Sunshine for Christmas by Mary Jo Putney
It was raining again. It had rained yesterday and the day before that. His hands clasped behind his back, Lord Randolph Lennox gazed out the window of his bedroom at the slick gray streets of Mayfair. “Burns, do you know how many days it has been raining?”
“No, my lord,” his valet replied, glancing up from the wardrobe where he was stacking precisely folded neck cloths.
“Thirty-four days. Rather biblical, don’t you think? Perhaps it's time to order an ark.”
“While the autumn has been a wet one,” Burns said austerely, “it has not rained continuously day and night. Therefore, if I recall the scriptural precedent correctly, an ark should not be required.”
Between amusement and depression, Lord Randolph considered the question of arks. Somewhere on Bond Street, among the tailors and bootmakers and jewelers, was there a shop that would supply an ark suitable for a gentleman? But that would never do, for arks were meant for pairs, and Randolph was alone. Had been alone for thirty-four years, save for one brief spell, and undoubtedly he would be alone for the rest of his life.
With disgust, Randolph realized that he was in danger of drowning in self-pity. Damn the rain. He was a healthy, wealthy man in the prime of his life, with friends and family and a variety of interests, and he had no right to complain of his lot. He knew that he should be grateful for the rain that kept “this scepter’d isle, this demi-paradise” green, but the thought did nothing to mitigate the bleakness outdoors, or in his soul.
He would have enjoyed snow, which was clean and pure and forgiving, but snow seldom fell in southern England. Farther north, in Scotland or Northumbria, soft white flakes might be floating silent from the sky. In London, the weather was merely miserable.
In a few weeks it would be Christmas, doubtless a drab, wet one, and Randolph was not sure which thought was more depressing: the rain or the holiday. As a boy growing up on the great estate of Dunbar, he had loved Christmas, had ached with excitement from the celebrations and the sense of magic in the air.
Randolph and his older brother, Edward, more formally known as Lord Westkirk, would burrow into the Dunbar kitchens with the glee of all small boys. There they stole currants and burned their fingers on hot pastries until chased out by the cook, who had a fondness for children except when a holiday feast was threatened.
Dunbar had been a happy house then. Indeed, it still was. Randolph’s parents, the Marquess and Marchioness of Kinross, enjoyed robust good health and liked nothing better than having their family about them. Edward and his wife and three children would be at Dunbar for Christmas, as would numerous other Lennoxes. The great house would be drenched with love and laughter and happiness. It was expected that Randolph would be there as cherished son and brother, uncle and cousin.
He couldn’t bear the thought.
It was only mid-afternoon, but the light was already failing because of the rain. Randolph studied his reflection in the darkening window glass with detachment. Above average height, dark gold hair, slate-blue eyes, regular features. During their courtship, his wife had said that he looked like a Greek god. It had been a sad disappointment to her when he had proved merely human, and not an especially dashing specimen at that.
He did not have to spend Christmas at Dunbar. There were other houses, other friends, more distant relations, who would welcome him for the holidays, but he no more wished to go to any of them than to his father’s house. He did not want to be an outsider at the feast of other people’s happiness. Neither did he want the good-hearted matchmakers of his acquaintance trying to find him another wife.
What did he want? Sunshine and anonymity. Bright skies, warm air, a place where no one knew or cared who he was.
An absurd idea. He could not just pack up and run off on impulse.
Why not indeed? First with surprise, then excitement, Randolph realized that there was nothing to stop him from leaving England. Winter was a quiet time at his estate, and his presence was not required. Now that the long wars were done, the Continent awaited, beckoning staid Englishmen to sample its decadent charms. If he answered that siren call, his family would regret his absence, but he would not be missed, not really. His presence was essential to no one’s happiness.
Quickly, before the impulse could dissipate, he turned from the window. “Burns, commence packing. Tomorrow we shall take ship to the Mediterranean.”
The usually imperturbable valet so far forgot himself as to gape. “Surely you jest, my lord?”
“Not in the least,” Randolph answered, a sparkle in his eyes. “I shall go into the City to book passage directly.”
“But. . . but it isn’t possible to arrange such a journey in twenty-four hours,” Burns said feebly.
Randolph considered all that must be done, then nodded. “You’re right. We shall leave the day after tomorrow instead.” He grinned, feeling lighter than he had in months. “We’re going to find some sunshine for Christmas.”
With a lamentable lack of regard for his expensive coat, Lord Randolph crossed his arms and leaned against the brick wall, drinking in the grandeur of the scene before him. Even under damp gray skies, Naples was beautiful.
Having made the decision to leave London, he had booked passage on the next available Mediterranean-bound passenger ship. Its destination had seemed a good omen, for Naples was said to be one of the most sophisticated and enchanting of cities.
As further proof that his journey was blessed, Randolph had found lodgings at the best hotel in the city, with glorious prospects visible from every window. Naples seemed a magical place, and he had gone to bed the first night full of hope, sure that even a staid Englishman could find magic here.
The next morning he awoke to rain, and the local variety was every bit as dismal as the London kind. The hotel manager, heartbroken at being the bearer of bad news, admitted that December was the height of the rainy season, but hastened to add that the weather might well improve momentarily, if not even sooner.
Perhaps the sun would come out, perhaps not, but that morning the weather was exactly like a bad English November, which was what Randolph had tried to escape. His brief spark of hope flickered and died, leaving resignation. It had been foolish to think he could run away from either rain or loneliness. But, by God, he was here on the holiday of a lifetime, and he was going to enjoy himself if it killed him.
He hired a guide, and for three days he dutifully viewed churches and monuments. He bought antiquities and objets d’art, and an exquisite doll in native dress for his niece.
He had also admired the handsome Neapolitan women, had even been tempted by one or two of the sloe-eyed streetwalkers. But he did not succumb to temptation, for the price might be too high. It was said that the prostitutes of Naples often gave men souvenirs that could be neither forgotten nor forgiven.
Yesterday his guide had taken him to view a religious procession. For reasons incomprehensible to a northern Protestant, a statue of the Blessed Virgin was removed from its church and paraded through the streets. Men carrying fifteen-foot-tall torches had led the way, followed by musicians playing small tambourines, castanets, and enormous Italian bagpipes. Black-clad sweepers wielded brooms to clean the street for the Madonna, a most useful activity, and another confraternity strewed the cobbles with herbs and flowers.
The street and balconies were thronged with watchers, and at first Randolph had enjoyed the parade and the contagious enthusiasm of the crowd. Then came a troop of grim, barefoot penitents, with knotted cords around their necks and crowns of thorns seemingly spiked into their skulls. Behind them marched ominous beings dressed all in white, their heads covered by slant-eyed hoods. Most disturbing of all, six of the cowled figures were shirtless and they scourged themselves as they walked, rivulets of blood trickling down their shredded backs and arms to stain their white garments.
The whole concept of flagellation was repellent to a rational Englishman, and Randolph shuddered, his pleasure in the spectacle destroyed. Even through the general clamor, he heard the sickly thud of iron-tipped whips against raw flesh.
To his guide’s mystification, Randolph turned and began elbowing his way through the crowd. He had been a fool to think he would be less lonely in an alien land. Quite the contrary, he had never felt more of an outsider. He was deeply different from the Neapolitans, and just as he would never understand that orgy of self-abusive piety, he would never be able to match their passion for living.
Seeking comfort among his own kind, that evening Randolph had attended a small gathering at the British ambassador’s residence. The English community was a sizable one, and clearly eager to welcome a lord into their midst. There were numerous invitations for him to come to dinner on Christmas Day and have some proper plum pudding, not heathen food like the locals ate. But it was not authentic plum pudding that Randolph wanted. With the gracious vagueness of which he was a master, he had declined all invitations and returned to his hotel thoroughly depressed.
This morning had dawned overcast but no longer raining, and the sky hinted at possible clearing later in the day. Heartened by the prospect, Randolph dismissed the guide and set off on foot to explore the city himself. He marveled at the juxtaposition of magnificence and cramped poverty, at the fierce pulse of a city whose inhabitants insisted on living their joys and sorrows in public for all the world to see. His obvious foreignness attracted attention, and he had had to fend off small street boys whose innocence was dubious, no matter how young they were, but he had no serious problems.
In late morning his wandering brought him to a quiet residential square on one of the higher hills. Modest but respectable houses surrounded the piazza on three sides, while the fourth was bounded by a brick wall. The hill fell sharply away below the wall to reveal a splendid view of the bay. Pleased, Randolph crossed his arms on top of the wall and studied the city that sprawled so wantonly below.
The air smelled different from England, the breeze redolent with the rich, intriguing scents of unfamiliar vegetation and kitchens. The clouds were beginning to break up, and as he watched, the first shafts of sunlight touched the famous bay, changing the sullen gray waters to teal and turquoise.
On the far side of the bay loomed the indigo bulk of Vesuvius. This was the first day clear enough for Randolph to see the volcano, and he was intrigued by the small, ominous plume of smoke wafting from the top. What would it be like living by a volcano? Perhaps that constant, smoldering reminder of mortality was why Neapolitans lived life with such intensity.
The only other person visible was a bespectacled woman perched on a bench at the opposite end of the square. Oblivious to Randolph, she sketched in a pad balanced on her knees. Fair-skinned and soberly dressed, she must be another tourist. Randolph thought that it was rather adventurous of her to be walking out alone, then dismissed her from his mind.
One of the skinny Italian cats jumped up on the wall by Randolph, examined him with feral yellow eyes, then crept along the bricks, stalking a bird that flew away at the last minute. Several chickens wandered across the piazza, pecking hopefully at the ground, and somewhere nearby a dove cooed. It was the most peaceful spot he'd found in Naples. He closed his eyes, content to absorb the welcome warmth and brightness of the increasing sunshine.
A scraping sound caught his attention. Randolph glanced over to see a young girl emerge from a house in the corner of the piazza., a bucket in one hand and a low ladder in the other. Paying no attention to the two tourists, she propped the ladder against the wall and scampered up, bucket in hand, to begin washing the windows.
The girl was very pretty, with olive skin, raven hair tied back with a scarlet ribbon, and a pair of trim ankles visible below her full skirts. Randolph watched her idly, enjoying the sight as he would any of Naples’s other natural wonders.
After vigorously washing the nearest panes, the girl leaned over and began working on next window, the ladder swaying beneath her. Randolph frowned, thinking she would be wiser to move the ladder. But doubtless she had been washing windows that way for years. Even if she fell, the distance was not dangerously great.
Ready to resume his explorations, he started across the square. Before he had taken three steps, he heard a noisy clatter of falling objects, followed by a cry of pain. Cursing himself for not having attempted to caution the girl, Randolph hastened to where she lay in a dazed heap and knelt beside her.
“Signorina?” he said, gently touching her shoulder.
Long black lashes fluttered open to reveal melting dark eyes. The girl murmured something, probably an oath, then pushed herself to a sitting position and gave Randolph a shaky smile. She was very young, perhaps fifteen, and had the breathtaking Madonna face that seemed to be a Neapolitan specialty.
“I’m glad to see that you have survived your fall,” he said, though he was sure that she would not understand. He started to rise so that he could help her up, but suddenly she swooned forward and he found himself with an armful of nubile young womanhood. From the feel of the lush curves pressed against Rudolph’s chest, it was true that the females of the Mediterranean matured earlier than their northern sisters.
The girl tilted her head back dizzily. This close, it was obvious that her mouth was the kind usually described as kissable.
For a moment Randolph’s arms tightened around her. It had been far too long since he had held a woman, and he was only human. But he was also a gentleman, and gentlemen did not take advantage of stunned children, be they ever so nubile.
