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NINA did not want to listen to this. In fact she was so sure she didn't that if she hadn't been sitting in her own home she would have seriously contemplated getting up from the lunch table and walking out.
As it was, all she could do was stare glassy-eyed at her mother and silently wish her a million miles away.
"Don't look at me like that," Louisa said impatiently. "You may like to think that the state of your marriage is none of my business, but when it is I who has to listen to ugly speculation and gossip about it then it becomes my business!"
"Does it?" Her daughter's cool tone said otherwise. "I don't recall ever questioning you about the many reports on your various lovers throughout the years."
Her mother's narrow shoulders tensed inside the fitted white jacket she was wearing, which did so much for her fabulous dark looks. At fifty-one years old, Louisa St James could still pass for thirty. Born in Sicily, the youngest of five Guardino children, Louisa had taken the lion's share in the beauty stakes, along with her twin sister Lucia. As small girls they'd wowed everyone with their black-haired, black-eyed enchantment, and when they'd grown into stunning young women besotted young men had beaten paths to the Guardino door. Now in her middle years, and with her twin sadly gone, Louisa could still grab male attention like a magnet. But a lifetime spent being admired had made Louisa so very conceited that Nina could sometimes see by her expression that she was bewildered as to how her womb had dared to produce a child that bore no resemblance to her at all.
Nina was tall and fair, and quiet and introverted. She looked out on the world through her English father's cool blue eyes, and when trouble loomed she locked herself away behind a wall of ice where no one could reach her. In her mother's Sicilian eyes the burning fires of all the passions were alien to her daughter, and she tended to treat Nina as if she did not know what they were.
"Your father made me a widow ten years ago, which means I am allowed to take as many lovers as I choose without raising eyebrows," Louisa defended, completely ignoring the way she'd been taking lovers for most of Nina's life. "Whereas your marriage is barely out of the honeymoon stage and already gossip about it is hot!"
Hot? Nina almost choked on the word, because the last thing she would have called her marriage was— hot. Cold, more like. A soulless waste of space. A mistake so huge it should be logged as an official disaster!
"If it's just gossip you're concerned about then you're talking to the wrong person," she responded. "Rafael is your culprit—go and talk to him."
With that she got up, not quite finding the courage to walk out of the room but doing the next best thing by going to stand in front of the closed glass doors that led out onto the terrace.
Behind her the thin silence feathered her slender backbone. Her cold indifference to whatever her husband was doing had managed to shock her mother into stillness—for a moment or two.
"You are a fool, Nina," she then announced bluntly. Oh, yes, Nina agreed, and she stared out towards the glistening blue waters of the Mediterranean and wished she was on the little sailboat she could see gliding across the calm crystal sea.
"Because it is not only gossip. I saw them together for myself, cara and even a blind woman could not mistake the chemistry they were generating it was so—"
Hot, Nina supplied the word because it seemed much more suitable now than it had earlier.
Her mother used a sigh. "You should keep him on a much tighter leash," she went on. "The man is just too gorgeous and sexy to be left to his own devices— and you know what he's like! Women fall over themselves to get closer to him, and he doesn't bother to push them away. He could charm a nun out of her chastity if he put his mind to it, yet how often are you seen at his side? Instead of isolating yourself up here on your hilltop you should be out there with him, making your presence felt—then she would not be trying to get her claws back into him and I would not be sitting here having to tell you things that no mother wants to—"
"Where?" Nina inserted. "Hmm?"
Turning around, Nina was in time to watch her mother blink her lovely long black eyelashes, having lost the main plot of her exposé because she'd been so much more comfortable lecturing her daughter on things she knew very little about.
"Where did you see them?" She extended her question.
"Oh." Understanding returned, sending those slender shoulders into an unhappy shrug. "In London, of course..."
Of course, Nina echoed—London being the place Rafael spent most of his time these days, which was pretty ironic when she was the Londoner and he was the Sicilian.
"I was eating out with friends when I spotted them across the restaurant. Someone's mobile was ringing. When it just kept on, I looked up, and that is when I saw them. I was so shocked at first I just stared! I watched him pick his ringing cellphone up off the table, and without taking his eyes off her face he switched it off and put it in his pocket!" Louisa took a tight breath. "I had this horrible feeling that it was you calling him, so to watch him do that made me—"
"It wasn't me," Nina said, though she had a good idea who the caller had been.
"I am so relieved to hear you say that. I cannot tell you how it felt to think that you might need him and he—"
"Did they see you?" she cut in. Her mother's smile was dry, to say the least. "Darling, they were being so intense across that candlelit table for two that they didn't see anyone," she said. "I thought about going over there to confront them—but, well... It was just a bit embarrassing to witness my son-in-law getting it on with my niece in public."
"So you left them to it?" 'It could have been innocent."
