Read an Excerpt
IF SHE hadn't been running so horrendously late, she would never have taken the short cut in the first place.
Amelia let out a stiff curse as she tried to free herself from the rambling briar that had caught her as she'd climbed over the back fence adjoining the property of her last community health home visit of the day.
"Well, what do you know?" a deep male voice drawled from just behind her. "The legend is true after allthere are fairies at the bottom of the garden."
She swivelled her head around to see a tall man looking up at her where she was perched so precariously, his blackbrown gaze twinkling with amusement.
It was very disconcerting as he looked so very Italian with his deeply tanned olive skin and his thick, short hair so dark, and yet she couldn't decide from his accent if he was American or British. He was even wearing what looked like an Italian designer shirt and trousers, the top four buttons of the shirt undone casually, leaving a great expanse of tanned, muscular chest on show.
"Is this your house and garden?" she asked, tugging at her lightweight cotton skirt to free it, with little success.
"No," he said with a lazy smile. "I'm just renting for a few weeks, but the landlord didn't tell me about the little bonus in the back garden. He should have charged me more rent. I would have gladly paid it."
Amelia felt the colour begin to flare in her cheeks and, frowning at him, gave her skirt another little tug but it wouldn't budge.
His smile widened, showing very white teeth as his dark gaze ran over her appraisingly, taking in her petite shape and elfin features. "Actually, I've changed my mind," he said. "You're not a fairy. You look more like a pixie to me."
Amelia had to force herself not to roll her eyes at him in disdain. "Actually, I am a community nurse who is now more than half an hour late to visit an elderly patient," she said through tight lips. "And if you or your landlord took better care of your garden I would not be stuck up here like this!"
He folded his arms across his chest, rocking back on his heels as his eyes glinted at her playfully. "And if you were not trespassing on private property you wouldn't have been ensnared by that bramble in the first place." He unfolded one of his arms and waggled one long, tanned finger at her reprovingly.
She sent him an arctic glare and gave her skirt another vicious tug, but all she succeeded in doing was giving him a rather generous view of her thigh.
"If you tug any harder on that dress, you'll have me blushing to the roots of my hair," he warned.
Amelia knew she was the one blushing to her backbone. She had never felt so embarrassed nor so annoyed in her life. "Will you please leave me alone to extricate myself?" she clipped out. "I would prefer not to have an audience right now."
He put his hands up to his eyes. "I promise not to peek." She let out a tight little breath and began to attend to her skirt, but she could feel those dark, laughing eyes watching everything from between his deliberately splayed fingers.
She finally tugged one part free of the bramble and shifted position to attend to where her skirt had snagged on a nail on the fence.
"Can I look now?" the man called out. "No," she said, giving another forceful tug. There was a ripping sound and, before she could do anything to counteract it, she toppled down from the fence into the man's hastily outstretched arms below.
"Oh!" she gasped as he deftly caught her. "Wow!" he said with a devilish grin. "I haven't lost my touch after all. And here I was thinking that no woman was ever going to fall for me again."
Amelia hastily pushed what was left of her skirt over her bare thighs, her face aflame. "Please put me down," she said as stiffly as she could, considering the sudden escalation of her pulse rate and breathing.
His face was so close she could see the black pupils of his eyes which were almost as dark as his irises. It looked as if his leanly chiselled jaw hadn't been anywhere near a razor for at least a day or two, but in spite of his lack of grooming she could smell the citrus fragrance of his aftershave mingled in the hot spring sunshine.
He placed her on the ground in front of him, taking his time about it, she noted crossly.
"There, now turn around and let's see the damage," he said. Amelia stood completely frozen; she could feel air where she shouldn't be feeling air, and to make matters even worseshe was certain she was wearing her oldest pair of knickers.
"What's wrong?" he asked, but then, noticing the worried flick of her hazel gaze towards the fence, he whistled through his teeth and said, "Uh oh."
Amelia inwardly groaned as he walked up to the fence and removed what appeared to be the back half of her skirt from the nail. He came back and handed it to her, his mouth twitching at the corners. "It might need a stitch or two, I'm afraid."
"It's fine,"she said, backing away, doing her best to tuck the hapless bit of fabric into the elastic of the waistband of her skirt.
"Would you like me to give you a leg up over the fence?" he offered.
"No, thank you. I'll take the long way around." She took a deep breath and picked up her bag with her free hand, the other one holding her skirt in place as she stalked back the way she had come with the precious little dignity she had left.
"Hey, you didn't tell me your name,"he called out after her, his mouth still tilted in a smile. "Let me guessis it Tinkerbell?"
She turned around and gave him one last cutting look. "You do not need to know my name as I will not be coming this way again."
"Pity," he said, his eyes twinkling again. "I kind of like the idea of having my very own pixie to play with."
She stomped off muttering under her breath but the sound of his deep chuckle of laughter followed her all the way to Signora Gravano's house.
"You look like you have been through a hedge backwards," the elderly woman said as she ushered Amelia into her neat little cottage.
"I have,"Amelia said, grimacing as she looked down at her tattered skirt, although she was relieved to find it had so far stayed in place.
"Did you take the short cut again?"
"Yes, unfortunately." She gave the old woman a speaking glance and added, "I met the new tenant."
"Ah, yes, the associate professor. He just moved in this morning."
Amelia's head jerked up. "The associate what?"
"The Australian doctor," Signora Gravano explained. "I thought you knew about it. Dr Alex Hunter was summoned to Niroli to see the king about his heart. He very generously decided to use his sabbatical period to work with the Free Hospital staff to set up some sort of new heart procedure."