He decided that the best plan was to lay her down on the street, then summon help from her house. Before he could do so, he heard hoarse masculine shouting behind him, followed by the sound of heavy pounding feet.
He looked up and saw two men racing across the piazza, a strikingly handsome youth and an older man. From their noisy concern, they must be family or neighbors of the injured girl. Hoping one might know some English or French, Randolph opened his mouth to speak as they skidded to a stop next to him.
Before he could say anything, the older man snatched the girl from his arms with an anguished howl, and the youth hurled a vicious punch at Randolph’s jaw.
“What the devil!” The reflexes honed in Jackson’s Salon took over. Randolph ducked his head and twisted away from the blow, his hat falling to the ground. As he scrambled to his feet, another fist connected solidly with his midriff.
As he doubled over, gasping for breath, Randolph realized that these two maniacs must think he had assaulted the girl. The wooden ladder had fallen nearby. He grabbed it by two rungs and used it to hold his furious assailant at bay.
The situation was so ludicrous that Randolph almost laughed. Then he saw the wicked glitter of a knife in the young man’s hand, and his amusement congealed.
This was no longer a joke. It was entirely possible that he might be killed over a stupid misunderstanding. If that happened, doubtless the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies would express profound regret to the British authorities, but that would do Randolph no good.
Yelling, the youth swung the knife wildly. Randolph blocked the blow with the ladder and retreated to the wall of the house so that his back was protected. Amazing how noisy two Neapolitans could be. No, three, the girl had recovered her senses and was shrieking as she clung to the older man’s arm, preventing him from joining the attack.
Then a smartly swung umbrella cracked across the young man’s wrist, knocking the knife to the ground. The female tourist had entered the fray. Moving between Randolph and his assailants, she began speaking in fluent, staccato Italian.
After a startled moment, the Neapolitans began addressing her, all three jabbering simultaneously. Randolph had already noticed that Italians talked with their bodies as much as their voices, and he watched the pantomime with deep appreciation.
The older man’s impassioned gestures made it crystal clear that he had been struck to the heart by the sight of his treasured daughter lying lifeless in the arms of a foreigner. As Randolph recollected, the signorina had felt far from lifeless, but no matter.
Less clear was the young man’s role, but he was equally distressed. Meanwhile, the girl, an angel of innocence, was apparently proclaiming that it was all a misunderstanding.
Since farce seemed to be prevailing over force, Randolph lowered the ladder and studied his defender. She was somewhere around the age of thirty, slim and quite tall. To his fascination, she combined the no-nonsense air associated with governesses with the lively body language of the Neapolitans. Perhaps she was also Italian? But she had the pale translucent complexion usually associated with England.
By sheer volume, the young man managed to shout down the other speakers. Arms waving, he made an impassioned diatribe, which he concluded by spitting at Randolph’s feet.
The tall woman hesitated, took a quick glance at Randolph, then responded, a soulful quiver in her rich alto voice. She ended her address by gesturing toward him, then clasping her hands to her bosom as her eyes demurely fluttered shut behind her gold-rimmed spectacles.
Whether it was her action or her words, the two men looked at each other, then gave mutual shrugs of acceptance. The older man took the woman’s hand and kissed it lingeringly, murmuring a baritone “Bellissima.” The handsome youth, anger vanished as if it had never been, bobbed his head to Randolph, then offered a sunny smile.
The woman turned to Randolph. “Act as if you know me,” she murmured in native-born English. “Smile graciously, bow to the young lady, and we can leave.”
Randolph retrieved his hat and obeyed. Obviously recovered from her fall, the girl gave him a bewitching smile while her father beamed benevolently.
Accompanied by a chorus of good wishes, the Britons crossed the piazza. On the way, the woman collected the canvas bag that held her sketching materials, thrusting her umbrella into loops on the side. Taking Randolph’s arm, she steered him into a street leading down the hill. When they were out of sight of the square, he asked, “Would you care to explain what that was all about?”
The woman smiled and released his arm. “The two gentlemen are the father and betrothed of young Filomena, both of them stonemasons. They were returning home for lunch when they found Filomena in your arms. Being protective and volatile, they feared the worst.
“If it were just the father, he would probably have chastised Filomena for immodest behavior. But since her intended, Luigi, was present, her father could not admit that his daughter was a designing baggage. Hence, any fall from grace must have been your fault.”
She gave a gurgle of laughter. “It would not have been as serious if you were not so handsome. I suspect that Luigi was expressing his regret for the fact that he will never look like Apollo.”
Randolph found himself blushing. “Why should Luigi have regrets? He looks like Michaelangelo’s David.”
“Very true,” the woman said with an unladylike amount of approval. “But that kind of male beauty is not uncommon here, while you have the charm of novelty.” Taking pity on his blushes, she continued, “Incidentally, I am Miss Elizabeth Walker.”
“I’m Randolph Lennox, and very much in your debt.” He gave her a rueful smile. “I was imagining the London headlines: English Tourist Accidentally Murdered in Naples.’’
“That’s better than ‘English Tourist Assaults Innocent Italian Miss and Is Executed on the Spot.’“
“Definitely. What did you say that convinced them of my harmlessness?”
A hint of color showed on Miss Walker’s cheek. “Since they were unwilling to accept that you were motivated only by a spirit of helpfulness, I finally said you were my husband, that we were on our honeymoon, and how could they possibly believe that a gentlemen like you would dishonor me by making improper advances to a young girl right in front of my face?”
She held up her bare left hand. “Fortunate that Luigi and company were not close observers, or they might have doubted my story. I’m sorry, but strong measures were called for. Rational arguments weren’t working.”
“No harm done,” Randolph said, amused. “You said that the girl was a designing baggage?”
“Without question. I’m a governess, you see, and I’m up to all a young girl’s tricks. Filomena watched you from an upstairs window for a while until she struck on a way to further her acquaintance. You should have seen her expression, like a cat watching a bird.”
“Surely a girl so young wouldn't behave in so forward a fashion!”
“You would not say that if you knew many young females,” Miss Walker said feelingly. “But I doubt that she was interested in serious immorality, merely a bit of flirtation. My most recent charge was a girl much like Filomena, and let me tell you, getting Maria safely to the altar was a challenge to make Hannibal’s crossing the Alps look like a stroll in Hyde Park!”
Randolph remembered how Filomena had conveniently fainted into his arms, and how rapidly she had recovered when her men folk appeared on the scene. “I thought that Italian girls were very modest and strictly brought up.”
“They are, but human nature being what it is, some are modest while others are the most amazing flirts.” She glanced at him. “Now I am shocking you. I have lived too long in Italy and quite forgotten proper English restraint. I could give you a lengthy dissertation on Italian behavior, but it's a rather warm lecture and, as I said, quite lengthy.”
Randolph laughed out loud. It occurred to him that he had not laughed like this since . . . since September. Preferring to think of this refreshing female rather than the past, he said, “I should like to hear your dissertation some time. I know we've not been properly introduced, but if you are willing to overlook that, perhaps you will let me take you to lunch as a sign of appreciation for your most timely rescue? You can explain Italian behavior to me.”
A wise woman would not casually accept a stranger’s invitation, so she hesitated, studying his face as if looking for traces of dangerous derangement under his respectable appearance.
“I’m a very harmless fellow,” he said reassuringly. “Besides, knowledge of local customs might save my life. Look at what almost happened.”
“How can I refuse such a request? A luncheon would be very pleasant. Did you have a particular place in mind? If not, there is a trattoria near here that has good food.” Her gaze flickered over Randolph’s very expensive coat. “That is, if you are willing to eat as Neapolitans do.”
It was easy to guess her thoughts. During his first days in Naples, Randolph’s guide had insisted on taking him to boring establishments that specialized in English-style cooking. “Do I appear to be such a paltry fellow that I cannot survive on native fare?” He took her canvas bag. “I would be delighted to broaden my culinary horizons.”
The trattoria was about ten minutes’ walk away, on a market square. Unlike the residential square on top of the hill, this piazza bustled with activity. The trattoria’s proprietor greeted Miss Walker with enthusiastic recognition and hand-kissing, then seated them at an outdoor table.
After the proprietor had bustled off, Miss Walker said, “I trust you don’t mind alfresco dining? Raffaello wants everyone to see that his establishment is frequented by discriminating foreigners. Also, while the day is rather cool by local standards, he assumes that it will seem warm to English folk.”
“A correct assumption,” Randolph agreed. “It feels like a fine summer day in Scotland.”
Miss Walker chuckled. Then the proprietor returned with two goblets and a carafe of red table wine. After pouring wine for both of them, he rattled off a spate of suggestions. Miss Walker responded in kind, with vivid hand gestures, before turning to her companion. “How adventurous are you feeling, Mr. Lennox?”
Randolph hesitated. He'd never been the least adventurous, particularly where his stomach was concerned, but when in Naples ... “I throw myself on your mercy. I'll attempt anything that won't try to eat me first.”
Eyes twinkling, she gave an order to the proprietor, who bowed and left. “Nothing so fearsome. What I ordered is a simple Neapolitan dish. Peasant food, but tasty.”
For a few minutes they sipped their wine in silence. As he swallowed a mouthful, Randolph gazed over the piazza, enjoying the shifting throngs of people. Housewives, cassock-clad priests, costermongers, and workmen, all moved to a background of joyously conflicting street musicians. This was what he had come to Naples for: sunshine, exotic sights, enjoyable company.
His gaze drifted to Miss Walker, who was looking pensively across the square. Her appearance was unremarkable but pleasant, with nut-brown hair, a faint gold dusting of freckles, and spectacles that did not manage to conceal fine hazel eyes. She looked like the sort of woman who should be raising children and running a vicarage. She would counsel the villagers, help her husband with his sermons, and all would agree that the vicar was fortunate to have such a capable helpmeet.
What had brought her so far from the English countryside? “I gather that you have lived in Italy for some time, Miss Walker.”
She glanced at him. Very fine hazel eyes. “Over six years now. At first I lived in this area, but for the last two years I was entirely in Rome, teaching—or rather, standing guard over—the young lady whom I mentioned earlier.”
“How did you come to Italy in the first place?” he asked. “That is, if you don’t mind my asking.”
“After my parents died, there was no reason to stay in England, so I jumped at the chance to become governess to a British diplomatic family that was coming to Italy. When they returned home, I decided to stay on. I am quite valuable here, you see. Aristocratic Italian families like having English governesses, both as a mark of consequence and in the hopes that cold English temperaments will act favorably on hot-blooded daughters.”
“Do you never miss England?”
Her gaze slid away from his. “A little,” she admitted softly, taking off her spectacles and polishing them, a convenient excuse for looking down. “A sad consequence of travel is that the more one sees of the world, the more impossible it is to be satisfied with any one location. Sometimes— especially in the spring and summer—I long for England. Yet, if I were there, I should pine for Italy. Here at least I command a better salary than at home, and there is more sunshine.” Then, almost inaudibly, she added, “And fewer memories.”
It was a motive Randolph could understand. To change the subject, he said, “I envy your command of the language. I wish I had studied Italian, for I find it very strange to be unable to communicate. When someone addresses me, I find myself starting to reply in French, which I do know.”
Miss Walker replaced her spectacles and looked up, collected again. “The Italian taught in England would have been of limited value in Naples. Standard Italian is really the Tuscan dialect, for that was used by Dante and many of the other great writers. I knew Tuscan when I came here, but learning to communicate in Naples was almost like learning a new tongue.”
“Not just tongue. Also arms, torso, and facial expressions.”
