That was the way she had wanted it.
But, as Luca pointed out, their stories needed to tally. She screwed up her courage, and then suddenly he came up with a compromise.
‘Okay—I’ll tell my mother you don’t like talking about it.’
‘About what?’ she asked, bewildered.
‘Anything I don’t know the answer to,’ he said, pleased— that he’d managed to eke out a smile from her. ‘We have been seeing each other for a couple of months,’ Luca said, ‘since you came and worked for me. We have both decided that working together is too much, so you will be finishing up soon.’
‘To do what?’
Luca shrugged—trying to think what his girlfriends actually did all day.
‘Please!’ Emma snorted with laughter. ‘If I’m to convincingly play the part of your devoted girlfriend, then at least there has to be a semblance of me in there. So…’ She chewed on her lip and tried to imagine a world where this man loved her, tried for the first time to actually picture a world with herself and Luca as a couple, and glimpsed the impossible—being the sole recipient of his affection.
Yet even if it was impossible, it was still fun pretending.
‘I’m applying to study art, you’re organising a studio for me in your apartment, in that big room at the back that you don’t use. It’s supposed to be a surprise, but unbeknown to you I’ve guessed.’
‘Are you good?’ Luca asked. ‘At art?’
‘I’ve just started night school. My dad didn’t like me pursuing…’ Her voice faded for a moment, realising now why he might have hated that side of her so, but she refused to dwell on it, it was just too big to deal with right now. ‘Oh, and by the way…’ She gave him a wry smile. ‘Just in case it comes up in the conversation, today’s my birthday.’
‘Really?’ Luca frowned. ‘You should have said.’
‘I just did.’
‘I am sorry to pull you away from your celebrations.’
‘You didn’t,’ Emma answered tartly. ‘It’s really no big deal.’
‘And how old is Emma today?’
‘She’s twenty-five!’ It made her blush to say it, with the information she’d so recently given him. She saw just the slight rise of one eyebrow, but thankfully he chose not to comment.
‘So what about you?’ she asked.
‘You know about me.’
‘I don’t know much about your family.’
‘My mother is Mia, my father is Rico. He was a policeman,— and you know about Daniela…’
‘And he’s sick…’ Emma probed. ‘Your father?’
‘And you don’t get on?’
He gave a tight shrug and clearly it was Luca now who didn’t want to talk about it!
‘Anything else I should know?’ she pressed.
‘Nothing.’ Luca shrugged. ‘As I said, my father was the village policeman, I went to boarding school from ten…’ He saw her frown at that. ‘That is usual where I come from, as the school in the village only goes up that age. It was all pretty normal really.’
‘Till their son became a billionaire.’ Emma smiled, but— then she was serious. ‘Why, Luca? Why do you hate them so—?’
‘Not Daniela,’ he interrupted. ‘And not my mother…’ He shook his head. ‘Let’s just do what we have to, smile, enjoy,— familia…’ He sneered the word. ‘Let’s just get through it.’
There was a bedroom at the rear of the plane, but for the relatively short flight to Italy he just tipped back his seat and stretched out and Emma did the same. Hoping her swollen eyes had settled, she took off her glasses and lay back.
‘I love these chairs,’ Emma commented. ‘I wish I had one at home.’
She squirmed in comfort as the attendant placed a soft warmed blanket over her.
‘If I ever have to bribe you I’ll remember that.’ Then he added, ‘Are you okay?’ when it took her a second too long to smile.
‘Because if you’re worried about what you told me yesterday—’ he was direct as always ‘—well, you don’t have to be—I’m not in anything for the long haul, and…’ he gave a slightly wistful smile ‘…if you’ve waited this long for it to be right, I do understand.’
‘I’m not upset about that,’ Emma said, because right now she wasn’t—Luca had wanted a fling and actually so now did she. She probably wasn’t very good fling material, but she’d deal with it. It really was good to just get away.
‘Then what are you so upset about?’ They were lying flat, facing each other. ‘You look as if you’ve been crying.’
‘Not about you,’ she retorted.
‘Good,’ Luca said, and he intended to keep it that way. ‘Here.’ He dug in his pocket and pulled out a black box and handed it to her as if it were a sweet. ‘You’d better put these on—if we were going out, I would have bought you nice gifts.’
‘Goodness!’ Emma gasped and held up two earrings, the huge teardrop diamonds sparkling. ‘They look so real.’
‘They are real,’ Luca said dryly.
‘I’d better not lose them then.’ She tried to sound as casual as him, but it felt strange to be holding his gift, strange to be lying beside him and very hard not to imagine that this was…
So she thought about other things instead. Silly things—like she used to when she was a child and couldn’t sleep, not the grown-up things that she thought of now.
The steward clipped belts loosely around them and on leaving them dimmed the lights. Luca closed his eyes, but smiled when she carried on talking.
‘It’s like being in an ambulance.’
‘Have you ever been in an ambulance?’
‘No,’ Emma admitted, but that didn’t deter her. ‘I’m in a coma, but I can hear, though no one knows it, and everyone I’ve ever fancied is going to dash to my bedside and beg me not to die, and say that they love me really.’
‘What are you talking about?’ He turned his head to face her again.
‘Don’t you do that?’ Emma blinked. ‘Make up stories before you go to sleep?’
‘What do you do?’ she asked curiously.
‘I close my eyes…’ he shrugged ‘…and I go to sleep.’
‘Just like that?’
‘So long as there is no one talking.’
He’d wondered what to expect—if she’d be miserable, angry, but instead she was just being Emma.
He was glad that she was there.
He could feel the familiar knot of tension tighten in his stomach as the plane sliced through the sky—the same knot he felt every time he came home, the same sick dread he had felt coming home from boarding school on the holidays.
The same sick dread he had felt every night as he had lain in bed as a child.
Luca breathed out, suddenly needing to swallow, sweat beading on his forehead as he willed sleep to come.
His father was old and weak and dying, there was surely nothing to dread now.
And then he saw it.
Like a dog dashing into the street, his mind swerved to avoid it, but his father’s fist was there, slamming into his mother’s face, the image so violent, so real it was as if his father’s fist had made contact with his own.
That horrible jump where you woke up with heart racing, only Luca knew that he hadn’t been asleep.
‘Luca?’ Emma murmured. She was almost asleep, though, he could tell from her voice, and knew because in her right mind Emma would never reach out and hold his hand.
It felt like weakness to take it.
But it helped, it actually helped.
‘WELCOME to our home.’
Landing at Palermo, Emma had enjoyed the helicopter ride that had taken them on the final leg of their journey to his small coastal village—and everywhere Emma looked the view was stunning. Houses perched on top of houses all staring out to the twinkling Mediterranean, and Luca’s family home was the jewel in the crown—the basic home had been lavishly extended, and every room was angled to take in the spectacular sea view.
Luca’s mother’s welcome was warm and effusive, pulling Emma into an embrace and kissing her on both cheeks, then guiding her through to a large terrace that ran the length of the house while chatting non-stop in her rich accent, alternating between English and Italian.
‘Luca!’ The squeals of delight from Daniela had Emma smiling, and he was far more pleased to see his sister than Emma’s own brothers ever were—hugging her warmly, teasing her about the face pack she was wearing and introducing her to Emma, who Daniela eyed with the same suspicious navy eyes as her brother, but she smiled and chatted in very good English, before drifting back to her bedroom to get ready for her big day.
‘Dove Pa?’ Luca asked.
‘Dorme,’ Mia said, and then translated for Emma. ‘He sleeps…Oh!’ She gave a warm smile as her husband entered. Tall and thin, his once raven hair peppered with silver, he would have cut an imposing figure in his time.