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It Takes Two

[]Table of Contents

Title Page

Book Description: A summer in Verona…

Author’s Note

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Excerpt from All That Glitters

Booklist

Acknowledgments

About The Author

It Takes Two

(Italian Summer Series, Book 1)

Lily Zante

Text copyright © 2015

Lily Zante

All Rights Reserved

Book Description: A summer in Verona…

[_Rona Fernández left Verona with a clutch of happy memories. Her late night and frequent visits to the charming Gioberti’s restaurant had raised some eyebrows but nobody was overly suspicious of why she would go alone each evening. _]

_Not even her husband. _

[_Married and still looking hot despite a baby and almost seven years of marriage, Rona prides herself on looking good and getting noticed. Her five-two diet, love of tight and bright clothes, flashy jewelry and signature big hair make sure she is never a wall flower. _]

It’s just a shame that her hard-working husband is too busy working to pay her much attention.

When she returns to Verona to help her pregnant sister with her business and impending wedding, Rona sees another opportunity to make the most of life.

_A harmless flirtation every now and then isn’t such a bad thing. As long it stays that way. _

Author’s Note

‘It Takes Two’ is the first book in the ‘Italian Summer Series’, which is a spin-off from the ‘Honeymoon Series’ and the first book in that series, ‘Honeymoon For One,’ is currently free at all retailers.

Italian Summer’ consists of a series of standalone books which tell the stories about the lives of characters who first appeared in the ‘Honeymoon Series’. In addition you also get to discover what is going on in the lives of the main couple, Ava and Nico, from the first series.

If you haven’t read the first three books in the Honeymoon series, please be aware that there will be spoilers in this book.

The timelines of both series are connected and you can find a recommended reading order here.

It Takes Two’ is Rona’s story.

Honeymoon Series:

Honeymoon For One

Honeymoon For Three

Honeymoon Blues

Honeymoon Bliss

Honeymoon Series Boxed Set (Books 2, 3 & 4)

Baby Steps

Italian Summer Series:

(A spin-off from the Honeymoon Series)

It Takes Two

All That Glitters

Fool’s Gold

Roman Encounter

The Billionaire’s Love Story:

The Gift, Book 1

The Gift, Book 2

The Gift, Book 3

The Gift, Boxed Set (Books 1, 2 & 3)

The Offer, Book 1

The Offer, Book 2

The Offer, Book 3

The Offer, Boxed Set (Books 1, 2 & 3)

The Vow, Book 1

The Vow, Book 2

The Vow, Book 3

The Vow, Boxed Set (Books 1, 2 & 3)

Perfect Match Series:

[*Lost In Solo – prequel *]

The Proposal

Heart Sync

A Leap of Faith

Perfect Match Boxed Set (Books 1, 2 & 3)

[*Tainted Love Series: *]

(A spin-off from the Perfect Match Series)

Misplaced Love

Reclaiming Love

Embracing Love

Tainted Love Boxed Set (Books 1, 2 & 3)

New Series:

An Ordinary Hero

Standalone books:

Love, Inc

An Unexpected Gift

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Chapter 1

“Can I buy you a drink?”

Rona glanced at the tall stranger with his unkempt hair and eyes so intense that a lesser diva would have melted. She assessed him casually, appeared to consider his offer but shook her head even though she enjoyed the way he looked at her. “I’m good, thanks.”

“I bet you’re not that good. Not really. Not dressed like that.” His gaze dropped to the deep V of her turquoise top and he licked his lips in appreciation.

“I’m old enough to buy my own drinks.”

“I’m sure you’re old enough to do a lot of things.”

This guy wasn’t shy. She held up her left hand so he could see her wedding ring.

“My husband thinks I am.” She picked up the pitcher of Margarita in one hand and a pitcher of mint Mojito in the other and walked away.

“If you ever get lonely…” He shouted after her. She sashayed back to the table where her friends were waiting; three pairs of wide open eyes stared back at her.

“You’ve still got it, girlfriend,” Mercedes commented as she refilled her empty glass. “What’s your secret?”

“The five-two diet,” said Rona. “It works, I’m telling you.” She held up her cocktail glass. “May our girls’ nights out never end—even when we’re old and past it.”

They all tapped their glasses lightly with hers.

“Amen,” said Mercedes, solemnly. As a mother of two children under the age of five, these nights out were her life buoy.

“I’ll get the drinks next time,” said Celine, turning to give the man a good once over. At twenty-seven, she was the youngest of them all. She was still desperately trying to find ‘the one’ and had been single for nearly three months.

“I tried that diet, but it didn’t work for me. Besides, I hate being told what I can and can’t eat,” lamented Jodi.

“Why would you bother trying? You’ll be pregnant soon enough,” said Celine, carelessly.

A silence hushed their carefree chatter.

“I’m not pregnant yet and we’ve been trying for months,” complained Jodi, refilling her glass.

“I bet you’re having fun trying,” sniggered Celine. “I know I would if I had a man.” Her smile vanished just as quickly. Rona rolled her eyes at Jodi. _Celine and her endless quest for A Man. _

“How come we had to keep rearranging tonight?” asked Jodi. Rona let out a low groan. “Ava,” she reminded them.

“She kept you busy, huh?” asked Celine. “Maybe I need to get myself to Italy and get me a fine specimen of a man just like the one she has.” Her friends knew Ava and they were all fully up to date with her exploits in Italy which had now resulted in a baby on the way as well as an impending wedding to one of the most eligible and handsome men in Verona. She was their icon. All, except Rona’s.

“She’s a slave driver,” complained Rona. Her sister had returned to Denver briefly in order to resolve some of the issues with her online store. It was expanding too fast for her to keep up and now that she was going to live in Italy, she had to come up with a solution for handling her US operations.

Rona picked up her cocktail glass. It wasn’t her problem now. The only problem she had was one called Kim.

The problem being that she wasn’t a virtual assistant anymore.

Mercedes wanted to know. “How’s it working out—this other woman and you? You said she was a pain in the butt.”

“She still is a pain in the butt,” Rona confirmed. She’d suffered while her mother had been in Verona. Carlos could only look after Tori one weekday, and the order numbers had exploded. Some days she’d take Tori with her and put her in the playpen in the kitchen, just so she could get some work done. Other times she’d do the unthinkable: start work at six in the morning and work until around eleven, leaving Tori with Carlos. Since he worked in this family’s restaurant business, he often started work late and finished late. But during Ava’s recent visit, she had employed Kim, who was once her virtual assistant, to help out with order processing, as well as dealing with customer queries.

“Now you’re sharing the work?” Celine asked.

“She does a few days and I do a few days. Different days,” Rona quickly added.

“It’s working?”

“I don’t have to see the woman,” Rona smiled.

“How old is she?” asked Jodi, curious.

“Twenty-seven.”

“And her son?”

“Is eight.”

“No way!”

“She married?”

“Single mom.”

“Wow,” said Mercedes, her eyes wide with admiration. “That must be so hard. I bet she’s really ambitious.”

“Getting knocked up at nineteen doesn’t sound too ambitious to me,” retorted Rona, flicking her nails. “Anyhow, I only have to work two days a week now. It was killing me having to work everyday.”

“I bet,” said Mercedes. She’d given up work the moment she’d had her firstborn and had no intention of returning. “By the way, your haircut suits you. It makes you look younger.”

“I didn’t realize I looked older before,” Rona replied, running her fingers through her light brown hair. Previously long and layered it had now been stylishly cut to just below her shoulders. She couldn’t resist swishing it around—just like the models did in those hair ads.

But Carlos hadn’t even noticed until she’d forcefully stood in his way. “What?” he’d asked, frowning at her.

“Notice anything?”

“You look happier?” he’d commented, clueless.

“Anything else?” she’d asked, giving her head a jiggle.

“It’s colored? And…it’s…shorter,” he cried in dismay. “Aww, baby, why did you go and do that for?” It hadn’t been the response she’d been looking for.

“I loved your hair the way it was before.” He’d told her.

She pushed thoughts of Carlos out of her mind and glanced over at the bar again. The tall stranger had been watching her and he raised his glass to her. She raised hers in return.

“Are you going to encourage him?” said Celine, irritated.

“I’m not encouraging him. He knows I’m married.” replied Rona.

“Some men don’t care,” remarked Mercedes.

“Why don’t you go over and start talking to him if you’re so desperate to meet a guy?” Rona shifted her gaze from the stranger to her friend. Celine couldn’t stomach it when any of the others, all married, got attention she thought she deserved on account of her single status.

“Nice to be noticed,” sighed Jodi.

“What diet was that again?” Mercedes asked. “I can’t diet to save my life. The only time I lose weight is when I stop breast feeding.”

“Yeah,” agreed Rona. “Apparently it’s meant to fall off then. So I heard.” Not that she’d breastfed Tori. Breasts, in her opinion, were for adult use and she was relieved she’d never let a baby near hers. Tori had done just fine with infant formula.

“Don says he wants another one,” said Mercedes, her face contorting.

“Really?” asked Jodi, wincing.

“He wants four,” said Mercedes, matter-of-factly.

“Ouch,” said Rona, pulling a face. “How many do you want?”

“I don’t mind. If he wants more, why not?”

“But do you want more?” asked Rona. It wasn’t as though they were talking about a bag of sweets here. She couldn’t imagine agreeing to another child or three just because Carlos thought it would be nice to have. She couldn’t put her body through nine months of hell to be followed by hours of blood loss, damage to her sensitive parts and months of inconvenience afterwards. Not getting nine hours of uninterrupted sleep for months was bad enough.

“This is when sex gets scary,” remarked Celine. Kids weren’t in her game plan yet.

“He says he comes from a family of three, and that three is an odd number. So he wants two or four. But now that we’ve got two, he kinda likes the idea of having two more. It’ll be even then.”

“But what do you think?” asked Rona, intrigued.

“It’s okay with me. The other two are going to be at school soon enough and it’ll be nice having another one around the house.”

“It would be nice to do nothing while the other two are at school,” remarked Rona. She loved Tori more than she ever thought was possible, but she hadn’t considered baby number two yet. She wasn’t sure she ever would.

“Do you really need to have more poop to clean up?” asked Celine. “It seems that’s all babies do all day long. Be little poop machines.”

The bartender came up to them just then with a round of drinks identical to the ones that Rona had ordered. “Compliments of the gentleman at the bar.” He looked over to Rona’s admirer at the bar and then put down four cocktail glasses: two Margaritas and two Mojitos.

“The evening just got better,” exclaimed Jodi, and grabbed hers.

“Thank you,” said Celine and held her glass up to the guy who was watching them from the bar. She nodded her head appreciatively.

“I really shouldn’t,” said Mercedes. “But, heck, we might end up making more babies soon, so I might as well drink up now.” She gave the man her best smile.

Only Rona could see that he’d kept his gaze on her the whole time. She picked up her glass and walked over to him.

Bam. She slammed it down. “I told you, I’m good. I can get my own drinks. Thank you, anyway.”

He appeared amused by her response and grabbed her wrist as she turned to go. She raised her chin and stared at his eyes that now sparkled like diamonds. She enjoyed this thrill—the chase, the knowledge that she still had it—the ability to turn heads. It excited her, especially knowing that it would go nowhere, but also to know that she was still desirable.

This easy flirtation warmed her insides.

“Do you mind?” she asked, breaking her arm from his firm grip.

He lifted an eyebrow. “You’re a feisty little one, aren’t you? I’ve seen you here before.”

“You must get out a lot,” she said sarcastically, leaning back against the stool next to him, not quite making herself at home, but not ready to go back to the girls just yet. She wanted to bask in a little sparring banter first. “Because I don’t come here often.”

“I know. Like I said, I’ve noticed you here before. I don’t know if it’s those hooped earrings, or,” his gaze trailed down the length of her body again. “The way your clothes seem to hug that mighty fine body of yours,” his lips parted as he licked them. He was handsome, in a rough cowboy sort of way. Nothing fine boned about him. Rough, and rugged. Kind of what she’d thought about Carlos when they’d first met. He’d rescued her from a fracas that her group of friends had gotten mixed up in. Carlos had dived right in and pulled her away from the fray.

“Do you often pick up married women?”

“We’re just talking,” he smiled. “And drinking. That’s all.”

“You come here alone?”

“I’m meeting some buddies of mine.”

“Well, it’s been nice talking to you and thank you for the drink but—”

“It’s on me,” he said and refused to take it back. “I promise you it hasn’t been spiked. Ask this guy here,” he nodded at the bartender who grinned at her as he wiped a glass.

“Nothing wrong with it I swear.”

She smiled and wrapped her fingers around the ice cold rim. It made her feel good, always being the one to get noticed, especially when she was out with her friends.

Ruben had noticed her too, but she’d been alone then, in Verona. Alone and bored and often forcing a smile at Gioberti’s lame jokes.

“Take it, no strings attached,” the stranger insisted, and dragged her into the present, back in Denver.

“Just so we’re clear: I’m not that kind of girl.”

“If you say so.”

She took the drink and sauntered back to the girls.

“Well?” asked Mercedes.

Rona shrugged. There was nothing to say.

“What’d he say?” asked Jodi, chewing on a cuticle.

“Not much.” Rona twisted a lock of hair around her finger.

“How come you get hit on all the time and I don’t?” wailed Celine. “Maybe I need to try the five-two diet.”

Rona placed the cocktail glass next to her half empty one and smiled. She still had it, she thought, feeling smug with herself.

Chapter 2

“What the hell is this?” moaned Rona as she looked at the neatly packaged boxes ready to take to the post office.

What had Kim been doing last week?

Rona worked Mondays and Tuesdays and much preferred this new working arrangement. Two days at work was manageable. But her Mondays were busy. She looked at the boxes and knew it would take two car journeys to drop off at the post office.

Things were supposed to be getting easier with two of them doing the job she had done by herself until recently. So why did the apartment look so full? It further raised her suspicions about Kim. Her sister seemed to think she was a good worker but Rona wasn’t convinced that Kim was pulling her weight; she’d have to speak to Ava about it.

Carlos was going into work later than normal today and she’d started early knowing that he had Tori until she returned. She had some chance of getting caught up as much as possible. Though it didn’t matter if she couldn’t—Kim worked the latter part of the week and could finish off.

Kim didn’t have a baby to look after, Rona reasoned.

Another shipment was due to arrive any day now and Rona hoped it would arrive during Kim’s working days. It was going to be a big one but where they were supposed to put everything she didn’t know. Apparently Ava had ordered more cribs because they were such a hot item and ordered double of everything else.

Ava, sitting all the way in her mansion, or hotel, in Verona, had simply forgotten how tiny her apartment was. Even with Connor’s garage, there was not enough space. She surveyed the scene around her, the apartment was rammed full of boxes packed from the floor to almost three-quarters of the height of the room.

She’d have to tell her now.

“Hi,” said Rona, and launched straight in, not even stopping for small talk. “Something has happened,” she declared. “Your apartment looks like an Amazon warehouse and Connor’s garage is packed fit to bursting point.”

“Isn’t it early for you?” Ava asked, ignoring her diatribe.

“I’ve done these hours before,” Rona reminded her. “To keep up with your orders.”

“Good morning to you, too,” replied Ava. “The stock, the storage problems…I know. I’m trying to work out a solution.”

“You’re going to need to work it out faster. You thought it was bad when you were here? You need to take a look at it now.” Rona told her.

She heard her sister’s loud sigh. “I know.” She paused. “I’ve been looking at the numbers.”

“They’re exploding. In a good way, of course.”

“Yes,” agreed Ava.

“But it’s taking longer than usual to get the orders out.”

“How much longer?” Ava asked quickly.

“Well,” said Rona slowly. She didn’t really keep a detailed timesheet. It was all based on rough glances at her watch. She’d been here since six this morning. Or was it six thirty? And she’d been doing a few extra hours every day.

“But you’re getting the orders out on time?” Ava asked anxiously.

It was typical that her sister’s concern was centred on the turnaround time for getting the orders out.

“Between the two of us, yes. We’re trying. But I don’t know how fast Kim’s working. Every Monday it seems there’s a lot more to do. Are you keeping an eye on her?”

“Who, Kim? Don’t you worry about her.” Ava assured her.

“I’m staring at the boxes she left behind. I don’t know why she couldn’t take them herself on Friday instead of leaving them for me to deal with today. It’s going to take two car trips to the post office to get these sent out.”

“She came in yesterday because the new shipment came in on Friday and it took her all day to unload it all.”

[_So that was why the place looked so full. _]Rona examined one of the boxes. It was one of the cribs.

“I thought you said you’d ordered forty cribs? Where are the others? They can’t have all fit here and in Connor’s garage.”

“They didn’t. Kim is storing some in her apartment.”

[_Miss Goody Two Shoes. _]“Is she?” Now Rona understood. Naturally, the woman had plenty of time on her hands and no wonder she worked more hours.

“I wasn’t prepared for the Italian products to be so successful so quickly.”

“How come you asked Kim to come in on the weekend?” Instead of me?

“I didn’t ask her. She volunteered. She’s been doing full days during the week.”

“Oh.” Deflated, Rona reconsidered her options. “I could work an extra hour or so if you need me to.”

“I think we’re okay,” said Ava slowly. “How’s mom doing? Is she still feeling tired?”

“Yes,” replied Rona. “I don’t want to pressure her into having Tori if she’s not up to it yet.” Though she’d need her mom in a few nights time.

“I still think there’s a lot of emotional stuff going on with her. Especially with regards to Edmondo. She was becoming quite fond of him. I think his death has hit her as hard as dad’s did.”

“No way,” said Rona hotly.

“Rona, think about it. What would you do if you lost Carlos? Mom lost dad when we weren’t even ten years old. Your world would break apart. Mom’s already been through that once.”

“She was not becoming fond of him, not in that way,” insisted Rona.

“What makes you think so?”

“She’s past it.”

“Past what?”

“Feeling that way about someone.”

“Says who?” asked Ava.

Rona stifled a laugh. “Are you serious?”

“I don’t think love has an age limit.”

“That’s because you’ve just fallen in love all over again. Everything looks fresh and lovely to you.”

“Fresh and lovely?”

“You think anyone can fall in love at any time and it will last forever,” Rona explained.

“I do and I sincerely hope so.”

“I can’t see it. Not for mom.”

“She still has a heart, and emotions, feelings, and desires.”

“Ewwww. Don’t.”

“Your way of thinking is so stunted.”

“I’m sorry if I can’t see or feel their lurve.”

“You weren’t here to see it,” said Ava. “I did, she looked happier than I’ve seen in a long time. They had a connection, and it was beautiful. It was beautiful that she had another chance to find happiness after all these years.”

Rona huffed. “But they’re both so old!”

She heard Ava groan. “Age has nothing to do with it,”

“How would they even—?” Rona began to think, but couldn’t take the thought any further.

“They connected and you had to be blind, or insensitive not to see it. I feel terrible that it was taken away from her. Don’t you see?”

“Don’t I see what?”

“That Mom had a second chance. They say lightning doesn’t strike in the same place twice but it did for mom.”

Rona refused to see it. Edmondo had been a friend, nothing more. “It’s hit her hard because she’s older now.”

“It’s hit her hard because she had genuine feelings for Edmondo and he did too.”

Rona said nothing.

“Whatever you want to believe, I think she’s in deep grief and we need to keep an eye on her.”

“How are you doing anyway?” she asked Ava, wanting to change the subject.

“I’m okay.”

“And the wedding?”

“I think it’s coming along. Nico’s in charge of the legalities. He says there’s a lot of paperwork because I’m American and I’m going to be so obviously pregnant. He’s adamant he wants to get married in the church his parents got married in.”

“That’ll teach you for marrying such a romantic.”

“It’s the least of my worries,” said Ava. “Do you think mom will be okay to have Tori next week? I’d really like you to get all caught up. Maybe if you could do extra hours? I’m only asking because of the new shipment that’s just come in.”

“I could do a few extra hours…next week.” [_Only for next week. _]She actually liked getting away to Ava’s apartment just so that she could have her own space, even if it meant she was working for Ava. She got paid, too, which was another bonus. A few hours were enough for her and she didn’t really want to work more than that. She left that to Carlos.

“Thanks.” She heard her sister sigh. “It’s all happening too quickly. I thought it was a sales spike, but it seems like I reached a tipping point, and the sales are just pouring in.”

“Shouldn’t you be happy?”

“I am,” said Ava, sounding as glum as ever. “Maybe you could put Tori into childcare or something for a few hours—if Mom can’t look after her yet? I mean until she’s well enough herself?”

“I rang you to talk about your orders going through the roof and you’re trying to tell me how to arrange my childcare?”

Rona didn’t like it when Ava tried to tell her how to run her own life. Tori still wasn’t sleeping through the night and Ava had no idea what that was like or how hard things were for her. Tori was a lively little baby and Rona was just about coping.

“I’m sorry,” said Ava. “I’m trying to plan ahead and figure out what I need to do. Kim’s made some suggestions and I’m thinking things over.”

“What’s Kim got to do with anything? I can make suggestions. I have ideas too. How come you never ask me?”

“I didn’t ask her. She suggested them because the customer queries were going through the roof.”

“What do you have in mind?”

“I’m not sure yet but I might need more of your help.”

“There’s only so much I can do but if you’re willing to pay me—”

“I always pay you. I’m not running a sweatshop here. I think I pay you quite well.”

“Yeah,” said Rona begrudgingly, “You do.”

“I have a few ideas, but I need to discuss them with Nico first.”

Rona envied them their close bond. It was early days for them yet; she wondered how much it would change when they’d been married as long as she and Carlos had been.

Chapter 3

“Mommy’s going out tonight,” Rona sang, smoothing down her bright pink dress that almost fit her like a second skin. She admired her reflection in the mirror and smiled. She looked hot and she knew it.

“Tha-tha-tha-tha!” Tori shrieked and slammed the drum set with her doll.

“Tha-tha!” said Rona in return. She adored her little girl even though Tori wore her out most days. But she wouldn’t change anything for the world.

Rona stared at her cherub with her heart aglow. Tori sat happily caged within the playpen. Rona had no option but to put her there while she took a shower and got ready.

She didn’t go out much in the evenings, even though this was her second time out in nearly two weeks. She was looking forward to it. Any excuse to get dressed up and forget her daily grind. With Carlos working too hard to notice that things were slipping in their relationship she had taken matters into her own hands. A mid-week date night for no apparent reason was her answer. Especially since Grandma was now feeling better again.

She turned to the side and checked out her profile; first from the right and then the left. “Still fits,” she murmured smugly as she smoothed her hand over her belly. Turning her back to the mirror, she checked her rear view.

Her bottom didn’t look bad either—her hips were almost back into shape.

She was as thin as she’d been before she’d given birth.

“Ma-ma-ma-ma-ma,” gurgled Tori. She stamped excitedly on the padded mat of the playpen and eagerly held her hands out to Rona.

“No-no-no, baby. Grandma will be here.”

[_Come on, mom. _]She glanced at her watch. It was almost six-thirty. Time for Carlos to be home too.

Angry, Tori bent down and threw her Baby Stella doll at Rona.

“No,” Rona said firmly. She picked it up and returned it to her daughter who immediately thought they were playing a game. She flung the doll back out again.

“No, baby. Mama going out with dada. Gandma coming. Gandma and Tori play.”

Her little girl understood enough to not cry. The kind, gentle fairy godmother, was coming her way. This was as close as Rona’s life would ever get to a fairy tale.

She walked away and fluffed out her hair again over her shoulders. Dinner had been booked for seven thirty at the new Greek Restaurant in town. Carlos liked trying out new places and though she wasn’t so fond of the bread and meat dishes, she wanted to do something nice for him. He worked hard, he deserved a night out. And so did she.

If they ate earlier, they could maybe go to the new cocktail bar and hang out there for a couple of drinks. Or maybe not.

Remembering the tall stranger she’d seen last time she decided it wouldn’t be wise to go there. Maybe the Lizard Lounge? Or they could go to the movies but she was too dressed up to sit in the dark looking this good.

She preferred that they do cocktails. And it was time they sat and talked and ate without interruption. She’d seen the way Nico was with Ava, and she wanted that with Carlos again. She missed the days when they could barely keep their hands off one another. Six years of marriage had been great. But Tori’s arrival had put a bit of a dampener when it came to sex though Rona didn’t really feel too sexy or in the mood for much these days. Sleep was the only thing she craved.

She ran a brush through her hair.

“Ma-ma-ma-ma,” cried Tori again, and clutched the edges of the playpen, until she tumbled down again. She was still getting used to the feeling of standing up and anytime soon she’d be taking her first steps.

Then it would be even harder, running around trying to keep her out of mischief.

“Ma-ma-ma-ma!” the little girl yelped.

Rona sighed. The poor little angel had been in there for long enough, but Rona dared not get her out just yet. She didn’t want to get her dress or her hair or makeup messed up again.

Where are you, Mom?

“Grandma coming,” cooed Rona, and slicked on another layer of lipstick. It was just dinner. But it was something; anything to make life back at home more appealing. She’d had a hard time settling back into things after Verona.

It hadn’t really been a flirtation.

It had just been—well, it had just been a bit of fun. And now, unless she worked at it, she and Carlos would be too late to save.

It was even worse now that her mother was back because all Elsa talked about was Ava and how happy the girl was.

Her cell phone rang and she grabbed it, half-hoping it wasn’t Elsa calling to cancel.

“Hey, baby.”

“Are you still at work?” Rona looked at her watch in alarm. [_Where was Elsa? _]“We’re going to be late. I made the booking for seven thirty.”

“Uh…”

She froze, not liking the ‘Uh.’

“Uh – what?”

“I—there’s a —I—”

“What, Carlos?” He had some bullshit reason. She gritted her teeth in readiness.

“I forgot, but I’d already agreed to do the overtime—”

Screw the overtime. “Do you need to do it? Tonight?”

“Uh—it’s a sixtieth birthday party for my dad’s oldest friend. We’ve got a booking for forty extra people—”

“Carlos,” she hissed through gritted teeth. “We don’t get out often. I told you this morning before you left.”

“Sorry, baby. But it isn’t our anniversary or anything. Is it?” He sounded unsure.

“Does it have to be?” She’d thought going out for no reason might make for a good change.

“It’s midweek,” he moaned. “I thought I had the dates wrong.”

“No, you didn’t.” She thought she’d go for spontaneity.

“I can’t get out of it. I’m sorry, but maybe we could do it another ti—”

_You never put me first. _

She wished, for once. that he would put her first, that he would take a little time out for her, for them, so that she knew she mattered. So that she knew he cared enough about their relationship.

“You can’t get the others to help?”

His brothers worked alongside him—where were they? When he struggled to respond she knew she already had her answer. It was easier to turn her down than them.

“If I put my hours in now I can take a longer vacation for the wedding.” He was always putting his hours in and he’d already cut short a previous trip to Verona.

She’d had her own flirt going on back then. Those evenings had been sublime—it was the kind of adulation and attention she sought but didn’t get from Carlos anymore.

She clenched her jaw. [_A night out with his wife. Was that too much to ask? _]“You do what you think is best.” She slammed the phone down just as a Baby Stella doll smacked her on her waist.

“Tori!” she snapped. “Stop it!” The sharp tone of her voice startled the child whose bottom lip trembled, and then the top lip too, and in the next second a full-blown wail started up.

Rona closed her eyes and winced. “Aaaa, sweetie,” she said, feeling guilty as she moved towards the playpen. She scooped Tori out.

“I’m sorry. Mama isn’t angry with you.” Tori grabbed a fistful of her mom’s big hair and tugged it.

“No, Tori. No!” But her little girl found it funny and thought it was a game. The crying stopped just as suddenly. She gurgled and flailed her arms even more, pulling at the long strands.

“Oh what now?” Rona tried to free her hair with one hand and at the same time felt dampness on her bare forearm. She held Tori away and turned her to the side mid-air while she examined her bodysuit.

She groaned.

Drippy poop had leaked out of her diapers. As healthy as they were, mashed up sprouts would have to be permanently removed from Tori’s food plan. Rona winced at the small patch of dark that had stained her pink dress.

The doorbell rang. Great, she thought and hugged Tori to her chest once more as she went to answer the door.

Chapter 4

Elsa’s head pounded as if the weight of a lead brick rested directly at the top of it.

But she drove to Rona’s anyway.

She had no choice—her daughter needed her. She parked and remained in the car for a few moments while she closed her eyes and mentally prepared herself for what she knew wouldn’t be the quiet kind of evening she’d had in mind. Lately, she liked nothing more than to sit at home and reflect on things. But this evening wasn’t going to be one of those evenings. Still, she got to see her granddaughter, and even in her melancholy, Elsa’s spirits lifted.

Mornings were the hardest, and getting out of the bed was almost impossible—it was something she hadn’t experienced before in her life and she concluded that age had crept up on her in the two months since Edmondo had passed away.

She felt the need right now to go back home and curl up again but knew she couldn’t.

So despite her desire to sit in her favorite chair and close her eyes and reminisce about Edmondo and Verona, she had made an effort to get dressed and make her way here.

She hoped that Tori would at least be bathed, fed and ready for bed in a few hours.

But as she slowly climbed out of the car and walked to the door, she heard a cry. She rang the doorbell and Tori’s wails reached her ears—followed by a sharp admonition from Rona.

Elsa’s heart sank.

The door opened and a crying Tori clung to her mother’s shoulder with a fistful of her hair. “Hey,” said Rona. She was made up, big hair and earrings, but her smile didn’t light up her face.

“I’m sorry I’m late, honey. I lost track of the time and —”

“Hey, mom,” Rona sounded despondent. “It doesn’t matter,” she marched back inside, leaving Elsa to close the door. Elsa swallowed and wearily followed her inside. “What do you mean it doesn’t matter?”

Rona bounced Tori around on her hip in order to hush her.

“What’s that on your dress?” asked Elsa, noticing the stain on her daughter’s dress.

“Poop. Brussel sprouts and poop. Or some liquefied form of it.”

Elsa looked at Tori apologetically. “Has my granddaughter got an upset stomach?” Cooed Elsa, all big-eyed and pouty lips.

“Your granddaughter’s fine, but her mommy isn’t.” Now it was Rona’s turn to pout.

Elsa looked at her.

“Carlos can’t get the night off. He forgot. Shhhhh, Tori,” said Rona and attempted to unfurl the baby’s fingers from her hair.

Elsa winced. That poor hard working man was always slaving away. She put her car keys into her handbag and laid the bag on the table.

“That’s too bad.” For a moment, Elsa wondered if her services were still needed. “Is he working until late?”

“Until the early hours of the morning. You know how it is.”

Elsa scratched her eyebrow. “What happened? Why did he forget?”

“He says tonight’s a busy night and he had already agreed to help. Then later he remembered we were supposed to be going out.” A foul stench, like boiled socks and underwear, infiltrated their nostrils at that moment, causing Elsa to sniff.

“I think you need to get her out of those clothes.”

Rona sniffed, copycat style.

“Gandma’s right. Baby is smelly. Come on, let’s go clean you up.” She marched off to her room and laid the baby on the changing station.

“I can do that if you want to go clean up.” Elsa offered as she followed her daughter into the bedroom. She might as well make herself useful now that she was here.

Rona moved aside and sat on the bed, untangling the tresses of her hair that Tori had pulled. Elsa coo-ed and smiled at Tori as the baby wriggled her legs in the air. “Let’s get you out of these dirty clothes.”

“He spends more time at that goddamn restaurant than he does at home with us.” Rona stared at the stain on her dress.

“He’s trying to do what he thinks is right—he’s trying to earn. He loves you very much. If he’s working this hard it’s for you and Tori.”

“Even the break we had in Verona—he came rushing back because they were so busy. What type of man does that?”

Elsa sighed. That had been unfortunate. Her daughter had been left in Verona and would often go out alone in the evenings—leaving the baby with her. Even to this day Elsa didn’t know what she’d been up to, if anything, but she understood her daughter’s desire to free herself and get out a bit more. Carlos doted on Tori—he loved that little girl more than life itself, but his long hours meant he wasn’t around as much.

Rona continued her rant. “What’s the point of working so hard if we never get to spend time with him? What’s the point? You always say you and dad had a great life together.”

“We did,” said Elsa, her voice suddenly quiet and distant. Until the fatal accident had snatched him from her, from the girls, from their beautiful little family. She’d been alone for twenty years. Memories of that time when they were a family were sprinkled with gold dust; they were beyond precious.

“He’s more worried about letting his father down than me,” Rona complained. Elsa had taken all of the baby’s clothes off. “I think she needs a bath,” she said, turning to Rona. She knew she couldn’t do it herself since bending down on her knees was hard.

“Bath time!” said Rona in a sing-song voice that lacked real enthusiasm. She flung off her stilettoes, grabbed a hair tie from the chest of drawers, and tied her hair up again.

“Let’s give you a bath because mommy got all dressed up for no reason. Daddy is too busy.” Rona told Tori as though the little girl could commiserate with her. She turned to Elsa, “Who am I kidding? I’m home bound until she’s eighteen.”

She scooped Tori up in her arms and wandered into the master bathroom. Elsa picked up the baby’s dirty clothes and followed them in. “I’ll give these a rinse.” She began to fill up the sink.

“You’re not housebound until eighteen. You’ll have more time on your hands once she starts school.” But by then, hoped Elsa, they might have a sibling for Tori on the way.

“Feels like it,” Rona moaned while Tori squealed with delight at the soapy suds in the bath water. An assortment of brightly colored plastic farmyard animals consumed her attention.

Elsa felt sorry for Rona. Her daughter loved being sociable, loved looking good and going out. Elsa had wondered how the arrival of a new child might affect her. Work at his father’s restaurant kept Carlos busy and he had always been a hard worker. With Rona having stopped working to look after Tori, she’d seen Carlos work harder than ever.

“Why don’t you go out anyway?” she suggested, “You’re all dressed up, why spoil the evening?”

Tori got overexcited and splashed water everywhere. Elsa laughed. Bath-time was her granddaughter’s favorite time.

“Go where?” asked Rona. “We just had our girls’ night out last week. Nobody’s going to be able to go out at such short notice. This was supposed to be something spontaneous. Something different. Turns out Carlos doesn’t do spontaneous.”

“Rona,” Elsa wouldn’t hear of a bad word said against her son-in-law.

“What?” Rona swaddled Tori in a bath towel. “It doesn’t seem fair, mom. Sometimes, I want to forget that I’m a mom. I want to be me. I want to have fun and go out once in a while. Is that asking for too much?” She disappeared into the bedroom with Tori swaddled in a towel.

Elsa wrung out the wet clothes and held onto the sink with both hands. She hung her head and sighed. It seemed that no matter how much older she got, or the girls got, she would never reach a point in her life where she would never have to worry about them again.

She would always worry, or there would always be something to worry about. Even now, the thought of Ava and Nico getting married warmed Elsa’s heart at a time when Edmondo’s loss was still as raw as the day she’d heard the news. She didn’t show it to the girls, but she had difficulty sleeping at night time and the doctor had prescribed her anti-depressants.

“Mom?” Rona shouted.

“Yes, honey,” said Elsa in her best loud voice. She shook her head, pushing her thoughts and memories to the back once more. She walked into the bedroom to find Tori dressed in her baby PJs, a pair of shorts and a top. “Here, mom,” said Rona, and handed Tori to her.

The little girl willingly circled her arms around Elsa’s neck and gurgled. “Ganma loves your smell.” She buried her nose in the baby’s clothes and hair and inhaled the smell of fresh laundry, crisp green apples and lavender.

“I’ll put on her favorite film and you two can sit down and watch TV. You look tired, mom.”

“I am tired. If you’re not going out and if you don’t need me, I’d rather go home.”

“I think you should go to the doctor for a check-up,” Rona advised. “You need a blood test at least. Do you want me to go with you?”

“Don’t you worry about me. I’m quite capable of taking myself to the doctor’s.” “If you insist, Mom. But you’d better do it soon, otherwise you won’t hear the end of it from me or Ava. Sorry for dragging you out, if you want to go home, you go. I’ll check on you tomorrow.”

