‘GUESS who’s coming tonight!’
Emma smiled at the excitement in her mother’s voice as Lydia Hayes replaced the phone receiver.
‘Half of Melbourne are coming!’
The party was all her mother had spoken about for the past few weeks, Emma’s father’s sixtieth birthday, and the intimate dinner they had initially planned had swelled to marquee proportions! Every inch of their sweeping bay view home had been commandeered to maximum effect, with the marquee open to reveal Port Phillip Bay in all its glory, and even the weather had obliged, with a clear sky allowing for city views. The dance floor had been laid, the band was setting up, caterers were milling, and Lydia was rattling with nerves as the hour approached. But the telephone call had, momentarily at least, halted her nerves.
‘We’ve got an unexpected guest!’ Lydia clasped her hands in delight. ‘Go on, Emma, guess who.’
‘Mum…’ Emma wailed, wrapped in a towel and painting her toenails. Having spent the day helping her mother prepare, she was already racing against the clock to be ready.
‘Just tell me.’
A smudge of red nail varnish streaked across Lydia’s little toe. Pulling out a cotton bud, she dabbed at the area, refusing to let on that it mattered a jot that Zarios was coming tonight.
Oh, but it did.
Zarios—the single word that sent a tingle up every woman’s spine. A man who didn’t need to use his high-profile surname to be instantly recognisable.
His scowling but effortlessly beautiful face often appeared in the gossip columns. His reputation with women was appalling—so much so that it was a wonder, after so many blistering articles written on the man, that any woman might even consider getting involved with him.
Oh, but they did—over and over they did. And without fail it always ended in tears—or, to be more exact, the woman’s tears.
‘Why?’ Curiosity got the better of Emma, and, screwing back the top on her nail varnish, she just couldn’t stop herself asking.
Their fathers might be best friends, but why would Zarios D’Amilo even entertain the thought of coming to her father’s celebration? Shouldn’t he be sleeping with some supermodel on a Saturday night? Or crossing the equator on the way to some exclusive star-studded function? Certainly not on his way to celebrate Eric Hayes’s sixtieth birthday.
Rocco D’Amilo had arrived in Australia nearly half a century ago, at eleven years of age. The son of Italian immigrants, he had been teased and goaded in his first hellish days at school. Unable to speak English, his lunchbox full of smelly meat, he had been an easy target, until Eric Hayes, who had suffered his own share of teasing in his time, had blackened the eye of the ringleader. The unlikely pair had been firm friends ever since.
Rocco had started out his working life as a builder, Eric as a real estate agent, and they had remained in touch even when Rocco had taken his young bride and new baby son back to Italy. They had been best man at each other’s weddings, godparents at christenings, and their friendship had been the support Rocco needed when his young wife had walked out on her husband and four-year-old child.
Eric had done well for himself over the years and a few wise property investments meant his family lived comfortably. He had followed the ‘worst house, best street’ rule, and had bought a rundown home on a rundown acre in an exclusive beachside suburb, refurbishing it slowly until it gleamed with the same majesty as its view. Rocco, too, had achieved success, both here and in Rome, yet it was his son Zarios who had turned the family business into the empire it was today. His father’s strong work ethic, combined with a private school education and a brilliant brain, had proved a dizzying recipe for success.
Zarios had emerged from university with big plans, which he had rapidly implemented, turning the modest but successful building company into a global property and finance company. D’Amilo Financiers had multiple branches throughout Europe and Australia and was stretching its golden fingers ever further across the globe. Now, with Rocco’s retirement imminent, Zarios was expected to officially take the helm.
If only he would behave!
‘He’s on a final warning!’ Even though there were only the two of them in the room, Lydia spoke in a loud whisper. ‘Your father was telling me that apparently the board are sick of Zarios’s caddish ways. They’re uncomfortable with the prospect of him being the majority shareholder…’
‘That’s up to Rocco, surely…?’ Emma frowned.
‘Rocco’s fed up with him, too. He’s given that boy everything, and look how Zarios repays him. If the rest of the directors band together…’ Lydia’s voice lowered another octave ‘…and it sounds as if they might now. If the rumours that Zarios has split up with Miranda are true—she was his one saving grace.’
