The Italian’s Suitable Wife

LUCY MONROE

 

CHAPTER ONE

His lips hovered above hers. Would they make contact? They never had before, no matter how much she ached for it. He started to lower his head and her heart kicked up its pace. Yes. Oh, yes. This would be the time. But even as she strained toward him, he began to back away. His image dissolved completely as the discordant note of a ringing telephone tugged her toward consciousness.

Gianna Lakewood picked up the cordless handset still half immersed in dreamland, a land where Enrico DiRinaldo was no engaged to supermodel, Chiara Fabrizio.

Her voice still husky from sleep and the emotions elicited by her dream, she said, “Hello?”

“Gianna, there’s been an accident.”

The sound of Andre DiRinaldo’s voice brought her eyes wide open as tension immediately tightened her grip on the phone.

“An accident?” she asked, sitting bolt upright and flipping on the bedside light almost in the same motion.

“Porco miseria. How do I say this?” He hesitated while she waited with a premonition of dread for what was to come.”It is Enrico. He is in a coma.”

“Where is he?” she demanded, jumping out of bed and clutching the phone to her ear, her green eyes wild with the fear coursing through her. She didn’t ask what happened. She could find that out later. She needed to know where Rico was and how soon she could get there. She started shucking out of her pajamas.

“He is in a hospital in New York.” New York? She hadn’t even known Rico was in the States, but then she’d avoided news of him since his engagement to Chiara had been announced two months ago. She hopped over to the night stand; one let still encased in cotton pajama bottoms, and grabbed a notepad and pen from the drawer.

“Which one?” She wrote it down. “I’ll be there as soon as I can!”

She hung up before Andre could say another word. He would understand. He had thought to call her even though it was the middle of the night whereas Rico’s parents would have waited until morning in misguided courtesy. Because Rico’s brother knew Gianna had loved Enrico DiRinaldo since she was fifteen years old.

Eight years of unnoticed and unrequited love, even his recent engagement to another woman had not been able to dampen those feelings. She rushed around her tiny apartment, throwing together the necessary items for her trip to New York. She considered checking into flights, but discarded the idea. It was a two ad a half hour drive, but it would take longer to get to the airport, book a flight and make the plane trip to New York.

She wasn’t the DiRinaldos. She couldn’t command first class attention, or even hope to get on the next available flight unless an economy seat was vacant. She didn’t bother to take a brush to her chestnut brown, waist length hair, leaving it in the braid she slept in. Nor did she take time to throw on makeup. She barely dressed, leaving off her bra and slipping into a worn pair of jeans, lightweight sweater and tennis shoes, no socks.

A scant two hours later she walked into the hospital and asked to see Rico.

The woman behind the information desk looked up and asked, “Are you family?”

“Yes.” She lied without compunction.

The DiRinaldos had always said she was family. The only family she had left. The fact she could claim no blood relation was irrelevant at the moment. The woman nodded.

“I’ll call an orderly to take you up.”

Five minutes that felt life five hours later, a young man dressed in green scrubs came to lead her to ICU.

“I’m glad you’re here. We called his family in Italy three hours ago,” so just before Andre had called her, “and they wont be here for another five to six hours. In cases like this having loved ones around in the first hours can make all the difference.”

Well she wasn’t a loved one, but she loved and she supposed that had to count for something.

“What do you mean, cases like this?”

“You know Mr. DiRinaldo is in a coma?”

“Yes.”

“Comas are very mysterious things, even with all the medical knowledge we have today. There’s a case to be made for the presence of important people in the patient’s life bringing him out of the coma.”

The orderly said this with a certain acidic bite she didn’t understand. They stopped at the nurse’s station and she was given instructions for her visit with Rico. She also learned why the orderly had seemed so knowledeable about Rico’s condition. He was actually the intern working with the ICU doctor on call.

She walked into the ICU unit, her eyes not taking in the medical paraphernalia surrounding Rico. All she could see was the man in the bed. Six feet four inches of vitality as lifeless as a waxwork doll. Eyelids covered the compelling silver eyes she loved so much. His face was badly bruised and shoulder was splotched with purple as well.

He didn’t appear to be wearing anything but the sheet and blanket, which covered most of his torso. His breathing was so shallow, her heart literally stopped in her chest at first because she thought he wasnt breathing at all.

She moved forward until she stood beside the bed, her lower body pressed against the metal bedrail. Her hand reached out of its own volition to touch him. She desperately needed to feel the life force beating beneath his skin. Seeing no bandages, she laid her hand very lightly over the left side of his chest. Her knees almost buckled with emotion.

The steady beat of his heart under her barely touching fingers was proof that as still as he was, as pale as he looked, Rico was still alive.

“I love you, Rico. You can’t die. Please. Don’t stop fighting.” She didn’t realise she was crying until the intern handed her a tissue to wipe at the tears sliding silently down her cheeks.

She took it and mopped up without once taking her focus off the man in bed.

“What happened?” she asked.

“They didn’t tell you?”

“I hung up before his brother had the chance. Getting here seemed more important than getting details,” she admitted.

“He was shot saving a woman from a mugging.”

“He was shot?” The only bandages she saw were on his head.

“It was just a crease-“ the orderly pointed at the white gauze strips “-along his cranium, but he fell into oncoming traffic and was hit by a car.”

“The bruises?”

“Were from the car.”

“Is there any lasting damage?”

“The doctors don’t think so, but we won’t know until he wakes up.”

There was something in his voice and her head snapped around. “Tell me.”

“The nature of some of his injuries could result in temporary or permanent paralysis, but there’s no way of knowing for sure until he comes out of the coma.”

“Where is the doctor?” She wanted more information, more than the opinion of an intern, no matter how knowledgeable he might be.

“He’s making rounds. He’ll be in to see Mr. DiRinaldo in a little while. You can talk to him then.”

She nodded and turned her eyes back on Rico, immediately forgetting the intern was iin the small cubicle. There was only Rico. He’d filled her world for so long, the prospect of a life without him in it made the pain she’d felt upon his engagement pale into insignificance.

“You have to wake up, Rico. You have to live. I can’t live without you. None of us can. Your mother, your father, your brother…..we all need you. Please don’t leave us. Don’t leave me.”

She even forced herself to mention Chiara and his upcoming wedding.

“You’ll be married and on your way to being a papa soon, Rico. I know that is what you want. You always aid you were going to have a houseful of children.”

She’d hoped with the naïve dreams of a girl that those babies would be hers, but she didn’t care if Chiara was the mother, Gianna just wanted Rico to live. She kept talking, pleading with him to wake up, not to give up and she told him over and over again how much she loved him.

She was holding Rico’s hand and willing him to come out of the coma, when the doctor came by later. He examined Rico’s chart and checked the elcetronic monitors by the bed.

“All his vital signs look good.”

“Isn’t there anything you can do to wake him up?” she asked, her throat raw from swallowing tears. The doctor shook his head.

“I’m sorry. We have already tried stimulants to no effect.”

Her hand tightened on Rico’s unmoving one.

“I guess he’ll just have to wake up on his own then. He will, you know. Rico’s got more stubborn genes than a Missouri mule.”

The doctor smiled, his tired blue eyes warming a little. “I’m sure you’re right. It’s my opinion, having family around does its part, too.”

His tone was censorious, but she didn’t feel it was directed at hr. “His parents and brothr will be here as soon as humanly possible. It’s a long flight from Milan, even on the fastest private jet in the world.”

“I’m sure you are right. It’s too bad his fiancée couldn’t see her way to staying.”

“Chiara is here, in New York?”

“Miss Fabrizio was contacted at her hotel. She came in and became hysterical at the sight of him, furious he’d risked his life for a woman too stupid to know not to walk alone at night.”

This time the censure was blatant.

“But why isn’t she here?”

Perhaps Chiara had stepped out to use the facilities or something.

“She stayed for about an hour, but when we informed her he was in a coma and we didn’t know how soon he’d come out of it, she decided to leave. She left a number to call when he wakes up.”

There was a wealth of disgust in his words.

“She must be really upset.”

Gianna looked again at Rico’s motionless countenance and had no trouble understanding his fiancé going to pieces over it. She couldn’t imagine leaving his side, but then everyone dealt with fear in their own way.

“She’ll sleep fine tonight. She insisted we prescribe her and oral sedative,” the doctor added.

Gianna nodded absently, once again focused almost entirely on Rico. She rubbed the skin of his hand with her thumb.

“He’s so warm. It’s hard to believe he isn’t sleeping normally.”

The doctor made some comments about physiological differences between coma and normal sleep that she only half listened to.

“Is it alright if I stay?” she asked, knowing it would take an orderly form each arm and one for her legs to get her to move from Rico’s bedside. Laughter rumbled in the doctor’s throat.

“If I said no?”

“I’d sneak back in wearing scrubs and a mask and hide under the bed,” she admitted, amazed she could find any humor in a hospital room with Rico lying broken in the bed.

“As I thought. Are you his sister?” the doctor asked.

She felt the blood rush into her cheeks. Should she lie again? Looking at the understanding light in the doctor’s eyes, she didn’t think she would have to.

“No, I’m a family friend.” Speculation flickered briefly in his expression before he nodded.

“I won’t tell if you won’t. It’s obvious you care. Your presence can’t hurt and may very well help enormously.”

Relief swirled through her bloodstream. “Thank you.”

“It’s all about what’s best for the patient.”

The doctor exited the cubicle thinking it was a pity his patient wasn’t engaged to the tiny woman who obviously cared so much instead of the gorgeous Amazon with a heart like a rock.

Gianna was only vaguely aware of the doctor’s departure as memories of Rico assailed her. She picked up his hand. It was heavy and she kissed his palm before laying it back on the bed, her own covering it.

“Do you remember the year Mama died? I was five and you were thirteen. You should have hated having me tag after you. Andre called me a pest often enough, but you didn’t. You held my hand and talked to me about Mama. You took me to Duomo Cathedral, such a beautiful place, and told me I could be close to Mama there. It hurt so much and I was scared, but you comforted me.”

She suppressed the memory of how different it had been a year ago when her dad died. Rico had been dating Chiara then and the other woman had no time for Gianna and had made sure Rico didn’t, either.

“Rico, I don’t want comforting now. Do you hear me? I want you to get better. I thought nothing could hurt more than when you announced your engagement. I was wrong. If you die, I don’t want to go on living. Do you hear me, Rico?”

She leaned forward, her head resting against the strong muscles of his forearm. “Please, don’t die,” she pleaded as tears once again bathed her skin and his.

She was dozing when a familiar voice repeating her name woke her up.

“Gianna? Wake up, piccolo mia.”

She lifted her head from its resting place by Rico’s thigh.

Sometime in the last five hours, she had lowered the bedrail and settled her head beside him. She needed the physical contact as a reminder that Rico was still alive. Her eyes slowly focused as she blinked in the subdued lighting of the ICU cubicle.

“Andre, where are your parents?”

He grimaced. “They left only two days ago on a cruise aboard a friend’s yacht to celebrate their anniversary. Papa insisted on complete privacy and secrecy. They won’t be back for another month and I know of no way to contact them. Rico was the only one with that information.”

He left unsaid the obvious. Rico was in no condition to share his knowledge with them. Her insides twisted when she thought of the reaction Rico’s parents would have to the news of their son’s accident and Andre’s inability to reach them.

“If he dies….” Andre’s emotion filled voice trailed off. She glared at the younger version of Rico.

“He won’t die. I won’t let him,” she said fiercely.

Andre reached out and squeezed her shoulder, but said nothing. He didn’t need to. They both knew she could not will Rico to live, but that wouldn’t stop her from trying.

“The doctor said there has been no change in his condition since it stabilized after he was brought in.”

“Yes.”

She’d been there for every blood pressure check, every time a nurse came in and read his monitors, marking the stats down on his chart.

“When did you arrive?” he asked. She shrugged.

“A couple hours after you called.”

“The drive is longer than that.” She just looked at him and he sighed.

“It’s a good thing you didn’t get a ticket. Rico would have blasted you for it.”

“When he comes out of his coma he can lecture me all he likes about my driving.” Andre nodded.

“I know”

Then his gaze skirted the room as if looking for something.

“Where’s Chiara? I thought she was supposed to be with him on this trip. She’s modelling in some show while Rico attends the banking conference.”

She told him what the doctor had said and Andre cursed eloquently in Italian, then switched to Arabic when he saw the way her face turned red.

“I’m sorry. She’s just such a bitch and my brother’s too smitten to see it.”

The image of a love struck Rico was both painful and funny.

“I can’t quite imagine Rico’s judgement completely obliterated by a pretty face, Andre. I’m sure there are things about Chiara that he genuinely admires. He’s marrying her after all. He must love her.”

Even saying the words hurt, but she gritted her teeth against the pain of acknowledging Rico’s desire for another woman.

Andre snorted. “More likely he’s sexually obsessed with her. She knows how to use her body to its best advantage.”

If her face had been red before, now it was flaming.

“I….”

Andre sighed. “You’re so innocent, piccolo.”

She didn’t want to dwell on her twenty three year old virginal status. She’d never wanted any man but Rico and he’d never seen her as anything other than a younger sister.

“How was your flight?”

Andre shook his head. “I don’t know. I spent the entire time praying and worrying.”

She reached out and gripped his hand, never letting go of her connection with the man in the bed.

“He’ll be alright, Andre. He has to.”

“Have you eaten since you got here?”

“I haven’t been hungry.”

“It’s hours past breakfast,” he admonished her.

And that was how the next four days went. Rico was moved to a private room, per Andre’s instructions. Gianna took the opportunity to shower. Other than that, she refused to leave Rico’s room. She spent every moment, waking and dozing, by Rico’s bedside. Andre bullied her into eating and drinking only by bringing the food and beverages into Rico’s room.

Chiara came to see Rico once a day and stayed for five minutes each time. she looked at Gianna with a mixture of scorn and pity.

“Do you really think this incessant vigil will make the least difference? He’ll wake up when he wakes up and then he will want me by his side.”

Gianna didn’t bother to argue. No doubt Chiara was right, but it didn’t matter. It was three in the morning on the fifth day. The hospital halls were quiet, the nurse had taken Rico’s vitals at midnight and no staff had come to disturb the silence of his room since. Andre was asleep on the reclining chair in the corner. Gianna couldn’t doze, so she was talking and touching Rico. She brushed his arm and looked lovingly into his still face.

“I love you, Rico. More than my own life. Please wake up. I don’t care if it’s to marry Chiara and give her all the babies I want to have. I don’t care if you kick me out of your life after hearing what a besotted fool I’ve been the last five days. Just wake up.” She said the last on a note of desperation and was hoping so fiercely for him to make some sign he’d heard that when he moved, she thought she’d imagined it.

The muscles of his arms spasmed and his head jerked from side to side. She pressed the call button while shouting to Andre.

“He’s coming out of it! Andre, wake up!”

Andre came out of the chair fully alert. After that, everything was a blur. The nurse came running in. Soon she was followed by a doctor and then another nurse.

Andre and Gianna were shooed out of the room.

Then came the waiting.

Gianna paced while Andre first sat and then stood, then paced, then sat again. Finally, the doctor came into the waiting room. It was the same one who’d been on call the night Rico had been brought in. He smiled at Andre and Gianna.

“He’s awake, but he’s a little disoriented. You can see him for five minutes one at a time.”

Andre went first. He came back to the waiting room, his expression troubled. She was desperate to see Rico and would have brushed by Andre without a word, but

his hand snaked out and grabbed her.

“Wait, cara. There is something I must tell you.”

“What is it?” Andre swallowed convulsively and then met her gaze head-on. The look of anguish in his eyes terrified her.

“What’s wrong? He hasn’t gone back into a coma, has he?”

“No. He…” Andre took a deep breath and let it out.

“He can’t move his legs.”

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

Rico’s eyes were fixed on the doorway when Gianna walked in. She couldn’t miss the expression of disappointment that clouded his expression briefly before he masked it.

“Hello, piccola mia. Did Andre ask you to come and keep him company waiting for me to wake up?”

The endearment did things to her heart when Rico said it that didn’t happen when Andre called her his little one. She smiled, her relief that he was talking so acute, she couldn’t get a word past the blockage in her throat for several seconds. She stopped beside the bed, noticing someone had raised the guardrail. “I couldn’t have been kept away,” she said with more honesty than was probably wise. One corner of his mouth tipped up. “Always the nurturer. I still remember the cat…” His words trailed off. He looked tired.

Exhausted, really. “He turned out to be a lovely pet.”

“So Mama thought. She gave him the run of the place until he died,” he replied, speaking of a tabby cat she had rescued from the road after it had been injured when she was ten.

“Pamela was furious with me and wanted to call the animal people to come take it away,” she said, speaking of her stepmother. Gianna smiled. “You wouldn’t let her.”

“What kind of cat do you have now?” She’d always had pets, usually strays picked up from somewhere, but once there had been a puppy her parents had given her when she was four. He’d been a wonderful friend and she’d cried buckets when he died. “I don’t have any animals.” His face registered surprise. “That’s not like you.” It wasn’t by choice.

She lived in campus housing and pets weren’t allowed. She had no intention of burdening Rico with her problems, however. So she just smiled again and hrugged. “You haven’t asked how I’m feeling.” She gripped the bedrail to stop herself from touching him. She’d gotten so used to the freedom over the past five days. “You look like you’ve been pummeled on the playground by the school bully. I don’t imagine you feel much better.” That made him chuckle and she rejoiced in the sound. Then he sobered. “My legs don’t move.” His expression and voice had gone blank. She couldn’t resist the urge to take his hand. “They will. You’ve got to be patient. You’ve had a terrible experience. Your body is still in shock”

His eyes remained unreadable, but his hand returned her grip with betraying fierceness. “Where is Chiara?”

Oh, Heavens. Gianna had forgotten to call the other woman. She felt guilty color stain her cheeks. “l was so excited you’d come out of coma, | forgot to call.” She reluctantly pulled her hand from his. “I’ll do it right away.”

“Tell her to come round in the morning.” His eyes closed. “I’ll be more myself then.”

“All right.” She moved toward the door. “Sleep well, caro,” she whispered. The endearment was so common it was like saying hey you, but she said it with a surfeit of emotion she prayed he could not hear. He didn’t reply.

Rico waited impatiently for Chiara to come. Andre and Gianna had both been in to see him again this morning and stayed until he had tired. Gianna looked exhausted and thinner than he remembered. He wondered if her job as an assistant professor was taking too much out of her. He’d have to talk to his mother about it.

But even exhausted, Gianna exuded an innocent sensuality that he’d never been completely able to ignore. At times it had made him feel guilty because his body reacted even though his mind saw her as more sister than woman. Regardless of his body’s baffling response, he’d never once considered pursuing it. He didn’t bed virgins and until recently, marriage had held no appeal. His damn legs still wouldn’t move and the doctors could not tell him if the paralysis was permanent or not. Gianna was convinced it was temporary and had said so again that morning.

She was such a sweet little thing. He was surprised she wasn’t married yet. She’d be twenty-four next year, but then American women married later, he thought. It was too bad Andre didn’t see her as marriage material. Rico wouldn’t mind having her in the family.

A surge of something dark and inexplicable stabbed him at the image of Andre

Walking down the aisle with Gianna. He tried to convince himself it was because Rico didn’t know if he would be able to walk down the aisle with Chiara when the time came. He could very well still be in a wheelchair. But something ugly had shifted in him at the thought of Gianna married. Was he such an egoist he couldn’t stand the thought of losing her innocent adoration? The thought did not sit well.

“Caro! You mustn’t glare like that. You’ll scare the nurses off and then who will bring you your lunch?” A trill of laughter accompanied Chiara into the room. He watched his beautiful fiancée’s entrance. Any man would be proud to claim Chiara for his own, but she belonged to Rico. “Give me a kiss and I won’t feel like frowning any more.”

She made a moue with her mouth. “Naughty man. You’re sick.”

“So kiss me and make it better,” he taunted.

Something flickered in her eyes but she came forward and offered her lips for a brief salute.

He wanted to demand more, but he allowed her to step back from the bed. “You weren’t here last night,” he said.

Her eyes filled with tears and her expression was wounded.

“That brother of yours and the little paragon,” she must have meant Gianna, “they kept me out of it. They didn’t call me for hours after you woke up.”

Why hadn’t his brother called Chiara right away?

“They were here. You were not.”

The tears spilled over. “That horrible girl! She’s infatuated with you. She wouldn’t leave your side. There wasn’t even room for me next to the bed. Half the staff are convinced she’s your fiancée.”

He couldn’t imagine Gianna doing something so cruel. “You’re exaggerating.” Chiara spun away and her shoulders shook with misery. “I’m not.”

“Come here, bella.”

She turned around and returned to stand by the bed, her face wet with tears.

“She lied to get into your room the first night. She told them she was related to you. And she never left, just like some pathetic clinging vine.”

“Everyone was upset.”

“But I’m your fiancee. I want you to tell her to stop acting like she is and not to spend so much time here at the hospital. I don’t want to be tripping over her.”

“Are you jealous?” he asked, the thought not unpleasant considering the state of his body.

She pouted with expert effect. “Maybe, a little.”

“I’ll talk to her,” he promised.

Gianna walked into Rico’s room an hour after she’d woken from the first unbroken stretch of sleep she’d had in six nights. Andre had insisted she take the other bedroom in his suite, saying it was just going to waste until his parents could arrive. She’d been grateful as her budget did not stretch to Manhattan hotel prices or taxi fares from a less expensive part of the city. She hadn’t relished the thought of sleeping in her car or depleting her small savings account to nothing.

Rico looked up, his smile of greeting conspicuous in its shortness. She stopped a few feet from the bed. “You look better.”

And he did. His skin wasn’t so pale under the tan and his eyes were clearer.

“Gianna, we need to talk.” He’d found out how she had refused to leave his side. He knew she loved him and he pitied her. She swallowed the knot of pain her pride had lodged in her throat.

“Yes?”

“You are like a sister to me.”

She hid the pain those words caused, but remained silent.

“You care about my health and this is understandable, but cara, you must not push Chiara aside in your concern for me.”

He thought she’d pushed his fiancee to the side? Gianna wanted to defend herself, but to do so would require telling him Chiara hadn’t wanted to be with Rico when he was so sick. She couldn’t do it. It would hurt him too much when he was vulnerable from his injuries.

“I didn’t mean to push her aside,” she said instead.

“I did not think you did. You are too tenderhearted to deliberately hurt someone like that, but you must be more considerate in future, no?”

She nodded, Choking on the words she wanted to say. “I’ll try,” she promised.

“Chiara does not want you visiting so often” Rico went on.

“What do you want, Rico?” she asked helplessly.

“I want my fiancee to be happy. This is a trying time for her. I do not want her upset further.”

It was a trying time for him too, but Rico never considered his own needs. He thought only of protecting those he loved.

“Andre said you refuse to contact your parents.”

“No need for them to cut short their holiday.”

“Your mother would want to be here.”

“I do not want to be fussed over.” The impatience in his voice made her smile.

“I’m surprised you’re not working.”

“San celio. Andre refuted to bring in the laptop and the doctor ordered the phone removed when he found me talking to our office in Milan last night.”

“What time last night?” she asked, pretty sure she knew the answer.

“What time do you think? When the office opened.”

Which would have been roughly 3:00 am. No wonder the doctor had the phone removed. She shook her head. “You are supposed to be resting. How can you get better if you won’t let your body recuperate?”

“What choice have I?” he demanded, indicating his still legs below the blanket.

She took several involuntary steps forward until she was next to the bed. She laid her small hand across his large one.

“You don’t have any choice right now, but you will get better.”

His silver gaze caught hers and his hand turned until their fingers were entwined. “Cara, you always believe the best, no?”

She nodded, unable to speak. The feel of his hand holding hers was such a sweet torment she didn’t want words to intrude.

“I believe the best also. I will walk again.”

 He said it with such arrogance, how could she help believing him?

“When have you merely walked, Rico?” she asked with a husky voice she did not recognize.

His free hand came up and cupped her Cheek and a look she did not understand passed across his face. She went completely still, allowing every fiber of her being to absorb the delicious feeling produced by his touch. It would be gone all too soon and she didn’t want to waste a moment of it.

His eyes narrowed. “Chiara believes you are infatuated with me, Cara.”

“l…” She swallowed.

“I told her you are like my sorello piccola.”

Like his little sister? Yes, she knew he saw her that way, but she did not look on him as a big brother and her senses were running riot with his hand on her cheek and his fingers entwined with hers.

“Right.”

Her brushed his thumb across her lips and she shivered. Silver eyes turned gunmetal gray.

“You are cold?”

“No,” she whispered. Why was he touching her like this?

“What is going on in here?” Chiara’s voice raised in furious censure broke the spell of Rico’s touch and Gianna jumped back. She forgot her hand linked with his and was pulled up like a dog at the end of its leash as his hold on her did not lessen. She tugged against her hand, but Rico didn’t let go. He was looking at Chiara, his expression unreadable.

“I am visiting with Gianna. She is not too busy to spend more than five minutes in my company.”

Two things became appatent to Gianna at once. Chiara was jealous and Rico knew it.

“I’ve spoken to Gianna about letting you take your rightful place at my side, but you must be here to do so, bella.” Chiara’s beautiful face turned red with temper and she glared at their entwined hands.

“I am on assignment. You know I cannot spend every waking moment at the hospital like your pet limpet.”

“She has her own job. Yet she finds the time.” He hadn’t even bothered to protest the pet limpet remark, so she did it. She yanked on her hand. Hard. He let go.

“I’m no one’s pet, Chiara. I’m a friend and I didn’t realize my visiting Rico would upset you so much.”

Chiara’s glare did not lessen. “You expect me to believe that, the way you’ve carried on for the last week. Andre treats me with contempt and you, he insists on keeping in his own suite at the hotel.”

“You are staying with Andre?” Rico demanded, a tone in his voice that sounded very much like disapproval.

“There are two bedrooms in the suite. I’m using one until your parents arrive.”

“They aren’t coming.”

“Because you won’t call them,” she said with some exasperation.

He ignored that. “It is not seemly for you to stay with an unmarried man alone in his hotel suite.”

“It would be even less seemly for me to sleep in my car.”

“Per favore, spare us the dramatics,” Chiara jeered.

Gianna wanted to smack the beautifully painted red lips, but she wasn’t a violent person…at least she never had been. She supposed there was a first time for everything.

“Where I stay is neither of your business,” she said firmly.

Chiara’s eyes shot disdain at Gianna. “It is when you take advantage of the generosity of my fiancée’s family to keep yourself underfoot and in the way.”

“Stop playing the shrew and come here. I want my kiss of greeting,” Rico demanded of Chiara.

He hadn’t bothered to deny she was in the way and for all Gianna knew, he felt the same as his fiancee. He’d told her not to visit him as much. But he had taken Chiara to task for being rude. That was something at least. Still, perhaps it was time for Gianna to go back to Massachusetts. She hadn’t had her position long enough to accrue significant vacation time and since she wasn’t related to Rico by blood, the university administration did not see her absence as a family emergency. The department head had already made one not very veiled threat regarding her job if she wasn’t in class teaching the following Monday.

Chiara was obeying Rico with an overkill of enthusiasm. Gianna turned to give the couple some privacy, but the kiss lasted minutes. Finally, the pain of being in the room with the man she loved while he kissed nother woman got to her and she walked out, sure they wouldn’t notice.

“I told you she had a crush on you.”

Chiara’s voice floated out the open door and down the hallway to where Gianna waited for the elevator. Gianna felt waves of mortified color sweep up her skin. She’d spent eight years nursing a secret love and to have it laid bare for that witch to mock was more than she could bear.

She was furious with Rico too. He’d used her to make his barracuda of a fiancee jealous. All that touching that had meant so much to her had been nothing more than a ploy to keep Chiara in line. Evidently Rico didn’t approve of his fiancée’s flying visits any  more than Gianna and Andre did.

“Gianna’s feelings for me are of no concern to you.” Rico could hear the bite in his voice and did nothing to mitigate it. Chiara’s kiss had not blinded him to her vicious attitude toward Gianna, an attitude he would not tolerate.

“And you will not speak to her again as you did when you arrived. Her genuine concern for me is not something to mock.”

Chiara’s eyes widened in shock. “How can you say these things? Another woman’s feelings toward you are definitely my concern.”

“Gianna is no threat to you.” But even as he said the words, he wondered at their truth.

Would he have kissed the younger woman if Chiara had not arrived when she did? He didn’t like to believe he was capable of such a dishonorable act. His affections were committed to Chiara, but he hadn’t wanted to let go of Gianna’s hand and the feel of her soft lips under his fingertips had caught at his emotions in a way Chiara’s extended kiss had not.

“She’s a little schemer and it devastates me that you can’t see that.” The tears welling in his fiancée’s eyes did not move him as they once whould have done.

She’d spent too little time at his bedside and her complaints about Gianna simply did not ring true. He wondared just who the schemer in this situation really was.

 Gianna waited until the following evening to visit Rico again. He was talking on a hospital phone and typing on a laptop set up on a desk across his legs when she came in. She smiled wryly to herself. Nothing and no one could keep Rico out of business circulation for long. He looked up and spotted her.

He motioned to a chair near the bed and she sat down, waiting patiently for him to finish his call. Lines around his eyes made him look tired, but he had more color and his jet black hair had been washed and styled in its usual neat fashion.

He wore a navy-blue silk pajama jacket that looked brand new. It probably was. She didn’t imagine Rico was the type of man to wear pajamas to bed. He rang off and moved the desk with the portable computer aside.

“Been busy sightseeing?” he asked with an edge to his voice.

“Sightseeing?” she asked incredulously.

“You have not been in to see me since yesterday morning.” He needn’t sound so accusing.

“You said Chiara didn’t like me visiting so much.”

“I did not mean for you to stop coming all together.” Silver eyes snapped their disapproval at her. “For all you knew I had slipped back into a coma.”

He was being totally unreasonable and for some reason she found that terribly endearing. It was almost as if he’d missed her.

“I’m here now,” she said soothingly, “and Andre would have told me if you’d taken a turn for the worse.”

“Si. Andre, whom you share your hotel room with.”

“We don’t share a room.” She examined his face for a clue to the source of his irritability.

“Are you in pain?”

He glared at her. “l have been shot and hit by a car driven by a man who could not see his hand in front of his face in a brightly lit room. Of course I have some pain.”

He sounded so outraged, she had to stifle a grin. “I don’t think the driver was expecting a man to fall in the street in front of him.”

Rico dismissed that with a flick of his hand. “Blind fool,” he muttered.

“Andre said you saved the

woman’s life. They caught the mugger and he had a

list of

 

prior offenses as long as your arm, most of them

were

 

violent assault and he’d already killed two women.”