“It’s okay, honey. I’ll stay a while.” It would be unfeeling of her if she walked out now, seeing that Rona was clearly unhappy. She picked the baby up and went into the living room.

Chapter 5

Elsa had turned on the TV and had Tori happily playing on the floor. She fast-forwarded to Tori’s favorite song in Beauty and the Beast. The little girl clapped her hands excitedly, as though this was the best thing that had ever happened to her. Elsa caught the moment and enjoyed it.

If only it were that easy to be content with life.

“He’s going to be home late, Mom. It’s just you and me for dinner. What do you feel like?”

“Nothing, honey. I ate before I came over.” She looked at her daughter still in full make-up, with her hair scrunched up again and dressed back in her usual yoga pants and a tee-shirt. “Why don’t you and Carlos re-arrange for another night?”

“What for?” Rona cleared up the books and toys that were scattered on the sofas. “He’d only forget again, or find something else to do at the restaurant.”

“Come on, Rona. I’m sure it was a genuine mistake. I know it’s not easy for you being at home with Tori, or working, and that seems to be your world right now. But this time, with Tori being so young, it will never come back. You enjoy it, and don’t be so hard on Carlos. His working all those hours means you don’t have to go out and get a nine to five job yourself. Ava is going to experience the same thing soon.”

“Not Ava,” snorted Rona, “I’m sure Nico will get her a nanny, and she doesn’t have to cook and clean, does she?”

Elsa was alarmed at the touch of malice in her daughter’s voice. She picked up Bella the Bunny from the floor and ran her fingers along its crinkly ears. “She’s not going to live in the hotel, honey. They’ll still have a home, and it will require cleaning.”

“Nico will make sure she doesn’t have to lift a finger.” The note of jealousy in Rona’s voice was not lost on her. But her daughter was right about Nico. He’d doted on Ava ever since he’d found out she was pregnant with his child; she suspected he would dote on her anyway, whether she was pregnant or not.

“She works too,” replied Elsa trying to view the whole thing objectively.

“And I don’t?” Rona gave her a steely stare. “I’m helping her, Mom. And I’m also looking after Tori. You know she can be a handful.”

I also look after Tori while you’re at the apartment working. But Elsa wisely chose not to mention this.

Rona continued her rant. “Does anyone think of me? And I don’t even have a fancy, shmancy hotel or mansion or the whole new romance and adventure thing going on.”

So that was it.

“What adventure?” Elsa asked, curious.

Rona walked in with a bottle of wine and two glasses. Lately, it seemed that Rona needed a drink most evenings, whether she was going out or not. “Not for me, honey. I have to drive back.”

“You might as well stay, Mom. Carlos is going to be late. You can keep me company.”

Elsa shook her head, determined to get to the bottom of this sisterly rivalry. “What adventure?” she repeated.

“Verona, a new city, a new country. A new love affair.” They’d had an amazing time there, certainly, thought Elsa remembering the trip. She’d fallen in love with the country and had seen more of the sights than a regular traveler would have, thanks to Edmondo.

“It might seem like an adventure to you, but to Ava I imagine the whole thing is slightly unnerving,” offered Elsa. Her daughter had hidden her pregnancy from them all, including Nico, for a while. She’d been unsure of the future; not knowing what it would bring. She was sure Ava hadn’t seen it with the same rose tinted glasses that Rona seemed to view it.

“Nico is a multi-millionaire; he owns a string of hotels. He’s wealthy, some might say good-looking? Though I don’t think so. And yeah, my sis sure landed on her feet after falling on her ass.” She took a gulp from her glass.

“Bell! Bell! Bell-bell-bell,” squealed Tori. The little girl rubbed her eyes as she stared at the TV.

“Do you want to get me her milk? She might just fall asleep soon,” said Elsa. And maybe then she could go home.

Rona nodded but stayed put at the table, watching her mom and daughter on the floor. She took another sip.

“Rona, slow down. What if you need to drive out later tonight for some reason? You’ll be above the limit.”

She snorted. “You always think of the worst, mom. Besides, I’d just call you over.”

Elsa rolled her eyes. It was the sort of thing Rona would do.

“Honey, you have everything. You just seem to have lost sight of the things you should be grateful for—a man who loves you and adores you, a beautiful, healthy child, a home, and friends.”

“Sometimes mom, it’s not enough.”

“You can’t judge Ava, surely, for having found happiness? You too have a man who loves you very much.”

Rona snorted. “A man who puts his father’s restaurant before me.”

“He’s doing it for you.”

“I’d rather spend time with him.” She turned away, and Elsa wasn’t sure if she heard bitterness in her voice.

She’d been so wrapped up in her own sadness and memories that she hadn’t paid much attention to Rona. She hadn’t paid attention to much around here and had retreated into herself, choosing to stay away from all kinds of social interactions. Even her friends and Faith, her neighbor had left her in peace for now.

She heard the clank of pots smashing in the kitchen and got up to have a look. A pan of water, with pasta, stood to boil on the stove.

“I wish you and your sister would get along,” she said, stirring the pasta.

“Don’t worry, mom, I’ve got it.” Rona took the wooden spoon from her mom. In a pan by the pasta, she heated some milk.

Chapter 6

It had just turned ten o’clock when Elsa left, soon after Tori had fallen asleep.

The TV was off, the house was silent and the bottle of wine was half empty. Her empty glass lay on the coffee table beside her as Rona lay sprawled out on the sofa contemplating the meaning of life as it pertained to her current state of being.

It was far easier to think about things when she’d had a few glasses of wine. Carlos wouldn’t be back until long after midnight. She decided it was better that way. It would be better if she was already asleep by the time he walked in. That way they wouldn’t have to talk about things.

_So much for reigniting the spark of their marriage and getting their communication back. _

These were the very things she’d spoken to Ruben about.

Ruben.

Without meaning to, she’d found herself becoming emotionally attached to him at a time when Carlos hadn’t been there for her. And sometimes, even now, she found herself reminiscing about those days. She wondered, in her half hazy state, what he would be doing now? A man like that wouldn’t stay single for too long. Lucky woman, whoever it was that got him.

The sound of the phone ringing rammed into her thoughts and memories of Ruben quickly vanished. She turned her head towards the phone, knew she had to get it quickly before Tori woke but as she lazily reached out for it she knocked her wine glass over. It fell onto the soft deep piled rug, still in one piece.

“Rona?” It was her dear sister. What did she want, calling at this hour?

“Hi.”

“Is Mom with you? I called her place but she’s not picking up.” The real reason for her call presented itself.

“Can’t you sleep?” asked Rona, annoyed. “It’s what—six or seven in the morning at your end?”

“Six.”

“What’s wrong?” She could barely get out of bed before nine when she’d been pregnant with Tori.

“Nothing’s wrong. Nico’s leaving for Ravenna and I got up so we could have breakfast together.”

[_How sickly sweet, _]thought Rona. She’d rather lie in bed. “She should be home by now,” Rona replied, her voice thick as she sat up on the sofa. “She left. I didn’t need her after all.”

“Why?” asked Ava. “What happened?”

“I didn’t go out.”

“Why? Is Mom okay?”

“She’s fine,” replied Rona defensively.

“She doesn’t seem to be her usual self. I’m worried about her. Could you maybe take her to the doctor’s and get her checked out?” Ava asked. “She hasn’t been the same since Edmondo.”

“I told her to get a blood test,” said Rona. Was it her ears or did Ava’s voice sound a little nervous?

“If you could maybe go with her? You know what mom’s like—she’ll leave it until something happens.”

“I’ll see if I can fit her in.”

“It’s nice that you can count on Mom to help you out with Tori,” said Ava.

“I need Mom’s help, seeing that I don’t have the services of a nanny, or a maid or a cook. If I did, then I probably wouldn’t need to rely on her so much.”

The conversation had taken a spiral dive like a plane freefalling out of the sky. “I didn’t call you to fight, Rona.” Her sister obviously didn’t want to get into any bickering now. “So how come you didn’t go out?”

“Carlos couldn’t get the time off.”

“Maybe you can rearrange.”

“He’s always at the restaurant.”

“He’s a hard worker. Nico’s been busy too. All the legal stuff around Edmondo’s estate is sucking his energy and what with the new hotel opening in November and my due date.”

“There shouldn’t be any complication around the will, should there?” asked Rona, surprised and completely forgetting to mention anything about Ava’s baby. “He’ll stand to inherit all of it, won’t he?” What a charmed life beckoned for her sister.

“I don’t know much about the legalities of wills, and the whole business side of it. I’m staying out of it—being pregnant takes some getting used to and I’m still trying to get my website set up for over here.”

Rona was about to say something when the sound of Carlos walking through the door earlier than expected caught her by surprise.

“Carlos is back, I better go,” she said hastily, not wanting to stick around much longer or argue with him at this time of night. For one thing, she didn’t want Tori to wake up. It was only when she put the phone down did she realize that she’d asked Ava nothing about the baby or how she was faring in her own pregnancy.

But now was not the time to worry about her shortcomings. Carlos looked down at her sheepishly.

“You’re early,” she said and stood up, facing him with her arms folded.

“The guys told me they’d clear up for me.” He walked towards her, his brown eyes oozing his apology.

“I’m really, really sorry.” He took a step closer, unsure, watching her face intently.

“I don’t know why you bothered coming home early,” she said stiffly. “It’s too late to go out now.”

A naughty smile lit up his face. “I can make it up to you in other ways.”

Clearly they weren’t on the same page by a mile.

“You should have stayed at the restaurant and put in more hours.” Sex was the last thing on her mind.

“Hey, baby.” He took another step and the delicate wine glass crunched under his heavy step. “Shit,” he said, looking down.

She stared at the crunched up shards of broken glass. [_More mess to clear up. _]He bent down, “I’ll get it,” he said, and started picking up the pieces. “Drinking again?”

“It makes my life bearable.” Okay, so she was being slightly dramatic here but the hour and the situation demanded it.

Ignoring her, he walked out to the kitchen and returned with a newspaper onto which he put the pieces of glass. “How many times do I need to apologize?”

“Just go to bed.”

“I will once I’ve cleared this up.”

“You do that.”

“It was one dinner.” His voice was tight as he looked up at her briefly.

“Like we go out all the time,” she said. It wasn’t like Verona where she’d leave Tori with her mom and go to Gioberti’s most evenings. She missed those days. Suddenly the image of Ruben’s face crept back into her mind even though she’d tried to bury the memories.

“You’re always so miserable and moody every time I come back home. Sometimes I don’t even want to come back.”

She’d started to move away and head to bed, but his words stopped her. Glancing at him as he crouched over the floor, she saw the tense lines on his forehead. He looked tired, and she knew he’d done a twelve-hour shift. But she couldn’t let his words go so easily.

“Do you ever wonder why I’m so moody and miserable each time you get home? It’s not because I’ve spent the day having a pedicure or lunching with the girls.”

“Sweetheart, I’ve not exactly been out with the guys having beers all day long either.” He raised his voice to match hers.

“I know you work hard. I appreciate all that you do. Seems to me though that you think staying at home looking after a baby is easy work. It’s not and don’t forget I’m working for Ava and lately I’ve had Tori with me as well. That’s not easy by any means.”

Her last words were punctuated by Tori’s cry. Rona’s ears lifted in response and she waited, hoping and praying that the baby would settle quickly.

Carlos gave her a scathing look as he picked up the newspaper carefully, and then his face softened in an instant. “I know it’s not easy. I’m sorry. Let’s not fight. We’re both tired.”

“Tori’s up,” she said grumpily and marched off towards the nursery. “Don’t wait up for me.”

She walked softly into Tori’s room and picked up her daughter. Sadness enveloped her as she slowly sat down in the rocking chair, closing her eyes as she attempted to rock Tori back to sleep.

The baby was just about settled again when the vacuum cleaner roared. Instantly Tori let out another loud howl, the sound scaring her and her pitch reaching banshee level.

“Shhhhh,” said Rona gently and held her in both arms, hugging her baby to her chest. She sat down carefully in the rocking chair and hummed the child to sleep. Rona closed her eyes too, caught up in the gentle, soothing motion of the chair as memories of Verona poured over her like a summer breeze.

For a moment, she found herself back at Gioberti’s, with no baby in tow, and the only noise to be heard was the chattering of people laughing and talking and whispering to one another. As Tori lay against her chest, she was bathed in the rosy glow of nostalgia, transported to a time where she was outside enjoying the last fading rays of the sun as it kissed her skin. There, underneath the pinky-blue sky she was ‘just Rona’ again. Carefree, relaxed and happy.

The evenings were made all the more alluring because of the attention of a man who had listened to what she had to say. A man who had temporarily helped her to forget the troubles in her marriage.

She hadn’t gone looking for him. She had Carlos and she didn’t need anyone else, hadn’t ever considered anyone else. But Ruben had been there for her emotionally in a way that, and at a time when, Carlos had ceased to be.

When it had happened, the seeds of the attraction—which she still denied and kept suppressed—she didn’t know, but they had begun to talk about their significant others and the things that weren’t working out. And somewhere amidst the revelations was the newest one of them all: her heart beat a little faster each time she went out and met her new found friend for dinner. A man who wasn’t her husband, and wasn’t a friend, and was something and nothing in between.

How she had lapped up every second of their time together.

Chapter 7

“I don’t mean to sound rude, or ungrateful, and I’m not sure how to tell you this but I don’t think your sister is doing much during the time she’s at your apartment.”

Ava’s lips set into a hard line as she listened and she knew what was coming.

“I counted the orders she shipped. The ones she packaged up herself; do you want to know how many?” Kim asked.

No, she didn’t. But she could guess.

“Five.”

It was worse than she’d thought.

“She’s also updating some prices for me,” said Ava, doing her best to stand up for her sister, but the facts were staring her in the face.

Rona had been a good worker. When it had been only her. Recently, and with Kim’s arrival, Ava had noticed that her sister’s output had decreased whilst Kim’s had increased. It wasn’t that Rona was lazy. Her sister could work hard when needed, but for some reason she’d chosen to slack off with Kim’s arrival.

Whether her sister felt threatened, or insecure, or both, Ava didn’t know but clearly something had to be done.

She couldn’t let this fester.

“Thank you for letting me know. I’ll speak to her.”

“If she carries on like this, I won’t be able to carry her slack much longer. I’ve worked long hours each week, and I’ve come in on a few weekends just to make sure your products go out on time. I know the customers are waiting. It’s only me and my boy and I don’t want to spend less time with him just because your sister isn’t working to full mettle.”

Ava gulped. Kim had a good point.

She put the phone down and held her head in her hands. She’d thought taking on another person would help her. But it was having a detrimental effect. She didn’t want to lose Kim, but she also needed Rona’s help. Maybe if she could get Rona to do more of the admin work but from her own home?

She’d deal with Rona later. She’d have to consider her options carefully because she couldn’t afford to have either one of them unhappy and yet they clearly couldn’t work together anymore.

But first she needed to speak to her mom. It was time to find out what had been the outcome of her mother’s visit to the doctor.

“What did the doctor say, Mom?”

“You don’t have to worry about a thing. I’m fine.”

She could tell her mother was avoiding giving her a straight answer, and she was already worried. “I worry more when you try to hide it from me, like now. What did he say?”

“My blood pressure has increased slightly.”

“To what?”

“One hundred and eighty over ninety.”

“One eighty over ninety! You’ve never had a problem with your blood pressure before. And that’s not a slight increase. What is it, Mom? What’s brought this on?”

“I knew you’d worry.”

“Of course I’m going to worry.”

“It’s not good for the baby. But, I want to know how you’re doing?”

It was typical of her mom to completely avoid the subject and deflect the attention back to her. “My baby is stressed out because I’m worrying about you.”

“But I told you—”

“Is it Edmondo?”

“Ava, it’s…I don’t know. It’s everything. Not just Edmondo.”

“Then what?”

When she didn’t say anything, Ava asked, “Why don’t you come here again, Mom?”

“I only left a few weeks ago.”

“So? I love you being here, Nico does too. You could spend time in the gardens. You could even take up painting again. Have you ever considered what a wonderful place the gardens would be for creating your art?”

“What about my life here? What about my friends at the book club and the art classes? What would everybody think?”

“Who cares what they think? You said you hardly ever go to your art classes any more or help out at the shelter. They’d understand, Mom, if they were your friends and they cared about you.”

“I can’t, honey. I’m coming for the wedding in a few months anyway. Besides I need some distance. I need to collect my thoughts.”

This was the real reason her mother was reticent. Ava knew her mother needed more time.

She wasn’t going to force her mom to do anything she didn’t want to. It was difficult for Ava to keep her eye on everything. She already had enough things to deal with as it was. Not only was she getting used to the baby’s demands on her body, but her recent engagement to Nico and the impending wedding in August meant that she had left Denver for good. Italy would now be her permanent home, even if she did travel back and forth as she’d intended to. Verona would be the place where her child would be born and raised, with Nico, her husband.

Her world had changed so much in such a short space of time and she was having trouble juggling everything.

But she couldn’t help worrying about Elsa almost as much as she worried about Nico. He was hurting even though he tried not to show it, but she loved this man and had come to understand him deeply. She knew his show of a brave face was only because of her condition and because she carried his child. His wounds were blood red and seeping and she knew it would be many months, if not years before he fully came to terms with Edmondo’s sudden passing.

If anyone could understand what Elsa was experiencing, it was Nico.

“I’m worried about Rona,” Elsa said, suddenly.

Her mother’s words pulled Ava away from her abstract analysis of her impending problems.

“Rona? Why?”

“She and Carlos seem to be having problems.”

“What sort of problems?”

“She doesn’t think he spends enough time with her and Tori, and you and I both know it’s because he’s always so busy working.”

“I know,” murmured Ava. “She said she’d arranged a night out a few days ago, but it didn’t work out.”

“She was so much happier when she was in Verona.”

“She was?” asked Ava as she considered her mother’s words. She had been so embroiled in her own drama that she didn’t have much time to see what Rona had been up to.

“Perhaps a change would do her good,” suggested Elsa. “I think working for you has been a good thing for her. I love the time I get to spend with Tori, but lately Rona seems busier than ever. I haven’t had Tori much lately. It’s taking me longer than I thought to bounce back. It’s good for your sister to have something to keep her busy but Tori is becoming more of a handul, especially now that she’s starting to become mobile.”

“I suggested to Rona that she gets a baby sitter,” said Ava.

“They cost a lot, don’t they? And then how do you know if you can trust them? I’m sure I’ll be fine soon enough.”

“She needs to do something.”

“Carlos helps out when he can, and I’ll be able to help out more once I’m fully recovered but I fell asleep the other day. I only had her for a few hours, it wasn’t long, but when I awoke, Tori was still playing with her toys, thank goodness. It worried me. Anything could have happened. What if she’d broken a glass? She can get into my kitchen cupboards. What if she’d stuck something into the wall socket or fallen down and hit her head? Which reminds me; I must ask Carlos to child proof my apartment.”

Ava was horrified. The situation her mom had described had been a close shave, regarding Tori’s safety. But her mom had her worried again. Elsa had always been an active social bee though lately she’d taken to staying at home. The tiredness, Ava suspected, was her way of retreating from the world and finding quiet contemplative time, just as Nico did when she often found him sitting in Edmondo’s office, in deep thought.

It got her thinking. She could get Rona over earlier for the wedding—and get her to help her with her business too. Ava could do with another pair of hands, Rona would be out of Kim’s way, and Elsa would be able to have time to herself.

It would work.

“I think there might be a way I could get Rona to help me even more.”

“More? I get the impression she already finds it difficult doing the hours she currently has. But it would be nice for the two of you to work together more. You used to be so close before.”

“I’ll think about it, Mom.”

Ava came off the phone and considered her options. Nico would be okay with it. He’d even offer the same pensione to her sister and he’d think Rona being over would be a help. He was too preoccupied with his own work and couldn’t help her as much as she knew he wanted to.

The problem was that Ava knew how full on her life was. She was also aware that Rona wasn’t the easiest person to get on with.

Would it work, having Rona over in Italy, or would it make things worse?

Chapter 8

“You look tired, sweetheart.” Nico walked into the room and slipped his shirt off. “I want to know how you’ve been. I missed you and I hate being away from you both.”

Ava lay on the bed watching him and the blood began to pump around her body faster. If she’d had more energy, and if she didn’t feel so bloated, she would have made her move on him by now. But at four months pregnant she felt more like a beached whale even though she didn’t look obviously pregnant. Her stomach was no longer flat and she was no longer stick thin.

It was truly a shame that being pregnant seemed to increase her sex drive at a time when she felt anything but sexy. Her heart rate accelerated, especially when she ran her eyes over his firm chest.

Get over here, her hormones screamed.

The way he looked at her, the way his eyes roamed all over her body, the way his lips teased a smile at her, made it difficult for her to concentrate on anything other than his body.

“I couldn’t wait to get back to you,” he said, peeling off his trousers. “I hate leaving you alone.”

She admired the figure of the man in his boxers and considered herself the luckiest woman in the galaxy when he flopped down beside her and grabbed her hand.

“Tell me,” he asked, in his usual low voice, the one that spoke to her so seductively. She saw the excitement in his eyes as he glanced down at her increasingly big breasts. She’d never been this big before and she felt tarty. It took some getting used to though judging by the look of admiration on Nico’s face, he very much liked her new form.

“The orders are flying through the roof,” she said, in a voice that suggested this was a problem.

“That’s great,” he replied, his voice dripped excitement. He kissed her hand then slipped his mouth down to her chest. Although she was still fully clothed, the proximity of his lips to her breasts made blood rush to her core. She wriggled in anticipation as he blew soft kisses over her paisley print cotton dress and wished she was naked already.

“I guess.” She wanted to get his advice though her body had other ideas. He’d always counseled her, and she’d never gone wrong listening to him.

“Why do you look as though this is a problem?” He stopped his kisses and looked at her.

“I hate to admit this, but I don’t think I can cope. The US operations are expanding too rapidly and even though I have Kim on board now, she and Rona don’t get along too well.”

“I thought you overcame that problem by having them working on different days?” He propped himself up on one elbow and gave her his full attention.

“I thought I did. But essentially they do the same work, and each of them carries on from where the other one left off.”

Nico’s face scrunched up. “Not a good idea, sharing the workload like that.” She made a long, groaning noise. “It’s too much, what with the wedding, and the baby, and everything else. I don’t want you to worry. I’m doing my best to concentrate on the European operations. I’m trying to get the website built, but most of my time is being taken up by what’s happening in the US. The sales over there don’t show any signs of dying down.”

He smiled. “It’s a good problem to have. Do you know how many businesses would kill to have your problem?” he asked, before taking her hand in his.

“I know. But I bet only a small percentage of those business owners are pregnant and planning to get married in a few months, on top of everything else.”

“You’re not getting cold feet?”

“Never,” she turned her lips to his and let him kiss her. He rested his hand over her soft stomach and kissed her deeply. She almost moaned with disappointment when he pulled away; her hormones had just begun to do the happy dance.

“Good,” he murmured, and she saw the fire in his eyes, his lips slightly open, and loved being here, in this moment. “I don’t want you to be worried, or have regrets about anything.”

“I don’t have any regrets. I’m not complaining. I’m overwhelmed, that’s all. I love that I’m marrying you. But I’m trying to decide what I need to do.”

“What do you need? I can help.”

She paused. He couldn’t help and she didn’t want to distract him from his own work. “I don’t think I can fly to the US until a few months after the baby is born.”

“Of course not.”

“And even though I have two helpers now it’s snowballing out of control.”

“It’s not the only thing getting out of control,” he murmured, with a look that sent her pulse soaring.

She giggled as he kissed her belly.

“It’s a good problem to have, but not for someone who is almost halfway through her pregnancy; it will get harder, and I would rather you take it easy. Have you considered giving up work completely?” She was horrified by his suggestion and it showed for he said quickly. “Just until the baby is born. You could wind things down perhaps?”

This wasn’t what she’d expected. Usually, his advice was what got her through her difficult times. “But Nico, this is what I’ve been working for. This is what I put my heart and soul into.” Besides, she wouldn’t know how to slow things down. They’d taken off on their own it seemed like. She didn’t know how to slow it down, even if that was an option for her.

“I know you’ve worked hard and I’m not asking you to give it up forever but looking at you I can see you’re exhausted. And look at your feet, they look a little swollen.”

“That’s just being pregnant,” she said. “The heat and sitting at my desk all day.” He moved down to the other side of the bed and took her feet into his hands.

“Don’t,” she cried out, embarrassed that after a whole day her feet would be sweaty and smelly. She’d much rather he fixated his efforts at the other end of her body where he’d been just now. But he ignored her and, oh goodness, his fingers and thumbs gently massaging the soles of her feet made her mewl in ecstasy. The man had a magic touch when it came to using his fingers.

“I want you to take care of yourself.”

“I do. I have naps during the day. This was a nap.” Though she was happy to be wide awake again and looked forward to him showing her exactly how much he’d missed her. She hoped it would be soon.

“Andrea told me you nearly fell asleep at the desk in her warehouse the other day.”

“I’m fine, Nico. Really I am. This baby means the world to me.”

“I’ll support you but you can’t put the baby at risk.”

“I don’t intend to but you’re one to talk,” she said sullenly. “The only difference between you and me is I’m the one carrying the baby. You’re working harder than ever.”

“That’s because I want to get the hotel up running and operational by November.”

“You killing yourself to get that done isn’t going to help us,” she countered. “I can’t have the baby born any other time believe me if I could I would.” She stopped talking and instead enjoyed the pressure of his thumbs into the ball of her foot. “November’s already a busy time as it is and you have enough going on what with the new hotel.”

“You don’t have to worry about the new hotel. That’s my problem, not yours.”

“Is it a problem?” She asked. He didn’t burden her too much with what was going on with him but sometimes she caught a snippet of his conversation while he was on the phone to the architects and the builders, or the bank manager, and she knew things weren’t easy.

“The building works are taking longer than I thought.” Sometimes he stayed in Ravenna for a day or two during the week, in order to oversee the building work. He didn’t like being away at all from her, but sometimes he had no choice in the matter.

“Do you think it might be better to postpone the opening to sometime next year?”

She already saw the defenses in his eyes come down; it was like a barricade he had erected, almost as if he was tuning her words out. He had no intention of considering a postponement of dates. She knew why he was so adamant. He felt he owed it to Edmondo; it had been the thing his father had been proud of and Nico felt that he had to honor his father’s memory by opening on time.

He shook his head, as she knew he would. “It will be fine. These things always happen. Nothing ever runs smoothly, Ava. That’s why being a business person requires balls of steel. Just as you’re finding now. It’s never smooth sailing. But we figure out ways to get over the hurdles. I’ll take care of it.”

He might think he could take care of it but looking at him, she could see that it was taking a toll on his health. Dark shadows below his eyes gave him a gaunt look. She ran her fingers through his hair and then brought her fingers down along the side of his face until they finally came to rest along his lips.

He kissed them.

“I’m excited about the baby; I’m excited about the hotel too. I just wish that my father was here,” he told her, and his expression turned solemn.

“I know.” She propped herself up on her forearms. “I miss your father too. We all do. He would have loved this.”

Nico shrugged and changed the subject as she knew he would. She often caught him sitting in Edmondo’s office for hours. Gina had said the same and she didn’t like to question him about it because she figured it was his way of thinking about his father.

“If Kim and Rona are having problems getting on and the US side is expanding, then maybe it’s not a good idea to start up the European side just yet. Focus on one thing: products, sourcing, and getting the orders out. Don’t take on too much too fast. Do one thing properly, not many small things badly.”

She considered his suggestion. If she put a stop to getting the Italian site up, then she could concentrate solely on the US, but it didn’t completely solve the nightmare of Rona and Kim.

“What if you asked Kim to work more days and got Rona to help you in something else? Kept her completely out of that loop?”

“I was already thinking along those lines.” Ava could find plenty for her to do. She could even train her up to deal with the website maintenance, and get her to help with other time consuming tasks such as retouching product images.

He turned serious again and sat up, with his legs dangling off the bed.

“If you delegate enough work to Rona to do from home, you’d free yourself up to concentrate on other issues and separate the two of them.” He had a point because Kim by herself managed to send out about twenty-five percent more orders than Rona was able to, in the same time frame. Plus, Kim was also dealing with customer queries.

“I was thinking more along the lines of getting her over,” said Ava.

Nico looked puzzled for a moment. “Here?” He asked, then shrugged. “If it would help you, why not?”

“She could help in many ways.”

“Good,” he said. “We’ll worry about the warehouse later. Once the baby is born, I’ll help you where I can.”

“How can you help?” she asked, getting excited by the way his fingers traced along her bare arms. “You have enough on your plate.”

“Not when it comes to you. I will make time.”

She knew what it was she could do. If she asked Rona to come over a month or so before the wedding, then Elsa wouldn’t be bogged down with so many childminding duties either. It would give her mom time to recover, and resolve the problem with Kim and Rona working together.

“Thanks,” said Ava.

“For what?” he asked, slowly letting his gaze roam around her blossoming body. He was doing that undressing with his eyeballs thing he did so well.

“For listening. For advice.”

He smiled.

“Would the pensione be available?”

His gaze had dropped down to her cleavage. “You’ve grown,” he said, licking his lips and reaching out to stroke her breasts.

“Nico!” she said, trying to get his attention. “Will the pensione be available?”

“Yes,” he said, looking at her hungrily. He’d say yes to anything right now.

“Then I’ll suggest to Rona that she—” but he’d already leaned in and hooked his hand behind her neck, then moved in to seal her lips with his, his kiss hot and urgent, and full of promises.

Chapter 9

“How come you’re now asking us to record the number of packages we’re sending out each day?” Rona complained. “Is this her idea?”

“Whose? You mean Kim’s? No,” insisted Ava. “It’s mine. I need to measure everything.”

“Why?” asked Rona. Not that she had anything to hide, but this meant she’d have to note everything down. Everything. It wouldn’t surprise her if her sister installed CCTV cameras to monitor her every move. She’d have to cut down on the amount of time she spent watching TV and catching up on her soaps.

Rona thought she heard her sister cough lightly. “I have to get all my metrics in place so that I have the data to balance our workload.”

Ava didn’t trust her. That’s what it was. Rona rested a hand on her hip and considered having a few words with Kim.

“You never had to do that before. What’s changed?”

“Do you have a problem with your rate of output?” Ava asked her.

“Do you?”

“Like I told you, I need to see how long everything takes. I have to start putting procedures in place.”

Neither of them said anything.

“Mom’s got high blood pressure,” announced Ava, completely off-topic.

“She seems okay to me,” remarked Rona.

“No, it’s definitely high. She finally went to the doctor.”

“And what did he say?” It seemed odd to Rona that she was hearing news about her mother who lived not more than a fifteen-minute drive away, from her sister who was on another continent.

“It’s one eighty over ninety.”

“Is that high?”

“It’s very high.”

“Oh.”

“She’s on medication, but we need to keep an eye on her diet and exercise.”

“Oh, don’t worry about that. Tori gives her plenty of exercise.”

“I’m sure she does,” retorted Ava. Rona wasn’t sure if that was a hint of sarcasm in her words. “How are you and Carlos?”

“We’re good, why?” she asked suspiciously. “He’s working all the hours as usual.”

“Are things okay between you both?”

“Why wouldn’t they be?” She wondered if her mother had said anything to Ava.

“No reason.”

“We’ve been married nearly seven years. The novelty soon wears off.” Rona told her. It’ll happen to you, too.

Ava cleared her throat. “How would you feel if I…” Her sister hesitated and Rona’s hopes began to soar. She wondered if she was due for a promotion or a salary increase. Or, hopefully, both.

“If I asked you to come over here a little earlier than August.”

“Earlier?” Rona’s spirits inflated at the idea of being back in Verona.

“I won’t be able to make a trip to the US until after the baby’s born.”

Good luck with that, thought Rona, gleefully, knowing that Ava had no idea of the disruption that would come her way soon once that little thing escaped out into the world.

“What did you have in mind?” Rona’s ears were on alert for Ava’s suggestion but in her mind she was already sitting at Gioberti’s enjoying a crisp white wine and a Caesar salad.

“If it wouldn’t be too much to ask, and only if you want to—it would help me if you came over here—”

“For wedding help?”

“Uh…not exactly. I was thinking more along the lines of you helping me out with sourcing products. If I could train you to update the website, prices, retouch the images. I’m a little behind, what with my wrist injury. I’m trying to catch up, but the wedding is not far away. And then the baby, and it’s…too much.”

She heard the anxiety in Ava’s voice and noted that her sister sounded slightly overwhelmed. Perhaps she wasn’t the assured and confident woman Rona had her down for.

“But it’s really busy over here right now. I don’t think Kim will be able to get all the orders out on time if she’s the only one here.”

“True,” said Ava, slowly. “But I was looking for you to put together the process of how you deal with orders. Maybe put together a procedures manual—since you know the order process so well. Only you could do that. It would help me to have you nearby when it comes to re-ordering stock and looking at new products. You’ve handled the products and you know them better than I do. If it’s too much for you—don’t worry.”

“No, no, it’s not too much.” Rona had already considered and accepted her sister’s idea. The things she didn’t want was to deal with were the website or anything to do with figures, both of which were guaranteed to make her head hurt. Packaging was easy. Reading orders was a breeze. She was more of a hands on person. “I can’t do website stuff.”

“I’ll teach you. It’s not too hard.”

“Can’t Kim do that?”

“She’ll be doing the orders and dealing with customers.”

It looked as though she wasn’t going to get out of it. “Do you think Kim can handle it by herself?”

“I think so.”

“Do you trust her? With your apartment and Connor’s garage?”

“Of course. She looked after my business when I first went to Italy. Why don’t you think about it and discuss it with Carlos, then let me know?”

Rona was far too excited. “When did you want me to come over?”

“I was hoping you could come in the next few weeks, whenever you are able to.”

“I’ll have to bring Tori with me.”

“Of course,” said Ava, in a what-else-did-you-think voice.

Rona’s heart leapt for joy. Verona was within her reach…and summer days beckoned. Perhaps even the allure of love and romance again…

The way she saw it life was giving her a second chance to make the most of her opportunities.

“A few weeks?” She was looking good. She’d just had her hair done; maybe she could go shopping for summer clothes, with the extra money she had earned.

“Obviously you’ll need to discuss it with Carlos.”

“Obviously,” Rona replied, already feeling like a bird let out of a cage. As far as she was concerned she was going. Whatever Carlos thought or said didn’t factor into her final decision.

Chapter 10

Carlos had noticed a subtle change in his wife.

Sometimes she was so up and down that he couldn’t work out the cause of her mood swings. He couldn’t put it down to her periods since she was constantly miserable, the slightest thing set her off and it lasted more than a week.

If he thought about it, she was like this most of the time. She would be moody one minute and then happy the next, demanding one minute then distant the next.

It was as if she couldn’t make up her mind how she wanted to be. He’d noticed this change ever since her return from Verona. Sometimes he suspected that she had something on her mind but when he questioned her she didn’t say anything.

Nothing had changed as far as he could tell. But at the same time something had changed. He was lost and mystified, and none the wiser. He couldn’t figure out what he was doing wrong since he worked harder than ever just so that he could provide for them all.

His wife liked nice things, not too fancy, because they couldn’t afford real fancy, but a few nice clothes for her and the baby, some evenings out, her hair appointments and that was about it. She didn’t ask for much.

But he still liked to give her what he could.

She’d been mad at him for missing out on that date night she’d planned, but the thing was, he’d completely forgotten about it and he’d already agreed to help out with the party booking that night. Truth was, most days he was so exhausted by the time he got home that he fell asleep the moment his head hit the pillow.

She got mad at the smallest of things—even when he hadn’t noticed her latest haircut. She looked good—to him she always looked great.

He tried to come home early some nights so that he could spend more time with his girls. It seemed harder to find that time lately especially with Rona working for her sister. His days off were spent looking after Tori and while he loved having her to himself, it meant that the time he and Rona had together became even more limited. At first it started off as being a couple of hours but lately, she seemed to spend the whole day there.

