Bartering her innocence

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“I simply require you to share my bed.”

Luca Barbarigo has lain in wait for three long years, and is now ready to exact his revenge against Valentina Henderson. After one unforgettable night together, she left him with nothing but X-rated memories and the sting of her hand across his jaw. But they are the least of her crimes.…

Valentina swore she’d never see him again, but you don’t turn your back on Luca Barbarigo. Now she must confront the man who devastated her with only her innocence of his claims to barter… What will it cost her to walk away this time?

Once Valentina slept on the choices she had, she would see she had no choice at all. Luca knew she would soon come crawling, begging for him to rescue her family from the nightmare of her mother's making.

He was closer than he thought.

He saw the colour of her eyes in the golden light from a window across the canal. Amber eyes and hair shot with golden lights—she might have lost weight, she might have been travelling for more than a day and the skin under her eyes tired, but the intervening years had been good to her. She was more beautiful than he remembered.

And he hungered for her.

But she would soon come crawling.

And he would have her.

All about the author…Trish Morey

TRISH MOREYwrote her first book at age eleven for a children’s book-week competition. EntitledIsland Dreamer,it told the story of an orphaned girl and her life on a small island at the mouth of south Australia’s Murray River.Island Dreameralso proved to be her first rejection—her entry was disqualified. Shattered and broken, she turned to a life where she could combine her love of fiction with her need for creativity—Trish became a chartered accountant! Life wasn’t all dull, though, as she embarked on a skydiving course, completing three jumps before deciding that she’d given her fear of heights a run for its money.

Meanwhile, she fell in love and married a handsome guy who cut computer code and Trish penned her second book—the totally rivetingA Guide to Departmental Budgeting—while working for the N.Z. Treasury.

Back home in Australia, after the birth of their second daughter, Trish spied an article saying that Harlequin® was actively seeking new authors. It was one of those eureka moments—Trish was going to be one of those authors!

Eleven years after reading that fateful article (actually June 18, 2003, at 6:32 p.m!), the magical phone call came and Trish finally realized her dream.

According to Trish, writing and selling a book is a major life achievement that ranks right up there with jumping out of an airplane and motherhood. All three take commitment, determination and sheer guts, but the effort is so very, very worthwhile.

Trish now lives with her husband and four young daughters in a special part of south Australia, surrounded by orchards and bushland and visited by the occasional koala and kangaroo.

You can visit Trish at her website,www.trishmorey.com, or drop her a line at[email protected].

Other titles by Trish More available in ebook:

Harlequin Presents®

3093—THE SHEIKH’S LAST GAMBLE(Desert Brothers)3087—DUTY AND THE BEAST(Desert Brothers)3045—FIANCÉE FOR ONE NIGHT

Trish Morey

Bartering Her Innocence

To Jacqui, Steph, Ellen and Claire,

Four gorgeous girls who have grown up amidst the mess and chaos and deadline-mania of a writer's life, and who somehow still managed to turn out all right.

I am so proud of the beautiful, talented, warm and wonderful young women you have become.

I am so looking forward to seeing all that you can be.

juv nun

xxx

Contents

CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTER TWO

CHAPTER THREE

CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FIVE

CHAPTER SIX

CHAPTER SEVEN

CHAPTER EIGHT

CHAPTER NINE

CHAPTER TEN

CHAPTER ELEVEN

CHAPTER TWELVE

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

EPILOGUE

EXCERPT

CHAPTER ONE

THElast time Tina Henderson saw Luca Barbarigo, he was naked. Gloriously, unashamedly, heart-stoppingly naked. A specimen of virile masculine perfection—if you discounted the violent slash of red across his rigid jaw.

As for what had come afterwards...

Oh God.It was bad enough to remember the last time she’d seen him. She didn’t want to rememberanythingthat came after that. She must have misheard. Her mother could not meanthat man. Life could not be that cruel. She clenched a slippery hand harder around the receiver, trying to get a better grip on what her mother was asking.

‘Who...who did you say again?’

‘Are you listening to me, Valentina? I need you to talk to Luca Barbarigo. I need you to make him see reason.’

Impossible. She’d told herself she’d never see him again.

More than that. She’dpromisedherself.

‘Valentina! You have to come. I need you here. Now!’

