LARA let herself in the gate, still in a stunned haze. All the way home on the train, all she’d been able to think of was Alessandro at the Centrepoint Tower, waiting into the night for the woman who never arrived.
How he must have suffered. His hurt, the disappointment. And, oh, what a bitter assault to his pride. She shied away from imagining his emotions on that return flight without her. Any man would have been seething with fury. No wonder he’d been so hostile on his first day at Stiletto.
The amazing thing was that he was still so-giving. He must have really wanted her then. While now…She had a panicked sense that today she’d used up her last chance with him. Somehow she had to find a way to explain at once.
After the flower-shop fiasco she’d found it impossible to see him again before she left work to straighten the record. He’d been ensconced with Tuila all afternoon, and then he must have slipped out while she was lingering at her desk for an opportunity to see him. If Vivi and Greta hadn’t been waiting for her she’d have gone to the Seasons after him.
Funny thing was that, now she was allowing herself to dream of it, she could see how wonderful a father he would be. If only there were some way she could stop him from getting on that plane to Bangkok.
Oh, face it, face it, Lara. In deep, all over again. In love with him as hopelessly and passionately as ever. Only now her needs weren’t just her needs. They were Vivi’s as well, and more urgent than ever before.
As usual, at home her mother’s eagle eye didn’t miss a thing.
‘How’d it go?’ Greta asked, the minute the hugs and kisses were over and Vivi had made her report on the Year One sandwich selection and the lunchtime tussle in the sandpit. ‘Any progress?’
Lara knew exactly what she was referring to. She wanted to know Alessandro’s reaction to seeing Vivi. She framed her reply carefully, conscious of small ears having major flapping ability.
‘A little.’ She met Greta’s eyes. ‘He wants to-further the acquaintance. He wanted me to meet him tonight to discuss it, only-I didn’t think it would be fair to-everyone.’ She glanced significantly at Vivi.
A thoughtful look came over Greta’s face. ‘What if I see if I can swap shifts?’ Her eyes glistened. ‘Oh, and did I mention? See what came for you.’ She pointed Lara up the stairs to her flat, and Lara climbed the stairs, Vivi bounding up ahead of her, Greta bringing up the rear.
She opened her front door and spring burst upon her. Flowers. Dozens of stocks, looking as perky as ever and done up in several heavenly arrangements, along with masses of jonquils, daffies, more of the delicious freesias, purple lisiandras, and roses, roses, roses. The florist must have been cleaned out.
The flat was as fragrant as a hothouse.
‘Oh,’ Lara gasped. ‘Oh.’
She needed no reminding of her ungracious behaviour at the florist’s, but in spite of that her heart bounded up in hopeful joy. It was probably natural Alessandro would have had some of them sent to her, since she was the one who’d sat in them-but there was no way she’d sat in all of them. Not the lizzies. And she’d certainly have remembered sitting in roses.
How could he have wanted to do something so wonderful, so romantic, after those things she’d snarled at him in the lobby?
Vivi whirled from bunch to bunch, rapturously cooing. ‘It’s Christmas. It’s Christmas.’ She turned and looked eagerly up at Lara. ‘Is it Christmas, Mummy? Did Santa bring them?’
Lara gazed at her, hesitating. This was a moment in time, she realised. A pivotal moment in Vivi’s life. ‘Ah. No, well…actually…’ She took Vivi’s hands. ‘Come and sit down over here, my darling, and I’ll tell you who sent them.’
A little later, Lara sat on her bed and flipped open her mobile, her urgency to talk to Alessandro sooner rather than later overwhelming all other considerations. Those flowers had to mean something. The outcome could be fantastic, or it could be a disaster. But what was she? A craven coward, or a strong, warm mother with her child’s interests at heart?
With her breath on hold, she dialled. Immediately, the number switched to the message service.
All right. Alessandro could be anywhere. She sprang up and paced. He might, or might not, keep to his plan of attending the opera. If she couldn’t find him there, she’d visit him at the hotel. Sure, it would be a gamble, but if she did nothing she’d never sleep.
It was definitely a moment to be seized. She checked the phone directory, and dialled the Opera House’s enquiry number.