This newer, moodier, discontent Rona was hard to live with. He wished she’d go back to being the feisty little tigress he’d fallen in love with. She wore the pants around the house, only because he let her think she did. She could be a little thoughtless at times but he knew her bark was worse than her bite. Though her being so downright moody and miserable had got him thinking. Maybe news of Ava’s pregnancy had gotten her feeling broody again. It was something to consider.

He was determined to get to the bottom of it and had decided that he’d order a takeout when she got back. Meanwhile, he’d bought her favorite wine and had straws. She had this thing about drinking it through a straw because she didn’t want to stain her teeth.

So he got Tori fed and bathed by the time she would be back. He didn’t know what time that would be because whenever he called her she’d be so busy and tell him she couldn’t talk. She had too many orders to sort out.

In the end, sensing her irritability he left it to her. He could wait.

~ ~

Rona was tired. She’d done a long day just to catch up with the orders, and she’d wanted to prove that she could work as hard as Kim, if not harder.

Hours of packaging up orders and moving boxes around and then taking them to the post office had taken its toll. To recover she’d taken a good forty-minute break and had caught up with the latest episode of ‘The Young and the Restless.

She hoped Carlos had fed and bathed Tori and that she would be ready for sleep by the time she got home. Was it too much to expect him to have cooked dinner? The only thing she wanted was to sprawl in front of the sofa and do nothing.

And dream about her next visit to Verona.

Did she dare to dream?

It wasn’t only that she was excited by the chance of seeing Ruben again, or spending her evenings at Gioberti’s—any excuse to go to Verona was good for her. A change of scenery would do her good.

But her elated mood sank to the floor, hitting it hard as soon as she walked through the door. Toys littered the floor and the sofas in the living room. Compared to this Ava’s apartment didn’t look so bad.

Her deflated spirits sank further the minute she entered the kitchen. Plates and glasses were scattered all across the countertops, which was the only reason the sink was empty.

He’d bought her favorite wine, too. The idiot. He obviously had high hopes for this evening.

Carlos was normally good—he was used to keeping the working areas clean and she wondered what had gone wrong. It had only been the two of them all day. How many people had he cooked for? And why so many pans when she suspected all he’d done was boil pasta and vegetables.

So much for coming home to rest.

She stared at the mess and her mouth drew into a straight line. Opening the door to their room, she found Carlos snoring loudly with Tori lying peacefully in his arms. Rona’s heart melted at the sight of her daughter looking sweet and peaceful in her lilac Dora pajamas.

All thoughts of flopping onto the sofa disappeared as fast as the smile on her face had, and she closed the door quietly and returned to the carnage in the rest of the house. She set to washing the dishes and clearing up the toys.

Ordinarily she wouldn’t have done this, but rage propelled her into action. She wasn’t house proud by any means, not like her crazy sister. Rona could happily live in a state of disarray for a few days, but she did, as a rule, keep the kitchen sink empty and the living room tidy at the end of the day.

Otherwise, it felt as though she never got to relax in a child-free zone.

She got busy tidying up the mess, and her temper calmed down a little due to her energy being used up.

By the time she put her feet up, she was drained completely like a used up battery. She poured herself a glass, got herself a straw, put her feet up and turned on the TV.

But she didn’t focus on a single program as she flicked back and forth looking for a nice, sentimental and romantic film to lose herself in.

Instead, she drank her wine and thought about Verona. She would be there soon. But as she settled down and flicked through the TV stations, she heard the door to their bedroom open and a few seconds later a groggy Carlos appeared in front of her.

“Hi, honey,” he said, pinching the corners of his eyes. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to fall asleep.”
She glanced at him once before turning her attention the TV and continued to sip through her straw.

“I see you found the wine?” He gave her the kind of smile that had once captivated her heart. Only now it made her want to throw something at him. She lay sprawled out across the sofa taking up the seating space. Carlos had nowhere to sit—unless he sat on the other couch. Instead, he moved to the bottom end and sat on the few inches of cushion that was available to him by her feet.

She sensed his reticence, his sheepishness and caught him examining her face. “I thought we’d order take-out. You know, from the restaurant.” His voice was light and airy, full of apology and expectation.

“I’m not hungry.”

“How come?” he asked, squeezing her calf. “Did you already eat?”

“No, I’m just not hungry.” She sipped some more wine. It was good, and it flowed through her veins like liquid happiness.

He made a noise that sounded like disappointment turned loud. “I waited for you. I thought we might have gone out tonight, you know, because I messed up the last time. But I didn’t want to ask Elsa to babysit again.”

“Good thing you didn’t. Ava thinks we already overwork her.”

“No?” he asked, in surprise. “Did she actually say that?”

“She sorta implied it, in a roundabout way.” She couldn’t work out why Carlos grated on her and even though he was trying to get on her good side by giving her calves an unasked-for massage, she wanted him to go away.

A wall of animosity had come between them—for her at least. It hadn’t suddenly appeared either. This had been a few months in the making. Possibly even since Tori had been born. Their relationship had become strained and she wasn’t sure what it was. Could sleep deprivation be that big a factor in divorce?

He asked her something, but she was pretending so hard to be dismissive and aloof—something that had become her new normal—that she really had switched off. She’d barely looked at him, either.

“Hmmm?” she said, sipping on her straw.

“Rona?” he said sharply.

“What?” She finally and begrudgingly directed her gaze at him. He looked as miserable as hell.

“Just put that down would you?” He sat forward on the couch, restless. The sombre tone of his voice immediately grabbed her attention and she pulled the straw out of her mouth. The air crackled with tension. Not now, please. She didn’t want another row—not now when she had some news for him. She wondered when to break it to him.

“Do you think we could ever have a proper conversation? Why is this so hard?”

“Why is what hard, Carlos?”

“Why are we always fighting? Why are you always so pissed off when you see me?”

“I just got home about half an hour ago. I had to clean up the kitchen and the living room. And now I’m unwinding in front of the TV. You don’t have to do any of that when you get in from work. It’s one or two days a week. I thought you’d be able to manage, because I do. And when you don’t, of course I’m going to get angry.”

“You’re always angry. It’s not just one or two days a week.”

“You misunderstood what I’m trying to tell you.” But she was too fed up to try to get her point across and she wasn’t in the mood to perform an autopsy on the relationship right now.

“I’m sorry I fell asleep. I was putting Tori to bed, she’s fed and bathed by the way—” he paused, as if waiting for effect.

When she barely acknowledged his feats of accomplishment, he continued. “I thought it would be nice for us to spend the evening together. Eating together and talking—the way we used to. You worked a long day today,” he said and reached out to lay his hand on her calf. “We don’t get to spend as much time together.”

“You’re always working. I’m used to it and maybe you should be too.” She wondered if now was the time to slip in the news about her return to Verona.

He blinked. “You’re talking as if you don’t care anymore.”

“Rona?” he asked when she said nothing.

“What?”

“We still have to make time for one another.”

“Yeah?” she said sarcastically. She’d often tried to.

“If you’re still mad at me. If this is your way of getting back at me—”

“For what?”

“This,” he said, throwing his hands up in the air and surveying the room. “That’s what you want to show me, isn’t it. That you had to come home and clear up. I’m sorry, okay? I’m sorry.”

“I have something to tell you.” She put her wine glass down and sat up.

He watched her carefully, his eyebrows drawing closer together as though he had an idea it might not be news he liked.

“I’ve been asked to go to Verona a few weeks earlier.”

“Why?” His forehead creased. “The wedding’s not until August.”

“It’s not for the wedding. Well,” she looked away and scrunched her hair into a small bun at the back. “I suppose I could help with the wedding once I’m there but—”

“But why earlier?” She could instantly see that he didn’t like this one bit.

“Ava asked me. She wants my help. She’s finding it hard what with the wedding and being pregnant.”

“How can you help?” Carlos looked puzzled and decidedly unhappy.

“She wants me to update the website and get involved in the inventory and stuff like that.”

Stuff like that? Don’t you think you should find out precisely what is expected of you?” He was asking more questions than she’d asked Ava. She’d immediately signed up for it, none the wiser as to what exactly was required of her. But she was fairly confident she could handle whatever Ava threw at her. After all, how hard could it be?

Rona shrugged. “Ava wouldn’t ask me unless she thought I could handle it.” She wrinkled her nose.

“How long for?”

“Obviously until the wedding at least.”

Carlos stood up and placed his hands in his pockets. “You and Tori will be gone for almost two months?”

She smiled, but not too widely when she saw his scowl. “It’s to help Ava. I told you the pressure is beginning to get to her. Apparently she says Nico is getting stressed out with the new hotel too. They have a lot going on.”

Carlos appeared somewhat appeased when she put it like that. She’d forgotten his unswerving fondness for Ava. That girl couldn’t do a thing wrong.

“I guess if she really needs you,” he said, resting his hand on the back of his neck. He voice trailed off.

“It’s not like she needs my help with the baby or anything. Nico provides for her well enough. She doesn’t even have to work.”

“You don’t have to work,” he countered. “I provide well enough for all of us.”

“You’re hardly in the same league, Carlos.” She was careless with her words tonight and instantly regretted what she’d said.

He was silent for the longest time and she dared not say another word.

“When are you leaving?”

“I’m not sure. A week or so. She said I needed to discuss it with you.”

He smiled. “Ava would,” he said softly. They had a good relationship the two of them and it sometimes annoyed her no end. “But you’ve already made up your mind, haven’t you?”

She shrugged. He knew her well enough.

He surprised her when he crouched on the floor and looked directly into her eyes. “I know you’ve been unhappy lately. Things between us aren’t like they used to be.”

She remained silent.

“I don’t know what the problem is.” He confessed.

And that was the problem—the disconnect between them. “I don’t know how to fix it, Rona.” He looked uncomfortable. “Maybe with Ava having a baby, maybe if you want to have another one too, we could try …”

Oh. God. No.

“No,” she said quickly, shaking her head.

“Would it really be so bad?” Disappointment painted his face.

She shrank at his words. “Most definitely not. Carlos. I don’t want another baby.”

“Not yet?” He suggested.

“Not ever.”

He got up then and backed away, the hurt in his eyes making her feel as if she’d fatally shot him with her words. “You’re that certain?”

She hadn’t meant it that harshly. “I mean, no for now.”

“No,” he said, hanging his head. “You really seemed sure. I didn’t know that having my babies was going to be such a chore for you.” He walked away and she realized how badly she’d wounded him.

She’d hurt him. It had been careless and rash of her but she couldn’t take it back and she knew Carlos well enough now to know that he wouldn’t melt until the following day.

Chapter 11

Almost ten days later, she left Denver and returned to Italy. Elsa had been pleased, Carlos quieter than usual. Her friends had squealed with delight and Celine had asked her to be on the lookout for an eligible and preferably rich Italian for her. Age not relevant.

Kim had sent her an email wishing her a pleasant stay abroad. Rona had replied by telling her that she hoped she would be able to manage by herself and to email her if she had any problems or questions.

Carlos had begrudgingly accepted that she and Tori would be away from him for almost six weeks. She knew he wasn’t happy but seemed to quietly give in on the grounds that Ava needed her help.

Life was sweet. She was back in Verona and her heart surged with joy. She felt weightless—as though heat radiated through her, as though she had a spring in her step, as though she couldn’t stop grinning from ear to ear.

This is the way life was meant to be lived. Rona could barely stop herself from smiling.

She was back at the Villa Sagranosa—the beautiful pensione set in a large estate bordered by vineyards. It was quiet, but she felt safe here. Safe and at peace.

She’d arrived at the start of July; gorgeous, beautiful, sun-drenched July in Italy. The nerve endings in her body had tingled the moment she had set eyes on the familiar green surroundings. Just the scenery alone had done it for her. She didn’t need anything else and the possibility of running into Ruben hadn’t crossed her mind. Much.

She wouldn’t be able to go out as freely; not like before, unless she took Tori with her. At least there would be no Elsa staring at her with blatant disapproval across her face each time Rona slipped out in the evening.

She had no idea how she was expected to help Ava with a youngster in tow. It remained to be seen what Ava had in mind because her sister had mentioned that she was working on a solution.

Tori gurgled happily on the bed. They’d arrived yesterday and Nico and Ava had both arrived at the airport to pick them up before driving them to the pensione.

They’d thoughtfully stocked the fridge and the cupboards wisely knowing that Rona would be too tired with a ten-month old baby to want to do anything other than rest.

How right they’d been too.

“Ga-ga-ga,” gurgled Tori happily and clapped her hands in delight as Rona slipped a pair of cute red shorts on her.

“Mama working with Aunty Ava. Is Tori going to be a good girl?” Rona cooed, as she slipped first one foot and then the other through the shorts.

“Da-da-da-da,” said Tori. “Dada…”

Rona’s heart sank. “Da-da misses Tori. Tori loves dada?”

Her little girl clapped ecstatically.

“Da-da coming soon.” Rona smiled at her daughter and saw Carlos’s soft brown eyes staring back at her. Tori was a real mix of the two of them but looking at her in this moment reminded Rona of Carlos. She’d called to tell him they had arrived, but he seemed a little reserved. His unhappiness at their departure was evident.

“Da-da-da-da,” trilled Tori.

“Come on,” said Rona, lifting her up and putting her into the stroller. “Let’s go to work.”

“Good morning!” Ava cried excitedly as soon as Rona walked through the doors and into the hotel lobby. She hoped the wheels wouldn’t mess up the marble floor and was grateful to have made it inside. Pushing the stroller up the steps and through the double doors wasn’t easy, and she bet her bottom dollar that Nico would install a ramp once Ava had the baby and they realized how difficult it was.

Tori’s chubby little face spread into the widest smile, baring two brand new bottom teeth.

“How’s my favorite niece?” Ava freed her from the stroller and hugged the baby close to her.

“Did you sleep well?” Ava asked her over the baby’s head.

“Better than Tori,” Rona replied, and exchanged greetings with Gina, the friendly receptionist who always seemed to be on duty.

“Nice to see you again, Rona.”

“It’s great to be back again,” confessed Rona happily. “And congratulations on the promotion.” Ava had told her that Gina was now the manager of the hotel.

“Thank you,” replied Gina, blushing.

“Come on,” said Ava, and took her into her office. “This used to be Nico’s once,” she explained.

“Where’s he gone?”

“Into Edmondo’s office.”

“Come in,” said Ava a little breathlessly. “There’s someone I want you to meet.”

Rona stepped in and saw a young girl, probably no more than in her early twenties.

“This is Lizzi and she sometimes helps us with childcare duties here at the hotel. She’s happy to look after Tori while you and I work.”

Rona glanced at the smiling young woman before her who appeared to be looking at Tori with delight. She felt slightly unsure but knew her sister wouldn’t have hired someone she didn’t trust.

“Hello, you pretty little baby,” said Lizzi, in a cheery, sing-song voice.

Tori immediately smiled and then held her arms out.

“Only if you’re sure,” said Ava. “I trust her implicitly but the decision is yours.”

Rona looked at them both. “Where will they be?”

“Around the hotel. They have full use of the gardens and the conservatory, when it’s quiet, and there are baby changing facilities in the washrooms. I suppose at some stage we need to have a children’s play area, but we don’t have that yet.”

It was more than the playpen, thought Rona. A slow smile spread across her face. This was more than enough and she always had Tori close by. She’d been worried about the childcare aspect of things, and any hesitance she experienced at handing her daughter over to a stranger fell away as soon as she saw the way Lizzi and Tori seemed to be getting on. It gave her a good feeling.

“Okay,” agreed Rona. “Let’s give it a try.”

And that was how it had started.

They spoke about Elsa, Nico, Edmondo’s passing and Carlos and how their lives had suddenly changed in such a short span of time and then they spent the morning getting to work.

Ava wanted to know about the way she and Kim processed orders, from start to finish. She seemed more interested in what worked and what didn’t and how it could be improved and she made copious notes ‘for the training manual’.

For the rest of that first week, they followed the exact same procedure. Rona would arrive with Tori at around ten in the morning. Lizzi would take the child for a walk or play with her and keep her busy while the sisters worked at streamlining Ava’s business.

Over time Ava showed Rona how to update the website and how to retouch product images. Daunted at first, Rona felt out of her comfort zone, annoyed at times, often with herself. But Ava wasn’t going to let her off that easily. When she knew she had no choice but to overcome her fear of technology and the unknown, and that it was alright to make mistakes, because Ava has assured her she had a backup, she felt freer to leap in and fail. Within a few weeks she was getting along just fine. What took more getting used to was Carlos’ absence. Even though he wasn’t often home that much, the few hours he did have with Tori helped. Now she had Tori all to herself after a day at work and she felt as though she had no time at all to unwind.

She felt like a single mom these days and it was hard going. At times like this she often wondered how Kim coped.

Sometimes during their day she and Ava would stop and occasionally talk about the impending wedding and the preparations. Rona was surprised to hear that Ava, who had gone over the top with the wedding preparations when she was getting married to Connor, her previous fiancé, was now remarkably relaxed about the big day this time around.

“I have a dress,” said Ava when Rona asked. “I think even a blue whale would fit into it. But I don’t have time to worry about things like that just yet. There are bigger problems that Nico’s dealing with.”

“But this is your wedding dress!” exclaimed Rona, aghast. “You’ve been for fittings, haven’t you?”

Ava shook her head. “What’s the point? I inflate by an inch daily. I’ll get it fitted nearer the time.”

It was only by working so closely with her sister that Rona saw first-hand just how hectic Ava’s life was.

Tori had taken to Lizzi and Rona no longer had any hesitations about leaving her child in her hands.

The evenings saw the two of them either eating at the pensione or a couple of times at the hotel. Ava had asked them over a few times, but Tori would be so tired at the end of the day that Rona preferred to take her straight home, bathe her and put her to bed.

Lizzi excelled at her role and Rona wished she could take her back to Denver with her. She felt better able to concentrate on her work not having to worry about child care and knowing that Tori was happy with Lizzi.

She wanted to enjoy this time and the first few weeks flew by with barely time to catch her breath. She hadn’t yet ventured to the town center in Verona or Gioberti’s yet because she’d simply been too busy. She missed Carlos but each day when she called him their conversation seemed so basic, so mundane that she got the feeling he was still holding a grudge from the night she’d told him about Verona. Maybe he was still holding resentment towards her regarding baby number two.

Rona didn’t dwell on it too much because there wasn’t much she could do about it now. They would fix things in due course. They always did.

A few weeks after arriving in Verona she ventured into town for the first time. Taking Tori in the stroller, she walked around the familiar shops that she had once frequented.

She looked her best in her white dress and pale gold sandals. The dress wasn’t clingy but still fitted enough to show off her figure. Ava would have considered her overdressed but Rona decided that she was on a holiday of sorts and that this was no different to dressing up for an evening out.

She’d felt freer and happier than she had in a long time and she felt no guilt either because she was doing nothing wrong. Could it only have been that she needed a change of scenery? Was that it?

She had ceased to think of Ruben or even Gioberti’s anymore. She was simply enjoying the freedom of being in Italy, with Tori, and working. Or did she feel unrestrained, and, therefore, happier because there was no Carlos to argue with?

She wasn’t sure why she suddenly felt freer and happier here. It couldn’t just be because she was alone. [_Could it? _]Had she and Carlos drifted that far apart?

Her conversations with Carlos were the same conversations that they had back at home. Most of the time she handed Tori the phone because he craved his daughter’s attention above all else. But the first thing Tori ever did was to chew the phone—which was pretty much what she did to anything. New objects went straight into her mouth.

Caught up in these thoughts and trying to make sense of them, Rona soon found herself in the center of town and saw the sign for [_Gioberti’s _]come into view. She pushed the stroller towards the direction of the familiar restaurant.

The brilliant, dazzling white smile of Gioberti’s captured her attention first. It was hard to miss. He was always on the lookout for young women to entice into his restaurant, always surveying the scene, for that was how he’d caught her the very first time she had stumbled upon his establishment.

She smiled, and could clearly see he was looking her up and down in the white cotton shift dress she wore.

“Ah, Bella, the beautiful summer evening has just been made brighter,” he said, dazzling her again. He kissed her warmly on both cheeks. “Come, come,” he beckoned and cleared the way for her to follow him. “You will be dining here, yes?” he presumed.

“Yes,” she said excitedly, the warm smell of garlic and buttery herbs reeling her in.

“The same table, yes?” he asked and led her over to the table where she used to sit before, tucked away in a corner but with a view of the open area outside.

“Thank you,” she said and moved the stroller with Tori fast asleep in it, up against the wall.

Electric fingers tasered her forearm, and she jumped back, startled, as the sting of static grazed her.

His touch was more than a little familiar, and she recognized his voice before she’d even had time to look up at him, before she’d even had time to recover.

Ruben.

Chapter 12

“Rona?”

Goosebumps tickled her skin as she looked up to eyes that shone as much with curiosity as excitement.

“Ruben.” Her eyes widened and she felt the rush of heat to her face. Just looking at him brought up more memories than she would ever own up to. Happiness beamed out of his face and he ran his gaze over her, and then to Tori sleeping quietly in the corner.

“Is this your daughter?”

She nodded, still reeling from the fact that he was actually here—in the flesh and no longer an old memory. She couldn’t deny the way her heart fluttered right now, at this very moment.

Just seeing him made her breathless, rendered her speechless and took her back to prom night. She shook her head, trying to get a grip on herself.

What are you doing?

His fingers still lingered on her arm, and his smile still burnt into her soul, and everything she had sought to keep down and hidden in the depths of her being had now burst to the surface.

“She’s beautiful,” he said, craning his neck over to get a proper look at her. “Beautiful.” His eyes were shiny as he said it.

“Thank you,” she said, accepting the compliment and knowing that he wouldn’t say it, but the way he looked at her he didn’t need to. _Just like her mother. _

Theirs had been nothing but a connection on an emotional level. He’d neither sought more nor had she indicated that she was looking for anything more. Yet their conversations from before, often lasting until closing time, meant they had shared so much of their past that they knew more about one another than people who hadn’t known each other that long ought to.

And here they were again.

He stood awkwardly at the table with a small bag in his hands. A take-out bag. Disappointment drenched her new found exuberance as they faced one another, suspended in silent wonder for a few moments that were filled with so many questions.

“It’s great to see you again, Rona. When?” He looked perplexed, “When did you get here?”

“ A few weeks ago.”

“A few weeks ago?” His brow creased with unasked questions.

“I didn’t know you were coming back.”

“I didn’t know I was coming back so soon.”

He waited for her to explain. “I like your hair,” he said, casting an appreciative look at her.

“Thanks.”

“It makes you look different. It brings out the green in your eyes more.” He’d noticed way more than her husband ever had. She ran her fingers through her hair self-consciously.

Even as she sat at the table, hovering between asking him how he was and whether to ask him to join her, she weighed up the options and wondered about the dangers of dancing perilously close to the flirtation that was still new. Despite what either of them had labeled it as.

She knew he sometimes passed by because his brother worked here.

“I didn’t think I’d ever see you again,” she said. “I mean…” What did she mean? It was stilted, and slow and awkward, this new conversation of theirs, as though they were strangers again. She didn’t know for sure whether she would ever see him again, but she had thought about it many times. The what if’s…

He seemed bemused by her hesitancy, and she stared at him, seeing him finally, and again, the way she always remembered him, with his deep blue eyes burning into hers with an intensity she had forgotten.

“Since you left I’ve only been here a few times. You won’t believe me, but it’s true.”

[_He hadn’t bothered coming here after she’d gone? _]She let out a smile as she remembered their meetings here at this same restaurant only a few months ago when she’d come to Verona for the first time. Getting out alone in the evenings had been her salvation back then and Elsa hadn’t minded looking after Tori.

She’d come here, in the beginning, just to enjoy a meal by herself. Gioberti’s, with its nearness to the center of town and its mouth-watering and affordable dishes—not to mention the owner’s easy banter—had been the ideal place. Gioberti had a way of making her feel special but after one evening too many his attention had begun to grate on her.

It had been sometime around her third time here that she had noticed Ruben. A couple of times he’d seen her alone and they’d acknowledged one another with a casual nod of the head. A friendly nod, there had been nothing more to it. Nothing serious. But it had been enough to make her curious to know more about him.

They got to talking, and it soon moved from casual greetings to something more; the conversations became longer, the curious desire to know more about one another took hold and just like that they’d fallen into it—their friendship. The anticipation of running into one another in the evenings soon became a reality. It had lasted a few weeks, and it was a secret that Rona had kept to herself. There hadn’t been anything to hide, after all, they hadn’t done anything but talk, and they hadn’t crossed any boundaries. They hadn’t exchanged numbers or contact details—there had been no need to. This wasn’t going to go anywhere. They didn’t have a future point to reach. He knew she was married and that she had been—not unhappy, more that she was discontent. She had mentioned that her husband had returned to the US and that she was here with her sister and her mother. He’d told her about the girlfriend he’d recently broken up with. Talking about their significant others somehow made it seem not so wrong to meet up. Soon she found herself looking forward to her evening visits and she had a feeling that he did too, though neither of them would openly admit to such a thing if asked.

It was obvious, now that here she was again and alone, that her situation remained. He didn’t ask any questions which came as a relief to her.

“Is that your dinner?” She asked and nodded at the bag in his hands.

“I haven’t eaten and I was passing by. This is today’s specials, apparently.” She nodded, and looked at the menu she’d been toying with.

“I haven’t ordered yet,” she confessed.

“I could have this with you if you don’t mind?” He appeared hesitant and she wondered, in that same moment, if life was nudging her in a direction that seemed exciting and unsure and therefore promised a step into the unknown.

“I don’t mind.”

He turned to one of the waiters who disappeared with his bag of takeout, presumably to plate it.

She ordered her small helping of antipasti, assuming that the slices of meat, anchovies, and artichokes might help with her diet. The five-two diet had become the seven-zero diet ever since her arrival in Italy. She wisely left out the wine, figuring that control was needed in this situation: she’d reconnected with the man with whom she had poured out her heart.

Of course nothing could come of this. She wasn’t that type of woman. She wasn’t. She loved Carlos. Forever. But sometimes in those empty moments when the disconnect between her and Carlos had become too severe she sometimes reminisced and wondered what Ruben might be up to. And what might have been, had her circumstances been different.

Ruben’s food arrived soon after hers and they caught up as they ate; talking about safe things and discovering what they’d both been up to these past few months. She told him about the work she did for Ava, and he told her interesting anecdotes about the customers he met in his job as an Account Executive selling software solutions to corporations.

This time they both avoided talking about their significant others.

“Did you enjoy your meal?” Gioberti asked as he stopped by their table after the waiter had cleared their plates away. He usually did this, making his customers feel at home and finding out whether they had enjoyed their meal or not. He was a very hospitable host, albeit that he also had a roving eye.

“It was lovely, as always. Thank you,” Rona replied.

“The dessert menu has been changed for the summer. I suggest you at least take a look at it.” And with that, Gioberti left them alone.

She watched him hurry away and when she brought her attention back to Ruben she found he’d been watching her. She felt the color rush to her skin and hoped it wasn’t too obvious. Warmed by the food and emboldened by the fact that Tori was still fast asleep, she stared back at him.

He leaned in across the table. “Why is it that here you are and all alone again?”

Her muscles stiffened because she found herself suddenly in unfamiliar territory. She felt suddenly vulnerable.

“I’m helping my sister,” she replied, at the same time wondering if she’d somehow attracted this—an evening out with him into her life. Had she dreamed of this moment during some of her lowest points with Carlos? Had she taken the memories of their shared evenings and grabbed them as if they were a life buoy in her darkest times? She suddenly felt guilty that she was here at all, just him and her –even though she had not orchestrated any of this.

She’d worn her white dress and sandals just in case, but she hadn’t really thought she might see him. Not really.

“Helping your sister?”

She nodded. “She’s getting married in a few months and she needed my help,” replied Rona keeping it vague.

“This means you will be here for a long time? More than a few weeks, hopefully?”

Hopefully?

“A month or more.”

He raised an eyebrow, dipped his chin, and considered her words. “I hope we run into one another again.” He was intense. Especially the way he was looking at her, with his deep blue eyes pushing into her green ones.

She did a double take and wondered if she should risk running into this man again. She’d already revealed far too much of herself before and already her heart was fluttering in a way it hadn’t for a long time.

This might not be such a good idea at a time when she and Carlos were drifting apart.

“You look happier,” Ruben commented when she didn’t say anything.

“Verona seems to bring out the best in me,” she said. “The open fields, the lush countryside. I feel freer.”

“Freer?”

She wasn’t ready to start having that conversation, of opening up to him again. Yet the undivided attention he’d given her at a time she’d felt down: when Ava’s romance with Nico was blossoming, and she and Carlos were fading away. Ruben had made her feel special.

“If you ever decide to come here again and you need company, maybe you could give me a call? I don’t come here that often.”

“It’s not as easy for me to get out in the evenings.”

“Not like before?”

She shook her head.

“Bring the little one. It doesn’t matter,” he said, smiling.

She felt color burning her cheeks. The color scarlet, for a scarlet woman. Now would be the moment to stop this but even as she thought about what to say, how to let him down gently, how to tell him she wasn’t that kind of girl, he scribbled something down on a scrap of paper and handed it to her.

“Here’s my number,” he said. “In case you ever want to meet up again. His words scared her as much as they excited her. He really wasn’t leaving anything to chance again.

“Just friends,” he said, appearing to notice her reticence as she stared at the paper blankly.

“Just friends,” she repeated as if the need to say it would make it so.

Chapter 13

“How are you?” she asked Carlos.

“The same as always,” he replied, a little testily.

“And what’s that?” she asked, wondering why every conversation with Carlos was so difficult. Was he still mad at her for coming to Verona?

“Are you still working all crazy hours?”

“Why would I stop?” He sounded sullen. “It’s empty at home. I’ve been working most days.”

“That’s not legal,” she countered, not wanting him to work every single day. He wasn’t invincible, even though he thought he was. The man needed to take a break every now and then. Couldn’t his family see how hard he worked?

“Not much else to do on my days off,” he said, gruffly. “I miss having you both around.”

An admission, at last. She felt guilty especially in light of how she’d spent her evening last night, at dinner with Ruben. A mountain of guilt emptied over her. She considered saying something about how much she missed him when he asked her. “Put Tori on the phone, would you? I miss her.”

Disappointment silenced her and she turned her attention to Tori, putting the phone to the little girl’s ear. “Da-da. Tori it’s da-da. Say ‘hi’,” Rona coaxed her. Instead her daughter gurgled and strands of spit trickled down her double chin. She clung to the phone as though it was a new toy. Rona could hear Carlos talking to her in his soft voice reserved only for his princess.

“Here, honey. Let mommy have it,” but Tori gripped the handset harder than a teething ring.

“Tori, give me the phone, please.” But Rona’s insistence was going nowhere. Her daughter thought it was a game until Rona gently released it from her fingers. “Hey, Carlos I—” but the line was dead and he’d hung up.

She felt her mouth set in stone. “Come on, baby,” she lifted Tori up. “Time to go to work.”

This morning not even her sister suspected the raging sea of turbulence that rocked inside her.

For that evening and for the next few evenings after that, Rona steered clear of Gioberti’s and cooked at the pensione.

A few days ago she’d gone over to Nico and Ava’s for dinner. They had insisted on more than one occasion and it was getting embarrassing to refuse all the time. Nico had looked exceptionally tired; his face gaunt, he looked as though he’d hardly slept. Apparently he had just returned from another couple of days in Ravenna and he seemed to have a lot on his mind. She didn’t stay too long but had been glad to have a distraction after work. Otherwise she was left to her thoughts once Tori fell asleep and the evenings alone were long. She’d often end up thinking about Ruben.

Seeing him had unnerved her. He’d brought up feelings in her that she knew were wrong, but she couldn’t help them anyway.

She’d called Carlos almost every day since she’d arrived in Italy but since running into Ruben she’d called him a few times a day, even though she often got his voicemail. Speaking to Carlos helped suppress the feelings about Ruben which had begun to resurface. She desperately needed to know that whatever difficulties she and Carlos were going through, that their differences weren’t so bad as to make their relationship unsalvageable.

Why then did she feel so guilty? Her mind was awash with confusion and guilt. She was anxious to rid herself of these thoughts and wondered why she hadn’t been so worried about them the last time she’d come.

She couldn’t make a silly mistake now. Whatever she did at this moment could affect her life for years to come. She pushed the episode to the back of her mind and renewed work again with vigor.

~ ~

“Let me have her tonight,” Ava suggested one day when Rona rubbed her eyes. “Please,” she begged. “I haven’t spent much time with the little lady and it will give me a chance to get used to being around little busy bodies.” Ava gently nudged Tori’s arm and peppered it with tiny kisses. Tori put her arms out to her aunt as if begging for Ava to take her.

“She does seem very happy today,” Rona commented and wondered if Tori would be less of a handful if she did decide to leave her this evening. “Are you sure?” she asked her sister.

“I’m sure. I’m desperate to have her. I’ll drop her off to you—”

“Or I’ll come by and get her,” Rona added. “You’ll be in need of a rest by the time this little madam has run you ragged.”

“This one,” said Ava, stroking the little girl’s cheek. “Never.”

“If you’re absolutely sure?”

“It would be an honor to look after this cherub. Don’t worry,” said Ava, and dismissed Rona’s concerns with a flick of her hand. “We’re going to have fun.”

“I think I might wander around the town center for a while,” said Rona. “And I’ll pick her up on the way back. Around eight?”

“Nine?” suggested Ava. “I can feed her—I know she loves broccoli, doesn’t she?”

“Broccoli is fine. Just don’t ever give her Brussel sprouts,” warned Rona.

“And her feeding bottle’s in here? With the powdered milk?” Ava looked inside the baby bag that Lizzi had left on the stroller. “See, we have everything. Even a change of clothes.”

And the matter was decided as easily as that.

Chapter 14

Rona returned to the pensione alone and called Carlos, once again feeling the urge to talk to him. She hadn’t meant to wake him but it was past nine in the morning and even though he didn’t start work until later, she knew Carlos was hardly one to be lying around in bed. He couldn’t relax, didn’t know how to.

“Hello?” his voice was grizzly and she imagined him unkempt and with that dusting of hairs that often graced his face first thing in the morning.

“Did I wake you?” she asked. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to.”

“You did,” he said, sounding a little irritated.

She suddenly wished she hadn’t bothered calling him.

“I’ll let you sleep, then.”

“How’s Tori?”

“She’s good.” Irritation danced around Rona’s head as she twirled the coiled wire of the phone line. He was still holding a grudge against her?

“Can I talk to her?”

“She’s not here,” Rona replied, unable to shake off the feeling of sadness surrounding her. She had thought the physical distance between her and Carlos might make them appreciate one another more but instead it threw a further wrench into their already fragile relationship. He was never usually this moody or mean, and she didn’t know why he was now.

“Where is she?”

“Ava wanted to have her for a few hours, said she needed the training. You could talk to me instead,” she suggested, a part of her wishing that the Carlos she’d come to rely on, take for granted even, would come back to her.

“I could.”

“Carlos,” she hesitated, “is something wrong? Are you still so mad at me for coming out here?”

“Ava needs you, so you had to go.”

“But why are you angry with me?”

“Who says I am?” Denial was easier than facing facts.

The reasons she’d had for calling him disappeared like sherbet on her tongue. She suddenly felt tired of playing games with him.

“I’ll let you get back to sleep,” she said, knowing that he could stop her and continue the conversation if he so wished.

“Thanks.”

He hung up on her and she was left staring at the handset as though the explanation for Carlos’s surliness might somehow be stamped on it.

Seven years, she thought, gloomily. Nearly seven years of marriage and already they were like this. Was it normal, she wondered? Was it normal for boredom and apathy to set in a few years after the first rush of love had vanished? Did familiarity kill the drunken state of heady love?

Placing her palms over her cheeks, she looked around at the empty pensione and considered the possibilities for her evening.

And before she could talk herself out of it, she called his number.

What else was there for her to do? She had to eat, and if he was going to be in the area, it made sense to arrange to meet.

