Marco's Convenient Wife PENNY JORDAN Ëèòàãåíò HarperCollins EUR Penny Jordan needs no introduction as arguably the most recognisable name writing for Mills & Boon. We have celebrated her wonderful writing with a special collection, many of which for the first time in eBook format and all available right now.Italian count Marco di Vincenti feared for baby Angelina's safety. He needed a wife to get custody – so he proposed a marriage of convenience to the baby's English nanny, Alice Walsingham!Having secretly fallen in love with Marco, Alice found the wedding pure torture! All her family and five hundred other guests expected to see lots of passion… Marco was all too willing to oblige in public – but what about in private, on their wedding night… ? Celebrate the legend that is bestselling author PENNY JORDAN Phenomenally successful author of more than two hundred books with sales of over a hundred million copies! Penny Jordan's novels are loved by millions of readers all around the word in many different languages. Mills & Boon are proud to have published one hundred and eighty-seven novels and novellas written by Penny Jordan, who was a reader favourite right from her very first novel through to her last. This beautiful digital collection offers a chance to recapture the pleasure of all of Penny Jordan's fabulous, glamorous and romantic novels for Mills & Boon. Penny Jordan is one of Mills & Boon's most popular authors. Sadly, Penny died from cancer on 31st December 2011, aged sixty-five. She leaves an outstanding legacy, having sold over a hundred million books around the world. She wrote a total of one hundred and eighty-seven novels for Mills & Boon, including the phenomenally successful A Perfect Family, To Love, Honour & Betray, The Perfect Sinner and Power Play, which hit the Sunday Times and New York Times bestseller lists. Loved for her distinctive voice, her success was in part because she continually broke boundaries and evolved her writing to keep up with readers’ changing tastes. Publishers Weekly said about Jordan ‘Women everywhere will find pieces of themselves in Jordan's characters’ and this perhaps explains her enduring appeal. Although Penny was born in Preston, Lancashire and spent her childhood there, she moved to Cheshire as a teenager and continued to live there for the rest of her life. Following the death of her husband, she moved to the small traditional Cheshire market town on which she based her much-loved Crighton books. Penny was a member and supporter of the Romantic Novelists’ Association and the Romance Writers of America—two organisations dedicated to providing support for both published and yet-to-be-published authors. Her significant contribution to women's fiction was recognised in 2011, when the Romantic Novelists’ Association presented Penny with a Lifetime Achievement Award. Marco’s Convenient Wife Penny Jordan www.millsandboon.co.uk (http://www.millsandboon.co.uk) PROLOGUE ‘GOOD luck with your interview. You’re bound to get the job, though—no one could find a better nanny than you, Alice. Your only fault is that you love children too much!’ As she returned her elder sister’s warm hug Alice tried to smile. Even though it was over a month since she had left her previous job she still missed her two young charges. She did not, however, miss their father, who had made her last few months in the employ of his wife so uncomfortable, with his sexual come-ons towards her. Even without his unwanted attentions, Alice knew she would not have accepted his wife’s invitation to work for them in New York, where she had been relocated. Her former employer was in many ways typical of some career women, who whilst needing to employ a nanny to look after their children, often resented and even deliberately undermined their nanny’s role within the household. But that was the price one paid for the job she had chosen to do, and now she was about to fly to Florence to be interviewed for a new post, that of looking after a very young baby—a motherless six-month-old baby. ‘And thanks for agreeing to take Louise with you,’ her sister, Connie, was saying. ‘I know she’s going to love Florence, especially with her artistic talents. Life hasn’t been very easy for her lately, so I’m hoping that this trip will help her.’ Privately Alice felt that Louise, her sister’s stepdaughter, was determined to express her own misery and insecurity by making her new stepmother, Connie, and her father feel guilty about their marriage, and that she was determined that nothing they did was going to please her and that included the gift of a four-day trip to Florence. Alice had agreed to accompany her by flying out to Italy four days ahead of her interview with the awesomely patrician-sounding Conte di Vincenti, who had advertised for an Italian-speaking English nanny for ‘a six-month-old child’. It had been that ‘a six-month-old child’ that had not just caught Alice’s eye, but more importantly had tugged at her all too vulnerable heartstrings. It had sounded so cold and distancing, as though somehow the imperious conte was devoid of any kind of emotional attachment to the baby, and that had immediately aroused all Alice’s considerable protective instincts. After children, languages were her second love; she was fluent in not just Italian but French and German as well—a considerable advantage in a nanny, as her agency had approvingly told her. The last time she had visited Florence had been when she had been eight and her elder sister fifteen and she had very happy memories of that trip, so why was she feeling so apprehensive at the thought of going back? Because she would be accompanying and be responsible for Louise, who was currently manifesting almost all of the traits of teenagedom that made her parents despair, or because there was something about the very sound of her potential new employer that sent a cold little trickle of atavistic antipathy down her spine? Alice didn’t know, but what she did know was that over and above her own feelings were the needs of a motherless six-month-old baby. CHAPTER ONE FLORENCE was having a heatwave and the weather was even hotter than Alice had been prepared for. Whilst Louise slept in her hotel bed, bad-temperedly refusing to join her, Alice had taken advantage of her solitude to explore the early morning city on her own. Having just seen an elegantly dressed young mother emerging from a shop with her children, all triumphantly carrying tubs of ice cream, Alice couldn’t resist the temptation of indulging in the same treat herself. After all, according to her guidebook Florence was famous for its ice cream. Carefully she started to make her way across the busy street, not really paying much attention to the vehicle that was blocking the road, although she was aware of a bright red and very expensive-looking sports car that was bearing down on both her and the parked vehicle. Just beyond her, the street ended in a set of lights, and as they were on red she determinedly chose to ignore the angry blare of the car’s horn. However, she was conscious of its delayed and engine throbbing presence behind her at the traffic lights as she gave and received her order for a tiramisu ice cream—her favourite Italian sweet. The young male assistant serving her made a boldly flirtatious comment as he handed her her change—bold enough to make her face flush bright pink, and loud enough, she realised as she turned away, for the man behind the wheel of the scarlet open-topped mechanical monster still waiting for both the obstruction to be moved and the lights to change, to have heard. To have heard and to be thoroughly contemptuous of, she recognised as she saw the way he looked down the length of his aquiline nose at her, his mouth curling in open disdain. Totally mortified, Alice could feel her face burning even hotter, her enjoyment of her ice cream completely destroyed by her recognition of his contempt of her. No doubt he thought she was some silly Northern European tourist looking for a cheap holiday fling, she fumed as she gave him a look intended to be as corrosive as the one he had just given her. Unfortunately, though, she had not allowed for the effect of the extremely hot sun on her ice cream and as she turned to glower at him, in what she had planned to be a rebuffing and ladylike manner, she realised that her ice was dripping onto her top. And that of course was the reason why her nipples should suddenly choose that totally inauspicious moment to peak openly and flauntingly with maddening wilfulness. And all the while she had to stand there waiting to cross the road, with his gaze pinned with deliberate emphasis and insulting thoroughness on the swell of her breasts. Horrible, horrid man, she designated him under her breath, but she knew as she did so that he was also just about the most sensually magnetic and dangerous man she had ever set eyes on. Just the merest link between her own bemused, shocked eyes and the hooded, mesmeric topaz intensity of his would have been enough to melt a full glacier, never mind her ice cream, she reflected shakily once he had driven past her. And that was without him trying. Heaven alone knew what he could do if he really tried to turn a deliberately sensual look on a woman! Not that she was ever likely to know or want to know. Of course not! No. Never. Definitely not! And as for that open-topped car—in this heat—well, that was obviously a deliberate pose, meant to underline his macho masculinity. She despised men like that! Men who needed to reinforce their machismo. Not that he had looked as though his needed much reinforcing—and no doubt that thick head of dark, dark brown but not quite jet-black hair would ensure that his scalp would never need protecting from strong sunlight. ‘Damn the woman, where is she?’ Marco looked irritably at his watch, and then frowned as he studied the empty foyer of the exclusive and expensive hotel just outside Florence, where he had arranged to meet the Englishwoman he was supposed to be interviewing. He was stalking imperiously up and down its imposing length with a lean and predatory male animal stride that caused the female hotel guest crossing the foyer to give a small, unstoppable little hormonal shiver of appreciation. Oblivious of his effect on her, Marco continued to frown. The fact that his interviewee had neither the discipline to be on time for their meeting, nor the good manners to send a message apologising for her late appearance, was not in his opinion a good advertisement for her professional skills, despite the fact that she had come so highly recommended by her agency that it had virtually sung a paean of praise in her favour. He had not been in the best of moods even before he’d reached the city. His car, the normally totally reliable saloon he drove, had developed some kind of electrical problem, which meant that it was currently being repaired, leaving him with no alternative but to drive the ridiculous and, to his mind, totally over the top bright red Ferrari, which had belonged to his cousin Aldo, but which since Aldo’s death had remained at the palazzo. Unlike his Mercedes, the Ferrari was certainly the kind of car that attracted a good deal of attention—and the wrong kind of attention in Marco’s opinion. His eyes narrowed slightly as he remembered the blonde girl he had noticed when he had driven into the city earlier in the day on his way to meet a colleague. Her body had certainly approved of the car, even if her eyes had flashed him a look of murderous, ‘don’t you dare look at me like that’ rejection, he reflected wryly. Personally, he would far rather have a woman be attracted to him for himself than his car! Aldo, though, had not shared his feelings! Where was this wretched girl? To be truthful it had irked him a little that she had refused to stay in this hotel as he had wished. Instead she’d insisted on staying, albeit at her own expense, in a far less convenient, so far as he was concerned, hotel in the centre of Florence itself. This was apparently because she wished to do some sightseeing and because she had been concerned that the hotel he had chosen was too far out of the city centre and too quiet. An ominous statement, so far as Marco was concerned! As a student at university in England, he had witnessed the way in which some English girls chose to demonstrate their dislike of anything ‘too quiet’! Perhaps it was old-fashioned of him to abhor promiscuity, and to believe that a person—of either sex—should have enough self-restraint and enough self-pride not to treat sex as an emotionless act of physical gratification on a par with eating a bar of chocolate, but that was how he felt. Irritably he shot back the cuff of his immaculately tailored pale grey suit and frowned. Angelina, the baby for whom he was seeking the services of a nanny, would be awake and wondering where he was. The traumatic loss of her mother had left the baby clinging to the only other adult who was a constant in her life, and who she seemed to feel safe with, and that was himself. Marco was not impressed with the standard of care or commitment the girl who’d originally been hired by Angelina’s late mother was currently giving to the baby. Grimly Marco reminded himself that now Angelina was his child, and that she was totally dependent on him in every single way. Right now it was Angelina who needed to come first in his thoughts and his actions. That was why he was so determined not to find merely ‘a nanny’ for her, but the right nanny, the best nanny—a nanny who would be prepared to commit herself, her time and to some extent her future to being with Angelina. And this was where a battle was being fought inside him. His frown changed from that of irritated, almost antagonistic male, to one of deeply concerned protective paternalism. He felt such a strong sense of family and emotional responsibility to Angelina, that the only woman he would entrust the baby with had to be someone who could supply her with the love and security her mother’s death had deprived her of, someone warm and loving, reliable and responsible. And as the baby’s mother had been British, he had decided to advertise for an Italian speaking British nanny for Angelina, so that she would grow up learning both languages. The girl he had eventually settled on had in many ways almost seemed to be too good to be true, she had been so highly recommended and praised by her agency. But then of course they would not necessarily be dispassionate about her! Now it seemed that he had been right to be dubious. Grimly he rechecked his watch. His autocratic features were so arrogantly and blatantly those of a sensually mature adult Italian male that it was no wonder the pretty girl behind the reception desk was watching him with awed longing. He positively exuded power and masculinity, laced with a dangerous hint of potent sexuality. Just as the lean animal grace of the way he walked failed to cloak that maleness, so too the elegant tailoring failed to cloak the fact that the body beneath it was all raw magnificence and muscle. He possessed that kind of bred-into-the-bone sensuality that no woman could fail to recognise and respond to, be it with longing or apprehension. The kind of sensuality that went much, much deeper than the mere good looks with which nature had so generously endowed him, the kind of sensuality that neither money nor power nor position could buy! There was, though, a touch of grim determination about the hard line of his mouth that set him apart from most other men of his race, a certain cool hauteur and distance that challenged anyone who dared to come too close to him uninvited. At thirty-five he had behind him over a decade of heading the vast and complicated tangled network of his extended family; aunts, uncles, and cousins. His father and mother had been killed outright when his father’s younger brother had crashed the private plane he had been flying. Marco, or, to give him his correct name, Semperius Marco Francisco Conte di Vincenti, had been twenty-five at the time, and freshly qualified as an architect, aware of the responsibility of the role that would ultimately be his, the guardian of his family’s history and the guardian too of its future, but relieved to know that that responsibility would not truly be his for many years to come. And then his father’s unexpected death had thrown him head first into shouldering what had then seemed to be an extraordinarily heavy burden. But somehow he had carried it—because it had been his duty to do so, and if in doing so he had lost some of the spontaneity, the love of life and laughter and the ability to live for the moment alone that had so marked out his younger cousin, Aldo, like him left fatherless by the crash, then those around him had just had to accept that that had been so. Some of the older members of the family considered that he had allowed Aldo to take advantage of him, he knew. But like him his cousin had lost his father in the tragedy, and, at only sixteen, it surely must have been a far harder burden for him to bear than it had been for Marco himself. Marco’s frown deepened as he thought about his younger cousin. He had been totally opposed to Aldo marrying Patti, the pretty English model. The wedding had taken place within weeks of Aldo meeting her, and it had not surprised him in the least to learn that they had fallen out of love with one another as quickly as they had fallen into it. But there was no point in dwelling on that now. Aldo had married Patti, and baby Angelina had been conceived, even if both her parents had by that time been claiming that their marriage had been a mistake and that they bitterly regretted the legal commitment they had made to one another. It had been in his role of head of the family that Marco had felt obliged to invite them both to visit them at his home in Tuscany, in the hope that he could somehow help them to find a way of making their marriage work. After all, whilst he might not have approved of it in the first place, they now had a child to consider, and in Marco’s eyes the needs of their child far outweighed the selfish carnal desires of either of her parents. But, once he had left them to their own devices, an argument had broken out between Aldo and Patti, which had resulted in Aldo driving Patti away from the villa in a furious temper. They would probably never know just what had caused the fatal accident, which had claimed their lives and left their baby an orphan, Marco reflected sombrely, but he knew just how responsible he felt for having been the one to have brought them both to the palazzo in the first place. As Aldo’s next of kin he had naturally taken on full responsibility for the orphaned baby, and now three months later it was abundantly obvious that little Angelina had bonded strongly with Marco. Marco’s strong paternalistic instincts had meant that he had decided that it was both his duty and in the baby’s own interests for him to make proper arrangements for her care. In order to cut down on wasting time unnecessarily on interviews that would