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Was that something burning? Cheryl jumped from her chair and started searching the bedroom. Within seconds she discovered where the smell was coming from. The light glowing on Vettor's bedside table was covered in a thin layer of dust. She wiped it clean with a dry paper towel, fooling herself that everything was all right again.
Here she was, alone in a foreign countryno, it was worse than that. She was marooned in a creepy old villa with only a sick toddler for company. Leaning over the bed, she sponged his hot face with cool water. The poor little boy had to be kept calm. She didn't want to frighten him with her own worries.
Her fingers dug into the flannel as she remembered how helpless she had felt when RTN had broadcast warnings of a ferocious storm heading for Florence. The day staff had already left for their homes. The only worker living permanently at the Villa Monteolio was the caretaker. Cheryl had felt safe with him and his wife so close at hand. But then the storm had attacked, and when his wife had been struck by a tile, blown from the roof, the caretaker had rushed her to hospital.
Cheryl was now totally alone. She made another quick check of the sickroom. Expecting the power to go off at any second, she wanted to make sure she could find her way around in darkness if the worst happened. This summer storm had been screaming violently all evening. The electricity had been dipping in and out for hours. Any ancient country house was bound to suffer from power cuts, Cheryl told herself. If only this old place wasn't quite so Gothic
She looked up at the nearest carving. A stone angel perched on a ledge, holding a shield. It gazed across to the opposite wall, where a once identical partner crouched. The other angel's head had been knocked straight off its shouldersrecently, she guessed. The exposed stone was pale, and still crumbling. Now and then a scatter of loosened grit rattled down against the flagstones.
Cheryl thought of the nervous warnings the villa's staff had given her that morning. 'Don't upset Signor Rossi whatever you do,' they muttered. 'He's a demon in disguise.' Cheryl, thinking they were teasing, had laughed at the time.
She wasn't laughing now.
Another icy blast slammed against the northeastern corner of the house. All the shutters and doors creaked in a diabolical chorus. Wind streamed through them, finding every crack and crevice in the Villa Monteolio. The power dipped again. Shadows engulfed the stone angels.
Cheryl gripped the nearest solid thing. It was the arm of the chair she intended sleeping in, though the idea of getting any rest on her first night in a place like the Villa Monteolio during this hellish storm was beyond a joke. As she held on tight, the chair seemed to tremble. She gasped. Did they have earthquakes in Italy? She didn't know. They were on the ground floor of the house, and, glancing around quickly, she reassured herself everything looked built to last. Perhaps she ought to check the room above, and make sure nothing was likely to come crashing through the ceiling onto Vettor's bed.
Life had taught Cheryl to prepare for the worst and deal with it, but her little charge might wake while she was gone. What would happen if there was a power cut at the same time? She couldn't bear to think of Vettor opening his eyes in darkness. That was why she'd hunted out the old emergency lamp and set it up beside his bed without thinking to clean it first. It was why she kept this vigil. She was sure the power would go down as soon as she left the room. She dithered. If Vettor woke, surely the battery light would be enough to keep him company until she got back? If she went at all
Cheryl fretted over what to do. Breathless seconds passed as she waited to see if an earthquake really would join all her other problems. Luckily, after that first shiver, the chair didn't move again. That might mean she only had Vettor and the storm to worry about.
After an eternity, she risked sinking onto the chair's seat. It felt stable enough, but she couldn't help wondering what the next panic would be. Outside, tiles had been falling like autumn leaves all evening. When interviewing her for this new job, Signor Rossi's human resources manager had told Cheryl to expect chaos. The old place was a wreck. So she'd known the Villa Monteolio was a work in progress, but the holes in its roof had still come as a shock.
Rain must be gushing in everywhere by now. Cheryl glanced around nervously. How long before the upstairs ceilings started to bulge? She really ought to go and check on everything. Finding out what was going on would be better than sitting here worrying. On the other hand, if she went to investigate, what could she do? Water and mess might be ruining the top floors, but no workman would struggle all the way out here in this weather. Cheryl decided to stay put and keep the little boy company. Any damage to the villa would have to wait. It wasn't her problem anywayshe already had enough of her own.