These thoughts flew through her mind like shrapnel so that when he answered on the second ring, she barely had time to back out. Instead his surprised and happy sounding greeting cheered her up. “Rona? Hey, this is a nice surprise.” She thought she heard a touch of surprise color his voice.

“I’m surprised too, actually.”

“Did you call me by mistake?”

“No. I meant to call you.”

“It’s good to hear from you then.”

“I have a few hours free and…I …was…wondering…whether,” she took a deep breath and hoped she didn’t sound too clingy when she made her announcement. “If you want to meet up tonight, we could grab a quick meal at Gioberti’s again. I mean, if you’re not busy or anything.”

“I’m not busy.”

Her heartbeat began to accelerate at the idea that she might see him soon. “Then, umm…we…”

“How about we meet at Gioberti’s again? Around eight?”

“Oh, no,” she said quickly. “That would be too late.”

“Too late?”

“I have to get Tori at nine.”

“You suggest a time.”

“I was thinking we could meet now.”

“I can pick you up if you like.”

She considered it. Otherwise, she was going to get a taxi as usual.

“Are you still at the pensione?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said. “The Villa Sagranosa, near the Casa Adriana. “

“It’s on my way. I can pick you up. It’s up to you.”

She thought about it, unsure. “If that’s okay.” Why not?

She was ready and looking out of the window by the time he came to pick her up not long afterwards.

“This is a beautiful place,” he commented, admiring the renaissance architecture of the buildings.

“Isn’t it?” She agreed as she got into the car.

“The Cazale’s own this whole estate, don’t they?”

“Yes,” she replied. “My sister is engaged to Nico Cazale.”

He turned to her in surprise. “She is?”

Rona nodded.

He looked impressed. “They’ve done well for themselves, didn’t the old man die recently?”

“Edmondo—yes,” she didn’t like the way he spoke of him. “It was very sad.”

“The Cazales, huh,” he said, and turned the car around. “Dinner at Gioberti’s?”

“Why not?” she returned and tried to justify to herself why she could not feel guilty for going to dinner with a friend.

It didn’t matter that he was boyishly charming and that he didn’t seem to be too bothered that he was going out with a married woman.

Chapter 15

Carlos slammed the phone down and put his hands behind his head, pondering his situation. He couldn’t sit still, always had to be doing something, but lately he lounged around in bed far longer than he should have.

Tori wasn’t around, nor Rona. What was the point? His wife had escaped to Verona so why was she calling him—lately a couple of times every day, to talk to him?

He recalled that she had left soon after telling him. The way he saw it, she had seemed desperate to get away not only from Denver but from him, too.

He concluded that her recent calling frenzy had been due to her feeling sorry for him.

He loved that woman more than life itself. She had her failings, but where others saw vanity, he saw insecurity, where others said she was full of herself and selfish, he took that for feistiness.

It didn’t matter what others said. Nobody knew Rona like he did. Nobody loved her like he did. She was all fire and sparkle, a bit abrasive and overly concerned with herself, but he knew she was a great mother to Tori, and she worked hard when given the chance. He’d seen her get up at six and work at Ava’s apartment just so she could get the work done without having to take Tori with her.

Of course, he was grateful that Ava had taken on that other woman to share the workload because it was all getting too much for Rona to handle by herself. But this latest thing she’d said to him—about not wanting any more babies—that had hurt. He knew then that the shift he had noticed in her, and had considered subtle had a deeper edge to it.

Something was going on with her. Boredom? Had she become bored with him? She didn’t say it in as many words, but she always talked about Ava and Nico and the great changes in Ava’s life. As though she yearned for those things herself.

Perhaps visiting Verona had made her realize, all too sharply, the difference in her life and her sister’s. Now things were working out for Ava, and they needed to because that girl had gone through a rough time already.

Carlos had always thought highly of his sister-in-law and he’d seen her suffer lately when that idiot Connor had broken her heart. Nico seemed like a decent guy, the right guy, but more importantly, Nico had put love and happiness back into Ava’s life and that—as far as Carlos was concerned—was all that mattered.

Yet as things had worked out for Ava, Carlos had seen his own relationship slowly turn lukewarm. He couldn’t figure out if Rona was comparing herself to the life Ava now had and was no longer content with what she had. With him, or the life she had.

She seemed to love her part-time job, even though he didn’t like the idea of her having to work while Tori was still so young. But if it made her happy, and she seemed happy enough about it, and if Ava needed her, then who was he to stop her?

His eye caught sight of Tori’s clothes in the ironing basket and pulled the sheets back and climbed out of bed. He picked out Tori’s green baby grow and held it gently, then smelled it, and smiled—it was clean, newly washed like spring and lemons. He put it back and his attention drifted to Rona’s tee-shirt with its Queen for the Day logo. He picked it up and rubbed the fabric gently between his fingers.

It didn’t matter that she’d gone and had seemed eager to go—he understood she felt hemmed in. All day with Tori and then just work wasn’t much of an escape for her. He couldn’t give her the type of lifestyle Nico gave Ava.

But he knew she loved him—even though she didn’t want any more children, he couldn’t hold that against her. She could be abrupt, a little thoughtless sometimes but he loved her and he always would. Flaws and all.

~ ~

It was hard to concentrate on anything other than Gioberti’s teeth especially when the man faced her, giving her his total attention. Ruben’s brother waved at her as she watched him and Ruben talking at the far end of the restaurant, by the kitchen.

“It makes me very happy to see you here every week,” Gioberti told her. His brilliant whites held her captive.

“Your food is delicious, that’s why I can’t keep away,” she told him as she cast a glance at the two brothers.

“No baby today?”

“My sister is looking after her.”

“Aaahh,” he said knowingly, then flashed her another annoying smile. She was dazzled by white perfection.

“We’re just friends,” she said, not liking the sound of his ‘Aaahh.’

“Friends, of course.”

They looked at one another for a second before Rona felt obliged to add, “My husband and mother will be coming soon.”

“For the wedding, si? It is the talk of the town.” Gioberti told her.

“Yes.”

“And it is not too long now?”

“Not long at all.” Which reminded her to ask Ava about her dress fitting. Her sister’s thoughts seemed to be solely concentrated on her online store and nothing else.

“You must bring your family here when they come. You must, I insist on it.”

“I will,” she promised while at the same time thinking that bringing Carlos here wouldn’t be a good thing. Her unease turned to relief when she saw Ruben heading her way.

“Enjoy your meal,” Gioberti told them and walked away.

“Sorry,” Ruben apologized. “My brother has car problems.”

She nodded. “I didn’t know you fixed cars.”

“Neither did I.” They laughed as he sat down and the laughter paved the way for easy talk as they ordered dinner. It was light, insignificant and trivial, the things they talked about while eating under the guise of ordering food, as friends, not anything else.

She could live with this relaxed friendship; of having a companion for dinner, and nothing more. She sat back, sipping her glass of red wine and glanced at her watch.

“Still time?” he asked, sensing her anxiety.

“Yes,” she smiled, “we have an hour.”

“An hour?” he asked. “I’ll take an hour with you over nothing, any day.”

His words warmed her as much as the wine did even though she knew she had to tread carefully and not get too carried away by his words, or by him. They’d met a handful of times, just for dinner and to talk. Being so far away from Carlos made it easier to let his image fade away; it wasn’t imprinted as indelibly on her heart. But he wasn’t here and Ruben was. And because he was, his face and personality was more prominent in her heart, mind and senses. Lately, she found herself thinking about him more than she cared to admit.

She told herself that she was in control because she was the only one who contacted him. He had her number, but he never contacted her.

But then again…Tori was taken care of, Carlos was far away and couldn’t care less about her. Who would begrudge her for spending time with someone who appreciated her? Someone who was willing to listen to her, someone who made her feel better?

It was no different than going out with her girlfriends in the evening. How was that any different than Ruben making her feel better? What about the stranger in the bar back in Denver? Would going to dinner with him signify anything?

She pushed the thought to the back of her mind. This was different. Ruben was a friend. Just a friend. Suitably satisfied that she was doing nothing wrong, Rona felt content to stay there. She sipped her wine with a determination to enjoy the evening.

She had worked hard, after all.

“Do you find it odd that I’m here without my husband?” Gioberti’s comment still played on her mind and she had to know what Ruben thought. He placed his hand on his cheek, his elbow on the table and appeared to give it some thought.

“I find it odd that a beautiful woman like you is here on her own. Again.” The way he stared at her with that intensity, simply took her breath away. He knew what he was doing and she squirmed with delight and unease. Being faced with the raw words was not as easy as hiding behind innuendo.

“However, you have already told me that your husband is busy. So to answer your question: no, I don’t find it odd that you’re here alone.”

She nodded.

“You’ve come early for a reason—to help your sister and he will be coming over soon?”

The last was a question and she nodded in answer.

“Gioberti finds it strange.”

“Finds what strange?”

“That I’m seeing you for dinner, most evenings.”

“It isn’t most evenings,” said Ruben. “Once a week, if that, isn’t most evenings.”

“You’re right. It wasn’t what he said, in as much as the way he said it.”

Theirs was a friendship that hinted at the edges of something more—but neither of them crossed that line. She was in charge, she controlled it and as long as she did, nothing would go wrong.

Ruben shook his head slowly. “He is simply being nosy. He is Gioberti, after all.” When he smiled his eyes twinkled but there was a question in the way he looked at her.

“It was nothing. It’s me being paranoid. I shouldn’t have mentioned it.”

“No,” he said, stirring his coffee and tapping the spoon against the white porcelain cup. “I’d rather you did. It’s one of the things I like about us.”

“Us?”

“The way we can talk easily, like friends.”

“That’s what I think, too,” she said, staring at her mint tea.

His deep blue eyes burned into hers again. “Don’t worry about what he said. We are simply two friends meeting for dinner.” But the way he looked at her contradicted everything he had just said.

“If I was here with some girlfriends, talking about the same things we’ve talked about then nobody would look twice. But because it’s you and me, a man and a woman.”

“People think we can’t be friends.” He finished the sentence for her.

“That’s exactly it.”

“I think it can get complicated.”

“How?” She asked, curious to know. “This doesn’t feel complicated.”

“Because you’re married and because there’s a line we won’t ever cross, and because I am still getting over Celeste.”

His words smacked into her like a bucket of ice thrown at her. [_He was still hung up on that woman? _]

“You’re still not over her?” she asked, sitting up. “You broke up a while ago, didn’t you?”

“A few months ago but we got back together again, for a few weeks.”

A small sharp pain stabbed at her as he spoke.

“It didn’t work out the second time?”

“If you knew Celeste, you’d know why.”

“How would I know her?”

Her sharp reply caught him. “Of course you wouldn’t. It was just a comment, Rona.”

She smiled, tried to laugh it off. “I know.” Tried to make light of it.

“She’s wasn’t serious, and she felt that she wasn’t ready for a long term commitment.”

“Is that where you were—getting ready to make a long-term commitment?”

“I’m not sure,” he said, looking at his full cup of coffee. “Perhaps I was testing the water. Sometimes women say one thing when they really mean something else. I liked her; I think I even loved her.”

She felt a tiny sting, almost as if an ant had pinched the skin on her wrist.

“Now that I think about things looking back, I don’t think it was anything like that. Being apart from her, I saw things much more clearly.” His eyes moved to meet hers. “You see, that’s the sort of conversation I couldn’t have with a male friend.”

Rona laughed. “What conclusion would your friends make?”

“They would tell me that what I really missed was the sex.”

The word hung freely in plain sight and yet was hard to dismiss, like a two-bit hooker on a street corner.

“I think men and women can be friends,” he said. He picked up his cup, getting ready to drink from it. “But I don’t think it can be easy, except for us.” His answer gave her relief mixed in with irritation.

He was right, of course, he was right. They were getting on just fine; just as friends were supposed to.

“You said things were awkward with your husband last time. He returned to the US before you did, didn’t he?”

She was jolted back to thinking about Carlos again. How odd that Ruben seemed to remember everything she had told him. How lucky for the woman he would one day spend his life with.

“Awkward?” she asked, wondering if that had been her exact word.

“You said things weren’t so great between you two.” It was the first time he’d asked anything so pointed about her and Carlos’ relationship.

“I’m not sure,” she said and looked down at her cup with its green mint leaf submerged in water.

“But he’ll be here soon—for the wedding?”

She looked up at him. “Yes, for a week. He was going to try to take a week off for the wedding.”

Ruben’s lips inched up slightly, his face apologetic, his gaze understanding. “He must miss you both.”

She swallowed and smiled. “He does. Very much.”

He nodded his head, agreeing with her. “Shall I get the bill?” he asked. “You said you needed to be back by nine.”

She almost jumped in her seat as she glanced at her watch. Time had slipped through her fingers again, the way it always did when she was with Ruben. It was already quarter past nine. She pulled out her cell phone, her heart beating and then relaxed when she saw she had no calls from Ava. She let out a breath.

“Don’t worry,” he told her. “Let me pay and I can drive you back. It won’t take long at all.”

“Thank you,” she murmured and got out her purse, slipping him her credit card. “Halves, as always.”

At least that way it wouldn’t feel as though it had been a date.

She gave him the address to Ava’s place and asked him to drop her off just at the entrance of the large gates, to save him from going into the long driveway that led into their opulent home. She prayed that Ava would be so pre-occupied by Tori that she wouldn’t be waiting by the windows. Otherwise, she would have a lot of explaining to do.

“If you could just drop me off at the main road,” she said and hoped he wouldn’t ask too many questions.

“Are you sure?”

“I’m sure,” she said firmly. “I’ll probably stay for a while and catch up with my sister.”

He smiled and left her to it. Their journey back was unusually quiet, with neither of them having anything to say.

He didn’t bat an eye when she asked him to stop just before the gated entrance. As if he understood her need for subterfuge he parked away from the gates, reversing back a little so that his car was completely invisible to anyone looking out.

Leaving the engine running, he fixed her with his sultry gaze. This was the awkward part. She clutched her bag with one hand and had the other on the door, ready to get out.

“Thanks for a great evening,” she told him. He looked at her and gave her a smile that sent her heart rate soaring.

“Thanks for calling me. You made an otherwise boring evening unforgettable.” [_Just friends, _]she reminded herself. She got out smiling and reached the gated entrance just as he drove off.

Ava came to the door with a still very much wide awake Tori in her arms. She looked happy, if more tired than usual and though they had talked for a while, Rona didn’t stop for long. She was thankful when Ava hadn’t asked many questions of how she’d spent her evening. She reached home in the taxi that Ava had called for her, grateful that Tori had fallen asleep during the journey home.

That night, when Rona went to bed, she purposely avoided answering the missed calls she’d had from Carlos and instead lay down and relived her evening with Ruben.

Chapter 16

“That should do it,” said Carlos, securing the child safety locks onto the cupboards.

“Thank you, Carlos,” said Elsa.

“If you thank me again…” Carlos gave his mother-in-law a warm smile. He always had time for Elsa. He and Rona already owed her more than they could ever repay, just having her at hand to look after Tori whenever they needed was priceless.

“I appreciate you taking time out to fix this for me, Carlos. Tori will be walking soon and before long she’s going to be in all my cupboards.”

“Don’t mention it,” he insisted. Trust Elsa to always think of her granddaughter’s best interests.

“She’s going to be a year old soon. I can’t believe it. My granddaughter,” recalled Elsa proudly. “I remember her being born only yesterday.”

Carlos nodded and took his own walk down memory lane. He recalled being so frightened seeing Rona in such pain during her contractions. He swore he’d never put her through that again. But he would never forget the tears of joy he’d cried when they’d told him he had a beautiful and healthy little girl.

“Rona says Tori’s having an amazing time.” Elsa commented, “They have a babysitter for her during the day and Rona says Tori loves her. Her name is Lizzi, I think.”

Carlos shrugged.

“Have you spoken to her lately?” Elsa asked.

“Yesterday,” he said, stiffly. “It’s hard, what with the time difference.” He could see the worry in her eyes as she analyzed his response.

She had aged, he thought. Her hair was grayer, the lines more pronounced around her lips and eyes. He didn’t recall her looking so weak before. But Ava had said she’d been devastated by Edmondo’s death. His heart went out to this woman whose life seemed touched by tragedy.

“It’s not my place, Carlos. But I know it can’t be easy for you, being without the two of them for such a long time.”

She was obviously feeling around, trying to discover how things were between them. Maybe Rona had said something to her mother? He hadn’t been the only one who’d noticed Rona’s recent change in temperament. If the cracks in relationship were wide enough for others to notice, then it was time to do something about them.

“It’s not,” he replied, moving over to the cupboards under the sink to work on those. “I miss them, both of them,” in case she doubted how much he loved her daughter. “You know what I’m thinking?” he stopped and put down his screwdriver. He hooked his thumbs into the loops of his jeans.

“I think I’m going to surprise them.”

Elsa’s smile widened. “Surprise them?”

“Instead of taking a week off, I told my dad I needed the whole month off.”

“A month?”

Carlos nodded. “He agreed. He said I needed to take some time off. That family suffers when you don’t.” Perhaps his family too had also noticed the cracks, or had wondered why Rona had returned to Italy so soon. Perhaps they’d been worried that things between them weren’t so good. He never spoke to anyone about personal matters, but maybe others weren’t as blind as he assumed.

“Carlos, that’s the best thing I’ve heard for days. I think it’s a wonderful idea.”

He nodded. Rona had seemed happier out there and lately she’d rung him more and left messages when he’d been unable to pick up the phone. She missed him. Maybe she missed him more than he thought she might.

Unfortunately, the irritation and mood swings he’d observed in Rona when she’d been here had rubbed off on him lately so that when she called he couldn’t help but be surly back. He was still hurting from the way she had reacted when he had suggested they try for another baby. He had merely suggested it; he hadn’t expected her to give birth within the year. While he understood that she might not want to put her body through that again—and he would have respected her wishes if that was the case—he had a feeling that there was more to it than that.

There was a lot they had to work through and with her being away, he’d had time to think about the state of things. He figured it was about time he put his family first and got him and Rona back to where they had been. Strong, solid and together.

“I think I took them for granted when they were around, and it took them being away for me to realize that I was busting my ass off working but all that really matters is spending time together. You don’t need money to be with one another.”

Elsa couldn’t stop beaming at him. “She loves you, you know that don’t you?”

He knew. “I think having a taste of Italy, maybe the idea of romance and seeing things working out for Ava might have got to her—not in a bad way,” he hastened to add. “But maybe it made our life seem dull by comparison. I don’t know.” He thought about it some more. “I rushed back last time because of the business and left her and Tori out there when we could have had a great family vacation. I can’t put my family second anymore.”

“I don’t think you ever meant to, Carlos. You thought you were doing what you needed to do, to earn and provide a living. All she wanted was your time and attention; she wanted more of you.”

“And I’m going to give it to her.” He would. No more derailments. “Did you want to change your ticket?” He asked her. “We could fly out together?”

“I think it’s better for me to stick to my date and go just a week before the wedding. You go earlier and spend time with your family, Carlos. I only just got back.” But he could tell from the way her eyes glassed over that there was more to it than she was letting on. “It’s just not the same without him,” she whispered. And he knew. She was always strong with her daughters, but with Carlos Elsa’s guard always came down.

He put his big arms around her and held her.

The unbearable pain of loving someone who had left this world was something he couldn’t grasp. And, he hoped, it was something he would never have to experience in his lifetime.

Chapter 17

“If you could tell Ava,” said Nico in a serious tone, “I’d be grateful. I haven’t had much success imparting the importance of the dress though I’d marry her in her tracksuit bottoms if it came down to it.”

“It might yet come to that,” threatened Ava, resting her hand over her bump.

They were sitting around the large rosewood dining table in the home Ava now lived in with Nico. They had insisted she come over for dinner and had invited Lizzi as well.

Rona looked at her sister with surprise. “You haven’t gone for another dress fitting yet?” Was this really the same woman who’d gone over the top with her preparations when she was going to marry Connor?

“The dress fits,” Ava insisted. “Or rather, it did when I tried it on a few months ago. I should have had it elasticated all the way; it would have saved so much trouble, the constant re-stitching. It’s a shame I can’t turn up in my yoga pants.” Ava winked at Rona, clearly enjoying the serious look on Nico’s face.

“I intend to get married once, and it will be forever. Please, if you could make an effort and ditch the yoga pants, I’ll be eternally in your debt.” Nico said, reaching out for a glass of water.

Ava sobered up, touched by his words. “No yoga pants. I want to look amazing, but I can’t promise you on account of my condition.” Her eyes glistened and Rona felt once more like a third party at a dinner for two.

“You would look amazing wrapped up in brown paper and weighing a ton,” he assured her.

Ava reached out and placed her hand on his. “That’s why I love this man so much,” Ava told her. “He always says the right things.”

Rona beamed at them both. Watching them, as she had these past few weeks, she had seen their relationship first hand and had come to understand the deep love and respect the two of them had for one another.

Her relationship with Carlos has been more like fire and ice; lots of fiery love and passion during the good times and a cold distance when things weren’t so good.

Not that Nico and Ava’s relationship was plain sailing all the time—it wasn’t. She’d seen that first-hand too, but they connected at some deep level. Their cold spells didn’t last anywhere near as long as hers and Carlos’s did.

Perhaps because their relationship was new. Though, Rona remembered, with a touch of guilt, she and Carlos had been up and down from the start. They argued as ferociously as they made up. But there was no point in comparing their relationship to anyone else’s. Each person was unique and it made perfect sense that every relationship would be too.

“I promise I will make time for another fitting soon.”

Rona sat up. “Your wedding is less than four weeks away. Did you know that?”

“I still have four weeks,” Ava insisted.

“You’re taking things too slowly and you’re much too relaxed about it all. It’s completely the opposite of last time.”

A silence fell upon the room as though the red velvet curtain had just lifted for a performance.

“This isn’t like last time,” murmured Ava, as Nico squeezed her hand. “I don’t need anything else. I’d marry Nico tomorrow in a simple ceremony. The details don’t matter.”

“As long as it’s not the same dress—it doesn’t matter,” added Nico.

They brushed over the ‘other’ wedding as though it was insignificant, which it was.

“Did you get all the paperwork sorted?” asked Ava.

“I’m on it,” replied Nico, moving his hand away and picking up his wine glass. “I’d rather not talk about it either.”

Rona’s eyebrows snapped together.

“Apparently there’s a lot of paperwork to sign and forms to fill in. And being as pregnant as I am doesn’t bode too well for marrying in a church.” Ava explained.

Rona looked to Nico for clarification.

“I’d like to get married in the same church where my parents were married but we might have some convincing to do. It’s a shame the priest can’t be bought.” Nico winked at Ava.

“I hope you didn’t go there,” said Ava, horrified.

Nico shook his head. “Sweetheart, what do you take me for?”

With her features relaxing once more, Ava sat back in her chair. “It’s going to be extremely hot and I’m going to be huge, and I think he’s invited the entire village. Isn’t that right, Nico?”

“They’d have turned up anyway, with or without an invitation.”

“But what about the invites and the catering and the—” Rona was lost for words; she didn’t know where to start. They spent every day working on the business, going through things with Kim. Rona took care of the website and other admin tasks Ava had for her, while Ava visited suppliers and analyzed her figures. Only today she’d been putting the final changes to the procedures manual she had been putting together. They had met with Andrea and ordered another batch of products and then had a long conference call with Kim who seemed to be coping with the orders by herself. Nothing went out more than two days late. Even Rona was impressed.

Knowing exactly how much Ava had to deal with on a daily and weekly basis, Rona knew that unless her sister was given an extra six hours in the day she wouldn’t find the time to deal with all things wedding related.

“It helps being married to a man who owns hotels,” Ava told her. “Nico has all the contacts and we delegated tasks months ago. Everything is sorted out.”

“We just have to turn up,” Nico announced. “Assuming I can convince the priest to marry us in the church.”

“When’s Elsa coming?” Nico asked.

“A week before your big day,” Rona replied.

“And Carlos?” Ava asked.

“He said he could just about get a week off. He was going to come a few days before.”

“I wish he could take more time off,” remarked Ava.

Rona said nothing.

“Things are working out in the US, with Kim?” Nico asked.

Ava made a grumbling noise. “Sort of. Kim is running the show and keeping it all together, thank goodness, but I’m not so sure about some of the products.” Rona knew that Kim had mentioned that the customer complaints had started up regarding the products she’d sourced from one of the new suppliers.

Rona piped up. “You need to find some new suppliers because apart from Andrea and Geraldino, the other one just doesn’t have good quality products.” Ava rubbed her belly, unconsciously, and it reminded Rona of when she did that when she’d carried Tori. Self-conscious, she placed her hand over her smooth stomach.

“I know,” said Ava, looking worried. “It’s going to take a while.”

“At least the other two suppliers are good,” said Rona, trying to be positive.

“I know things are going to be hectic up until the wedding but don’t forget we’re going to have a relaxing honeymoon. And that means no work.” Nico reminded her.

Ava wiped her hand over her forehead; she had a ton of things she was juggling right now and Rona admired her. She herself had given up her job when she was seven months pregnant and she’d had two months of taking it easy before Tori had arrived.

“Are you going anywhere nice?” asked Rona, feeling excited as though she was the one who was going. Of course, it would be somewhere nice. Somewhere wonderful, she imagined.

“I don’t know. He won’t tell me,” said Ava, batting her eyelashes at Nico.

“I don’t want you dialing in, logging on, calling in, or checking figures. It’s going to be you and me and nothing else. Did you sort out your arrangements?”

“I’d say the same to you. Mr. Can’t-Live-Without-His-iPhone.” She smiled sweetly at him then added, “I’ve asked Rona to stay on until we return.”

Nico bowed his head at her. “Thank you so much.” His expression was trapped between an apology and relief.

“It’s not a problem,” said Rona quickly. It meant that she got to stay on until the start of September. Extra time in Verona was never a problem, though Carlos might not be too happy about it, especially when he realized that Tori’s first birthday would take place in Italy.

“Thank you,” said Nico. “Once we get back I’ll most likely go to Denver sometime at the end of September to look at the warehouse situation.”

“Thank you for doing that,” said Ava.

“It’s not a problem. You can’t go, and so it makes sense for me to.”

“Isn’t your new hotel opening a few months later?” Rona asked.

“Yes. I can take care of both.” He insisted.

Ava rested her hand against her forehead. “It’s crazy.”

“The only time you’ll get to put your feet up is when you’re giving birth,” said Rona.

“Your sister takes too much on,” commented Nico.

“She can’t help it,” acknowledged Rona.

“I’m hoping that two days away next week will make up for it.”

Ava scowled. “What two days?” She groaned and then remembered. “I had arranged meetings with new suppliers.”

“You’ll just have to postpone them. It’s only two days. You should go and take a little time off while you can.”

“That’s advice coming from a mother,” said Nico. “I think you should take it, besides, I need your opinion. I’d like you to see where we are with the new hotel. The infinity pools are going in and the treatment rooms are being done. I need you to cast your eye over it since your taste is impeccable.”

Ava reluctantly agreed, but Rona could see her sister’s mind working furiously as she seemed to weigh up what missing two days would mean.

“Don’t worry. I’ll keep an eye on things.” Rona did her best to assure her sister, though she still wasn’t sure how much help she was being. Of course she was now comfortable with maintaining the website and checking figures and inventory and all those other things that she once thought would be too hard. But she could have done a lot of this work back in Denver. She didn’t need to be here specifically. Though Ava obviously thought otherwise. However she was helping, it made Rona feel good that she had been of some use.

Nico drove them back home, and as Rona put Tori to bed, she couldn’t help but wonder whether those two days without Ava around would mean she could spend the evenings with Ruben.

Chapter 18

“If you’re sure you’re okay with it. Otherwise, if it’s a problem, we can leave it,” suggested Rona, anxiously. She’d held off going out yesterday, but with Ava and Nico back tomorrow, this was as good an opportunity as any.

Lizzi shook her head and assured Rona. “It is not a problem. I enjoy looking after this little one.”

“I won’t be long,” Rona promised. “I thought I would meet a friend and …” her voice trailed off. She was explaining too much and Lizzi wasn’t interested. She had already swept Tori up in her arms and was making circles in the air with her daughter held securely in her arms.

“You look beautiful,” Lizzi commented as she sat on the floor cross-legged, with Tori banging a wooden stick on the xylophone.

“Thank you,” replied Rona. She’d taken off her tight fitting top, considering it too tight and too clingy, and put on a loose fitting shirt instead, with a pair of jeans. The only thing dressy about her tonight was her chunky bronze bracelet. She’d even convinced herself to ditch the large earrings.

She heard the sound of Ruben’s car horn. “Your friend is here,” said Lizzi, and Rona gave her an uncomfortable grimace as she kissed Tori.

“Enjoy yourself,” Lizzi told her. The fact that Tori appeared not in the slightest bit interested that Rona was leaving gave her some comfort.

She rushed out of the house and saw Ruben waiting for her in the car. Even as she walked towards it, there was something different about him.

“Hi,” she said breathlessly, climbing into his black Lancia. He did a double take when he saw her. It was a slight jerk of his head, but enough for her to notice. “You look amazing.” He stared ahead of him while she put the seatbelt on.

Maybe the less-is-more mantra really did work. He’d never been so vocal about her appearance before and his compliment lifted her mood.

She gave him a sideways glance and it tripped her heart a little. “You really do look stunning,” he told her.

She shifted in her seat.

“Too much?” he asked, starting the car up again,

“A little,” she replied, making an effort to smile. She sensed that he understood. Compliments like these pushed the boundaries of their easy friendship.

“Sorry,” and with that he drove off.

They sat in silence for a while, and Rona’s thoughts turned to Tori and Lizzi. For a moment, she had reservations about leaving her baby alone. Lizzi was good and she obviously trusted her, but Ava and Nico weren’t around either. What if something happened?

Her once relaxed mood fell away as unease grappled with her insides.

“We could try somewhere different tonight—if you want?” Ruben suggested.

She wondered if she’d done the right thing by going out tonight. By going out with him.

“Rona?” he asked.

“Huh?” she looked at him, but her mind was still back at the pensione.

“You look worried. Are you worried about your baby?”

She tried to smile. Why was she so anxious? She’d never been so anxious before?

“We can turn back if you want.” He slowed the car down and pulled over to the side.

She was being silly. Of course Tori would be fine. The pensione was safe enough. Lizzi had a mobile, they had each other’s numbers. She was being paranoid without good reason.

“Let’s go.” She said, being decisive. His eyes lit up and he started the engine up again.

“Shall we try somewhere different?”

“You mean not go to Gioberti’s?” It wouldn’t be a bad thing.

He nodded.

There was something different about him tonight. After stealing another furtive glance at him she realized what it was. He didn’t look as casual, it was almost as though he’d spruced himself up a little. His hair, normally thick and springy, seemed shorter, more groomed.

“Have you had a haircut?” she asked, curious.

“Is it that obvious?” He asked, embarrassed.

She nodded. “It suits you. It looks neater.”

“Salesmen have to look sharp,” he said, getting over his embarrassment. A part of her wondered if he’d made an effort just for her.

“Especially those selling such expensive software solutions to their clients,” she joked.

“You don’t switch off when I tell you about my work?” He sounded impressed.

“I find it interesting when you tell me about some of the managers who sign off the big sale without being too sure what they’ve bought.”

“They’ve bought the right thing,” he told her. “It’s just that they don’t understand the system, though they will never admit to it. It would be like admitting that they don’t understand why they’re in those high positions.”

This was safe talk and it made her instantly feel at ease.

It was a harmless friendship; dare she say it, a mild bit of flirtation. Even now, knowing that he’d had a haircut, she wondered if the fact that he looked more appealing each time she saw him was the attraction at play or was it because he had made an effort to look good for her?

Or was it both?

“What are you thinking?” he asked, breaking up the veil of silence that had come between them.

“Tori,” she said. “I was wondering if she was okay.” Far better to tell him that than to admit the truth.

“She’ll be fine. Otherwise, you would never have left her.”

True.

“You say your sister and her fiancé are away for a few days? Maybe that’s why you’re doubly worried this evening.”

“Maybe.”

“The wedding is next month?”

“Yes, in the middle of August.”

He paused then, before asking her, “When will you return to Denver?”

“She asked if I could stay until she returns from her honeymoon—at the beginning of September.”

Wanting to gauge his reaction she stole a sideways glance at him when he had his eyes firmly fixed on the road ahead.

“And what did you say?”

“Of course I’ll help her.”

“You’re staying until then?”

“Yes.”

He glanced at her and she caught the sparkle in his eyes before he looked away again; the barest hint of a smile played on his lips.

Her heart slammed against her ribcage and a feeling of warmth and light infused her body.

From where he parked the car they had to walk a small distance to get to the new restaurant he had in mind. She followed him along a row of cobbled streets and down an alleyway with no idea where she was going and trusting him implicitly. A few times as they walked along the narrow cobbled streets she stumbled in her heels, almost falling against him.

“I’ll wear sneakers next time,” she said, jokingly. But it was only to hide the way her heart was beating uncontrollably under her shirt.

At last he stopped outside a darkly lit restaurant. Bright red and green lanterns hung outside and when they walked in it was a welcome relief not to be greeted by Gioberti for a change. The place was busy and full of people.

Small and intimate, she thought. She looked around her at the candlelit tables close to one another with their classic chequered red and white fabric tablecloths and thin bottles of oils.

Wringing her hands together, she suddenly felt unsure. The fact that the place was so intimate and discreet both bothered and excited her. Gioberti’s was safe—it was brightly lit and loud, full of chatter, and with Gioberti interrupting them every now and then, they didn’t feel so cloistered, as though they were the only people in the restaurant. This place was entirely different. There was an undercurrent of secrets and suspense here. It was the sort of place where people who shouldn’t be together would come to be together.

A waiter seated them, and then left them, and she could only stare across the table at him.

“You like it?” he asked, eager for her response.

She stared at the candles, at the wick all melted and loose, falling in clumsy rivulets clustered at its base. “It’s charming,” she replied, “It’s very…”[_ Very sensual, _]she wanted to say but she dared not use that word. “Nice,” she said instead. “Did you bring Celeste here?” It wasn’t the ideal question, perhaps but she had to break the spell. And it worked. Her reply hadn’t been the response he’d been looking for.

“She loved it.” Fire flashed in his eyes.

“I can see why.” She picked up the menu and pretended to look through it.

They ate and because the food was so good, and made a change from Gioberti’s menu, their conversation began to flow as easily and as comfortably as it had in the past. She soon forgot her initial unease and began to relax though she kept her cell on the table just in case Lizzi rang.

“Why don’t you call her?” Ruben suggested after she’d eyed her phone for the millionth time that evening.

“I don’t want to disturb them. Lizzi might be putting Tori to bed, or playing. She’d call me if there was a problem.”

“Yet you still worry when she doesn’t,” he said, studying her face.

“You never stop worrying about your child from the moment you become a parent.”

“I can believe that,” he said. “I think you are an excellent mother.”

“I do my best. I can’t say I always am. But I try to be.”

“She’s very lucky to have you.”

“I’m the lucky one.” She believed it with all her heart. Maybe she was ready for another baby? A brother or sister for Tori to play with.

“I’m away next week on a training course.” He told her.

“I thought you knew everything there was to know about selling?” She asked, mischievously.

“Apparently I don’t know everything,” he grinned. “This course is about reading body language and second guessing your client’s refusal to buy.”

“You learn how to force them into buying something they don’t want?” She angled her head, puzzled.

“Force might be too strong a word,” he said, raising his eyebrows and smiling.

“But you’ll overcome their resistance to buy without them even knowing they were resisting?”

“Something like that. It sounds interesting.”

“It sounds amazing.” She said and let him refill her wine glass.

“But I won’t be here.” He didn’t need to say anymore. It simply meant that they wouldn’t be able to meet up next week. It was just as well she’d called him tonight.

“But after that, I’ll be back and maybe next time we could try somewhere else.” She knew that by then the wedding would dominate and Carlos and Elsa would be over. Her time with Ruben was fast coming to a close but she chose not to mention that right now and spoil the evening.

