that it had shocked hi to discover just how strong his desire for Alice was. A sign that he had lived a celibate life for too long, no doubt! 4as she #erha#s thinking that he could fill the #lace left e #ty in her life by her e%&lover...the #lace left e #ty in her bed2 )efore he shared his bed with a wo an he needed to know his relationshi# with her was e%clusiveand co itted0 e otionally as well as se%ually. 'o doubt to a wo an like Alice such old&fashioned ideals would si #ly be a using0 so ething she si #ly could not co #rehend! 4hat on earth was she doing2 4hat was ha##ening to her2 Alice wondered wretchedly. $he had heard of nannies falling into the tra# of beco ing e otionally and se%ually involved with their ale e #loyers, but she had never i agined it could ever ha##en to her! $he had always considered herself to be far too sensible.

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'-'++ bring Angelina in.' 'odding, Alice got out of 9arco's car. 1hey had travelled back fro *lorence virtually in silence, and des#ite the air&conditioning inside the car she had felt stifled and barely able to breathe, as though so ehow the sheer weight and burden of her own e otions were sucking the energy and life&giving o%ygen out of the air around her. As she hurried towards the palazzo, she was acutely conscious of 9arco striding ahead of her #ushing the stroller, an action that in another an would no doubt have ade hi look as do esticated and safe as a big, soft, neutered cat, but that in 9arco only had the unnerving effect of actually e #hasising his se%uality. 'o se%ually ta ed fireside cat this one. Oh, no, he was all lean, dangerous, #redatory, feral, hunting ale. 1he o ent they ste##ed in the cool hallway of the palazzo, 9addalena ca e hurrying towards the , as though she had been an%iously awaiting their return. 'Conte, she began with unusual for ality, 'there is so eone' '$o at last,' a harsh wo an's voice began. - have been waiting virtually all day to see y granddaughter, and this...this creature has totally refused to so uch as allow e even a glass of water. )ut then - su##ose - should not have e%#ected anything else. After all, like aster like servant.' Alice gas#ed, instinctively taking a ste# back fro the wo an who had eru#ted into the hallway. $he was tall and bone&thin, dressed in clothes that, whilst obviously e%#ensively high fashion, were o#enly far too young for her. 1he skin of her face was #ulled so tightly against her bones that Alice wondered that any surgeon with a re#utation to worry about could have #erfor ed such easily detectable surgery. $he fi%ed 9arco with a ful inating glare, totally ignoring Alice's #resence as she de anded theatrically, '4here is y darling #recious little girl's baby2 4here is she2 You have no right to withhold her fro e' ',al down, *rancine.' Alice could hear the icy distaste in 9arco's voice as he interru#ted her e otional tirade. ',al down! 9y daughter is dead, thanks to the dangerous driving of your #recious cousin, and now you are trying to steal her child fro e. - won't allow you to get away with it, 9arco. - a sure the courts will su##ort y clai that her #lace is with e. After all, - have a blood tie with her that is far stronger than yours. You are only her second cousin, whilst - a her grand other,' she announced triu #hantly, whilst Alice stared at her in bewil& der ent. 4hat on earth was she saying2 9arco was Angelina's father, surely2 'You ay, as you say, have a closer blood tie with Angelina than - do,' 9arco was agreeing, totally confounding Alice, 'but her father Aldo a##ointed e as her guardian.' 'You ake e sick,' the wo an he had addressed as *rancine threw furiously at hi . 'Aldo never wanted the baby.' '9aybe not,' 9arco agreed coolly, 'but then neither did your daughter, and as - re e ber it you were the one who counselled her to have her #regnancy ter inated, and even though Aldo had not #lanned to beco e a father, he re& fused to countenance a ter ination.' '$he had been offered a ovie contract.' Alice could see the gri co #ression infor ing 9arco's e%#ression as he listened to her bitter res#onse, and she could hear too the su##ressed anger in his voice as he told *rancine savagely, '-f you think for one inute there is any way - would allow you to have any contact with or influence over Angelina after the way you controlled and ruined your own daughter's life for your own selfish reasons, then you are very, very wrong.' '4hat are you saying2' *rancine de anded in a high&#itched voice. - did everything for .atti. "verything! $ent her to dancing classes, went to auditions with her, #aid for her breast i #lants. "verything. - was the one who hel#ed and encouraged her, who' '4ho hel#ed and encouraged her to do what2' 9arco interru#ted her shar#ly. '1o odel se i nude on the #ages of a down arket tabloid. -f that is true other love, then.... 1here is no way you are going to #lay any #art in Angelina's life, *rancine, and as for your co ing here and #retending concern for herdon't think - haven't forgotten that you couldn't even be bothered to attend the funeral of the daughter you clai to have loved so uch!' '1hat was because - couldn't bear the thought of y beautiful baby being buried. )ecause - was too ill to be there... $he was everything to e. And now - want to bring u# her daughter... y granddaughter,' she told hi triu #hantly. 'Angelina is a girl baby. $he needs a other's influence, a fe ale #resence in her life. You ay be her guardian, but - a her closest ne%t of kin. $he needs e in her life,' she told hi , with what to Alice see ed to be sickeningly false #iety. '9aria has already been in touch with e to tell e how concerned she has been for her. (ow you left her knowing she was ill, and refused to call a doctor until 9aria begged you to do so. $he says you've dis issed her,

the very #erson her other chose to look after her, and a##arently now you've a##ointed a new nanny to look after her. -t's obvious how little you care about her!' '4hat2 'o way is that the truth...' 9arco had gone white with the intensity of his fury and Alice couldn't bla e hi . $he was still di88ily trying to co e to ter s with the fact that he was not Angelina's father. 'ot her father and yet his love for her was shiningly a##arent. 'A an cannot bring u# a little girl #ro#erly,' *rancine went on, 'not when she is not his child, and - doubt that any court would actually allow you to do so. 1here are...' $he #aused delicately. '1here are certain #otential oral issues to be considered...' 1he look in 9arco's eyes now was #ositively urderous, and Alice couldn't bla e hi . '-f you're trying to i #ly what - think you're trying to i #ly,' he began o inously, 'then let e tell you' ''o, 9arco, let e tell you that - want Angelina and - intend to have her. And there is no way that you can sto# e.' $he #aused and then said softly, - ust say - was rather sur#rised to learn just how wealthy a young an Aldo had been. After all, he ke#t y #oor darling .atti very short of oney. 1hat's so very naughty of hi when it now turns out that he was close to being a illionaire.' '$o that's it,' 9arco co ented gri ly. - ight have known! 4ell, for your infor ation Aldo's inheritance was actually held in trust for hi , and unavailable for hi to break into it.' ')ut it now belongs to Angelina2' 1he greedy look in her eyes, which *rancine was aking no atte #t to conceal, sickened Alice. 'o wonder 9arco wanted to #rotect Angelina fro her grand other. -n his shoes Alice would have felt e%actly the sa e. '-n theory, yes, although she will not be able to draw on the ca#ital until she is of age.' 1he cool but still cal ly good& annered way in which 9arco was answering *rancine's 6uestions ade Alice arvel at his self&restraint. ''o, of course not. )ut as her grand other no doubt - shall be able to ake use of the inco e for necessary e%#enses for her,' *rancine told hi with o#en s ugness. Giving 9arco a s ile of triu #h, she turned to Alice, eyeing her assessingly, with ice&cold, unfriendly eyes. 'You ust be the new nanny. .oor Angelina.' $he gave a theatrical sigh. '$he ust be issing 9aria dreadfully. -' going u# to y roo now, 9arco. .lease have so ething light sent u# to e, will you2 - refuse to even try to talk to this a##alling housekee#er of yours. And you, 'annyyou ay bring y granddaughter to e...er... once she has been fed and changed.' 1urning on her heel, she headed towards the stairs, her e%it al ost as dra atic as her a##earance. 4eakly Alice looked at 9arco. 'ow she realised what 9addalena ight have eant when she had told her that neither of Angelina's #arents had been truly worthy of her. 'Angelina needs her feed,' she told 9arco huskily. *ortunately the baby had sle#t through the altercation and was only just waking u#, her ga8e fi%ed trustingly and lovingly on Alice's face. '-'ll co e u# with you,' 9arco announced abru#tly. '1here is so ething - wish to discuss with you.' As she lifted Angelina out of the stroller Alice's heart sank. .lease don't let hi bring u# what ha##ened this afternoon! she begged silently as he followed her with the stroller. 1he nursery felt welco ing safe and fa iliar. Alice went to #ut Angelina in her cot, but 9arco sto##ed her, saying, ''o. Give her to e.' $he ust have been blind to have ever believed that he did not love the baby, Alice acknowledged as she saw the look he gave her. 1he innate honesty that was so strongly a #art of her nature forced her to ad it unco fortably to hi , - hadn't realised that you were not Angelina's father...' 'You thought she was y child2' (e looked astonished. '$he looks like you,' Alice defended herself, 'and whilst the agency had infor ed e that she had lost her other in tragic circu stances they had not said that...' $he bit her li#, her voice stu bling to a halt as she saw the look of naked anguish in his eyes. 'Aldo was y cousin, y younger cousin, and we were as close in any ways as though we were brothers. 4e both lost our #arents in the sa e accident.' (e #aused, his e%#ression so bleak that Alice ached to be able to say so ething to co fort hi , but how could she2 4hat right did she have to do so2 '- have to ad it that Aldo was #erha#s a rather s#oiled young an. - counselled hi not to arry .atti, they were too different!' (e #aused, his e%#ression gri . ')ut Aldo was a very headstrong young an. 1hey had very different as#irations, but neither of the were #re#ared to listen to any voice of reason or caution0 they had fallen in love... Or

so they clai ed.' ')ut you did not consider that to be i #ortant,' Alice heard herself challenging hi shar#ly. $he refused to be 6uelled by the frowning look he was giving her. - didn't say that. +ove is always i #ortant...but their inter#retation of love would not be ine, and if it was <love< then - regret to say it was a love of only a very short&lived duration, although it gave e no #leasure when Aldo confir ed that y #rediction that this would be the case had #roved to be correct. )y then Angelina was on the way...' At the ention of Angelina, Alice #ut her anger to one side. 'Did her other really consider ter inating her #regnancy2' she couldn't hel# asking in shock. '.atti was very uch influenced by her other, and you can see what kind of wo an *rancine is,' 9arco re#lied. '4hat's going to ha##en2 4ill she be able to take Angelina away fro you2' Alice asked hi uncertainly. ''ot whilst - have breath left in y body to #revent it,' 9arco assured her vehe ently. ')ut she does have a...a legiti ate clai on her,' Alice #ressed hi an%iously. 4as she i agining that slight betraying #ause before he answered her2 1hat barely discernible hesitation and skil& fully covered concern2 '-n so far as she is her grand other, where as - was never legally a##ointed Angelina's guardian, -' afraid so, yes,' 9arco acknowledged. - a a single an with no e%#erience of bringing u# a child, and there are those...' (e #aused, his eyes bleak. - a afraid that in the world we live in today, it is necessary for every caring adult to 6uestion the otivation of a an bringing u# a child who is not his own in a way that it is not with a wo an.' Alice silently digested what he was saying. $he knew, of course, what he didn't want to #ut into words. And she also knew who was the best #erson to #rotect Angelina. '*rancine is an instinctive actress and she is very ade#t at concealing her real #ersonality when the occasion de ands it. One hint fro her that - ight have hidden otives in kee#ing Angelina with e, and no right&thinking court or judge would want to take that kind of risk.' Alice could feel her heart starting to beat faster with increasing dread. '$urely there ust be so ething you can do...so e way...2 Alice began, #ausing and shaking her head as she told hi huskily, 'You can't ean to let her take Angelina.' 1here was no doubt in her ind just where Angelina's best interests lay and it certainly wasn't with her grand other, who Alice had i ediately disliked and distrusted. Although he was not betraying it, inwardly 9arco was fighting the sa e e otional tur oil as Alice. Agitatedly she waited for 9arco's re#ly, but then Alice couldn't hel# saying her thoughts aloud. '-f only you were arried. 1hen surely she couldn't do anything!' 9arco tensed and stared at her. $he was right, of course. -f he had a wife, then there was no way that *rancine could try to clai that he ight have so e uns#eakable ulterior otive in kee#ing Angelina with hi . ''o,' he agreed softly, fi%ing his ga8e on Alice. '$he couldn't.' $o ething about the way 9arco was looking at her ade Alice's heart start to #ound frantically fast. '4hat...2 4hat is it2' she asked hi uncertainly. '- think you have just given e the answer to y #roble .' 9arco a##lauded her. '- should have seen it for yself,' he continued, ore as though he was talking to hi self than her, Alice reflected as she waited nervously. - thought that in #roviding Angelina with a nanny who would guarantee to stay with her for a s#ecific length of ti e that - was doing the very best - could for her, but now - realise that y thinking was not far&sighted enough. 4hat Angelina needs to #rotect her now is not a nanny, but a wo an who would have far ore authority in her life in the eyes of the world. 4hat Angelina needs is a other, a wo an who loves her and who has a legal title to #rove her right to #lay the role of other in her life, and - can think of no one who could fill that role for her better than you, Alice.' Alice felt as though she wanted to sit down. (er head was s#inning, her legs felt weak, and her heart was thudding so heavily that she felt the shock waves of it reverberating right through her body. (er li#s had gone #ainfully dry, and she was forced to oisten the with the ti# of her tongue before she could re#ly, her body shaking as she saw the way that 9arco's ga8e ho ed in on that tiny betraying gesture of nervous& ness. '4hat...what are you trying to say2' she asked hi , but she sus#ected that she already knew what his answer was going to be. '-n order to #rotect Angelina fro *rancine - need a wifeyou have said so yourself! 7nder the circu stances, who better to be that wife, than you2' '4hat2' "ven though she had been half e%#ecting it, Alice was still gri##ed by shock. ''o,' she whis#ered. '4e can't.

- can't.' 'Yes, we can. 4e have to,' 9arco insisted fiercely. '*or Angelina's sake.' -f she had still harboured any fugitive thoughts about 9arco's love for or co it ent to Angelina, what she was hearing and seeing now would have totally #ut the to flight, Alice recognised. (ere was a an who was totally dedicated to #rotecting the child fate had #laced in his care, even to the e%tent of arrying a wo an he did not love, in order to do so. $he loved Angelina too0 could she do any less2 '1hink about it,' 9arco de anded insistently. '1he ore - do, the ore sense it akes.' - know what you're saying,' Alice was forced to agree, 'but...but arriage2' (er face had gone #ale and 9arco could guess what she was thinking. '$o far as you and - are concerned, it will si #ly be a business arrange ent,' he told her cal ly. 'A business ar& range ent, which can be ended after a #eriod of, say, five years, whenever you choose, just as your e%isting contract can be. - sus#ect that by that ti e *rancine will have lost interest and found so eone else to fasten her greedy talons into, #referably a rich fil #roducer who will kee# her safely in +os Angeles,' he added wryly. 'And Angelina will be at school.' ''o, it...it's i #ossible,' Alice re#eated weakly, but she knew that her voice lacked the conviction it should have held. 1he trouble was that there were issues here that had nothing to do with the 'business arrange ent' he was dis& cussing so cal ly. '4hy2' 9arco was challenging her. 'You have already signed a contract agreeing to re ain with Angelina until she goes to school. -n agreeing to arry e you would erely be adding another di ension to that agree ent.' Another di ension! 9arriage! And to a an she already knew she was far too dee#ly and dangerously e otionally vulnerable to! $o e di ension! ')ut we are talking about arriage. And not...not a...a business contract,' Alice #rotested. 4hen he didn't re#ly, she turned away fro hi slightly, her voice uffled as she told hi , '*or a an like you e%#ect that, historically in your fa ily, arriage is usually a business arrange ent, but in y fa ily, for e...' $he sto##ed and shook her head. '- thought you loved Angelina,' 9arco said softly. Alice could feel herself weakening. - do,' she acknowledged, unable to resist looking at the baby as she did so, feeling her heart elt with love for her. Yes, it elted with love for Angelina, and it overheated with the adult for of e%actly the sa e e otion for 9arco, she reflected gri ly, although he 6uite #lainly did not feel the sa e way about her! - don't think you've given enough thought to what you're suggesting,' she told 9arco valiantly, fighting hard to stave off her own #otential downfall. 'You know very little about e. - ight not have the right...6ualifications to be Angelina's other.' $he struggled for so e logical way to ake hi see that what he was suggesting was i #ossible and then re inded hi with relief, 'After all, - tried to steal your car.' ''o, you didn't,' 9arco countered her ad ission coolly. '1he young lady who was with you was the thief, you si #ly took the bla e to #rotect her.' 'You knew that!' Alice ga#ed at hi , unable to conceal her astonish ent. '- knew it.' 9arco confir ed. ')ut you never said anything. You...' 'Do you really think - would have even entertained the thought of e #loying you to look after Angelina had thought you had been the thief2' (e shook his head, answering his own 6uestion as he told her, ''o way. 1he reason - was so deter ined to hire you was because - could see just how loyal and #rotective a #erson you were. And because - knew just how des#erately Angelina needed so eone like you. 'o, not so eone like you. Only you,' he corrected hi self softly. '1here is no one else like you, Alice, not for Angelina. $urely you can't desert her now, knowing how uch she needs you. ?nowing how attached to you she has already beco e2 $he has lost so uch already in her short life. (er other...her father...' (e was #ulling all her e otional strings at once, and very #owerfully so too, Alice acknowledged, but if she had any sense she would resist the #ressure he was #utting on her. If she had any sense. $ince when has anyone in love #ossessed that 6uality2 she asked herself ruefully, and she was in love twice over...once with Angelina...and a second ti e with hi ! 'And as for you not having the right 6ualifications! You have the only 6ualification Angelina needs. Your love for her!' '1his is cra8y,' she #rotested. ''o!' 9arco corrected her. '4hat would be cra8y would be for Angelina to be handed over to *rancine to have her

