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Мортимер Кэрол

Romance Of A Lifetime

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CHAPTER TWO

‘IT'S impossible not to feel the romance of the place, isn't it?'

All Beth's good humour, her feelings of relaxed well-being, left her in an instant, deserted her at the first sound of that all-too-familiar voice. A voice that she wished she weren't becoming familiar with at all!

She had spent a disturbed and restless night. Not through any fault of the hotel she was staying at, which had proved comfortable enough; she would have been surprised if it hadn't when her mother had been the one to arrange the booking. Her mother believed in travelling in style if she was to travel at all.

But Marcus Craven's persistence where she was concerned during the previous evening had unnerved and disturbed her to the extent where she had great difficulty sleeping at all, still burning with resentment towards him. A fact she found irritating to say the least.

But a late morning catching up on her sleep, followed by a late breakfast in bed, accompanied by plenty of coffee, and she felt more relaxed and ready to stroll to the house of the Capulets in the town, to enter the quiet tranquillity of the courtyard before going into the house itself and up to the balcony where Juliet was reputed to have spoken to Romeo.

This house had to be a must on a visit to Verona, and, while Beth didn't want to fall into the habit of doing the ‘touristy’ things, she was none the less a great fan of Shakespeare's, and her interest in the Capulet family had long ago been aroused by him.

In the courtyard below stood a statue of Juliet herself, and it seemed odd to look down upon the bronze statue of the young woman who had actually stood on this very balcony to talk to her forbidden lover.

For a few brief moments Beth had—despite the intrusion of the other couple of dozen people wandering around, also anxious to share in the experience of looking around them at the ivy-covered walls of the courtyard—been lost in the pure romance of the occasion.

But the feeling had only been allowed to last those few brief moments!

She spun around to face Marcus Craven, her expression full of hostility, the two of them completely alone on the balcony at that moment. ‘Are you following me, Mr Craven?’ she accused.

Dark brows rose over eyes full of feigned surprise. ‘Of course not, Miss …?’ As she had the night before, he paused significantly, waiting for her to rectify the omission of her name.

He was dressed casually today, in light-coloured trousers, and a short-sleeved open-necked shirt of a shade of grey that managed to match the steel of his eyes. And yet Beth was sure both these casual-looking items of clothing had designer labels, just as she was sure the pale grey shoes he wore were handmade.

In the broad daylight, away from the other opulent patrons of the opera, this man was still stamped with undoubted wealth of style. Her own clothing, a peach-coloured cotton skirt and white vest-top, and sandals, was much less distinctive.

‘Palmer,’ she supplied abruptly, making no effort to give her first name; this man was far too familiar already! ‘Excuse me …’ She made a move to brush past him, very much aware that they were still completely alone in their quiet tension.

‘Why do you keep doing that?’ he enquired softly. ‘Walking away,’ he explained at her puzzled look, utterly relaxed himself, one hand thrust casually into his trouser pocket.

Her hand snapped back. ‘Why do you persist in approaching me in this way when it must be perfectly obvious I would rather you didn't?’ she challenged coldly.

‘Probably because it is so obvious you would rather I didn't,’ he answered calmly.

Surprise at his honesty instantly widened her eyes, although she was man-wary enough to know it was probably just another approach, one this man had tried and tested in the past and knew to be successful.

‘In that case, Mr Craven,’ she told him icily, ‘why don't you take heed of what has, so far, been a relatively polite brush-off?'

Although she had a feeling she already partially knew the answer to that, she had no doubt that part of the reason he couldn't accept her uninterest for what it was was because he probably didn't believe, in his own conceit, that could possibly be what it was!

She was sure Marcus Craven believed she was just playing hard to get. Very hard to get! But then, he probably thrived on such challenges. She just ran away from them …

He shrugged lightly. ‘I don't believe friendly civility costs anything.'

He was wrong. Such innocent acceptance of a proffered friendship had cost her dearly in the past, was still costing her dearly emotionally. And it would probably continue to do so. But she had no intention of confiding that to this man.

‘I'm on holiday, Mr Craven,’ she said dismissively. ‘I have a lot to see and do, and too little time to do it all in—–'

‘I'd enjoy being your guide,’ he cut in smoothly. ‘I know Verona very well.'

Beth didn't care if it was his second home, sighing her impatience. ‘I don't wish for a guide. Thank you,’ she added as a very late afterthought, instantly regretting having said it at all; she certainly had no reason to feel grateful to this man for anything.

She was further annoyed by the slight hint of triumph that had now appeared in his eyes, and she bristled angrily.

‘Did you enjoy the opera last night?'

Beth wasn't fooled for a moment by this sudden change of subject. ‘Mr Craven—–'

‘How could you not have enjoyed the opera?’ he answered his own question. ‘It was too visibly spectacular to have elicited any other response! Will you be attending La Gioconda tonight?'

