When Paolo Rainero's niece and nephew are orphaned, he arranges to marry Caroline Leighton, the twins' American aunt, to protect them. But first he must show Callie that he's changed since their affair nine years ago.
As their convenient marriage becomes real, and old desires are rekindled, Paolo can't help feeling that Caroline's hiding something. A secret involving him....
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CALLIE had been eighteen the last time that deep, dark Mediterranean voice had seduced her into forgetting everything her mother had taught her about "saving" herself for the "right" man. The kind who'd greet her at the altar with a full appreciation for what her pristine white gown and flowing veil signified. The kind who'd cherish the prized gift of her virginity on their wedding night.
Nine years and a lifetime ago.
Yet although the phone awoke her from a deep sleep at the ungodly hour of four in the morning, she recognized at once who was calling. And so did her heart. It contracted as painfully as if a huge fist had closed around it and was squeezing the very life from her body.
"It is Paolo Rainero, Caroline," he said. And then, as if she needed further clarification, "Ermanno's brother. Your sister's brother-in-law."
And my first love. My first lover. The only one.
Callie cleared her throat. Swallowed. "Buon giorno," she said, groping for the bedside lamp, and wished her Italian rolled off her tongue with the same fluid, exotic ease that he brought to English. "What a surprise to hear from you after all this time, Paolo. How are you?"
He let a beat of time pass before answering, and in that short but endless silence, any fledgling hope she'd entertained that he was in the U.S., and wanted to renew acquaintance with her for the pure pleasure of her company, shriveled and died. Fear slithered up her spine, leaving her skin unpleasantly clammy, and she knew with sudden, chilling certainty that he had nothing good to tell her.
As if to ward off the blow he was about to deliver, she asked with desperate good cheer, "Where are you calling from?"
"Rome. Caroline — "
"Are you sure? You sound as close as if you're just next door. I'd never have guessed you're half a world away. It's amazing what — "
He recognized her mindless babble for the delaying tactic it was. "Caroline," he said again, cutting her off more forcefully this time, "I'm afraid I have bad news."
The children! Something had happened to the children! Her mouth ran dry. Freed from the vicious hold, her heart hurled itself into a punishing, uneven beat somewhere in the vicinity of her stomach. "How bad?" she asked shakily.
"Very bad, cara. There has been a yachting accident. An explosion at sea." He paused again. Another horribly telling hesitation. "Ermanno and Vanessa were aboard at the time."
"With the children?" She forced the question past parched lips.
"No. With four guests and a crew of six. They left the children with my parents."
A thread of relief wound its way through her mounting dread. "And? Don't leave me hanging like this, Paolo. How badly is my sister hurt?"
"I'm saddened to have to tell you, there were no survivors." The softly lit room swam before her eyes. "None at all?"
Her beautiful, generous, loving sister dead? Her body blown to pieces, mutilated beyond recognition?
Callie scrunched her eyes shut against the horrifying images filling her mind. Clutching the phone in a white-knuckled grip, she whispered, "How can you be so sure?"
"The explosion was visible for miles. Other yachts in the area raced to the scene to lend assistance. Search and rescue vessels went into immediate operation. Their efforts met with no success. It was clear no one could have survived such a blast."
"But what if they were thrown into the sea and made it to shore? What if you stopped searching too soon? Vanessa's a strong swimmer. She might — "
"No, Caroline," he said. "It is not possible. The devastation was too great, the evidence, too graphic to be mistaken for anything other than what it was."
He had never before spoken to her with such kindness; with such compassion. That he did so now nearly killed her.
A huge balloon of grief rose in her throat, almost choking her. A sound filled her ears; echoed repeatedly in the dimly lit bedroom. A sound so primitive, she could barely conceive that it poured from her.
Paolo's voice pierced the black, terrible mists enveloping her. "Is there anyone with you, Caroline?"
What sort of question was that? And by what right did he, of all people, dare to ask it? "It's not yet dawn, and I'm in bed," she said rawly. "Alone."
