‘Luca!’ He embraced his son, kissed him on the cheek as was the Italian way. Luca briefly hugged him back, but Emma could feel the sudden tension in the room. ‘Comesta?’
‘This is Emma.’ Luca’s voice was just a touch short as he introduced her to his father. Despite Rico’s fragility he took her firmly by the hands, kissing her on the cheeks and welcoming her to the family…making a kissing gesture with his fingers when he saw the impressive earrings, which made Mia laugh.
‘Come, Rico…’ She plumped the cushions on what must be his seat and fussed over him as he lowered his tall frame. Emma stood, suddenly awkward as Luca just watched, his face an impassive mask Emma couldn’t interpret.
‘Luca is upset.’ As Emma did the right thing and helped his mother prepare coffee in the kitchen, finally there was an explanation for his strange lack of reaction. ‘It is hard for him to see his father so ill. It is almost a year since Luca was here, it would be difficult for him to see the changes.’
‘Of course.’ Emma set up the tiny coffee cups on saucers and it should have appeased her, except it didn’t. Luca had his own plane—his own travel team for heaven’s sake, and even her selfish brothers managed a visit to their father once a month—there was surely a lot more behind this familia that kept Luca away so coolly.
It was a busy house. The drinks and pastries that had been set up were not just for Luca and Emma’s benefit, but for an endless parade of guests, all wanting to meet Luca’s girlfriend and to wish Daniela well for her big day. And Luca saw the strain showing in Emma’s smiling face as the shadows lengthened, and he was proud of her, proud at how easy she had made it for him to be here, and he wanted to make it easier for her too.
‘I thought I might take Emma out for dinner. I know you are busy…’
There were protests from Mia, of course, but not too many. Rico was tired and wanted to get back to his bed, and Daniela was calling for help from the bedroom. Just a typical family two days before a wedding, and, as pleasant as the afternoon had been, it was rather nice to get out.
They walked through his village, the scent of the sea filling the late summer sky, and he took her to a local restaurant. No matter how many Italian restaurants she had been to before, nothing could compare to the simple fare of fresh pasta swished in basil pesto and lavishly smothered in Parmesan. The wine was rich and deep and fruity, and they sat outside drinking it, bathed in citronella-fragranced candlelight. Though they had eaten out together on many occasions, both in London and abroad, this was nothing like a business dinner, because here no business was discussed.
Her eyes were huge in the candlelight, her laughter infectious, and for the first time at home Luca relaxed, till the conversation turned personal.
‘So you brought Martha here…’ She took a sip of her wine rather than look at him.
‘It was a bad idea,’ Luca finally admitted. ‘Martha insisted it would change nothing.’
‘But it did?’
‘My family assumed we were serious—and then Martha started believing it too.’
‘Is it so impossible?’ Emma blinked. ‘You talk as if you’ve no intention of ever settling down.’
‘I don’t,’ Luca said. ‘I would grow bored, restless…I would rather have my pick.’ He gave her a smile. ‘Italian men get better looking as they get older, so I don’t think I’ll be short of company.’
And it was honest, so why did it hurt her?
The thought of him in years to come, that jet hair dashed with silver, his distinguished features slightly more ravaged—this beautiful man walking the planet alone…yes, she couldn’t deny that it hurt.
‘I’m surprised you haven’t built a hotel here, if you don’t like staying with your family.’ Emma refused to get morose.
‘It is often suggested by developers, but it would ruin it. There are natural springs close by, so it would certainly be a tourist paradise, but…’ Luca shook his head. ‘No.’ He had no desire to be here any more than he had to and no desire to discuss his family further, so he concentrated on their meal instead. ‘There are two desserts,’ Luca translated the menu for her. ‘Tiramisu or tiramisu with cream…’
He liked it that she laughed, liked it that she didn’t decline dessert and instead ordered it with cream, liked eating with a woman who actually enjoyed it!
‘They make it once a week, and each night they soak in a little more liquor, so by Friday it has reached perfection,’ he told her.
‘Then thank God it’s Friday.’ She smiled.
