The maid laughed. ‘It’s all taken care of. Come. Anyone would think you didn’t want to get married!’
The maid pulled at her hands gently and she went along with her through the hallway, where the tables were now overflowing with huge arrangements of white roses, gardenias and lilies. The staircase that swept down to the ground floor was dotted with simple, voluminous white satin bows, and all along the passageway to the glass-walled garden room ivy and roses trailed prettily above elegant arrangements of candles.
In less than three hours those seats would be filled with the great and the good of international high society—and a scattering of London artists.
She and Raffaele would stand before God and make promises and she would mean every word—because she knew now that nothing would be the same again. No man could fill every pore of her being with love the way this man did. He would slip a ring on her finger and they would kiss and it would all be one big loveless transaction.
She walked into the master bedroom where the four-poster bed was draped in the finest ivory silk. She walked past the mannequin that held her dress and wished that she were as wooden. She walked past the beauticians, who beamed as they arranged their make-up boxes, brushes and pots into a garish rainbow.
On she went into the bathroom. Through the steam she saw the huge egg-shaped bath on gilt feet, two-thirds full of water and slick with scented oil that she knew would be absolutely perfect.
Everything in her world was absolutely perfect. Almost.
She slipped her feet out of her slippers, stood beside the bath and allowed herself to be disrobed.
When she stepped out of the bath she’d be ready to become a wife. A wife to Raffaele, the most eligible man in the media world. The most eligible man in Italy. Handsome, enigmatic and wealthy beyond her wildest dreams. A man of immense honour and integrity. A man who would sacrifice his own happiness for the sake of others. A man whose nearness set her body ablaze, whose lips could caress her into a frenzy of longing. A man whose mind and heart she loved dearly.
She stepped in the water and sank down into its warmth. Sank down miserably into her fate.
Because no matter how they dressed her up, and dressed up this house, no matter how happy her mother was and how much her baby needed a father, marrying a man who did not love her back was just not right.
How could she live with herself?
She sat there, refusing offers of help until the water began to get chilly. Her breasts were larger than ever and her belly huge. She ran her hands over her skin, touching the shape of her child, feeling for his little foot or elbow, sighing her love through her tears and wishing that the love she could give him would be enough.
But it wouldn’t.
Finally the staff began to muster like a pack of anxious puppies. She couldn’t put it off any longer. She must get out of the bath and get dressed.
They were prattling on in Italian—she was beginning to pick up more every day—and then she heard a new voice, a different tone. The housekeeper.
The signor still wasn’t here. He might not be coming. Should they interrupt the signorina?
What if he didn’t come? She’d known it was too good to be true. What if he didn’t want to go ahead with it? What if….
Coral’s eyes flew open. She pulled herself up to her feet. The water sloshed around her and over the sides of the bath, landing on the tiled floor in one big splash. The door burst open and the maids appeared, looking shocked.
‘Di cosa stai parlando? Dov’e?’ Coral demanded. ‘What do you mean, he might not be coming? Where is he? How dare you stand out there gossiping?’
The maids rushed forward, crying out apologies and trying to wrap her up in towels.
‘Please, signora, please get ready. It’s just silly gossip. It means nothing. You must get dressed. You’re so cold. Please.’
They bustled her through the bathroom and into the dressing room, which had miraculously been cleared of staff. They sat her on the bed like a marionette and she let them dry her.
‘But why isn’t he here? What has happened?’
She stared around the room. Everything was set out for the preparation of the bride. Everything in its place, waiting to be painted or curled or puffed into life. Waiting for the moment she would meet her groom.
But there was no groom.
‘What will I do if he doesn’t come?’
She was thinking aloud, mumbling her words, struggling to come to terms with all that was unravelling around her.
‘Of course he’ll come. He’s always so busy. He must have so much to do before he comes for you. You’re so lovely, signorina. He must love you so very much. You and the little bambino.’
They smoothed lotions on her legs and arms, massaging her gently, chattering away. But she saw them exchanging glances nervously. Anxiously preparing her for a wedding that might not take place.