Ally Parker has come to Italy with questions about her past only Gino, Duc of Montefalco, can answer.
Swept away to his magical country estate, Ally begins to fall in love with the brooding Italian duc. But will the secrets and sins of the past keep Gino from making Ally the rightful bride of Montefalco?
About the Author
Rebecca Winters lives in Salt Lake City, Utah. With canyons and high alpine meadows full of wildflowers, she never runs out of places to explore. They, plus her favourite vacation spots in Europe, often end up as backgrounds for her romance novels because writing is her passion, along with her family and church. Rebecca loves to hear from readers. If you wish to e-mail her, please visit her website at: www.cleanromances.com
Read an Excerpt
The Portland police detective looked up from his computer. "I'm glad you got here so fast, Mrs. Parker."
"Your message indicated it was urgent."
"It is," he said in a solemn tone. "Come in and sit down." Ally took a chair opposite his desk. "I take it there's been a new development in the case."
"Major." He nodded. "The woman who died in the car accident with your husband four months ago has finally been identified through dental records and a DNA match-up."
Though Ally had buried her husband two months ago, she'd needed this day to come if she were ever to find closure. Yet at the same time she'd been dreading it because it meant getting painful facts instead of wallowing in useless conjecture.
"Who was she?"
"A thirty-four-year-old married female from Italy named Donata Di Montefalco."
Finally the woman had a name and a background. "The Italian authorities have informed me she was the wife of the Duc Di Montefalco, a very wealthy, prominent aristocrat from a town of the same name near Rome. According to the police investigating the case, her husband has had his own people searching for her all these months."
"Naturally," Ally whispered. Had he been in love with his wife? Or had his marriage been unraveling like Ally's?
Though the detective had never said the words, she knew he suspected her husband of having been unfaithful. So had Ally who'd known her marriage was breaking down but hadn't wanted to believe it.
Jim had changed so much from the seemingly devoted family man she'd first married, she'd slowly fallen out of love with him though she wasn't able to pinpoint the exact moment it happened.
During the latter part of their two and half year marriage she'd seen signs that something was wrong. The long absenses from home because of his work, the lack of passion in his love-making when he did come home, his disinterest in her life when he made brief, unsatisfactory phone calls home, his desire to put off starting a family until he was making more money.
Despite the fact that there was still no definitive proof of an affair, this news gave added credence to her suspicions.
A fresh stab of pain assailed her. She needed to get out of his office to grieve in private.
Though she'd already had two months to absorb the fact that he hadn't died alone, a part of her had hoped the other woman would have been middle-aged. Possibly an older woman he'd given a lift to because of the storm. But this latest information put that myth to rest. It increased her turmoil that she hadn't loved him as much as she should have, otherwise why hadn't she confronted him before it was too late?
"Thank you for calling me in, Lieutenant." Any second now and she was going to lose control. Living in denial was the worst thing she could have done. Her guilt worsened to recognize she hadn't fought harder to recapture the love that had brought them together in the first place.
"I appreciate what you've done to help me." She got up to leave. He walked her to the door of his office. "I'm sorry I had to call you in and remind you of your loss all over again. But I promised to let you know when I had any more information.
"Here's hoping that in the months to come, you'll be able to put this behind you and move on."
Move on? a voice inside her cried hysterically. How did you do that when your husband had died at the lowest ebb in your marriage?
How did you function when your dreams for a happy life with him were permanently shattered?
The detective eyed her with compassion. "Would you like me to walk you out to your car?"
"No thank you," she murmured. "I'll be all right."
She hurried out of his office and down the hall to the front door of the police station.
Dear God—how was it possible things had ended like this? Nothing was resolved. If anything, she was riddled with new questions.
Her thoughts darted to the woman's husband. He would have only just learned his wife's body had been found and identified. Besides months of suffering since her disappearance and now this loss, he had to be wondering about Jim's importance in Donata's life.
