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'This is an urgent announcement for Ms Giselle Barton, travelling on the thirteen-thirty flight to Rome. Please come immediately to desk number six in the departure terminal. Ms Giselle Bartongo immediately to desk number six.'
Lily Bartonno one but her dearly missed mother had ever called her Giselle!had struggled all the way through the airport terminal, dragging her wayward case behind her to desk number fifty-two to join the long queue of people waiting to book in for the flight to Rome. She now gave a disbelieving groan at the realisation that desk number six had to be all the way back where she had originally started from.
So far on this cold December morning, only two days before Christmas, Lily's taxi had been late picking her up from her apartment, and the freezing temperatures and the snow that had been falling for most of the night had made the journey to the airport both slow and treacherousensuring that Lily was likely to be the very last passenger to join the queue checking in for Rome. As a consequence she would probably be allocated a lousy seat on the plane. No doubt squashed between two overweight businessmen who would spend the whole flight trying to look down the scooped neckline of her blue sweater once she had removed the heavy jacket she had worn against the freezing English weather outside!
To add to her misery, one of the wheels had decided to drop off her suitcasean old and battered one of her mother'sas the taxi driver pulled it out of the boot of the car outside the airport. It had then refused to be fixed back into place, meaning that Lily now carried a superfluous wheel in her over-large shoulder bagwhich had already weighed a ton even before the addition of the metal wheeland the suitcase now had a tendency to veer off to the left as she attempted to drag it along behind her.
If, for some reason, she was now going to be bumped off the flight to Romewhich was highly likely considering how late she had booked her ticket and the fact that most flights tended to be overbooked at this time of yearshe was just going to sit down and howl! It really would be the last straw in an already disastrous day.
'Ms Giselle Bartonplease come immediately to desk number six in the departure terminal.'
'All right, all right, all right!' Lily muttered as the announcement was repeated, grabbing the handle of her suitcase to walk back to where she had started. The announcement had sounded more imperious this time, she noted, which probably meant she was definitely going to get bumped off the flight. No doubt with an offer to rebook her onto one leaving after Christmas.
Damn, damn, damn.
It had been a last-minute decision to spend Christmas in Rome with her brotherFelix had moved over there to work as PA to Count Dmitri Scarletti three months agowhen Lily's original plans for the holidays had fallen through. She should have known better than to think that Danny, the man she had been dating for the past couple of months, would abandon his divorced motherwith whom he still livedin order to spend Christmas with her after Miriam had made it clear she had no intention of inviting Lily to join them. The perfect time, Lily had decided ruefully, to end that particular going-nowhere relationship.
Thank goodness her emotions hadn't been seriously involved; Danny, a fellow teacher at the secondary school where they both worked, had been fun to go out to the cinema or dinner with, but his domineering and demanding mother was a definite turn off!
Once her decision to go to Rome for Christmas had been made, Lily had felt her excitement start to grow. She had never been to Romeor anywhere out of England, as it happenedand it would be lovely to see her brother again after all these months apart. Their parents had both died eight years ago, bringing brother and sister closer than ever, and emails and phone calls just weren't the same as actually spending time with the irrepressible Felix.
Well it would have been exciting to spend Christmas in Rome with her brother, after Danny had proved to be such a disappointment, but as Lily was about to be bumped off the flight she might just have to settle for a turkey meal for one in front of the television in England. Wonderful. She didn't think!
The heating in the terminal seemed to be on full, ensuring that Lily was hot as well as bothered by the time she reached the other end of the buildingonly to stand in the middle of the cavernous and crowded terminal for several disorientated minutes as she endeavoured to locate desk six.
There didn't appear to be a desk six. Desk five, yes. And a desk seven. But no desk six'Miss Barton?'