“Very true. One cannot stand still and speak properly. Italians are so expressive, so emotional.” Absently she tucked an unruly brown curl behind her ear. “I suppose that's one reason why Italy fascinates the English.”
“Fascinates, yet repels,” Randolph said slowly, thinking of the flagellants in the religious procession. “I’ve seen more visible emotion in Naples than I have in a lifetime in England. Part of me envies such freedom of expression, but I would probably die on the rack before emulating it.”
She regarded him gravely. “Is it that you could not, or would not, act in such a way?”
“Could not.” Wryly Randolph thought that it was typical of his English reserve to find himself embarrassed at what he was revealing.
Luckily a waiter appeared and set plates in front of each of them. He studied the dish, which was some kind of salad consisting of vegetables, olives, and less definable substances. “This is the local specialty you warned me of?”
“No, this is antipasto, a first course consisting of bits of whatever is available. Antipasti are served throughout Italy.”
The salad was lightly dressed with olive oil, herbs, and vinegar. After finishing, Randolph gave a happy sigh. “This is the best thing I’ve eaten since I arrived.”
“Either you have been most unfortunate, or you are new to Naples.” She neatly speared the last bite of her own salad. “The Italians, like the French, take food very seriously indeed. The main course will not appear for some time, for our hosts don't believe in rushing anything as important as a meal.”
“I’ve only been here for four days,” he explained. “I came on impulse, looking for some sunshine for Christmas, and felt sadly betrayed to arrive in Italy and find rain.” As the plates were cleared away, his eye fell on her portfolio, which was peeping from the canvas bag. “Are your drawings for public view, or do you prefer to keep them for yourself?”
She eyed him doubtfully. “They are not private, but neither are they very interesting.”
“If they are of Naples, I’m sure I will enjoy them.”
“Very well.” She pulled the portfolio out and handed it to him. “But remember, you have been warned.”
Randolph opened the portfolio. The not-quite-finished drawing on top was the one she had been working on when the altercation broke out. Most of the sketch was devoted to a hazy, atmospheric rendering of the bay and the volcano beyond—how did she achieve such an effect with only pencil?—but what made it unusual was the skinny cat in the right foreground. The beast sat on the wall, sinuous tail curling down the weathered stone, its feral gaze fixed on the city below.
Randolph began leafing through the portfolio. It was amazing how much she could convey with a few deft lines, but far more remarkable was the imaginative way she viewed the world. Over a Roman ruin arched the gnarled, ancient trunk of an olive tree, fishing boats were seen through a veil of nets, and the massive medieval bulk of Castel Nuovo was framed by its Renaissance triumphal arch.
Most striking of all, Vesuvius was drawn from the point of view of a bird looking down on drifting smoke and stark craters, one powerful wing angling across the lower part of the picture. “You have great talent. It’s extraordinary how the viewpoints you choose enhance and intensify the scenes.”
Her cheeks colored becomingly. “Drawing is a common accomplishment, like embroidery or music.”
“That doesn't mean it's always well done.” He turned back to the first drawing, admiring how the thin, restless cat symbolized the passionate, demanding life of the city’s slums. “But you have more than skill. You have a unique artist’s eye.”
Miss Walker opened her mouth to speak, then closed it. After a moment she said, “I was going to make a modest self-deprecating remark, but what I really want to say is ‘Thank you.’ That's a fine compliment you've given me and I shall cherish it.”
“Do you do watercolors or oils?” he asked as he closed and returned the portfolio.
“Watercolors sometimes. I would like to try oils, but I have little time.” She made a face. “It would be more honest to say that I’m afraid that if I started serious painting, I would lose track of the world, and lose my situation along with it.”
A pity she lacked the leisure to develop her gift. With his independent income, Randolph had the time to cultivate talent, but unfortunately he had none. Perhaps he should follow a fine old Italian custom and become her patron so that he could bask in reflected glory. But, alas, with a male patron and a female artist, the modern world would put a different construction on the arrangement, even though Miss Walker was an improbable choice for a mistress.
The waiter returned, this time placing a sizzling platter in the middle of the table. On it was a crispy circle of dough spread with herbs, sliced sausage, dried tomatoes, and hot bubbling cheese. Randolph regarded the dish doubtfully. “You are sure this fulfills my minimum condition of not attempting to eat me first?”
Miss Walker laughed. “I’ve never heard of anyone being assaulted by a pizza. I think you will be agreeably surprised.”
And he was. The pizza was gooey, undignified, and delicious. Between the two of them, they managed to eat almost the entire platter, and he was eyeing the last slice speculatively when someone called, “Lord Randolph, what a pleasant surprise.”
He looked up and saw a female detach herself from a group crossing the piazza. It was a woman whom he had met at the ambassador’s dinner. As he stood, he ransacked his memory to identify her. Mrs. Bertram, that was her name. A lush blond widow with a roving eye, she lived with her wealthy merchant brother. Both were prominent in the local British community.
Ignoring Miss Walker, Mrs. Bertram cooed, “So lovely to see you again, Lord Randolph. Are you enjoying your visit?”
“Yes, particularly today. Mrs. Bertram, may I make you known to Miss Walker, or are you already acquainted?”
The widow gave Elizabeth Walker a sharp assessing glance, then dismissed her as possible competition. Randolph saw and understood that glance, and felt a small spurt of anger. So had his wife, Chloe, reacted whenever she met another woman. “Miss Walker and I are old friends,” he said pleasantly. “She's been kind enough to show me some of the sights of the city.”
Mrs. Bertram’s eyes narrowed in irritation. “I should have been delighted to perform that service. I have lived here long enough to know what, and who, is worthwhile.” She looked at the last congealing section of pizza and gave a delicate shudder. “One cannot be too careful. There is a distressing lack of refinement in much of Neapolitan life.”
Randolph’s expression must have warned her that her cattiness was not being well received, for she went on, “I do hope you will be able to join us for Christmas dinner.” There was a smudge on his sleeve from the earlier altercation, and she reached out and brushed at it, her fingers lingering. “One should not be alone at Christmas. You are very far from home. Let us stand as your family.”
“You are most kind,” he murmured, “but you need not be concerned for my welfare. I have other plans. Pray give my regards to your brother.”
It was unquestionably a dismissal and Mrs. Bertram was unable to ignore it. After a venomous glance at Randolph’s companion, she rejoined her group, which was entering a jeweler’s shop.
Relieved to be free of her, Randolph sat down again. Miss Walker regarded him thoughtfully. “Lord Randolph?”
He nodded. “My father is the Marquess of Kinross.” He wondered if she was going to be either awed or intimidated. Those were the two most common reactions.
Instead, she said, her hazel eyes twinkling, “I presume you didn’t use your title when you introduced yourself because you weary of being toad-eaten? It must be very tedious.”
“It is,” he said fervently. “And I have only a meaningless courtesy title. My father and older brother must tolerate far worse.”
“In fairness to Mrs. Bertram, I imagine that it is not only your title that interests her,” Miss Walker said charitably. “By the way, am I an old friend on the basis of my advanced years, or the fact that we have known each other easily two hours?”
He pulled his watch from his pocket. “By my reckoning, it is closer to four.”
“Good heavens, is it really so late?” She glanced over at the ornate clock suspended over the jewelry shop. “I must be on my way.” She began to collect her belongings. “Lord Randolph, it has been an exceptional pleasure making your acquaintance. I hope you enjoy your stay in Naples.”
He stared at her, disconcerted. She couldn’t just disappear like this! She was the most congenial soul he’d met since arriving in Naples.
No, far longer than that. He stood. “I should hate to think I’ve endangered your livelihood. Let me escort you back. If necessary, I can explain that you are late because you saved me from grievous bodily injury.”
She laughed. “Lord Randolph, can you think of anything more likely to be injurious to a governess’s reputation than having a handsome man say it is all his fault?”
When he looked sheepish, she continued, “You needn’t worry. My livelihood is not threatened. I am between situations, gloriously free until I take up a new position after Epiphany.” She wrinkled her nose. “Twins! The prettiest little vixens you can imagine. I don’t know how I shall manage!”
“Very well, I’m sure.” The proprietor appeared, and Randolph settled the bill with a gratuity that put an ecstatic expression on the man’s face. When the proprietor had left, Randolph continued, “Since it will not cost you your situation, will you accept my escort?”
She hesitated, and he felt a constriction somewhere in his middle. Probably the pizza fighting the antipasto.
Then she smiled. “That would be very nice. I am going back to my pensione, and it is not in the most elegant part of the city.”
As they made their way through the piazza, Randolph carrying her canvas bag, she explained, “I am giving drawing lessons to my landlady, Sofia, who has been a good friend to me over the years. She is free for only an hour or so at the end of the afternoon, and if I am late, she will be deprived of her lesson.”
Would Mrs. Bertram have abandoned the company of a man in order to fulfill a promise to a landlady? Randolph knew the question was so foolish as not to merit an answer.
As they threaded their way through increasingly narrow, crowded streets, Miss Walker gave an irreverent and amusing commentary on the sights. While she did not neglect splendors like the recently rebuilt San Carlo opera house, her real talent lay in identifying Neapolitan sights like the ribbons of wheat paste drying on backyard racks, and the ancient statue of a pagan goddess, now rechristened and worshiped as a Christian saint in spite of a distinctly impious expression.
All too soon they arrived at the pensione, a shabby town house on a noisy street. Miss Walker turned to make her farewell. “Thank you for the luncheon and escort, Lord Randolph. While you are in Italy, stay away from designing young baggages, no matter how dire their straits seem to be.”
Impulsively Randolph said, “The discerning eye that makes you an artist also makes you a fine tour guide. Since you are at liberty now, would you consider acting as my guide? You could protect me from the designing baggages directly.” When she frowned, he said coaxingly, “I would be happy to pay you for your time, at double the rate of the boring fellow who insisted that I eat only English food.”
“It is not a matter of money,” she said, uncertain in the face of his unusual offer. “Why do you want me for a guide?”
“Because I enjoy your company,” he said simply.
For a moment her serene good humor was shadowed by vulnerability. Then she gave a smile different from her earlier expressions of amusement. This smile came from somewhere deeper, and it transformed her plain face to fleeting loveliness. “Then I will be very glad to be your guide.”
Elizabeth woke with a glow of anticipation. At first she could not recollect why. Then she remembered.
It was not yet time to rise, so she opened her eyes and gazed at the ancient fresco on the ceiling. In truth it was badly drawn, but without her spectacles, it looked splendid, a magical landscape inhabited by flawless lads and lasses. One golden lad looked rather like Lord Randolph Lennox must have at eighteen.
She tucked her arms under her head and reveled in the strange and wondrous chance that had brought them together. Perhaps heaven was giving her a special Christmas present as a reward for managing to keep Maria pure until her marriage? Elizabeth chuckled at the thought. The longer she lived in Italy, the more superstitious she became.
Eager to begin the day, she swung her legs over the edge of the bed and slid her feet into the waiting slippers. Then she began the slow process of brushing out her hair, which was thick and very curly. In the morning it tumbled over her shoulders in a wild mass and at least once a week she considered cutting it, but never did. A governess had little enough femininity.
Patiently she unsnarled a knot. He had said that he was harmless, but that was only partially true. Certainly he would not threaten her virtue, for he was a gentleman and she wasn’t the kind of woman to rouse a man to unbridled lust. Heavens, not even bridled lust!
But that didn’t mean Lord Randolph was harmless, because of course she would fall in love with him. Any lonely spinster worth her salt would do the same if thrown into the company of a man who was charming, kind, intelligent, and handsome as sin. And he would never even notice, which was as it should be.