Tina pinched the bridge of her nose between her fingers trying to block the conflicting memories—the images that were seared on her brain from the most amazing night of her life, the sight of him naked as he’d risen from the bed, all long powerful legs, a back that could have been sculpted in marble, right down to the twin dimples at the base of his spine—and then the mix master of emotions, the anger and turmoil—the anguish and despair—for what had come afterwards.

She pinched harder, seeking to blot out the dull ache in her womb, trying to direct her shocked emotions into anger. And she was angry, and not just about what had happened in the past. Because how typical was it that the first time her mother actually called her in more than a year, it wasn’t to wish her a belated happy birthday, as she’d foolishly imagined, but because Lily needed something.

When did Lily not need something, whether it was attention, or money or adulation from a long and seemingly endless line of husbands and lovers?

And now she foolishly imagined Tina would drop everything and take off for Venice to reason with the likes of Luca Barbarigo?

Not a chance.

Besides, it was impossible. Venice was half a world away from the family farm in Australia where she was also needed right now. No, whatever disagreement her mother had with Luca Barbarigo, she was just going to have to sort it out for herself.

‘I’m sorry,’ she began, casting a reassuring glance towards her father across the room to signal everything was under control. A call from Lily put everyone on edge. ‘But there’s no way I can—’

‘But you have to do something!’ her mother shrieked down the telephone line, so loud that she had to hold the receiver away from her ear. ‘He’s threatening to throw me out of my home! Don’t you understand?’ she insisted. ‘You have to come!’ before following it with a torrent of French, despite the fact that Lily D’Areincourt Beauchamp was English born and bred. The language switch came as no surprise—her mother often employed that tactic when she wanted to sound more impassioned. Neither was the melodrama. As long as she had known Lily, there was always melodrama.

Tina rolled her eyes as the tirade continued, not bothering to keep up and tired of whatever game her mother was playing, suddenly bone weary. A long day helping her father bring in the sheep in preparation for shearing wasn’t about to end any time soon. There was still a stack of washing up waiting for her in the kitchen sink and that was before she could make a start on the piles of accounts that had to be settled before her trip to town tomorrow to see the bank manager. She rubbed her brow where the start of a headache niggled. She always hated meetings with their bank manager. She hated the power imbalance, the feeling that she was at a disadvantage from the get go.

Though right now the bank manager was the least of her problems...

Across the room Tina’s father put down his stock journal on the arm of his chair where he’d been pretending to read and threw her a sympathetic smile before disappearing into the large country kitchen, no real help at all. But then, he’d broken ties with Lily almost twenty-five years ago now. It might not have been a long marriage but, knowing her mother, he’d more than served his time.

She was aware of the banging of the old water pipes as her father turned on the tap, followed by the thump of the kettle on the gas cooker and still her mother wasn’t through with pleading her case. ‘Okay, Lily,’ she managed while her mother drew breath. ‘So what makes you think Luca Barbarigo is trying to throw you out of the palazzo? He’s Eduardo’s nephew after all. Why would he threaten such a thing? And in English, please, if you don’t mind. You know my French is rusty.’

‘Itoldyou that you need to spend more time on the Continent,’ her mother berated, switching grievances as seamlessly as she switched languages, ‘instead of burying yourself out there in the Australian outback.’

‘Junee is hardly outback,’ she argued of the mid-sized New South Wales town that was less than two hours from the semi-bright lights of Canberra. Besides, she hadn’t exactlyburiedherself out here, more like she’d made a tactical withdrawal from a world she wanted no further part in. And then, because she was still feeling winded by her mother’s demands, she added, ‘It’s quite civilised actually. There’s even talk of a new bowling alley.’

Silence greeted that announcement and Tina imagined her mother’s pursed lips and pinched expression at her daughter’s inability to comprehend that in order to be considered civilised, a city needed at least half a dozen opera theatres, preferably centuries old, at a bare minimum.

‘Anyway, you still haven’t explained what’s going on. Why is Luca Barbarigo threatening to throw you out? What kind of hold could he possibly have over you? Eduardo left you the palazzo, didn’t he?’

Her mother fell unusually quiet. Tina heard the clock on the mantel ticking; heard the back door creak open and bang shut as her father went outside, probably so he didn’t have to hear whatever mess Lily was involved in now. ‘Well,’ she said finally, her tone more subdued, ‘I may have borrowed some money from him.’

‘You what?’ Tina squeezed her eyes shut. Luca Barbarigo had a reputation as a financier of last resort. By all accounts he’d built a fortune on it, rebuilding the coffers of his family’s past fortune. She swallowed. Of all the people her mother could borrow from, of all the contacts she must have, and she had to choosehim! ‘But why?’