Lily turned abruptly, almost falling over her own suitcase as it remained solidly in place behind her without the benefit of that second wheel. Lily blew several tendrils of platinum blond hair out of her eyes before focusing on the beautiful dark-haired flight attendant who stood up from behind an unmarked desk and towered over Lily's five feet two inches in height as she moved to join her. 'I'm Lily Barton, yes '
The other woman eyed her uncertainly. 'Lily? But'
'Don't worry about itit's a family thing.' Lily had absolutely no interest in explaining that as a young child her brother, unable to get his tongue around the name Giselle, had instead called her Lelly, which had eventually become Lily. And stuck fast. Thank goodness; Giselle sounded like someone's elderly aunt. And whilst she might one day become exactly that, at only twenty-six she preferred to stick with Lily! 'See.' She fished her passport out of the zip pocket of her bag and held it in front of the other woman's beautifully straight nose.
Not the most flattering photograph ever taken of her, Lily acknowledged ruefully. Oh, her long and completely straightand completely naturalplatinum-blond hair was tidy enough, but her blue eyes had widened as soon as the flash went off, giving her a slightly startled appearance. As she hadn't been allowed to smile her face looked slightly woebegone, and her neck appeared almost too slender to support that heavy mane of hair.
'If you're about to tell me that I can't fly to Rome today after all' she started, stashing the passport back in the pocket of her shoulder bag, 'then I think I should first warn you that if anything else goes wrong today I'm likely to start screaming hysterically.'
The other woman's cool demeanour softened slightly. 'Tough morning?'
Lily raised her eyes heavenwards. 'Let's not even go there.'
The flight attendant's brisk, businesslike air left her completely as she chuckled softly. 'Then I'm glad I'm not about to make it any more difficult for you.'
'You aren't?' Now it was Lily's turn to look uncertain. As well as hopeful.
'Not at all. Herelet me take that for you.' The other woman took possession of the handle of Lily's suitcase before turning to walk away, somehow managing to pull the damaged suitcase smoothly along behind her as she did so. Of course!
'Hey!' Lily quickly caught up with the other woman and grasped her by the arm. 'Where are you going with my case?'
She smiled patiently. 'I'll check it in for you, and then take you through to the private lounge.'
Lily looked taken aback, then shook her head. 'I think there's been some sort of mistake.' Although it was hard to believe there could possibly be two women called Giselle Bartonlet alone both booked on today's flight to Rome! 'I'm booked into an economy seat, which I think entitles meif I'm luckyto find a seat in the crowded main departure lounge.' She smiled ruefully.
The ebony-haired beauty returned that smile. 'I believe your booking was changed earlier this morning.' 'Changed?' Lily eyed her pleadingly. 'Please don't tell me I'm now flying to Norway, or somewhere else guaranteed to be even colder than England is right now?'
The flight attendant gave another chuckle. 'No, you aren't flying to Norway.'
'Iceland? Or perhaps Siberia?' She gave a pained grimace. December had been a particularly cold month in England this year, and although Lily appreciated the temperatures wouldn't be in the twenties in Rome, it should at least be warmer than snow-covered England.
'You aren't flying to either of those two places.' She grinned openly now. 'You're still booked on the flight to Rome due to depart in two hours' time.'
'Thank goodness for that!' Lily frowned. 'Look, I realise I must seem like a country bumpkin, what with the wonky suitcase and my hot and bothered appearance, but I'm really not in need of special assistance. It's just the first time that I've ever flownand I'm obviously making a complete mess of organising myself.'
The flight attendant chewed on her bottom lip in an obvious effort to stop herself from laughing again. 'Which is why I intend checking in for you.'
'Before taking me to a private lounge?' Lily repeated slowly.
'Yes. If you would just like to come this way ?'
Lily shook her head as she stood her ground. 'I really think there's been some sort of a mix-up. I am Giselle Barton, yes. And I'm booked on the flight to Rome. But I have an economy seat'
'Not any more,' the other woman assured her briskly. 'Count Scarletti called the airline himself this morning and changed your booking to a first class seat, as well as giving instructions that you are to be given every personal care and considerationbefore and during the flight.'
