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Мортимер Кэрол

Romance Of A Lifetime

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VENICE: one of the most beautiful cities in the world. What a pity it was slowly sinking into oblivion.

Although at this moment in time that wasn't apparent; Venice was everything Beth had ever heard it claimed to be. And more.

She had been slightly sceptical about her mother's choice of Venice as her second port of call, romance being the last thing she wanted to feel. But Beth had felt the magic of the place the moment she stepped out of the airport in search of the water taxi that would take her to her hotel. It was everything she had ever thought it would be, bustling, overcrowded, over-commercialised, and yet somehow the mystique and magic of the place managed to captivate the senses in spite of this.

Her hotel, the Danieli, had done a lot to add to the charm of her visit; her mother had really spoilt her with her choice of hotels this time. Of course, Beth had heard of the Danieli before this visit, knew it had once been a beautiful palace owned by the Danieli family, the building itself magnificent in construction, the décor and furnishings chosen accordingly.

And to add to the charm of the place Beth's room overlooked the lagoon, the view from her balcony one of the bustling activity on the water itself as it entered the Grand Canal. Beth had spent the first couple of hours after her arrival just sitting on the balcony watching the toing and froing of the water traffic, amazed at the variety of craft, from the numerous gondolas to a cruise ship that somehow navigated the narrow water.

She had finally ventured out of the hotel in the afternoon, crossing the bridge close to the hotel before she realised that the people gathered on the bridge were actually looking at something. A step back had revealed the famous Bridge of Sighs.

Beth could hardly believe it. There was history wherever she looked, the Doge's Palace and St Mark's Square just around the corner.

It was all too much at once, numbing the senses, and Beth decided she would be better waiting until the following day before exploring further, so she started back towards the hotel, pausing to look at the stalls of the street-vendors. Here were the usual tacky touristy things that could be found at any seaside town in England, and yet even this was merely another added charm to Venice.

But the bride and groom stepping into the gondola were, Beth felt, taking the romantic image of the place too far!

The bride wore a floating white gown, her veil long and trailing behind her, her hair dark, her face achingly lovely, the groom dark and good-looking, having eyes only for his bride as the wedding party waved them on their way down the Grand Canal.

‘Beautiful, isn't it?’ drawled a mocking voice.

Beth closed her eyes as she swayed, but the gondola bobbing up and down with the bride and groom gazing ecstatically into each other's eyes was still in front of her as she opened her eyes, the noise of chattering people still bombarding her ears.

And yet she had heard that voice, she knew she hadn't dreamt it. She didn't even know why she had felt that initial surprise; she was being hounded, she knew that now.

She was perfectly in control by the time she turned to face Marcus Craven, calmly looking up at him as he stood so relaxed and handsome, one hand thrust casually into the pocket of the black trousers he wore, the short-sleeved cream shirt revealing the olive tone to his skin where the shirt was unbuttoned at his throat. He looked strong and very male—and magnetically alive!

‘Actually,’ Beth drawled drily, ‘I was just thinking it was overplaying the romantic image of Venice just a touch too much.'

His eyes gleamed with shared amusement. ‘You don't seem surprised to see me.'

She arched blonde brows. ‘Should I be?'

Inside she was furious at being in his company once again, all sorts of questions and suspicions filling her mind. What was he doing in Venice? On the very same day she too had come here. Was he following her? If so, why? She really couldn't believe in this much of a coincidence.

And yet what possible reason could he have for wanting to follow her?

He certainly couldn't be after any money he thought she might have; he looked much wealthier himself than she would ever dream of being. Unless it was just a ‘look'. Gigolos hardly looked like beggars, or they wouldn't have the opportunity to meet those rich and desperate woman that they preyed on so easily. Even so, she very much doubted that that explanation was true of this man …

You don't seem surprised to see me again, Mr Craven,’ she added pointedly.

‘Should I be?’ he returned just as smoothly.

Beth's mouth tightened; she wasn't about to carry on a ridiculously childish conversation with this man, would rather not be talking to him at all! ‘Obviously not,’ she bit out tartly.

Marcus Craven shrugged, turning to look at the fast-receding gondola carrying the bride and groom, the wedding party having dissipated at their departure. ‘What did you mean by your remark about them just now?’ He nodded in their direction. ‘It's quite common for the “happy couple” to leave that way.'

She shook her head. ‘You aren't telling me that was for real?'

