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When lightning filled the room, Pietro went to the window and looked out into the night.
He enjoyed a storm, especially when it swept over his beloved Venice, flashing down the Grand Canal, making the historic buildings tremble. To those who sighed over the beauties of Venice he would say that 'his' city was not the gentle, romantic site of legend, but rather a place of savage cruelty, treachery and murder.
Thunder crashed, engulfing him and the whole Palazzo Bagnelli, then dying, so that the only sound was the pounding of the rain on the water.
In the dim light he could just make out the Rialto Bridge looming up to his right, its shuttered windows glaring like blind eyes.
From beside him came a soft whine, and he reached out to scratch the head of a large, mongrel dog.
'It's all right, Toni,' he said. 'It's only noise.'
But he kept his hand on the rough fur, knowing that his friend had an affliction that made him nervous, and Toni moved closer.
Now it was dark again and he could see his own reflection in the glass. It was like looking at a ghost, which was apt, considering how ghostly his life was.
Even the building around him seemed insubstantial, despite its three floors of heavy stone. The Palazzo Bagnelli, home of the Counts Bagnelli for six centuries, was one of the finest buildings of its kind in Venice.
For many years its great rooms had been filled with notable personages; servants by the hundred had scurried along its passages. Lords and ladies in gorgeous clothes had paraded in its stately rooms.
Now they were all gone, leaving behind one man, Count Pietro Bagnelli, with neither wife nor child, nor any other close family. Only two servants were left, and he was content with that.
These days he invited nobody to his home, living a solitary life in a few rooms in a corner of the building, with only Toni for company. Even to himself it had a sense of unreality, especially in winter. It was only nine o'clock but darkness had fallen and the storm had driven everyone inside.
He moved away from the window towards another one at the corner, through which he could see both the Grand Canal and the narrow alley that ran alongside the palazzo.
The spectre in the glass moved with him, showing a tall man with a lean, face, mobile mouth and deep set eyes. It was a wry, defensive face, the eyes seeming to look out from a trapped place. He was thirty-four but his air of cautious withdrawal made him seem older.
Beside him Toni suddenly became agitated. He was big enough for his head to reach the window, and he'd seen something outside that made him scrabble to get closer and demand his master's attention.
'There's nothing out there,' Pietro told him. 'You're imagining things. Dio mio!'
The exclamation had been torn from him by a flash of lightning, even more blinding than the last, that had turned everything white. By its light he thought he'd seen a figure standing below in the alley.
'Now I'm imagining things as well,' he muttered. 'I must stop this.'
But he stayed there, trying to see through the darkness, and at last the lightning came again, flashing on and off, showing him the figure of a young woman, drenched, her hair plastered to her head, water streaming off her. Then the night swallowed her up again.
Frowning, he opened the window and looked out into the alley, half convinced that she was an illusion. But suddenly the moon came out from behind the clouds and he saw her again.
She was perfectly still, gazing up at the window, apparently oblivious to her surroundings.
He leaned out, calling, 'Ciao!'
She neither moved nor spoke.
'Ciao!' he called again. Still in Italian he yelled, 'Wait, I'm coming down.'
He hated being disturbed but he couldn't leave her to freeze. In a moment he was heading down the stairs to the side entrance, wrenching open the heavy door.
Pietro had expected her to hurry inside, but she was still standing where he'd left her, so he hauled her forcibly inside, not troubling to be gentle. He would rescue her but he was damned if he was going to get soaked for her.
Holding her suitcase in one hand and her arm in the other, he hurried her up the stairs to his rooms, where she collapsed on the sofa, her eyes closing as she lost consciousness.
'Mio dio!' he muttered again, seeing the dilemma he was in. He must get her into dry clothes fast, but the thought of undressing her while she was unconscious appalled him. Yet he couldn't let her get pneumonia. His housekeeper was away for the night. What he had to do must be done alone.
Hurrying into the bathroom, he seized a clean robe and a large towel. Her coat was light and soaked right through. Taking it off was easy, but then he knew he must remove her dress. He worked fast, praying that she might not awake until he was finished. To his relief she stayed dead to the world.
