Cinderella's Secret Fling
‘You are ready, Audrey?’
The words sounded more like a command than a question. Audrey glanced at her grandmother and found she couldn’t push a single word from a throat that had grown too tight. She’d met Marguerite Funaro a week ago, and Marguerite was as unlike Nonna as it was possible to be.
‘Appearances can be deceptive.’
She held that thought close; the voice—Nonna’s—made the tight knot in her stomach loosen a fraction. Nonna had taught her the importance of family. Audrey had no intention of forgetting those lessons and abandoning all of Nonna’s wisdom now, just because she was nervous and things felt a bit awkward.
Marguerite might not be touchy-feely and demonstrative, but Audrey had felt a bond with the older woman the moment they’d met. Marguerite hadn’t felt like a stranger, although the world she inhabited did.
In her letter, Nonna had said Audrey’s mother’s family was wealthy and powerful. Audrey just hadn’t realised how wealthy and powerful. Apparently, the Funaro name was synonymous with all the great aristocratic names of Italy.
She pinched herself. It was hard to believe that she was a member of such an old, powerful Italian family. Or that she was now a resident at their impossibly luxurious estate on the shores of Lake Como with its splendid Funaro Villa, extravagant gardens and extraordinary views.
She glanced at her grandmother again and her stomach churned. She didn’t want to let Marguerite down. Didn’t want to let any of the family down, but what did she know about this world? How would she ever fit in?
Just because Marguerite is regal and proud, it doesn’t mean she has no heart or kindness or love.
The thought made her straighten. Marguerite had welcomed her into the Funaro fold without hesitation…and with her own brand of warmth. Lifting her chin, she nodded. ‘I’m looking forward to meeting the rest of the family, Grandmother.’
Grandmother was what Marguerite had requested Audrey call her. She had no idea why she wanted her to use the English title rather than the Italian one. Maybe it was so she could tell her apart from the other members of the family.
Because, apparently, there were quite a few of them.
The wriggle of delight was cut short as Marguerite’s gaze roved over Audrey’s attire. Her lips didn’t tighten and her nostrils didn’t flare and nothing about her face gave anything away, but Audrey couldn’t help but feel she’d been found wanting.
She glanced down at herself. ‘Would you like me to change?’ Not that she had anything else to change into. Not really. ‘I only brought a limited wardrobe with me on this trip.’ She only had a limited wardrobe period, but she had no intention of admitting that out loud. ‘I’ve not had a chance to do any real shopping yet and—’
She snapped to attention. ‘Yes, Grandmother?’
‘You are a granddaughter of the Funaro family. You have royal blood flowing in your veins.’
She choked down an entirely inappropriate laugh. Royal blood? Her?
‘Your attire does not define you.’
Easy to say when you happened to be wearing a delightfully chic Chanel suit in pink-and-white tweed.
‘You will walk out there as if you own the room.’
Oh, just like that, huh? Easy-peasy. She had an insane urge to call her cousin Frankie and demand a pep talk.
‘You will keep your back straight, your chin high and a pleasant expression on your face.’
She adjusted her stance to meet her grandmother’s exacting requirements.
‘Ours is a large family and, as with most families, some members get along better than others. You will not allow anyone to ruffle your peace or to allow you to feel inferior.’
Okay, now she really wanted to run back to Aunt Beatrice’s and hide under the bed that had been hers for the past few weeks.
‘Repeat that, please,’ the older woman ordered.
‘I won’t allow anyone to make me feel inferior,’ she obediently repeated. These people were her family; things were bound to be a bit awkward initially. But it wasn’t money and position that made a person worthwhile. Just because her dress wasn’t the latest fashion, it didn’t make her a bad person.
Her heart beat hard. She had family. And she would fit in. It might take some time, but she would make them love her. There was strength in family, not to mention security. And a place to belong. Ever since Nonna’s death, she’d felt cast adrift. But here was a place where she could find safe harbour and acceptance—where she could love and be loved.
‘Remember, you have your grandmother’s seal of approval.’
Marguerite might not be all touchy-feely maternal warmth, but her unerring support warmed Audrey from the inside out. ‘I’m ready to meet everyone, Grandmother. I’m looking forward to it.’
Once this initial meeting was over, she could work at getting to know everyone on a more leisurely and less formal basis. She imagined lunches, dinners, outings. Hopefully by Christmas it’d feel as if they’d all known each other forever. She crossed her fingers.