After a day or two he would tire of sightseeing, or go north to Rome, or become involved in the glittering circle of court life for which he was so well qualified. And she would begin the task of taming the terrible twins, and tuck the image of Lord Randolph away in her heart, next to that of William.
She might cry a little when he was gone for good, if she wasn’t too busy with the twins. But she wouldn’t be sorry to have known him. Though magic must sometimes be paid for with pain, that was better than never knowing magic at all.
When she was old and gray and dry, she would take his image out and dream a little. If anyone noticed, they would wonder why the old lady had such a cat-in-the-cream pot smile on her withered lips.
Elizabeth glanced into the cracked mirror. With her glasses off and her hair curling madly around her face, she looked more like a blowsy baroque nymph than a governess.
For just a moment she let herself dream. Lord Randolph would fall in love with her beautiful soul and marry her out of hand. England would be home, but they would make long visits to Italy. They would have three children. She might be starting late, but she was healthy.
She would paint powerful unusual canvases that some people would love and others would loathe. His aristocratic family would be delighted that Lord Randolph had found a wife of such fine character and talent.
Her mouth thinned and she put her spectacles on and began tugging her hair back. As the nymph vanished into the governess, she knew that he would not fall in love with her. If he did, she could not marry him. Even in her wildest flights of fancy, she could not escape the knowledge that her actions had put respectable marriage forever out of reach. But that did not mean that Elizabeth could not enjoy this rare, magical interlude.
And she did.
In Rome, she’d heard of an Englishman who had decided that the main point of seeing sights was to say that one had seen them, so he had hired a carriage and crammed the Eternal City into two fevered days so he could devote the rest of his time to dissipation. Fortunately Lord Randolph proved to be a visitor of quite a different stamp, interested in everything and willing to take the time to absorb as well as see.
She began by taking him to all of Naples’s famous sights. When it became clear that he shared her taste for the unusual, she expanded the itinerary to include more eccentric amusements. Over the next week they explored Naples’s narrow, teeming streets, ate fresh fruit, pasta, and ices purchased in the markets, and stopped to enjoy arias of heart-stopping purity that soared from the open windows of tenements.
When it rained they searched dark churches for neglected paintings by great masters, and smiled together at signs that offered, “Indulgences Plenary, daily and perpetual, for living and the dead, as often as wanted.” As Lord Randolph remarked, it was precisely the way a London draper would advertise.
Tactfully, Lord Randolph did not again suggest hiring her services. Instead, he paid for all admissions, meals, and other expenses.
On fair days he hired a carriage and driver and they went into the countryside. They visited Baia, which had been a fashionable Roman bathing resort, and speculated about the palaces that now lay beneath the sea. At Herculaneum they marveled at the city that had emerged after almost two thousand years beneath volcanic mud, and Elizabeth did sketches that populated the ruins with puzzled, ghostly Romans.
It was Lord Randolph who had suggested that Elizabeth bring her sketchbook. While she drew, he would sit quietly by, smoking his pipe, a man with a gift for stillness. It was not uncommon for rich tourists to hire artists to record what they saw, and Elizabeth quietly resolved to give Lord Randolph this set of drawings when they parted. When he looked at them to remember Naples, perhaps he would also think of her.
In the meantime, she utilized the governess’s skill of watching unobtrusively, memorizing the angle of his eyebrows when he was amused, the way the winter sun shimmered across his dark gold hair, and a hundred other subtle details.
Alone in her pensione in the evenings, she tried to draw Lord Randolph from memory, with frustrating results. He would have been an easier subject if he were less handsome, because his regular features looked more like an idealized Greek statue than a real man. She did her best to capture the quiet humor in his eyes, the surprising hint of underlying wistfulness, but she was never satisfied with the results.
As an escort Lord Randolph was thoughtful and impeccably polite. Elizabeth knew he enjoyed her company, but she also knew he was scarcely aware that she was a woman. Had he come to Italy because he was disappointed in love? Hard to imagine any woman turning him down. But she would never know the truth. Though their conversation flowed with ease and wit, they spoke only of impersonal things. Her companion kept his inner life to himself, as did Elizabeth.
The first few days they spent together, she was able to maintain a certain wry detachment about her growing infatuation with Lord Randolph. But the day that they visited the Fields of Fire, detachment dissolved as she fell blindly, helplessly, irrevocably in love with him.
The Campi Flegrei—Fields of Fire—lay north of Naples. The poetic name described an area of volcanic activity, a sight not to be missed by tourists. After spending the morning in the nearby town of Pozzuoli, they had driven to Solfatara, an oval crater where the earth was sometimes too hot to touch and noxious fumes oozed from the holes called fumaroles.
A local guide led half a dozen visitors into the crater. As part of his tour he held a lighted brand over a boiling mud pot. Immediately the steam issuing from the mud pot flared furiously, as if about to explode. Even though Elizabeth had seen this before, she still flinched back.
Lord Randolph touched her elbow reassuringly. “That's just an illusion, isn’t it?”
She nodded. “Yes, the fumarole doesn’t really burn hotter, but whenever I see that, I can’t help feeling that the sleeping volcano is lashing back at impudent humans who disturb its rest.”
After tossing the brand into the fumarole, the guide stamped on the ground, sending a deep, ominous echo rolling through the hollow mountain under their feet. Then he led the group away.
Having had enough demonstrations, Elizabeth and her companion wandered off in another direction.
“It’s an interesting place,” Lord Randolph remarked as they picked their way through a field of steaming fumaroles. The pungent odor of sulfur hung heavy over the sterile white soil. “Rather like one of the outer circles of hell.”
“Solfatara is a place every visitor to Naples should see, but I dislike it intensely.” Elizabeth gestured around the barren crater. “When I come here, I always think it is the loneliest, most desolate spot on earth.”
“No,” her companion said softly, his voice as bleak as the dead earth crumbling beneath their feet. “The loneliest place on earth is a bad marriage.”
That was when the fragile remnants of Elizabeth’s detachment shattered, for in that instant she came to understand Randolph. It was not a shock to learn that he was married. She had never understood why a man so attractive and amiable did not have a wife.
Nor did she feel betrayed that he had not mentioned his wife before because she'd always known there could be nothing between them but fleeting friendship. What Elizabeth did feel was a disabling flood of love and tenderness.
It was tragic that a man so kind and decent should be so unhappy, that loneliness had driven him so far from home. Even more than tenderness, she felt a sense of kinship. Impulsively she said, “You mustn’t surrender to it.”
“Surrender to what?” he asked, turning to face her, his slate eyes shadowed.
“To loneliness,” she stammered, embarrassed at her own impertinence. “To give in to it is to dance with the devil and lose your very soul.”
Under his grave gaze, she felt hot blood rise in her face. She looked away, bitterly sorry that she trespassed beyond the limits of friendship by alluding to intimate, solitary sorrows.
Quietly he said, “If you have danced with the devils of loneliness, you have escaped with your soul and learned wisdom into the bargain.”
Elizabeth took a deep, steadying breath, grateful that he had forgiven her lapse. “I think I hear our guide calling. Come, it's time we went back before he decides that we have fallen into a mud pot.”
The Via Toledo had been called the gayest and most populous street in the world, but Randolph paid little attention to the blithe people swirling around him as he strolled through the lamp-lit night. He had been walking for hours, his thoughts occupied by an alarming but deeply appealing idea.
He had enjoyed Elizabeth Walker’s company from the moment they met, but he had thought her self-sufficient, completely comfortable with her life as it was. That belief had changed in an instant that afternoon at Solfatara.
In a moment of weakness he had lowered his guard, and rather than ignoring or despising him for his lapse, Elizabeth had done the same. By the act of reaching out to him, she had revealed a loneliness as great as his own. Her blend of warmth, generosity, and vulnerability was so potent that he had very nearly said that if they joined their lives, they might banish the worst of their mutual loneliness.
He kept silent, too skeptical, too wary, to propose marriage on impulse. Yet the idea had taken hold, and now he found himself wondering what kind of wife Elizabeth would make. The more he thought, the more his conclusions agreed with his first impression of her. She would make an excellent wife.
He smiled wryly, thinking of Samuel Johnson’s remark that a second marriage was the triumph of hope over experience. Randolph had thought that life had cured him first of love, then of marriage, and he had resigned himself to spending the rest of his life alone.
Yet here he was, thinking that seeing Elizabeth Walker across a breakfast table would be a very pleasant sight indeed. Chloe had seldom risen in time for breakfast, and when she did, she was invariably irritable and self-absorbed.
Elizabeth was not a Beauty, but one Beauty was enough for a lifetime. Hard experience had taught Randolph that humor, honesty, and a tolerant mind were far more important in a marriage.
And she was far from an antidote. While her face was unremarkable, it was engagingly expressive. He found frank pleasure in the supple grace of her slim body, and a mischievous whirl of wind had revealed that her long legs were truly outstanding.
Realizing that he was hungry, he stopped at a small cafe. The proprietor spoke enough French to take an order but not enough to carry on a conversation, leaving Randolph free to continue his thoughts over wine and pollo alla cacciatora.
He was not in love with Elizabeth Walker, nor was he coxcomb enough to think that she loved him. No matter. He was not convinced that love was an asset to a marriage.
What mattered was friendship, and in a short time they had become good friends. He knew that most people would think he was a fool to be considering marriage to a woman he had known only a week, but they'd spent a great deal of time together. Long enough that he felt he knew her better than either of the other women who had been important to him.
He thought the chances of her accepting him were excellent. She seemed to enjoy his company, he was presentable, and his wealth would allow her the time and money to paint. Yes, a marriage between them could work out very well.
They were both old enough to know their own minds. If she was willing to marry him, there would be no reason for a long engagement.
Now he must find the courage to ask her.
The morning air was cold but the sky was glass clear; December 24 promised to be the warmest day since Randolph had arrived in Naples. His driver and carriage showed up scarcely a quarter hour late, which was stunning punctuality by Neapolitan standards. Vanni was a cheerful fellow with a splendid baritone and villainous shaggy mustaches. His English was no better than Randolph’s Neapolitan, but over the last several days he had learned to drive directly to Elizabeth Walker’s pensione.
Elizabeth was ready when the carriage arrived, looking quietly lovely in a dark red gown suitable for the holiday season. Punctuality was no surprise in her case. It was one of the things Randolph liked about her.
“Good morning,” she said cheerfully. “Are you game for a drive in the country? My friend Sofia has a mission for us. It's the end of the olive harvest and she has asked that we collect her year’s supply of fresh oil. A respectable cook insists on knowing where her olive oil comes from, and Sofia swears that her cousin presses the best oil in Campania.”
“Which means it’s the best in the world?” he asked with a smile.
“You are beginning to understand the Neapolitan temperament, Lord Randolph.” Elizabeth lifted a lavishly packed basket. “As reward for our efforts, Sofia has packed a most sumptuous picnic for us.”
He helped her into the carriage, then he and Vanni stowed the basket of food and a large number of empty stone jugs behind the passenger seat. After a staccato exchange with Elizabeth, Vanni turned the vehicle and began threading his way through the crowded streets.
Leaving the city, they headed south to the farmlands near Vesuvius. To Randolph it seemed odd that lifeless volcanic ash eventually became rich soil, but fertile fields confirmed the fact.
The ride through the hills was spectacularly lovely. Having someone to share the sights made them lovelier yet. After two hours of driving they reached their destination, an ancient rambling farmhouse surrounded by silvery olive trees.
The two Britons were welcomed joyfully and given a tour from the vineyards to the hand-operated olive press. As a farmer himself, Randolph enjoyed it thoroughly. He and Sofia’s cousin exchanged farmer comments through Elizabeth.
