Arrogant and ruthless, Luca Barbaro is the kind of man Nell hates most. Although helpless to resist his raw sexuality, she can never forgive his brutal coldness of years ago. Until they meet again in Venice one carnival night—not as Luca and Nell, but as two masked strangers in the grip of pure, irresistible attraction, untainted by the past . But what happens when the masks come off?
Arrogant and ruthless, Luca Barbaro is the kind of man Nell hates most. Although helpless to resist his raw sexuality, she can never forgive his brutal coldness of years ago.
Until they meet again in Venice one carnival night—not as Luca and Nell, but as two masked strangers in the grip of pure, irresistible attraction, untainted by the past .
But what happens when the masks come off?
Nell Foster's shout brought the people strolling along the narrow street to an abrupt halt. The scene froze in a distorted snapshot. On the cobbled calle above the canal a tall, dark man was holding a limp blonde child in his arms. From the gondola swaying gracefully below him, a young mother thrust out her arms in alarm.
"What the hell do you think you're doing with my daughter?" On the pretext of helping her to disembark the gondolier had passed Molly to a stranger!
Nell's voice sounded shrill in the oppressive silence of the ancient backwater, and shock made her actions disjointed as she hurried to disembark. She stumbled on the treacherous moss-coated steps, forcing the man holding Molly to lurch out and save her. She shook him off angrily. Molly was like a rag doll in his arms, the soft breeze feathering fronds of baby hair around her face.
"Give her to me now!" People stared. Nell didn't care. She had one goal in mind, and that was Molly. While they had been travelling along the canal at a snail's pace with no means of escape Molly had fallen asleep so heavily Nell hadn't been able to wake her. It was an unnatural sleep that terrified Nell. And now this man had taken Molly from her.
"No." The deep, faintly accented voice was brusque and uncompromising.
He was refusing? Nell looked for support, but there was something so commanding in the man's manner that, rather than attempting to help her, people were already starting to move away.
Used to wielding authority, she guessed, he was in his mid to late twenties and expensively though casually dressed. He was groomed in a way only the rich had time for—pressed trousers, crisp shirt,and with a lightweight sweater slung around his shoulders that she would have needed superglue at the very least to keep in place. He made her feel shabby, frightened and very angry.
"Stand out of my light." Dipping his head to look her in the eyes, he rapped the words at her.
"Give my daughter back to me!" Nell met and held his gaze. She had no intention of moving one inch. What, and leave Molly in the arms of some man she didn't know?
"Don't,"he warned, stepping back when she tried to take Molly from him. "Don't? What do you mean, don't? That's my daughter you're holding."
Dazzling black-gold eyes equally full of determination locked with Nell's.
"You've had a shock. You're unsteady on your feet. If you fall into the canal, who will rescue you?" He glanced at Molly lying insensible in his arms, turning the question into a rebuke.
A few locks of inky black hair had fallen into his eyes as he spoke—the only part of him that had resisted perfection. Nell resented absorbing that much about him. "We need help. Can't you see?" She fumbled for her phone while the sun beat down on her shoulders, making it impossible to breathe. The man holding Molly seemed to exist in a bubble of air-conditioning.
"You're overwrought," he said coldly. Overwrought? "Are you surprised?"She watched with mounting anger as he pulled out a phone and flipped it open. It seemed like another tactic to avoid giving Molly back to her. "Who are you calling?"
He paused with the mobile halfway to his ear. "An ambulance."
"An ambulance?"Nell's mouth dried. Briefly, her mind refused to accept the possibility of an ambulance coming down the canal. But she knew there had to be some means by which emergency cases could be transported to hospital in Venice.
Emergency cases? Molly was only eighteen months old! She'd never had a day's illness in her life.
Nell stared at the man more intently. "Who are you?" she demanded.
He pressed his lips together and shook his head as he listened to the voice at the other end of the phone line.
Nell gazed at Molly lying in his arms. She was almost frightened to touch her own daughter. Molly looked so frail, as if all the life had leached out of her.
The man started speaking rapidly in Italian. Nell had found the language an interesting challenge earlier, but now it was just a hostile barrier she couldn't cross. Her heart jerked as his phone snapped shut. Why didn't he say something? Couldn't he see she was desperate for information? But all his attention was focused on Molly. His brow was furrowed and she could see he was worried. It endorsed her own fears. Why wouldn't Molly wake up? No one slept like this unless there was something seriously wrong.
When he moved she followed him into the shade. "Will the ambulance be long?"
"No." "So, do you know what's wrong?"She ran a hand through her hair. Why should she assume he knew anything? But she was desperate. She didn't know what was happening, she didn't know him—she didn't know anything. "Who are you?"
Panic was rising inside her chest. She fought it back, forcing herself to concentrate as he started to say something. She couldn't afford to go to pieces.
"I'm a doctor—a medical practitioner." He held her gaze fast in a blaze of self-assurance.
If that was meant to reassure her, it had the opposite effect. All the panic and fear drained out of her to be replaced by dread. She had been brought up to trust and respect the medical profession, and she'd had no reason to change that opinion until a catastrophic event had pulled the wool from her eyes.
"My name is Dottore Luca Barbaro." The man had moved on smoothly to introductions, Nell realised. It was as if she were watching a horror film in slow motion, a film that had no connection with her life. "Dr Barbaro,"she repeated distractedly.
He sounded as though he expected her to fall on her knees and give thanks.
"Well, now that you've made your call, Dr Barbaro, you can give my daughter back to me!"
"Don't you trust me?" His brow furrowed. "Trust you? Why should I trust you?" "You're in shock," he said, sounding irritable. "It's better if I hold her."
Better? What could be better than for a child to be held by its own mother? "I'm not in shock. Give her to me."The urge to rip Molly from his arms was growing every moment, but she couldn't risk manhandling Molly, not when there was something so obviously wrong.
Nell's mind darted about, trying to land on a sensible course of action, but nothing made sense—especially this man appearing out of the blue to take charge of their lives. "Have you been following us?" she said suspiciously.
"Following you?" His eyes mirrored his impatience.
"Oh, so you just happened along.And you tell me you're a doctor. Quite convenient, don't you think?"
"Why should I lie to you? I am a doctor. I live just over there." He jutted out his chin to indicate some building.
She didn't look. She had no intention of staring at a place she had no wish to see. "And you were standing by your window when our gondola floated past?"
"Your gondolier rang to warn me you were on your way."
That seemed so incongruous, it had to be impossible. Then Nell remembered the gondolier had made a call. It was so easy to be seduced by ravishingly beautiful and apparently unchanged Venice, and forget how easily the modern world coexisted with the old.
"Luck was smiling on you," he remarked. "Luck?" It was Nell's turn to snap. "Lucky for you your gondolier knew me and where I live. Marco only had to ring to check that I was in, and then he brought you straight here."
"He brought us here intentionally?"
"He was trying to help you."