Wherever the Duc Di Montefalco was at this moment, Ally knew he was in hell.
She could relate...
"Uncle Gino? How come we're going to stay at your farm for a while?
Rudolfo Giannino Fioretto Di Montefalco, known only to his family and a few close friends as Gino, eyed his eleven-year-old niece through the rearview mirror. The girl sat next to Marcello, Gino's elder brother.
"Because it's summer. I thought you and your father would enjoy getting out in nature instead of being cooped up in the palazzo."
"But what if Mama comes back and we're not there?" Gino braced himself. The dreaded moment had come. He pulled up to the side of the farmhouse. In the dying rays of the sun, the cypress trees formed spokes across the yellowed exterior.
He turned in his seat to make certain Sofia was holding her father's hand. Since Marcello had been stricken with Alzheimer's and could no longer talk, it was one of the ways she could express her love and hope to feel his in return.
"I have something to tell you, sweetheart." A full minute passed. In that amount of time the color had drained from his niece's face. "What is it?" she asked in a tremulous voice. The strain of going months without knowing anything about her mother had robbed Sofia of any joie de vivre.
"Sofia, I have some bad news. Your mama, she was in a car accident, and...she died."
Four months ago in fact, but Gino had only been informed of her death last night. Today he'd been making preparations for Sofia's move to the country with Marcello.
The details surrounding the tragedy were something neither she nor the trusted staff both at the palazzo and the farmhouse needed to know about.
His gaze took in Sofia's pain-filled expression. When his news computed, he heard the sobs of an already heartbroken girl who buried her dark brown head against her father's shoulder.
Marcello looked down at her, not comprehending, not able to comfort his daughter.
Gino felt her sobs from the front seat. Tears welled in his throat. Now that Donata's body had been found and identified, the nightmare of her disappearance was over. But another one had just begun...
His motherless, already introverted niece was going to need more love and understanding than ever.
As for Gino, once he'd arranged with the priest for a private memorial service away from prying eyes so Sofia could say goodbye to her mother in private, he needed to increase security to protect his family from the press.
Carlo Santi, the region's top police inspector and one of their family's best friends was doing his best to stop information from the police department leaking to the various newspapers and media in Rome and elsewhere. But there were those rabid, insatiable vultures from the tabloids who invaded without mercy, always lurking to find something juicy on Gino and his family. It was the price they paid for their title and wealth.
If it weren't for Carlo running interference for him all these months, the situation could have gotten uglier much sooner.
With the sudden debilitating onset of Marcello's disease two years ago, Donata's selfish streak had created havoc in his broth-er's marriage, and had damaged their daughter irreparably. In Gino's opinion, Donata had to have been one of the world's most insensitive, neglectful wives and mothers on record.
He'd fought hard to protect his brother and niece from the worst of her flaws.
As a result he'd been forced to guard the family secrets with a certain ruthlessness that Donata enjoyed publicizing to anyone who would listen. Her indiscriminate venting had made its way to the press, casting a pall over all their lives, Gino's in particular. Through innuendo she'd made him out to be the grasping, jealous brother-in-law who wanted her and the title for himself.
The only thing Donata hadn't ever considered was her own death.
Once the media got wind of the accident that took her life, everything Gino had done to keep family matters private was about to become a public scandal. The fact that an American man close to Donata's age had been driving the car when they'd been killed provided the kind of fodder to cause a paparazzi frenzy. This kind of story would sell millions of papers with far reaching consequences for Sofia. His niece could be destroyed by the facts, let alone the malicious rumors surrounding them.
Aside from physically removing the two in the back seat to a protected place away from media invasion, there didn't seem to be a thing in hell he could do about unscrupulous journalists digging up old lies on him in order to sell more newspapers. Since his teens, battling the press had been the story of his life. Now it was about to be the story of Sofia's, but not if he could help it!
The orchestra conductor put down his baton. "Take a ten minute break. Then we'll pick up the Brahms at bar 20."
