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The glass doors of the Clinica San Francesco whispered open, and every head turned to observe the man who came striding out of the darkness into the reception area.
If Lorenzo Santangeli was aware of their scrutiny, or if he sensed that there were far more people hanging around than could be deemed strictly necessary at that time of night, and most of them female, he gave no sign.
His lean, six-foot-tall body was clad in the elegance of evening clothes, and his ruffled shirt was open at the throat, his black tie thrust negligently into the pocket of his dinner jacket.
One of the loitering nurses, staring at his dishevelled dark hair, murmured to her colleague with unknowing accuracy that he looked as if he'd just rolled out of bed, and the other girl sighed wistfully in agreement.
He was not classically handsome, but his thin face, with its high cheekbones, heavy-lidded golden-brown eyes and that mobile, faintly sensual mouth, which looked as if it could curl in a sneer and smile in heart-stopping allure with equal ease, had a dynamism that went beyond mere attractiveness. And every woman looking at him felt it like a tug to the senses.
The fact that he was frowning, and his lips were set in a grim line, did nothing to reduce the force of his blatantly masculine appeal.
He looked, it was felt, just as a loving son should when called unexpectedly to the bedside of a sick father.
Then, as the clinic's director, Signor Martelli, emerged from his office to greet him, the crowd, hurriedly realising it should be elsewhere, began to fade swiftly and unobtrusively away.
Renzo wasted no time on niceties. He said, his voice sharp with anxiety, 'My fatherhow is he?'
'Resting comfortably,' the older man responded. 'Fortunately an ambulance was summoned immediately when it happened, so there was no delay in providing the appropriate treatment.' He smiled reassuringly. 'It was not a serious attack, and we expect the Marchese to make a complete recovery.'
Renzo expelled a sigh of relief. 'May I see him?'
'Of course. I will take you to him.' Signor Martelli pressed a button to summon a lift to the upper floors. He gave his companion a sidelong glance. 'It is, of course, important that your father avoids stress, and I am told that he has been fretting a little while awaiting your arrival. I am glad that you are here now to set his mind at rest.'
'It is a relief to me also, signore.' The tone was courteous, but it had a distancing effect. So far, it seemed to warn, and no further.
The clinic director had heard that Signor Lorenzo could be formidable, and this was all the confirmation he needed, he thought, relapsing into discreet silence.
Renzo had been expecting to find his father's private room peopled by consultants and quietly shod attendants, with Guillermo Santangeli under sedation and hooked up to monitors and drips.
But instead his father was alone, propped up by pillows, wearing his own striking maroon silk pyjamas and placidly turning over the pages of a magazine on international finance. Taking the place of machinery was a large and fragrant floral arrangement on a side table.
As Renzo checked, astonished, in the doorway, Guillermo peered at him over his glasses. 'Ah,' he said. 'Finalmente.' He paused. 'You were not easy to trace, my son.'
Fretting, Renzo thought, might be an exaggeration, but the slight edge to his words was unmistakable. He came forward slowly, his smile combining ruefulness and charm in equal measure. 'Nevertheless, Papa, I am here now. And so, thankfully, are you. I was told you had collapsed with a heart attack.'
'It was what they call "an incident".' Guillermo shrugged. 'Alarming at the time, but soon dealt with. I am to rest here for a couple of days, and then I will be allowed to return home.' He sighed. 'But I have to take medication, and cigars and brandy have been forbiddenfor a while at least.'
'Well, the cigars, at any rate, must be counted as a blessing,' Renzo said teasingly as he tookhis father's hand and kissed it lightly.
His father pulled a face. 'That is also Ottavia's opinion. She has just left. I have her to thank for the pyjamas and the flowers, also for summoning help so promptly. We had just finished dinner when I became ill.'
Renzo's brows lifted. 'Then I am grateful to her.' He pulled up a chair and paused. 'I hope Signora Alesconi did not go on my account.'
'She is a woman of supreme tact,' said his father. 'And she knew we would wish to talk privately. There is no other reason. I have assured her that you no longer regard our relationship as a betrayal of your mother's memory.'
