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There was A single white rose on a coffin splattered with raindrops
It made Carrie sad to see the tender bloom lying on the brass plate that spoke to a world that would never read it: the name of an aunt who had never loved her. But love could not be controlled at will, and Carrie had loved her aunt in spite of the woman's rejection of her. Sad as she was, Carrie was glad there were some things words could never destroy and that love was one of them.
Carrie turned to find a man standing behind her. He was sheltering beneath the oily spread of a black umbrella, which made the shadows on his saturnine face all the deeper, adding to his air of gloom. There were only four people at her aunt's funeral other than herselfthe minister and three undertakersand it was hard to feel brave as the small group peeled away to allow her some privacy. Lifting up her chin, she gazed squarely into the face of the man. 'I'm Carrie Evans. Can I help you?'
'Sorry, miss I tried the house.'
Carrie didn't know the man, but she could guess what he had come for. He was here to serve papers evicting her from her aunt's house on the instructions of relatives who hadn't been to visit Aunt Mabel in Carrie's living memory. A solicitor had rung her yesterday to explain.
Yesterday, the day when everything in her life had changed for good .
Carrie was twenty-five, but she looked much younger. Her complexion was pale and she dressed conservatively, keeping her luxuriant hair scraped back neatly in a practical twist. She found the lush tresses an embarrassment. Her natural hair color was a rich golden red that painters called titian, and she believed it better suited to an actress or a glamour model. She had even thought about dying her hair a pale shade of brown, but the upkeep would have been too much on a secretary's salary. Her eyes were large and cornflower-blue and were perhaps her most expressive feature. Widely set and fringed with sable lashes, they were quick to darken with emotion, but could turn steely when there was something or someone to defend.
The man addressing Carrie saw a capable young woman, a little too plump to ever be called stylish, but determined, nonetheless, he concluded.
'I have already cleared my belongings from my late aunt's house,' she told him without rancour, 'and as soon as we're finished here I will collect my suitcase and deliver the house keys to my aunt's solicitor .'
She couldn't do any more, and he felt some sympathy for her. He'd heard she had nowhere to go since her aunt's heirs had turned up and laid claim to the house where she lived. 'You're so well organized,' he said, trying to soften the blow for her, 'I hardly need to give you this .'
'I think you do,' she told him. Her tone was serious and exposed his attempt to console her for the sham it was. She held his gaze as she reached for the documents he was carrying and, as he handed over the eviction notice, he couldn't help thinking that, in spite of the downturn in her fortunes, the young woman in front of him possessed a quiet dignity that commanded his respect.
She had forgotten how cold and bare her attic room was. The eviction notice allowed her twenty-four hours to clear out her things. She neither wanted nor needed twenty-four hours. She missed her aunt, but she was pleased to be leaving such a sad and lonely place. Her aunt's house could so easily have been filled with love and laughter if only Aunt Mabel had been able to forget that Carrie's father had chosen Carrie's mother over herself.
But things could be worse. Carrie's mouth tipped down wryly as she totted up the facts. She was jobless, homeless, single and pregnant.
Carrie's wry smile turned into a smile of true happiness when she thought about her baby. The pregnancy was a source of great joy to her that nothing could dim. She was going to have someone to love; someone who would love her, someone she could care for and champion. The only problem was her baby's father. He would have to be told. He had a right to know, Carrie thought, even as her stomach clenched with apprehension.
Unfortunately, her baby's father was the hardest and most unfeeling man she had ever known. He was about as approachable as a tiger with a thorn in its pad. He was also the man she was in love with, the man she had loved since the first moment she had set eyes on him; the only man she could ever love The same man who barely knew she was alive. And the longer she left it, the harder it would be to tell him that he was about to become a father.
Crossing her arms over her stomach in a protective gesture, Carrie determined she would not allow anything to stand in the way of her baby's future happiness, certainly not her own lack of nerve. She had to face up to him and she would. She didn't want anything for herself, but she did want recognition and security for her child. Her baby's father was a very wealthy man and she wondered if he could be persuaded to set up a trust fund to provide for college fees when the time came.
Before Carrie had learned she was pregnant she had dreamed of leaving the office where she had worked as a secretary to try and turn her hobby of painting into a profession, but that was out of the question now. She planned instead to find some cheap accommodation and work until the baby came. Her goal was to build up a small nest egg so that one day she could buy a modest property with a child-friendly garden. A solid base was important. She didn't want a child of hers to be pushed from pillar to post as she had been after her parents' tragic accident. She might be homeless today, but not for long.
