Like a hot air balloon breaking free of its ties, his heart began to float upwards. Never before had he felt the grasp of joy so close at hand.
He looked at her. What an amazing woman… Every bit Giancarlo’s daughter, but so much more. She had more courage than her father. She would have gone ahead with motherhood alone—done it all without him. She could have turned her back on him and he would not have found it in his heart to hate her for it. But she was giving them all a chance to be together. He could see that so clearly and it filled him with love.
He felt the rush of the words in his mouth, but he stopped himself. Never before had he used them. He wasn’t afraid to say it, but he’d never found a woman he felt he could love. His mother had been his Madonna, and mortal women just didn’t come close.
Strong, beautiful, courageous Coral.
She was surely the one woman in the world for him. And she was going to marry him. Grudgingly, and only for the sake of their son, but she was going to marry him.
He couldn’t tell her that he loved her straight away. He would have to be sure he didn’t frighten her—or horrify her, the way he had when he’d proposed. Things were just beginning to fall into place. There was nothing to be gained from rash, emotional declarations now.
He steeled himself, reeling his feelings back in, closing them down and feeling reassuring self-containment descend upon him once again.
For a few moments the peaceful sounds of a couple breakfasting were all that could be heard, and that felt good. This was what it was going to be like. A normal, happy little family…
Then, with a whoosh of air, the maid opened the French doors just as the heavy throb of a jet’s engines roared its arrival. It tore through the quiet morning and they both turned their faces upwards, watching for a moment as the plane circled and then began to land.
Raffaele’s buoyant heart sank with each hundred feet of the plane’s descent.
‘He’s here already?’ said Coral, turning to him, a look of resigned dread on her face.
‘Looks like it,’ he replied. ‘It has to be done, Coral. Things will feel better when this last piece of the jigsaw is in place.’
‘I hope you’re right,’ she said. ‘But something tells me the grand family reunion might not turn out to be what I imagine.’
She stood then, and shook her hair in that lioness way she had. She smoothed her hands over her bump and only then did he notice a slight tremor. Her fingers were shaking. She was right on the edge. Dear God, but he so wanted to hold her, kiss her, love her the way his gut was telling him to.
‘I’d better go and get ready. I’m twenty-five years late as it is.’
‘Coral—’ he said. But he spoke into the air.
She was already halfway to the door, thanking the maid warmly and then heading off down the hallway.
He turned and stared out through the open French doors, then in two strides made his way through them and out into the morning.
This was a meeting that was long overdue.
Once more he trotted down the cliffside path and along the curve of the bay to the old villa. The sky was clear and the morning brisk and fresh. His head was leaden with lack of sleep, but he knew that each step brought him closer to the end of his hurt and the beginning of his happiness.
The dogs trotted by his side, as they always did. Their ears were back—they felt the strain, too. Through the patchy scrub of the hedgerows a motorbike thundered past.
He felt the fist around his heart tighten.
He mounted the steps to the portico, clicked his fingers and the dogs dropped to the ground. But even as he entered he could feel the buzz of tension that Salvatore always carried with him.
The whole house was on edge. Staff scuttled past him, their eyes flicking him a smile but their heads bowed. He walked on through the hallway—past the Testinos and the ghosts of the fashion shoot.
He found him in the lounge, his face buried in his phone.
‘What do you make of this place? Amateurs—all of them,’ he said, barely glancing up. ‘I fly two thousand miles and Chef isn’t even here with my favourite dishes. He’s at yours, I’m told. What’s going on, Raffa? You don’t normally pull rank.’
Raffaele walked in slowly, taking his place in the centre of the room.
‘You were expected tonight. We arrived last night, so Chef was with us. This morning I had fruit on my porridge. It made a pleasant change.’
‘We? Us?’ Salvatore said uninterestedly.
He threw himself down on the leather sofa and lay back, his dirty heels on the white calfskin—a pathetic little act of defiance against Giancarlo’s rules. But he didn’t raise his eyes, and for once Raffa let it slide.