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'You're going to Italy?'
Lyssa Belperio grinned as she nodded at her friend Chloe. 'So, do you mind keeping an eye on the apartment as usual?'
'Of course not. But I'm so jealous. Come inside and tell me about it. I'll make a coffee.'
'No.' Lyssa waved her palms at Chloe as she stepped into the neighbouring apartment. 'No coffee for me, remember?'
'Oh, that's right. I nearly forgot you were pregnant because you don't show. I have herbal tea. Peppermint, rosehip or chamomile?'
'Peppermint, please. You know the new travel magazine I told you about? The ultra-glossy one that I wrote that small piece for?'
'About shopping in Hong Kong. Yes, I remember.'
'Well, the editor emailed, offering me a commission. She wants a feature article written with the same wit and humour as the last one.' She made air quotes around the key words. She'd written the article in her natural voice and couldn't imagine writing any other way.
'That sounds good. She must have liked your work.'
Lyssa gave a modest shrug. 'I guess so. Anyway, this feature is about touring the Amalfi Coast.'
Chloe squealed. 'You lucky duck. All expenses paid?'
'Uh-huh. It's being sponsored by a tour company. They're going to provide a private driver and tour guide, and everything.'
'Blimey. Do you need someone to take photos for you? I have a camera phone.'
Laughing, Lyssa shook her head. 'Matilda said they'll buy them directly from a local photographer. No amateur shots needed.'
'Can you squeeze me into your suitcase, then? I'll be good, I promise.'
'I wish I could, but I travel lightly, remember?'
'Cheeky. I'm not that heavy. Anyway, you'll soon be much heavier than me.' Chloe dropped the teabags into the bin, then adopted a more serious tone. 'Are you sure it's all right to travel in your condition? What if something happens while you're away?'
'Nothing's going to happen,' Lyssa said firmly. 'I've been all over Asia; I'm sure I can handle Italy. And anyway, I'm only a little bit pregnant.'
'As opposed to completely pregnant?' Chloe held out the mug of herbal tea.
Pulling a face at Chloe, she took the mug and settled on one of the comfortable sofas. 'There's no problem with travelling at this early stage and, as I don't show yet, I figure there's no need for anyone to know.'
'Are you going to tell your parents before you go?'
'Oh, Chlo, they'll be so upset.' She took a moment to swallow the lump that had jumped to her throat at the mere mention of breaking the news to her parents, then sipped her tea before going on. 'You know what they're like.'
'They're incredibly old-fashioned.'
'Even so,' Chloe said gently, 'they'll have to know.'
Lyssa took another sip. 'I know, but I'd sooner wait till I get back. If I leave straight after telling them, there's no knowing what Dominic and Tony might do.'
'Excuse me? What do your brothers have to do with it?'
'I wouldn't put it past them to hunt down Steve and force him to agree to marry me.'
Chloe snorted. 'I'd like to see that. I wonder what they'd do? Would they actually hit him?'
Lyssa flapped her free hand. 'Chlo, don't be ridiculous. You don't like violence and you can't stand the sight of blood.'
'No, but I'd make an exception in Steve's case. After what he did to you, he deserves it.'
Shrugging, Lyssa acknowledged the little voice that said Chloe was right. 'Maybe. But I don't want anything to do with him again and I certainly don't want Dom and Tony involved.'
'So you wouldn't consider taking him back even if he came crawling with an apology and a proposal?'
'I think you know me better than that, Chlo.'
'I know that you've always dreamed of having the perfect family husband, babies '
'Yes, but 'After swallowing hard, Lyssa said, 'I wouldn't have chosen to be a single parent. I want my baby to have a fatherone that is there to see him or her grow upand I'm terrified of doing this on my own, but I have to. An absent father is better than a bad father.'
'Um, I hate to play devil's advocate here, but you don't know that Steve would be a bad father.'
'He hates children.' Lyssa's hand went to her stomach as if she could protect her baby from the truth. 'I can't believe I misjudged him so badly. I thought he only hated other people's children. I thought he'd want one of his own, but no, I was wrong.'
'Oh, well, you're better off without him, then.'
'It's just that '
'Well, it's going to be hard. I just want to be sure that you've thought this through, that you won't have any regrets later.'