Vivi was asleep long before Lara climbed into the taxi, the skirt of her red chiffony dress flaring from the big, warm, black pashmina she’d wrapped around herself. If Greta had been curious as to where she was headed, she kept it to herself, restricting herself to some warmly approving comments about Lara’s appearance.
Lara felt a nervy, optimistic excitement. The danger of the operation had ignited a turbulence in her blood like hot, seething lemonade. The last glimpse she’d had of herself in the dressing-table mirror had shown a reckless sparkle in her eyes that she had to admit was really rather flattering.
The taxi cruised through the night into the city, swept down the boulevard of Macquarie Street and circled the roundabout at the Opera House forecourt. She leaned forward, nervously scanning the trickle of people who’d already started to issue from the exits. Limos were queuing at the pick-up bay, but she doubted if Alessandro would have any use for a car.
She paid off the driver, stood getting her bearings for a second, then climbed a little way up the broad sweep of stairs to the platform on which the giant shells of the building rested. While she couldn’t cover all the exits, she felt certain Alessandro would choose to walk back to his hotel, and would be bound to pass close enough to this spot for her to see him.
She tried to damp down her nerves. It was important she remain poised and calm. Confident, assured. A woman to be reckoned with. A mother. The mother of his child.
The trickle swelled to a stream, and soon the concourse was a throng of opera patrons, scurrying to snatch taxis, or strolling off in groups and couples towards elegant suppers on Circular Quay. She cast about, hugging her pashmina to her, straining for a sight of one tall man among the many.
Alessandro avoided getting caught up in the crowd at the hatcheck, and strolled out onto the concourse, the rich Puccini melodies singing in his blood. And they weren’t all that stirred his blood. The sky was clear and cold, the night still young, and desire stalked his veins like a leopard.
The way he remembered it, six years ago Lara had been as passionate and enthusiastic about the evenings they’d shared at the opera as he himself. She’d been so eager to learn. She’d soaked up the music, adored all the stories he raked up from his memory to tell her about the opera legends-the divas, the conductors.
She’d have loved it tonight, he felt sure. And he’d have enjoyed it a thousand times more experiencing the spectacle and the drama through her fresh, bright eyes.
He shook his head, and realised with a heavy ache in his chest that his opportunities were diminishing.
He turned towards the Quay and the stroll to his hotel, resisting the glimpse of the future that of late had kept opening before him with a grim, unwelcome persistence. More cities, more hotels. More solitary evenings. More hollow friendships, made in transit. Empty, meaningless career triumphs. Offices that were other people’s workplaces. Nowhere of his own. No life to cling to.
Next thing he knew, he’d be an old man retreating to Venice to live in a mouldering ruin with his mother. What he needed…What he longed for…
His heart, his feet, rocked to a sudden halt and he stood stock still, then turned his gaze upwards and to his right. Unless he was hallucinating, Lara was standing right there, on the Opera House steps. Her smile was a little uncertain, but her gaze didn’t waver. He watched her take a step down, then another, and he felt joy burst in his heart like a blaze.
‘Oh, hi,’ she said, an audible breathlessness in her voice. ‘I was just passing. I wasn’t sure if you’d really be here, but I thought-if you were, maybe you wouldn’t mind some company for the little supper?’
‘The little supper,’ he repeated hazily, his head reeling at how beautiful she looked, wrapped in some black lustrous wool thing that framed her face’s delicacy, while some gorgeous flash of red peeped out at her breast and swirled around her knees.
She was all lit up-eyes, lips, her glossy hair-as if by some internal flame.
Anxiety flickered in her eyes. ‘That’s if-that’s if you are still planning to have the little supper.’
His wandering brain made a snap recovery. ‘Oh, sure. Sure I am. The supper, of course.’ He smiled. ‘Lucky for me this was the moment you happened to pass by.’
‘It must be Fate,’ she said with a gurgle of a laugh that rippled through him.
She stepped down to his level. He was almost unbearably tempted to take her in his arms, hold her vibrant body to him, smell her fragrant hair, but the risk of arousal in such a public place, with the crowd still whirling about them, was far too dangerous.