‘I had no choice!’ her mother asserted. ‘I had to get the money from somewhere and I assumed that being family he’d take care of me. He promised he’d take care of me.’

He’d taken care of her all right. And taken advantage into the deal. ‘You had to get money for what?’

‘To live, of course. You know Eduardo left me with a fraction of the fortune he made out that he had.’

And you’ve never forgiven him for it.‘So you borrowed money from Luca Barbarigo and now he wants it back.’

‘He said if I couldn’t pay him, he’d take the palazzo.’

‘How much money are we talking about?’ Tina asked, pressure building in her temples. The centuries-old palazzo might be just off the Grand Canal, but it would still be worth millions. What kind of hold did he have over her? ‘How much do you owe him?’

‘Good God, what do you take me for? Why do you even have to ask?’

Tina rubbed her forehead. ‘Okay. Then how can he possibly throw you out?’

‘That’s why I need you here! You can make him understand how unreasonable he is being.’

‘You don’t need me to do that. I’m sure you know plenty of people right there who can help.’

‘But he’syourfriend!’

Ice snaked down Tina’s spine.Hardly friends. In the kitchen the kettle started to whistle, a thin and shrill note and perfectly in tune with her fractured nerves and painful memories. She’d met Luca just three times in her life. The first in Venice at her mother’s wedding, where she’d heard his charming words and felt the attraction as he’d taken her hand and she’d decided in an instant that he was exactly the kind of charming, good-looking rich man that her mother would bend over backwards to snare and that she wanted no part of. And when he’d asked her to spend the night with him, she’d told him she wasn’t interested. After all, Lily might be her mother, but no way was Tina her mother’s daughter.

The second time had been at Eduardo’s seventieth birthday, a lavish affair where they’d barely done more than exchange pleasantries. Sure, she’d felt his eyes burn into her flesh and set her skin to tingling as they’d followed her progress around the room, but he’d kept his distance and she’d celebrated that fact, even if he hadn’t given her the satisfaction of turning him down again. But clearly her message had struck home.

The third had been at a party in Klosters where she’d been celebrating a friend’s birthday. She’d had one too many glasses of champagne and her guard was down and Luca had appeared out of the crowd and suddenly his charm was infectious and he was warm and amusing and he’d taken her aside and kissed her and every shred of self-preservation she’d had had melted away in that one molten kiss.

One night they’d spent together—one night that had ended in disaster and anguish and that could never be blotted from her mind—one night that she’d never shared with her mother. ‘Who said we were friends?’

‘He did, of course. He asked after you.’

Bastard!As if he cared. He had never cared. ‘He lied,’ she said, the screaming kettle as her choir. ‘We were never friends.’

Never were.

Never could be.

‘Well,’ her mother said, ‘maybe that’s preferable under the circumstances. Then you’ll have nothing to risk by intervening on my behalf.’

She put a hand to her forehead, certain the screaming must be coming from somewhere inside her skull. ‘Look, Lily, I don’t know what good I can do. There is no way my being there will help your cause. Besides, I can’t get away. We’re about to start shearing and Dad really needs me here right now. Maybe you’d be better off engaging a lawyer.’

‘And just how do you think I’ll be able to afford to pay for a lawyer?’

She heard the back screen door slam and her father’s muttered curse before the screaming abruptly tapered off. She shook her head. ‘I really don’t know.’ And right now she didn’t care. Except to ensure she didn’t have to go. ‘Maybe...maybe you could sell one or two of those chandeliers you have.’ God knew, from the last time she’d visited, it seemed her mother had enough of them to fill a dozen palazzos. Surely if she owed a bit of money she could afford to dispense with one or two?

‘Sell my Murano glass? You must be mad! It’s irreplaceable! Every piece is individual.’

‘Fine, Lily,’ she said, ‘it was just a suggestion. But under the circumstances I really don’t know what else I can suggest. I’m sorry you’re having money troubles, but I’m sure I’d be no help at all. And I really am needed here. The shearers arrive tomorrow, it’s going to be full-on.’

‘But you have to come, Valentina! You must!’

