Authors: Chantelle Shaw
Holly finished washing her hands at the sink and climbed down from the chair she had been standing on to reach the taps. ‘Can I take Rocco a cake now?’ At Emma’s nod she chose one smothered in icing. ‘Rocco’s nice,’ she stated guilelessly.
Startled, Emma hesitated, torn by the need to gently introduce the notion of ‘stranger danger’ and at the same time not wanting to alarm her daughter. ‘I’m sure he is, but you don’t really know him,’ she said carefully.
‘He’s got a nice smile.’
Holly raced out of the kitchen clutching the cake, and for a second Emma felt like rushing after her and snatching the little girl into her arms.
, she wanted to cry.
Don’t be taken in by a charming smile or, when you’re older, give your trusting heart to a man who can glibly say the words
I love you
without meaning it.
Smiles were easy and words were cheap—and Jack had had an abundance of both, she thought heavily.
It wasn’t Rocco’s fault that he reminded her so much of her husband. Not in appearance—Rocco’s dark, devilish
good-looks were a stark contrast to Jack’s blond hair and disarming grin. But, like Rocco, Jack had been supremely self-confident and aware of his effect on the opposite sex. ‘A babe-magnet’—that was how her brother had once scathingly described Jack, Emma recalled wryly. From all she knew about Rocco, he was no different. But how could she tell her three-year-old daughter that her mistrust of all men stemmed from the fact that Holly’s father had been a deceitful cheat who had broken her heart?
In the sitting room, Rocco strolled over to the fireplace to study the collection of framed photographs displayed on the mantelpiece. The central picture was of a fair-haired man dressed in a fire officer’s uniform whom he guessed was Emma’s husband. Next to the photo was a silver medal displayed on a velvet cushion. There were several other pictures, including one of Holly as a baby held in her mother’s arms, and a recent photo of the little girl standing in front of a Christmas tree in Primrose Cottage. Curiously there were no pictures of Emma with her husband, nor one of him with Holly.
Rocco focused on the photo of the late Jack Marchant. The guy had been undeniably good-looking, with overlong blond hair and brilliant blue eyes, but there was a cockiness about his smile that suggested he had been fully aware of his appeal to women. He would lay a bet that Marchant had been a womaniser before his marriage, Rocco brooded. He had deduced from his own observations the previous evening, and from conversation with his grandmother, that Emma was a rather serious, unassuming person, with a highly developed sense of responsibility. Brash-looking Jack Marchant seemed an unexpected choice of partner for her, but presumably the fact that she still wore her wedding ring three years after being widowed meant that the marriage had been happy and she had loved her husband.
Why did the thought rankle? Rocco wondered irritably, raking a hand through his hair. He didn’t know what he was doing here, and if he had any sense he would leave immediately. Only the fact that he had been asked to give a message to Emma from his grandmother prevented him from letting himself out of the front door. But, as his eyes strayed to the photo of the young woman with red-gold hair and a shy smile who was clutching her baby in her arms, he knew he was not being completely honest with himself.
‘My daddy was a hero.’
He glanced down to find that Holly had entered the room silently and was standing beside him. She was a pretty child, with hair a shade fairer than her mother’s and the same dark grey eyes.
‘That’s his medal,’ she explained, pointing towards the mantelpiece. ‘He saved people from a fire. Didn’t he, Mummy?’ Holly turned to Emma, who had followed her into the room, for confirmation. ‘But I never saw him because I was in Mummy’s tummy,’ she added, her little face becoming solemn for a moment.
‘Jack died two months before Holly was born,’ Emma told Rocco, seeing the puzzled look in his eyes. ‘He rescued three children from a house fire, but was killed when the roof collapsed and he was trapped in the blaze. He was posthumously awarded the Queens Gallantry Medal.’
So her husband had been Superman. Rocco felt a flare of guilt for his uninformed and, as it turned out, unfair assessment of Jack Marchant. For some reason he could not bring himself to look at Emma, and instead smiled at Holly. ‘Your
was a brave man. You must be very proud of him.’
He was rewarded with a beaming grin as Holly offered him a sickly looking cake.
‘I chose you one with lots of icing.’
Rocco disliked sweet foods, but there was no question of disappointing the child. He bit into the cake. ‘Delicious,’ he assured Holly, who was watching him anxiously.
