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Emma looked at the Italian lawyer in heart-stopping shock. 'There must be some sort of m-mistake,' she said, her voice wobbling with disbelief. 'How could I possibly be included in Signore Fiorenza's will? I was just his carer.'
'It is no mistake,' Francesca Rossi said, pointedly tapping the thick document in front of her. 'I have it here in black and white. Valentino Fiorenza changed his will a matter of weeks before he died.'
Emma sat in a stunned silence. She had lived with and nursed the multimillionaire for eighteen months and not once had she thought something like this would happen. 'But I don't understand ' she said after a moment. 'Why on earth would he leave me half of his estate?'
'That's exactly what his son has been asking,' Francesca Rossi said with a speaking glance. 'I believe he is on his way over from London as we speak. As his father's only remaining heir one can only assume he was expecting The Villa Fiorenza and the bulk of his father's assets to pass directly to him.'
Emma chewed at her bottom lip for a moment. 'You said the terms of the will are rather strange .'
'They are quite unusual,' Francesca agreed. 'In order to inherit your share you must be legally married to Rafaele Fiorenza within a month and stay married to him for a year.'
Emma felt her stomach drop like a gymnast mistiming a tricky manoeuvre on the bar. 'M-married in a month?' she croaked. 'For a year?'
'Yes, otherwise the estate in its entirety will automatically pass to a previous mistress of Valentino's, a woman by the name of Sondra Henning. Did he ever mention her to you?'
Emma wrinkled her brow. 'No, I don't think so but then he was a very private man. He didn'ttalk much about anything, especially towards the end.'
The lawyer leafed through the document before looking back up at Emma. 'Signore Fiorenza stipulated that upon marriage to his son you are to receive a lump sum of fifty thousand euros, and then for every year you remain married to Rafaele you will receive an allowance,' she said. 'A rather generous one, in fact.'
Emma's stomach did another fall from the bar. 'H-how generous?'
The lawyer named a sum that sent Emma's brows shooting upwards. 'I guess it does seem rather a lot to walk away from ' she said, thinking of her sister's recent phone call. Fifty thousand euros at the current exchange rate would not completely solve Simone's financial situation, but it would certainly go a long way to help her get back on her feet.
'It is a lot to walk away from,' Francesca said. 'Even without factoring in the allowance, the villa, as you know from staying there, is considered one of the most beautiful showpieces around Lake Como. You would be a fool to forfeit such an asset, even a half share of it.'
'What is Rafaele Fiorenza like I mean as a person?' Emma asked. 'I've seen photos of him in the press from time to time, but his father barely mentioned him. And as far as I know he wasn't at the funeral. I got the feeling there was bad blood between them.'
'I have not met him personally,' Francesca said. 'Apparently he left home when he was a young adult to study abroad. He is a high-flying stock trader now. But, yes, as you said he is often featured in gossip magazines throughout Europe and further abroad. Word has it he is a bit of a playboy and a very wealthy one at that.'
'Yes, I did get that impression,' Emma said, and then with another little crease of her brow added, 'but what if he doesn't agree to the terms of his father's will? If he's so wealthy why would he agree to be married to a perfect stranger?'
'The entire estate involves a great deal of money, even for a rich man,' Francesca said. 'Besides, the villa was where he spent most of his early childhood until he went to boarding school abroad. I cannot see him walking away from such a gold mine without at least inspecting the candidate his father chose to be his bride.'
Emma felt every fine hair on her body lift up like the fur of a startled cat. 'I haven't said I would agree to marry anyone,' she said, 'especially a man who didn't even have the decency to visit or communicate with his dying father.'
'Given he has had little or no contact with his father for the last decade or so you might have a hard time explaining your relationship,' Francesca said. 'I know you were employed as Valentino's carer but the press haven't always seen it that way and neither, I suspect, will Rafaele Fiorenza.'
Emma straightened agitatedly in her chair. When she had first taken on the position as Valentino Fiorenza's carer she had not been prepared for how the press would misinterpret her relationship with him. Every time she had accompanied him out in public it seemed the paparazzi were there to document it, often times misconstruing the situation to make her appear a gold-digger, content to hook up with a man three times her age. She still cringed as she thought of the last photo that had appeared in the press. Weakened by the progression of his bone cancer Valentino had been too proud to use a walking stick and had relied increasingly on Emma's support. The photographer had captured a moment where Emma's arms had gone around her employer's waist to keep him from falling, making it appear she was intimately involved with him. Even her sister Simone had rung her from Australia and asked if what everyone was saying was true.
'He can think what he likes, but there was absolutely nothing improper about my relationship with his father,' Emma said. 'Valentino was an invalid, for pity's sake. He employed me to take care of his day-to-day needs. I grew fond of him certainly, but that happens with just about every home care client I take on. Looking after someone as they count down their last days is incredibly poignant. I know it's not wise to become emotionally involved, but from the very first day Valentino Fiorenza struck me as a very lonely soul. He had wealth but not health and happiness.'
'Well, let us hope Rafaele Fiorenza understands the situation,' Francesca said. 'In the meantime I take it you are staying on at the villa?'
'Yes,' Emma said. 'I wasn't sure what else to do. Some of the staff have taken leave and I didn't want the place left unattended until I heard from the son. I've been looking for alternative accommodation but with not much luck so far. I let my previous lease go as Signore Fiorenza insisted I move in with him from day one.'
'You do realise of course that Rafaele Fiorenza stands to lose rather a lot if you do not agree to the terms,' Francesca said in a serious tone. 'Even though he might not need the money it would still be wise to take some time to think it over before you come to a final decision for his sake as well as your own.'