Andre

 

had also told her that the woman had come by the

hospflal

 

to thank Rico, but he had told his security to keep

out all

 

visitors except her, his brother and Chiara. “You

wouldn’t let

 

her thank you.” “I do not need this thanks. I am a

man. I

 

could not drive by and do nothing.” “If you ask me,

you’re

 

more than an average man.” She smiled at him,

letting him

 

see her approval. “You’re a hero.” His eyes warmed

slightly.

 

“Chiara believes all this,” he indicated his unmoving

legs, “is

 

my fault.” Giannajumped up and laid her hand

protectively

 

on his arm. “No. You mustn’t think that. You were

being the

 

best kind of man. You paid a price, but you wouldn’t

let that

 

stop you from doing it again.” His hand came up to

hold hers

 

and she was reminded of the day before, both of the

wonderful feelings his touch invoked and the way

she’d felt

 

used when she realized he’d touched her only to

make

 

Chiara jealous. She pulled her hand away and

stepped back.

 

“I don’t plan to stay long,” she said quickly, lest he

think she

 

was clinging like the limpet Chiara had accused her

of being.

 

“Why? Do you have a hot date with Andre?” he

asked

 

scathingly, his unreasonable anger back in full force.

“He’s

 

taking me to dinner, but I’d hardly call it a hot date.”

“Do not

 

pin your spinsterish hopes on my brother. He is not

ready to

 

settle down.” She clenched her teeth. “I’m not

pinning

 

anything on him, much less a desire to marry. We’re

going to

 

dinner because he doesn’t mind my company.” “I do

not

 

mind your company.” He pointed at his chest with an

arrogant finger. “You could have dinner here, with

me.”

 

“What’s the matter, can’t Chiara get away from her

busy

 

modeling schedule to share a meal with you?”

Gianna asked

 

with uncharacteristic bite, still stinging from the way

he had

 

used her to make the other woman jealous the day

before.

 

His remark about spinsterish hopes had done

nothing to

 

make her feel more charitable toward him, either.

His look

 

could have stripped paint. “My fiancee is none of

your

 

business.”

 

Gianna’s heart melted. It had been a rotten thing to

say and

 

she just knew all that anger was hiding pain. Chiara

was a

 

totally selfish person who wouldn’t know how to put

herself

 

out for another human being if her life depended on

it.

 

Worse, here was Rico, tired, in pain, not sure if he’d

walk

 

again and Gianna doing her best to act like a witch

as well.

 

“I could call Andre and ask him to pick up dinner and

bring it

 

here,” she offered by way of a peace offering. “I will

call

 

him.” And he did just that. He made arrangements

with

 

Andre in a burst of staccato Italian before hanging

 

up the

 

phone. “I told him to get you your own room.” “I

heard you,

 

but it won’t be necessary. I’ll only be staying one

more night.

 

Surely my reputation and his virtue will be able to

survive

 

such a short test.” Rico looked disgruntled. “I did not

say you

 

would attack him.” “How else would a spinster like

me

 

expect to get a macho Italian male like your brother

to the

 

altar?” “Why do you say you will only be staying one

more

 

night?” he asked, sidestepping her taunting words.

“I’m

 

going home tomorrow.” “Why would you do this? I

am not

 

well. Do you see me ready to leave this place?” He

sounded

 

like a man ready to explode. She couldn’t imagine

why. “You

 

don’t need me to stay and hold your hand. You’ve

got Andre

 

and Chiara. And your fiancee doesn’t like having me

 

underfoot.” The words still rankled. “You did not

remain by

 

my bedside for five solid days for Chiara’s sake.” So,

he

 

knew about her vigil. Probably realized how much

sheloved

 

him, too, which was all the more reason for her to

leave. Her

 

pride had already been dented but good by Chiara’s

nasty

 

comments. “You’re better now.” He reached out and

grabbed

 

her wrist, pulling her close to the bed. His

expression was

 

intense, the hold on her wrist almost bruising. “I am

not well.

 

I am not walking.” “But you will walk.”

 

Frustration was apparent in the set of his firm lips.

“Yes. You

 

believe this. I believe this, but my brother, my

fiancee, they

 

have their doubts.” “You’ll just have to prove them

wrong.”

 

He nodded, heartwarming in his arrogant confidence

of his

 

return to full health. “I do not wish to do this alone.”

Such an

 

admission from Rico was astonishing and she

couldn’t gather

 

her wits enough to respond. “I need you here,

believing in

 

me, cara” She almost fainted, she was so shocked

at his

 

words. “You need me?” she asked in a choked

whisper.

 

“Stay.” It sounded more like an arrogant command

than a

 

plea for her support, but Gianna knew what it had

cost him

 

to say it and she could not refuse. “Okay.” He smiled

and

 

pulled her close for a kiss of gratitude. At least that’s

what

 

she assumed it was supposed to be, but Rico kissed

heers,

 

not her cheek and the moment their mouths

connected,

 

their surroundings ceased to exist for her.

CHAPTER THREE

 

COLORS in every hue swirled around her as

Gianna’s lips

 

tasted Rico’s for the first time. His mouth was firm,

warm

 

and tasted faintly spicy. She inhaled and was

engulfed in his

 

masculine scent. Rico. She ached to run her fingers

through

 

his hair, to explore the contours of his chest under

the

 

pajama jacket. She probably would have, if he didn’t

have

 

such a firm hold on her wrist. Her other hand was

gripping

 

the bedrail with white-knuckle intensity. He broke the

kiss

 

and she hung there, suspended in a world of

sensation she

 

was not ready to leave. Her eyes opened slowly to

see him

 

smiling at her. “Thank you.”

 

“Thank you?” For what? For kissing him?

 

“For staying,” he replied, not without some

amusement. And

 

it hit her. It had been a kiss of gratitude. Here she

was,

 

poised to reconnect with his lips and he was smiling

at her

 

like an indulgent older brother, pleased he’d gotten

his own

 

way. She straightened and spun away so quickly the

long

 

braid down her back arced over her shoulder to land

against

 

her left breast.

 

“N-no problem. I’ll call the college and let them know

I won’t

 

be returning right away.” She had a feeling that

phone call

 

wouldn’t go over very well, but even if it meant losing

her

 

job, she wouldn’t leave Rico. Not as long as he

needed her.

 

Andre arrived with dinner and Rico ate the

beautifully

 

prepared pasta dishes and steamed vegetables with

fervor.

 

“This is a great improvement over the food served

here.”

 

“You could have your meals delivered,” Andre

repHed.

 

Rico shrugged. “It has not been my main concern.”

No, Gianna thought, that would be reserved for

business and

 

walking again. Maybe even in that order.

“Something that does concern me is Gianna staying

in your

 

hotel room. I do not like this.”

 

Andre gave his brother an interested appraisal.

“Why not?”

 

“It is not good for her reputation.”

 

Gianna couldn’t help laughing at this. “Rico, you’re a

total

 

throwback. No one cares if I stay in Andre’s suite.”

 

“I care,” Rico informed her with an attitude that said

that

 

was all that should matter. “Well, you are not my

keepehl

 

haven’t got the money for a prolonged stay in a hotel

room.”

 

Particularly if she lost herjob.

 

“I will pay for it.”

 

She glared at him. “No, you will not.”

 

“Besides, there is no need,” Andre inserted. “My

suite has

 

two bedrooms and since you won’t call Papa and

Mama back

 

from their cruise, the second one will go empty if

Gianna

 

does not stay in it.”

 

She thought Andre’s argument had merit. From the

angry

 

tilt to Rico’s chin, he did not agree.

 

He pinned her with a look that sent shivers to places

she had

 

yet to discover.

 

“You will, allow Andre to care for your needs, but

you refuse

 

my help?”

 

She barely suppressed the urge to roll her eyes. “It’s

not the

 

same thing. It doesn’t cost Andre anything more to

give me

 

the extra room in the suite.”

 

“You think | begrudge you this trifling amount?” Rico

demanded.

 

Why was he being so obtuse?

 

“No. Of course, not. It’s simply that I’m already

there.” She

 

laid aside her fork and allowed herself to make direct

visual

 

contact for the first time in an hour. She’d perfected

the art

 

of talking to his shoulder since almost making a

complete

 

fool of herself over that kiss. “I don’t know what

you’re so

 

worried about, Rico. My name doesn’t make it into

the social

 

columns on a regular basis. No one cares where I

sleep or

 

who I do it with for that matter.”

 

His expression turned feral and she found herself

scoofing

 

to the back of her Chair, her body posed stiffly away

from

 

him.

 

“You have shared your bed with a man?”

 

Heat scorched up her cheeks until they burned like

the

 

Chicago fire of 1908.

 

“That’s none of your business.”

 

“I do not agree.”

 

He looked ready to get up out of the bed and shake

an

 

answer out of her. Even knowing that was not

possible did

 

not suppress the shiver of apprehension that

skittered down

 

her spine. She swung her gaze to Andre, appealing

to him for

 

help with her eyes, but he was obviously enjoying

the

 

conversation too much to step in on her behalf.

She looked back at Rico. His expression had not

softened at

 

all.

 

“I really don’t want to talk about this with you.”

 

“You will tell me the name of the man.”

 

Heavens. When had her silence become an

affirmative

 

answer? And what right did he have to grill her like

this? If

 

Chiara were still a virgin, Gianna would dance naked

on the

 

top floor of the Empire State Building.

 

“Are you saying you and Chiara don’t sleep

together?”

 

“This is not under discussion.”

 

“Nothing is under discussion,” she came close to

shrieking.

 

“You are very red. You are embarrassed, no?”

 

Why bother denying it? He’d know she was lying.

Her blush

 

had already given her away.

 

“Yes.”

 

“A woman of experience would not be so

discomfited,” he

 

said with smug assurance. That set her over the

edge.

 

“Are you sure about that? Maybe l’ve slept with tons

of men.

 

Maybe I’m even sharing Andre’s bed now and the

two room

 

suite is only a ruse.”

 

She realized she’d let her temper lead her into deep,

dark

 

waters a second before he exploded. Mr. Cool

ltalian

 

business magnate sent the portable table with his

dinner on

 

it careening across the room and started shouting at

Andre.

 

Gianna spoke fluent Italian, but she didn’t recognize

some of

 

the words. From the ones she did, she guessed they

were

 

curses.

 

Andre’s usually smiling face was stiff with shock. He

tried to

 

tell Rico it was a joke, but Rico’s fury did not abate.

His

 

hands pounded the air, punctuating his angry

speech and if

 

he had been mobile, his brother would have been

flat on his

 

back. She was sure of it. “For Heaven’s sake.”

 

She jumped out of her chair and crossed to the bed,

standing

 

between Rico and Andre. “Calm down. I said what if,

not that

 

I had. Rico—”

 

His arms snapped around her waist and she found

herself

 

sitting next to him on the bed, her chin cradled in a

surprisingly gentle but firm hold.

 

“Do you sleep with my brother?”

 

“No. I’ve never been with any man,” she admitted,

thinking

 

nothing but the truth could completely diffuse the

situation.

 

Rico’s glare was sulfuric. “Yet you taunted me with

theidea

 

you had.”

 

She couldn’t begin to understand why it mattered so

much

 

to him. Perhaps he felt responsible for her in some

way since

 

her father had died. She wouldn’t have known it by

the way

 

he’d ignored her for the past year, but maybe the

feeHng

 

was there all the same.

 

“I wasn’t taunting you. You embarrassed me and

made me

 

angry. Most women are not…not…” She couldn’t

make

 

herself say the word. “Well, by my age, most women

have

 

some experience.”

 

“But you do not.”

 

“I do not.” She agreed and stifled a depressed sigh.

With him

 

marrying Chiara, that wasn’t likely to change, either.

He

 

brushed her cheek with his fingers before dropping

his hand

 

from her face.

 

“You should not be embarrassed to speak of these

things to

 

me.”

 

She didn’t know where he’d got that from. How could

she

 

help but be embarrassed to talk about it? She’d

nevereven

 

admitted her lack of practical application when

discussing

 

the subject with her girlfriends in college. But she

didn’t

 

want to spark another outburst so she remained

silent. She

 

went to get up, but his arm around her waist

prevented her.

 

“Rico?”

 

“You are very innocent.”

 

She grimaced. That had been well and truly

established. “If

 

you’re finished dissecting my lack of a love life, could

I get

 

up please? I want to go back to the hotel.”

 

His hand was warm against her waist and he was

idly

 

brushing his thumb back and forth in a manner

guaranteed

 

to drive her mad or into a lustful frenzy. She wasn’t

sure

 

there was much difference between the two.

 

“You will move to another room.”

 

“No.” Andre’s firm denial surprised her into looking at

him,

 

regardless of the fascination Rico’s small caresses

held for

 

her. Andre’s face was set in hard lines. “This is New

York,

 

Enrico. It would be inadvisable to allow Gianna to

stay in a

 

room by herself, even in a hotel with security.”

“Then I will assign one of my security people to

watch her

 

room.”

 

This conversation was growing more bizarre by the

minute.

 

Andre shook his head in a short, decisive negative.

“How can it be better for her to stay in a hotel room

with a

 

stranger, than with me?” Her attention swiveled back

to

 

Rico. He was scowling thoughtfully.

 

“Perhaps we should get Chiara to stay in the suite

as well.”

 

“No!” Andre and Gianna chorused at once. Rico’s

brows rose.

 

“What bothers you about this?”

 

How did you tell a man you could not stand his

fiancee for

 

dirt? Gianna cleared her throat, trying to think of a

tactful

 

way of putting her absolute refusal to share living

space with

 

the selfish witch.

 

“Gianna told me what Chiara said about her,” Andre

said,

 

disapproval clear in his voice. “Your fiancée’s

unfounded

 

jealousy was the reason Gianna considered going

back to

 

Massachusetts in the first place.”

 

“Now you seek to protect her from my fiancee?” Rico

asked

 

with silky vitriol. “Are you sure there is nothing you

two wish

 

to share with me?”

 

She’d had about enough of Rico’s overdeveloped

sense of

 

responsibility toward her. She was not some

helpless female

 

in need of his protection. She’d been on her own, if

not

 

physically then emotionally since long before her

father had

 

died. Or maybe Rico really thought she’d set her

sights on

 

marriage to the younger DiRinaldo brother.

 

“This is ridiculous. I’m not about to trip Andre and try

to beat

 

him to the floor.”

 

Andre smiled all ltalian male. “Which is not to say,

cara, that

 

I will not be so inclined.” The hand on her waist

tightened

 

and Rico glared retribution at his brother.

 

“Your humor is misplaced.”

 

“So is your hand, considering you are engaged to

marry

 

someone else,” Andre taunted. Rico’s hold did not

loosen

 

one bit. “She is practically family.”

 

“Is she?” Andre asked. “I wonder.”

 

“What I am is tired of this conversation.” She yanked

on

 

Rico’s hand at her waist. He let go and she stood up.

Setting

 

both fists on her hips, she directed her next words to

Rico. “If

 

you want me to stay in New York, it will be in Andre’s

suite

 

and Chiara’s services as chaperone will not be

required.

 

Even virginal spinsters have their standards and

mine don’t

 

run to primitive, arrogant males who talk about me

as if I’m

 

not even in the room.”

 

Rico winced at the word spinster and Andre’s

expression

 

turned calculating.

 

“It is true, Enrico is almost medieval in his outlook,

but I am

 

a modern man. I do not see anything wrong with a

twentythree-

 

year-old woman remaining unmarried.”

 

“Fine, modern man, take me back to the hotel. I’m

ready for

 

some of my own company.”

 

Rico grumbled some more about her staying in

Andre’s suite,

 

but in the end he acquiesced. He didn’t have any

choice.

 

Gianna loved him enough to risk herjob, but that

didn’t

 

make her a doormat.

 

Doormat was the last thing Rico would have called

Gianna

 

over the next two weeks. She harangued him about

working

 

too much and not participating in his physical

therapy

 

sessions enough. She argued when he had the fast

modem

 

line installed in his room at the private hospital he’d

moved

 

to. That same day he had caught her unplugging the

phone

 

beside his bed and giving it to an orderly to take

away. She’d

 

been unrepentant.

 

Whereas Chiara spent very little time at the hospital

and

 

refused to attend his sessions at all. She’d left for

Paris two

 

days before to model in a Fall fashion show. Which

was fine

 

by him. No man wanted his woman around to see

him

 

helpless and that’s how he felt with his damned

useless legs

 

refusing to do what he wanted them to. If a part of

him was

 

relieved to see the back of his fiancee and her

nagging

 

comments about Gianna, who could blame him.

He’d made

 

her angry more than once defending the younger

woman

 

and was sure to do so again. He would not allow

anyone to

 

denigrate the girl he’d spent a good portion of his life

protecting…even from himself. Chiara’s attitude

regarding

 

his health had also worn thin. She said she believed

he

 

would walk again, but her eyes said not. Gianna was

notso

 

reticent. She continued in her unwavering belief that

feeHng

 

would return to his lower body in due course. She

reminded

 

him repeatedly that spinal shock injuries often

resufledin

 

complete recovery given enough time, something

one of the

 

doctors had asserted the first week. She also not

only

 

attended the physical therapy sessions, she

participated in

 

them. Which he did not thank her for. He needed her

belief

 

in him, not her interference.

 

“Get me back my phone,” he gritted at her.

 

She shook her head, her long chestnut braid

swinging gently

 

from side to side catching the light and his attention.

What

 

would the richly colored hair look like unbraided? It

was

 

easily long enough to fall past her waist. Did she

ever let it

 

down? It would be beautiful.

 

“That was the third call in fifteen minutes.” Gianna

frowned

 

at him like a diminutive school-teacher lecturing a

student

 

caught passing notes in class. “You aren’t going to

walk

 

again talking on the phone.”

 

The physical therapist had the gall to nod his

agreement.

 

“Gianna is right, Mr. DiRinaIdo. You need to

concentrate on

 

your therapy.”

 

The therapist smiled conspiratorially with Gianna

and Rico’s

 

blood pressure Climbed several notches. The over

muscled,

 

blond Adonis was supposed to be the best physical

therapist

 

in New York, but Rico would gladly have flattened

him.

 

“You wouldn’t take a phone call in the middle of

negoflaflng

 

an important deal, would you?” Gianna asked.

 

“I am not negotiating. I am sitting here bored out of

my skull

 

while he,” Rico pointed to the therapist with one

hand,

 

“moves my legs as if that will magically make them

start

 

working on their own.”

 

“It’s not magic. lt’s work and I wouldn’t have thought

you

 

were afraid of hard work,” she jeered.

 

“Porco miseria! l, Rico DiRinaIdo, afraid to work?

You are out

 

of your mind.”

 

“Good. I’m glad you said so.” Her pixie chin set at a

stubborn

 

angle. “Then you understand why the phone is not

allowed

 

for the rest of the session.”

 

“At least let me forward it to my answering service.”

Once

 

she got back the phone, he could finish his call and

then he

 

would unplug it if she was so insistent. She crossed

her

 

arms, pressing surprisingly feminine curves for such

asmaH

 

woman into prominence.

 

“I already did it. You’re not getting the phone back,

you

 

might as well accept it.”

 

He gave her the look that sent bank presidents

running for

 

cover, but she just stood there, arms crossed and

did not

 

budge. He turned to the therapist.

 

“Give me something to do.” The other man jumped

at the

 

tone of his voice and Rico felt a small measure of

satisfaction

 

that unlike Gianna, the therapist found him

intimidating.

 

Gianna knocked lightly on Rico’s door, but heard no

answering voice within. She’d made it her habit to

arrive

 

after breakfast and stay through the morning’s

physical

 

therapy. Perhaps Rico had already been taken down

to the

 

treatment room. She was running a bit late. She had

 

overslept. The day before had been exhausting and

endedin

 

a late night. She’d driven to Massachusetts and back

all in

 

one day so she could retrieve her belongings from

the

 

furnished university apartment that was no longer

hers. Her

 

prediction the department head would not see her

staying in

 

New York in an understanding light had been right

on. But

 

she’d finally found something to be grateful for in the

debacle following her father’s death. When her

stepmother

 

had sold the house, Pamela had tossed everything

she did

 

not want to keep personally. Which meant that

Gianna’s

 

belongings fit in her car and she would not have to

go to the

 

expense of renting a storage facility.

 

When there were no answers to Gianna’s second

knock,she

 

pushed the door open. She wouldn’t mind missing

his

 

session. They were getting more and more difficult

for her to

 

handle. The therapist insisted on Rico dressing in

spons

 

shorts and a body hugging T-shirt for his physical

therapy.

 

Every ripple of Rico’s muscles was visible to her

obsessive

 

scrutiny. She felt like a voyeur watching him exercise

his

 

incredibly gorgeous body.

 

It would be fine if she could encourage him and be

the

 

unaffected “cheerleader” on the inside she portrayed

on the

 

outside, but she wasn’t. She had loved Rico since

she was

 

fifteen years old and wanted him almost as long.

Apparently

 

temporary paralysis and a foul temper were no

deterrent to

 

those feelings. She felt like some kind of depraved

sex fiend.

 

The sight that met her eyes when she came into the

room

 

stopped her like a clanging train crossing.

 

Rico sat on the side of his bed, wearing nothing but

the

 

sexiest pair of briefs she’d ever seen. Not that her

untried

 

eyes had seen all that many, but it wouldn’t have

mattered if

 

she’d seen a thousand men in their skivvies. This

was Rico.

 

He was the only man that mattered. She practically

swallowed her tongue trying to speak.

 

“I… You… The door…”

 

His head swiveled round and the look on his face

was a

 

revelation. He looked elated. “Rico? What…”

 

“You are having a difficult time with your sentences,

cara.”

 

She nodded mutely. His mouth curved in a wide grin

and his

 

eyes glittered silver triumph.

 

“I can feel my toes.”

 

It took a second for the words to register, but when

they did

 

she flew across the room to hug him. She landed

against his

 

chest with all the momentum of a dead-on run. Rico

went

 

backward and she went with him, her arms wrapped

around

 

his neck, her mouth babbling her excitement.

 

“I knew it! I knew you could do it!”

 

His hard male body shook with joyous laughter

underheL

 

“And is it I, piccola mia, that has done this or ii buon

dio?”

 

Laughter trilled out of her to mingle with his.

 

“A bit of both, I think.” She grinned down at him.

“When did

 

ithappen?”

 

“I woke before dawn with a tingling in my feet. The

tingle

 

became feeling as the morning advanced.” T

 

he satisfaction mingled with relief in his voice tugged

at her

 

emotions and her heartjust melted. “Oh, Rico…”

“Do not turn into a waterworks on me, woman.”

 

Her smile was misty, but she managed to blink back

any real

 

tears. “I wouldn’t dream of it. I’m just so happy,” she

said in

 

her own defense.

 

Then she did something she would never have done

had she

 

been thinking clearly. She kissed him. It was just a

small

 

salute on his chin, but her lips didn’t want to move

oncethey

 

landed against Rico’s warm, stubble covered jaw.

She

 

wanted to go on kissing him, tasting his skin,

nibbling at his

 

neck. She knew she had to move away, but she

couldn’t do

 

it. She told herself she would let it lastjust one more

second

 

and then she would get off him and let him get

dressed.

 

Then it hit her. Where she was. What she was doing.

Rico

 

was barely dressed and she was plastered all over

him like a

 

sticky blanket. She reared up, which had the effect

of

 

pressing her legs in a V over his thigh and pushing

her skirt

 

up at an indecent angle. She tried to get her knees

under

 

her to crawl off of him, but only managed to put her

body

 

into intimate contact with male flesh for the first time

in her

 

life. It paralyzed her. The thin silk of her panties

were no

 

barrier to the heat of his flesh and the erotic

stimulation of

 

his hairy leg between hers. She should have worn

tights

 

today instead of her short boots and slouchy socks.

At least

 

then her thighs would not be bare against him. She

felt a

 

flush crawl up her body from her toes to her hairline.

The

 

heat was caused by both embarrassment and

physical

 

pleasure.

 

“Rico… |…”

 

“You have lost your words again, piccola mia.”

Lazy amusement laced his voice. She felt like

anything but a

 

little girl at that moment. In fact, she’d never felt

more like a

 

woman.

 

“I’m sorry,” she muttered as she once again tried to

move

 

away from him, but two very strong hands at her

waist held

 

her still.

 

“You have nothing with which to reproach yourself.

Your

 

excitement equals my own.” She doubted it. Where

his

 

excitement was limited to a very natural joy at the

prospect

 

of walking again, hers had a large dose of sexual

awareness

 

mixed in. The hands at her waist moved and she

found her

 

face directly above Rico’s.

 

“I am happy, cara.”

 

“Me, too.” She tried to control her breathing, but

pulling air

 

into her lungs had become an Olympic event.

 

His mouth quirked. “I could tell.”

 

“Could you?” she asked stupidly, her mind focused

on the

 

ten different ways she wanted to close the gap

between his

 

mouth and hers.

 

Silver eyes flared wide and primal man came to the

surface

 

as Rico became aware of her preoccupation.

“Have many men kissed that luscious bow of a

mouth?”

 

“W-what?”

 

Had hejust asked her if she’d done much kissing?

She

 

couldn’t take it in. Rico had no reason to be

interested in her

 

kissing history. Her thoughts cut off midstream as

Rico went

 

about discovering her level of experience for himself.

Though she was on top, she felt as if his lips were

drawing

 

hers, holding her captive with masculine domination

of the

 

most basic kind. She felt a hand at the back of her

head,

 

holding her in place. She could have told him it

wasn’t

 

necessary… if she could stop kissing him long

enough to

 

speak.

 

His lips molded hers with expert precision and she

found

 

hers parted without having been aware of opening

them. His

 

tongue ran along her lips before dipping inside her

mouth,

 

sharing an intimate sort of kiss that had disgusted

her in the

 

past. With Rico, she found it exciting beyond belief

and she

 

squirmed against him like a wanton. Her hands

explored his

 

naked chest with abandoned delight while her

tongue dueled

 

shyly with his male aggressiveness. Soon, the entire

world

 

was reduced to his body under hers, his mouth

against her

 

mouth and their mingled breath.

 

“Rico!” The feminine shriek from the doorway

brought

 

Gianna out of her sensual haze with shattering

speed.

 

CHAPTER FOUR

 

GIANNA tore her mouth from Rico’s and rolled aside

as his

 

hands fell away from her. She jumped off the bed

and

 

straightened her short plaid wool skirt while her skin

crawled

 

with embarrassment to match the cherry-red of her

nbbed

 

turtleneck sweater.

 

“You filthy little slut,” Chiara raged at her while Rico

pushed

 

himself back into a sitting position. Rico rapped out

something in Italian, but Gianna’s senses were still

so fogged

 

up she didn’t catch anything but his comment that he

hadnt

 

expected Chiara back in New York so soon.

Whatever else he

 

said, it caused Chiara to reel back like a drunken

sailor and

 

then glare at Gianna with undisguised malice.

Chiara

 

stormed over to the bed, her high heels clicking on

the floor,

 

her eyes promising murder and mayhem.

 

“That is obvious. I won’t tolerate this sort of thing,

Rico! Do

 

you hear me?”

 

Gianna thought the entire medical staff probably

heard her,

 

but forbore saying so. Just before reaching the bed,

Chiara

 

swung to face Gianna.

 

“Do you think I don’t know what was happening? I

am not so

 

stupid I believe Rico made a play for a plain little

thing like

 

you. It is obvious you were throwing yourself at him

in some

 

desperate attempt to get him to notice you as a

woman, but

 

you will never be enough woman for a man like

Rico… even

 

paralyzed.”

 

Each word found their target in Gianna’s vulnerable

head.

 

She knew she wasn’t Rico’s type. Never had been.

And she

 

felt guilty because she knew Chiara was right.

Gianna had

 

thrown herself at Rico, kissing him, going all gooey-

eyed on

 

him when all he’d been doing was sharing his good

news. Of

 

course, none of that explained why he’d kissed her

back.But

 

then with a man of Rico’s machismo, maybe the

reaction

 

was automatic. She opened her mouth to apologize,

when

 

Chiara spun away and addressed Rico. “You either

send that

 

wretched girl away, or I’m leaving and I won’t come

backT

 

Everything inside Gianna froze. Given a choice like

that she

 

knew what decision Rico would make. Hadn’t he

made it

 

time and again over the past year when Chiara had

made

 

sure he had nothing to do with Gianna, even to the

point of

 

dragging Rico from Gianna’s father’s funeral with

indecent

 

haste? “Well, Rico?” Chiara demanded, her full,

glossy lips

 

set in a pout, her eyes filled with crocodile tears that

made

 

Gianna grind her teeth. “I think you know my

answer,” Rico

 

replied. They were the last words to register as

Gianna spun

 

and walked as fast as her wobbly legs could carry

her from

 

the room, real tears burning a path down her

cheeks. She

 

thought she heard Rico call her name, but she

dismissed the

 

idea as fancy. He’d made his choice. He would send

her

 

away, but as of yesterday, she officially had

nowhere to go.

 

Which did not lacerate her heart with near the

effectiveness

 

as the fact Chiara had successfully evicted Gianna

from

 

Rico’s life.

 

Gianna plopped down onto her bed in the hotel

suite,

 

grateful Andre was at a banker’s meeting in Rome

on Rico’s

 

behalf. She could do her packing and grieving in

private.

 

She felt like she had when her father died: alone,

lost and in

 

pain. And humiliated. Though, humiliation was

something

 

she hadn’t felt at her dad’s death. The memory of

her

 

shameful reaction to being on top of Rico mortified

her. How

 

could she have been so brazen? Rico probably

thought she

 

was some kind of nymphomaniac virgin. She

groaned and

 

buried her face in the bedspread covered pillow.

Hiding her

 

face did not hide her tormenting thoughts. She’d

made an

 

absolute fool of herself and she felt sick to her soul

acknowledging it. The phone rang, but she ignored it

to

 

wallow in her misery. It was probablyjust

housekeeping or

 

something. Or maybe one of Rico’s doctors. Darn it.

She

 

forced herself to sit up and reached for the phone

just as it

 

stopped ringing. She couldn’t work up any real

chagrin she’d

 

missed the call. She didn’t want to talk to anyone

right now.

 

But thinking the caller might have been one of Rico’s

doctors

 

introduced another line of thinking to add to her

misery.

 

With her gone, who was going to make sure Rico

focused on

 

his rehabilitation? The therapist, big blond giant that

he was,

 

was afraid of Rico. Even Andre hesitated to cross

his brother

 

in Rico’s current mood. Andre had been the one to

arrange

 

for the high-speed phone line to be installed in

Rico’s room

 

at the hospital. No one would be around to make

sure Rico

 

didn’t channel too much of his energy into business

instead

 

of getting better. Tears burned the back of her eyes.