* * *

Tina put the phone down and leaned on the receiver a while, the stabbing pain behind her eyes developing into a dull persistent throb. Why now? Why him? It was likely her mother was exaggerating the seriousness of her money problems—she usually managed to blow any problem right out of proportion—but what if this time she wasn’t? What if she was in serious financial trouble? And what could she do about it? It wasn’t likely that Luca Barbarigo was going to listen to her.

Old friends?What was he playing at? Ships that crashed in the night would be closer to the mark.

‘I take it your mother wasn’t calling to wish you a happy birthday, love?’ Her father was standing in the kitchen doorframe, a mug of coffee wrapped in each of his big paw-like hands.

She smiled, in spite of the heaviness of her heart and the sick feeling in her gut. ‘You got that impression, huh?’

He held up one of the mugs in answer. ‘Fancy a coffee? Or maybe you’d like something stronger?’

‘Thanks, Dad,’ she said, accepting a mug. ‘Right now I’d kill for a coffee.’

He took a sip. Followed it with a deep breath. ‘So what’s the latest in Circus Lily then? The sky is falling? Canals all run dry?’

She screwed up her face. ‘Something like that. Apparently someone’s trying to throw her out of the palazzo. It seems she borrowed money from Eduardo’s nephew and, strangely enough, he wants it back. Lily seems to think I can reason with him—maybe work out some more favourable terms.’

‘And you don’t?’

She shrugged her shoulders, wishing she could just as easily shrug off memories of a man who looked better naked than any man had a right to, especially when he was a man as cold and heartless as he’d turned out to be. Wishing she could forget the aftermath... ‘Let’s just say I’ve met the man.’And please don’t ask me how or when.‘I told her she’d be better off engaging a lawyer.’

Her dad nodded then and contemplated his coffee and Tina figured she’d put a full stop on the conversation and remembered the dishes still soaking and the accounts still to be paid. She was halfway to the sink when her father said behind her, ‘So when do you leave?’

‘I’m not going,’ she said, her feet coming to a halt. I don’t want to go.I can’t go.Even though she’d told her mother she’d think about it, and that she’d call her back, when she’d never had any intention of going. She’d promised herself she’d never have to see him again and that was a promise she couldn’t afford to break. Just thinking about what he’d cost her last time... ‘I can’t go and leave you, Dad, not now, not with the shearing about to start.’

‘I’ll manage, if you have to go.’

‘How? The shearers start arriving tomorrow. Who’s going to cook for a dozen men? You can’t.’

He shrugged as the corners of his mouth turned up. ‘So I’ll go to town and find someone who can cook. You never know, I hear Deidre Turner makes a mean roast. And she might jump at the chance to show off her pumpkin scones to an appreciative audience.’ His smile slipped away, his piercing amber eyes turning serious. ‘I’m a big boy, Tina, I’ll manage.’

Normally Tina would have jumped at her father’s mention of another woman, whatever the reason—she’d been telling him for years he should remarry—but right now she had more important things on her mind—like listing all the reasons she couldn’t go.

‘You shouldn’t have to manage by yourself! Why waste the money on flights—and on paying someone to cook—when we’re already begging favours from the bank manager as it is? And you know what Lily’s like—look at how she made such a drama about turning fifty! Anyone would have thought her life was coming to an end and I bet this is exactly the same. I bet it’s all some massively overblown drama, as per usual.’

Her father nodded as if he understood, and she felt a surge of encouragement. Because of course her father would understand. Hadn’t he been married to the woman? He, more than anyone, knew the drama queen stunts she was capable of pulling to get her way.

Encouragement had almost turned to relief, and she was more than certain he would agree. Until he opened his mouth.

‘Tina,’ he said, rubbing the stubble of his shadowed jawline, ‘how long is it since you’ve seen your mum? Two years? Or is it three? And now she needs you, for whatever reason. Maybe you should go.’

‘Dad, I just explained—’

‘No, you just made an excuse.’

She stiffened her shoulders, raising her chin. Maybe it was an excuse, and if her father knew the truth, surely he would understand, surely he would be sympathetic and not insist she go. But how could she tell him when she had kept it secret for so long? Her shameful secret. How could she admit to being as foolish and irresponsible as the woman she’d always told herself she was nothing like? It would kill him. It would kill her to tell him.

And when defence wasn’t an option, there was always attack...

‘So why are you so keen to ship me off to the other side of the world to help Lily? It’s not like she ever did you any favours.’

