Independent and strong-willed, Celia Ryland never lets her blindness affect the way she lives her lifeshe thrives on feeling free!
Gorgeous Italian Francesco Rinucci has never met a woman with such a zest for lifehe loves everything about Celia. But he finds himself wanting to wrap her in cotton wool to protect his precious English rose from all that's dangerous in the world .
And although Celia is falling fast for passionate Francesco, she needs to show him that truly loving someone means letting them be free .
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'Slightly to your left bit more bit more reach out now can you feel it?'
'Yes,' Celia called in delight.
Her fingers made their way through the water until they touched the rock, eased around it, up, down, exploring in all directions, while the man's voice on the radio spoke in her ear.
'Try a little farther along. Feel the shape of it.'
'I've got it,' she said into her own radio. 'Now I want to go down farther.'
Ken, controlling her lightly from on land, asked into the microphone, 'Sure you haven't had enough for the day?'
'I've barely started. I want to do lots more yet.'
From the radio in her ear she heard Ken's chuckle as he recognised her familiar cry of 'lots more yet.' It was the mantra by which she lived, her shout of defiance in the face of her blindness. She'd learned it from her blind parents whose motto had been, 'Who needs eyes?'
'I want to go down much deeper,' she said.
He groaned. 'Your boyfriend will murder me.'
'Don't call him my boyfriend as though we were a couple of kids.'
Good question. What should she call Francesco Rinucci? Her fianc ? No, for they'd never talked about marriage. Her live-in companion? Yes, but that didn't begin to explain it. Her lover? That was true, she thought, shivering pleasurably with the thought. Yes, definitely her lover. But also so much more.
'Don't worry about Francesco,' she said. 'I didn't tell him I was coming here. If he finds out, he'll be too busy murdering me to bother with you. C'mon, let me down. You know I'll be all right.'
'If it's OK with Fiona,'Ken said, naming her diving partner. 'Fine with me,' Fiona sang out on the same frequency. 'Let's go.'
She took Celia's hand and the two of them sank lower and lower into the water of Mount's Bay, just off the coast of Cornwall in England. They, Ken and his crew had set out from Penzance an hour ago, stopping about a mile from the coast in a place that reputedly concealed a sunken pirate galleon.
'Went down in a fierce battle with the British Navy,' he'd told them as they made their way out to sea. 'And they never recovered the treasure, so you may be lucky.'
'You don't need to give me your professional spiel.'Celia had laughed. 'Just having the experience is treasure enough for me.'
She'd forced herself to be patient while they strapped the cylinders onto her back and demonstrated how everything worked. She was wearing a full-face mask, which she had at first resisted.
'I thought it would just be goggles and a mouthpiece connecting me to the oxygen cylinders,' she'd protested.
'Yes, but I want to keep radio contact with you, so you need a full-face mask,' he had said firmly.
She'd yielded under pressure. Then Fiona had taken her hand and the two of them had gone into the water together.
Now Celia could feel her whole body deliciously chilly from the water encasing her outside the rubber suit.
There were more rocks to be felt, plants, sometimes even the exquisite sense of a large fish flapping past, which made her laugh with delight. But the real pleasure lay in the sensation of being free of the world and its tensions.
Free of Francesco Rinucci?
Reluctantly, she admitted that the answer was yes. She adored him, but she'd run away from him as far as she could go. She'd planned this dive a week ago, and kept it a secret from him, saddened by the need, but determined not to yield. If you were blind it was hard enough to keep control of your own life without having to deal with a man who loved you so much that he tried to muffle you in cotton wool.
'All right?' came Fiona's voice over the radio.
'Yes, it's so beautiful,' she said eagerly.
Nobody who knew Celia would be surprised at her saying beautiful. She had her own notion of beauty that had nothing to do with eyes. Everything that reached her through the pressure of the waterthe coolness and the freedomall this was beauty.
'You can let me go,'she said, and felt Fiona's hand slip away. With Ken still holding the other end of the line she wasn't completely free, but she could rely on him to back off as much as possible, and give her the illusion. Francesco could learn so much from him. But Francesco would never face how much he didn't know.
She kicked out with her flippers and powered through the water, relishing the sensation of it streaming past her. Suddenly she was at one with the water, part of it, glorying in it.
