The night that Rose Palmer met enigmatic Italian tycoon Dante Fortinari she threw caution to the wind, allowing him to sweep her off her feet and into his bed! But by the next morning Dante was gone, leaving Rose heartbroken, alone and pregnant.
Two years later, Rose comes face-to-face with the father of her daughter and can no longer hide the truth of that night. She knew he'd be angry, but never expected him to demand marriage! She longs to accept, but can her heart withstand life with a man who might never love her back?
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Rose sat rigidly, every nerve on edge as the plane took off. No turning back now. For years she'd been turning down invitations to Florence, flatly refusing to be parted from her little daughter, or to take her child with her. But this time refusal had been impossible.
'Please, please come,' Charlotte had begged. 'Just you and me in a luxury hotel for a couple of days. God knows you can do with a break, and I'll pay for everything and send you a plane ticket, so absolutely no expenses on your part. You know Bea will be fine with your mother, so don't say no this time. I really need you, Rose. So come. Please!' she'd added, and because Charlotte was her oldest and closest friend and she loved her like a sister, Rose had finally given in.
'Oh, all right. If it means that much to you I will. But why a hotel and not your place?'
'I want you all to myself.'
'Fabio can't be cool about this. It's your wedding anniversary, isn't it?'
'He'll be away for it on some business trip,' said Charlotte miserably. 'Besides, he doesn't know about the hotel yet. But I've already booked, so there's nothing he can do about itnot that he would, of course.'
Rose wasn't so sure. A possessive husband like Fabio Vilari would surely be anything but cool if his wife took a hotel break in Florence without him, even if it was with her lifelong friend and the bridesmaid at their wedding. But from the moment Rose had said a reluctant yes to the trip Charlotte rang every day to make sure that she hadn't changed her mind, and in her final call sprang a surprise with instructions to take a taxi from Santa Maria Novella railway station to the hotel. 'I'll meet you there later in time for dinner, Rose. I can't wait!'
Money, if the hotel brochure was anything to go by, was obviously not part of Charlotte's problem, but if something was going wrong with her marriage Rose couldn't see what earthly help a single parent like herself could give her friend, other than to provide a sympathetic ear. Still, the note of tearful desperation in her friend's voice had been so worrying that Rose had enlisted her mother's willing help, covered her child's face with kisses and made for Heathrow with her shoulder ready for Charlotte to cry on.
On terra firma in Pisa Airport, Rose concentrated on collecting her luggage and finding the train for Florence, but once she'd boarded it the Tuscan scenery passed her by almost unnoticed in her worry about possible problems left behind and the all-too-probable ones awaiting her at journey's end. Her daughter was used to spending time with her beloved gramma while Rose went out to work, but Mummy had always been home before bedtime. Rose blinked hard. The thought of her darling Bea crying for her in the night was unbearable. Yet Charlotte had been there for Rose through thick and thin in the past, and now her friend was the one needing help and support for once Rose had no option but to get to her as quickly as possible to provide it.
Rose came to with a start as the train pulled into Santa Maria Novella and was soon wheeling her suitcase through the heat and bustle of the crowds streaming from the lofty station into the late afternoon Florentine sunshine, so very different from the cool mists left behind. The taxi driver who eventually picked her up took a look at her hotel brochure and whisked her on a fast, chaotic drive past tall old buildings in narrow streets filled with honking cars and scooters en route to the banks of the River Arno. Rose stared, impressed, when they reached the hotel. Charlotte was certainly pushing the boat out for her. A flight of stone steps with a red carpet runner led up to an arched doorway crowned by a fabulous Venetian glass fanlight. Rose paid the driver, wishing she'd worn something more elegant than denim jeans and jacket for her red carpet entrance as she trailed her suitcase past marble statues and urns of flowers in the vaulted foyer. She approached the man behind the reception desk at the foot of a sweeping staircase and gave him her name.
'Buonasera,' he said courteously, but to her relief continued in English. 'Welcome to Florence, Miss Palmer. If you will just sign the register? I am to inform you that Signora Vilari has ordered dinner for two in the hotel restaurant this evening.'
Rose smiled gratefully. 'Thank you.'
'Prego. If you require anything at all, please ring. Enjoy your stay.'
