A new daddy to his orphaned nephew, Massimo needs help. Bringing the baby's beautiful aunt Julie Marchant to Italy as a nanny seems the perfect solution.
Plucked from her quiet, suburban existence, Julie is a fish out of water in Massimo's glamorous, wealthy world. But she's thrilled to be part of her nephew's life, even if it means being the hired help! More of a challenge is spending every day with Massimo, trying desperately to ignore her attraction to this brooding tycoon.
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The phone in Massimo's pocket rang, but this time he didn't answer it. What part of no didn't Gillian Pittman understand? She was the only female professor in the group and could have her pick of a dozen men. But she'd set her sights on Massimo, and he didn't return the compliment.
When he wanted feminine companionship, he spent the odd weekend in Mexico City or Positano with his favorite person, Cesar, who happened to be reigning champion of the Grand Prix. His second cousin's addiction to racing ensured plenty of women for both of them.
After a grueling workday, he craved a tall glass of ice water followed by a long hot and cold running shower that operated at maximum pressure. Too bad no such luxuries awaited him in the tent he'd called home for the past two years.
It was no bigger than a large, airless closet. Set in the heart of the Petén forest of Guatemala, it offered little more than a place to eat, sleep and record his findings.
The professional teams working at the Cancuen dig site lived in a compound on the other side of the Mayan palace they were excavating. It offered a few more amenities. But he'd come here on his own in an unofficial capacity. To join them after hours meant sacrificing his privacy, something he wasn't prepared to do.
As he undid the lid on a bottle of water, his phone beeped. Irritated by the intrusion, he drained the contents before checking to see what was so important Dr. Pittman had resorted to sending him a text message. But a quick glance revealed it was Sansone who'd been trying to reach him.
An ominous presentiment stole through his body.
In the twenty-four months he'd been gone, he'd never received a phone call from his oldest cousin, let alone a text message. Sansone disliked him too intensely for that.
Steeling himself to deal with it, he pushed the button and read, Tragic news, Massimo. Call me immediately.
The word tragic had a specific connotation he couldn't in all conscience ignore. Had his uncle been injured? Or worse?
In that moment before he called his cousin back, the sweat poured off him faster than when he was subjected to the sun's full intensity.
"What's happened?" he asked, the second he heard Sansone's voice.
"Papa had news that caused him to collapse. The doctor's with him, so he asked me to phone you."
He wouldn't put it past his uncle Aldo to pretend he was ill to gain Massimo's sympathy. This could be a manipulative ploy on his uncle's part to get him to come home.
Massimo wasn't ready to do that. Something earthshaking would have to happen first.
"What news might that be?"
After an uncharacteristic hesitation he said,
"It's about Pietra."
With the mention of Massimo's sister, the air froze in his lungs. "What about her?"
"Her father-in-law called to tell Papa that she and his son were killed in a car accident earlier today."
He reeled. Breathtaking pain shot through him.
"And the baby?" he demanded savagely.
"I don't know. Papa didn"
Massimo hung up, unwilling for Sansone to hear any part of his grief.
"I'm afraid I have to be in Portland tomorrow for the beginning of that three-day conference, Julie. Let me know the day and time of the funeral. I'll try to arrange a flight from there."
When Brent sounded preoccupied, it meant he was sitting in front of his computer doing work. Somehow Julie had expected more from the man who professed to love her.
She gripped the phone tighter, too overwrought with grief to think clearly. Shawn's death hadn't fully sunk in yet.
While her heart ached for her helpless, orphaned nephew, she was still mourning the brother she'd loved. She couldn't believe Pietra, her charming sister-in-law, was gone. The loss was agonizing enough without trying to process the horror of the crash that had snatched two precious lives from existence.
"I wish I could tell you something definitive, but we're waiting for Pietra's uncle to phone back. Until he does, nothing can be settled," she whispered in an unsteady voice. "When I think of Nicky "
"The little guy won't remember any of this. Luckily he's got your mom."
She bit her bottom lip so hard she tasted blood. "As I told you yesterday after hearing the news, Nicky has me, Brent. My mother has already been a mother."
He made a strange sound in his throat. "Except that you work in San Francisco. How are you going to do that and take care of a baby, too?"
The answer seemed obvious to Julie. Yet by his posing that question, her hope that he wanted a future with her under any and all circumstances died on the spot.
"I I'm planning to move here to Sonoma." Since learning of the fatal accident from her father, the idea had been growing in her mind. She intended to phone her boss and resign before the day was out.
"And give up the great job I helped you get in order to tend a child that's not even yours?"
She shook her head. Why did it have to take a tragedy like this for her to see just how self-absorbed he was? They would never have made it. He wasn't ready for marriage, let alone interested in helping her raise Shawn's boy.
"What's the matter now?"
She guessed a lot was the matter. In retrospect it had been for a long time. But she'd let certain issues slide in the hope that things would get better.
"Why aren't you talking to me? Julie?"
He really didn't understand.
"My nephew just lost his parents. It's all I can think about right now."
"Why do you have to be the one to sacrifice everything?"
"Because I want to!"
Her emotional cry must have gotten through to him because there was a long silence.