Renzo's smiled twisted a little. 'Grazie. You were right to say so.' He hesitated. 'So may I now expect to have a new stepmother? If you wished toformalise the situation II would welcome '
Guillermo lifted a hand. 'There is no question of that. We have fully discussed the matter, but decided that we both value our independence too highly and remain content as we are.' He removed his glasses and put them carefully on the locker beside his bed. 'And while we are on the subject of marriage, where is your wife?'
Well, I walked headlong into that, thought Renzo, cursing under his breath. Aloud, he said, 'She is in England, Papaas I think you know.'
'Ah, yes.' His father gave a meditative nod. 'Where she went shortly after your honeymoon, I believe, and has remained ever since.'
Renzo's mouth tightened. 'I felta period of adjustment might be helpful.'
'A curious decision, perhaps,' said Guillermo. 'Considering the pressing reasons for your marriage. You are the last of the line, my dear Lorenzo, and as you approached the age of thirty, without the least sign of abandoning your bachelor life and settling down, it became imperative to remind you that you had a duty to produce a legitimate heir to carry on the Santangeli nameboth privately and professionally.'
He paused. 'You seemed to accept that. And with no other candidate in mind, you also consented to marry the girl your late mother always intended for youher beloved goddaughter Marisa Brendon. I wish to be sure that advancing age has not damaged my remembrance, and that I have the details of this agreement correct, you understand?' he added blandly.
'Yes.' Renzo set his teeth. Advancing age? he thought wryly. How long did crocodiles survive? 'You are, of course, quite right.'
'Yet eight months have passed, and still you have no good news to tell me. This would have been a disappointment in any circumstances, but in view of the evening's events my need to hear that the next generation is established becomes even more pressing. From now on I must take more care, they tell me. Moderate my lifestyle. In other words, I have been made aware of my own mortality. And I confess that I would dearly like to hold my first grandchild in my arms before I die.'
Renzo moved restively, 'Papayou will live for many years yet. We both know that.'
'I can hope,' said Guillermo briskly. 'But that is not the point.' He leaned back against his pillows, adding quietly, 'Your bride can hardly give you an heir, figlio mio, if you do not share a roof with her, let alone a bed. Or do you visit her in London, perhaps, in order to fulfil your marital obligations?'
Renzo rose from his chair and walked over to the window, lifting the slats of the blind to look out into the darkness. An image of a girl's white face rose in his mind, her eyes blank and tearless, and a feeling that was almost shame twisted like a knife in his guts.
'No,' he said at last. 'I do not.'
'Then why not?' his father demanded. 'What can be the problem? Yes, the marriage was arranged for you, but so was my own, and your mother and I soon came to love each other deeply. And here you have been given a girl, young, charming, and indisputably innocent. Someone, moreover, you have known for much of your life. If she was not to your taste you should have said so.'
Renzo turned and gave him an ironic look. 'It does not occur to you, Papa, that maybe the shoe is on the other foot and Marisa does not want me?'
'Che sciocchezze!' Guillermo said roundly. 'What nonsense. When she stayed with us as a child it was clear to everyone that she adored you.'
'Unfortunately, now she is older, her feelings are very different,' Renzo said dryly. 'Particularly where the realities of marriage are concerned.'
Guillermo pursed his lips in exasperation. 'What can you be saying? That a man of your experience with women cannot seduce his own wife? You should have made duty a pleasure, my son, and used your honeymoon to make her fall in love with you all over again.' He paused. 'After all, she was not forced to marry you.'
Renzo gave his father a level look. 'I think we both know that is not true. Once she'd discovered from that witch of a cousin how deeply she was indebted to our family she had little choice in the matter.'
Guillermo frowned heavily. 'You did not tell herexplain that it was the dying wish of your mother, her madrina, that financial provision should continue to be made for her?'
'I tried, but it was useless. She knew that Mama wanted us to marry. For her, it all seemed part of the same ugly transaction.' He paused. 'And the cousin also made her aware that when I proposed to her I had a mistress. After such revelations, the honeymoon was hardly destined to go well.'
'The woman has much to answer for, it seems,' Guillermo said icily. 'But you, my son, were a fool not to have settled matters with the beautiful Lucia long before you approached your marriage.'