not lead anywhere, he had painstakingly spent far more time than he could currently afford sifting through the applications he had received, to make sure that he only interviewed the candidate or candidates who met all his strict criteria, and in the end Alice Walsingham had been the only one to do so; which made it even more infuriating that she had not even taken the trouble to turn up for their interview. It was eleven o’clock, half an hour past the time of their appointment. His patience finally snapped. That was it! He had waited long enough. If Miss Walsingham did ever decide to turn up, she was most definitely not the person he wanted to leave in sole charge of his precious child. Not even to himself was Marco prepared to admit just how attached he had become to his cousin’s baby, or how paternal he felt towards her. As he stepped out of the hotel into the bright Florentine sunshine it glinted on the darkness of his thick, well-groomed hair, highlighting his chiselled, autocratic features, and the lean-muscled strength of his six-foot-two frame. Automatically he shielded the fierceness of his topaz gaze from the harshness of the sun by putting on dark glasses that gave him a breath-catching air of predatory power and danger. An actor studying for a role as a Mafiosi leader would have found him an ideal model. He looked lean, mean and dangerous. No one would dream of making a man who looked as he did any kind of offer he might be tempted to refuse! Irritably he returned to where he had left Aldo’s Ferrari, which was parked outside the hotel, and he had just climbed into it and put the keys in the ignition when he suddenly remembered that he had not left any message for his dilatory interviewee, just in case she should choose to turn up! Leaving the keys in the ignition, he climbed out of the Ferrari and strode toward the hotel. ‘Oh, for God’s sake, will you stop nagging me? You aren’t my mother, you aren’t anything to me. Just because your sister has managed to trap my father into marriage that doesn’t give you the right to tell me what to do.’ As she listened to Louise’s deliberately hostile and inflammatory speech Alice mentally counted to ten. It was now five minutes past eleven, and she was over half an hour late for her interview appointment, but it had been impossible for her to leave Louise to her own devices after the teenager’s totally unacceptable behaviour during their trip. The previous night, Louise had sneaked out of the hotel without her, returning in the early hours very much the worse for drink, refusing to tell Alice where she had been or who with. Alice had been beside herself with anxiety. As luck would have it, Alice had now learned that her sister’s stepdaughter had spent the evening with a group of young American students who were studying in the city, and who it seemed had thankfully kept a watchful eye on her whilst she had been with them. However, as one of the students had a little anxiously explained to Alice, Louise had spent a large part of the evening in conversation with a rather unsavoury character who had attached himself to the group and now it seemed Louise had made arrangements to meet up with the man. In order to ensure that she did not do so, Alice had insisted that Louise accompany her to her interview. Forced to do so, Louise had left Alice in no doubt about her feelings of resentment and hostility, as well as deliberately making Alice late for her appointment, but now, thank goodness, they had finally reached the hotel. She paid off their taxi driver, primly ignoring the appreciative look he was giving them both—two slender, blonde English beauties. One of whom, with her face plastered with far too much make-up, looked far older than her seventeen years and the other, whose clear, soft skin was virtually free of any trace of cosmetics at all, her hair a natural, soft pale blonde unlike her charge’s rebelliously dyed and streaked tousled mane, looked far, far younger than her much more mature twenty-six. Although she herself was unaware of it, even the simple skirt and top outfit she had chosen to wear for the heat of the Florentine sunshine made Alice look young enough to be a teenager herself, whilst Louise’s tight jeans and midriff-baring top were drawing the interested gaze of every red-blooded Italian male who saw them. Sulkily Louise affected not to hear what Alice was saying as she urged her to hurry into the hotel. Under other circumstances Alice knew that she would have enjoyed simply standing to gaze in admiration at her surroundings. According to her guidebook, this particular hotel, once the home of a Renaissance prince, 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 privilege all in itself. Unable to resist pausing simply to fill her senses with its symmetry and beauty, Alice was only aware that Louise’s attention was otherwise engaged when she heard her charge exclaiming excitedly. ‘Wow, just look at that car! What I’d give to be able to drive something like that.’ Turning her head, Alice was startled to see parked there in front of them an open-topped scarlet sports car like the one she had seen earlier that morning. Like, or the same? Driven by that same darkly, dangerously, and wholly male man who had looked at her as though…as though…Dragging her thoughts away from such risky and uncomfortably self-illuminating channels, Alice realised with shock that Louise was darting across towards the driver’s door of the car. ‘Louise,’ she cautioned her anxiously. ‘Don’t…’ But it was too late. Totally ignoring her objections, Louise was sliding into the driver’s seat, telling her triumphantly, ‘The keys are in it. I’ve always wanted to drive a car like this…’ To Alice’s horror Louise was pulling open the obviously unlocked driver’s door and sliding into the driving seat. Totally appalled, Alice protested in disbelief, ‘Louise, no!’ unable to accept that Louise could behave so irresponsibly. ‘You mustn’t! You can’t…’ ‘Who says I can’t?’ Louise was challenging her as she turned the key in the ignition and Alice heard the engine roar into life. She could see a look in Louise’s eyes that was completely unmistakable and her heart missed a beat. Her sister had warned her that Louise could be headstrong, and that the trauma of the break-up of her parents’ marriage had affected her badly, as had the fact that her mother’s new husband had made no secret that he did not want an obstreperous teenage stepdaughter on the scene to cause him problems. Even so! ‘Louise, no,’ Alice protested, pleadingly, instinctively hurrying round to the passenger door of the car and wrenching it open, not really knowing what she could do, just knowing that somehow she had to stop her charge from what she was doing. But before she could do anything Louise had put the car in gear and it was starting to move, the movement jolting Alice forward. Somehow she found that she was in the passenger seat of the car, frantically wrestling to close the door as the car set off lurchingly toward the hotel’s exit. Her heart in her mouth, Alice pleaded with Louise to stop the car, but everything she said only seemed to goad the younger girl on. Alice could hear the gears crashing as Louise manoeuvred the car clumsily onto the road. She had only just passed her driving test, and so far had only been allowed to drive her father’s sedate saloon car under his strict supervision. Alice, who could drive herself and who had driven considerable distances with her former young charges, knew that she would never have had the confidence or the skill to drive a vehicle such as this. She gasped in shock as Louise started to accelerate, and only just missed hitting a pair of scooters bent on overtaking them. The road stretched ahead of them, unusually straight for an Italian 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 pavement full of shoppers on the other. Alice felt sick and desperately afraid, but somehow she managed to quell her instinctive urge to wrest the steering wheel from Louise’s obviously inexpert grip. Up ahead of them she could see a car pull out to overtake; she cried out a warning to Louise but, instead of slowing down, the younger girl increased her speed. Alice held her breath, tensing her body against the collision, which she knew to be inevitable. CHAPTER TWO IT WAS the unmistakable sound of Aldo’s Ferrari’s engine being inexpertly fired that first alerted Marco to what was going on. Sprinting towards the main road, he reached it just in time to see the two blonde heads of the female thieves who had stolen the car, which was now being driven with teeth-clenching lack of expertise towards the Tuscan countryside. However, it wasn’t the lack of driving expertise they were displaying that brought a grim look of tension to Marco’s mouth. No, what was concerning him was the fact that he feared an accident, and, having already lost a much-loved cousin as well as having had to identify both his and the destroyed body of what had originally been a very pretty young woman, he had no wish to see history repeating itself. He was already reaching for his mobile to report the theft when he heard and saw the collision he had been dreading. To his relief he realised immediately that the crash was not a serious one. The driver of the other car was already out of his vehicle and heading for the Ferrari, which Marco could see had barely been damaged by the impact at all. Cancelling the call, he started to run towards the scene. Above the sound of Louise’s frantic screams, Alice could hear the sound of approaching