Page 49 of Italian Escape with the CEO

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Nerves crackled through him as he pulled to the kerb outside the London park. He climbed out and saw Rita and her boyfriend parked close behind him. The petite redhead waved, jumped out of her car, opened her boot and he walked over to heft the hamper out. He’d wanted the food to be chilled and the wine to be cold.

‘Here you go. I’ll drive the car back to the garage.’ Rita caught the keys he tossed to her and turned to Ava. ‘He chose it all himself. I’m just the delivery girl.’ She stepped closer to him. ‘Good luck, Big Guy.’

He’d take any luck going, though somehow the jangle of his nerves had calmed now his plan was under way, now he was committed to his course of action. Ava followed him through the park until they reached the place he’d chosen. He pulled open the basket, took out the portable heater and the thick tweed blanket, spread it on the ground. The late afternoon sunshine still touched the ground and air with a touch of early spring warmth but he knew soon enough the late March evening would turn colder.

Ava watched and he saw realisation dawn in her eyes. ‘It’s our first date,’ she said. ‘The one we couldn’t have.’

‘Because it wouldn’t have been the right time of year,’ he said. ‘I am hoping that now is. The right time for a real first date. Not part of a charade or a pretence. Or an imaginary projection. Real. With a real blanket and a real hamper.’ He gestured towards the wicker basket. ‘I have chilled white wine. I have crystal flutes.’

‘And soon there will be stars in the sky and we can sit and talk and...’

‘Discuss the constellations.’

‘And it will be magical.’

‘Yes. Because I think we’re good at magic. I want a chance for us to do this properly, to win your love the right way. If that’s what you want.’ Stop talking, Rourke. ‘If it isn’t, then that’s OK too. I’ll get it. Please don’t go along with this because you don’t want to hurt me.’ He knew the damage that could be done that way.

‘Love?’ Her voice held surprise, shock, but also perhaps an undertone of hope.

‘I love you, Ava.’ He tried for a smile. ‘I know it’s a bit forward on a first date and I am not expecting you to reciprocate.’

She stepped forward, put her hand on his arm, her face, oh, so serious. ‘I won’t lie to you, Liam. Not now. Not ever. So I swear to you that what I am about to say is the truth. The whole truth and nothing but the truth. I love you too.’

For a moment he stared at her, unable to believe the words, but then he took in her expression, the love in her eyes, the happiness that illuminated her smile, a smile that he knew was real. And a sense of joyous disbelief dawned inside him, pulled an incredulous chuckle. ‘You love me?’

‘Yes.’

‘So you love me and I love you?’

‘Yes.’ Now her smile widened. ‘This is the best first date ever.’ She sank down onto the blanket and he followed suit, busied himself with switching the heater on, and then she snuggled next to him. Moved away, studied his expression. ‘You are sure, aren’t you?’

‘Yes, I am. One hundred per cent and then some. This is real, Ava. And, hell, it frightened me. That’s why I fought it for so long. Because I was so scared I couldn’t handle it. Just like I couldn’t handle my parents’ relationship, just like I messed up my marriage. I thought the safest path was one I walked alone.’

‘So you couldn’t hurt anyone else.’ Her voice was gentle now, so full of warmth and understanding. ‘What changed your mind?’

‘You. You’ve changed me, Ava, made me see things I couldn’t before. I did make mistakes, but I don’t have to bear all the responsibility. I have accepted that other people make choices too. My mum made her own decisions, so did Jess. She was part of our marriage too and she made mistakes as well.’

Ava shifted even closer to him, laid her head against his shoulder, and the tickle of her corn-blonde hair, her closeness, filled him with joy. ‘You showed me that I don’t need to cut myself off from everyone. You were right about my mum, about John and Max. They are my family. I’ve spent a lot of time with them in the past days. Max took me skating.’

‘Really?’ Now she laughed, the sound melodious and light in the evening air.

‘Yup. Apparently I’m a natural. For someone of my advanced years. Something else I wouldn’t have discovered if it weren’t for you.’

Ava grinned at him. ‘Well, you’ve done wonders for me too. Guess what happened on my business trip.’

‘Tell me.’

‘Well, I went to Italy to see Leonardo Brunetti and we signed the deal.’

‘Ava, that is fantastic!’

‘It gets better.’ Her eyes sparked with happiness, her expressive face catching the light of the setting sun. ‘I also saw Luca.’

He took her hands in his, held tight, knew how much courage that must have taken. ‘You are incredible. How was it?’

‘Amazing. Surreal. I can’t believe I finally met him and there was an instant definite connection. And you were right. The reason he hasn’t been in contact properly isn’t because he hates me or that he is vindictive. It’s because he really doesn’t know what Jodi wants. He doesn’t even know where she is.’

‘She’s missing?’


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