Work was Cheryl's refuge from pain. Taking this job in Italy was supposed to help her forget what a mess her life had become. Her parents couldn't resist forcing her most recent disaster down her throat at every opportunity, so she'd left England to make a fresh start. The past could really hurt her, but now reality was attacking her on every side as well. It was horrible.
A tremendous squealing crash echoed in from outside, catapulting Cheryl out of her seat. The electric lightbulb dimmed and went out. It hardly mattered. Flickering flashes of blue-white light flooded the room, bursting through the window shutters. Cheryl dashed over to them and peered between their slats, squinting against the glare. The gale had torn up one of the great trees lining the Villa Monteolio's rutted drive. Its branches were bouncing on a power line, and sparks arced into the darkness, lighting up the driving rain.
She grabbed her phone. When the caretaker and his wife had been forced to leave, Cheryl had asked them for a telephone directory and programmed in every emergency number she could find, just in case. Good job I did, she thought, though it still took what seemed like for ever to get through to the electricity company. Half the area was in trouble tonight. The call operator promised to send someone out to the Villa Monteolio as soon as they could, but didn't know how long it would take.
A small voice croaked from the other side of the room.
Dropping her phone, Cheryl ran straight over to the bed.
'Vettor, it's meCheryl. You remember? Your new nanny?'
The three-year-old's eyes glittered with fever.
Cheryl peeled the compress off his forehead, freshening it in a bowl of water before she spoke again.
'I'm here, Vettor. We're at your uncle Marco's house. I've been trying to get hold of him, so he can come and see you,' she said brightly, silently thinking of all the unanswered messages she had left with his uncle's secretary.
There was no reply from her patient. Taking a fresh glass of cold water and the wet flannel back to his bedside, she wiped his face and hands, then gave him a drink.
'He'll be busy.' the little boy said sadly. 'He's always busy.'
The words came straight from his heart. They saddened Cheryl so much she couldn't look at him.
'Signor Rossi is a very hard-working man.' Cheryl stopped herself using the most obvious word, workaholic.
She sighed, thinking of the procession of personal assistants she had dealt with since answering that advert in The Lady. Half a dozen different professionals had interviewed her, but never the man himself. They were equally polished, but every one of them was doing a job, not living a life. What sort of man took on a nanny for his orphaned nephew without checking her out for himself? A man who could ignore all Cheryl's most urgent calls today, that was who. Someone whose staff had told her they were afraid of him.
She tugged at Vettor's bedsheet again, smoothing it over his restless little body. 'At midnight, the radio said all the roads for miles around were closed. It's because of this bad weather. Your uncle must be held up somewhere.'
Luckily, her little charge drifted back into feverish sleep. She did not have to dodge any more difficult questions. All I must do is survive until someone gets here, she told herself, jumping like a kitten as a door banged somewhere, far off.
It would be light in a few hours' time. Things would feel better in daylight. Wouldn't they?
As Cheryl tried to reassure herself, another great gust exploded against the house. Every window in the building shook. Her hand flew to her mouth, stifling a scream. Whatever happened, she mustn't scare little Vettor.
Biting the side of her thumb in terror, she braced herself for another blast. But when her next shock came, the gale wasn't responsible. A very human sound burst through the storm's racket, flinging Cheryl from her chair again. Someone was hammering at the front door.
She exhaled, feeling as though she'd been holding her breath for hours. It must be the electricians. What a relief! She was desperate to get the power back on again, for Vettor's sake. She checked her little charge and then grabbed a torch. Groping her way through the gloomy old building, she was glad to reach the great entrance hall without getting lost.
The arcing power lines bounced huge shadows crazily around the vast space. At any other time Cheryl would have been alarmed, but she was beyond that tonight. She didn't give herself time to think. Sprinting across to the imposing studded oak door, she pulled it open, sobbing with relief.
