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Genevra Bravo-Calabretti, princess of Montedoro, heaved the lightweight ladder upright and braced it against the high stone wall.
The ladder instantly tilted and slid to the side, making way too much racket as it scraped along the rough old stones. Genny winced and glanced around nervously, but no trusty retainer popped up to ask her what she thought she was doing. So she grabbed the ladder firmly, righted it and lifted it, bringing it down sharply to plant it more solidly in the uneven ground.
Breathing hard, she braced her fists on her hips and glared at it, daring it to topple sideways again. The ladder didn't move. Good. All ready to go.
But Genny wasn't ready. Not really. She didn't know if she'd ever be ready.
With a very unprincesslike "Oof," she dropped to her bottom in the dry scrub grass at the base of the wall. Still panting hard, she wrapped her arms loosely around her spread knees and let her head droop.
Once her breathing evened out, she leaned back on her hands and stared up at the clear night sky. The crescent moon seemed to shine extrabright, though the lights from the harbor below obscured most of the stars. It was a beautiful May night in Montedoro. She could smell roses, faintly, on the air.
A low moan escaped her. It wasn't right. Wasn't fair. She ought to be out with friends in a busy café or enjoying an evening stroll on her favorite beach. Not dressed all in black like a lady cat burglar, preparing to scale the wall around Villa Santorno.
Useless tears clogged her throat. She willed them away. She'd been doing that a lot lately, pulling herself back from the brink of a crying jag. The worry and frustration were getting to her. Not to mention the hormones.
She didn't want to do this. She felt ridiculous and pushy, in addition to needy and unwanted and more than a little pathetic.
But seriously, what choice had he given her?
"I am not going to cry," she whispered fiercely as another wave of emotion cascaded through her. "Absolutely not." With the back of her hand, she dashed the moisture from her eyes.
Enough. She was stalling and she knew it. She'd dragged that damn ladder all the way up the hill. She wasn't quitting now. Time to get this over with.
Gathering her legs under her, she stood and brushed the bits of dry grass and dirt from the seat of her black jeans. The ladder was waiting. It reached about two-thirds of the way up the wall, not quite as far as she might have hoped.
But too bad. No way was she turning back now.
She put her foot on the first rung and started to climb.
A minute later, with another low moan and a whimpery sigh, she curled her fingers around the ladder's highest rung. The top of the wall seemed miles above her.
But she made herself take the next step. And the next. Until she was plastered against the wall, her hands on the broader, flatter top stones, her black Chuck Taylor All Stars perched precariously on that final rung.
"Bad idea," she whispered to the rough stones, though there was no one but the night to hear her. "Bad, bad idea
." Right at that moment, she wished with all her heart for the superior upper body strength of a man.
Her wish was not granted. And there was nothing to do but go for it or go back. She was not going back.
With a desperate animal grunt of pure effort, she boosted herself up.
It didn't go all that well. Her feet left the ladder and the ladder swayed sideways again, skittering along the stones, this time with no one to catch it before it fell. It landed with a clatter at the base of the wall.
Could her heart pound any harder? It bounced around madly inside her chest.
Had they heard the ladder fall in the villa? Would someone come to help her? Or would she hang here until her strength failed and she fell and broke her silly neck? Rafe would have to come and collect her limp body. Serve him right. She grunted and moaned, praying her quivering arms would hold out, the rubber soles of her shoes scrabbling for purchase against the wall.
And then, miracle of miracles, she figured it out. The trick was to simply hold on with her wimpy woman arms and use the sturdy muscles in her legs to walk up the wall. She swung her left leg up and over with way too much undignified grunting and groaningand then, there she was, lying on top of the wall, legs dangling to either side.
For the moment anyway. She rested her cheek on the gritty stone and took a minute to catch her breath again.
Through the night-dark branches of olive and palm trees, she could see the villa. The lights were on. But apparently, no one had heard the racket she'd made. The garden surrounding the house was quiet. She lifted up enough to peer at the softer-looking grassy ground on the garden side. It seemed a very long way down there.
She probably should have thought this through a little more carefully.