‘Of course it was real,’ he mocked lightly. ‘Did you think it was just put on for the tourists?'

Delicate colour darkened her cheeks. ‘As a matter of fact, yes,’ she admitted tersely, feeling rather foolish for her supposition in the face of his obvious amusement. But the vision of the bride and groom sailing off into the distance in a gondola had just seemed too pat, too unreal. Did people really have weddings like that in Venice? If she thought about it logically then there was no other way for the happy couple to make their departure. How utterly charming, and yes—romantic …

Marcus Craven was watching her every expression. ‘Don't worry,’ he drawled at her softened expression. ‘It has this effect on most people.'

But not on her; she was the last person to be affected by such romantic nonsense!

She gave him a cold look. ‘If it's traditional…’ she dismissed scathingly. ‘I won't say it was nice to see you again, Mr Craven, because it—–'

‘Wasn't,’ he finished drily, his eyes warm with humour.

‘Maybe I can walk you back to your hotel?’ he offered lightly.

Considering it was only a few yards away that would be a waste of time, but Beth didn't particularly want to reveal to him where she was staying. If he didn't already know! She was positive that their having met again in this way was no coincidence. That bothered her in a niggling way, like an irritant that couldn't be shaken off.

‘That won't be necessary,’ she refused abruptly.

‘It's no trouble.’ His gaze gently mocked her.

‘I didn't for one moment believe it was,’ Beth snapped, coming to the end of her patience. ‘You seem to have a lot of spare time on your hands to do just as you like; some of us aren't so lucky.'

Dark brows rose curiously. ‘Are you over here to work?'

Her mouth firmed. ‘Not exactly,’ she avoided; visiting her mother's boutique while in Venice was merely saving her mother the trip later in the year, not exactly working herself. ‘Are you here on business or pleasure, Mr Craven?'

‘If I'm truthful I'm not really sure any more,’ he bit out tersely, seeming to relax with effort, although some of the tension remained in the smile he gave. ‘But let's not think about that,’ he dismissed. ‘If you don't wish to return to your hotel just yet maybe we could have a cool drink somewhere instead?'

Persistent didn't even begin to describe this man, Beth realised wearily. Why her? That was what she still didn't understand.

She had never been led to believe that her looks were such that they would cause a man to be this insistent, and she was well aware of the fact that at the moment she didn't look her best anyway, her face and body too thin rather than fashionably so. Not that it seemed to have deterred this man!

‘Mr Craven—–'

‘Marcus, please,’ he cut in smoothly.

Leaving her little choice but to reciprocate! ‘Beth,’ she supplied abruptly, far from pleased at this continued invasion of her privacy.

His gaze lingered on the delicacy of her face. ‘Its pure simplicity and beauty suit you,’ he said slowly.

Beth had never thought about it one way or the other—it was just her name.

‘Tell me,’ he frowned. ‘Where do you live on the Isle of Man?'

It was such a sudden change of subject that she could only blink up at him.

‘You said you're Manx,’ he reminded at her silence.

In self-defence, she remembered! ‘I am,’ she acknowledged shortly. ‘But I haven't lived on the island for several years,’ she admitted with regret. ‘I live in London now.'

His mouth twisted. ‘Of course.'

Why ‘of course'? She actually wasn't that impressed with living in London any more; in fact one of the things she had come away to decide was whether or not she should move back to the home of her childhood. She had been very reluctant to come to any major decisions while feeling so unsettled within herself, but she certainly wasn't being given any time to just sit and contemplate the problem with this man constantly about!

‘It suits me for the moment,’ she dismissed offhandedly. ‘Now I really would like to go back to my hotel.'

Marcus nodded. ‘I'll walk with you.'

She turned to him, her eyes blazing. ‘I've said that isn't necessary!'

His mouth twisted derisively. ‘I'm going back there myself anyway.'

Beth looked up at him searchingly, seeing the truth of what he said in his eyes; he was staying at the Danieli, and knew she was too!

She was starting to long for the impersonality and anonymity that existed in London, was literally being driven out of Italy by this man!

‘Suit yourself,’ she said ungraciously, turning to walk towards the salmon-pink and white building that faced across the lagoon a few yards away.

‘I usually do,’ he murmured softly at her side as he managed to keep up with her despite her brisk pace.

Beth didn't doubt that for a moment. Accustomed to dealing with arrogance at its worst, even she found this man incredible in his forcefulness. He took her breath away!


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