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The air conditioning of the limo was functioning perfectly, but as Jackie stared out of the tinted window at the rolling hills, at the vineyards and citrus groves, she could almost feel the sun warming her forearms. It was an illusion. But she was big on illusions, so she let it slide and just enjoyed the experience.
The whole process of coming home would also be an illusion. There would be loud exclamations, bear hugs, family dinners where no one could get a word in—not that it would stop anyone trying—but underneath there would be a wariness. There always was. Even the siblings and cousins who didn't know her secret somehow picked up on the atmosphere and joined in, letting her keep them at arm's length.
They became her co-conspirators as she tried to deny her Italian side and laced herself up tight in Britishness—the one thing her father had given her that she treasured. She had learned how to shore herself up and keep herself together, but then Jackie always excelled at everything she did, and this was no exception.
She hadn't called ahead to let the family know what time she was arriving. A limousine and her own company were preferable at present. She needed time to collect herself before she faced them all again.
It had been a couple of years since she'd been home to Monta Correnti. And when she did come these days, it was always in the winter. The summers were too glorious here, too full of memories she couldn't afford to revisit. But then her older sister had chosen a weekend in May for her wedding celebrations, and Jackie hadn't had much choice. It seemed she hadn't been able to outrun the tug of a big Italian family after all, even though she'd tried very, very hard.
She turned away from the scenery—the golds and olives, the almost painful blue of the sky—and picked up a magazine from the leather seat beside her. It was the latest issue from Gloss! magazine's main rival. Her lips curved in triumph as she noted that her editorial team had done a much better job of covering the season's latest trends. But that was what she paid them for. She expected nothing less.
The main fashion caught her attention. Puccini—one of Italy's top labels. But she hadn't needed to read the heading to recognise the style. The fashion house had gone from strength to strength since Rafael Puccini had handed the design department over to his son.
With such a man at the helm, you'd expect the menswear to outshine the women's collections, but it wasn't the case. Romano Puccini understood women's bodies so well that he created the most exquisite clothes for them. Elegant, sensuous, stylish. Although she'd resisted buying one of his creations for years, she'd succumbed last summer, and the dress now hung guiltily in the back of her wardrobe. She'd worn it only once, and in it she'd felt sexy, powerful and feminine.
Maybe that was why the house of Puccini was so successful, why women stampeded the boutiques to own one of their dresses. Good looks and bucketloads of charm aside, Romano Puccini knew how to make each and every woman feel as if she were as essentially female as Botticelli's Venus. Of course, that too was an illusion. And Jackie knew that better than most.
She frowned, then instantly relaxed her forehead. She hadn't given in to the lure of Botox yet, but there was no point making matters worse. Although she was at the top of her game, Editor-in-chief of London's top fashion magazine, she was confronted daily by women who wore the youthful, fresh-faced glow that she'd been forced to abandon early. Working and living in that environment would make any woman over the age of twenty-two paranoid.
Her mobile phone rang and, glad of the distraction, she reached into her large soft leather bag to answer it. The name on the caller ID gave her an unwanted spike of adrenaline. Surely she should be used to seeing that name there by now?
Her own name jarred in her ears. It sounded wrong, but she hadn't earned the title of 'mother' from this young woman yet. Maybe she never would.
'Is there something I can help you with?'
There was a pause. A loaded sixteen-year-old pause.
Are you there? In Italy?'
Jackie's gaze returned to the view beyond the tinted windows. It whipped past silently, the insulation of the limousine blocking out any noise from outside. 'Yes. I left the airport about twenty minutes ago.'
There was a sigh—which managed to be both wistful and accusatory—on the other end of the line. 'I wish I could have come with you.'
'I know. I wish you could have too. But this situation…telling my family… it needs some careful handling.'
'They're my family too.'
Jackie closed her eyes. 'I know. But it's complicated. You don't know them—'
'No, I don't. And that's not my fault, is it?'