life destroyed as she destroyed her #oor, wretched daughter's life.' Alice knew that he was s#eaking the truth. And as 9arco had already stated, logically, there was really very little difference in working for hi as Angelina's nanny for the ne%t five years and re aining with her for the sa e #eriod as his wife in na e only. (ow could she desert Angelina when she needed her in her life so uch2 (ow could she agree to a business arrange ent of a arriage with 9arco when she loved and wanted hi so uch2 (adn't this afternoon taught her anything at all2 'Yes!' 1hat he was the ost wonderful an to be kissed by, she found herself thinking recklessly. (astily she called her thoughts to order, re#ri anding herself for her own foolishness. 1here would be no ore kisses between the , she re inded herself sternly. *ro now it was going to be strictly business between the ! 9arco frowned as he heard the de anding knock on the door of his study. -t was nearly idnight and he had been working for the last three hours, co ing to his study i ediately after dinner. 1o orrow, before he fir ly asked *rancine to leave, he intended to ake it clear to her that there was no way she could e%#ect to take Angelina away fro hi . 1hinking of Angelina ade hi think of Alice, though, and thinking of Alice ade hi ache for the feel of her delicious body in his ar s, and her e6ually delicious outh against his own, just as it had been this afternoon. '9arco, - know you're in there.' (is frown dee#ened as *rancine walked in. '-'ve been thinking...about Angelina,' she told hi coolly. '$he is y granddaughter and that eans the world to e, but - can see the situation fro your #oint of view. Aldo was your closest relative and your heir and now that he is dead...' $he gave a s all shrug. - can ake things easy for you, 9arco, or - can ake the difficult.' (e watched her, without saying anything, but then there was no need for hi to do so0 he had already guessed the real #ur#ose of her visit to the palazzol '-f you could, for instance, see your way to...#utting a certain su of oney at y dis#osal, - a sure we can co e to so e utually beneficial agree ent over Angelina's future. - a thinking in ter s of, say...' $he #aused and gave another s all shrug. '4ell, let us say, for instance, one illion dollars... 1hat is hardly anything to you, 9arco. You are a very, very wealthy an...' 'You want to sell e your granddaughter, is that what you are saying2' 9arco asked her bluntly. '- had heard that you had atte #ted to sell your daughter to the highest bidder' '(ow dare you say that2' she sto##ed hi , her face an un#leasant shade of red. '- dare say it because it is the truth. You #ut .atti into the eat arket the inute she was old enough to be there.' '$he had a very wealthy boyfriend when she was odelling,' she interru#ted hi . 'A wealthy boyfriend...' 9arco's outh co #ressed angrily. '1he an was over three ti es her age and already arried. You sold her to hi .' '$he wanted to be with hi .' $he was al ost screa ing at hi now. '$he enjoyed being with hi a da n sight ore than she enjoyed being with your tight&fisted cousin. 4hen - think of the o##ortunities she lost because of hi ... $he wanted to leave hi . Did he tell you that2 $he was going to co e to +A... (e killed her.' ''o, if anyone killed both of the it was you, *rancine. You were the one who destroyed their arriage with your greed, and your soulless craving for oney. (istory re#eats itself, doesn't it2 You sold your daughter and now you want to sell her child to e. One illion dollars, you say...' $lowly 9arco shook his head. (e was te #ted to give in and #ay her, but he knew that if he did the atter wouldn't end there. *rancine would co e back wanting ore oney and then ore. 9arco didn't trust *rancine at all. (e disliked her and he knew that she felt e%actly the sa e way about hi and that if she thought she could hurt or da age hi in any way at all she would try to do so. "ven if that eant da aging her own granddaughter. $he was starting to screa at hi , telling hi that she would ake hi #ay for not acceding to her de ands, that if he had really cared about Angelina, really wanted her, he would have been glad to #ay her. -t was half an hour before she finally realised that he was not going to give in and left, hurling insults and threats at hi as she did so. +istening i #assively to her, 9arco ade hi self a silent #ro ise that he would never, ever allow her to subject Angelina to the sa e kind of abuse she had subjected .atti to! 'ow if anything he felt it was even ore i #erative that he and Alice should arry.

***

A+-," had agreed to arry 9arco! 9arco was going to be her husband0 she was going to be his wife. )ut in na e only, Alice re inded herself 6uickly as she got shakily out of bed and went to see if Angelina had woken u#. 1he baby was still aslee#, lying #eacefully in her cot. )eyond the window of her roo , the sky was a wonderful soft shade of blue, the orning sun shining on the gardens of the palazzo. 9arco's ho e, her ho e for the ne%t five years. )ut it would have been that anyway, Alice argued deter inedly with herself. After all, her contract sti#ulated that she would work for 9arco until Angelina was five. 4ork for hi , yes, but arry hi ! $he could always change her ind0 walk away fro hi , and fro Angelina! $he could, but Alice knew that she wouldn't. -t si #ly wasn't in her nature to abandon anyone who needed her, es#ecially when that #erson was a hel#less si%& onth&old baby. And her own secret feelings for 9arco2 (ow was she going to co#e with those for the ne%t five years2 (ow was she going to conceal the 2 1hey said that fa iliarity bred conte #t#erha#s she would discover that #laying the role of 9arco's wife would banish those unwanted and dangerous feelings! -t was an argu ent that was so frail and full of #otential inefields that Alice had no wish to #ursue it. $he was going to arry 9arco. Only to #rotect Angelina fro *rancine. 4ould *rancine co e to the nursery to see her granddaughter2 As she worked ca#ably through her orning routine, Alice's head was full of an%ious 6uestions.

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Angelina was awake now, and Alice, who had #ulled a robe on when she had got u#, #icked her u# and sat on the co fortable chair in front of the window, cuddling her and talking to her, enjoying the #leasure of their shared slee#y early& orning togetherness. A cou#le of hours later when Alice's obile started to ring, and she recognised that her sister was calling, she had no inner warning of what was to co e as she answered the call. 'Alice2' her sister de anded e%citedly, before Alice could even say hello. 'You dark horse, why on earth didn't you say anything2 'ot even a tiny hint! 9ind you, +ouise says that she isn't sur#rised and that it was obvious to her that the s#arks were flying between you the first ti e you et. '4e couldn't believe it when Dad rang us first thing this orning to say that 9arco had been on the #hone to hi to for ally ask for your hand in arriage. 9u and Dad are both here now, by the way, and they want to talk to you. 4e're all really looking forward to co ing over. 9arco sounds wonderful, and we can't wait to eet hi . '-t's really generous of hi to want to fly us all out and #ut us u# at the palazzo. -t sounds so grand. +ouise says that he is grand.' Alice's head was reeling. 9arco had tele#honed her fa ily and told the that they were going to be arried had for ally asked for her hand in arriagewithout a word of warning to her...without discussing what he #lanned to do with her2 (er sister was s#eaking to so eone else, and Alice could hear her laughing. '+ouise is #retending not to be e%cited about being a brides aid, but of course she is. $he says to tell you, though, that there's no way she is going to wear #ink. (as 9arco got a big fa ily2 - su##ose he will have, being -talian... -t's all so ro antic... (e obviously can't wait to arry you... *our weeks. -t's no ti e at all. 1he #arents want to have a word...' 'u bly Alice s#oke to her #arents, although after the call was over she couldn't honestly re e ber just what she had said to the or to her sister's husband, who had also wanted to congratulate her, and +ouise, who had reiterated her refusal to wear #ink. *ro her father she had learned that 9arco had rung the first thing that orning to for ally re6uest her hand in arriage, and to invite her fa ily over for the wedding, which he had infor ed hi would take #lace in just under four weeks' ti e. .icking u# Angelina, Alice ade her way downstairs. $he needed to talk to 9arco and right now! -n the ain salon she bu #ed into 9addalena who bea ed with #leasure when she saw her and ca e hurrying over to her. '1he conte has told us that you are to arry! You will ake hi a good wife and a loving a a for this little one,' she added as she stroked Angelina's face. '.lease God, in ti e there will be other little ones to kee# her co #any.' Other little ones! Alice digested her co ent in silence, #raying that the housekee#er wouldn't notice how hot her face had beco e! Of course it was only natural that she should assu e that she and 9arco would want to have children. '- need to s#eak to 9arco, 9addalena,' she told the housekee#er. 'Do you know where he is2' '(e is in the library,' 9addalena told her, giving her a roguish look that #ro #tly ade Alice's face burn even ore hotly. 'And...er...*rancine2' Alice asked hastily. $he was sur#rised that the other wo an had not been to the nursery to see Angelina. 9addalena gave her a ful inating look and tossed her head, saying conte #tuously, '1hat one. $he has gone. $he is no good. 'one of us like her.' (er shocked disbelief drove out Alice's earlier self&conscious e barrass ent. *rancine had gone! 4ithout aking any atte #t to see Angelina or to talk to her about her, to ask how she was, to check on her welfare, and to check Alice's suitability to have charge of her2 Alice tried to i agine anyone in her own fa ily behaving in such a way and found that she couldn't. $uch behaviour a##alled her and reinforced the dislike and distrust she had already felt towards *rancine. $o far as Alice was concerned *rancine was totally unfit to have charge of a child. (er behaviour only confir ed Alice's belief that she had no real o#tion other than to do whatever she could to #rotect Angelina. "ven if that eant arrying 9arco2 "ven if that eant arrying 9arco, she told herself fir ly.

$he sus#ected that 9arco had been right when he had told her that *rancine's interest in Angelina had been totally ercenary, but it still hurt for the baby's sake to have her feelings so callously confir ed. 'o grand#arent worthy of the na e could surely have left without aking at least so e atte #t to see her own flesh and blood2 $he was halfway down the length of the huge for al salon, one of a series of interconnecting roo s of vast #ro#ortions and elegant architecture, when 9arco suddenly a##eared fro the o##osite direction. - was just on y way u# to the nursery,' he said. - was looking for you.' 1hey both s#oke together and then sto##ed, 9arco's e%#ression carefully watchful, whilst Alice was conscious that she was fu bling her words slightly and looking self&conscious. '9y sister has just tele#honed e,' she told hi when his silence told her that he was waiting for her to s#eak first. 'You had no right to s#eak to y fa ily without telling e first,' she #rotested indignantly. '1hey think now that...' $he sto##ed and bit her li#. '1hey think what2' 9arco #ressed her. Angelina had fallen aslee# against her shoulder and was a heavy weight in her ar s, and, as though 9arco sensed her disco fort, he co anded Alice, 'Give her to e. Are you all right now2 Your heatstroke2' '-' fine,' Alice assured hi . '4ell, so far as y heatstroke goes. )ut - really wish you had s#oken to e before tele#honing y fa ily. 9y #arents. 9y sister. All of the now believe...they think...' '1hey think what2' 9arco encouraged her. Alice could feel her face starting to burn a little with her own disco fort. (e was the one who was res#onsible for the fact that her fa ily thought their arriage was a love atch, so why on earth should she be feeling self& conscious and guilty about e%#laining their isa##rehension to hi . And e%#lain it she ust, since he had taken the ste# of inviting the all to their 'wedding' because now they would assu e...e%#ect... '1hey think that we...you... 1hey think our arriage is going to be a...a nor al one,' she anaged to tell hi , her face a soft #ink with disco #osure. '"s#ecially with you asking y father so for ally, and...and inviting the all here for the wedding. 4hy did you do that2' she de anded accusingly. ')ecause it was the right and #ro#er thing to do,' 9arco returned #ro #tly. 'You are their daughter, - shall be their son&in&law.' ')ut don't you see2 'ow they think.... 1hey think that you and -...that we're in love,' Alice finally anaged to burst out unco fortably. 9arco shrugged dis issively. '$o...is that a #roble 2' '4ell, of course it is,' Alice told hi forcefully. ''ow they will e%#ect' $he sto##ed, her flush dee#ening as she unwantedly entally visualised just what her fa ily would be e%#ecting when they arrived for the wedding. A loving cou#le who couldn't kee# their eyes or their hands off one another. 4ho were eagerly e%changing whis#ers and kisses, who o#enly showed their love for one another. A cou#le, in short, dee# in the throes of their new&found love. 'Our arriage is just a business arrange ent and' 'You were going to tell the that2' 9arco challenged her in disbelief. Alice gri aced. 1he truth was that she hadn't got as far as thinking just what she was going to tell her fa ily, and in fact the craven thought had occurred to her that she really didn't need to tell the anything, since they already knew she would be asked to re ain with Angelina until she reached school age. - wasn't going to say anything to the ,' she was forced to ad it when 9arco continued to stand in front of her, auto atically rocking Angelina in his ar s as he waited for her re#ly. ''ot tell the anything!' $he could hear the re#ri and and disbelief in his voice. - didn't want to co #licate things,' Alice defended herself. 'After all our...our arriage is surely just a s all e%tension of y contract... 9y fa ily wouldn't have understood, they're old&fashioned and y sister...' (er voice trailed away unha##ily. '*or this to work, for us to be able to convince a court that Angelina is in the right environ ent, it is essential that so far as everyone else is concerned this is a <nor al< arriage,' 9arco told her gri ly. '(ow do you think *rancine would have reacted if she had found out that we were kee#ing our < arriage< a secret2 1hat so far as your fa ily were concerned you are erely working here2 Do you really think she wouldn't have #ounced on so ething like that with glee so that she could use it in court against us2' 1here was nothing that Alice could say. $he knew what he was saying ade sense, and she knew too that it was i #ossible for her to e%#lain to hi how she really felt, not without running the risk of betraying her love for hi ! '4hilst we are on the subject of our arriage,' 9arco was continuing, '1hat was why - was on y way to see you. have ade arrange ents that the cere ony will take #lace at our local church four weeks fro now. 1here will be

other legal for alities to be gone through, as well as the religious ones, but these will not be too co #licated. (owever, there will be a great deal to do here at the palazzo. - have already instructed 9addalena to take on the e%tra staff she will need. 9y fa ily co #rises several distant branches, filled, - a afraid to say, with so e rather eccentric and elderly individuals who will all e%#ect to be invited here to witness our arriage and share in its cel& ebrations. Don't worry,' he told Alice when she ade a s all sound of shock. '1hey will all fall on your neck with tears of gratitude, as they have been infor ing e that - should arry for any years now. (owever, y three el& dest great&aunts all share a keen rivalry with one another, and one would need the skills of a $olo on to #lease the all.' '1hen why haven't you arried2' Alice couldn't hel# asking hi . 1he frowning look he was giving her suddenly ade her re e ber her first sighting of hi . 'ow once ore he was looking at her with that thoroughly arrogant disdain that ade her own nerve endings #rickle so shar#ly. '7ntil now it hasn't been necessary,' 9arco told her curtly. ''ecessary2' Alice shook her head in disbelief. '.eo#le don't get arried because it's <necessary<,' she #rotested e otionally. '1hey get arried because they're in love. )ecause they can't bear not to be together.' '$o Aldo infor ed e,' 9arco agreed dryly. 'Are you saying that love doesn't atter2' Alice challenged hi , unable to #revent herself fro asking the 6uestion. $he didn't know why they were having this conversation, or rather she did, but she wished that she were not being such a fool as to #ersist with it. '9arriage for e has to be about ore than ere se%ual desire,' 9arco told her loftily. '-t has to be about a true sharing of ideals and goals, of backgrounds and beliefs. -t has to be based on so ething that will last for a shared lifeti e and not burn out in a bla8e of over&satiated lust. -n y o#inion far too any #eo#le seek to sanitise #hysical lust by isna ing it love.' (is scornful dis issal of the i #ortance of love warned her of the fate she could e%#ect if he were ever to recognise just how she felt about hi . )efore she could sto# herself, she was bursting out, - don't agree with you. - think that love atters ore than anything else, and...and - always will. - would hate to be the kind of #erson who thinks that it doesn't atter. )ut - su##ose to so eone like you...' '4hat do you ean so eone like e2' 9arco de anded. (e didn't like her criticis and what he liked even less was his own fierce reaction to it. A little unco fortable now about her outburst, Alice tried to #lacate hi . '4ell, it's obvious that a an like youa an in your #osition, with your fa ily background,' she a ended hastily when she saw the o inous way he was frowning at her, 'would think of arriage in different ter s to so eone like e. - e%#ect that you are used to the kind of arriages where it's ore about...about #osition and wealth, than two #eo#le who love one another...' she finished. '- su##ose it's all about having different values.' *ro the look in her eyes it was obvious to 9arco that she considered her own values to be vastly su#erior to his. -nfuriated, he was te #ted to tell her that his #arents' arriage had been a fairy&tale love atch, but instead he chose another eans of retaliation. '-ndeed it is,' he agreed s oothly. 'And as - have on good authority, your values, unlike ine, are very odern.' Alice's forehead crinkled into a s all frown of inco #rehension. '4hat are you trying to say2' she de anded warily. 9arco gave her a savage look. 'As you have just #ointed out, we are two different #eo#le fro two different cultures, and, whilst - know how totally and co #letely co itted you are to the children in your care, your oral values are not the sa e as ine.' '9y oral values2' Alice interru#ted hi shar#ly. 9arco looked away fro her briefly before telling her, - know about your...affair with your #revious boss.' Alice was totally unable to ake any res#onse. 4hat on earth was he talking about2 'o way would she ever, ever even conte #late having an 'affair' with any arried an, or any an loosely attached to so eone else! 1he very thought revolted her. '-t was entioned in the letter - received fro his wife, in res#onse to y re6uest for a reference. $he said that you were the best nanny she had ever had, but that her husband had confessed to having se% with you! $he also hinted that there ight have been other e #loyer's husbands...who had enjoyed your...favours.' Alice had always sus#ected that .auline +evinsky had harboured an irrational resent ent against her because she'd felt that Alice had been closer to her children than she'd been herself. )ut for her to do so ething like this! Alice could vividly re e ber the day she had gone to .auline and tactfully e%#lained to her that instead of re& locating to 'ew York with the +evinsky fa ily she had decided that the ti e had co e for her to leave. -t had been .auline herself who had brought u# the subject of her husband, ,live, and who had directly asked Alice if ,live was the reason she wanted to leave. And it was .auline as well who had a#ologised when Alice had finally reluctantly

