The Italian's Rightful Bride - By Lucy Gordon
“‘SOLID gold vases, mouth-watering jewels, wealth beyond the dreams of avarice.”’
Joanna, stretched out on the beach, turned her head to where her ten-year-old son was sitting on the sand beside her, his head in a newspaper.
‘What are you on about, darling?’
‘Big find,’ he said, peering at her over the top. ‘Palace, fabulous treasure.’ He saw her regarding him with amused disbelief and said, ‘Well, they found a few old bricks, anyway.’
‘That sounds more like it.’ She laughed. ‘I’m used to the way you embellish things. Where did they find these “old bricks”?’
‘Rome,’ he said, giving her the paper.
Following his pointing finger, she saw a small item with a few basic details.
“‘Fascinating and unique foundations—vast palace—fifteen hundred years old—”’
‘It sounds right up your street, Mum,’ Billy observed. ‘Ruins, crumbling with age—’
‘If that’s meant to be a comment on my appearance, you can save it,’ she told him. ‘I may look merely ancient but I feel prehistoric.’
‘That’s what I thought,’ he said cheekily.
‘I’ll send you to bed without any supper.’
‘You and what army?’ he challenged her.
His face was wicked and gleeful. She adored him.
Because her job took her away from home, and she was sharing Billy with her ex-husband, they saw too little of each other. This summer they were treating themselves to a holiday at Cervia, on the Adriatic coast of Italy.
It had been glorious to have nothing to do but stretch out on the beach and talk to Billy, who was mature for his years. But for both of them inactivity had soon begun to pall, and the newspaper item stirred all her professional instincts.
She had a glittering reputation as an archaeologist, or a ‘rubble and bone merchant’ as Billy irreverently put it, and this was, as he’d said, right up her street. As she read she hummed softly under her breath.
Foundations of huge building found in the grounds of the Palazzo Montegiano, ancestral home of the hereditary princes of Montegiano, and the residence of the present Prince Gustavo.
The humming stopped.
‘Have you ever been to Rome, Mum?’ Billy asked. ‘Mum? Mum?’
Receiving no reply, he leaned closer and waved his hands. ‘Earth to Mum. Come in, please.’
‘Sorry,’ she said hastily. ‘What did you say?’
‘Have you ever been to Rome?’
‘You sound half-witted,’ he said kindly.
‘Do I, darling? Sorry, it’s just—he always said there was a great lost palace.’
‘He? You know this Prince Thingy?’
‘I met him once, years ago,’ she said vaguely. ‘How about an ice cream?’
Steering him away from the subject was an act of desperation. Because there was no way she could say to her darling son, ‘Gustavo Montegiano is the man I once loved more than I ever loved your father, the man I could have married if I’d been sufficiently selfish.’
And she might have added, ‘He’s the man who broke my heart without even knowing that he possessed it.’
‘RING, damn you, ring!’
Prince Gustavo fixed his gaze on the phone, which stayed obstinately dead.
‘You were supposed to call every week, without fail,’ he growled. ‘And it’s been two weeks.’
He got up from his desk and went impatiently over to the tall windows through which he could see the stone terrace. On the last of the broad steps that led down to the lawn sat a nine-year-old girl, her shoulders hunched in childish misery.
The sight increased Gustavo’s anger. He strode back, snatched up the telephone and dialled with sharp, stabbing movements.
He knew nobody had ever forced his ex-wife to do what didn’t suit her. But this time he was going to insist, not for himself, but for the little girl who pined for some sign that her mother remembered her.
‘Crystal?’ he snapped at last. ‘You were supposed to call.’
‘Caro,’ came the soft purr that had once sent shivers up his spine. ‘If you only knew how busy I am—’
‘Too busy for your daughter?’
‘My poor little Renata? How is she?’
‘Pining for her mother,’ he said furiously. ‘And now I’ve got you on the line you’re going to talk to her.’
‘But, sweetie, I’ve no time. You caught me on my way out, and please don’t call again—’
‘Never mind going out,’ he said. ‘Renata’s just outside and she can be here in a moment.’ He could hear the little girl’s footsteps running along the terrace.
‘I have to go,’ came Crystal’s voice. ‘Tell her I love her.’
‘I’m damned if I will. Tell her yourself. Crystal—Crystal?’
But she had gone, hanging up at the exact moment the child came running into the room.
‘Let me talk to Mamma,’ she cried, seizing the phone from him. ‘Mamma, Mamma.’