When she was decently swathed in the towel robe he rubbed her hair until it was no more than damp, then got some blankets, laid her on the sofa and placed them over her.
What the devil had happened to her? How had she ended up alone at night, in a thunderstorm, naked in the hands of a stranger? He'd tried not to notice details of her body, but he'd sensed that she was too thin, like someone who'd lost a lot of weight quickly.
'Wake up,' he pleaded.
When she didn't move he became desperate. Taking a glass and a decanter from the cupboard, he poured a measure of brandy, hauled her up and forced it to her lips. Some was spilt, but enough went down to make her sneeze and open her eyes.
'Good,' he said. 'Now finish drinking this.'
He gave her no choice, holding the glass to her lips until she'd drained it.
'Who are you?' Pietro asked in Italian. 'How do you come to be here?'
'Excuse me,' she whispered in English.
He too switched to English to say, 'Never mind. You need food and rest.'
But there was more here than simply malnutrition and weariness. She looked like someone on the edge of sanity, and he was sure of it when she began to murmur words that made no sense.
'I shouldn't have comeI knew it was a mistake, but there was nothing else to dohe's the only one who can tell me but maybe it doesn't matteronly I have to know. I can't bear it any longer, not knowing.'
'Do you know what that's like? To wonder and wonder when there's nobody who can help youand you think you may spend all your life in the shadows?'
Without his realising, his hands tensed on her shoulders.
'Yes,' he breathed. 'I know what that's like.
It doesn't end, does it?'
'No,' he said gravely, 'it doesn't end.'
Pietro closed his eyes, feeling the waves of suffering engulf him again. He'd thought he'd learned to cope, but she brought it back because she was abandoned in the same desert. He could sense her there, her gaze fixed on him, one lost soul reaching out to another.
'What can you do about it?' she asked.
'I don't know,' he said. 'I've never known.'
The look she turned on him was terrible, containing a despairing acceptance of something too sad for words.
'How did you get here?' he urged.
She looked around. 'Here?'
'You're in Venice. I found you standing in the street outside, just looking up.'
'I don't remember.
'Never mind, tell me later.'
He returned from the kitchen after a few minutes to find her looking down at her strange attire with dismay.
'I had to take your clothes off,' he said quickly. 'You were sodden. But I swear I didn'twellyou know'
To his total astonishment, she smiled.
'I know,' she said.
'You do believe me?'
'Yes, I believe you. Thank you.'
'Come and sit down at the table.'
As she came out of the shadows into the light he had a feeling that there was something familiar about her, but he couldn't place it. He must be mistaken. He wouldn't have forgotten this girl.
He ushered her to a chair, drawing it out for her and saying, 'When did you last eat?'
'I'm not sure. I missed breakfast because I was late, and had to dash. I was too nervous to eat at the airport, or on the plane. The storm was just getting really bad as we landed. I got so scared that I sat in the airport for an hour.'
'Don't you have a hotel? I know it can be hard to find one at this time of year. A lot of them close.'
'Oh, no, I came straight here.'
'To the Palazzo Bagnelli? Why?'
'I thought Gino might be here.'
She brightened. 'You do know him?'
'Yes, I know him well, but'
'Does he still live here? Is he here now?'
'No,' he said slowly.
Pietro was getting warning signals that filled him with apprehension.
Gino's mother had once been the Bagnelli family's cook, living on the premises with her son. The lads had grown up good friends despite the six years between them. Gino was light-hearted, delightful company, and Pietro, the elder and more serious-minded, had found in him a much-needed release.
'You should laugh more,' Gino often chided him. 'Come on, have some fun.'
And Pietro had laughed, following his scape-grace friend into his latest mad adventure, from which he usually had to extract him. Gino had a butterfly mind, which made it hard for him to settle to steady employment, although he had finally found a niche in the tourist firm that Pietro owned, where his charm made him a knockout with the customers.
It also made him a risk-taker, walking a fine line between acceptable behaviour and going a bit too far. Pietro knew that Gino loved to impress the girls by pretending that he came from the aristocratic Bagnelli family, and although he disapproved it also made him shrug wryly. It was just Gino amusing himself.