“I like our evenings, Rona.”

“I do too,” she murmured, then grinned, so as to lighten the tone. “I hope they help.”

“Help?”

“Help you forget Celeste,”

“Celeste?” he laughed. “See, you’ve already made me forget her.”

“I’m glad to be of assistance.”

“What was your therapy?” he asked. “Mine was to get over Celeste. What was yours?”

He had her then. “No therapy,” she said, evasively. “It was good to feel appreciated.” She closed her eyes and winced. That wasn’t what she’d meant.

“Your husband doesn’t appreciate you?”

She shook her head. “No, that’s not what I meant.” She suddenly felt wrong discussing her relationship with Carlos with anyone, especially Ruben. “I don’t want to stay out too late,” she told him, all too aware that it was past nine o’clock and that Lizzi had yet to get home. She left her full glass of wine on the table.

“I understand,” he said and put his hand out to get the bill.

Had it been a short evening, or was it that each time she saw him time flew past quickly? She seemed to lose track of it and everything around her whenever she saw Ruben. With him she was in her own golden bubble, protected from the harshness of reality, cocooned, content and happier than she’d been in a while. She imagined this was what it must have been like for Ava, finding Nico at a time when things with Connor had turned sour.

Ava had walked free because she’d had no ties. But, thought Rona…her case was different.

Why was she thinking these thoughts? This wasn’t reality; she managed to suspend reality each time she saw him. When they talked she felt the emotional connection that she’d lost with Carlos. With Ruben she had the undivided attention of a person who made her feel as though she mattered.

This evening had seemed more serious. There was an intensity about it that hadn’t been there before. Gone was the fluffiness, the lightness and playfulness of their previous rendezvous. Their conversations, while still on safe ground, seemed deeper. He would hold her gaze for a little too long, or she would say something and watch his face for a reaction. It was like falling in love again, but in slow motion: unsure, unsteady and unable to resist the pull.

It felt as though she was taking the first slow, scary and tentative steps into the unknown.

She wasn’t sure she liked it.

Chapter 19

They walked back along the small little alleyway and sometimes his fingers brushed against hers for a heartbeat. He would move them away then, and she would pretend not to notice.

She hadn’t felt a thrill so sweet, so painful, since the first time she had kissed a boy.

They turned the corner to the street where his car was parked under the light of a lamp and she breathed an easy sigh. They walked towards the car, neither of them saying a word. But instead of walking over to his side of the car, he stopped and stood still and, caught off-guard, she did too. It was only when he looked at her that she became aware of the crazy, chaotic feelings that seared her insides.

This wasn’t like being in the bar back in Denver where easy put downs were part of her DNA. She was used to being the sassy one who always had the answers, the one with the acerbic remarks and the put downs. When it came to the all too eager eyes of strangers, she knew how to handle herself but here, tonight, under the stars and the sky, in the warm, heady night filled with wine and longing, Rona felt powerless. It was an emotion she wasn’t used to.

They’d shared so much of themselves that for the first time ever she felt vulnerable. Her pulse sprinted and desire flickered in his eyes. Her blood raced around her body, intoxicating her with the idea of lust and attraction that were so wrong and the lines blurred between what was allowed and what could only be imagined.

He stroked her arm, his thumb pressing gently around her wrists while his fingers encircled them slowly, gently, pulling her towards him until nothing but an inch of air separated them. Under the light of the lamppost, his eyes were dewy, his skin shiny. She felt her heart trying to leapfrog its way out of her throat.

“I’m glad you liked the new place,” he murmured while still stroking her wrists. She didn’t recall ever knowing that her wrists were an erogenous zone. The way Ruben looked at her made her skin tingle all over as if all of her was now an erogenous zone.

He left her speechless and all she could do was nod. She wanted to tell him that she had a great time tonight, but some part deep down inside her told her that he already knew. The subtlest hint of his cologne seeped into her senses. It was a scent she had become used to and her body warmed and longed for his closeness. Prickly heat kissed her arms, neck, and chest.

Long before his lips touched hers.

His smile turned serious and in the next moment—the moment where each of them should have walked to their respective car doors, climbed in and driven away—he moved in slowly and pressed his lips on hers. She remembered that sensation, of new lips, a different feel and texture to the ones imprinted on her soul for so many years. It was sweet, and new, his kiss, mixed up with red wine and lust. Gentle, probing, controlled lust and desire mixed in with raw wanting. He didn’t move any closer, their bodies didn’t touch, just his fingers around her wrists and his lips on hers—for the gentlest and sweetest of kisses.

Lips pressed for the longest, most bittersweet moment.

Her heartbeat clattered like the lid of a trashcan rolling around the ground. He moved away and examined her face, checking for her mood, her reaction.

In one moment what had been imagined had become real. He left her breathless, speechless, and less. Less of her, and less sure of what it was she really wanted.

She tried to smile, but she was a myriad of conflicted emotions—confused and unsure.

Who had she been kidding? It had been destined to happen from the start. The attraction had always been there, no matter how much she had convinced herself otherwise, and her heart had known, long before her mind had caught up, that this was where it had all been heading.

[_This wasn’t Carlos. _]Guilt pricked at her and she pulled away and walked over to the passenger door. He moved too and the only sound in the silky silence was the beep and thud of car locks opening.

No words were spoken during the journey home. She was unsure of everything, and in the darkness, felt the relief that her nakedness would not be exposed.

When he finally reached her pensione he parked outside and kept the engine running. The outside light had come on and she was able to see his face in the dim light.

“Thank you,” she said and grabbed her purse.

“I’m sorry if I—”

“Don’t be,” she said quickly. She didn’t want him to be sorry about anything. Her emotions were a whirlpool of confusion, and she needed time to sift through the debris and see what was left behind. But she would not have him apologize for the evening, which had been lovely. For the most part. Up until the end. It was everything she’d imagined, for she [_had _]thought of it, yet it was also not what she’d imagined.

She needed to sleep on it. “I have to go, Ruben.”

“I know,” he said. “I understand. I also understand if you don’t ever want to see me—”

“Shhhhh,” she said and almost put a finger to his lips but moved it away quickly as though the idea had singed her skin.

“I should go.”

“Goodnight, Rona,” he said, and when she opened the door and the car light came on, they glanced at one another like strangers who had suddenly become something more.

As he drove off she walked up the driveway fumbling for her keys and her heart nearly dropped when she heard the ringtone of her cell blasting out in the dead quiet of the night. Immediately thinking the worst—that something had happened to Tori—she grabbed the phone without looking as she continued to search for the keys.

“Where the hell are you?” Anger exploded from his words.

Carlos?

She dropped her keys from shock.

Where was he?

She bent over in the dim light to find the keys while her heart throttled from zero to sixty in a heartbeat.

It was at that very moment that the door opened wide. Carlos stepped out and gave her a look that would have skewered a pig.

Chapter 20

She might as well have had ‘whore’ written all over her face, the way his eyes bulged.

Rona got up slowly as the keys jangled from her fingers while questions exploded in her mind like unwelcome fireworks in a graveyard. She was hesitant, half frozen by his expression, and not wanting to walk up to him. She could feel a scene brewing.

Or perhaps she imagined it? After all, what could he know? Her guilt clouded her judgement.

“Carlos,” she braved a smile as she walked up to him but his face remained hard and he moved away from the kiss she was about to plant on his lips; the guilt still raw and red in her mind.

Tori’s cry from inside willed her into action and she walked past him, attempting a “Well this is a surprise. When did you get here?” It didn’t match the maelstrom of feelings that choked her lungs. Strange how normal her voice sounded when her insides churned like molten lava.

“Where have you been?” he asked, in a voice spiked with accusation. “Who dropped you off?” Another sentence followed hot on the heels of the first one.

She ventured a glance at him and wanted to shrink back from the ugly, angry stare he gave her. Luckily she hadn’t dressed up too much tonight—she’d only worn jeans and not a dress. Nothing that would give him cause for suspicion. She hoped. Yet despite her pep talk to herself, he still looked at her as if she’d slipped out in a negligee.

“I was out with friends,” she said and forced a smile as she tried to breeze past him quickly. She felt as though she had Ruben’s tell-tale face tattooed all over her body. Carlos gripped her wrist.

“I was worried about you, Rona. It’s past ten o’clock. My daughter is here in a foreign country with a stranger. I can’t believe you left her alone knowing that Ava and Nico aren’t around.” He seemed calm, though a little annoyed. Dare she wonder if this was just his concern showing through?

“She’s in good hands, Carlos.” She prayed her voice would sound smooth and honeyed as she walked into the living room. Lizzi rocked Tori on her shoulder. The baby sitter gave her an apologetic smile.

“Oh, my poor baby,” she said and rushed to take Tori. “Oh, my darling, darling baby. You’ve been crying.” Tori’s eyes were all red and her face blotchy. Likely she’d been disturbed while in deep slumber.

“What happened?” Rona asked Lizzi, ignoring Carlos completely.

“She was asleep, but your husband knocked on the door and he …” Lizzi looked at the floor.

“He what?” Rona asked, her earlier trepidation giving rise to anger.

“He didn’t know who I was and he got a little angry when I said you were out…” She seemed a little nervous.

Her mother’s instinct made her see red. She confronted Carlos. “What did you do?”

“I didn’t do anything,” he growled.

Lizzi had picked up her handbag and looked ready to leave. .

“I wanted to surprise you,” he told Rona. “And I didn’t know who you were.” He said to Lizzi. “I’m sorry if I upset you. I didn’t mean to.”

Lizzi gave him a wary smile.

“I’m sorry,” Rona told her, and took out some bills from her bag. “This is for tonight. And thank you.”

The sound of a horn beeping outside almost made Rona’s insides slip to the ground.

Ruben? Please no.

She held her breath as time suddenly stopped. “My grandfather has come to pick me up,” said Lizzie, kissing Tori on the cheek. “Bye, bye little one.”

“I would have called a taxi for you.” Rona felt guilty that the girl’s poor grandfather had to come at this time to pick her up.

“It’s not a problem,” Lizzi assured her before heading towards the door. She looked as though she couldn’t fly out fast enough.

Rona handed Tori to Carlos and rushed out after her, feeling guilty and responsible for the girl. The dim light from the car headlights was reflected back so that she was able to see the outline of a man in the driver’s seat. As Lizzi got into the car, Rona held up her hand to acknowledge the man she presumed was her grandfather. He waved back and then backed the car out.

Going out tonight had been a big mistake. Huge. She should never have done it.

Not with Ruben.

Not with anyone.

It had been bold and stupid, this step away from friends into newer, shakier, unfamiliar territory. Had she always known it would end up like this? Her heart sunk as she turned around and headed back inside to face Carlos.

She didn’t want to deal with anything right at this moment, and the last thing she needed was more questions.

She walked towards him to take Tori, but he refused to give her up. “I’ve got her, can’t you see?” His voice was still angry. “Have you been drinking?”

“I had a few glasses of wine,” she murmured. “With dinner.”

[_Change the subject, _]she told herself. “You woke the baby and you scared the babysitter,” she said, accusingly. Yet she stepped away from him because she felt guilty.

“I’m surprised you went out, all things being equal.”

“What of it? I’ve been working hard,” she replied. Tori looked up at her, her eyes wide and shiny, and her lower lip trembling.

“You’re upsetting her,” said Rona in a tight voice.

“[_I’m _]upsetting her?” Carlos asked. He walked into the bedroom and she followed him in, checking on her cell phone to see how many times he’d called her tonight; trying to anticipate his questions. Her brow released in relief. He’d only called her once.

“When did you get here?” she asked, curious at his sudden appearance weeks ahead of the wedding.

[_Why hadn’t he told her? _]Was he checking up on her? Is that what this was?

He ignored her as he walked around the room with Tori in his arms, trying to rock her to sleep.

“A short while before you.”

She relaxed her shoulders. Just as well they hadn’t both driven up at the same time.

He’d be here the entire month. She coughed, her mouth was parched and she couldn’t swallow. It wasn’t that she was worried about ruining anything with Ruben.

That chapter was over.

But being around Carlos at a time when she needed to think things through was going to be difficult especially with him thinking the worst. _And rightly so. _

She suddenly felt claustrophobic and left the room, leaving him to put Tori to sleep. She needed space to think, to ponder why he was so angry.

She sniffed her clothes.

Could he smell aftershave?

Ruben?

She couldn’t think properly, not now knowing that Carlos raged in the next room. He wasn’t a suspicious man and he usually never asked many questions. She could only hope that this episode would soon be forgotten.

~ ~

Carlos hugged his daughter tightly and walked around with her, happy to have her in his arms again. Happy to see her, to smell her, to hear her voice.

It was a pity he couldn’t feel the same way about her mother.

He’d known something was off but gut instinct had told him this would be a good chance to take a break with family.

Turning up so late at night he’d meant to surprise both his ladies. But when a stranger had opened the door and told him that Rona was out and that she was babysitting Tori, something had snapped inside him.

He wasn’t sure, even now, whether his anger was more because Rona had left Tori alone for the evening, or whether it was because she’d come back looking completely shocked to see him. Not surprised shock as in she was happy to see him anyway. Shocked in a bad way—as if he’d scared her, as if she had something to hide.

He wasn’t sure but he also thought he’d detected a whiff of cologne on her. Declaring himself too mad to see sense, Carlos tucked the thought out of the way.

His daughter snored quietly in his arms, her lips making the strangest of movements, which told him she was dreaming. He ran gentle fingers through her hair and kissed her on her forehead. His heart warmed to have her in his arms again.

Beep-beep.

Rona’s cell phone sounded on the bed and startled Tori. “Shhhhh,” he soothed and stroked her face gently, comforting her back to sleep.

When the cell phone beeped again, he walked over to the bed, annoyed and grabbed it to switch it off.

But curiosity got the better of him.

She had two messages. Who was texting her this time of night? Friends she’d been out with? He was curious to know who they were, if only to put his mind at rest.

Knowing it was wrong, but justifying it to himself in light of the circumstances, Carlos clicked on the messages. The latest message one said:

Sorry if I assumed too much. We can talk when you’re ready.

His blood, like an angry river, pounded in his ears.

This didn’t sound like a message from a friend. From a girlfriend. This was something [_more. _]His stomach hardened, getting ready for the punch. She’d given the impression she’d been out with a group of girls even though she hadn’t said as much.

In blind rage he thumbed back to the first message:

_I had a great evening. I hope you did too. _

I?

I?

I?

His breaths came faster, louder and he stumbled back a few steps, holding Tori tightly as he did. Needing confirmation he re-read the messages again:

_I had a great evening. I hope you did too. _

Sorry if I assumed too much. We can talk when you’re ready.

This wasn’t one woman talking to another. This wasn’t a group of girls out for an evening. This was worse, far worse than he could ever have been prepared for.

He suddenly felt as though the earth spun beneath his feet. Shaken, he thumbed back and rechecked the sender’s name.

[_Ruben. _]Not Ruby as he’d first thought.

His wife and another man.

[_What the fuck had she done? _]

While Tori slumbered in a deep and peaceful sleep against his chest, Carlos felt as though his heart had been hacked to pieces.

Chapter 21

It was as if heavy chains had settled around the base of her stomach and dragged her down a pit of misery.

Rona sat on the sofa with her head in her hands, conflicted with worry, waiting and wondering when Carlos would come out. In the eerie silence of the night, she contemplated the evening.

She waited ten minutes, then fifteen, and hadn’t realized how much time had flown—because her thoughts were a mess of jumbled clutter. It felt as though ants were skating across her brow. She couldn’t sit. She couldn’t rest. She couldn’t keep still. Nor did she want to because she was now fully alert, as though waiting for the storm to hit—because it was coming. It was coming alright; she could feel it in her bones.

He’d just landed, and he wasn’t going to come out and spend time with her? Closing her eyes, she wondered if he’d believed her. She tried to convince herself that it was only the guilt that fed her paranoia and made her think he suspected something. Had he believed her? She’d been convinced at first but as the night wore on, and he hadn’t come out, she wasn’t so sure.

_He knew. _

Doubts began to plague her. Carlos had arrived unannounced and three weeks before the wedding. He wouldn’t take that much time off work—not for anybody unless he had good reason.

So, why was he here?

To check up on you.

Carlos had always trusted her implicitly and even though she attracted attention when she went out, she had never abused his trust. She had never been in this situation before and she hated that she was in it now.

The night was long and at some point she dozed off. When she opened her eyes again, it was way past midnight.

Had he fallen asleep?

She got up and tip-toed to the bedroom, and looked around for her bag and her phone. Ruben would never call her or contact her, they had an unspoken agreement, but she had to get word to him that she couldn’t meet anymore.

It wasn’t only that she couldn’t. She didn’t want to.

It wasn’t only because Carlos had turned up unexpectedly. Kissing Ruben had been wrong, she’d known it the moment their lips had touched. It was like Christmas Eve—which was better than Christmas Day. The anticipation of the thing hadn’t lived up to what she’d felt and dreamed about in her imagination.

Why had it taken this to happen for her to discover that her heart was with Carlos? Ruben had merely been the wake-up call. She had to get word to him to stay away, out of touch. She had to set things right between her and Carlos.

Opening the door to the bedroom, she walked in and nearly jumped with fright when she caught him looking at her. His eyes were wide open and he gave her the strangest of looks. One that made her heart do an uneasy jig especially when he looked at her as though he could see right through her. She flinched.

“You took a long time,” she said, examining his face. “It’s past midnight. I was waiting for you.”

“You didn’t have to wait up.”

He got out of bed, leaving Tori lying on the bed beside him and walked out to get his suitcase.

Didn’t have to wait up?

When he walked back in again a few seconds later, he didn’t even stop to look at her and instead crouched on the floor and opened his suitcase.

“I needed to get changed,” she said, “I didn’t want to disturb you.” She walked over to the side of the bed where Tori was sleeping and began to lift her out of the bed.

“Don’t,” he warned her, glancing over his shoulder. “Leave her there.”

She frowned. “She sleeps better in the cot.”

“You met your friends, did you?” he asked, ignoring her comment and turning his back to her as he rifled through his suitcase.

“Yes,” she replied, slowly. Where was he going with this? “If I’d known you were going to surprise us I wouldn’t have—”

“Who was it?”

“Just some of the suppliers I met.”

He said nothing then and she wondered what had made him ask in the first place. The big soft cuddly Carlos she knew wouldn’t concern himself with such trivia. Her stomach quivered as though an army of earwigs was marching its way out.

“Do you mind sleeping in the other room?” he asked. “I’ve missed Tori.”

She was too shocked to remind him of their rules about sleeping with the baby in the bed instead of in the cot. Carlos had never ever asked her to sleep anywhere other than in his bed. Blood throbbed along the side of her temples and she slowly walked over to him with a million questions poised on the tip of her tongue. Self-restraint prevented her from bursting out with them for she dared not trigger any suspicion on her part. But her motherly instincts wouldn’t let the matter lie. “Are you sure you want her in the bed? It’s just that you’re probably really tired with the flight and all and—”

“She’ll be fine.”

“Just be careful you don’t squash her.”

“I’m very careful. As careful as you are.” The look he gave her was even colder than the tone of his voice. Already he felt like a stranger to her; this was a new side to Carlos and it frightened her.

“We leave in the morning, me and Tori. Around nine. But I could leave her at home with you if you want to take her for the day?”

“You take her. I’ll probably sleep in.”

She collected her night clothes and walked out, feeling strange that he’d traveled all this way and that they’d been apart for nearly a month and hadn’t even hugged or kissed one another despite him having flown thousands of miles to surprise her.

~ ~

She dressed quickly and quietly the next morning and got Tori dressed too. Carlos was awake but from the gaunt expression on his face it didn’t look as though he’d slept much.

He was cold and surly and she had the feeling that jetlag had nothing to do with this.

“Aren’t you getting up?” she asked, as she changed Tori’s clothes.

“I’m on vacation. Remember?”

She attempted a smile. “It’s great that you came early. Ava will be happy.”

“And you’re not?”

She looked up surprised. “Of course I am. I can’t believe you came out so early.”

“I bet you can’t.”

Her smile slipped. “I’m real happy to see you, Carlos, you just seem a little …angry. What is it?” She walked over to him with Tori in her arms and looked down at him. He lay in bed resting his interlaced hands behind his head.

“Is there a problem, Carlos?”

“You tell me.”

He stared at her with his large brown eyes, only they weren’t as soft as usual. The gaze he gave her was hard, like flint, and she scratched her cheek, already feeling her appetite for breakfast vanish.

“If you didn’t want to come here so early, I don’t know why you bothered.”

“I’m thinking that same thing myself. I came because I thought we could spend time together as a family.”

“And that’s changed now?” She was pushing it, she knew that. Because he was clearly pissed off about something. Yet there was no way he would know about her night out yesterday.

He remained silent.

“I’m really happy you’re here. What we need is family time.”

“I bet it is.”

She couldn’t understand his mood, maybe the jetlag had made him grouchy—otherwise she was sure he’d have taken Tori. Jetlag, maybe that’s all it was.

“I’ll see you later,” she said, bending over to give him a kiss.

“Da-da,” said Tori.

Chapter 22

He wanted to grab this ‘Ruben’ by the neck and twist it all the way around. Such were Carlos’ first thoughts of the day when he opened his eyes. His muscles were tight and the burning sensation in his chest and stomach whittled away at him, slowly eating away at his good nature.

He had spent the night in a mess of swirling suspicion with the image of his wife with another man uppermost in his mind. Three times he’d woken up and almost gone to her room to challenge her.

Three times he’d wanted to smack his fist into the wall. He’d never faced anything like this before. Had never dreamed of it. Had never seen it coming. He’d always spent his time and energy working hard so he could give her what she wanted. It didn’t leave much free time for anything else.

Overnight he became suspicious about everything, past and present. He wondered what she did at Ava’s apartment on the days when she’d worked long hours? Had she been emailing the guy? Calling him even? His friends always told him how lucky he was—that he had such a hot wife, that after so many years of being married, and with a kid, she still looked so good. Up until last night he had considered himself a lucky man but doubts, as deadly as mustard gas, had crept into his pores and slowly poisoned his senses. The existence of this ‘Ruben’ made his life hell. Carlos clenched his jaw and wondered what the fucker look like.

[_How far had she gone? _]

How could she look at him so calmly, as though everything was fine? He even found himself wondering what went on at the girls’ nights out.

He didn’t know what to believe, or who to trust. Only that he couldn’t trust her.

She’d left this morning with Tori and he was left to stew in a pool of suspicion. Not only had he read his wife’s text messages—and discovered exactly what she’d been up to without him around—but he’d gone and deleted them too. She had no idea that he knew.

Carlos got up and turned his neck to the side, hearing the crack. What a shit awful start to his vacation.

So much for surprising her.

So much for spending family time together.

So much for wanting to make things better.

So much for everything.

With his hopes relegated to the trash can, he was now at a loss for what to do. He hadn’t slept a wink last night—not one goddamn wink. All he’d done was lie awake listening to Tori’s gentle snoring and her breathing, and the cute little noises and sucking motions she made when she drank milk from a bottle. It was funny to watch her doing that when she had no bottle in her mouth. Often, he and Rona would lie there and watch her while breaking into fits of giggles.

Overtired beyond comprehension, his eyes were dry, as though slivers of metal skidded all over them. The best solution would be to get some sleep so that when he woke up he would be in a better state of mind. So that he could go to the hotel and confront her. But sleep didn’t come easily when his mind was in such a state of flux.

He’d ask her straight up who the hell Ruben was and then he’d find the man and grind him to mincemeat.

How long had this been going on? He sat up in bed and rubbed his eyes. Was this a new affair? Or was it something that had started before—like the last time she’d been here. Could it have started a few months ago? It was more than a possibility. The more he thought about it, the more it all fit into place. No goddamn wonder she’d been different since she’d returned to Denver.

This was the reason why.

This business with Ruben wasn’t new. _It was a continuation. _

He kicked his bag of toiletries and howled with rage when he stubbed his toe on the metal edge of the suitcase.

“Shhiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiitttttttttttt!” he yelped and hopped around to the bed. This wasn’t a vacation by any shape or form, and this was only the first day. He didn’t dare to think how bad things would be by the time the wedding came around.

Screw staying around for the whole month—how could he when his wife had been screwing around on him? He would take Tori and return to Denver soon after the wedding. But a few moments later, even in his slow simmering rage, he knew he couldn’t. Who would look after her when he was at work?

He needed a shower. All thought of sleep was abandoned as he figured out his plan. First he would shower, and then he would go straight to the Casa Adriana.

Chapter 23

“Good morning!” Gina greeted her with her usual bubbly enthusiasm. Rona’s misery deepened. It was a sin for anyone to be this happy when she felt so depressed herself.

“You are here early?” Gina asked.

“Too much work to do.” Rona muttered with one hand on the stroller. She hadn’t even had time to feed Tori or have her own breakfast; such had been her desire to leave the pensione where the air cackled with too much tension.

She was as miserable as hell and knew she wasn’t going to get pity or sympathy from any quarter. This had been all her own doing. She’d give anything to be back in Denver where her lifeline—her friends—were only a phone call away. They’d help her to get through this period of misery. They would dissect, cogitate, analyze, tear down and inspect everything and give her their final conclusion. Of course they’d take her side not because she was in the right but because they were her friends.

It was that kind of unconditional, saturated, honey sweet support she needed now. Only she wasn’t going to get it from anyone here.

She didn’t know how she was going to get through the next few weeks with her family getting together for Ava and Nico’s big day. Her heart sank at the thought of it.

“Did Tori keep you up?” Gina asked, smiling at the baby. “You look tired today.”

“Something like that.” There was no way she could admit to the truth even though Gina might be the only person on the planet right now to listen to her impartially. She was trustworthy, honest and diplomatic and probably the closest thing that Rona had to a friend but she had to walk away and suffer alone the heavy load on her chest.

“Ava called earlier to say that she and Nico will be back before lunch.”

Great.

Rona felt the skin around her eyes tighten. She didn’t need any more dynamics added to the mix.

“Back so soon?”

Gina nodded.

“I need to give Tori breakfast,” said Rona. She was eager to sit down and collect her thoughts. “Will you tell Lizzi that I’m in the conservatory when she comes in?”

“Certainly.”

Rona pushed the stroller into the conservatory and ordered some toast and cereal. “And some hot water too, with a jug of water.” She told the waiter, who knew her peculiar requirement for making up formula milk.

“Milk coming,” she told Tori. Her daughter smiled in delight at the mention of the magic word.

She took out her cell phone and sent Ruben a message:

[_Please don’t contact me. I know you won’t but right now is not a good time. _]

It would have to do for now. At a later day she would explain how she felt and that whatever they had shared didn’t feel right. But she needed him to stay away for now and preferably until the wedding was over.

Lizzi turned up a little later and took over giving breakfast to Tori so that Rona could eat hers in peace.

“Was your grandfather angry that you were so late?” Rona asked her while Tori grabbed Lizzi’s ponytail and pulled it gently.

“No, honey, don’t do that.” Rona chided her.

“It’s fine—and no my grandfather didn’t say anything. Is your husband feeling better today?”

“He’s tired. The flight was long and …” She didn’t know what else to say. Lizzi smiled and Rona left it at that. She downed her breakfast quickly and disappeared into the office again.

She busied herself in her work and immediately set about responding to various emails from Ava and Kim, as well as those from suppliers. Sometimes she wondered if being in Ava’s office, which had once been Nico’s office, had somehow transferred the DNA from those hard-working people to her. These days she was more focussed, often concentrating hard on her work with an unerring desire to get everything done on her list. She was so busy that she didn’t even hear the text that sounded on her phone.

The morning flew by and before she knew it she’d dealt with all outstanding queries. Needing a break she decided to see what Lizzi and Tori were up to and was informed by the receptionist that the girls were in the gardens. Rona started to make her way there and saw Gina coming out of the conservatory.

“Rona?”

Her heart stopped mid-beat at the sound of his voice. What was he doing here?

She turned around as the color slowly seeped from her face to her feet.

She rushed towards him conscious that Gina was looking at them both.

“What are you doing here?” She whispered, annoyed and irritated.

“I told you I’d come by at lunchtime.”

She scrunched up his face. “When?”

“I sent you a text.”

“I sent you a text and told you not to contact me.” She told him.

“I replied.”

She gritted her teeth. She’d been too busy to check her phone. “Why are you here? I thought we had an unspoken agreement not to—” she swiftly led him out of the hotel and to the parking lot.

“What unspoken agreement?” he asked.

“What is it?” She asked, irritated by his presence here of all places. It was a sheer fluke that Ava wasn’t around to witness this.

“I was worried about you. You never replied to my texts last night and then you send that one this morning.”

“You texted me last night?” Alarm bells went off in her head.

He nodded. “I wanted to know you were okay. Things between us—”

“Last night? You texted me last night?”

“Yes.”

“I didn’t get them.”

He shrugged. “I sent them.”

Her insides roiled. If he sent them and she didn’t get them, it meant that Carlos had intercepted them.

“What did you say?” she asked slowly.

“Here,” he said, “If you don’t believe me,”

She read the texts through a mist of haze then closed her eyes, slowly exhaling. She opened her eyes again, confounded. “What have you done?” Now she understood why Carlos had been so angry. It all made sense: his mood, his questions and the way he’d looked at her. He’d not only read the texts and thought the worst. He knew she’d lied to him.

“What’s wrong?” asked Ruben, his eyes wide with fear at her reaction.

“You shouldn’t have contacted me. You shouldn’t have. You’ve made things much, much worse.” She was never going to get herself out of this mess. Not in a million years. Carlos would never believe her, even though it was the truth that she’d regretted her indiscretion.

“Rona?” Ruben placed his hand over hers.

“Don’t touch me!” she shrieked.

“What is it?” he asked. Then anger, “You weren’t so quick to rebuff me yesterday.”

“I didn’t lead you on.”

“You didn’t?” He mocked her.

“No! I didn’t. Why would you think that? We were friends.”

“We were friends and we…didn’t you feel it? Didn’t you feel what we had?”

“Feel what?” Her head felt dizzy. This heated exchange out here would draw attention if anybody walked past them and she was thankful that neither Ava nor Nico were in the area.

“You felt something.” He insisted.

She stared at him as though he’d lost his mind. “We were friends, Ruben. Friends and nothing more.”

“You seriously believe that? How can two people be friends?”

“But that’s what we talked about.”

“Is that how you kiss your friends?”

“You kissed me.”

He frowned. “You kept falling into me, brushing your hands against mine, bumping into me. The way you looked at me—you don’t expect me to believe it didn’t really happen?”

She was outraged. “I didn’t know you were going to lure me down some cobbled narrow alleyways in my high heels.”

“You flirted with me.”

She opened her mouth to deny it—but a part of her knew that what he said was the truth. Partly. It was part flirtation…on her part, and she’d enjoyed having his attention, had enjoyed feeling desirable and wanted again.

“I thought we were two people who liked each other’s company. I never wanted more.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“I don’t care whether you believe me or not. It is what it is.” Why did he have to behave like a pubescent teen? She attempted diplomacy, even if for her own selfish reasons. She couldn’t have this shitstorm flying around, not here, not now, not with her sister’s wedding taking place soon. Not with Carlos already here.

“It is what it is?” His face contorted.

“Can’t we just leave it, Ruben? Can’t we just let it go?”

“But you felt something, sometimes, didn’t you?” He angled his head at her, squinting. “Did none of it ever mean anything?”

She closed her eyes not wanting to admit things, not wanting to deny things. She had been confused, she had been unsure, she had been foolish. But now she knew exactly what she wanted and it wasn’t Ruben. It had never been Ruben. It had and would always be Carlos.

“You led me on.”

“I did not.”

For a man in his late twenties, he was taking this childishly. She hated herself right now. This was her mess—her vomit. She should have had the sense to steer clear but it was just that things had… well, they had kind of crept up on her. Stolen up on her like butterflies in a field of flowers.

His mouth set in a hard line. “All those days talking late into the night. All the things you told me—the last time when we met? You remember them? I listened to you because you looked kind of hurt and lonely to me. That didn’t mean anything to you?”

She remembered, of course, she remembered. She blinked rapidly, thinking how best to put this. “I remember those nights. That’s why I was so happy to see you again this time. But I swear to you, I thought we could take this through as friends. You broke up with Celeste. You were hurting too. I was—I was…going through a rough patch in my relationship. We all hit them. But I honestly wasn’t looking for something more. I have a husband.”

“Yet you choose to dress up and go out in the evenings alone, leaving your baby at home, looking for men to make you feel better?” He threw his words at her like bleach on baby skin.

A muscle in her jaw twitched and she held her breath. “I’m married, Ruben. I never hid the fact. It’s true, I needed reassurance. I needed company. You gave me that. But I wasn’t looking for anything more.”

She was sorry she’d hurt him.

“You are the kind of woman who plays with men’s feelings not caring how you twist and tread on them, just for your benefit.”

He was making her out to be a monster. She had faults, and she knew she was no angel. But she hadn’t intended for this. “You’re not listening to me. Our talks, our conversations meant something. Just not the kind of something you might have wanted them to. Last night crept up on us.”

Or had it?

She wondered if it had been his intention all along—the different restaurant, hidden along meandering cobbled streets, the ambiance of the place, the intimate setting? But if he’d intended to change the course of their friendship, it had only been because of the signals she’d put out. Had she asked for this, even though they had discussed their desire to remain friends ?

Who was she fooling at the end of the day?”

“I’m sorry if I hurt you. I never intended to.”

His face turned ugly, and those eyes that had often held her guiltily spellbound now stared back at her with contempt.

“You flirt. You dirty little flirt. It’s true what they say about you American women.”

Her anger surged to a new boiling point. “What’s that?”

“You’re sluts. All of you. You don’t care for people’s feelings, you only care for what you want.”

“That’s horrible. That’s a terrible, offensive, nasty thing to say—” She wasn’t blameless in this either, but he had taken things the wrong way. She’d longed for the emotional connection that he offered her, but she had never asked for it to come to this. She was so embroiled in their argument that she had failed to hear the taxi drive up.

“But true.”

“Not true. You’ve been hurt in a bad way—I see that now. You’ve been hurt before and what you’re going through now—it’s not because of what has happened in this situation, it’s because someone hurt you a long time ago and you haven’t gotten over it.” Incensed as she was by his words, she figured out what Ruben was about.

Maybe it was Celeste, or someone before her, that had done this to him. It wasn’t her doing.

“There’s a word for women like you, women who lead men on. Prick tease. That’s what you are.”

“Yeah, punk? Go ahead and say it one more time.”

Rona spun around at the menacing tone of Carlos’s voice behind her. She blinked at the hardness of his face, too stunned to see that he’d moved from behind her to being between her and Ruben.

“I can’t hear you? What was that again?” He asked.

She heard nothing but the sound of solid fist against bone.

Chapter 24

It wasn’t in Carlos’ nature to be deceptive. He liked to think of himself as a down to earth man who wore his heart, just like his feelings, on his sleeve. Or so he liked to think. He also didn’t like dancing around issues, or hiding the truth. He liked everything out in the open.

Rona’s infidelity—for he considered it as such, even if she hadn’t technically done anything—had crushed him. He was like a grizzly bear with that big hulking body of his and right now he felt helpless and weak and he didn’t know how to deal with it.

Punching someone would help. Punching that idiot would help even more. But he knew fighting was not the answer even if Ruben got what he deserved. He didn’t know how to deal with his wife. Not yet. His anger needed to simmer in that soup of misery for a few more days before he could bring himself to speak to her about this mess.

He would never trust her again. He already found it difficult to come to terms with the fact that she had deceived him and his brain refused to delve to the depths of the sewers to unravel the extent of her infidelity. He wasn’t yet ready to go there, but he would, in time.

He realized that being a mother wasn’t easy, and he assumed that his wife might even have looked at Ava’s life and envied it. He could accept that she’d become let down by him because he’d started to take her for granted. But he couldn’t accept that she’d been unfaithful. Anything but that. The vows he’d taken were for life and he had meant every single one of them, and so, he thought, had she.