‘Remember, spine straight, shoulders back…and smile.’
Audrey followed the instructions to the letter, and then waited outside a set of gilded double doors while a butler or footman or…well, a member of staff who wore the most extraordinary uniform, flung the doors open. She half expected him to announce them.
He didn’t, of course. This wasn’t the set of a historical drama. She wasn’t some Jane Austen heroine. This was the real world.
Except Audrey’s real world wasn’t Lake Como, glittering chandeliers, eighty-room villas and a new family.
Marguerite took Audrey’s arm, as if for the support—as if she was an old lady who needed to lean on someone. Which was a joke, because frailty, thy name is woman wasn’t Marguerite. She doubted she’d be able to best the older woman in an arm wrestle.
The thought, though, made her smile.
Then they stepped inside the room and her breath caught. There had to be at least forty people in here. It took all her strength not to clasp her hands beneath her chin and beam at them. How wonderful! She’d always wanted to be part of a big, loving family.
Nobody said a word as she and Marguerite split a path through the crowd towards a throne—
Not a throne. A chair. But it was all gold gilt and pink velvet and clearly Marguerite’s. The silence raised all the fine hairs on her arms. She concentrated on keeping her spine straight, her chin lifted and her expression pleasant. This odd formality must be the way they did things here in her new world.
Still, she’d never hated her height more. It always made her stand out, gave her nowhere to hide and— Except…she wasn’t the only tall person in the room! This stature must be a Funaro trait. Her smile widened. Surely, that meant she was fitting in already.
Marguerite removed her arm from Audrey’s and sat. Audrey immediately felt cast adrift.
Don’t be a baby.
It’d be easier if she knew what she was supposed to do. Should she sit? Except there was no chair beside her grandmother’s.
You’re not supposed to sit. You’re supposed to mix and mingle and get to know everyone.
Not until she’d been introduced, though, surely? She felt as if she ought to have a sign around her neck saying Exhibit A.
The vision had her lips twitching. Once everyone got to know her, she wouldn’t be such a curiosity. She’d be just another member of the family.
And still, the silence stretched. Though, she couldn’t help feeling an awful lot of silent communication was happening among various family members. She hid a wince. Awkward much?
Finally, with an impatient huff, a child broke from the ranks and came hurtling out from behind the crowd to rush up to Audrey, hopping from one foot to the other in front of her. ‘Ciao! Hello!’
The pretty little thing couldn’t be older than three or four. Something inside her melted. She hadn’t thought, but of course, there’d be children. She knelt down to be eye to eye with her and held out her hand. ‘I’m Audrey. And who might you be? A princess, maybe?’
‘I’m not a princess. I’m Liliana.’ She placed her hand in Audrey’s and shook it earnestly. ‘And you’re my aunty.’
She stared at the little girl and her throat thickened; her eyes burned. She had a niece? She had to swallow before she could trust her voice to work. ‘My niece? I have a niece?’
Little Liliana nodded eagerly.
The delight that flooded her couldn’t be hidden, contained or otherwise tempered. She clapped her hands, grinning madly. She might’ve even shimmied. ‘That is the best news I’ve ever heard!’
She had a niece!
Liliana grinned back like she couldn’t help it, either.
And then they hugged each other like they meant it.
She had at least one friend here, then. And she had every intention of treasuring her.
Gabriel took one look at the tableau unfolding before him and wanted to swear long and hard.
One thing the world didn’t need was another Funaro.
One thing that world really didn’t need was a Funaro his daughter found irresistible.
Not that he blamed Lili for falling for the statuesque woman who’d folded down to her height with the ease and grace of a ballet dancer. Or who smiled at her as if her very heart’s delight had just been handed to her on a diamond-encrusted platinum platter at Lili’s announcement.
Even his heart had thrilled as he’d watched the scene unfold, and he was a hardened cynic who didn’t trust in appearances or believe that anyone in the room had his or Lili’s best interests at heart. He watched the stranger rise; watched the way Lili slipped her hand inside her new friend’s; noted the way this Audrey’s fingers curled around Lili’s as if…
He rubbed a hand across his chest.
As if she welcomed that hand. As if she’d keep that little hand safe from all harm. As if…
He swallowed an indigestible lump. It is the way Fina should’ve held Lili’s hand. But even if his wife hadn’t died and was still in their midst, that wasn’t the kind of woman Fina had been. None of the women in this room were. None of them would hold Lili’s hand in that fashion.
