Sparks were starting to illuminate her green eyes. “I’m not going to tell you.”
He glared at her. “So you admit that you were flirting.”
“I admit nothing. You are the one who said we shouldn’t ask each other questions!”
“About the past, not the present!”
“That’s fine for you, because as you well know, you are my only past, while your past could fill every bedroom in this mansion. And probably has!”
Her voice caught, and for the first time he heard the ragged edge of repressed tears. He frowned down at her. When he spoke again, his voice was low, barely audible over the music. “What’s wrong?”
“Other than you accusing me of flirting, while I torture myself with questions every time I meet one of your beautiful guests—wondering which ones you’ve slept with in the past? And suspecting—all of them!”
Her voice broke. Her green eyes were luminous with unshed tears. He glanced around uneasily at the women around them. Emma was right. He’d slept with more than one of them. No wonder she was upset. He’d nearly exploded with irrational jealousy, just seeing Leonidas talking to her.
Pulling her tighter in his arms, he swayed them to the music, continuing to dance as he spoke to her in a low voice.
“They were one-night stands, Emma. Meaningless.”
“You called our first night together meaningless, too. The night we conceived our baby.”
He flinched. Then emotion surged through him. He glared at her.
“This is why I wanted our marriage to be in name only. To avoid these arguments and stupid jealousies.”
“You mean the way you practically hit your good friend in the face for the crime of dancing with me and making me laugh?”
For a moment, he scowled at her. Then, getting hold of himself, he took a deep breath.
“Sorry,” he muttered. “I never meant...to make you cry.”
Emma looked away, blinking fast. “That’s not why I was crying.”
“What is it, then?”
“They all think I’m a sly gold digger. All your friends.” She wiped her eyes. “A few women actually congratulated me on tricking you into marriage. Some of them could hardly believe a woman as—well, fat—as me could do it. Others just wanted tips for how to trick billionaire husbands of their own. They wanted to know if I poked holes in the condom wrapper with a needle or what.”
Cesare’s hands tightened on her back. He stared down at her, vibrating with rage as they swayed to the music. “I will take a horsewhip to all of them.”
She gave a small laugh, even as tears spilled down her cheeks. “It doesn’t matter,” she said softly, but he could feel how much that wasn’t true. To her, the simple question of honor and a good name did matter. Her pride had been hurt.
He fiercely wiped a tear off her cheek with her thumb. “You and I, we know the truth.”
“Yes. We do. But I still wish,” she whispered, “we were a million miles from here.”
“As long as we’re in London, I’ll always be your gold-digging housekeeper. And you’ll be the playboy who’s slept with every woman in the city.” She looked up at him with tearful eyes. “I wish we could just go. Move away. Somewhere I’ll never have to wonder, every time I see another woman, if she’s ever been in your bed.” She shuddered. “I hate what my imagination is doing to me—”
“Since the first night we slept together, I haven’t touched another woman.”
Her lips parted. “What?”
Cesare was almost as surprised as she was that he’d said it. But damn it—how could he not tell her? He couldn’t see her pain and do nothing. “It’s true.”
He stopped on the dance floor.
“I haven’t wanted to,” he said quietly.
“I don’t understand.” Emma shook her head. “If that’s the case, why would you say you wanted a marriage in name only?”
Reaching out, he brushed back some dark hair from the soft skin of her bare shoulder above her gown. “Because all my love affairs have ended badly.”
She swallowed. “Mine, too.”
“Our marriage is too important. I cannot let it end in fights and tears and recriminations. The only way to make sure our relationship never ends...is never to start it in the first place.”
“It won’t work. Listen to us! We’re still fighting anyway.”
“Not like we would if—” He cut himself off, then shook his head. “You know lovers are a dime a dozen to me. But you... You are special.” Reaching up, he stroked her cheek. “I need you as a partner. As my friend.” He set his jaw. “Sex would ruin everything. It always does.”
Swallowing, she exhaled, looking away.
“All right,” she said finally. “Friends.” There was a shadow of worry behind her eyes as they lifted to his. “You really haven’t slept with any other women?” she said in wonder. “Since the night we conceived Sam?”
He gave her an unsteady grin. “Don’t tell anyone. It would ruin my reputation.”
“Your secret is safe with me.” She smiled up at him, even as her eyes still shone with tears. “And you might as well know—your friend Leonidas is a very clumsy dancer. That’s why I was laughing at his dumb jokes. To try to disguise yelps of pain every time he stomped on my foot.”
A hard pressure in Cesare’s chest suddenly released. For a moment, they just looked at each other, and though they were in the middle of a dance floor surrounded by a hundred guests, it was as if it were just the two of them in the world.
He never should have brought her back to London, Cesare thought suddenly. Of course not. How could he have expected Emma to return as a wife to the house where she’d once been his employee, and sleep in the same lonely bedroom down the hall from the bed where he’d seduced other women, again and again? The house where he’d once expected her, as a matter of course, to make breakfast for his one-night-stands and escort them out with gifts and a shoulder to cry on?
“We don’t have to stay here,” he said slowly. “There’s someplace else we can go. A place where we can be married and start fresh, just the three of us. As a family.”
His heart twisted to remember it. But he forced himself to meet her gaze. To smile.
“Home,” he said simply.
THE TWO-HUNDRED-year-old villa on the shores of Lake Como stood like an ancient castle, caught in the shadows between the gray water and lowering clouds of dusk.
Emma took a deep breath, savoring the cool air against her cheeks and crunch of gravel beneath her feet as she walked along the forest path around the lake toward home. From the cushioned front pack on her chest, Sam let out another low cry, waving his plump arms. She sighed, looking down at her baby, then rubbed his soft downy hair.
“I thought for sure that a walk would do it,” she said mournfully. He was irritable because he hadn’t gone down for a nap all day, not for lack of her trying. “Ah, well. Let’s see what we can rustle up for dinner, shall we?”
Her own stomach was growling after their long walk. She had spent hours trying to coax him to sleep, but as tired as Sam was, as soon as he started to nod off, he kept jerking himself awake. Now, she was finally forced to admit failure. The darkening October sky was drawing her back home.
That, and knowing Cesare was waiting for them...
Emma smiled to herself as she walked the lake path back toward the villa, which had been in the Falconeri family for hundreds of years. They’d been living here a month now, and it was starting to feel like home, though their first day, when he’d shown her around, she’d been shocked. “You grew up in this palace?” she’d blurted out, thinking of her two-bedroom bungalow on the Texas prairie.
He’d snorted. “It didn’t always look like this. When I was a child, we barely had indoor plumbing. Our family ran out of money long before I was born. And that was even before my parents decided to devote their lives to art.” His lips quirked. “Five years ago, I decided I wouldn’t let it fall apart.” His voice turned grim. “Although I was tempted.”
“I remember you talking about the remodel.” Emma had walked through room after room, all of them with ceilings fifteen feet high, with gilded details on the walls and even a fresco in the foyer. “I never imagined I might someday live here as your wife.”
She could see why the remodel of this house, which she remembered him grumbling about, had required so much money and time. Every detail of the past had been preserved, while made modern with brand-new fixtures, windows, heated floors and two separate kitchens.
She’d been amazed when she saw a beautiful oil painting of Cesare as a young boy of maybe three or four, with chubby cheeks and bright innocence in his eyes—along with a determined set to his jaw. His clothes were ragged and covered with mud. She’d pointed at it with a laugh. “That was you?”