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Diana Fraser

An Accidental Christmas (PAPERBACK)

An Accidental Christmas (PAPERBACK)

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You can't always get what you want… you get what you need…


Ursula has given up on Christmas and is doing her level best to avoid it—family, presents, traditions—the whole package. Trouble is, when she becomes lost in the snowy mountains of Italy, with a car that won’t start, and nowhere to stay, she finds she’s landed in the midst of a traditional Christmas with no place to hide.

Widower Demetrio is devoted to his family, his land and tradition. And then he falls for Ursula—a beautiful woman from a very different world to his—and knows he has to get her to fall in love, not just with him, but his life. So he tempts her… one tradition in return for one more day together.

But can Demetrio’s traditions and love do the impossible? Can they make Ursula stop running from her emotions, and instead, embrace them? Enjoy a heart-warming escape to Italy and An Accidental Christmas!

Italian Romance
  1. The Italian’s Perfect Lover
  2. Seduced by the Italian
  3. The Passionate Italian
  4. An Accidental Christmas

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CHAPTER ONE

Ursula watched the sleek Ferrari, its front grill festooned with flowers and ribbons, drive away from the Montecorvio Rovella estate. There was a backward glance from both Alessandro and Emily, a wave, and then they were gone.
She sighed. Emily’s eyes had held hers momentarily before Alessandro had commanded her attention. They’d radiated happiness that only briefly dimmed when they’d caught Ursula’s gaze. Sympathy. She hated it.
“Now they are a couple in love.”
The woman speaking was hushed by her friend and turned round puzzled until she caught sight of Ursula. Ursula recognized her as Simone, an old friend of Alessandro’s whom she knew only slightly. Simone fell into step beside Ursula, as they walked over to the cars.
“So, are you returning to Sweden for Christmas?” Simone asked.
Ursula had been, but suddenly she couldn’t face it. Her father, stepmother and her teenage half-sisters wouldn’t miss her. They didn’t need her to complete their family at Christmas. Her married friends had extended kind invitations for Ursula to join them, but they all had their own families. They’d all be looking at her wondering why the girl they’d known at boarding school as “the girl likeliest to succeed,” was alone at Christmas.
She smiled—the smile that could always be counted on to disguise her real thoughts and emotions. “No. I thought I might stay in Italy.”
“Christmas with friends. Sounds good. Christmas with family is so often fraught with issues.”
Ursula nodded, unwilling to tell her that Christmas without family or friends was what she was seeking. “It makes a change.”
“Whereabouts are you going?”
Ursula thought quickly. “North.” She hoped the vague destination would suffice. She’d hoped wrong.
“The coast?”
“No.” Just the idea of retracing the holidays she’d had with Alessandro along Italy’s coast tightened the knot in her gut. “No,” she repeated more firmly. “The mountains.”
“Ah, good idea. You should stop off in Abbadia San Alexis on your way. It has amazing medieval buildings. And the frescoes—Emily would love them.” Simone stopped speaking abruptly, suddenly realizing what she’d said.
Ursula smiled. “It’s okay, you know. Emily and I are good friends. Alessandro and I broke up long before Emily came along.”
Simone’s relief was palpable. “Oh, yeah, I realize that. Anyhow, you should stop off in Abbadia if you’ve time.”
Ursula smiled again as she tried to hide the vast expanse of emptiness that had been resting deep inside, buried until now. It had taken the wedding of two of her closest friends to uncover it. “Sure. Well, I’d best be off.”
She said her goodbyes, and walked over to her rental car.
No-one was looking at her now, and she could allow the void which had been revealed at seeing Alessandro so in love with someone else, to find its place in the dead center of her heart. She didn’t have to pretend anymore. She was happy for Alessandro. She was. They weren’t just words to reassure everyone. But it had been Alessandro who’d called off their relationship; it had been Alessandro who hadn’t loved her enough, and it had been her who’d been left wondering why.
She couldn’t help it. She hadn’t been enough for him, she hadn’t been enough for her previous boyfriend who’d finished their relationship with a text and she doubted she’d be enough for anyone. Despite what all the school yearbooks stated, despite all the advances from people who shouldn’t be flirting with her, despite how busy she kept herself, there was an emptiness in the place where her heart should have been.
