But Alicia Cross is no longer the trembling, naive innocent he marriedand she won't be pushed around by the masterful count. His runaway bride is proving to be more of a challenge than he anticipateduntil he discovers she's still a virgin. The wedding night Francesco wanted is his for the taking!
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The atmosphere in the city was electric. Alicia Cross felt it tingle in her veins as she joined the Welsh rugby fans streaming into Cardiff's Millennium Stadium. As always they had arrived in their thousands to support their heroes, with the added excitement that today a victory against Italy would mean a step forward towards the holy grail of the Six Nations contest, the grand slam; victory over all five of the other teams. Wales were now level with England on wins.
After weeks of travel and hard work to organise parties and press events, Alicia had begged a couple of hours off duty this afternoon to watch the match with friends. Earlier she had checked the arrangements for the sponsor's lunch at the stadium, then hurried back to Cardiff Bay to ensure that all was ready in the hotel chosen for the party later that night. But now at last, instead of joining the sponsors in their hospitality box, she was on her way to her seat in the stands, and she was cutting it a bit fine. In her rush she almost bumped into the man who stepped in front of her, barring her way. She opened her mouth to apologise then snapped it shut, the colour draining from her face. In a knee-jerk reaction she flung away, but he was too quick for her and seized her hand. Conscious of curious glances beamed in their direction, she forced herself to stand still, her heart thudding against her ribs as she looked up into the handsome, unforgettable face of the man who had once changed her girlhood dreams into nightmares.
'Alicia,' he said in the voice that had not, to her intense disgust, lost the power to send shivers down her spine. Eyes locked with hers, he held her hand captive.
She returned the intent, heavy-lidded gaze for the space of several, deliberate heartbeats, then wrenched her hand away and turned on her heel.
But Francesco da Luca caught her by the elbow. 'Alicia, wait. I must speak with you.'
She stared at him in silent disdain, refusal blazing in her eyes as a crowd of late arrivals surged through the turnstiles to jostle them, and with a smothered curse he let her go.
'Do not think you can escape me again so easily, Alicia!'
The hint of menace in the deep, husky voice sent her racing up after the other fans as though the devil were after her. She shot into the cauldron of noise and music in the famous arena, and dived down the steep steps at such breakneck speed that Gareth Davies leapt up from the end of a row to seize her by the arm.
'Steady on, you'll break your neck.'
'Where have you been?' demanded Meg indignantly, as her brother thrust Alicia into the seat between them. 'The teams are just about to come on Hey, what's up?'
'Big rush.' Alicia leaned across to smile at Meg's husband. 'Hi, Rhys.'
'Are you all right, love?' he said, reaching to pat her hand.
'Fine.' Or she would be in a minute.
'You don't look it,' Gareth told her.
Alicia's reply was drowned by the roar from the Italian supporters as their team ran onto the pitch. Then the entire arena erupted as Billy Wales, the famous ram mascot of the Welsh Guards, was led out from the players' tunnel. The big Welsh captain came next, holding a tiny red-shirted boy by the hand as he led his team to line up for the royal presentation.
The smiling prince went along the line, shaking the hands of players on both teams, saying a word here and there. Once he was escorted back to his seat the band of the Welsh Guards struck up the first bars of the Italian national anthem, and the Italian fans in the arena roared out the words to encourage their team. There were cheers as it ended, but a hush fell as the band played the first chords of the Welsh national anthem and every Welsh man, woman and child in the stadiumincluding those in the home team line-up not too choked with emotionsang in one voice. Hairs rose on every patriotic neck present as the sound filled the stadium.
The band marched off to cheers, the referee blew the whistle, and from the moment the first ball was lofted to start the match excitement wound the crowd to fever pitch. Alicia cheered and gasped with the others as the tide of play went first one way, then the other. Like everyone else she screamed encouragement when a long pass from the Welsh scrum-half began a running movement which brought the crowd to its feet as Welsh backs surged towards the line, dodging the tackles of their Italian opponents as they passed the ball from hand to hand. The noise from the crowd mounted to a frenzied crescendo when the quicksilver Welsh wing caught the final pass from the full back, danced his way through the chasing Italian defenders and dived over the line to score. Alicia applauded wildly, then after a moment's hush joined in the cheers as the outside half sent the ball sailing over the bar, plum between the posts, to convert the try.
But through it all, even as she hugged Meg in triumph, one part of Alicia's brain was still numb with shock from the confrontation with Francesco da Luca. She had known only too well that he might come here to support his country in such an important match. But in the throes of the Six Nations season there was no way she could have taken time off from her job today purely on the off-chance that he might turn up, even less explain why. None of her colleagues knew about her connection to Francesco.
When the final whistle blew at last to confirm Welsh victory, the crowd went wild. Not a soul in the stadium moved to leave, and the crowd cheered and yelled as the euphoric Welsh squad saluted their supporters.
'How absolutely wonderful! But duty calls. I've got to go now, folks,' said Alicia, getting up. 'You stay here and enjoy the celebration.'
'Are you sure?' said Gareth, torn between seeing her out safely and wallowing in national euphoria.
'Of course. I'll see you at lunch tomorrow.' As Alicia leaned down to kiss Meg, her friend gave her an anxious look.
'I hope you're not too late to bed tonight, Lally. You look tired.'
'I'm fine, Mother Hen. Cheers, boys.'
Alicia made her way up the tiers of wildly cheering fans, returning the jubilant smiles on all sides as she went. But her smile vanished when she spotted the elegant, raincoated figure waiting just outside the exit. For a split second she considered racing back down to the others. Instead she stiffened her spine and mounted the remaining steps, head high. She ignored the hand Francesco held out, but in silent, icy acquiescence accompanied him down to ground level and outside to the entrance of the stadium. As silent as Alicia, he put up a large black umbrella and put an arm round her rigid waist to draw her under its shelter as the first of the exultant Welsh crowd began streaming past them on their way to begin celebrating their team's magnificent victory.
'I must talk with you,' said Francesco at last, dropping his arm as he leaned close to speak in her ear.
'No,' she said flatly.
'I understand your hostility'
'No one better!'
His eyes blazed. 'You know very well how many, many times I have tried to contact you, Alicia, but you do not return my calls; my letters come back to me unopened. And appeals to your mother have been useless. She would tell me nothing.'
'Of course not. She was acting on my instructions.' Her chin lifted. 'And you can't have appealed to her lately. She moved from Blake Street ages ago.'
He drew her aside to avoid being buffeted by the crowds. 'Dio, this is impossible. Come with me to my hotel.'
She gave him a look like a thrown dagger. 'After what happened last time we were in a hotel room? In your dreams, Francesco!' She tried to thrust his arm away, but he held her fast.
'Dreams of you are all I have!' His eyes locked with hers. 'I felt hope when I finally received a letter from you, but it was merely youryour condoglianze for the death of my mother.'
'And you only had that because my mother insisted I write it after your letter was forwarded to her.'
His eyes darkened. 'Do you hate me so much then, Alicia?'
She gave him a pitying smile. 'Good heavens, no. I feel nothing at all for you any more, Francesco. This urgent talk you want,' she added briskly, 'I assume it's a divorce you're after? If so you don't need me to agree to it after all this time, unless the law's different in your part of the world. And to set your mind at rest, Signor Conte, I don't want a single thing from you, legally or any other way. So go ahead, get on with it. I'll sign whatever papers you want. As far as I'm concerned you're a free man.'
He shook his head slowly, a look in his eyes she didn't care for at all. 'You and I were married by a priest in the sight of God, Alicia. You are still my wife. And I,' he added, in a tone she cared even less for, 'am still your husband.'
'Only on paper! As a bride I fell disastrously short of your requirements. Something you made cruelly plain to me.' She raised an eyebrow. 'Surely you can just get the marriage annulled?'
'And make public what is personal between us?' He shook his head, and bent nearer under cover of the umbrella. 'After all this time I doubt that you are still a virgin. And if you are not' he shrugged in the way she remembered only too well 'there is no proof that our marriage was not consummated.'
Alicia's eyes glittered with icy distaste. 'Your problem, not mine, Francesco. I have no plans to marry again. These days I enjoy less binding relationships.' She looked at her watch, then gave him a bored little smile. 'Fascinating though this is, I have to go.'
Francesco released her so abruptly she almost staggered. ' Va bene. Do what you do so wellrun away again, Alicia.'
She tried to think of some crushing response, but in the end just turned on her heel and left him, forcing herself to walk rather than take to her heels as she longed to. She glanced back through the throng to see if Francesco was watching her, but the tall figure in the long black raincoat had vanished. And with it all her pleasure in the day.
Alicia tried hard to blank the encounter from her mind as she got ready for the party that evening. In a routine she'd long since got down to a fine art, she tamed her newly washed hair with a miracle preparation that transformed rebellious curls into glossy obedience, then sleeked them up into a sophisticated knot and went to work on her face. But she functioned like an automaton, her eyes absent, and her disobedient mind full of memories the encounter with Francesco had brought flooding back. Not that they'd ever gone away.
On her eighteenth birthday, blissfully unaware that her life was about to change forever, Alicia had set out to explore Florence alone on the first day of the holiday. With a city map for a guide, she'd threaded her way through ancient streets with fascinating names, and felt very pleased with herself when she eventually reached the Piazza della Signoria. Eyes blazing with excitement behind her dark glasses, she edged her way through the crowds and clustering pigeons to marvel at sights familiar from art books and television, but most of all from a favourite film: A Room With a View. Making a mental note of every detail to report back later, she headed at last for the famous Caffe Rivoire. But as she dodged like a rugby fly-half to avoid a pair of kissing lovers, she dropped her bag and lunged after it in such panic only the lightning reflexes of the man she collided with saved her from falling flat on her face as she snatched it up.
'Mi dispiace!'said a voice as hard, safe hands held her steady.
Flushed with embarrassment, Alicia looked up into a striking, honey-skinned face crowned by black curling hair, a face so familiar that every Italian phrase she'd tried to learn vanished from her brain as she stared, dazed, at her rescuer.
'I'm so sorry, it was my fault,' she managed, when she could trust her voice.
Her rescuer smiled. 'Ah! You are English. And you are trembling, piccola. Are you hurt?'
'No.' Just knocked sideways by meeting the man whose photograph lived on her bedroom wall.
'But you had the shock, no? Come. You need a cold drink,' he said firmly. 'Allow me to introduce myself. I am Francesco da Luca.'
Was this was really happening? She took in a deep breath to steady herself. 'How do you do? My name's Alicia Cross.'
In the shade of an awning at one of Rivoire's outdoor tables, she took off her huge sunglasses and brand-new white cricket hat and smiled shyly as she asked for hot chocolate instead of something cold. 'I was told it's a speciality here. I was on my way to treat myself when I ran into you ' She trailed into silence as she met the arrested look in Francesco da Luca's eyes.
He blinked, murmured an apology, gave the order to a waiter, then leaned back in his chair. 'So. You are in Firenze on holiday, Miss Alicia Cross?'
He arched a dark eyebrow. 'Alone so young?'
'No.' Just how young did he think she was? 'I'm here with my best friend. Megan was airsick on the flight this morning, so she's sleeping it off at our hotel. But she insisted I come out to explore on my own.' Alicia smiled. 'And gave me a long list of instructions before I left.'
'I can guess one of these.' His answering smile set her pulse racing. 'You must not talk to strangers.'
Twin dimples flickered at the corners of her mouth. 'Top of the list.' Her smile faded as his eyes lit with the unsettling look again. 'Sorry. I didn't mean to offend you.'
'I am not offendedI am charmed by thefossetti,' he said softly.
The word hadn't come up in Alicia's phrase book, but she was pretty sure he meant her freckles. 'I hate them,' she said passionately, then smiled as the waiter set her chocolate in front of her and thanked him with the one word of Italian she could remember.
Francesco leaned nearer. 'You should not hate them,' he informed her. 'They are enchanting.'
Alicia sipped some of her chocolate. 'Not to me,' she said, resigned. 'I've tried all sorts of things to get rid of them, but nothing works.'