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Terse and enigmatic, the letter sat on Corinne Mallory's dressing table, held in place by a can of hair spray. Hardly a fitting resting place, she supposed, for correspondence written on vellum embossed with an ornate gold family crest. On the other hand, considering her initial response had been to decline its autocratic summons, it was a miracle that she hadn't tossed the whole works in the garbage.
But the name at the end of the typed missive, signed in bold, impatient script, had given her pause. Raffaello Orsini had been married to her dearest friend, and Lindsay had been crazy about him, right up to the day she died. That alone had made Corinne swallow her pride and accede to his wishes. Whatever the reason for his sudden visit to Canada, loyalty to Lindsay's memory demanded Corinne not refuse him.
Now that she was just two short hours away from meeting the man face-to-face for the first time, however, she wasn't so sure she'd made the right decision. What did one wear to an invitation that smacked more of a command performance than a request?
Eyeing the limited contents of her closet, she decided basic black was probably the most appropriate choice. With pearls. Dinner at the Pan Pacific, Vancouver's most prestigious hotel, called for a touch of elegance, even if the pearls in question weren't the real thing, and the black dress made of faux silk.
At least her black pumps came with a designer emblem on the instep, a reminder of the time when she'd been able to afford a few luxuries.
A reminder, too, of Lindsay, a tiny woman full of big dreams, who hadn't believed in the word "can't."
We'll buy some run-down, flea-bitten old place in the right part of town, andturn it into a boutique hotel, Corinne. I'll take care of housekeeping and decor, and you'll be in charge of the kitchen.
We'll need a fairy godmother to accomplish that.
Not us! We can do anything we set our minds to. Nothing's going to derail us.
What if we fall in love and get married?
It'll have to be to men who share our vision. She'd flashed her dimpled smile. And it'd help if they were also very, very rich!
And if they're not?
It won't matter, because we'll make our own luck. We can do this, Corinne. I know we can. We'll call it The Bowman-Raines Hotel, and have a great big old BR emblazoned over the front entrance. By the time we're thirty, we'll be famous for our hospitality and our dining room. People will kill to stay with us .
But all that was before Lindsay went to Sicily on holiday, and fell in love with Raffaello Orsini who was indeed very, very rich, but who had no interest whatsoever in sharing her dreams. Instead he'd converted her to his. Forgetting all about creating the most acclaimed hotel in the Pacific northwest, she'd moved halfway around the world to be his wife and start a family.
And the luck she'd believed in so fiercely? It had turned on her, striking her down at twenty-four with leukemia, and leaving her three-year-old daughter motherless.
Swamped in memories, Corinne blinked back the incipient tears, leaned closer to the mirror to sweep a mascara wand over her lashes and tried to remember the last time she'd worn eye makeup. Far too long ago, judging by the finished effect, but it would have to do, and really, what did it matter? Whatever the reason for his sudden visit, Raffaello Orsini certainly hadn't been inspired by a burning desire to evaluate her artistry with cosmetics.
Downstairs, she heard Mrs. Lehman, her next-door neighbor and baby-sitter, rattling dishes as she served Matthew his supper.
Matthew hadn't been happy that his mother was going out. "I hate it when you go to work," he'd announced, his lower lip trembling ominously.
With good reason, Corinne had to admit. She frequently missed tucking her son into bed, because her work too often involved late nights and time during his school holidays. It was the nature of the beast and much though she'd have preferred it otherwise, there wasn't much she could do about it, not if she wanted to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table.
"I won't be late, and I'll make blueberry pancakes for breakfast," she promised. "Be a good boy for Mrs. Lehman, and don't give her a hard time about going to bed, okay?"
"I might," he warned balefully. Although only four, he'd recently developed an alarming talent for blackmail. He was becoming, in fact, quite a handful. But Corinne hoped tonight wouldn't be one of those nights when she arrived home to find Mrs. Lehman exhausted from fighting to get him to bed, and Matthew still racing up and down the stairs every fifteen minutes and generally raising mayhem.