Clearly he couldn't meet her expectations. Brent didn't have the maturity or the desire. How could she have thought he was the right man for her? Where was her judgment?
"So what are you saying?" he finally said.
She took a deep breath. "I guess I'm saying goodbye. I had some wonderful times with you, but it's over, Brent. It has to be. I think we've both known it for a while." She hung up.
Her mind on Nicky, Julie left the master bedroom and rushed into the nursery where she'd slept on the twin bed last night. He hadn't moved since she'd given him his last bottle. After he'd put up such a struggle, it was no wonder.
He didn't know her!
Four weekend visits in five months weren't enough for him to reach for her. She wasn't his mommy.
Last evening and during the night he'd fought the formula Pietra kept on hand for a supplement to her breast-feeding. Julie had rummaged in the cupboards to look for it. But he wasn't having any of it. He wanted his mother and had been inconsolable.
Today he'd finally stopped rooting long enough to take the bottle and drain it, almost as if he realized his life had changed and he was resigned to his fate.
It killed Julie inside.
She looked down at him, studying his fine blond hair and facial features. Shawn's contribution. Pietra had bequeathed him her olive complexion and dark eyes.
But his sturdy, long-limbed body didn't appear to belong to either of them. Nicky had weighed in at nine pounds three ounces, too big a baby for his small-framed mother. Julie had a feeling he was going to be a lot taller than her five-ten brother.
"Where did that mouth come from?" she whispered, tracing the outline with her finger. Just once on her last visit she'd coaxed a fleeting smile from him. It was wider than his parents'. He would break hearts one day.
He had already broken hers, but he didn't know that yet. Who could guess how long he would try to push her away while he waited for his parents to reappear?
How much did a five-month-old understand about the fact that they were gone and would never come home again? A sob escaped her throat. Probably a lot more than mere mortals could comprehend.
She had no doubt that Nicky was missing the sweet smell of his mother's skinthe way she held and loved himthe touching way she called him Niccolo.
Pietra had supplied his first nourishment upon entering the world, tendered by words rushing from her soul as she whispered her joy to him. Hers was the familiar voice he'd listened to while he'd been in her womb waiting to be born.
Fresh tears welled behind Julie's swollen eyelids.
Who would be able to comfort him when he didn't hear his father's laughter, or feel him blow on his tummy after a diaper change? Whose strong arms would never again carry him with fatherly pride, arms that had held him minutes after he was born, letting him know he was adored.
In a matter of seconds the security of that loving haven had been wiped out forever by a drunk driver. In its place chaos.
One more kiss to the baby's forehead followed by salty tears and Julie slipped out of the nursery to go downstairs. But strident voices coming from the living room caused her to pause on the landing.
"Lem has an important court case coming up and needs to get back to Honolulu soon, so a big funeral is out. We'll have a graveside service for them here. Father Meersman has agreed to officiate. It's all I can handle."
"We have to wait for Pietra's uncle to call us back, Margaret. Despite the problems, he did raise her and her brother after their parents were killed. He has equal input in any decisions."
"As far as I'm concerned, after ignoring her because she married my son, he has no rights."
"Shawn was my son, too," he reminded her in a quiet voice. "He would expect us to do the decent thing for Pietra. For our daughter-in-law's sake I'll have to insist we wait for him, Margaret."
"Don't use that patriarchal tone with me, Frank."
"I'll do whatever's necessary in order to make certain the right thing is done here. No doubt her uncle has been thrust into considerable pain from the shock. That's why the doctor's with him. In case this news has softened him, their deaths might have achieved something that couldn't be accomplished in life."
"Spoken by the paragon of virtue."
Julie winced to hear her mother's bitterness come out. Her parents had been divorced ten years. Both had eventually remarried and moved from Sonoma. Yet by the way they were reacting, it could have been yesterday.
Her mother had always been difficult. There was probably a medical name for it. Julie noticed their respective spouses had absented themselves from Shawn's house. With good reason.
"Margaretwe'll have to put our personal differences aside and consider what's best for Nicky."
"Funny how you didn't worry about Julie and Shawn when you walked out. But for that, Shawn might sti"
"Don't go there, Mom. Dad's right," Julie cried, entering the room, hating the resurrected pain that never really went away. As usual when her parents were together on the rare occasion, her mother managed to turn the conversation ugly.
Their heads swiveled in her direction. In the past twenty-four hours they'd aged. So had she.
"Nicky didn't ask for any of this. We need to concentrate on what's going to happen to him. He's all alone and sick! Except for the babysitter, he's among virtual strangers!"
Her mother's cheeks filled with angry color. "That's my point, Julie. Surely you don't think we need the input of a tyrant who terrified Pietra so much she married our son in order to get away from him"
"He's still her flesh and blood. She never made him out to be a tyrant. An autocrat maybe." Julie didn't understand all the feelings that went into their complicated relationship.
"Is there a distinction?" she lashed out. Her mother's misplaced anger was transparent.
"Lest you forget, Margaret, our son and Pietra fell in love."
"I wasn't born yesterday. Pietra made certain she got pregnant. She planned her seduction very carefully so Shawn would have no choice but to marry her and bring her to the States. Well, he did that. Now look what's happened!"
And you never forgave her for it.
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