It had died a little with each rejection. Beginning with when she’d been sent to live with her grandparents as a child after her parent’s divorce, continuing with when she’d been packed off to an elite boarding school at eleven years of age, and sealed with the rejections of men who’d been unable, or unwilling, to see beyond the exterior she’d created to hide behind.
She needed to leave her world, just for a while. She needed to come to terms with the fact that she didn’t believe that emptiness would ever be filled.
She’d head north, as she’d told Simone. She suddenly remembered her friend Ruby would be in Florence for New Year. She’d find someplace to hide out for Christmas and then she’d go to Florence. Now, where was the place Simone had mentioned? She couldn’t remember, but it didn’t matter. She’d just drive.
* * *
The traffic was barely moving along the coastal highway. The rain, which had begun as soon as Ursula had left Naples, had turned to sleet, and red tail lights pierced the gloom as far as she could see. She checked her dashboard; the temperature had plummeted. Some holiday. At least she’d managed to contact Ruby and arrange to meet in early January. It was only just over a week away. She’d find something between now and then if she ever got out of this traffic jam, that was.
She peered at the unfamiliar gear stick, and crunched the car into gear as the line of traffic edged forward. She looked up just as the brake lights of the vehicle in front flared. She slammed on the brakes and sat, motor running, listening to yet another irritating Christmas song on the radio. Of course. What did she expect when she tried to drive through the rush hour at the beginning of the Christmas holiday season? The one time she decides to do something impromptu, and it backfires.
The traffic crawled briefly before stopping again. Ursula banged her fists impotently on the steering wheel. She couldn’t do this. It was making her crazy. All she wanted to do was put her foot hard on the accelerator and drive away from everything that was haunting her.
She gripped the wheel. She had to get off the main road. Anywhere. As a small road approached on the right, she signaled and turned into it. She didn’t even know where it was going. It was enough for her that it was leading away from Rome. She just wanted to drive, to follow her nose and stop only at nightfall where she could be away from everyone. Only her, in some anonymous, nameless hotel. There, she’d wait for Christmas to be over.
* * *
Lost in her thoughts as she negotiated the winding mountain road, away from all the traffic now, Ursula was hardly aware of the change in the light. The sleet had turned into airy snowflakes which drifted slowly down from an iron-gray sky. It wasn’t until she continued onwards, up through thickening trees—their branches already weighed down by snow—that the snow began to accumulate on the windscreen and Ursula realized this was more than just a passing snow shower. She peered out at the white world around her and smiled to herself as she absorbed its sheer beauty.
At a bend in the road, she pulled over into a siding, thick with newly fallen snow. She switched the engine off, and stepped out into a world of white. There was no sound, just the soft brush of giant snowflakes as they drifted down onto her upturned face. She laughed, unable to resist sticking out her tongue and tasting them, as she’d done as a child. The whiteness of the wooded valley, with its steep sides to which the road clung, was alleviated only by dark streaks on the sheltered side of the tree trunks, downwind from the snow. They looked as if they’d been touched by the brush of an artist.
Above the steep side of the mountain, with its forest of white-cloaked chestnut trees plunging down into the valley below, the view faded out into a snow-filled sky. It was an unspoiled landscape and a strangely calming one. She was glad she’d come, even if she was lost. She shivered, pulled her coat more tightly around her and stamped her feet which were beginning to numb with cold. Time to go. Climbing back into the car, she turned on the ignition but, instead of an engine roaring into life, there was only an ominous whirring sound that sent a sickening chill into her stomach.
She got out, opened up the bonnet and gave it a cursory look. Why, she didn’t know because she had no idea what she was looking for. She let it fall with a clang and looked around. The snow was settling deeper now, and no recent tracks disturbed its pristine beauty. For the first time, she felt a stab of concern. She tried her cell phone again. There was no reception. If only she’d paid more attention to the road signs giving a destination, or a historic site, anything that could have given her some sense of where she was in this landscape devoid of people or houses. But she hadn’t. She looked uphill to where the road disappeared around a corner, into a wall of white. It had to lead somewhere. She decided she’d walk for half an hour and, if there were no signs of life, she’d return to the car.
She grabbed her bags, locked the car and began walking, trundling the case behind her on the snowy road. Half an hour passed, and her light coat was wet through. Her boots were starting to chafe her feet, and not one car had gone by. The snow began to fall more heavily. She dragged the case behind her on the snowy road. Her Gucci handbag was soaked, she thought glumly. The suede would never recover.
