Emma took Sam in her arms. She felt the warmth of his small body and inhaled his sweet baby smell, and nearly cried.
Turning away, Irene paused at the door of Emma’s bedroom. “The three of you are already a family,” she said softly, “but today makes it official. Thanks for inviting me. Seeing what’s possible...it makes me more happy than you’ll ever know.”
And her young friend left, leaving Emma holding her baby against her beaded silk dress, her throat aching as she fought back tears that had nothing to do with joy.
“All right, Sam. I guess we can’t be late.” She looked out the window, at the vast sky above the lake, already turning red in the twilight. “I only wish I had a sign,” she murmured over the lump in her throat. “I wish I knew whether I’m making the right choice—or ruining all our lives.”
Sam, of course, didn’t answer, at least not in words she could understand. Holding her baby close, she walked out of her bedroom as an unmarried woman for the last time. When next she returned, she would be the mistress of this villa. From now on, her place would be in Cesare’s bed.
Until he grew tired of her. And started sleeping elsewhere. She pushed the thought aside.
Emma’s white satin shoes trembled as she walked down the sweeping stairs. The villa was strangely silent. Everyone had gone to the chapel, even the household staff. She heard the echoing footsteps of her shoes against the marble floor before she pushed open the enormous oak door and went outside.
Holding her baby close, she walked down the path carved into the hillside, along the edge of the lake. “This marriage is for you, Sam,” she whispered. “I can live without your father loving me. I can live without him being faithful to me. For you, I can live the rest of my life with a numb, lonely heart....”
Emma stopped in front of the medieval chapel, which was lit by torchlight on the edge of the lake. Such a romantic setting. And every drop of romance a lie.
Trembling, she walked toward it, nestling her baby against her hip as the veil trailed behind them.
The twelfth-century chapel had been carefully and lovingly restored to its Romanesque glory. The medieval walls were thick, with just a few tiny windows. The arched door was open.
Heart pounding, she stepped inside.
The dark chapel was illuminated by candlelight, its tall brass candlesticks placed along the aisle. She heard the soft music of a lute, accompanied by guitar. As she appeared in the doorway, there was an audible gasp as the people packed into the tiny chairs rose to their feet.
Emma’s legs felt like jelly. She felt a tug on her translucent silk veil and saw Sam had grabbed it in his pudgy fist, and was now attempting to chew it. She smiled through her tears, then took a deep breath as the music changed to the traditional wedding march.
Looking at all the faces of the guests, she didn’t recognize any of them as she slowly walked forward, feeling more dizzy with every step. She tried to focus on Cesare at the end of the aisle. She took another step, then another. She was six steps from the altar.
And then she saw his face.
Cesare looked green, sick with fear—as if only sheer will kept him from rushing straight past her in a panic. He tried to give her a smile.
Her footsteps stopped.
“Stop! Don’t do it! Don’t ruin your life!”
The man’s voice was a low roar, as if from the deepest reaches of the earth, coming up through the stone floor. For an instant, Emma couldn’t breathe. Her father’s voice from beyond the grave...? Then she saw Cesare glare at someone behind her.
Whirling around, she saw Alain.
The slim salt-and-pepper-haired Frenchman took another step into the chapel. “Don’t do this,” he pleaded. “Falconeri has already caused the death of one woman I loved. I won’t let him take another.”
There was a gasp and growl across the crowd. Cesare gave a low hiss of fury. He was going to come down and smash Alain’s face for doing this, she realized.
For stopping a wedding that Emma never should have agreed to in the first place.
“Don’t marry him.” Alain held out a trembling hand to her. “Come with me now.”
She’d wanted a sign?
With tortured eyes, she turned back to Cesare.
“I can’t do this,” she choked out. “I’m sorry.”
Cradling her baby, she picked up the hem of her cream-colored silk gown with one hand, and followed Alain out of the chapel. She ran from Cesare as if the happiness of her whole life—and not just hers, but Sam’s and Cesare’s—depended on it.
Which she finally knew—it did.
* * *
As a thirteen-year-old, coming home in a strange big city, Cesare had once been mugged for the five dollars in his pocket. He’d been kicked in the gut with steel-toed boots.