She was apparently satisfied with his verdict. ‘You’d better finish it before you drop crumbs on the carpet,’ she advised him seriously.
‘Did you say no sugar in your coffee?’ Emma murmured.
Rocco caught the glimmer of amusement in her eyes and gave her a wry look. To his surprise her mouth curved into faint smile, and he felt something kick in his gut. His initial impression of her had been that she was averagely attractive, but he had spent a restless night wondering why he could not dismiss her from his mind and now he realised that she possessed an understated beauty that drew his eyes to her again and again.
He took the mug of coffee she offered him, his keen gaze noting that her hand shook very slightly. It gave him a measure of satisfaction to see that she was not as composed as she would like him to believe. ‘The cake has reminded me of why I’m here,’ he murmured. ‘I am taking Cordelia to have tea at the Royal Oak Hotel this afternoon, and we would both be delighted if you and Holly would join us.’
‘Oh, no—that’s very kind, but I don’t think so.’ Emma’s response was immediate, and edged with a flare of panic she could not completely disguise. Spending an afternoon in the company of a devastatingly attractive Italian playboy was not her idea of fun—especially when she was not at all confident she would be able to hide her intense awareness of him. ‘I … I have other plans, and I’m sure Cordelia would prefer to have you to herself—especially as she hasn’t seen you for so long.’
Rocco chose to ignore the last barbed comment. ‘My grandmother issued the invitation. She would very much like you to come.’ He paused, his sensual mouth curving at the corners. ‘And I am under strict instructions not to take no for an answer.’ His smile held genuine warmth and a trace of amusement, as if he knew the reason for her refusal. ‘I understand that the hotel has a collection of dolls’ houses which children are permitted to play with. Do you like dolls’ houses, Holly?’ He turned his attention to the little girl, who had been listening to the conversation.
‘That’s unfair,’ Emma muttered, in a voice meant for his ears only, as her daughter nodded enthusiastically.
‘Unfair to want to give an elderly lady an enjoyable afternoon?’ he countered quietly. ‘Cordelia is excited about a trip out, and she is obviously very fond of Holly. Could you not postpone the plans you mentioned until tomorrow?’
He could not possibly know that her plans for the day amounted to watching a new children’s DVD with Holly and then attacking the ironing pile.
‘Can we have tea with Nonna? Please, Mummy?’
Faced with her daughter’s hopeful expression, Emma stifled a sigh of resignation. Holly deserved a treat, and the Royal Oak was renowned for providing excellent play facilities for children and as well as superb food for adults.
She caught Rocco’s surprised look and explained, ‘Your grandmother suggested that Holly should call her Nonna because she found Cordelia difficult to say.’
It had been touching to witness the special friendship that had developed between her daughter and the elderly lady that was untroubled by the eighty year age gap between them. She forced herself to hold Rocco’s gaze, silently cursing the way her heart skittered as she absorbed the masculine beauty of his chiselled features.
‘Please tell Cordelia that we would love to accept her invitation.’
‘I’ll pick you up at three-thirty.’
‘There’s no need. I’ll take my car and meet you at the hotel,’ she said quickly. ‘I assume your car wasn’t seriously damaged last night?’ Even if it was in perfect order she had no intention of allowing Holly to travel in a sports car on icy roads.
‘Unfortunately the exhaust pipe was ripped from the chassis.’ Rocco grimaced when he thought of the several thousand pounds’ worth of damage that had been wrought to his Eleganza Classic. He could easily afford the repair bill, but the Classic had been one of the first cars produced by the company his grandfather had established fifty years ago. It was a personal favourite from his private collection of luxury cars—an exquisite piece of engineering which Rocco had lovingly restored. ‘Specialist parts will have to be sent over from Italy for it to be repaired, but in the meantime I’ve hired a car better suited to the wintry conditions,’ he explained, nodding towards the window.
Following his gaze, Emma saw a top-of-the-range four-by-four parked outside the cottage, its gleaming paintwork making her battered old vehicle look very much the poor cousin. What it was to have money, she thought wryly. Rocco was a multi-millionaire who lived a jet-setter’s glamorous lifestyle very different from her life as a single mother in a quiet Northumberland village. But what did it matter? Soon he would return to Italy, and she would probably never see him again. Surely she could survive one afternoon in his company without making a fool of herself.