ad itted that she was leaving because she felt unco fortable about ,live's increasingly #ossessive attitude towards her, cou#led with his constant references to his se%ual frustration. $he could re e ber how grateful she had felt towards .auline when her boss had i ediately offered her an a#ology. (ow could .auline have done this to her2 Alice felt sickened, hu iliated, too hurt to realise what 9arco's real o#inion of her was to even atte #t to e%#lain or to defend herself. 4hen she was finally able to s#eak all Alice could say was, 'You believe so ething like that about e but you want to arry e2' 9arco narrowed his eyes slightly as he heard the anger tre bling in her voice. (er reaction wasn't what he had e%#ected. (e ad ired the fact that she had ade no atte #t to e%#lain or deny anything, but the stark look in her eyes sur#rised hi . 'Angelina is y #ri e concern here,' 9arco re#lied coolly. '9y only concern,' he underlined #ointedly. 'And so far as our arriage is concerned, it is erely a business arrange ent,' he re inded her. '4ere - looking for a #ro#er wife...' (e #aused, but Alice knew i ediately what he was thinking. 'You would never choose e2 4ell, - would never want you either,' she lied fiercely. '4hen - get arried, #ro#erly arried, - want it to be to so eone - love so...so uch that - can't bear to live without hi . $o eone who believes in love and who cherishes and values it,' she told hi #assionately. 4hat he had just said to her had hurt her very badly, and instinctively she wanted to defend and #rotect herself. (is cynical isjudge ent of her hadn't just hurt her0 it had also #ut a totally different slant on the fact that he had kissed her. Did he think she was the kind of wo an who sle#t around2 4ith arried en2 $he knew that if it hadn't been for Angelina she would have turned on her heel and walked out, torn u# her contract and booked herself a seat on the first flight ho e. )ut she si #ly could not do that to the little girl. A new and totally untenable hideous thought struck her0 a 6uestion bubbling to her li#s that she had to ask. '-f you thought...if you believed...that about e, why did you e #loy e2' she de anded huskily. 9arco studied her. As uch to #unish hi self as #unish her, he told her silkily, '4ell, it wasn't because - wanted to share the favours you've been giving to others.' 1he fury of the look she shot hi ade hi gri ace ruefully. 4ere all wo en naturally good actors2 'Originally, you were the only a##licant who fulfilled all of y criteria. (ad - received .auline +evinsky's letter before you had begun working for e and before Angelina had so obviously bonded with you, then no doubt would not have e #loyed you. (owever,' he continued coolly, 'so far as your, er...#redilection for other wo en's husbands goes, it is not an issue, since - do not have a wife. *ortunately, by the ti e Angelina is old enough to need a oral role odel...' - will be out of her life,' Alice co #leted bitterly for hi . 4hat on earth had she got herself into2 ''ow,' 9arco was continuing, as though the bo bshell he had just dro##ed eant nothing, 'to get back to the atter in hand. You will of course need to ake a visit to 9ilan to a##oint a designer to ake your wedding gown, and those of your attendants. - understand y friend the young car thief will be one of the , and also that she ost assuredly will not wear #ink.' Alice stared at hi . (ow could he indulge in hu our after what he had just said2 -f she had needed any #roof that he felt no #ersonal e otion for her whatsoever, she had just received it, Alice acknowledged. 1o her chagrin, knowing that actually hurt her ore than knowing that he thought she was the kind of #erson who indulged in casual se%! '-' sure - can find so ething si #le and off the #eg here in *lorence,' she told hi dully. 'As you said yourself, our arriage is just a business arrange ent, after all, and not a #ro#er arriage. 4e don't love one another.' Alice was #roud of the way she had anaged to deny her feelings. $he just ho#ed that she would be able to go on denying the ! '-t is still a arriage, and both our fa ilies will have e%#ectations of it. )eliefs, which - do not intend to da age.' 9ercifully, before he could say anything else Angelina woke u# and started to whi #er. '9addalena told e that *rancine has left,' Alice anaged to steady her voice enough to say as she took Angelina fro 9arco, carefully aking sure that she didn't accidentally co e into #hysical contact with hi as she did so, cuddling her until she had cal ed down before laying her down. After what he had just said to her, he ust never, ever guess how she felt about hi . ,ould he really not see that she was si #ly not the sort of #erson to indulge in the kind of behaviour he had accused her of2 1heirs was a business relationshi#, entered into solely to #rotect the child they both loved, and fro now on her #ride ust ake sure that he never had any reason to sus#ect she had ever drea ed of it being anything else.

'Yes, she has,' 9arco agreed. 'Do you think she will still try to take Angelina away2' Alice asked hi , giving a s all shiver of a##rehension as she did so. '4hat - think is that if she does, the fact that you and l will be arried should ensure that Angelina stays where she belongs, with #eo#le who love her,' 9arco told her fir ly. ''ow, we have a great deal to discuss. 4e shall of course be hosting together a #re&wedding dinner for both our fa ilies, and a #ost&wedding #arty. -t is a tradition in y fa ily that when the heir arries, a large feast is held for the estate workersbut - shall ake all the arrange ents for that. - have invited your fa ily to fly over to join us one week before the wedding0 that should allow ti e for our little *errari thief to try on her brides aid's gown. Of course your sister will be your #rinci#al attendant. $ince y great&aunts are e%tre ely traditional, not to say old& fashioned in their outlook, they will as a atter of course e%#ect us to be slee#ing in se#arate roo s, so there should be no e barrass ent on that score, although, whilst we are discussing such a delicate subject, - sus#ect that we shall be e%#ected to indulge in the occasional dis#lay of utual affection.' ''o!' Alice's face had gone #a#er&white, fear and an%iety shar#ening her voice. ''o,' she re#eated. $haking her head vehe ently, - won't. You can't e%#ect e to do anything like that.' 1he intensity and i ediacy of her rejection brought a dark glitter of anger to 9arco's eyes. 'You're overdoing the #seudo&virginal hysterics,' he warned her grittily. 'After all,' he continued unforgivably in a voice as s ooth as honey, 'it isn't as though you're being asked to do anything you haven't done before, any, any ti es, and of course with far ore inti acy.' -t was too uch for Alice to bear. )lindly she retaliated, telling hi fiercely, '1hat was different. - didn't have to #retend, then. - wanted hi ...the ...' she corrected herself recklessly as she saw the look in his eyes. $he gave a s all, high&#itched cry of fear and #anic as she was uncere oniously dragged into 9arco's ar s, and i #risoned there whilst his outh savaged hers. -nnocent as she was, even Alice knew that it was a istake to challenge a an se%ually, and even ore of one to i #ly that he was se%ually inferior to another. 1hat was no doubt why 9arco was kissing her so #assionately now, forcing her li#s to #art as his tongue thrust dee#ly into her outh causing her whole body to shudder in tor ented recognition of the se%ual sy bolis of his inti ate kiss. 1his was the kind of kiss a an gave to a se%ually e%#erienced wo an, she realised, the kind of kiss that i & ediately #ro#elled the both into a shockingly sensual #lace. $he felt his hand touching her body, boldly taking #ossession of her breast, e%#ertly caressing its #eak into a tor ented nub of frantic longing. Di88ily Alice knew that ulti ately she was going to hate herself for the way she was feeling, but she si #ly did not have the e%#erience to fight back against such a sustained and erotic attack. (el#lessly she swayed towards 9arco, wanting to be even closer to hi , her hand reaching u# towards his jaw in her need to #rolong the inti acy of his kiss, but as soon as she touched hi he ste##ed back fro her, anacling her wrists with his hands as he ke#t her at a distance, de anding, ''ow tell e that you were acting.' 1here was nothing Alice could say. 'o way she could hide her sha e. '4e can't do this,' she whis#ered in anguish. '4e can't not do,' 9arco corrected her harshly. '-t's too late to change your ind now.' (is own behaviour had shocked hi . (e was behaving like a jealous lover!

)&A,+1- "I"1
9-$"3A)+Y Alice ducked her head as she and 9arco ca e out of the renaissance church where, like the , so any of 9arco's ancestors had been arried. Only she knew just how badly affected she was by this ockery of what should have been one of the ost s#ecial and eaningful days of her life. -n a deliberate act of self&loathing, she had chosen not the #ure white dress she was fully entitled to wear, but instead one that was a rich, war crea . - thought it would cause too uch co ent if - wore scarlet,' she told 9arco fli##antly just as they left the church. 1o her relief her fa ily had fully understood and su##orted her deter ination to #ay for her own dress and those of her attendants, although 9arco had not been very #leased when she had told hi of this decision. '4hat's wrong2 Are you afraid that it ight not be good enough2 You should have thought about that before you asked e to arry you,' she had thrown angrily at hi . - a not letting you #ay for y wedding dress.' '4e ade a business arrange ent,' 9arco had re inded her gri ly. 'And as #art of that arrange ent, naturally - a #re#ared to #ay for any clothes you will need to su##ort your new role.' - don't care what you say. You are not buying y wedding dress,' Alice had retorted. And that had only been one of the fierce argu ents they had had in the lead&u# to their wedding day. 7nfortunately one of the ost serious ones had been one she had lostand it had been over her engage ent and wedding rings. 4hen 9arco had #roduced the huge ring that he had told her was traditionally worn by the di /incenti brides, she had blanched in horror at the thought of wearing so ething so #atently irre#laceable, but 9arco had been insistent. '9y fa ily will e%#ect to see you wearing it,' he had told her. And he had been right0 the first thing his great&aunts had looked for when she had been for ally #resented to the had been the fa ily ring. 7ne%#ectedly, Alice had rather taken to 9arco's great&aunts. 1hey ade her laugh with their 6uaint, old&fashioned ways, but she could see beneath their bravado that they were three elderly ladies who felt a##rehensive about the way the odern world was going. 'one of the had any children and so 9arco, although both he and they would have i ediately denied it, obviously had a very s#ecial #lace in their hearts. *ro all of the she had learned about his childhood, and his teenage years0 the courage with which he had taken on his father's antle, the differences between hi and Aldo, who they had all denounced as a very s#oiled and selfish young an, and fro the she had learned too just how i #ortant it was to the as a fa ily that 9arco con& tinued the fa ily line with children, es#ecially a son of his own. $he already knew, of course, just how strong his sense of duty was0 far, far stronger than his own feelings! As she'd listened to the her heart had grown heavier and heavier. 'o doubt one day 9arco would have sons, but of course she would not be their other! As their wedding guests #ressed close to the to offer the their congratulations, Alice looked towards her sister, who had ha##ily taken charge of Angelina. +ike +ouise, she was wearing a dress in soft, shifting layers of differently shaded lilac silk organ8a. -t suited her and Alice could tell her that her brother&in&law, +ouise's father, thought so too. As +ouise #icked u# the train of her dress she rolled her eyes at Alice and told her in her newly ac6uired grownu# anner, 'Don't say anything, but -' sure Dad is trying to #ersuade #oor ,onnie to have a baby. (onestly, you'd think he'd have ore sense.' $he shook her head derisively. )ut Alice could see that she was far fro averse to the idea of a ste#sibling, and her heart lifted a little. As she s iled at her +ouise gave her an uncertain look and whis#ered gruffly, '1hanks for not saying anything to the , about...you know what...' 1he #revious evening at dinner, the celebration fa ily dinner, 9arco had #resented +ouise with a beautiful gold char bracelet and hanging fro it had been a #erfect iniature *errari. 1he words of their so recently s#oken vows were ringing still in Alice's head as she sat beside 9arco as his wife for the lengthy for al dinner being given to celebrate their arriage. Over five hundred guests had been invited, des#ite the reservations and doubts Alice had raised when 9arco had discussed his #lans with her. '-t is e%#ected. -t would cause gossi# if we didn't, and - don't intend to give *rancine any a unition to fire at us,' was all he had said when she had tried to #rotest that it surely ade sense to kee# their arriage low&key, es#ecially in view of their inevitable ending of it. 1he eal was over and the final toasts had been drunk. Angelina was lying fast aslee# in her stroller at Alice's side.

$o ehow, foolishly, #erha#s, she had not realised just how she was going to feel when they e%changed their wed& ding vows, how o entous the occasion would be, how sole n and aweso e0 how #ortentous and binding the words were going to sound, and how both her senses and her body were going to react to the . )ut it was too late now to feel that she had co itted a sin against the sanctity of arriage and the sanctity of her love. $he was 9arco's wife. -n na e only, she re inded herself shakily. -t was a business arrange ent, that was all. -n the ballroo , beyond the salon where they had eaten, they could see through the folded&back o#en double doors that the band was starting to #lay. Alice frowned as she recognised that those #eo#le seated closest to the were all turning to look at the . 1he s#eeches were over, surely2 'Alice...' she heard 9arco saying for ally as he #ushed back his chair and stood u#. 4hat was he e%#ecting her to do2 ,onfused, she looked at her sister, who laughed and told her softly, '"veryone's waiting for you and 9arco to begin the dancing. -t's tradition that the bride and groo have the first dance, re& e ber.' Of course... *lushing, Alice #ushed back her own chair, conscious of how war and strong 9arco's hand felt as he took hold of her. $he saw hi frown as he felt the icy coldness of her fingers. (er eyes felt heavy with the tears she knew she ust not shed0 tears for all that this day should have eant and all that would now be denied to her for ever. $he knew that, no atter what her future held, this day would cast its shadow over any ha##iness she ight have had for ever. 1hey were on the dance floor now, with 9arco drawing her closer, so close that she could feel the beat of his heart against her own body, fierce, thunderous. Dangerous. $he issed a ste# and tre bled as he held her closer, instinc& tively looking u# at hi and then wishing that she hadn't. $he could see the fir thrust of his chin, the full, war curve of his botto li#. (er tre bling beca e ore intense and she could feel his hand tightening around hers. (e s elled faintly of the cologne he wore and a taunting, sensual 9arco s ell that ade her ache to close her eyes and just stand there breathing it in. )reathing hi in, and i #ressing on her ind for ever this heartbeat of ti e. 1he slow strains of the old&fashioned ro antic walt8 filled her ears, the heat of 9arco's body envelo#ing her. $he felt as though they were enclosed in a s all, #rivate island of their own, an island where nothing else e%isted, only the way she felt about hi and the way she longed for hi to feel about her. $he issed another ste# and gas#ed as he held her, al ost lifting her against his body. 'You're tired.' (e ade it sound like an accusation. ''o,' she denied. 1he inti acy of dancing with hi like this on the day of their wedding, their arriage, brought an e otional lu # to her throat. Abru#tly the usic sto##ed, bringing her back to a reality she didn't want. -n his ar s she had been able to i agine...to #retend... $he ade to turn away fro hi but he restrained her. 'Our guests are waiting,' he told her. .u88led, she asked hi , '4hat for2' '*or this,' he res#onded, drawing her back against his body and slowly wra##ing one ar around her before cu##ing the side of her face with his free hand, tilting her face u# towards his own. (is kiss was slow and easured, savouring her outh, an inti ate act for a #ublic audience, ade all the ore shocking and dangerous so ehow by the fact that outwardly he ade it look so tender whilst inwardly she knew it eant nothing at all. At least not to hi . 4hen he finally released her their guests were cla##ing and laughing. *iercely Alice blinked away her threatening tears. Other cou#les were joining the on the dance floor now. Alice #ulled away fro 9arco. - want to go and check on Angelina.' 'Your sister is with her,' he re inded her. '$he is y res#onsibility,' Alice insisted stubbornly. '$he is why you have arried e, after all.' 'And why you have arried e,' 9arco res#onded. 'You ust be disa##ointed that you aren't having a honey oon.' Alice shook her head as she listened to her sister. -t was two o'clock in the orning and the festivities were finally over. ''o, -' not,' she told her, truthfully. 1hey had reached the to# of the stairs, and Alice turned auto atically to head for the nursery. +aughing, ,onnie sto##ed her. '4here are you going2' she asked her. '1he aster bedroo suite is that way...' 'Oh... Yes. )ut Angelina...' '9addalena and - have oved Angelina's things into the aster suite for you,' ,onnie told her with a gentle s ile.

