The waiter complimented their choice as he took their orders, and very soon she tasted bliss.
‘Oh...’ It was light and not too sweet, and the liquor made it decadent. It really had been an accidental perfect choice.
‘Nice,’ Raul said, and watched her hurriedly swallow and clear her mouth before speaking.
‘Yes.’ Lydia nodded. ‘Very.’
‘I wasn’t asking a question.’
He looked at her mouth, and Lydia wondered if she had a crumb on her lip, but she resisted putting out her tongue to check.
And then he looked at her mouth, and the pressure within built as still she resisted that simple oral manoeuvre. Instead she pulled her bottom lip into her mouth and ran her tongue over it there.
Her eyes met his and she frowned at his impertinence as they asked a question—Are you imagining what I think you are?
Of course she said no such thing, and his features were impassive, but those black eyes offered his response.
Yes, Lydia, I am.
Had she had her purse with her, Lydia might well have called for the bill and fled, because she felt as if she were going insane. She looked around. Almost certain that the spectacle she was creating would have the world on pause and watching.
Yet the waiters were waiting, the patrons were chatting, the commuters were commuting and the word was just carrying on, oblivious to the fire smouldering unchecked in this roped-off section.
And so too must Raul be—oblivious, that was. For his voice was even and his question polite. ‘How are you finding Rome?’
Lydia was about to nod and say how wonderful it was, or give some other pat response, but she put down her spoon, let go of the end of her tether and simply stated the truth.
The real reason she was in Rome.
‘I’m determined to love it this time.’
* * *
‘Okay...’ Raul said. His stance was relaxed and he leant back in the seat, seemingly nonchalant, but in his mind he was searching for an angle—how to get her to speak of Bastiano without too direct a question.
Lydia was terribly formal—very English and uptight. One wrong move, Raul knew, and he would be the recipient of a downed napkin and he’d have to watch her stalk off back to the hotel.
She was so incredibly sexy, though.
A woman who would make you earn that reward.
Lydia did not flirt, he noted.
Not a fraction.
No playing with her hair, no leaning forward, no secret smiles and no innuendo.
Really, the way she was sitting so upright in the chair, he could be at a breakfast meeting with Allegra, his PA.
Except Raul was aroused.
He was here to garner information, Raul reminded himself, and took his mind back to their conversation.
Or tried to.
‘How long are you here for?’
‘Till Sunday,’ Lydia answered. ‘Two nights. How about you?’
‘I’m here for business.’
Raul should not be taking this time now. He had a very packed day. First he would meet with Alim and his team. Then, if time allowed, he would drop in unexpectedly on the other hotel he owned in Rome.
But he always made Bastiano his business.
‘When do you leave?’ she asked.
‘When business is done.’ Raul’s jet was in fact booked for six this evening, but he did not share his itinerary with anyone outside his close circle. ‘So, you’ve been to Rome before?’
‘Yes, I came to Italy on a school trip and had a rather miserable time. I don’t think my mood then did the place justice.’
‘Where did you go?’
‘Rome, Florence and Venice.’
‘Which was your favourite?’
Lydia thought for a moment. ‘Venice.’
‘And your least favourite?’
Oh, that was easy—Lydia didn’t have to think to answer that, even if he didn’t understand her response. ‘Venice.’
He did understand.
So much so that Raul again forgot that he was trying to steer the conversation. Even though Bastiano was the reason Raul was there, for now he left Raul’s mind.
He thought of Venice—the city he loved and now called home.
Not that he told her that.
Raul gave away nothing.
Then suddenly he did.
For as she looked over she was rewarded with the slow reveal of his smile.
And his smile was a true and very rare gift.
She saw those full dark lips stretch and the white of his teeth, but the real beauty was in eyes that stared so deeply into hers she felt there was nowhere to hide.
And nor did she want to.
‘Venice,’ Raul said, in that deep, measured voice, ‘can be the loneliest place in the world.’
‘Yes,’ Lydia admitted. ‘It was.’
It was as if she was seventeen again, walking alongside the Grand Canal alone and wanting to be in love with the city.
To be in love.
Of course nearly every schoolgirl on a trip to Italy secretly hoped for a little romance.
But on that day—on that terribly lonely day—Lydia would have been happy with a friend.
One true friend.
Raul was right. Lydia had felt utterly alone then, and for the most part she had felt the same since.
She was looking at him, but not really, and then his voice brought her back.
‘And you forgive her because how could you not?’
‘Her?’ Lydia checked, her mind still on friendships that had failed.
‘I wasn’t there long enough to forgive her,’ Lydia admitted.
‘Just being a teenager...’
She could easily dismiss it as that, but it had been more. Oh, she didn’t want to tell him that her father had just died and left behind him utter chaos, for while it might explain her unhappiness then, it wasn’t the entire truth—it had been more than that.
‘Schoolgirls can be such bitches.’
‘I don’t think it is exclusive to that age bracket.’
‘No!’ Lydia actually laughed at his observation because, yes, those girls were now women and probably still much the same.
She glanced at her phone, which had remained silent.
Arabella hadn’t responded to her text.
Neither had she responded to Lydia’s last message.
And suddenly Lydia was back in Italy, hurting again.
‘What happened in Venice?’