With some difficulty she pulled stockings onto damp legs and then slipped on her fast-becoming-familiar little black dress and clipped on a string of black pearls, before— coaxing tired feet into stilettos.
And then she tackled her hair. Spritzing her wayward, corkscrew curls around the wand and trying to coax them into shape.
It was a routine she was starting to perfect.
‘You need some more evening wear,’ was Luca’s only comment when he saw that she was in her black dress again.
‘Just as soon as I get a day off!’Emma retorted. ‘Aren’t you ready?’
He didn’t answer but, then, Luca rarely answered pointless questions. Instead, he strode out to the lifts with Emma following behind, holding a small suitcase to take to her father and stuffing her evening bag with keys and lipstick and hair serum and sticking plasters as the lift plummeted down.
‘I forgot to put on perfume.’
He sniffed the air. ‘You smell fine.’
He glanced at the small case she was carrying, but didn’t comment and neither did Emma, not bothering with small talk. She just sat in the back of the car with Luca as they moved at a snail’s pace through the heavy peak-hour traffic, a knot of tension in her stomach, sure that at any moment he’d tell her it was too late to stop by her father’s nursing home. Glancing at her watch, she realised they weren’t going to be able to make it and it was actually a relief—she didn’t want to explain her life to Luca.
‘The old dog’s home first!” Luca drawled, not knowing the nerve he was pricking as he let them into his apartment. The television was blaring as usual and Emma paced as Luca chopped up some chicken breast and added a spoonful of rice to Pepper’s bowl.
‘He’s on a diet,’ Luca explained.
She didn’t quite get where Pepper fitted into the scheme of things. She’d been to Luca’s apartment on several occasions and still couldn’t work out what Luca was doing with a dog. Neither man nor beast seemed to particularly like each other and the last thing a person with Luca’s schedule needed was a dog—and a lapdog at that.
But it wasn’t her place to question. It was her job to just book the vet in for home visits, or make sure that the dog sitter knew when Luca was suddenly called away.
‘Look in the bathroom,’ Luca called from the bedroom. ‘There is probably some perfume there that has been left behind—help yourself.’
It was like the beauty section in a chemist’s shop— perfumes, lipsticks, body lotions, all left behind by their previous owners—but it wasn’t them that caught her attention. In the mirror she could see Luca’s reflection—dressed in black hipster underwear, he was selecting an evening shirt, and though she was getting used to Luca, she wasn’t used to seeing quite so much of him.
He was stunning.
He was so pompous and arrogant that for the most part Emma was able to switch off from the fact he was, quite simply, the most beautiful man she had ever seen—only now she was seeing him.
He had long muscular legs that even managed to look sexy in socks. As he pulled on his shirt, she caught more than a glimpse of his chest, a smattering of black hair that made Emma’s toes curl in her already too tight shoes. Dragging her eyes away, she selected some perfume and squirted it on, but her eyes wandered back to the stunning view of him, to those long lean legs as he sat on the bed and pulled on his trousers.
And then he caught her looking.
His eyes held hers in the mirror for an indecently long time, a ghost of a smile spreading on his lips, and then she snapped her eyes away.
‘Ready?’ So flustered was Emma that his voice in the doorway made her jump. ‘If we want to stop at your father’s, we’d better leave.’
Cheeks burning, her back and thighs pressed into the leather seat of Luca’s car, Emma knew that he knew.
That despite the banter, despite the rebuffs, despite her thoroughly cool demeanour around him—Luca D’Amato knew that he moved her.
And suddenly, for the first time in six weeks, Emma felt vulnerable.
‘SO WHERE does he live?’
Emma gave the driver the address and sat back in her seat, her tension mounting as the car neared the leafy street, lined with huge impressive homes.
‘It’s nice here…’ Luca glanced out of the window. ‘So, is this where you grew up?’
He had no idea, must just assume that her father could afford a house in this area, but instead of answering she just shook her head, tempted to tell the driver to forget it and take them straight to the Hemmings’ dinner dance, except her father would be devastated if she rang and cancelled again.