After Sofia’s jars were filled, Randolph and Elizabeth were offered oven-warm bread dipped in fresh-squeezed olive oil. Randolph accepted his in the spirit of being a good guest. His first bite showed him that he had been honored with a matchless delicacy, the local equivalent of the first strawberries of spring. When he finished the first piece, he accepted a second, then a third, to the unconcealed satisfaction of his hosts.
As Elizabeth took a proper leave, a lengthy business, Randolph wondered how many members of the local English colony had experienced such simple pleasures. Probably very few.
It was impossible to imagine the likes of Mrs. Bertram enjoying “unrefined” rural life. If not for Elizabeth, he would have seen only the usual sights, met only socially prominent Neapolitans, and never known what he was missing.
Bread and oil take the edge from an appetite. After they left the farm, they decided to delay their midday meal and visit Balzano, a nearby hilltop town with a famous church.
The inside of the large church was dim after the bright sunshine. Randolph paused in the door while his eyes adjusted. Vaguely aware that several people stood in front of the altar, he inhaled the scents of wax and incense.
“Look,” Elizabeth murmured, “they’ve erected the presepio.”
He followed her down the aisle and discovered that the figures he’d thought were local worshipers were wooden statues, life-size, lovingly painted, and very old. The grouping formed a Nativity scene featuring Mary, Joseph, two shepherds, the Three Kings, and a family of sheep.
Softly his companion explained, “You see how the manger is empty? That is because the Child has not yet been born. During the service tonight, a real infant will be placed in the manger. They say it was St. Francis of Assisi who invented the presepio. He enacted it with a real mother and father and their babe to remind people that Christmas was a season for holy celebration rather than profane pleasures.”
“An effective demonstration of the fact that the origin of the word ‘holiday’ is ‘holy day,’ “ Randolph agreed. “Tonight by candlelight it will seem very real.”
After viewing the rest of the church, they decided to stroll through the narrow medieval streets before leaving the town. As they neared the bustling market square, they were intercepted by an enterprising peddler who pulled a handful of small figurines from his basket and pressed them on Elizabeth with a torrent of enthusiastic words.
“These are pastori, figures for a Nativity scene.” Elizabeth handed one to Randolph. “You might find them interesting. They are made of lapis solaris.”
He accepted the figurine, seeing only a rather crudely formed Madonna. “Stone of the sun?”
She nodded. “The material holds light and will glow in the dark for hours. It was invented by an alchemist who was searching for the philosopher’s stone. He never found that, but lapis solaris became very popular for rosaries and crucifixes and the like.”
Randolph regarded the small figure thoughtfully. “I’m not sure if the basic idea is sublime or ridiculous.”
“Both.” Elizabeth’s lovely hazel eyes danced. “Because he can see that we are inglesi of rare discernment, he will offer us a complete presepio of lapis solaris for a price so low that it will shame him before all of Balzano if we tell anyone.”
Suddenly the ground moved beneath their feet, a subtle, disquieting shift that made the peddler’s figurines chatter together in their basket. Though this was not the first tremor Randolph had experienced since his arrival, he still tensed. He doubted that he'd ever get used to the earth's betrayal, though Elizabeth and the peddler seemed unconcerned.
As the tremor faded, the peddler spoke to Elizabeth with a smile and a triumphant lift of his hand. She burst out laughing. “He says that his price for the complete presepio is so low that God Himself was shocked, and that is why the earth moved.”
Randolph joined her laughter. He had already observed that the local peddlers had an audacity that would make a gypsy horse coper blush. He decided that this peddler deserved to make a sale, but for the honor of the English, Randolph bargained over the price for the next quarter hour.
When they were done, the peddler wrapped the set in an old rag and presented it to Randolph with a flourish. As they walked away, Elizabeth said, “Well done. You brought him down to half the original asking price.”
“Which I estimate is at least double what the things are worth,” Randolph said with amusement. He removed the top figurine from the bundle. It was the Bambino. “Why do I have the feeling that this was made in Birmingham?”
“Cynic.” Elizabeth chuckled. They had reached the market square, which was crowded with people buying the last ingredients for their holiday feasting. “I’m sure that it was made somewhere in Italy. Glowing religious artifacts are just not very English, are they?”
She stopped by a stall that featured marzipan shaped into exquisite imitation fruits and flowers. Knowing that the confections would be popular with the younger Lennoxes, Randolph bought a large number. While the marzipan was being wrapped in silver paper, Elizabeth suddenly jumped, at the same time giving a smothered squeak.
Alarmed, Randolph asked, “Is something wrong?”
“Just someone pinching me,” she explained. “A little harder than usual, or I would scarcely have noticed.”
“Someone pinched you? Outrageous!” Indignant, Randolph turned toward the square with the vague idea of calling such impertinence to book, but Elizabeth caught his arm.
“Don’t be upset, it was not meant as an insult. Quite the contrary.” She smiled at him. “It’s one of the things I love about Italy. Even though I am much too thin and not at all in the local style, at least once a day someone will perjure himself by saying or implying that I am beautiful. I doubt there is another place in the world where a plain old spinster is made to feel so desirable.”
Adding the marzipan fruit to his bundles, Randolph took her arm and began steering her through the crowd. “You do yourself an injustice, Miss Walker. You are not old, and what is thin to a Neapolitan is elegantly slim to an Englishman.”
She gave him a startled glance. “Is that a compliment?”
He smiled down at her. “Yes.”
She looked quite adorable in her astonishment. If they had not been surrounded by people, he would have proposed to her on the spot. What they needed was a place with a little privacy, which shouldn’t be hard to arrange. “Shall we ask Vanni to find us a suitably scenic site for a late luncheon? I suspect that Sofia would be outraged if we returned her basket intact.”
They had reached the carriage, and as Randolph put his purchases away, Elizabeth and Vanni conferred. Eventually she asked, “What say you to a ruined Roman temple, high on a hill, gloriously private, and possessing a matchless view of Vesuvius?”
“Perfect.” Randolph helped her into the carriage, then swung up beside her. He was beginning to feel a little nervous. One would think that a man who had twice before proposed marriage would be a little calmer about the prospect, but that didn’t seem to be the case. But his qualms didn't run too deep. At heart he didn't believe that Elizabeth would turn him down.
The trail had been growing narrower and narrower, and finally Vanni pulled the horses to a halt and turned to speak to Elizabeth. She explained to her companion, “This is as close as a carriage can go. Vanni says the temple is a ten- or fifteen-minute walk along this path.”
Lord Randolph nodded agreeably and took the picnic basket in hand. The condition of the path explained why the site was seldom visited. It was narrow and irregular, not much more than a goat track, and had been washed out and repaired more than once. The mountain face rose sheer on the right, then dropped lethally away to the left. Elizabeth went first, keeping close to the rock face and being very careful where she put her feet.
She rounded the last bend in the trail, then stopped, enchanted. The path widened into a large ledge, with a steep wall on the right and a sheer drop on the left. Perhaps a hundred yards long and fifty wide, the site had soil rich enough to support velvety grass and delicate trees. As Vanni had promised, the view of Vesuvius was spectacular. But all that was simply a setting for the temple, which looked as if it had floated down on temporary loan from fairyland.
Behind her, Lord Randolph said admiringly, “Anyone who ever built a false ruin would give his left arm to have this instead. It’s the ultimate folly.”
The small shrine was built of white marble that held a hint of rose in its translucent depths. The back wall was mostly intact and elegant columns completed the front part of the structure. The roof was long gone and vines climbed the columns for an effect that was beautiful, wistful, and altogether romantic.
Elizabeth said, “Do you think we should invite Byron to visit? This deserves to be immortalized in poetry.”
“Never,” Lord Randolph said firmly as he set the picnic basket down. “If Byron wrote of it, the path would become so jammed with people coming to admire and languish that someone would surely fall down the mountain to his death, and it would be our fault. Much better to let it stay Vanni’s secret.”
The blackened remains of an old fire sheltered by a depression in the cliff proved that the site was not precisely a secret, but certainly it was seldom visited. The floor of the shrine was entirely covered with drifted leaves. Elizabeth knelt and carefully brushed them away, finding a charming mosaic of birds, flowers, and butterflies. “I wonder what god or goddess was worshiped here.”
“A gentle one, I think.”
Glancing up, she saw an odd, assessing look on Lord Randolph’s face. Inexplicably she shivered, wondering if there was really tension in the air, or just another example of her overactive imagination.
Seeing her shiver, he offered his hand to help her up. “In spite of the sunshine, in the shade it is still December.”
His hand was warm and strong as he lifted her effortlessly. Elizabeth released his clasp as soon as she was on her feet. Her awareness of Lord Randolph’s strength and masculinity was acute and uncomfortable. She decided that it was because, in spite of a week of constant company, they had never been quite so alone.
She moved away from him quickly, knowing that her dignity depended on her ability to remain collected. She would rather throw herself from the cliff than let her companion know of her foolish, hopeless passion.
As she removed the folded lap rug that protected the contents of the basket, she asked, “Shall we see what Sofia has given us? I think we are going to benefit from her Christmas baking.”
“There’s enough food for an army, or at least a platoon.” Randolph reached in the basket and removed the shallow oval bowl. After investigating the contents, he said, “Eel pie?”
“Very likely. The day before Christmas is meatless, and eels are a tradition,” Elizabeth explained as she unpacked the basket. “We also have fresh fruit, two cheeses, braided bread, three kinds of Christmas cakes, pizza rustica—you’ll like that, it’s sort of a cheese pie with slivered ham, among other things—and enough red wine to wash it all down.”
Randolph blinked. “If the laborers are worthy of their hire, I suppose this is an indication of how much she values her olive oil.”
“That, plus the fact that she is continually trying to fatten me up. She thinks you are too thin also.” Remembering what else Sofia had said about the English milord—all of it complimentary and some of it decidedly improper—Elizabeth concentrated on laying food out on the cloth.
What was wrong with her? A simple picnic with a gentleman and she was behaving like one of her own hot-blooded, romantic charges, with every thought revolving around the man at her side.
The incredibly handsome, amiable, interested, courteous man at her side.
Stop that!she scolded herself. She was glad to see that her hand did not tremble as she poured wine into the clay goblets provided.
The meal was a leisurely one. As they chatted amiably about the day, Elizabeth’s nervousness subsided. She considered asking Lord Randolph how much longer he intended to stay in Naples, then decided she would rather not know. Later would be soon enough.
After they had eaten, Elizabeth pulled out her tablet and began sketching the temple, though she despaired of doing justice to it. Having seated himself downwind of her, Randolph smoked his pipe in apparent contentment.
Eventually the lengthening shadows caught her attention and she glanced up. “Heavens, it’s getting late. You should have stopped me earlier. I lose track of time when I’m drawing.” She closed her tablet and slid it and her pencils into the picnic basket. “The weather is so warm that it’s hard to remember that this is one of the shortest days of the year, but it will be dark by the time we reach the city.”
“Miss Walker . . . Elizabeth . . . there is something I want to say before we start back.”
Startled, she sat back on her heels and looked at Lord Randolph. Though he was still seated on the ground, his earlier ease was gone and his lean body was taut with tension. He looked down, fidgeting with his pipe, and she realized that he was using it as an excuse to avoid her eyes.
Taking out his penknife, he started carefully loosening the charred tobacco. “I have enjoyed this last week immensely.” He gestured vaguely with his left hand, as if hunting for words, and instead spilled cinders on his fawn-colored breeches. Ruefully he brushed them away, then glanced up at her. “I’m sorry, I’m not very good at this. I had a speech memorized, but I’ve entirely forgotten it. Elizabeth, I am very partial to your company, and . . . and I would like to have more of it. Permanently.”
