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Bliss knew she really ought to resist, but she couldn't help stealing another surreptitious glance at her watch to check on the time when her dragon of a supervisor's back was momentarily turned. The store was hot and crowded and the overpowering scent of perfume from the counters arranged around hers was making her feel as though she'd wandered into an opium den. Besides that, her eyes itched from the shadow she was forced to wear to promote the make-up, and she longed to be able to scrub it off along with the foundation cream, blusher and lipstick that transformed her into someone she almost didn't recognise. It was too bad she'd have to endure another two hours of this torture before she could give in to such a rebellious desire.
What on earth she'd been thinking of when she'd decided to work in the plush department store that catered mainly to fashion-conscious women with more money than sense, she didn't know. Well, yes, she did know. She'd been between jobs yet again and as inspiration about what she really wanted to do had been in appallingly scant supply, she'd let her best friend Trudy persuade her to apply for a post in the same store that she worked in. For Trudy, who loved all things retail, it was heaven. To Bliss, it was increasingly turning out to be just the opposite.
'Excuse me I would like to purchase a lipstick.'
'Certainly, madam. Do you have any particular shade in mind? I can show you the Oh, Lord!'
Bliss watched in alarm as the striking brunette in front of the counter slid weakly down to the floor, almost like a slow-motion replay of an actor fainting in a soap opera. Beside her, an apple-cheeked toddler with big brown eyes and curly dark hair ensconced in a pushchair cried out in distress. Her actions automatic and concerned, Bliss flew round the counter to crouch beside the woman who had passed out, at the same time taking a brief moment to stroke the baby-soft cheek of the toddler and murmur something soothing. A small crowd quickly gathered and Bliss took immediate charge, urging them to stand back while she loosened the collar of the woman's silk shirt beneath her expensive suede coat, then gently smoothed back the wavy dark hair from her olive-skinned forehead.
'I don't I don't feel well.' Momentarily the woman's surprisingly blue eyes fluttered open and her lush mouth trembled slightly as she stared dazedly up at Bliss. 'Look after my baby,' she said beseechingly in her accented voice before she fainted dead away again.
'Don't worry. I will.' Her teeth clamping down worriedly on her soft lower lip, Bliss glanced across at the now-quietened toddler, who stared back at her with wide-eyed interest, as if wondering what might be going to happen next.
'Now, what's happened? Do you know this woman?' Her supervisor pushed her way through the small knot of curious bystanders and knelt down beside Bliss in anxious distaste as if she really didn't need or want this untidy disruption to her working day. Fighting down the little spurt of annoyance that burst like a bubble inside her chest, Bliss briefly shook her head.
'She's a customer and she's just passed out. We're going to need an ambulance; can you organise it? Oh, and can somebody please get this little girl a drink? She looks hot. Hardly surprising when there's enough heat in this place to compete with the inside of a volcano!'
After that, things happened fairly quickly. It seemed a mere matter of moments before the familiar sound of an ambulance siren wailed in the distance, then came to an abrupt halt outside the store's entrance. Having checked the woman had no foreign objects in her mouth, was still breathing normally and was as comfortable as she could make her, Bliss was relieved to have the two highly competent ambulance men take over. Remembering her promise to the child's mother, Bliss took charge of the toddler in the pushchair, fed her a drink in a plastic lipped cup, then, when she began to whimper at the surrounding mayhem, lifted her out of the pushchair and safely into her arms for a cuddle. One of the ambulance men glanced over his shoulder at her as he and his colleague lifted the unconscious woman onto a stretcher.
'That her child?' he asked.
Bliss nodded. 'I've got her bag too.' She grabbed up the expensive-looking tan leather shoulder bag she'd thrown onto the empty pushchair for safekeeping before someone either squashed it underfoot or, more worryingly, absconded with it. 'It might have some ID inside it.'
'You'd better bring it along with the child. You can ride in the ambulance with the mother. What's your name, love?'
'So you're Irish like meself?'
'Half,' Bliss muttered, thinking it was bizarre to be having such a conversation about roots under the circumstances. 'On my father's side.'