She’d

 

been such a fool and because of it, Rico would

suffer. She

 

wasn’t so arrogant she thought he really needed

her… but

 

he needed someone to help him stay on track and

Chiara

 

certainly wasn’t going to do it. The beautiful model

was too

 

self-centered to care. Gianna curled into a fetal

position and

 

concentrated on not letting the tears fall. She didn’t

know

 

how long she wallowed in her gloomy despair, but

she

 

eventually got up and started packing. The sound of

the door

 

opening in the outer room alerted her to Andre’s

return. She

 

hadn’t expected him back from the banking

conference until

 

tomorrow. She’d have to face him sometime and tell

him

 

about her stupidity and Chiara’s ultimatum. It might

as well

 

be now. She trudged into the living room of the suite

only to

 

stop and rub her eyes, sure they were playing tricks

on her.

 

“Why did you not answer the phone?” Rico raked at

her, his

 

face set in furious lines. “I didn’t know it was you,”

she said

 

rather stupidly. He was here. In the suite. Other than

the

 

streamlined wheelchair, he looked every ounce the

powerful

 

Italian businessman. His dark hair gleamed smoothly

against

 

his head and his Armani suit was immaculate.

More intimidating than that was the incandescent

fury

 

gleaming in his silver eyes. “You ran away.”

 

“I thought you wanted me to go.” His fiancee

certainly had.

 

“Where’s Chiara?” His mouth set in a grim line.

“Gone.”

 

“Because of me?” she asked, stricken to the heart at

the

 

thought her shameless behavior was to blame for

Rico losing

 

the woman he loved.

 

“Because I do not allow others to dictate my

friendships.”

 

Gianna bit her lower lip until she tasted blood. “I’m

sorry I

 

jumped on you like that.”

 

“You were excited about my news. So was I.”

 

“But I…” She swallowed and screwed up her

courage to say

 

it. “I kissed you.” “That is not the way I remember it,

tesoro

 

mio.”

 

“I acted like a…a hussy. l attacked you,” she said

miserably.

 

“You behaved like a warm and vibrant woman when

confronted with the unexpected physical proximity of

a man

 

you are attracted to.”

 

He rolled the wheelchair forward. “You are attracted

to me,

 

no?”

 

Her hands curled into fists at her side in an effort not

to

 

reach out and touch him. “Yes.”

 

She ducked her head, breaking eye contact with

him. She

 

did not want to see the disgust he was bound to be

feeling at

 

her admission to being attracted to a man engaged

to marry

 

another woman.

 

Warm, masculine fingers touched her chin, lifting her

head.

 

“This is nothing for you to be ashamed of, cara.”

“But, Chiara…”

 

“ls gone.” The words sounded very final.

 

“You mean she’s not coming back? Didn’t you tell

her it

 

meant nothing? She knew I was to blame already.”

“She does not wish to tie herself to a cripple.”

Gianna felt the words like a blow and she dropped to

her

 

knees by Rico’s feet. She grabbed his hands and

held them

 

to her breast.

 

“You are not a cripple. It’s just temporary. Doesn’t

she

 

realize that? Did you tell her you felt your toes this

morning?”

 

Rico’s expression blanked. “What I told her is of no

concern

 

to you. She is no longer in the picture. Accept it as l

have?

 

“I…” She felt so guilty, but what could she say? He

turned his

 

head and looked through the open door to her

bedroom. The

 

suitcase on the side of the bed told its own story.

“You were going to leave, no?”

 

Strangely enough, he sounded angrier by her

supposed

 

defection than Chiara’s. “I thought that was what you

wanted,” she repeated.

 

“It is not. Did I not say I wanted you to stay?”

 

“Yes, but—”

 

“There is no but. You stay with me.”

 

Mother, he sounded arrogant.

 

..|_..

 

“You will not return to the university to teach. You

promised

 

me this.”

 

“I couldn’t go back if I wanted to,” she admitted

wryly, “they

 

fired me.”

 

She suddenly realized where she had his hands.

She might

 

as well be mauling him again. Dropping them with

the speed

 

of a lightning bolt, shejumped to her feet.

 

His fingers curled possessively around her wrist

before she

 

could move away. He tugged until she found herself

on top

 

of Rico for the second time that day, but this time in

his lap.

 

She ended up sitting sideways to him, her legs

dangling over

 

one hard muscled thigh.

 

“You were fired?” he asked, his silver gaze probing

hers.

 

“Yes. So, I’m footloose and fancy-free.” She tried to

smile

 

about her lack of a job or any prospects in that

direction.

 

Getting an assistant professorship right out of

university had

 

been a fluke she couldn’t expect to repeat.

 

“I can stay with you as long as you need.”

 

“What of Pamela?”

 

The mention of her stepmother’s name did nothing

to soothe

 

Gianna’s agitated feelings. Pamela had made it very

clear

 

after the death of Gianna’s father that she did not

consider

 

their tie familial or binding.

 

“She sold the house and pretty much everything in it

and

 

moved away two months after Dad’s death. She’s

cruising

 

the French Riviera with one of my father’s former

students.”

 

Rico’s eyes darkened. “She sold your home? She

disposed of

 

your family possessions?” He sounded incensed.

He would be, of course. An Italian as traditional as

Rico

 

would find it impossible to understand the willful

dismantling

 

of the family home and all it represented. The

DiRinaIdos

 

had been living in the same villa in Milan for over a

century.

 

“Where have you been living?”

 

She was finding it increasingly difficult to

concentrate while

 

sitting in such close proximity to him.

 

“What? Oh, in a furnished flat provided by the

university.”

 

“A furnished flat.” His mouth twisted with distaste.

“How long

 

have they given you to move?”

 

He caught on quick.

 

She grimaced. “I went up yesterday and packed

everything

 

into my car.”

 

“You are homeless?”

 

He made it sound like she was living under a bridge.

“I’m not. I’m staying here for now, but I’ll find a place

when

 

you’re back on your feet—” she meant that literally

“—and

 

no longer require my services as cheerleader.”

“This is not acceptable.”

 

She smiled. “Don’t let it worry you. I’m a big girl. I

can take

 

care of myself. I’ve been doing it since I was

eighteen and

 

went away to college. Pamela never wanted me to

move

 

home, even for the summers.”

 

“No wonder you spent vacations with Papa and

Mama.”

 

“Your parents are wonderful people, Rico.”

 

“Si.- Yes, but I think you are also very special.” His

praise

 

warmed her heart and made her smile again.

“Thank you. I think you’re pretty special yourself.”

“Special enough to marry?”

 

Her heart stopped beating and then resumed at

supersonic

 

speed.

 

“M-married?” she squeaked.

 

“Perhaps, like Chiara, you do not wish to link your

life with

 

that of a cripple.” Sheer rage filled her at his

repeated use of

 

the ugly word and she slammed her fist against his

chest

 

“Don’t you dare use that word to describe yourself!

Evenif

 

you remained paralyzed for the rest of your life and

we both

 

know you won’t, you would never be a cripple!”

 

“If you believe this, then marry me.”

 

“But you don’t want to marry me!”

 

“I want children. Mama is expecting a daughter-in-

law. I

 

think she will like you in that role, no?”

 

The thought of having Rico’s children left her weak,

but…

 

“This is ridiculous. You’re angry with Chiara, but you

don’t

 

want to spend the rest of your life with me as your

wife and

 

you know it.”

 

“I want to go back to Italy. I want you to come with

me.”

 

“Of course, I’ll come. You don’t have to marry me to

convince me to return with you.”

 

“And to have my children? Are you content to do that

outside of wedlock?”

 

She could feel her cheeks literally drench with color.

“I don’t

 

know what you are saying.”

 

“I’m saying I want bambini. Is this so difficult to

understand?”

 

No. It wasn’t. Rico would be an incredible father and

had

 

never made any secret of his desire to become one.

“But…”

 

“You will have to undergo an IVF procedure. I

cannot

 

perform…”

 

It was his turn to let his voice trail off and she knew it

shattered his pride to say the words.

 

“Of course not. That’s only to be expected, but it

won’t last,”

 

she tried to reassure him.

 

His expression told her she had fallen short of the

mark. The

 

forbidden flirted at the edges of her consciousness.

It was

 

irrational. It was insane, but forjust a moment she let

herself

 

picture what it would be like to be Rico’s wife. To

belong to

 

him and to bear his child. It was all too easy to

imagine

 

herself round with his baby…and very, very happy to

be in

 

that condition.

 

“Perhaps you are afraid of the procedure.”

 

“No.” She looked at him and sucked in air in

response to the

 

intense will beating at her. “Rico—”

 

He cut her off with a finger over her lips. “Consider

it.”

 

She nodded her head, mute. Even if she hadn’t

wanted to

 

marry Rico more than she wanted anything else out

of life,

 

she would not have refused him flat out. After

Chiara’s

 

rejection, such an action would be cruel.

 

“And while you are considering, think of this.”

 

His lips replaced his finger and her brain short-

circuited.

 

Zinging electric charges shot from one part of her

body to

 

another. Her nipples beaded almost painfully against

the silk

 

confines of her bra and an ache of emptiness pulsed

between her thighs.

 

This was no kiss of discovery. It was an all out

assault on her

 

senses and when Rico’s tongue demanded entry

into her

 

mouth, she gave it without a murmur. The pulse in

the heart

 

of her womanhood increased its beat, tapping out a

message

 

of need she had never before felt.

 

She moaned and pressed herself against him, her

fingers

 

curled tightly around the lapel of his jacket. His hand

tunneled under her sweater and caressed the

vulnerable

 

skin between her shoulder blades, making her

shudder. Then

 

she felt the clasp of her bra give and a masculine

hand

 

cupping the fullness of her breast.

 

Shocked delight froze her. She’d never allowed any

of her

 

dates to explore and had never had a hand on her

bracovered

 

breast, not to mention her naked flesh.

 

But this was Rico and she craved his touch. She

cried out,

 

the sound lost in his mouth as his fingers gently

pinched and

 

pulled her nipple into even more aching rigidity. The

throb

 

between her legs increased until she felt like

screaming. She

 

squirmed in his lap, unable to control the impulse to

move.

 

He pulled his mouth from hers and she chased it

with her

 

lips.

 

He couldn’t stop kissing her. Not now. He didn’t. He

simply

 

moved from her mouth to the sensitive spot behind

her left

 

ear. She shivered. She quaked. She moaned. All the

while his

 

hand kept tormenting her breast while his lips

wreaked

 

havoc with her nape.

 

“You taste so sweet, tesoro mio.”

 

Then he proved his words by tasting every inch of

skin his

 

lips could reach. The neck-high collar on her

turtleneck

 

sweater seemed to get in his way and he tugged at

the hem.

 

“Take this off.”

 

Her eyes opened and she stared at him, confused.

“What?”

 

But he didn’t answer. He was already sliding the soft

red knit

 

up her torso. Her skin tingled where he touched it

and she

 

was naked from the waist up before she came out of

the

 

passionate daze he’d sent her into enough to realize

what he

 

had done. She blinked down at the plush carpet and

the

 

small pile of red knit and silk thrown there by his

insistent

 

hands.

 

The silk thing was her bra. She was completely

uncovered—

 

open to Rico’s hot stare. And it was hot. His silver

eyes

 

looked like molten metal as they centered on her

now

 

blushing breasts. Her hands flew to cover the

vulnerable

 

curves. “You shouldn’t look at me like that.”

 

He did not shift his gaze, but gently curled his

fingers

 

around each of her wrists, brushing the undersides

of her

 

breasts in the process. She nearly came out of her

skin at

 

the contact and choked out some kind of inarticulate

plea.

 

“Let me look.”

 

“But…”

 

His head tilted up and he pinned her in place with

his look.

 

“You want me to see.”

 

That was just too arrogant for words. “I don’t.”

 

“You do, cara mia. lt excites you to have my eyes on

your

 

flesh, to let me see what you hide from others.”

She shook her head, denying it—but knowing he

spoke the

 

truth. He could have been touching her, she was so

impacted by his stare. He tugged at her wrists and

she

 

allowed him to pull her hands away. Then sat there

blushing

 

hotly while he looked his fill. She’d never sunbathed

topless,

 

so her skin was pale, contrasting starkly with the

reddened,

 

excited flesh peaking each breast. One long

masculine finger

 

reached out and touched the end of a hardened

peak.

 

“Bella… ” he said with a reverence that brought

moisture to

 

her eyes. “Bella mia,” he added, his tone possessive

as both

 

his hands cupped her, one reaching around her

ribcage from

 

behind so she felt completely surrounded by him.

She

 

quivered.

 

He molded her with his hands, gently squeezing,

caressing

 

her with an expertise of which she refused to

consider the

 

source. She watched in fascination as his head

lowered. He

 

closed his lips around her nipple. The sight of his

mouth

 

against her untouched flesh sent shards of

excitement

 

slicing through her.

 

Then everything went out of focus. The feeling was

so

 

electric, she could have powered a small town with

her

 

excitement. He nipped at her and then soothed the

small

 

stabs of pleasure filled pain with his tongue. Her

eyes slid

 

shut and her head fell back, her chest heaving with

sobs of

 

pleasure. She cried out, “Please, Rico, please!”

She didn’t know what she was asking for. But she

needed

 

something. Her body felt on fire. She could not

concentrate.

 

She was going to fly apart, explode like a bomb on a

very

 

short fuse. And Rico’s touch was that fuse—his

mouth the

 

match to light it. How could it be anything else? She

had

 

dreamed of this moment for almost a decade and

her

 

fantasies had never come close to the reality. In all

the

 

world, she had only ever loved this man.

 

Husky male laughter greeted her desperate pleas

while one

 

hand trailed up the inside of her calf. He tickled the

back of

 

her knee, making her squirm and then brushed the

inside of

 

her thigh. Her legs parted of their own volition and

his touch

 

continued its upward journey until he brushed the

apex of

 

her womanhood. She jolted with sensation and cried

out. He

 

brushed her through the silk of her panties again

and she

 

moaned, shamelessly pressing herself into his

exploring

 

fingers.

 

His thumb slid past the elastic band at her leg and

touched

 

her intimately, making her whimper with both

pleasure and

 

feminine fear. She had never done this, had never,

ever

 

even considered allowing another man to touch her

like Rico

 

was doing. In some ways she was more naive than

an

 

adolescent.

 

“What are you doing to me?” she whispered.

 

“Loving you…” The words sounded so good. She

could

 

pretend forjust this moment in time that he really did

love

 

her, that his touch was spurred by his need for her.

The

 

sweet thought increased her pleasure to the point of

mindlessness. For right now…Rico loved her as she

loved

 

him. If only in her mind. He pulled her to stand

beside him.

 

Was he done? The thought sent distressed need

coursing

 

through her. He unzipped her skirt and let the red

and black

 

plaid wool drop to the carpet. Then he pushed her

silk

 

panties that matched her bra down her thighs. They

dropped

 

to pool at her feet.

 

“Step out of them,” he commanded her. She obeyed

mindlessly, toeing off her short boots and socks at

the same

 

time, wanting nothing more than to return to the safe

haven

 

of his lap. She had her wish almost instantly as he

pulled her

 

back into his arms and began again with the

ministrations to

 

her over sensitized flesh.

 

He probed her warm depths with one finger while his

thumb

 

played a gentle sonata on her most sensitive spot.

The sobs

 

returned. The shaking increased. Her body caught

fire of the

 

volcanic kind. She felt on the verge of a precipice,

desperately wanting to jump off but terrified of what

would

 

happen when she did. “Let go, cara mia.” He moved

his

 

mouth to her lips, kissing her with passion she had

 

only ever

 

dreamed of feeling. “Give me the gift of your

pleasure.”

 

She went over the edge into starbursts and

eanhquakes.

 

The pleasure went on and on while she screamed

and cried,

 

begging him to stop, begging him to go on. He

touched her

 

until her body’s convulsions almost tipped her off his

lap. His

 

hold on her torso was too tight. His touch was too

much. She

 

tried to say it, but no coherent words would leave

her mouth

 

and she found herself shuddering in a series of

climaxes that

 

left her spent and barely conscious in his arms. He

tucked

 

her up against him and guided the wheelchair into

her

 

bedroom. He rolled up to her bed and pulled back

the covers

 

before lifting her gently onto the cool white sheets.

He tucked the blankets around her. “Sleep, tesoro.

We will

 

talk tomorrow.”

 

Gianna woke sometime before dawn, the feel of the

bedclothes against her naked flesh an unfamiliar

one. It only

 

took a few seconds for the events of the day before

to come

 

flooding back. Heat traveled up her body as she

remembered what she had allowed Rico to do to

her. He’d

 

touched her every intimate place. He’d made her

scream

 

with pleasure and beg with abandon.

 

And he hadn’t even taken off his suit coat. Why had

he done

 

it? Until yesterday, Rico had never so much as

noticed she

 

was a woman—except maybe of the sisterly variety.

Now, all

 

of the sudden, he’d made love to her with a

passionate

 

expertise that had left her nearly comatose. Okay,

so they

 

hadn’t technically had intercourse, but she wasn’t

sure she

 

could feel more intimately touched. He’d been inside

of her,

 

with his hand. Just remembering the way he had

dominated

 

her body with pleasure had her breath sawing in and

outand

 

her heart beating an arrhythmic pattern.

 

It had been a fantasy fulfillment so spectacular that

she

 

could live on the memories for the rest of her life. But

she

 

didn’t have to, an insidious voice reminded her. He’d

said he

 

wanted to marry her. If she agreed, he would not

withdraw

 

the offer, even if he wanted to. He had too much Old

World

 

honor to even consider it. He couldn’t really want to

marry

 

her though. Chiara had rejected him and he had

responded

 

with typical DiRinaldo action.

 

He’d asked another woman to marry him and made

love to

 

her so incredibly well, her response had to have

boosted his

 

male ego. Rico was a macho man and being ditched

bythe

 

beautiful but shallow Chiara would have left him

feeling the

 

need to prove that in some way. Well, he’d done it.

He’d

 

completely convinced Gianna that his machismo

rating was

 

off the Richter scale. Of course, she’d never been in

any

 

doubt. Just walking into a room with him in it

bombarded her

 

with enough testosterone to set her female

hormones

 

raging.

 

She hesitantly touched the places of her body that

still felt

 

achy from his attention. They felt no different than

 

normal…no more or less feminine than they ever

had

 

washing those bits in the bath. And yet she felt

different.

 

lnfinitely more womanly. Rico had given her that

gift—he

 

had made her feel like a complete woman.

 

The least she could do would be to give him the gift

of her

 

understanding in return. She would not use his

emotional

 

reaction yesterday to trap him into a marriage he

could not

 

possibly want in the cold light of a new day. She

ruthlessly

 

crushed the glowing dreams of being his wife and

carrying

 

his child. She would get up and shower and get to

the

 

hospital first thing so she could let Rico off the hook

before

 

he had too much time worrying about it.

 

CHAPTER FIVE

 

GIANNA dressed more carefully for her visit to Rico

than

 

usual. She dithered between wearing a doeskin skirt

and

 

shortjacket set and a long denim skirt with black

raw-silk

 

long sleeve T-shirt. The doeskin skirt was short,

hitting her

 

right above the knees and even with tights—she felt

exposed. She pulled it off and slid into the other

outfit before

 

brushing her hair into a large black oval clip at her

nape.She

 

didn’t know if her clothes would be sufficient armor

against

 

memories of Rico holding her naked body and

making her

 

sob with pleasure. She hated the idea of facing him

at all,

 

but she refused to be a coward. Yesterday would

have to be

 

dealt with and then they could move on. Of course,

theless

 

said about the embarrassing episode the better, in

her

 

opinion. This time when she knocked on his door at

the

 

private hospital, she did it loudly and waited for him

to call

 

for her to enter. She pushed open the door to his

room,

 

which resembled Andre’ s suite at the hotel more

than a

 

hospHaL

 

Rico was sitting at his desk, wearing the skimpy

shorts and

 

form-fitting T-shirt that were de rigueur for his

therapy

 

sessions. His concentration was on the computer,

not her, so

 

she took the time to compose herself in the face of

his sexy

 

attire. It didn’t do much good. She wanted

desperately to fall

 

on him and beg for more of what he’d given her

yesterday.

 

The urge left her feeling shaky and she moved to a

chair to

 

sit down.

 

“Good morning, Rico. | see you’re already at work.”

He

 

turned his chair to face her. “Buona mattina, bella

mia. Did

 

you sleep well?”

 

And that quickly she felt her composure slipping to

the

 

wayside.

 

“Yes,” she answered in a strangled tone.

 

“You were exhausted when I left you.” Her gaze flew

to his

 

and she read smug satisfaction in the silver depths.

“You made sure of it.”

 

His smile was all conquering male. “There can be no

doubtl

 

will satisfy your needs in marriage, tesoro.” Rico had

needed

 

to prove his manliness to himself and he’d done it.

One part

 

of her hurt that she’d been little more than another

form of

 

therapy for a man frustrated by his limitations.

Another part

 

of her— the part that loved him—rejoiced in the fact

she

 

could give him back a small part of his pride by

admitting

 

her reaction to his touch. Still, she had never

questioned her

 

level of satisfaction married to him.

 

“But you won’t be happy, Rico. You don’t want to

marry me.”

 

“You said this yesterday, but I proved differently,

no?” What

 

did she say to this? She had no desire to tromp on

his male

 

ego by telling him she thought he had needed to

prove

 

something to himself. On the other hand, how could

he

 

seriously contemplate marrying her when only

yesterday

 

morning he had still been engaged to Chiara?

“Chiara will

 

come back, Rico. She was angry, but she’ll realize

her

 

mistake and you don’t want to be tied to another

woman

 

when she does.”

 

His expression hardened. “It is over with Chiara. I

said this

 

already.” And he didn’t like repeating himself.

“But_”

 

“Do not argue. You want to marry me.”

 

She gasped at his arrogant claim. “Says who?”

 

III say.”

 

“It wasn’t so long ago you were using me to make

your

 

inattentive fiancee jealous.” Or had he forgotten that

bit?

 

His eyes registered genuine surprise. “This I did not

do.”

 

He’d never lied to her before and she couldn’t

tolerate him

 

doing so now, even for the sake of his pride. “You

did.”

 

“When did I do this?”

 

“You touched me that day and you knew she would

see. I’m

 

not even sure yesterday morning’s kiss wasn’t for

her

 

benefit,” she admitted, getting the worst of her fears

out in

 

the open.

 

“I have only ever touched you because it is what I

wanted to

 

do, mi tesoro. How can you believe otherwise? Am I

a

 

scoundrel that I would use you in such a way?” Put

like that,

 

she had to pause. His expression said she’d really

offended

 

him. His hand sliced through the air.

 

“I do not deny her initial jealousy at your

attentiveness did

 

not please me, but I have never courted such a

thing. I, Rico

 

DiRinaIdo, do not need to do such a thing.”

 

Great. Now she’d offended not only his sense of

integrity,

 

but his pride as well. It did not help her equilibrium

that the

 

gesture drew her attention to his sculpted muscles.

Weren’t

 

only weight lifters supposed to have that kind of

definMon?

 

“Do you lift weights?”

 

“What is this?” Her face burned when she realized

what

 

she’d said and she dragged her attention back up

his body to

 

the amused expression on his face.

 

“Never mind. It’s not important.”

 

“This is true. We have other things to discuss. Will

you be

 

disappointed not to have a big wedding?”

 

“It doesn’t matter.” She wouldn’t care if they got

married in

 

the register’s office if she believed Rico really

wanted to

 

marry her.

 

“Good. I want to marry before we return to Italy.”

“I haven’t said I’ll marry you.” She should not even

be

 

considering it. “Look, if this is about what you said

yesterday. You don’t need to worry. I knew you

weren’t

 

serious at the time. You were distraught.”

 

“l, Rico DiRinaIdo, do not get distraught. This is an

emotion

 

for old women and young girls.” What about young

women?

 

She was fast approaching that state.

 

“My point is, I’m not holding you to what you said

yesterday.”

 

“But I am holding you, cara.” The image of him doing

so

 

interrupted her normal thought pattern for several

seconds.

 

He smiled at her as if he knew what she was

thinking. He

 

probably did, the fiend.

 

“What are you holding me to?” she asked, quite

proud of

 

herself for remembering the thread of conversation.

“You let me make love to you. That implies a certain

commitment. I am holding you to that commitment.”

He was devious and too smart for his own good.

She didn’t

 

even attempt to say they hadn’t made love, because

for all

 

intents and purposes they had.

 

“Women make love with men all the time without

marrying

 

them,” she said instead.

 

“Not you.”

 

She glared at him, wanting to wipe that look of

overconfidence right off his face. “Maybe I do.”

 

He laughed and she wanted to scream. “You have

akeady

 

admitted your untouched state to me. You cannot

prevaricate now.”

 

“Just because I haven’t had sex does not mean I’ve

never let

 

a man touch me,” she pointed out.

 

How had she forgotten his unreasonable fury when

she’d

 

taunted him similarly before?

 

One second, his chair was several feet across the

room and

 

the next he was in front of her, his hands clamped

around

 

her shoulders. The hold was not painful, but it was

unyielding all the same.

 

“Tell me the truth,” he bit out, each word a sharp

bullet.

 

“Why are you so angry?” she asked, feeling helpless

inthe

 

face of such an irrational reaction.

 

“You ask this after yesterday?”

 

Funny, but somehow she had seen the day before

as

 

happening to her only. Sure Rico had made it

happen,but

 

she hadn’t thought of it affecting him in any way.

 

Apparently, giving a woman her first orgasm, or

several of

 

them, made a guy feel possessive.

 

“I’ve never let another man touch me like you did,”

she

 

admitted grudgingly. She wasn’t about to deal with

another

 

eruption like the other day when first she, then

Andre had

 

goaded Rico. His hold changed to a caress on her

upper

 

arms.

 

“I believed this. Do not tease me again.”

 

“You’re so bossy.”

 

“It comes with being the oldest.”

 

“You’d be that way if you were the youngest of six

children,”

 

she postulated.

 

He shrugged, clearly dismissing the subject. “The

doctors

 

say there is no problem with returning home within

the

 

week.”

 

“What about your therapy?”

 

“I have arranged for an eminent therapist to treat me

in our

 

home in Milan.” There he went, assuming her

agreement

 

again.

 

“Rico, do you still love Chiara?” she asked baldly.

Everything else could be dealt with, but she wasn’t

about to

 

marry a man in love with another woman. His upper

body

 

tensed and he moved away from her.

 

“My feelings for Chiara are of no concern to you.”

“How can you say that?” She shook her head. “You

want me

 

to marry you thinking you love another woman.

That’s cruel,

 

Rico.”

 

“Because you love me, no?” Love him? She wanted

to brain

 

him.

 

“Don’t put words in my mouth. We’re talking about

your

 

feelings here.”

 

“No. We are not. Anything I felt for Chiara is in the

past, as

 

she is.” That sounded somewhat reassuring. If it

were the

 

truth.

 

“Why do you want to marry me?” Perhaps if she

made him

 

face his reasons, he would realize how unrealistic he

was

 

being.

 

“I told you yesterday. I am of an age to marry.

Mama, she is

 

expecting a daughter—in-law and I want bambini. You

and l,

 

we get along, cara. We always have. You will make

an

 

admirable wife and mother.”

 

That was quite a speech for a man like Rico.

 

“You want to marry me because you think I’ll make a

good

 

mother?” He shook his head.

 

“I also believe you will be a good wife. You know my

schedule. You know my limitations. You will not

expect more

 

than I can give.”

 

Wouldn’t she? Perhaps not, but that didn’t mean she

wouldn’t want it. One phrase stuck in her mind

though,she

 

knew his limitations. He was still hung up on the

temporary

 

paralysis. She realized there never had been any

real choice.

 

He was vulnerable right now and for a man like Rico

that was

 

an anathema. She could not compound that

vulnerability by

 

rejecting him. But she couldn’t fool herself into

believing her

 

decision was entirely altruistic.

 

If she married Rico, she would once again have a

family.

 

She’d been lonely since her mother’s death, but

never more

 

so than after her father remarried and Pamela had

efficiently

 

cut Gianna out of the family circle in everything but

name.

 

The DiRinaIdo’s had been kind, but they had not

belonged to

 

her. She had not belonged to them, but if she

married Rico

 

that would change. She would once again have a

real home,

 

a place in the world she could call her own. And

when the

 

babies came, she would have so much more. She

could once

 

again share the type of bond she’d shared with her

mother.

 

Only this time she would be the doting mamma.

“l’ll marry you.”

 

Andre came back to New York later that night.

Gianna was

 

curled up in an armchair watching television in the

suite’s

 

living room when Andre came in. She knew he’d

been to visit

 

Rico and warily waited to see how he would respond

to the

 

news she was marrying his brother. Andre peeled

out of his

 

trench coat and hung it over the back of the sofa

before

 

sitting down across from her. He measured her with

a look.

 

“So, you’re going to marry my brother. That’s pretty

fast

 

work considering he was engaged to Chiara not so

long ago.”

 

Gianna felt heat crawl up her neck. “I didn’t set out to

trap

 

him.”

 

Andre gave her a lazy smile and shrugged. “But you

succeeded piccola mia. This is a good thing.”

 

Was it? She’d been plagued with doubts since

leaving Rico’s

 

room shortly after dinner. She bit her lip, abusing the

tender

 

tissue until the pain made her realize what she was

doing

 

and she stopped.

 

“He doesn’t want to marry me.”

 

“He assured me he did.”

 

“He only thinks that. He’s feeling down because he

isn’t

 

walking yet and Chiara broke off their engagement.

As soon

 

as he calms down, he’ll regret this craziness.”

Andre’s smile disappeared. “It is not crazy.” He

leaned

 

forward, his brown gaze set intently on her. “Rico

needs you

 

right now and he recognizes that fact. Hell, I think he

has

 

always needed you. He just didn’t realize it until he

thought

 

he’d lost you for good.” So Rico had told Andre

about the

 

confrontation with Chiara. “My brother’s answer to

his need

 

is marriage. Considering how you feel about him, it’s

the

 

ideal solution.”

 

Men could be so dense. “He won’t even tell me if he

still

 

loves Chiara.”

 

“He is not that stupid.”

 

“I thought I was pretty smart myself until I agreed to

marry

 

Rico.” She’d been questioning her intelligence and

sanfly

 

ever since. What sane woman agreed to marry a

man who

 

did not love her, who made no pretense of loving

her? Even

 

if that marriage fulfilled the deepest desires of her

head.