Nico Fierezza. It was the only name the King of Niroli had allowed to be spoken in his presence for days, and he had just been informed that his grandson Nico was on the final flight path to Niroli.
Nico piloting his own jet King Giorgio's mouth curved with appreciation. Nico lived the life he would have enjoyed had not royal duty claimed him. And now the only task remaining in his long and eventful life was to tame this wild grandson of his and persuade him to accept the throne.
Tame Nico Fierezza? King Giorgio's eyes clouded over. Even a king might find that a challenge. Then his crafty gaze brightened. Maybe there wasn't a man alive who could tame Nico Fierezza, but a woman might
* * *
What was he doing in Niroli? Nico asked himself as he brought his jet down in a perfect landing. What was he doing back on this small, lush, glamorous island? Niroli, the island of dreams for so many, but not for him.
He was happy to undertake the odd restoration project of the sort he had recently completed for his cousin Isabella, or even to design major projects like the new airport-terminal building. But his life was in London. The only things he had missed about Niroli were his mother, Princess Laura, and his brothers, Luca and Max. His younger brother, Max, was fully committed to the wine groves he cared for, and his older brother, Luca, owned the casino that contributed so much to the island's wealth. Luca had run the casino himself for years, but after a whirlwind romance he had recently married and moved to his bride's native Australia to develop his business interests over there. Nico was the only member of his family to have inherited the restless gene, and right now that gene was killing him, urging him to leave the island before he had even halted the jet.
Nico's lips tightened with impatience as he taxied in to the premier spot. They had laid out the red carpet for him. When would they ever learn that pomp and ceremony were the very last things that would lure him back to Niroli? But this was his first visit to the island since the tragedy of the yachting accident. Half his immediate family gone and the weight of their loss still hung heavily on him. Was his time so precious he couldn't spare any for his remaining family?
He would do what he could to reassure his ageing grandfather and then he'd spend some time with the rest of his family. But not too much time. He didn't want to raise false hope. He could do the maths as well as anyone. There were three surviving male heirs ahead of him, and he had no doubt they had all found some reason to exclude themselves from the succession, which meant he was next on the list.
Why else would his grandfather want to see him? Whatever King Giorgio's reason, it didn't change a thing; he wasn't interested in the throne.
Nico's reasons for refusing the throne of Niroli went far beyond his restless nature. He wouldn't accept anything under false pretences and knew that the last thing Niroli needed was another king desperately casting about for an heir some time in the future. A childhood illness had left him infertile, which meant marriage and long-term relationships had always been out of the question. He didn't dwell on it, and in some ways it suited him, because he didn't answer to anyone.
She couldn't tell the father of her baby the news over the telephone. She had no alternative other than to face the lion in his den .
Lifting her suitcase as the underground train slowed to a halt, Carrie squeezed her way through the press of commuters. When she finally saw the light of day again she put her suitcase down and turned her collar up. It was a typical summer's day in London with rain sheeting down from pewter skies. And every cab was taken, which was hardly a surprise. One drop of rain was always enough to ensure that was the case, and this was a full-blown summer storm.
Picking up her bag, Carrie started to walk at a brisk pace towards the commercial center of the city where she had been employed as a secretary. It seemed so long ago, though it had only been three months since she had left her job on a point of principle.
More pride than principle, Carrie accepted, shivering with cold. Aunt Mabel, never one to miss an opportunity, had immediately dismissed her nursing staff and hired Carrie in their place. It was a job Carrie had been pleased to do. Aunt Mabel hadn't paid her, but at least she had felt useful, as if she was earning the right to her board and lodgings, though, of course, she had paid for those, too. In her naïvety, she had hoped by working for her aunt it would bring them closer.
She knew better than to expect miracles now, but whatever happened she would cope with it. Apart from sharing the news of her pregnancy with her baby's father, she was after a reference. With a baby to support she had to find something more than casual work and had left her job in such a hurry she had overlooked the practicalities. Where had her brain been?
Somewhere below Nico Fierezza's belt, Carrie accepted grimly as she shouldered her way into his sleek steel-and-glass office building. She had been so overwhelmed by Nico noticing her at all that she had been swept into a fantasy of her own making without any thought of the consequences.
The first discovery Carrie made was that the girl who had once been her assistant was now office supervisor. Meek and mild to haughty in twelve weeks flat, which wasn't bad going, Carrie conceded as she braved the girl's disdainful stare.
'Not there.' The emery board that had been busily sawing at some impressive red talons took a break. 'If you leave your case there it will drip on the carpet.'
'I seem to be doing that, anyway,'Carrie pointed out, holding onto her composure by the thinnest of threads. 'Do you mind if I take off my coat and hang it up to dry?'