Now he was beginning to worry that Gino had amused himself in a way that might bring tragedy.
'Can you tell me where he is?' she asked.
'He's off travelling at the moment. He works for me in a tourist firm I own, and he's exploring new places.'
'But he'll be home soon?' she asked with a hint of eagerness that both touched and worried him.
'No, he's on a long trip, finding places where I can mount tours.'
'I see,' she said with a little sigh.
Pietro asked his next question carefully. 'Does Gino know you well?'
At first he thought she hadn't heard, so long did she take to reply. Then she shook her head.
'No,' she said. 'He won't know me. Nobody knows me any more. I don't know myself, or anybody else. I know who I was then'
'Then?' he queried gently. 'When was that?'
'About a year agoor perhaps a little more. I've got the date written down somewhere' She saw his troubled face and gave a half smile that was oddly charming. 'I sound quite mad, don't I?'
'I don't think you're mad at all,' he said firmly.'
'You could be wrong about that. I've been in a special home forwell, most of the last year. Now I'm trying to find my way back into the world, only I don't do it very well.'
'Then it's lucky you found a safe place, and a friend,'he said.
'How can you be my friend when you don't know who I am? Whoever I was then, I'm someone else now. I just don't know who.'
'You must know your name or how could you travel?'
'My name is Ruth Denver.'
A spoon fell out of Pietro's hand and hit the terrazzo floor with a ping. Cursing his own clumsiness, he leaned down to pick it up, glad of the chance to hide his face, lest it reveal his shock at hearing the name Ruth Denver.
When he looked up again he was in control and able to say calmly, 'My name is Pietro Bagnelli.'
'Gino's cousin?'she exclaimed, her eyes suddenly glowing. 'He told me a lot about you, how you grew up together.'
'We'll talk some more in the morning,' he interrupted her hastily. 'You'll be better when you've slept.'
He was becoming more disturbed every moment, and needed to be alone to do some thinking before he talked further. If she was who he was beginning to believe she was, he needed to tread with care.
'I'll get a room ready for you,' he said. Pausing at the door, he added, 'Don't go away.'
She regarded him quizzically, and he realised he sounded crazy. Where could she go? But he had a strange feeling that if he took his eyes off her she might vanish into thin air. 'I promise not to disappear,' she said with a glimmer of humour that was evident even through her distress.
'Just to make sure you don'tToni, on guard.'
The huge mutt came forward and laid his head on Ruth's knee.
'Stay like that, both of you, until I get back,' Pietro said. In the next room there was a couch that could be turned into a bed. He made it up, his mind in turmoil. What was happening was impossible. There was no way that this could be Ruth Denver.
He returned to the living room to find that both its occupants had obeyed him. Toni's head was still on Ruth's knee, and she was stroking it, regarding the dog with a smile of fond indulgence.
'Your room's ready,' he said. 'Try to get plenty of sleep. I won't let anything disturb you.'
'Thank you,' she said softly, and slipped away.
As soon as he was alone Pietro poured himself a large brandy. He had never needed one so much.
He felt stunned.
At first he'd thought this might be one of Gino's discarded girlfriends who hadn't given up hope. It happened often, but there were reasons why it couldn't be the answer this time.
As Pietro brooded on those reasons he grew more and more troubled.
Just over a year ago Gino had fallen in love with an English girl, a tourist in Venice. Pietro had been away at the time and when he returned she'd gone back to England, so he'd never met her.
For once Gino had seemed genuinely smitten, to the point of marriage. Pietro's wedding gift was going to be a grand reception in the palazzo.
'But I want to meet this paragon,' he told his young friend. 'She must be really special to persuade you to settle down.'
'Yes, she really is special,'Gino enthused. 'You'll love her.'
'I hope not,'Pietro teased. 'I'm a respectable married man.And you don't want Lisetta throwing pots and pans at you.'
She never would,' Pietro said quietly. 'She thinks of nothing but pleasing me.'
'So I should hope. And imagine how pleased you're going to be when she gives birth to that son. When is it due now?'
'One month.We'll have the wedding just after that.'