Emma shifted uncomfortably in her chair. 'I realise it is a difficult situation for him but I'm not sure I can agree to such a thing. It doesn't seem right '
'There are a lot of people who would see it differently,' the lawyer said. 'They would not baulk at a short term marriage of convenience in exchange for a fortune.'
Emma nibbled at her bottom lip for a moment. 'You mentioned the marriage has to last a year. Is there any way of negotiating on that time frame?'
'No, I am afraid not, but, as I said earlier, for every year you remain married to Rafaele you will be paid an allowance.' Francesca rolled back her office chair and offered her hand across the desk. 'I hope it goes well for you whatever you decide, Miss March,' she said. 'Signore Fiorenza Senior was clearly very fond of you. He would not have been an easy person to nurse, I would imagine. The Fiorenza family has had its share of tragedy. The boys' mother died when they were very young children and if that was not bad enough the younger of the two boys, Giovanni, died in a tragic accident when he was about eight. Over the years Signore Fiorenza became increasingly bitter and reclusive, not to mention terribly stubborn.'
'Yes, he was certainly stubborn,' Emma said. 'But I couldn't help feeling it was all a bit of a front. He liked to rant and rave a lot but he was as soft as butter towards the end. I really liked him. I will miss him.'
'You never know, Miss March, the son may turn out to be perfect husband material,' the lawyer said with a wry smile. 'It would not be the first time a marriage of convenience in this country turned into something else entirely.'
Emma backed out of the lawyer's office with a strained
smile and made her way to the bank of lifts. But all the way down to the ground floor she felt a fluttery sensation disturbing the lining of her stomach, like a thousand tiny moths all frantically looking for a way out
Every time Emma stepped through the elaborate wrought-iron gates of the Villa Fiorenza she stood for a moment or two in awe. The massive gardens set on four tiers were nothing short of breathtaking, the lush green of yew hedges and elm and beech trees and cypress pines a perfect backdrop for the crimson and pinks and reds of azaleas and roses and other fragrant spring blooms. The villa itself was equally breathtaking; set above the stunning crystal-blue beauty of Lake Como, it was four storeys high and built in the neo-classical style lending it an allure of old-world grandeur that never failed to take Emma's breath away.
Most of the rooms of the villa were no longer in use, the antique furniture draped in shroud-like sheets and the shutters pulled tight across the sightless windows, giving the grand old place a slightly haunted look. And without the presence of daily staff bustling about the villa and gardens the sense of loneliness and isolation was even more acute.
After she had spent more than a year looking after him in his palazzo in Milan, Valentino Fiorenza had announced to Emma six weeks ago he wanted to come back to the villa to die. And now to Emma it seemed as if every breath of breeze that disturbed the leaves on the trees were lamenting his passing. She had loved spending time pushing him around the gardens in his wheelchair, for, although towards the end he had found speech difficult, she had sensed his enjoyment of the peaceful surroundings.
The warmth of the spring weather brought out the heady scent of wisteria and jasmine as Emma walked under the arbour on the second tier of the gardens. She had just stopped to deadhead some of the milk-white climbing roses when a sleek black sports car growled throatily as it turned into the driveway at the back of the villa, like a panther returning to its lair.
She brushed a loose strand of hair out of her eyes and watched as a tall figure unfolded himself from the car. Even from this distance she could see the likeness to his father immediately: the loose-limbed, rangy build, the brooding frown, the chiselled jaw and the arrogant set to his mouth all spoke of a man used to insisting on and getting his own way. But, unlike his father, Rafaele Fiorenza was well over six feet tall and his fit body wasn't bent over double and ravaged by disease and his glossy black curly hair was thick and plentiful on his head and held no trace of grey. It was casually styled, the wide, deep grooves in amongst the strands suggesting he had used his fingers as its most recent combing tool.
Even though Emma had seen his photograph in the press a couple of times she realised now it hadn't done him justice. He was quite simply the most arrestingly handsome man she had ever seen.
He was dressed in casual trousers and an open-necked light blue shirt, the cuffs rolled back over his strong tanned forearms, an expensive-looking silver watch around his left wrist and a pair of designer sunglasses, which shielded the expression in his eyes.
He slammed the car door and strode down the steps leading to the second tier, his long, purposeful strides bringing him within a matter of seconds to where she was unconsciously crumbling rose petals in her hand. 'Miss March, I presume?' he said in a clipped, distinctly unfriendly tone.
Emma hated talking to people wearing sunglasses, particularly the one-way lens type he was wearing. She always felt at a disadvantage not being able to read what was going on behind that impenetrable screen. She lifted her chin and let the petals float to the ground at her feet. 'Yes, that is correct,' she said. 'I take it you are Rafaele Fiorenza.'
He removed the sunglasses, his black-brown gaze sweeping over her contemptuously. 'And I take it you were my father's latest floozy.'
Emma automatically stiffened. 'I take it you have been misinformed, Signore Fiorenza,' she returned with arctic chill. 'I was employed as your father's carer.'
He gave her a cynical smile but it didn't involve his dark bottomless brown eyes. 'So you took care of all of his physical needs, did you, Miss March?' he said. 'I must confess my mind is having a bit of a field day with that information.'
'Then I would say your mind needs to drag itself out of the gutter, Signore Fiorenza,' she returned with a deliberately haughty look.
His smile went from cynical to devilish. 'So how do you feel about becoming my bride, Miss March?'
Emma tightened her mouth. 'I have no intention of doing any such thing.'
He stood looking down at her for a pulsing silence, his eyes unwavering as they held hers. Emma tried her best not to squirm under his piercing scrutiny but in the end she was the first to drop her gaze.
'I suppose you put him up to it, did you?' he asked. 'In a weak moment of his you talked him into signing away a fortune.'