‘We’ll see you at three-thirty then,’ she murmured, disguising her anxiety with a cool smile.
Holly was full of excitement at the prospect of having tea with Nonna and Rocco, and insisted on wearing her best dress that had been a Christmas present.
‘Goodness, you’ve grown,’ Emma said ruefully as she surveyed her daughter’s skinny legs, where the hem of the dress stopped above her knees. ‘Upwards, anyway—I wish you would grow outwards.’ The flu virus had left Holly painfully thin and pale. If only she
afford a holiday abroad, Emma thought, recalling her conversation with the childminder, Karen. But it was out of the question now that she had to find somewhere else to live.
Determined not to make a big deal out of spending the afternoon with Rocco, she decided to wear her jeans. But at the last minute she changed into the beautiful heather-coloured cashmere jumper her mother had sent for Christmas and teamed it with a fitted grey skirt, sheer hose and her only pair of high-heeled shoes. The Royal Oak Hotel was an upmarket place, and if she was honest it was nice to have a reason to dress up, she admitted, slipping on her grey wool coat as the doorbell rang.
‘We’re ready,’ Holly informed Rocco with a wide grin when Emma opened the door. ‘I’m wearing my party dress.’ She twirled around to show off her dress, clearly hoping for Rocco’s approval.
Once again Emma was surprised by her daughter’s eagerness to be friends with him. Holly had never known her father, and although both her grandfathers were alive she only saw them occasionally. Did her daughter wish she had a father, like her best friends the twins, Lily and Sara, had? she wondered. The thought had not occurred to her before, and it troubled her. She did her best to fulfil the role of two parents, but maybe it wasn’t enough.
‘You look very pretty,’ Rocco assured Holly with a soft smile.
Emma was grateful for his gentle patience, which was all the more surprising when he presumably did not come into contact with small children very often, but her heart gave an annoying lurch when he turned his amber eyes on her.
‘Both of you,’ he murmured.
When they walked down the path she saw that Cordelia was sitting in the back of the car. Beside her was a child’s booster seat. ‘Up you come,’ Rocco said, lifting Holly into the seat and securing the straps. ‘You can sit in the front,’ he told Emma.
She would rather have sat in the back than next to him, but she could not say so without revealing that he unnerved her and so slid into the front passenger seat without a word. Fortunately Holly chattered non-stop to Cordelia for the entire journey to the hotel, so Emma did not have to make conversation, but she was supremely conscious of Rocco, and could not prevent her eyes from straying to him. He was still wearing the black leather jacket, but had exchanged the jeans and sweater for tailored black trousers and a black shirt, and he looked so devastatingly good-looking that she felt a dull ache of longing in the pit of her stomach.
His hands on the steering wheel were a dark olive colour, and she wondered if the rest of his body was as tanned. A series of erotic images filled her mind and she quickly turned her head and stared out of the window, her cheeks burning. It was going to be a long afternoon, she thought ruefully, and the most annoying thing was that her tension was self-inflicted. She did not
to feel this fierce attraction to Cordelia’s playboy grandson, but she did not seem to have a choice.
It was almost six o’clock when they returned to Primrose Cottage.
‘Thank you for a lovely afternoon.’ Emma’s smile briefly encompassed Rocco, before she turned her head to Cordelia in the back of the car. ‘Holly had a wonderful time. I’m not surprised she’s fallen asleep. I’ve never known her to talk so much.’
Despite her reservations, the afternoon had been enjoyable. Holly had been in heaven playing with the dolls’ houses in the charming family room of the hotel, where tea—comprising an extensive selection of sandwiches and cakes—had been served. Kept busy trying to persuade Holly to eat, and chatting to Cordelia, Emma had been distracted from her intense awareness of Rocco, and apart from a conversation when she had asked about his company and he had given her a brief history of Eleganza, there had been little verbal contact between them.
There had been eye contact, though, she remembered. Throughout the afternoon she had been conscious of his gaze resting on her, and on several occasions she had darted him a quick glance and blushed when her eyes had collided with his. His expression had been speculative, and when she had walked back to the table after playing with Holly he had subjected her to a bold appraisal which had made her breasts feel heavy and caused her nipples to harden into tight buds which mercifully could not be seen through her woollen jumper.