The Italian's Perfect Lover (ebook)
The Italian's Perfect Lover (ebook)
A commitment-shy Italian count, who lives for the pleasures of the present, meets an archaeologist who’s obsessed with the past.
Falling for the perfectly handsome Alessandro Cavour, Count di Montecorvio Rovella, is the last thing archaeologist Emily Carlyle needs as she recovers from the physical and emotional scars inflicted by an ex-boyfriend. But she can't avoid him when she finds out he owns the estate where she's discovered an ancient Roman site.
Restoring one particular mosaic on the site has become an obsession with Emily – one which Alessandro can't understand. He has no interest in digging up the past because, despite appearances, he bears his own scars. Consumed by guilt over the death of his wife and son, commitment-shy Alessandro lives only for the pleasures of the present. But he hadn’t reckoned on falling in love. And love, he discovers, forces difficult choices...
- The Italian’s Perfect Lover
- Seduced by the Italian
- The Passionate Italian
- An Accidental Christmas
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Alessandro Cavour, Conte di Montecorvio Rovella, watched as the voluptuous blonde, who had just gate-crashed his party, popped a third piece of bruschetta into her mouth.
If she was trying to fit in she was going the wrong way about it. Women in his world barely ate; they wore only black—not a blood-red sheath—and curves were not an option.
“Shall I have her removed, sir?”
Alessandro shook his head and drank the last of his whisky, relishing its fire. He needed fire. He needed a diversion. And he’d just found one.
“No. Leave her to me.”
Where was he?
Emily Carlyle brushed the crumbs from her dress and anxiously scanned the room for the elderly count upon whom all her hopes were pinned.
She needed to mingle. God, how did she do that?
She needed to fit in. And she certainly didn’t do that.
Her hand rose to push her glasses more firmly on her nose before she remembered she’d left them off tonight. Not, she thought, peering around the room, that there had been any point.
She was surrounded by the cream of Neopolitan society: moneyed, elegant, perfect. And she was none of these things. And never would be.
She tugged the wrap more securely around her shoulders. She might not be ashamed of her imperfections but there was no reason to display them—not tonight—not when so much was riding on it.
Where the hell was he?
Suddenly she felt a chill of awareness slither down her spine: someone was watching her. She turned slowly to see a man—blurred a little at first—moving through the crowded room towards her, staring directly at her. When he came into focus she could see his coal-black eyes held both heat and cool control: predator’s eyes.
Her heart pounded once, fiercely, before settling into a fast tattoo that sent adrenalin racing through her veins, stimulating her body into a state of readiness. Fight or flight? At that instant, she could do neither.
Then the crowd parted and the man emerged and stood before her. There was nothing about his appearance that contradicted her first instinct. A predator took whatever he wanted and she knew this man could do just that. It wasn’t just that he was the most striking man she’d ever seen; it wasn’t simply that he was the most charismatic—although conversations had stalled in his wake and all eyes were on him; it was his difference to the others that signaled his power.
In a room of immaculately dressed people, this man stood before her disheveled and arrogant. His black tie hung loosely either side of his open shirt and his hair—raked back as if by careless fingers—hung in tactile curls on his collar. He either didn’t notice he was flouting convention or he didn’t care. She’d bet her life it was the latter.
This was a man who was used to getting his own way; this was a man who didn’t want to be here.
There, they had something in common.
She stepped back to move out of his way. Because she hadn’t lived twenty-six years without knowing that men, that gorgeous, didn’t make a bee-line for her.
But he also side-stepped so he stood squarely in front of her.
He looked even better close up. She was preternaturally aware of the textures on his face: a day’s worth of stubble, the lines that bracketed his mouth and of an errant curl that fell like a question mark on his forehead.
She swallowed hard.
That men like this existed, she’d never imagined. That one could be touching her arm, with an intimacy that sent shivers down her spine, was impossible.
“Sure, sorry,” she mumbled, stepping aside so he could pass.
He smiled. “No, signorina. It is you I’ve come to speak with.”
She could feel her eyes widen in shock and opened her mouth to reply only to find her voice had somehow diminished to a whisper.
“I think you’ve got the wrong woman.”
Her eyes dropped to his lips: amusement flickered at their corners.
She nodded. “Really.”
“And who would be the right woman?”
She shrugged. “Anyone else.”
He frowned. “Your husband or boyfriend is here?”
“No, I don’t have one.”
“Ah, then you are free to talk.”
Her irritation, at his presumption that a boyfriend would be the only reason why she wouldn’t want to talk with him, should have brought her back to her senses.
“But I don’t know you—”
“We can remedy that —”
“And I can’t think why you would want to speak with me. Perhaps you’ve mistaken me for someone else?”
“I always make it a point to speak to the most beautiful woman in the room. And if I’ve mistaken you for such, then perhaps it is because you are.”