He wrapped an arm around her shoulders and hauled her close, holding her just long enough for her to breathe in his familiar earthy farm scent. ‘Who says I’m keen? But she’s still your mum, love, and whatever happened between the two of us, you can’t walk away from that. Now,’ he said, putting his mug down to pick up a tea towel, ‘what’s this about a new bowling alley in town? I hadn’t heard that.’

She screwed up her nose and snatched the tea towel out of his hands, not because she couldn’t do with the help or his company, but because she knew he had his own endless list of chores to finish before he could collapse into bed, and partly too because she feared that if he lingered, if he asked her more about her mother’s predicament and how she knew the man Lily owed money to, she wouldn’t know how to answer him honestly. ‘How about that?’ she said much too brightly as she pushed him towards the door. ‘Neither had I.’

He laughed in that deep rumbling way he had and that told her he knew exactly what she’d been doing. ‘Your mum’s not going to know what hit her.’

‘I’m not going, Dad.’

‘Yes, you are. We can check about flights when we go into town tomorrow.’ And he came back and hugged her, planting a kiss on her strawberry-blonde hair the same way he’d done ever since she was old enough to remember and probably long before. ‘Goodnight, love.’

She thought about her father’s words after he’d gone, as she chased cutlery around the sudsy sink. Thought with a pang of guilt about how long it had been since she’d seen her mother. Thought about how maybe her father might be right.

Because even though they’d never seen eye to eye, even though they never seemed to be on the same wavelength, maybe she couldn’t walk away from her mother.

And neither did she have to run from Luca Barbarigo.

She had been running. She’d run halfway around the world to forget the biggest mistake of her life. She’d run halfway around the world to escape.

But some mistakes you couldn’t escape.

Some mistakes followed you and caught up with you when you least expected it.

And some mistakes came with a sting in the tail that made you feel guilty for wishing things had been different. They were the worst mistakes of all, the ones that kept on hurting you long, long after the event.

She pulled the plug and stood there, watching the suds gurgle down the sink, suds the very colour of the delicate iron lace-work that framed a tiny grave in a cemetery in far distant Sydney.

Tears splashed in the sink, mixing with the suds, turning lacy bubbles pearlescent as they spun under the thin kitchen light. She brushed the moisture from her cheeks, refusing to feel sorry for herself, feeling a steely resolve infuse her spine.

Why should she be so afraid of meeting Luca again? He was nothing to her really, nothing more than a one-night stand that had ended in the very worst kind of way. And if Luca Barbarigo was threatening her mother, maybe Lily was right; maybe she was the best person to stand up to him. It wasn’t as if there was a friendship in the balance. And it certainly wasn’t as if she was going to be charmed by him.

Not a second time.

She wasn’t that stupid!

CHAPTER TWO

SHEwas coming.

Just as her mother had said she would.

Luca stood at the darkened balcony overlooking the Grand Canal, his senses buzzing with the knowledge, while even the gentle slap of waters against the pilings seemed to hum with anticipation.

Valentina was coming to save her mother. Expecting to rescue her from the clutches of the evil banker.

Just as he’d intended.

A smile tugged at his lips.

How fortuitous that her mother was a spendthrift with a desperate need for cash. So desperate that she was not bothered to read the terms of any loan agreement too closely. How naive of her to assume that marrying his uncle somehow made her eligible for special treatment.

Special treatment indeed.

And now the noose he’d tied was so tight around the neck of the former beauty that she was about to lose her precious palazzo from beneath her once well-heeled feet.

A water taxi prowled by, all sleek lines and polished timbers, the white shirt of the driver standing out in the dark night, before both taxi and driver disappeared down one of the side canals. He watched the wake fan out across the dark canal and felt the rhythm of water resonate in the beat of his blood; heard it tell him that the daughter was drawing ever closer.

He searched the night sky, counting down the hours, imagining her in the air, imagining her not sleeping because she knew he would be here in Venice, waiting for her to arrive.

Waiting.

He smiled, relishing a sense of anticipation that was almost delicious.

It was delicious.

He was no gambler. Luck was for suckers. Instead he thrived on certainty and detail and left nothing to chance. His version of luck happened when excellent preparation met with sublime opportunity.

The seeds for both had been sown, and now it was time to reap the harvest.

The palazzo had been his uncle’s once, before that woman had stuck her steely claws into him and hung on tight, and now it was as good as back in the family fold again. But the satisfaction of returning the palazzo to the family fold was not what drove him now. Because Lily Beauchamp had something far more valuable that he wanted.