'9arco e%#lained that there hadn't been an o##ortunity yet for the two of you to redecorate the roo s he had been using, and that you #lanned to do that together. - don't su##ose Angelina will ind slee#ing in his dressing roo for the ti e being, though. 'ot when she's got the two of you so close to her...' Alice swallowed nervously as she listened to her sister. *oolishly #erha#s, she had not really given any thought to where she would be slee#ing once she and 9arco were arried. $o ehow she had assu ed that she would si #ly go on slee#ing in her roo in the nursery suite, but it see ed that she had been wrong. As she hesitated outside 9arco's bedroo door, it suddenly o#ened and 9arco hi self was standing there. 'One bride,' her sister told hi ischievously before adding, '-s Angelina okay2 9addalena and - checked on her an hour ago.' '$he's fine. *ast aslee#,' 9arco res#onded, standing back fro the doorway, and so ehow without knowing 6uite how it had ha##ened Alice discovered that she had walked inside and that the door was being closed, shutting her in the roo with 9arco. $he had not been in his bedroo before, and she glanced round it 6uickly and nervously. +ike all the roo s in the palazzo it was huge, and furnished in what she guessed were #riceless anti6ues. - can't slee# in here,' she told hi huskily, #anic suddenly filling her. '-' afraid you not only can, but ust!' 9arco infor ed her coolly. 'After all, it's what everyone will e%#ect. 4e are now an and wife.' 'Yes, but only because of Angelina...-... You said this was going to be a arriage in na e. only.' '4hich it is, but you can't slee# a#art fro e tonight, of all nights. $urely you ust realise that2' 9arco told her giving her, a gri look as he added derisively, 'You're off stage now, Alice. You can forget the wide&eyed virgin& bride look! And you can forget anything else as well. - shall s#end the night in y dressing roo . 1here is a bed in there. After our guests have left to orrow we will have ti e to talk about the future #ro#erly.' Alice felt too unha##y to argue with hi or to #rotest at his high&handedness. And besides, if she did she sus#ected he would only deride her. '1he bathroo is through there,' 9arco told her, indicating one of the two doors o#ening off the bedroo . 'Your sister and 9addalena have brought so e of your things fro your own roo , - believe...' he added before going into the dressing roo and closing the door behind hi . $o e of her things... 4hich of the 2 Alice wondered worriedly. -t was her habit to slee# in nothing other than her own skin, a sensual #leasure she es#ecially enjoyed indulging in at the palazzo where the bed linen was cool, cris# cotton, s elling of fresh air and herbs. (owever, the thought of #adding naked around a roo with 9arco in such close #ro%i ity was not one she felt in any way rela%ed about. (ad her sister thought to bring her a robe, or had she assu ed that, as a new bride, Alice would neither want nor need to wear any such thing2 9arco stared broodingly out of the dressing&roo window into the soft darkness of the night, trying to co e to ter s with his feelings, and the si #le truth he had had to confront. *ro the o ent Alice had co e into his life she had unwittingly challenged his own beliefs, overturning things about hi self he had thought were set in stone. (e had tried to resist, telling hi self that it was for Angelina's sake that he had been able to recognise how uch she was able to give the baby in ter s of love, and how uch ore i #ortant that was than the differences that e%isted between their se%ual oral codes. (e had tried to dis iss his own desire for her as an uni #ortant irritation that could be ignored0 he had even, sha efully, at one #oint, tried to find so e way of convincing hi self that Alice had deliberately incited it, but thankfully his conscience had refused to co&o#erate. -nstead he had tried to se#arate Alice into two different #eo#le= the Alice whose love for Angelina was uncondi& tional and un6uestionable, and who he just had to watch with the baby and he was filled with the fiercest and #urest e otions it was #ossible for hi to feel, and the Alice who'd thought nothing of having se% with a arried an. Over the #ast few weeks, the Alice who gave herself so unstintingly to Angelina's care had touched his e otions ore and ore dee#ly. And as for the Alice who had a##arently given herself e6ually unstintingly to her lovers 9arco closed his eyes, a uscle tensing in his jaw. 1here was no #oint in lying to hi self any longerthe e otion otivating hi when he thought of that Alice was not self&righteous disa##roval, but raw, ale jealousy. (e ight genuinely have been #ro #ted to suggest a arriage between Alice and hi self as a eans of #rotecting Angelina, but today, standing in church beside her, he had known that he was arrying her because he loved her. And the Alice he loved was the whole Alice0 all of her0 just as she was #erfect. (e had no right to judge her. -t was

his jealousy and his #erha#s outdated beliefs that were at fault, and not Alice herself. "arlier in the evening dancing with her, holding her in his ar s, breathing in her #erfu e, he had ached so badly for her, but there was no way now that se% alone could ever be enough to a##ease his hunger for her. Outside in the ain bedroo Alice suddenly frowned. $he had re oved her veil and her headdress earlier in the evening but she was still wearing her wedding dress, and she now realised that unless she asked for 9arco's hel# in re oving it she was going to have to s#end the night slee#ing in it, since it fastened all the way down the back with a long row of tiny little buttons. 'o doubt it would cause a stir if she a##eared at breakfast in the orning still wearing her wedding gown! 4alking a little unsteadily to the closed dressing&roo door, she knocked self&consciously on it, and called out hesitantly, '9arco.' .ausing in the act of unfastening his shirt buttons, 9arco went to o#en the door. Alice felt her heart starting to thud far too heavily as she looked at hi , one hand la8ily unfastening the buttons on his shirt whilst he stood there, his outh slightly twisted in an e%#ression she couldn't understand. '-' sorry to disturb you,' she began and then sto##ed. Did her voice sound as betrayingly nervous and self& conscious to 9arco as it did to her2 $he touched the side of her throat, her fingers #laying with her hair, and then tensed. 1here was so ething about the way 9arco was watching her. (ad his e%#ression changed, or was it si #ly the shadows that were giving hi that hooded, dangerous look that was aking her heart beat so fiercely fast2 Des#erate to evade his ga8e, Alice dragged her own away only to discover that it was now resting where his unfastened shirt was revealing a dark e%#anse of hard& uscled torso, finely covered in soft dark hair. 9arco was her husband0 she was his wife0 they had just been arried. A fine shudder of reaction skittered over her body as her e otions overwhel ed her. 1he intensity of her own longing, her own love ade her feel di88y. Alice swallowed. (ard. /ery hard...and not because she felt nervous. 'o way did she feel nervous. 'o, what she felt was... (er ar had actually lifted of its own volition, her fingerti#s aching to delve into that se%y, silky darkness, and e%#lore that soft, silky evidence of his aleness, before she so ehow anaged to sto# herself. (er throat had gone dry, her tiredness forgotten. Des#erately she tried to re ind herself of just why she had gone to hi . -...- need so e hel# with y dress,' she anaged to whis#er. '1he buttons...' 1o show hi what she eant she turned round. '- can't unfasten the ,' she e%#lained. 'Yes, - can see what you ean.' $he had never heard 9arco's voice sound so terse. - can't slee# in y dress.' 4hy wasn't he doing anything2 $he could feel the searing heat of his breath against the e%#osed na#e of her neck. -t ade her ache to be closer to hi , to turn round and de and, beg that he treat her as a wo an and not as a business #artner. - can't ask anyone else.' (er voice tre bled and her face burned with the hu iliation of knowing just how dan& gerously close she was to aking a co #lete fool of herself. 9arco did not share her feelings0 she already knew that. ''o,' she heard hi agreeing, his voice dee# and un&fa iliarly strained. 'You can't.' 'Your dress akes your waist look tiny,' 9arco told her, une%#ectedly s#anning it with his hands. (is voice sounded different so ehow, dee#er, thicker, and Alice knew that there was a betraying tre ble in her own as she res#onded auto atically. '-t's the boning inside it.' ')oning2' 9arco sounded be used. - thought that went out with the /ictorians,' he co ented as he began to carefully unfasten the tiny buttons. 1ensing her body against any betraying reaction to hi , Alice gritted her teeth. 1here was a tallboy with a irror on it in front of her and in it she could see her own reflection and 9arco's as he slid the tiny loo#s over the even s aller buttons, but it wasn't the sight of his dark hands busily unfastening her dress that suddenly caused her to draw in her breath. 'o, it was the realisation that once the dress was co #letely unfastened and unsu##orted it would slither fro her shoulders, and all she was wearing underneath it was a tiny #air of briefs. 'o bra, no hose, just a inute #air of silk briefs. 9arco had reached the s all of her back. Alice could feel the heavy weight of her dress starting to drag it down& wards, another few buttons and it would... $he started to #anic, trying to #ull away fro hi . '4ait,' he instructed her, refusing to let go. - haven't unfastened the all yet.'

'ot all of the aybe, but he had unfastened enough of the , Alice recognised as her dress slid to the floor with a whoosh before she could grab hold of it. *ro8en with self&consciousness, Alice couldn't ove. -n the irror her ga8e et 9arco's, her colour getting higher with every breath she took. 9arco looked as though he had been turned to stone, as i obile as she was herself a#art fro the fierce glitter darkening his eyes. $he heard hi breathe a harsh, ragged sound that brought her skin out in a rush of sensual goose&bu #s, and galvanised her into #rotective action. As though they had actually felt the heat of that breath on the , her ni##les #outed and stiffened. -nstinctively Alice tried to conceal what was ha##ening to her fro hi 0 the urge to lift her hands and cover her breasts was auto atic. )ut shockingly 9arco reacted faster, so that it was his hands that covered her nakedness, cu##ing their soft sha#e, concealing their flaunting arousal. 'Alice! Alice!' she heard hi groan in a tone of voice she had never heard hi use before, dee# raw, hungry, aking her shiver with e%cite ent and longing. (e bent his head and kissed the side of her throat, causing a illion 8illion 6uivers of wild, frantic delight to soar through her. '(ave you any idea what you're doing to e2' he de anded thickly. 'Do you know how te #ting this is2 You are2' he whis#ered roughly. '*ar, far too te #ting!' he answered his own 6uestion, his voice thick with desire. 'Do you know what you're doing to e2 (ow uch you are aking e want you2' Alice certainly knew what he was doing to her, and how very, very te #ted, how shockingly, achingly tor ented she was! (e was turning her round, so that her naked breasts were #ressed tightly against his e6ually naked chest, his hands sliding down her back to #ull her right into his body, and then cu##ing the soft, rounded sha#e of her buttocks. $he could feel how aroused he was. ?nowing that he wanted her ade her feel sensually #owerful, increasing her longing for hi . 3uthlessly she ignored the tiny voice trying to re ind her that he did not love her, and that his se%ual arousal was just an auto atic ale reaction to her nakedness. $he didn't want the truth. 'o, what she wanted was the fantasy of believing that he loved her. 4ithout knowing she had done so, she breathed his na e, e%haling it in a soft, enticing sound of inti ate invitation and desire. -t ran over 9arco's senses like a s all electric current, heightening everything he was already feeling. -t was i & #ossible for hi to resist her. (e could feel her body 6uivering beneath his touch0 reality was being consu ed in the fiercely burning fires of his desire. (e kissed her forehead and then her eyelids, her cheek and the shockingly res#onsive #lace just behind her ear, aking Alice oan o#enly in aching #leasure. 9arco could feel his self&control sli##ing away. (e kissed her outh, slowly, carefully, trying to restrain hi self. (er li#s tre bled beneath his and her hand gri##ed his shoulder, her fingers digging into his flesh as she shuddered against hi . $he was irresistibly res#onsive, aking hi feel that she was #owerless to control her reaction to hi . -t was a dangerously #owerful a#hrodisiac. *or a second he hesitated, re inding hi self that he was a an of honour and that their arriage was solely a business arrange ent, at least so far as she was concerned, no atter how he ight feel about her, but the feel of her against hi was too uch for his self&control. 'You want e2' he asked her, deter ined to let the decision be hers. Alice tensed. (ere was her chance <to sto# what was ha##ening if she wanted to. $he was #oised on the brink of taking a ste# that once taken would change her life for ever. )ut hadn't her love for 9arco already done that2 4ouldn't she regret it for the rest her life if she refused what he was offering her now2 1aking a dee# breath, she nodded, and then just in case he hadn't understood she told hi huskily, 'Yes, - want you.' $uch si #le words, to ake his heart ache with such heaviness and his body #ulse with such longing, 9arco acknowledged. ,u##ing her face, he kissed her slowly, savouring every centi etre of her outh with an inti acy that o entarily caught Alice off guard. (is hands were caressing her body. Against her outh he whis#ered, 'Aren't you going to undress e2' (er undress hi 2 Alice began to #anic. $he had forgotten that 9arco believed her to be se%ually e%#erienced, and a seducer of arried en! Alice's stiffness and lack of res#onse ade 9arco frown. (ad she changed her ind2 (e tried to look into her eyes, but she i ediately dro##ed her lashes, veiling the fro hi .

- think it ight save ti e if you did that yourself.' Alice didn't know how she had anaged to find the courage to whis#er the soft words. $he felt as though her whole body were on fire with self&consciousness. $ave ti e! 9arco was too engrossed in his own thoughts and feelings to register her disco fort. .icking her u#, he carried her over to the bed, slowly lowering her onto it and leaning over her so that her breasts were #ressed against the war nakedness of his chest. 'You're right,' he told her thickly. '4e don't need to waste ti e on unnecessary #reli inaries when what we both want is this!' (e was kissing her now in a way that shocked her nearly as uch as it e%cited her. (is hands sha#ed her naked breasts. As he ran the ti# of his tongue round her softly swollen outh he ran the #ad of his thu b around her aching ni##le. (er whole body arched as though a bow had been drawn taut fro her breasts to her se%. 7nable to sto# herself, Alice ade a s all #leading gas# of sound, which she tried to s other against 9arco's shoulder, but instead of re& leasing her fro her tor ent her reaction only caused hi to increase it. 1he way he was touching her ni##les ade her whole body shudder with desire. And the only way she could stifle the sounds of agonised need she was aking was to bite shar#ly into the fir flesh against her li#s, whilst her fingers clenched into the sheet, which the #assionate thrashing of her body had ruckled. 1he sensuality of her res#onse to hi was driving 9arco out of his ind. 1ugging at his clothes, he tore the off as 6uickly as he could without releasing her, knowing that he was si #ly not able to release her. 1he feel and taste of her, the scent and heat of her were like an i ediately addictive drug. 1he hand he had had to lift fro her body to unfasten his trousers had left her breast e%#osed, its #eak taut, te #ting hi , taunting hi to res#ond to its erotic invitation. Dragging off the last of his clothes, he covered it with his li#s, laving it fiercely with his tongue before drawing it dee#ly into his outh and sweetly savaging it, with the raw sensuality of his need. (is hand slid down her body, #arting her legs, seeking her war , fe ale heat. Dee# shudders ri##ed through Alice's body. $he had thought she knew all about se%, and that e%#eriencing it would hold no sur#rises for her, but the raw se%uality of what was ha##ening was showing her how wrong she had been. $o ehow, without knowing how, she had buried her fingers in 9arco's hair, holding his head against her breast as she sub itted to the ferocity of the sensation that swe#t her in wave after wave. $he could feel the wet heat of her se%, and feel, too, the way it was res#onding to 9arco's touch, e%#anding, o#en& ing. (is fingerti# stroked and searched and then circled, and the nub of flesh nor ally so innocently dor ant swelled and #ulsed with #leasure. '9arco. 9arco.' )arely aware that she was even s#eaking, never ind what she was actually inciting, Alice ke#t on re#eating 9arco's na e in a fren8ied litany of uncontrollable need. 9arco hesitated. (e could sense how close she was to her fulfil ent, but this first ti e for the together he wanted that fulfil ent to be #art of his. $till stroking her, he oved over her, kissing her #assionately as he started to thrust into her. )eneath his kiss Alice gas#ed, her eyes widening as she felt her body stretch to acco odate hi . Oh, but it felt so good. (e felt so good. (el#lessly she clung to 9arco, overwhel ed by what she was feeling. All she knew was that the shar# #ang of #ain she was suddenly e%#eriencing was so ehow a #art of the so uch greater #leasure0 that the feeling of being totally filled by hi was one that she was enjoying too uch to care about the #ain. 9arco felt her body's tension, its tightness, he heard Alice's s all cry but it was too late for hi to sto# what was ha##ening. 1o withdraw now would be to risk hurting her even ore. (e tried to control his body's de and for co #letion, but it was too late. Alice's fingers tightened into the hard uscle of 9arco's ar as beyond the #ain she could feel so ething else, so ewhere& else, a #lace so #owerful and achingly sweet that tears filled her eyes at the thought of not reaching it. Des#erately she #ressed closer to 9arco, silently willing hi to take her there, and then iraculously that was what he did and the s all, tiny waves of sensation oving with such wonderful #leasure inside her had beco e larger ones, thudding, rolling, curling, ocean&wide breakers of such #leasure that she could hardly bear to endure it. -n its after ath her whole body felt as though it were hu ing with ha##iness. Drowsily she looked at 9arco, trying to su##ress her s all, instinctive wince as he withdrew fro her. $he felt so tired. $he could hardly kee# her eyes o#en. $he started to yawn. Gri ly 9arco watched her.

)&A,+1- +1"
'A+-,".' 3eluctantly Alice o#ened her eyes. Daylight was #ouring in through the bedroo window and as 9arco leaned over her, a towel dra#ed round his hi#s, his body glea ing fro the shower he had obviously just taken, she could see the scratch arks on his skin. $cratch arks she had inflicted last night at the height of her #assion! 9iserably Alice tried to swallow. -f she had been foolish enough to entertain so e secret ho#e that last night's in& ti acy would so ehow agically cause 9arco to announce that he loved her, she knew now just how wrong she had been. 'o words of love had #assed his li#s last night and, fro the look she could see in his eyes, he certainly wasn't about to utter any now. '4hy didn't you tell e you were a virgin2' 9arco asked her tersely. (e had been awake half the night entally lashing hi self for what he had done, for his crassness, his selfishness, his sheer ale brutality in hurting her, but instead of telling her what he was actually feeling 9arco heard hi self sounding as angry as though she were the one at fault. 9arco's anger banished Alice's self&#ity. Grabbing the sheet, she sat u# in the bed and faced hi . '4hat was the #oint2' she challenged hi . 'You had already decided that - was se%ually e%#erienced0 a wo an who seduced arried en.' $he held her breath, waiting to see how 9arco would react, willing hi to tell her that he had never for a o ent really doubted her. And then once he had done that she wanted hi to take her in his ar s and tell her how uch last night had eant to hi and how it had ade hi realise that he loved her. )ut of course he did no such thing. -nstead he walked towards the window and stood there with his back to her. 'You do realise that this changes everything between us, don't you2' he told her. $he could hear fro his voice just how seriously he was taking things. '(ow could y virginity do that2' she asked hi uncertainly. $he could hear his irritated indrawn breath. '(ow could it not2 Do you think - a the kind of an who goes around deflowering virgins2' (e sto##ed and shook his head, swinging round to focus on her. 'Do you i agine that - like knowing that y... y desire was so out of control that - could not restrain yself2 4e will talk later about 9rs +evinsky's reasons for lying to e about you, but - think - guess what they were. 5ealousy is a very dangerous wea#on. - have no e%cuses to offer you for what...what ha##ened. You are now y wife in every sense of the word. -t is y duty, y res#onsibility...' ''o,' Alice #rotested, struggling to co e to ter s with what he was saying. '4e ade a business arrange ent, that is all.' '+ast night changed all that irrevocably,' 9arco told her i #lacably. 'Do you realise that you could be carrying our child... y child2' he threw at her. Alice gri##ed the sheet ever harder. A baby. 9arco's baby... $he could feel herself elting, yearning...and she had to fight to hold onto reality. '4e ust both ho#e that you are not,' 9arco said sternly. (e didn't want her to have his child2 '4e have agreed that our arriage will end in five years' ti e,' 9arco re inded her as though he sensed what she was thinking. - considered yself to be honour bound to stand by that arrange ent. (owever, if you were to have y child, there is no way - could allow hi or her to be brought u# by anyone other than yself.' (e #aused and looked #ast her before continuing, 'And knowing what - do about you - know that you will feel the sa e way. You have very strong feelings about love. - know that. - cannot co #ound what - have already done by tying you to a loveless arriage.' Alice's heart had started to thu # far too heavily. 1here! (e had told her now that he did not love her. (ow uch ore #lainly did she need to hear it2 As though her silence e%as#erated hi , he grated harshly, '4hy did you let it ha##en, Alice2 1o #unish e for isjudging you2 1o ake an irrevocable, unassailable #oint2 Didn't you think...2' 'o atter why she had done it, he was the one who was at fault. 9arco knew that. )ut he also knew that the reality of starkly #utting into words that she did not love hi was tearing hi a#art. 1his wasn't a #ain he was going to have to endure for a atter of weeks or onths, but for the rest of his life! Dangerously close to tears, Alice glared at hi .