Count Dmitri Scarletti?
The same wealthy and influential man, of mixed Russian/Italian ancestry, for whom Felix was currently working in Rome? Well, there couldn't possibly be two of them, could there? So it must be!
'I believe there will also be a car waiting to meet you at Leonardo da Vinci airport,' the flight attendant added enviously.
Felix was supposed to be meeting Lily at Rome airport.
Unless Count Scarletti had needed Felix to remain in his office today, rather than meeting Lily as planned, and this was the other man's way of making up for that change in their plans?
No doubt Felix would explain everything once she arrived at the apartment he rented in the city.
Lily was feeling slightly dazed from all the 'care and consideration' she had received 'before and during the flight' by the time she disembarked the plane at Leonardo da Vinci airport several hours later.
Sonia, the original flight attendant, had duly booked in Lily's suitcase, before escorting her to a completely private lounge set aside for VIPs. Whichupgraded or notLily certainly wasn't!
Once in the lounge she'd been plied with drinks and food by yet more attendants, before being personally escorted onto the plane by one of them only minutes before the flight was due to take off. She'd been shown to her first class seatwith not an overweight businessman in sight!and then given champagne and canapes until she couldn't eat or drink any more. The result being that she had dropped off to sleep after her third glass of champagne, and hadn't woken up again until the plane had landed.
And if she had thought her personaland, she admitted, slightly embarrassingservice to be over once she was outside, then she was sadly mistaken. As soon as she stepped out into the arrivals terminal she saw her name written on a card being held up by a tall and heavily muscled man dressed in a chauffeur's uniforma man who looked more like a bodyguard than a chauffeur!
After introducing himself only as Marco, and ensuring that she was indeed Giselle Barton, he then proceeded to lift her heavy and broken suitcase as if it weighed nothing at all, before carrying it outside to a limousine parked in the 'No Parking' zone, leaving Lily with no choice but to follow him.
Her attempts to ask him questions, in a mixture of very bad Italian and English, didn't go well. Only the mention of Felix's name and Count Scarletti's received a terse 'si' of response as Marco ensured Lily was comfortably seated in the back of the limousine before slamming the door firmly behind her and moving to place her case in the cavernous boot of the car.
All of this was being watched by several dozen pairs of curious eyes, as people obviously wondered if the woman with the long silver-coloured hair, dressed in faded blue denims and a heavy black jacket, was some sort of celebrity. Obviously a celebrity who bought her clothes from a thrift shop!
By the time Marco slid in behind the wheel of the long black car to drive smoothly away from the kerb and enter the stream of traffic, Lily was flushed with embarrassment, and the glass partition separating the front and the back of the limousine wasn't conducive to any further attempts to question the chauffeur, either.
Left with no other choice, Lily chose to sit back in her leather seat and enjoy the scenery outside as the car sped towards the centre of Rome; if she was going to wake up from this Cinderella-like transformation any time soon then she might as well enjoy what was left of it!
She had been right about the temperature: it wasn't exactly T-shirt weather outside, but it was definitely ten or so degrees warmer than England, with no snow in sight. And the sun was shining too, which made everything look so much brighter and warmer. Lily was so enthralled by the city of Rome that after the first couple of near misses with other cars, as drivers honked and gesticulated, only to be completely ignored by the stoic Marco, she decided it might be best to return her attention to the amazing scenery outside the window.
Every street corner seemed to have statuary, a fountain or a nativity sceneit was almost Christmas, after allalong with imposing museums that easily rivalled the history of the sludge-covered London Lily had left behind her only hours ago. Many of the outside cafes were open for business tooeven if the patrons had to wear coats and scarves in order to keep warm.
No wonder Felix had so obviously fallen in love with the city. And not only the city, apparently; he had informed Lily weeks ago that he was going out with a young Italian girl named Dee, whom he wanted to introduce to her at the earliest opportunity.
Rome appeared to be a city where it would be all too easy to fall in love.