‘Where were you thinking of going?’ she asked.
‘Here,’ he said firmly, pointing up the stairs, hoping there’d still be a table available. He started up a step and held out his hand.
Her eyes sparkled. ‘Oh, here.’ The thrilled note in her voice caught at his heart. ‘Do you remember that night we had dinner here? You know…’ she lowered her lashes and her voice faltered a little ‘…before?’
‘I do remember,’ he said steadily, holding her hand. ‘I’ll never forget it.’
‘It should be excellent for doing some planning, don’t you think?’
In Lara’s view, Guillaume’s was the most exciting restaurant in Sydney. Positioned in the southernmost shell of the Opera House, it had enormous windows facing the harbour, and more facing the city. With night craft glimmering on the water all around them, the Bridge and city towers a blaze of lights, it was easy to believe the restaurant was afloat.
And there was an excitement in the atmosphere, as if its glitzy clientele were as thrilled to be indulging themselves in fine wine and cuisine amidst the sophisticated decor as she was herself. It was a pity no one she knew from Newtown was present to see her walk in with the hottest marquis currently in Australia.
She and Alessandro were shown to a discreet booth angled to face the glittering night panorama on the harbour. Their table, swathed in white linen, gleamed with silver and crystal. She slipped off her pashmina and felt Alessandro’s gaze on her throat and arms.
‘Oh, dear.’ She grinned, though she felt the warmth rise to her cheeks. ‘Long tablecloths.’
Alessandro broke into a laugh, then he grew silent, the sensual hunger in his dark eyes stirring her, while the emotions of the day rose between them, twanging with the echoes of discord.
She indicated their window. ‘Is it as good as your view of the Grand Canal?’
‘Oh, sure, sure it is. Definitely. Absolutely.’
She laughed. ‘Careful not to protest too much.’
They examined the wine list together, but the truth was Lara hardly needed wine this evening. With the excitement in her heart, she wasn’t even sure she could eat.
She wondered where she would begin. She smiled and made her choices, conscious of how precious was this time with Alessandro, tense with the knowledge that it could all disappear in a few days.
She let her gaze rest on his beautiful, lean hands as they made an occasional eloquent gesture, and her confidence faltered. He led such a sophisticated life with his constant travel, his pleasure in the finer things, it was hard to imagine him embracing the nitty-gritty of child-raising.
‘Dom Perignon, sir.’
Lara’s eyes widened as the drinks waiter presented the distinctive bottle to Alessandro for inspection, then with a professional flourish removed the cork and decanted the foaming champagne without spilling a drop.
Alessandro picked up his glass. ‘Salute.’
‘Wow.’ The glasses clinked. ‘What are we celebrating?’
His eyes smiled into hers, dark liquid fire. ‘Finding each other again.’
Her insides surged in excited anticipation. The words augured well. She sipped the golden, sparkling liquid. The zing foamed through her bloodstream, or maybe it was Alessandro’s shimmering, intent gaze.
‘Delicious.’ She sat back against the banquette, glass in hand. ‘I’m so glad I ran into you tonight. I’ve been er-thinking…’The warmth and sensuality of his gaze was so flattering, with his smile reflected in his eyes, it was hard to catch her breath. She hoped she wasn’t about to ruin everything by broaching the inflammatory subject. She hesitated, then said with some constraint, ‘I really appreciate your thoughtfulness in what you suggested today. You were quite right. About-deciding on a suitable location where you can meet Vivi.’
His eyes sharpened, then veiled. But she could feel the power of his attention like a high-voltage searchlight.
He lifted his shoulders. ‘It seemed sensible.’ But she could tell he was pleased.
‘Are you busy on Saturday?’ She cast him a glance from beneath her lashes. ‘I thought it might be best if we introduced you somewhere that’s very familiar to her.’
‘Not the schoolyard?’
‘No, not the schoolyard.’ She rolled her eyes. ‘Heavens, will I ever be able to walk in there again without blushing?’
‘It’s probably safer for us to save that location for ourselves.’ His eyes gleamed. ‘In the midnight hours.’ He sipped his wine, his eyes dwelling on her face. ‘So you’re thinking-at your home? Mightn’t that be a bit confronting?’