A porter took charge of the luggage to escort Rose to a lift rather like an ornate brass birdcage. It took them up two floors at such a leisurely rate she could have walked up faster, but she was utterly delighted when she reached her room. She tipped the porter and went straight out onto a balcony looking down on the River Arno, her feelings a heady mix of trepidation and excitement as she recognised the sun-gilded bridge farther upstream as the famous Ponte Vecchio. She was actually, unbelievably, here in Florence at last. She sent a text to Charlotte to confirm her arrival, and then rang her mother.
'No problems, darling; Bea's as happy as a lark,' Grace Palmer assured her. 'She's playing with Tom in the garden before her bath. Do you want to speak to her?'
'I just long to, Mum, but I won't in case it upsets her. If she's happy let's keep her that way.'
'She'll be fine. You know we'll take good care of her, so for heaven's sake, relax and enjoy yourself.'
Rose promised to try, said there was no news from Charlotte yet, but would report tomorrow. She chose a tonic from the minibar and sat back on one of the reclining chairs on the balcony to breathe in the scents and sounds of Florence as she watched the traffic stream past across the river. For the first time in for ever at this time of day she had absolutely nothing to dobut missed her child too much to enjoy it. Stop it, she told herself irritably. Now she was here it was only sensible to make the most of her short break in this beautiful city. But what on earth was going on with Charlotte and Fabio? Could Fabio be cheating on her? Rose glowered. In the unlikely event that she ever acquired a husband herself her gut reaction would be grievous bodily harm if the man started playing away. She checked her silent phone again, took a last look at the sparkling waters of the Arno and went inside to soak in the bath for as long as she liked for once.
With still no word from Charlotte, the uneasiness grew as Rose got ready for the evening. To keep occupied, she took longer over her appearance than she ever had time for normally and even coaxed her newly washed hair into an intricate up-do. She nodded at her reflection in approval. Not bad. Her long-serving little black dress looked pretty good now she'd lost a pound or two. Charlotte's clothes were always wonderful, courtesy of a wealthy, besotted husbandRose bit her lip, wondering if there lay the problem. Maybe Fabio Vilari was no longer so besotted. Or, worst scenario of all, was now besotted with someone else. She leapt away from the mirror as the phone rang. At last!
'Hello,' she said eagerly, but her face fell at the news that a letter had arrived for her.
'Thank you. I'll come down for it right away.' And wait for Charlotte downstairs with a drink.
Too impatient to wait for the lift, Rose hurried down the imposing staircase as fast as she could in her kept-for-best heels and crossed the foyer to the reception desk. The bulky envelope, addressed in Charlotte's unmistakable scrawl, was handed to her, along with the information that the gentleman who'd delivered it wished to speak with her.
'Buonasera, Rose,' said a voice behind her. 'Welcome to Firenze.'
Her heart, which had taken a nosedive at the sight of Charlotte's handwriting, flew up to hammer Rose in the ribs. To hide her horrified reaction, she turned very slowly to confront a tall, slim man with dark curling hair and a face that could be straight out of a Raphael portrait. A face she had never forgotten, though heaven knew she had tried. Here in the handsome, irresistible flesh was her reason for refusing all invitations to Tuscanyto avoid meeting up with her daughter's father again.
'Good heavensDante Fortinari,' she said lightly when she could trust her voice. 'What a surprise!'
'A pleasant one, I hope?' He took her hand, a light in his blue eyes that made her want to turn tail and run. 'I am so very happy to see you again, Rose. Will you have a drink while you read your letter?'
Her first reaction was to refuse point-blank and tell him to get lost, but after a pause she nodded warily. 'Thank you.'
'Come.' He led her to a table in the hushed sophistication of the lounge bar. 'You would like wine?'
She felt in crying need of something even stronger than wine after the shock of seeing him again, but to keep her wits about her opted for water. 'Sparkling water, please. Will you excuse me while I read this?'
Dante Fortinari gave the order to a waiter then sat watching intently while she read her letter. Rose Palmer had changed in the years since their last meeting at Charlotte Vilari's wedding over four years ago. Then she had been an innocent just past her twenty-first birthday, but now she was very much a woman. Hair still the colour of caramello was swept up in a precarious knot that made his fingers yearn to bring it tumbling down. Combined with the severe dress, it gave her a look of sophistication very different from his memory of her. His mouth twisted. She had been so irresistible in her happiness for her friend that day, but the carefree young bridesmaid had now matured into a poised, self-contained adult who was very obviously not pleased to see him. This was no surprise. He had half expected her to snatch her letter and walk away, refusing to talk to him at all.
Rose, in the meantime, was reading Charlotte's note in dismay.
You 'll want to hit me, love, when you read thisI don't blame you one bit. Fabio woke me up yesterday morning with flowers, a gorgeous gold bracelet, plus tickets for a surprise trip to New York for today of all days.
God, Rose, the relief was enormous. I came across the tickets and hotel reservation by ac- cident a while ago and immediately pole-vaulted to the wrong conclusionthat Fabio was taking someone else and pretending it was a business trip. And on our wedding anniversary! That was why I needed you so badly.
Sorry to be such a drama queenI've been a total idiot. I was about to ring you to grovel and cancel your trip when Fabio insisted a little holiday would be very good for you after all your efforts to get away. I agreed wholeheartedly, so take it easy, Rose, and enjoy a taste of la dolce vita before you fly back. Lord knows you deserve it.
Enclosed is some spending money for meals and shoppingand Fabio says don't dare refuse it or he'll be very hurt. Buy presents, if nothing else. I'll fly over to catch up very soon. Love always, Charlotte.
'Bad news?' asked Dante.
Rose gave him a dazed look. 'I flew here to meet Charlotte for a little holiday, but Fabio's taken her on a surprise trip to New York today instead.' She smiled valiantly to mask her crushing disappointment. 'Never mind. I've always wanted to visit Florence.'
'But in company with your friend, not alone.' Sympathy gleamed in the vivid blue eyes that had haunted her dreams and given her many a disturbed night in the past. Not that she was ever short of those in the present.
Rose shrugged philosophically. 'I'd prefer that, of course, but I certainly won't lack something to do in a city like Florence. I'll explore as many museums and galleries as possible, enjoy glorious meals and gaze into shop windows as much as I like.' And even swallow her pride and spend some of the money sent with the letter.
'But all that is for tomorrow. Tonight, it is time to dine. Charlotte has made a dinner reservation for two here tonight.' Dante reached across to touch her hand. 'Allora, since she cannot join you, it would give me much pleasure to take her place.'
Rose snatched her hand away. 'Will you bring your wife along, too?'
'Cosa?' He sat back, his eyes suddenly arctic. 'You forget. I no longer have a wife.'
Rose winced. Had his wife died? T I apologise. I didn't know.'
He raised a cynical eyebrow. 'Charlotte did not tell you that Elsa left me?' 'No.'
'You surprise me! In Fortino it was such a hot topic of conversation I was grateful when my travels took me to the vineyards of California for a while.' He drained his glass. 'But now you know I am solo again, and have been for years, may I have the honour of your company at dinner tonight, Miss Palmer?'
She studied him in silence. Her first instinct was to refuse. But she was secretly daunted by the thought of dining alone in such opulent and formal surroundings. Even so, after refusing for years to come to Italy in case she ran into Dante Fortinari again, it would be wiser to have some food sent to her room rather than accept the company of the man who'd caused total upheaval in her life after their first and only meeting. Her brain, which was still furious with him, ordered her to refuse point-blank, but her heart, the unruly organ which had got her into trouble in the first place, was urging her to forget wisdom for once. And, idiot that she was, that was what she was going to do. She would never come here again, so what harm in making use of him?
'You are taking much time to decide, Rose,' Dante pointed out. 'Do you wish for my company or not?'
'Yes. Thank you.' She eyed him curiously. 'How did you get involved in acting as delivery boy for Charlotte?'
He shrugged. 'Fabio offered to deliver a package to a friend of mine in New York and Charlotte requested a favour in return. I was most happy to do this because it meant meeting you again, Rose.' He signalled to a waiter for some menus.
'But do you have a place here in Florence these days? I vaguely remember that you lived in the family home at the Fortinari vineyards.'
'I did at one time, but now I own a house a few kilometres from our vineyards at Fortino. Now my father is retired I help run the business with my brother, Leo. He is maestro of production; I am good at the selling,' Dante said without conceit.
No need to tell her that. 'You came a long way just to deliver a letter.'
'A trip to Firenze is always a pleasure,' he assured her, and held her eyes very deliberately. 'Also, I wanted very much to see you again.'
'I'm surprised you even remembered me after all this time,' she said tartly.
'I have never forgotten you, Rose,' he assured her, and for the first time gave her the bone-melting smile that had caused all the trouble in the first place. 'Allora, what do you like to eat?'