‘Even if I want it to be you?’
‘Emma…’ He didn’t finish so they walked on in silence, and it was Luca who finally broke it. ‘Come on, let’s get home. I’ll text Ma and let her know.’ Which to Emma seemed a strange thing for a thirty-four-year-old playboy to do, but she was too upset about how the night had turned out, and really never gave it another thought, especially when they stepped into a house that was in darkness.
‘They must have gone to bed,’ Luca said, and then the lights snapped on.
‘Surprise!’ She saw the usually deadpan Luca grinning at her stunned reaction, as shouts of ‘Happy birthday’ and ‘Tanti auguiri’ rang out, and slowly the realisation set in that this was all for her.
Luca could never have known how much this might mean to her, how completely overwhelming this was, because there were gifts all prettily wrapped and a table set with glasses and liqueurs and, centre stage, a cake. A huge sponge filled with cream and iced on top and in shaky handwriting the words Tanti Auguiri Emma.
Her first birthday cake, her first birthday party— well, at least, the first she could remember.
‘Sorry,’ Mia said. ‘Rico wanted to stay up but he was tired.’ Emma could see the mood in the house was actually better without him, and then Mia apologised that the cake was home-made, which made Emma’s eyes well up. ‘Luca only told me yesterday, there was no time to order one—and—’
‘Yesterday?’ Her head whipped around to him—that he had known all along, before she’d even told him, and that he had thought to ring ahead and arrange all this for her…
‘Did you really think I’d forget your birthday?’
She opened her gifts—first a stunning white lace nightdress from Mia. ‘For your trousseau,’ she hinted. There was some body lotion and perfume from Daniela, and from Luca a silver charm bracelet, with a diamondstudded ‘E’ and a pretty horoscope charm, The Virgo Lady, dangling on her bracelet, which he’d bought before he’d known she really was one!
Did everything lead there?
‘Emma wanted to start a charm bracelet collection,’ Luca said as he snapped it on her wrist and kissed her trembling mouth, and she wondered at what a convincing lover he made.
‘Then we will know what to get you at Christmas.’ Mia smiled and it was too much—the unexpected kindness, the care, the cake and the fact that there would be no family Christmas, that none of this was real…
Tiny thoughts, like flickering stars were there on the periphery of her mind, and she was almost scared to focus on them in case they flared.
Cakes and presents and the love that her mother had denied her. Yet a thousand miles from home and with people she didn’t know, it wasn’t the time to be exploring her feelings, so again she squashed them down, plastered a smile on her face and carried on with the celebration.
Except Luca noticed her anguish.
‘Time for bed…’ he announced, and there was an endless round of kissing and goodnights so that rather than being nervous of being led to his bedroom, by the time they got there she was actually relieved.
Relieved when he closed the door and it was just the two of them.
‘What’s going on, Emma?’ He meant it this time, wasn’t going to be fobbed off again, only she couldn’t tell him, just couldn’t go there with Luca—not with a man who didn’t really want to get involved with her.
And then her phone rang
‘Happy birthday, darling!’
‘Dad?’ She couldn’t believe it—she had rung the home before dinner just to say goodnight and had been told that he was resting. Not for a minute had she expected him to remember it was her birthday. ‘I couldn’t sleep, Em. They let me come to the nurse’s office and ring you…’ Not once growing up had he made a fuss of her. Everything had been dismissed with words like, ‘Oh, you’re just like your mother,’ and only now was she starting to get it, only now did she understand that maybe he had been terrified of losing her too.
‘I love you, baby girl.’ And those stars flickered brighter then as she recalled words used by him before her mother had gone, the love for her that had always been there in him but which had taken illness to help it re-emerge. ‘Happy birthday.’
‘That was Dad.’ She tried to make light of it to Luca. ‘Heaven knows what the nursing home will charge for a mobile call to Italy…’
He frowned at her pale face. ‘Worth it, though?’
‘Yes.’ She sat on the edge of the bed for a moment, and then put her head in her hands.
