Authors: Chantelle Shaw
The memory of the predatory gleam in his amber gaze made her feel edgy, and she quickly released her seat belt and opened the car door.
‘There’s no need for you to get out,’ she told him. ‘You should take Cordelia home before she gets cold.’
‘I’ll leave the engine and the heater running while I carry Holly inside,’ he replied equably. ‘Go and open the
front door, Emma,’ he bade her, in a tone that brooked no argument when she opened her mouth to do just that.
Irritating man, she thought as she marched up the front path and fitted her key in the lock. She had cared for Holly on her own for three years and she did not need his help. She glanced over her shoulder and saw that Holly had half woken, but instead of being alarmed to find herself in Rocco’s arms the little girl contentedly rested her head on his shoulder.
She didn’t feel
, Emma reassured herself. But it was hard to watch her daughter instinctively snuggle up to Rocco, as if he had already become a part of their lives. He wasn’t—and never would be. She certainly did not want Holly to become attached to him only to be upset when he returned to Italy.
She watched him carefully deposit the sleepy child on the sofa in the sitting room, and then followed him back into the hall. ‘Thank you again for a pleasant afternoon.’ She flushed, realising how stilted she sounded. ‘Holly …
,’ she corrected, ‘really enjoyed it.’
‘I’m glad you did not find an afternoon in my company
much of an ordeal,’ Rocco murmured dryly.
In the narrow hallway he was too close for comfort: six feet plus of big, dark, broad-shouldered male towering over her, emphasising the fact that she was slightly below average height. Emma closed her eyes in a vain attempt to lessen her awareness of him, but her other senses immediately became more acute, so that the scent of his aftershave and the warmth emanating from his body stole around her.
Her lashes flew open when she felt something brush her cheek, her eyes widening in shock when he gently tucked a strand of her hair behind her ear. The gesture was unacceptable from a man she barely knew. It was an intrusion
on her personal space and she knew she should tell him to back off. Yet the feather-light touch of his fingertips against her skin was beguiling. It was so long since she had been touched by a man.
Since she had discovered the truth about Jack’s infidelity—or rather infidelities, she thought bleakly—she had built a defensive wall around her emotions. Was she going to allow that wall to be breached by a notorious playboy—a man who, if the reports she had heard about him were true, was even more unreliable than her husband?
The vulnerability in Emma’s storm-cloud-grey eyes took Rocco by surprise. His instincts told him that someone had hurt her in the past—what other reason could there be for her to shy away from him like a nervous colt whenever he came within a foot of her? But who had made her so defensive? He thought of the photograph on the mantelpiece of swaggering Jack Marchant, and his eyes strayed to her wedding ring, remembering how often she had unconsciously twisted it on her finger during the afternoon.
She must have loved her husband to still be wearing his ring three years after his death. But if not Marchant who was responsible for the haunted expression in her eyes? And why did he care? he asked himself irritably. For reasons he was damned if he could explain, he found himself wanting to slide his fingers into her shiny bell of hair and draw her close. Only the slight tremor of her lower lip held him back from dipping his head and slanting his mouth over hers. She intrigued and infuriated him in equal measure: one minute a brisk, ultra-efficient nurse, the next a sensual woman whose wary expression could not disguise her sexual awareness of him.
She stepped away from him and pulled open the front door. ‘Goodnight.’
He detected the faint note of desperation in her voice
and took pity on her.
he drawled softly, his eyes lingering on her flushed face before he turned and strode down the path.
he had called her beautiful! It meant nothing, Emma told herself impatiently.
man like Rocco probably called all his women
, so that he did not have to bother remembering their names.
was one of his women, her brain pointed out, nor was she ever likely to be. She did not need a man in her life—certainly not a gorgeous, sexy Italian who changed his mistresses more often than most men changed their socks.
faint smell of burning dragged her from her thoughts and she cursed as she lifted the iron and saw the singe marks on her new white blouse. This was ridiculous. For the sake of her sanity, not to mention the pile of clothes still waiting to be ironed, she
to put Rocco out of her mind. He had disrupted her day, but she was not going to allow him to disrupt her life.