Jackie didn't miss Kate's silent implication. Yes, it was her fault. She knew that. Had always known that. But that wasn't going to help calm her mother down when she announced that the child she'd handed over for adoption sixteen years ago had recently sought her out, that she'd been secretly meeting with that daughter in London for the last few months—especially when it had been her mother's iron insistence that no one else in the family should ever know. To a woman like Lisa Firenzi, image was everything. And a pregnant teenage daughter who'd refused to name the father of her baby didn't fit in the glossy brochure that was her life.
Jackie hadn't even been as old as Kate when it had happened. Back then, every day when she'd come down the stairs for breakfast, her mother had scrutinised her profile. When she hadn't been able to disguise the growing swell of her stomach with baggy T-shirts, she'd been quietly sent away.
She'd arrived in London one wet November evening, a shivering fifteen-year-old, feeling lost and alone. The family had been told she'd gone to stay with her father, which was true. He'd been husband number two. Lisa had managed to devour and spit out another husband and quite a few lovers since then.
So, not only had Jackie to reconcile her mother to the fact that the dirty family secret she'd tried to hide was now out in the open, but she had to break the news to her uncle and cousins—even Lizzie and Scarlett, her sisters, didn't know. She was going to have to handle the situation very, very carefully.
Lizzie's wedding would be the first time she and all her sisters and cousins had been together in years and she couldn't gazump her sister's big day by turning up with a mystery daughter in tow, and it wouldn't have been fair to drop Kate into the boiling pot of her family's reactions either. Jackie had absolutely no idea how they were going to take the news and the last thing her fragile daughter needed was another heap of rejection.
She drew in a breath through her nostrils, the way her Pilates instructor had taught her. 'I know, Kate. And I'm sorry. Maybe next time.'
The silence between them soured.
'You're ashamed of me, aren't you?'
Jackie sat bolt upright in the back seat. 'No!'
'Well, then, why won't you let me meet my uncles and aunts, my cousins—my grandmother?'
There was no shyness about this girl. She was hot-headed, impulsive, full of self-righteous anger. Very much as her biological mother had been as a teenager. And that very same attitude had landed her into a whole heap of trouble.
'Family things… they're difficult, you know…'
A soft snort in her ear told Jackie that Kate didn't know. That she didn't even want to know. Jackie only had one card left to play and she hoped it worked.
'Remember how you told me your mum—' Your mum. Oh, how that phrase was difficult to get out '—found it difficult when you told her you wanted to find your biological mother, even though you weren't eighteen yet? It was hard to tell her, wasn't it? Because you didn't want to hurt her, but at the same time it was something you needed to do.'
'Yes.' The voice was quieter now, slightly shaky.
'You're just going to have to trust me—' Sweetheart. She wanted to say 'sweetheart''—Kate. This is something I need to do first. And then you can come on a visit and meet everyone, I promise.'
Just like every other girl of her age, Kate was rushing at life, her head full of the possibilities ahead of her, possibilities that dangled like bright shiny stars hung on strings from the heavens. They tempted, called. If only she could make Kate see how dangerous those sparkly things were…how deceptive.
Something in her tone must have placated her newly found daughter, because Kate sounded resigned rather than angry when she rang off. Jackie slid her phone closed and sank back into the padded leather seat, exhausted.
She hadn't realised how hard the reunion would be, even though she'd been waiting for it since she'd put her name on the adoption register when she'd been twenty. When she'd got the first call she'd been overjoyed, but terror had quickly followed. She and Kate had had a tearful and awkward first meeting under the watchful eye of her adoptive mother, Sue.
Kate had been slightly overawed by Jackie's high-fashion wardrobe and sleek sports car. Sue had taken Jackie aside after a few weeks and warned her that Kate was dazzled by the fact her 'real' mum was Jacqueline Patterson, style icon and fashion goddess. Don't you dare let her down, Sue's eyes had said as she'd poured the tea and motioned for Jackie to sit at her weathered kitchen table.