'Didn't you think2' she challenged hi . '1hink2 -n the state - was in2' 9arco's e%#ression was self&derisory. (e could see Alice starting to frown and he cursed hi self inwardly. -f he wasn't careful he was going to reveal to her how he felt about her, and that was a burden he was fiercely deter ined he was not going to #lace on her. At least he hadn't guessed how she felt about hi , Alice co forted herself. At least she was to be s#ared that hu& iliation. '-t see ed a good idea at the ti e,' she res#onded, giving a s all toss of her head. 'A good idea2' $he could see the way 9arco's throat constricted as the words were ri##ed fro it. (e was looking at her as though he would like to strangle her. '(ow could you behave so irres#onsibly, throw yourself away so casually...2 "s#ecially when...' (e sto##ed, but Alice guessed what he had been about to say. "s#ecially when he didn't love her and she eant nothing whatsoever to hi . 9arco tried to cal hi self down. (e knew the de ands #ride and self&res#ect could ake on a #erson, but for Alice to go to such dangerous lengths. (ad she no sense of self&#reservation2 '-t wasn't really that i #ortant,' Alice told hi with a bravado she was far fro feeling. 1he truth was that it was only the ost i #ortant thing she had ever done! 'At y age virginity can get to be so ething of an e barrass ent, and, besides, - thought it was ti e - found out what all the fuss is about!' $he felt she ought to get that in, just to ake sure she had ade it #lain to hi that she was not foolish enough to be drea ing drea s of love. 9arco could scarcely believe his ears. (e watched her through narrowed eyes. $he sounded convincing enough, but so ething, so e instinct, told hi that she was lying to hi . 4hy2 4as she aware of the challenge she was issuing2 And the way his own instincts were lea#ing to eet it, and to show her right here and now just how uch #leasure her body was ca#able of2 Gri ly he decided to teach her a s all warning lesson, for her own sake as well as his! '-ndeed,' he res#onded silkily. 'Dare - ho#e that - ca e u# to your e%#ectations2' 7neasily Alice rubbed her tongue&ti# round her nervously dry li#s. $he knew she had been deliberately goading hi . 7nable to risk looking directly at hi , she told hi as insouciantly as she could, '-t was... -t was interesting, but not so ething - would want to re#eat.' 9arco stared at her. (e was te #ted to let hi self believe that she was deliberately trying to incite hi . -f he, thought for one inute that she actually wanted... )ut then she turned her head and he saw the dark bruise on her collar&bonea bruise he hi self ust have inflicted at the height of his #assionand guilt #oured through hi , fill& ing hi with self&conte #t. -t was bad enough that he had taken her virginity. (e wasn't going to let hi self be so weakened by his love for her that he used it as an e%cuse to kee# her in his bed. -n five years' ti e he wanted to be able to kee# his #ro ise to her to set her free. -t was a atter of honour to do so, but if she should conceive his child 9arco knew there was no way he would ever be able to let either of the go& '4hat ha##ened between us last night ust never ha##en again, Alice, and - intend to ake sure that it does not!' Alice could feel her face starting to burn at the hu iliation of the warning he was giving her. Did he really think that she was so lacking in self&res#ect that she would try to initiate se% between the 2 'Good. -' glad to hear it,' she re#lied in a high, brittle voice. *or a second 9arco had a dangerous i #ulse to take hold of her and ake her retract her words. 1o caress her, kiss her, love her until she was crying out to hi . *or hi . *or his love! (e felt as though he were sinking in 6uicksand0 as fast as he tried to control his feelings, they #ulled hi back down! $he was so innocent0 so ine%#erienced that she had no idea just how s#ecial and rare what they had shared had been. 1he #leasure she had given hi ! 1he way her body had res#onded to hi ...welco ed hi ...clung to hi ... 9arco could feel the savage burn of his own renewed aching need. (e had to get away fro her before he did so ething he would regret!

)&A,+1- 1/121"
G"'1+Y Alice re oved the sa #le of fabric Angelina had #icked u# fro her baby fingers. Alice was trying to ake a final choice for the new wall#a#er and fabrics to decorate the new aster bedroo suite. 1he suite co #rised two bedroo s, one of which was ostensibly going to be Angelina's roo co #lete with a bed for 'e ergencies' and a #layroo off it, with another large roo which su##osedly would be Alice and 9arco's. -n the eanti e all three of the were still sharing 9arco's e%isting suite, although Alice had anaged to insist that 9arco sle#t in his own bed whilst she sle#t in the s aller bed in the dressing roo so that she could be closer to Angelina. 1rue to his word 9arco had ke#t her at a distance, #hysically as well as e otionally. And that of course was e%actly what she wanted! At least it was what her #ride de anded she wanted! 4hen he s#oke to her his voice was terse, his desire to s#end as little ti e with her as #ossible hurtfully obvious. 1he new suite was also going to include two dressing roo s, a shower roo , and a se#arate bathroo , as well as a s all #rivate sitting roo , and it was Alice's res#onsibility to choose the decor for the entire suite, whilst 9arco was naturally taking charge of all the architectural, design and building work. 9arco had been an%ious to get the #lans finalised because he was due to fly to 3o e the following day for a series of business eetings about a ajor #roject he was involved in. 1ickling Angelina, who had now cleverly #roduced another new tooth, Alice glanced at her watch. -t was virtually ti e for her to get changed for dinnera for ality that had be used her a little at first, but that she had now grown accusto ed to. And at least she had found a use for all those e%#ensive little outfits of Angelina's! 4hilst she ight have refused to allow 9arco to #rovide her with a new wardrobe full of e%#ensive designer clothes, there was no reason why Angelina shouldn't wear hers. As was custo ary with -talian fa ilies, Angelina, whilst too young as yet to join the at the table, was there with the whilst they ate their dinner, uch to Alice's relief. At least with Angelina there she had so eone to talk to, so eone with who she could behave naturally. $o ehow or other without ever discussing the subject she and 9arco had evolved a syste that allowed the both the #rivacy to use the bedroo and the bathroo without the other being #resent whilst at the sa e ti e aintaining the fiction of their newly arried status. Alice knew that logically s#eaking she ought to be grateful to 9arco for his discretion and for the fact that he was adhering to the agree ent they had ade, but instead what she was actually feeling was a sense of rejection and loss0 a feeling of being cheated of so ething that she as a wo an should have been e%#eriencing. 1he truth was that her body ached far ore now fro the lack of 9arco's #ossession than it ever had done before he had #ossessed it, hu iliating though it was for her to have to ad it as uch. 9addalena was a stickler for #unctuality and in e%actly ten inutes' ti e dinner would be served in the s all, at least by the palazzo's standards, #retty dining roo , which had originally been decorated by 9arco's other. 4hen Alice #ushed the stroller into the roo a few inutes later, she found that 9arco was already there, standing with his back to her, and looking out of the *rench windows that o#ened out onto a s all, #rivate, enclosed garden. (e had obviously o#ened the *rench windows because Alice could hear the sound of water s#lashing fro the ornate stone fountain, which do inated the elegant courtyard. Although he turned round when he heard the co ing into the dining roo , he didn't s ile. (e looked #reoccu#ied and distant Alice recognised, a feeling that was intensified for her during the course of their eal, when he see ed to have retreated behind an invisible wall into a dark, brooding silence that she felt reluctant to break. After they had finished eating and Alice ade to take Angelina u#stairs to #ut her to bed, 9arco announced abru#tly that he intended to go with the . '- shall be leaving early to orrow orning for 3o e,' he told Alice tersely. 'You've got y obile nu ber #lease don't hesitate to use it if you need to reach e for any reason.' 'odding, Alice sus#ected that he was thinking back to Angelina's illness. (a##ily the little girl had gone fro strength to strength since then, and was now rosily chubby, and eating well enough even to #lease Alice's e%acting standards. 'Angelina is going to iss you,' she told hi as he hel#ed her u#stairs with the stroller. '$he could really do with a high chair now,' she co ented once they had reached the bedroo . '$he can't feed herself yet, of course, but the sooner she gets used to eating with us, the better... - was wondering if it would be all right for e to go into *lorence and buy one whilst you're away...' '4hat...2 Oh, yes. Of course. Get whatever you need, Alice.'

Alice frowned as she heard the tension in his voice. $o ething was wrong. $he could sense it. )y the ti e she re& e erged into the ain bedroo half an hour later, to confir to 9arco that she had finally ade u# her ind about which fabric she wanted for their bedroo curtains, Alice was feeling an%iously on edge. )ut abru#tly her own an%iety eva#orated as she saw that 9arco, obviously unaware of her #resence, was standing beside the tallboy, frowning down at the #hotogra#h of his cousin Aldo that he was holding. Alice felt her heart contract in a bittersweet #ain of sadness and co #assion as she looked at hi . Only two #hotogra#hs had decorated the tallboy on their arriage. One had been of 9arco's #arents together with hi as a little boy and the other had been of his cousin. 'ow there were three #hotogra#hs there, the new addition being one of herself on their wedding day with Angelina. $he had been shocked at first to see it there, but then she had reasoned that it was #erha#s there because 9arco felt that the other e bers of his household would e%#ect it to be there. '9arco.' $he said his na e 6uietly, and was not sur#rised when he did not i ediately res#ond to her. $lowly he re#laced the #hotogra#h and then turned round. '1oday would have been his birthday,' he told her so brely. '(e would have been twenty&seven...' '*or as long as - live - will never, ever forget the scene - witnessed when - was called to the accident,' he added gri ly. ''or will - ever sto# feeling that there was so ething - could have done to #revent it. $o ething - should have done.' ''o. You ustn't say that,' Alice #rotested i ediately, forgetting her own feelings, as she was swa #ed by concern and co #assion for hi . Going over to hi , she touched his ar as tenderly as she would have done had he been Angelina. , '(e was an adult, 9arco. A an. (e ade his own decisions...' 'Did he2' 9arco asked her gri ly. 'Or did .atti and - ake the for hi 2 -t's true that - never wanted the to arry...but God knows - never wanted this.' 1he feel of his flesh beneath her fingerti#s was distracting her, aking her think. 9aking her want hi . (astily Alice oved back fro hi , unaware of the look he was giving her as she did so. (e sto##ed s#eaking and looked away fro her. - used to chide hi for his lifestyle, for living so...so...' (e shook his head. ')ut at least - can co fort yselfif indeed it is a co fortthat he enjoyed life to the full. 1hat he lived it to the full. 1hat he e%#erienced love, shared it, even if it was in y eyes a shallow&rooted, e#he eral e otion and not what - yself would want. (e conceived a child...the only way hu ans have of defying our ortality.' 4isely Alice ade no atte #t to s#eak. $he could sense that he needed to unburden hi self, to vocalise his own feelings of bitterness and loss. As he oved towards the desk in front of the bedroo window, Alice was sur#rised to see an o#en bottle of wine on it. Although 9arco drank wine with his ealsas indeed she was now learning to do so herselfshe had never before seen hi touch alcohol at any other ti e, and yet here he was now filling his glass with the rich ruby li6uid and lifting it to his li#s, drinking dee#ly. '(e was the youngest e ber of y fa ily, a brother to e al ost. - never thought...' (e took another dee# gul# of his wine. - felt #rotective towards hi in the sa e way you do towards your charges, Alice, and the fact that he is dead akes e feel that - failed hi . 1hat there should have been so e way - could sense what ight ha##en, that - could have, should have done so ething to #revent it.' And he took another dee# swallow, virtually e #tying his glass. '(ow could you #ossibly have known2' Alice said gently, aching to co fort hi . '(e only ca e here to the palazzo because he wanted e to hear his side of things, because he was concerned would hear the gossi# about the disintegration of his arriage fro so eone else. -t was at y insistence that he brought .atti with hi . - thought so e ti e here together away fro the distractions of 3o e ight hel#. )ut all it did was focus on the differences between the . '4hen they left for the evening to go to *lorence, - never drea ed that that would be the last ti e - would see the alive...' (e #icked u# the wine bottle, obviously intent on refilling his glass, but instinctively Alice oved towards hi , giving a s all ur ur of #rotest. ''o2 'o, you do not a##rove of e losing yself in drink...drowning out y #ain in its e brace... )ut what alternative do - have2' 9arco de anded harshly. 'You2 9y wife2' 1he bitterness of the brooding look he gave her shocked her. '4ould it disgust you to know that right now - ache so uch that - could take you even without love2' (is words ade Alice recoil with #ain, but before she could say anything he was oving towards her, challenging her. - know already that you are wo an enough to give your love to a needy child, but are you wo an enough to let e

lose yself in you, Alice2 1o drown out y #ain in you0 within you... 1o let e feel that - a alive, hu an...a an!' $he knew that it was the wine he had drunk and his #ain that were aking hi say such things. And se% was a ale anodyne, she knew that too! 3ecklessly she ade no atte #t to ove away fro hi , even though the voice of co on sense within her was warning her that she should do so, and that if she stayed where she was 9arco ight 6uite legiti ately take her #resence as a tacit invitation. 1hat he ight do e%actly what he was doing, she recognised di88ily as he ca e towards her, and took hold of her, running his hands u# and down her bare ar s, his wine&scented breath dangerously seductive against her skin as he kissed her forehead and then the side of her throat. '+et e... +et e lose yself in you, sweet Alice.' 1he words of denial were on the ti# of Alice's tongue. After all, she knew full well she ought to utter the , to #ut an end to this dangerous folly right now for both their sakes, but so ehow they refused to be s#oken as her body res#onded to 9arco's words in its own s#ecial language, shuddering delicately beneath his hands, her breasts swell& ing and fir ing, her ni##les clearly visible beneath the line fabric of her dress, her eyes suddenly dark and heavy with her e otions as she stared u# into the unreadable intensity of his. '$weet, loving Alice... (ow uch you have tor ented and tantalised e these last few weeks. 1he scent of your #erfu e in this roo , the sound of your laughter when you are #laying with Angelina, the sha#e of your body beneath your clothes when you ove, and y e ories of just how it looks without those clothes. - want you, Alice! - want to lose yself in your sweetness...forget the #ain and the guilt and...' Alice didn't know which of the it was who shuddered so dee#ly that both their bodies felt the sensation and she didn't even think she cared. 3ight now all that attered was that 9arco wanted her0 that he needed her and every& thing that was her welled u# inside her to eet that need. -nstinctively she oved closer to hi , lifting her outh generously to his. (e covered it i ediately with his own, aking her tre ble. (is kiss was hard and #ossessive. 1he kiss of a an driven by fierce #assions, she recognised instinctively as he #arted the softness of her li#s with the swift thrust of his tongue. (is hands were cu##ing her face, holding her still beneath the ele ental #ossession of his kiss. $he could have broken away if she wanted to, Alice knew, but it was as though so e force stronger than any desire she ight have had to #rotect herself ke#t her where she was, her body just brushing against 9arco's as slowly, breath by breath, he dee#ened his kiss. $he felt one of his hands slide fro her jaw to her throat, slowly caressing her skin before oving down over her back to rest just below her waist, and then tighten around her so that now she was totally body to body with hi . ',an you feel how uch - want you2' he whis#ered against her ear. Alice shivered convulsively, her #hysical reaction betraying just how aware of his arousal she wasaware of it and aroused herself by it. 'You have the ost beautiful breasts, just ade to be kissed,' he told her thickly. '4hat is it2 Don't you believe e2' he asked her when she auto atically started to shake her head, overwhel ed by the inti acy of what he was saying to her. 'Do you want e to #rove to you just how beautiful - think they are2' 1he dress Alice was wearing was an old favourite, a sli# of black jersey that oved fluidly with her body and that 8i##ed u# the back. $he tensed a little as she felt 9arco reach for the 8i#, but, even though her eyes widened and filled with uncertainty, her body still tre bled with e%cite ent and desire as he unfastened the dress, and slowly sli##ed it fro her shoulders. As it slid to the floor, Alice auto atically closed her eyes, afraid not just of her own nakedness but also of what 9arco ight see in her eyes, the hel#less, foolish, aching love she knew ight be re& vealed there. 4hat she was doing was so reckless. $o dangerous, so #otentially self&destructive. $he knew how he felt about her, or rather how he didn't! Did she really want to burden herself with the knowledge that she was using his #resent vulnerability to satisfy her own aching longing for hi 2 $he felt hi kissing the base of her throat whilst his hands cu##ed the balls of her shoulders. 1he evening air felt softly cool against her naked skin, but Alice knew that it wasn't the air that was aking her ni##les #eak so urgently. 9arco's hands were cu##ing her breasts, whilst his li#s feathered tiny kisses against her closed eyes. $he could feel her ni##les #ressing into the #al s of his hands, aching with longing as he slowly caressed her breasts. 1onight, just as she had been on the night of their wedding, all she had been wearing beneath her dress was a #air of briefs. 'Your skin is so soft. $o tenderly #ale,' 9arco ur ured. '1here is so ething about you, sweet Alice, that brings out the hunter in e, the desire to feast yself on the tender sweetness of your flesh, so very, very different fro y