If breathing was not automatic, Elizabeth would have expired on the spot. At first she just stared at him in disbelief. Then his eyes met hers, hope and uncertainty in the depths, and she realized that he meant what he said.
A stab of pain cut through her, anguish as intense as when she had heard of William’s death. Amazingly, Lord Randolph wanted her to become his mistress. It was the best offer she would ever get—and she, Elizabeth acknowledged miserably, was too much a child of the vicarage to agree.
Tears started in her eyes and she blinked fiercely, refusing to let them overflow. Her voice a choked whisper, she said, “I’m sorry, my lord, but I couldn’t possibly accept.”
The hope in his eyes flickered and died, replaced first by hurt, then withdrawal. He had never worn the mask of the cool English gentleman with her before, but he donned it now. “No, of course you couldn’t. My apologies, Miss Walker, it was just a foolish fancy.”
He put his pipe and penknife in his pocket and stood, then lifted the basket. “Pray forgive me if I have embarrassed you. Come, it is time we left. The afternoon is almost over.”
It wasn’t just the afternoon that was over, but their friendship; Elizabeth knew from his expression that she would never see Lord Randolph after today. She scrambled to her feet unassisted, ignoring his proffered hand. Desiring him and racked with her own loneliness, she daren’t touch him, for doing so would cause her to break down entirely.
Wordlessly she led the way back to the path, waging the battle of her life with her conscience. She was sure that his offer sprang not from casual immorality but from a lonely man’s yearning for companionship. If he were free to marry, he would ask a younger, prettier woman, but she guessed that he was too honorable to destroy a marriageable girl’s chance for respectability.
There was no risk of that with someone like Elizabeth, who had been on the shelf for years. Yet he must care a little for her as well, for he could have his choice of a thousand more likely mistresses.
She had known that she loved him. She hadn’t realized how much until now, when she found herself seriously considering abandoning the training of a lifetime so that she could give him the comfort he sought. But as Elizabeth picked her way along the narrow path, Lord Randolph silent behind her, she knew that her motives were only partly altruistic.
Yes, she wanted to ease his loneliness, but she also wanted to ease her own. She wanted his kindness and wry humor and beautiful body. And almost as much, she wanted to resurrect the Elizabeth Walker she had been before “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” had worn her hope away.
Intent on her despairing thoughts, she did not feel the first warning tremor, did not take the action that might have saved her. Her first awareness that something was wrong came when she staggered, almost losing her balance. For an instant she wondered if she had drunk too much wine, or whether her thoughts were making her light-headed.
Disaster unfolded with excruciating slowness. The ground heaved and a low, terrifying rumble filled the air, the vibrations so intense her skin tingled.
The path began to crumble beneath her feet. Elizabeth tried to scramble to safety, but it was too late, there was nothing left to cling to. She screamed as she pitched sideways from the cliff, falling helplessly. How far was it to the rocks below? And would she feel the shattering of her bones?
Randolph’s deep voice shouted, “Elizabeth!”
Between one heartbeat and the next, powerful arms seized her and dragged her back to solid ground. She slammed into the rocky path with rib-bruising force.
As she gasped for breath, Randolph pulled her farther from the edge. Then he threw himself over her, his body shielding her from a torrent of falling earth and gravel. In the midst of chaos and confusion, her sharpest awareness was of Randolph’s closeness, the warmth and strength that enfolded her. If they were both going to die, she thought dizzily, she was glad that it would be in his arms.
The earth tremor was an eternity of fear that must have lasted less than a minute. When the ground had steadied and the last of the rumbling died away, Randolph lifted himself away, gravel showering from him. His voice ragged, he asked urgently, “Elizabeth, are you all right?”
Shakily she pushed herself to a sitting position. By some miracle, her spectacles hadn’t fallen off. “I think so. Thanks to you.”
She inhaled some dust and doubled over coughing. When she could speak again, she continued, “Thank you doesn’t seem strong enough. I thought my hour had come. How are you?”
“A fairly sizable stone hit my shoulder, but nothing seems to be broken.” He winced as he stood and brushed himself off, then examined a ripped sleeve ruefully. “However, my hat is gone forever and my coat seems unlikely to recover. My valet will be heartbroken, This coat is one of his favorites.”
This time Elizabeth was grateful to accept his assistance in rising. “Is it one of your favorites as well?”
“I am not permitted to have opinions about matters that fall within Burns’s purview, and that definitely includes coats.” He looked beyond Elizabeth, then gave a soft whistle. “Fortunate that Sofia gave us so much food, for I fear that we may be here longer than we expected.”
Elizabeth turned cautiously, grateful when Lord Randolph put a firm hand on her arm. She bit her lip in dismay at the sight behind. About ten feet of the path had disappeared completely. It made her dizzy to look down, knowing how near an escape she had had.
Beyond the gap, the path seemed intact but was covered with rubble until it curved out of sight around the hill. “I hope Vanni is all right,” she said, “for both his sake and ours.”
“I’m sure he is,” Lord Randolph said. “He and the carriage were on solid, level ground.”
Confirmation came almost immediately when the driver’s voice shouted from around the corner, “Signorina, signore!”
Elizabeth called back, reassuring him that they were well, then explaining that part of the path had collapsed so they could not clear the rubble away themselves. After the driver replied, she translated, “Vanni say the path is clear and solid just around the corner, so it shouldn’t be too hard to remove the fallen earth from that direction. He will go back to Balzano to get men to dig and planks to bridge the gap.”
“What if the town has been badly hit by the earthquake?” Randolph asked grimly. “They may have more serious concerns than two stranded foreigners.”
Elizabeth relayed his comment, then the driver’s response. “Vanni says that this was only a little tremor. If the earth had not been soft from rain, there would be no problem here.”
“Let us hope he is right. Tell him that I will pay the men he brings an exorbitant amount of money for their help, and double that if they can get us out this evening.”
Another round of shouting and answer. Elizabeth shook her head at the reply. “Vanni says that it would be impossible to get anyone to come tonight since it’s Christmas Eve, but he swears that tomorrow we will be free sometime between Mass and the midday meal.”
Randolph sighed. “I suppose that will have to do.” He turned and picked up the basket from where he had dropped it when the tremor hit. It had survived intact, if somewhat the worse for wear.
Elizabeth followed him back to the temple site. Still a little shaky from her escape, she was content to sit and watch while he explored the whole area, foot by foot.
Eventually he returned, saying, “If, God forbid, Vanni doesn’t return, I think I could manage to climb over and around the landslide area, so we won’t be trapped here indefinitely.”
She looked at the steep rock face and shuddered. “I hope it doesn’t come to that!”
“I don’t think it will, but I'm happier knowing there are alternatives.” He looked at the sky and frowned. “The sun will be down in another hour, and it’s going to be cold without any shelter. Fortunately I brought my flint and steel so we can light a fire, but there's precious little fuel. Previous visitors have used most of what was available, but with luck we'll find enough wood to keep from freezing tonight.”
For the next half hour, the two of them gathered wood and stacked it by a shallow depression in the rocky cliff. It wasn’t even remotely a cave, but it offered the best available protection from the weather. Elizabeth wrinkled her nose at the results. “It isn’t a very impressive woodpile.”
“It should be enough.” He retrieved the lap rug from the basket and handed it to her. “You'd better wrap yourself in this.”
She accepted the lap rug gratefully and wrapped it around her shoulders, wishing that it was twice as large and thrice as heavy. “Women’s clothing is not designed for winter.”
For lack of anything better to do, Elizabeth sat down with her back to the cliff, drawing her knees up and linking her arms around them. To the southwest, the massive black silhouette of Vesuvius dominated the horizon. The only signs of man were a few distant farm buildings. The scene could as easily have been Roman as in this civilized year of 1817.
Above the rugged hills, the sky was shot with gold and vermilion, while a nest of violet clouds hugged the horizon and welcomed the molten sun. Nodding toward the sunset, she said, “We may have a long, uncomfortable night ahead, but that is almost adequate compensation. How often do we take the time to enjoy a sunset?”
“Not often enough,” Randolph agreed, settling down on the temple steps so he could admire nature’s flamboyant artistry.
Despite the spectacular sky, Elizabeth found that more of her attention was on her companion, who sat less than a dozen feet away. Hatless and disheveled, his hair touched to liquid gold by the waning sun, he was no longer the impeccable English gentleman. Now the power that underlay his gentle courtesy was visible.
She felt a faint sense of disquiet. Might Lord Randolph decide to take advantage of their enforced proximity to attempt seduction? If he did, she would be helpless before his superior strength. . . .
With an appalled shock, Elizabeth realized that she wanted him to try to seduce her. In fact, her devious lower nature was delighting in a situation that could allow her to submit with a clear conscience, absolved of sin.
Unfortunately, her vicarage morals were not so easily fooled. Hugging her knees closer, she chastised herself for being a shameless, disgusting creature. If Lord Randolph was the sort of man who would take advantage of their situation to force his attentions on her, he was not the man she had fallen in love with and she wouldn’t want him.
She couldn’t believe that she’d aroused his passions very deeply. He’d said himself that his offer was foolish fancy. He was probably now thanking his lucky stars that she had refused.
But if he wasn’t, this temporary captivity must be even more awkward for him than for her. He was the one who had been rejected. He must be hating the sight of her.
Oblivious to her lurid thoughts, Randolph said with a trace of wry amusement, “I knew Christmas in Italy would be different from home, but I never dreamed just how different.”
“Yes,” Elizabeth agreed somberly, “but at least we’re alive. If we had started down the path a few seconds sooner ...”
“Very true,” he said, his voice dry. “So I suppose there was some value to my misbegotten proposal since it delayed us.”
“I know that being trapped here with me must be difficult for you. I’m sorry,” she said in a small voice.
He shrugged his broad shoulders. “Don’t apologize. The fault is mine. I should have known that one seldom gets a second chance where love and marriage are concerned. For my sins of bad judgment, I must pay the price.”
His words cut too close to the bone, and she drew a shuddering breath. “You are right. For whatever reason—bad judgment, bad luck— most of us only get one chance for happiness. We think it will last an eternity, and then it vanishes like smoke in our hands.”
He turned to face her, a silhouette against the bright sky. “What happened to your chance, Elizabeth? Why are you spending your life raising other women’s children rather than your own?”
She sighed. “It’s not a very dramatic story. William and I were childhood sweethearts. He was the younger son of the squire, I was the daughter of the vicar. Our families were not enthralled by the match, for neither of us had any prospects, but we were young, optimistic, willing to work hard. We had our whole lives planned. William’s father bought him a pair of colors and off he went to the Peninsula. I was teaching and saving my salary. When he became a captain, we would marry and I would follow the drum.”
“But that didn’t happen.”
“No,” she whispered. “Within a year he was dead. Not even nobly, fighting the French, but of a fever.”
“I’m sorry,” he said gently. “That was a dreadful waste of a brave young life, and a tragic loss for you.”
In her fragile mood, his compassion almost broke her. She made an effort to collect herself. “I feel fortunate for what little we had, even if it was much less than we had expected.”
She tried a smile without complete success. “It was a great stroke of luck that even one man wanted to marry me. I’m not the sort to inspire a grand passion and without a portion I wasn’t very marriageable. If William and I hadn’t grown up together, I doubt he would have looked twice at me, but as it was, we . . . well, we were part of each other.”
“I wish you would stop demeaning yourself,” Randolph said sternly. “Beauty and fortune have their place, but they are not what make a good wife.”
“As you learned to your cost?” she asked quietly.
“As I learned, to my cost.” He stood abruptly. “I’d better start a fire while there is still a little light.”
