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IT WAS a warm, golden morning in Rome, so how in the name of God was the city in the apparent grip of a small earthquake?
The noble Conte Alessio Ramontella lifted his aching head from the pillow, and, groaning faintly from the effort, attempted to focus his eyes. True, the bed looked like a disaster area, but the room was not moving, and the severe pounding, which he'd assumed was the noise of buildings collapsing nearby, seemed to be coming instead from the direction of his bedroom door.
And the agitated shouting he could hear was not emanating from some buried victim either, but could be recognized as the voice of his manservant Giorgio urging him to wake up.
Using small, economical movements that would not disturb the blonde, naked beauty still slumbering beside him, or increase the pressure from his hangover, Alessio got up from the bed, and extracted his robe from the tangle of discarded clothing on the floor, before treading across the marble-tiled floor to the door.
He pulled the garment round him, and opened the door an inch or two. "This is not a working day," he informed the anxious face outside. "Am I to be allowed no peace?"
"Forgive me, Eccellenza." Giorgio wrung his hands. "For the world I would not have disturbed you. But it is your aunt, the Signora Vicente."
There was an ominous pause, then: 'Here?" Alessio bit out the word.
"On her way," Giorgio admitted nervously. "She telephoned to announce her intention to visit you."
Alessio swore softly. "Didn't you have enough wit to say I was away?" he demanded.
"Of course, Eccellenza." Giorgio spoke with real sorrow. "But regrettably she did not believe me."
Alessio swore again more fluently. "How long have I got?"
"That will depend on the traffic, signore, but I think we must count in minutes." He added reproachfully, "I have been knocking and knocking..."
With another groan, Alessio forced himself into action. "Get a cab for my guest," he ordered. "Tell the driver to come to the rear entrance, and to be quick about it. This is an emergency. Then prepare coffee for the Signora, and some of the little almond biscuits that she likes."
He shut the door, and went back to the bed, his hangover eclipsed by more pressing concerns. He looked down at all the smooth, tanned loveliness displayed for his delectation, and his mouth tightened.
Dio, what a fool he'd been to break his own cardinal rule, and allow her to stay the night.
I must have been more drunk than I thought, he told himself cynically, then bent over her, giving one rounded shoulder a firm shake.
Impossibly long lashes lifted slowly, and she gave him a sleepy smile. "Alessio, tesoro mio, why aren't you still in bed?" She reached up, twining coaxing arms round his neck to draw him down to her, but he swiftly detached the clinging hands and stepped back.
"Vittoria, you have to go, and quickly too." She pouted charmingly. "But how ungallant of you, caro. I told you, Fabrizio is visiting his witch of a mother, and will not be back until this evening at the earliest. So we have all the time in the world."
"An enchanting thought," Alessio said levelly. "But, sadly, there is no time to pursue it."
She stretched voluptuously, her smile widening. "But how can I leave, mi amore, when I have nothing to wear? You won all my clothes at cards last night, so what am I to do? It was, after all, a debt of honor," she added throatily.
Alessio tried to control his growing impatience. "Consider it canceled. I cheated."
She hunched a shoulder. "Then you will have to fetch my clothes for me--from the salotto where I took them off. Unless you wish me to win them back, during another game of cards."
This, thought Alessio, was not the time to be sultry. His smile was almost a snarl. "And how, precisely, bella mia, will you explain your presence, also your state of undress, to my aunt Lucrezia, who counts Fabrizio's mother among her closest cronies?"
Vittoria gave a startled cry and sat up, belatedly grabbing at the sheet. "Madonna--you cannot mean it. Promise me she is not here?"
"Not quite, but due imminently," Alessio warned, his tone grim.
"Dio mio." Her voice was a wail. "Alessio--do something. I must get out of here. You have to save me."
There was another knock at the door, which opened a crack to admit Giorgio's discreet arm holding out a handful of female clothing. His voice was urgent. "The taxi has arrived, Eccellenza."
"Un momento." Alessio strode over and took the clothes, tossing them deftly to Vittoria who was already running frantically to the bathroom, her nakedness suddenly ungainly.
He paused, watching her disappear, then gave a mental shrug. Last night she'd been an entertaining and inventive companion, but daylight and danger had dissipated her appeal. There would be no more cards, or any other games with the beautiful Vittoria Montecorvo. In fact, he thought, frowning, it might be wiser, for the future, to avoid discontented wives altogether. The only real advantage of such affairs was not being expected to propose marriage, he told himself cynically.
He retrieved his underwear from the pile of discarded evening clothes beside the bed, then went into his dressing room, finding and shrugging on a pair of cream denim trousers and a black polo shirt. As he emerged, thrusting his bare feet into loafers, Vittoria was waiting, dressed but distraught. "Alessio." She hurled herself at him. "When shall I see you again?"