I should be staying home, Corinne thought, the familiar guilt sweeping over her as smoothly as the black dress slid past her hips. But the letter pulled at her, and even though she could have recited it word for word from memory, she picked it up and scoured it yet again, as if the writer's reason for sending it might be hidden between the lines.
Villa di Cascata Sicily January 6, 2008 Signora Mallory:
I shall be in Vancouver later this month on a matter of some urgency recently brought to my attention and which I wish to discuss with you in confidence.
I have reservations at the Pan Pacific Hotel and would appreciate your joining me there for dinner on Friday, January 28, a date I trust you find convenient. Unless I hear otherwise, I shall send a car for you at seven-thirty.
But just as with the first reading, there was nothing. No hint of what she might expect. And if the racket taking place in the kitchen was anything to go by, Matthew was gearing up to give poor Mrs. Lehman another night of grief.
"This had better be good, Mr. Orsini," Corinne muttered, tossing the letter aside, and taking a last glance in the mirror before going downstairs to appease a little boy who had no memory of his father, and whose mother seemed to be making a lousy job of doing double duty as a parent.
The view, Raffaello decided, was impressive. To the north, snowcapped mountains glimmered in carved splendor against the clear night sky. The lights of a bridge spanning the entrance to the harbor looped like so many diamonds above the Narrows. And closer at hand, almost directly below his suite, a yacht some twenty-five meters long or more rocked gently at its moorage.
Not Sicily, by any stretch of the imagination, but arresting nonetheless, as much because it had been Lindsay's home, a setting both wild and sophisticated, beautiful and intriguing, just like her.
Two years ago, one year even, and he could not have come here. The pain had been too raw, his grief too filled with anger. But time had a way of healing even the most savage wounds; of gilding the memories that were his wife's legacy, and turning them into a source of comfort. "I do this for you, amore mio," he murmured, raising his eyes to the heavens.
Somewhere in the city below, a church bell rang out, eight solemn chimes. The woman, Corinne Mallory, was late. Impatient to get down to the business of the evening and be done with it, he paced to the telephone and buzzed the front desk to remind whoever was in charge that she should be directed to his suite whenifshe showed up. What he had to propose was not something to be aired in public.
Another ten minutes dragged past before she arrived, her knock so sudden and peremptory that his hackles rose. Curbing his irritation, he shot his cuffs and tugged his lapels into place.
Remember she was Lindsay's best friend. That does not mean she has to be yours, but it will be better for everyone if you can at least establish a sympathetic cordiality, he cautioned himself, striding to the door.
He had seen photographs, of course, and thought he knew what to expect of the woman waiting on the other side. But she was more delicate than he'd anticipated. Like fine lace that had been handled too carelessly, so that her skin was almost transparent and stretched too tightly over her fine bones, leaving her face much too small for her very blue eyes.
Standing back, he waved her across the threshold. "Signora Mallory, thank you for agreeing to see me. Please come in."
She hesitated a moment before complying. "I'm not aware you gave me much choice, Mr. Orsini," she said, her accent so vivid a reminder of Lindsay's that he was momentarily disconcerted. "Nor did I expect our meeting would take place in your room, and I can't say I'm particularly comfortable with that."
What did she think? That he'd traveled halfway around the world to seduce her? "My intentions are entirely honorable," he replied, tempted to tell her that if a romp in bed was all he wanted, he could have found it much closer to home.
She let him take her coat and shrugged, an elegantly dismissive little gesture that made the pearls nested at her throat slither gently against her skin. "They'd better be," she said.
Suppressing a smile, he motioned to the array of bottles set out on the bar. "Will you join me in a drink before dinner?"
Again, she paused before inclining her head in assent. "A very weak wine spritzer, please."
"So," he said, adding a generous dollop of San Pellegrino to an inch of Pinot Grigio, and pouring a shot of whiskey for himself, "tell me about yourself, signora. I know only that you and my late wife were great friends, and that you are widowed, with a young son."