Then she heard something. A rumbling. She stopped and turned around, but couldn’t see anything through the thickly falling snow. She shivered, whether through fear or cold she couldn’t have said. She rarely felt vulnerable, but she did now.
A puff of exhaust rose from around the bend, and a tractor emerged, its headlamps blinding in the snow, pulling behind it a trailer load of wood. It wasn’t until it drew up beside her that she saw the outline of a solitary man in the driver’s seat, seemingly oblivious to the cold and wet. She couldn’t see anything of him beneath the broad hat, and the turned-up collar of his thick coat.
“Caio!” he called.
“Caio!” she responded.
“Is that your car, a couple of miles back there?”
“Yes, it won’t start.”
“Climb up. I’ll take you to where you’ll get cellphone coverage. I can’t turn around on this road, but I’ll come back later and tow the car to town.”
“Thank you so much! I was beginning to think I’d have to spend the night in the car.”
“You might have had to if I hadn’t been late collecting wood.” He extended his hand, she gripped it and he pulled her up beside him. Face to face, she could see his eyes were as warm as the hand which enveloped hers. There wasn’t much room and, when she sat down, his leg pressed against hers. “You’re cold. You’d better get under this.” He dragged a blanket—an old dog blanket that had seen better days by the smell of things—from behind them. She covered herself gingerly, still shivering despite its scratchy protection. “My name is Demetrio Pecora.”
“Ursula. Ursula Adamsson.”
He released the brake, revved the accelerator and the tractor scrunched safely over the thick snow. As they rounded a bend in the road the wind increased, sending the snow shooting horizontally across their path. Ursula shivered, and pulled the blanket higher over her head, clasping it tightly around her neck. She glanced at Demetrio, whose only response to the sudden snow storm, was a narrowing of his eyes. With his eyes hidden, and a hat pulled low over his brow, all that was visible was the side of his face—tanned, a shadow of stubble and a strong jawline.
She looked away quickly, feeling uncomfortable with this enforced intimacy with a stranger who, she now realized, had the sort of looks more usually seen on the pages of a magazine. She looked around, trying to think of a topic of conversation. “That’s a lot of firewood you have in the back.”
He glanced at her, his lips curving into a smile. Her heart quickened, and she looked away, worried for the first time in a long time that she might blush. “Si. We’re big on bonfires here at Christmas.”
“And where is ‘here?’” She kept her eyes firmly on the snowy landscape.
“Abbadia San Alexis.”
The place she’d been advised to go earlier! Of course, it was.
She groaned. It seemed fate had decided where she was going, whether she liked it or not.
“Didn’t you know where you were?”
She considered for a moment. “You know? I think I probably did.”
They turned a corner, and he looked at her again and this time he didn’t look away. “That’s a strange answer.”
“This is a strange holiday.” She grinned. “Someone suggested I visit Abbadia San Alexis, but I hadn’t thought any more about it until I turned off the highway, trying to avoid the holiday traffic. And here I am anyway.”
“And here you are. With a stranger, on a tractor, under a dog’s blanket.”
“Yes. I couldn’t have planned this if I’d tried.”
“And you normally plan your life better?”
“Absolutely. My life is always planned. Until now, until these holidays, that is. But I think I’d better go back to planning, it’s more reliable.”
“Less interesting though.”
“Yeah, there is that.” She met his grin with one of his own, and she felt a low spreading warmth in the pit of her stomach.
“One thing planning is helpful with is accommodation. You have no accommodation booked, I assume?”
“You assume right. Do you think that’ll be a problem?”
“Si. We can try the hotels, but Abbadia San Alexis is well known for its Christmas festival, and the town is usually full over the holiday period. But we’ll sort something out.”
Ursula wondered how exactly this stranger was going to sort things out for her. She should be more worried but, for some inexplicable reason, she felt reassured, happy to cast her fate into the hands of this man. At least for now.
They eventually emerged from the chestnut forest into the medieval heart of Abbadia San Alexis—the square in front of the Abbey, which was full of people. Ursula realized why there was no one on the road—they were all here.
The square’s medieval and renaissance houses of gray stone appeared untouched by time. “It’s beautiful.”
“The abbey dates from the eleventh century. It used to be an important station on the Via Francigena, a pilgrim route from northern Europe to Rome. So we’re used to people passing through. Although most people know where they’re coming to,” he teased.
“The accidental pilgrim, that’s me. Maybe God has something special lined up for me.” She grinned.
