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The Venetian Playboy's Bride
By Lucy Gordon
Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.Copyright © 2003 Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneGuido Calvani took another turn along the hospital corridor, trying not to think of his uncle, lying behind the closed door, desperately ill.
He was high up on the top floor. At one end of the corridor the window looked out over the heart of Venice, red roofs, canals, little bridges. At the other end was the Grand Canal. Guido stopped and regarded the flashing water, snaking its way through the heart of the little city to where it would reach the Palazzo Calvani, home of the Calvani counts for centuries. By tonight he might have inherited the title, and the thought appalled him.
His mercurial spirits weren't often depressed. He approached life with an optimism that was reflected in his appearance. His blue eyes might have been born gleaming, and a smile seemed to be his natural expression. At thirty-two, rich, handsome, free, he had no cares, save for the one that now threatened him.
Guido was a man of warm affections. He loved his uncle. But he also loved his freedom, and within a few hours he might have lost them both.
He turned swiftly as two young men appeared from the staircase below.
"Thank heavens." he said, embracing his half-brother Leo, who clasped him back unselfconsciously. With his cousin Marco he merely clapped him on the shoulder. There was a proud reserve about Marco that even the open-hearted Guido had to respect.
"How bad is Uncle Francesco?" Marco demanded tersely.
"Very bad, I think. I called you last night because he'd started to have pains in his chest, but he wouldn't be sensible and see a doctor. Then early this morning he collapsed in agony, and I sent for an ambulance. We've been here ever since. They're still doing tests."
"It surely can't be a heart attack," Leo said. "He's never had one before, and the life he's led -"
"Was enough to give any normal man a dozen heart attacks," Marco supplied.
"Women, wine, fast cars -"
"Women." Guido echoed.
"Three speedboats smashed up," Leo recalled. "Gambling!"
"Women." They spoke with one voice.
A footstep on the stairs reduced them all to silence as Lizabetta, the count's housekeeper, appeared among them like doom. She was thin, sharp-faced, elderly, and they greeted her with more respect than they ever showed their uncle. This grim creature was the power in the Palazzo Calvani.
She acknowledged them with a nod that managed to combine respect for their aristocratic status with contempt for the male sex, sat down and took out her knitting.
"I'm afraid there's no news yet," Guido told her gently.
He looked up as the ward door opened and the doctor emerged. He was an elderly man and had been the count's friend for years. His grave expression could mean only one thing, and their hearts sank.
The doctor pronounced. "Get the silly old fool out of here and stop wasting my time."
"But - his heart attack -?" Guido protested.
"Heart attack, my foot! Indigestion! Liza, you shouldn't let him eat prawns in butter."
Liza glared. "Much notice he takes of me," she snapped.
"Can we see him now?" Guido asked.
A roar from within answered him. In his prime Count Francesco had been known as The Lion of Venice, and now that he was in his seventies nothing much had changed.
The three young men entered their uncle's room and stood regarding him wryly. He was sitting up in bed, his face framed by his white hair, his blue eyes gleaming.
"Gave you a fright, didn't I?" he bawled.
"Enough of a fright to bring me all the way from Rome and Leo from Tuscany," Marco remarked. "All because you've been stuffing yourself."
"Don't talk to the head of the family like that," Francesco growled. "And blame Liza. Her cooking is irresistible."
"So you have to gobble it like a greedy schoolboy," Marco observed, not noticeably intimidated by addressing the head of the family. "Uncle, when are you going to act your age?"
"I didn't get to be seventy-two by acting my age." Francesco remarked with perfect truth. He pointed at Marco. "When you're seventy-two you'll be a dried-up stick without a heart."
The old man indicated Leo. "When you're seventy-two you'll be more of a country bumpkin than you are already."
"That's cool," Leo observed, unruffled.
"What will I be at seventy-two?" Guido asked.
"You won't. An outraged husband will have shot you long before then."
Guido grinned. "You should know all about outraged husbands, uncle. I heard that only last -"
"Clear off all of you. Liza will bring me home."
As soon as they'd escaped the building they leaned against the honey-coloured stone wall and breathed out long sighs of relief.
"I need a drink," Guido said, making a beeline for a small bar beside the water. The others followed him and seated themselves at a table in the sun.
Since Guido lived in Venice, Leo in Tuscany and Marco in Rome they saw each other only rarely, and the next few minutes were occupied by taking stock. Leo was the least altered. As his uncle had said, he was a countryman, lean, hard-bodied, with a candid face and clear eyes. He wasn't a subtle man. Life reached him directly, through his senses, and he read books only when necessary.
Marco was the same as always, but more so: a little more tense, a little more focused, a little more heedless of ordinary mortals. He existed in a rarefied world of high finance, and it seemed to his cousins that he was happiest there. He lived expensively, buying only the best, which he could well afford. But he did so, less because it gave him pleasure than because it would never have occurred to him to do otherwise.
Guido's mercurial nature had been born for a double life. Officially he resided at the palazzo, but he also had a discreet bachelor flat where he could come and go, free of critical eyes. He too had intensified, becoming more charming, and more elusive in his determination to remain his own man. He possessed a mulish stubbornness which he hid behind laughter and a sweet temper. His dark hair was a shade too long, curving over his collar with a slight shagginess that made him look younger than his thirty-two years.
Nobody spoke until they were on their second beer.
"I can't stand this," Guido said at last. "Being brought to the brink and then let off is going to finish me. And let off for how long?"
"What are you raving about?" Marco demanded.
"Ignore him," Leo grinned. "A man who's just been reprieved is bound to be light-headed."
"That's right, mock me." Guido said. "By rights it should be you in this mess."
Leo was his elder brother, but by a trick of fate it was Guido who was the heir. Bertrando, their father, had married a widow whose 'late' husband had subsequently turned up alive. By then she had already died giving birth to Leo, leaving him illegitimate. Two years later Bertrando had married again, and his second wife had presented him with Guido.
Nobody had worried about it then. It was a technicality that would cease to matter when Count Francesco married and had a son. But as the years passed with no sign of his marriage the anomaly began to glare. Although the younger son, Guido was legally the only son, and heir to the title.
Excerpted from The Venetian Playboy's Bride by Lucy Gordon Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.