'If stupidity were all, I could live with it,' Renzo said with quiet bitterness. 'But I was also unkind. And I cannot forgive myself for that.'
'I see,' his father said slowly. 'Well, that is bad, but it is more important to ask yourself if your wife can be persuaded to forgive you.'
'Who knows?' Renzo's gesture was almost helpless. 'I thought a breathing spacetime apart to consider what we had undertakenwould help. And at the beginning I wrote to her regularlytelephoned and left messages. But there was never any reply. And as the weeks passed the hope of any resolution became more distant.' He paused, before adding expressionlessly, 'I told myself, you understand, that I would not beg.'
Guillermo put his fingertips together and studied them intently. 'A divorce, naturally, could not be countenanced,' he said at last.
'But from what you are telling me it seems there might be grounds for annulment?'
'No,' Renzo said harshly, his mouth set. 'Do not be misled. The marriageexists. And Marisa is my wife. Nothing can change that.'
'So you say,' his father commented grimly. 'But you could be wrong. Your grandmother honoured me with a visit yesterday to inform me that your current liaison with Doria Venucci is now talked of openly.'
'Nonna Teresa.' Renzo bit out the name. 'What a gratifying interest she takes in all the details of my life, especially those she considers less than savoury. And how could a woman with such a mind produce such a gentle, loving daughter as my mother?'
'It has always mystified me too,' Guillermo admitted. 'But for once her gossip-mongering may be justified. Because she believes it can only be a matter of time before someone tells Antonio Venucci exactly how his wife has been amusing herself while he has been in Vienna.'
He saw his son's brows lift, and nodded. 'And that, my dear Lorenzo, could change everything, both for you and for your absent wife. Because the scandal that would follow would ruin any remaining chance of a reconciliation with herif that is what you want, of course.'
'It is what must happen,' Renzo said quietly. 'I cannot allow the present situation to continue any longer. For one thing, I am running out of excuses to explain her absence. For another, I accept that the purpose of our marriage must be fulfilled without further delay.'
'Dio mio,' Guillermo said faintly. 'I hope your approach to your bride will be made in more alluring terms. Or I warn you, my son, you will surely fail.'
Renzo's smile was hard. 'No,' he said. 'Not this time. And that is a promise.'
However, Renzo was thoughtful as, later, he drove back to his apartment. He owned the top floor of a formerpalazzo, the property of an old and noble family who had never seen the necessity to work for their living until it was too late. But although he enjoyed its grace and elegance, he used it merely as apiedà terre in Rome.
Because the home of his heart was the ancient and imposing country house deep in the Tuscan countryside where he had been born, and where he'd expected to begin his married life in the specially converted wing, designed to give them all the space and privacy that newlyweds could ever need.
He remembered showing it to Marisa before the wedding, asking if she had any ideas or requirements of her own that could be incorporated, but she'd said haltingly that it all seemed 'very nice', and refused to be drawn further. And she had certainly not commented on the adjoining bedrooms that they would occupy after their marriage, with the communicating door.
And if she'd had reservations about sharing the house with her future father-in-law she hadn't voiced those either. On the contrary, she'd always seemed very fond of Zio Guillermo, as she'd been encouraged to call him.
But then, Renzo thought, frowning, apart from agreeing to be his wife in a small wooden voice she hadn't said too much to him at all. Something he should, of course, have noticed but for his other preoccupations, he conceded, his mouth tightening.
Besides, he was accustomed to the fact that she did not chatter unnecessarily from the days when she'd been a small, silent child, clearly overwhelmed by her surroundings, and through her years as a skinny, tongue-tied adolescent. A time, he recalled ruefully, when she'd constantly embarrassed him by the hero-worship she'd tried inexpertly to hide.
She hadn't even cried at her own christening in London, which he'd attended as a sullenly reluctant ten-year-old, watching Maria Santangeli looking down, her face transfigured, at the lacy bundle in her arms.
His mother had met Lisa Cornell at the exclusive convent school they had both attended in Rome, and they had formed a bond of friendship that had never wavered across the years and miles that separated them.
But whereas Maria had married as soon as she left school, and become a mother within the year, Lisa had pursued a successful career in magazine journalism before meeting Alec Brendon, a well-known producer of television documentaries.