 

Andre shook his head. “But this is a good decision. It

is what

 

he wants. It is what you want. What could be

better?”

 

Rico wanting her for the right reasons. She didn’t

bother

 

saying so. Andre wouldn’t get it. In some ways, he

and his

 

arrogant brother were too much alike.

 

“Come. You will have Mama and Papa as your new

parents. I

 

as your brother.” He pointed at himself with an

expansive

 

wave of his hand. “This can only be good.”

 

She was too agitated to respond to his attempt at

humor and

 

all too true comment. “You really think I’m doing the

right

 

thing?” Andre reached out and took her hand,

squeezing it

 

with his own larger one.

 

“Yes, not only the right thing, but a good thing,

piccola mia. I

 

will be very pleased to welcome you into our family.

And will

 

it not please you to become my sister?” She nodded,

smiling

 

slightly, her worries temporarily assuaged by Andre’s

wholesale support of her marriage to Rico. But what

would

 

his parents think? Would his mother believe Gianna

had

 

trapped Rico in a moment of weakness as Andre

had jokingly

 

suggested? The worries kept her awake most of that

night

 

and the next two before the wedding.

 

“Mama will be furious about this register office

business.”

 

Andre’s comment came as he, Rico and Gianna

were

 

ushered into the judge’s chamber for the short civil

ceremony three days after Rico proposed. Rico

turned his

 

head, “She will get over it.”

 

“More likely she’ll insist on a church blessing and all

the

 

expected conventions of a traditional wedding to

accompany

 

it,” Andre replied with some humor. Rico shrugged.

“This is

 

fine with me, but she will wait to arrange such a

thing until I

 

can walk to the altar.” Rico’s insistence on a speedy

civil

 

ceremony began to make sense. Gianna had

wondered if he

 

had seen their marriage in such a clinical light that

he did

 

not want to be bothered by the traditional ceremony.

Instead, Rico had not wanted to put himself on

display for

 

family and friends in his current condition.

 

Which only drove home the knowledge that his

decision to

 

marry her had been made under duress. Andre had

told her

 

not to worry about it, but how could she help it? Rico

didn’t

 

love her.

 

As she repeated the short vows, she could not make

herself

 

meet Rico’s gaze. She kept her eyes lowered, her

focus on

 

the small bouquet of white roses Rico had provided.

 

However, when he spoke his vows, he tipped her

chin up and

 

said them to her, promising fidelity and honor in a

voice that

 

left no doubt to his sincerity. She couldn’t help being

moved.

 

The judge gave Rico permission to kiss her and he

did,

 

pulling her forward, their heads almost level because

he was

 

sitting in the streamlined wheelchair again. The kiss

was soft

 

and sweet, leaving her wanting more and yet

comforted.

 

“Congratulazioni, fratello.” Andre hugged his brother

and

 

kissed Rico’s cheeks with typical Italian warmth.

Then he

 

turned to Gianna and lifted her off her feet in a bear

hug.

 

“Welcome to the family, little sister.” Gianna

laughed,

 

despite her misgivings and hugged him back

exuberantly.

 

“Grazie!” Andre returned her to her feet and she

turned to

 

smile at Rico only to be hit with the unread ability of

his

 

expression.

 

They arrived in Milan in the wee hours of the

morning and

 

Gianna sleepily went through customs and then slid

into the

 

waiting limo with a tired feeling of relief. She’d slept

so little

 

over the past days, it was all she could do to keep

hereyes

 

open. Rico and Andre sat on the seat opposite and

she knew

 

there was something wrong with that picture. She

was

 

married, but she didn’t feel married. It was all so

unreal. Rico

 

had pretty much been treating her like a piece of

furniture

 

since the wedding. She hadn’t expected his

undivided

 

attention on the DiRinaldo jet. There’d been several

other

 

people present after all. Andre was flying back with

them

 

along with the usual complement of security staff

and Rico’s

 

personal assistant who had been in New York for

the past

 

week working with Rico. Yet, even with the others on

board,

 

she hadn’t expected him to forget she was even

there. He’d

 

spent almost the entire eight-hour flight working. The

only

 

time Rico had acknowledged her presence had been

at

 

dinner, when the flight attendant, a gorgeous, tall

brunette

 

had made a completely unnecessary fuss over Rico.

lf

 

Gianna had fussed like that, Rico would have torn

strips off

 

her, but he smiled indulgently at the flight attendant.

Images

 

of a dinner plate dumped in her new husband’s lap

had done

 

little to assuage the feeling ofjealousy that had

plagued her.

 

Which was why Rico was sitting across from her.

She’d waited to get into the limo until he had done

so and

 

then sat on the opposite seat. Andre had taken a

place

 

beside Rico after only the slightest hesitation.

Focusing her

 

attention out the window, she ignored her new

husband’s

 

watchful regard and tried to pretend she was alone.

It hurt

 

less.

 

“Papa and Mama will return from their holiday next

week.”

 

Rico’s voice broke the silence. Gianna said nothing,

assuming he’d been speaking to Andre. It wasn’t like

he’d

 

bothered to speak to her for the last eight hours.

“Gianna.”

 

She didn’t turn her gaze from the dark window.

“What?”

 

“You will be happy to see Mama, no?”

 

“Of course.” But was that true? She was still afraid

that

 

Rico’s parents were going to think she had somehow

manipulated Rico while he was vulnerable and

wrung a

 

marriage proposal out of him.

 

“You do not sound enthusiastic.”

 

“I’m tired.”

 

“I do not like speaking to the side of your head,

cara.”

 

She shifted until their gazes met. It was difficult to

read his

 

expression in the limo’s dim interior lights. “I got the

 

impression you weren’t particularly fond of speaking

to me

 

penodf

 

“What is this? When have I ever said such a thing?”

“Actions speak louder than words.” The trite saying

tripped

 

off her tongue with more venom than she’d meant it

to.

 

He sucked in a breath. “What is your problem?”

Gianna slid her gaze from Rico to Andre to see what

he was

 

making of their exchange. The younger man had an

inexplicable look of satisfaction on his face. He liked

watching his brother argue with his new wife?

 

“I asked you a question, cara.”

 

“And I chose not to answer it.” With that, she

dismissed him

 

and the irritatingly amused Andre.

 

In an obvious bid to smooth troubled waters, Andre

asked

 

Rico a question and soon the men were making

plans for

 

their parents’ return. Gianna tuned them out. She

was

 

struggling with a horrendous fear. That she’d made

the

 

biggest mistake of her life. It was obvious Rico was

 

regretting his decision to marry her, but why he

couldn’t

 

have woken up to reality before the ceremony,

eluded her.

 

When they arrived at the DiRinaldo villa, Gianna

waited

 

outside the limo for Rico’s wheelchair to be

unloaded. Rico

 

noticed her waiting and waved her off.

 

“Go inside. There’s no reason for you to hover.”

 

Her eyes widened with hurt and she turned on her

heel,

 

doing just as he suggested. When she got inside the

house,

 

she went directly to the room she always used when

she

 

stayed at the villa. There was no way she was going

to risk

 

getting kicked out of the master bedroom.

 

She found a nightgown she’d left behind the summer

before

 

and took it into the bathroom. She wrapped her hair

turban

 

style in a towel and took a quick shower, washing

the feel of

 

extended travel from her skin.

 

Later, she was sitting in front of the vanity mirror,

brushing

 

out her hair from the French roll she’d styled it into

for her

 

wedding when Rico came in.

 

“What the hell are you doing here?” he demanded.

“Brushing my hair.”

 

She flipped her hair over the opposite shoulder and

started

 

on the other side. There was absolute silence from

where

 

Rico remained near the door. When she had

removed every

 

tangle from her hair, she parted it into three sections

and

 

started braiding it for sleep.

 

“Don’t.”

 

The harsh demand startled her and her fingers

stilled in their

 

task. She heard the wheelchair moving across the

floor, but

 

she couldn’t make herself face him.

 

“Per l’amore di cielo, it is beautiful.”

 

His fingers threaded through the tresses, undoing

the

 

beginnings of the braid.

 

“l have wanted to see it like this, but it is more than I

could

 

imagine.”

 

She peeked a look at him through the curtain of her

hair and

 

her breath caught at the look of intense

concentration on his

 

face.

 

“You like my hair?” It seemed like such an

inconsequenflal

 

thing. She wore it long because her mother had liked

it that

 

way and letting it grow had been a way to feel close

to her. It

 

would never have occurred to her that Rico might

find her

 

very ordinary locks so fascinating, but he did. His

attention

 

was riveted.

 

“Come here.” He went to pull her into his lap, but

selfpreservation

 

had her shooting to her feet and moving away.

 

“I’m tired. lwant to go to bed.”

 

Rico’s eyes glittered silver messages at her she did

not want

 

to read. “I too wish to go to bed.”

 

“Then you’d better get to it, hadn’t you?”

 

He drew himself into a stiff and imposing stance.

Eveninthe

 

wheelchair, he was easily as tall as her and a

hundred times

 

more intimidating. “You plan that I should return to

my bed,

 

while you sleep here?”

 

She shrugged, trying for an insouciance she did not

feel.

 

“What difference does it make?” She’d meant that

since he

 

did not love her or particularly want her, he shouldn’t

care

 

where she slept. His head reared back as if she’d

slapped

 

him.

 

“Indeed, what difference, cara? I cannot perform the

usual

 

wedding night ritual and undoubtedly the thought of

shanng

 

my bed is not a welcome one.”

 

“That’s not what |—”

 

“It does not matter,” he said, cutting across her

words. “It is

 

just as well to me if you do not expect me to perform

my

 

husbandly duties. They hold little appeal when I

cannot

 

participate fully and are unnecessary to the

conception of

 

our child.”

 

The words were like icy rain stinging her with their

frozen

 

cruelty. She stood there in mute pain while he spun

his chair

 

and left her room. She walked to the bed, feeling like

an old

 

woman, all the energy necessary to braid her hair

drained by

 

Rico’s cold rejection.

 

He saw the most beautiful experience of her life as a

duty…an unnecessary one at that. And unappealing.

How he

 

must have despised her wanton eagerness to

expenence

 

pleasure at his hands while incapable of giving any

back.

 

Even if Rico had not been paralyzed, she would not

have

 

known how to return his caresses. Chiara had been

right.

 

Gianna was not enough woman for a man like Rico,

regardless of his condition. Why had he wanted to

marry her,

 

then? The answer came in another blinding wave of

pain.

 

Because he didn’t love her or want her. She could

give him

 

babies, but she would not be a constant reminder of

what he

 

could not have. She didn’t know what would happen

when

 

Rico regained feeling in the lower half of his body.

Regret for

 

their marriage would play a major role in his feelings,

she

 

was sure of it.

 

CHAPTER SIX

 

Rico sat on the balcony above the swimming pool

and

 

watched Andre and Gianna cavort in the water. It

was a

 

scene like so many he had witnessed in the past.

Gianna and

 

Andre had always played together, being of almost

the same

 

age. But now she was his wife and Rico was seeing

his

 

brother as a rival male rather than her childhood

playmate.

 

The feelings ofjealousy surging through him were

unwelcome. He had not expected them to be part of

marriage, but then he had not expected to sleep

alone in the

 

marital bed either. Even so, he didn’t want to feel

jealous of

 

his own brother and the woman he had married. He

simply

 

had not anticipated experiencing such an emotion

toward

 

Gianna. He’d never been particularlyjealous of

Chiara.

 

Possessive, yes, but jealous, no.

 

It made no sense. It was not as if he was in love with

 

his

 

wife. He cared for her. Of course he did. She had

been a part

 

of the fabric of his life since her birth. Their mothers

had

 

been best friends as children and behaved as sisters

as

 

adults. Gianna’s mother, Eliana, had married an

American

 

professor and returned to the States with him, while

his

 

mother had moved to Milan after marrying his father.

But the

 

two women’s families had shared holidays and visits

until

 

Gianna’s mother died. Gianna had continued to

come to stay

 

with his family, more frequently after her father

remarried.

 

She did not play emotional games like Chiara.

 

Chiara had used sex to manipulate and even before

the

 

accident, Rico had been growing increasingly

intolerant of

 

her tactics for getting what she wanted. He had

beHeved

 

marriage to Gianna would have all the benefits of

the

 

wedded state without making him vulnerable again

to a

 

woman. Gianna was too innocent and too good to

manipulate him as his former fiancee had done.

Even so, he’d been wrong. He’d felt damn vulnerable

when she rejected him sexually the night before.

He’d been

 

sure that in this area he could at least give her the

semblance of a normal marriage. She’d gone to

pieces in his

 

arms when he touched her in the hotel suite, letting

him

 

make love to her with a sweet trust he’d found

addictive.

 

He’d suspected she had tender feelings for him

before that.

 

She had made it to his bedside after the accident

before his

 

brother. And according to a scornful Chiara and

equally

 

admiring Andre, Gianna had not left Rico’s side until

he came

 

out of coma. Awareness of her devotion had buoyed

him

 

when so much had seemed hopeless. After making

love to

 

her, he had been sure she had stronger feelings

than

 

friendship toward him. No woman responded with

such

 

speed and abandon without feeling something

powerful for

 

the man making love to her. So, why the hell had

she

 

rejected him last night?

 

They hadn’t spent much time together on the plane.

He’d

 

had to work. At least making money was something

he could

 

do unhindered without the use of his legs. At dinner,

she

 

hadn’t seemed to care when the flight attendant

flirted with

 

him, and for some reason that had irritated him.

 

So, even though he’d found the other woman’s

cloying

 

attentions annoying; he had suffered them in some

 

ridiculous attempt to get a rise out of Gianna. lt

hadnt

 

worked and he’d ended up feeling angry and stupid.

Hadnt

 

he told Gianna that he did not play those kind of

games? He

 

had enjoyed feeling like an idiot even less than his

present

 

jealousy.

 

So, he’d been short with her in the limousine and felt

guilty

 

for being that way. But she’d got her own back. She

had

 

ignored him. He still had not expected to find her

occupying

 

a guest room instead of his bedroom when he made

it up the

 

stairs. He’d gone to her room breathing fire to be

pole axed

 

by the sight of that gorgeous hair streaming down

herbody.

 

It had rippled like living silk and he had wanted to

touch it

 

with a hunger he had not been willing to analyze.

He’d done so. And it had only made him want more.

More of

 

her soft skin. More of her. But when he’d gone to pull

her to

 

him, she had backed away. She’d lost no time

making it

 

clear she had no interest in sharing his bed.

 

The rejection still stung and watching his brother

play with

 

her in a way he could not, was doing nothing to

improve

 

Rico’s temper.

 

Gianna approached the room set aside for Rico’s

physical

 

therapy with some trepidation. She’d avoided him

the entire

 

morning, shared stilted conversation with him and

Andre

 

over lunch and had only ventured down here in

order to

 

meet the new physical therapist. It was silly, but she

needed

 

to assure herself that Rico was truly in good hands.

Besides,

 

she’d been participating in Rico’s therapy since the

beginning. She stepped into the room that looked so

much

 

like the one used for the same purpose at the

hospflaland

 

stopped to marvel at how quickly the transformation

had

 

taken place. The warm wood decor had been

replaced with

 

exercise mats, a set of parallel bars, a treatment

table and

 

assorted weight lifting equipment.

 

The big windows still allowed the sun to stream in

through

 

the clear glass, which was a great improvement over

the

 

hospital’s fluorescent lighting. Rico lay on the

treatment

 

table. A man with steel-gray hair and a very fit body

encased

 

in white cotton trousers and T-shirt put Rico’s legs

through

 

the usual stretching exercises. Rico’s own clothes

resembled

 

those he’d worn for sessions in New York and had

the same

 

destabilizing effect on her nervous system. She had

to

 

concentrate on getting her breath to come more

naturally

 

before she greeted the two men.

 

“Good afternoon.”

 

Rico’s head swiveled toward her, an expression she

could

 

not decipher in his eyes. “Buon giorno.”

 

The therapist turned around. “Hello. You must be

Mrs.

 

DiRinaIdo. I am Timothy Stephens. Rico tells me you

are

 

newlyweds. Congratulations.”

 

“Thank you, Dr. Stephens. I didn’t realize you would

be

 

English,” she blurted out. “Canadian, actually, and

please

 

call me Tim. A colleague of mine in New York

recommended

 

me to your husband.”

 

She felt foolish for not distinguishing the accents.

Her only

 

excuse was the shock she’d experienced that the

therapist

 

wasn’t Italian. “I hope your temporary relocation

wasn’t a

 

problem for you.”

 

Tim laughed. It was a warm, rich sound, reminding

her of her

 

father’s laughter when her mother had been alive.

“My wife

 

would have killed me if I had turned down an

opportunity to

 

work in Milan, all expenses paid. She’s out shoe

shopping as

 

we speak.”

 

Gianna felt her mouth crease upward in response to

the

 

man’s friendly manner. “You’ll have to bring her to

the villa

 

for dinner after Rico’s parents return from their trip.

I’m sure

 

they’ll want to meet her.”

 

“Thank you. I will.” The whole time they’d been

talking, Tim

 

had not hesitated in his ministrations on Rico’s legs.

He now

 

laid the one he had been exercising on the table and

began

 

an examination, testing for feeling. Not only did Rico

confirm

 

feeling in his toes and feet, but he actually moved

his right

 

foot in the beginnings of a rotating movement.

Gianna

 

rushed to his side and grabbed his arm.

 

“You didn’t tell me you’d regained some movement.”

“It is hardly more than a twitch, cara. Nothing to get

so

 

excited about.” She stared at him, unable to believe

his cool

 

demeanor.

 

“You’ve got to be kidding! I was ecstatic when you

felt your

 

toes…that twitch you’re so nonchalant about is

cause for

 

major celebration.”

 

“Is it really, tesoro?” And suddenly memories of what

had

 

happened when she had celebrated his first

milestone filled

 

her mind. She’d leapt on him and they’d kissed. Her

gaze

 

skittered to his lips. They were curled in a sardonic

smile,

 

but all she could think about was matching her

mouth to his.

 

“I think all celebrations of the sort you are

contemplating will

 

have to wait, no?”

 

His mocking tone brought her back to the present

with a

 

bump.

 

He didn’t want her. He found kissing her a duty, a

chore, not

 

his preferred method of celebration. She turned her

heated

 

face away from the men and pretended an interest

inthe

 

parallel bars at the other end of the room. She was

embarrassed by his comment as well as hurt

remembering

 

how little she fulfilled his needs as a woman.

 

“How soon do you think before Rico will be using

these?” she

 

asked Tim regarding the parallel bars.

 

“That’s difficult to gauge. Every patient has their own

timeline of healing, but your husband has a strong

will and

 

with a new wife, a pretty good incentive to recover

as

 

quickly as possible. We could see him using those in

as little

 

as seven days.” She spun around at such good

news, only to

 

be stopped short by Rico’s cold voice.

 

“I am a man, no? I do not need to be spoken of as a

child

 

who has no say in his future.” His masculine ego

was

 

definitely out of kilter.

 

Gianna wasn’t sure how to assuage Rico’s anger,

but Tim

 

just smiled. “It’s a bad habit family members and

doctors

 

can fall into. Talking about a patient as if he’s not

there.

 

Thanks for calling us on it. How do you feel about

targeting a

 

goal of seven days for preliminary work on the

bars?”

 

“It is doable,” Rico replied with a confidence that

pleased

 

Gianna. That confidence seemed well placed as he

steadily

 

regained feeling up his legs. Rico pushed himself

mercilessly, doing more therapy sessions than he

hadinthe

 

hospHaL

 

Gianna still attended the sessions with him, but he

seemed

 

to need her encouragement less and less. It was as

if

 

something inside him had clicked and even the

DiRinaldo

 

bank and Enterprises took backseat to his drive to

walk

 

again.

 

“Still, there is no feeling from the knees up,” he said

to Tim a

 

few days later. “How can I use the bars with only half

my

 

legs working?”

 

Tim smiled as he helped Rico move from the weight

lifting

 

machine back to his chair. “You’re doing great. You’ll

be on

 

the bars in no time.”

 

“It has been six days. Tomorrow is seven.”

 

“You’re almost there,” Tim said with an insouciance

Gianna

 

envied as he packed up his supplies.

 

She wished she could respond in such a relaxed

fashion to

 

Rico, but she couldn’t. Tim promised to be in early

the next

 

morning for a session.

 

“It is easy for him to dismiss this. He does not sit

useless in a

 

wheelchair.” Rico’s frustration didn’t surprise her, but

his

 

voicing it did. He’d been stoic about everything since

returning to Italy. And very distant. She handed him

asmaH

 

towel to wipe the sweat from his brow. He’d been

working on

 

his upper body tone and his muscles rippled with the

effects

 

of weight training.

 

“Only a fool would call you useless, Rico.”

 

“But what else can I be? My wife, she sleeps in a

separate

 

bed. My business, it must run itself while I retrain my

body to

 

function normally. Do not spout these happy

platitudes at

 

me.”

 

She felt herself blushing. They’d never discussed

their

 

wedding night. She assumed he was glad she

stayed in the

 

other room considering his attitude toward making

love to

 

her.

 

“If your business is running itself then why do you

spend so

 

much time on the computer and phone, not to

mention

 

attending board meetings at the bank?”

 

He’d gone to one yesterday, intent on proving to the

other

 

stockholders that all was well. According to Andre,

Rico had

 

been very convincing.

 

She wasn’t surprised.

 

“I notice you ignore the reality of separate beds.”

The blush intensified and she turned away, wanting

to hide

 

her vulnerability to him.

 

“We both know why I don’t sleep with you, Rico. It’s

not as if

 

our marriage is real.”

 

Strong fingers curled around her wrist and pulled

unfllshe

 

faced him.

 

“And why is our marriage not real?” The molten

metal of his

 

gaze burned into her. “You agreed to have my baby,

to be

 

my wife. I made vows to you. What is not real about

this?”

 

“Y-you weren’t thinking straight. Now that you’ve had

some

 

time to think about it, I’m sure you’ve come to your

senses?

 

She tried to smile as if the words she was saying

weren’t

 

tearing her into a million pieces.

 

“We can get an annulment. No one need ever know

about

 

our crazy wedding.”

 

He tugged her a step closer, his body exuding

dangerous

 

energy.

 

“Andre knows. I know. You vowed to be my wife.”

“But you didn’t really want to marry me. You know

you

 

didn’t. I knew you’d come to your senses and you

have?

 

“On what do you draw this conclusion?”

 

What could she say? You find kissing me a chore.

That would

 

sound like she cared, which she did, but she didn’t

want him

 

to know that. She had very little pride left where he

was

 

concerned, but she didn’t want what remained

lacerated.

 

When she didn’t answer immediately, his eyes

narrowed.

 

“Perhaps it is not that you believe I have changed

my mind,

 

but that you have changed yours.”

 

She shook her head. “No. | feel the same way I did

when I

 

agreed to marry you,” she answered honestly.

 

He held her gaze captive with his own, his eyes

drilling into

 

her with ruthless determination. What was he

looking for?

 

For her part, she was becoming increasingly aware

of his

 

physical person.

 

His scent tantalized her, made her think of things

she’d tried

 

desperately to forget since leaving New York. He

smelled

 

earthy, his sweat-covered skin irresistibly drawing

hergaze

 

and to look was to want. To want was to remem ber

and to

 

remember was madness. Yet, she could not turn off

the

 

images in her mind.

 

“You pity me?” he asked, shocking her.

 

“What?”

 

“You pitied me. You did not wish to marry me, but

you felt

 

too sorry for me to reject me. You hoped I would let

YOU 90,

 

but I have not done this.” She stared at him,

completely

 

aghast.

 

“Pity?” she squeaked. Who could pity Rico? He was

too vital,

 

too much a man. “You’ve got the wrong end of the

stick.”

 

He glared at her and she felt guilty even though she

knew

 

she wasn’t guilty of what he’d accused her of.

 

“Is it also this wrong end of the stick for me to

believe my

 

parents will share in your pity when they realize my

wife will

 

not share my bed?”

 

“I didn’t refuse to share your bed,” she practically

shouted.

 

“Then you will not be bothered to learn I have

instructed the

 

maid to move your things to my suite.”

 

He’d done what? “But, Rico—”

 

“If you married me out of pity, | ask you allow that

emotion

 

to prompt you to sleeping in my bed. It is not as if I

am a risk

 

to your virtue.”

 

“I don’t pity you!”

 

“But you also do not wish to be married to me.”

 

“I didn’t say that.”

 

“Then what is this talk of annulments?”

 

“I thought you wanted out.”

 

“I did not say this. I do not want this,” he said with

emphasis. “Marriage is for a lifetime.”

 

She groaned. “I knew you thought that.”

 

“I do not think it; I know it.”

 

“But, you don’t have to stay married to me.”

“Enough of this.” He threw her hand from him in

violent

 

repudiation. “You want out of our marriage. You say

so. Do

 

not hide behind a false concern for my wants. You

are my

 

wife because I chose you for my wife. You cannot

really

 

believe I want to end our marriage before it has even

begunf

 

The hot sulfur of his glare singed her tender

emotions. “You

 

do not want to be the mother of my bambini. Fine.

Non e un

 

problema. Go.” He waved his hand toward the door.

“Butgo

 

before my parents come tomorrow. I will have

enough

 

sympathy to deal with without explaining a wife who

is no

 

wife.”

 

Pain coursed through her so she could barely

breathe. For

 

the second time, she was being told to leave Rico’s

life. Only

 

this time by him. If she went, would he ever let her

backin?

 

Apparently, he truly did want to remain married.

Knowing

 

that, could she leave him? Did she want to leave

him? The

 

answer was simply no.

 

“I don’t want out of our marriage.” She whispered the

words

 

because she couldn’t speak more loudly past the

obstruction

 

in her throat.

 

“Then you sleep in my bed.” She nodded and turned

to go,

 

her heart aching from a choice that had been no

choice at

 

all. Share a bed with a man who saw touching her

as an

 

unpleasant duty or be evicted forever from the life of

the

 

man she loved.

 

Crunch time came that night when she walked into

Rico’s

 

suite to find him getting ready for bed.

 

The cool blue tones and Mediterranean-style wood

furniture

 

hardly registered on her consciousness. He was

sitting on

 

the edge of the huge bed, half dressed. He’d taken

off the

 

immaculate suit he’d worn at dinner. His tie was

gone and

 

his shirt hung open on his torso. Short black hair

cuded

 

across his chest and down to the navy—blue silk

boxers that

 

rode low on his hips. He was just so gorgeous, it

was

 

criminal. No one man should be allowed to have so

much sex

 

appeal

 

How was she going to sleep tonight with all that

male

 

perfection lying within inches of her body? Okay, on

the

 

oversize king bed, maybe it would be feet, but she

didn’t

 

think the width of the room would be enough.

 

What if he slept naked? She didn’t think she could

handle it.

 

She was already on sensory overload and he still

had his

 

shirt and boxers on. She gulped and met his eyes,

her

 

breathing already erratic. He was looking at her with

an

 

arrested expression. Maybe he’d never seen a

woman do an

 

imitation of a blushing, gasping fish before. Must be

entertaining from his perspective.

 

“I… Where’s my nightgown?” she asked, for lack of

anything

 

better to say.

 

“Do you need it?” he asked, with a positively wicked

gleam

 

in his eyes.

 

“Do I need it?” she repeated, her mind finding it

impossible

 

to wrap around the concept of going to bed naked.

“Many husbands and wives sleep together without

wearing

 

anything, no?” Was that humor in his voice? She

could hardly

 

credit it, not after his mood earlier.

 

“Are you going to sleep that way?”

 

“What way?” He was tormenting her and loving it.

She took

 

a deep breath and let it out.

 

“Without your shorts?” She was proud of the ability

to get

 

the words out when her mind had gone on an erotic

vacaflon.

 

“I do not like confinement in my sleep.”

 

“Oh… I think I prefer wearing a nightgown.” He

shrugged as

 

if it did not matter one way or the other to him. Which

she

 

was sure it didn’t. He wasn’t the one practically

hyperventilating at the thought of sleeping together

inthe

 

same bed.

 

“Uh—where is it?”

 

“In there.” He indicated the walk-in closet on the

other side

 

of the room. She almost tripped over her feet in her

haste to

 

get to the relative privacy of the closet. She found

her

 

nightgowns hanging at one end of the wardrobe.

She chose a white one with an embroidered yoke

and no

 

sleeves. It was unseasonably warm for late

September in

 

Milan.

 

She took her time in the bathroom, hoping Rico

would

 

already be under the covers when she returned to

the

 

bedroom.

 

She got her wish, for all the good it did her. He sat,

propped

 

up against pillows, his upper body naked and the

bedclothes

 

hitting him low enough to be indecent. She stopped

and

 

stared at the sight he presented for several seconds.

“Are you coming to bed, cara?”

 

She swallowed and nodded, speech beyond her. It

took all

 

her strength of will to cross that room and climb into

the

 

opposite side of the bed from him. What would she

doifshe

 

snuggled up to him in the night? What if she had one

of the

 

sensual dreams that had plagued her since the night

in New

 

York? The dreams in which he played center stage.

And what

 

if her body acted out the fantasy with him so close?

She’d

 

woken up wrapped around a pillow on more than

one

 

occasion, her lower body throbbing. She lay beneath

the

 

covers, stiff with nerves.

 

“You look like a thirteenth-century bride waiting to be

ravished by her despot husband.” Her head whipped

sideways to see gleaming silver eyes and a

sardonically

 

twisted mouth on his handsome face. ‘

 

“I’m not used to sleeping with anyone.”

 

“We established that in New York.”

 

She nodded.

 

“I thought we also established you liked my touch,

no?”

 

She thought about denying it. Her pride begged her

to, but

 

innate honesty wouldn’t let her. “Yes.”

 

“Yet you have refused to share my bed since our

wedding

 

night.”

 

“You said it was a duty. You didn’t like it.” Tears

pricked her

 

eyes with pained remembrance. His look sliced into

her.

 

“A man may say many things after his woman

rejects him,

 

no?”

 

“I didn’t reject you.” How could he believe that? She

wanted

 

him. Desperately. It had to be obvious.

 

“You did.”

 

Remembering how she’d pulled away, she bit her lip.

“Maybe

 

a little, but I didn’t mean it the way you took it.”

“And how should I have taken it?”

 

“Not as a big rejection,” she answered rather lamely

and

 

then added, “I was jealous and angry,” with more

honesty.

 

“Of what were you jealous?”

 

“You seemed to ignore me on the flight and then

you let the

 

flight attendant fawn over you, but when we got

here, you

 

took me to task forjust waiting outside the limousine

for

 

you.”