The instinctive laugh froze on her lips. There was something about his manner, about his tone, about the expression in his eyes, which stopped her reacting with her usual self-deprecating humor.
She knew it to be a lie but how persuasive, how devastating, it was to hear such words addressed to her. She’d spent years avoiding her femininity, scared of being seen as an object. Bitter experience had taught her that objects could be owned and possessed and people did what they liked with their possessions, even tried to destroy them.
Now, she’d just walked straight into what she’d been avoiding all these years. And it thrilled her like nothing before.
He was like no-one before.
She took a deep breath in order to ground herself. “Thank you for the compliment.”
His lips curved briefly into a smile that lingered in the lines around his mouth and in the flicker of heat in his eyes.
“You’re not used to this, are you?”
His candor dispelled her nerves and, for the first time, she glanced away from him, trying to suppress a smile.
“Is it so obvious?”
“Obvious and refreshing.”
“What gave me away? I guess it’s the dress,” she looked down frowning at the red dress. “Hardly the usual color, it would seem.”
“You stand out. But it is not that alone.”
“What then?” She grabbed the ends of the shawl to make sure they stayed in place and folded her arms across her breasts. “I guess I eat, which clearly sets me apart from the other women.”
“It does.” He leaned forward and whispered conspiratorially in her ear. “And a very good thing, too. But it is not that either.”
“Your lack of awareness.”
“People. My guess is that you don’t attend many such parties.”
“And you would know this because?”
He hesitated for one long second, enough for her to note the shading under his eyes and the stark lines of his cheek and jaw. The predator was hungry.
“Because you look and don’t see; you don’t notice the inquisitive stares, the jealous looks, the admiring glances. They don’t affect you. I think you must live away from society—some kind of recluse, maybe?”
Emily could feel the blood drain out of her face. How could he tell? How could he know that her world, as an archaeologist, was the world of the past, where the only people who mattered had been dead for centuries?
“I am correct?”
She nodded, spellbound by this man who could see into her heart.
Part of her knew it to be the result of clever, well-honed flirtation skills, pick-up lines well learned, but the greater part of her didn’t care. She felt a connection with him slide smoothly into place.
“How did you know?” Her voice, normally so strong and so confident, sounded cracked, fractured.
“By your lack of consciousness—in your body, but most of all in your eyes.” He cocked his head to one side. “Green eyes.”
She gasped down a lungful of air like a dying woman desperate for life and shook her head.
“Kind of more like blue-ish with yellow streaks—”
“You,” he brushed her cheek with the back of his finger, “are too prosaic. Your eyes are green. Unusual. A dark green: the color of a pine forest in twilight, of wet, gold-streaked jade, the color of a secret. What, I wonder, is yours?”
Somehow the stranger had brought himself so close to her that she could smell his intoxicating blend of aftershave—earthy, warm and very, very male—and whisky. Imperceptibly—surely he would hardly notice—she dipped her head towards his neck and inhaled his more personal scent. She swallowed and looked away as she felt the heat fire deep inside her, stirring something she’d thought long dead, never to be revived.
His own face inclined to hers briefly in response. The feel of his hair grazing her cheek made her jump back in alarm.
Suddenly music flooded the room. A small quartet, making a very large sound, made further conversation impossible.
She balked for an instant at his imperious command. But then he ran his fingers down her shawl-covered arm until he held her hand, and all resistance fled.
“Let’s escape.” He nodded towards the open French windows.
As he pulled her outside, the sultry stir of the evening breeze awakened Emily from the haze of lust this man stirred.
She hesitated, and stopped abruptly. What was she doing?
“I should go—go back inside. I need to, well, go.”
He turned to face her. “So soon?”
“It should have been sooner. I’m not in the habit of wandering around in the dark with strangers. I don’t even know your name.”
He smiled. “My name is Alex.”
“And mine, Em.”
“M? That is an unusual name.” He raised an eyebrow. “Not the ‘M’ from James Bond, not the secret head of MI5?”
She grinned, relaxing, the tension falling away. “No, not.”
“Perhaps short for Miranda, or Miriam?”
“So cagey. That is fine. I will call you M. So, M, why are you here?”
She suddenly realized why this beautiful man was talking to her, why he’d taken her away from the party she’d gate-crashed. He was very smoothly ejecting her. She’d thought he was flirting with her. She’d thought wrong.
Disappointment bit deep. She’d tried hard to fit in, had made a massive leap outside her comfort zone, borrowing a dress and too-tight shoes, but had still failed. But there was too much riding on it. She needed to see the count, even if it meant bluffing her way back inside.
“What makes you think I haven’t been invited?”
He dipped his head, uncomfortably close to hers.
“Cara,” his breath tickled her skin, halting her own breathing. “I know you haven’t. It’s my party and I know everyone here, except you.”
His words cut like ice, severing her last remaining thread of hope.