Italian voices. Her head ached where she had banged it on the windscreen, and as she tried to blink the pain away she realised that Louise was already standing on the pavement, beside the car, whilst somehow she herself was lying across both seats, with her head now against the driver’s headrest. She 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 assemble in slow and painful motion as they fought their way through the dizzying sickness of her shock. Someone, predictably a man, was comforting Louise, who was crying hysterically, but no one, Alice noticed, was bothering to help her. Somehow, though, she managed to get herself out of the car, just as the crowd that was surrounding it parted to allow through the tall, dark-haired and even darker-browed man who was now talking with the driver of the car they’d crashed into, handing him his card. Then as he turned to look at her she recognised him. Alice thought she was going to faint. She would have recognised that eagle-eyed, imperious topaz stare anywhere, and she could tell from the way his glance moved from her face down to her breasts that he remembered exactly who she was as well. It was the man she had seen earlier that morning, the man who…. Her head was throbbing and instinctively Alice pressed her hand to her temple. She felt so dizzy and sick, so unable somehow to draw her own gaze away from that angry, burning hostility of pure male fury. The shock of what had happened seemed to have robbed her of her normal self-control and maturity. Feeling as though she was going to cry, she longed desperately to have someone to turn to, some sturdy, reliable, pro-Alice male presence there to support and protect her. Such unfamiliar and undermining thoughts increased her sense of alienation from her normal ‘self’. He of the angry eyes and hard, forbidding mouth was focusing on her so intently that she felt like a helpless specimen trapped beneath a microscope. In the distance Alice could hear Louise sobbing frantically, ‘It wasn’t my fault. I didn’t do anything. She was the one who was driving the car. Not me…’ But although she registered what Louise was saying it barely made any impact on her at all. And the reason for that was the man now standing in front of her, towering over her, all six-foot odd, furiously cold, dangerously angry and intensely male of him, addressing her in icily perfect and whiplash sharp English as he demanded, ‘If you are the perpetrator of this…this atrocity, then let me tell you now I fully intend to see that you pay for it. Have you any idea what you have done? The danger…the risk…someone could have been killed.’ His voice became acidly sharp and harsh. ‘Have you ever seen a victim of a serious road accident? Do you have any idea what it can do to the human body?’ Fresh nausea overwhelmed Alice. He wasn’t saying anything to her she hadn’t already thought for herself, but Louise, who could hear him, was now silent and ashen-faced, and instinctively Alice felt her first duty was to protect her. And now that she could see both cars, she could see too that surely he was overreacting. Anxiously she looked towards his car. The passenger door was crushed, there was broken glass all over the road. The car they had hit had lost its bumper and sustained a large dent, although fortunately its driver seemed to be unhurt, and indeed he was very evidently comforting Louise, 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 opened her mouth to correct her and defend herself and then closed it again. How could she? Louise was seventeen; she had only just passed her driving test. Last night she had been drinking so heavily that she probably still had a dangerously high level of alcohol in her bloodstream, and she was in Alice’s charge…Alice had promised her sister that she would take care of her… Unaware of what she was doing, she looked up at the man confronting her in helpless appeal. Marco felt himself stiffen as he saw the look Alice was giving him. She looked more like a child than a woman, with the pale swathe of her cheeks and her huge bruised eyes and trembling mouth; her delicately slender body. But he of course already knew about the sensuality and the voluptuousness of the breasts that were now concealed by a much bulkier top than the little strappy one she had been wearing earlier in the day when he had seen her. Disconcertingly and with unexpected force his body responded to that memory and to her. Immediately Marco quelled his swift surge of unwanted physical reaction, waiting for what he already knew she was going to say to him, the appeal she was going to make to him, on behalf of herself and her companion. He had seen beautiful women using their beauty to get what they wanted so many many times before. And of course the first thing this beautiful woman was going to do was to tell him what he had already worked out for himself—that she had not been the one who’d been driving the car. Cynically he waited for her to say as much, and to implicate her friend whilst pleading her own innocence. It was obvious to him from the one assessing look with which he had taken in the whole of the scene in front of him that there was no way that this woman could have been the one driving his car; to anyone with even half a trained eye it was blindingly obvious that the other younger, over-made-up girl with her skimpy clothes and frightened, sullen face had been the driver. As he waited for the woman facing him to denounce her companion Marco fiercely reminded himself of all the reasons why he had been opposed to his cousin’s marriage to his English model girlfriend. Cross-cultural marriages were always, by the very necessity of their nature, bound to be more of a risk than those between people who shared the same background and upbringing. For those marriages to work both parties had to be dedicated to their love and to one another, to believe in it, to be one hundred and fifty per cent committed to it and to be mature and strong enough to make it work. That was a very tall order indeed in today’s modern climate. He himself had never been sexually promiscuous. He was too fastidious, too proud, too controlled to ever allow his appetites to control him, and it added to his already short temper to realise just how intense his physical reaction was to the woman standing in front of him. ‘Are you the one who stole my car?’ he demanded curtly, suddenly impatient to get the whole thing over and done with and the woman and her companion turned over to the police. But, to his disbelief, instead of immediately denying that she was to blame and incriminating her friend, he heard her saying in a soft, shaky voice, ‘Yes…Yes, I’m afraid…that…that it was me.’ As she heard herself confessing to a crime she most certainly had not committed Alice felt her heart lurch joltingly against her ribs. She still felt sick and dizzy and her heart was thumping erratically in panic. Panic because of the trouble she was going to be in, she quickly insisted to herself, and not in any way because of the effect the man standing watching her with that masklike, uninterpretable, assessing look was having on her. Heavens, but he was formidable…Formidable and sexy…The sexiest man she had ever seen. So sexy in fact that he was making her feel… ‘Yes?’ She could hear the fury in his voice as he repeated her admission. ‘Yes?’ he repeated as though he wanted to make sure he had heard her correctly. ‘Yes, it was you?’ It was almost as though he wanted her to deny the crime, Alice thought dizzily. But why? So that he could indulge in the pleasure of berating her, accusing her of being a liar as well as a thief? Well, she wasn’t going to give him that pleasure! Bravely pushing to one side her own shock and fear, she told him firmly, ‘Yes. It was I. I stole your car.’ She could hear Louise making a soft, moaning, hiccupping sound and instinctively Alice looked anxiously towards her. The younger girl’s tears had washed tracks of make-up from her face, giving her a clown-like appearance of vulnerable youthfulness, and as she saw the panic and fear in Louise’s eyes Alice found her heart aching with compassion for her. It must have given her a dreadful shock when they had crashed. No wonder she was looking so afraid. Instinctively, Alice felt protective towards her, overcoming her own feelings of shock and hostility towards the man confronting her and the feelings he was engendering within her to tell him quietly, ‘I apologise for…what has happened and, of course, I will make good the damage to your car, but my…my…friend is very shocked. We are due to catch a flight home to England this afternoon, and we still have to collect our luggage from our hotel, so if there is some way in which we can expedite matters…I can give you all my details. My name is Alice Walsingham and…’ She stopped as she saw the frown darkening his face as he listened to her. ‘Your name is what?’ he challenged her softly. ‘Alice…Alice Walsingham,’ Alice repeated, her voice starting to tremble a little as a feeling of foreboding rushed over her like a cold incoming tide. Marco could hardly believe his ears. So this was the woman he had waited in vain to interview, this small scrap of female humanity with her slender body, her provocative breasts, her pale blonde hair, her far-too-pretty face, and her certainly far-too-dangerously potent effect on his hormones! That such a thing should happen to him and with this woman of all women! A woman who excited such interest in the street from his own sex that a member of it was unable to refrain