But it wasn't, Nina thought—and how did she know that? Because this particular woman was more than just her mother's niece.
"And that is not all of it," Louisa pushed on. "I saw them again later on, going—going into your apartment building."
"How unfortunate for them," Nina drawled. "Did you follow them there, by any chance?"
Dark eyes gave a flash of defiance. "Yes, if you must know. I did not like what I was seeing, so I thought I would keep an eye on them! She should not even be in London," she tagged on stiffly. "New York is her hunting ground, and it would have been better for all of us if she'd just stayed there."
"So you spied on them going into our apartment building...?" Nina prompted.
Louisa looked pained suddenly. "I could see them through the glass doors, Nina! They were standing there, waiting for the lift to come. He—he was touching her face while she gazed up at him. It was all so..."
Oh, my... Nina thought, and had to turn away again so that her mother wouldn't see what was happening to her face.
Another thick silence crawled around them while her mother brooded over what she'd said and Nina stared at the view. The little sailboat had gone, she saw, disappearing round the headland to her right, where the ancient city of Syracuse clustered around the tiny island of Ortigia.
When her gaze drifted to the left she could just make out Mount Etna in the distance, shrouded in one of her hazy mists. The volcano had been very active lately, spewing out the most spectacular paratactic displays throughout the long hot summer. Now winter was here, and although the days were quite warm for December, the gentle plume of smoke she could see rising from Etna's peak said the volcano had cooled her ardour to suit the cooler temperature—for now, at least.
"How does she look?" she asked after a minute. "The same," came the flat reply. "As beautiful as ever, if not—" More so, was the observation left hanging in the air. "She reminded me of her mother," Louisa added huskily.
Nina smiled a bleak little smile. The beautiful dark-haired Lucia had produced a beautiful dark-haired daughter and oh, how Louisa had always envied her twin for doing that.
"What are you going to do?" her mother asked after another of those heavy silences.
Do—? Nina turned to face the room again, wearing a smile that was so paper-dry it actually hurt her lips as they stretched. "Rafael paid a high price for my loyalty and he'll have it, whatever he decides to do. I've already told you that you're talking to the wrong person about this."
"Oh Nina..." The pained sigh matched her mother's expression as she watched Nina cross back to the table. "How did you and Rafael ever get yourselves into this state?"
"Money, darling," Nina drawled in her very best boarding school English as she sat down again. "Our appalling lack of it and his abominable excess."
"Rubbish," Louisa dismissed. "You adored each other. Rafael was besotted with you from the first moment he looked at you, and you were so in love with him that even that—that prissy manner your father insisted on breeding into you used to melt for him."
A game, Nina cynically named that little deception. It had all been just a very clever game they'd played out for the sake of anyone who happened to be interested. Rafael had set the rules by which their marriage would run and Nina had agreed to keep to them—for a price. They were to show a loving front to the world, and in return he would keep the great Guardino name clear of bankruptcy.
Some price for him to pay for what had only been a face-saving exercise, Nina conceded, recalling just how much it had cost him to bail her grandfather out. But then saving face had always been of paramount importance to Rafael. The monumental size of his pride demanded it.
That and some deeply hidden hang-ups he never spoke about but which ruled his life far more than he realised.
"It was the sole reason why she went away in the first place," Louisa insisted. "Once she realised what was happening between the two of you she really had no other option but to step back and leave the field clear."
And there, Nina thought, was the deception. "Yes," she agreed.
Rafael had been hovering on the brink of asking her beautiful cousin to marry him when Marisia had discovered something about him she couldn't accept and walked out. She'd walked out on his love, his fabulous wealth and, most important of all, she'd walked all over his precious pride as she went.
"You used to be so happy together." 'Delirious." 'Rafael used to eat you with his eyes and he did not care who saw him doing it."
Nina found a wry smile for that observation—wry because in an odd way her mother was right. Rafael had eaten her with his eyes.
With his eyes, his lips, his tongue, his... But that had only been for the first few wild months of their marriage, when they'd set out to fool the world and had done it so successfully that they'd actually managed to fool themselves at the same time.
And the special ingredient to aid and abet this deception?
Sex. She named it grimly. They'd been so bowled over by the discovery of a wildly passionate and very mutual sexual attraction to each other that it had shocked them stupid for a time. Blinded them to the reality of what they really felt for each other.
Blinded her anyway, Nina amended as something worryingly close to despair began to swell up inside her. Blinded her enough to let her believe that they were actually in love.
Love. She could scoff at the very word now. As far as Rafael was concerned he had simply played the game, as any man would play the game, and taken what was on offer because it had been there to take, whereas she...
Well, blinded as she had been, she had committed the ultimate sin in his eyes, by taking their relationship one step further—unwittingly crossing into forbidden territory—and in doing so had forced Rafael to open her eyes to the size of her mistake.