The booking her mother had made for her had included La Gioconda, but after the experience of Aida the evening before she really didn't feel she could attend another opera quite so soon. Her mother had been right; it had been the experience of a lifetime, and it was not to be repeated so soon.

‘I have no plans to do so.’ Her voice was still stilted with resentment.

He nodded knowingly. ‘It's too much, isn't it? Too intense a battering to the senses.'

It described how she felt exactly.

It was a pity, but she had a feeling that at any other time in her life she would have found Marcus Craven interesting company. If not exactly likeable, he was a man to talk to, and she knew instinctively that he was a learned man as well as an intelligent one.

The only problem was that at this moment in time she didn't feel like talking to any man on a more than cursory basis.

‘It was enjoyable,’ she conceded offhandedly.

‘Why don't we discuss it further over a leisurely lunch?'

Beth gave an exasperated laugh, shaking her head disbelievingly. ‘And before I made this trip I was warned that it was young Italian men who made nuisances of themselves with women!'

‘I had an Italian grandmother,’ he said with a shrug.

Which probably explained the familiarity with the language that she had noticed the previous evening. It probably also accounted for the darkness of his colouring.

But even so, she very much doubted he usually needed to use this bludgeoning approach with women!

‘I don't believe that can be used as an excuse, Mr Graven,’ she drawled drily.

‘And I wasn't attempting to offer it as one,’ he derided. ‘On the contrary, I would be very honoured if I thought I had inherited even one tenth of Nonna's charm.'

Beth certainly wouldn't have described this man as any ordinary charmer; he was something else too elusive to explain.

But all Beth really needed to know about him was that he was a danger to her solitude. And at the moment she desired that above everything else.

‘I really do hope you enjoy the rest of your holiday.’ She was ultra-polite. ‘But if you'll excuse me I really do have a lot more to see before I leave.'

‘Alone,’ he said wryly.

‘Exactly.’ She nodded her satisfaction with that supposition.

‘Well, you can't say I didn't offer.’ He shrugged with a sigh.

‘No,’ she drawled. ‘I certainly can't say that, can I?'

Unlike on the previous evening he didn't try to stop her departure, and Beth had given up any idea of looking further around the Capulet house. Besides, despite Marcus Craven's more agreeable behaviour today, she felt sure that if she continued to look around the house she would only keep ‘bumping into’ him!

Nevertheless, she couldn't resist glancing up at the balcony once more before leaving the courtyard completely, her steps faltering slightly at the off-guard expression she had surprised on Marcus Craven's face as he stood above watching her, but not quite seeming to see her; his eyes were narrowed to icy slits, his mouth a thin, uncompromising line.

It was an expression so unlike the relaxed charm he had shown her so far.

As if he had suddenly become aware of her scrutiny, that lazily smiling mask slipped back into place, and he lifted a hand in casual farewell as a smile continued to curve his lips.

But there would be no warmth in his eyes, Beth felt sure of that. Marcus Craven was obviously not a man who liked to be thwarted, and by resisting him she was doing exactly that.

She had been right to be wary of him, she acknowledged with a shiver. Very wary.

‘There has been a telephone call for you, signora.'

Beth took the key to her room, frowning her concern to the hotel receptionist; there were a limited number of people who knew exactly where she was!

‘It was your mother, I believe,’ the pretty young girl added, handing Beth the piece of paper with the exact message on it.

Beth's brow instantly cleared as she vaguely thanked the younger woman before turning away. Her mother had probably just telephoned to make sure she was actually still here and hadn't slipped off home without letting her know! Her mother simply refused to accept that she preferred her own company most of the time.

Nevertheless, she knew she would have to return the call.

‘How's it all going, darling?'

Tears welled briefly in Beth's eyes at the affectionately familiar sound of her mother's voice so many miles away.

This was the second time in as many days she had been moved to tears. Which was ridiculous when she had refused to cry at all for months.

She blinked back the tears; it wouldn't do to let her mother know that for that brief moment she had felt homesick for her cheery smile and comforting arms. Her mother would be on the first plane out here if she thought that were so, offering any help she could.

‘Fine, Mummy,’ she answered in a controlled voice.

‘And the opera,’ her mother prompted eagerly. ‘How was it?'

‘The experience of a lifetime,’ Beth acknowledged drily, willing to give her mother that satisfaction at least. The opera had been spectacular.

‘God, I wish I could have been there with you,’ her mother sighed, and Beth could easily visualise the disappointed frown on the still-beautiful face, her mother elegantly lovely, her features classical, her blonde hair drawn back in a neat coil, her small stature always neat and attractive in one of the smart business suits she chose to wear during the day. ‘You can be so stubborn sometimes, Beth,’ she added reprovingly.