'Oh, thank God you're here!' she screamed at the large silhouette.
Then thunder crashed, right overhead. Cheryl jumped like a frog, dropped the torchand fell straight into the stranger's arms.
He caught her, and held her close. Wind screamed around them in a fury of torn twigs and leaves, but Cheryl didn't care. Instinctively, she knew she was safe. The new arrival was sheltering her with his body, shielding her from harm. As his cheek pressed hard against the side of her head, he murmured quiet reassurance.
'Shh lei è sicuro con me' he whispered into her hair.
His voice was so reassuring all Cheryl's old fears were soothed away, along with her current terror.
But gradually fingers of reality fastened onto her again. What was she thinking? She stiffened, and tried to draw back from him.
'I'm sorry. My Italian is very basic '
'Then I shall speak English. Is that better?'
Cheryl relaxed instantly. A voice speaking her own language was exactly what she wanted to hear so far from home.
'It's more than better, it's wonderful!' she said with real feeling. She'd been in Italy for less than a day, but her head was already throbbing. Trying to memorise new words while leafing through a phrasebook was hard enough at the best of times, but Cheryl had also been busy meeting new workmatesfamiliarising herself with a different workplace and dealing with a case of scarlet fever at the same time.
'Oh I'm so sorry for that outburst, signor you must think I'm a complete idiot. The boss here wanted to employ an English person, and as everyone else is apparently scared to death of him '
The dark outline of the stranger's head dipped, and she heard a soft sound that might have been laughter.
'Don't worry. There's no need to apologise. This is the worst storm I've ever seen.' His voice bubbled with amusement. 'Isn't there a caretaker on duty?'
'He's had to go to hospital' Cheryl began, but the wind swirled around them again. She shivered instinctively, sensing a hint of autumn in the air.
Instead of letting her go, the stranger tightened his grip. His bulky shape was an irresistible force, hustling her backwards into the building. She was more than willing to let him direct her into the darkened hall. As long as she didn't have to go on facing this storm on her own in this echoing old barn of a house she could stifle her usual feelings of panic in the presence of such overpowering masculinity.
There was a crash as the front door slammed shut. Her rescuer was still holding her securely against his powerful body, so Cheryl barely flinched. With the sounds of wind and torrents of water muffled, rational thought became easier for her. She supposed he must have kicked the door shut. She couldn't be certain, because she couldn't see past him. His vice-like hands were holding her so tightly she could barely move of her own accord. He was drenched, and dripping with rain, but Cheryl hung on. It was madness, but she couldn't let go. She was in the grip of a man and she didn't care. This must be a once in a lifetime storm.
Her legs gave way with the relief of it all, but the stranger held her up. Changing his hold to encircle her with only one of his strong arms, he supported her weight. Hugging her to his body, he comforted her with a voice that was lyrical, with a low, slow accent.
'There, there it's all right now '
Turning her in towards his body, he started patting her back softly.
Cheryl trembled with fear, but it wasn't only the storm terrifying her. Memories from the past, of Nick, came flooding back. Her mind did its best. It tried to keep her safe, telling her to make a stand and push this stranger off. But she was frozen to the spot.
Suddenly, thunder broke overhead again. Cheryl screamed, and the man's hand went straight to the back of her head. He pulled her face in tight against his chest, murmuring soft words still deeper into her ear. Now he was running one hand up and down the length of her back, his fingertips warm and persuasive through the thin cotton of her shirt. He smelled of damp linen and woodland, spiced with a tang she couldn't identify. It was a wild fragrance, heavy with musk. She felt her body tense in response, ready for flight. Her heart and head were swimming, both in the same direction.
'Shh it's all right. I'm here now.'
Words rolled from him like velvet, but instinct still told Cheryl to pull away. She started fluttering like a butterfly in a spider's web.
'NoI can't! Let me go Now you're here I must get back to my little boy' She stopped. Instantly the silent strength of this man told her that from now on he would be giving the instructions.