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~ A PROPOSAL FROM THE ITALIAN COUNT ~

 

Count Vittorio Martelli is shattered by his father’s deathbed confession that he once tricked a million pounds out of his English friend, George Benton.  He begs his son to find a way to repay the money. after his death.  But when Vittorio goes to England he finds that Benton is dead and only his daughter Jackie is still alive.  Somehow he must repay her.

But Jackie is furious at the damage done to her father, and refuses to accept Vittorio’s money.

Rather than give up he persuades her to come to Rome with him, to help out in his store, and play the role of his girlfriend to discourage the women who chase after him.  Their relationship is tense and disturbing.  Partly they are foes.  Yet they are also falling in love, and the two sides are in conflict.  Will they ever find a way to reconcile their differences?


   

  

 

Vittorio and Jackie have just met.  He’s trying to work out a way to tell her the dreadful truth.

.........................................

   He led her to a table in the corner, summoned the waiter and ordered coffee.  When it was served he took a deep breath.

   ‘Signorina – ’

   ‘My name’s Jacqueline Benton.  People call me Jackie.’

   ‘Thank you – Jackie.’

   ‘Why did you want to talk to my father?

   ‘My own father knew him several years ago.’

   ‘Was he in the hardware trade too?’

   ‘No he was Count Franco Martelli.’

   He waited for her to react with delight as his status, as he was used to, but she only said ironically, ‘A Count?  You’re the son of a Count?  Come on, you’re joking.’

  ‘No I’m not.  Since my father died, I’m the Count.’

   She burst into a delicious chuckle.  ‘Who do you think you’re fooling?’

   ‘Why don’t you believe me?’

   ‘We don’t have posh people round here.  Anyway, you don’t look like a Count.  You look like a man selling goods out of a van.  Let’s have the truth.  What are you trying to persuade me to buy?’

   He regarded her with teasing irony.  ‘I’m trying to persuade you to see me as an honest man.’

   She gave another chuckle. ‘You’ve got a way to go before you achieve that.  Do you think I was born yesterday?  There’s no way my father was friends with an aristocrat.  If he’d moved in those circles we wouldn’t have been so poor.’

   ‘But was he really poor?  He managed to start his own business.’

   ‘He took on an enormous debt to buy the shop. And it was a big mistake.  He never really made the profit he needed and we always lived on the edge of poverty.’

  ‘That must have been a very sad life for you,’ Vittorio said uneasily.

  ‘Not for me as much as for Daddy,  It destroyed his marriage to my mother.  She hated being poor and resented him for it.  In the end she left him for another man, one who had money.’

   ‘Didn’t she take you with her?’ Vittorio asked, aghast,

   ‘Not a chance.  She went off leaving Daddy and me alone together.  For years we had only each other.  I adored him.  He was a lovely man, sweet natured, generous. I went to work in the shop, to help him.  It wasn’t the life I’d planned.  I’d dreamed of going to university, being a scholar.  But I couldn’t abandon him.

   ‘He was the most generous man.  Despite being so poor he had a list of charities he gave money to every month.  Most of them were for animals, some for sick people.  He used to say that however little we had, we were luckier than them.

   ‘We survived for a while. But in the end he was forced to sell.  The new owner offered me a job and I took it so that I had some money to look after Daddy. I did all I could for him but it wasn’t enough.  I could see he was coming apart inside.  A couple of years ago he had a heart attack, and died.’

   Vittorio dropped his head, staring at the floor.  In his worst nightmares he’d never imagined anything as bad as this.  If George Benton had received the money that should have been his everything would have been different for him.  He might even be alive now.

   ‘It was hard on you too,’ he said.  ‘No university.  What kind of scholar did you want to be?’

   ‘I wanted to study languages.  They just seem to come easily to me.’

   He leaned back, regarding her wryly.

   Buon per te, signorina. La maggior parte delle persone non possono far fronte con le lingue.’

   He spoke in Italian.  His words meant, ‘Good for you signorina.  Most people can’t cope with languages.’

   She returned his ironic look, saying,

   ‘Ma posso. Servirà giusto per mettermi alla prova.’

   Meaning, ‘But I can.  Serve you right for teasing me.’

   ‘Wow!  I’m impressed.’

   ‘Italian is the language I manage best.  Daddy loved it ever since he went to Italy.’

   ‘He told you about that visit?’

   ‘Yes, he said it was such fun.’

   ‘Did he never mention meeting my father?’ he asked.

   ‘He mentioned an Italian friend.  They met in Italy. And then again in England a few weeks later.  From what Daddy said I gather they took to each other at once and enjoyed having fun in the same way.’

   Vittorio nodded.  ‘Yes I remember Papa saying something like that - evenings out, enjoying a drink, fooling with the girls.’

   ‘Daddy said things like that too.  We could really talk to each other.  I loved telling him things.  I still do.’

   ‘Still do?  Even now?’

   ‘Yes, that sounds odd, doesn’t it?  He’s dead but I still confide in him, ask his advice if I have problems.’

   ‘Does he give you advice?’

   ‘In a way.  Ideas come into my head and I have the strangest feeling that they come from him.’

   ‘I know what you mean,’ Vittorio said quietly.  ‘It’s like having a friendly ghost who’s always there, always ready to help you.’

