Sophie Reynard stood on one of the many small bridges that spanned the multitude of canals in Venice. She didn’t know if this one had a name but doubted it was anything special. Wrapping her shawl around her tighter to keep out the cool February wind, she glanced down the dark water way. Music sounded from one of the grander homes slowly sinking into the canal. For some odd reason the music comforted her and reminded her of home.
She planned to depart Venice in three days to return home after a two-month absence. A part of her missed London while another part of her would love to stay in Venice a few more weeks. It wasn’t as if her friends would have missed her much. Now that they all had their husbands and children, her friends were constantly busy. Of course, most of their happiness was her doing.
Sophie had matched all her friends with her skills as a medium. Even her half brother, Anthony, was now married to one of her dearest friends.
While Sophie had no one.
After matching Anthony and Victoria, Sophie had scurried away from London. Afraid that she had lost her friends, afraid that she would never find a love of her own. But more than anything, frightened of spending the rest of her life alone like most of her life had been thus far. Something had told her to come to Venice.
There must be a reason why.
After almost a month under sail and then a month in Venice, she had no indication of a man entering her life. Nothing that had happened so far made her believe this trip had been anything but a lovely holiday. Perhaps that’s all it was supposed to be.
Leaning far over the balustrade, she stared down at the cold, murky water, looking for some sign that she should stay here longer. Another disheartening thought crossed her mind, perhaps she wasn’t meant to find love.
But she wanted love.
All her life she’d wanted someone to love her, not just care for her because her father paid their salary. She supposed in her own way, her mother loved her. But lovers always took precedence over a daughter. Even tonight. While Sophie was outside alone, her mother had gone to a party in hopes of enticing a new man. Nothing much had changed in twenty-six years.
Sophie continued to stare at the water, concentrating completely, hoping to see a clue of what she should do with her life. Nothing came to her but frustration. What had caused that sensation two months ago, prompting her to leave her home and friends for a trip she could ill afford?
There had to be a reason. But as she gazed down, trying to let her mind free itself of inhibitions, the only thing she saw was water. Focusing all her energies on the water, she scarcely heard the sound of children’s voices getting louder, coming closer. She ignored their noise, preferring to envisage what she hoped would be a sign of her future. She felt a quick jolt.
Suddenly the water she’d been staring at was getting closer.
Oh, dear God!
She was falling into the canal!
No wonder she couldn’t see anyone in her future. She didn’t have one! Releasing a loud shriek, she fell and hit her head on something before the water and darkness swallowed her.
“What the bloody hell?” Nicholas looked up as a figure plummeted from the bridge, hit his gondola, and slipped into the water.
“I no swim,
,” his gondolier said as the small boat rocked from the wake.
Nicholas tore off his jacket and jumped in the water, wondering how a man who made his life on the water couldn’t swim. The frigid dark water made finding her difficult but luckily her skirts had caught on something, holding her in place.
He ripped her skirt and then grabbed onto her waist. Pulling her up through the cold water almost took his breath away. But he continued, determined not to die in some stinking canal in Venice where no one would ever find him and Emma would never know what happened to him.
As Nicholas broke the surface, Vincenzo heaved the wet woman into the boat. Nicholas thrust himself over the side of the rocking gondola. He turned his attention on the unconscious woman lying on the bottom of the boat.
“Vincenzo, take me home quickly,” he ordered in Italian, and then sank to his knees.
Nicholas remembered what his father had taught him about drowning and pressed all his weight on that spot just below where her ribs came together. After pressing down three times, she coughed up the water.
Vincenzo docked the boat as the woman continued to bring up more water and gasp for air. A servant opened the door. Nicholas gently picked her up and brought her inside the warm house. Several servants swarmed around them.
“Get a hot bath and put her in my bedroom. I will bathe in another bedroom.” He walked toward the steps and then looked back. “I want a fire in my bedroom, too.”
He didn’t wait for a reply but carried her up to the third floor where his bedchamber was located. He placed her in the chair by the fireplace and hoped her teeth would soon stop chattering.
She blinked her eyes open but her dark brows furrowed.
“Shh,” he whispered. Speaking in Italian, he said, “I ordered a bath for you.”
she said softly. “Where am I?”
“I brought you to my friend’s home. You can bathe to get clean and warm. The servants will find you something to wear. Then I shall escort you home.”
The minutes passed in silence as they waited for the water to heat. She kept her eyes closed much of the time either trying to ignore him or to keep the pain of her accident away.
Finally, a knock sounded at the door and then the servants entered with a large tub and steaming buckets of water. They placed the tub by the fireplace as he requested.
She blinked her eyes open and watched the bustling activity in the room with a frown. She rubbed her head and winced.
“Are you all right?” he asked slowly. “Does your head hurt?”
She stared at him a moment then nodded. “My head hurts but I believe I shall live.”
Hearing her resigned tone, a horrible thought crossed his mind. “Was it your intention to die?”
Her soft laugh danced in the air around him. “No,
! I did not try to kill myself. It was an . . .” she paused a long moment. “An accident.”