from extolling the pleasure the sight of her body gave him. A woman who had been an accomplice to the theft of his car…a woman apparently so careless of human life that she could have been an accomplice to an accident of even more hideous and fatal proportions than the one he had already had to endure. A woman who had lied and implicated herself in a theft to protect the true thief, who Marco could now see when he looked at her properly was much younger than he had first thought. A teenager, in fact. Against the urgings of his own self-protective instincts, he found himself remembering certain incidents from his cousin Aldo’s youth, certain irresponsible actions from which he, as Aldo’s elder and family mentor, had been obliged to extricate the younger man. After all, he reminded himself with reluctant fair-mindedness, he had seen the look of discomfort on Alice’s face when she had heard the ice-cream seller’s full-bodied compliment; and she had too looked shocked to the point of actual nausea after the accident. As for the effect she had on him! The one thing about Alice that had caught his attention when he’d read through her application and the letters of recommendation that had accompanied it was the emotional input she put into caring for her charges. It was that degree of involvement that he wanted for Angelina! He had expected her to be an emotional woman, and one with a deeply protective instinct, but what he had not anticipated and what he most certainly did not want was her totally unexpected aura of sensuality! She wore it as lightly and easily as though she herself was totally unaware of it, which made it even more of a danger than if she had wantonly flaunted it, Marco recognised. Grimly he turned to Louise. ‘And you,’ he questioned her. ‘You are?’ ‘Louise is in my charge,’ Alice answered for her, assuming a firmness and authority she was far from feeling. She had bumped her head on the impact of the crash and it was aching horridly still and making her feel very poorly, but she had Louise to protect and that had to come before her own discomfort. ‘She is only young and, as you can see, very upset. Her parents are expecting her return on this afternoon’s flight and…it is my duty…my responsibility to see that she is on that flight.’ ‘Your duty…and your responsibility,’ Marco emphasised. ‘Where were those undoubtedly admirable virtues, I wonder, when you stole my car, risking not only your own lives, but those of other people as well? Have you any idea what a car smash can do, what carnage, what…destruction it can cause?’ Marco demanded harshly as the nightmare images of the crash scene he had been called upon to witness when Aldo had driven away from the palazzo in the temper that had killed both him and his wife resurfaced. With no way of knowing what he was thinking, Alice could feel her face starting to burn. ‘I…It…I couldn’t help myself,’ she started to fib desperately. ‘I have always loved…’ Helplessly she looked at the car for inspiration, unable to remember in her panic just what kind of car it actually was… Against his will Marco found himself being both intrigued and impossibly almost even amused as he witnessed her confusion as she hunted wildly for a rational explanation to cover both her behaviour and her protective fib. Anyone with any remote pretence to being a car lover would not have had to look wildly at the bonnet to realise what make of car they’d been driving. ‘Maseratis,’ he supplied dryly for her, his voice drowning out Louise’s frantically whispered, ‘Ferrari!’ ‘Yes. Maseratis,’ Alice agreed, gratefully seizing on the name he had given her. ‘Well, I’ve always loved them and when I saw yours, just couldn’t resist. It was so tempting. And you had left the keys in the ignition,’ she told him reprovingly. ‘So in effect it was my fault that you stole the car,’ Marco suggested dryly. She had the most revealing eyes, he decided, their colour a clear blue-green that was almost turquoise. ‘Have you any idea just what his car means to an Italian man?’ he asked her, speaking swiftly in Italian. Without the slightest pause, she responded in the same language, telling him simply, ‘I shouldn’t have done it, I know.’ So she hadn’t lied about her ability to speak his language, Marco recognised, and despite all reasons he knew he should summon the police and set about finding himself another nanny for Angelina, he knew that he was going to do no such thing. A woman who for whatever reason was prepared to implicate herself in a crime to protect a younger person in her charge must have a protective instinct that would keep any child entrusted to her care safe and loved. And, so far as Marco was concerned, what Angelina needed more than anything else was just that very kind of security, even if it came wrapped up in a tantalising package with ‘danger’ written all over it! ‘By rights I should summon the police and hand you both over to them,’ he told Alice sternly, waiting for a few seconds as the colour drained from her face and she made a small, instinctive sound of protest and distress. ‘However…you say that you are both booked on an afternoon flight back to England…but you,’ he told her smoothly, ‘or so I thought, were supposed to be being interviewed for a post here in Italy…’ Alice gaped at him. ‘How do you know that?’ she began, and then stopped as the unwanted, impossible, appalling truth began to seep hideously into her shocked brain. ‘No!’ she whispered, her eyes huge with despair. ‘No. You can’t be!’ ‘I can’t be who?’ Marco challenged her grimly. Nervously Alice flicked her tongue-tip over her suddenly nervously dry lips, a gesture which Marco’s eyes monitored whilst his body registered her action in a way that made him glad of the strength of will-power! Glad that it was strong enough to prevent him from covering the softness of her full lips with his own mouth. Richly pink, free of make-up, they reminded him unwantedly of the taut thrust of her nipples against her top. Angrily he pushed his wanton thoughts away. He had neither the time to waste on self-indulgent analysis of them, nor the inclination to do so. Some things were best left undisturbed, unexamined…Her skin would be delicately pale, her breasts crowned with rose-red nipples and when he touched them with his lips she would… As Alice heard him curse beneath his breath she jumped nervously. The heat beating down on her uncovered head was beginning to affect her. She felt confused and muzzy, and she wanted badly to be able to lie down somewhere cool—somewhere cool that did not include this formidable, sexy, downright disturbing man, she corrected herself shakily. ‘I…My interview was with…I was supposed to be seeing…’ she began to protest. ‘Me,’ Marco supplied for her with a softness that belied the steel-hard look he was giving her. ‘Only you did not keep our appointment, which makes you unreliable as well as untrustworthy—and yet according to your agency…’ ‘I-I’m sorry I was late,’ Alice began to stammer with what she knew to be ludicrous consternation. He thought she had stolen his car, after all, and here she was apologising for being late. ‘To be late is an offence against the laws of good manners, and thus punishable by one’s own conscience,’ he agreed urbanely. ‘But theft is an offence against the laws of the land and as such it is punishable by a term in prison…’ The way he was looking at her, his eyes now almost the colour of obsidian and just as empty of any kind of humane emotion as a piece of unfeeling stone, made her blood quite literally run icily cold in her veins. Shock and then fear crept over her in a painful tide. Prison! She knew that her fear showed in her face, and only her pride stopped her from protesting out loud. Out of the corner of her eye she could see Louise, silent now, her shock as obvious as Alice’s own in her suddenly very youthful, drawn white face. As she struggled to find something to say a mobile phone started to ring imperiously. Almost as though she were observing the whole scene at a distance, Alice saw the man she now realised must be her once-prospective employer, the aristocratically named Conte di Vincenti, reaching to his pocket and removing his phone, swiftly responding to the call. With her excellent grasp of Italian, Alice easily translated what he was saying and a fresh surge of anxiety seized her body, not this time for herself, but on behalf of the baby, whose sudden inexplicable and frightening sickness was the cause of the telephone call. Swiftly instructing that a doctor was to be called, Marco ended the call, his face drawn into lines of harsh anxiety. The nursemaid Angelina’s mother had hired to look after the baby was not in his opinion a suitable person to have charge of such a young child. Bored and slovenly, she had no proper training for such a job, and so far as he could see no real love for the baby, but she was, apart from himself, the only person who was truly familiar to her and for that reason, until he found a suitable replacement nanny, he had felt unable to terminate her employment and send her back to Rome where he knew she would feel much more at home than in the Tuscan countryside. It had been left to his housekeeper to telephone him and advise him of baby Angelina’s sickness. The palazzo was over an hour’s fast drive away, and Marco had no time now to waste on a mere car accident in which mercifully no one had been hurt. On Alice’s CV had been the fact that she had some nursing experience, having done voluntary work in a local hospital, both as teenager and later