The honest reply would be, "Never," but that would also be unkind.
"Perhaps this narrow escape is a warning to us, cara mia," he returned guardedly. "We shall have to be very careful."
"But I am not sure I can bear it." Her voice throbbed a little. "Not now that we have found each other, angelo mio."
Alessio suppressed a cynical smile. He knew who his predecessor had been. Was sure that his successor was already lined up. Vittoria was a rich man's beautiful daughter married to another rich man, who was all too easy to fool.
She was spoiled, predatory and bored, as, indeed, he was himself.
Maybe that had been the initial attraction between them, he thought, with an inner grimace. Like calling to like.
Suddenly he felt jaded and restless. The heat of Rome, the noise of the traffic seemed to press upon him, stifling him. He found himself thinking of wind-swept crags where clouds drifted. He longed to breathe the dark, earthy scents of the forests that clothed the lower slopes, and wake in the night to moonlit silence.
He needed, he thought, to distance himself. And he could have all that, and more. After all, he was overdue for a vacation. Some re-scheduling at the bank, and he could be gone, he told himself as Vittoria pressed herself against him, murmuring seductively.
He wanted her out of the appartamento, too, he thought grimly, and realized he would have felt the same even if he hadn't been threatened by a visit from his aunt.
Gently but firmly, he edged her out of the bedroom, and along the wide passage to where Giorgio was waiting, his face expressionless, just as the entrance bell jangled discordantly at the other end of the flat.
"I'll get that. You take the signora to her cab." Alessio freed himself from the clutching, crimson-tipped fingers, murmuring that of course he would think of her, would call her--but only if he felt it was safe.
He paused to watch her leaving, her parting glance both suspicious and disconsolate, then drew a deep breath of thanksgiving, raking the hair she'd so playfully dishevelled back from his face with impatient fingers.
The bell rang again, imperative in its summons, and Alessio knew he could hardly delay his response any longer. Sighing, he went to confront the enemy at the gates.
"Zia Lucrezia," he greeted the tall, grey-haired woman waiting on his doorstep, her elegant shoe beating a tattoo against the stone. "What a charming surprise."
Her glance was minatory as she swept past him. "Don't be a hypocrite, Alessio. It does not become you. I was not expecting to be welcome." She paused for a moment, listening to the distant sound of a car starting up, and the rear door closing with a clang. "Ah, so your other visitor has safely made her escape," she added with a sour smile. "I regret spoiling your plans for the day, nephew."
He said gently, "I rarely make plans, my dear aunt. I prefer to wait and see what delights the day offers." He escorted her into the salotto, one swift, sweeping glance assuring him that it had been restored to its usual pristine condition. The tell-tale wineglasses had been removed, together with the empty bottles, and the grappa that had followed had also been put away. As had the scattered cards from last night's impromptu session of strip poker.
And the windows to the balcony stood innocently open to admit the morning sun, and dispel any lingering traces of alcohol fumes, and Vittoria's rather heavy perfume.
Making a mental note to increase Giorgio's salary, he conducted the Signora to a sofa, and seated himself in the chair opposite.
"To what do I owe the pleasure of seeing you, Zia Lucrezia?"
She was silent for a moment, then she said curtly, "I wish to speak to you about Paolo."
He looked across at her in frank surprise. Giorgio's arrival with the tall silver pot of coffee, and the ensuing ritual of pouring the coffee and handing the tiny sweet biscuits, gave him a chance to gather his thoughts.
When they were alone again, he said softly, "You amaze me, cara Zia. I am hardly in a position to offer advice. You have always allowed me to understand that my example to your only son is an abomination."
"Don't pretend to be a fool," the Signora said shortly. "Of course, I don't want advice." She hesitated again. "However, I do find that I need your practical assistance in a small matter."
Alessio swallowed some coffee. "I hope this is not a request to transfer Paolo back to Rome. I gather he is making progress in London."
"That," said Paolo's mother glacially, "is a matter of opinion. And, anyway, he is returning to Rome quite soon, to spend his vacation with me."
Alessio's eyes narrowed slightly. "The idea doesn't appeal to you? Yet I remember you complaining to me when we met at Princess Dorelli's reception that you didn't see him often enough."
There was another, longer silence, then the Signora said, as if the words were being wrung out of her, "He is not coming alone."
Alessio shrugged. "Well, why should he?" he countered. "Let me remind you, dear aunt, that my cousin is no longer a boy."
"Precisely." The Signora poured herself more coffee. "He is old enough, in fact, to be a husband. And let me remind you, Alessio, that it has always been the intention of both families that Paolo should marry Beatrice Manzone."