own. Does it shock you to hear e say these things to you2' he asked her. Alice couldn't s#eak, but had she been able to do so she would have told hi that she sus#ected that he would not be saying the to her if it weren't for the co bination of his grief for his dead cousin and the effect of the wine he had drunk. $he sensed that together they had lifted the taut control he had been e%ercising over hi self, allowing her to see once ore the an who had filled her with such #hysical #leasure and satisfaction on the night of their wedding. (e had wanted her then, and he wanted her again now. 4anted her, yes, but he did not love her, she tried to warn herself. (er body, though, didn't want to hear her warnings0 recklessly it was res#onding to 9arco's touch with flagrant sensuality. 'Don't look at e like that,' he suddenly said thickly as his hand left her breast to cu# the back of her neck. -n& stinctively she looked u# at hi and then wished she hadn't as she saw the bla8ing look of desire burning in his eyes. ''ot unless you ean what those huge eyes of yours are saying to e! Do you2' he asked her. 'Do you want e to take you to y bed, and kee# you there, sweet Alice, to cover your nakedness with y own and touch you in all the ways that a lover touches a wo an, #leasures her. +oves her.' Alice was shaking so uch she sus#ected that if he hadn't been holding her she wouldn't have been able to stand u#right. (e was seducing her with his words just as thoroughly as he was with the slow, seductive caress of his hands on her virtually naked body. $oft, stroking caresses that war ed her flesh and tor ented it, aking her ache for ore, so uch, uch ore... 'You haven't answered e,' he re inded her, bending his head to #lace a soft kiss at either side of her outh and then to circle her li#s with the ti# of his tongue, causing her to elt hel#lessly against hi , her li#s #arting eagerly for the dee# thrust of his tongue. -nstinctively she oved urgently against hi , her hands clinging to the fabric of his shirt whilst dee# within her body she felt the shar#ly #iercing ache of her own need. (el#lessly she returned his kiss with all the intensity burn& ing inside her. ')ut now you have,' 9arco told her softly as he released her outh, and swung her u# into his ar s to carry her over to the bed. ''ow you have told e that you want e as uch as - want you.' As he lowered her onto the bed he #laced his li#s against her breast, gently caressing her ni##le. Alice gas#ed and tensed, her whole body a bow of shocked delight as she tre bled fro head to foot with the intensity of her own #leasure. . 1hat 9arco knew what he was doing to her, how he was aking her feel, was obvious by the way his own #assion suddenly flared into hot, reci#rocal hunger, his hand su##orting her arched body whilst his outh caressed her other breast, and not gently this ti e either, but Alice had gone beyond wanting gentleness. As her body res#onded to his #assion she tried to silence the shar#, high cry of frantic need that rose in her throat and failed, but the sound she had ade, so shocking to her, only see ed to incite 9arco. (e caressed her breasts with his hands and his outh until Alice felt she couldn't bear the #leasure any ore. -t sti ulated and e%cited her, but at the sa e ti e it left her feeling e #ty, aching... 'eeding. *rantically she gave in to her own need to res#ond, #ressing s all, oist kisses on 9arco's throat, his e%#osed shoulder, where she realised she ust have #ulled so hard at his shirt she had torn off the button. $he could hear the s all keening noises she was aking as she tried to articulate her need to have the sa e access to his naked body that he had to hers, but she hadn't realised she had actually stated that need out loud until 9arco suddenly released her and sat u# beside her, his ga8e holding hers, his eyes brilliant with a i%ture of ale triu #h and hot desire as he boldly finished 6uickly re oving his shirt. '-s this what you want2' he asked her thickly. Alice couldn't hel# herself. ediately she reached out and touched hi , her eyes wide and dark. 1otally en& grossed in what she was doing, in the feel of the soft, silky dark hairs beneath her fingerti#s, the hot, ale scent of his skin, and the way it felt and tasted beneath her li#s as she #laced the against it, she was oblivious to the fact that 9arco was re oving the rest of his clothes until the fingers she was blindly s oothing over the tautness of his uscles suddenly di##ed low enough to touch the flat #lane of his belly. ediately she fro8e, but it was too late, 9arco was urging her to touch hi even ore inti ately, to touch and caress hi in the sa e way, he whis#ered to her, as he was going to touch and caress her. As he s#oke he was gently teasing her briefs away fro her body, his li#s feathering delicate kisses against her skin. 'Do you know just what it does to e to know that - have awakened you to your desire, Alice2' he asked her rawly. '1he night of our wedding - hurt you, - know, but - think - gave you #leasure as well. 1ell e,' he de anded. '1ell e if l did2'

Alice oaned. 5ust listening to what he was saying to her was driving her need to a fever&#itch. 5ust re e bering how she had felt that night... (er body ached with need for hi 0 it filled every single cell, every nerve ending, the feeling so intense that it was al ost a #hysical #ain. '1ell e,' he was insisting. Di88ily she thought that it ust be a ale #ride thing that was aking hi so insistent, unaware of just how uch his love for her ade hi ache to feel that she had so e #leasure fro his touch. '-t was...it was good,' she ad itted unsteadily. 'Good,' 9arco re#eated. '(ow good2 $o good that you will take the e ory of its #leasure with you to the grave2 )ecause if not, tonight it will be that good,' he #ro ised her softly. '1onight - will give you all the #leasure there is. All the #leasure you need. 1onight you and - will celebrate life together.' Alice knew he was thinking about his cousin and the shortness of his life. )lindly, her own e otions acutely sensitive, she o#ened her outh to his kiss. '- want this to be as good for you as - know it's going to be for e.' $he could hear 9arco whis#ering to her, between the dee# kisses he was giving her, taking her outh with #ossessive #assion as his touch beca e ore and ore inti ate and her body rela%ed against it and then began to cla our eagerly for it. As she arched her hi#s and writhed hel#lessly against his hand Alice felt hi lift his outh fro hers and groan against her throat whilst his body was convulsed by a long, dee# shudder. 5ust the feel of his body against hers was aking her ache so uch with longing for hi . 1here was a need dee# inside her, an e #tiness that only he could fill, an urgency driving her, co #elling her. 4hen 9arco reached for her, Alice wra##ed herself around hi , her hands clinging to his shoulders, her legs wra##ed high and tight around his body, welco ing the re e bered sweet, fierce shock of his now careful thrust within her. (er body see ed to have been ade es#ecially for this, es#ecially for hi , Alice thought di88ily as every sensitised nerve ending reacted to the feel of hi thrusting dee#er inside her, in a surge of hot, sweet, wet #leasure that defied descri#tion. $he had thought it would be i #ossible for her to feel ore #leasure than she had done that first ti e, but now she knew she had been wrong! 1hat the feeling of being totally filled by hi was one that she was enjoying as uch as she could sense that he was0 that the need that drove hi was e%actly the sa e need that drove her to have hi there as dee# within her as it was #ossible for hi to be, and, once there, to ove in e%actly the way he was doing, all ale, savage, #owerful heat and #ossession, all wonderful, loving #leasure. Alice gas#ed as the contractions of her own fulfil ent gri##ed her, ore intense, ore shocking, ore everything that she had ever i agined they ight be. $he knew she cried out 9arco's na e and that he res#onded with a gut& tural sound of raw, ale, agonised release of his own, but these were #eri#heral recognitions, her whole world, her whole being concentrated on the inti ate intensity of the #leasure 9arco had just shown her. As she finally slid down fro the heights tears glistened on her cheeks, her eyes da8ed and lu inous with the in& tensity of her e%#erience. 1oo e%hausted to conceal the fro hi she si #ly lay there as he brushed the away. -t would be so easy now to convince herself that she could see tenderness in his eyes, but she had to re e ber the realities of her situation. 5ust because 9arco had ade love to her that did not ean that he loved her. (e had felt vulnerable. (e had needed so eone and she had been there. -t would be e%tre ely foolish of her to start i agining anything else. 9arco woke u# with a jolt. 1he bedroo was in darkness, and there was absolutely no sound fro the dressing roo , which would have indicated that a wakeful Angelina had brought hi out of his dee# slee#. 1here was one unfa iliar sound in his roo , though, in his bed. 1here was the soft whis#er of Alice's breathing. Alice! (is heart issed a beat and then another before thudding heavily against his chest wall. 1he wine he had drunk earlier was no longer into%icating his bloodstrea , and the shar#ness of his grief for Aldo had softened to a dull ache, but neither of the was any real e%cuse for what he had done. 4hat had ha##ened to the self&control he had always #rided hi self on having2 1he last thing that Alice would want when she woke u#, he told hi self bitterly, was to find hi in bed with her, a re inder of the way he had #layed on her co #assion. /ery carefully 9arco slid out of the bed, #ausing only to e6ually carefully and gently tuck the covers #rotectively around Alice's slee#ing body before straightening u#. $he looked so young, so tender, so desirable in her slee#. 7nable to sto# hi self, 9arco leaned down again and tenderly brushed a soft kiss against her li#s before heading for the dressing roo , and the s all narrow bed in there in which Alice nor ally sle#t.

4hen Alice woke u# 9arco had already left for 3o e. Alice told herself that she was glad and that she needed so e breathing s#ace without hi to give her the strength to co#e with her love for hi . $he couldn't go on like this. )ut she couldn't leave either. 5ust as 9arco was doing, she was co itted to #utting Angelina's needs before her own. -t was nearly a week since Alice had last seen 9arco. (e had rung her every day and so eti es twice a day during his absence, but only of course to check on Angelina. 1onight he would be ho e, although he'd infor ed Alice his flight was not due to arrive until the early hours as he had a final a##oint ent in 3o e that would last until after dinner. 1he #hone rang as she was crossing the salon on her way to the garden with Angelina. Auto atically she answered it, her sto ach uscles clenching in nervous e%cite ent as she antici#ated hearing 9arco's voice, but instead she discovered that her caller was *rancine, Angelina's grand other. ediately *rancine de anded to s#eak to 9arco. '-' afraid that isn't #ossible,' Alice told her as #olitely as she could. '(e's away on business at the o ent.' 'Oh, it's you!' *rancine res#onded un#leasantly. '1he little nanny, or, should - say, the new contessa... Don't think haven't guessed just what this arriage is all about! 4ell, he isn't going to get away with it. (e isn't going to sto# e... -'ve taken legal advice... 4hen will he be back2 - want to see hi ,' she de anded abru#tly. '"r...' 4hen Alice hesitated, an%iously, not sure what kind of res#onse 9arco would want her to ake, but knowing full well just what she would like to say to *rancine given free choice, es#ecially about her neglect of her granddaughter, *rancine cut across her uncertainty with a conte #tuous, '1rying to #rotect hi 2 (ow #athetic! - su##ose you've fallen for hi ...you know he's just using you, don't you2 - have every right to see y granddaughter and that is e%actly what l intend to do. As of now...and if need be - shall re ain at the palazzo until 9arco does return...' Alice's heart sank dee#er with every word the other wo an uttered, but she knew that there was nothing she could say that would #revent her fro arriving at the palazzo. $he just ho#ed that 9arco would return before she did! *or the rest of the day Alice worried an%iously over *rancine's threats. Alice hadn't been slee#ing #ro#erly since 9arco had been away, with the result that by the ti e she had finished her evening eal she was already yawning. 1here was no reason for her not to have an early night, she told herself. 9arco was not due back until the early hours, and once he did return there was no reason why he should want to see her, was there2 $o e wo en e%#erienced tiredness in the early weeks of their #regnancy. Alice's heart gave a di88ying thu #. )y rights she ought to be #raying that she was not #regnant, instead of secretly ho#ing that she was! 9arco's baby! 4as it wrong of her to long to have his child2 (e had sworn that if she did conceive that he would not let hi or her go! (e had told her too that he knew she would never leave her baby, which eant... $he couldn't s#end the rest of her life living with hi , loving hi , knowing that he did not love her! )ut neither she sus#ected would she be able to find the strength to leave. During 9arco's absence she had taken to slee#ing in the big bed in the ain bedroo , not because it was any ore co fortable than the s aller bed in the dressing roo , but si #ly, she acknowledged guiltily, because it was 9arco's bed. )ecause being there so ehow eased the ache of longing for hi that tor ented her. 1onight, though, she would be slee#ing in her own bed! ?nowing that he would be arriving ho e so late, 9arco had left his car at the air#ort. As he drove into the long #rivate drive that led to the palazzo he acknowledged both how tired he was and how uch he had issed Alice. -n 3o e he had constantly been subconsciously looking for her, listening for her laughter, and the sound of her voice, low and loving as she s#oke to Angelina. -f she should conceive his child, she would have to stay with hi . 5ust the thought of watching her body grow with his child filled hi with a gut&wrenching surge of raw longing. (e ust not allow hi self to think so! Alice had a right to give her love as freely to the an of her choice as he had given his to her! -f he tried to deny her that right, then he couldn't love her! Alice shivered as she re e bered her night are. -n it *rancine had been laughing as she'd told the that the courts had decided that Angelina should live with her. Alice's outh felt dry, and her eyes gritty. $liding out of her bed, she #added into the ain bedroo through which she had to walk to reach the bathroo , and then sto##ed as the oonlight revealed 9arco's slee#ing for in the bed in front of her. (e was back! $he hadn't even heard hi arrive. - #ulsively she ti#toed across to the bed, unable to resist the te #tation to look down into his slee#ing face. -n slee#

his features looked gentler, his dark hair tousled, and the beginnings of a beard shadowing his jaw. 4ithout thinking what she was doing, Alice reached out and touched it with her fingerti#s, wondering di88ily at the sensation of it against her own soft flesh. "ven when he was aslee# his aleness was a #owerful aura that enra#tured and held her. (er fingerti#s had reached his outh. $he started to tre ble as she traced the sha#e of his li#s. (e was breathing dee#ly and softly. $he gave a shocked gas# as suddenly his eyes o#ened at e%actly the sa e ti e as his outh closed round her fingerti#s, and his hands fastened on her waist, jerking her onto the bed beside hi . '9arco,' she #rotested, but the sensation within her caused by the sensual way he was licking and sucking her fingers ade the sound of his na e ore of a long, shaky oan of desire than any real, recognisable objection. (er fingerti#s were released, but her hand was still held ca#tive. '1here's no way - should be doing this,' he groaned. 'And no way that - can sto#.' And then he was kissing her #ro#erly, his outh hungrily de anding on hers. A fierce surge of #leasure filled her, knowing that he wanted her so uch, a dangerous ache filling her wo b this ti e, her body was so eagerly readyso hungry for his touch that her own li#s were #arting, her tongue tangling sensually with his the o ent she felt his outh o#en. 1he touch of his hands on her body was every #leasure she could ever want0 he was all the #leasure she would ever want, and she couldn't sto# herself fro showing hi how she felt as she #ressed tiny, hungry kisses against his throat, his chest, his ar s, whilst he #ulled her even closer into hi . $he wanted all of hi ! "verything! "very sen& sation, every sense fulfilled and satisfied si #ly because it was with 9arco. $he wasn't a novice bride now. (er body knew hi , and it knew itself as well, it knew what desire and #leasure were and how to give and receive the . And he had shown her and taught her all of that, so he had no one but hi self to bla e, she reasoned #assionately. 1his ti e it was his turn to shudder and groan as her #assion sur#rised and overwhel ed hi , her hands revelling in the sensation of touching hi , the freedo to touch hi wherever she wished, to learn and know hi and to feel his res#onse to her, against her hands, against her li#s, within her body... $he was #ossessed by a sense of urgency and fate, an inner knowledge, a need to sei8e this s#ecial o ent. 1o have hi , ost of all, dee#, dee# within her, where she wanted to hold hi for eternity, whilst she revelled in the fe ale triu #h of having given hi his #leasure in the sa e heartbeat as she had taken fro hi the seeds of eternity. As he s#illed hi self inside her, 9arco cried out in des#eration. 1his was not how it should be, not how he had intended it to be, but so ehow he was #owerless to deny hi self! (e started to reach for her, needing to hold her and then realised what he had done. As 9arco oved deliberately away fro her, Alice was bitterly aware of his rejection.

)&A,+1- + 1/21
'*O3 the last ti e, *rancine, no. 1here is no way - a going to #ay you anythingfor any reason...' As he faced *rancine's furious disbelief, watching as she #aced the floor of the palazzo's library, 9arco acknowl& edged that he was te #ted to give in and #ay her what she wanted. -f he had thought for one inute that in doing so he would re ove her fro Angelina's life for ever, he would willing have #aid three ti es the a ount she was asking hi for, but he knew what would ha##en if he did. )lack ail was an invidious, cree#ing thing. $ooner or later and #robably sooner, *rancine would be back for ore oney, and if he #aid her off now all he would be doing would be creating a situation where she continued to de and blood oney fro hi . -f that ha##ened Angelina would never be safe. 'o, risky though it was, going to court to establish who Angelina should be with was in 9arco's o#inion the right course of action to take. 'You'll regret this,' *rancine warned hi bitterly. 'You clai you love Angelina, and yet you won't even #art with a easly illion dollars to kee# her,' she taunted hi . '$o e love...' - could say the sa e thing to you,' 9arco #ointed out coldly to her, 'but then we both know, don't we, *rancine, that where you are concerned love doesn't co e into the e6uation, other than your own love for yourself2 (as it occurred to you the da age you're doing to your own case by co ing here like this and trying to black ail e2' '(ow are you going to #rove it2' *rancine sneered. ')y #roducing one of your #aid lackeys. 9y brief will ake sure everyone knows that they are de#endent on you for everything, and that your word is law here, 9arco. And if you're thinking of your new wife...' (er sneer dee#ened. '(ow uch did you #ay her to arry you2 Or did she do it for free2 $illy girl...a an always values so uch ore what he has to #ay for. And the ore he #ays, the ore he values it.' 'As -' sure you have good cause to know, *rancine,' 9arco res#onded 6uietly. ')ut if you ever dare again to ention Alice in the sa e breath as your own sordid set of values, let e warn you right now, - will ake sure that you have good cause to regret it.' 'Don't you dare threaten e,' *rancine warned hi furiously. '1his is your last chance, 9arco. -f you don't take it, then - #ro ise you - a going to take Angelina away fro you. $he is y flesh and blood0 - a her closest living relative.' 'A other who sold her own daughter to the highest bidder. 'o court in the world will give you so uch as access to her once they know your history, *rancine,' 9arco told her coolly, with a confidence he was inwardly fighting to hold onto. 'You'll #ay for this, 9arco,' *rancine threw at hi as she turned on her heel. '9y God, - #ro ise you, you are going to wish you had #aid e when you had the o##ortunity because there's no way now - will ever let you have Angelina.' '1hat decision doesn't rest with you,' 9arco re inded her. (owever, as he watched her stor out of the palazzo and head for her car 9arco knew that inwardly he was not as confident as he had #retended. -n a fair and just world he would gain custody of Angelina for her own sake, but...but *rancine could be e%tre ely #lausible when she chose, and she was also both dangerous and ani#ulative. *rancine was shaking with fury as she drove away fro the palazzo. $he had been so sure that 9arco would give in to her this ti e. $he was des#erate for the oney she had asked hi for... ore des#erate than he could #ossibly i agine. 1here was a dark and dangerous side to *rancine's life that not even .atti had known about. $he had first visited the 7nited $tates as a young wo an searching for the G- father who had abandoned her other without knowing she was #regnant. 4hen she had finally found hi *rancine had been disa##ointed to discover that he was far fro being the wealthy, successful an she had fantasised about hi being, but was in fact a careworn accountant working in a factory in 'ew 5ersey. (e had been arried with three children, *rancine's younger half siblings...who *rancine had liked even less than she had liked her father, but there had been one thing he had done for her and that had been to give her her A erican nationality. And it was because of that that she was in so uch trouble now. Or at least that was how she #erceived her situation. $he had started ga bling when she had left her newly discovered father and ade her way to 'evada, initially to work as a crou#ier and then ore latterly to s#end her earnings at the ga ing tables. -t had been there that she had first et 5ack. 1he an who for any years had been her lover, even while *rancine had been arried and living in "ngland with her husband and .atti. 5ack, it was ru oured, had connections with the