"Which is rather more than I know about you, Mr. Orsini," she replied, with a candor he found rather disarming. "And since I have absolutely no idea what this meeting is all about, I'd just as soon get down to business as waste time regaling you with a life history I'm sure you have no real interest in hearing about."
Joining her on the other side of the room, he handed her the spritzer and raised his own glass in a wordless toast. "That's where you're mistaken. Please understand that I have a most compelling and, indeed, legitimate reason for wanting to learn more about you."
"Fine. Then until you share that reason with me, please understand that I am not about to gratify your curiosity. I don't pretend to know how things are done in Sicily, but in this country, no woman with a grain of sense agrees to meet a strange man alone in his hotel room. Had I known that was your plan, I would most definitely not have come." She set her drink down on the coffee table and glanced very pointedly at her silver wristwatch. "You have exactly five minutes to explain yourself, Mr. Orsini, and then I'm out of here."
He took a sip of his whiskey and eyed her appraisingly. "I can see why you and my wife were such close friends. She, too, drove straight to the heart of a matter. It was one of the many qualities I admired in her."
"Four and a half minutes, Mr. Orsini, and I'm fast losing my patience."
"Very well." He picked up the leather folder he'd left on the coffee table and withdrew the letter. "This is for you. I think you'll find its contents self-explanatory."
She glanced briefly at the handwriting and paled. "It's from Lindsay."
"How do you know what it's about?"
"I read it."
A flush chased away her pallor. "Who gave you the right?"
"Remind me never to leave private correspondence lying about when you're around," she said, her blue eyes flaring with indignation.
"Read your letter, signora, and then I will let you read mine. Perhaps when you've done that, you'll regard me with less hostility, and have a better understanding of why I came all this way to meet you."
She flung him one last doubtful glance, then bent her attention to the contents of the letter. At first, her hand was steady, but as she continued to read, the paper fluttered as if caught in the faintest of breezes, and by the time she reached the end, she was visibly shaking.
She raised shocked eyes to his. "This is ridiculous. She can't have been in her right mind."
"My wife was lucid to the last. Disease might have ravaged her body, but not her mind." He pushed his own letter across the table. "Here is what she asked of me. You'll notice both letters were written on the same day. Mine is a copy of the original. If you wish, you may keep it, to read again at your leisure."
Reluctantly Corinne Mallory took the second letter, scanned it quickly, then handed it back to him and shook her head in further disbelief. "I'm having a hard time accepting that Lindsay knew what she was asking."
"Yet viewed dispassionately, it makes a certain sense."
"Not to me it doesn't," she retorted flatly. "And I can't believe it does to you, either, or you'd have brought it to my attention sooner. These letters were written over three years ago. Why did you wait until now to tell me about them?"
"I accidentally discovered them myself only a few weeks ago. Lindsay had tucked them inside a photograph album, and I admit, on first reading, my reaction was much the same as yours."
"I hope you're not implying you're now in agreement with her wishes?"
"At the very least, they merit serious consideration."
Corinne Mallory rolled her big blue eyes and reached for her wineglass. "I might need something a bit stronger than this, after all."
"I understand the idea takes some getting used to, Signora Mallory, but I hope you won't dismiss it out of hand. From a purely practical standpoint, such an arrangement has much to recommend it."
"I've no wish to offend you, Mr. Orsini, but if you seriously believe that, I can't help thinking you must be a few bricks short of a full load."
"An interesting turn of phrase," he remarked, unable to suppress a smile, "but far from accurate, and I hope to persuade you of that over dinner."
"After reading these letters, I'm no longer sure dinner's such a good idea."
"Why not? Are you afraid I might sway you into changing your mind?"
"No," she said, with utter conviction.
"Then where's the harm in our discussing the matter over a good meal? If, at the end of it all, you're still of a mind to walk away, I certainly won't try to stop you. After all, the doubts cut two ways. At this point, I'm no more persuaded of the viability of my wife's request, than are you. But in honor of her memory, the very least I can do is put it to the test. She would expect no less of menor, I venture to point out, of you."