 

He sighed, his expression pained. “I thought you did

not

 

notice. I thought you did not care. So, I tolerated her

annoying behavior to try to make you care. I felt

really

 

stupid aftenNard and that made me lash out at you.”

Was he telling her the truth? He hadn’t tried to make

Chiara

 

jealous, but he’d admitted to wanting to make

Gianna

 

jealous. That was a major admission for a man like

Rico.

 

“It wasn’t meant as a big rejection,” she repeated,

with more

 

conviction this time.

 

“For a man, any sexual rejection is big, cara mia. Did

you

 

not know this?”

 

“No.” She sighed. It was hard to believe he had not

realized

 

how very much she wanted him, but as impossible

as it

 

seemed to her, she had hurt him. “I’m sorry.”

 

“Are you really, tesoro?” Her heartjust melted every

time he

 

called her that. It was so much more intimate than

cara. An

 

endearment reserved for her alone…or that is how

she felt.

 

She’d never heard him use it with Chiara, or anyone

else.

 

“Yes,” she replied, a little breathless. Who wouldn’t

be, two

 

tiny feet from a man as sexy as Rico?

 

“Show me.”

 

CHAPTER SEVEN

 

GIANNA didn’t move, unable to believe what Rico

had just

 

said. Show him? How?

 

He reached across the width dividing them and

tugged on

 

her wrist.

 

“Venuto a me.” His huskily growled command to

come to

 

him sparked an instant ache deep in her core while

his grip

 

on her wrist kindled an uncontrollable desire for

more of his

 

touch. She stared at him, feeling like a small animal

mesmerized by a predator ready to pounce. Did he

mean

 

what she thought he meant?

 

“W-why?” she managed to stutter out in a whisper

past a

 

throat as dry as the sand in the Sahara. The tug on

her wrist

 

increased.

 

“Come here and you will find out.” How could seven

little

 

words short-circuit her brain and send her pulses

noflng?

 

She loved him. She wanted him. She’d been pining

for his

 

touch since New York. She felt more alive right now

with just

 

his fingers circling her wrist than she had any time in

the

 

week since their wedding. That knowledge along

with a trick

 

of the light that made him look vulnerable

undermined any

 

resistance she might have considered putting up. At

least

 

that is what she told herself as she docilely allowed

him to

 

pull her to his side. Once there, she lay in total

sHence,

 

wondering what came next.

 

“Sit up.” Captivated by the intense sensuality that

seemed

 

to come off him like an electric force field, she did as

he said

 

without a murmur. She knelt beside him, her knees

centimeters from his powerful thigh. She could now

see he’d

 

left on the silk boxers. ln deference to her feelings?

“Unbraid your hair, tesoro.” She didn’t know why, but

she felt

 

com pelled to obey the enthrallingly sexy voice of her

husband. She carefully undid her braid, finger-

combing the

 

long chestnut strands into a curtain down her back

and over

 

one shoulder.

 

He watched her with deep concentration that made

her

 

hands tremble. When she was done, he reached out

and ran

 

his fingers through the hair covering her shoulder

and

 

breast. “So soft.”

 

She shivered as the pads of his fingers brushed over

her

 

nipple in their path to the end of her hair. He smiled

and

 

repeated the entire process, beginning his long

caress in the

 

hair at her nape and following it down again, but this

time

 

when he reached her breast, he stopped. He cupped

herand

 

rubbed her nipple into more pronounced arousal.

The

 

sensation of hair brushing against the thin fabric of

her

 

nightgown over her very sensitive flesh sent her

nerve

 

endings into orbit.

 

“Take off your nightgown,” he commanded

gutturally.

 

Her breath caught somewhere between her

breastbone and

 

expelling. She didn’t think she could do it. She

wasn’t one of

 

his experienced lovers, used to undressing for a

man. Gianna

 

had never been nude with any man but Rico. She

shook her

 

head.

 

“Do you want me to stop touching you?”

 

How could he ask such a stupid question? He’d

barely begun

 

and she felt as if her entire body had gone on red

alert.

 

“No.”

 

“Then take off your gown.” The sensual threat in his

voice

 

enervated her, but he merely dropped his hand to

his side

 

and watched her. Waiting.

 

“You’re being bossy again,” she whispered.

 

He shrugged. That’s all. Just a shrug. No words. No

other

 

movement. He was leaving it completely up to her.

She

 

could either remove her gown or…or what? Turn

over and go

 

to sleep? She almost laughed at the ludicrousness

of that

 

thought. Her sane mind demanded she give it

credence, but

 

her body throbbed for what it knew Rico could

give…pleasure beyond comprehension. Did it really

matter if

 

he saw this as some kind of duty when he did it so

well?

 

When he touched her, she felt loved. She knew she

wasn’t,

 

but she would face that truth aftenNard— for now the

heated

 

potential of fulfilled passion lured her like a siren’s

song.

 

If she ended up crashed and broken on the rocks of

unrequited love, at least the journey there would

have been

 

more satisfying than the endless ocean of loneliness

she’d

 

known for so long.

 

Her decision made, she began pulling her gown up

herbody

 

and over her head. Warm, sure hands cupped the

undersides

 

of her breasts when the fabric was still blocking her

head.

 

The sensation was so incredible, her entire body

stopped

 

movement in arrested delight. Which left her literally

inthe

 

dark.

 

Rico abraded her nipples with his thumbs. Drawing

concentric circles around them until she thought she

would

 

go mad with desire. She groaned and arched into

his touch,

 

her entire being focused on those two small peaks

andthe

 

pleasure they were receiving.

 

He gave a growling laugh and one hand abandoned

her

 

breast. She made a sound of protest and then felt

her

 

nightgown being pulled the rest of the way off.

Suddenly she

 

could see him as well as feel him. And what a sight it

was.

 

His eyes were lambent with desire, his chest rippled

as he

 

moved to pull her into the circle of his arms. She

landed

 

against the short curling hair of his chest and

shuddered in

 

reaction to the feel of her body against his without

the

 

barrier of clothing, except those barely there silk

boxers, for

 

the first time.

 

“Si, yes, it feels right, no?”

 

She kissed the hollow between his neck and

shoulder,

 

lingering to taste the salty goodness of his skin and

inhale

 

the spicy scent that was distinctly Rico.

 

“Yes.” The arm around her waist tightened and she

squeaked, finding it difficult to breathe. He loosened

his hold

 

immediately, but she was so proud of the reaction

she’d

 

caused she repeated the kiss, this time licking his

skin

 

delicately along his collarbone. He molded her

breast,

 

pinching her nipple and sending arcs of sensation to

her

 

most feminine place. Then his other hand moved

unfllhe

 

was cupping her backside, his fingers flirting with the

vulnerable softness at the apex of her thighs. She

squirmed

 

against his touch, seeking remembered pleasure

with blind

 

passion. He nipped her onto her back and loomed

above her,

 

his body angled and resting on one elbow.

 

“I want to make love to you.”

 

“Yes.” The word was barely out of her mouth when

his lips

 

were over hers.

 

She gasped in a mixture of shock and bliss.

 

He immediately deepened the kiss, taking command

of her

 

mouth in a way that left her breathless and aching

for more.

 

While he kissed her with a fervor she found

completely

 

overwhelming, his free hand brushed up and down

herbody

 

in repeated erotic caresses that left her shivering

and

 

craving a more intimate touch. He broke the kiss and

her

 

starving lungs sucked in air.

 

“You are so responsive, piccola mia.”

 

She’d never felt less like a child, but she wasn’t sure

her all

 

out abandoned response was a good thing. Maybe

he liked a

 

more composed partner. Judging by Chiara, Gianna

knew he

 

was used to a more sophisticated one.

 

“I can’t help it,” she admitted, not without a little

embarrassment. His look was pure, primitive male.

“I don’t want you to.”

 

“Oh.” She bit her lip, wondering why he’d stopped

kissing

 

her, why his hand was motionless against her waist.

Then he

 

did something she found very odd. He carefully

arranged her

 

hair over the pillow, taking so much time she was

throbbing

 

for more of his touch when he was finished.

 

“Why did you do that?”

 

“l have dreamed of seeing you like this.”

 

Could that be true? “You dreamed of me?”

 

She couldn’t accept that a man who saw touching

heras

 

some kind of chore would dream about it. He didn’t

answer.

 

Instead, he picked up a lock of her hair and using it

like a

 

paint brush, began to “paint” her body, paying

particular

 

attention to her breasts and nipples. He was so

focused in

 

his efforts, she felt unsettled by his attention. He

didn’t seem

 

to notice that her body was a little too curvy by

today’s

 

fashion standards. If the look on his face was any

indication,

 

it didn’t bother him a bit that she was easily six

inches

 

shorter than Chiara and both a bra and dress size

bigger.

 

The length of her hair allowed him to tease her

bellybutton

 

and he did so, in such an erotic way she was soon

moving

 

shamelessly in a mindless search for relief from the

torment

 

pulsing between her legs. She wanted to touch him

and

 

reached out to do so, but he stopped her.

 

“No.”

 

“Why?”

 

“This is for you, tesoro.”

 

“I want it to be for you too,” she replied.

 

He ignored her words, kissing her into total

submission.

 

Speaking in Italian, he told her how sexy she was,

how

 

beautiful he found her body and its assorted bits.

Some of

 

his words were so frank, they embarrassed her, but

she

 

found them all arousing. Why wouldn’t he touch her

where

 

she needed to be touched?

 

She realized she’d made the demand out loud when

he

 

laughed.

 

“In time, tesoro. Making love to a virgin should not

be

 

rushed, no?”

 

“This virgin wouldn’t mind,” she assured him.

 

But he just laughed again and continued with the

maddening

 

caresses. She cried out in relief when his mouth

closed over

 

one nipple. But her relief soon turned to wanton

need that

 

remained unfulfilled. He suckled her until she was

crying

 

with desire. She begged him to stop. He moved to

the other

 

breast. By the time he was done with that one, she

was a

 

shaking, gasping bundle of over sensitized flesh. His

hand

 

moved to the soft curls between her legs and teased

her

 

with light touches.

 

“You belong to me.”

 

“Yes.” How could he doubt it? His finger dipped

between her

 

legs, finding the evidence of her excitement. She

widened

 

her legs, no longer caring if her actions betrayed her

overpowering need for him. He caressed her like he

had the

 

last time, gently circling her bud of feminine pleasure

and

 

then rubbing it in alternative movements until she

came with

 

an ecstatic scream that reverberated in her

eardrums long

 

after it was over.

 

His hand stilled, but he did not take it away. She lay,

inert,

 

wondering if he would do as he had in New York and

touch

 

her into senselessness. He kissed her. Softly.

Possessively.

 

His hand moved and she felt flesh inside her body

for the

 

first time as he probed her opening with the tip of his

fingeh

 

The sensation was incredible.

 

“That feels good,” she blurted out.

 

He smiled, elemental male claiming his woman.

 

“It will feel better,” he promised and his finger dipped

In

 

further.

 

Incredibly, her body responded with renewed ardor

and she

 

could feel the build of yet another explosion in her

innermost

 

places. He probed further and suddenly she felt

pain. She

 

tried to back away from it, but he wouldn’t let her

move.

 

“Trust me.” She met his silver gaze and stopped

trying to

 

get away. She nodded as tears stung her eyes from

the

 

discomfort.

 

His thumb teased her sweet spot while he pushed

inexorably

 

forward into her until the burning became almost

unbearable. His mouth closed over her left nipple as

he

 

pushed through the barrier and pressed into her

body in an

 

intimate way she would not have believed possible

in their

 

current circumstance. Then pain turned to

unutterable

 

pleasure as he made love to her with the moves of a

man

 

who knew exactly what he was doing.

 

Pleasure built and built and built until her entire body

was

 

shaking on the edge of going over. He gently bit her

nipple

 

and everything inside her convulsed in the most

incredible

 

wave of ecstasy she could ever have imagined.

Fireworks

 

were too tame to describe it. A supernova too distant

to

 

express the intimacy of it. Love was the only word

that could

 

possibly describe her body’s reaction to her

husband’s

 

lovemaking. She shuddered every time he moved

his hand,

 

experiencing aftershocks course through her time

and again

 

until she fell into a dozing stupor.

 

She felt him move beside her and then the

depression of the

 

bed as he lifted himself off and onto his chair. She

couldn’t

 

get her glued eyelids open enough to see what he

was

 

doing. Time went by. She didn’t know how long, but

at some

 

point he returned to their bed. She felt a warm

washcloth

 

between her legs. She twitched, made self-

conscious by his

 

actions, but he gentled her with a caress.

 

“Shh, tesoro. Let me do this. It is a husband’s

honorable

 

right.”

 

Still reeling from the other “honorable right” he had

exercised, she relaxed and let him complete his

ministrations, feeling cherished if a little

embarrassed.

 

Afterward he pulled her to his side, his solid,

muscular arm

 

closing around her with the warmth of a security

blanket.

 

“This, what I do with you. It is not a duty.”

Remembering his words of praise, his passion filled

kisses,

 

she believed him. They’d both lashed out and said

things

 

they hadn’t meant, but he liked touching her.

 

He’d made that very, very clear. She smiled,

sleepily,

 

content. She snuggled into him and mouthed words

of love

 

against his skin before settling against his body. On

the

 

verge of unconsciousness she heard him say,

“There can be

 

no annulment now.” She wanted to ask him what he

meant,

 

but she was too tired.

 

Gianna swam to wakefulness with a sense of

disorientation.

 

Why was her bed so warm? She couldn’t move her

head.

 

Panic at the thought lessened only fractionally as

she

 

registered the fact her hair was trapped under

something

 

preventing her movement. A heavy weight was

settled

 

across her ribs as well. An arm. An arm whose hand

was

 

positioned possessively over one of her breasts.

Rico.

 

Oh, Mother.

 

Her eyes flew open to warm ltalian sunshine and the

supine

 

form of the man beside her. Neither of them was

wearing a

 

stitch of clothes. The sheet covered the lower half of

his

 

body, but both their upper bodies were cast in stark

relief by

 

the bright morning light. His dark hand over the pale

skin of

 

her breast sent a shiver of alarm through her. What

had she

 

done?

 

She’d let Rico make love to her. That’s what. A very

personal

 

ache between her legs attested to it. She hadn’t

known a

 

man could do what he had done to her with his

hand.

 

Thinking of how intimately he had touched her

brought a

 

rush of embarrassed heat up her skin and her gaze

was

 

drawn irresistibly back to his sleeping form. His face

was

 

relaxed in sleep, appearing younger, not so

intimidating; but

 

not even unconsciousness could dispel the arrogant

set of

 

his mouth. His dark hair was mussed and stubble

shadowed

 

his jaw.

 

Seeing him like this felt infinitely special, as private

as what

 

they had shared the night before. But they hadn’t

shared it,

 

her mind taunted her. He’d refused to let her touch

him.

 

Why? Unable to resist the urge, she reached up and

very

 

softly brushed back a lock of black hair falling

rakishly over

 

his forehead. After his insistence she keep her

handsto

 

herself the night before, she felt like a cat burglar,

sneaking

 

in to steal the family silver.

 

Emboldened when he did not wake up, she allowed

her

 

fingers to trail over his hair roughened chest as she

had

 

longed to do before. It felt strange. The hair was

both soft

 

and springy, different from her own body hair which

was

 

much finer and of course nowhere near as

prevalent.

 

She tentatively pressed her finger into his flesh and

reveled

 

in the hard strength of his muscles. He was just so

beautiful.

 

A secret smile tipped the corner of her lips. It would

mortally

 

offend Rico to be described as beautiful, she knew.

But to

 

her, he was everything masculine beauty could be.

Strong.

 

Virile. Hard. And big.

 

He was so much bigger than her. Lying beside him

 

emphasized the difference in their sizes. It made her

feel

 

safe.

 

He stirred and she snatched her hand back, her

head

 

palpitating at a terrifying rate at the thought of

getting

 

caught both ogling and touching him like a small

child with a

 

new toy. He didn’t move again and she let out a rush

of air

 

from tight lungs. Would he be bothered to waken to

her

 

touch? She wished she knew more about men and

what

 

made them tick. Rico was the only man she’d ever

been

 

interested in and he was as incomprehensible to her

as a

 

Chinese word puzzle.

 

But he’d shared a little of himself last night. He’d

admitted

 

to wanting to make herjealous. He’d also told her

that

 

touching her was not a duty. It was a fair start. And

he had

 

been emphatic that he wanted their marriage to

conflnue.

 

Comprehension of the meaning of his final words hit

her

 

with the force of a Tae Kwon Do ax kick. Rico had

“consummated” their marriage last night. She was

nolonger

 

a virgin and that ruled out an annulment. He’d done

it on

 

purpose. Of course he had, but she couldn’t be

angry about

 

that. Not when his actions were further proof ofjust

how

 

permanently he wanted them to stay together.

 

She smiled at the thought even as Rico’s arm

shifted, telling

 

her he was waking for real this time. He opened his

eyes and

 

silver light caught her gaze as inexorably as a high-

powered

 

magnet trapping a paper clip.

 

“Buona mattina.” His voice was husky from sleep.

She was

 

now very aware of his hand against her breast.

“Good morning,” she croaked with something less

than

 

sophisticated cool.

 

“Is it?” His eyes probed hers. He needed her

reassurance.

 

She didn’t mind giving it to him.

 

“Yes.” Feeling embarrassed by their new intimacy,

she tried

 

to move away, but his arms gave no quarter.

 

“We need to get up. You have a session in less than

an

 

houn”

 

Now that he was awake, she realized she wanted to

avoid a

 

postmortem on the night before. He might want to

stay

 

married to her, but he didn’t love her and that

colored the

 

night before gray around the edges.

 

“What is wrong, cara? Are you sore?” he asked, with

what

 

she considered an extreme lack of tact. She averted

her

 

gaze. How did other women deal with this first

morning

 

after?

 

“A little.” His hand tipped her chin until she was

forced to

 

look into his eyes.

 

“I regret I had to hurt you.” She could read the

sincerity in

 

his expression. She didn’t want him to feel guilty for

something so natural.

 

“No big deal.” She tried to sound as sophisticated as

she

 

wished she felt.

 

“It’s usually at least a little painful the first time, I’ve

always

 

heard.”

 

“Less painful maybe than if it had been a normal first

time,

 

no? You are very tight, little one.” This was going too

far.

 

“Rico! I don’t think we need to discuss the

particulars.”

 

His smile sent her thoughts exploding in different

directions,

 

none of them rational.

 

“It is nothing for which you should feel shy with me,

tesoro. I

 

am your husband.”

 

Remembering a similar statement he had made after

goading her into admitting her virginity, she said,

“Rico, your

 

idea of what should and should not embarrass me is

nowhere near my own.”

 

“You are very innocent.”

 

“Not anymore,” she was provoked into saying. He

looked so

 

smug.

 

“No, tesoro. Not any longer. Now, you belong to

me.”

 

“For better or worse.” A tinge of unexpected

bitterness laced

 

her voice. What was wrong with her? He frowned.

“You are not happy to be married to me? I do not

believe this

 

after last night.”

 

Could a guy get any more conceited?

 

“Face it, Rico. This marriage is not what either of us

envisioned for our future.”

 

And it was only as she said the words, she realized

how true

 

they were. Rico had planned to marry supermodel

beauty

 

and she, well she had planned to marry for love. He

brushed

 

her cheek in an oddly tender gesture.

 

“This is true, but life is rarely what we expect, no?”

“I guess you’re right.”

 

She let her hand rest against his chest, over his

hean.The

 

steady beat was reassuring.

 

“I always expected to marry because of love.”

 

His arm tightened around her and an expression she

could

 

not identify hardened his features. “You love me.”

 

She opened her mouth, to say what she didn’t know.

He

 

forestalled her.

 

“Do not deny the gift of your heart to me.”

 

He put his finger over her lips, sealing them shut. “I

will

 

treasure it always.” Rather than confirm or deny his

words,

 

she voiced her own worry.

 

“You don’t love me.” What had been a difficult

expression to

 

interpret became no expression at all.

 

“I care for you, tesoro. I will be faithful.” Again that

soft

 

brush of fingers along her temple and cheek. “We

will have a

 

good life.”

 

She didn’t answer. She couldn’t. Knowing something

and

 

hearing it were two very different animals she

discovered at

 

that moment.

 

She’d known Rico didn’t love her, but secretly she’d

nursed a

 

hope that his insistence on marriage and keeping

their

 

marriage had meant something more than it did.

Heanng

 

him say he only cared for her and they would have a

good

 

life was like taking a mortal blow and yet having her

opponent expect her to remain standing. Rico wasn’t

her

 

enemy, but at that moment he hurt her more than all

her

 

stepmother’s petty cruelties over the years had been

capable of doing.

 

Years of loneliness in her marriage, longing for a

love he did

 

not feel stretched out before Gianna. But, perhaps

the most

 

lowering thought of all was that those years looked

infinitely

 

more devastating without Rico in them. She took a

deep

 

breath and let it out, concentrating on not allowing

her

 

devastated emotions to show in her voice. “We still

need to

 

get up.”

 

He looked like he was going to pursue the

discussion

 

further. She could not stand it. “Please,” she

begged,not

 

caring if she sounded pathetic at that point. She

could not

 

bear one more minute of their current conversation.

He wasn’t feeling merciful because he shook his

head.”

 

cannot let you go looking as you do. You must trust

me that

 

our marriage will be all that a marriage should be.”

“Did you love Chiara?” she asked with masochistic

fervor.

 

“With Chiara, it was sex. I thought there was more at

the

 

time, but I find now my memories of our time

together

 

center on one activity.” She didn’t like the thought of

him

 

remembering sex with Chiara. Complete sex.

Something

 

they could not yet experience.

 

“And with me?” she asked.

 

“It is infinitely more.”

 

“But not love,” she said, wondering why she was

putting

 

herselfthrough this. His mouth hardened while his

mind

 

searched for words. When they came, they were not

what

 

she needed to hear.

 

“We have a history.”

 

“You and Chiara have a history, too.”

 

“Chiara is the past. You are the present.”

 

“The wife you don’t love, but refuse to let go.”

 

“And do you wish to go?” She swallowed, incapable

of

 

uttering a face-saving lie. He pulled her across his

chest

 

exciting her flesh even as she tried to come to terms

with

 

her emotions. He stopped when her face was

directly above

 

his, her lips only centimeters from his own.

 

“I know you do not.”

 

“You’re right.” Leaving him would be like severing a

limb

 

from her body without anesthetic. But living without

his love

 

would be as painful as constantly chafing an open

wound.

 

“I do not wish you to go either.” Looking into eyes

that

 

demanded she believe his words, she felt a small

spark of

 

hope ignite. He did not want to let her go. That had

to mean

 

something. Maybe he did not love her, but they had

a

 

lifetime together. Surely he would eventually figure

outshe

 

was the best woman in the world for him. After all,

Rico was

 

smart.

 

He gave up on words at that point and kissed her.

The kiss turned carnal in less than five seconds and

soon his

 

hands were roaming over the naked contours of her

back

 

and exposed bottom with possessive assurance.

She fell into the lovemaking without protest, needing

the

 

physical intimacy more than ever after the denial of

emotional ties.

 

They were late for Rico’s physical therapy, but Tim

only

 

laughed, ribbing them about being newly-weds. He

said he

 

could understand how a woman like her could make

Rico run

 

late in the mornings. She wondered if Tim would find

it

 

equally easy to understand the fact her husband still

would

 

not allow her to touch him? Or would he be as

perplexed as

 

she was? Because Rico had done it again.

 

He had seduced her into blind response and

successfully

 

deflected her every attempt to explore his body as

he

 

explored hers. She couldn’t help wondering why and

ifshe

 

didn’t believe Rico would see it as the grossest act

of

 

betrayal to their privacy, she would ask Tim if there

were a

 

physiological reason for Rico’s reticence.

 

Rico slammed back against the rowing

machine’s

 

resistance and then yanked himself forward with

a

 

jerk made powerful by his frustration. He wanted

to

 

walk, damn it. He wanted to make love to his wife.

Completely. With his whole body. He’d thought that

might be

 

a possibility the night before. His sex had become

semi erect

 

when he started touching her, but it hadn’t lasted

and he

 

hated the feeling of sexual helplessness that

experience had

 

left him with. That morning, she’d wanted to discuss

their

 

emotions. He didn’t know what he felt. He needed

her in his

 

life in a way he had not needed Chiara. His inability

to

 

experience sexual release underscored that truth.

He

 

wondered if his innocent wife realized that. She’d

been upset

 

when he hadn’t said he loved her, but didn’t she

realize that

 

what they had was more permanent and lasting than

some

 

kind of romantic ideal? He was committed to her. He

knew

 

she was committed to him. In time there would be

children.

 

He had begun to hope he would be able to father

them in the

 

normal way, but this morning’s repeat performance

of only a

 

semi erection and a temporary one at that, put paid

to those

 

thoughts. He wanted Gianna pregnant with his child.

He’d

 

thought consummating their marriage would help her

to

 

settle into her role as his wife, but he still sensed

 

restlessness in her. Once she was pregnant with his

child,

 

she would not consider leaving him again.

CHAPTER EIGHT

 

Rico’s parents arrived back from their anniversary

trip late

 

that afternoon to the news of both their son’s

accident and

 

his first time standing with the parallel bars. Renata

hugged

 

Rico, kissing his cheeks with typical ltalian

exuberance.

 

“Oh, my son, you are ever the achiever, yes?”

 

“It was hardly the accomplishment of the century,”

he

 

dismissed, glaring at Gianna for bringing it up.

 

She refused to let him make light of it. Besides

which his

 

mother’s tearful sympathy would have worn thin with

him

 

very shortly. Both his parents had been gratifyingly

admiring

 

of Rico’s choice to help the woman being mugged.

Then, not

 

unexpectedly, Renata had gotten emotional at the

sight of

 

her son in a wheelchair. Gianna had mentioned

Rico’s

 

achievement in an effort to focus Renata’s attention

on the

 

strides he was making, not the results of the

accident.

 

Gianna shifted in the chair she had taken upon

entering the

 

drawing room twenty minutes earlier and met his

look

 

without flinching.

 

“It is proof positive that you will be walking again

soon?

 

Renata smiled mistily toward Gianna, “Of course

Rico will

 

walk again.” Understanding Rico’s male pride, Tito

said

 

nothing about Gianna’s revelation.

 

“Look at how she stands up to him,” he commented

instead.

 

“No simpering little miss, our Gianna.”

 

Rico’s father’s brown eyes twinkled at her with

approving

 

humor.

 

“Ay, ay, ay. I still cannot believe my son had the

good sense

 

to marry our girl,” Renata responded, going back to

sit

 

beside her husband on the sofa facing Rico.

 

Tito, a commanding man, only a couple of inches

shoner

 

than Rico, hugged his wife of over thirty years. “He

has good

 

taste like his papa.”

 

Renata blushed, her still beautiful skin taking on a

rosy hue.

 

“Oh, you!”

 

She slapped Tito’s arm playfully. Andre’s low

masculine

 

laugh brought Gianna’s gaze around to him. He

grinned at

 

his father.

 

“I’d say Rico’s taste has certainly improved over six

months

 

ago.”

 

Tito nodded, his expressive face showing his

agreement. “Si.

 

That one. Her heart is as empty as my bank account

afier

 

your mama went shopping on Corfu.”

 

The others laughed, but Rico scowled. “You imply I

showed

 

no discernment in choosing my fiancee.”

 

Gianna stifled a groan. Rico’s pride wouldn’t allow

him to

 

take his family’s ribbing in stride.

 

Andre shrugged. “You showed better taste in

selecting a

 

wife, in my opinion.”

 

“We can thank the good God he came to his senses

in time,”

 

Tito said with tactlessness allowed only in a parent.

“Or maybe the driver of the car?” Renata asked, her

expression thoughtful. Gianna gasped and Rico’s

scowl had

 

grown worse, but Renata shook her head, a look of

genfle

 

wisdom in her loving eyes.

 

“Things happen for a reason. Rico will heal, but this

accident…it has stopped him from making a bad

mistake in

 

his marriage.”

 

Her expression turned to one of distaste. “He could

have

 

been stuck with such a wife! Ay, ay, ay. A conceited

little

 

miss who took her clothes off for a living!”

 

Gianna winced and she shot a glance at Rico, her

every

 

concern justified by his cold expression.

 

“Chiara is a model, not a stripper, Mama.” Rico’s

voice

 

dripped icy censure.

 

Gianna bit her lip. For a man who didn’t still love his

exfiancée,

 

Rico was reacting with singular offense to criticism

of her. She tried to tell herself it was just his pride

talking.

 

Rico’s standards for himself were very high, so high

in fact,

 

he found it almost impossible to admit when he was

wrong.

 

Even knowing this, his defense of the other woman

hurt.

 

Renata pursed her lips.

 

“In my day, decent Italian girls did not undress for

strangers,

 

or parade themselves on a stage in clothing that

covered

 

less than their underwear. Can you see Gianna

doing such a

 

thing?”

 

Rico looked at Gianna with enough consideration to

imply he

 

was trying to picture it. She deliberately looked away

from

 

those musing silver eyes.

 

She hated the thought he might be comparing her

physical

 

attributes with Chiara’s.

 

“l’m inches too short and a stone too heavy to even

 

compete for a modeling contract,” she said to

Renata.

 

“I don’t know. I think you would do things to

Hngefie

 

Chiara and those other skinny models could

never

 

manage,” Andre said with a truly wicked

intonation.

 

“I’ve already seen what you do for a bikini.”

He kissed his fingertips and opened his hand in

a

 

gesture of approval.

 

It was Renata’s turn to gasp. “Andre, it is not

appropriate to

 

make such a comment about your sister-in-law.”

Andre

 

moved shoulders encased in a well-cut gray Italian

suit in a

 

careless gesture.

 

“If I have offended her, I am sorry.” He turned

devilishly

 

laughing eyes on Gianna. “Have I offended you,

piccola

 

mia?”

 

She shook her head, unsure what to say. His

comment had

 

embarrassed her, but it hadn’t made her angry.

 

She could hardly mind when his expressed

sentiments were

 

so good for her feminine ego. Besides, she knew he

saw her

 

as more sister than woman and took his remarks in

that

 

light. They were the bland teasing of an older

brother.

 

“You have offended me,” Rico declared with freezing

cool.

 

“You cannot be serious,” Andre taunted. “Had you

married

 

Chiara, you would have had to accustom yourself to

such

 

comments being made in the newspapers, notjust

by your

 

brother.”