'Wheeeeeeee!' she cried.
'Celia?' Ken sounded nervous.
'It's all right,'she said, laughing. 'It's just me going crazy.'
'No change there, then.'
'Do you mind?' he complained. 'That was my eardrum.' She chuckled. 'How far down am I?'
'About a hundred feet.'
'Let me have another forty.'
'Twenty. That's the limit of safety.'
'Twenty-five,' she begged.
'Twenty,' he declared implacably.
The line loosened and she sank farther, reaching out at plants and rocks, anything and everything in this marvellous world.
There had been another time when she'd thought the world was marvellous, when she'd just met Francesco. He'd walked into her workplace and stood talking to the receptionist. Celia had been alerted by a soft, 'Wow!' from Sally, her young assistant, who was sighted.
'Wow?' she queried.
'That's a lot of wow.' Celia chuckled. 'Tell me about him.'
'He's tall and dark with deep blue eyes. Probably late thirties, black hair, waves a bit. I like the way he movessort of easy and gracefuland he knows how to wear an expensive suit.'
'You've priced his suit?' Celia'd demanded, amused.
'I've seen it on sale and it costs a fortune. In fact, from the way it fits, I'll bet he had it specially made for him. He's got that sort of something about him. An "air"like the world is his, he'll take it when it suits him, and in the meantime it can wait until he is ready.'
'You're really studying the subject, aren't you?' Celia'd said, chuckling.
'Naturally I want to give you an accurate description. Oh, yes, and he's got a brooding look that you only see in film stars Oh, gosh, I forgot you haven't seen any film stars. I'm really sorry.'
'Don't apologise,' Celia'd said warmly. 'I work hard to make people forget that I can't see. You just told me I've succeeded. But I've always been blind, so I can't imagine anything. I don't know what colours look like, or shapes and sizes. I have to discover them by touch.'
'Well, his shape and size would really be worth discovering by touch,'Sally'd said frankly, and Celia'd burst into a peal of laughter.
'He's looking this way,' Sally'd hissed. 'Now he's coming over.'
Next thing Celia heard a quiet, deep voice with the hint of an Italian accent. 'Good morning. My name is Francesco Rinucci. I'm looking for Celia Ryland.'
The moment she heard his voice she could 'see' himnot in the kind of detail Sally had explained, but in her own way. Easy and graceful, an air as though the world was his; those she had understood at once.
Now, making her way through the water and remembering, she thought that the world really had been his. And when she was in his arms, the world had been hers.
But that had been five months ago. In five short months she'd loved him passionately, fought with him furiously, and learned that she must escape him at all costs.
Five months, and so much had happened in between. So much joy, so much bitterness, so much regret that they had ever met, so much thankfulness that she had known him even for a brief time.
She remembered everything of their meeting. Details reached her differently from other people, but more intensely. As was her way, she had been the first to offer her hand, and had felt him clasp it in return. His hand felt strong and good, with long fingers and a feeling of suppressed power. It had made her wonder about the rest of him.
'Worth discovering by touch,' Sally had said.
Celia had tried to put the thought out of her mind but without success. She'd been vividly aware of him moving carefully in the confined space near her desk, where much of the room had been taken up by Wicksy, her golden Labrador guide dog.
Wicksy's manners were beautiful but reticent. He had accepted Francesco's admiration as his due, returned it to the extent of briefly resting his snout in Francesco's hand, then returned to curling up beneath Celia's desk, apparently relaxed but actually on guard.
The newcomer had sat down close to her, and she'd been able to sense his height, the breadth of him, and something else, a pleasing aroma that shifted between spice and wood-smoke, borne by the breeze. It had spoken of warmth and life, and it had told her that she was living in a shell and should try to reach outside, where he might be waiting.
It would be a chance worth taking.
'Why were you looking for me?' she asked.
He explained that he was part of Tallis Inc., a firm famous for the manufacture of luxury furniture. Its wares were excellent and it was expanding all over Europe.
'We need a good PR firm,' he said. 'The one we're using has gone downhill. I was advised to come here, and to ask for you personally. They say you're the best.'
Being a gentleman, he made a valiant effort to keep the surprise out of his voice, without quite managing it.