He studied the quietly beautiful woman’s face with its dark eyes. If one wasn’t looking for it, they wouldn’t immediately see the beauty there. But he had an artist’s eye and recognised it immediately. This wasn’t a woman who made the most of her assets by painting her face, by drawing her hair up into a complicated style that took myriad pins and a team of hairdressers to maintain. If her dress and shoes were anything to go by, she wasn’t a woman who, before now, had the means to buy designer labels.
Several women in the room exchanged raised eyebrows. As if to say ‘Look what the cat has dragged in.’
Mind you, all too soon this Audrey would have access to the funds to rectify every single problem the assorted horde would find with her appearance. And then they’d be jealous of her as she outshone them all.
For a brief moment, at least. Like a star shining its brightest before exploding. Or should that be imploding? Whatever one wanted to call it, it’d be spectacular. And then it’d be spectacularly disastrous.
Marguerite finally made a general introduction to the room at large, saying that she was pleased to welcome her granddaughter Audrey into the family fold. A chair was placed for Audrey beside Marguerite’s, and he gave a silent, humourless laugh. Audrey didn’t yet understand the honour being done to her with the placement of that chair. But she’d learn. And if she didn’t want to be eaten alive by the piranhas in the room, she’d better learn presto.
The temperature in the room rose as resentment and devilry heated the air. What would most of the people here give to be seated in such close proximity to Marguerite, to have the opportunity to whisper sweet nothings and bitter calumnies in her ear for ten minutes? How many of them would like the opportunity to make a fresh impression on their stately elder?
And because they couldn’t, because they’d messed up—in some instances again and again—the feuding family members in the room seemed to momentarily join forces against the newcomer. As if they couldn’t wait until she, too, fell from grace.
A bitter sigh welled inside him. He didn’t doubt that Audrey would indeed fall from grace. She was a Funaro, after all. Falling from grace was what the Funaros did. They knew of no other way of being.
As various family members were called forward to be introduced and pay their respects, he remained in the shadows—where he belonged. He wasn’t a member of the family, thank God. He was tolerated as Lili’s father, nothing more. Lili might be a Funaro, but she was also a Dimarco. His hands clenched. He would not allow her to go the way of her mother. He would not allow this family’s excesses, their hedonism and extravagances, to destroy his daughter. He would do everything in his power to prevent that from happening.
He kept a close eye on Lili now and it took all his willpower not to call her back to his side. It would bring attention to the both of them, and that was something he’d avoid if he could.
The arrangement—one legally signed off by a team of lawyers—stated that during the summer Lili would spend uninterrupted time with her mother’s family. He had no desire to engage in a protracted legal battle with Marguerite if she should happen to take exception to some interference of his, or imagined some slight or infringement to her rights.
Where he could, he’d keep things amicable. To her credit, on this one issue Marguerite had been in surprising agreement. When he’d demanded to be allowed to accompany Lili for her summers at Lake Como, Marguerite had acquiesced. They both knew his being there would keep Lili content and secure. In his turn, he ensured Marguerite could spend time with Lili throughout the rest of the year. They maintained an uneasy peace he would prefer not to shatter.
He glanced again at the newcomer’s face and his chest clenched. Her height, the line of her nose and the aristocratic cheekbones pronounced her heritage. He saw Fina there, and her mother, Danae, too.
He would never again fall for a Funaro heiress, never again indulge a fascination for one, or even speak to one longer than necessary. Once had been enough. He would not live that nightmare a second time.
It didn’t mean he relished the notion of witnessing another heiress’s fall from grace, though. Watching the newcomer succumb to the wealth and sophistication, the petty flatteries and scheming seductions, the endless parties. Breath hissed from his lungs. The drugs.
He loathed the thought of all the potential encased in that elegant frame being brought low; watching as the fire in those eyes dimmed and eventually went out.
His name, an imperial command from the matriarch herself, snapped him back to himself.
‘Come! I have a request to make of you.’
He kept his face a study of polite lines. What was the scheming Funaro elder up to now? Whatever it was, he suspected he wouldn’t like it.
Lili’s wide smile and hopping excitement had him moving towards the trio in the middle of the room, rather than heading for the door like his instincts told him to.