 

What was Andre trying to accomplish? She couldn’t

beHeve

 

he really wanted to bait Rico into losing his temper

and yet

 

that event was fast approaching.

 

“But I did not marry Chiara, did I?” Rico asked, his

voice

 

dangerously soft.

 

“No, and we are grateful,” Tito answered for his

youngerson,

 

doing nothing to lessen Rico’s smoldering anger.

 

Although the subject changed soon after that, the

next hour

 

spent bringing Rico’s parents up to date about what

had

 

happened while they had been on vacation was a

tense one

 

for Gianna. She couldn’t forget Rico’s defense of

Chiara, or

 

his angry reaction to criticism of her. When the

conversation

 

moved into business channels, the women excused

themselves so Renata could show Gianna the things

she’d

 

bought on her trip with Tito. Gianna ran loving

fingers over a

 

hand-embroidered duvet cover. “It’s so beautiful. It

must

 

have taken a year to finish.”

 

The pale lavender silk was covered with purple

irises, their

 

dark green stems and leaves intertwined like ivy.

Renata

 

smiled the smile of a woman who has made a killer

purchase.

 

“The woman who did it told me it took her several

months

 

to finish.” She pulled out a white lace mantilla she’d

bought

 

off the coast of Spain. “Now this would have been

beautiful

 

as a wedding veil.”

 

Gianna felt herself color under the heavy hint. “lt’s

lovely.”

 

“A register office. DiRinaIdos do not marry in such

cold

 

surroundings. No friends. No priest to bless the

union. No

 

gifts.”

 

Renata stood up and laid the mantilla over Gianna’s

hair and

 

settled it around her shoulders, then stood back to

admire

 

the effect.

 

“Si. This is how you should have looked on your

wedding

 

day.”

 

“Rico didn’t want to expose himself to the curious

stares of

 

wedding guests while he was still forced to use the

wheelchair to get around.”

 

“Then he should have waited, that son of mine. To

marry

 

without even his parents present…” She shook her

head,her

 

disapproval obvious.

 

Gianna said nothing.

 

“We will have to plan a proper blessing on the

marriage after

 

Rico has regained his mobility.”

 

Gianna made a sound that could be taken as

acquiescence

 

and soon Renata was deep in plans for a big Italian

wedding

 

which would include everything but the actual

ceremony. A

 

formal church blessing would replace it. She shooed

Gianna

 

out of the room, saying she had lists to make and

thinking to

 

do. Gianna did not point out that as the bride, she

should

 

have some say in the preparations.

 

If her own mother were still living, she would be

doing

 

exactly as Renata was, only she would have called

Renata

 

for advice. Gianna went to the library and tried to

lose

 

herself in a book, but thoughts of the afternoon kept

intruding. Although she was horribly relieved that

Rico’s

 

parents apparently approved of their marriage, she

worried

 

that their voiced dislike of Chiara would cause

problems with

 

Rico.

 

Her worry was justified later as she and Rico

dressed for

 

dinner. She had gone into the bathroom to change

and came

 

out wearing a demure sheath dress in chocolate-

brown silk

 

with a gold pendant formed in the shape of a rose

and

 

matching earrings she’d inherited from her mother.

She’d left her hair down, pulling only some of it back

into a

 

gold clip she fastened on the back of her head.

Rico’s eyes

 

flared when he saw her and then grew cold.

“Attempting to live up to my parents’ image of you as

the

 

Madonna bride, cara?” His voice was lethally

sarcastic and

 

the endearment sounded like an insult.

 

She looked down at her dress. It wasn’t so different

than the

 

outfits she’d worn to dinner over the past week at the

villa.

 

“I don’t know what you mean.”

 

His dark brows rose in mocking disbelief. “Don’t

you?”

 

Her fingers curled into her palms until she felt her

nails dig

 

into the soft flesh.

 

“No.”

 

“Chiara complained about how you and Andre made

her feel

 

unwelcome at the hospital and l dismissed it at the

time, but

 

after the visit with my parents and Andre earlier I

have to

 

wonder if she saw things more truthfully than I did.”

Gianna remembered the accusations. She’d been

relieved at

 

the time that Rico hadn’t taken the blatant lies

seriously. lt

 

irked her unbearably that they’d come back to haunt

her

 

now, when there were already enough issues in her

marriage

 

causing her pain. From the look on his face, Rico

wasn’t

 

going to believe her version of events, but she had

to try

 

anyway.

 

“Your brother may not be fond of her, but that does

not

 

mean he treated her with anything other than

courtesy while

 

she was your fiancee. He respects you too much to

do

 

otherwise.”

 

“You think so?” Rico had moved until they faced

each other

 

with less than a foot separating them. She

swallowed, made

 

nervous by his proximity and the brooding anger

emanating

 

from him.

 

“I know it. l was there, remember?”

 

“Si. You were there, but if you aided my brother in

dispossessing my fiancee of her place by my side,

you would

 

hardly advertise the fact, no?”

 

Fury filled her. How dare he question her integrity?

Chiara

 

was a royal pain in the neck and Gianna refused to

submit

 

tamely to an indictment on her character based on

the other

 

woman’s manipulative games.

 

“I didn’t dispossess anyone because she wasn’t

there to

 

begin with. When I arrived at the hospital, your

fiancee,” she

 

said the word sneeringly, “was nowhere to be found.

She’d taken a flit while you lay in that bed in a coma

despfle

 

the fact the doctors had told her having a loved one

by your

 

side could make all the difference in your recovering

consciousness.”

 

She yanked her hair from his hand, bringing stinging

tears to

 

her eyes as the action caused a painful pull on her

scalp.

 

“If you don’t believe me, ask Andre.”

 

“My brother has made it clear where his affection

lies.”

 

“Are you saying you think he would lie to you?”

 

“For you? Maybe.”

 

“That’s ridiculous.”

 

“Is it? My brother has made no secret of his

admiration for

 

you.”

 

She looked into his eyes and read anger and

something else.

 

“You’re jealous,” she said on a gasp.

 

Making a sweeping arc with his hand to indicate the

chaw,he

 

glared at her.

 

“Is that such a surprise?”

 

Funnily enough, it was.

 

“I didn’t marry Andre.”

 

She’d never wanted to marry Andre. Only Rico. Only

ever

 

Rico.

 

“And yet you found his compliments on your body in

a

 

swimsuit pleasing.”

 

“Did you think I should have been offended?”

 

She didn’t know why she bothered to ask. The

answer was

 

obvious.

 

“You should not desire the admiration of other men.”

“I don’t desire his admiration, but that doesn’t mean

that

 

when he says something nice I’m going to tell him to

stuff it,

 

either. He’s my brother now.”

 

“And I am your husband.”

 

How had this crazy conversation gotten started? Oh,

right.

 

“Do you really believe I kept Chiara away from you

in order

 

to keep you for myself?” His sensual lips twisted in a

grimace.

 

“No. I spoke in anger.”

 

Remembering another time he’d spoken in anger,

she

 

smiled.

 

“You were jealous.”

 

He sighed long and loudly, his expression of

disgruntlement

 

for once easy to read.

 

“Si.”

 

She grinned and did something she’d never done

before. She

 

plopped down on his lap and clasped her hands

behind his

 

neck, then kissed him on the chin before laying her

head

 

against his chest.

 

“Don’t be. You have no reason.”

 

His arms came around her in a hug that was almost

hurting.

 

Eventually his hold loosened, but kept his arms

around her

 

and rubbed the top of her head with his cheek.

“Cara.”

 

They sat that way for several minutes in complete

sHence

 

before going down to dinner.

 

Rico entered his bedroom after two late night

international

 

calls to find his wife sleeping, her hand curled under

her

 

cheek like a small child. He was still reeling from

how much

 

having her sit in his lap voluntarily had meant to him.

He had

 

felt like he had his entire world in his arms.

 

The feeling had not been wholly pleasant. lt implied

a lack of

 

emotional independence he’d never before

expenenced.

 

Definitely not with Chiara. He got himself into bed.

His

 

mobility had increased greatly over the past week,

but still

 

he could not walk. And things he had always taken

for

 

granted were impossible tasks to perform. Like right

now. He

 

wanted to pull Gianna across the bed and into his

arms. He

 

finally managed it, but only after a lot of

maneuvering. It was

 

worth it to feel her small body curled so trustingly

against

 

him.

 

She automatically snuggled into his side, as if they

had

 

been sleeping together for years, not a single night.

Perhaps

 

in her dreams like his, they had.

 

Remembering his irrational accusations earlier, he

grimaced.

 

Jealousy, he was discovering, could be hell. He’d

neverbeen

 

jealous of Chiara. No matter how skimpy the outfit

she

 

modeled in. Andre had gotten that right, butjust the

thought

 

of Gianna in a bikini within fifty feet of another man

made

 

Rico see red. He’d ask his mother to find her a

modest one

 

piece. Getting his independent wife to wear it would

be

 

something else entirely, he admitted to himself.

While in some ways Gianna was traditional Italian to

the

 

core, in others she was very American in her

 

thinking and

 

acflons.

 

Her small hand rested against his chest, while one

leg

 

insinuated itself over his thigh. He could feel the

sensation of

 

her weight, but had to touch her with his hand to

expenence

 

the softness of her skin. It was maddening. When

would he

 

be whole again? He let one hand rest possessively

over her

 

bottom, keeping her pressed against him in a way

that

 

should have caused a certain reaction in his male

anatomy,

 

but did not. Would it return with the complete return

of his

 

mobility? The metallic taste of fear accompanied the

possibility that it would not. No man wanted to be

half a

 

man. He would not let Gianna touch him in case she

discovered his lack of true virility.

 

Yet, he ached to allow those small hands to roam

over his

 

body in a way he had never wanted Chiara, or any

other

 

woman’s touch. One thing was certain. Half a man

or a

 

whole one, he would never let her go.

 

Gianna woke in the morning curled around a pillow

scented

 

with Rico’s masculine fragrance. She was warm and

had the

 

vague impression of being held through the night.

Had she

 

been, or was itjust wishful thinking on her part?

 

Rico was the only person at the breakfast table

when she

 

went down less than an hour later. She slid into a

chair

 

across the table from him.

 

“Where is everyone else?”

 

“Papa and Mama are still sleeping and Andre is at a

breakfast meeting on behalf of the bank.”

 

She smiled. “It’s nice to have your parents home.”

His expression of approval warmed her insides.

“They are

 

thrilled to have a new daughter.”

 

“Renata wasn’t happy about how our marriage took

place.”

 

Gianna smiled ruefully. “Your mother wants to have

our

 

marriage blessed. I think Andre was right about her

using it

 

as an excuse to have all the trappings of a wedding.”

Rico’s smile made her melt inside like milk chocolate

on a

 

hot sidewalk.

 

“She will enjoy it. Do you mind, cara?”

 

“No. When she was making plans yesterday, it made

me

 

think of what it would be like if my mother was still

alive. It

 

felt nice.”

 

“Then we will let her have her way.” She nodded and

started

 

eating the fruit she’d served herself from the bowl on

the

 

table. Rico checked his watch.

 

“Hurry with your breakfast. We have an appointment

in an

 

hour’s time.”

 

“An appointment?”

 

“Si. With the fertility specialist,” he elucidated.

 

“But why?” He was weeks, if not days from walking.

Why go

 

through IVF if they didn’t have to?

 

“So we can begin the process of making you

pregnant with

 

my baby.” He said it as if speaking to a slow-witted

child.

 

“But…”

 

“Were you hoping I would forget that side of our

bargain?”

 

Sometimes he could be very paranoid. “No. I want to

have

 

yourbabyf

 

“Then, finish your breakfast so we can be on our

way.”

 

“But, you’re almost walking,” she blurted out.

Something

 

flickered in his silver eyes, but then it was gone.

 

“There is no guaranteed timeline for that eventuality.

I want

 

to begin on a family right away.”

 

And a baby would be another bond between them,

something else to build emotional connections

around. “All

 

right.”

 

CHAPTER NINE

 

SHE was still trying to comprehend Rico’s desire to

try for

 

conception with IVF when they were shown into the

doctor’s

 

office. The only thing she could think was that he

didn’t

 

believe he would be capable of fathering her child

any other

 

way. She hated the thought of him tormented by

such fear,

 

but she knew too little about such matters to

assuage those

 

fears. Maybe she would talk to Tim. “You realize the

more

 

invasive procedure, intravenous fertilization, will not

be

 

necessary,” the doctor was saying, bringing

Gianna’s

 

attention back firmly to the matter at hand. “We will

be

 

performing TESE on you, Mr. DiRinaIdo,” the doctor

said,

 

talking about the process by which they would

collect Rico’s

 

sperm, “a fairly painless, outpatient procedure.” Rico

nodded, his expression bland. The doctor turned to

her. “You

 

will have to go through intra-uterine insemination,

Mrs.

 

DiRinaIdo.” Gianna found the ensuing conversation

with the

 

doctor embarrassing to say the least. He discussed

opflons

 

and asked questions about her fertility cycle that left

her

 

stuttering for answers. She’d never been one of

those

 

women who marked things like that on a calendar.

After her

 

third stammering answer, Rico sighed. “Would you

prefer I

 

left while you discuss such details with the doctor?”

She felt

 

her face heat with an even stronger blush. “Yes.”

Her eyes

 

pleaded with him to understand. His half smile told

her that

 

he had. He turned and left the room, closing the

door behind

 

him. The doctor laughed. “I’m surprised he offered to

go. Mr.

 

DiRinaldo strikes me as a man who likes to maintain

control

 

and his protectiveness toward you is apparent.” But

his

 

understanding for her feelings was greater than his

need for

 

control, she thought with a warm gratitude. In that,

their

 

relationship had grown, at least. He might believe

she should

 

not be embarrassed discussing anything with him,

but he

 

now apparently accepted that she was. “What were

you

 

saying about the lUl?” She wanted the consultation

overso

 

she could get back to Rico. “The procedure is one of

the

 

least complicated treatments for infertility and little

cause

 

for concern.”

 

She nodded, encouraging him to continue. The

doctor went

 

on to explain what she needed to do to prepare for

the

 

procedure and how to keep track of her temperature

and

 

other physiological indicators in order to determine

the

 

optimum time for the procedure. Finally, the doctor

smiled

 

benevolently. “Although it is a simple procedure, it

can be a

 

trifle painful. You understand this, si?” She nodded

her

 

affirmative, though she wasn’t quite sure why or how

it

 

would hurt. Discussing such private matters with two

men,

 

even her doctor and husband, held no appeal. The

doctor

 

made a notation in the file open on the desk in front

of him.

 

“You will experience anything from minor discomfort

to

 

lingering pain from the procedure. Though to be

honesLless

 

than three percent of women undergoing treatment

complain of anything more than the most minor of

discomfort.” That was comforting, but even with the

low

 

percentage… not something she was willing to share

with

 

Rico. He might not allow her to undergo the

procedure and

 

she wanted his baby. Very much. “I’m not worried

about it,”

 

Gianna asserted. “It often takes as many as six

attempts

 

before conception happens,” the doctor warned her.

She

 

hoped Rico would have regained full functionality by

then,

 

but she nodded in understanding and acceptance.

Rico was

 

called back in and the doctor loaded her down with a

lot of

 

paraphernalia that was supposed to let her know

when the

 

optimum time for the procedure would occur. She

eyedit

 

askance. “I’m supposed to take my temperature

every day?”

 

“Yes. And—” “Never mind. I’ll read the instructions,”

she

 

hastily inserted before he started explaining the

other

 

methods of measuring her productivity in front of

Rico. It had

 

been bad enough the first time around with only the

doctor

 

in the room. They left the private clinic after making

an

 

appointment for Rico’s TESE on the following

Tuesday. It was

 

the day after his appointment when Gianna followed

him into

 

the room where he had his physical therapy

sessions. Tim

 

had not yet arrived, but Rico settled himself into the

rowing

 

machine and started exercising with the same

intense

 

concentration he gave everything in his life. His thigh

muscles corded as he forced the machine through

its

 

rotation with his arms.

 

Gianna filled a water bottle and placed it on the mat

beside

 

him.

 

“Tim said you took several steps yesterday.” She

had gone

 

shopping with Renata and hadn’t found out about

Rico’s

 

progress until Tim and his wife came for dinner.

Gianna had

 

been seeing them out, the rest of the family still in

the sala,

 

when Tim had mentioned it.

 

He’d tactfully ignored her shock at the news. The

knowledge

 

Rico hadn’t shared his progress with her hurt and

confused

 

her. She thought they had been growing closer.

“Si. Can I expect a big announcement at dinner

tonight?”

 

She flinched at the sarcasm.

 

“Your parents and brother are interested in your

progress.”

 

He grimaced.

 

“You are right, cara. I should not snap at you. Tell

them what

 

you like.”

 

She couldn’t help wondering if he were in pain from

the

 

procedure the day before. She bit her lip as he

conflnued

 

pushing his body to the limits.

 

“Are you sure you should be going at it quite so hard

afier

 

yesterday?”

 

His jaw tensed and he pushed through three more

rotations

 

before answering.

 

“I do not need a nursemaid, Gianna.”

 

He hardly ever called her by her first name and she

couldn’t

 

help feeling it wasn’t an indication of intimacy at the

moment.

 

“I’m not trying to be one.”

 

“Then why are you here?”

 

Good question. She’d attended his sessions at first

to cajole

 

him into working on his rehabilitation rather than his

company. But since their arrival in Italy, he had

given more

 

than enough attention to walking again. She

continued to

 

come to his sessions to spend time with him

becausethe

 

rest of the day his business kept him occupied. She

saw him

 

at dinner, but rarely otherwise.

 

Half the time she was asleep before he came to bed.

Even

 

when she was not, he never wanted to talk. He

made love to

 

her, but steadfastly refused to allow her to touch

him. She

 

enjoyed sleeping in his arms, but an underlying

sense of

 

insecurity accompanied his rejection of her attempts

to give

 

back a small measure of the pleasure she enjoyed in

his

 

embrace. She still hadn’t worked up the courage to

discuss

 

their intimacy with Tim. She wondered if she ever

would.

 

Perhaps if she could convince herself it wouldn’t be

a

 

betrayal of Rico’s privacy.

 

“I thought you liked having me here,” she replied

quietly,

 

realizing even as she spoke, she’d clearly become

surplus to

 

requirements. “I’ll leave you to your exercise.”

 

She turned to go.

 

“Gianna.”

 

“Was there something you needed?” she asked

without

 

turning to face him.

 

Several seconds passed in silence. “I enjoy your

company.”

 

Spoken after an uncomfortable pause and in such a

stilted

 

voice, she wasn’t buying it. Rico was too polite to tell

her to

 

get lost, but it was obvious he wanted to. Had

probably been

 

wanting to for several days now. She squared her

shoulders

 

and forced a lightness into her voice she did not feel.

“I think I’ll find Renata and see if there’s anything

she wants

 

me to do.” At least his mother made her feel

welcome,

 

pulling Gianna into her social life and charity work at

every

 

opportunity.

 

“Cara.”

 

“What?”

 

Maybe she’d been wrong. Maybe he would ask her

to stay.

 

“Did you take your temperature this morning?”

 

The question was like a douse of ice water. The only

thing

 

Rico apparently wanted from her was her womb.

“No.”

 

“Why?”

 

“I started.”

 

He could figure out for himself what that meant.

 

“I’ll be going in for the procedure in less than three

weeks if

 

my body follows the normal cycle.”

 

She didn’t wait around to hear his reaction. She

knew what

 

he wanted. A baby. She was the necessary

appendagetothe

 

body of his dream. Nothing more. Sometimes, in the

night,

 

when he touched her with tenderness that brought

tears to

 

her eyes, she convinced herself she meant

something to

 

him.

 

But she didn’t and the sooner she accepted that, the

faster

 

she would stop butting her head against the wall of

his

 

indifference.

 

Rico watched Gianna leave and wanted to call

her

 

back again, but what could he say? He hated the

fact

 

he had to use a sterile medical procedure to

impregnate his wife with his child. It made him

feel like

 

less of a man. Added to that, having her witness his

struggles to return to mobility was becoming more

and more

 

difficult. She treated him like an invalid. She’d gone

from

 

cajoling him to work harder to reproaching him for

expending too much energy. The only time he felt

like her

 

husband was when he made love to her at night.

Then,fl

 

made no difference he had less control over his legs

than a

 

two-year-old. She responded to him with such

passion, he

 

soon became addicted to the sounds of pleasure

she made

 

and the feel of her body as she convulsed in

release.

 

He found it so gratifying, it was like finding his own

satisfaction. According to Tim, that could very well

be the

 

only gratification Rico would ever know again.

Asking the

 

therapist about his lack of recovery in that area had

been

 

lowering for Rico, but he did not shrink from doing

so.

 

He had to know. Tim’s comments had been both

encouraging and discouraging. In many cases, full

capability

 

was restored, but there were the small percentage of

men

 

that even after mobility was restored were unable to

 

maintain an erection. Fear he was one of those men

made

 

him short with Gianna.

 

She was his wife, his woman. He loved her. He

didn’t

 

know when the knowledge had seated itself in his

brain, but

 

he’d known since waking in his hospital room in New

York

 

that he needed her in a way he had never needed

another

 

person. And he wanted nothing more than to be

whole for

 

her.

 

This meant giving his rehabilitation everything he

had.

 

Exercising his legs. Going with Tim through the

muscular

 

rotations. Trying to walk no matter how many times

he fell in

 

humiliating defeat to the exercise mat. It wasn’t

defeat,

 

though. Not if he didn’t give up and with the impetus

of

 

becoming whole for Gianna…he never would.

Gianna saw almost nothing of Rico for the following

weeks.

 

She didn’t visit him during his therapy sessions and

he did

 

not seek her out. He had business meetings during

dinner

 

three nights out of seven. The nights he was home

for

 

dinner, she kept the conversation centered on his

mother’s

 

plans to celebrate their wedding. Gianna avoided

any sort of

 

intimate conversation, wanting to sidestep the

possibility of

 

rejection.

 

Rico seemed just as intent on avoiding her, coming

to bed

 

long after she’d gone to sleep each night.

 

Once, he woke her when he came to bed and she

coldly told

 

him she was too tired. She hadn’t wanted to deal

with the

 

pain and pleasure mixture that accompanied his

making love

 

to her.

 

He hadn’t tried again. But there were nights she

could have

 

sworn she slept in his arms. He was always gone

before she

 

woke and she had to wonder if she had dreamed the

sense

 

of warmth and security.

 

In the middle of the third week, she came out of the

bathroom after her shower to find him in their bed.

“What are you doing here?”

 

His brows rose. “I sleep in this bed, no?”

 

“I meant now. You don’t usually come to bed so

eadyf

 

“So, tonight it is different.”

 

There was something different all right…something

about

 

him. Triumph glittered in his silver eyes. Triumph

over what?

 

And then it hit her.

 

“Where is your wheelchair?”

 

“Gone.”

 

“You’re walking?” she practically shrieked. He’d said

nothing.

 

“After a fashion. I must use a stick, but this is

progress, no?”

 

“Yes!” she shouted and threw herself across the bed

to hug

 

him in exuberantjoy. His arms locked around her

and she

 

found herself sitting across his lap, her hands locked

behind

 

his neck.

 

“You’re walking,” she whispered with awe. “I knew

you could

 

do it!”

 

“With the right incentive, a man can do anything.”

She

 

smiled, her eyes tearing up. “Oh, Rico…” She didn’t

know

 

what had altered his focus so completely, but

whatever it

 

was had her eternal gratitude.

 

“I thought we could celebrate, no?”

 

His husky voice brought back memories of their first

“celebration” of his progress. A kiss that had

irrevocably

 

changed their relationship. Was he thinking the

same thing?

 

The sexy gleam of a predator in his eyes said he

was.

 

“Yes,” she said with a sigh against his lips.

 

He let her kiss him for several seconds, allowing her

to

 

explore his lips with her tongue. It was heavenly.

Finally, he was going to let her be an active

participant in

 

their loving. She tunneled her fingers into the silky

black

 

strands of his hair and deepened the kiss. He

growled

 

against her lips as his hand cupped possessively

over her

 

breast.

 

She arched into the touch, joy coursing through her

veins

 

from his achievement and this new, more

evenhanded lovemaking.

 

She let her hand trail down his neck to his

collarbone. She outlined it with one fingertip. He

shuddered

 

under her and she felt feminine power surge through

her for

 

the first time. It gave her the confidence to be bolder

than

 

she had ever thought possible. She shifted until she

was

 

straddling his thighs and placed both hands on the

hot skin

 

of his chest. It was her turn to shudder. She had

wanted this

 

for so long. The freedom to touch him. She could

feel his

 

heart beating a rapid tattoo against one palm and

the

 

protrusion of his male nipple against the other. She

wanted

 

to touch him everywhere.

 

Her hands slid lower and lower as she edged toward

that

 

mysterious part of his body, she found so

fascinating. She’d

 

never seen a completely naked male in the flesh and

she

 

desperately wanted to see Rico. Her husband.

Suddenly his hands gripped her wrists like

manacles.

 

“No.”

 

Her eyes flew open and she stared into an

immovable gaze

 

of molten metal.

 

“I want to touch you,” she practically begged.

 

“It is better that I should touch you, tesoro.”

 

No. No. No. She wanted this to be equal. “Please.”

He ignored her, bending his head to capture her

mouth in an

 

incendiary kiss. Her body reacted with its usual

mindnumbing

 

pleasure, but a small part of her brain remained

functioning. And that part protested this further

rejection.

 

He didn’t want her to touch him. He. Did. Not. Want.

Her. To.

 

Touch. Him. The refrain went round and round in her

head

 

until it drowned out even the nerve centers

clamoring for

 

more pleasure from the hands now roaming over her

body.

 

She tore her lips from his.

 

“No.”

 

His eyes opened, a dazed expression in them that

almost

 

gave her hope.

 

“Why won’t you let me touch you?”

 

“Is it not enough I give you pleasure, tesoro?” he

asked in a

 

thickened voice. Something cracked inside her

head.

 

“No.”

 

“You can say that when your body is already

throbbing for

 

release, when you are aching for my touch?” He

illustrated

 

his point by gently pinching her nipple, causing her

to groan

 

and arch in involuntary desire. His expression was

nolonger

 

dazed, if it ever had been. It was calculating and she

couldn’t

 

stand it. Reasons for their lovemaking when he so

clearly did

 

not want her presented themselves to her

conscious. None

 

of them were good. It was all about control. His over

her. It

 

renewed his male ego to have a woman so blatantly

under

 

his sensual thrall. Then there was pity. He felt sorry

for her.

 

It had to be obvious to him that she was in love with

him.

 

He’d even said so once. So, he made love to her

because he

 

pitied her. Maybe there was even some element of

payoff for

 

her willingness to have his baby.

 

She didn’t want to be paid off. She wanted to be

loved. A sob

 

welled up and she ripped herself out of his arms,

landing on

 

the floor beside the bed.

 

“I want my own room.”

 

He reeled back as if she’d hit him. “What?”

 

“I don’t want to sleep with you anymore.”

 

He threw back the bedcovers, revealing wine-red silk

boxers

 

and the hair roughened contours of his legs. “Like

hell! You

 

are my wife. You sleep in my bed.”

 

She was so angry, she was shaking.

 

“I’m your incubator,” she screamed at him, “not your

wife!”

 

His olive skin turned pale and silver eyes registered

shock.

 

“No!” He reached for her, but she spun away and

ran to the

 

bathroom. She slammed and locked the door. She

heard a

 

thump and voluble cursing in Italian.

 

Seconds later, he was pounding on the door.

“Come out of there, Gianna.”

 

“No!” Tears streamed down her face. She couldn’t

stand one

 

more bout of pity sex. Silence met her defiance.

Long

 

moments of utter silence.

 

“Come out of there, tesoro. We need to talk.”

 

He spoke calmly, but she didn’t feel calm.

 

“I don’t want to.”

 

“Please, Gianna.” She stared at the door as if it

might

 

suddenly dissolve and leave her with no defense.

 

“I d-don’t want you t-touching me anymore,” she said

between sobbing breaths.

 

“Okay. I will not touch you.”

 

“Do you p-promise?” Part of her mind acknowledged

she

 

was overreacting, but her emotions were out of

control.

 

“You have my word.”

 

She unlocked the door. He opened it and then

leaned against

 

the frame. His expression was almost as tortured as

she felt

 

and a white line of stress outlined his firm lips.

 

“I am not a rapist.”

 

She stared at him, appalled chagrin adding to her

pain. “I

 

know that.”

 

“Then come to bed, moglie mia.”

 

His wife. Was she his wife? Or was she just his baby

maker?

 

At that moment it really did not matter. Too drained

to fight

 

anymore, she silently climbed between the sheets.

He

 

followed her at a slow pace, taking careful steps, his

expression one of grim determination. She realized

belatedly that the thump she had heard earlier

had

 

probably been him falling.

 

Guilt washed over her even as a sense of unreality

accompanied it while she watched as her husband

walked

 

under his own power for the first time since the

accident.

 

Happiness at his accomplishment mitigated some of

the pain

 

of his rejection. He eventually made it to the bed and

he slid

 

into place next to her. She reached over and turned

out the

 

light.

 

“Tesoro—”

 

“I don’t want to talk,” she slotted in before he could

say

 

anything more.

 

“I need to tell you—”

 

“No! There’s nothing to say. Please. Just let me go

to sleep.”

 

She started crying again and he pulled her into his

arms,

 

cursing under his breath. She struggled feebly

against him,

 

but he just tightened his hold.

 

“Shh, tesoro.”

 

He stroked her hair and whispered words of comfort

In a

 

mixture of Italian and English. Her tears finally

ceased and

 

he tried to talk to her again, but she begged him to

let her

 

be. She would do anything to stave off his

explanation of

 

why she wasn’t woman enough for a complete

intimate

 

relationship with him. Even if he was afraid of an

inability to

 

perform, if he wanted her, wouldn’t he want to try?

Wouldn’t

 

he want her help? A heavy sigh was the only

response to her

 

pleas, but his arms remained warm and strong

around her

 

throughout the night.

 

The next morning, Gianna woke up before Rico. Her

histrionics of the night before brought a wave of

shame. He

 

had wanted to talk to her and she had refused.

Stupid,

 

stupid, stupid. But even after her refusal, he had

held her

 

and comforted her throughout the night. She loved

him so

 

much, but she certainly hadn’t let love guide her

actions the

 

night before. Well, today would be different. She

absorbed

 

his warmth and allowed herself the luxury of feeling

 

cherished for several minutes before slipping from

the

 

sanctuary of his arms and the bed.