It was fortunate Lord Randolph had flint and steel and a penknife to whittle dry wood shavings from the inside of a branch. Soon a small fire was crackling away. He sat back on his heels, staying close enough to feed the blaze easily. “Having a fire brings civilization a little closer.”
Elizabeth did not agree. Even with a fire, civilization seemed very distant, and she found herself speaking with a boldness that normally she would not have dared. “You said that you had committed the sin of bad judgment,” she said tentatively. “If your sin was falling in love with a beautiful face, then finding the lady’s character was not so fine as her features, that’s not such a great crime. Many young men do the same.”
Lord Randolph must have felt the same lessening of civilized constraints, because he replied rather than giving her the set-down she deserved. “My crime was much worse. Like you, I fell in love young. Unlike you, our families were delighted. Lady Alyson was a great heiress, and I was a good match for her. Of similar rank, wealthy enough so as not to be a fortune-hunter, and as a younger son, I would have ample time to devote to managing her property when she inherited.”
Throwing the last shred of her manners to the winds, Elizabeth asked, “Was the problem that she did not love you?”
The muscles of his face went taut in the flickering light. “No, she did love me. And I, in one moment of foolish cowardice, hurt her unforgivably and wrecked both our lives.”
The silence that followed was so long that finally Elizabeth said, “I realize that this is absolutely none of my business, but I am perishing of curiosity. Is what happened so unspeakable?”
His face eased. “Having said that much, I suppose I must tell the rest. I made the mistake of calling on Alyson with one of my more boisterous friends along. While we were waiting for her in the drawing room, my friend asked why I was marrying her. If Alyson had been a little golden nymph, he could have understood, but she wasn’t at all in the common way.”
Randolph sighed. “I should have hit him. Instead, because my feelings for Alyson were too private to expose to someone who might make sport of them, I said breezily that I was marrying her for her money. I knew that was a reason he would understand.”
Elizabeth had a horrible feeling that she knew what happened next. “Alyson overheard and cried off?”
“Worse than that.” Carefully he laid two larger pieces of wood on the fire. “I didn’t learn the whole story until quite recently. She did overhear and told her father she wouldn’t marry me if I were the last man on earth, but wouldn’t explain why she had changed her mind.
“Thinking she was just being missish, her father became very gothic and locked her in her room, swearing that he would keep her there until she agreed to go through with the marriage. Feeling betrayed by both her father and me, Alyson ran away. She stayed away for twelve long years. Just this last September she returned and reconciled with her father.”
“Good heavens,” Elizabeth said blankly. “How did she survive so long on her own?”
“First she taught. Later, by chance, she became a land steward, quite a successful one. As I said, she was not in the common way. You remind me of her.” Randolph glanced up from the fire, which he had been watching with unnecessary vigilance.
“After Alyson vanished, I wondered if it was my fault, so when she returned I asked her. She confirmed that she had overheard me, and that was why she had run away.” He gave a bitter laugh. “This story would be better told at Easter than Christmas. I felt like Peter must have when he realized that he had denied his Master three times before the cock crowed.”
Elizabeth’s heart ached for both of them, two young lovers shattered by a moment of foolishness. No wonder Randolph could not forgive himself. The fact that Lady Alyson had run away from her whole life was vivid proof of the anguish she'd felt at the apparent betrayal of the man she had loved and trusted.
Elizabeth tried to imagine what Randolph’s meeting with his former love had been like, but imagination boggled. “Calling on her must have taken a great deal of courage.”
“I decided that it was easier to know for sure than to continue to live with guilty uncertainty.” The corner of his mouth twisted up in wry self-mockery. “In fact, Alyson was amazingly easy on me. I wouldn’t have blamed her if she had greeted me with a dueling pistol, but instead she said the fault lay as much with her and her father as with me, and that her life had not been ruined in the least.”
“Your Alyson sounds like a remarkable woman.”
“She is, but she’s not my Alyson anymore. A few weeks after emerging from exile, she married one of the most notorious rakes in England. I have it on the best authority that he is a reformed man: sober, responsible, and as besotted with her as she is with him. Alyson is happy now and she deserves to be. She is one of those rare people who forged herself a second chance for happiness.”
Randolph linked his fingers together and stared into the fire. “I’ve been telling myself since September that it all worked out for the best. Her strength of character would have been wasted on me. I have no interesting vices to reform, so she would have been bored by me very quickly.”
“Do you still love her?”
He sighed, his face empty. “The young man I was loved the young woman she was. Neither of those people exists anymore.”
It wasn’t quite an answer, but at least now Elizabeth understood why he had offered her a carte blanche. It was because she resembled the woman he had loved.
Where did his wife fit into the picture? In the lonely years after Lady Alyson disappeared, he must have married without love, and lived to regret it. Elizabeth did not dare ask about his marriage. She’d already been unpardonably inquisitive.
Sadly she said, “Perhaps it is only the young who are foolish enough, or brave enough, to fall in love, and that’s why there are few second chances.”
Having let her hair down metaphorically, Elizabeth decided that it was time to do so literally as well, or she would have a headache before morning. After removing her hairpins and tucking them in the basket so they wouldn’t get lost, she combed her tangled curls with her fingers in a futile attempt to restore order.
When Randolph glanced over, she explained, “In case any wolves or other beasts find their way up here, I am letting my hair down so that I can play Medusa and turn them to stone.”
He chuckled, his earlier melancholy broken. “You should wear your hair down more often. It becomes you.”
Elizabeth rolled her eyes in comic disbelief, and he wondered if she ever believed compliments. In truth, by firelight and with her brown hair crackling with red and gold highlights, she looked very winsome. Perhaps not beautiful, but thoroughly delectable.
He hastily looked back at the fire, knowing that that was a dangerous train of thought under these circumstances, when she had made it clear that he did not fit into her plans for the future. Apparently, having loved well and truly, she did not want to marry without love.
Perhaps she was wiser than he, for he had tried that once, with disastrous consequences. Nonetheless, the more he saw of Elizabeth Walker, the more he thought that they would deal very well together, if she were willing to lower her standards and accept him.
Perhaps speaking so openly of their pasts should have made them more awkward with each other, but the reverse was true. The evening drifted by in companionable silence, broken by occasional desultory conversation. They sat a couple of feet apart with their backs against the cliff wall, which offered some protection from the bitter December wind.
Vesuvius was close enough for a faint glow to be visible against the night sky. It was a dramatic but disquieting sight. Fortunately the little fire offered cheery comfort as well as some warmth.
Eventually they made further inroads on the picnic basket and still had enough food for another meal or two. After they had eaten and drunk some of the wine, Randolph asked, “How are you managing? It’s cold now, and it will be considerably colder by tomorrow morning.”
“I’m fine, thank you.”
Elizabeth’s voice sounded a little stiff, and when Randolph looked more closely and saw how she was huddled into the lap rug, he understood why. “You’re freezing, aren’t you? And too practical to say so when we haven’t enough wood to burn it at a faster rate.”
“You said it, not I.”
Randolph peeled his coat off and handed it to her. “Put this on.”
“Don’t be silly,” she said, refusing to accept it and keeping her hands tucked under the lap rug. “That would just mean that you’d freeze, too. I will do very well.” There was a suggestion of chattering teeth under her brave words.
“You don’t appear to be doing well. Come, take my coat,” he coaxed. “Cold has never bothered me much, while six years in Italy have probably thinned your blood to the point where you are more sensitive to cold than the average Englishwoman.”
Elizabeth looked mulish, another trait she had in common with Alyson. Why did tall, stubborn, independent females who were not in the common way appeal to him so much?
He smiled a little, realizing that his question contained its own answer. “If you won’t accept my coat, we'll have to resort to a time-honored method of keeping warm.”
He put his coat back on. Then, before she realized what he had in mind, he leaned over and scooped her into his arms. She squeaked in surprise, as she had when she was pinched in Balzano. It was a very endearing squeak.
“You really are freezing,” he commented as she shivered against him. He arranged her across his lap and settled comfortably against the cliff wall as he began rubbing her back, shoulders, and arms, trying to get her blood moving again. She had a delicious scent of rosewater and oranges.
“This is most improper,” she murmured into his lapel.
“Yes, but warmer for both of us. Think of your duty, Miss Walker,” he admonished. “You may prefer to solidify into a block of ice yourself, but will you condemn me to the same fate?”
She pulled her head back and gave him a darkling look. “You’re teasing me.”
He grinned. “Making your blood boil should keep you warm.”
Elizabeth knew that she really should not permit this, but she lacked the will to resist. It wasn’t only his welcome physical warmth, which was beginning to thaw her out, Even more, it was the intimacy of being in his arms. This was surely the most romantic thing that was ever going to happen to her, and she might as well enjoy it.
She nestled closer, savoring the faint aroma of apple-scented tobacco that clung to his coat, but total comfort was prevented by a hard object pressing into her hip. She shifted her position. “If that is your pipe in your left pocket, I may be in danger of breaking it.”
“Wrong pocket. I thought that one was empty, actually. Excuse me while I investigate.” He removed his arm from around her and dug into the pocket, finally withdrawing an object in triumph. “Here it is.”
His whole body stilled. Elizabeth twisted to see what had caught his attention, then sighed with delight. The lapis solaris figure of the Bambino had seemed crude by daylight, but darkness transformed it. Cupped in Randolph’s palm, the Holy Infant glowed with a soft, magical light, a miracle child come to bring hope to the hearts of men.
“I took it out of the presepio set earlier and must have slipped it into my pocket by accident,” he murmured.
Elizabeth smiled and shook her head. “Not by accident. The Bambino came to remind us that tonight is a special night, the night of His birth. Remember that the Italian climate is similar to that of the Holy Land. It might have been just such a night as this in Bethlehem when the angels visited the shepherds.”
Quietly she began quoting from the book of Luke, beginning with the words, “‘And it came to pass in those days that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed . . . ”
Not for nothing had she been raised in a vicarage. Word-perfect, she retold the immortal story.
“For behold, I bring you tidings of great joy,” Randolph repeated softly when she had finished. “Thank you, Elizabeth. You have just delivered the most moving Christmas service I’ve ever heard.”
The only sounds were the crackle of the fire, the occasional distant bleat of a sheep, and the sighing of the wind. When the fire began to die down, Randolph asked, “Are you warm now?”
“Wonderfully so.” She did not add that the heat that curled through her body was more than just temperature.
“Then it’s time to make some adjustments. I don’t suppose either of us will sleep much, but we might as well be as comfortable as possible.”
To her regret, he removed her from his lap, so he could tend to the fire. When it was burning steadily again, he positioned the rest of the wood so that it could be easily added, a piece at a time. “If you lie down on your side between me and the fire, you should stay fairly warm, though I’ll probably disturb you whenever I add wood to the fire.”
She removed her spectacles and put them in the basket, then stretched out as he'd suggested, the lap rug tucked around her. Randolph lay down behind her and wrapped his arm around her waist, pulling her close so that they were nestled together like two spoons.
The ground was hard and cold and not very comfortable. Randolph was warm and firm and very comfortable indeed. Elizabeth gave a sigh of pleasure and relaxed in his embrace, thinking this was even better than being on his lap.
“Merry Christmas, Randolph,” she whispered. She had never been happier in her life.
Randolph did not precisely sleep, but between bouts of tending the fire he dozed a little. Elizabeth was a delightful armful as she cuddled trustfully against him. Unlike him, she slept soundly. The fruits of a clear conscience, no doubt.
As the sky began lightening in anticipation of dawn, he carefully lifted himself away and added the next-to-last piece of wood. The air was bitter cold, but fortunately the night had been dry and within an hour or so the temperature should start to rise.