He had no interest in her. And he’d effectively killed her work stone dead because if she couldn’t see the count, she had nothing. Without the count’s financial support her work would have to end.
“I’m sorry. I’ll go. I was just—looking for someone. I’d been told he was here. But he’s not. So—”
“You misunderstand me. I do not wish you to go.”
“I shouldn’t be here.”
She looked up at him, at this knowing man who’d broken through her defenses after all these years, willing him to contradict her.
He smiled, as if recognizing the token comment for what it was.
“And neither should I, believe me. I should be at the party, but I have never been interested in duty. It is pleasure that interests me.”
“I can see that.”
“Come,” he offered his arm, “let’s leave the party before someone either turns you away, or worse still, forces me to do my duty and make small talk.”
She laughed. “Somehow, I can’t imagine anyone forcing you to do anything.” And then she hesitated.
Thoughts of caution flashed through her mind, fighting the instincts and needs of her body.
But her body won and she inhaled the fragrant night air and took his arm.
Spring flowers tumbled around the stone-flagged pathway along which they walked, but Emily was only aware of the silk of his jacket and the heat of his arm under her fingertips.
Within moments, she found herself seated in a secluded courtyard, enclosed by a high yew hedge, in the centre of which a small fountain played. Moon-white flowers clustered at its base.
“So, M, relax and tell me about yourself.”
“Nothing much to tell.” She could barely breathe, let alone think, with his body in such close proximity.
He turned towards her, his arm resting along the back of the seat, close to her shoulders. Her skin prickled, as if her body responded to his magnetism by the force of physics alone. And she knew all about the inevitability of the laws of science. But how they applied here was beyond her education.
“So, where have you been hiding, M, that you are so unused to people? So unaware of your effect on my guests?”
“What effect could I possibly have?”
He searched her eyes before shaking his head. “You have no idea, do you? No idea how very different you are.”
Different? Another thing they had in common.
Heat swept through her body, following the path of his eyes. “English, I look English.” She said hopefully.
“It is not that. You look,” his hand brushed down her arm lightly before resting once more on the seat, “sensual, very sensual.”
She tensed then. She wasn’t used to being touched. But his eyes held only interest—a wonderful, inexplicable interest that her body exulted in—and gentleness. This wasn’t a man like her last—her only—boyfriend. There was no rage there, no insecurity, no jealousy, no violence. She exhaled jaggedly.
History could repeat itself—as an archaeologist she knew that—but it didn’t have to, not if she learned from the lessons of the past. She’d never trusted her intuition before—not even when it screamed at her to run from her ex-boyfriend—but now she did.
“Sensual?” No-one had ever said such a thing before. But she felt sensual. The skimming fit of the borrowed dress against her body, rubbing her skin, tantalized her arousal even further, the warmth of the night breeze on her skin. And this man.
“Of the senses.”
“Such as sight?” Hesitantly at first, she allowed her gaze to travel from his hair, curling where he’d pushed it roughly back, to the pulse that thudded in his neck and then down to his chest and legs before resting once more on his face.
“Sight is indeed a sense.” His voice was roughened, deeper somehow.
Her effect on him gave her a sense of power. She closed her eyes.
“And sound.” The soft exhalation of his breath was louder to her than the rustle of the leaves high above them and the distant music and laughter. She opened her eyes again. “What else? Touch?”
Dare she? If he’d moved she would have retreated, but he didn’t. He said nothing but she could see his eyes narrow and darken as she reached out to his arm, pausing only briefly before touching the sleeve of his black tux. The tentative touch turned into an appreciative slide of her finger tips—more used to dirt and rough rocks—across the dense silk.
She knew she should stop but felt compelled to continue. “Such as,” she leaned into his neck, “smell”.
His breathing quickened against her face. She couldn’t see now because she’d closed her eyes, all the better to register the different notes of his aftershave, the spring air against his skin and a deeper note, that her mind couldn’t identify, but to which her body reacted.
Reluctantly she sat back. “What else?”
“You tell me.” He didn’t move, simply looked at her lips as if anticipating something delicious, something he wasn’t going to take unless it was offered. The predator might be hungry, but he was patient.
All thought of who she was, of where she was, of her past, disappeared. There was nothing except this man.
She didn’t move. She was sure she didn’t move. But somehow their faces were so close that their mouths were a mere whisper apart.
She wanted him to kiss her but no kiss came. Instead she felt his hand touch her cheek, gently, so gently that she couldn’t have said whether it was him or the soft breeze. It was a tender, lingering exploration: stimulating, rather than controlling. This wasn’t a man who needed to prove anything; this was a man who wanted to experience everything.
He pulled away slightly as if to question her, his hand still barely touching her cheek, his fingertips tracing the curve of her cheekbone. Whatever expression she had in her eyes seemed to have given him an answer because he dipped his head and held it close to hers for one long moment—lips not touching, his cheek brushing hers.