Her precious daughter.

She’d walked out on him once. Left the mark of her hand bright on his jaw and walked away, as if she’d been the one on high moral ground. At the time he’d let her go. Waved good riddance. The sex had been good but no woman was worth the angst of chasing her, no matter how good she was in bed.

He’d put her from his mind.

But then her mother had called him, asking for help with the mire of her finances, and he’d remembered the daughter and a night of sex with her that had ended way too prematurely. He’d been only too happy to help then. It was the least he could do for his uncle’s widow, he’d told her, realising there might be a way to redress the balance.

So now fate was offering him the chance to right two wrongs. To get even.

Not just with the spendthrift mother.

But with the woman who thought she was different. Who thought herself somehow better.

He’d show her she was not so different to her mother after all. He’d show her he was nobody to walk away from.

And then he’d publicly and unceremoniously dump her.

CHAPTER THREE

ARRIVINGin Venice, Tina thought, was like leaving real life and entering a fairy tale. The bustling Piazzale Roma where she waited for her bag to be unloaded from the airport bus was the full stop on the real world she was about to leave behind, a world where buildings were built on solid ground and transport moved on wheels; while the bridges that spanned out from the Piazzale crossing the waterways were the ‘once upon a time’ leading to a fairy tale world that hovered unnaturally over the inky waters of the lagoon and where boats were king.

Beautiful, it was true, but as she glanced at the rows of windows looking out over the canals, right now it almost felt brooding too, and full of mystery and secrets and dark intent...

She shivered, already nervous, feeling suddenly vulnerable. Why had she thought that?

Because he was out there, she reasoned, her eyes scanning the buildings that lined the winding canal. Luca was out there behind a window somewhere in this ancient city.

Waiting for her.

Damn. She was so tired that she was imagining things.

Except she’d felt it on the plane too, waking from a restless sleep filled with images of him. Woken up feeling almost as if he’d been watching her.

Just thinking about it made her skin crawl all over again.

She pushed her fringe back from her eyes and sucked in air too rich with the scent of diesel fumes to clear her head. God, she was tired! She grunted a weary protest as she hauled her backpack over her shoulder.

Forget about bad dreams, she told herself. Forget about fairy tales that started with once upon a time. Just think about getting on that return plane as soon as possible. That would be happy ending enough for her.

She lined up at the vaporetto station to buy a ticket for the water buses that throbbed their way along the busy canals. A three-day pass should be more than adequate to sort out whatever it was her mother couldn’t handle on her own. She’d made a deal with her father that she’d only come to Venice on the basis she’d be back at the farm as soon as the crisis was over. She wasn’t planning on staying any longer. It wasn’t as if this was a holiday after all.

And with any luck, she’d sort out her mother’s money worries and be back on a plane to Australia before Luca Barbarigo even knew she was here.

She gave a snort, the sound lost in the crush of tourists laden with cameras and luggage piling onto the rocking water bus. Yeah, well, maybe that was wishful thinking, but the less she had to do with him, the better. And no matter what her frazzled nerves conjured up in her dreams to frighten her, Luca Barbarigo probably felt the same way. She recalled the vivid slash of her palm across his jaw. They hadn’t exactly parted on friendly terms after all.

Tourists jockeyed and squirmed to get on the outer edge of the vessel, cameras and videos at the ready to record this trip along the most famous of Venice’s great waterways, and she let herself be jostled out of the way, unmoved by the passing vista except to be reminded she was on Luca Barbarigo’s patch; happy to hide in the centre of the boat under cover where she couldn’t be observed. Crazy, she knew, to feel this way, but she’d found there were times that logic didn’t rule her emotions.

Like the time she’d spent the night with Luca Barbarigo.

Clearly logic had played no part in that decision.

And now once again logic seemed to have abandoned her. She’d felt so strong back home at the kitchen sink, deciding she could face Luca again. She’d felt so sure in her determination to stand up to him.

But here, in Venice, where every second man, it seemed, had dark hair or dark eyes and reminded her of him, all she wanted to do was hide.

She shivered and zipped her jacket, the combined heat from a press of bodies in the warm September air nowhere near enough to prevent the sudden chill descending her spine.

Oh God, she needed to sleep. That was all. Stopovers in Kuala Lumpur and then Amsterdam had turned a twenty-two hour journey into more like thirty-six. She would feel so much better after a shower and a decent meal. And in a few short hours she could give in to the urge to sleep and hopefully by morning she’d feel halfway to normal again.