As he walked towards the familiar hotel entrance, focusing on his thoughts and simmering in his revenge, the sound of a woman raising her voice caught his attention. The hairs on the back of his neck crept up. He knew that voice.

But it was only when he turned to look in the direction of the noise that his insides squelched to mush when he saw Rona talking to another man.

He knew in an instant that it was Ruben.

At that moment his insides detonated and his heart exploded right then and there as he strode towards them. But it wasn’t quite as he expected. Instead of the happy smiling faces he imagined, these two were anything but. The man looked angry. Carlos sized him up quickly; thin and tall, he had a boyish face, pretty almost. That’s what she’d picked over him?

“There’s a word for women like you, women who lead men on. Prick tease. That’s what you are.”

And the runt was talking to Rona like that?

“Yeah, punk? Go ahead and say it one more time.” Nobody was going to speak to his wife like that—not when he was around.

In his peripheral vision he saw Rona turn sharply but he was too busy getting his fist ready. “I can’t hear you? What was that again?” He didn’t wait for the man to answer but let his fist, tight, like iron smack straight into the man’s face.

Blood spurted and Rona’s terrified screams punctured the air. The guy hurtled back onto the hood of a car.

“Don’t you ever talk to my wife like that.”

Ruben held his hand to his face as blood gushed down his front and spurted all over him.

“Carlos! What have you done?” Rona screamed.

“What have you done?” he asked calmly while Ruben bled out. “I’m going to sue you, you—you—” He scrambled into his car and locked the door. They watched as he held his head back and blotted his face with a bunch of tissues.

“It’s broken. You’ve gone and broken his nose.” Rona gasped in shock, her hand on her face as if it was all too much to take in.

“Is that all you care about?” Carlos thundered. He wasn’t sorry for one moment and even though some of the anger had dissipated with his punch, his fingers were ready to hurt some more. Jealousy, like a tight fist weighted in lead, stuck in his stomach.

Rona faced him as Ruben sped away. “What did you do?” She asked again, the color draining from her face.

“I already asked you that question.”

“It’s not what you think.”

“You don’t want to know what I think.” He averted his gaze, seeing only her and that man in his mind’s eye each time he looked at his wife.

Would it ever be the same between them again?

“Carlos, it isn’t what you think.”

“You lied to me.”

“What?”

“You lied last night and you’re lying now.”

“No I—” She closed her eyes and he could already see how sorry she was.

“You were out with him last night.” His face crumbled. “I can’t believe you did that.” His words were lost in a whisper and she wanted to crawl into the ground. “See,” he told her. “You lied. I never thought I’d see the day when it would come to this.”

“Carlos I—” She opened her mouth but no words came out.

“Did you sleep with him?”

“No!” she said, as though he’d asked her if she wanted to die.

“Then what? What is this? What was this about? I turn up to see you talking to a man as though the two of you have been—”

“No, Never.”

“How long?”

“It wasn’t like that.” She folded her arms.

“How long?”

“How long what?”

“Don’t lie to me about anything, Rona. Part of me knows I won’t ever trust you again. Don’t let the other part of me hate you forever.”

She lifted her chin up and looked at him squarely. “We didn’t do anything—except…we kissed, once, last night. It just happened and I swear to you, I swear to you Carlos, please believe me—”

But he didn’t hear anything after ‘kissed.’ His mind painted a picture so vivid, in such detail, in such color that it might as well have been a 3D film. He had never even looked at another woman since the day he’d met her. His friends thought he was crazy—even the married ones—that he never even looked at anyone. They told him that there was looking and appreciating, and then there was going beyond, swimming in dangerous waters. But Carlos didn’t even entertain the idea of looking and appreciating anyone else.

Rona was all that he wanted.

So he couldn’t comprehend what had made his wife fall into the arms of another man and find it in herself to kiss him. His brain wasn’t wired up to accept that and he sure as hell couldn’t understand it. He stared at her, more through her than at her, as she spoke. He could tell by the frantic tone of her voice that she desperately needed him to believe her, but he was past that.

“Where’s Tori?” he asked, suddenly.

She stopped. “She’s in the gardens with Lizzi. Why?”

He didn’t answer her but strode into the hotel. The only way he could live with himself, the only way he could deal with any of this, enough to last until the wedding day, was to spend it with his daughter.

And right now, he didn’t care about Rona.

Chapter 25

Rona looked at the drops of blood on the ground with horror. What had she done?

She’d never seen Carlos this angry before—and even though she’d done wrong, so wrong, wrong, wrong—she knew she had to win back his trust.

Her arms and legs felt as though they were made of bendy plastic and she couldn’t focus. Couldn’t think clearly enough.

Carlos hadn’t been here a day and already he’d unleashed a firestorm. Of course, if she hadn’t set eyes on Ruben, none of this would have happened.

She raced through the lobby, leaving Gina staring at her white-faced. Out in the gardens she looked around frantically for Carlos and found him in the pergola with Tori in his arms. Lizzi tidied up the children’s books and toys, putting them back into the bag.

“You want to spend the day with daddy?” she heard Carlos murmur.

“What’s going on?”

When Carlos ignored her, Lizzi answered. “Tori’s father would like to look after the baby now that he is here. He says my services won’t be needed.”

Rona’s gaze darted to Carlos, who kept his back turned to her. Deliberately, she knew.

“Just a moment,” she said, putting her hands out to Lizzi. The girl had been promised a wage and this arrangement had suited them both. What was Carlos playing at?

“Can I have a word with you?” she asked him calmly.

Tori looked at her strangely, now that she spoke in an un-friendly non-mommy-ish voice. “Hey, beautiful,” said Rona, suddenly softening her pitch as she stroked her baby’s cheek.

Carlos ignored her.

“Carlos,” said Rona and bit through her teeth, trying not to lose her temper. She couldn’t lose it—he was right to be angry but…he had to believe her. He had to calm down. He was here for a goddamn wedding for goodness sake.

It wasn’t as if she’d had a full blown affair or anything.

“What?” He was going to make things difficult.

“Ava hired Lizzi for the summer. She’s been promised a wage. She’s been promised a minimum of four hours a day. You can’t just come in and take Tori off her.”

“I can do what I want—just like you did.”

She let out an uneasy sigh. “Can we discuss that matter in private?”

“I’m taking Tori today and as long as I’m here.”

“How long are you here for?”

He looked at her, his eyes shiny and soft for the briefest of seconds. “I took the month off for you but I’ve decided to leave the day after the wedding. You don’t have to come back, ever.”

She reeled back as though he’d shot her. “You don’t mean that.”

“I do mean that.” The hardened expression on his face told her. She could see he had made his mind up, and despite having Lizzi to babysit, Rona knew that it made perfect sense for Carlos to have Tori.

“Let me give you the keys to the pensione. They’re in the office.”

“I don’t need your keys,” he told her in a cold voice. “Don’t wait up.”

“What do you mean? Where are you going? She’s a baby. She can’t be out all day.” She stared at him as though he’d tipped over the edge. She wasn’t so sure leaving Tori with him was a good idea any more. It worried her. “Carlos, you’re not thinking straight—”

“Don’t you dare tell me what to think,” he snapped. But Tori started to whimper at his sharp tone.

“Hey honey, hey,” he said gently, soothing her quickly.

She got it—he was hurting and it would take time for him to calm down. She couldn’t speak to him when he was like this. She wasn’t going to get through to him yet and no amount of explaining would help at this time.

“All of her things are in the baby bag; her diapers, formula milk, and the hotel staff will give you hot water to make her milk up. Her changing—”

“I know how to look after a baby, I’ve done it before.” He growled. What hurt her more was that he turned away from her, holding Tori up in his arms. But he couldn’t bear to look at her.

She shook her head and turned to go.

“Lizzi, I might have something else for you to help me out with.” It was just an idea but it was better than sending her home. “But if you don’t want to…”

The girl’s face brightened. “If I can help, I would like to.”

“Follow me,” said Rona and led her back to the office. Tori was in safe hands, even if Carlos was angry, he would be good with the baby.

That was one less thing to worry about.

She passed through reception where she was stopped by a worried looking Gina. “Rona, what happened? A guest reported a fight in the car park and there is blood everywhere.”

The rumors had already started.

“It’s—it’s…” she didn’t know where to begin.

“It’s okay,” said Gina, leaving Rona to feel thankful for not having to repeat her sorry story all over again. “You can tell me later.”

Rona managed a pained smile and walked through to Ava’s office.

“I’m sorry for the change in plan,” she said to Lizzi, struggling to keep her voice neutral. The girl looked at her blankly and Rona was grateful for the girl’s seemingly blasé attitude. Lizzi had no idea of the emotions which had just rocked Rona’s world. Perhaps this was a virtue in itself because the last thing Rona needed was lots of questions.

“For today, you could help me. It’s not too hard, I will show you what to do, if you’d like to.”

“Si,” Lizzi nodded. “I would like to help.”

Rona set her the task of checking the inventory spreadsheet against the new stock they had ordered. While Lizzi busied herself with that, Rona stared at her computer screen and wondered how it was that her life had suddenly fallen apart in less than a day.

Chapter 26

Left alone with his thoughts and his daughter, Carlos sat in the pergola and contemplated the disaster that marked the start of his vacation.

He’d been in Italy for less than twenty-four hours.

“What shall we do today?” he asked his daughter. Tori scrunched her nose up at him and gave him a gappy smile revealing two tiny teeth.

“Shall we go for a walk?” He suggested, having an adult conversation with her as though she might offer up another alternative. The gardens were beautiful, and being out in the open cleared his mind.

“Come on,” he said, hoisting her up in his arms. “We won’t need this.” He left the stroller and the baby bag in the pergola and carried Tori in his arms as he wandered around the gardens of the Casa Adriana.

It wasn’t just that it was a hot, golden August day, or that the birds serenaded him, or that the flowers were in full bloom. He had no right to feel this happy, but he was grateful, even though his heart had been broken. He was grateful for his little girl. He kissed Tori’s head as he walked, and admired the greenery that dressed the gardens with beauty.

No wonder Elsa had talked so lovingly of her days spent here with Edmondo. He could see why. It was peaceful, it was calming and it was exactly what he needed to calm the tempest of emotions that still ran through his veins like molten lava.

Try as he did, he couldn’t get the image of that man with his wife out of his head. Punching him had alleviated the tension but only a little. His brows snapped together as he recalled the sorry state of affairs between him and his wife. If he hadn’t arrived when he had, if he’d come just a few days before the wedding as he’d originally planned—he would have forever remained ignorant of her deception.

It made him wonder how long she’d been making a fool out of him for. A slow burning rage seared his soul and only the sight of a man hunched over the ground distracted him enough to take his mind off his current problems. Carlos walked over to him, seeking a respite from his troubled mind.

The man looked up when he saw Carlos.

“Good morning,” said Carlos, nodding his head. The man stared up at him then looked across at Tori and nodded.

“Good morning,” he said, in a thick Italian accent, then continued with his work. It didn’t look as though he was in the mood for much company but just then Tori shrieked in delight causing the man to look at her sharply.

“What is it Tori, what do you want?” Carlos asked. The little girl clapped her hand.

“You want this?” the old man pointed to a bush of vibrant pink flowers. Tori held out her soft and fleshy hand, and her face flushed with excitement.

“I think she has her eyes on your basket.” He pointed to the assortment of gardening tools that lay on the grass. The man had pulled some weeds out and thrown them into the basket. He got up slowly from his gardening stool and picked up his bucket. “You want this?” he asked Tori, showing her the bucket full of weeds. In answer she clapped her hands even harder and excitedly bobbed her legs against Carlos’ body as though this would somehow bring her closer to the object of her desire.

“I’m sorry, I cannot give this to you, little one. It’s dirty.” He pulled a face signifying his distaste but managed to frighten Tori instead.

“It’s alright, Tori. Hush now,” said Carlos as he hugged the whimpering child.

“This is Tori?” the man asked him. Carlos nodded, suddenly wary when a stranger asked him about his child.

The old man nodded. “My granddaughter looks after your baby.”

Carlos suddenly understood. “Lizzi?”

“Si,” the man nodded.

“I’m Carlos.”

“I am Salvatore.”

They shook hands.

“You arrive here last night?”

“Yes,” replied Carlos and understood that this had been the man who had turned up late last night to pick Lizzi up.

“You work here?” Carlos asked. “The place is beautifully kept.” He marveled that one man could look after all of this.

“No, not me.” Salvatore said, shaking his finger. “This is not mine. Nico, he has people to do this but I look after it every day now. Little things, big gardens, lots to do. I tidy up and keep it beautiful. Edmondo…” He rolled his eyes heavenward. “Edmondo—he loved this place.” The old man placed his hand on his heart.

“I see,” said Carlos, “Edmondo was your friend.”

“No, no.” Salvatore shook his finger at him again. “Not my friend. My son and Edmondo’s son are friends. Edmondo loved this garden. I look after it.”

“I see,” said Carlos, although he didn’t really.

Salvatore got back down onto his gardening stool again and Carlos presumed that the conversation was over.

“Goodbye, Salvatore. It was nice to meet you.” Carlos said, but the gardener was hunched over his plants and was diligently working away.

Carlos spent the rest of the morning in the pergola and the gardens. He had intended to go back to the park that they’d been to last time but that could wait for another day. Unfortunately, now that he had arrived early, he had no option but to remain here until the wedding. He could still salvage something from his vacation and carve out quality time for himself and Tori. Just enough to get through the wedding. He didn’t want to spoil the big day for Ava and Nico, and he couldn’t spoil anything for Elsa. She’d had such high hopes for his extended stay in Italy. He hung his head. Elsa had been so happy when he’d left Denver. He hated that out of all the people who would be affected by what had happened—it would be Elsa who would be hurt the most.

Chapter 27

“What blood?” asked Ava.

“What fight?” demanded Nico.

Gina threw her hands up and shook her head, as she surveyed their puzzled faces but gave nothing away. The suspense stretched out. Ava felt her shoulders tense up. The effects of their mini-vacation had instantly vanished the moment she and Nico set foot back at the Casa Adriana.

Nico had done the right thing in getting her to go away. It was only when she’d been away that she had realized how much she had taken on. Two days with Nico and nothing and nobody else had done wonders for her well-being. She’d been so relaxed up until this very moment. Nico, too, had been calmer, happier and more relaxed than she’d seen him in ages. He was back to being the man she’d fallen in love with in Venice.

Now she couldn’t wait for their honeymoon but they had to get through the wedding first.

“And?” asked Ava, growing impatient. Gina looked as though she didn’t know where to start.

“Slow down, and start at the beginning,” suggested Nico.

“A man came in here asking to talk to Rona.”

“Rona?” Ava asked.

“Who?” Nico wanted to know.

Gina shrugged. “I don’t know, I have never seen him. “He came in and Rona took him out into the car park.” She pointed towards the exit as though they might have forgotten where it was.

Ava’s heart began to beat faster and her body tensed. She already didn’t like the sound of this but knew she had to hear it all the way through.

“Then later guests came and told me that two men were fighting in the car park. They said there was blood.”

“Blood?” asked Nico. “In the car park?”

Two men?” asked Ava, already wishing that she’d agreed to Nico’s suggestion of staying away another night. “Which two men?”

“I take responsibility for that.” A voice behind her startled her by its familiarity. A voice she hadn’t expected to hear. She turned around and smiled widely. “Carlos!” It was one good thing to come out of today.

“Look at you, Ava,” he said, walking towards her with Tori fast asleep in the stroller. “Mid-morning nap,” he explained and gave Nico a hearty handshake.

“This is a surprise,” said Nico enthusiastically.

“Yes, it is.” Ava looked down at her niece fast asleep.

“Pregnancy suits you,” said Carlos, beaming at her.

She blushed. “You take responsibility for what?” she asked as Nico stepped closer.

Carlos opened his mouth but the office door opened just then and Rona rushed out. She stopped when she saw four pairs of eyes on her.

“You’re back,” she said to Ava and Nico, her voice uncertain, her face flushed. Her gaze darted to Carlos for the briefest of seconds.

“We just arrived,” said Nico, appearing not to notice that the atmosphere was thick like glue.

It didn’t take much for Ava to see that something had gone terribly wrong while they had been away.

“What happened?” she asked Carlos again because she could tell by the way Rona averted her gaze that she wasn’t going to get a proper, or an honest answer from her sister.

“I punched a man and I think I might have broken his nose. He’s threatening to sue.” Carlos told them in a calm manner.

You got into a fight?” Nico looked alarmed.

“Carlos, what happened?” Ava demanded. “[_Why _]did you punch this man?”

“Are you going to tell her or shall I?” His cold words delivered in that icy tone, with barely a glance at Rona told Ava most of what she wanted to know.

“I—uh—” Rona looked pained, as though she had a pin stuck to her sides. She stared at Ava ashen-faced. “I made a mistake.”

“She made a mistake and goodness knows what else she’d have done if I hadn’t turned up when I did,” said Carlos, his voice filling with anger.

Ava’s eyes met Nico’s.

“Come on,” said Nico, and put his arm on Carlos’s shoulder. “Leave Tori here, she’s sleeping. Let’s go into the gardens.” The two of them disappeared into the gardens.

Ava placed her hand over her swollen belly. “Gina, would you mind keeping an eye on Tori for a while?”

Gina nodded and pushed the stroller to her side of the desk.

“Let’s go into the office,” said Ava. “I need to hear this.” She already knew that whatever had happened, it was Rona’s fault.

“Lizzi’s in there,” said Rona, following after her and when Ava entered, sure enough, Lizzi was at her desk doing something on the laptop.

“Hi,” said Ava, surprised.

“Hi, Ava. Rona asked me to help out.” She explained.

“Sure,” said Ava, as though the events of this morning were commonplace and regular.

“Let’s go into Edmondo’s…into Nico’s office,” suggested Ava. She’d been vibrant and full of energy after her small break but ten minutes back at the hotel had her craving to be back there again, to lie in bed with Nico for hours and to talk about their future, their baby, their plans and their life together.

It had taken merely minutes for the effects of her mini-vacation to disintegrate.

She sat in Nico’s chair and put both over her hands over her belly. “You might as well start from the beginning and tell me everything.”

Rona stood with her arms folded. She looked deathly, with her hair scraped back into a ponytail; she looked naked without her signature big hair.

“The business didn’t suffer—I’m up to date with everything. I’ve even started a new spreadsheet for—”

Ava held up her hand. “Just tell me what happened. We can talk about the business later.”

Rona nibbled her lower lip. “Nothing happened,”

“Evidently the facts say otherwise.”

“Carlos punched a man.”

“So you both keep saying.” Ava’s eyebrows lifted slightly. “I want to know why and I want to know who he is.”

Rona appeared to consider the request, and let out a long, angry sigh. “His name is…Ruben Dametto.”

Ava shook her head, not recognizing the name or understanding what he had to do with Carlos. “Why would Carlos punch this man—this man that even I don’t know? I can’t imagine why Carlos would know him, let alone punch him.” But even as she said it, she had an inkling of the confession that was coming.

“Because he caught me and this man—Ruben, talking, more like arguing, in the parking lot.” Rona rolled her eyes upwards.

“You can’t be serious?” Asked Ava slowly. This was what she had feared it might be. “You were arguing because?”

“Because…because…this is going to sound worse than it is…”

“It already sounds bad enough to me.”

“I didn’t sleep with him,” protested Rona.

Ava’s face blanched. “I wasn’t even going to go there,” said Ava, shocked. “Were you going to sleep with him?”

“No!” Rona reacted violently. “What do you take me for?”

“I don’t think you’d want to know.” Sarcasm dripped from her tongue. Why, oh why did her sister not see and appreciate the saint of a husband she already had?

“I didn’t go looking for this. I didn’t want this.”

“And yet it happened to you anyway,” said Ava in a subdued voice. “Is he the reason you would leave Tori with Mom when you snuck out in the evenings the last time?”

Rona threw her hands into the air. “I didn’t sneak out.”

“Is he the reason?”

“Yes.” The admission struggled to come out of Rona’s mouth. Ava looked horrified.

“You told me nothing happened!”

Rona kept quiet.

Ava put her hands to her face, as though she’d seen an ugly truth for the first time. “This is all my fault,” she gasped.

“Your fault? What are you talking about?”

“I should never have called you over. I thought I was doing Mom a favor.”

“Mom? You thought you were doing Mom a favor?” shrieked Rona, her face ugly. “How?”

Realizing she’d said too much, Ava retracted her words. “Mom was worried about you. She said you seemed happier here. And…” she stopped herself before she made matters worse.

“I thought you called me over because you needed my help?”

“I did need your help. You can see I still need your help.” She could never tell Rona that another reason for calling her over had been to separate her and Kim. It didn’t matter now because Rona had been a great help anyway and things had worked out. Except for this huge mess that now threatened to break her and Carlos up.

“Carlos will think I encouraged this. You told me there was nothing going on during those times when you went to Gioberti’s.” Rona had lied to her, or evaded telling the truth. It was all the same in the end.

“I’m sorry. But nothing did happen. Nothing. We only talked.” Rona insisted.

Ava looked at her sister with uncertainty. Knowing the question was wrong she asked it anyway. “Did you and Gioberti…?”

“No! And I never did whatever it is you think I’ve done with anyone. It was just this one guy…”

“Ruben?” Ava checked, needing to make sure they were still talking about the same man. Her sister had a penchant for disguising the truth.

“I—” Rona closed her eyes. “I needed to get away. Things with me and Carlos haven’t been so great lately.”

Ava made a low noise before resting her head against the headrest. She couldn’t be responsible for things turning sour in her sister’s relationship. Rona never really appreciated what she had in Carlos but seeing Carlos’s face earlier Ava knew how much the man was hurting. The way he looked, she wasn’t so sure he was about to forgive his wife anytime soon, if at all.

“Shouldn’t you have tried to mend things with Carlos?”

“I did try.”

“Shouldn’t you have tried harder?” Ava asked. When Rona refused to say anything or look her way, Ava prompted. “Why did you think fooling around with Rupert might help?”

“His name is Ruben,” said Rona, looking at her sheepishly. “It’s not at all how you think it is.”

Ava pursed her lips. “Then tell me how it is. Tell me what makes you throw away a beautiful marriage and break up a family just because of this Ruben?”

“We’re not splitting up. What happened meant nothing. It was a stupid flirtation that got out of hand. It’s not what you’re thinking.” Rona’s face flushed scarlet with denial.

“Then tell me what it is. I can’t understand why you would feel the need to go out with another man while you have a husband. You’re married or had you forgotten that the moment you got on the plane?”

“I was lonely,”

“Lonely? That’s hardly an excuse. You could have watched TV, or read a book, or come and seen me and Nico, or played with Tori. You could have done anything but go out in the evenings craving the company of men who might get the wrong idea and think you’re nothing but a slut. Are you wearing your ring?” she snapped.

Rona held it up, almost like a middle finger.

“He knew I was married. I told him I was married. I didn’t hide it from him. He had split up with his girlfriend. In the beginning, the last time, I’d go to Gioberti’s just to be amongst people; to sit there and have an uninterrupted meal. And I got talking to Gioberti.”

“Gioberti is a flirt.”

“I know that. I steered clear of him.”

“Thank heaven you had some sense,” Ava mumbled.

Rona ignored her. “I saw Ruben there a few times. His brother works there—”

“He’s a waiter?”

“No,” replied Rona, testily. “His brother is.”

“One saving grace then.”

“It wasn’t a romance, it wasn’t love, it was…”

Ava watched and waited patiently.

“It was,” Rona placed her hands on the desk then hung her head. “It was the attention. And that he listened. It was friendly talk. We talked about Carlos, a little. He wanted to know why I was alone. You remember last time Carlos returned to Denver because they needed him at the restaurant?”

Of course she remembered.

“Ruben had just broken up with his girlfriend. We had a common thread and we would meet, eat and talk.”

“Did you keep in touch with him when you returned to Denver?”

“No, never, I swear.”

“And you ran into him the moment you arrived here?”

“I didn’t go anywhere in the beginning. I just needed to get away from Carlos, we were bickering all the time.”

“What about?”

Rona paused. “He worked harder than ever and he was always putting work first. He thought…he thought he needed to give me things…because he thought I looked at you and wasn’t content with what I had.”

“Me?” Ava moved her hands from her belly to the armrest. “Did you think that?”

“I’m happy for you. I really am,” Rona explained, wringing her hands together. “Nico’s a great guy and you couldn’t have found a more perfect guy. And everything else, the baby and the wedding, its all fallen into place for you.”

Was her sister jealous?

“All I had was the work you gave me—”

“And Tori, you have Tori, and you have Carlos too.”

“You don’t know what it’s like being married to someone who puts their work first. We see him in the morning for a while and then not until the rest of the day.”

“But he has a few days off—like most people.”

“And you have weekends!”

Not really, thought Ava. Owning your own business meant never switching off that was why Nico had forced her to come away with him. There hadn’t been much to look at regarding the infinity pools and the other treatment rooms he’d claimed he wanted her input on. He’d been smarter than that—knowing she would have made excuses not to go. But it had been the best thing for her. And of course, it had helped knowing that Rona was looking after things while she was away.

But this—this huge mess—they hadn’t foreseen this. She would have to revisit her plans about having Rona stay on and keep an eye on things while she and Nico were on honeymoon.

There was no way that Rona could stay until September. She would have to leave with Carlos, assuming Carlos calmed down.

“Did you say Lizzi’s helping out?” Now there was an idea.

“What?” Rona looked up. “Yes, Carlos wanted to spend the day with Tori and I didn’t know what to do with Lizzi. I told her she could help me for today but that I would need to run it by you.”

“It’s an excellent idea.”

Rona raised an eyebrow. “It is?”

“You can train her up. She can help out. She’s studying at university, but it doesn’t open until late September. She can help me.”

“I can train her.” Rona seemed to warm to the idea and Ava decided now was not the time to tell her that she wouldn’t need her after the wedding.

“And then?”

“And then?” Rona seemed to struggle to keep up with Ava’s train of thought. “And then I ran into him one evening, a few weeks after I got here.” She told Ava how they met a few times and then she confessed to the kiss.

Ava’s eyes widened as she stared at her sister in disbelief. “You kissed him?” Rona’s face turned red as she wrapped her arms around her body.

He kissed me.”

“It doesn’t mean who did what to whom,” quipped Ava. “You both kissed each other and you should have known better.”

Rona looked away, as though she wanted to run out of the door. “I knew it was wrong. I knew the moment it happened that it was wrong. You could say I should have known all along. Hindsight is a good thing but when you’re in it it’s not so clear-cut. I felt he was there for me when Carlos wasn’t.”

“Carlos was in another country, working his butt off,” Ava retorted.

Rona swallowed. “I know,” she said in a small voice. “I know. You don’t understand, it sounds…” She stared at her sister. “You won’t understand.”

“I won’t understand. Ever.” Ava shook her head and let out a deep sigh. “What a mess. Two weeks before my wedding.”

“I’m sorry.”

Ava placed her palms over her face, as though the energy had drained right out of her body.

“I’m going to make it up to Carlos,” Rona insisted.

“He looks as though he doesn’t want to know you.”

“Don’t worry about me and Carlos. You have lots going on right now. And you need to have another dress fitting.”

“That’s the least of my problems,” said Ava wearily. She sank her head back into the headrest and stared at the ceiling. “I don’t even know where to start. Even if I forgot all of this,” she nodded at Rona. “There is so much to do and I need to meet with Andrea at some point.”

“At some point you’re going to have to stop working, and make it to the church for your wedding.”

“At some point, you and Carlos need to sit down and sort out your issues. Especially before Mom gets here. I don’t want this bad atmosphere between you both when she’s here. She’s not feeling the best as it is and returning to Verona is always going to be hard for her.”

“The way Carlos has been, I’m not sure we’ll be able to put on a good face in time for your wedding.”

“Try,” Ava told her.

Chapter 28

“It makes me happy to see you here before the wedding,” Nico said as they walked out. “We were under the impression that you would only be here for a few days.”

They hovered around the pergola with their hands in their pockets letting the awkwardness of the recent showdown between him and Rona seep away.

“I’ve been working too hard to take any time off.”

“Ava said.”

“I missed them being away. I missed Tori.”

“It’s been a big help having Rona around. Ava takes too much on and it has become too much for her, though she’ll never admit to it.”

“It’s been great to see how things have turned around for her this year,” offered Carlos. “You’re the best thing to happen to her.”

“No,” said Nico, “She’s the best thing to happen to me.”

Carlos grimaced. How fresh the first pangs of love were. He still felt the same way about Rona now as he had the moment he’d fallen in love with her. It had taken just a moment…no longer…but to look at them now…

Nico nodded. “It’s good to have you here, having family surround you especially with the big day approaching, it means a lot to have you here.” Carlos scratched his head then kept his hand on the back of his neck, thinking things through. He hadn’t known Nico for too long and hadn’t really spent much time with him but maybe it was easier talking to someone he didn’t know about all of this. Yet it felt uncomfortable—this, spilling his guts about his relationship. Carlos was a private man and he didn’t feel too comfortable talking about his personal problems.

“Are you worried about the big day?” he asked Nico.

“No,” Nico replied. “I just want to be married to Ava. It feels like there’s a huge stop sign in the middle of August for our wedding day but up until then and I’m sure after it, we’ll just carry on as normal. It’s full on, though and I worry about her. She’s doing too much. I knew she was passionate about her business, but she’s worse—she’s obsessed and it’s not helping her blood pressure.”

“Hers too?”

Nico nodded. “Who else?”

“Elsa.”

Nico nodded his head as though he knew. “She’s not doing too well is she? I know she tries to hide it from the girls. She puts on a brave face so as not to worry them.”

“She does,” Carlos agreed.

“The last time she came here she just—” he stopped and took a moment to collect himself, “she just fell into my arms and cried.” His voice lowered to a whisper. Carlos put his hand on Nico’s arm.

“Hang tight, man. It can’t be easy for her and I know it’s not easy for you. Ava said you and your father had a close relationship.”

“It had its ups and downs, but we were reaching this endpoint where we were coming together. Respecting each other’s decisions. I admired him. I loved him. But I don’t think I told him that as much as I should have.”

“I’m sure he already knew,” said Carlos, not wanting Nico to dwell on regret too much. “He was a man to be admired. I didn’t know him too well, or for too long, but I’ve heard stories from Ava, and Elsa and I knew he was a good man.”

Nico’s lips formed into a thin line and he looked away into the distance where Salvatore was digging into a border at the side.

“That’s the new gardener,” Nico told him.

“I know. Tori and I had the pleasure of introducing ourselves to him.”

Nico laughed out loud. “He’s not very friendly. He means well and I’m sure he has a good heart. He just doesn’t seem to bother too much with niceties.”

Carlos nodded. “That sums him up. Did he have a falling out with your father?”

Nico rolled his eyes. “His son and I are friends. We went to school together. They don’t live far from here and Salvatore lives a few houses down from them. He and my father were…” Nico stopped as if choosing his words carefully.

Carlos knit his brows together. “Here he comes now.”

Salvatore had turned around and seen the two men talking and now he was making his way towards them.

“It must be serious,” Nico muttered, “He usually doesn’t say a word to me.” Salvatore nodded at them both.

“You have problems with the lemon tree over there.” He pointed vaguely behind him. Carlos looked in that direction and saw a clump of trees.

“What do you suggest we do?” asked Nico. “I know nothing about lemon trees or gardening.”

Carlos snorted. “Me neither.”

Salvatore put his calloused hands on the spade that he had carried along with him. “I will try to treat it. But—” he shook his head as though this was an enormity that was out of his hands. “I don’t know if it will work.”

“You do what you need to, Salvatore and if you need anything, any…products or,” Nico looked helplessly at the man, “Or a spade, or something, you just let me or Gina or any of the other staff know. Alright?”

“I will do that.”

“How’re you finding this?” Nico gestured at the grounds.

“It keeps me busy. Two hours a day is fine.”

“That’s fine by me. Just keep this…” Nico looked around him, “Keep this as my father would have wanted it.”

“Si,” said the old man and wandered back to his work. They stood in silence and watched him.

“I’m sorry, for that fight in the parking lot. There’s blood all over the ground.”

“I’ll get maintenance to clean it up.”

“He said he’s going to sue.”

“Sounds like words to me. I wouldn’t worry about it.” Carlos wasn’t worried. He had bigger things to take care of.

Nico stared out into the distance. “Good to have you here, Carlos. Feel free to use the hotel grounds and the restaurant. If there’s anything you need at the pensione let me know.”

Carlos shook his head, he hadn’t told the man a single thing yet and it didn’t seem to matter. Nico was a perfect addition to the family.

“And anytime you need to talk or—”

Carlos nodded. “I know.”

Chapter 29

He returned to the pensione later with Tori, not wanting to wait for Rona. Rona said she needed to work longer since Ava was back and there was a lot to catch up on. Whether she had made a show of saying this to him because Ava was there in the room, or whether it was because she genuinely felt guilty, he wasn’t sure.

He wasn’t sure and he didn’t care. Except that he really did. He loved that woman despite what she’d done. His friends would be disgusted and he didn’t care.

Without knowing why or how, he knew she wouldn’t go and see that man again. He could see from the look on her face that she had regretted every moment of her indiscretion.

But nothing would take it away from him: Rona in that man’s arms, touching his lips. The pain was like a fresh knife wound, bleeding and doused in salt. He thought he had understood what pain was when Tori had her injections and screamed. But he realized now that he had no idea.

This was real pain; the feeling of deception and the idea of another man. He believed her when she’d insisted that nothing else, apart from the one kiss, had taken place. He knew his wife. She was flirtatious, and sure, she got attention, she was that type of woman. She dressed to get attention.

Maybe all along she’d wanted to be told that she was the one for him? Maybe she’d needed the constant reassurance? He never claimed to understand women—not even Rona and perhaps that was where he’d gone wrong.

Despite what he’d said to her earlier he wasn’t ready to let her walk away and he wasn’t going to give up on her. Or them. Tori needed two parents. And he needed Rona.

But first he would let her suffer some more.

~ ~

By the time she’d returned from the hotel, Carlos had already put Tori to sleep. Rona walked in to find him watching a film on his laptop. He looked up at her, unsure of how to acknowledge her, and then raised his chin slightly.

“Hey,” she said and waited for his acknowledgement. There was none. So he was going to play this game, was he?

“Is Tori asleep?”

He nodded, his eyes not moving from the screen.

“Have you eaten?”

He nodded again.

“Do you talk? Or do you plan on giving me the silent treatment forever?”

He glanced up. “Until the wedding.”

“Not too long then,” she said stiffly and disappeared into the bedroom. When she didn’t come out again Carlos became curious. He didn’t want to be the one to give in but all the same, he wondered what she was up to.

When almost an hour had passed and there was still no sign of her, he got up impatiently and put his head against the bedroom door.

And heard the sound of silence. He opened the door and walked in only to find her asleep on the bed.

She looked peaceful and yet he knew these last few days had been anything but peaceful for either of them. He sensed her guilt, sensed her desire to make up but he’d wanted to make her suffer. And now he felt bad. She probably hadn’t slept much either, he thought, and walked over to the cupboard. He pulled out a blanket and spread it over her.

He walked back into the living room again and started to watch his film again but his heart and mind weren’t in it. Unable to concentrate, he decided to go to lie down, too. He hadn’t slept much either last night. Without thinking too much about it, he walked back into the bedroom and lay down alongside Rona. Not too close, not touching, but not too far either. Close enough that he could hear her breathing. Nearby in the cot Tori lay fast asleep. It had been a good day; as good as he could make it.

Maybe he’d venture into the town center at some point.

The days crawled past in a mist of awkwardness. They were civil towards one another and any attempt she’d made to talk about that incident was met with cold silence from Carlos.

His blatant avoidance to discuss the matter had left them in a state of stagnation and now she couldn’t see a way to get around the problem.

“How long do you need to simmer in your rage?” she asked one morning, as she got ready to go to work.

She was met by his solid wall of silence again. He hadn’t shouted at her, or accused her of anything further since then but she could no longer take any more of his silent treatment. It would be better to have it all out in the open—the way they usually dealt with their problems. The fact that he had now retreated into himself only told her that she’d never hurt him this badly before.