She felt slightly guilty at being the one to deny her mother the opportunity of seeing Aida, but that guilt was eased a little by the knowledge that her mother had attended the Arena several years ago. But Beth hadn't wanted to come on this trip at all, certainly hadn't wanted company if she had to go, even that of her mother who she loved very much and knew understood her pain. She had found it very difficult to tell her mother that when she had offered to come with her, but she hadn't really been left with any other alternative.

‘I wonder who I get that from?’ she lightly teased, deliberately easing the situation.

‘I can't imagine,’ her mother returned drily.

‘All I can say is I would rather be there with you than trying to push this latest deal through.'

Much as she knew her mother cared about her, Beth didn't believe that for a moment.

No one looking at her delicately made mother would have believed she was the high-powered businesswoman that she actually was. And yet Katherine Palmer was very successful indeed, a self-made woman who now owned a chain of exclusive boutiques worldwide. Beth knew better than anyone that her mother had come by her business knowledge the hard way, and had tremendous respect for her as a person as well as a mother.

Her mother was in the process of branching out by introducing high-quality accessories to go with her clothing, and it was a very important move indeed; Beth had known that and it had helped to soften the blow when she had insisted her mother remain in England rather than accompanying her on this holiday.

Her mother had already sacrificed more than enough for her over the years—Beth had no intention of asking any more from her when she was obviously doing so well for herself.

‘I'm sure you would, Mummy,’ she dismissed lightly. ‘But there really is no need.'

‘I know that, darling, but … oh, never mind,’ she dismissed irritably. ‘What do you think of Verona?’ her mother continued lightly. ‘Delightful, isn't it?'

‘Very,’ Beth agreed drily, most of her time spent there having been marred in one way or another by Marcus Craven.

‘You still sound a little down, Beth.’ The frown could be heard in her mother's voice again.

‘Is that so surprising, with what's happened?’ She wished her voice didn't sound so sharp, but it was difficult for her not to.

‘I had hoped that this trip might—well, lighten your mood a little, take your mind off things,’ her mother sighed.

‘Give it time, Mummy,’ she pleaded softly.

‘Darling, I have given it time, we all have, you know that, but it's all so damned … oh, blast, and I promised myself I wouldn't start nagging you about getting on with your own life as soon as I spoke to you again!’ her mother chided herself impatiently. ‘What have you done with your day, Beth?’ she deliberately changed the subject.

A brief outline of her leisurely stroll before and after her visit to the Capulet house, as well as the house itself, took only a matter of minutes.

‘Is that it?’ Katherine sounded disappointed. ‘Nothing else happened?'

A vague suspicion began to stir in her mind, one she instantly dismissed. Even her mother, in her determination to see her happy again, couldn't have done such a thing—could she? Although Beth was loath to actually broach the subject, because once she had …

‘That's it,’ she dismissed, still frowning to herself. Those meetings with Marcus Craven had been a little too much like coincidence, but even so …

‘Oh.’ Her mother's disappointment sounded even more acute.

Beth drew in a sharp breath. ‘Mummy, you haven't been—being helpful, have you?’ she broached cautiously, the shutter closed on her bedroom window to keep out the brightness of the afternoon sun, the gentle whir of the air-conditioning not intrusive and very necessary in the excessive heat from outside.

‘In what way?’ Her mother sounded puzzled now.

Or did she sound genuinely so? Beth still wasn't sure. ‘Much as I love you,’ she sighed, ‘I want you to realise that I'm perfectly capable of organising my own life.'

‘Well, of course you are, darling.’ Her mother sounded hurt that Beth should even doubt that was how she felt.

‘For myself—–'

‘Oh, Beth, I thought you had finally agreed that this holiday I organised for you was a good idea just now,’ her mother protested.

‘I did.’ But it had been mainly to stop her mother worrying over her so much! ‘But the holiday away from England was all I agreed to. Any other interference—–'

‘Interference?’ Katherine sounded indignant at the implication. Too indignant? ‘What are you talking about?’ she asked impatiently.

If her mother had somehow arranged for her and Marcus Craven to meet—which would more than account for his persistence!—then by mentioning him at all she could be leaving herself open to all sorts of pressurised questioning from her mother. And yet asking Marcus Craven to ‘look up’ her daughter while they were both in Verona, having ascertained exactly when he was going to be there, would be just the sort of thing her mother would do. Despite what she said to the contrary, Beth knew her mother didn't believe she was capable of organising her own life, was convinced she knew what was best for Beth. But even so, she couldn't quite believe her mother would line up a man like Marcus Craven for her!

Although the doubt continued to niggle.

‘It isn't important, Mummy,’ she attempted to dismiss in a casual voice. ‘How are things at the boutique in London?'

‘I'm somehow managing to survive without you,’ her mother said drily. ‘And whatever it was you were talking about just now was important enough for you to mention in the first place,’ she pointed out tartly.

She should have known her mother wouldn't let the subject drop as easily as that!