His voice caressed her. "You should not be, not at a time like this."
Not in bed? she wondered. Or not alone? "You are in shock, as are we all," he continued, clarifying his remark. "Is there no one you can call on, to help you get through the next few hours until the necessary travel arrangements are in place?"
"To Rome. For the funerals. They will take place later in the week. Naturally you will attend."
Naturally! Nonetheless, she bristled at his tone, so clearly that of a man not accustomed to being thwarted. Some things never changed.
"I'll be there," she said. "How are the children coping?"
"Not well. They're old enough to understand what death means. They know they'll never again see their parents. Gina cries often, and although he tries to be brave, I know that Clemente sheds many a private tear, too."
Pushing aside her own grief to make room for theirs, Callie said, "Please give them my love and tell them their their aunt Callie will see them soon."
"Of course — for what it's worth."
Anger knifed through her, intense as forked lightning. "Are you questioning my sincerity, Paolo?"
"Not in the least," he replied smoothly. "I'm simply stating a fact. Of course the twins are aware they have an aunt who lives in America, but they don't know you. You're a name, a photograph, someone who never forgets to send them lovely gifts at Christmas and on their birthdays, or postcards from the interesting foreign places you visit. But you found the time to come to see them only once, when they were infants and much too young to remember you. For the rest, you depended on their parents to bring them to America to visit you — and how often did that occur? Two, three times, in the last eight years?"
His sigh drifted gently, regretfully, over the phone. "The unfortunate truth is, Caroline, you and the children are almost strangers to one other. A sad case of 'out of sight, out of mind," I'm afraid."
He might see it that way, but Callie knew differently. Not a day went by that she didn't think of those two adorable children. She spent hours poring over fat albums of photographs depicting every stage in their lives, from when they were just a few hours old, to the present day. Her staircase wall was filled with framed pictures of them. Their most recent portraits occupied pride of place by her bed, on the mantelpiece in her living room, on her desk at the office. She could have picked them out unerringly in a crowd of hundreds of children with the same dark hair and brown eyes, so well did she know every feature, every expression, every tiny detail that made them unique.
Strangers, Paolo? In your dreams! "Nonetheless, I am their aunt, and they can count on me to be there for them now," she told him. "I'll leave here tomorrow and barring any unforeseen delays, should be with them the day after that."
"Then I'll send you the details of your flight later today."
"Please don't trouble yourself, Paolo," she said coolly. "I can well afford to make my own reservations, and will take care of them myself."
"No, Caroline, you will not," he said flatly. "This has nothing to do with money, it has to do with family looking after family — and regardless of how you might perceive it, we are inextricably connected through the marriage of your sister to my brother, are we not?"
Oh, yes, Paolo, she thought, smothering the burst of hysterical laughter rising in her throat at the irony of his question. That, and a whole lot more than you can begin to imagine!
Mistaking her silence for disagreement, he said, "This is no time to quibble over the fine print of our association, Caroline. No matter which way you look at it, we have a niece and nephew in common, and must rally together for their good."
How nauseatingly self-righteous he sounded! How morally upright! If she hadn't known better, Callie might have been fooled into believing he really was as honorable and responsible as he made himself out to be.
"I couldn't agree more, Paolo," she said, with deceptive meekness. "I wouldn't dream of turning my back on the twins when they need all the emotional support they can get. I'll be in Rome no later than Tuesday."
"And you will allow me to make your flight arrangements?" Why not? Pride had no place in the tragic loss of her sister, and Callie was having trouble enough holding herself together. She couldn't afford to squander her strength when she had much bigger battles to wage than besting Paolo Rainero on the trifling matter of who sprang for the price of her ticket. She could pay him back later, when everything else was settled. "If you insist."
"Eccellente! Thank you for seeing things my way."
You won't thank me for long, Paolo, she thought. Not once you discover that when I come home again, I'm bringing those children with me!