“Carlos!” she hissed, mindful that Tori lay fast asleep in the cot. He had no reaction for her but calm rage. It would have been better if he’d said something. At least he’d gotten some of his anger out when he’d hit Ruben.

The allure of being in Italy had almost worn off and she was ready to return to Denver. At least there she would have her friends to talk things over with.

Here she felt alone, as though the others were siding with Carlos and everyone was against her. Even Gina who should have remained impartial seemed to be colder towards her lately.

This would not do. “Carlos, Ava, and Nico are getting married in a week. This is crazy, the way things are between us.”

“I didn’t cause this,” he said calmly. “You did. You and that man.”

You’re my man.”

“I wish I was.” He said, his voice peculiar. She felt emboldened by his reply and by the fact that he was discussing this at all. It indicated that perhaps he was beginning to thaw, even though it had taken the longest time ever.

“You hurt me.”

“I know I did and I’m sorry, and I know words aren’t enough. I will regret this forever, Carlos.” She walked over and sat down by his side of the bed.

“You know what I can’t stop thinking about?” he looked directly into her eyes then and she saw the sadness in his. Her heart stopped and she held her breath.

“I can’t stop thinking about you in his arms. It’s like I’m running some sick film in my head, you and him, him and you, his hands all over you—”

“It wasn’t like that.” She wanted to stop those words before he tortured himself with things that had never happened.

“No? Well in my head it’s much worse. I can’t help it.” He raised his voice slightly, and she cowered seeing his rage up close and in her face. He hadn’t thawed one bit and now she wondered if she’d done the unthinkable and pushed him away forever.

“He doesn’t mean anything. He was a friend, nothing more.”

“Those texts didn’t seem like friend texts to me.” He was admitting the thing she had never asked him before.

“You deleted them.”

“What if I did?” He growled. “And you know what else kills me? That if I hadn’t come back early to surprise you, how much farther you would have gone.”

“Carlos!” she gasped. “I wouldn’t, I would never—”

“Don’t say that, don’t you say that. For better or for worse, remember—seems to me like you forgot. It takes two to fool around. He didn’t come onto you unless you asked for it.”

She didn’t have anything to say to that. She had done something stupid. But she had never planned to do it—it had just happened, and yes she should have stopped, but it had happened that night. She was caught in the moment, only realizing once it was over that it had been totally wrong.

Was he never going to let her forget it?

“It takes two, Carlos, it takes two to make a marriage work. Two of us made those vows. Sometimes it feels as though I’m in this relationship alone.”

“You act as though I’ve abandoned you. As though I’m a lazy good-for-nothing who treats you badly. I do everything in my power so that we won’t go broke. I hear you talk about Ava and Nico and the life he gives her and I know I can’t compete—but I try.”

She looked up at him. “I don’t ask you to compete. I don’t compare you.”

“It’s in your eyes. Sometimes I think you wish you had met someone like Nico.”

She shook her head, her eyes brimming with tears. Was that what he thought? “I never asked for that.”

“You want the glitz,” he told her, moving closer so that she could see the lines on his face, the lines creased around his eyes. “I want you. That’s all I want.”

“I don’t want the glitz, Carlos. I thought I did, but that’s not what I want, not any more. What I really want is what you won’t give me.”

“What’s that?”

“Your time. You for me.”

He huffed, as though she was bluffing him. “You have me.”

“Do I? Or does the restaurant have you?”

“You can’t blame me for spending time working. If I didn’t work, we would have problems.”

“You work and we still have problems.”

He closed his mouth and ran his hand over his forehead.

“I love you. I know that more than ever now. I knew it before but we were beginning to drift apart. The closeness we used to have just wasn’t there anymore. I made a mistake I will regret forever. The kiss happened, it wasn’t planned—” she said quickly, seeing a flash of fire in his eyes. “It happened and I know that’s not an answer or a reason. I’ll ask myself that question in years to come—why did I risk it? I still don’t know. It was a moment in time, Carlos. You say I want glitz? It’s not glitz that I’m after. I want the fizz, the sparkle back in our marriage. Remember how we used to be?”

He looked away, and she saw his face relax. Had she succeeded in making him see her point?

“We’re still that way,” he said. “Nothing changed for me, except you and the way you feel about me. We were still that way until you messed it all up. Let me ask you something.”

She tilted her face up at him, interested to hear what he had to say.

“What if I did with Celine what you did with [_him? _]Would you be so forgiving then?”

She had no answer for him, because she knew she wouldn’t ever forgive or forget and yet she was expecting him to. He turned the other way and she was left staring at his bare back.

She got up quietly and left the room, not wanting to spend a moment longer here.

Elsa would be here in a few days and they would all have to put on a brave act. She couldn’t’ wait for the wedding to be over—and she’d already decided to return to Denver soon after. She couldn’t stay here while Ava was on honeymoon.

And suddenly she was engulfed by the frightening reality that she had lost him forever.

Chapter 30

“Let’s go.”

“Where?” she asked, feeling frazzled with the baby clinging to her neck. Since their argument a few days ago the tension between them had become unbearable so that when he now spoke to her she was always wary. Things were still icy between them and even though they slept in the same bed, he always turned his back to her.

Things at work weren’t so easy either and today had been a particularly trying day. Ava was stressed out with the wedding looming so close and her dress fitting was still up in arms.

She had been relieved to get back to the pensione and had been looking forward to an early night, not going out, with Carlos of all people. Something was brewing.

“I thought we could go out?”

[_Out? _]“Where?” she asked, weakly.

“To the restaurant, the one in town that we went to once. Gioberti’s, I think was the name.”

She looked at him and blanched. Was he doing this on purpose? She tried not to appear too ruffled by his request. To turn him down would only make him question her motives. She couldn’t very well suggest another place.

“Are you sure you want to go there?” she asked, as he took Tori from her. She half wondered what he’d done today but to ask him would only bring more cold remarks.

“Why not? This hasn’t felt like much of a vacation for me. I’d like to go out, if you’re free.”

“Of course I’m free,” she said, her voice faltering. “But what about Tori?”

“I’ve asked Lizzi to look after her.” She felt a quiver in her belly. Why? There was more to this than he was letting on and she didn’t like the sound of it. Yet to turn him down also did not bode well.

Lizzi duly arrived on time an hour later and she and Carlos made their miserable way to the familiar restaurant. Rona felt on edge the whole way there. She was restless and fidgety as though her clothes had been sprinkled with sand. Yet Carlos seemed to be the epitome of tranquillity.

This time when Gioberti came up to her and kissed her on both cheeks, she stiffened.

“Good evening,” he beamed. For a moment he looked perplexed seeing her with Carlos.

“This is my husband, Carlos,” Rona said.

Carlos nodded and followed while Gioberti seated them at a different table, Rona noted, to the one he usually seated her at.

“Is this where you met him?” Carlos asked while casually perusing the menu.

Rona felt as if she were on a knife-edge. [_How did he know? _]

“I’m guessing,” said Carlos, easily. “By the way the owner seems to know you but doesn’t want to make it so obvious, and by the way the waiters are looking at you, as if they recognize you.”

Her body tensed up. Was this what he was going to do? Put her through this misery the entire evening?

“Is this where you met?” he asked again.

“Do we have to talk about that?”

“Answer me.”

She tugged on a lock of her hair. “Why are you doing this?”

“Answer me.”

“Yes. Yes, it was.” She hissed, closing her menu and looking around. She’d become a familiar face here and the waiters smiled and acknowledged her as they walked past, much to her continuing misery.

“You’re not ordering?” he asked, closing his menu.

“I’ve lost my appetite.”

“Is it because I’m not him?”

“No,” she said, leaning forward, her whispers harsh. “Can’t you let this go, Carlos? Can’t we move on?”

“How can we?” he said, his voice calm but cold. “You took everything about us and threw it away.”

“Are you never going to let me forget it?”

“Never.”

She rested her forehead in her hand. “We need to move on, for our sakes. For Tori’s. How much longer are you going to punish me?”

Gioberti slipped by their table and seeing their hardened faces, slipped away quickly again.

“Let’s pretend we can have one nice evening here, shall we?” said Carlos, opening his menu again. But she could clearly see by the hard set of his mouth how difficult this was for him, too.

“You don’t want to be here anymore than I do. Let’s just go home. Why are you putting both of us through the same torture.”

“Because I live this torture every moment that I’m here. You think this is easy to forget?” he snapped.

Tears misted in her eyes and his face blurred through her sadness. Caught between loathing for herself and the guilt that enveloped her, she fidgeted with her hands.

“I love you, Carlos.”

“Words come so easy to you.”

A tear rolled down her cheek and she hastily brushed it away, hanging her head, wishing she was anywhere but here. “You’re doing this to humiliate me. You can’t face talking about things, about us, and instead you seem to be getting enjoyment from watching me go through this pain.”He didn’t have anything to say to that.

“Can we go?” she pleaded, her eyes bleary, her appetite long gone. She doubted that Gioberti’s would ever hold the same allure for her again.

He looked at her closely before throwing his menu back to the table. “Let’s go.” He got up abruptly and she didn’t know what hurt more, that he was so callous towards her or whether they couldn’t sit together and talk things through. That even now when they should have been trying to mend things, they were so clearly unable to do so and move forward. She grabbed her bag and stood up only to find that Gioberti rushed to her side, concerned. “You are leaving?”

She attempted a smile. “I’m not hungry, Gioberti.” He glanced at her and appeared to notice that something was wrong. Just over his shoulder she caught sight of Ruben walking towards her with a take-out bag in his hand. He looked fine, his nose normal. Relief colored her mood as their gazes locked. She tried to look away but it was too late.

Carlos had seen him too. His face darkened.

“I couldn’t have planned it better myself.” He thundered, his voice loud enough for the people at tables close by to look up and stare.

Ruben walked past her, his face solemn. Then Carlos spoke. “Stay away from her,” he threatened.

[_Not here, not now, _]she thought and considered moving towards the door. She didn’t need another embarrassing scene.

Ruben had stopped right beside their table. He put his hand up, almost in a surrender movement. “She’s not mine to have.”

“Just you remember that,” Carlos growled.

“Maybe you should appreciate her more. You might get to keep her, that way.” Ruben taunted.

“What did you say?” Carlos asked, his nostrils flaring, his knuckles ready by his side.

[_Not again. _]Her insides gave way to anxiety but Carlos, his mood fueled by Ruben’s blatant taunting, didn’t back down. She moved between them and saw out of the corner of her eye that Gioberti and the waiters were all staring at them.

“Come on, Carlos. Let’s go.” She started to head out but to her dismay the two men were squaring off across the table.

“Carlos,” she urged, eager for no more displays of violence or blood; desperate for normality to return to her once ordered life.

“You should appreciate her more. Then perhaps she wouldn’t go looking elsewhere.” Ruben slid past them and she was left horrified by his words. Incensed, Carlos made to go after him but she placed herself in front of him.

“Please, no. Can’t you see he’s doing this deliberately? Please, Carlos.” The desperation in her voice tugged at him and he seemed to consider her suggestion. Daring, she slipped her hand into his and pulled him along outside.

They stepped out and she breathed easier; Ruben was nowhere to be seen. Carlos moved his hand away and they walked along silently, strangers drowning in their indifference. She looked around her, wishing that she was back in Denver, that her friends were close by to give her comfort and much needed advice.

The evening was young even though the sun had started to sink, leaving the sky a beautifully woven quilt of salmon pink and robin’s nest egg blue.

It should have been a perfect evening in Verona.

Carlos seethed silently as they sat in the taxi with a gap as wide as the ocean between them. Angry thoughts pricked at him. [_You should appreciate her more. _]What had Rona told him?

He did appreciate her. But he despised the fact that she’d been talking about their relationship to another man. Heat flushed through his body at the idea of their clandestine meetings.

[_ What else had she been telling him? _]As angry as he had been since the day he’d found out, the anger had at last slowly began to ebb away. Tonight he’d hoped to begin to put things right. He’d simmered enough and he’d had the time and solitude to think things through. He also knew that she wasn’t about to throw away everything they had for a quick flirtation in Italy. His friends back home would tell him otherwise, that kisses didn’t just happen. But he had a feeling that she’d been unhappy, more discontent than unhappy, and she’d found comfort in another man’s attention.

It was something he could not forget easily but he wasn’t about to let his marriage and his family fall apart over something that he knew they could fix and put right.

Stupidly, wisely—he wasn’t sure which, he chose to believe her because he needed to believe in the woman he had married. He knew her like nobody else did and he knew he wanted to spend his life with her and nobody else. Even despite what she’d done.

He’d seen she was sorry. He could read her moods, even when she thought he wasn’t paying attention. He didn’t need to tell her or ask her, but he knew she was hurting. Rona wasn’t the type of person to hurt for too long—she was too self-obsessed to think much for anyone else, except Tori, and him, he liked to think. But her downcast expression and her constant attempts for them to talk it through and move on, had finally gotten through.

It wasn’t just her—it had been him too. Lately, he’d put the restaurant first, assuming she would always be there, assuming she would be content. Not understanding that she needed to know she mattered. And so it was time he had decided to take a step and fix things. He’d made her suffer enough and he wasn’t prepared to lose everything he had just because his pride and ego got in the way.

This evening out had been intended to do just that. It was bad enough that they were in the place where everyone seemed to know her. But that asshole had been there and it had been like waving a red flag in front of a bull. The idea had poured gasoline over the fire that he’d try to put out.

He looked across at her, saw that defiant chin jutting out as she stared out and ignored him. His heart softened. What had been bruised was his ego. He knew she cared. He could see she was sorry. One look at her face told him all he needed to know.

But seeing that man again had burned a hole inside his heart and the bitterness had returned.

“Turned out to be a perfect evening, didn’t it?” he said, slamming the car door.

“It’s always the perfect evening with you.” Sarcasm flew from her words.

“If you’d rather have gone with someone else you should have just said.”

She gave him an icy stare.

“I had no idea your boyfriend would be there. I had no idea that was your place.”

“Stop it, Carlos.” Their voices were raised, and instinctively they knew it was better to have this out here, before they went inside and simmered some more, with the danger of waking up Tori.

“I’m trying to get over it, but I can’t help it. It makes me wonder what other lies you must have told me during our time together.”

She jerked her head towards him. The taxi driver had long driven off and it was the two of them squaring off at each other outside the driveway. Night was slowly falling and it was still light outside.

“There’s never been anything before. There’s never been anyone before. There isn’t anyone now.”

He shook his head. “I can’t believe that. I might have at one time but not anymore.”

Her eyes, wide and full of fear and surprise accosted him—eyes that had once looked at him with deep love. “You don’t think I…” Shock stained her voice, turning it into a whisper.

“I don’t know what to think. It makes me question everything we ever had before.”

“I’ve never cheated on you.”

“Yet.”

“I know you’ll probably never trust me again, and I have to live with that. And you’re right. If you did the same with Celine, I’d be the first one to give you hell.” Her forehead puckered and she ran her hand across the base of her neck, nervous. They gazed at one another, faces ugly, full of loathing and contempt. So embroiled were they in their torture that they didn’t see Nico’s car slide into the estate, until he stopped and parked.

Through the open car window, Elsa stared at them both with disappointment weighing on her face.

Chapter 31

Rona’s face glazed over in surprise as she watched Elsa slowly get out of the car. Nico took her luggage out of the car boot then glanced over at her and Carlos, his gaze questioning.

“Mom?” Her insides withered as she enveloped her mom in a hug. She’d forgotten all about her mother’s arrival. Carlos grabbed a suitcase from Nico and the two men acknowledged one another.

“What’s going on?” Elsa asked. Her mom seemed slower in her movements. Carlos put an arm around her shoulders and gave her a hug. “Nothing, nothing at all.” He assured her but she seemed to see right through it. Her expression hardened.

“I’ll catch up with you tomorrow. Ava’s waiting,” said Nico, kissing her on the cheek. “You get some rest. I’ll tell Ava you said ‘hi’.”

“I’ll be over first thing tomorrow to see her,” she told him. Rona took her mother’s arm and gently guided her into the pensione,

“I thought you two would have time to spend together?” Elsa asked, seeing right through them with her incisive laser intuition.

“We did. We have,” said Rona brightly.

“Then why do you both look as though you’re about to knock one another out?”

Rona emitted a tiny laugh. “Is that what you thought? We’ve just come back from dinner if you really must know.”

“We went to Gioberti’s. Do you remember that place?” Carlos asked her as they walked inside. Elsa nodded, then slipped her handbag onto the coffee table. Lizzi walked out of the bedroom and into the living room with Tori in her arms, wide awake. Elsa squealed in delight and in that moment she only had eyes and ears for her granddaughter who wriggled excitedly at the sound of her grandmother’s voice.

“This is Lizzi, Mom,” said Rona, introducing the babysitter.

“You’ve been taking good care of my granddaughter?” said Elsa warmly, and took Tori into her arms and hugged her tightly. Everything and everyone else was now secondary.

But Rona knew her mother. Knew that Elsa didn’t forget things like this easily and she braced herself for more questions in the coming days.

“I don’t understand why they’re still having problems,” said Elsa, sitting in Ava’s office the next day. She scratched away a dried up crust of Tori’s cereal from her trouser leg. Seeing Rona and Carlos at odds with one another wasn’t the welcoming sight she’d hoped for.

“Who?”

“You know who,” said Elsa, irritated that another daughter of hers was trying to pull the wool over her eyes.

She’d been unable to sleep again and had tossed around for most of the night as sadness and worry lingered in her mind.

For her, sadness was now a part of Verona. Gone were the happy memories she’d stored from her times with Edmondo. The sadness had wiped the good times away and it surrounded her wherever she went—in the cool of the pensione and here in the genteel and exquisite Casa Adriana. She dared not face the garden just yet, even though her heartstrings tugged at her.

Memories of Edmondo were in every nook and cranny of Verona, in every fiber of her being. He was a hard man to forget—not that she ever intended to forget him. Just like her husband. Gone, but still there, in her heart and mind. Edmondo too would become a treasured memory as the years passed. But in her dark moments she was reminded of the man she would never see again and she would question the unfairness of life, even knowing, in her wise years, that life was anything but fair, and that whatever happened was out of her control.

Such had been her thoughts as she’d waited at the airport for Nico to pick her up. This was her third trip to Verona in six months and she felt sombre about it, even though she was coming for a happy occasion.

Seeing Rona and Carlos looking at one another as though they couldn’t stand being together had not helped. Only a fool would not see the veil they had put over their relationship just for her benefit. She was old, but she wasn’t stupid. What did they take her for? She hadn’t talked about it further and had focused her attention on Tori instead.

It was obvious that things were clearly no better now than when Carlos had left.

“You mean about Rona and Carlos?” Ava asked innocently. [_And you too, _]thought Elsa, scrutinizing her daughter’s face as Ava averted her eyes and fiddled with the papers in front of her.

“Of course I mean Rona and Carlos. They’re not talking properly to one another.”

Ava opened her mouth, and then paused. “Aren’t they?”

“No, they are not.”

Ava shrugged. “Maybe they had a minor disagreement. You know how loose tongued Rona can get when she’s had a few glasses of wine. She said they’d been out to dinner. I wouldn’t worry too much, Mom.”

But Elsa did worry.

“Where is she?” Elsa had already been here a while catching up with Ava and hadn’t seen Rona at all.

“She’s gone to Montova—to see Andrea about ordering new products.”

“More products? Your place looks like a warehouse as it is,” said Elsa.

Ava winced. “Did you manage to go by my apartment and see Kim before you came?”

Elsa nodded. “That girl is a godsend. I’d trust her with my apartment.”

Ava raised an eyebrow. “She’s a single mom. She’s busy as it is and I need her. I can’t afford to lose her.”

“It’s a miracle you found her,”

“It’s a miracle I found her and she’s local. Otherwise I don’t know what I’d have done.”

“It’s a pity. I thought Rona coming here would help.”

“She has helped me,” insisted Ava. “And she’s out of Kim’s way—she seems to be handling things just fine by herself.”

“I thought her being here might help her to see things with a bit of perspective—appreciate Carlos a bit more.”

“I thought the same. You said she was happy here. I didn’t realize how happy,” Ava muttered.

“What was that, honey?”

“Nothing. She has helped, she’s been dealing with inventory and lots of other things.”

“How are you holding up?” Elsa asked, looking at her daughter who’d filled out some more; a smile crossed Elsa’s face. “You’ll be married in a week, honey. Are you ready?” In the Fall Ava would have Edmondo’s grandchild; her grandchild also and her heart ached for all the things he would not see.

“Ready to marry Nico? Of course I am. As for everything else, I don’t know. I have so much to do.”

“Leave the work, it’s not important, not really. Not in the grand scheme of things. You only get married once.”

“I know what’s important, Mom. I’ll stop working in a few days’ time, I promise. I have a dress fitting this afternoon. Why don’t you come with me?”

Elsa shook her head. She was feeling tired again, tired and couldn’t summon up the drive to do anything. “I think I might go back and lie down for a while.”

Ava looked at her with concern. “I thought you might want to spend some time in the gardens now that you’re here. We could have lunch later and then you can go back and rest.”

Elsa feigned an interested smile. For now, the pensione appealed to her more than the gardens. She hadn’t been out there yet—knowing she didn’t feel ready. She was suddenly too afraid to step back into the memories. Because her memories of Edmondo were the strongest there, in the gardens he loved so much. Each time she revisited the gardens, each time she sat in the pergola or smelled the jasmine, or admired the lemon trees she was reminded of their moments of happiness. Except that now the past was seen through the veil of regret; regret for what might have been. She knew, in the thinking part of her mind, that this was no way to live the rest of her life—but she couldn’t help it.

And right now, she didn’t want to try either. After all, she knew—having been through this before—that grieving was a process that could not be sped up, rushed through, fixed, or discarded. Grieving was a passage that, like life, had to be lived through and experienced.

“Why don’t you take Rona?” she suggested. “It will give you the chance to find out what’s going on with her and Carlos.” Ava walked over to her, and placed a gentle hand on her shoulder. “Mom, I don’t want you to worry about Rona, or me, or Carlos or Nico or Tori. You look tired. I want you to rest and be prepared for my big day.”

“I’m not ill,” Elsa insisted.

“I know. But this isn’t easy for you, being here. I know that. I can see it. I know you’re in pain. I know it must be hard. But Mom, I need you to be well and to get through this for me, for Nico, for the wedding. I want you to feel happy, even though I know it must be the worst kind of torture for you to be here.”

Elsa patted her daughter’s hand. This would not do—she couldn’t upset her daughter like this. She had to be strong. It would pass, this feeling of detachment, of sadness and numbness. It would go. She was tired, that was all. With steely determination she gave Ava her best smile.

“I’m going back to the pensione to lie down a while and perhaps in the evening I’ll come back and we’ll go out to dinner somewhere? I know of quite a few good places to eat. Edmondo introduced me to all of his favorites. I think that would be a wonderful way to spend time together as a family. All of us.”

Ava’s face brightened. “That sounds wonderful. We’ll pick you up. I’ll take Rona with me for the dress fitting. I think Nico and Carlos have gone into town.”

“I like that the two of them get on so well,” she said, knowing that Carlos hadn’t exactly taken to Connor, Ava’s previous fiancé. Neither, for that matter, had she.

“I like it too.”

“How’s the baby?”

“The baby is going to make me look like a snow-covered mountain when I wear my dress.”

Elsa released a laugh. She knew that wasn’t even remotely true. Ava would dazzle as she walked down the aisle.

It was a tragedy that Edmondo wouldn’t be here to see his wish come true.

Chapter 32

“You don’t look that big,” Rona told her, yet again.

“And you’re lying. I was huge. I am huge. Humongous. Positively Titanic.”

“You are almost six months pregnant.”

“I wish Nico had just opted for a quiet ceremony, somewhere in the grounds of the hotel.”

“Did you say that the entire village was going to be there?”

“It’s a small church and we’re inviting close family and friends. Of course, he has a lot of extended family and they seem to know everyone within a hundred-mile radius of Verona. I’m scared to turn up.”

Rona looked at her sister. “Why? It’s your big day.”

“But I’m going to be huge.” And she was off again.

“You’re going to look beautiful. You’re pregnant, you can’t change that. It’s too late to postpone the wedding now. Why didn’t you think of that before?” Rona asked curious.

“Nico wanted to get married before the baby was born. And then my wrist was sprained, he’s been busy dealing with the new hotel and I had you and Kim and other issues to deal with.”

“I didn’t realize I was an issue.”

Ava shook her head and said nothing further on the matter. “What happened last night with you and Carlos? Nico said neither of you looked happy when he drove Mom over.”

Rona scrunched up her face. “She doesn’t miss a thing does she?”

“I’m worried about her.”

“You’re always worried about her.”

“Aren’t you?”

Rona didn’t like her sister’s accusatory tone. Ava might have the wedding, the pregnancy, her hormones, the online store, the suppliers and other things to think about but heck, she was in the middle of a marriage crisis. “She’s probably just tired from the flight, that’s all.”

“It’s hard for her, coming here. You have to put yourself in her shoes. It’s a delicate time for her. Don’t you think Edmondo would have loved the wedding? He’d been waiting for Nico to settle down.” Ava turned her head and stared out of the window.

Rona reached over and slipped her hand into Ava’s. “I understand that it’s a tough time for Nico, and for you too.” Okay, so maybe her sister had a lot more going on than she’d given her credit for. “I think the two of you make a great couple. You’re a great team. I love that he’s going to be a part of our family. I love that you’re going to have a baby of your own.” She hadn’t meant to sound so gushy, but the words tripped out without a thought and she meant every single one of them.

Ava turned towards her with eyes filled with tears and attempted a half-smile. “I’m happy,” she said, tearing up, and fighting it. “I just want everything to go okay on the day. I want mom to be happy, I want you and Carlos back to normal.”

She wasn’t the only one.

“We went out to dinner but it didn’t quite work out. Don’t you worry about it. I know Carlos. I know what he’s like. He’s had his time of camping out in his man-cave, and he’s starting to simmer down. I think he believes me, that it was a stupid mistake, what I did. It was crazy. I was…wrong to even go there.” She was going to say that she was all caught up in the moment, that the air in Verona had gone to her head, that she’d enjoyed having time to herself and that having a man pay her attention had caught her off guard.

But all these things weren’t really true. She’d gone along with it, taking each moment as it came, not stopping to think of consequences. She knew herself—knew that it wouldn’t have ever come to a second kiss, or another candlelit meal. She knew herself the error of what she’d done.

She only hoped that she could make Carlos see it too. She patted Ava’s thigh gently. “The only thing you’re going to worry about on your wedding day is your mascara. You’ll hope it won’t smudge because you’ll be crying tears of happiness.”

They had just walked back into the hotel when Carlos came rushing towards her. She almost didn’t recognize him. Beads of sweat clung to his forehead and his eyes bulged like a man possessed. She already knew it would be bad, the news he had for her. Instinctively she put her hand to her heart to protect it.

“Tori’s missing,” he choked.

Chapter 33

“Thanks for the lift,” said Carlos as they got out of the Nico’s car.

“You’re welcome,” responded Nico. Carlos had gone into town with Nico and while he had gone to meet with his bank manager, Carlos had enjoyed a Viennese cappuccino at one of the outside cafes in the Piazza delle Erbe. He’d left Tori with Lizzi and had therefore been able to sit and watch the world go by.

They walked back into the Casa Adriana to an empty hotel lobby. Nico shook his head. “Where is everyone?” he asked, his jaw clenched.

“Who’re you looking for?” Carlos asked. In his mind he was already making plans for the evening: he would fetch Tori from the gardens and make his way back home. He had ideas about setting the scene for a second attempt at an evening out for him and Rona.

“A receptionist would be good,” glowered Nico, looking around in consternation. “This is what happens when you take on new people. The whole system falls to pieces whenever Gina isn’t here.”

“Where is she?” asked Carlos. “She’s the only person I ever see here.”

“She’s away on a training course otherwise she’d be here to keep an eye on things.”

Carlos chuckled, understanding the dilemma perfectly. There was always one person, even in the kitchens of his father’s restaurants who seemed to know everything, and everyone else relied on this person.

“We have the same problem in the restaurant. There are some key people you can never afford to lose. I feel your pain. Excuse me while I check on Tori.” He left a visibly annoyed Nico and ventured into the gardens.

He’d been thinking things over as he sat drinking his coffee and watching the world pass by. He had decided that enough was enough. Things between him and Rona had to change. He had to make that change, since he’d been the one who had steadfastly refused to discuss the matter, despite Rona’s many attempts to put things right.

It wasn’t fair, either, to have this atmosphere around the time of the wedding. He’d listened to Nico talk excitedly about the day and his hopes and plans, and Carlos did not want his own problems to taint their special day.

He’d decided what he was going to do to set things right again and asking Lizzi to babysit tonight was the first thing. He would take Rona out again, only this time they would talk. Really talk, and resolve their problems.

With a head full of ideas he walked into the pergola and didn’t think anything of the pink plastic tumbler that he almost trampled on. Nor did he think too much of Tori’s baby bag that had fallen to the floor. But the sight of the baby stroller turned on its side, as if someone had knocked it over and run, that stopped him dead in his tracks.

There was no sign of Tori or Lizzi and even as he quickly glanced around the gardens, he didn’t see them. The hairs on his neck prickled his skin like briars. His brain froze as he looked around and saw what looked like Lizzi’s bag lying on one of the wicker chairs. There, underneath the chair lay one of Tori’s soft pink and orange toddler sandals.

Thump. It was the sound of his insides as they dropped onto the ground. A silent primal scream broke out in his head and he bolted straight back into the hotel.

“She’s gone!” he shouted, rushing in as a pain in his chest and throat took hold simultaneously. Everything around him suddenly took on a movie form. Nico broke away from his conversation with a staff member. “Who’s gone?”

“Tori,” Carlos murmured in a pained voice. His lungs were starting to squeeze together, and he couldn’t breathe easily. “The pergola…it’s a mess, her stroller, her shoe…” He blinked, seeing spots in front of his eyes. Nico looked at him in concern.

“Slow down, Carlos. What’s happened?”

“Tori’s missing. She’s gone. Gone!” He took out his cell phone and then put it back into his jacket pocket again. Agitation made it impossible to stay still, to do nothing. His nerves were a tangled mess of chaos.

“Call someone. The police. Call them. She’s only a baby.” He looked around the reception, his eyes darting everywhere, a feeling of restlessness pinching every inch of his skin.

“Calm down,” said Nico, softly. “Did you see Lizzi or Tori leave the hotel?” he asked the woman behind the desk. She shook her head.

“This is why we never leave the hotel desk unmanned,” said Nico in a tight voice.

“I’m sorry Mr. Cazale. One of the guests was having problems with the—”

“You are not to [_ever _]leave the desk unmanned. Do you understand?” Nico’s voice was deathly quiet. He turned to Carlos. “There has to be a reasonable explanation. Come, let’s check the gardens once more.” Carlos didn’t need to be told twice. They ran back out and examined the pergola again before rushing around the gardens calling out their names.

“Tori! Tori, baby! Tori! Lizzi!” Carlos shouted, his head turning in all directions, his gaze darting at lightning speed on the alert for flashes of the bright green dress she’d been wearing.

His shoulders were tight, his whole body was tight as he raced around looking for her desperately. He was terrified by the idea that he had no idea where his baby was or whether she was safe or not.

Nico rushed back from the opposite direction, he shook his head. “She’s not here.”

“She’s been taken,” Carlos heard his voice say the words but it didn’t sound as though they came from his mouth. He felt as though he was observing these events from a distance. His whole body was in limbo and his mind fractured, leaving him helpless so that he could not think, or breathe, or be.

“Let’s go back inside. I’ll call the police. I’ll get the staff to look around the grounds. It’s not what you think. There’s a perfectly good explanation for this.” They walked back towards the pergola and stared at the baby bag strewn across the floor. Nico tried to make him feel better but he didn’t believe any of it.

As they rushed back into the hotel Nico raced to the phone and Carlos paced around, his thoughts scrambling into a thousand different directions. He got out his cell phone to make the dreaded call to Rona. But the sound of heels on marble made him turn his head and his fear turned to relief when he saw Rona walk in. He ran to her, and watched as her expression, unsure and hesitant when she first laid eyes on him, turned to abject terror when he said the two words no parent ever wanted to hear.

“Tori’s missing,” he told her.

Her mouth opened, even as her face crumpled. She’d heard him. But she didn’t believe him.

“She’s gone. Her stroller and baby bag and Lizzi’s things are still in there. I found this.” He’d been clutching her missing shoe and when he showed it to Rona, she burst into tears, grabbing it from him and holding it to her chest.

Behind her, Ava clasped her hand over her stomach as Nico put his arm around her, his other hand on his cell phone. Within seconds a handful of staff members stood before him.

“Show me,” Rona urged and he took her into the gardens. She cried again, inconsolable tears this time, as she picked up the stroller and set it upright again, and picked up the items that had been so carelessly thrown to the ground.

A cell phone rang from one of the bags and she rushed to it.

“It’s only me,” said Ava quietly. “I was checking to see if Lizzi might have taken her phone.”

Rona’s eyes were dark with worry. “Where is she?” She looked at Carlos, her eyes filled with tears again as she refused to let go of Tori’s shoe. “Why would anyone want to take my baby?” Carlos stopped scratching his head, his heart ready to explode, his nerves already like mulch. Terror seized his vocal chords, leaving him mute. The answer to that question filled them with a fear worse than death.

“She can’t be far,” he said, forcing a brave voice, then echoing Nico’s words, “There’s probably a good enough explanation for it. Lizzi’s with her. Lizzi won’t let her come to harm.” He wanted to run in a million different directions, with a million different super powers. He wanted to breath, but his breath was stuck behind the ball of tightness that clamped his lungs together, and he wanted to grip something so hard, just so that he could feel this was real, even though he didn’t want it to be.

“Why did I come here?” he heard Rona whisper to herself, half crying, and half whimpering. She scampered around like a mad woman and he followed her, and saw the half a dozen staff members rushing in different directions in the gardens.

“Do you think?” she closed her eyes and looked at him, as if she couldn’t bring herself to say the words.

“What?” he asked, too scared to find out.

“Ruben, he wouldn’t, would he?”

He felt the veins on his temples throb at the suggestion.

“No,” said Ava. “Of course not. Lizzi has gone too. It’s nothing like that. He wouldn’t be that stupid.”

But Carlos wasn’t so sure. He’d wanted to knock the man to pieces when he’d seen him. Luckily he’d only punched his face but he knew he’d wanted to hurt him more. He wondered if the guy was so into Rona that he had taken some sort of evil revenge for what Rona had done to him; for what Carlos had done to him. What better way than to take the one thing they both loved more than life itself?

“Tori! Lizzi!” Rona cried, her voice shrill. They looked at one another and saw fear reflected. He took a step towards her. “It’s going to be alright. I promise you,” he said and put his arms around her, holding her tightly as she fell into his chest. The feel of her desperate need gave him strength and comfort and they held one another as though their life depended on it.

Chapter 34

[* “I*] told you I was fine,” said Elsa stubbornly. Salvatore narrowed his eyes at her.

“It is better you know for sure.” He told her firmly, ignoring her set lip and the frown on her face.

Elsa shook her head and watched as Tori lay asleep in Lizzi’s arms. It had been absurd. She’d only had a minor fall. Nothing much to it. She’d been walking in the gardens quietly, minding her own business but he’d ended up making her business his business and she hadn’t been happy about the intrusion.

“Is he always so stubborn?” Elsa asked Lizzi as Salvatore drove them back to the Casa Adriana. The girl gave her a smile and a shrug.

She had gone out into the gardens after all, after seeing Ava and her heart had surged with joy when she’d heard Tori’s bubbling laugh coming from the pergola. She didn’t have time to dwell on sad memories, not with her granddaughter filling the air with her happy shrieks.