She gave a deep sigh. ‘It's just that there was this man, and I—–'

‘A man?’ Katherine cut in eagerly. ‘What sort of man? How did you meet him? Oh, Beth, why didn't you mention him earlier? Tell me all about him now!'

Beth gave an inward groan, grimacing at her own reflection in the mirror on the dressing-table across the room. She could tell by her mother's very excitement that she hadn't arranged those meetings with Marcus Craven, but now that Beth had mentioned him she knew her mother wouldn't rest until she had heard every detail of those meetings, down to the last word spoken between them.

Loath to do that, Beth answered offhandedly. ‘He introduced himself to me at the opera.'

‘And?'

‘And he's…interesting,’ she conceded, slightly surprised she should have made such an admission.

She had become interested in Marcus Craven in spite of herself!

Although it had been an interest she had little difficulty resisting. She, quite frankly, didn't want an involvement with anyone.

‘Don't stop there, Beth,’ her mother prompted exasperatedly. ‘You admit that you've met an interesting man at the opera and then tell me nothing more about him!'

‘Because there's nothing else to tell.’ She sighed her impatience. ‘We've spoken briefly. But that's all.'

‘But—–'

‘I go on to Venice tomorrow—remember?’ Beth teased lightly, knowing her mother was fully aware of her travel itinerary; she had organised it, so she should be! ‘That hardly gives us time to begin a meaningful romance.'

‘Does it have to be meaningful?'

She couldn't help smiling at her mother's disgust. Since her separation from Beth's father many years ago, Katherine had made no secret of her opinion of marriage and men. Although Beth knew she had been given little enough reason in those intervening years to change her opinion in the slightest!

‘I always thought so,’ she sighed.

‘And now?'

‘Now I think the whole idea of love and romance is vastly overrated,’ she dismissed with a wealth of meaning.

‘Men have a lot to answer for,’ her mother said disgustedly.

‘Then why are you so interested in seeing me involved with another one when you know I feel the same way about them?’ she mocked.

‘I've learnt a few golden rules along the way, Beth,’ she was assured.

‘Hmm?’ she prompted suspiciously.

‘The best way to get over one disastrous affair is to become involved in a new one,’ her mother explained knowingly. ‘Never mind that this other man is probably just as much a mistake as the first one; he'll take your mind off the first disappointment, by which time your eyes are usually open. Or if they aren't, they certainly should be!'

‘Mummy!'

‘I know, I'm the original cynic,’ she sighed, and Beth could imagine the beautiful face creased into a perplexed frown. ‘No, actually, I'm not the original one.’ She sobered abruptly. ‘He was the reason I rang you earlier.'

Beth instantly tensed in expectation of the emotional blow to come, knowing exactly who her mother was talking about, her nails digging into her palms as she grasped the telephone receiver.

‘Oh, yes?’ Her voice sounded hollow and completely unlike her usual self, not really wanting to hear what her mother had to say, but knowing she had little choice in the matter. Her mother wouldn't have rung her at all if she hadn't thought it important she do so; Beth realised that now.

‘Charles and Martin are up to something,’ Katherine announced harshly.

The piercing of Beth's nails into her palm was accompanied by her sharply indrawn breath, although she didn't feel the pain of the self-inflicted injury until much later, just the mention of the two men being enough to cause her distress. ‘Do you have any idea what it is?’ she prompted through stiff lips.

‘Not yet,’ she was told grimly. ‘But I intend to find out.'

And her mother would do exactly that, of that Beth had no doubts. Her mother had been her only ally the last year, and Beth knew without doubt that she wouldn't let her down now. It was too late to tell herself she should have had this trust in her mother three years ago. Far too late.

But in the meantime she had this further worry; what could there possibly be left that the two men could do to her?

‘I didn't want to worry you with this at all, darling,’ Katherine continued concernedly. ‘But I didn't want them to just drop something else on you without warning.'

After what had already been done to her Beth knew this concern was merited; together Martin and Charles could be absolutely ruthless.

‘I'm glad of the warning,’ she reassured her mother. ‘Although I don't think it's enough to bring me back to England just yet.’ She didn't feel up to returning to England to face yet more of the two men's cruelty.

‘Of course not.’ Her mother sounded scandalised that she should even have considered doing such a thing. ‘You can rely on me to look after your interests here.'

Beth knew that she could, that her mother bore no grudge for that time three years ago when Beth had completely ignored her advice, when her mother had tried to help her see a truth she hadn't wanted to see. Her mother wasn't the type to say ‘I told you so’ and just leave her alone in her misery.

She had cursed herself a million times for not listening to her mother all that time ago when she had tried to warn her about Martin, had tried to help her see the true man behind the charm he had showed her. A truth she had chosen not to believe because she was blinded by love for the man.

That blindness had cost her dearly over the last year.

Would probably continue to do so

.

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