Outside the converted eighteenth-century palazzo whose entire top floor housed his parents' apartment, the traffic and crowds, both so much a part of everyday Rome, went about their noisy business as usual. Immediately beyond the leather-paneled walls of his father's library, however, a mournful hush reigned. Dropping the receiver back in its cradle, Paolo left the room and made his way down the long hall to the day salon where his parents waited.
His mother had aged ten years in the last two days. Weeping and sleeplessness left her beautiful eyes ringed with shadows. Her mouth trembled uncontrollably. Silver, which surely hadn't been there a week ago, glinted in her thick black hair. She clutched his father's hand almost convulsively, as if only by doing so could she anchor herself to sanity.
"Well? How did she take the news? Is she coming for the funerals?" Cultured, wealthy in his own right, influential, and deeply respected in the international world of high finance, Salvatore Rainero did not surrender easily to defeat. But Paolo heard it in the subdued tone with which his father uttered the questions; recognized it in the slump of those broad, patrician shoulders.
"She'll be here." Paolo shrugged wearily, his own sense of loss lying heavy in the pit of his stomach. "As for how she took the news, she was shocked, bereft, as are we all."
His mother dabbed at her eyes with a fine linen handkerchief. "Did she mention the children?"
"Yes, but nothing that you need to worry about. She sent them her love."
"Does she have any idea that — ?"
"None. Nor did it occur to her to ask. But she was unprepared for my call and most probably not thinking clearly. It's possible she might wonder, over the next two days. And even if she does not, once they're read, we won't be able to hide the terms of the wills from her."
His mother let out an anguished moan. "And who's to say how she will react?"
"She may react any way she pleases, Lidia," Paolo's father said grimly, "but she will not create havoc with our grandchildren, because I will not allow her to do so. In declining to take an active role in their lives for the past eight years, she forfeits the right to have any say in their future." His fierce gaze swung to Paolo. "Did you have to work hard to persuade her to let us bring her over here at our expense?"
"Good!" A spark of triumph lightened the grief in the old man's eyes. "Then she can be bought."
"Oh, Salvatore, that's cruel!" his wife objected. "Caroline is mourning her sister's death too deeply to care about monetary matters."
"I have to agree," Paolo felt obliged to add. "I suspect the poor thing was so numbed by my news that I could have persuaded her the moon was made of cheese, if I'd put my mind to it. Once she gets past the initial shock of this tragedy, she might well change her mind about accepting our offer. We met only briefly and nine years ago at that, but I remember her as being a singularly proud and independent young woman."
"You're wrong, both of you." His father heaved himself up from the sofa to pace the length of the room. "She was anything but proud in the way she threw herself at you after the wedding, Paolo. If you'd given her the slightest encouragement, you'd soon have followed in your brother's footsteps, and found yourself at the altar, too."
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I liked this book, but I was confused by the direction it took. The heroine was not treated well by the hero or his family. She had made so many sacrifices....
Enjoyable book. Beautiful story.
An excellent book by a very good writer! This is an enjoyable love story without most of the usual bickering, revenge, disrespect, or misunderstanding so common in many of the books written today. It was a pleasant change to have mature adults honestly trying to deal with their problems in a thoughtful, caring way. This is a book worth keeping for future reading enjoyment and well worth the money.
Another great book from Catherine Spencer, The Italian's Convenient Wife is an emotionally involving story that never falls into romance novel cliches. The main characters, as well as the supporting cast of secondary characters, are fully realised people with whom the reader can identify. Callie and Paolo meet again after a family tragedy has orphaned their niece and nephew. Paolo quickly realises that Callie is no longer the naive young girl he met nine years before, but he is also no longer the careless playboy who broke her heart. The story has dimensions not always seen in short romances. There is no pointless bickering masquerading as conflict. Paolo and Callie are two mature adults who work through their grief for their dead brother and sister, and try to establish a stable home for the two children, as well as caring for Paolo's aging parents. The ending is logical, satisfying, and heartwarming. A great summer read.