'I won't. I'd rather be alone with my baby than married to a man who doesn't love us both completely and clearly doesn't want to be with us.'
Chloe looked as if she wanted to say more, but she pressed her lips together. She was a great friend and Lyssa felt a sudden rush of emotion. Chloe would support her no matter what. Even if she thought she'd made the wrong decision, she'd be there for her and she really appreciated that.
But she'd made the right decision where Steve was concerned.
'Anyway,' Chloe said after a resigned sigh, 'you might meet someone in Italy. You always used to talk about your Italian fantasy man.'
'Uh-uh. No way.' Lyssa shook her head. 'That was before.'
It was true that she'd dreamed for years of visiting Italy. She'd had this crazy notion about finding her soulmate there. But she'd grown up since then. She'd learned that true love itself was the fantasy.
'Not this trip. That's the very last thing I intend to do.
I'm going to be a mother and that's the only relationship I'm interested in from now on.'
'But you might' Chloe saw her expression and mimed zipping her lips.
Lyssa was serious. Nothing would stop her taking this commission. It was her dream job. But meeting a man over there was the furthest thing from her mind. Besides, no one would want her now she was pregnant. She shook her head at Chloe.
'I'm going there to work and at the same time, hopefully, get in touch with my Italian roots. Nothing more.'
Ricardo Rossetti stared at his uncle Alberto. 'But I'm no tour guide'
'No, no, I know, but you know so much about the history of this region. More than Gino or myself. You would do a very good job and believe me, I would not ask if I were not desperate. Gino's accident is the worst thing that could have happened. I would take over myself but my doctor says I must not drive. I am sorry for Gino, of course, but this accident of his is very inconvenient.'
Ric leaned his elbows on the dinner table. His uncle's table, still covered in the remains of a very good meal, thanks to his aunt's superb cooking. He owed these people. They had always taken him in at a moment's noticeever since his twelfth birthday and the death of his parents. He was still taking advantage of their generosity now in his adulthood. Whenever he needed to get away, to recharge, he came back to their home.
Wasn't it time he gave something back?
They both worked too hard. He didn't understand why they felt they had to expand their business now, when they should be winding down, and when his uncle's health had had a few setbacks. He wished Alberto would retire, or at least let him prop up the business financiallyhe could easily afford it and he'd happily do it.
But they'd never take his money.
His help, on the other hand, they could ask for without any loss of pride. And this wasn't much to ask really. All he had to do was drive some foreign woman around.
'The good thing, Ricardo,' his uncle said, 'is that this woman is from Australia. She will not have heard of you. That is good, no?'
Ric nodded. 'I'll do it, but I hope she's worth it.'
His uncle's face creased into a worried frown. 'No, no, Ricardo. You must treat her with respect, not like the women you associate with in Milano.'
'Don't worry. I'll be on my best behaviour.' He laughed, though it was a little disconcerting that his uncle seemed to know the type of woman he normally dated.
It made no difference what type of woman this travel writer might be. He wasn't interested in women of any type at the moment; he had more important things to think about. 'I meant, I hope her article is worth the effort. I hope it's good for business.'
'Yes, of course. I understand. You will be all right to drive? Your knee is better?'
Ric waved a dismissive hand. 'It's OK, Uncle. I won't be here too much longer.'
'You know your aunt and I are always happy to have you here.'
'I know, thank you.' Still, he wanted to get back to Milano. He wanted to get on with his life. This time out had been one forced on him by injury. He certainly wouldn't have chosen to take time off at this stage of his football career. But the club doctor and his management had advised him to have a complete break during his rehabilitation; to think about his future. Ominous words for any player, but for him they were horrifying.
Rome. It had a smell all of its own, Lyssa decided as she hugged herself in excitement. Traffic, food, coffee and a touch of something else roasted chestnuts? The guide books hadn't mentioned it, but she would. She pulled out the small notebook she always carried with her and made a note to include the peculiar smell in her article.
Standing outside the hotel which, she'd read, was only a few hundred metres from the Colosseumthe Colosseum, for heaven's sakeshe could hardly believe she was really here. In Rome.
How long had she dreamed of this moment?