His eyes lingered on her. “I wouldn’t be at all surprised.” The teasing note in his voice had disappeared. He pulled on the handbrake. “I have to drop off the wood. They need it for the bonfires, and then we’ll try the hotels.”
Ursula suddenly felt guilty. “You’ve done more than enough already. If you show me where to go, I can check out the hotels.”
“I’m sure you can. But I’d like to help.”
She began to protest. She had always been fiercely independent but, for once, she found herself nodding in agreement, persuaded by those melting brown eyes. “Okay, then. Thank you.”
The medieval square was alive with people of all ages. Some were busy building the bonfires while others milled around the street stalls, shouting encouragement to the bonfire builders.
Ursula watched as Demetrio unloaded the wood, depositing it in the center of the square. From here, others took it and began erecting a square-shaped bonfire. The big logs were placed in layers of around five meters high, and the smaller firewood was slotted in between. When the last of the logs had been unloaded, they stood back and watched as the huge bonfire began to take shape.
“How high will it be?” Ursula asked.
“Up to around 30 stacks. It has to burn until dawn.”
“Is it some kind of pilgrims’ tradition?”
“A villagers’ tradition. Every Christmas Eve we light fires. The Festival of Fiaccole Della Notte di Natale is said to have been going on for a thousand years. It’s meant to have started with the villagers who lived around the Abbey. They lit fires to warm themselves as they played out the role of the shepherds who followed the star on the night of Christ’s birth.”
“Wow. That’s very different to my hometown. The most traditional we get is buying expensive presents no one needs.”
“And where is your hometown? Somewhere in Sweden?”
“I’m surprised you recognize my accent.”
“I don’t. But you have a Swedish name. But you’re not from Sweden?”
“Oh yes, I was born there. But my accent left me years ago when I was sent to boarding school in England.”
He frowned. “Boarding school? That must have been tough. How old were you?”
“Eleven.” She shrugged, not wanting to turn back the clock and remember the desperate sadness she’d felt. “But that’s okay. I learned to be a citizen of the world, not restricted to one place. I travel with my job and have apartments in Stockholm and New York. I have no place I call home, and that’s how I like it.”
Her confident tone didn’t appear to convince him. “Really?”
“Yes, really. Anyway, what else happens here?”
He nodded, accepting her change of conversation. “We have a torch-lit parade which winds through the town. The torches are then used to light the stacks. We sing as we walk, obviously.”
“Obviously. A parade isn’t a parade without a song.”
“Exactly. I can see you understand our ways already. And then, of course, we eat and drink. The local enoteche are all open and provide wine, and there’s fantastic food in the cafés.”
“It sounds wonderful.”
“It is wonderful. Will you stay for the celebrations?”
She shrugged. “I’d love to, but I guess it depends on accommodation.”
“Let’s go and check it out. This way.” He guided her through the busy square to a hotel across from the abbey.
It seemed entirely natural as they made their way through the crowds for him to reach for her hand and for her to accept it. Otherwise, she reasoned, they’d have become separated. And she didn’t want to be lost twice in one day. And nor, it seemed, did he want to lose her.
The hotel was packed with tourists drinking at the bar. She followed Demetrio to the reception where he exchanged a few words in rapid Italian with the concierge whose shaking head and laughter made Ursula realize that she was out of luck.
“No room anywhere,” Demetrio explained. “But come, have a drink to warm yourself.”
“Thanks. But it’s beginning to get dark. I’ll need to get my car looked at.”
“Ursula, there’s no accommodation and certainly no garage mechanic who will leave his drink to venture into the mountains at this hour. No, come over to the fire while I get us some drinks.”
“But Demetrio, I need to find somewhere to stay even if I can’t get my car sorted.”
“What you’re overlooking is that you’ve found yourself a resourceful man, not only with a plan but also with parents who have a spare room.”
“Your parents? But—”
“Sit by the fire.” He shrugged off his wet jacket. “Here, you take this, and I’ll get you a drink, and then I’ll explain.”
Faced with the choice of trudging through the snow to stare helplessly at a car engine in the dark, or sitting by the fire and drinking with a handsome stranger, she decided her independence shouldn’t get in the way of reason. Not this time, anyway.
She peeled off her coat and hung it, together with his jacket, on the back of their chairs. Then she squeezed into the small nook seat by the roaring fire and soaked up its heat. Demetrio was right; she was chilled. She flexed her cold hands in front of the flames while she watched Demetrio wend his way between the jostling groups of people to the bar.