She had tasted many tiramisus—good and bad, tiramisu ice cream, tiramisu from the supermarket, even tiramisu from an expensive Italian restaurant Luca had taken her to with clients, but as the sweet moist dessert met her mouth Emma realised she had never really tasted tiramisu.
‘It’s gorgeous.’ She closed her eyes and relished it for a moment.
And so are you, Luca thought, watching her.
She could feel his eyes on her, and dashed to the ladies to touch up her make-up, wrestled with underwear that was supposed to smooth out bumps and realised that maybe the tiramisu was more potent than it looked as she struggled to replace the top on her lip gloss.
Or she’d had too much wine with dinner, Emma thought, staring at her glittering eyes and rosy cheeks.
Or maybe it was just a reaction to the company!
Even if it wasn’t real, it was so good to be away, to forget, to be twenty-five years old today and go out for dinner with the sexiest man in the world.
He signed for the bill and they wandered back, taking the sandy route. Emma slipped off her sandals, feeling a million miles from London, from everything, as her feet sank into the wet sand, and her ankles were bathed by the warm sea.
‘How can you bear to stay away?’ she murmured.
‘You eventually get tired of the view,’ Luca said, ‘no matter how beautiful.’
‘I meant from your family.’
‘You’ve seen my schedule.’ Luca shrugged, and then expanded a little. ‘I ring, I send money, I try to get back when I can…’ He knew it sounded lame, knew she thought him a selfish person, and that was completely fine with him.
They stopped walking, Luca picking up a handful of stones and skimming them out to sea, looking out at the rolling waves and the high crescent of a new moon. He relented a touch about his family—he told himself it was because he didn’t want to kill the mood, but…she was nice to talk to. ‘It’s not just the view you get tired of—but the place, the people, the unspoken rules…’
‘Familia.’ There was a scathing note to his voice. ‘Everything is for appearances’ sake—that is why I am here, remember! What will people think if the brother, the only son, just drops in for the wedding? That is the type of question you hear all the time as you grow up. They are so worried about how they appear, what people will think. There is shame that their only son has not settled down. Every time I come home, it’s always the same questions…’
‘And that’s enough to keep you away?’ She didn’t buy it. ‘A few questions?’
‘You see a frail old man near death, Emma.’ She felt the prickles on the back of her neck rise as he continued, ‘And the village sees the patriarch of the D’Amato family, close to the end of a good and rich life…’
‘What do you see, Luca?’ she asked quietly.
‘My mother’s fear.’ If it was only a hundredth of it, it was still more than he’d ever admitted to anyone, and there was this curl of trepidation in his stomach as for the first time he broke the D’Amato code of silence. ‘How, even when he can hardly walk, she still jumps when he enters a room, still laughs too loudly at his jokes…’
‘Was he violent towards her?’ Emma asked.
‘A bit.’ His guard shot back up. ‘Yet he is weak and pathetic now—there is nothing more to fear.’
‘Is that why you stay away?’
Luca shrugged, a bit guilty now, embarrassed perhaps at admitting so much, and he tried to laugh it off. ‘Apparently I should have married some sweet virgin, produced several children by now—no matter whether or not it makes me happy.’
‘But you haven’t,’ Emma pointed out.
‘Because there are no more virgins—no goodlooking ones anyway.’ His mouth curved into a smile at his own joke and then, appalled, he remembered. ‘Emma, I’m sorry!’ He had to run to catch up with her. ‘I forgot, okay?’
‘Just leave it.’ She shrugged him off, angry, annoyed, embarrassed and very, very close to tears. She was sick of it, sick of it, sick of it!
‘Hey.’ He caught her hand and spun her around. ‘I’m sorry if I offended you—I just never thought—’
‘No, you didn’t!’ Emma flared.
‘You’re not ugly…you’re gorgeous,’ Luca attempted, ‘and the guy who gets you will be a lucky man indeed.’ Huge green eyes looked up at him. ‘I’m just not sure that should be me…’ He stared at the oh, so, familiar beach, dragged in the familiar smells, and though he so desperately wanted her, he didn’t actually have to have her—there was sweet relief in just her company tonight and the knowing that she would be beside him tonight.