   She stared at him in delight.  ‘Your father too?’

   ‘Yes.  When he died I was devastated.  I didn’t want him to go away.  And he hasn’t.’

   ‘And he won’t,’ Jackie said.  ‘He’ll stay as long as you want him.  You have to tell him that you need him always.  That’s what he wants to hear.’  She saw him giving her a quizzical look and said, ‘That’s what Daddy likes to hear, and I think it must be the same with you.’

   She was right, he thought.  It was strange how she understood something he’d never been able to confide in anyone before.  He found himself saying things that he’d never dreamed of saying to anyone else, and a feeling of warmth and ease was creeping over him.

   ‘I think our fathers must have been much alike,’ he said.

   ‘Yes.  They both understood their children and wanted their children to understand them.  I could always talk to Daddy, knowing that he’d understand and be sympathetic.  Was that how it was with your father?’

   ‘A little.  He was a generous man, although he did one thing that he shouldn’t.  He only told me about it when he was dying.’

   ‘But we all do something that we shouldn’t.  Daddy was like that too.  And when they were alive that likeness must have helped them become friends.  They sound like a pair of ‘bad boys’ – but in the nice sense.  They must have had a lot of fun.  Daddy enjoyed taking chances, and they wouldn’t even have met if he hadn’t been lucky.  He entered a contest where the first prize was a free trip to Italy, and he won.  He loved contests and was always entering them.  He said winning prizes was in his DNA, and he did seem to have a talent for them.  Oh dear, you’ve spilt your coffee.  Was that my fault?’

   ‘Not at all,’ Vittorio said in a tense voice.  ‘My hand just shook.  I can’t think why.’

   Jackie stared at him, puzzled at the tension she could suddenly sense in him. What was there in this friendly conversation to trouble him?

   He looked up and she saw something that took her breath away.  There was an intensity in his gaze as though nothing but herself existed in the world.  It was something she’d never seen in any man’s eyes before, and she became suddenly conscious of the soft thump of her own heartbeat.

   Why had he contrived this meeting?  What did he want of her?

   ‘Have you got something on your mind?’ she asked.

   ‘Yes, I need a drink.  How about champagne?’

   She agreed gladly, but the champagne was only for her.  For himself he ordered whisky.

   ‘You really need that don’t you?’ she said.  ‘What’s troubling you?’

   He drained his glass, needing the courage it gave him.

   ‘I’ve got something to say that won’t be easy,’ he said.

   She waited, but the silence stretched on as though talking was suddenly impossible.

   ‘Whatever do you want to say?’ she asked.

   ‘The fact is that your father won a contest that he never knew about.  His lottery ticket won a million pounds.’

   ‘What?  But he never told me.’

   ‘He never knew.  They were out together one night.  Your father got tipsy and he was dozing away when the results were announced.  When he awoke my father had taken the winning ticket from him, and he kept it.’

   ‘Wait a minute, what are you saying?  You can’t meant that he didn’t tell Daddy he’d won.  That would be dishonest, and I’m sure he wasn’t.’

   ‘In a way you’re right.  It was the only dishonest thing he ever did, and it tormented him.  He told me about it just before he died, and made me promise to find George Benton and sort things out.’

   She was staring at him as though unable to believe what was happening.  Her face was deathly pale as she said,

   ‘Sort things out?  What do you mean by that?’

   ‘I planned to pay him a share of the money – half a million pounds.  I hoped it would make everything all right.’

   ‘You hoped what?’ she said furiously.  ‘You really hoped things could be all right after so many years?  After my father suffered so much from poverty and the way it made his wife abandon him.  After the way he died in despair.  You think money is going to put anything right?’

   ‘I didn’t mean it that way,’ Vittorio said tensely.

   ‘Oh yes you did.  You think money can solve everything, but when a man’s dead it can’t solve anything at all.  You don’t understand that, do you?  Hand over a cheque and everything’s settled.  Maybe that’s true in business but not in real life.  But you don’t know anything about real life, do you?’

   ‘Jackie please, let me explain.  I only want to – ’

   ‘Only want to make yourself feel good.’

   ‘I don’t think money solves everything, but I’d like to give you what I owe – ’

   ‘Forget it.  I wouldn’t take money from you if I was starving.  Now I’m leaving.  Don’t dare to follow me.’

   He’d reached out a hand to stop her, but something fierce in her manner made him draw back.

   ‘Please – ’ he began.

   ‘No.  Don’t you understand?  No!’

   Then she was gone, leaving him in a state of total confusion and misery.  Nothing had worked out as he’d intended.

   I’m sorry, Papa. he said to the unseen presence he felt beside him.  I did try but I made a terrible mess of it.

   He paid his bill and went out into the street, walking back in the direction of the shop.  There was no sign of her.

   There was nothing to do but return to the hotel, go to bed and do some serious thinking about what he was going to do next.  But he found that serious thinking was very little help in a situation he didn’t understand, and at last he fell asleep.

 

 

 

 

From the book A Proposal from the Italian Count

Copyright © 2017 Lucy Gordon

Cover Copyright © Harlequin Enterprises Limited. ® and tm are trademarks of the publisher.  The edition published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.
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~ a taste of italy at home ~