 

Fifteen minutes later, she surveyed the results of her

daily

 

tests to measure her body’s readiness for the

intrauterine

 

insemination. Well, that explained at least part of her

irrationality, she thought wryly.

 

A sound from behind her alerted her to Rico’s

presence. She

 

turned to face him, her hand gripping the lapels of

her robe

 

together at her neck. He stood framed in the

doorway, all six

 

feet four inches of him exposed but for what his silk

boxers

 

covered. His hair stood endearingly on end and

morning

 

stubble shadowed his jaw, giving him a dangerous

air. Eyes

 

the color of stainless steel surveyed her with intense

concentration.

 

“We need to talk, cara.”

 

She nodded and swallowed. Yes, they did, but right

now they

 

had things to do.

 

“My body is at optimum temperature for the

procedure.”

 

His eyes flared. “What did you say?”

 

“I need to contact the clinic and make an

appointment for

 

today.”

 

“Today?” He looked dazed.

 

“Yes.”

 

He closed his eyes as if he was battling something

mentally.

 

Had he decided he didn’t want her to have his baby

after all?

 

“Have you changed your mind?” His eyes flew open.

“I do not know…”

 

She couldn’t believe it. “Does what I want matter at

all?”

 

He looked so grim.

 

“It matters a great deal, tesoro.”

 

“I want to try.”

 

His jaw clenched, but his head went up and down in

a short

 

affirmative movement. She called the doctor from

the phone

 

beside the bed.

 

Turning to Rico after she hung up, she felt a faint

tremor of

 

nerves attack.

 

“He wants me to come in right away. It’s better if I

don’t eat

 

anything first.”

 

“I’ll be ready to leave in fifteen minutes.” She stared

at him.

 

“You want to come with me?” She hadn’t considered

that.

 

He’d gone to his procedure alone. She assumed she

would

 

be on her own for hers as well.

 

“Si.”

 

“But there’s no need.” Did he think she was a basket

case

 

after last night? She wouldn’t blame him.

 

“There is every need.”

 

The words were implacable, his expression even

more so.

 

She chewed on her bottom lip and nervously pleated

the soft

 

velour of her robe.

 

“They’re going to put something inside me,” she

said, her

 

gaze firmly fixed on the plush pale blue carpet.

 

“And this embarrasses you?”

 

Give that man a cigar. “Yes.”

 

“I will keep my eyes on your beautiful face, cara

mIa.”

 

That brought her gaze up from the carpet.

 

“I’m not beautiful,” she blurted.

 

“You are the most beautiful woman I have ever

known.”

 

“You don’t mean that.” He couldn’t, not unless he

loved her.

 

Only love would put her physical attributes above

the

 

gorgeous women he had dated.

 

He grimaced, as if in pain. “I do, but I do not expect

you to

 

believe me.”

 

But she wanted to. Oh, how she wanted to.

“Rico…”

 

“Will you allow me to accompany you?”

 

“Can I stop you?”

 

Again, the grimace. “ln honesty? It is not likely.”

He said it apologetically, like he was sorry he had

his own

 

ideas and intended to follow through on them. The

embarrassment aside, the thought of having him

with her

 

was comforting.

 

“You can come. I want you to come.”

 

CHAPTER TEN

 

SHE realized halfway to the clinic that she’d

forgotten to

 

take the prescription-strength pain reliever she’d

been

 

instructed to take an hour before the procedure. She

quickly

 

swallowed a couple of over the counter meds from

the

 

pillbox in her handbag. The dose only called for one,

two

 

should make up for the fact it wasn’t prescription

strength.

 

Rico was instructed to wait in the waiting room while

she

 

undressed and donned an ugly blue hospital gown.

She

 

looked down at it ruefully. Somehow it seemed

incongruous

 

with an event that was supposed to leave her

pregnant with

 

her husband’s baby, but then she’d never

considered getting

 

pregnant in the sterile environment of an outpatient

procedure room, either.

 

It did not matter, though. She wanted Rico’s

bambini, no

 

matter what she had to do to get them. Rico was

ushered

 

into the room after her vital signs were measured

andthe

 

nurse confirmed Gianna’s morning test results.

 

He smiled as he came in, leaning only slightly on the

walking

 

stick. She smiled back nervously.

 

“Like my new togs?” she asked, indicating the

utilitarian

 

gown.

 

He leaned down and kissed her gently. “I like what is

In

 

them better.”

 

His words rendered her speechless with pleasure.

“Did you remember to take your pain medication?”

the

 

nurse asked Gianna.

 

She flushed guiltily and shook her head. “But I took

a double

 

dose of the meds I take for period cramping on the

way

 

here.”

 

The nurse, a middle aged brunette with a kind smile,

patted

 

Gianna reassuringly.

 

“That should be fine.”

 

Rico had tensed beside her at the first mention of

paIn.

 

“What pain medication? I thought this procedure was

paIn

 

free. What is going on?” Gianna reached out and

took hold of

 

his arm.

 

“It’s just a precaution. Nothing to worry about. The

doctor

 

and I discussed this.”

 

He looked unconvinced. “Are you sure? Perhaps we

should

 

consider waiting.”

 

“No.”

 

She took a deep breath. “This is what I want.”

 

His frown said he wasn’t happy about it. He turned to

the

 

nurse.

 

“Perhaps she should take some now. Surely you

keep a

 

supply for such an occurrence.” The nurse looked

doubfiuL

 

“We do, but I don’t think it would be wise to mix the

two

 

medications. Some pain relievers wouldn’t be a

problem,

 

but…”

 

She didn’t finish her statement, but Gianna got the

message. She reached out and took Rico’s free

hand.

 

“I’ll be fine. Please, Rico, don’t make such a big deal

about

 

it.”

 

Twenty minutes later her grip on Rico’s hand was

like

 

channel locks around a water pipe and she was

bitterly

 

regretting her blithe assurances. The discomfort of

having

 

the catheter inserted to her womb hadn’t been

unbearable,

 

but now she was cramping painfully and the entire

lower half

 

of her body felt like it was sharing in the experience.

Tears

 

filled her eyes and she clung more tightly to Rico,

whose

 

eyes reflected the tortures of the rack.

 

He had tried to get her to abandon the procedure at

the first

 

sign of her pain, but she had refused. He’d stood by

her side

 

willing his own strength onto her. It was a small

glimmer of

 

the support she could expect having the baby and

even

 

amidst the physical pain, it pleased her.

 

“Is it almost over?” Rico demanded of the doctor in a

voice

 

that implied a negative answer would have a very

bad affect

 

on Rico’s temper.

 

“Yes, just another few seconds and we’ll be

finished.”

 

The man was as good as his word and within

minutes

 

everything had been removed. Her hips were

elevated with a

 

wedge and the doctor informed her she would have

to

 

remain like that for an hour. It would have been fine,

”the

 

cramping had stopped, but it hadn’t.

 

She didn’t say anything, however, already feeling

like a

 

wimp for making such a big deal about the

procedure. Rico

 

seemed to know anyway. He didn’t say anything, but

held

 

her hand and massaged her tummy with a light,

genfle

 

circular motion. After a few minutes of the lulling

treatment,

 

she slipped into a doze despite the painful cramping.

She

 

was startled when the nurse returned to the room

and told

 

her she could change back into her street clothes.

 

Rico had kept up the soothing touch for the entire

houn

 

Normally shy, she made no demur when he showed

every

 

sign of staying in the room while she dressed. She

found his

 

presence comforting and wasn’t about to give it up.

“Is it getting any better?” Rico asked as he helped

her into

 

her clothes like a parent with a small child. She let

him zip

 

her dress and settle her braid down her back before

she

 

turned to face him.

 

“Yes. Next time, I’ll remember to take the prescribed

pain

 

relievers, I can tell you.”

 

She smiled at him, but he did not return the gesture.

He

 

looked like she’d said something repugnant.

 

“There will not be a next time, piccola mia.”

 

His words left no doubt he meant what he said.

 

She wanted his baby and was preparing to argue

with him,

 

but everything went fuzzy and her head felt like

she’d been

 

on a spinning ride at the county fair. She reached

out for

 

Rico, her hand colliding with his torso as she felt her

knees

 

give way.

 

She woke on the bed to the sound of Rico shouting.

He was

 

chewing the doctor out for everything from her

cramping to

 

the state of the world economy. Or at least, that was

how it

 

sounded to her still fuzzy brain.

 

“Rico?” The word came out a whisper, but he spun

around

 

mid-shout, his attention focused in on her with

instant

 

probing intensity.

 

“How do you feel? The pain, is it still there?”

 

“Only a little bit. I feel kind of woozy.”

 

“I told your husband it is probably the lack of food.

We’ll give

 

you a glass ofjuice to bring your blood sugar level

up before

 

he takes you home.”

 

The doctor’s normally calm demeanor appeared a bit

frayed

 

around the edges. She nodded, but Rico scowled.

“If this is so, such a thing should have been attended

to

 

before she was instructed to dress. What if she had

been

 

alone? She could have hurt herself falling to the

floon”

 

His voice rose with every word until he was shouting

again.

 

She winced and touched her hand to her temple. His

jaw

 

tautened.

 

“I am sorry, tesoro. You do not need your out-of-

control

 

husband shouting right now, no?”

 

“Did you catch me?” she asked rather than answer

his

 

rhetorical question,

 

“Si. It was doubtful for a moment if I could keep us

both up,

 

but you are such a tiny thing, cara mia. l was able to

lift you

 

onto the bed.”

 

A nurse arrived with a glass of apple juice, which

Rico took

 

from her with a look that sent the other woman

scurrying

 

from the room. He put his arm around Gianna’s

shoulder,

 

lifting her into a sitting position and placed the glass

to her

 

lips. She drank the juice, cheered by Rico’s coddling.

She

 

looked into his metallic gaze as she finished the

juice.

 

“You’re going to be a wonderful papa.” His features

contracted in bleak lines.

 

“Not if it requires a repeat of today.”

 

And if she couldn’t have his baby, would he want her

still?

 

His actions pointed to an answer she was terrified of

believing.

 

Rico insisted on her going back to bed as soon as

they

 

reached the villa. She knew she was supposed to

stay

 

horizontal for the rest of the day, to increase

chances of

 

conception, but she’d planned on doing so on a

couchinthe

 

sala. She had not intended being cooped up in the

bedroom.

 

“But I don’t want to stay in bed. I can lie down just as

easily

 

downstairs,” she argued with Rico even as he

undressed her

 

and put a nightgown over her head.

 

“You are in pain. You must rest.”

 

She ground her teeth. “I don’t want to.”

 

He smiled, the first lightening of his expression since

that

 

morning.

 

“You sound like a recalcitrant child.”

 

“Don’t make the mistake of thinking you can treat me

like

 

one. I want to go downstairs.”

 

“No, tesoro.”

 

“How would you like being bored and cooped up in a

bed all

 

day?”

 

He raised his brows and she felt like shouting. Last

night

 

being a rare exception, she never shouted. She

glowered at

 

him.

 

“I know you were in the hospital, but you worked.

You had

 

your personal assistant around. I visited you. Andre

visited

 

you. Even the wicked witch of the west visited you.”

“Do you want me to call Chiara and see if she’ll pay

you a

 

visit?” he asked, showing he knewjust exactly who

she’d

 

been speaking about. “I hear she’s in Milan.”

 

Heard from whom? Had Rico asked? The thought

he was still

 

interested in the comings and goings of his eX-

fiancée made

 

her angrier. She flounced onto the bed and fluffed

her

 

pillows as a backrest with more energy than

necessary.

 

“The last person I want to spend the day with is your

former

 

fiancee?

 

“How about me?”

 

Was he saying he had planned to stick around and

visit her?

 

“You kept me company in the hospital.”

 

“But I thought you would be going back to work.”

He’d spent so much time lately at the bank and

DiRinaldo

 

industries office, she hardly ever saw him.

 

“No way am | leaving you alone after your ordeal this

morning.”

 

She smiled in receipt of that statement. “Thanks.”

“Do not thank me.”

 

He picked up the phone, pressing the inside line

button. “l’ll

 

ring for some food.”

 

She nodded and he spoke into the mouthpiece,

ordering a

 

late breakfast for them both. When he hung up, he

went to

 

pull a chair over by the bed, but she scooted toward

the

 

center, making room for him to sit beside her.

“You can sit here if you like.”

 

“I’m not sure that is a good idea.”

 

“Why?”

 

He made a face. “Having you next to me in bed

sends my

 

brain down a path you cannot take at the moment,

cara.”

 

She thought he was teasing, so she responded in

kind. “I’m

 

sure you can control yourself.”

 

“You are only certain of this because you do not

understand

 

the workings of a man’s mind, I assure you.”

 

He sounded so serious, but lowered himself onto the

bed

 

beside her, propping his walking stick against the

small table

 

with a lamp on it.

 

“How are you feeling?”

 

“Hungry,” she answered honestly.

 

He smiled. “I too am hungry.”

 

“You could have eaten breakfast,” she reminded

him.

 

“Not when you did not.”

 

“Is that some kind of macho guy thing?” He reached

outand

 

brushed her lower lip, making all the air in her lungs

freeze

 

between exhaling and inhaling.

 

“It is a Rico DiRinaldo thing.”

 

“You’re a pretty special man, aren’t you?” Her lip

moved

 

against his finger and it was all she could do not to

suckthe

 

digit into her mouth. But she wasn’t leaving herself

open for

 

another physical rejection.

 

Even if maybe she was beginning to understand why

he did

 

so, it still hurt. She pulled her head back and he

dropped his

 

hand, an emotion like pain flaring briefly in the silver

depths

 

of his eyes.

 

“I am so special I allowed my wife to undergo a

painful

 

procedure rather than face up to my own fears,” he

evinced

 

in a driven undertone, his head bent the light glinting

off the

 

black smoothness of his hair.

 

She stared at him, flummoxed by what he had said.

 

“I don’t understand caro. What fears?”

 

His head reared back and something powerful

burned in his

 

eyes.

 

“You never call me that. You use endearments

frequently

 

with Andre, but with me, it is always my name.”

She felt like she was walking through the woods

eadyinthe

 

morning, when the fog had not yet lifted and she

could

 

barely see one step in front of her face. She didn’t

want to

 

trip on a fallen log and yet felt compelled to take the

next

 

step.

 

“Does that bother you?”

 

“Si.”

 

Painfully honest. Painfully vulnerable. Doubly hard

for a man

 

of Rico’s temperament to admit.

 

“With Andre, it’s natural because they don’t mean

anything.”

 

She wanted to repay Rico’s honesty with her own,

but it was

 

hard. “With you, they mean too much.”

 

His hand curled around her own. “So, you do not say

them.”

 

She swallowed and went for broke.

 

“To me, your name is like an endearment.”

 

He lifted her hand to his lips and kissed the center of

her

 

palm. A noise near the doorway heralded the arrival

of their

 

breakfast and the discussion was abandoned while

they ate.

 

She yawned when she finished. “I can’t think why I’m

tired. I

 

shouldn’t be. It’s not as if I’ve run a marathon today.”

He hadn’t even let her walk to the car, insisting on

pushing

 

her in a wheelchair. She had the sense that if he

were just a

 

tad steadier on his feet, he would have carried her.

“It has been a difficult time for you.”

 

“| feel a lot better,” she tried to reassure him.

 

He looked at her for several seconds, as if trying to

read her

 

mind, then without a word, he stood up and took the

tray to

 

the door and left it in the hallway. He came back

toward her,

 

an expression so grave on his features, she felt a

physical

 

hurt seeing it. He did not sit down again, but went to

stand

 

at the window, his hand gripping the cane with

white-knuckle

 

ferocity.

 

“When I married you, l was not sure I would walk

again.”

 

She’d known that—deep in her heart, she had

known. If he

 

had believed absolutely in his own recovery, he

would never

 

have married someone as ordinary as herself.

“But you believed in me and I needed that.”

 

Each word sounded ripped from deep inside him.

“I was not thinking about what was best for you and

it

 

shames me to admit it.”

 

“You were frightened.”

 

His shoulders stiffened, but he didn’t deny it.

 

“Si.”

 

“I understand.”

 

He spun around to face her and torment gave his

face a

 

haggard look.

 

“Do you? How can you understand me when I do

not? I was

 

selfish, tesoro. I did not care for your happiness,

only my

 

own.”

 

She shook her head, remembering his infinitely

tender

 

introduction to lovemaking.

 

“I don’t believe that.”

 

“Perhaps you are right. I thought in my arrogance

that being

 

married to me, sharing my bed, it would be enough

for you.”

 

She had thought so too. It had certainly beaten the

alternative…life without him.

 

“I accepted, knowing that was all that was on offer.”

“Because you love me and l shamelessly used that

love to

 

get what I wanted, what I needed.”

 

“You can’t use what is freely given.”

 

She didn’t want him wallowing in guilt. They couldn’t

go

 

forward if he was regretting the past.

 

“Was it freely given?”

 

She met his gaze, her own steady. The time for

hiding

 

behind face saving generalities was over. “Yes.”

“You can say that when l seduced you into

accepting my

 

marriage proposal, when I took your virginity so you

could no

 

longer speak of annulments?”

 

He really was feeling guilty.

 

“But I wanted you. I love the way you make me feel

when

 

you touch me.”

 

“If that is true, tesoro, then what happened last

night?”

 

“You wouldn’t let me touch you.'”

 

And it had hurt so much.

 

“I was afraid.”

 

Okay, he’d owned up to being scared when she’d

said it, but

 

she never, ever, ever expected those three words to

come

 

out of Rico’s mouth.

 

“Why?”

 

She thought she knew, but she had to be sure.

 

“I do not know if I can perform as a man.”

 

“You’re afraid I won’t turn you on enough to make

love to

 

me?” she asked painfully.

 

“Porco miseria! Where did you get this idea?”

“You said…”

 

“I said I did not know ifl could perform. I said

nothing about

 

the beauty and sexiness of your body.”

 

“But if I were the type of woman you usually went

for,

 

wouldn’t it be easier on you?”

 

In her mind, it made sense, but he stared at her as if

she’d

 

gone mad.

 

“You are my type of woman.”

 

She closed her eyes against the pity she was sure

was in his.

 

“You don’t have to say things like that.”

 

Weight settled next to her on the bed and a fingertip

outlined the contours of her face.

 

“Have you ever known me to lie, piccola mia?”

 

She shook her head, her eyes still tightly shut.

“Then if I say that you are the sexiest woman I have

ever

 

known, you will believe me, no?”

 

At that, her eyes could not remain closed and she

opened

 

them to his gently mocking smile.

 

“You… I…”

 

“l have never made love to a woman who made me

feel

 

more like a man.”

 

“But you said…”

 

“That I did not know if I could sustain an erection,

but when I

 

love you, your response gives me joy without my

own body’s

 

involvement.”

 

Part of her wished he’d stop tossing the 1-word

around so

 

flippantly and another, much bigger part of her—her

heart—

 

wished he meant it the way she needed him to mean

it.

 

“Have you… Did you… I mean, has there been…”

He laughed huskily.

 

“If you are asking if I have reacted physically to you,

the

 

answer is yes. It did not happen that first time I

touched you

 

and this worried me, but I thought when l regained

feeHng,l

 

would regain this as well.”

 

She had assumed the same thing.

 

“Didn’t you?”

 

“I do not know.”

 

His hands framed her face, his own expression

tortured.

 

“I let you go through the pain today because I, Rico

DiRinaIdo, was afraid to find out.” But he hadn’t

known it

 

would be painful. She’d hidden the possibility from

him

 

because instinctively she’d known he wouldn’t let her

go

 

through with it.

 

“It’s not your fault.”

 

He shook his head.

 

“You said you’d had a response.”

 

She couldn’t make herself say the word erection for

all her

 

love for him.

 

“Yes. Many times when l have touched you, I felt a

stirring,

 

never more so than last night.”

 

“But you stopped me.”

 

“Si.”

 

“Why? I don’t understand.”

 

“If it did not last. lfl could not climax…” His voice

ddfied

 

into nothingness, but she knew what he meant. He

would

 

have been humiliated.

 

“I would do anything for you.”

 

“Si, today you proved this.” He dropped his hands

from her

 

face and turned away.

 

“I will never forget the sight of you falling to the floor,

orthe

 

tears in your eyes when they performed the

procedure.”

 

“It wasn’t your fault,” she repeated. “The doctor told

me

 

that first day that some women experience lingering

paIn,

 

but I didn’t tell you. Honestly, I thought I wouldn’t be

one of

 

them and I wanted your baby so much.”

 

“If I had faced my own cowardice, perhaps you

would not

 

have felt that sacrifice necessary.”

 

She reached out and turned his face toward her. So

typical

 

of Rico to take responsibility for the whole world and

its

 

population on his shoulders.

 

“You are not a coward, Rico. You faced your

paralysis. You

 

fought it.”

 

“But I did not face my fear and for that you paid.”

Incredibly,

 

his eyes glistened.

 

She couldn’t stand it anymore. To heck with worrying

about

 

if she’d been horizontal long enough for conception

to take

 

place. She sat up and threw her arms around his

neck.

 

“No, Rico, no. I wanted to try for a baby with you. I

didn’t

 

care how we had to do it. I want to have your

bambini so

 

much.”

 

He kissed her, softly, sweetly, like a benediction.

“How are you feeling?”

 

“Better.”

 

“No more cramps?”

 

She shook her head.

 

“Then maybe we should see if I can give you my

child with

 

more pleasure than you felt this morning, no?”

She sucked in air, her heart pounding rhythmically.

“Are you sure you want to try?”

 

“Si, mi amore bella.”

 

His beautiful love. If only he meant it. Then she

smiled. The

 

tender look in his eyes, his willingness to risk

failure…all for

 

her. It was enough.

 

CHAPTER ELEVEN

 

Rico’s head lowered. His lips brushed hers. Once.

Twice.

 

Three times before she whimpered in protest to his

teasing.

 

She turned her head, trying to catch his lips for a

more

 

satisfying kiss, but he was busy nibbling his way

down her

 

neck.

 

“Rico, please.”

 

She didn’t want the gentle touch. She needed more.

All of

 

him. All of his passion. “Shh…tesoro.” His tongue

dipped into

 

the shell of her ear. “This will be perfect.”

 

His voice and sensual touch sent shivers of

anticipation and

 

delight cascading along her nerve endings.

 

Her lips parted on a breathless sound and he finally

let his

 

lips settle over hers with firm possession and he took

control

 

of the warm recesses of her mouth. The evocative

kiss had

 

her moaning and tightening her arms around his

neck. Then

 

she remembered. She could touch him. She broke

her mouth

 

from his, panting with excitement, but adamant that

this

 

time things would be different.

 

“Take off your clothes, Rico.”

 

He went still. His eyes slid shut and she watched as

an

 

internal battle raged within him. Instantly, she

doubted her

 

actions. Maybe she should just touch him and worry

about

 

getting him naked later. The raw vulnerability on his

face

 

hurt her. She was about to tell him to kiss her again,

to

 

ignore her demand, when he gently, but firmly

removed her

 

hands from around his neck and stood.

 

“You don’t have to—”

 

He shook his proud head.

 

“I want to. You deserve this. I deserve this. I want to

make

 

you mine in the most elemental way a man can

possess his

 

woman.”

 

She loved it when he referred to her as his woman.

It implied

 

a chosen intimacy, not a marriage of convenience

he was

 

stuck with because of his strong sense of integrity.

The

 

removal of his suit jacket acted like a catalyst to her

body’s

 

response centers and it felt like everything inside her

went

 

on hyper alert. The movement of the very air around

her

 

became a tantalizing precursor for what was to

come. She

 

watched, enthralled, while long, dark, masculine

fingers

 

loosened his tie and pulled it off. He let the patterned

silk fall

 

to the carpet with a soft swish of sound.

 

The jet black buttons came next. First those at his

cuffs and

 

then the ones down the front of his shirt. One by

one,he

 

undid them, revealing the well-muscled contours of

his chest

 

in tantalizing bits until the white silk hung open.

Black,

 

curling hair made a V pattern on his chest. lt

disappeared

 

enticingly at the waist of charcoal gray pants that

clung to a

 

dauntingly large bulge and the hard, defined

muscles of his

 

thighs. She waited with suspended breath as he

shrugged

 

the shirt from his broad shoulders before moving to

undo his

 

slacks. He toed his shoes off at the same time he let

the

 

pants fall in another crumpled pile of fabric on the

floor

 

beside his shirt. He stepped out of them without

looking

 

away from her rapt face. His socks came next and

then he

 

stood before her.

 

Proudly male. Nude but for the black silk boxers

riding low

 

on his hips. He hooked his thumbs in the waistband

and she

 

expelled her held breath as he pushed the shorts

down his

 

thighs. An unintelligible sound came from her throat

as she

 

watched the most intimate of his male flesh come

into view.

 

She swallowed. She opened her mouth. Nothing

came out.

 

She closed it.

 

She closed her eyes. She opened them again. She

shook her

 

head. None of it helped.

 

“Does it get bigger?” she asked in a truly mortifying

squeak.

 

Rumbling laughter had her gaze flying from his

incredibly

 

impressive form to his face. He looked amused, darn

him. It

 

wasn’t funny. How was she supposed to face that

with any

 

equanimity, she asked herself furiously.

 

Rico shook his head, unable to believe his wife’s

reaction.

 

He’d expected concern, perhaps even a little pity. An

attack

 

of feminine nerves and genuine fear at the sight of

his only

 

semi-erect flesh had never even made it on the

agenda.She

 

was scared to death of the prospect of his complete

arousal

 

and that boosted his morale in a way nothing else

could

 

have. She didn’t see him as a eunuch. Far from it.

By the

 

look on her face, she thought he was too virile. He

felt

 

himself stir in reaction and watched in fascination as

she

 

blanched. She really was worried, the poor little

thing. And

 

she was little. Over a foot shorter than him and built

on

 

delicate lines that made women like his ex-fiancée

seem like

 

Amazons.

 

Yet, he had no doubt they would fit together as il

buon Dio

 

intended.

 

“Your body was created to accommodate mine.”

She licked her lower lip, igniting more flames of

desire low in

 

his belly.

 

“Are you sure? Maybe, I’m not made right.” She

chewed that

 

same sexy lip. “| feel full with your finger. I don’t think

we’ll

 

ever get that in.”

 

If he laughed at her, he was dead. He knew it, but

still it

 

took all his self-control to bite back the amusement

her

 

words invoked in him and the relief.

 

“You’ll stretch, cara. Trust me.”

 

He watched as she visibly swallowed and then

squared her

 

shoulders as if preparing to face the firing squad.

“All right.”

 

He walked slowly to the bed, his bare feet

whispering across

 

the carpet. His balance was improving all the time,

but he

 

wasn’t about to risk falling. She seemed to shrink

back into

 

the pillows as he approached, her beautiful emerald

eyes

 

wide with apprehension. He stopped when his legs

were

 

against the side of the bed.

 

“Do you want to touch me?”

 

It was a hard question to ask. He was reacting to her

physically already, but still the fear that he would not

enjoy

 

the full sexual response he had once been capable

of

 

plagued him.

 

If she caressed him and he remained only semi

aroused, or

 

worse, lost what hardness he did have, it would be

an

 

unspeakable blow to his pride. But watching her

endure pain

 

for his cowardice that morning had made him see

becoming

 

whole for her meant taking this risk.

 

She hadn’t answered his question. She simply

stared at him,

 

her gaze seemingly permanently fixed on his

manhood. Then

 

her lashes lowered and she shuddered.

 

“Yes.”

 

It was such a quiet whisper, he almost hadn’t heard

her.

 

“Maybe it would help, tesoro, if you started

somewhere

 

else?”

 

Wide, glistening green eyes, pleaded with him

silently. He

 

reached out and pulled her to her knees on the high,

oversize bed. Then he guided her hands to his

chest, placing

 

her small palms over the already stimulated flesh of

his male

 

nipples. They both shuddered at the contact. She

leaned

 

forward and kissed him, flicking a sweet exploring

tongue

 

out to taste his skin. He groaned.

 

“Do it again,” he demanded hoarsely.

 

She obeyed without pause, this time nipping at his

flesh with

 

her sharp little teeth. Then her hands began moving.

Just as

 

they had the night before, but this time he made no

effort to

 

stop them. Small circles over his hardened nipples,

fingernails kneading him like a cat. He pulled at her

nightgown until she allowed him to slip it off over her

head.

 

Then he pulled her to him, pressing his hard flesh

against

 

her yielding softness and they both stilled, their

breathing

 

shallow as they absorbed the sensation of body

against

 

body.

 

He felt his sex pressed up against the smooth skin

of her

 

stomach and it was all he could do not to toss her on

her

 

back and impale her. The knowledge he could do it

flooded

 

his senses as excitement surged through his

hardened flesh.

 

Oh, Mother. He was getting bigger. She could feel

him

 

swelling against her. Her forehead rested against his

chest

 

while her fingers dug into the hard wall of muscle in

front of

 

her. She’d wanted to touch him, but now that the

moment

 

had arrived, she was terrified. What if she did it

wrong? What

 

if she turned him off with her clumsy, inexperienced

fondling? Then he was taking the decision out of her

hands

 

and putting himself into them. Literally. He pressed

his hand

 

over the back of hers and meshing them together,

slid them

 

down his torso until they reached the mat of hair at

the base

 

of his shaft. It felt silky and springy at the same time.

She

 

pressed her fingers into it and his big body trembled,

building her confidence. Gently, but with firm

purpose, he

 

guided her hand to the rocklike hardness protruding

from his

 

body.

 

“Touch me, amore. Touch me, here.”

 

And she curled her fingers around him, awed by the

feel of

 

velvet like skin stretched taut over steel rigidity. She

tentatively caressed him from the tip to the base,

rejoicing

 

as he made guttural sounds of excitement low in his

throat.

 

She wasn’t turning him off.

 

His hand closed over hers, forming her fingers more

closely

 

to him and showing her a rhythm and a level of

pressure

 

that gave him obvious pleasure. He dropped his

hand and

 

she continued to caress him, shocked by the

swaying

 

tenseness of his body. She raised her head, taking

inthe

 

expression of ecstasy on his face, the flushed heat

of his

 

skin, the stiffness of his nipples, all bespeaking a

levelof

 

excitement she had never dreamed she could

generate in

 

him.

 

“You want my touch,” she whispered in wonder.

 

His eyes opened, liquid silver gleaming down at her.

“Si. Very much.”

 

Tears flooded her eyes.

 

“I thought you didn’t,” she admitted on a ragged

breath.

 

His bodyjerked and he pushed her back on the bed,

dislodging her hold on him as he settled between

her

 

splayed thighs.

 

“l ached for you.”