‘Possibly. You may be right, that being her safe haven and everything.’ She gave her champagne a swirl. ‘There is of course the park. She knows it very well, and there’s play equipment there. If necessary she could play while we talk.’
‘Ah, yes, now that sounds good. Does she-does she have a lot to say?’
‘When she’s happy and comfortable she chatters like a tree full of cockatoos.’
He smiled, and sat there thinking. ‘Is there something else we should do? Perhaps go on a trip, visit the zoo, or…What do you suggest?’
‘Why don’t we see how it goes? If we get on, we might make a plan for Sunday.’
His smile illuminated his entire face. ‘Molto bene. I will keep Sunday free.’ He hesitated a moment. ‘So…how will you tell her?’
‘I told her about you this afternoon after we saw the flowers. And thank you for those, by the way. You must have been feeling very-They’re gorgeous.’
He waved his hand. ‘The least I could do. So…How did she-how did she take it?’
She smiled in recollection. ‘Very matter-of-factly, actually.’ She broke into a laugh. ‘You’re not quite up there with Santa Claus, but that’s because she hasn’t seen you yet. Once she meets you…’ She lowered her lashes to conceal a sudden mistiness, and said huskily, ‘Once she meets you, she will know.’
‘What will she know?’ he said softly.
‘How-how you are.’
‘And how is that?’
‘Among other things-hot.’
He laughed and took her hand and kissed it. ‘Thank you for the compliment. Likewise.’
She clasped fingers with him, savouring the warmth and strength of his firm grasp, a tremulous glow in her heart. She glanced at him. ‘And there’s something I must explain to you. About what happened six years ago.’
Though sitting quite still, he seemed to immobilise to an even deeper stillness, while his gaze grew darker and more unfathomable. She could sense a tension in his lean, lithe frame, and realised that everything she said now was in some way crucial.
‘I’m sorry about today, Alessandro. Those things I said. Blaming you and shrieking at you like that in the lobby like a-a-when I know now it wasn’t your fault, at all. I can’t explain why those feelings all had to come boiling up again, after all this time. I’d thought they were all dead and buried. I guess because of the way I felt then-Although you know, I probably only felt the way any woman would feel, when I read you were married.’ She lowered her gaze, then glanced up at him. ‘The truth is, I really intended to meet you at Centrepoint that day.’
His eyes sharpened in incredulity. ‘Cosa?’
She nodded. ‘I was all ready to go with you. Suitcase packed and all. And I would have, except that I was in hospital at the time.’
He swivelled his body around to face her in full. ‘Per carit`a. In hospital? Why was that?’
Despite her resolve to stay calm, when she saw his concerned expression she felt the tears well in her throat. ‘I told you about the summer of the bushfires. Well, that was the summer.’
‘You mean-that summer? When your father died?’
‘Yes, that summer. After we made that pact…’ His jaw hardened, and he drew breath to speak, but she waved her hand to prevent him. ‘My fault, I know, I know. If you only knew how much I regret it…’ Her voice started to tremble. She snapped open her purse for a bunch of tissues, and wiped her nose, then took a further moment to calm herself.
He hastened in with, ‘No, no, please, don’t be upset.’ He added, a little stiffly, ‘I know-I may have said some things about that pact. Perhaps I sounded negative. Well, it was an outrageous demand, wasn’t it, an absolutely incredible test of a man’s-!’ He broke off and breathed rather hard for some seconds. ‘But…’ He recovered his composure and threw up his hands. ‘I have to accept that I did agree to it. In the end.’ His lips tightened. ‘Against my better judgement.’
She winced. ‘I’m sorry. I had no idea at the time that you felt so strongly about it. But you know, I was quite young. I didn’t know you all that well…’
He stemmed her defences with a hasty gesture. ‘All right, yes, yes, I know, I know. Let’s not dwell too much on the whys and wherefors, now. So…’ His brilliant dark gaze was intent on her face. ‘What happened?’