After he had left to drive Cordelia home to Nunstead Hall, Emma had carried Holly upstairs to bed. For the second night in a row the little girl had been too weary for a bath and had fallen back to sleep within minutes of her head touching the pillow. As she’d watched Holly’s long eyelashes settle on her pale cheeks Emma’s heart had clenched with love. Her precious daughter was the centre
of her life and there was no room for anyone else. How could there be after Jack? she thought bitterly.
The discovery of his betrayal had shattered all her illusions about love and trust, but he had died before she could confront him. She would never know if he had planned to stay and be a father to Holly, or walk out on his marriage and his child as his mistress had insisted had been his intention.
But, whatever Jack might have planned, fate had intervened, and Emma had given birth to her daughter alone. From the start of Holly’s life it had been just the two of them. And that suited her fine, Emma reminded herself. She loved being a mother, she enjoyed a rewarding career and she had good friends and a supportive family. She was content with all that she had. So why tonight did she feel that something was missing?
The ironing had lost its limited appeal, and she stacked the board and the laundry basket in the utility room, promising herself she would finish it tomorrow. On Saturday nights after Holly was in bed she usually curled up on the sofa to watch a DVD and treated herself to a bar of chocolate. She duly slid a film into the player and settled down to watch it, determinedly ignoring the voice in her head that whispered insidiously that she was lonely.
The peal of the doorbell caused her to tense. Was it a sixth sense that warned the unexpected visitor was Rocco—or wishful thinking? But why would he have driven all the way back from Nunstead Hall through the sleety rain that had replaced yesterday’s snowfall? Common sense told her to slide the security chain across before she opened the door, and her heart flipped at the sight of her nemesis leaning nonchalantly against the porch, looking devastatingly sexy with the collar of his
leather jacket pulled up around his face and a lock of black hair falling across his brow.
He took her breath away. She did not trust herself to speak and instead arched her brows in silent query.
‘I thought tonight would be a good time to discuss my grandmother’s living arrangements,’ he greeted her. His lazy smile did strange things to her insides. ‘And to share this excellent Pinot Noir,’ he added, holding out a bottle of red wine.
Emma shook her head. ‘Not now—it’s late—’
‘It’s half past eight on a Saturday evening,’ he interrupted her. ‘Admittedly Cordelia was going to bed when I left, but she’s eighty-three.’
The amusement in his voice made her blush. ‘Well, maybe I’m busy,’ she said tightly. ‘Or maybe I would prefer not to spend my leisure time dealing with work issues—had that occurred to you?’
‘I didn’t realise you considered Cordelia’s welfare to be a work issue.’ His voice hardened. ‘I believed you thought of her as a friend.’
‘I do—of course I do.’ She flushed uncomfortably. For weeks she had wanted to discuss her concerns about her patient with Cordelia’s grandson. Now Rocco was here to do just that, and innate honesty forced her to admit that she had no good reason not to invite him in. Apart from the fact that he made her feel as edgy and awkward as a teenager with a severe crush on him, she acknowledged silently.
The thought had suddenly occurred to Rocco that perhaps Emma’s reluctance to invite him in was because she already had a visitor—a male visitor. He frowned, startled by how strongly he disliked the idea.
‘If you’re entertaining, then I apologise for interrupting your evening,’ he said stiffly.
Emma blinked in surprise. Did he think she spent her Saturday nights partying?
might lead a jet-set lifestyle, but her social life consisted of attending the monthly meeting of the village council in the church hall.
‘Who on earth do you think I would be
on a night like this?’
The temperature must be hovering just above freezing, because rain rather than snow was still falling. She suddenly realised that the porch offered him little protection from the weather. ‘Just a minute.’ She closed the door, released the security chain, and then opened it again, moving back so that he could step inside.