‘They were only going out four months!’ Emma pointed out.
‘Which is a long time in dog years!’
Oh, how they laughed at that.
Emma’s parents infuriated her at times—most of the time, in fact. The blatant preference they had for Emma’s brother Jake, the way they repeatedly dismissed her career choice, as if by being an artist she didn’t have a real job, and yet she adored them. Her mother was, and always had been to Emma, the funniest woman she knew.
And wrapped in a towel, doubled over in laughter as her mother hooted with mirth and the early evening sun dipped lower over the bay, drenching the living room in gold, somehow, on some level, Emma knew that this moment was precious.
She could have had no idea how precious, rich and good life was that gorgeous summer evening. No idea how many times she’d find herself playing it over and over again.
‘Come on!’ Dabbing her eyes, Lydia hurried her daughter up. ‘Where on earth can I put him?’
‘He’s staying the night?’ Emma’s eyes widened at the very thought of Zarios D’Amilo sleeping here in this house.
‘Yessss!’ Lydia hissed, the joking well and truly put aside now, as her already high stress levels rocketed. ‘I knew Rocco was—but Zarios! He’ll have to have your room!’
‘He jolly well won’t.’
‘We can hardly give him the trundle bed in the study—Jake’s squeezed into his old room, Rocco’s in the guestroom…Zarios will have to have yours. Come on, it’s time to get dressed,’ Lydia said, refusing to debate the point, buoyed at the prospect of having such a high-profile guest. ‘My friends are going to simply die with jealousy—can you imagine Cindy’s face when she finds out? You did buy something nice for tonight, I hope?’
‘Like a bridal gown?’ Emma said, firmly tongue in cheek.
‘Well, he has broken up with Miranda!’
Emma’s sarcasm was entirely wasted on her mother. Lydia Hayes had spent her married life clinging on to the middle rung of the social ladder, and was determined that her children would rise to the heights she had never achieved.
‘Australia’s most eligible bachelor is joining us to celebrate your father’s sixtieth birthday, Emma. Surely you’re just a little bit excited?’
‘Of course I’m excited.’ Emma smiled. ‘About Dad’s birthday…’
‘Get ready, then,’ Lydia chided, and then, wincing slightly, massaged her temples. ‘They’ll be arriving soon…’
‘Mum, calm down.’
‘What if they’re expecting something spectacular?’
‘Then we’ll wheel out Zarios!’ Emma smiled again, but her mother was past jokes. ‘They’re expecting a birthday celebration, which this is,’ Emma said, walking across the lounge and taking her mother’s hands from her temples and holding them. ‘They’re coming to see you and Dad. That’s all that matters.’
‘Jake’s not even here yet!’ Lydia trilled. ‘My own son can’t make it on time. Do you think he’ll have remembered to order the pastries for breakfast?’ Emma could hear panic once again creeping into her mother’s voice and moved quickly to avert it.
‘Of course he’ll have remembered. You go and sort out fresh sheets for my bed, and I’ll go and get ready. And,’ she added with a wry smile, ‘I’ll give my room a quick tidy!’
Her bedroom was exactly the same as it had been seven years ago, when she’d left home to go to university to study art. Emma loved coming back and staying in her old room, amongst her old familiar things, but this evening she eyed it somewhat critically, wondering what Zarios would make of the paintings that adorned the walls, the curtains she had tye-died herself when she was twelve, the tatty overfilled bookshelves and the dressing table laden with childhood photos.
Emma had always intended to wear something nice for her father’s special night. Her tiny broom cupboard of an art gallery was in Chapel Street in Melbourne, and as well as her gallery the street boasted an array of designer boutiques. Slipping on the cerulean blue dress, Emma wondered what on earth had possessed her. It had caught her eye in the window—the shade of blue almost a replica of the view of the bay from her parents’ balcony. The price had been an instant dissuader, yet the assistant had suggested Emma at least try it on. Staring at her reflection, Emma let her teeth worry away at her bottom lip as she wondered if it wasn’t just a bit too much.