9afia. (e had loaned *rancine oney, which over the years had built u# into an horrendous a ount0 an a ount that he was now de anding that she re#ay...either in cash or in another wayhel#ing hi with his illegal activities. And it was that other way that had sent *rancine into a frantic fren8y to 9arco, des#erate to get fro hi the oney to re#ay 5ack. Once she was dragged into his gangster lifestyle, she would never be able to break free. (er #unish ent if she were to be caught could ean that she ight even lose her own A erican citi8enshi#, and there was no way she wanted that to ha##en! 1he wheels of her hire car s#un on the gravel of the palazzo'? long driveway. Alice, who had been walking Angelina in her stroller, saw the cloud of dust thrown u# by the s#eed at which *rancine was travelling. $he had been outside in the garden when she had seen the other wo an arrive, and she was relieved to see that she was now leaving. 1here had to be so e way to ake 9arco #ay her that oney, *rancine fu ed frantically. $he had been so sure that he would buy her off! 1hat was the whole reason she had threatened to lay clai to Angelina. 1he last thing she wanted was a de#endent child0 she had never wanted .atti to have her and had counselled her daughter to have a ter ination. 9arco, of course, being ty#ically -talian, was besotted with the wretched child. *rancine's hands tightened on the steering wheel of the car as she saw Alice with the stroller... 4ith a sudden flash of ins#iration she knew that her #rayers had been answered, and what she ust do. .ressing her foot to the car's brake, she brought it to a skidding halt. Alice coughed on the dust *rancine's screeching halt had thrown u#, wafting it away with her hand, whilst she watched uneasily as *rancine got out of the car and walked towards her. 'Give e y grandchild,' *rancine de anded i #eriously the o ent she reached the , stationing herself stra& tegically in front of Alice and reaching swiftly into the stroller, lifting Angelina out before Alice could sto# her. At being handled by a stranger whose touch lacked the loving tenderness she was used to, Angelina i ediately started to cry, her distress adding to Alice's an%iety. 'You're frightening her,' she cautioned *rancine #rotectively. '$he isn't used to being held like that. +ook let e show you what she likes...' - don't give a da n what she does or doesn't like,' *rancine retorted un#leasantly, breaking off to give a s all angry screa and 6uickly hold Angelina at ar 's length as the baby reacted to her roughness by sicking u# so e of her food. 'Don't you dare be sick on e, you little brat,' *rancine told her furiously, shaking her so hard that Alice i ediately tried to re onstrate with her. 'You don't like what -' doing. 1ough!' *rancine told Alice conte #tuously. '$he's y grandchild and she's co ing with e.' Alice couldn't believe what she was hearing... *rancine couldn't #ossibly just walk off with Angelina like that. *rancine was now turning round, still holding Angelina, without any concern for the baby's co fort, and heading for the car, o#ening the driver's door, and for the first ti e Alice realised that the engine was still running. .anic filled her. One read about such thingschildren being abducted in custody warsbut she had never for one second i agined that it ight ha##en to Angelina. 'You can't take her! .lease...' she #rotested, her throat dry and raw with fear. '$he's just a baby! $he doesn't know you... -n half an hour she'll need a feed and...' *rowningly *rancine hesitated. 4hat Alice was saying was true! $he thought 6uickly, her eyes narrowing with concentration, and then told Alice, '4ell, if you're so concerned about her, you'd better get in the car as well. 4ho knows2 .erha#s 9arco will be #re#ared to #ay double to get the #air of you back!' Alice stared at her. *rancine was kidna##ing Angelina in order to ake 9arco #ay to get her back2 *rantically she searched the other wo an's face. "verything she could see there confir ed all that Alice felt about her, and her fears for Angelina grew. *rancine was carelessly bundling Angelina into the back of her car, which didn't even have a baby seatin another few seconds she would be gone. -t would take Alice at least twenty inutes to get back to the house even if she ran, and by that ti e... '4ait!' Alice de anded as *rancine started to get into the car, ignoring Angelina's wails of #rotest. '-' co ing with you. )ut we need to take the stroller...it turns into a car seat and' ''o way! "ither get in now or -'ll leave,' *rancine told her gri ly. 4hat real o#tions did she have2 Alice asked herself. 'one! $hakily she got into the back of the car and tried to co fort Angelina as *rancine #roceeded to drive off at such a high s#eed that Alice was jolted back against the seat so heavily that the ove ent jarred her neck. 1hank heavens she had Angelina wra##ed #rotectively in her ar s. '.lease,' she begged *rancine. 'You are driving uch too fast.'

'.oor little wifey. 4hat are you trying to do2 9ake e slow down so that your wonderful acho husband can catch u# with us2 'o way!' *rancine laughed. ''o way do - sto# until we're back in 3o e and then, y dear, Angelina and - will be on the first flight to the 7$A where we will stay until your #recious husband co es to his senses.' Alice winced as she was thrown against the car door when *rancine turned out of the drive and onto the ain road. 1here was no way Angelina could endure being driven even a few iles at such a break&neck s#eed without being sick, never ind all the way to 3o e, and thanks to *rancine all the baby had was the clothes she was wearing. Alice had never in the whole of her life hated anyone as uch as she loathed and detested *rancine. (ow could she do this to any child, never ind her own grandchild2 )ut Alice already knew there was no #oint in trying to reason with her. Angelina was snuggling as close as she could to Alice, her baby eyes round with shock and distress. '-t's all right, little one,' Alice whis#ered tenderly to her. 'Don't worry...don't worry.' As she rocked her Alice wished there were so eone there to tell her not to worry... $o eone2 Or 9arco2 Out of the corner of her eye she watched in horrified disbelief as *rancine took a corner by driving in the iddle of the road, and only just issed being hit by the car co ing the other way. '1y#ical ale driver!' Alice heard her utter as she increased her s#eed. 'God, - hate en! All of the , but none of the as uch as - hate your husband,' she told Alice bitterly. 'All he had to do was to #art with a ere illion dollars. 1hat was all. (e could have ke#t the bloody brat and you as well, but, no...he clai s to love the #air of you but he obviously doesn't love you very uch, does he2' -t was news to Alice that 9arco had ever clai ed to love her, but wisely she ke#t her thoughts to herself. *rancine was already dangerously overwrought and frantically Alice tried to think of so e way to cal her down and get her to reduce her s#eed. -f she didn't Alice was des#erately afraid that there could be an accident... -t was half an hour after *rancine had driven off with Angelina and Alice before .ietro, returning fro the fields, saw the abandoned stroller in the drive and rushed to re#ort what he had seen to 9arco. 9arco, who had assu ed that Alice was #unishing hi for the #revious night by kee#ing away fro hi , 6uickly checked the bedroo and, on finding it e #ty, i ediately hurried to his own car and drove to where .ietro had found the stroller. 1he tyre arks in the gravel told hi everything he needed to know. *rancine! *rancine was so ehow res#onsible for the abandoned stroller and the disa##earance of both Alice and Angelina... 'Oh, y God,' he whis#ered to hi self as he guessed what ust have ha##ened. 'Oh, y God!' Once she got to 3o e she would ring 9arco fro the air#ort. 5ust before she boarded her flight, *rancine decided gleefully. And she would tell hi that now the cost of getting custody of Angelina had doubled to two illion dollars, with of course a further illion thrown in for the safe return of his wife. :uite how she was going to #ersuade Alice to board the #lane with her, *rancine hadn't worked out as yet, but she sus#ected that wherever she took Angelina, Alice would follow. $urely *rancine wouldn't si #ly be able to leave the country with Angelina, Alice fretted. 1here would be legalities0 for alities0 the s all atter of a #ass#ort, but she hesitated to say anything in case it drove *rancine into an even greater fren8y than she was already in. Angelina had been sick so often as they'd been thrown around the back of the s all car that the #oor little thing #robably didn't have anything left in her tu y to be sick with, Alice recognised as she tried her best to co fort her. 1he road fro the palazzo was a narrow, twisting one as Alice had good cause to know. "ven when 9arco was driving she so eti es felt nervous, and 9arco was a very careful driver. *rancine, on the other hand, was anything but, and Alice could have sworn that so eti es *rancine forgot which side of the road she was actually su##osed to be driving on! 1he inevitable ha##ened just when Alice had finally begun to rela% and convince herself that *rancine's driving was no worse than that of the drivers co ing the other way. $he had taken a corner far too fast, and had to swerve to avoid crashing head&on with the lorry co ing the other way. Alice felt the sickening lurch of the car as *rancine lost control of it and looked u# just in ti e to realise that they were skidding across the road right in the #ath of an onco ing car. 3eaching instinctively, she threw herself #rotectively on to# of Angelina whilst the world turned into a hell of twist& ing, screeching, tearing etal, #unctuated by a wo an's screa s and a series of bone&jarring thuds. $he felt the #ain in her legs, and then the nu bness, but by then a blessed silence had fallen, a stillness in which she was at #eace to let go of the #ain tearing into her. 5ust as long as she didn't let go of Angelina... +ater Alice realised it could only have been a atter of inutes after the crash and her loss of consciousness before willing hands were #ulling o#en the doors of the car, calling out to her in an%ious voices that dragged her back fro the abyss of her agonising #ain. '1he baby! You ust take the baby!' she heard herself insisting as she anaged to twist her head to look into the

eyes of the an bending an%iously over her. (er back had sto##ed hurting now. $he couldn't feel it at all, thank goodness. )ut she could s ell #etrol and sense the fear and an%iety of the en clustered around the doorway. (er thoughts felt uddled and slow0 she couldn't see *rancine but she could feel Angelina's war , s6uir ing body lying #rotectively beneath her own. 1he baby!' she re#eated to her would&be rescuers. -t was an effort for her to talk, her li#s felt nu b, but she couldn't lift her hand to touch the because it felt as if the whole of her u##er body was tra##ed beneath so e heavy, crushing weight... ':uick. 1here is a child in here,' she heard one of the en say in -talian. And then another called out, '4e shall need to cut the wo an free!' ,ut the wo an free. 4hat wo an2 4ho were they talking about2 *rancine2 "ven though she disliked her, Alice ho#ed that she would be all right... '1he baby,' she re#eated #ainfully...as the an leaning over her started to fade and recede in a sickening wave of di88iness... Angelina had anaged to free one of her ar s, and she reached out and touched Alice's face. Alice could see the shock in the an's face, which irrationally annoyed her. (adn't he listened to anything she had said2 'You ust tell 9arco, the conte, that Angelina is safe,' she told hi slowly, as though she were talking to a child. '(e will be worried about her. You ust contact the palazzo. $lowly and #ainstakingly she gave hi the address and the tele#hone nu ber, resisting the desire to cling onto Angelina as she was gently eased out fro beneath her own body. 1hey had to hold her whilst so eone #ut a huge wadding of cushions and what looked like discarded clothes beneath her where Angelina had been. -ndignantly she tried to #rotest, but she could feel herself sli##ing into unconsciousness. -t took 9arco less than half an hour after the #olice had infor ed hi about the accident to reach the scenehe had driven there far faster than *rancine, dreading with every kilo etre what he'd been going to find. Angelina, they had told hi , was fine. 'And Alice2 9y wife2' 1here had been a brief #ause. '$he is tra##ed in the back of the car. $he ust have thrown herself over the baby to #rotect her and the force of the collision has #ushed the whole of the #assenger seat of the car into the back seat and over her,' he had been told so brely. 4hen 9arco reached the scene of the accident it was thronged with #eo#le. 'Your wife will have to be cut free,' he was told. '4e have had to send to *lorence for the cutting gear...' (is heart buckled and twisted, tearing hi a#art. (e had to be with Alice and nothing, no one was going to sto# hi . - ust go to y wife,' he told the #olice an gri ly. "ven saying the si #le words ' y wife' agonised hi , bringing ho e to hi just how uch Alice eant to hi , and how uch he loved and needed her. '$he is unconscious at the o ent.' 1he #olice an frowned. '1here has been a s#illage of fuel caused by the collision. And it isn't safe to allow anyone to get too close.' (anding Angelina to 9addalena, who he had brought with hi , 9arco de anded 6uietly, '+et e see.' 4ithout waiting for the #olice an's res#onse, 9arco #ushed his way through the #olice cordon surrounding the accident and then sto##ed, his head s#inning. 1his was worse than the accident that had killed Aldo and .atti. 1he s all car had virtually been crushed to nothing by the force of the i #act with the uch heavier vehicle it had skidded into. -ronically the driver's side of the vehicle was intact, but the #assenger side... '-t is a iracle that your daughter is unhurt,' the #olice an told 9arco. '9other love is a wonderful thing. Your wife risked her own life to save her baby. $he threw herself over the baby and her body #rotected her. 7nfortunately' gravely he looked at 9arco 'unfortunately, she is now tra##ed beneath the front of the car and the #assenger seat. 4e cannot ove her, and we do not know just how badly hurt she is. 1he doctor has just arrived and he is trying to talk to her.' (is heart in his outh, 9arco strode over to the car. A an was crouched down beside the o#en #assenger door, stroking Alice's hand. ',an you feel any thing... any #ainany sensation2' he was asking her 6uietly. Alice was trying to concentrate on what she was being asked, but it was so very, very difficult! All she wanted to do was to close her eyes and go to slee#. (er body felt odd...heavy and yet so ehow nu b. 1here was a dreadful #ain in her head and a etallic taste in her outh. (er hand looked unfa iliar to her...li # and odd... At least Angelina

was safe, she co forted herself ha8ily. ''o, you ust stay awake,' the doctor was saying sternly to her. 'Don't close your eyes.' Alice winced as he flicked his fingers #ainfully on the back of her hand. (e was turning his head to s#eak to so eone out of her line of vision, and she couldn't hear what he was saying. .anic and fear swe#t through her as she tried to listen. $he felt so alone! An even greater de#th of fear was surging through 9arco as he reached the doctor and de anded to know what was ha##ening. '-t is i #ortant that she re ains conscious,' the doctor infor ed 9arco, who had heard Alice's s all gas# of fear and was reaching out #rotectively towards her. '4e don't know just what da age ay have been caused as yet...and we won't know until we can cut her free. - shall need to stay here with her and talk to her. ?ee# her conscious,' the doctor e%#lained #atiently to 9arco, recognising his feelings. '+et e do that,' 9arco de anded i ediately. '$he is y wife.' 1he doctor was frowning, but 9arco was insistent. Alice could hear 9arco s#eaking to her0 calling her na e. 1elling her that she ust not go to slee#. (a8ily she tried to focus on his voice. (ow could he #ossibly be here2 Disbelievingly she forced her heavy eyelids to lift, her eyes widening in shock as she saw that she had not been i agining hi , drea ing foolish drea s, he was here. 9arco was here with her! 5oy filled her in an adrenalin, life&giving surge, 6uickly followed by guilt as she realised that he could not #ossibly be here for her, but because of Angelina. - tried to sto# *rancine,' she told hi i ediately, 'but she had Angelina. $he said she was going to ake you #ay to get her back...' 1ears filled her eyes. And she gave a s all gas# as 9arco gently started to wi#e the away. 1here was blood on the cloth in his hand, she realised with a vague sense of shock. 'You ust have cut yourself,' she told hi in concern. '-t's nothing,' 9arco told her. (is voice sounded rough, as though so ething was stuck in his throat, as though he was so ehow having trouble s#eaking. )ecause he was angry2 4ith her2 7naware of what Alice was thinking, 9arco di##ed his head so that Alice wouldn't see the tears in his eyes. 1he blood was hers fro the cuts on her face, which the doctor had insisted were only su#erficial, but he didn't want to frighten her by telling her that. -t was hot inside the car, and his uscles were already aching fro the crouched #osition he had ado#ted so that he could get as close to her as he could. (olding her free hand in his whilst he talked to her, telling her how brave she had been, reassuring her that Angelina was safe. Alice felt as though she were in so e kind of drea , lying there with 9arco beside her, holding her hand tightly, s oothing the hair back off her face with his hand whilst he talked to her. '(ow do you feel2' he was asking her. 'Are you in any #ain2' '9y back really hurt when it first ha##ened,' Alice told hi confidingly, 'but the #ain's gone now.' '(as it2 1hat's good,' 9arco res#onded, whilst inwardly he ade hi self a vow that, no atter how badly injured she was, he would devote the rest of his life to taking care of her and loving her. 1his was all his fault. All of it... '4here's *rancine2' Alice asked hi . - don't know,' 9arco answered her truthfully. One of the witnesses had stated that they had seen a wo an running away fro the scene of the accident and he had assu ed that she ust have been *rancine. 1he truck with the cutting gear had arrived and the #olice were warning 9arco that for his own safety he would have to ove away. *iercely he refused. '4hat a lot of noise,' Alice whis#ered as the achines were #ut to work. '9 ... You'll soon be free now,' 9arco co forted her. An a bulance was standing by and he could see the doctor watching and waiting. *ro so ewhere Alice was bleeding. (e could see the red stickiness as they started to ove the wreckage away fro her. '-t hurts!' Alice whis#ered shakily. (er face was #a#er&white, her eyes huge and da8ed with #ain. '1ry to be brave just a little while longer,' 9arco whis#ered to her, barely able to choke out the words. 1he doctor was oving towards the , a hy#oder ic syringe in his hand... '1his is just going to rela% you so that we can ove you safely,' he told Alice.