He smelled of rain and leather—and the musky scent of his aftershave that was already tantalisingly familiar to her. In the narrow hall she was immediately conscious of his size, and his raw masculinity seemed like an alien invasion of her cosy cottage with its pastel-coloured, feminine décor.
‘Please come on through,’ she mumbled, trying to ignore the erratic thud of her heart as she led the way into the sitting room.
‘I thought you might have a boyfriend here.’ He returned to the conversation he had begun on the doorstep. The gleam in his eyes was faintly challenging and openly curious.
Emma met his gaze levelly. ‘I don’t have a boyfriend,’ she revealed, in a cool tone intended to deter further discussion on the subject.
Rocco did not seem to get the message. ‘I guess it must be difficult to meet other men and pursue a relationship when you have a young child?’
She shrugged. ‘I’m not interested in meeting men, so I wouldn’t know.’
His eyes narrowed on her stony face. ‘But you must
date occasionally. Your husband has been dead how long? Three years?’
‘I really don’t think my private life is any of your business.’ She should have followed her first instinct and slammed the front door on him, she thought angrily, her tension mounting when he strolled across the room and studied the photographs on the mantelpiece.
‘You don’t date other men three years after your husband’s death, yet you don’t have any pictures of the two of you on display—not even a wedding photo,’ he murmured. ‘Why not?’
‘I find it too painful to look at pictures of my wedding day.’
She had given the same excuse to Jack’s parents, and it was the truth—although not for the reasons they believed. She could not bear to see the photos of herself smiling adoringly at the man she had loved, and Jack smiling adoringly at the camera.
He had been well aware that his blond good-looks made him extremely photogenic, and had loved being the centre of attention—unlike the bride, Emma thought ruefully. Never one to seek the spotlight, she had found their big white wedding an ordeal. But Jack had wanted it, and she had been so madly in love with him, and so amazed that he had chosen her for his wife when he could have had any woman he desired, that she would have flown to the moon to marry him if he had suggested it.
What a blind fool she had been. Her wedding photos were a painful reminder of her gullibility, for she had trusted Jack and believed him when he had told her she was the only woman he would ever want. But by the time she had discovered that he had had numerous affairs throughout the three years of their marriage he had been dead.
For the sake of his distraught parents she had kept the
truth to herself. Jack had died a hero, and it would have been cruel to taint Peter and Alison’s image of their only son by revealing that he had been a lying cheat. She had struggled alone to come to terms with the two very different sides of her husband—one so admirable, and the other causing her so much heartache. She knew her parents had their suspicions that her marriage had not been as rosy as she pretended, but she had not even confided in them. Holly believed that the father who had died before she was born was a wonderful heroic figure, and Emma did not want anyone to shatter her daughter’s illusion.
Rocco was watching her with a speculative look in his eyes that she found unnerving. ‘I’m not in the mood to play a game of twenty questions,’ she snapped. ‘I thought the reason for your visit was to discuss what to do about your grandmother?’
‘It is—and on that subject I have a suggestion to put to you.’ Rocco stifled his impatience to learn more about Emma’s relationship with her husband. He was good at reading body language, and her obvious tension when he had mentioned Jack Marchant fired his curiosity. But he could see she was regretting inviting him in. If she asked him to leave he would have no option but to comply, and so he masked his frustration with a smile.
Besides, the main purpose of his visit
with regard to Cordelia, he reminded himself. During tea at the hotel this afternoon he had witnessed the genuine friendship between his grandmother and Emma. Her kindness and compassion were traits distinctly lacking in the brittle socialites he usually associated with, and he readily admitted that he was impressed by her caring nature. His unexpected attraction to her was
the reason why he was here.
He waved the bottle of wine he was holding. ‘Do you have a corkscrew? We’ll have a drink while we talk.’
‘There’s one in the kitchen.’ Emma took the wine bottle from him, wishing she had the nerve to tell him she had changed her mind and wanted him to go. Good manners insisted she play the role of hostess. ‘Would you like me to take your jacket?’
He shrugged out of the leather jacket and handed it to her.