Against her better judgement Lia agrees to play the part of Niccolo Marchesi's girlfriend at a party. But then the situation gets complicated:
The neoclassical villa was square and imposing. Its warm, sand coloured walls were punctuated with huge French doors, framed by shutters in dark green. Traditional terracotta tiles covered the roof and there were balconies aplenty, all, she guessed, with lake views. Directly ahead were glossy double entry doors topped by a huge fanlight window.
It was grand and imposing, yet at the same time it was the prettiest house she'd ever seen.
A nervous laugh reached Lia's lips.
'What is it?'
She turned to find Niccolo closer than she'd expected, leaning towards her. Dark eyes held hers and her breath snared.
Lia forced herself to look away, back to the villa. 'It's the sort of mansion you see in magazines about the rich and famous.'
Niccolo's world was light years away from hers. She'd known him so long she'd almost forgotten he came from a family that had made and kept its wealth for generation upon generation while her own family had begun as farmers, tied to the soil and at the mercy of the weather, the markets and the banks.
Niccolo had fitted in so perfectly to the De Laurentis family, only his accent hinting he was different. Yet now Lia realised what an enormous chasm there was between them.
Warm fingers captured her jaw and gently he turned her to face him. Lia told herself it was the shock of seeing Niccolo's family wealth, not his touch, that made her so breathless. She wished she believed it.
Either way she was in trouble.
'It doesn't make a difference.' His brow crinkled in a frown, his straight eyebrows slanting down in a V. 'I'm still the same Niccolo.'
Lia looked into those sombre dark eyes and wondered why he cared what she thought. After all, they were only friends because of her brothers. She was the add on, the little sister they'd taunted and protected and let tag along. But sitting here, enveloped by his warmth, reading his serious expression, Lia felt...
No, she was imagining things.
Annoyed with herself, she stiffened. Hadn't she learned years ago, not to let her imagination run away with her?
'Of course you are,' she said briskly, pulling back till his hand dropped away. 'It's just that I never think of you like that...' Lia waved a hand towards the villa. 'Rich, I mean.'
'Thank God for that,' he murmured and switched on the engine.
Lia frowned. What did that mean? That he was pursued by mercenary women? It wouldn't surprise her. But surely there were others too, women who saw him for the decent, caring man he was. A man who'
No! She wasn't going there again. Lia distracted herself by straightening her clothes and fussing over her hair.
'You look fine.'
'Sure.' He was just like her brothers. 'You didn't even look.'
'I looked.' His deep voice hit a strangely gruff note that made her hands still. 'Believe me, you look terrific. You always do.'
And that was enough to set her pulse skittering. One casual compliment from Niccolo and she was all aflutter. Lia set her jaw. This was not going to happen again. They were friends, that's all. She was doing him a favour. End of story.
Nevertheless, she felt woefully nervous when he pulled up before the entrance. Surreptitiously she checked her lipstick when he got out of the car. Then he was at her door, holding it open with an old-fashioned courtesy that made her silly heart dip. Or maybe that was because of the winning smile on his handsome features.
'Welcome to the Villa Marchesi, Lia.'
She was just returning his smile when another voice spoke. 'Yes, welcome to my home.'
Lia twisted on her heel to see a small lady, beautifully dressed in a dark green suit that had the subtle sheen of silk. She wore shoes that exactly matched the suit ' were they silk too? ' and a choker necklace of luminous pearls. Her hair, pure silver, was cut perfectly in a chic, short style.
Niccolo placed his hand at the small of Lia's back and she was grateful for the warmth of his touch as he urged her forward. Before this exquisite little woman she felt rumpled and gangly.
'Nonna, allow me to present my friend, Lia De Laurentis. And Lia, this is my grandmother, Signora Marchesi.'
'I'm so pleased to meet you.' Niccolo's grandmother stepped forward and clasped both of Lia's hands. 'I've heard so much about you.' At Lia's blink of surprise she continued. 'I've met two of your brothers, Matteo and Luca. And of course Niccolo talks about you too.'
Lia turned but Niccolo's attention was fixed on his grandmother. What on earth had he found to tell his grandmother about her?
'It's lovely to meet you, Signora Marchesi. And so kind of you to invite me here for your birthday celebration.'
The old lady squeezed her hands. 'The pleasure is all mine, believe me. Now,' she turned to Niccolo, 'you can unpack while Lia and I get better acquainted.' She smiled, an unmistakeable glint in her eyes.
'And just to prove I'm not an old fogey, despite my advancing years, I've had the blue suite prepared for you both.' She leaned in and whispered to Lia. 'It wasn't done in my day, of course, sharing a bed before marriage, but I'm trying to move with the times.' She beamed and looked at Niccolo who stood statue-still beside them.
Lia's heart crashed against her sternum. Share a room? Her skin prickled all over as if each fine hair stood on end. A rush of blood warmed her cheeks. Now she really did feel as gauche and embarrassed as the schoolgirl she'd once been, sighing her heart out over Niccolo.
Slowly Lia turned, waiting for him to say something, anything to untangle the situation.
A pulse throbbed hard at the base of his neck and a frown furrowed his brow. Clearly this was a surprise for him too. Yet still he didn't speak.
Lia swiped her tongue across suddenly dry lips. 'I don't''
'No, no, don't thank me,' Signora Marchesi said. 'It's the least I can do. I can't tell you how thrilled I am that Niccolo has brought you here. Besides,' she moved closer and Lia caught a waft of delicate designer perfume, 'the villa is full to the rafters and there are no spare rooms so it's worked out well.'
The old lady hooked her hand in the crook of Lia's elbow and turned into the house. That was when, suddenly, Lia became aware of how frail she was, despite her immaculate appearance and wide smiles. There was a tremor in that old hand and she really did need support.
Now wasn't the time to argue over what Niccolo's grandmother had planned as a generous gesture.
Lia darted one quick glance to Niccolo, but his expression gave nothing away. Was he as horrified as she? Any lingering idea that one day he'd be attracted to her died then, when she saw his grim expression. Clearly he was not happy.
Whipping her head round, she managed a smile. 'You have the most beautiful home, Signora Marchesi.'
Her mind was racing so much she barely heard the other woman's response.
Coming here with Niccolo had been a mistake. She shivered as a potent cocktail of emotions swirled through her.
Lia just hoped she'd get through this weekend without revealing her attraction to him. Oh, yes, she'd told herself so often that was a thing of the past, that she was well over Niccolo Marchesi. But just a couple of hours in his company and she knew she'd lied to herself.
He was just as dangerously attractive as ever.
And now they were stuck sharing a room!Reviews Return