The girl shrugged. 'Is Nico in?'
'Mr Fierezza? I'm afraid you can't just drop in here on the off chance that Mr Fierezza will see you. He's a very busy man. You will have to make a proper appointment.'
'I appreciate the fact that he's busy 'When was Nico not busy? 'I'm prepared to wait if I have to, but would you mind telling him that I'm here?'
'Why can't I help you?' The girl's gaze sharpened as she looked at Carrie.
'Are you going to call him? Or shall I go straight in?' Straightening her back, Carrie left the girl in no doubt that she would.
'It won't help you to go'
The girl moved faster than Carrie could have imagined, leaping in front of her to bar the way to Nico's office. 'He isn't here,' she said smugly.
Carrie's shoulders slumped. The news was a real blow. 'Carrie!'
Carrie's heart lifted as she turned to see an older woman advancing on them like a galleon in full sail.
'Great to see you, Carrie! What are you doing here?' Linking arms, she led Carrie away.
Carrie couldn't believe her luck. Sonia Farraday was one of her favorite people. Legend had it that Sonia came with the building, but Carrie knew that Sonia was the hub around which everything in Nico's London office revolved when he was away.
'Let me get you a hot drinkyou're soaked through,' Sonia insisted. 'Come into my den. And, Shelley ' Sonia's voice hardened ' find a cloth and dry off Carrie's suitcase.
'Honestly,' Sonia added as she bustled Carrie into her pin-neat room, 'young women these days!'Her gutsy laugh proved exactly why Carrie liked her so much. 'Now then, what can I do for you?' Sonia demanded once they were both seated.
'I need to speak to Nico, Sonia.'
'Hmm.' Sonia sat back. 'That's not so easy. Nico isn't in London and he won't be back for some time. As soon as he's tied up all the loose ends on his latest project Nico's going to visit his family in Niroli. There are rumors he may stay there indefinitely,' she confided with a meaningful glance.
'In Niroli?' Carrie paled. 'He doesn't share everything with me. Nico keeps his private life private, as you know. He'll tell me what he intends to do when he's ready and not before.' Sonia's shrewd gaze sharpened as it rested on Carrie's face. 'Why don't you let me get you that drink now? You look worn out. When I come back we'll have another chat, and then I'll make some calls and see if I can help you .'
Carrie nodded dumbly as Sonia left her. Nico living in Niroli was a complication she hadn't factored into her thinking. And now she had aroused Sonia's curiosity, and she didn't want to confide in her. It wasn't that she didn't trust Sonia, but Nico had to be the first to know about their baby.
As she sat waiting in the office Carrie stared thoughtfully at the computer. Nico's address in Niroli would be there somewhere, and if her password hadn't changed she could bring it up on the screen .
It only took her a few minutes and then she sat back stunned by what she had discovered. Nico didn't have an address in Niroli; not as suchhe kept an apartment at the palace. She had known Nico was the king's grandson, but perhaps because he had never made anything of it she had always thought of him as a lesser royal, a man whose connections to the glittering court were so distant as to be insignificant. But now she knew better. Nico Fierezza was not only a member of the ruling family of Niroli, he lived in the palace.
Her baby's father lived in a palace! It made her mission to find Nico a lot bigger challenge, but not impossible, Carrie determined as Sonia bustled back into the room with a tray of coffee. 'Now, drink this up,' Sonia told her warmly. 'You look as if you've seen a ghost. Are you sure you're looking after yourself properly, Carrie?'
Sonia was fishing, Carrie realized. 'I'm doing fine. It's just so cold outside.'
'You should be back in this nice warm office. We miss you.' It was another prompt, Carrie realized, but she couldn't accept the opening Sonia was giving her. She could never work for Nico again after what had happened between them.
When they had finished their coffee Sonia was as good as her word, and it only took a couple of calls for her to establish that Nico was in Niroli.
Niroli. The island was a legend. It was a smarter and more glamorous world than she could ever imagine. Nico belonging there made him seem more remote and unapproachable than ever.
Sensing Carrie's reluctance to talk, Sonia didn't press her, but when the time came for her to leave, Sonia insisted, 'You mustn't walk to the underground in this weather, Carrie, or you'll catch your death of cold. I'm going to call a cab for you. Are you still at the same address?'
As Sonia's hand hovered over the telephone receiver Carrie accepted that what the older woman had told her changed everything, but she couldn't embroil Sonia in her difficulties. She had a child to protect now and must stand on her own two feet. 'If you could call a taxi that would be great, but if you don't mind I'll decide where I'm going when it gets here .'