‘This is Papa.’ Lili leaned against Audrey’s legs, smiling up at her with the naive openness and utter assurance of a much-loved four-year-old, clearly believing Audrey adored her every bit as much as Lili did her. It made him want to snatch his daughter up and bolt from the house and lock her in a tower where none of these people could ever hurt her.
‘I’m looking forward to meeting your papa,’ Audrey said with a wide smile that had a different part of his anatomy jerking to attention. He wrestled with the curse that rose to his lips.
‘Good grief, Audrey,’ said Marguerite, ‘you don’t need to stand every time I introduce you to someone new.’
‘It only seems polite,’ Audrey returned mildly, apparently unfazed by her grandmother’s imperial tone.
‘Audrey, this is my grandson-in-law. He was married to my granddaughter Serafina.’
‘My mamma,’ Lili whispered. Though four-year-olds apparently couldn’t manage a quiet whisper; they only thought they did.
Audrey squeezed Lili’s hand. ‘And my sister.’
‘Half sister,’ Marguerite snapped with her customary autocratic tyranny.
Audrey winked at Lili. ‘I bet your mamma and I would’ve been the best of friends.’
A titter went around the room. Quickly quelled by Marguerite’s glare. But he silently agreed with everyone else. He doubted Audrey could’ve made Fina a friend, but he appreciated the kindness to his daughter.
‘Gabriel,’ he said, extending his hand as Marguerite had failed to mention that key piece of information.
She promptly placed her hand in his and something arced between them. Something that had her eyes widening and him frowning. They reclaimed their hands at exactly the same moment.
‘Audrey apparently has some artistic talent,’ Marguerite said peremptorily.
Uh-huh. A dabbler. He lowered his gaze to hide the derision in his eyes, the cynical twist of his mouth.
‘She’s been studying under Madame De Luca for the last month.’
His head shot up, and the way Audrey’s lips twitched made him suspect he’d not hidden his shock very well. If she’d been studying under Madame De Luca, though, she must have a degree of talent.
Audrey registered Gabriel’s surprise at the fact she’d been studying under someone so well regarded, and it made her smile.
But that didn’t stop her hand from continuing to burn at the brief pressure of his, or help ease the constriction in her chest. This odd awareness didn’t make sense. Gabriel wasn’t classically handsome. He wasn’t smooth or clean-cut or smilingly polished like the other men in the room. What he was, though, was thoroughly masculine. Dark haired, olive skinned and sporting several days’ growth of beard, he seemed to bristle. Something primitive beat beneath the contained demeanour and it thrilled something primitive deep inside her.
She had no idea what that meant—he probably had that effect on every woman he met. Whatever it was, it was far from comfortable. And she had every intention of ignoring it.
She had enough to negotiate this summer. She wasn’t adding men and romance to the mix. She wasn’t thinking about any of that until she’d worked out her place in the family; had learned to negotiate this new world of hers.
Grey eyes continued to survey her, their colour taking her off guard. They should be dark like his hair. And yet…
‘What medium is your speciality?’
The question had her swallowing. ‘While Grandmother is correct, and I have been studying under Madame De Luca, it has been as a favour to a mutual friend of ours. Your first impression was the correct one—I am a rank amateur.’
Expressive brows rose as if he’d noted her evasion. It was just…when she told others her artform of choice, they usually laughed. And she didn’t want anyone laughing. Not today. There were already enough undercurrents threading through the room that she didn’t understand.
‘I’d hate for Grandmother’s words to mislead you.’
He stared at her for a long moment, flicked a glance at the rest of the room and nodded. She let out a breath, the tension in her shoulders easing. ‘Are you an artist, Gabriel?’
Another titter sounded through the room, and she fought back a frown. What had she said now?
The Funaros might not be as warm as she’d hoped, but it was early days. She hitched up her chin. She’d make them love her yet. Resisting the urge to glance to Marguerite for an explanation, she held Gabriel’s gaze and awaited his answer.
‘I am a sculptor.’ He pushed his hands into his trouser pockets. ‘I work with recycled materials.’
‘Like steel, wood, wire and such.’
Her heart started to thump. ‘Do you work on large installations?’
His first name was Gabriel…
She swallowed. ‘You wouldn’t happen to be Gabriel Dimarco by any chance, would you?’
‘Si, that is me.’
Her jaw dropped. She couldn’t help it.
‘Audrey, please,’ Marguerite half sighed, half ordered.