Before he could settle back, Elizabeth stretched and rolled over on her back, then opened her eyes and blinked sleepily at him, her hair curling deliciously around her face. There was something very intimate about seeing her without her spectacles, rather as if she'd removed her gown and greeted him in her shift.
Thinking improper thoughts, he murmured, “Good morning.”
She gave him a smile of shimmering, wondering sweetness, as if this morning were the dawn of the world and she were Eve greeting Adam for the first time. It seemed the most natural thing in the world to lean forward and give her a gentle kiss.
Elizabeth’s mouth was soft and welcoming and sweet, so sweet. He lay down beside her and drew her into his arms, wanting to feel the full length of her slim, supple body against him.
As the kiss deepened, her arms slid around his neck, and her responsiveness triggered a wave of fierce, demanding desire that brought Randolph to his senses. Knowing that if he did not stop soon, it would be impossible to stop at all, he pulled abruptly away from her. His breathing unsteady, he said, “I’m sorry, Elizabeth. You have a most extraordinary effect on me.”
She stared at him, her eyes wide and stark. Then she sat up and grabbed her glasses from the basket, donning them hastily as if they were a suit of armor. Under her breath, she said, “The effect seems to be mutual.”
Spectacles and propriety once more in place, she said, “Since the fire won’t last much longer, shall we toast some of the cheese and spread it on the last of the bread? Hot food would be very welcome.”
Randolph did not know whether to feel grateful or insulted that she was ignoring what had been a truly superior kiss. Dangerously superior, in fact. The idea of kissing her again was much more appealing than bread and cheese, and the results would warm them both through and through.
With difficulty, he turned his attention to practical considerations. “An excellent idea,” he said, “though I think I would trade everything in the basket for a large pot of scalding hot tea.”
“That is a cruel thing to say, Lord Randolph.” Longing showed in her face. “Strong Italian coffee with hot milk would do equally well. And lots of sugar.”
He laughed. “We shouldn’t torture ourselves like this. Tomorrow morning we will be able to drink all the tea or coffee we want, and will appreciate it more for today’s lack.”
The melted cheese and toasted bread turned out to be an inspired choice for fortifying themselves for the rigors of the day. By the time the fire had flickered down to embers and the sun had risen over the horizon, Randolph felt ready to face the difficult conversation he had known was inevitable. “Elizabeth, there is something we must talk about.”
Daintily she licked the last crumbs from her fingers. “Yes, my lord?”
“Since we have spent the night together, I’m afraid that you are now officially ruined,” he said baldly. “There is really only one recourse, though I know it is not agreeable to you.”
“Nonsense,” she retorted. “I’m only ruined if people learn about last night, and probably not even then. I’m not an English girl making her come-out, you know. As a foreign woman of mature years, I exist outside the normal structure of Italian society and won’t be judged by the same rules. Therefore I won’t be ruined even if what happened becomes generally known.”
A glint of humor showed behind her spectacles. “Indeed, most Italian women would envy me the experience of being ruined by you.”
Ignoring her levity, he said, “Do you think the family of the terrible twins, who want a cold-blooded Englishwoman to govern their hot-blooded daughters, will be so tolerant? Or other potential employers?”
Uncertainty flickered across her face as his words struck home. “There could be problems if last night became generally known,” she admitted, “but I still think that is unlikely. I am not really part of the Neapolitan English community. Who would bother to gossip about me?”
“You think that everyone in this part of Campania hasn’t already heard that there were two inglesi trapped up here on Christmas Eve? If the story hasn’t already reached Naples, it will today.” Randolph grimaced. “Unfortunately, I was engaged to dine at the British Embassy last night, and my absence will have been noted. The local gossips know we have been spending time together. How long will it take someone to guess who the marooned inglesi are? Your reputation will be in shreds and you will be unemployable, at least as a governess.”
Her face pale, she said, “Shouldn’t we wait and see before assuming the worst?”
“Perhaps my anxiety is premature, but I don’t think so.” His mouth twisted. “I know you don’t want to marry me, Elizabeth, but if there is the least hint of scandal, I swear I will drag you off to the nearest Protestant clergyman. Even if you have no concern for your reputation, I’ll be damned if I want to be known as a man who refused to do the right thing by you.”
Elizabeth was staring at him, her shock palpable. Cursing inwardly for having upset her, Randolph said in a softer voice, “I swear that I won’t force you to live with me, or to do anything else you don’t want to do. I will settle an income on you and you can live wherever you choose and paint until you lose track of what year it is. But I will not let you be injured by an accident that would never have happened if you had not been acting as my friend and guide.”
She swallowed hard. “How can you marry me? What about your wife?”
“My wife?” he asked, startled. “Where did you get the idea that I'm married?”
“When we were at Solfatara,” she faltered. “You said that the loneliest place on earth was a bad marriage. You sounded so much as if you were speaking from experience that I was sure you must be married. It seemed to explain so much about you.”
Randolph was silent as he thought back. “You’re very perceptive, Elizabeth. I was speaking from personal experience, but my wife died three years ago, after not much more than a year of marriage.”
He remembered the day before and frowned. “Good God, did you refuse my offer yesterday because you thought I was setting up to be a bigamist. Or lying in order to seduce you?”
She was so surprised that she let go of the lap rug. It slid from her shoulders. “You were asking me to marry you?”
“Of course. What did you think I was doing, offering you a carte blanche?” He said it as a joke, and was appalled to see her nod. “I would never have offered you such an insult! I think I should be angry that you believed me capable of it.”
Her face flamed and she looked down. “I didn’t feel insulted. I felt flattered. I was just too cowardly to accept.”
Seeing the humor in the situation, Randolph began laughing. “I certainly bungled that proposal, didn’t I?” He stood and crossed the half-dozen feet to where she sat regarding him uncertainly. Going down on one knee, he caught her hands between his. “I will try again and see if I can get this right. Elizabeth, will you marry me? Not to save anyone’s reputation, but a real marriage, because we want to be together?”
Her cold hands clenched convulsively on his. Behind her spectacles, her eyes were huge and transparent as silent tears began welling up. “Randolph, I can’t.”
She tried to pull away, but he kept a firm grip on her hands. Yesterday he had accepted rejection too quickly. That was not a mistake he would make again. “Why not? Is it that you can’t abide the thought of having me for a husband?”
“I can think of nothing I would like more.”
They were making progress. Patiently he asked, “Do you have a husband somewhere so you aren’t free to marry?”
“Of course not!”
“Then, why won’t you say yes? I warn you, I will not let you go until you either accept me or offer a good reason for refusing.”
She turned her head away, her face scarlet with mortification. “Because . . . because I could not come to you as a bride should.”
He thought about that for a minute. “Could you be more specific? I want to be sure I understand.”
“Before William went into the army”—her breath was coming in ragged gulps, and she could not meet his eyes—“we . . . we gave ourselves to each other.”
“I see.” Profound tenderness welled up inside him, and another emotion too unfamiliar to name. Releasing Elizabeth’s hands, he wrapped his arms around her and pulled her close so that her head was tucked under his chin. She was trembling.
Gently he stroked her unruly curls, trying to soothe away the unhappiness he'd caused. “Because you gave yourself in love to the man you were going to marry, you think you are unfit to be a wife? On the contrary. I can think of no better qualification for marriage. Will you marry me, Elizabeth? Please?”
She pulled back and stared at him. Her glasses had steamed from her tears so she took them off so she could study his face better. “Do you really mean that, Randolph? Or would you have second thoughts later and feel cheated?”
“Yes, I mean it.” He stood and drifted over to the steps of the shrine, searching for the best way to explain his feelings so that in the future she would never doubt him. “As you guessed, my marriage was not a happy one,” he said haltingly. “I wasn’t really in love with Chloe, but I had given up hope that Alyson would ever return and I wanted to marry.
“Chloe was well-bred and very beautiful, and she made it clear she would welcome an offer from me. Everyone said what a ‘good match’ it was. She was very proper and reserved, but I thought that was just shyness which would pass once we were married.
“I was wrong.” He turned to face Elizabeth, who stood a half-dozen feet away in grave silence. “I had thought her desire for matrimony meant that she cared for me, but soon I realized that though Chloe wanted the status of wife, she did not want a husband. Perhaps it was me in particular that she couldn’t bear, but I don’t think so.”
He looked away, swallowing hard, thinking that it was simple justice that he must speak of something that was as painful for him as Elizabeth’s confession had been for her. “She did not like to be touched, ever. Nor did she ever touch me, except in public sometimes she would take my arm, to show other women that I belonged to her.
“I don’t mean just that she disliked marital relations, though she did. As soon as she had done her duty and conceived, she told me not to come near her again. Being denied her bed did not bother me half so much as her lack of interest in giving or receiving any kind of affection. Perhaps the need for warmth and affection is deeper than physical desire. Even when she was dying, she would not take my hand. There was nothing she ever wanted from me except my name and fortune.”
He caught Elizabeth’s gaze. “Do you understand now why I welcome the knowledge that you are a warm and caring woman? If you could give me even half as much warmth as you had for William, I would think myself the luckiest man alive.”
“Unfortunate Chloe to be unable to accept any love or affection,” Elizabeth said with deep compassion. In a few swift steps she closed the distance between them and flowed into his arms. “And unfortunate Randolph, to have so much to give and no one to value the gift or the giver.”
Her embrace was more than passionate. It was loving. And as he crushed her to him, Randolph identified the emotion that had been growing inside him.
“I was wrong,” he said softly. “There are second chances. I thought I wanted to marry you for companionship, but my heart must have known before my head did. I love you, Elizabeth. I came to Italy for sunshine. I found it when I met you for your smile lights up the world.”
“Truly?” She tilted her head back. “You hardly know me.”
“Wrong.” He rubbed his cheek against Elizabeth’s curly hair. She was a very convenient height. “We may not have known each other long, but I know you better than I knew Alyson, and infinitely better than I knew Chloe.” He gave her a teasing smile. “Is it safe to interpret your shameless behavior as a willingness to wed?”
“It is. You were quite right, Randolph, I am ruined, so hopelessly, madly, passionately in love with you that I shall be good for nothing unless you marry me!” Elizabeth gave him the heart-deep smile that made her incomparably lovely. “Just as Lady Alyson is your past, William is mine. I loved him and part of my heart died when he did, but the woman I am now, plain middle-aged spinster that I am, is yours, body, heart, and soul. Will that do?”
“You are going to have to stop talking such nonsense about how plain and middle-aged you are. Just how old are you?”
“A wonderful age. Thirty-one will be better, and fifty better yet.”
Randolph kissed her with rich deliberation, working his way from her lips to a sensitive spot below her ear. She gasped, thinking her knees had turned to butter.
He murmured, “Do you think I would want you this much if I thought you were plain?”
Elizabeth was twined around him so closely that she had no doubts about just how much he did want her. “I think that you need spectacles more than I do,” she said breathlessly, “but since beauty is in the eye of the beholder, your opinion is inarguable.”
“Good. I can think of much better things to do than argue.” Randolph was about to start kissing her again when a shout sounded from the direction of the path.
Elizabeth called out an answer. After a lengthy exchange, she reported, “Vanni says they’ll have us out within two hours, so we can be in Naples for Christmas dinner.”
“Tell them not to rush,” Randolph murmured. His slate-blue eyes warm with love and mischief, he removed her spectacles and tucked them in his pocket. “We don’t want your glasses to steam up while we wait, do we?”
Her heart expanding with joy, Elizabeth lifted her face to his. As the Christmas sun rose in the sky, they celebrated the season of hope.