This felt worse.
As if in a dream, Cesare had watched Emma walk up the aisle of the chapel, a bride more beautiful than he’d ever imagined, with their child in her arms. Then, like a sudden deadly storm, Alain Bouchard had appeared like an avenging angel. Emma had looked between the two men.
Cesare had been confident in her loyalty. He’d known she would spurn Bouchard, and marry him as she’d promised.
Instead she’d turned on him.
She’d abandoned him.
For a moment, as the chapel door banged closed behind her, Cesare couldn’t breathe. The pain was so intense he staggered from it.
The chapel was suddenly so quiet that he could hear the soft wind blow across the lake. The deepening shadows of the candlelit chapel seemed relentlessly dark as endless eyes focused on him, in varying degrees of shock, sympathy and worst of all—pity.
The priest, who’d met with them several times over the past weeks, spoke to him in Italian, in a low, shocked voice. He could barely hear.
Cesare’s tuxedo tie was suddenly too tight around his throat. He couldn’t let himself show his feelings. He couldn’t even let himself feel them.
Emma had left him.
At the altar.
And taken their child with her.
He looked at the faces of his friends and business acquaintances, including the white-robed, hard-eyed sheikh of Makhtar in the back row, who alone had no expression of sympathy on his face. Cesare parted his lips to speak, but his throat was too tight. After all, what was there to say?
Emma had betrayed him.
Ripping off his black tie, he tossed it on the stone floor and strode grimly out of the chapel in pursuit of her.
So much for mercy. So much for the high road.
He never should have listened to old Morty Ainsley. Cesare’s throat was burning, and so were his eyes. He should have sued Emma for full custody from the moment he learned of Sam’s existence. He should have gotten his revenge. Gotten his war.
Instead he’d offered her everything. His throat hurt. His name. His fortune. His fidelity. Hadn’t he made it clear that if she wished it, he would remain true to her? Hadn’t he proven it with more than words—with his absolute faithfulness over the past year? How much more clear could he be?
And Emma had spurned all of it. In the most humiliating way possible. He’d never thought she could be so cruel. Making love to him last night—today, leaving him for another man.
He pushed through a grove of lemon trees. He would make her pay. He would make her regret. He would make her...
His heart was breaking.
He loved her.
The realization struck him like a blow, and he stopped. He loved her? He’d tried not to. Told himself he wouldn’t. But all this time, he’d been lying to himself. To both of them. He’d been in love with her for a long time, possibly as long as she’d loved him.
He’d certainly been in love with her the night they’d conceived Sam. It wouldn’t have made sense for him to have taken such a risk otherwise.
His body had already known what his brain and heart refused to see: he loved her. For reasons that had nothing to do with her housekeeping skills, or even now her skills as a mother, or her skills in bed. He didn’t love her for any skills at all, but for the woman she was inside: loving, warm, with a heart of sunlight and fire.
And now, all that light and fire had abruptly been ripped out of his life, the moment he’d started to count on her. He wasn’t even surprised. He’d known this would happen. Known the moment he let himself love again, she would disappear.
He had only himself to blame....
“Thank God you saw sense.” Hearing the low rasp of Alain Bouchard’s voice, Cesare ducked behind a thicket of orange trees. Peering through the branches, he saw two figures standing on the shore, frosted silver by moonlight. “Here.” Bouchard’s accented voice was exultant. “Get in my boat. You’ve made the right choice. I won’t let him hurt you now.”
Clenching his fists, Cesare took a step toward them. Then he saw Emma wasn’t making a move to get in the boat. She had turned away, and was trying to calm the baby, who had started to whimper in her arms. Her long white veil trailed her like a ghost in moonlight.
“He didn’t hurt your sister, Alain,” she said in a low voice. “He would never hurt her. He loved her. In fact, he’s still in love with her. That’s why I...why I couldn’t go through with it.”
Cesare stopped, his eyes wide, and a branch broke loudly beneath his feet. Bouchard twisted his head blindly, then turned back to Emma. “Hurry. He might come at any moment.”