After playing with Tori for a while Elsa had walked around the gardens reliving the past once more. But as she walked that same feeling of dizziness that she had recently begun to experience had started up again. She’d ignored it, carrying on as best as she could, eager not to let anything ruin her day. But the dizziness had worsened, causing her to misjudge her next step and she had come tumbling to the ground. She remembered letting out a shriek as she had fallen. Luckily she’d landed on soft grass and, dazed and shaken, she’d remained there, unable to get up again.

In the next moment she’d heard a voice behind her. Her heart jumped as she heard the same Italian accent in a man’s voice, thick and deep.

“Are you alright?” For one foolish, crazy second, she thought of Edmondo.

“Edmondo?” she’d even asked. But the man who walked up to her from behind was nothing like Edmondo. She felt silly. [_Of course, it wasn’t Edmondo. _]

“Have you hurt yourself?” The stranger had asked, bending down to her level. She’d stared back at him, disappointed and then looked around her. She knew she was in Edmondo’s garden, but suddenly she didn’t know why she was on the ground. And who was this stranger?

“Does your head hurt? Do you have pain anywhere?” he asked her, putting his gardening hoe on the grass. Thick, unruly eyebrows framed a lined and wrinkly face. He must have been handsome once, in his youth, she guessed.

“Lizzi!” He’d bellowed and then shouted something in Italian.

“I’m perfectly fine,” she’d told him and tried to get up but she’d felt weak, as though her muscles had stopped working completely.

“You’re not fine,” he told her.

“I am,” she insisted, with an irritation she reserved only for her girls. Lizzi rushed out with Tori in her arms and her face reddened when she saw Elsa on the ground. The girl looked at her in alarm, putting a hand to her face. She was just about to voice her concerns when Elsa shushed her.

“I’m perfectly fine,” Elsa insisted but again, when she tried to get up, she couldn’t.

“Don’t move,” the man insisted, wagging a thick finger at her. He looked at the girl. “Where is the manager?” he asked.

“There is nobody at reception, Nonno.” She told him and the man expressed a face full of disapproval.

“Gandma,” Tori giggled, probably finding it funny to find Grandma sprawled out on the ground.

“I’m getting up, honey,” Elsa said, and made another attempt.

“What did I tell you?” the man asked, annoyed. “You will hurt yourself more.”

“Look, Nonno. I am—”

“I am not your Nonno,” he said, looking at the way her legs had buckled underneath her. “I am her Nonno—it is the word we use for grandfather.”

Lizzi giggled. “He’s concerned about you, Elsa.”

“I can see that. But I am perfectly fine. I’m a little shaken if anything. I got confused just now. But I think I am fine.”

“Can you move your foot?” The man asked.

“I’ll move more than a foot,” Elsa replied, stubbornly. She refused to be treated like an invalid by him. She adjusted herself slowly so that her legs were now in front of her but bent at the knees. Carefully she straightened them out then wriggled her feet and legs too. But when she tried to get back up to standing, she couldn’t, until she reluctantly accepted the man’s outstretched hand. He grasped her easily, and with another arm around the small of her back, gently helped her to standing.

She didn’t like that he had touched the small of her back the way he had. And she certainly didn’t like his familiarity.

“Please tell your Grandfather that I am perfectly fine.”

“I can hear you perfectly,” he said. “My hearing is good.”

But when she took a step forward, her head spun and she would have fallen again had the old man not reached out for her, holding onto her and keeping her upright.

“You need to go to the hospital and get checked out. I will take you.” He told her. “Come,” he walked her carefully to the bench nearby and helped her to sit down. Too shocked to refuse, Elsa did as she was told. Her dizzy spells had never lasted this long before.

“One moment,” he told her and then walked away to put his gardening tools back into the toolbox. Lizzi watched her grandfather and then looked at Elsa helplessly as she shook the grass off her clothes.

“I think you should get checked out,” Lizzi advised her. “You still seem a little shaky.”

Elsa knew the girl was right, and her grandfather too. She’d almost been about to fall again. It wouldn’t do to be in this state at the wedding. Reluctantly, she agreed.

“Here,” he said, returning and taking her arm, “let me he help you. I’m Salvatore.” She’d been too stunned to reply.

Chapter 35

She felt the weight of Carlos’ arm firmly around her waist and was thankful for having him to lean on. She’d been rooted to the ground and now listened to the commotion around her as people looked for her daughter. Ava stared at her, looking more worried than a woman in her condition ought to. Nico rambled into his cell phone, his voice loud, his expression grave.

All she could think of was her daughter. A feeling of dread had settled in her stomach from the moment Carlos had uttered those two awful words. A weight had settled over her as if a boulder of rock had just fallen on her shoulders. The weight grew more unbearable with every passing minute as she realized that she had no idea where Tori was.

[_She was just a baby. A baby. _]Rona knew her life would be over if she didn’t have her in her arms again. She clutched her little girl’s shoe ever tighter in her hand, felt Carlos kiss the top of her head, felt time stop. Heard the thunder of her own heartbeat, heard the gurgle of her daughter’s voice in her head. Saw the image of her in her bright green dress. A cry escaped her mouth at the memory.

“Carlos,” she moaned. “I can’t live without her.” She buried her face in the safety of his chest and drew strength from his strong arms, from his protection and from his promise to put things right.

“She’s going to be fine,” she heard Carlos say, but she knew that he too was breaking apart just like her. He was only trying to keep it together, just for her.

She couldn’t breathe, probably because her mouth was so dry, her tongue stuck to her mouth, her insides heaved. She lifted her head and looked around to see everyone in motion. Only she and Carlos clung to one another like survivors in the ocean—otherwise they would have fallen to pieces by now. She swept a hand across her forehead, seeing Tori’s face in her mind’s eye. Her laughing, squealing, giggling daughter whose face and voice brightened their every waking moment.

How had this happened? These things happened to other people. Not them.

And still she heard Tori’s giggling voice in her head. Felt Carlos’s arms loosen around her, heard him let out a gasp. She turned her body around so that she had her back to his chest and looked to see Tori and Lizzi walk into the garden. Her heart dropped like a rock and she blinked from the shock of what she was seeing. Lizzi looked puzzled to find everyone staring at her.

“Tori!” yelled Carlos and sprang towards his daughter. Rona’s heart thumped and she put her hands to her mouth, unsure whether to trust the vision before her. Then she saw her mother and the gardener slowly walk in behind them.

“Mom?” Ava’s voice behind her was loud, filled with surprise and shock. Rona stayed rooted to the ground, staring and not understanding. And then she moved, a few strides was all it took to reach Carlos and Tori.

“My baby,” she wailed as Carlos handed Tori to her. She held her baby tight, hugging her to her heart, closing her eyes, and smelling the baby smell of her once more as she buried her lips on Tori’s soft fleshy cheeks.

“What’s happened?” asked Elsa, as much surprised by their reaction as they were by her appearance.

“Where have you been?” asked Carlos. She felt his arms enclose her, and she held Tori even tighter, too scared to let her go.

“To the hospital,” Elsa replied, not without irritation. “What’s going on here?”

“We thought Tori was missing,” explained Nico.

“Missing?” asked Elsa. “Why would you think that?”

“Why were you at the hospital?” asked Ava, her face twisted in confusion.

“Don’t worry. Everything’s fine. But why do you all look as though you’ve seen a ghost?”

Rona spoke just then. “Mom, you had us worried sick. We couldn’t find Tori or Lizzi—and we thought the worst.”

“The stroller was knocked over and it looked as though someone had left in a hurry. What did you expect us to think?” asked Carlos.

Elsa closed her eyes and let out an angry exhale. She scrubbed her forehead, shaking her head. “I had no idea. I didn’t even think to call you.” She fanned out her hand over her chest. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s my fault,” said Lizzi, stepping in.

“Why is it your fault?” asked Elsa. “If anyone is to blame, it’s me. I had a fall, a minor one, and then I was marched to the hospital.”

“Marched?” Rona asked.

“It’s Salvatore’s fault,” stated Elsa, stiffly. “He insisted on taking me there. I am so sorry I put you through so much worry,” said her mother, looking at her. “You really thought she’d been taken?”

“What else were we to think?” asked Rona. “Everything was left abandoned in the pergola. Even Lizzi’s bag. Ava called her, but her cell was here. We didn’t know what had happened.”

“Nonno called for me, he screamed out my name,” Lizzi explained. “I grabbed Tori and I ran. I must have knocked over the stroller in my hurry.”

“You told me you were going back to the pensione to lie-down?” asked Ava. Elsa brushed her palms together. “I had intended to, but first I wanted to see Tori, so I went into the gardens. I wandered around a little but then—I don’t know how it happened—I fell. I couldn’t get up for a moment or two.”

“Longer,” said Salvatore, taking over. “It was quite a time that your mother couldn’t get up.”

Elsa frowned at him.

“I ran inside but there was nobody at reception,” said Lizzi.

“But I managed to get up,” said Elsa.

“With some help,” added Salvatore.

“And I was perfectly perfect,” Elsa continued.

Salvatore snorted. “Except that she wasn’t. She was still not properly balanced when she stood up. I thought she might fall again. She didn’t want to listen to me,” he shrugged. “But I took her to the hospital anyway. I think it is better for the doctor to tell her if she is perfect or not.”

“Mom?” Ava questioned. “What’s going on?”

“Tell them,” Salvatore insisted, as though he wanted her to suffer the disapproval of her daughters.

“It’s nothing.”

“It is not nothing,” Salvatore insisted.

“I can speak for myself.” Elsa told him, giving him an angry stare.

“Mom?” Rona chimed in. Now that her daughter was safe and well and back in her arms, she could worry about other things.

“I’ve been on anti-depressants—”

“Anti-depressants?” asked Rona.

“For a while,” replied Elsa, twisting her hands together. “Apparently they don’t go well with my blood pressure medication.”

“For how long?” Ava asked.

Elsa looked at the floor and fiddled with her wristwatch. “I’ve had trouble sleeping, since…since…” She looked away.

“Taking both medicines together made her dizzy and that was why she fell.” Salvatore finished for her. “Maybe it is a good idea to get your mother to see the doctor quickly. Maybe he can check her prescription.”

“I’ll do that,” said Ava.

“She can see our family doctor.” Nico offered. “In fact, why don’t I call him over right now and he can—”

“No,” said Elsa with a determined expression on her face. “I’ve taken enough orders for today,” she looked accusingly at Salvatore.

“I am happy that you are better,” said Salvatore, returning Elsa’s glance. “But I am sorry for the trouble to you all,” he announced, looking at the rest of them.

“Thank you, Salvatore,” said Rona, grateful that he had been so concerned about her mother to take her to the hospital; whether her mother liked it or not. Judging by the hostile look on Elsa’s face, Rona guessed it was obviously a case of the latter.

“I will get back to my work,” said Salvatore, giving everyone a wave of his hand. He gave Elsa a final parting look, not quite soft, not quite angry. Just unsure.

“I’m sorry,” said Lizzi, the girl looked truly remorseful.

“I’m going back inside,” said Ava, giving Tori a kiss on the cheek.

“Maybe you should take a rest yourself,” suggested Rona, noting that her sister looked exhausted. “You’ve had enough drama for the day.”

“I’m taking her home,” said Nico. “I’ll put her on bed rest for the remainder of the day.”

Ava shook her head, “It must be an Italian trait, this bossiness around women,” her lips curled up as she spoke.

“Shall we go home,” Carlos asked, rubbing his hands around her shoulder.

“Yes,” said Rona, kissing Tori’s head one more time. “Let’s go home.”

Chapter 36

Tori had fallen asleep in the car as they reached the pensione and Elsa had retired to her room not long after. It was still only early evening and Carlos put Tori in her cot while Rona cleared away the baby bag, discarding the dirty bottles and Tori’s dirty clothes.

It had been a terrifying scare and thankfully nothing more. She had counted her blessings the whole way home, knowing she was lucky that the danger she had believed her baby to be in had only been imagined, and had never been real.

Nico had arranged for Elsa to meet with the doctor first thing in the morning and they hoped this would be the end of Elsa’s health concerns. With only a week left before Nico and Ava’s big day, there had already been enough drama to last them a month.

“Do you have to clear that up now?” Carlos asked her, switching the baby monitor on and placing it on the table. She glanced up at him with a diaper in her hands. There was a softness in his voice, as well as a softness in his eyes and he looked at her the way he used to before. She wondered what he wanted.

“I could do it later,” she said, slowly.

“Come back to me.” His voice sounded like a cross between a question and a statement. She dropped the diaper and folded her arms feeling wary again. She couldn’t take more of this, not after the drama of this afternoon. Would he shoot her back down again if she dared to think they might get over this? Back at the Casa Adriana they’d clung to one another. It wasn’t just that they’d been terrified for Tori, it wasn’t just that she had needed Carlos to cling to. Part of her was Carlos. She felt his pain, his fear, his terror as acutely as she’d felt her own and when they’d found Tori again, she felt his supreme joy as keenly as she had felt her own.

She couldn’t see, nor did she want to imagine, or live in, a world without him. She swallowed nervously, afraid to move because she didn’t know how to react to his words. Instead he moved to her.

This time he folded his arms too and mirrored her pose. “This silliness has to stop.”

Unsure as to what he referred to, she went along with it. “It has stopped,” she said, thinking he meant the whole episode with Ruben. “It would never have gone anywhere, whether you came back that night or later. I already knew it had to stop. It should never have started.”

This silliness,” he said, unfolding his arms, and unfolding hers too. He slipped his hand into hers. “I need you and I know I can’t live without you. I don’t want to live without you, but I have to know that I’m enough.”
[_Was that really what he thought? _]His words jolted her.

“You’re more than enough, Carlos—for me, you’re everything. This isn’t about you as a person, what you are and aren’t. It’s about me being a stupid, heartless, thoughtless—”

“Shhh,” he said. “I’ve learned a few things too. I won’t ever take you for granted again. I didn’t think I was, but I can see that things slipped, my focus changed. I never put you second intentionally because I assumed we were rock solid and I didn’t have to worry about us. So I worried and focussed on earning the money instead.”

“I know,” she said. “That’s important too, but so are the others things. We need to talk more, make more time just for us. It’s hard to do that when we’re both so busy and now we have Tori and we want to give her everything and spend time with her but I think it’s important to make time just for us. Otherwise we’ll lose ‘us’.”

“I hear you.” His brown eyes melted her heart.

“You think we can carry on now?” she asked, feeling goosebumps popping up all over her skin.

“I don’t want us to carry on,” he told her.

Alarm bells set off in her head.

“I want us to start over. I’ve made some mistakes, and—”

“—and god knows I have,” said Rona.

“This thing with Tori scared me to death. It scared me as much as thinking I might lose you.”

She shook her head but he held her hand firmly, and stared down at her. “You’ll never lose me,” she told him.

“But I thought I did,” he whispered. “I still don’t fully understand what would make you look at another man.”

She closed her eyes, knowing that this was the reason he didn’t think he was enough for her. She didn’t understand herself why she’d looked elsewhere but no words would wipe away the feeling she’d instilled in him that he wasn’t enough. She hated herself for it. And the same old explanation of timing and being in the moment, losing her senses, seemed futile now. That she had hurt the man she loved was punishment enough for her. She would find a way to show him that he was all she ever needed, but it would take time, and trust.

She looked down at his chest, wanting to fall into his body but afraid to and still unsure of how he would react.

He tilted her face up with his hand. “Coming this close to losing the two girls who mean the most to me can be a very liberating experience. Your mom lost Edmondo and she will never get him back. Sometimes I think of that and I feel for her.”

She nodded gently, let go of his hand and placed her arms around his waist, unable to resist the comfort of his chest.

“When I heard about you and Ruben, a part of me thought I’d lost you. And today, with Tori, I thought the same. We were lucky Rona, lucky she was unhurt, lucky that it was nothing serious. Just as I was lucky that what you did—,” his voice faltered and she looked up at him. “You and him, I get that it was nothing serious. But what worries me is that you went there at all.”

“Carlos—” but he wasn’t going to let her explain.

“I let you down,”

“No, Carlos. It was never your fault.”

“I get it. I put work first, I took you for granted. But we can work at this. We can put it back. We can put it back together again and make it stronger. But you also hurt me when you said you didn’t want another child.”

Her mouth fell open. “I get it,” he said, not giving her a chance to speak. “I get that you might not want to, and I respect your decision and I accept it, of course I do. It’s your body and the decision is yours. But back then, it hurt, the way you said it. It was as if you didn’t want [_my _]babies.”

She placed a finger on his lips. “It was never that. Never,” she said, shaking her head. “I’m not ready for another one yet, Carlos. I don’t know if I ever will be. That’s all.”

He dipped his chin. “I understand that. But it was just how you said it. You can be pretty hurtful sometimes.”

“Not sometimes, Carlos, most of the time. Admit it. It’s like Ava says, you’re a saint to have put up with me for as long as you have.”

“Somebody’s got to love you,” he said and kissed her suddenly; planting his closed lips on hers.

Her eyes glassed over and she felt herself smiling through blurred eyes. He stroked her cheek as her eyes brimmed with water and then he reached down and kissed her again. A proper kiss this time where she melted into his mouth and gave herself to him. She had missed this; the feel of him, the smell of him, the very essence of him. He pulled his lips away and she wrapped her arms around his neck and clung to him, breathing in his scent and feeling the warm skin of his neck against her forehead.

“Come on,” he said, picking up the baby monitor and grabbing her hand.

“Where?” she asked, frowning.

He said nothing and she followed him out of the pensione.

“Tori?”

“It’s okay, we have the monitor. The door’s locked. Elsa is there, and we are just here.” He led her to the middle of the lawn where in the distance they could see the vineyards all around.

“I love this place. I’d come out here sometimes when Tori and I would get back from the hotel. It’s a world away from my usual hectic life at the restaurant.”

“It must be a huge contrast,” she murmured, loving the way his hand, so big, so warm, felt around hers.

“There’s not a soul around, just me and my thoughts. I figured out what I really wanted.”

“What was that?”

“You and Tori.”

She pressed against him and they stood with their arms clasped around each other’s waists.

“I’d booked a restaurant for us for this evening.”

“Oh?” she looked up at him, scrutinizing his face.

“Nico recommended it to me so I went in and had a look around earlier today. It’s beautiful, simply stunning. I think you’d love it. I reserved a table out on the balcony for us, overlooking all of Verona. I thought I might take you there tonight and win you back.”

“You don’t need to win me back. You already have me.”

“I do, don’t I?”

She nodded.

“Shall we go? I booked a table for nine.”

“We could make it another day,” she suggested. “We’re here until the wedding.”

“Actually, no.”

“No?”

“We could stay longer. I took off the entire month.”

“Oh.”

“So we can stay here a couple of weeks after.”

“I don’t mind.” She said, “Whatever you want.”

“What about that restaurant?” he said, again.

“I had something else in mind.” She couldn’t help but smile, knowing that it had been a while since they’d been together.

“Some other restaurant?”

She raised an eyebrow. “No, no, no. We can go where you suggested tomorrow. But if you’re hungry,” she murmured, unable to take her eyes off his lips, “I could arrange some food for you.” She gave him her best sultry voice.

“Uh-huh.” And it had worked. She could already see that he’d lost the capacity to think, the way his eyes had grown dark and she guessed that the blood from his head had pooled further down below. Suddenly, she couldn’t wait any longer. They had been apart for too long.

“Food at the restaurant or food…anyplace else you want me to put it?”

“Uh-huh,” his lips parted and he stared at her, desire flashing in his eyes.

“It’s been a while, hasn’t it, Carlos?”

“A while?” He was definitely gone. The ability to think clearly had vanished. “Did you have anything in mind?” She licked her lips suggestively and in the next moment he picked her up and flung her over his shoulders, Fred Flintstone style. She squealed with delight as he strode quickly back to the pensione.

The End

This is the end of Carlos and Rona’s story. If you’d like to see what else is going on in Verona, and with these characters, Book 2, All That Glitters (Andrea’s story), is now available.

*You can read an excerpt from All That Glitters at the end of this book. *

Thank you for reading It Takes Two. I hope you enjoyed it!

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Lily

[][]Excerpt from All That Glitters

“You dropped your towel.”

His voice, soft and golden like melted butter, stole into her thoughts, jolting her from her dreamlike state. Andrea, who had been lying on the sun-lounger, letting the sun kiss her bikini-clad body, now opened her eyes and looked up through the brown filter of her sunglasses.

Him again. She’d noticed him before, and now watched him as he stood beside her with a white towel in his hand.

He was gorgeousness personified and so different from the dark haired Italian men she was used to. This man before her was blue-eyed and golden and hotter than lava; she thanked the god of fitness, for she could see that the gym had been particularly good to him.

Blinking, she became vaguely aware that her own towel lay by her feet and she was just about to reply to the handsome stranger when Caprice beat her to it.

“That’s mine,” her friend purred, leaning over Andrea to take the towel from him and no doubt giving the man a good eyeful in her plunging cherry red bikini. Andrea’s eyes narrowed. Caprice, with her long straight hair and luscious body, had the type of figure and full lips that gave men ideas.

The man glanced at her friend and grinned, and Andrea was grateful for the huge Prada shades that shielded her eyes as her gaze swept easily over his chest and arms. He looked like a tower of strength, standing over her with his tall and taut gym-sculpted body. She felt vulnerable lying down in her bikini and propped herself up to a seated position. Her movement attracted his attention and he looked at her, making her feel self-conscious and excited all at once.

“Are you ladies enjoying your stay here?” he asked. His accent was American, and the more she stared at his electric blue eyes—as blue as the lake which the Villa Costanza overlooked—the more she recalled that she’d seen him yesterday, too.

The pitter-patter of her heart increased and she briefly wondered whether the sun had affected her. She was far too cautious and sensible to believe in insta-love, yet here she was ogling this man as though he was the last of his species.

Her body was reacting to him—even if her mind still sat on the side-lines wondering when to join the game. She tried to think of something to say, so that he would know she had a voice, that she wasn’t mute.

“We are,” said Caprice, wriggling around in her seat. “Someone had a big milestone birthday celebration this weekend.”

“A milestone birthday?” he asked, his eyes twinkling. “A twenty-first?” he asked, all innocent.

She turned thirty,” replied Andrea, nodding her head at Caprice and finally getting a chance to prove that she could talk.

“Thirty is the new twenty,” Caprice declared as she rubbed sun lotion slowly and suggestively over her upper body. Andrea smiled at the man, more out of embarrassment for her friend who had turned the art of applying sun cream into foreplay.

“I agree. That’s quite a milestone you celebrated in style.” With his attention directed at Caprice, Andrea’s eyes darted to his body. Her gaze lowered to his swim shorts which hung dangerously low on his waist. Rivulets of water trickled down his chest and kept her transfixed as she watched them cling to the light dusting of golden hairs across his chest.

He caught her looking and her throat dried up like a prune. She didn’t know where to look.

“Nice meeting you, ladies,” he said, finally. “Happy belated birthday,” he told Caprice before stealing a look in Andrea’s direction. Then he walked away.

She stared at the perfect V-shape of his back. Caprice made lewd, low moans and licked her lips in pure, unashamed admiration as he stood at the side of the pool, getting ready to make a dive. The glittering water was blue and silver as slivers of sunlight fell and danced upon its gently moving surface. He dove in and disappeared, emerging moments later with his arms raised, thick and corded at the biceps, as he swept back his golden hair.

Andrea’s heart galloped as though she’d just sprinted four hundred meters. She lay back on the sun-lounger, her chest rising and falling.

Hot damn.

“Where did he come from?” Caprice sounded as though she needed an inhaler even though she didn’t suffer from asthma. “If I was single…,” she whispered, adjusting herself on the lounger. “Oh, look,” she cried, almost spilling out of her bikini. “I have my towel here, see.”

“Maybe someone else dropped theirs,” murmured Andrea.

“Or maybe that was his line,” purred Caprice. “I think he was interested.”

“You’re with Luigi.”

“I can still look[_.” _]Caprice pouted. “And he’s not here.”

“That makes it alright?” Andrea asked.

“I’m not breaking the law. You can be with one person and still have thoughts for another.”

“That’s called cheating.”

“It’s harmless, Andrea. I love Luigi and I would never do anything silly.” She settled back on the chair.

Andrea welcomed the silence and the feel of the sun as it licked her skin. This weekend had been the tonic she’d needed. The Villa Costanza nestled high above Lake Como and was set in a small wooded peninsula. An enchanting and luxurious hotel, it was tucked away in a quiet corner of Bellagio with only the view of the lake and surrounding greenery around. This magical paradise had enabled her to unwind completely during the long weekend.

It might have explained why her pulse had rocketed the moment she’d set eyes on the golden haired stranger. She didn’t usually notice men, not as easily as her friends Talia and Caprice did. They seemed to have been born with some sort of heat seeking device which locked onto all the hottest guys within a short range.

Yet she’d noticed _him. _

“It’s been a great weekend, huh?” Caprice asked.

“It’s been amazing. I so needed this,” Andrea replied, dreamily. “I can’t thank you enough.”

“You are welcome, my darling. I wanted to celebrate with two of my best friends but now I wish I didn’t have to leave so soon. Why didn’t we make it longer?”

Because it would have cost a fortune, Andrea thought, wishing her friend would lie down and keep quiet for more than a minute.

“Make sure you plan at least a week for your thirtieth birthday celebrations.” Caprice could talk for the world, and Andrea realized that she wasn’t going to get the peace and quiet she desired. She sat up and tied her thick dark curls into a ponytail.

“I was thirty last year,” she said quietly.

“You didn’t invite me!”

“I didn’t do anything.” Andrea opened her bottle of sun screen lotion and rubbed it over her shoulders. “I think I might have had takeout pizza.”

Caprice snorted. “That’s tragic! I hope your thirty-first birthday is more exciting. I hope you’ve found a man by then, at least.”

Andrea’s smile slowly faded and she shook her head. “I don’t think I’m too good in that department.” She’d messed up a few months ago with one of her best friends, Nico Cazale. He was now a reformed man who only had eyes for one woman—a woman who had recently become one of her good friends. Andrea hadn’t shared any of this with Caprice and Talia though.

“You don’t give yourself a chance. You’re always too busy working in that warehouse of yours.”

“I happen to love my business and what I do.”

“A business isn’t going to keep you warm in bed at night. You need someone to share it with. You need to live a little.”

“I’m lousy when it comes to reading men.” Andrea replied and didn’t like the way Caprice nodded her head eagerly.

“Am I that bad?” she asked but Caprice seemed to have dropped out of the conversation completely.

“I think he’s interested,” her friend said, speaking low as though she had no air in her lungs.

Andrea turned to look just as Caprice hissed, “Don’t look now—”

But it was too late; she already had. He’d slipped on a baseball cap and pulled it down low over his forehead as he slid down his recliner. The white wires of his headphones hung down his chest and her eyes once more scanned the full length of his body.

She turned back to Caprice, her insides vibrating like jelly. His sun-lounger was three spaces away. Had he been here before them this morning? Or had he only now picked his spot? It wouldn’t surprise her if he’d picked this spot so that he could take a better look at Caprice, she guessed. Men flocked to her as though she was giving away free money. Andrea had seen it all her life, from their college days onwards.

“I think he’s more interested in you,” said Caprice carefully.

Not one to raise her hopes, Andrea balked at the suggestion.

“You don’t think he’s hot?” Caprice, shocked at Andrea’s cool reaction lifted herself to a seated position and sat facing Andrea. She snuck another look at the man.

“Will you stop eyeballing him?” hissed Andrea, embarrassed that he would discover they were talking about him.

“You don’t think he’s hot?”

“He’s…okay.” Andrea drew her words out begrudgingly. If she admitted to finding him even remotely interesting her friend would goad her into making a move. They were desperate, both her and Talia, to pair Andrea up.

“[Okay? _]If I wasn’t engaged,” Caprice paused to admire her huge solitaire diamond ring, “I might be interested. But I think he’s into _you. He keeps looking this way.”

Andrea exhaled loudly. “Please, can you drop this?” She begged. For the past four days her friends, both in relationships, had been interrogating her about her single status. Talia was in a new relationship with a man she’d met at a court case and Caprice was engaged to her boyfriend of eighteen months. Because it had been a few years since Andrea had been in a meaningful relationship, her friends had been trying to ‘figure out what was wrong with her’ and had proceeded to carry out an analysis of her condition.

“What’s wrong?” asked Caprice, looking at her as if she’d had a nosebleed. “Why are you so uptight about a drop-dead hunk who keeps looking at you?”

“I’m not interested in having a relationship at the moment. I don’t have the time and energy to go for it.”

Caprice made a dismissive noise “It’s not an exercise class!” she snorted. “With the right guy, you’ll make the time. All your work ethic will go out of the window, you’ll probably spend your time in bed doing more fun things.”

Andrea glared at her friend and wished she would drop the talk. Besides, the man behind her was way out of her league and she wasn’t going to put herself out there. Not yet. She’d been humiliated enough to discover that she’d gotten things so wrong with Nico. These days her ego was fragile and she preferred to focus her attention on her business for now. Dealing with baby and children’s nursery furniture, toys and accessories was easier than dealing with relationships.

“Can’t we make the most of the time we have left and stop talking about men for a change?” Talia had left first thing in the morning and in a few hours Caprice would be going, too. Andrea had extended her trip to stay for one extra day because she had plans to check out a new crib manufacturer on her return journey.

“What else is there to talk about?” asked Caprice, retying the bow of her bikini top and hauling her breasts higher. Andrea watched in envy. There were times when she wished for a fuller figure like her friend’s. “And how can you go without sex for so many years?”

Andrea nearly choked on her breath. “Ssssshhhhhhhhhhh.” If Blue Eyes over there hadn’t been wearing his headphones, she would have died of embarrassment.

“It hasn’t been years,” Andrea retorted. Caprice was making it sound like it had been a decade.

“Your Rabbit doesn’t count. That’s not sex that’s—”

“Will you stop it?” This was the problem with her friends. Because they were so loved up, they were constantly fixated by relationships—whether it was the latest celebrity pairing or someone they knew. This weekend they had been trying to find out what Andrea’s problem was.

“But don’t you miss it?” Caprice insisted, obviously desperate to unravel the mystery of her celibacy.

“Having someone?”

“The sex. Don’t you miss the sex?”

Andrea thought about it. “I miss having someone to talk to, someone to go to dinner with, someone to spend a day like this with.”

“And the sex?” Caprice refused to let the matter settle.

Andrea squirmed. “I miss intimacy,” she whispered. Even though she had her back to him, she could feel Blue Eyes. It was a good thing there were a few sun-loungers between them. “But right now I have other stuff going on.”

“I don’t get why you’re not putting yourself out there more and working harder to find someone.”

“Because I’m busy working hard on my business and I want to expand, find bigger premises, maybe get a second warehouse in years to come.”

Caprice dismissed her words with a wave of her hand. “It’s always about your business. It takes over your life and it’s not a good thing, Andrea. It’s not right.”

“What’s not right?”

“Spending your life alone.”

Andrea set the bottle of lotion on the ground. “I like my business. I like being my own boss and having my own hours. I don’t have to return home today in order to prep for work tomorrow.” She pulled a face at her friend. “Sorry, I didn’t mean that to sound like a dig.”

“Luigi says he doesn’t mind whether I work or not.”

“He’s your boss. He only wants you at work so that he can keep an eye on you.”

“And other things,” said Caprice mischievously. “Sex on his desk knowing that his secretary was sitting outside his office was the biggest thrill. Have you ever—”

“No,” returned Andrea emphatically. She tried unsuccessfully to erase the image that Caprice had conjured up.

“One time I got under his desk and gave him a blow—”

“I get the picture! No wonder you can’t keep away from work,” muttered Andrea. Caprice hadn’t changed one bit. She’d had more boyfriends back in college than she and Talia had combined.

“Sex is more thrilling than ever,” she cooed.

“I bet it is.”

Your work is secondary, thought Andrea. This was where she had a lot more in common with Ava. Both were independent, strong minded women who ran their own businesses. For her friends their jobs were something that sucked up five days out of the week. Talia loved her work; she’d studied hard to earn her law degree and seemed to enjoy her career. Caprice was well taken care of, and work for her was a hobby, or a sex playground, mused Andrea.

It was different for Andrea. She worked seven days a week, maybe not the whole week at the warehouse but she often took work home. She never had a day when she didn’t do anything related to her business. It consumed her life.

“Let’s relax for another hour, then maybe grab lunch?” she suggested.

“That would work. Luigi wants to take me to dinner at eight so if I get the train by four at the latest, I’ll have plenty of time to get ready.”

With Blue Eyes not too far away, Andrea’s body was buzzing with excitement. She tried to remember when she’d first seen him; was it only yesterday? Or had he been here a few days before that?

What with their lunches, brunches, cocktails and a good few days of girlie fun, time had melted into one long, lazy stretch of memories and she’d stopped living by her watch for a change.

*All That Glitters is available here. *

Booklist

Look out for my other contemporary romance books:

The Billionaire’s Love Story:

The Gift, Book 1

The Gift, Book 2

The Gift, Book 3

The Gift, Boxed Set (Books 1, 2 & 3)

The Offer, Book 1

The Offer, Book 2

The Offer, Book 3

The Offer, Boxed Set (Books 1, 2 & 3)

The Vow, Book 1

The Vow, Book 2

The Vow, Book 3

The Vow, Boxed Set (Books 1, 2 & 3)

Perfect Match Series:

[*Lost In Solo – prequel *]

The Proposal

Heart Sync

A Leap of Faith

Perfect Match Boxed Set (Books 1, 2 & 3)

[*Tainted Love Series: *]

(A spin-off from the Perfect Match Series)

Misplaced Love

Reclaiming Love

Embracing Love

Tainted Love Boxed Set (Books 1, 2 & 3)

Honeymoon Series:

Honeymoon For One

Honeymoon For Three

Honeymoon Blues

Honeymoon Bliss

Honeymoon Series Boxed Set (Books 2, 3 & 4)

Baby Steps

Italian Summer Series:

(A spin-off from the Honeymoon Series)

It Takes Two

All That Glitters

Fool’s Gold

Roman Encounter

New Series:

An Ordinary Hero

Standalone books:

Love, Inc

An Unexpected Gift

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Acknowledgments

I would like to thank four wonderful ladies who take time out of their lives to go over my books looking for pesky errors:

Marcia Chamberlain

April Lowe

Charlotte Rebelein

Carole Tunstall

I would also like to thank Tatiana Vila for creating my awesome covers:

www.viladesign.net

About The Author

Lily Zante lives with her husband and three children somewhere near London, England.

Connect with Me

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Copyright © 2015 Lily Zante

It Takes Two

Kindle Edition

All rights reserved.

No part of this publication may be copied, reproduced in any format, by any means, electronic or otherwise, without prior consent from the copyright owner and publisher of this book.

The scanning, uploading and distribution of this book through the internet or any other means without the prior written consent of the author is illegal and is punishable by law.

This is a work of fiction. All characters, names, places and events are the product of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously and do not bear any resemblance to any real person, alive or dead.


It Takes Two

Rona Fernández left Verona with a clutch of happy memories. Her late night and frequent visits to the charming Gioberti's restaurant had raised some eyebrows but nobody was overly suspicious of why she would go alone each evening. Not even her husband. But back in Denver discontent soon pushes its way back into Rona's world and life soon pales in comparison to the memories of heady nights in Italy. Married and still looking hot despite a baby and almost seven years of marriage, Rona prides herself on looking good and getting noticed. It's just a shame that her hard-working husband is too busy working to pay her much attention. So when her sister asks for her help, back in Verona, how can she refuse? Especially when Gioberti's restaurant and its intriguing customers provide a pull for her that she finds hard to ignore. After all, a harmless flirtation every now and then isn't such a bad thing. As long it stays that way. But what happens when reality doesn't live up to expectations? Will it be too late to realize that what she had all along was far more precious than the things she thought she wanted? Maybe winning her husband back will be the hardest thing of all...

  • ISBN: 9781370863143
  • Author: Lily Zante
  • Published: 2017-08-17 16:42:30
  • Words: 62522
It Takes Two It Takes Two