"But he's not due until the end of next week," Amelia said, her own heart suddenly feeling as if it needed an ECG. She turned to wash her hands to disguise her shock, taking her time with the soap and towel before she turned back round.
"I expect he has come early to enjoy the spring sunshine before he starts work," the old woman said as she put her leg up on a foot stool for Amelia to inspect. "It is quite a coincidence, don't you think?"
"Coincidence?" Amelia frowned in puzzlement. "What do you mean?"
"He looks so Italian you could almost swear he was born and bred on the island."
She frowned again as she turned back to her bag. "I couldn't quite work out the accent," she said as she opened her bag to retrieve the dressings she'd brought with her. "I thought he sounded more British than anything."
"He is very highly educated, of course. I believe he has spoken at conferences all over the world on this new technique. Perhaps his accent has become a little diluted by now."
"So why is he renting that run-down cottage behind yours?" Amelia asked. "If he's such a hot-shot doctor surely he would want to stay at Santa Fiera where the casino and all the resort hotels and restaurants are."
"I suppose he wants to be close to the hospital and the older part of the island. Besides, he is only here for a month so a rustic working holiday might hold more appeal. The cottage is not that badit just needs a bit of a clean-up in the garden."
There was no arguing with that, Amelia thought wryly, but somehow she couldn't see the highly regarded cardiac surgeon getting down and dirty with a fork, spade and wheelbarrow.
"So what did you think of him?" Signora Gravano asked. Amelia pursed her mouth as she unwrapped the old dressing on the old woman's leg. "I thought he was er "
The old woman chuckled at her hesitation. "He is very handsome, enough to make a woman's heart race, eh, Amelia? Good thing he is a cardiac specialist. He probably leaves a trail of broken hearts wherever he goes."
"Yes, well, I am sure I will not be affected in such a way," Amelia said firmly, doing her level best to block the memory of his strong arms around her.
"You have spent too long with the nuns," Signora Gravano said. "I always thought it would do more harm than good when you went to that convent after your mother passed away. You are too young to devote yourself to the sick without having a life of your own."
"I do have a life of my own."
The old woman grunted. "You call that a life, living so far away in the foothills of the mountains like a peasant, cleaning up after your father and your brothers? You should be out dancing and enjoying yourself like other people your age. You work too hard, Amelia, far too hard."
"I won't have to work so hard for ever. I've got a new job. I'm starting tomorrow."Amelia straightened and added, "The king needs a private nurse two days a week and I've landed the job. It fits in beautifully with my community work and my shifts at the Free Hospital."
The old woman's grey brows rose over her black button eyes. "What does your father think of you working for King Giorgio?"
"I haven't told him yet."
"Wise of you. Staunch Republican that he is, I do not think he would approve of you slaving at the Niroli palace."
"I am thirty years old, Signora Gravano," Amelia said. "I think I am old enough to work wherever I choose without the approval of my father or brothers." She closed the bag with a little snap and added, "Besides, my father is not likely to live much longer."
"How is he?"
She let out a tiny sigh. "Going downhill every day but he refuses to admit it. He won't go to the hospital and will not allow anyone to visit. Anyway, what doctor would travel all that way to see him only to be turned away? I do what I can but I fear it will not be long before he is beyond help."
"Can you not convince your brothers to help you?"
"They help me when they can but they have struggles of their own. It is not exactly easy being a Vialli on the island of Niroli. Everyone has such long memories."
"It was a terrible time on the island back then," Signora Gravano said, her expression clouding. "You are lucky you were not yet born. There was such hatred and violence, so much bloodshed."
"I know " Amelia released another sigh. "My father's never really got over it."
"There are many who believe he deserved to die as well," Signora Gravano said with gravitas.
Amelia didn't respond, but she felt her blood chill just as it did every time she thought about the incident that had changed her family for ever.
"I must not keep you," Signora Gravano said with a fond smile. "You are a good girl, Amelia. Your mother would be very proud of you."
Amelia bent down and gave the old woman a gentle hug. "Thank you."
"Why don't you leave your skirt with me to mend,"Signora Gravano offered as Amelia straightened once more. "You can borrow something of my daughter's. She still has things in the wardrobe for when she visits."
"I don't want to put you to any bother "
"It is no bother," she insisted. "You are much smaller than her but it will see you home without embarrassment. You never know who you might meet and what would they think of you looking like a gypsy?"
A few minutes later Amelia looked down at the huge sack of a dress she had borrowed and wondered how she was going to walk the distance back to the Free Hospital in the stifling heat. Her brother Rico had yet again borrowed her car and had agreed to meet her back at the hospital once she had seen the last of the community patients.
She kept her head well down as she hurried past the visiting doctor's cottage, sure she could feel that dark, mocking gaze following her even though there was no sign of anyone about.
A flashy-looking sports car turned the corner and she stepped onto the grass verge to avoid its dust, but instead of going past it came to a halt beside her.
"Hey there, little pixie." The man she had met earlier grinned at her through the open window. "I see you've changed into something a little more comfortable."
Amelia tightened her spine, her eyes flashing with sparks of ire. "I believe you are the Australian doctor we have been expecting," she said. "What a pity you didn't think to introduce yourself properly when you had the chance."
He turned off the engine and unfolded his long length from the car to come to stand in front of her. "You didn't tell me your name so I didn't see why I should reveal mine," he said with a teasing glint in his eyes. "Fair's fair. It's my very first day on the island. A guy can never be too careful these days. For all I know you could be a dangerous criminal."
She stared at him for a moment, wondering if he had heard the rumours about her family, her heart starting to clang like a heavy bell in her chest.