He was taller than most, and his much-washed checked shirt hung in soft folds from broad shoulders. With his hat off, she could see his hair—dark, curling and a shade too long. She sat back, lulled by the soothing heat of the fire. Hair too long for what, she thought? For a corporate boardroom, yes. But for a farmer, who’d brought her in from the cold? She sighed. For someone like that, his hair was the perfect length.
He turned and caught her eye, smiled, and raised the two large glasses of red wine above the crowds as he made his way back to her.
He sat down, by necessity, close—so close the heat from his thigh warmed hers—and raised his glass to hers. “Happy Christmas, Ursula! I hope you enjoy your stay here.”
She clinked her glass against his. “I’m enjoying it already.”
And she was. She could see him better now, even under the subdued lighting of the bar. With his olive skin, Roman nose and hair tumbling around his face, framing his dark eyes, he looked like he’d just stepped out of a renaissance painting. She had to force herself not to stare.
“Good, so am I. I hadn’t anticipated joining in the festivities so early. Not while there’s work to do.”
She sipped the red wine as she enjoyed the sensation of the heat bringing life back to her chilled limbs. “I’m sorry if I’m stopping you from your work.”
“It doesn’t matter. It can wait until tomorrow.”
“So what work should you be doing at this hour? It’s dark outside already.”
“There’s always something to do on the farm. But it’s okay. My family will have realized I’ve been delayed and have brought the animals in by now.”
Ursula’s heart sunk. Of course. He had a family waiting for him. No doubt a wife and children. She took another sip, her throat a little tighter now. She tried to smile. “Family? Your mother and father?”
“And all the rest. The farmhouse is always crowded at Christmas.”
Ursula didn’t say anything, hoping he’d describe precisely who his family comprised of. But it seemed Demetrio wasn’t about to elaborate.
“Now,” he continued, shifting in his seat, so he was half-facing her, his elbow on the back of the nook seat. “I have a proposition for you.”
Ursula’s stomach did a curious flip, and she focused on taking another sip of wine. “A proposition? That sounds interesting.” She glanced at him and couldn’t help noticing his disarming grin was back in place.
He inclined his head towards hers until their foreheads were almost touching. “I hope so.”
His voice was low, and she felt it more than heard it. She struggled to take a calming breath. “This proposition, does it include a place to stay?”
“It does indeed. Would you believe my parents have a spare room over a stable?”
She laughed, relieved to break the sexual tension that was threatening to derail her senses. “That’s a terrible joke.”
“It would be if it were a joke. But seriously, there is a guest room, and it is, believe it or not, above the old stables.” He laughed. “Don’t look at me like that. Would I put you anywhere near a working stable?” He plucked off a few stray dog hairs from her angora sweater. “You, with your fine clothes and”—his gaze dropped to her suede bag now soaked through and permanently stained—“ruined designer handbag.”
“Honestly? I think you might. But I’m very grateful to you, whatever condition it’s in, and I accept your kind offer. Do you think your parents will mind?”
“Mama will be thrilled to feed another person. And Papa would shoot me if he thought I hadn’t helped a lady in distress.”
“Your parents sound very generous.”
“They are. It’s a gift I’ve inherited.” Again that grin that did strange things to her stomach. “That’s settled then. Now, I’ll have missed dinner at home, so would you like to join me for dinner here?”
It would have been rude to refuse.
* * *
The snow had stopped falling by the time they stepped outside, and the temperature had dropped to below freezing. Ursula shivered in her thin coat and brought it tighter around her. Demetrio offered his arm. “You might slip in those boots,” he said, by way of explanation. “You’re not exactly dressed for the snow.”
It was entirely logical, she thought, as she accepted his arm, and they walked through the square, quieter now the excitement of the Christmas Eve preparations was over, and everyone had returned to their homes. And, as he squeezed her arm against his body, she couldn't help feeling that it was also perfectly lovely.
The snow had settled on the cobblestones, on the rooftops, and on the overhangs and ledges of the shops; everywhere was topped and edged in startling white. Even the stars, when she looked upward, were bright in the dark sky. As she walked in step with Demetrio through the thick snow, Ursula suddenly realized she felt very happy. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d felt this way.
“What’s brought a smile to your face?”
“Just one of those rare moments, you know, when you look around, and everything seems just right.”