She’d never known the exquisite tensions that now flowed through her body; never felt the gentle touch of a lover’s hand; had never felt so in tune with another that her mind became suspended and her body took over.
For one delicious moment she surrendered to his touch that stimulated every nerve ending in her body; for one intense second, the world forgot to breathe and she held herself in that moment, only with him, feeling through him; for one instant she felt perfect.
But she wasn’t perfect, was she?
“No.” She pulled away from him, overwhelmed by the grief-filled knowledge that she could never be this man’s lover.
The blind darkness of his lust-filled eyes lightened with confusion. “I am sorry. Forgive me.” He blinked, as if awaking from a daze, and rose abruptly.
Like her attraction, she felt his withdrawal as a physical sensation, a pain that made her flex her hands for relief. “It’s me who should apologize. I practically forced myself on you.”
He smiled. “Believe me, our attraction proved mutually strong.” His smiled faded into a frown as if he couldn’t understand the reason why.
She turned away from him then. No, of course he wouldn’t know why. Why would he, a devastatingly handsome man be attracted to her, Emily Carlyle from East London: an academic, a spinster and most definitely not the most beautiful woman at the party?
He reached out to her tentatively, as if to reassure—either her or himself—before he thrust both hands back into his pockets.
“Come, I will take you back.”
Of course he would.
He had no interest in her. Why would he? There was a room full of beautiful women awaiting his pleasure. His responses to her were automatic—the result of a lust-filled woman, wearing very little, throwing herself at him.
She’d just made a fool of herself. And now he was trying to get rid of her.
They walked in silence until they came to the villa.
She stepped away, too embarrassed to look him in the eye. “I must go now.” She shook her head at her own stupidity and confusion.
“Come inside. I’ll have someone drive you home.”
“Thank you, but no. I’ve troubled you enough. I’ll find my own way home.”
“The same way you found your own way here. Tell me, why did you come?”
“I came to find someone.”
“Conte di Montecorvio Rovella.”
It was as if a shadow fell across his face. He looked toward the room, almost angry.
“You were looking for the conte. You know him?”
“Sure. I’ve met him a number of times. Do you know him?”
He ignored her question.
“And what do you want with the conte?”
“Personal business, no doubt. The conte is a lucky man. It is a shame he’s proved elusive.”
“Yep. Misinformed, I guess.”
“I’m sorry you wasted your time on me. Presumably you had your sights set higher.”
“You think I’m a gold digger?” She shook her head in sudden defeat. “You’re probably right. I need his money. But it’s business, not personal.”
Without his funds she’d never complete the ancient Roman mosaic at her dig, never piece together the fragments of the past into one unified, beautiful, perfect whole. She chewed her lip in an effort to stem the tears that threatened. She turned away and looked up into the night sky for the same reason.
A stray gust of wind caught her shawl and it slipped, drifting down past her bare shoulders and back.
Alessandro looked at the beautiful woman, as the wrap descended in a cloud of silk, and his breath suddenly halted, his heart ached.
He had never seen such scars—luminescent white under the moonlight, pearly slivers of pain criss-crossed around her shoulders, and back. No doubt she barely felt the downward slide of the silk against the desensitized skin.
He reached his hand to touch one of the scarred shoulders, but stopped short.
“I’m sorry.” He swallowed back the impulse to place a kiss where his hand had nearly touched. “Perhaps I can help. I know the conte and will arrange for you to meet with him.”
She turned quickly back to face him and he dropped his hand. The beauty of her eyes, dark and passionate in the dim light took his breath away once more. What was it about this woman?
“Really? I’d appreciate it. A lot.”
She looked up at him, completely unaware that the tracery of scars was on display. He focused on her beautiful eyes: eyes that could create magic, could create love, could create a future.
He turned away suddenly. He’d vowed never to live for the future or the past—always to stay in the present.
When he turned back she was standing, her wrap back in place, seemingly unaware of it having fallen. She looked at home in the luscious garden: sensual and arousing, demanding more than a physical response. But surely that was something he couldn’t give?
She looked up at him, a complex blend of hope, embarrassment and pride combining in that one glance. Then she turned and began walking away.
She was different to anyone he’d ever met. Even simply in this one act. Because no woman had ever walked away from him since his wife had done so.
The thought of the resemblance cut through the heat of his passion like a blade. He’d help her if he could. But that was it. No-one, but no-one must be allowed to touch him. He had enough guilt and hurt to last him a life-time. But the sight of the scars on this beautiful woman had already cut through his defenses.
“M,” he called. She stopped without turning. “Where can the conte reach you?”
“He may have forgotten.”
“Unlikely. I’m living on his estate.”
Emily didn’t hear him reply. It was obvious she’d never hear from him again. And she began walking back, back to the road, back to the past. It was the only thing that mattered after all.