Maybe the thing to do now was to start shouting, just scream her head off until Rafe or the housekeeper or someone came outside and helped her down.
But no. She just couldn't do that, couldn't call for help and have to be rescued. She refused to be that pitiful and ineffectual. She'd gotten up here on her own. She'd get down the same way.
Dear Lord, have mercy. Please, please be kind
She eased her left leg lower, swung the right one over and down. Now she was dangling on the garden side of the wall, holding on for dear life.
She squeezed her eyes shut. Let go, Genevra. You have to let go
Not that she had much choice at that point. Her instincts had her trying to hold on, but her strength was used up.
She dropped like a rock and hit the ground hard. Pain shot up her right heel, sang through her ankle and stabbed along her calf. A strangled scream escaped her, along with several very bad words.
"Ugh!" She crumpled to her side and grabbed her ankle. "Ow, ow, ow!" It throbbed in time to her racing heart. "Ow, ow, ow, ow
" She rubbed and moaned, rocking back and forth, wondering if there was any way she was going to be able to stand.
"Gen." The deep familiar voice came from just beyond the hedge to her left. "I might have known."
She whipped her head around. "Rafe?"
Rafael Michael DeValery, earl of Hartmore, stepped forward through a break in the hedge. And her silly heart leapt with hopeless joy at the sight of him, huge and imposing and as still as a statue, standing in the shadows a few feet away. "Have you hurt yourself?"
She shot him a glare and kept rubbing her poor ankle. "I'll survive. And you could have simply let me in the gate the times I came knockingor maybe, oh, I don't know, taken one of my calls?"
For a moment, he didn't answer. Even in the darkness, she could feel his black eyes on her. Finally, he spoke in a rueful tone. "It seemed wiser to keep the agreement we made in March."
Those humiliating tears rose again, thickening her throat, burning behind her eyes. She blinked them away. "What if I needed you? What if I need you right now?"
He was silent again, a breath-held kind of quiet. Then, finally, "Do you need me?"
She couldn't quite bring herself to say it. Yet.
And he spoke again, chidingly. "You never said so in the messages you left. Or when you came to the gate."
She had the tears under control for the moment. But still, her pulse galloped along, refusing to slow. Her cheeks were burning red. Memories of their four-day love affair seemed to swirl in the night air between them, dizzying. Glorious. Yet awful, too, in the sense of loss and hopelessness that dragged at her. "Yes, well, I do have some pride. I'm not telling your housekeeper I need you. I'm not putting it in a text or leaving it on your voice mail."
He took a step closer. "Gen
" What was it she heard in his voice? Longing? Pain? Or only her own wishful thinking? She couldn't tell, not with just that one syllable to judge by. Whatever emotion might have gripped him, he instantly banished it and added with his customary quiet control, "Come inside."
"Fine." She braced her hand against the wall, put most of her weight on her good foot and staggered upright. Her bad ankle didn't give out, but it wobbled beneath her. She winced and let out a moan.
He was at her side in an instant. "Let me help." Eerie, the way he could move, that magical swift grace that so completely belied his size. One of his legs had been broken in the accident six months before. Two months ago, he'd still had a slight limp. The limp was gone now.
But when the moonlight fell across the right side of his face, the scar was still there, puckered and angry, though not as red as before. It started at the corner of his eye, curving around his cheek in a shape that echoed the crescent moon above them, the end of it seeming to tug at the side of his mouth, as though trying to force him to smileand failing. Rafe rarely smiled. Two months ago, she'd asked if he'd checked into the possibilities of plastic surgery. He'd said no, he hadn't. And he didn't intend to.
"Here." He took her hand. His touch slammed into her, making him suddenly so real to her again, so warm and solid. And why did he have to smell so good? It wasn't the least fair. He'd always smelled good to her, even when she thought of him strictly as a friendso clean, so healthy, like new grass and fresh air and sweet, just-turned earth.
And please. What did it matter that he smelled good? She had to put all her concentration on the task before her, on telling him what he needed to know.
He guided her arm around his huge, hard shoulders. His heat and strength seared along her side. Together, with her leaning on him to keep her weight off her right foot, they turned to go in, taking the stone path through the hedge and across a stretch of lawn to the wide patio shaded by jacaranda and carob trees and through the open French doors into the combination kitchen and family room.