“For you, these moments are rare?” He grunted but didn’t press for a response. Instead, he stopped in front of a huge bonfire, edged with snow. “So… what do you think?”
“It looks amazing.”
“I’ll look even more amazing tomorrow night when it’s lit. The kids love it.”
Ursula felt her smile slip a little. Whose kids? His? She’d spent an enjoyable evening with this stranger, but he hadn’t mentioned his marital status, and she hadn’t asked. All she knew was that he lived with his family. What was the point of asking? She’d find out soon enough.
“Come on. You’re not dressed for this weather. And by the looks of things, it’ll freeze tonight. Just as well we have the tractor.”
They walked to where the tractor was parked, and he helped her up. As they drove through the cold night, he pulled the tarpaulin that smelled of pine over their shoulders. “You’re shivering. Move closer to me.” He lifted his arm so she could get further under the tarpaulin. She did, and the heat which emanated from his body, soothed her shivers until she felt she was melting into his arms. He smelled of wholesome male outdoors—pine trees, fresh air and warm wool—and she closed her eyes and wanted the moment never to end.
“Don’t go to sleep on me,” he rumbled. “We’re here.”
She sat up, blinking under the bright snowy light. At the end of a farm track only five minutes from the town, but already deep into the countryside, was a two-story stone farmhouse from which lights spilled out across the snow, revealing neat, fenced enclosures and out-buildings. It looked ancient, but also homely and welcoming.
Demetrio drove the tractor into the open barn, jumped down and offered his hand to Ursula.
“Are you sure no one will mind?” she asked, as she jumped to the ground.
“Of course no one will mind.”
She felt strangely nervous as they walked the short distance to the farmhouse. Demetrio opened the front door to reveal a stone-flagged hallway. They hung their coats on an already cluttered old-fashioned coat stand and Demetrio turned to her with a smile. “Ready?”
She felt another flutter of nerves. What did she have to be ready for? She nodded. “Ready.”
He opened the door into a large kitchen and sitting room. It had a blazing fire at one end and an Aga at the other, over which a kettle was boiling. An older man of indeterminate age was asleep in the armchair beside the fire, an Italian pointer dog at his feet.
“And what time do you call this?” a very female, and certainly not old, voice called out. A beautiful woman in her twenties came into the room, one arm full of children’s toys, the other balancing a tea tray. Ursula’s heart sank.
“Marianna.” Demetrio kissed her on the cheek, took hold of the tea tray and placed it on the sideboard. “I’d like you to meet Ursula.”
Ursula kept the smile fixed on her face. It was no hardship; she was accustomed to hiding her thoughts and emotions, used to showing poise and an aloof exterior to cover her true feelings. It was the only way to keep safe.
“Her car broke down,” he continued. “So I gave her a lift. I’ve invited her to stay here tonight.”
“Of course. The hotels will be full all week. Welcome, Ursula.”
“A pleasure to meet you, Marianna. I hope my visit isn’t too inconvenient?” She looked at Demetrio, feeling almost betrayed by the closeness they’d experienced over the past few hours while, all along, his wife had been waiting for him at the farmhouse. Demetrio frowned, as if confused, and looked away. Why the hell had she trusted him? Wasn’t this the kind of thing from which she’d been running? People who said one thing and did another; people she loved, who didn’t love her?
“Not at all. Mama and Papa will be delighted to have more people.” Marianna inclined her head to Ursula. “They seem to think my three children aren’t enough.”
Ursula smiled faintly. “Sounds plenty to me.” Three too many.
“And I can assure you, it is plenty. Come now, and sit with Papa by the fire.” Marianna smiled, looking strangely unperturbed by her husband bringing home a strange woman in the middle of the night. “Demetrio!” She peered more closely at Ursula. “Are those dog hairs Ursula is covered with? You didn’t use that old dog blanket, did you?” She shook her head at his shrug. “Dio!” She dropped the toys into a big wicker basket.
“Papa!” Marianna kissed the top of his head. “Wake up. We have a visitor.” She nudged the dog. “Bacio, move!”
The dog reluctantly moved, and the old man jumped up, instantly alert. “I was just resting my eyes.”
“Sure, Papa.” Demetrio also kissed him. “Sit down again, and I’ll get us some drinks.”
But Papa wouldn’t hear of it, and after greeting Ursula, he took charge of pouring them all generous glasses of red wine. They were about to sit down when a baby began crying somewhere else in the farmhouse.