too, when her employment commitments had allowed. Had it not been for his own too stubborn wariness where Englishwomen were concerned, Marco knew that Alice’s obvious dedication to others would have inclined him towards selecting her as Angelina’s nanny even over more highly qualified applicants. However, now a new complication had entered the equation. The one thing that Marco had not been prepared for when he had mentally reviewed and tabulated the pros and cons of hiring Alice was that he himself might find her desirable! His reaction to her had caught him off guard. He had believed that he was armoured against any woman who was made in the same mould as the free-living, free-loving girl students he had encountered in England. So what was he saying? he asked himself sardonically, whilst he worried about Angelina. That he could not control his own libido? No way! Quickly Marco came to a decision. He would normally have been averse to having his hand forced by events, but now he wasn’t concerned about that. He did not want to examine his decision more analytically—because of his concern for Angelina, he told himself. After all, his physical reaction to Alice was something he could control; baby Angelina’s sickness was not. ‘What time did you say your flight left?’ he demanded. White-faced with contempt and disbelief, Alice stared at him. What kind of man…what kind of father was he to give something as minor as a small car accident precedence over the health of his baby daughter? In his shoes the last thing she would have done would be to stand here, worrying about a mere car! Instead she would have been making her way as fast as she could to her baby’s side. So much for the myth that Italian men were wonderful fathers, who adored and protected their children! Instinctively she felt a surge of desire to protect the baby and to castigate her father for his lack of concern; to show him just how contemptuous she felt of him in every way; as a trained professional, as an innocent victim of a crime she had not committed, and most of all as a woman. A woman who had foolishly allowed herself to react to him in a way she was determined not to repeat! Ignoring her throbbing headache, she accused him wildly, ‘That poor baby! How can you be more concerned about your wretched car than her health?’ Emotional tears filled her eyes, which she proudly refused to hide. She was not ashamed to show that she had normal human feelings, no matter how contemptuously that fact made him regard her. ‘I thought that Italian men were supposed to love children,’ she threw at him scornfully, unable to stop herself. ‘But in your case it seems that your love of your car means more to you than the health of the baby.’ Something flickered in his eyes, an expression Alice could not quite catch, almost as though in some way her outburst had pleased him, but then as she focused more closely on him his expression changed, his hooded gaze seeming to deliberately conceal his reaction. Turning his back on her, he flicked on his mobile and started issuing instructions into it. When he had finished he turned back to her, and told her coolly, ‘You are coming with me to the palazzo. Your…friend will be escorted to the airport and put on her flight home…’ Alice stared at him, hardly able to credit that she had heard him correctly. He was making her stay here, in Italy, at his home. Why? Shock, panic, fear, and a sharp, breath-snatching feeling she didn’t want to name, but that she was forced to acknowledge came pretty close to a form of dangerous excitement, swirled the blood to her head. Was the heat of the Italian sun somehow affecting her brain? It must be surely; there was no other acceptable explanation for that sharp, shocking, piercingly wanton feeling burning hotly through her body. This man possessed none of the virtues she could ever want in a man; none of them, she insisted firmly to herself. ‘You can’t make me stay in Italy.’ she began warningly. She had already made up her mind that she was glad that she had not had the opportunity to be interviewed by him because there was totally no way she could ever countenance working for him. His arrogance both infuriated and antagonised her, arousing emotions within her that she was totally unfamiliar with, making her feel, giddy, dizzy, dangerously close to losing her head. It was making her feel very much like a child exposed to danger, immediately wanting to run from it back to safety. She didn’t like him. Not 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 him as a man, but also an intense surge of pity for the small baby who was so dependent on him. All she had been told about her prospective employment had been that she would have virtually sole charge of a six-month-old baby girl whose mother had recently died, and who needed a constant and loving female presence in her life. That alone had been enough to make her yearn to provide her potential charge with all the protection and love she could give her. Those feelings were still there, intensified if anything by the cold-hearted manner of the little Angelina’s father. ‘You can’t force us to do anything,’ she responded forcefully. ‘No?’ Marco overrode her grimly. ‘You have two choices, Alice Walsingham. Either you come with me now, or both you and your friend face the legal consequences of your crime. And to be honest I should have thought, having read your CV and the reports from your agency, that the decision would have been an easy and an automatic one for you. What was it they said about you? That you possessed an extremely strong nurturing instinct and a genuine love and concern for children? It seems to me that somewhere along the line you must have deceived them.’ Before she could speak in her own defence, Alice heard Louise give a faint sob of terror. ‘Please, Alice,’ the younger girl was beseeching her. ‘Please, please do what he wants. I can’t bear the thought of going to prison.’ As she listened to her Alice knew that in reality there was no choice for her at all. Not really. There was no point in her making the mistake of hoping that the man in front of her was simply bluffing. She could see that he wasn’t… A large four-wheel-drive vehicle suddenly pulled up behind the red sports car. Its driver jumped out and came hurrying towards them. Listening to the swift exchange of Italian between him and her persecutor, Alice realised that the new arrival worked for the conte and that the conte was instructing him to take care of the sports car, and escort Louise to the airport, whilst he, the conte, drove himself and Alice to his estate. ‘Your luggage will be brought to the palazzo from the hotel,’ he informed Alice, without bothering to ask her what her decision was. But then of course why should he? It must be as obvious to him as it was to her from Louise’s white shocked face that there was no way she could subject the younger girl to the ordeal of police questioning and potentially a spell in prison, even if for her pride’s sake she was prepared to inflict such traumas on herself. There was barely time to do anything more than exchange a swift hug with Louise, who was now sobbing woefully, full of contrition and guilt as she hugged Alice back with genuine appreciation and whispered, ‘I’m so sorry. I never meant—’ ‘Shush, it’s all right,’ Alice whispered back to her, trying to reassure her, but still warning her gently, ‘I don’t think it would be a good idea to say anything about this to Connie.’ The last thing she wanted was for her sister to worry about her, especially since Connie had hinted to her that she and Steven were planning to try for a baby. There was just time for them to exchange a final hug and then Alice was being firmly drawn away by her new employer. To an outsider she suspected that the hand he had placed around her upper arm looked as though he were merely guiding her. But she knew better. She could feel the sharp bite of those steely fingers against her flesh, she could tell too, from the closeness with which he held her to his side, that he was not in any way guiding her, but guarding her…as in imprisoning…She was his prisoner. He had total control over her, and she knew that he would not hesitate to exercise that control should he feel the need to do so. Her whole body ached with shock. She felt slightly sick from the hot beat of the strong Florentine sunshine on her exposed head, and from what had happened. But there was no way she was going to show any sign of weakness in front of this man! Had it not been for Louise and the plight of the baby she would certainly never have allowed him to dominate her like this. He was everything she hated in a man. Everything she despised and loathed. Too arrogant, too sure of himself, too wrapped up in his own self-importance and too damn sexy by far. Oh, yes he was certainly that all right, she acknowledged, unable to resist the impulse to give him a quick sidelong look. And then wishing she had not given in to such temptation as he caught her betraying glance, faultlessly returning it with a smooth, knowing response that made her face flame and her heart thud in denial of what she was feeling. But even by turning away from him she wasn’t able to escape; all she found was their reflections in the shop window. It seemed there was no way she could escape from him—nor from the shockingly intimate feelings he was making her experience. Fiercely she tried to concentrate on realities, rather than feelings. He was much taller than her, imposingly so, his whole bearing proud and autocratic, his