The Marchese’s Love-Child
Former journalist SARA CRAVEN published her first novel ‘Garden of Dreams’ for Mills & Boon in 1975. Apart from her writing (naturally!) her passions include reading, bridge, Italian cities, Greek islands, the French language and countryside, and her rescue Jack Russell/cross Button. She has appeared on several TV quiz shows and in 1997 became UK TV Mastermind champion. She lives near her family in Warwickshire – Shakespeare country.
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‘YOU’RE going back to Italy?’ There was outrage in Lily Fairfax’s voice as she turned on her daughter. Anger too. ‘Oh, I don’t believe it. You can’t—you mustn’t.’
Polly Fairfax sighed soundlessly. ‘Mother, I’m escorting an elderly lady to Naples, where she’ll be met by her family, upon which—I catch the next flight home. I’ll be gone for a few hours at most. Hardly Mission Impossible.’
‘You said you’d never return there,’ her mother said. ‘You swore it.’
‘Yes, I know,’ Polly acknowledged wearily. ‘But that was three years ago. And circumstances change. This is a work assignment, and there’s no one else to do it. Since Safe Hands was featured on that holiday programme, we’ve been snowed under with requests.’ She adopted a persuasive tone. ‘And you enjoyed seeing me on television—you know you did.’ She added a smile. ‘So you can’t complain if I’m in demand as a consequence.’
Mrs Fairfax wasn’t pacified. ‘Is this why this woman—this Contessa Whatsit wants you? Because you’ve been on television?’
Polly laughed. ‘I shouldn’t think so for a moment. She’s far too grand to bother with anything so vulgar. And her name’s the Contessa Barsoli.’
Her mother dismissed that impatiently. ‘I didn’t think you liked her very much.’
Polly shrugged. ‘I don’t particularly. She’s been a total pain the whole week I’ve been with her. And I’m damned sure she doesn’t care for me either,’ she added musingly. ‘She always looks at me as if I’m a slug in her salad. Believe me, I shan’t be tempted to linger.’
‘Then why did she choose you?’
‘The devil she knows, perhaps.’ Polly shrugged again. ‘As opposed to some stranger. Anyway, she needs someone to see to her luggage, and make sure she’s got all her documentation. Which is where Safe Hands comes in, of course.’
She leaned forward. ‘To be honest, Mum, I don’t know how much longer I can go on turning down jobs in Italy, just because of something that happened three years ago. I like my job, and I want to hang on to it. But Mrs Terence is running a business here, not an agency for people who’ve been crossed in love.’
‘It was,’ her mother reminded her tightly, ‘rather more than that.’
‘Whatever.’ Polly bit her lip. ‘But I can’t pick and choose my clients, and I think Mrs T has made all the allowances over Italy that she’s going to. So I have to treat it as just another destination from now on.’
‘And what about Charlie?’ Mrs Fairfax demanded fiercely. ‘What’s going to happen to him while you’re gadding off?’
It hardly seemed to Polly that enduring another twenty-four hours in the company of a disdainful Italian autocrat counted as ‘gadding’.
And her mother had never objected to her role as child-minder before, even when Polly was absent on other, much longer trips. In fact she’d declared that Charlie’s presence had given her a new lease of life.
She looked out of the window to where her cheerful two-year-old was trotting about after his grandfather, picking up hedge clippings.
She said slowly, ‘I thought he would stay with you, as usual.’
There were bright spots of colour in her mother’s face. ‘But it’s not usual—is it? You’re deliberately defying my wishes—yet again. I was totally against your taking that job in Sorrento three years ago, and how right I was. You came slinking home pregnant by some local Casanova, who didn’t want to know about you any more. Can you deny it?’
‘To be fair, Sandro had no more idea that I was expecting a baby than I did myself,’ Polly said levelly. ‘Although I agree it would have made no difference if he had known. But that’s all in the past. I’ve—rebuilt my life, and he’ll have moved on too.’ She paused. ‘All the same, I promise not to go within ten miles of Sorrento, if that will make you feel better.’
‘I’d feel better if you didn’t go at all,’ her mother returned sharply. ‘But if it really is just a day trip, I suppose I can’t stop you.’
‘You’ll hardly know I’ve gone,’ Polly assured her. ‘Thanks, Mum.’ She gave her a swift hug. ‘You’re a star.’
‘I’m an idiot,’ Lily Fairfax retorted, but she sounded slightly mollified. ‘Are you going to stay for supper? I’ve made one of my steak pies.’
‘It’s good of you, darling,’ said Polly, mentally bracing herself for another battle. ‘But we must get back. I have this trip to prepare for.’
Mrs Fairfax gave her a tragic look. ‘But I’ve got Charlie’s favourite ice-cream for dessert. He’ll be so disappointed.’
Only because you’ve already told him, Polly thought without pleasure.
Aloud, she said, ‘You really mustn’t spoil him like that.’
Her mother pouted. ‘It’s a sad thing if I can’t give my only grandchild the occasional treat.’ She paused. ‘Why not leave him here—if you’re going to be busy this evening?’ she coaxed. ‘It’ll save you time in the morning if you have a plane to catch.’
‘It’s a kind thought.’ Polly tried to sound positive. ‘But I really look forward to my evenings with Charlie, Mum. I—I see so little of him.’
‘Well, that’s something your father and I wanted to discuss with you,’ her mother said with sudden briskness.