$he s6uee8ed 9arco's hand tightly as the needle slid into her vein.

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'$o today you are going ho e. 4hat a #ity,' the nurse teased Alice. '4e are going to iss seeing that handso e husband of yours.' Alice gave her a brief s ile. $he had grown so used to her hos#ital bedroo these last four weeks. *elt so safe there that she felt reluctant to leave. "veryone had been so kind to her0 so #rotective of her. $o ready to reassure her that she was very brave and very lucky. (er worst injury had been the blood she had lost where the etal had #ierced her flesh, but even the scar fro that would fade in ti e, the doctor had assured her jovially. 9ercifully she had been s#ared any real awareness of those agonising hours when she had first been brought to the hos#ital and they had had to find out just how badly injured she ight have been. (er back had been badly bruised. $o badly that she had been black and blue, but by so e iracle no #er anent da age had been done a#art fro a s all fracture to her collar&bone, which had now healed. 1he scratches that had covered her face had also totally healed, and now the doctor had decided that she was well enough to leave. 1o go ho e... (o e to Angelina and to 9arco. 9arco! 4as she strong enough to be with hi and not betray her feelings to hi 2 And at least so ething good had co e out of the accident. 4hen the #olice had caught u# with *rancine at the air#ort she had been so terrified that she had willingly agreed to sign a docu ent renouncing any clai on Angelina. As 9arco had said to Alice, there was no way any court anywhere would grant her custody once they learned how narrowly she had esca#ed a #rison sentence for dangerous driving and for #utting at risk the life of the very child she clai ed to love so uch. 1ersely 9arco had told Alice how uch he regretted not si #ly handing *rancine the oney she had de anded, but, as Alice had told hi , in her o#inion all that would have done would have been to convince *rancine that she could continue to black ail hi whenever she chose. And then Angelina would never have been safe. )ut now Alice was afraid to return to nor al life, and afraid too to return to the palazzo, because the reality was that now, with the threat of *rancine fully re oved fro Angelina's life, 9arco no longer needed her. At least not as a wife. And that eant... Alice didn't want to think about what it eant. '3eady, then2' 'ervously Alice nodded, watching as 9arco #icked her bag u# off her bed and turned towards the door of her hos#ital roo . At her own insistence, Alice was holding Angelina. 5ust as soon as Alice had been well enough she had #leaded with the nurses to allow her to have Angelina with her as uch as #ossible, so that the little girl would not feel that she had abandoned her, which was of course why 9arco had visited the hos#ital so uch and stayed overnightfor Angelina's benefit, not for hers. 1he one thing Alice had asked 9arco to do for her had been not to infor her fa ily about what had ha##ened. (er sister had confided e%citedly to her just before the accident that she was #regnant and Alice had not wanted her to worry. Alice had been dreading the drive back to the palazzo, but, to her sur#rise, instead of driving her hi self 9arco got into the back of the car with her after he had stra##ed Angelina into her front baby seat, leaving .ietro to drive. '-t's all right, Alice,' he told her 6uietly, as though he had guessed how she was feeling. 'You'll be #erfectly safe.' And so ehow Alice suddenly felt that she would be. )ut what sur#rised her even ore than the fact that 9arco was travelling in the back of the car with her was the way in which he cal ly took hold of her hand and held it fir ly within his own. Alice stiffened as she tried to conceal her shock. 'ot once in all the ti e she had been in hos#ital had 9arco ever touched her. -n fact, she had gained the i #ression that he wanted to kee# as uch #hysical distance between the as he could, just as he had done at the palazzo, when she had known that he'd wanted to underline to her the fact that their se%ual inti acy was just that and eant nothing e otional to hi . 5ust to sit there with her hand folded into the war #rotection of his ade her ache with e otional weakness. -f only she could give her love full rein, and ove closer to hi , #ut her head on his shoulder and be drawn #rotectively into his ar s. Des#erately afraid that she ight so ehow betray to hi just what her feelings for hi were, she #ulled her hand fro his. As he felt Alice withdraw her hand fro his 9arco stared out of the car window. (er rejection of his touch brought ho e to hi the e%tent of his sins against her. (e was facing a choice it was al ost i #ossible for hi to ake. On the one hand there was Angelina, who loved and needed Alice so uch. 9arco hardly dared let hi self even

begin to 6uantify the e%tent of the e otional da age it would do the little girl to lose Alice now. -n the first hours of Alice's accident, when Angelina had been of necessity se#arated fro her, she had cried unceasingly, and been inconsolable, until in des#eration 9arco had taken her to the hos#ital. 1he o ent he had #laced Angelina on the bed with Alice she had cal ed down, and incredibly in her se i&conscious state, as though so ehow she had known the baby had been there, Alice had reached out and #laced her ar #rotectively around her. 'o, 9arco knew there could be no substitute in Angelina's life for Alice and Alice's other love. )ut on the other hand, there was Alice. Alice who had suffered so terribly because of hi . Alice who surely had the right to love the an of her own choice, and to share his life with hi , to bear his children. 9arco tensed against the visceral savagery of his own #ain at that thought. 4hat the hell should he do2 ?nowing Alice, he sus#ected that she would insist on honouring her original contract to stay with Angelina for the early years of her life. And if she did, how the hell was he going to find the self&control to kee# his distance fro her2 "ven if they ended their arriage, it wouldn't ake any difference0 he would still love her, still want her. -t was his duty to #rotect her as it was to #rotect all those who worked for hi a feudal view#oint #erha#s, but one that was bred into hi . )ut how could he #rotect her fro hi self2 Alice tensed as they reached a narrow hair#in bend. $he needn't have worried, though0 .ietro was a cal and careful driver. "ven so she was relieved when they finally reached the palazzo. 3elieved and too tired to ake any real de ur when 9arco announced that she was to go straight u# to their roo so that she could rest. '1hey've started work on the new aster suite,' he infor ed her. - would have liked to have had it finished in ti e for your return, but unfortunately that just wasn't #ossible. 9ind you, that is #erha#s as well, since - sus#ect you will want to oversee their decoration and refurbish ent yourself. 1here's a fir -'ve used before who are e%#erts at #roviding odern&day fittings such as wardrobes and the like, but fronted in such a way that they blend #erfectly into the fabric of older buildings. As soon as you feel strong enough -'ll set u# a eeting with the , and with the two bathroo s#ecialists whose stuff you liked.' Alice al ost issed one of the stairs. (e was still #lanning to go ahead with the conversion2 4hy2 $he had had #lenty of ti e to think whilst she had been in hos#ital, and she had told herself that, with the threat of *rancine #er anently re oved fro Angelina's life, the first thing that 9arco would want to do would be to end their arriage. $he had told herself that she ought to be #leased and that, with their arriage over, it would surely be far easier for her to conceal her love fro hi . $he couldn't #ossibly leave Angelina, of course, and if 9arco should suggest that she did... 4eak tears filled her eyes at the thought of leaving the little girl. 1hey were outside the bedroo door now, and as 9arco o#ened it he told her brus6uely, '-'ll leave you to get settled. 9addalena will be u# shortly to see if you need anything.' As he turned away fro her 9arco caught the silver shi er of her tears, and sto##ed. '4hat is it2' he de anded i ediately. '4hy are you crying2 Are you in #ain2 4here does it hurt2 1ell e.' Alice gave a s all hiccu##ing sob. 1rust 9arco to think that the #ain had a #hysical cause! )ut before she could say anything, to her be use ent 9arco suddenly burst out, 'Alice. Alice, #lease don't cry. - can't bear it. - can't bear to think of how uch you've suffered. Of how uch - have caused you to suffer. - never eant it to ha##en, - swear to you.' ''o. 'o. Don't,' Alice heard hi begging her as her tears fell even faster in reaction to her shock at realising that so ehow he had discovered that she loved hi . - didn't want it to ha##en either,' she we#t, barely aware of the fact that they were now both inside the bedroo , and 9arco was for so e reason holding her in his ar s. - didn't want to love you,' she told hi . '-...' $he could feel the tension in his body. 1he ar s that had been holding her so co fortingly slackened and 9arco ste##ed back fro her. Alice shivered, issing their co fort. 'Alice, what are you saying2' 1here was a shocked, al ost warning note in his voice, but Alice ignored it. 4hat did it atter what she said now2 After all, he had ade it obvious that he knew she loved hi . '-' saying that - love you, 9arco. 1hat -'ll always love you and that - wish ore than anything else in the world that - had conceived your child,' she told hi recklessly. 'At least then -'d have so ething of you, to love. - know you don't want e. - know you'll want to end our business arrange ent now, but #lease, for Angelina's sake, let e stay with her as you originally #lanned. $he needs e, 9arco, and - #ro ise that - won't...'

As the words #oured out of her 9arco could only stare at her in disbelief. '1hat you won't what2' he challenged her huskily when he realised that she had sto##ed s#eaking. Alice shook her head, her face cri soning as she refused to #ut into words just what she eant. '1hat you won't allow e to do this,' 9arco suggested, shocking her as he took her back in his ar s, and bent his head to feather tiny little kisses against her li#s... 'Or this,' he ur ured softly against the as his tongue gently #robed their closed line and hel#lessly it started to #art. Alice was shaking with anguish and longing. 4hat was 9arco trying to do to her2 4hy was he tor enting her like this2 And then to her disbelief she heard hi telling her thickly, his voice raw with e otion. 'Alice, Alice, y little love, y dearest and only love. - hardly dare let yself believe that this is real. 1hat you should love e when - have done so little to deserve your love.' 9arco was calling her his dearest love. (is only love. Di88ily Alice tried to ake sense of what was ha##ening, but 9arco was kissing her so #assionately that it was i #ossible for her to think!

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$everal inutes later, having reluctantly released her outh, 9arco groaned. 'You should be resting...' )ut as he looked at her there was a 6uestion, a fiery longing in his eyes that ade Alice's heart beat very fast, and she couldn't sto# the self&conscious colour war ing her face as she instinctively looked fro 9arco to the fa iliar bed. 'Don't look at e like that,' 9arco #rotested rawly. '- a only a an, and the fear and des#air - have gone through these last weeks!' (e #aused and shook his head. '- thought - knew the full #ain of loss, but - was wrong. - knew nothing. -f - had lost you, y own life would no longer have been worth living.' Alice fought to drag air into her lungs as her e otions reacted to what he was saying to her. ')ut for e you would never have been in that car. -f - had #aid *rancine instead of...' Alice could hear the guilt in his voice. (e had said that he loved her, but was that love erely a by&#roduct of his guilt2 'You don't...you don't have to love e...' she told hi , trying to find the right words for her thoughts. 'Yes. - do,' 9arco contradicted her i ediately. '- have to love you, Alice, because that is y fate0 y destiny... think - #robably knew that within hours of us eeting,' he added wryly. Alice stared at hi . 'Of course, - tried to deceive yself,' 9arco continued gri ly. 'After all, no an likes to ad it that he is no longer in control of his own life. - had assu ed that when - chose to arry it would be a cal , rational decision ade for logical, sensible reasons. Of course - would res#ect and care for y wife, and of course...' '$he would not be )ritish, and accused of slee#ing around2' Alice su##lied ruefully for hi . 'You are right to re ind e of y isjudge ent of you,' 9arco acknowledged bleakly. '-t does e no credit, and fills e with sha e.' - can understand that a an in your #osition, with your fa ily history, would have traditional values and traditional e%#ectations,' Alice told hi 6uietly, carefully searching for the words she needed. '1he fact that you believed that was se%ually #ro iscuous' ''o.' 9arco sto##ed her shar#ly. - ad it - tried to think that of you as a eans of self&defence, to #rotect yself fro loving you when it see ed that you did not love e, but it didn't take very long in your co #any, Alice, for e to recognise and be hu bled by the true, shining #urity of your s#irit. And once - had recognised that...' (e #aused. 'On the day of our wedding when we e%changed our vows, - knew that - loved you, and that - would always love you. - was even foolish enough to feel #roud of the fact that y love was so strong and irrefutable. 7nfortunately was not strong enough to control y... feelings.' 1here was a huge lu # of e otion in Alice's throat. (is 6uiet words eant so uch to her. '7nfortunately,' 9arco continued wryly, - was not strong enough to control y...feelings, when faced by the te #tation of knowing that you....' '1hat you believed - was se%ually available2' Alice su##lied for hi . ediately 9arco shook his head. ''o. ,ertainly not. 1hat was never in y thoughts,' he denied sternly. ''o, what - was going to say was knowing that you were y wife.' ')ut it shocked you to discover that you were y first lover,' Alice re inded hi . 'And when you were so distant with e and told e that it ust never ha##en again, - realised you didn't love e.' 'On the contrary, it was very uch because - did love you,' 9arco corrected her ruefully.

'- had already isjudged you and now - had...abused the trust you had #laced in e by agreeing to our arriage. knew - couldn't trust yself0 that - couldn't control yself0 that once - touched you - wouldn't be able to sto#. 1hat was why - tried to distance yself fro youfor your #rotection. -f - had thought for one o ent that you returned y love...' Alice looked at hi , her face #ink. - should have thought that the way - res#onded to you...in...in bed ust have given you so e hint!' '.erha#s it would have done,' 9arco agreed, 'if - hadn't already convinced yself that your natural #assion and innocence was res#onsible for the irresistibly se%y way you gave yourself to e. -n fact that just gave e another reason to feel guilt and bla e. And if you had conceived y child...' +eaning her face against his chest, Alice whis#ered softly, - so uch ho#ed that - would...' 'Alice...' $he felt hi shudder as he groaned her na e, his ar s tightening around her. '-f you had so uch as given e a hint that you wanted that...' A shyly ischievous look lightened Alice's eyes as she lifted her head and looked at hi . - thought -'d given you uch ore than a hint,' she teased hi gently, re e bering how she had wantonly encouraged hi to lose hi self in her. '.erha#s - wasn't concentrating,' 9arco returned throatily, giving her a look that sent a thrill of #ure longing right through her body. '.erha#s you could hint to e again2' , '4hat, now2' Alice breathed recklessly. 'ow, when there was no need for hi to conceal it any ore, the bla8e of love and desire in his eyes was aking her feel as if she were about to elt. Daringly she reached u# to kiss hi , shivering with delight as she felt the shuddering reaction of his body to her inti acy. (er outh brushed his, savouring its fa iliar sha#e and taste. 'Alice,' 9arco warned her rawly. 3ecklessly she ran the ti# of her tongue along the outline of his li#s, gas#ing in e%cited #leasure when his outh covered hers, ca#turing her arauding tongue. '1ake e to bed, 9arco,' she whis#ered throatily, when she was finally able to s#eak. 'Are you sure you're well enough for this2' 9arco de anded solicitously a few inutes later as he gently #ushed her hair back off her face and looked down at her where she lay against the #illows, her face flushed fro the #assion of the kisses they had just e%changed. (er to# was unfastened, revealing the crea y line of her throat and the soft swell of her breasts. One of 9arco's hands lay #ossessively against the full curve of one of the and Alice shuddered in wanton #leasure as he caressed it. - think it could be the best for of thera#y - could #ossibly have,' she res#onded de urely, her own outh curving into a tender little s ile as she reached u# to #ull hi closer to her. '- don't know what - would have done if - had lost you,' 9arco told her e otionally over an hour later as she lay sated and blissfully ha##y in the curve of his war th, whilst the afternoon sun strea ing in through the window #layed softly on their naked bodies. '9y life would have been over if you had been killed in that accident, Alice. .ro ise e you will never, ever doubt again that - love you.' - #ro ise,' Alice assured hi .

1,I/.0U1
Five years later. 'Do YO7 know what day it is today2' 9arco asked Alice teasingly as he bent his head to kiss her u#turned face. $he was in the s all s#ecial courtyard at the back of the palazzo which they had turned into a safe #lay area for their children, and 9arco had just returned fro *lorence where he had been overseeing so e restoration work. 'Of course - do.' $he laughed as she returned his kiss. Out of the corner of her eye she could see their children= their four&year&old son Giancarlo, and the twin daughters who had been born eighteen onths ago, and, of course, Alice's secret favourite, Angelina, who was fir ly #re& venting the twins fro fighting over their toys. +ike all children, theirs were individual and uni6ue, and that was how she loved the , individually and uni6uely, just as she could love the new baby who was due to ake his or her arrival in another four onths' ti e, but Angelina would always be e%tra s#ecial to her, just as the bond of love between the was e%tra s#ecial. 4hen she had risked her own life to #rotect Angelina's Alice had reacted as a other, #utting her child's safety before her own, and so ehow in that s#lit heartbeat of ti e a bond had been forged between the two of the that was just as strong as the u bilical cord that had bonded her to her birth children. 4henever strangers re arked on how alike she and Angelina were, they always shared knowing s#ecial s iles. 'o other should have favourites, but so eti es a other could just not hel# herself! '$o2' 9arco de anded. '4hat date is it2' '1he date you asked e to arry you,' Alice res#onded #ro #tly, laughing as she added wickedly, '*or Angelina's sake.' '*or Angelina's sake and for y own sanity,' 9arco agreed wryly, releasing her as Angelina left the twins to their own devices and ran across to join the , lovingly cuddling into Alice's side. '- ho#e this isn't going to be ore twins,' she told Alice feelingly as she #atted her growing bu #. Alice laughed. )oth she and 9arco already knew that the baby she was carrying was another son, but that was going to be their secret. '- think it's ti e to take the twins u#stairs for their na#,' Alice told 9arco ruefully as she hugged Angelina lovingly. '9 ,' 9arco agreed, watching as $ibilla atte #ted to hit her twin with the doll she had wrested fro her. - think -'ll co e with you.' 'Oh, you two aren't going to get all so##y, are you2' Angelina #rotested, rolling her eyes in five&year&old disgust. '9 . $ounds like a good idea to e,' 9arco ur ured to Alice as they watched her run back to join Giancarlo. 'And to e,' Alice agreed softly. -f so eone, anyone, had tried to tell her five years ago just how her life was going to turn out she would never have believed the , never have dared to believe she could be so loved or so ha##y... )ut she was, and according to 9arco he fully intended to ake sure that she re ained so for the rest of their lives together!

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