expression hardening the chiselled perfection of his features. She in contrast looked small and pale, overwhelmed by him. He could have been a rapacious Roman centurion and she his captive. A long, dangerous shiver of an emotion she wasn’t prepared to name shocked through her. CHAPTER THREE ALICE woke immediately at the first soft whimper of baby Angelina’s cry despite the fact that it was almost three o’clock in the morning and she had had barely two hours’ sleep. They had arrived at the palazzo the previous afternoon, just as the full lazy heat of the June sunshine had been bathing the creamy walls of the huge Palladian building in hot golden light. Set as it was against a magnificent backdrop of the surrounding Tuscan countryside, the effect on Alice’s finely tuned senses had almost overpowered her, affecting her as headily as too much indulgence in strong wine. It was almost too perfect, had been her verdict as they had driven up the Lombardy-pine-guarded private road that led to the palazzo, and then in through the delicate high wrought-iron gates past imposingly formal gardens and finally into an enclosed courtyard at the rear of the palazzo which had immediately seemed to enclose her, shutting her off from the outside world and reality. A small, gnarled man of about sixty had hurried out to the car, engaging in a low-voiced conversation with the conte, of which Alice could only hear the sharp, autocratic questions that her new employer was throwing at him. ‘Yes, the doctor has been called,’ Alice heard the older man replying in Italian. ‘but there has been an emergency at the hospital and so he has not as yet arrived.’ ‘You have left the car in Florence?’ Alice heard the older man asking the conte, in an incredulous tone that immediately raised Alice’s hackles. How typical of what she already knew of the conte that even his employees should know that he would be more concerned about the future of his car than that of his baby! ‘There was an accident,’ she heard him replying grimly, shaking his head immediately as the other man instantly expressed concern for his health. ‘No. It is all right, Pietro, I am fine,’ the conte was assuring him. Grittily, Alice watched him. At no point during their hair-raising drive to the palazzo had the conte expressed either interest or concern in whether or not she had been hurt in the accident, and she was certainly not going to tell him just how queasy and uncomfortable she had felt during the drive, she decided proudly. She still felt rather weak, though, and she was relieved to be ushered into the cool interior of the palazzo, which was, as she had somehow known it would be, decorated in an elegant and very formal style, and furnished with what she suspected were priceless antiques. How on earth could a young child ever feel at home in a place like this? she wondered ruefully, as she followed the conte and his housekeeper, Pietro’s wife, Maddalena, who had now joined them, through several reception rooms and into a huge formal entrance hall from which a flight of gleaming marble stairs rose imposingly upward. The baby’s suite of rooms—there was in Alice’s opinion no other way to describe the quarters that had been set aside for the little girl; certainly they were far too grand to qualify for the word ‘nursery’ as she understood it—was at one end of a long corridor, and furnished equally imposingly as the salons she had already seen. A nervous and very flustered young girl who was quite plainly terrified of the conte appeared from one of the other rooms in response to the conte’s voice. She was inexpertly clutching the baby, who was quite plainly in discomfort and crying. Immediately Alice’s training and instincts took over, and without waiting for anyone’s permission she stepped forward and firmly removed the baby from the girl’s anxious grip. The baby smelled of vomit and quite plainly needed a nappy change. Her face was red and blotchy from distress and as Alice gently brushed her cool fingers against her skin, whilst reassuringly comforting her, she suspected that she probably had a temperature. Out of the corner of her eye she saw the move the conte made towards her as she took control and cradled the baby against her shoulder. Automatically she turned towards him, only just managing to suppress a small smile of grim contempt as she saw him glance from the baby to his own immaculate clothes. A truly loving father seeing his motherless child in such distress should have instinctively placed the baby’s need for the security of his arms above those of his immaculate suit, especially when she suspected that the conte was more than wealthy enough to buy a whole wardrobe of designer suits. A baby, though, could never be replaced; nor, in Alice’s opinion, could a baby ever be given too much love or security. And she immediately made a silent but vehement vow that, just so long as it was within her power to do so, she would ensure that little Angelina never, ever lacked for love. As she and the baby made eye contact Alice felt a soft, small tug of emotion pulling on her heartstrings, her feelings reflecting openly in her eyes and quite plain for the man watching her to see and comprehend. He had heard of love at first sight, Marco acknowledged wryly, and now had witnessed it taking place. Quickly he veiled his own gaze to prevent Alice from seeing what he was thinking. Almost as soon as she held her, little Angelina stopped crying as though she had instinctively recognised the sure, knowing touch of someone who knew what she was doing. Alice could hear the conte speaking to the nursemaid in Italian. Alice wondered why a man as wealthy as the conte might choose to employ an untrained nanny to look after his motherless child. The girl looked haggard and white-faced and she had started to wring her hands as she explained how the baby had started to be violently sick, shortly after she had fed her. Alice had already made her own professional diagnosis of what she suspected was wrong. Quietly but determinedly she walked towards the communicating door through which the nursemaid had appeared. The room beyond it, whilst as elegantly furnished as the one she had been in, was in total chaos, and Alice grimaced as she saw the pile of soiled baby things heaped up on the floor, and the general untidiness of the room. It was plain to her that the girl whom the conte had left in charge of his baby daughter had no professional skills and very probably very little experience with babies. Carrying Angelina into the bathroom adjoining the bedroom, she quickly started to prepare a bath for her, all the time holding her securely in one arm, sensing her fear and need to be held. It astonished her when the conte suddenly appeared at her side, instructing her, ‘Give her to me.’ The baby started to cry again, a small, thin, grizzling cry of exhaustion, pain and misery. Dubiously Alice looked at her unwanted employer, but before she could say anything the baby turned her head and looked at the conte and suddenly she stopped crying, her eyes widening in recognition and delight as she held out her arms towards the man watching her. To her own furious outrage, Alice actually felt sharp, emotional tears start to prick her eyes at this evidence of the baby’s love for her father. But what really shocked her was the easy way in which the conte had held his small daughter; whilst she prepared a bath for her, cradling her lovingly in his arms, soothing her with soft murmurs of reassurance until Alice was ready to take Angelina off him and gently remove her soiled clothes. ‘I think that she may only be suffering from a bad bout of colic,’ she told the conte as she gently lowered the baby into the water, keeping her attention on her all the time to ensure that she was not becoming in any way distressed, ‘but of course I would advise that she is checked over by a doctor.’ What she did not want to say was that she thought that it could be the inexpert handling of the baby by her nurse that was responsible for her agitated state. How could anyone leave such a young child with someone who was quite plainly not qualified to look after her? Surely, having lost his wife, the conte would want to do everything he could to protect and nurture her child? A child who, it was already obvious to Alice, was looking helplessly to her father for love and security. The arrival of the doctor interrupted her private thoughts, and whilst he was looking at the baby the conte had dismissed the nursemaid to go downstairs and have her supper, an act of apparent kindness, which for some reason only added to Alice’s resentment of him. He had shown no concern at all for the fact that she had not eaten in hours. Not that she wanted to eat particularly; she still felt slightly nauseous and suspected that she might still be suffering from shock. But just whether that shock had been caused by the accident or by the conte himself, Alice was not prepared to consider. The doctor quickly confirmed Alice’s own diagnosis that the baby was suffering from colic and was probably also slightly dehydrated. Surprisingly he openly admonished the conte for allowing such an obviously inexperienced girl to have charge of Angelina. ‘I understand what you are saying, Doctor,’ the conte had accepted, ‘but I have had no real choice in the matter. The girl was chosen to take charge of Angelina by her mother. She has been with her since the first weeks of her birth, and I have been reluctant to remove her from the care of someone so familiar, although I have now taken steps to rectify the situation since, like you, I have been concerned about the girl’s ability to be responsible for the needs of such a small child. ‘Miss Walsingham here has been employed by me to take over full charge of the nursery and of Angelina,’ he told the doctor, turning to indicate Alice. ‘She is English, as Angelina’s mother was, and a fully qualified nanny.’ The doctor looked at Alice appraisingly, before turning to say with very Italian male appreciation, to Alice, ‘May I say how fortunate I consider Angelina to be to have such a pretty companion.’ The avuncular smile he gave her before turning back to the conte, along with the twinkle in his eye, reassured Alice that he was simply being gallant. ‘You will have trouble on your hands, I’m afraid, my friend,’ he continued to the conte. ‘I do not know whether to commiserate with you or envy you for having so much distracting temptation beneath your roof.’ Alice felt her face starting to burn. What on earth was the doctor trying to imply…? That the conte might be tempted. By her? However, before she was able to formulate her own thoughts, the conte himself responded to the doctor, telling him with razor-sharp crispness, ‘I have employed Miss Walsingham for her professional qualities as a nanny, and not because of her looks, and as for her ability to tempt our sex…Miss Walsingham’s contract with me precludes her from encouraging any hot-blooded and foolish young man to be tempted by her.’ The hard-eyed look he gave her scorched Alice’s skin. ‘And since she has already foolishly exhibited to me just how irresistible she finds temptation, I fully intend to ensure that her will-power gets all the support it might need, and in whatever form she might need it.’ Alice gasped. How dared he take such a high-handed attitude with her, and in front of someone else? She was acutely aware of the interested way in which the doctor was now studying both of them, his dark eyes twinkling as though he found something amusing in the situation. Well, he might do so, but Alice most certainly did not. However, before she was able to speak the conte continued almost brusquely, ‘It is essential that Angelina has stability in her life. She has already lost far too much…’ His voice had become so sober that immediately Alice felt unable to take issue with him regarding the statement he had just made. ‘Ah, yes, that was a terrible tragedy indeed,’ the doctor agreed gravely as he finished his examination of the baby and handed her back to Alice. To her astonishment, as she reached out to take the baby the conte forestalled her, taking hold of his daughter himself and saying over Alice’s head to the doctor, ‘Miss Walsingham was involved in a thankfully minor accident earlier today, and I think it would be a good idea if you were to check her over…’ ‘No. There’s no need. I’m fine,’ Alice responded immediately, bridling at the conte’s inference that she was almost as incapable of making her own decisions as the baby he was cradling against his shoulder with fatherly expertise. At some point he had removed his jacket, and the fine white cotton of his shirt did very little to conceal the dark muscularity of the torso that lay beneath it. Alice could even see the shadowing of his body hair. And she actually felt her muscles threaten to go weak. Fortunately she was able to tense them against such betrayal as she forced herself to focus on the waiting doctor and not her employer. ‘I am perfectly all right,’ she insisted. And it was, after all, the truth. That nauseous headache she was still suffering had simply been caused by the heat and her own intense emotions. The minute bruise she had sustained was luckily concealed by her hair, and there really hadn’t been any need for the conte to draw attention to her health! Quite why she felt so resentful and hostile towards his apparent concern for her health, she didn’t know. Perhaps it had something to do with the anger she felt towards him that he could actually employ a woman he considered to be guilty of attempted theft to look after his daughter—who surely should matter far, far more to him than any mere material possession! Reflecting now in the middle of the night on what had been said then, Alice reminded herself that the agency had told her before she’d left London that her prospective employer was looking for her to make a long-term commitment to her charge, and that she would be asked to sign a contract to that effect, but she had overlooked that fact in the turmoil of the accident and its aftermath. Now, however… Quickly she got out of her bed and walked across to Angelina’s cot. She was the reason that Alice was now awake, her instincts alert to the baby’s distress even in her sleep. Angelina was lying awake, whimpering softly. Gently Alice lifted her out, checking her temperature and her nappy. Her skin felt reassuringly cool, but her nappy needed changing, and Alice decided this would be a good opportunity to give her a small extra feed. She suspected that she was slightly underweight and maybe even a little malnourished. If she was a slow feeder, then her young nurse might have become impatient. Holding her tenderly against her shoulder, she padded into the room adjacent to the nursery proper, which had been converted into a temporary but very well-equipped kitchen, with everything to meet the baby’s needs. She had already prepared some bottles of formula before going to bed, and as she removed one from the fridge and started to heat it she studied the baby’s face. Her mother might have been English but she looked completely Italian. She had her father’s dark hair and eyes, and Alice suspected she had also inherited the conte’s determined chin. For a baby of six months she was a little on the small side. As she looked at her with grave, worried eyes Alice couldn’t resist dropping a tender kiss on her forehead as she smoothed her baby curls. She was adorable, but so vulnerable. Alice ached to protect and care for her; so much so, in fact, that she could almost actually feel a soft tug on her own womb as she held her. Poor baby. No mother and a father who couldn’t possibly love her as she needed to be loved. In his own bedroom, Marco frowned as he heard over the intercom the soft, cooing sounds of love and tenderness that Alice was making to the baby. He, like her, had woken at the first sound of Angelina’s distress. His concern over the nursemaid’s ability to take proper care of the baby had led to him having a sophisticated baby-alarm system installed in the nursery suite so that he could hear if Angelina cried. Indeed he had been halfway towards the bedroom door when he had realised that Alice had picked her up. He’d employed Alice primarily so that Angelina would have someone else to bond with other than himself, but also to give himself the freedom to concentrate on his busy professional life, so now he was surprised to recognise that he actually felt almost a little put out at the speed with which the baby was responding to her. Alice Walsingham! What was it about this pale, infuriating Englishwoman that was making him feel such ridiculous and unwanted things? Showing him such intimate and dangerous images; images of her lying beneath him in the soft heat of a summer night, her blonde hair spread against his pillows as he threaded his fingers through it and held her so that he could kiss that tempting mouth of hers into reciprocal passion; images of her holding a dark-haired child in her arms, a boy child who was not Angelina, but his child! Marco didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at his own folly. Alice was a young woman who was quite obviously not very good at hiding her feelings, and he had seen the wariness and hostility in her eyes when she looked at him! Those were feelings he would be wise to allow her to indulge in—for both their sakes. There was a considerable amount of discreet family pressure on him to marry. He was after all the head of the family, but as yet… Marriage. Now why on earth had thinking about Alice Walsingham sent his thoughts in that direction? He belonged to the modern century and there was no way he could ever feel comfortable in any kind of ‘arranged’ marriage, but, on the other hand, at thirty-five he had seen enough marriages and relationships go wrong to feel a certain cynical wariness about the permanence of what his contemporaries called ‘love’. Against his will he suddenly found himself thinking that his mother would have liked Alice. He could hear the soft sucking noises Angelina was making as Alice fed her, and with shocking, nerve-wrenching immediacy he was suddenly once again visualising her holding a baby in her arms, her face soft with maternal love, her breasts bare… Grimly he banished the image. That was not the way he wanted to see her, not even in the privacy of his own thoughts, and it was most certainly not the way he wanted or intended to think of her. He was a man, he reminded himself, and it was a long time since he had had a sexual relationship with a woman. Maybe so, but that had not bothered him until now. Êîíåö îçíàêîìèòåëüíîãî ôðàãìåíòà. Òåêñò ïðåäîñòàâëåí ÎÎÎ «ËèòÐåñ». Ïðî÷èòàéòå ýòó êíèãó öåëèêîì, êóïèâ ïîëíóþ ëåãàëüíóþ âåðñèþ (https://www.litres.ru/pages/biblio_book/?art=39925442&lfrom=390579938) íà ËèòÐåñ. Áåçîïàñíî îïëàòèòü êíèãó ìîæíî áàíêîâñêîé êàðòîé Visa, MasterCard, Maestro, ñî ñ÷åòà ìîáèëüíîãî òåëåôîíà, ñ ïëàòåæíîãî òåðìèíàëà, â ñàëîíå ÌÒÑ èëè Ñâÿçíîé, ÷åðåç PayPal, WebMoney, ßíäåêñ.Äåíüãè, QIWI Êîøåëåê, áîíóñíûìè êàðòàìè èëè äðóãèì óäîáíûì Âàì ñïîñîáîì.