A lot of things had changed.
‘This was actually,’ he continued, casting a thoughtful glance towards the cottage, ‘always more Luiz’s place than Rosa’s—too close to the home she wanted to escape. Rosa was a city girl at heart. She used to say the cosmopolitan buzz fed her artistic juices, though she loved the light in the studio here. For Luiz rebuilding the place virtually stone by stone when they first married was a labour of love—I helped out a bit.’
Nell’s eyes widened in comprehension. She recalled his reluctance to enter and now she knew why: this had been the home he had shared with his wife.
‘Even though everyone knows that Luiz will inherit when Doña Elena dies—’
‘They do?’ Nell felt uneasy, but thought it a strong possibility he was just quoting Luiz.
‘Of course. Who else is there…Felipe?’ Francesco suggested with a good-natured smile. ‘It’s just if he lost all his money tomorrow, a stretch I know, but if it happened I think if he had to choose one place, one piece of property, to keep intact I think it would be this place. Not worth much financially but it carries so many memories.’
‘He doesn’t come across as a sentimental man. You knew Rosa?’
Francesco’s brows lifted. ‘I’m her brother. I thought you knew.’
Nell’s eyes fell. ‘Sorry, no, I didn’t.’ The extent of her ignorance was becoming more obvious with each passing second, also the extent of her misjudgement. Could it be true? Had Luiz been telling the truth all along?
‘Don’t worry, I’m fine with you being here,’ he added, clearly misinterpreting her discomfort. ‘I’ve been telling Luiz for years now that he can’t live in the past. He needs a woman and coming back here with you is obviously his way of laying old ghosts. You’re obviously very good for him.’
Nell, blushing madly, shook her head. ‘Not me, I’m not his woman, I’m…’ She thought about the ring on her finger that felt like a burning brand and closed her mouth. Explanations were only going to make things look worse.
Francesco smiled, and taking her hand between the two of his, bowed slightly over it. ‘Don’t worry about me. I understand…’
You so don’t, thought Nell.
‘Your secret is safe with me.’
‘No secret,’ she promised, hardly daring to imagine what he was thinking.
‘And when you’re ready to go public I’ll be the first to toast you both. Luiz is one of my favourite people, and I’ve a lot to thank him for, but you know Luiz—he runs a mile from gratitude and he doesn’t like anyone to know about his good deeds.’ His tone grew reminiscent as he continued. ‘We grew up together, Luiz, Rosa and I. Our family had been tenants on the estate for generations. My father still has a farm near the castillo. I took over a vineyard about a mile away from here five years ago or so. Luiz’s investment has meant—’ He stopped abruptly in a manner guaranteed to excite Nell’s curiosity, then finished, ‘Let’s just say I owe him.’
Nell listened to his confidences, her dismay growing.
‘I always knew he would be successful, but the great thing about Luiz is he doesn’t forget his old friends no matter how many billions he makes.’
Billions…? Before Nell opened her mouth to extract further details Luiz appeared.
‘Are you ready to go?’
Nell, who hadn’t heard his approach, turned and saw his dark gaze was trained on her hand still enfolded in Francesco’s warm grip. The expression glowing in those dark depths was openly hostile.
Blushing, Nell pulled her hand away then immediately regretted her guilty response—she had nothing to feel guilty about, if of course you excluded a night of passion with a tall, dark stranger. She glared at Luiz and flashed a smile of particular warmth at Francesco.
‘I was the one who was waiting,’ she reminded him, thinking, Billionaire?
Francesco, oblivious to the undercurrents, smiled. ‘I’ll be seeing you again very soon, I hope.’ His smile included Nell as he clapped Luiz on the back.
Nell thought about the return journey alone with Luiz and her face dropped. ‘Aren’t you coming?’
‘It’s only a short walk back over the fields for me. Luiz will send the car back.’ He caught Nell’s hand, brushed the back of it with his lips in a courtly gesture and, with a wave, headed off in the direction he had indicated.
In the car Luiz waited for Nell to fasten her seat belt before he started the engine. He slid the car into gear, then with a muttered imprecation slid it into neutral and switched off the ignition.