Marianna and Demetrio exchanged looks. “Sit still,” said Demetrio. “I’ll go.”
Demetrio disappeared, and Marianna smiled at Ursula. “He’s so good to me.”
Ursula managed to maintain her smile and nod, in what she hoped appeared like agreement. But all she could think of was what she’d like to say to him for flirting with her while he had a gorgeous wife waiting for him at home. Instead, she turned to Papa.
“You have a beautiful home, sir.”
“Grazie. It’s been in our family for many generations. But it is too big for only Nonna and me. It needs a family.”
Ursula was confused. “Don’t you all live here?”
“Only Nonna and Papa,” Marianna replied. “That’s Mama and Papa. We call Mama ‘Nonna’ since the kids came along. But, yes, only they live here. Demetrio and I live in Florence. But Demetrio wants to move back to the farm.”
“And you don’t?”
“Oh no. It’s too quiet for me, but Demetrio loves it. He’ll be happy here.”
“Oh, it’s sad that you won’t be together.”
Marianna looked up. “Why?”
Ursula shrugged. “Because you seem happy together.”
“Me…and Demetrio?” A broad grin spread across her face. “You think we’re married?” She laughed too earthily for such a beautiful woman. “No, Ursula, he’s my brother. My husband, Vincenzo, is working away from home at present. Unfortunately, some things require attention whether or not it is a holiday.”
A wave of relief swept through Ursula. Ridiculous. She’d only known him an afternoon but somehow those moments snuggled together on the tractor, with nothing all around them but the falling snow and the piney smell of wood, made her feel close to him.
“We are the only two who are home this Christmas. My sisters are either working or with their families. We’re spread all over the world. It doesn’t make Nonna and Papa happy, I can tell you.”
The baby’s tired cries became more intermittent as the pacing on the floorboards overhead continued. Marianna sighed. “I’d better go and relieve Demetrio. Come, you’re yawning, I’ll show you to your room. It’s already made up. Nonna lives in the hope of visitors. She’ll be thrilled you’re here.”
They said goodnight to Papa who was damping down the fire, and went out into the stone-flagged hallway from each end of which two winding wooden staircases rose. “This way.” Ursula followed Marianna up the worn staircase and raised the latch on the first door which led into a corridor away from the main house. “The extension was built above the old stables. Nonna always keeps a spare bed ready and aired for visitors.” She opened the first door, and Ursula looked around the room. It was furnished with a small tester bed covered with a brightly checked duvet, and antique oak furniture. A rug added a touch of comfort and color to the dark-stained floorboards.
“It’s lovely.”
“There’s a bathroom next door.” Marianna looked around. “I hope you’ll be comfortable and that the kids don’t wake you. They’re next door and keep unsocial hours.”
Ursula couldn’t remember the last time she’d stayed in a house where children were so much in evidence. “I don’t mind. It’ll be fun. It makes it feel more like Christmas.”
Marianna held her gaze with the same eyes as Demetrio—eyes that zoomed right into her, focusing on the essentials, not the externals. It was both disarming and nerve-racking at the same time. Now she knew they were siblings, Ursula couldn’t believe she’d imagined otherwise. “I’m glad you found us, Ursula. I don’t like to imagine you alone in a hotel room on Christmas Eve.” And neither did Ursula now. But before she could respond, Marianna had quietly closed the door and retreated down the creaky wooden stairs.
Immediately the door, whose catch had barely caught, was nudged open and Bacio, the dog, clattered into the room and jumped on the bed, eyed her suspiciously, and made himself at home on the end of the bed.
Ursula tried to lure him away, tried pulling him off but, in the end, she had to admit defeat. She climbed into bed and made herself comfortable around the snoring dog.
She lay back and looked out the low window, the curtains of which she left undrawn. Beyond the farmyard, the track led to the road, and then the valley fell away, leaving an open vista of trees and mountains, all glowing under a thick carpet of snow and starlight.
How on earth had she ended up here? Deep in the heart of the Italian countryside, deep in the heart of a family? She’d begun the day determined to avoid being near family at Christmas, and she’d ended it sharing a bed with a dog that snored, and with the faint and now intermittent sound of a tired baby’s cries. How would she ever sleep?
They were her last thoughts as her eyes fluttered closed and she fell into a deep sleep, where dreams of falling snow were warmed by the memory of a man’s embrace.

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