‘After that red car on the left…’ Emma instructed the driver. ‘Just here will do.’ Only he went past the red car and pulled up at the gates, pressing the button in the intercom. Emma could feel her cheeks burning as Luca took in the nursing home sign. ‘Could you tell them Mr Stephenson’s daughter is here for a visit?’
‘I’ll wait in the car.’ She could feel Luca’s eyes on her as he spoke, but couldn’t look at him, just climbed out as the driver handed her the small suitcase.
‘I shouldn’t be long.’
The way his face lit up when she walked into his room only made her feel worse. He looked forward so much to her visits, but lately they had been becoming fewer and further between.
‘You look like your mum…’ Frank beamed ‘…when we used to go out dancing.’ And on and on he chatted as Emma put away his laundered pyjamas and replaced his deodorant and talc and filled up his little dish with money for a newspaper in the morning. And it seemed like a nice visit because her father was chatty and for once there wasn’t a hint of malice about her mother, but it hurt more than she could explain.
His face had never used to light up when Emma had walked in the room—that had only started to happen in these past few months. Growing up, he’d practically ignored her, or when he did talk to her, it was to badmouth her mother, as if it had been her fault she’d died. So in all it had been a pretty wretched excuse of a childhood and Emma knew she had every reason to walk away, to leave it to the system to look after him. Only now, since his stroke, it was as if her horrible childhood had somehow been erased. For the first time they had a father-daughter relationship, for the first time she was hearing little bits about her mother, about her history, and despite it all, he was her dad—and even if they’d left it rather late they did have a relationship and she could never, like her brothers had, bring herself to just walk away from him.
‘I’m sorry I haven’t been in more recently.’ She broke his favourite chocolate she had brought him into pieces and put some on a plate in front of him. ‘Work’s so busy…but I’ll be in properly at the weekend.’
‘You have to go?’ Frank’s eyes filled with tears. ‘You’ve only just got here.’
‘Dad, I have to work.’
She felt awful leaving him so soon—except she had no choice. Until the house sold, it was her work that was paying for the home.
She knew what the nurses must think of her as she clipped past the desk in high heels, and she was so close to crying it hurt—she was tired, so tired of juggling things, of scrambling to get everything half done. At work she was calm and efficient, yet on the inside she was a festering mess.
‘Miss Stephenson.’ As the cool night air hit her she gulped it in, turning to see who was following her. Aware Luca must be watching, she died inside as the supervisor waved an all too familiar manila envelope. ‘We’ve been trying to contact you about the account.’
‘I spoke with Accounts yesterday…’ Emma tried to keep her voice even, tried to lower her shoulders and pretend, for Luca if he was watching, that there was nothing wrong. ‘I explained that I have a new job, that I’m catching up on the outstanding balance—they’re putting a new payment plan in place.’
‘I’m aware of that—it’s here for you in writing.’
She took the envelope. ‘Thank you.’
‘Any default on this plan and I’m afraid…’
‘There won’t be.’ Emma swallowed. ‘You know Dad’s house is on the market.’
‘We have a long waiting list,’ the supervisor answered. ‘We’re trying to help, Miss Stephenson, but we’re not a charity.’
The car was full of music when she entered, and Luca was sending emails on his phone. She breathed out a sigh of relief that he surely hadn’t noticed the uncomfortable exchange with the supervisor.
‘How was he?’ Luca checked.
‘A bit teary,’ Emma admitted. ‘Still, I’ll see him properly at the weekend.’
‘Does he get other visitors…?’ His voice trailed off. Evelyn had told him about her mother’s death and, seeing Emma’s tight lips, he changed tack. ‘It looks like a nice place,’ Luca commented, glancing up at the impressive building as the car crunched out of the driveway. ‘Expensive?’
‘A bit.’ Emma shrugged. ‘You do what you can.’
Unexpectedly, Emma found herself enjoying the Hemmings’ dinner dance.