A Proposal From The Italian Count. Lucy Gordon
‘So do I, in a way. But if I left it would be hard for him to find someone who’d put up with his horrible behaviour while knowing the place as well as I do.’
‘So he knows how to act for his own benefit?’ Vittorio said wryly.
‘Oh, yes. Mind you, I suppose you could say that of everyone. We all do what suits us, and we don’t really think about anyone else’s feelings.’
He knew an uneasy moment. Was it possible that she suspected the truth about his arrival?
But she was smiling pleasantly, and he told himself not to panic.
‘I find it hard to believe that of you,’ he said gently.
‘Oh, I can be selfish when it suits me.’ She gave him a cheeky smile. ‘You wouldn’t believe the lengths I go to just to get my own way.’
He smiled back, charmed by her impish humour.
‘I’ll believe whatever you care to tell me,’ he said. ‘But you don’t need to go to any great lengths. Just say what you want and I’ll take care of it.’
That could be quite a temptation, she thought, remembering what she had read on the astrology site.
The fates are planning a startling new beginning for you. The sun in Jupiter will bring things you never anticipated...
Certainly she hadn’t anticipated a charming, handsome man declaring himself at her service.
Watching her face, Vittorio managed to read her expression fairly well. He guessed she was trying decide how much fun they might have teasing each other.
And it might be really good fun, he thought. As well as humour there was a warmth in her eyes that tempted him to move closer.
‘Rik said a man was asking after my father,’ she said. ‘Was that you?’
‘Yes. I was sorry to hear that he was dead.’
‘Why are you looking for him?’
Vittorio hesitated, sensing the approach of danger. Suddenly he was reluctant to disturb the delightful atmosphere between them.
‘My own father knew him several years ago,’ he said carefully.
‘How did they meet? Did your father try to sell him some Italian goods for the shop?’
‘No, he wasn’t a salesman. He was Count Martelli.’
He waited for her to react with delight to hearing his status, as he was used to, but she only said ironically, ‘A count? You’re the son of a count? Are you kidding?’
‘No, I’m not. And, since my father has died, I am the Count.’
She burst into a delicious chuckle. ‘You must think I’m so gullible.’
‘Why don’t you believe me?’
‘Because my father never once mentioned knowing a count—or even admitted meeting one. I just can’t imagine that my father was ever friends with an aristocrat, not when we were so poor.’
‘Was he really poor? He managed to start his own business.’
‘He borrowed a lot of money to buy the shop. And it was a big mistake. He never really made the profit he needed, and we always lived on the edge of poverty.’
‘That must have been a very sad life for you,’ Vittorio said uneasily.
‘Not for me as much as for him. It destroyed his marriage to my mother. She left him for another man. For years Daddy and I had only each other. I adored him. He was a lovely man...sweet-natured, generous. I went to work in the shop, to help him. It wasn’t the life I’d planned—I’d dreamed of going to university. But I couldn’t abandon him. And in the end he was forced to sell. Rik beat him down on the price, but he offered me a job and let us go on living there. I did all I could for Daddy, but it wasn’t enough. A couple of years ago he had a heart attack.’
Vittorio dropped his head, staring at the floor. In his worst nightmares he’d never imagined anything as bad as this. If George Benton had received the money that should have been his everything would have been different for him. He might even be alive now.
What would she say when he told her?
He clenched his fists, trying to find the courage to do the right thing.
But his courage failed him, and to his relief the waiter appeared.
‘We’re about to close, sir.’
‘Then I guess we have to go,’ he said hurriedly, trying not to sound too relieved.
It was dark outside. He walked Jackie to the shop door and waited, wondering if she would invite him in. But she only said, ‘I’m glad we met. It was nice to have coffee.’
‘Yes, it was. Jackie...’ He hesitated, uncertain how to go on.
‘Nothing. Perhaps we can—see each other again. I’d like to talk.’
‘So would I. Tomorrow?’
‘I’ll look in.’
She went inside, locking the door behind her. For some moments Vittorio stood in silence, trying to come to a troubling decision.
He should have told her everything, but he knew the truth would hurt her greatly. He felt that in his heart, and flinched from striking that blow.
He’d planned every step of the way how he would confront George Benton, explain, apologise, and draw a line under it. Instead he found himself confronted with a woman whose sweetness and vulnerability touched his heart. And the truth was he didn’t know how to respond.
After standing there hopelessly for several minutes he turned and hurried away into the darkness.
NEXT MORNING VITTORIO awoke early. The clock said half past five and suddenly there seemed no point in staying in bed. Showering and dressing quickly, he headed straight out.
It felt good to enjoy the fresh air and the fast-growing light. But then he saw something that alarmed him. A young woman walking away in the distance. It was hard to be certain of details, but she looked strangely like...
Wanting to be sure, he hurried after her, but she turned a corner out of sight.
Cursing, he ran desperately through the streets. He didn’t know London at all. It was hopeless, he thought frantically when he found himself by the River Thames. She must be walking along the embankment—but in which direction?
Then luck was with him. After a hundred yards he could see her, sitting on a bench, staring out over the water. He moved closer, struck by the way she seemed sunk in another world. It reminded him of himself the night before.
He stayed silent, unsure whether it was right for him to disturb her, but after a moment she glanced up.
‘Vittorio? What are you doing up this early?’ she asked.
‘I couldn’t sleep so I thought I’d stretch my legs. How are you this morning, Jackie? Are you worried about facing Rik today?’
‘Forgive me, but I don’t think you are.’ He lifted her chin with his fingers, looking at her face. ‘You’ve been crying.’
‘Just a little.’
He put his arms round her, overtaken by a desire to care for her. Protectiveness was a feeling he’d seldom, if ever, known before, and now it was almost alarming. He had to tell her something that would break her heart, and suddenly he wasn’t sure that