Polly Hanson must go to Naples to find Ruggiero Rinucci, and what she has to tell him will surely end his bachelor wayshe is the father of her late cousin's baby! But nothing quite prepares Polly for Ruggiero's reaction.
Outwardly he's a carefree playboy; inwardly he once loved so passionately it nearly broke him. Polly wants to help him, yet she feels forever in her cousin's shadow. Can plain Polly tame this wild Italian's heart?
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'I, Carlo, take you, Della, to be my wife. I promise to be true to you in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health. I will love you and honour you all the days of my life.'
On a bright summer day in Naples, Carlo Rinucci uttered these words in the Church of All Saints and Angels. He spoke with his eyes fixed on the bride he had fought so hard to win, and behind him a quiet murmur went round the congregation.
His best man and twin brother, Ruggiero, stood quietly, waiting for the service to be over. This wedding was an unsettling experience for him.
For thirty-one years the twins had squabbled, enjoyed themselves together in various over-indulgent ways, played truant, chased girls. Though not identical, they were alike in their conviction that the race went to the swift and life was meant to be fun-and they had always acted as they were: handsome young bachelors with the world at their feet.
Now here was Carlo, dedicating himself, with quiet gravity, to a woman of frail health, seven years his senior, and doing so with the air of a man who had finally come to the place his heart desired.
Ruggiero played his part at the church perfectly, performed all his duties, then went home to the reception at the Villa Rinucci to eat and drink, flirt, and cope with the usual hearty wedding jokes.
All the Rinucci brothers were handsome, but Ruggiero had something else-the kind of outstanding looks that made him a target at weddings. A ripple would go around the female guests, combining fascination and a mysterious sense of outrage, as though no man who looked like that had any right to be on the loose.
It had been his trademark all his life: looks and charm, both with a slightly fierce edge that turned heads. He knew what was said of him, that he could have any woman he wanted, and although he enjoyed the joke he accepted it as his due.
Any woman he wanted.
Except one. 'Only you and Francesco left now,' someone said. 'I guess your mother's making plans.'
He laughed, saying, 'They won't get me.'
'You say that at every wedding,' observed his brother Luke, who was passing.
'You used to say it at every wedding,' Ruggiero reminded him. 'The difference is that I've held out. I'm a shining example.'
Luke paused long enough to wave to Minnie, his wife of two years, who waved back between sips of champagne.
'Just beware,' he said to Ruggiero, 'lest one day the shining example wakes up to find he's a lonely old man. Coming, cara.'
Ruggiero grinned, accepting this as just one of those things brothers felt obliged to say at weddings, and returned to his duties, flirting with a shy young woman until she laughed and began to enjoy herself.
When it was time for the speeches he did an excellent job, even if he said so himself-which he did. He was rewarded with looks of gratitude from Carlo and Della, and a smile of fond approval from his mother.
'You're a wonderful best man,' she said afterwards.
'Against all your expectations?' he teased. 'The only thing that surprises me,' Hope informed him, 'is that you don't have some over-painted young hussy clinging to your arm.'
'I didn't want any distractions when I had a job to do,' he explained blandly. 'Hmm!'
'Don't be so cynical, Mamma.'
'Don't be-? I have six sons, and you're surprised that I'm cynical?'
He grinned, and glided away to attend to the needs of a Rinucci great-aunt.
'Be fair to him,' Evie said, appearing at Hope's side.
She was the wife of Justin, Hope's eldest son. Before their marriage she'd been a natural rebel, caring only for her motor-bike. Happy marriage and the birth of twins had softened some of Evie's glittering edge, but had done nothing to dull the gleam of humour in her eyes.
'It's reasonable for Ruggiero to want to concentrate on his duties,' she said now.
'Reasonable?' Hope echoed. 'This is Ruggiero we're talking about.'
'I take your point,' Evie said with a laugh. 'When was he ever reasonable about anything? Working, playing, eating, drinking, hussies-everything over the top.'
'Surely his girlfriends aren't all hussies?'
'He doesn't let me meet most of them. That's how I know.' Hope sighed fondly. 'Evie, it's such a pity you can't split yourself in two-one for Justin and one for Ruggiero.'
'Maybe I wouldn't suit Ruggiero.'
'You're bound to. You're as crazy about motor-bikes as he is.'
'Is it true that he actually owns a firm that makes them?'
'Maybe I should go and talk to him,' Evie said, laughing, and sauntered away.
It was later that evening when she caught up with Ruggiero. The guests had gone, and those family members who were staying at the villa had settled into small groups to enjoy a good natter. Justin was deep in conversation with his mother, and Evie found Ruggiero on the terrace, looking out over the lights of Naples gleaming against the darkness. With a sigh of relief she threw herself into a chair and kicked off her shoes.