The pause made him wonder if she spoke the truth. “Shall I call for a physician?”
“No, I am all right.
“I will have a maid assist you,” he said, and then left the room. Walking to the second bedchamber, he wondered about the woman who bathed in his room. With her black hair, gray eyes, and oval face, she was one of the most beautiful women he had seen since arriving in Venice. Though she wasn’t as olive toned in complexion as most of the women he’d seen here.
He tugged at his wet cravat, which only seemed to tighten the knot at his neck. He pulled a knife out of his ruined boots and cut the offending garment off. After stripping out of his soaked clothes, he slipped into the warm clean water of the tub.
His mind wandered back to the beautiful woman in his room. As he thought about her, naked in the tub across the hall, his cock hardened with desire. He hadn’t had that swift of a reaction to a woman in ages. He was tired of the artifices of women. Most of them wanted the one thing he wasn’t willing to give yet: marriage. The others wanted the gossiping rights to say they slept with a future duke.
The only woman he knew not like that was now married and had a son. And she had never considered him anything but a friend, or worse, like a brother to her. Then again, he never had the nerve to discover if anything more was possible. Perhaps she might have been amenable to a different relationship. Not that it mattered now, he had wasted his chance.
But the woman in the tub had no idea who he was, and he intended to keep it that way. If she discovered his identity then she would be as shameless as all the rest of the women he had met. Not that any of it mattered. He would return her to her home and never see her again. For all he knew, she was married. And he avoided married women.
He finished washing the stench of the canal off him and stepped out of the tub. Standing by the fire, he dried himself and then poured a splash of brandy in a snifter. As he glanced about the room, he noticed his valet had not delivered dry clothes to him yet.
He pulled the bell and waited for a servant. Now dry and warmed by a fire and the brandy, he wanted to dress and find out more about the lady in his bedchamber. If only his friend Dominic was still here. He might know of the woman. But Dom had urgent business in Milan and left Nicholas to enjoy his Venetian home.
the servant asked as he entered the bedroom.
, send Lane in with my clothes.” He sipped the last drop of brandy and placed the glass on the table.
the servant started and then paused.
“The lady in your bedchamber locked the door and won’t open it.”
He chuckled softly. “She must want her privacy. Ask Signora Costa to knock on the bedroom door and explain the situation.”
Nicholas sat back in the chair, wearing only his towel, and waited. Closing his eyes, he listened to the sound of footsteps and then rapping of knuckles on the door across the hall.
he replied without opening his eyes.
does not reply.”
He blinked his eyes and frowned. Could something have happened to her? She had hit her head on the gondola before she dropped into the water. Not willing to let an injured woman die in his friend’s home, he strode from the room.
Mrs. Costa stood before the door with an armful of clothes and shrugged. “She no answer,
,” she said in her broken English.
“Open the door and check on her.”
Mrs. Costa shrugged again. She took the ring of keys from her pocket and opened the door. The servant walked into the room and glanced around. After returning to the hall, she said, “The
. I will get my things.”
Mrs. Costa handed him the clothing for her. Nicholas walked into the bedchamber. Slowly, he walked into the bedroom and stopped at the threshold. The woman lay on his bed with her eyes shuttered tight, her breathing even.
Nicholas shook his head. He needed to get his clothes and leave her alone. The poor woman had been through enough this evening. He walked farther into the bedroom and stopped again.
Drawn to her by the force of desire, he stepped closer to the bed. He sat on the edge and stared at her. Her black hair curled around her face and appeared still slightly damp. He reached out to sweep a few dark tendrils off her cheek. She shifted and turned away from him, baring an ivory shoulder to his lecherous gaze. Discovering that she lay naked under the coverlet only increased his yearning.
Leaning over her, he gently kissed her soft shoulder. She smelled like lavender and tasted like sin. He was being completely foolish, wanting a woman whose name he didn’t even know. His unruly cock hardened again. What was it about this particular woman that made him desire her so badly? He couldn’t remember ever wanting a woman with this much force.
She moved again, this time so she rested on her back. Her eyes blinked and a pair of the most beautiful gray eyes he had ever seen looked up at him. Her eyes rounded with surprise but a slow smile lifted her full red lips.
Sophie’s smile turned into a frown. Even after napping for a few minutes, she felt dazed by the accident. Who was this man staring down at her?
The pain in her head had lessened slightly but the confusion in her mind remained. She stared at the bare chested man and trembled. Hard muscle shaped his strong chest and fine brown hair formed a line that traced a path downward. Her gaze followed that path until she realized it went under the towel that covered him.
A towel. He only wore a towel!
No gentleman would appear in front of a woman in a towel. Could things be that different in Venice? She highly doubted it but wondered why he would be here dressed as such. If anyone saw them together like this she would be ruined. Not that anyone knew her here.
She moved her gaze to his face, assuming that would be a safer place to look. She was dreadfully wrong. His chestnut hair was a tad long for the conventional English gentleman. Perhaps she had not noticed that the Italian men wore their hair longer. He had warm brown eyes that crinkled as he smiled back at her and a nose that while larger than some, seemed to fit perfectly on his face.