She was silent for a moment, gathering her thoughts. ‘Well, after you left, I worked out my notice in my job. Then I gave up my flat and travelled up to Bindinong to spend the final week with my parents. There’d been fires around, as there are every summer. But with the weather conditions a few days before I was due to meet you it all suddenly exploded out of control. This huge fire swept down from the ridge and right through the town. Our street was cut off, and our house went up along with some others. Dad and I and a few other people were trapped. Most of us survived, only Dad…’
Even thinking of it brought back the choking smell of smoke, the fearful roaring of a world engulfed in flame, the searing, terrifying heat. Her throat closed and she broke off and allowed a gesture to take the place of words. Alessandro leaned across and took her arms, stroking her and making concerned, soothing murmurs.
When she could speak again, she said, ‘I was one of the lucky ones. The Fire Service got me out.’
‘But you were injured?’
She glanced at him, hesitating. ‘Oh, well, I had-you know, a bump on the head. What they call a little hairline fracture, and a small, insignificant-burn…’ Conscious of his fixed, querying gaze, she steeled herself to lift her hair. Ignoring her drumming heart, she flashed him a glimpse of the scar running down her nape to her shoulder.
He gave a sharp exclamation. She risked a glance at him, and saw that his dark eyes looked stricken. Though perhaps not with the horror she’d dreaded. And not revulsion either, apparently, to her extreme relief. It seemed to be more concern and sympathy he was feeling, because he put his arms around her and kissed her forehead, then her cheeks, then her lips with the most fervent tenderness.
‘Oh, Lara,’ he said thickly. ‘My poor Larissa. If only I had known this. If only…’ His arms tightened around her and she responded in kind, hugging him, pressing her lips to his strong neck, enjoying the wonderful masculine scents of him and the feel of his powerful heartbeat, thundering away next to hers. ‘How long were you in the hospital, tesoro?’
‘A couple of weeks. It took me a few days to wake up.’
‘Per carit`a. You could have died.’
‘Oh, no. Heavens, I was lucky. Look, this is nothing,’ she said when he finally released her, to her intense regret. Well, he had to. They were in a public restaurant, and after last night there were definite risks. Even under such teary conditions she felt pleasantly stimulated by the contact with his big, warm body.
‘A little scarring, is all,’ she went on, dismissing it with an airy gesture. ‘Compared to what some people suffered it’s-minuscule. A bagatelle.’ He reached to lift her hair for another inspection, but she moved sharply aside. ‘No, don’t. Please.’
Comprehension gleamed in his dark eyes, and he grew contrite. ‘I’m-sorry.’ Then he added, his face a little stiff, ‘I am-I am devastated by all of this, tesoro, but in some way so relieved to know.’ His hands lifted as if he needed to touch her, grab her, but he put them down again. ‘It changes everything. To know that at least you tried to…’ He bunched his fists. ‘If only I had known sooner.’ He sat back against the banquette, shaking his head and exclaiming in Italian. After a few seconds he glanced enquiringly at her. ‘You mentioned that fire the other night, but I never connected it. You should have explained.’
‘Should I?’ She made a slight grimace. ‘You hadn’t been so very pleased to see me earlier, though, had you? I guess I felt-wary of saying too much.’
‘Ah.’ He looked remorseful and lifted his shoulders in acknowledgement. ‘When I saw your name on that list the first day, I admit it was a shock. I wasn’t sure how I would feel about seeing you. But…’ he exhaled a long breath ‘…I understand now.’ He turned sharply to rake her with a serious gaze. ‘And-when did you find out you were pregnant?’
She grimaced. ‘In the hospital.’
He closed his eyes. ‘Oh. How it must have been for you. What you have suffered…You and your mother. Losing your poor father…’
‘I admit it was hard at first.’ She gave a rueful shrug. ‘But we’re over it now, and we’re fine. Really.’ She met his gaze fleetingly, conscious of his intent scrutiny. ‘The first year or two were pretty challenging, but, you know, life goes on. Even the worst grief softens. We made it through the bad time.’ She glanced at him and said softly, ‘Well, you know, we had Vivi to live for.’
He met her gaze, a warm shimmer lighting his eyes.
The waiter appeared again and swooped down with the selection of small dishes of fragrant, steaming delicacies.