Jackie was doing her best, but she wasn't convinced she could make this work, that she and Kate could settle into a semblance of a mother-daughter relationship. They'd gone through a sort of honeymoon period for the first month or two, but now questions and emotions from the past were starting to surface and not everything that was rising to the top was as glossy and pretty as Jackie normally liked things to be.
Once she told her mother, Kate's grandmother, the cat would be out of the bag and there would be no going back. But Jackie had no other option. She wanted… needed… to have her daughter back in her life, and she was going to do whatever it took to make a comfortable space for her, no matter how hard the fallout landed.
The limo swung round a bend in the road and Jackie held her breath. There was Monta Correnti in the distance, a stunningly beautiful little town with a square church steeple and patchwork of terracotta tiled roofs seemingly clinging to the steep hillside. It was currently a 'hot' holiday destination for Europe's rich and notorious, but it had once been Jackie's home. Her only real home. A place filled with memories, yellow and faded like old family photographs.
Before they reached the town centre, the limo branched off to the left, heading up a tree-lined road to the brow of the hill that was close enough to look down its nose on the town but not near enough to feel neighbourly.
The road to her mother's villa.
Jackie tided the magazines on the back seat, made sure everything she needed was in her handbag and pulled herself up straight as the car eased through gates more suited to a maximum-security prison than a family home.
Romano opened the tall windows of his drawing room and stepped onto the garden terrace. It all looked perfect. It always looked perfect. That pleased him. He liked simple lines, clean shapes. He wasn't a man who relished anything complicated or fussy. Of course, he knew that perfection came at a cost. None of this happened by accident.
In his absence, the low hedges of the parterre had been clipped by an army of gardeners, the gravel paths raked and smoothed until they were perfectly flat and unsullied by footprints. The flowers in the vast stone urns had been lovingly weeded and watered. And the attention hadn't been confined to the garden. Every inch of the Puccini family's old summer home was free from dust. Every window and polished surface gleamed. It was the perfect place to retreat from the grime and noise of Rome in the summer months. And Romano enjoyed it so much here he'd recently decided to keep it as his main residence, even in winter, when Lake Adrina was filled with waves of polished pewter and the wind was less than gentle.
Palazzo Raverno was unique, built by an ostentatious count in the eighteenth century on a small island, shaped like a long drawn-out teardrop. On the wider end of the island Count Raverno had spared no expense in erecting a Neo-gothic Venetian palace, all high arches and ornate masonry in contrasting pink and white stone. It should have looked ridiculously out of place on a tranquil wooded island in the middle of a lake—but somehow the icing-sugar crispness of the house just made it a well-placed adornment to the island. From what he knew of the infamous count, Romano suspected this had been more by accident than design.
And if the palazzo was spectacular, the gardens took one's breath away. Closer to the house the gardens were formal, with intricate topiary and symmetrical beds, but as they rolled away to the shore and reached to the thin end of the island they gave the impression of a natural Eden.
Romano could resist it no longer. His wandering became striding and he soon found himself walking down the shady paths, stopping to listen to the soft music of the gurgling waterfall that sprang out of a rockery. He didn't plan a route, just let his feet take him where they wanted, and it wasn't long before he arrived in the sunken garden.
The breeze was deliciously cool here, lifting the fringes of the drooping ferns. Everything was green, from the vibrant shades of the tropical plants and the dark glossiness of the ivy, to the subtle sponginess of the moss on the walls of the grotto.
It was all so unbearably romantic. The island was the perfect place for a wedding.
Not his wedding, of course. He smiled at the thought. Nobody would ever be foolish enough to think the day would come when he'd pledge his body and soul to one woman for eternity.
A month or two, maybe.
He sighed as he left the leafy seclusion of the sunken garden and walked into the fragrant sunshine of a neatly clipped lawn. From here he climbed a succession of terraces as he made his way back towards the house. The days when this island had been a playground for the idle rich were long gone. He had work to do.