'Weddings are exhausting,' she said.
He nodded. 'And there's another party tomorrow night. Mamma's never happier than when planning a big get-together. I'm going to spend the day peacefully testing a bike.'
'Ah, yes-tell me about your factory.'
He poured her a glass of wine, and sat on the low wall.
'I found the place on its last legs a couple of years ago. I knew Piero Fantone-the owner- slightly, and I bought in. Things have gone well. Our bread and butter is the standard bikes that "normal" people buy, but the specials are the racing bikes that only the "crazies" want. We've started winning races. Now we're bringing out a new racing bike, and I'm testing it tomorrow.'
'The fastest, hottest, most fearsome bike in the country,' Evie declaimed theatrically.
'Do you mind?' he said at once, in mock offence. 'In the world.'
'I'm sorry. But aren't there professional testers? Does the boss have to risk his neck-?' She broke off and struck her forehead. 'Oh, of course! Stupid of me. You want to risk your neck. Otherwise, where's the fun?'
'You've got it.' He grinned. 'Evie, you're the only woman I know who'd understand that. You should come and watch tomorrow.'
'I'd love to.' She sipped her wine and said mischievously, 'People have been talking about you all day.'
'I know. It's a bachelor's fate at a wedding.' He assumed a twittery voice of the kind he'd heard so often that day. '"He'll be next. Just wait and see."'
'Was that why you didn't bring a date?' she asked, chuckling.
'One reason. My mother complains about the girls I bring home, and when I don't bring one she complains even more.'
'I gather they're real eye-openers?'
He made a wry face, and she became serious to say, 'I guess you're a long way from finding what Carlo has.'
'I think there are very few men who find what Carlo has. Or what you and Justin have.'
She was silent, watching him sympathetically. After a while he added, 'And thank you for not saying, Don't worry, your turn will come.''
'Don't you think it will?' she asked, struck by the sudden quiet heaviness in his voice.
'Maybe. Or maybe it came and went.'
Evie was silent, astonished. She had always sensed that there was more to her brother-in-law than the rough, hard-living man he was on the surface, but this was the first time he'd offered so much as a hint of a more reflective inner self.
Cautiously, so not to scare him off, she said, 'Can you be sure that it's gone finally?'
'Quite sure. Since I know hardly anything about her. She was English, her name was Sapphire, and we had two weeks together. That's all.'
But it wasn't all, she could tell. During those weeks something had happened to him that had been like an earthquake.
'Do you want to talk about it?' she asked. 'I met her in London about two-and-a-half years ago. I was visiting friends, but they suddenly had a family crisis, so I left them to it and explored London on my own. We met in the bar of my hotel. She was there to meet a friend who didn't show up, we got talking and-that was it.'
'What was she like?'
'Like something from another world. So insubstantial that I was almost afraid to touch her. I knew her for two weeks, and then she vanished.'
'I've no idea. I never saw her again. Perhaps she was nothing but a mad hallucination?'
Evie was astonished. Who would have thought the hard-headed Ruggiero could talk in this way? She wondered if he even realised what he'd revealed. He was looking into the distance, his eyes fixed on some inner world. She held her breath, willing him to go on.
But instead he made a sound that was part-grunt, part-nervous laugh, seeming to draw himself back from the brink.
'Hey, what the hell?' he said edgily. 'These things happen. Easy come, easy go.'
'But I don't think it was easy,' Evie urged. 'I think she meant more to you than that.'
He shrugged. 'It was a holiday romance. How much do they ever mean?'
'Do you want to come with me tomorrow or not?'
'Yes, of course. But-'
'Fine. Be ready to leave early in the morning.' He bid her goodnight and hurried to his room, despising himself for making a cowardly escape, but unable to help it. Much more of that conversation and he would have gone mad.
He stripped off his clothes and got under the shower, hoping to wash away the day. But nothing could banish the thoughts that had troubled him from the moment he'd arrived at the church with Carlo.
Carlo, the twin barely an hour younger than himself, who'd shared with him all the riotous pleasures of youth, now transformed into a man lit by a powerful inner joy. And the sight had thrown him off balance because it had called up a voice he'd thought he'd silenced long ago.
'Forget the rest of the world-there's only our world-what more do we need?'
Memories started to crowd in. She was as he'd first seen her, in a glittering tight red dress, low enough in front to show her exquisite bosom, high enough on the thigh to show off her endless legs. It was the attire of a woman who could attract men without trouble, who enjoyed attracting them and had no scruples about doing so as often as she pleased.