‘I found something out,’ Emma finally admitted. ‘About her.’
‘Your mother?’ And she couldn’t speak. Tears that she had always, always pushed back were trickling down her cheeks. ‘I always thought that she’d been living at home when she died, that she didn’t want to leave us.’
He knew better than to ask a question now.
‘Dad said something last night, and I asked my brother about it. It shouldn’t really matter…’ She attempted Rory’s dismissive take, only it didn’t work. ‘She walked out on us—a month before the accident. She’d gone to find herself, apparently!’ Her eyes turned to him for answers. ‘I don’t know how to feel any more—I don’t know who she was. She walked out on us….’
‘Emma, you can still mourn her, still love her. Who knows what would have happened had she lived? She could have come back, or come to get you…’
Oh, what was the point explaining it to him? Instead, she headed for the bathroom, brushed her teeth and slipped on her candy-striped pyjamas, and when she came out of the bedroom she looked so young, so vulnerable and just so lovely that for Luca there was no question.
Sex was off the agenda.
She was just too raw, too vulnerable right now. He did have some moral guidelines and to have her fall in love with him, only for him to then break it off, well, he didn’t think he could do it to her.
He lay on his back, staring up at the ceiling, as she climbed into bed beside him.
Every laugh, every word, every chink of glass had him on edge—hell, he hated this house at night.
What did she have to be a virgin for?
He wanted to lose himself in sex, wanted to block everything out except the smell and feel and taste of her. He could hear her crying quietly beside him; he hated tears more than anything, resisted tenderness at all costs, and yet there was no avoiding her tears, nowhere to escape to tonight.
‘Emma.’ He spoke gently into the darkness. ‘Do you want to talk?’
‘No!’ She was sick of talking, of thinking, and now she had started she couldn’t stop crying.
God, he was used to women’s tears, but usually when he was ending an affair. He chose women carefully. Yes, Emma had been a gamble, yes, he was attracted to her—to her fiery independence, to the humour, to the fire—and yet she lay beside him, suddenly fragile, and it unnerved him.
He put a hand on her shoulder—was that what he should do? He sort of patted it and she even managed a small smile at his strange attempt at comfort, realising he was exquisitely uncomfortable with her display of emotion.
So was she usually—yet tonight it came in waves, waves that had been building for nearly twenty years.
That first day of school when all the mums had stood at the gates and she had walked in with her brothers.
Her first period, when it had been the school nurse that had explained this terrible thing that had happened and had told her too late that it was all completely normal.
Her first bra, she’d shoplifted it. Long-buried memories were hurtling in, the one time in her life she’d stolen, but rather that than ask her father to buy one for her.
But always, in her heart, Emma had carried the memory of her mother, sure, quite, quite sure that her mother would have given anything to be there with her.
Only she hadn’t, because she’d left her.
And now, lying in bed, she felt as if she was falling.
Anger for all the things she had missed out on was seething inside her.
And she lay in a strange country in a strange bed, with a playboy who didn’t deal in emotions when hers were exquisitely raw.
She actually felt sorry for him.
His hand was still patting her in a sort of there, there motion, this slight note of horror in his voice as he felt her shiver at the prospect of the grief she must hold in for now. Yet it was leaking from her eyes, from her breath, this scream inside that was building, the tension in her muscles where she wanted to just run…to curl up, to howl and to weep.
He turned her over to face him.
‘Emma, stop this!’
‘I can’t!’ It was like a panic attack, as if she was choking, tears shuddering inside her.
She was this contrary bundle in his arms, tense then pliant, sobbing but distant. He felt her push him away and then he felt her head on his chest, felt the dampness of tears then her furious withdrawal as she wrestled away. And he let her go but she came back and so he comforted her in the only way he knew how—he kissed her.
It infuriated her that this was his answer, enraged her so she almost pushed him out of bed and then wriggled away, appalled. Except it had helped. His mouth, his tongue had flicked her thoughts from pain to pleasure and then he’d stopped.