Alessandro dealt with him with his usual courtesy, but his expression was serious and distracted. As soon as the man was out of earshot, he turned to her with more avid questions, about that time in hospital, her recovery, her ability to communicate.
‘Everything the Meadows family owned was lost,’ she explained. ‘My phone, et cetera, with your number in it.’ She shook her head in wry remembrance. ‘You’d have thought yours would be one number I’d remember, but for weeks after the event it was as if my brain was paralysed. I could hardly remember my own name. It was the trauma of the blow mixed with the shock, they said.’
‘Well, that certainly explains why I couldn’t make any connection when I phoned you. Dio, how frustrated I was.’ He took up the servers and spooned some truffled tortellini with lobster sauce onto her plate. ‘Would I be right in guessing that later on when you’d recovered enough to try you couldn’t find me?’
She nodded. ‘When I phoned Harvard, the university refused to release any information. Finally, after about the tenth call, someone told me you were no longer a student there. I felt so…I didn’t know where you were in the world. Where to look.’ She grimaced. ‘And I really needed to find you, of course…’
She paused and, drawing another preparatory breath, heard Alessandro cursing softly to himself.
‘Oh, fool that I was. And then you learned of my marriage.’
She shrugged and smiled at him through her mist. ‘I might as well admit that back then, I was-in love with you, I suppose. Well…’ She cast him a sidelong glance. ‘I was much younger then, I’d had no experience of sophisticated affairs with citizens of the world. So when I saw about your-your wedding…in that magazine…’ Her throat swelled at the remembered pain.
He sighed. ‘If I had only known this. I could have…’ could have-Everything would have been different.’
‘Would it?’ She swallowed. ‘Oh, well. It’s all water under the bridge now.’ She shrugged and raised rueful eyes to his. ‘Call it Fate, or whatever. And when I think of what you must have gone through when you came to meet me and I wasn’t there…Oh, poor Sandro, I’m so, so sorry. What you must have thought…And all these years I’ve been thinking such harsh things about you.’
He looked rueful, and in the muted light of the restaurant she thought she could detect a faint flush under his olive tan. He made a small grimace. ‘You have thought harsh things.’
With a stab of remorse she bit her lip, reaching to take his hand again. ‘Oh, of course you must have felt like that, of course. Flying all that way and thinking I’d let you down. Oh, that ridiculous pact. I’m so ashamed to have insisted on it. Why did you ever agree?’ She caught his darkening gaze and quickly moved the conversation on. ‘And I understand now.’ She looked at him through her lashes. ‘This is why you were so hostile the other day. No wonder. Who could ever blame you?’
He took immediate issue with her reading. ‘I wouldn’t say hostile. I may have been-reserved. I needed to-consider the situation.’
A silence fell while she considered the implications of everything. All her misconceptions had suddenly turned themselves around to stand the right way up.
She glanced at him. ‘Is-that why you said you had nothing to lose? When you-married Giulia? Because you felt-let down?’
He frowned, then lifted his shoulders and said in a gruff voice, ‘There may have been-some sort of rebound response in my thinking at the time.’
She looked wonderingly at him, her over-full heart fluttering in her chest like a cricket. ‘So-you did want me, back then?’
He gazed at her for a long intense moment, while her pulse rushed faster than a white-water torrent, and said very quietly, ‘I think I must have.’ Then his mouth relaxed and his eyes lit with an ironic gleam. ‘Well, I was quite young.’
Her heart skipped a few bars and she put her trembling hands to her cheeks. ‘It’s all so unbelievable, I can hardly think straight. I think we’ll both need time to process it all.’
Despite his gently mocking response, the air felt suddenly charged with questions. If he’d truly wanted her then, did that mean he would now? One thing was certain. Despite his reserve she could sense a burning turbulence behind his lean, intelligent face, as though her revelation had detonated a major realignment of his ideas. Maybe it was as cataclysmic as the one she was experiencing herself.
His dark eyes scanned her face, then he leaned across and kissed her lips. ‘What you need now is to eat some of this delicious little supper, and then I think we should walk.’
She smiled. ‘Walk where?’
‘To the Seasons,’ he said firmly.