'Ah, well, we'll get along just grand, then, you and I.' With a teasing grin, the man turned his concentration firmly back to the woman on the stretcher.
It soon became apparent that the child needed to eat. After informing the nurse behind the hospital desk that she was going to the canteen if anyone should come looking for her, Bliss followed the arrows to the dining area. Glad that she'd had the foresight to bring her purse with her before getting into the ambulance, she purchased a sandwich and a cup of tea, then sat at a corner table with her charge on her lap, feeding her small bites of bread, cheese and cucumber. By the obvious eagerness with which she ate, it was clear the little girl was ravenously hungry.
'Probably all the excitement,' she said out loud, 'poor lamb.' Her heart turned over in sympathy for both the child and her mother. Being separated from each other in such an unexpected and frightening way must be torment. She could only pray that the woman would make a speedy recovery. She also hoped that her next of kin would arrive soon to look after this beautiful child and give her the opportunity of seeing a familiar face. Momentarily Bliss rested her chin on the silky dark head, laughing when the little girl handed her a piece of soggy sandwich, the child watching entranced as Bliss began to chew with exaggerated emphasis to amuse her.
She glanced up at the accented enunciation of her name into the glittering green-eyed gaze of the most stunning-looking male she'd ever seen outside the pages of a high-fashion glossy magazine. She'd once glimpsed a well-known Hollywood movie star shopping with his entourage in the store, but even henoted heartthrob that he wascouldn't hold a candle to this particular male specimen. As her gaze skimmed over his gleaming, slightly longish black hair, then helplessly detoured to take in a tall, well-muscled frame dressed in the kind of clothes that gave off an aura of comfortable wealth beyond what most people could possibly dream of, her heart felt in danger of going into arrest, so violently did it jolt.
'Who wants to know?'
Unconsciously protective of the beautiful child in her arms, she tightened her hand round the tiny waist in her pretty velvet dress. Silently she vowed that she would not be handing her over to anyone without the right credentials as verified by the proper authorities no matter how well dressed or impossibly handsome he was.
'My name is Dante di Andrea. I am the brother of the woman you accompanied in the ambulance to the hospital. The child you are holding is Renata Wardmy niece.'
The child gazed blankly up at the man, with no discernible sign of recognition. Bliss felt something in the pit of her stomach tighten warily.
The handsome brow crinkled with annoyance. 'You do not believe me?' He looked as if the mere idea of anyone disbelieving anything he said was tantamount to gross bad manners or derangement on their part. How dare you question my authority? his emerald eyes silently blazed.
'Why would I lie about it? Come, Renny. I will look after you now.'
'I'm afraid I can't just hand the child over to you just like that.' Affecting her best 'head girl' voice, Bliss ignored the outstretched arms of the dark-haired pin-up in front of her and dared to meet his disbelieving glare with a decidedly cool and firm one of her own. 'We'll go back to Casualty Reception and I'll ask them to verify that you are who you say you are.'
'Your diligence is commendable, Miss Maguire, but how do you think I came to find you if my credentials have not already been verified by the proper authorities? Did you speak to my sister before she passed out? If you did, you must know from her accent that she is Italian, like me. My name and cell phone number were in her purse; that is how I come to be here now.'
All that might be so, Bliss thought defiantly. But she still wasn't taking any chances. She was more unwilling than she could have believed to release the little girl into anyone's arms but her mother's. She'd never forgive herself if anything untoward happened while this precious child was in her care.
'I did speak to the lady before she fainted, and it's because of that that I am going to double-check you are who you say you are.'
'What did my sister say to you?' Clearly struggling with his temper, Dante di Andrea narrowed his sizzling verdant gaze on Bliss like a sniper about to take a pot shot at a target he detested, and scowled.
'She told me to take care of her baby and that's exactly what I'm doing.' Rising to her feet with 'Renny' now snuggled up tiredly against her chest, Bliss tried not to be intimidated by the fact that the man hovering over the pair of them like some royal bodyguard was at least a good six inches taller than she was. In fact he made her average height seem positively short.