The vaporetto pulled into a station, rocking sideways on its own wash before thumping against the floating platform and setting passengers lurching on their straps. Then the vessel was secured and the gate slid open and one mass of people departed as another lot rushed in, and air laced with the sour smell of sweat and diesel and churned canal water filled her lungs.

Three days, she told herself, as the vessel throbbed into life and set course for the centre of the canal again, missing an oncoming barge seemingly with inches to spare. She could handle seeing Luca again because soon she would be going home.

Three short days.

She could hardly wait.

The water bus heaved a left at the Canale di Cannaregio and she hoisted her pack from the pile of luggage in the corner where he’d stashed it out of the way. And this time she did crane her neck around and there it was just coming into view—her mother’s home—nestled between two well-maintained buildings the colour of clotted cream.

She frowned as the vaporetto drew closer to the centuries-old palazzo. Once grand, her mother’s house looked worse than she remembered, the once soft terracotta colour faded and worn, and with plaster peeling from the walls nearly up to the first floor, exposing ancient brickwork now stained yellow with grime at the water level. Pilings out the front of a water door that looked as if it had rusted shut stood at an angle and swayed as the water bus passed, and Tina winced for the once grand entrance, now looking so sad and neglected, even the flower boxes that had once looked so bright and beautiful hanging empty and forlorn from the windows.

Tourists turned their cameras away, searching for and finding more spectacular targets, an old clock tower or a passing gondola with a singing gondolier, and she almost felt ashamed that this was her mother’s house, such an unworthy building for a major thoroughfare in such a beautiful city.

And she wondered what her mother could have done with the money she had borrowed. She’d said she’d needed the money to live. Clearly she hadn’t spent much of it on returning the building to its former glory. She disembarked at the next stop, heading down one of the narrowcallesleading away from the canal. The palazzo might boast its own water door but, like so many buildings fronting the canals, pedestrian access was via a rear courtyard, through an ornate iron gate in yet another steeply walled lane, squeezing past clumps of strolling tourists wearing their cruise ship T-shirts and wielding cameras and maps, or being overtaken by fast moving locals who knew exactly where they wanted to go and how to get there in the shortest possible time.

For a moment she thought she’d found the right gate, but ivy rioted over the wall, unkempt and unrestrained, the ends tangling in her hair, and she thought she must have made a mistake. Until she peered closer through the grille and realised why it looked so wrong.

She remembered the courtyard garden being so beautifully maintained, the lawns mowed, the topiary trees trimmed to perfection, but the garden looked neglected and overgrown, the plants spilling from the fifteenth century well at its centre crisp and brown, the neat hedge along the pathway straggly and looking as if it hadn’t been clipped for months. Only two bright pots spilling flowers atop the lions guarding the doorway looked as if anyone had made an effort.

Oh, Lily, she thought, looking around and mourning for what a sanctuary this garden had once been. What had happened to let it go like this?

There was no lock on the gate, she realised, the gate jammed closed with rust, and she wondered about her mother living alone, or nearly alone in such a big house. But the gate scraped metal against metal and creaked loudly as she swung it open, a sound that would no doubt frighten off any would-be thief.

It wasn’t enough to bring her mother running, of course—Lily was too much a lady to run—but Carmela, the housekeeper, heard. She bustled out of the house rubbing her hands on her apron. Carmela, who she’d met a mere handful of times, but greeted her now with a smile so wide she could have been her own daughter returning home.

‘Valentina,bella! You have come.’ She took her face between her hands and reached up to kiss each cheek in turn before patting her on the back. ‘Now, please...’ she said, wresting her backpack from her. ‘I will take this. It is so good you have come.’ A frown suddenly came from nowhere, turning her face serious. ‘Your mother, she needs you. Come, I take you.’

And then she smiled again and led the way into the house, talking nonstop all the time, a mixture of English and Italian but the meaning perfectly clear. And Tina, who had been on edge the entire flight, could finally find it in herself to smile. Her mother would no doubt treat her daughter’s attendance upon her as her God-given right; Luca Barbarigo would probably see it as a necessary evil, but at least someone seemed genuinely pleased to see her.

She followed Carmela across the threshold and, after the bright autumn sunshine, the inside of the house was dark and cool, her mother still nowhere to be seen. But, as her eyes adjusted, what little light there was seemed to bounce and reflect off a thousand surfaces.