‘But—’ She stared at her grandmother. ‘His work is amazing.’ She swung back to him. ‘Your work is amazing.’
Her hands fluttered in the air as if searching for all the things she wanted to say; all the things his work made her feel. She could no more control them than she could the sun—or the rest of the room’s opinion of her. But the knowledge she was standing in front of such an artist drove all such concerns momentarily from her mind. Gabriel’s installations stood in both public spaces and enviable private collections. He could demand whatever price he wanted. He was a huge name in the art world.
‘I saw your installation titled Maybe in Como. It was the most amazing piece. I sat there for an hour watching how it changed as the sun passed overhead.’ It sat in a pretty town square, and the sculpture was an Impressionist piece—half human, half butterfly…or, at least, if not a butterfly, something winged. ‘It made me feel hopeful but sad. I couldn’t work out if the figure wanted to take flight or return to its cocoon.’
Powerful arms folded across an impressive chest. Considering the tools he must use, he’d need every one of those impressive muscles. ‘What was your conclusion?’
She pondered the question anew. ‘I spent a lot of time trying to work it out.’ She’d gone back the next day, earlier in the morning when the sun would hit it at different angles, to see if that would help her solve the conundrum. ‘In the end, I decided it depicted the battle between security and adventure, and that the piece was deliberately ambiguous. I don’t think the figure knew yet which it was going to choose.’
Grey eyes widened and nostrils flared. ‘You—’
He snapped back whatever he’d been about to say with a shake of his head. ‘I am glad you enjoyed the piece.’
She wanted to press him for what he’d been going to say, but it wouldn’t be polite. And she suspected her grandmother would find it indecorous. Twice already this afternoon Marguerite had heaved a sigh and murmured, ‘Dear Lord, Audrey, we’re really going to have to take you in hand.’
She had no idea what that meant. She hoped it wasn’t as ominous as it sounded. She liked Marguerite, and an additional point in the older woman’s favour was the fact she clearly loved her great-granddaughter. She and Lili seemed to have a perfect understanding.
She was far from sure about the rest of the room, however. She’d seen the raised eyebrows, the speaking glances. She suspected she’d been meant to. Why didn’t they want to embrace her the way she wanted to embrace them?
Was it about the money?
Surely not. The Funaro family had so much wealth that one more person sharing a portion of it wouldn’t make any difference. Not that she wanted a portion of it. She just wanted the family. And she was determined to find a way to bring them around.
‘What I would like for you to do, Gabriel,’ Marguerite said now, ‘is take Audrey’s art education in hand. Determine where she’s at and what she needs—’ that imperious hand waved through the air ‘—and then use your connections to engage whatever teachers, tutors or experts you deem necessary.’
Audrey blinked. ‘Grandmother, that’s something you ought to consult with me about first.’
The room froze. Very slowly, Marguerite turned her head to meet Audrey’s gaze, and the expression in her eyes had her gulping. ‘It’s just…’ It took a superhuman effort to not wince, grimace, or backtrack. ‘It’ll be expensive to hire experts like that, and I’ve already told you I’m not here for your money. The money might not mean a lot to you, but…’ It meant a lot to her and she didn’t want anyone here thinking she was only out for what she could get.
Her grandmother gestured for Audrey to bend down. Hiding a wince, she did as she bid and prayed the older woman wasn’t going to yell at high volume in her ear.
The word was nothing more than a whisper, but she heard the vulnerability threaded through it and it had tears prickling the backs of her eyes. Straightening, she swallowed and eventually nodded, turning back to Gabriel. ‘I would be very grateful for any advice you’d be able to offer. If you have the time.’
When she was sure nobody was looking, she reached down and squeezed her grandmother’s hand. ‘Thank you.’
‘Papa, can Audrey come with us to your studio tomorrow?’
‘I think that’s a remarkably fine idea, Lili.’ A gleam lit Marguerite’s eyes. ‘Do you have any objections, Gabriel?’
The pulse in his jaw ticked. ‘None whatsoever,’ he eventually ground out.
Audrey’s heart plummeted. Oh, God. He didn’t want her invading his studio space. How on earth could she get out of this gracefully and save face for everyone?
‘Be ready to leave at nine o’clock.’
‘She’ll be ready,’ Marguerite said.
Before she could think of a way to extricate herself, Gabriel was already striding away. She glanced down at her grandmother, recalled her please and swallowed her protests, made herself smile. ‘What a treat! Thank you.’