Only all of her life. For as long as she could remember she'd listened to her father speak fondly of bella Roma, where he'd lived, worked, married and from where her parents had departed for a new life in Australia.
She'd love to drop her luggage in the hotel room and go for a walk. It was only a matter of minutes to the Circus Maximus and all sorts of sights but she was tired.
So tired. After a twenty-two-hour flightand that didn't include time spent waiting around in airports she was exhausted.
Of course, pregnancy didn't help. She'd been weary before she'd even set foot on the plane. Add in the stress of everything that had happened before then, and it was no surprise she felt as limp as a week-old lettuce.
Turning, Lyssa manoeuvred her suitcase on its little wheels through the hotel entrance and across the marble floor. It was only mid-afternoon; she had time to catch a couple of hours' sleep and still see something of the city before bedtime. Plus, her driver wasn't due till mid-morning the next day, which meant she'd be able to do more sightseeing after an early breakfast and before she started the job itself.
For a couple of weeks she'd pretend that her real life didn't exist. It would be waiting for her when she returned and she'd have the difficult job of telling her parents about her pregnancy, but for a little while she'd forget about that.
After checking in Lyssa made her way to her room, showered, then flung herself into bed. Although she'd been born in Australia, she'd obviously absorbed so much of her father's love for this place that coming here felt like coming home. She closed her eyes and drifted towards sleep on the strangely comforting blanket of soundVespas, sirens and car hornscoming from the streets below.
A moment later, Lyssa woke to the ring of the telephone.
She tried to make sense of the rapid-fire Italian pouring from the phone then, puzzled, peered at the time in the digital display.
Finally, the facts fell into place. Far from having only just fallen asleep, she'd slept right through the night and well into the next day! And rather than running late as she'd expected, her driver was waiting for her outside the hotel.
She'd barely put the phone back on its hook before she'd leapt out of bed and was on her way to the bathroom. With no time to wash her hair, she scraped it back from her face. She'd normally use a hair straightener to counter the natural wave that always reappeared overnight and made her hair unruly at best. Straight hair made her look more sophisticated, even older, but today a pony-tail would have to do.
Back in the bedroom she pulled jeans and a T-shirt from her case. She'd intended to start off the tour in a smart suit and only revert to her standard travelling gear once they were well away from the city. But that idea went the way of the smart hairdo. Speed won out over style.
Ric let out an impatient sigh, checked his watch again and leaned back against his Lamborghini Gallardo. His uncle had wanted him to use the minibus but he'd been adamant. It was bad enough having to act as a tour guide without looking the part too.
Not that there was anything wrong with the minibus his uncle usedfor a family man. But he was not a family man and he had no intention of becoming one. Giving up his car was beyond the limit of what he was prepared to do for this woman.
The hotel door opened and he lifted his head to see a young girl hesitate, look to her left, then right, and go back inside. A pretty girl, she reminded him of his sisters and he wondered how they were getting on at boarding-school. He should contact them; it had been a while.
He was still watching the entrance when the girl reappeared, this time with the concierge he'd spoken to earlier. After scanning the parked cars, the concierge pointed in Ric's direction.
Frowning, he saw the girl nod then head towards him, wheeling a large suitcase behind her.
'Buon giorno,' she said when she stopped in front of him. 'Mi chiamo Lyssa Belperio.'
Ric stared at her.
This was the important visitor his uncle wanted to impress? This was the woman who was going to kick-start their push to attract Australian tourists?
Couldn't be. She was too young. He glanced over her shoulder, half expecting her mother to join them. But no, she seemed to be alone.
'Lyssa Belperio,' he repeated. 'The travel writer from Australia?' he asked in English.
'Yes, that's me.' Her broad smile made her look even younger.
'Ric Rossetti.' He held out his hand and watched her face for any sign of recognition. As expected, there was none. Instead her eyes flickered to the car behind him.
'Um the paperwork I was given said the tour would be in a minibus.'
'Normally, yes, but I'm afraid it's unavailable.' When she gave the car a doubtful look, he said, 'I hope that's not a problem?'
She shrugged. 'I guess not. But will there be room for my suitcase?' she asked, peering at the short rear end of the Lamborghini.