Glass, she realised, remembering her mother’s passion for the local speciality. Only there seemed to be a lot more of it than she remembered from her last visit.

Three massive chandeliers hung suspended from the ceiling of the passageway that ran the length of the building, the mosaic glass-framed mirrors along the walls making it look as if there was at least a dozen times that. Lily blinked, trying to stick to the centre of the walkway where there was no risk of upsetting one of the hall tables, also heavily laden with objets d’art, trying to remember what this hallway had looked like last time she was here. Certainly less cluttered, she was sure.

Carmela led her through a side door into her kitchen that smelt like heaven, a blissful combination of coffee and freshly baked bread and something savoury coming from the stove, and where she was relieved to see the only reflections came from the gleaming surfaces, as if the kitchen was Carmela’s domain and nothing but the utilitarian and functional was welcome.

The older woman put down Tina’s pack and wrapped her pinny around the handle of a pan on the stove. ‘I thought you might be hungry,bella,’ she said, placing a steaming pan of risotto on a trivet.

Tina’s stomach growled in appreciation even before the housekeeper sliced two fat pieces of freshly baked bread and retrieved a salad from the refrigerator. After airline food it looked like a feast.

‘It looks wonderful,’ she said, pulling up a chair. ‘Where’s Lily?’

‘She had some calls to make,’ she said, disapproval heavy in her voice as she ladled out a bowl of the fragrant mushroom risotto and grated on some fresh parmigiano. ‘Apparently they could not wait.’

‘That’s okay,’ Tina said, not really surprised. Of course her mother would have no compunction keeping her waiting after demanding her immediate attendance. She’d never been the kind of mother who would actually turn up at the airport to greet her plane or make any kind of fuss. ‘It’s lovely sitting here in the kitchen. I needed a chance to catch my breath and I am so hungry.’

That earned her a big smile from the housekeeper. ‘Then eat up, and enjoy. There is plenty more.’

The risotto was pure heaven, creamy and smooth with just the right amount of bite, and Tina took her time to savour it.

‘What happened to the gardens, Carmela?’ she asked when she had satisfied her appetite and sat cradling a fragrant espresso. ‘It looks so sad.’

The housekeeper nodded and slipped onto one of the stools herself, her hands cupping her own tiny cup. ‘Thesignoracould no longer afford to pay salaries. She had to let the gardener go, and then her secretary left. I try to keep up the herb garden and some pots, but it is not easy.’

Tina could believe it. ‘But she’s paying you?’

‘She is, when she can. She has promised she will make up any shortfall.’

‘Oh, Carmela, that’s so wrong. Why have you stayed? Surely you could get a job in any house in Venice?’

‘And leave your mother to her own devices?’ The older woman drained the last of her coffee and patted her on the hand as she rose to collect the cups and plates. She shrugged. ‘My needs are not great. I have a roof over my head and enough to get by. And one day, who knows, maybe your mother’s fortunes will change.’

‘How? Does it look like she’ll marry again?’

Carmela simply smiled, too loyal to comment. Everyone who knew Lily knew that every one of her marriages after her first had been a calculated exercise in wealth accumulation, even if her plans had come unstuck with Eduardo. ‘I meant now that you are here.’

Tina was about to reply that she doubted there was anything she could do when she heard footsteps on the tiles and her mother’s voice growing louder... ‘Carmela, I thought I heard voices—’ She appeared at the door. ‘Oh, Valentina, I see you’ve arrived. I was just speaking to your father. I would have told him you were here if I’d known.’

Tina slipped from her stool, feeling the warmth from the kitchen leach away in the uncomfortable assessment she gauged in her mother’s eyes. ‘Hello, Lily,’ she said, cursing herself for the way she always felt inadequate in her mother’s presence. ‘Did Dad call to talk to me?’

‘Not really,’ she said vaguely. ‘We just had some...business...to discuss. Nothing to worry about,’ her mother assured her, as she air-kissed her daughter’s cheeks and whirled away again with barely a touch, leaving just a waft of her own secret Chanel blend that one of her husbands had commissioned for her in her wake. Lily had always loved the classics. Labels and brand names, the more exclusive the better. And as she took in her mother’s superbly fitted silk dress and Louboutin heels, clearly nothing had changed. The garden might be shabby, but there was nothing shabby about her mother’s appearance. She looked as glamorous as ever.

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