Thankful for the respite, Ally placed her violin on the seat and filed out of the music hall behind the other members of the string section.
She walked down the corridor where she could be alone and reached in her purse for her cell phone.
She was expecting a call back from her doctor. After the meeting with the detective yesterday, she'd developed a migraine that still hadn't gone away. To her dismay there was no message from the doctor. Maybe he'd tried her house phone and had left one.
Sure enough when she retrieved her messages, she learned his nurse had called in a prescription for the pain. If she could just get some relief...
Right now nothing seemed real. The hurt of her failed marriage and the circumstances surrounding Jim's death had gone too deep.
There was one more message, but she'd wait until she got home because the throbbing at the base of her skull refused to let up. "Ally?" Carol called to her. "Are you all right?"
"I-it's a migraine giving me grief. Do me a favor and tell the maestro I had to go home, but I'll be here in the morning for rehearsal."
The Portland Philharmonic Orchestra's end of May concert was the day after tomorrow.
"I will. Don't worry about your violin. I'll take it home with me and bring it back tomorrow."
"You're an angel."
After getting a drink from the fountain, Ally found the strength to leave the building and head for her car.
Once she'd stopped at the pharmacy where she'd taken one of her pills on the spot, she drove straight home and went to bed with an ice bag across her forehead.
An hour passed before she started to feel a little better. But there was no pill to stop the questions that wouldn't leave her alone.
For one thing, she wanted to see the place where Jim had died. Her mother hadn't thought it a good idea because visiting the scene of the accident would be too painful.
But Ally couldn't be in any more pain than she was right now. She needed to look at the bridge where Jim's car had skidded on ice into the river. It had happened during a blizzard outside St. Moritz, Switzerland.
She also felt a compulsion to see Donata's family home, maybe even commiserate with the Duc on the phone after she arrived in Montefalco. He wouldn't be human if he didn't have questions, too. Maybe talking together would help both of them cope a little better with the tragedy.
Filled with a sense of purpose she hadn't felt in months, she reached for her cell to phone the airlines. Using her credit card she booked a flight out of Portland for the next day. She would fly to Switzerland, then Italy.
By midafternoon she felt well enough to drive to the bank for traveler's checks. The decision to do something concrete about her situation was probably more therapeutic than taking pills because she found the energy to get packed and arrange for her neighbor to bring in her mail while she was gone.
Once she'd showered, she took another pill and went to bed. When she awakened the next morning she felt considerably better.
With her car safely parked in the garage, all she had left to do was phone for a taxi. While she waited for it to come, Ally listened to the message that had been on her home phone since yesterday morning.
"Hey, Jim! This is Troy at the Golden Arm Gym. Since new management is taking over, we've been cleaning out the lockers. I found something pretty valuable of yours. I don't have a phone number or address on you, so I've been calling all the J., Jim or James Parkers in the city trying to find you. Call me back either way so I can cross you off the list. If you're that Jim, drop by within twenty-four hours or it'll be gone."
Ally had buried her husband two months ago. Just hearing someone ask to speak to him today of all days sent a chill through her body. This call was like a ghost from the past.
Since Jim had never joined a gym, she phoned the number to let them know.
"Golden Arm Gym."
"Is Troy there?"
"You're the person who called my house yesterday morning. I'm Mrs. James Parker, but I'm afraid you have the wrong Jim Parker."
"Okay. The Jim I'm looking for works in Europe a lot, and he doesn't have a wife. Thanks for letting me know."
He clicked off, but Ally's fingers tightened around the receiver. Much as she wanted to dismiss his words, she couldn't. Too often in her marriage she'd ignored little signs because she hadn't wanted to believe anything could be wrong.
But those days were over. She was no longer the naïve idealist he'd married.
Once the taxi arrived, she instructed the driver to stop by the gym. It was on the other side of Portland near the freeway leading to the airport. There was no time to lose.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews