But against all the odds, they strike an unlikely friendship, and forbidden awareness simmers .
Alysa's calm facade hides a painful secret that haunts her every time she looks into the soulful eyes of Drago's motherless child. As the attraction builds between them, Christmas approaches with the promise of a new start. Can the healing miracle of love, and the joy of the season, make them a family?
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The cold February sunlight glittered over the place where fifteen people had died in one terrible moment.
Far below, the crowd looked up to where the hanging chairs swung over the top of the waterfall. They were newly installed, replacing the ones that had broken suddenly, tossing the screaming occupants down, down to the churning water, to be smashed on the rocks.
That had been one year ago today, and the crowd of mourners was there to remember the loved ones they had lost. Out of respect for the foreign victims the service was held in both Italian and English.
'Let us remember them at their bestwith pride. Let us rejoice in having known them '
Then it was over. Some of the crowd drifted away, but others remained, still gazing up, trying to picture the tragedy.
Alysa stayed longer than the rest because she couldn't think what to do or where to go. Something inside her, that had been frozen for a long time, held her prisoner.
A young journalist approached her, microphone extended, speaking Italian.
'Sono Inglese,' she said quickly. 'Non parle Italiano.'
He looked astonished at someone who could deny speaking Italian in such excellent Italian, and she added, 'Those are all the words I know.'
He switched to English.
'Can I ask why you are here? Did you lose someone?'
For a wild moment she wanted to cry out, 'I came here to mourn the man I loved, but who betrayed me, abandoned me and our unborn child, a child he never even knew about, then died with his lover. She had a husband and child, but she deserted them as he deserted me. And I don't know why I came here except that I couldn't stay away'.
But she mustn't say any of that. For a year she'd allowed nobody into her private grief, hiding behind steel doors that were bolted and barred against the world, lest anyone suspect not only her desolation but also her terrible fear that, if she let go, she might never regain control over the torrents of grief and anger.
Let us rejoice in having known them
'No, I didn't lose anyone,' she said. 'I'm just curious.'
He was a nice lad. He gave a rueful sigh.
'So you can't point anyone out to me? Nobody wants to talk, and the only one I recognise is Drago di Luca.'
She jumped at the name. 'Is he here?'
'He's the man over there, scowling.'
She saw where he pointed. Her first impression of Drago di Luca was of darkness. His hair was dark, and so were his eyes, which mysteriously managed to be piercing at the same time. Yet it wasn't just a matter of appearance. This darkness was there inside himin his mind, his heart, even perhaps his soul. Alysa shivered slightly.
His face seemed to be made from angles, with no roundness or softening anywhere. The nose was sharp and distinctive, the mouth and jaw firm, the eyes ferocious, even at this distance. The whole effect was one of hauteur, as though he defied anyone to dare speak to him.
'You wouldn't want to get on his wrong side, would you?' the young man said. 'Mind you, he's got a lot to scowl about. His wife died here, and the grapevine says she'd left him for another man.'
It took a moment before Alysa could answer. 'The grapevine? Doesn't anyone know for sure?'
'She was a lawyer, and the official story is that she was on a trip to see clients. If anyone dares to suggest otherwise di Luca comes down on them like a ton of his own bricks. He's a builder, you see, takes on big projectsnew stuff, restoring ancient buildings, that sort of thing.'
She looked again. Di Luca was tall and powerfully built, with broad shoulders and large hands, as though he personally constructed his projects.
'I can see that people could find him scary,' she mused.
'I'll say. He's a big man in Florence. Someone suggested that he stand for the council and he laughed. He has all the influence over the council that he needs without spending time in meetings. They say he has the ear of every important person in town, and he pulls strings whenever it suits him. I tried to speak to him earlier and I thought he was going to kill me.'
She took a last look at Drago, and was disconcerted when he seemed to be looking back at her. Impossible, surely? But for a moment the surroundings faded to silence and all she could hear was a call that he seemed to be sending to her.
Stop being fanciful, she told herself.
'I must be going,' she told the journalist.
She drifted away, managing to keep Drago di Luca in her sights. She knew his face from a hundred obsessive searches of the internet. James had accidentally let slip that his new lover was called Carlotta. Then he'd clammed up.
Three weeks later the tragedy at the Pinosa Falls, near Florence, in Italy, had hit the headlines and she had learned from a newspaper that he was dead. Going through the list of names, she'd discovered Signora Carlotta di Luca, a young lawyer of great promise. Searching the internet, Alysa had discovered several articles about her, and some photographs.
They'd revealed a dark-haired, vivacious womannot beautiful, but with a special quality. One picture had showed Carlotta with her husband and child, a little girl about four years old, who bore a strong resemblance to her mother. The man with them had been in his late thirties with a face that Alysa hadn't been able to readstrong, and blank of emotion.
Was he also a brutal husband whose unkindness had driven his wife into the arms of another man, and so to her death? Seeing him today, she could believe it.
The internet had also contained depictions of the accident that no newspaper would have dared to publishintimate, shocking pictures taken by mercenary ghouls, showing smashed bodies in terrifying detail. One had showed Carlotta and James, lying dead on the ground. James's face had been covered with blood, but Alysa had recognised his jacket.
They'd still been in the chair, leaving no doubt that they had travelled together. She'd just been able to make out that in the last moments before death he and Carlotta had thrown themselves into each other's arms.
Now it was over, she told herself. Ended. Finished. Forget it.
One night, as she'd stared at the computer screen, she'd felt shafts of pain go through her like knives. What had happened then had been too fast for her even to call for help. Stumbling to the bathroom, she'd collapsed on the floor and fainted. When she'd come round, she had lost James's child.
Afterwards she'd been glad that she hadn't confided in anybody. Now she could weep in privacy. But the tears hadn't come. Night after night she'd lain alone in the darkness, staring into nothing, while her heart had turned to stone.
After giving the matter some rational thought she'd decided it was for the best. If she couldn't cry now she would never cry again, which was surely useful. When you loved nothing, feared nothing, cared for nothing, what was there to worry about?
With that settled, she'd embarked on the transformation of her life. A shopping trip had provided her with a collection of trouser suits, all stunningly fashionable and costly. Next she'd lopped off the extravagant tresses that had marked her earlier existence. The resulting boyish crop was elegant, but she cared little. What counted was that it marked the end of her old life and the start of her new one.
Or just the end of life?
Her face too had changed, but in ways she couldn't see. It was tense, strained, so that every feature was sharpened in a way that would have been forbidding if her large eyes had not softened her appearance. They were now her main claim to beauty, and more than one man had admired them, only to find them looking right through him.
She'd thrown herself into her career with renewed fervour. Her bosses were impressed. The word 'partnership' began to be whispered. A year after James's death, she should have completely moved on. And yet
She wandered slowly back to the water and looked up again to the place where James and Carlotta had swung up high, moments before the cable had snapped.
'Why am I here?' she asked him. 'Why haven't I managed to forget you yet?'
Because he was a ghost who haunted her even now, and in this place she'd planned to exorcise him. Foolish hope.
'Leave me alone,' she whispered desperately, closing her eyes. 'In the name of pity, leave me alone.'
Silence. He wasn't there, but even his absence had a mocking quality.
Beneath a huge tree a stone had been erected, bearing the names of the dead, with James near the bottom. She knelt and touched his name, feeling the stone cold beneath her fingers. This was as close to him as she would ever be again.
'Sapevi che ltd?'
The voice, coming from behind her, made her turn and find Drago di Luca towering over her, glowering. He looked immense, blotting out the sun, forcing her to see only him.
'Sono Inglese,' she said.
'I asked if you knew the man whose name you touch.'
'Yes,' she said defiantly. 'I knew him.'
'Well?' He rapped the word out.
'Yes, well. Very well. Is that any business of yours?'
'Everything concerning that man is my business.'
She rose to face him. 'Because he ran off with your wife?'
She heard his sharp intake of breath and knew that he would have controlled it if he could. His eyes were full of murder. Much like her own, she suspected.
'If you know that' he said slowly.
'James Franklin was my boyfriend. He left me for a woman called Carlotta.'
'What else did he tell you about her?'
'Nothing. He let her name slip, then refused to say any more. But when this happened' She shrugged.
'Yes,' he said heavily. 'Then every detail came out for the entertainment of the world.'
The crowd jostled her slightly and she moved away. At once he took her arm, leading her in the direction he chose, as though in no doubt of her compliance.
'Are you still in love with him?' he demanded sharply.
Strangely the question didn't offend her as it would have done from anyone else. Their plight was the same.
'I don't know,' she said simply. 'How can I be? By now it should be all behind me, and yetsomehow it isn't.'
He nodded, and the sight gave her an almost eerie feeling, as though she and this stranger were linked by a total understanding that reduced everything else to irrelevance.
'Is that why you came?' she asked.
'Partly. I also came for my daughter's sake.'
He indicated the child standing a little way off with an elderly woman who was leaning down, talking to her. It was the same child who'd been in the picture, a year older.
As Alysa watched, the two moved across to where the flowers lay, so that the little girl could lay down her posy in tribute. Looking up, she saw her father, and she smiled and began to run towards him, crying, 'Poppa!' At once he reached down to pick her up.
Alysa closed her eyes and turned slightly. When she opened her eyes again the child would be out of her sight line. Something was happening inside her, and when it had finished she would be all right. It was a technique she'd perfected months ago, based on computer systems.
It started with 'power up' when she got out of bed, then a quick run-through of necessary programs and she was ready to start the day. A liberal use of the 'delete' button helped to keep things straight in her head, and if something threatened her with unwanted emotion she hit the 'standby' button. As a last resort there was always total shut-down and reboot, but that meant walking away to be completely alone, which could be inconvenient.
Luckily, standby was enough this time, and after a moment she was able to turn back and smile in a way that was almost natural. She could do this as long as she aimed her gaze slightly to the right, so that she wasn't looking directly at the child.
Drago was absorbed in the little girl, whom he was holding up in his arms. Alysa marvelled at how his face softened as he murmured to his daughter, words she could not catch.
The woman spoke in Italian. Alysa picked up 'introdurre', and guessed it meant 'introduction'.
'I am Signorina Alysa Dennis,' she said.
The older woman nodded and switched to English.
'I am Signora Fantoni, and this is my granddaughter, Tina.'
Tina had been watching Alysa over her father's shoulder, her eyes bright. Now Drago set her down and she immediately turned to Alysa, holding out her hand, speaking English slowly and carefully.
'How do you do, signorina?'
'How do you do?' Alysa returned.
'We came here because of my mother,' the child said, like a wise little old woman. 'Did you know someone who died?'
Beside her, Alysa heard Drago give a sharp intake of breath, and her heightened sensitivity told her everything.
'Yes, I did,' she said.
Incredibly she felt a little hand creep into hers, comforting her.
'Was it someone you loved very much?' Tina asked softly.
'Yes, butforgive me if I don't tell you any more. I can't, you see.'
Without looking at Drago, she sensed him relax. He'd been afraid of what she might say in front of his little girl.
Tina nodded to show that she understood, and her hand tightened on Alysa's.
'It's time to go home,' Drago said.
'Yes, I'll be leaving too,' Alysa agreed.
'No!' Drago rapped out the word so sharply that they stared at him. 'I mean,' he amended quickly, 'I would like you to join us tonight, for supper.'
His mother-in-law frowned. 'Surely a family occasion'
'We all belong to the same family of mourners,' Drago said. 'Signorina, you will dine with us. I won't take no for an answer.'
He meant it, she could tell.
Drago stroked his daughter's hair. 'Go ahead to the car with your grandmother.'
Signora Fantoni glared, silently informing him of her disapproval, but he ignored her and she was forced to yield, taking Tina's hand and turning away.
'Poppa,' Tina said, suddenly fearful. 'You will come, won't you?'
'I promise,' he said gently.
Relieved, she trotted away with her grandmother.
'Since her mother died she's sometimes nervous in case I vanish too,' he said heavily.
'Poor little mite. How does she bear it?'
'With great pain. She adored her mother. Thank you with all my heart for guarding your words. I should have warned you, but she came to us so suddenly there was no time.'
'Of course I was careful. I guessed you hadn't told her very much.'
'Nothing. She has no idea that Carlotta had left us. She thinks her mamma had to go away to visit clients, and was on her way home when she stopped off at the waterfall. If she hadn't died, she would have been home next day. That's what Tina believes, and what I want her to believe, at least until she's older.'
'Many mothers would have taken their child with them,' Alysa mused.