'And now you're wondering why someone didn't warn you that I was blind?' she said impishly.
That threw him; she could tell. She burst out laughing.
'NoI wasn't' he said hastily.
'Oh, yes, you were. Don't deny it to me. I've been here too often. I know what people think when they meet me unawares.'
'Am I that easy to read?' His tone suggested a hesitant smile. 'Right this minute you're thinking, How the hell did I get into this, and how am I going to get out without being rude?'
It was a favourite joke of hersto read their minds, trip them up, make them feel a little uneasy.
But he wasn't uneasy. He took her hand and held it tightly, speaking seriously.
'No, I'm not thinking that. I don't think you could guess what I'm thinking.'
He was wrong. She could guess exactly. Because she was thinking the same thing.
It was unnerving to find such thoughts possessing her about a man she'd only just met, but she couldn't help herself. And a part of her, the part that rushed to meet adventure, wasn't sorry at all. True, another part of her counselled caution, but she was used to ignoring it.
But for the moment she must act with propriety, so she showed him the array of equipment that helped her to function.
'I talk to the computer and it talks back to me,' Celia said. 'Plus I have a special phone, and various other things.'
He took her to lunch at a small restaurant next door, and he talked about his firm while she tapped information into a small terminal. Afterwards he began to walk her back to the office, but she stopped, saying, 'I have to take Wicksy to the park.'
He went with her, watching, fascinated, as she plunged into her bag and brought out a ball.
'If I throw it now, I won't hit anyone, will I?'she asked anxiously.
He assured her she wouldn't, then wished he'd been more cautious. Instead of the ladylike gesture he'd expected, she put all her force into hurling the ball a great distance, so that a man contentedly munching sandwiches had to jump out of the way with an angry yell.
'You told me it was safe,' she said in mock complaint.
'I'm sorry. I didn't realise you could throw that far.'
With a bark of joy, Wicksy bounded after the ball, retrieved it and charged back to drop it at her feet. After another couple of throws he came to sit before her, his head cocked to one side, gazing up at her with a significant expression.
'All right, let's go,'she said, taking the ball from his mouth and putting it away. 'This next bit is rather indelicate, so you may want to go away.'
'I'll be brave,' he said, grinning.
She found a spot under the trees, said, 'OK, go on,' and Wicksy obeyed while she reached into her bag for the scoop and plastic bag.
'Would you like me to do that for you?' he asked through gritted teeth.
'That's being gallant above and beyond the call of duty,' she said, liking him for it. 'But he's my responsibility and I'll wield the pooper-scooper.'
'Well, I offered,'he said, and something in the sound of the words told her he was grinning with relief.
When the business was complete they made their way back across the park.
At the door of her building he said, 'I meant to tell you a lot more about my firm and our requirements, but there wasn't time. Can I take you to dinner tonight and we can talk some more?'
'I would like that.'
She spent the rest of the afternoon hard at work, for she wanted to impress him. Then she went home, showered, and put on a gold dress that she'd been told looked stunning with her red hair.
In the apartment next door lived Angela, a good friend who worked in a wholesale fashion house, and one of the few people Celia trusted enough to ask for help. Having called her in, she twisted and turned before her.
'Will I do?'
'Oh, yes, you'll do, and then some. You look gorgeous. I was right to make you get that dress. And those sandals. Lord, but I envy you your long legs and your ankles. If you knew how rare it is for a woman to have ankles as slender as yours, and yet have perfect balance so that you can walk on them without wobbling! I could murder you for that alone.'
Celia chuckled. She owed Angela a lot, for it was she who'd taught her how to win the admiring glances that she knew followed her even without seeing them. Angela had decreed the colours that went with Celia's red hair.
'But what does it meanred hair?' Celia had asked. 'It means you've got to be very careful what you wear with it. You're lucky in your complexion, pale and delicate, the perfect English-rose style.'
'What's an English rose?' Celia had asked at once.
'Let's just say men go for it. That's what you're hoping for, isn't it?'
'Certainly not. This is a business meeting to discuss strategy and forward planning.'
'Boy, you really have got it bad.'
Celia laughed, but inwardly she could feel herself blushing. Her friend's words were true. She had got it bad already.