 

“But—” He placed his finger over her lips.

 

“Do not talk, amore. Feel.”

 

And what she felt. He caressed every inch of her

body, first

 

with his hands and then with his mouth. When he

buried his

 

lips in the center of her feminine desire, she

screeched.

 

“No! Rico… |… You…”

 

Soon her incoherent words turned to moans of the

most

 

incandescent delight. He made love to her with his

mouth in

 

a way that sent her orbiting into space almost

immediately.

 

She screamed his name as the cataclysm of

pleasure burst

 

in her. She writhed under him, the pleasure so great

it was

 

almost pain, but he didn’t stop and soon his clever

tongue

 

was sending her into an oblivion of bliss again.

Pleasure built

 

upon pleasure until it felt like one, prolonged wave.

Her body bowed off the bed, every muscle taut with

her

 

reaction to his ministrations. But this time she knew

there

 

was more and she wanted it. Needed it. Demanded

it with

 

hoarse shouts that would have mortified her if she

wasn’t so

 

lost to the feelings he gave her. She was shaking

with her

 

need by the time he returned to his position above

her.

 

“I want you,” she cried.

 

“Si. This I can see.”

 

The smug satisfaction in his voice should have

irritated her,

 

but she was beyond irritation at male posturing. He

probed

 

her entrance, pushing inside a little bit.

 

“Now we make love.”

 

She stared up at him, sure they could not possibly

conflnue

 

but equally positive she would not pull away. This

was too

 

important to him and therefore to her, for her pseudo

virginal fears to hold sway.

 

He smiled down at her, but there was no

amusement in his

 

expression. It was the smile of a predator, of

primordial man

 

establishing his place in the hierarchy of priorities in

his

 

woman’s life…at the top.

 

“You are mine, Gianna. Always.” The mesmerizing

intensity

 

in his molten eyes rendered her mute, but she

nodded her

 

head. Incredibly she felt her body stretch to

accommodate

 

him and then swollen, tender flesh molded around

his

 

hardness to leave her feeling completely possessed,

filled

 

with him and surrounded by him. It was more

intimate than

 

anything she could have imagined. More emotionally

devastating than anything they had done before.

She didn’t realize she was crying until he licked the

trail of

 

her tears from the corner of her eyes to her temples.

“Am I hurting you?” he asked in a shaken voice.

“No.” She shook her head frantically, unable to utter

another

 

coherent word, but he seemed to understand

because he

 

began moving his body.

 

He slid almost all the way out of her, making her

catch at

 

him with her hands, desperate for a return of the

feeling of

 

intimate connection. But he did not withdraw; he

surged

 

back into her and began a rhythm that quickly

escalated to

 

something pounding hard and fast.

 

The ecstasy built inside her, making her shout his

name and

 

utter other less intelligible noises. How could it be

more,

 

better than what he’d already done? She didn’t

know, but it

 

was.

Infinitely more intense. Maybe because they were

shanngit

 

She arched up to meet him, matching his beat,

matching his

 

fierceness with her own sensual aggression. Then

the world

 

exploded around her, going black around the edges

and she

 

came close to losing consciousness for the second

time that

 

day. A scream echoed in her head and she realized

vaguely

 

that it had been her own.

 

Then a shout reverberated in her ears as Rico joined

her in

 

this ultimate pleasure between a man and a woman,

his

 

body bowing, his manhood growing impossibly large

inside

 

her.

 

The tension drained from his body increment by

increment

 

until his torso met her own as he allowed his body to

settle

 

against her. She hugged him with both her arms and

legs,

 

wrapping herself around him in exuberant delight.

“You’re a

 

wonderful lover, caro.”

 

His bodyjolted. With a growl, he started raining

kisses all

 

over her face. He interspersed them with words of

gratitude

 

and extravagant approval. It was all so unreal. Rico,

thanking

 

her for making love. Rico, telling her she was the

most

 

beautiful woman alive. Rico, kissing her with totally

uncool

 

enthusiasm.

 

He rolled onto his back, taking her with him. She

landed

 

astride him, his flesh still firmly embedded in her.

She laid

 

her head on his heart and listened to the rapid beat

with a

 

sense of the miraculous.

 

“Grazie, mi amore bella.” She smiled against his

chest

 

“Thank you, my love.” His arms tightened around

her. “You

 

have restored to me wholeness.”

 

Was that anything like the gift he had just given her?

“I love

 

you,” she said, unable to keep the words inside.

“Si. With you. This was safe,” he said with deep

satisfaction.

 

“A man can be vulnerable with a woman who loves

him.”

 

She pushed herself up on her arms, causing him to

press

 

more deeply into her, and looked into his content

face.

 

“I’m glad.” Simple, but heartfelt.

 

“Not as glad as I am.” And incredibly she felt a

renewed

 

expression of that gladness swell inside her. She

suckedin

 

air on a shocked gasp.

 

“Rico?”

 

“Si?”

 

“What…”

 

But even as the question was forming, his body was

giving

 

her the answer as he arched under her, sending her

quivering body on a new voyage of discovery. He

really was

 

intent on letting her share more equally in the loving

was her

 

last coherent thought as he taught her to set a pace

to bring

 

them both sexual satisfaction.

 

Gianna woke to the soft caress of lips against her

temple.

 

She smiled, her eyes still closed and husky male

laughter

 

blanketed her in its warmth.

 

“Buona mattina, tesoro. Open your eyes.”

 

She obeyed him and feltjoy well up from the depths

of her

 

being.

 

“Good morning.”

 

She reached up to wrap her arms around his neck

and lifted

 

her face for a kiss, secure in their physical intimacy

afiera

 

night of making love. He kissed her, his lips moving

over

 

hers with possessive pleasure and soon she was

plastered

 

against his shirtfront, her tongue dueling with his.

Groaning,

 

he pulled away.

 

She stared up at him, not comprehending why he

had

 

stopped.

 

“I must go, tesoro. l have a meeting this morning. I

would

 

cancel it if I could.”

 

Then she noticed the immaculate suit, conservative

tie, his

 

perfectly groomed hair and the smooth skin on his

jaw from

 

a recent shave.

 

His eyes devoured her with hungry force and she

beHeved

 

he was leaving under duress. She shifted and

winced as her

 

body reminded herjust how many times they had

made love

 

in the past twenty-four hours.

 

He brushed her cheek, letting his fingers twine into

her hair,

 

which he had unbraided in the most erotic way

yesterday

 

afternoon.

 

“Perhaps it is best for you that | go, no?”

 

She grimaced, but could not deny the twinges of

discomfort.

 

“I don’t want you to leave,” she said regardless.

 

“I will return as quickly as possible.”

 

She felt her lips curve into a pout and part of her

mind was

 

shocked. She’d never pouted in her life. He gave a

groan of

 

male appreciation and nipped at her protruding lip.

“I promise.”

 

She caught his mouth for a lingering kiss and then

pulled

 

back.

 

“All right. If you promise.”

 

His gorgeous face creased in a smile of sexy

approval. “On

 

my life.”

 

He kissed her briefly again, as if he couldn’t quite

make

 

himself leave.

 

“I will cut the meeting short if I can. Take a long, hot

bath,

 

mi moglie.”

 

“Will it help?” she asked with projected innocence.

“Si.”

 

He stood up, a serious expression passing across

his face.

 

“We will talk when | return.”

 

They hadn’t done much talking last night. She

nodded and

 

smiled. He moved toward her as if he would kiss her

again,

 

but then stopped, a look of grim determination

crossing his

 

sculpted features and left. She watched him walk

from the

 

room, a sense of foreboding that overshadowed her

joy from

 

their lovemaking coming out of nowhere. What did

he want

 

to talk about? Despite the mysterious sense of

apprehension, she refused to consider it might be

something

 

bad. Rico had spent almost twenty-four hours doing

everything in his power to give her pleasure and

impregnate

 

her with his child. She should feel a deep sense of

security in

 

her marriage, she chided herself. With that thought

firmly in

 

mind, she followed Rico’s instruction and had a long

spa

 

bath, the water softened and scented with expensive

oil that

 

had been a gift from her mother-in-law on one of

their many

 

shopping expeditions. The hot, swirling water

soaked away

 

the unfamiliar aches in her muscles and feminine

flesh.

 

Later that morning, after a solitary breakfast

becausethe

 

rest of the family was gone from the villa, she was

told she

 

had a visitor in the sala. She walked into the room

and as it

 

always did, her gaze first went to the rich murals on

the

 

ceilings and down one third of the wall. The villa had

beenin

 

the DiRinaldo family for many generations and

boasted

 

artwork by some of Italy’s greatest masters. A sound

near

 

the window brought Gianna’s gaze around to her

visitor.

 

Chiara stood outlined in the autumn sunlight, her

face cast

 

in shadow so Gianna could not read her expression.

“I

 

suppose you think you’ve been very clever,” was her

 

opening gambit. “I don’t know what you mean.”

Chiara

 

stepped toward Gianna, revealing the look of

condescending

 

pity on the other woman’s face. “You’re a little fool.

He won’t

 

stay with you now that he is a man again.” How

could Chiara

 

know what Rico had only discovered yesterday? He

wouldn’t

 

have called her. He couldn’t have. Gianna’s stomach

heaved

 

at the thought and she had to breathe slowly and

shallowly

 

to stop herself being sick. “What are you talking

about?”

 

“Don’t play the ignorant with me. I know Rico’s

walking

 

again.” So she didn’t know about the other. A

shudderof

 

relief shook Gianna. But how had Chiara learned

about his

 

walking? Gianna had only found out the day before

yesterday. “We always knew Rico would walk

again.” “If he’d

 

believed that, he’d never have let me go,” Chiara

said

 

scathingly. After his revelation that he had had his

doubts,

 

Gianna could not bring herself to give Chiara the

putdown

 

she deserved. “I don’t know what difference you

think that

 

makes,” was the best she could do. “You really are a

stupid

 

little cow, aren’t you?”

 

Gianna stiffened at the insult. “You clearly have

something

 

to say. | suggest you say it and then leave my

home.” “Your

 

home? How long do you think that will last? Until you

gIve

 

Rico a baby. That’s how long. He knew I wasn’t keen

on

 

getting pregnant and spoiling my figure. Once you’ve

done

 

your broodmare bit, he’ll come back to me, the

woman he

 

really loves.” “Rico’s not like that.” He had far too

much

 

integrity to abandon the mother of his child. Chiara

smiled

 

viciously. “When a man wants something enough,

he’ll

 

sacrifice anything to get it.” “What makes you think

he

 

wants you? He let you go.” “He thought he couldn’t

be the

 

man I needed him to be. He let me go for my sake.

Now, we

 

both know differently.” Gianna’s hands fisted at her

sides

 

and she felt tension filter into every muscle group in

her

 

body. Chiara was more right than she knew. Rico’s

biggest

 

fear, that he would be incapable of making love, not

that he

 

would not walk again, had been laid to rest only the

day

 

before. “You don’t love him.” Chiara’s laugh was

ugly. “When

 

you have sex as good as Rico and I had it, you don’t

need

 

maudlin emotions like love.” Gianna could not bear

the

 

image of Rico touching Chiara the way he had

touched

 

Gianna, so she forced such imaginings from her

mind.

 

“You’re very crude and I think it’s time you left.” “Not

so fast.

 

There are still things I want to say to you and then I

think I’ll

 

wait around for Rico to show up. I need to

congratulate him

 

on his walking.” Gianna could not believe the

audacity of the

 

other woman. “If you want to see my husband, you’ll

have to

 

make an appointment with his secretary. You aren’t

welcome

 

in my home.” She emphasized the words, reminding

both

 

herself and Chiara that it was she Rico had married.

Chiara’s

 

catlike eyes narrowed. “I’m not going anywhere.”

“Rico’s

 

security staff will say differently, I think.” “You

wouldn’t kick

 

me out. You haven’t got the guts.” Chiara sounded

shocked

 

and just the tiniest bit unsure of herself as if

Gianna’s threat

 

had been completely unexpected.

 

Gianna opened her mouth to answer when she was

interrupted by the sound of Rico’s voice. “I didn’t

realize you

 

planned on company, cara.”

 

Gianna spun to face him, finding his expression

maddeningly

 

unreadable.

 

“I didn’t. She came uninvited.”

 

“And your wife threatened to have me thrown out.”

Chiara’s

 

voice had gone husky with hurt and much to

Gianna’s

 

disgust, tears now sparkled in the other woman’s

feline eyes.

 

Rico’s black brows rose in sardonic question. “Did

she

 

really?”

 

Chiara rushed across the room. Clutching at Rico’s

jacket

 

with red lacquered nails, she said, “Yes. It isn’t

enough she’s

 

married to you. She wants me out of your life

 

com pletely.”

 

Rico carefully removed Chiara’s clinging hands and

turned

 

his silver gaze to Gianna. “Is this true?”

 

Did he expect her to deny it?

 

“Yes. I told her if she wanted to see you to make an

appointment with your secretary. I don’t want her in

my

 

home.”

 

Gianna wasn’t going to put a polite facade on for

 

appearance’s sake. Chiara had lied about her in

New York,

 

had threatened her marriage just now and Gianna

was

 

certain would do anything in her power to seduce

Rico back

 

into her bed. She was not a person Gianna was

willing to

 

embrace in her circle of friends. Rico nodded, as if

taking in

 

her words.

 

“I don’t think an appointment will be necessary,

however.”

 

He looked down at Chiara, so he missed the spasm

of pain

 

that tightened her features that Gianna could not

repress.

 

“We can talk now, no?”

 

Chiara practically purred.” Yes, Rico. Please. ljust

wanted to

 

see you and tell you how happy I am that you are

walking

 

again.” Rico stepped away from her, moving to the

ddnks

 

cabinet. He poured himself a Scotch.

 

“How did you find out?”

 

“I met your therapist’s wife quite by accident while

shopping

 

one day. We struck up a friendship. You couldn’t

blame me

 

for wanting to keep track of your progress, not after

all we

 

were to each other.”

 

The words, the nauseatingly sugar sweet voice and ,

Chiara’s

 

obvious duplicity were enough to make Gianna sick.

Rico

 

might not have supported her throwing his ex-

fiancée from

 

the house, but that didn’t mean Gianna had to stand

around

 

and watch the other woman work her wiles on her

husband.

 

She spun on her heel and walked out of the room.

Rico

 

called her name, but she ignored him, just as she

tried to

 

ignore Chiara’s voice telling him to let Gianna go.

CHAPTER TWELVE

 

GIANNA walked upstairs in a fog of pain. Why had

Rico

 

allowed Chiara to stay? She stopped outside the

bedroom

 

door and realized she could not go in. She couldn’t

face the

 

bed, couldn’t face the memories in light of that

poisonous

 

woman’s threats. She spun around and headed back

down

 

the stairs. She went to the garage and climbed

behind the

 

wheel of the first car she found with a key in the

ignition. It

 

was a Mercedes sedan. It was bigger than she was

used to,

 

but she didn’t care. She just had to get away. The

security

 

guard was waving wildly at her to stop when she

pulled out

 

of the driveway after pushing the automatic gate

openeh

 

Rico and his father had been adamant she and

Renata only

 

leave the villa with a security escort, but Gianna

wasn’t in

 

the mood for company. Any company. She drove

around the

 

city mindlessly until she found herself in the vicinity

of the

 

Duomo. Memories of Rico bringing her here after her

mother’s death guided her in bringing the car to a

halt. She

 

found parking, which in itself was a shock, and left

the car to

 

venture inside the huge cathedral. She was no

longer a child,

 

but she hurt and the vast open space inside the

church was

 

just as awe-inspiring to her now as it had been when

she was

 

a little girl. She needed the peace she’d found then

inside

 

the cavernous structure. Her feet took her of their

own

 

volition to the rose windows. Rico had brought her

here, to

 

this exact spot. He had told her she could talk to her

mother,

 

that even though Mamma was in Heaven, she would

heaL

 

Had she started loving Rico that day? She hadn’t

idenflfiedit

 

as sexual love until she was fifteen, but Rico had

always

 

been the cornerstone to her heart. The only man she

could

 

give herself to. The only man she had ever wanted

to marry,

 

but he hadn’t seen her for dirt. Not until the accident

and his

 

beautiful, but excruciatingly selfish fiancee had

ditched him.

 

Gianna leaned against a column, letting her body

soakinthe

 

sense of peace hundreds of years of pilgrims had

felt before

 

her. Rico was hers, but for how long?

 

After almost twenty-four hours in his bed, she

refused to

 

believe he still did not see her for dirt. He’d proven to

her

 

over and over again that she was a desirable

woman in his

 

eyes. That didn’t mean he loved her, but then again,

it

 

certainly did not indicate a lack of feeling, either.

He’d let

 

Chiara stay. The memory of something he had said

the day

 

before intruded with ominous significance. He had

said he

 

felt safe assessing the level of his virility with her—

because

 

she loved him. Did that mean he had only been

using her as

 

a testing ground to determine if he could go back to

Chiara

 

whole? The very prospect was enough to make her

knees

 

buckle and she sagged against the pillar. But Rico

wasn’t like

 

that. She knew he wasn’t. So, why was she

imagining all

 

sorts of ugly scenarios? “I thought I would find you

here,

 

tesoro.” Her head snapped up. “What are you doing

here?”

 

His expression was somber. “Looking for my

runaway wife.”

 

“I didn’t run away.” She straightened against the

pillar. “You

 

did not take a bodyguard. You drove yourself off the

property, though my security men tried to wave you

to a

 

stop.” He made it sound like she’d committed

cardinal sin

 

number nineteen. “I wanted to be alone, all right?”

He shook

 

his head, his hair looking black in the muted light of

the

 

Duomo, his expression bleak. “No, it is not okay.”

She glared

 

at him. “You can’t dictate my every movement.” “I do

not

 

desire this.” Right. “Then why are you here?”

“Because you

 

are here.” “You let Chiara stay in my house,” she

accused

 

him. “I had things to say to her.”

 

She angled her head away from him and said

nothing. “Do

 

you not want to know what those things were?” “No.”

She

 

didn’t want to hear if he still had feelings for his ex-

fiancee.

 

“How can you doubt me after what we shared

yesterday and

 

last night?” he asked in a driven tone. Her head

snapped

 

back and she met his glittering, accusing gaze. “We

shared

 

our bodies. According to Chiara, that’s nothing new

to you.”

 

“We shared our souls and that, mi moglie, is

something I

 

have never done with another woman.” She wanted

to

 

believe him so much. Tears burned her eyes and

achedin

 

her throat. She shook her head. “Si.” “You married

me for all

 

the wrong reasons,” she said, fighting to talk around

the

 

crying. His jaw clenched. “Si.” The tears fell faster

and she

 

turned from him, but she found no peace in her

surroundings. There was too much pain slicing

through her.

 

A sob welled up and broke past her tightly clenched

teeth.

 

His hands gripped her shoulders. “Do not do this to

yourself.

 

The past cannot be changed.” She twisted from him,

knocking his hands away. She felt like a wounded

animal,

 

wanting to lash out. “Don’t touch me.” He spun her

back to

 

face him. Pain easily equal to the hurt she was

experiencing

 

glittered in his eyes. “Does not forgiveness come

with love?”

 

Forgiveness for what? Did he expect her to forgive

him for

 

not loving her? It wasn’t that easy, nor was it a

matter of

 

forgiveness but learning to accept. “I don’t know if I

can,”

 

she said, speaking to herself rather than him. She

knew she

 

had to learn to live without his love, but she did not

know

 

how to do that. Rico’s features set in chilling resolve

that

 

even amidst her emotional turmoil’ made her feel

apprehensive. “I will not let you go, mi moglie. You

are

 

mine.”

 

“I never wanted to be anyone else’s.” The words

came of

 

their own volition, in a painfilled whisper. “Then what

is this

 

do not touch me?” “I hurt,” she admitted. “Turning

from me

 

will not make it better.” Her lower lip trembled and

she felt

 

another sob well up. He cursed and stepped

forward. “Come,

 

cara. Let me take you home where we can talk in

pnvacyf

 

She found herself swung high against his chest, his

arms

 

unbreakable bonds around her. “Where is my

home?” she

 

asked, thinking of Chiara’s smirking face when

Gianna had

 

left the sala. “Where I am.” His voice vibrated with

purpose

 

and his mouth came down over hers in a bruising

kiss. She

 

responded with a passion released by her anguish.

She

 

didn’t know how long they stood there, his lips

staking claim

 

on her, but eventually the sound of a child asking his

mum

 

what the man and his girlfriend were doing

penetrated her

 

conscious mind. She pulled her mouth away and it

was at

 

that moment, the significance of her position hit her.

“Rico,

 

put me down.” The thought of the English tourists

watching

 

while she and Rico kissed made her cheeks burn

with

 

embarrassment. lnimical rage burned into her from

eyesthe

 

color of molten metal. “No.” Why was he so angry?

“Think of

 

your legs. It’s too much, too soon.” What if he fell

and hurt

 

himself? “You are worried about my well-being?” he

asked,

 

his ire fading slightly. “Yes.” “You are not trying to

push me

 

away again?” She sighed, linking her arms around

his neck

 

and letting her head fall onto his shoulder. “I can’t.”

He

 

nodded, the anger completely gone now. She could

feel it

 

drain out of him as surely as if it had been herself.

He turned and with amusement and what she could

have

 

sworn was masculine pride in his voice, said to the

little boy,

 

“She’s not my girlfriend. She’s my wife.” The child

said,

 

“Okay,” with the ageless wisdom reserved for the

very young

 

while his mother blushed scarlet. Rico winked and

then

 

turned to leave the Duomo. He still hadn’t put her

down.

 

“Rico—” “I told you, I will not let you go.” “I didn’t

realize you

 

meant it so literally.” “lf holding you in my arms is

how I

 

keep you with me, then you will spend the next fifty

orso

 

years in my constant company.” The words should

have

 

sounded amusing, but they didn’t. They sounded

more like a

 

threat from a man perfectly capable and willing to

carry it

 

through. She said nothing else as he carried her out

to the

 

limousine waiting in a no-parking zone. The

chauffeur

 

opened the door and Rico let her down to get inside.

Once

 

they were seated, he pulled her back into his arms

and onto

 

his lap. “What about the car?” They couldn’tjust

leaveit

 

“Tell Pietro where it is and he will collect it.” So, she

told the

 

young security man where she’d parked and handed

him the

 

keys, all the while aware of Rico’s hard body

surrounding her

 

and his hand laying possessively across her thighs.

She

 

looked into his eyes and emotion she was terrified of

naming

 

burned in the silver depths. “Why didn’t you kick

Chiara

 

out?” The hand on her thigh moved in a provoking

caress. “l

 

did.” “But…” “She came to our home and dared to

upset you,

 

cara. I could see it in your beautiful green eyes and

the

 

tense way you held your delectable body so erect.”

“But…”

 

She didn’t understand. “Then why the heck did you

let her

 

stay?”

 

“I needed her to know that I would tolerate no more

interference in my life or that of my family, that if she

attempted to hurt you again, she would answer to

me. I do

 

not play nice, she knows this. She will leave us

alone.” “You

 

were warning her off?” “Si. I had barely enough time

to

 

make my position clear and have her escorted to the

door

 

when Security came with the news my wife had run

away.” A

 

twinge of guilt niggled at her. “I didn’t.” “You did.”

She didn’t

 

bother reminding him she had wanted to be alone, to

have

 

time to think. The excuse had carried no weight with

him at

 

all. “Where do we go from here?” “Home, mi moglie.

Back to

 

bed maybe…” She was tempted to give into the

promise in

 

his voice, but she wanted more than a physical

satiation of

 

their bodies’ desires. “That’s not what I meant.” He

sighed.

 

“It is up to you.” “What do you mean?” “I cannot

force you to

 

stay if you want to go.” The tight band of his arms

around

 

her said otherwise. “And if I don’t want to go?” “I will

be the

 

happiest of men.” “You did not love me when we got

married.” “You were with me when I came out of

coma,” he

 

said, she thought apropos to nothing. “Yes.” “It was

your

 

voice, your words that brought me out of it.” She bit

her

 

bottom lip. Had it been her voice, her words? “I don’t

know.

 

Maybe it was just the right time.” “No, tesoro. It was

not. Do

 

you know how I know this?” She shook her head,

incapable

 

of speech in the face of the warmth emanating from

him,

 

“I remember the words. You told me you loved me.”

He could

 

be guessing. He smiled. “You do not believe me, but

it is

 

true. I heard and I woke.” “I could not stand the

prospect of

 

a world without you in it.” She laid her hand over his

head,

 

even now needing affirmation of the life pulsing in

him. “Si.

 

There has been no doubt in my mind of your love for

me

 

from the moment I woke. lt sustained me, gave me

strength

 

when I had little of my own.” “But you don’t love me.”

Even

 

saying the words hurt. “Do | not?” “You said you only

cared

 

for me.” “And caring, it is not part of love?” “What

are you

 

saying?” Hope was starting to unfurl in her heart like

the

 

petals of a rose exposed to the sun. “How could your

love

 

bring me back from a living death if there was no

 

corresponding love in my heart to meet it?” She

shook her

 

head, terrified of believing. “I did not realize it at first.

I tried

 

to stick with the familiar… the safe.” “Chiara.” “Si.

She

 

wanted nothing from me but my money.” “And your

body}

 

she slotted in. “Without love, it is only that. A body.

Any man

 

would do, but for you it is only me, no?” “Yes.” “Did it

never

 

make you wonder when l demanded we marry

before

 

leaving New York?” Of course it had. Nothing about

their

 

marriage had made any sense to her. “I didn’t

understand

 

your wanting to marry me at all, much less so

quickly.”

 

“I did not want to risk losing you and I knew you

would take

 

your wedding vows seriously, but my reasoning was

selfish,

 

amore. I wanted you, but was unwilling to admit I

loved you.

 

I would have deserved it if you had decided you

preferred

 

Andre as I feared.” “You thought I wanted your

brother?”

 

Was he blind? She thought Rico’s anger toward her

time

 

spent with his brother had been possessive pride,

not the

 

result of any real fear. “Si.” “But I never even flirted

with

 

him.” “He flirted with you.” And from the

remembered anger

 

in her husband’s eyes, he had liked it even less than

she’d

 

thought at the time. “But you said you didn’t love

me,” she

 

reminded him, hurting a little less, but still not sure

what to

 

believe. “I broke it off with Chiara in New York.”

“What?” “I

 

told her | no longer wanted to marry her. I told her

this

 

because my dreams were filled with a tiny green-

eyed sprite

 

who nagged me and stood up to me in a way no

other

 

woman would dare to do.” “You broke it off with her

over

 

me?” She thought it had been his inability to walk.

“She said

 

—” “She convinced herself I had done it for her and

that

 

when I started walking again, I would want her back.

I didn’t.

 

I don’t. I only want you, Gianna.” She stared at him,

her

 

chest tight with emotion. His expression was more

senous

 

than she’d ever seen it. “I love you.” “You can’t,” she

said,

 

crying again. “Mi amore bella, I can and I do. You

are my

 

heart. My life. Without you, nothing matters. I did not

tell you

 

of my love because I was afraid. Afraid I would not

walk

 

again. Afraid ifl did, I would not be able to perform

as man

 

—” “Even if you were paralyzed from the neck down

for the

 

rest of your life, you would still be everything a man

should

 

be to me,” she said stopping his flow of words.

 

His eyes closed and he shuddered. Then they

opened and he

 

kissed her gently. “A man would give his very life for

that

 

kind of love, amore. It is so beautiful, so real, I

thought I

 

could not match it.” “But now you can?” she asked,

desperately hoping the answer would be yes. “I

realized I

 

could yesterday morning during the lUl. You were

hurting

 

and I knew that no matter the sacrifice, I would

never allow

 

you to hurt like that again.” She didn’t think it was the

time

 

to remind him that childbirth wasn’t exactly painless.

She

 

had the feeling he’d decide to adopt and she wanted

to have

 

his bambini. His hands cupped her face and his

eyes grew

 

suspiciously bright. “I love you, tesoro, with all that I

am and

 

ever will be. You are the other half of my soul and I

thank il

 

buon Dio for that mugger and the driver of the car

that hit

 

me because if it had not happened, I would have lost

you,

 

the only treasure worth having in my life.” Her heart

almost

 

stopped beating. “You can’t mean that.” “Si. | now

 

understand my mother’s views. She knew I would be

miserable with Chiara, that my life with you would be

superior in every way. What is a little pain, a little

work in

 

the face of such a gift as your love?” She would not

have

 

used little to describe the work or pain he’d gone

through.

 

“You could have had my love without it.” He wiped at

the

 

wetness below her eyes with gentle fingers. “You

would have

 

given it yes, but I was not ready to receive it. l was

anded

 

to your beauty and how important you have always

beenin

 

my life.” She would never agree with him or his

mother that

 

the accident was a good thing. It had hurt him too

much, but

 

she would not deny the joy his words placed in her

heart. “I

 

love you.” “Si. You can never say this too often, mi

amore.”

 

So she said it again, and again, and again,

interspersed with

 

kisses until they reached their home and continued

saying it

 

far into the night as he gave the words back to her in

both

 

action and voice.

 

The blessing of their marriage was everything an

Italian

 

mother could want it to be. Renata spared no effort

In

 

making sure every wedding tradition was observed.

This

 

included her daughter-in-law wearing a traditional

white

 

gown for the blessing ceremony and the lace

mantilla

 

Gianna had tried on the day Rico stood for the first

time

 

since the accident. Doing his part to provide as

much

 

authenticity to the occasion as possible, Rico

insisted on

 

taking Gianna away for a honeymoon. When they

reached

 

the luxury hotel in Switzerland and were once again

behind

 

the closed door of their room, she expressed her

love for him

 

in the most intimate way she could. Remembering

his

 

fascination with her hair, she unbound it and used it

like he

 

had taught her, painting his body with erotic strokes,

eventually driving him to a passionate, almost

bruising

 

possession. Afterward, they lay entwined whispering

words

 

of love in Italian and English. “My baby, it is here. |

feel it.”

 

Rico laid his big hand over her stomach. She smiled

mistily.

 

“I do, too.” “I love you, tesoro.” “No more than I love

you,

 

caro.”

 

Eight months later, they were proved right when she

gave

 

birth to paternal twins. Rico was convinced he was

so potent

 

for her that both the lUl procedure and their making

love had

 

borne fruit. Who was she to doubt him? Her love had

brought

 

him back from a living death, why couldn’t his love

conceive

 

life not once, but twice in her womb?

 

THE END

 

Books Lucy Monroe

Whimzy View All →

People build their lives through reading, I live my life through reading.

Feedback is always welcome :)

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s