" He led her to a wide white chair.
"Maybe not," she warned. "I've got bits of grass and dirt all over my jeans."
"It's all right. Sit down."
"Your call," she said resignedly, easing her arm from across his shoulders and sinking onto the soft cushion. "It hardly looks like the same place." The large room had been redecorated and updated, the living area with light-colored fabrics and modern oversize furniture. The kitchen now had chef-quality appliances and granite and wood countertops.
"Tourists with fat billfolds don't appreciate heavy draperies and an ancient fridge. They want comfort and openness to go with the view." He gestured toward the terrace opposite the French doors. On that side, the villa needed no garden walls. It touched the edge of the cliff. From where she sat, she could see the crowns of palm trees and farther out, the harbor and the blue Mediterranean. The De-Valerys were English, of Norman descent, but Montedoran blood also ran in their veins. Villa Santorno had come down through the generations from a Montedoran-born DeValery bride.
"So." She tried not to sound wistful. "You really do plan to make it a rental?"
"I do." He towered above her, the scar pulling at his mouth, his eyes endlessly dark and way too somber. Two months ago, he'd come to Montedoro to make arrangements for the villa's renovation. At that time, it had been four months since the accident that took his older brother Edward's life and gave Rafe the earldom as well as his crescent scar. Genny had essentially run him to ground thenjust as she was doing now. Two months ago.
They'd made love in this very room. But then the curtains had been heavy, layered, ornate velvets over floral damask, the sofas and other furniture a gorgeous mash-up of baroque, rococo and neoclassical.
He asked low and a little gruffly, "Do you have to look so sad?"
"I liked it the way it was, that's all." Now and then during her childhood, various members of his family would come and stay at the villa to enjoy the Montedoran nightlife, or attend some event at the palace. Occasionally during those visits, her family had been invited to dine or have tea here. She could still remember her ten-year-old self perched on a velvet-seated straight chair beside the French doors to the garden, holding a Sevres teacup and saucer, scheming to get his grandmother, Eloise, aside and wrangle herself another invitation to Hartmore, the DeValery estate in Derbyshire. To Genny, Hartmore had always been the most beautiful place in the world.
He knelt at her feet and her breath caught at the suddenness of the movement. "I'll have a look, shall I?" Before she could decide whether or not to object, he had her foot in one big, gentle hand and was untying the shoelace with the other. He slid the shoe off, set it aside and then began probing at her ankle, his touch warm and sure, making her heart hurt. Making her body yearn. "It doesn't seem to be broken. Maybe a slight sprain."
"It's fine, really. It's already stopped hurting."
He glanced up, caught her eye. "Just to be safe, I think we ought to wrap it."
Harsh, angry accusations pushed at the back of her throat, but she only said firmly, "Leave it, Rafe. It's fine."
"Fair enough." He lowered her foot to the floor and rose to his considerable height.
She tracked the movement, and found herself staring up the broad, strong, wonderful length of him. Struck again with longing, her breath got caught and tangled somewhere in the center of her chest. How strange. She'd always loved him as a person, but found him hulking and coarse, unattractive as a man.
What a blind, childish fool she'd been.
"Tell me what's brought you here," he said, his eyes so deep and dark, seeing everything, giving nothing away. The man was like a human wall, always quiet and watchful and careful, as though wary of his own strength among mere mortals. "Tell me, Gen. Please. Whatever it is."
"All right, then." She drew in a fortifying breathand suddenly, contrarily, she ached to delay the inevitable. But what was the point in that? He needed to know and she'd almost broken her neck climbing the garden wall to get to him and tell him. "I'm pregnant. It's yours."
Did he flinch?
She wasn't sure. Most likely he hadn't. He never flinched. That for a moment it had seemed so was probably only her imagination working overtime.
"My God, Gen." He said it softly, almost reverently. "How? We were careful."
"Not careful enough, evidentlyand if you want a paternity test, I'll be happy to"
"No test is necessary. I believe you."
I believe you. The soft-spoken, calm words echoed in her head.