'So we will return to Reception and we will speak to someone in authority who will assure you that I am Dante di Andrea, the brother of Tatiana Ward, and then you will hand over my niece to my care. Sì?'
Feeling her face flame red as his furious glance swept almost dismissively across her features, Bliss bit back an equally provoked retort and decided to say nothing. The last thing anyone needed was a row under the circumstances. All she wanted to do was make sure that Renata would be released into safe hands. Holding the child tight, she strode into the long corridor outside the canteen ahead of him, secretly wishing that the man had not been quite so speedy in his arrival at the hospital as he had. Renata smelt so sweet, was so snuggly, warm and delicious in her arms, that all Bliss's usually determinedly buried maternal instincts were given full and free rein to an almost alarming degree.
'I can definitely assure you, Miss Maguire, that Mr di Andrea is indeed the brother of Mrs Ward who is at present undergoing observation by the head doctor on duty. The little girl is his niece, Renata Ward.' The very efficient-looking middle-aged receptionist with her steel-framed spectacles and ash-blond hair smiled patiently at Bliss as though she were addressing a confused child.
'Oh.' Bliss's violet eyes blinked twice in succession, as though she'd just been rudely woken from a peaceful slumber. She heard the harshly relieved breath that Dante di Andrea released beside her before holding out his arms once again for the little girl. The provocatively sensual scent of sandalwood floated up to her nostrils as he did so and something in her deepest feminine core reacted as violently as though he'd kissed her. 'Your uncle will take you now, sweetie. Be a good girl, won't you? You'll see Mummy soon.'
It was the oddest thing, but Bliss suddenly felt as if she might burst into tears. What stopped her was the fact that Renata had started to cling to her in alarm when Dante had reached out, making little sounds of protest against Bliss's white silk shirt that tore at her heart as powerfully as any heartbreak could.
'All right, honey all right. There's nothing to be frightened of, I promise.' Except that when Bliss's accusing stare met Dante's across the little girl's dark head, the sheer frustration and rage in his eyes made her doubt that promise greatly. Something told her in that short, unsettling exchange that this was a man unused to being defied in any way, and so far Bliss had not capitulated to his authority one iota. Her wild imagination suggested he looked about ready to tear her limb from limb.
'Give me my niece, Miss Maguire. I thank you for taking care of her in her mother's time of need, but now I want to go and see my sister and I would like to take her daughter with me.'
'She's acting like she doesn't know you.' It was hard to believe the strength with which Renata was holding onto Bliss's shirt, her little chubby fists clinging on as though her life depended on it. Did her uncle have to look quite so fierce? That scowl would put the fear of God into a wild cougar! Maybe his anxiety for his sister was putting him under a strain, but he could soften a little for the child's sake, couldn't he? 'How am I supposed to hand her over to you when she clearly doesn't want to go?'
He cursed beneath his breath in a barrage of fluent Italian. Even the outwardly unruffled receptionist looked alarmed. But Bliss was adamant that, however effusively Dante di Andrea gave way to temper, all it would achieve would be to make her more determined not to hand Renata over until he had calmed down.
'The baby is very shy and not used to me.' Shaking his head, he seemed to suddenly struggle with finding the right words, as if he wasn't used to having to explain or justify his emotions. Against her will, Bliss couldn't deny the spurt of sympathy that bloomed inside her. 'She has recently lost her father. That is why Tatianaher motheris ill.'
Bliss went very still. Sensing the change in her posture, Renata glanced up into her eyes, her bottom lip quivering. 'I'm very sorry to hear that. Look, Mr di Andrea, I'm not trying to make things difficult for you. I just want to make sure that the little girl is all right for my own satisfaction, you understand?'
For a very surreal moment, Dante was so drawn by those ravishing violet eyes with their curling sable lashes that he forgot he usually concurred with his father's view that the English were a cold race. The warmth and concern that this unknown Englishwoman was expressing for a total stranger's child took him aback and made him reassess his former prejudice in a way that was definitely unsettling.
'Perhaps we should sit down for a moment, sì?'