The sheikhs secret love.., p.35
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       The Sheikh's Secret Love Child, p.35

         Part #2 of The Sheikh's Baby Surprise series by Holly Rayner

  They entered the house by a small basement door. Inside, the building appeared to be undergoing much more extensive reconstruction than the scaffolding outside had indicated. Juliette could smell newly-lain concrete, mingling with the musky, damp smell of the ancient basement.

  It was dark, here, and the lights didn’t seem to be working. There was a little bit of moonlight spilling in through the open door, but it wouldn’t be nearly enough, so Nico got out his phone to light the way. Juliette found herself walking close to him, to avoid falling outside the little pool of light.

  “You know your way around this basement pretty well,” she commented, though it was more just to have something to say. The dark, confined space made her nervous—spaces like that always did. But she was handling it better than usual, clinging to Nico’s arm as she was.

  “I’ve spent a lot of time down here,” he said. It almost sounded like he wanted to go on with the story, but he stopped himself. And, while Juliette had already grown to love listening to his voice, she was glad she wasn’t about to be regaled with all the details of basement renovation—especially since she was supposed to know a little something about it, herself.

  Things were uncomfortable below ground, and Juliette’s sense of propriety was growing, in spite of herself, the longer they were down there. When they emerged from the basement into a hallway, followed by the huge main salon, however, it was all worth it.

  There were some plastic sheets around, covering the furniture, and they were blowing in a cross-breeze from somewhere that Juliette couldn’t quite identify. The giant antique windows framed the moon perfectly, and, if Juliette looked carefully, she could make out exquisite frescoes that were being carefully restored along the right-hand wall. She could see the sea, here, again. It anchored her.

  “It’s beautiful.”

  The words slipped out of her mouth before she had time to think, and she instantly regretted them.

  “You haven’t come here before?”

  The question was completely fair. She needed an answer, and quick.

  “This property is mainly my colleagues’ responsibility. I’ve seen it from the outside, but I’ve never been in here.”

  Her eyes darted to his face, trying to determine if he had bought it. As far as she could tell, he had.

  “Well, then you’ll be needing a tour,” he said lightly.

  Juliette opened her mouth to protest, not wanting to leave this view just yet, but he interrupted her.

  “No excuses. I promise, the rest of it is just as good.”

  So she followed him.

  She’d been doing a lot of that, that evening. Usually she wasn’t much of a follower. She hadn’t followed her high school boyfriend to his college. She hadn’t followed her father into the family business when she had had the chance. She hadn’t followed her mother’s lead and gone into studying the hard sciences the way she knew her mother had always wanted.

  And the pattern had only continued when she’d come to Italy. She hadn’t followed the other foreign exchange students out on their wild, nearly-nightly benders in the old town. She hadn’t followed them as they’d recreated American college life in a foreign city. And, when they’d all gone back to the States, she hadn’t followed them back, either. It had been tricky finding a way to get her new school to accept the transferred credits for both her exchange program and her previous courses. But she’d done it.

  Tonight, however, she’d followed Nico to a cocktail bar. Then she’d followed him to a grand mansion. Then she’d followed him over the wall, and up to the top of the garden. She’d even followed him to a damp, dark basement.

  Something about Nico was different. She wanted to follow him. And she kept following him as he led her around the house.

  From the outside, it had almost seemed like it might be some kind of official building. It had enough space, after all. She could see it as somewhere that could be rented out for weddings, or school trips. She half-expected to find a museum in one of the rooms.

  But the more she saw of the house, the more she was sure that this was not the case. No, a family definitely lived here, and had done so for some time. There weren’t a lot of personal possessions lying around. No pictures on the wall, or anything. But, here and there, she would see a child’s drawing that had found its way behind now-removed furniture, or other such remnants.

  She wanted to ask Nico where the family had gone while renovations were taking place, but knew she should know this already. More than a construction worker on site could be expected to know, anyway. Wherever the family were now, she figured it had to be a fairly large step down from here. It had to be.

  Juliette and Nico worked their way through the house methodically. They saw bedrooms and yet more lounges. They saw guest quarters, and attached secondary kitchens and living rooms. They saw a few of what Juliette was pretty sure were libraries. And, with every floor, the view just got better and better.

  Finally, they were up at the top of the house. Here, there was only one bedroom tucked beneath the rafters, looking out onto the sea and the sky with more of the beautiful antique windows that Juliette had so admired down on the first level.

  And there was something decidedly different about this room. Juliette’s tired brain had to stare at everything for a moment before she could put her finger on what exactly it was.

  Then she realized. There was no construction going on here. There was no sense whatsoever that there was any disruption to daily life at all. Whoever had lived here had left all their things where they were while the renovations took place, including a huge, extravagant antique bed.

  She wandered over to the bed. It was covered by a silk canopy that moved in the breeze that was let in by a small open window. She could feel the same breeze lifting wisps of hair from her face.

  Then her attention was drawn to the walls. They were different from the walls she’d seen downstairs. At first she thought there might be more frescoes, but a closer look told her that wasn’t the case. She was trying to make out what it was, exactly, when the lights came on. It wasn’t too bright, but the change still drew her attention to Nico. He was grinning like a little boy with his hand on the switch.

  “What have you found there?” he asked her.

  She directed her gaze back to what was hanging on the walls. “It’s a map,” she said. “And an old one by the looks of it. They hadn’t quite figured out America existed yet…”

  Nico wandered over, investigating for himself. “To be fair,” he said, “There are a lot of people here who still haven’t quite figured out America exists yet…”

  Juliette laughed, and heard the sound of it bounce off of the attic walls. It wasn’t a giggle anymore—she’d long felt her head clear of alcohol and fill with Nico.

  She scanned the room, and saw that they were everywhere: map after map after map. She looked for the telltale signs of reprinting, but couldn’t see any.

  “They’re originals,” she said, under her breath. She didn’t mean for Nico to hear her, but he did.

  “If they can afford to live in this house, I imagine they can afford to buy a bunch of old maps.”

  Juliette laughed again, this time half in shock, until she looked at him and saw that he was clearly joking. “You don’t like them?” she asked, one eyebrow raised.

  He shook his head. “No,” he said, “that’s not what I meant. I love them, actually. They remind me that there’s a whole world out there.”

  He paused and looked at one map that was close to the bed. It looked to be a little more modern than the others. At least, it featured all of the continents, even if some of them weren’t really accurate.

  “Do you find you need much reminding?”

  She said it playfully, but he didn’t seem to take it that way. He looked sad, almost. Sad enough to pull Juliette to his side, where she found herself putting her arm around him.

  “You know,” he said, “I admire you. You drop everything and head to Ita
ly at no notice, just because your boss says he wants you to. That’s a brave thing.”

  Juliette’s brows furrowed. “Not really. What is there to be afraid of?”

  He shot a playful glance at her. “Well, I’ve heard Italian men can be something you have to watch out for…”

  Again, Juliette’s laugh bounced off of the ceiling.

  “But really,” Nico continued. “You think it’s nothing, because it’s nothing to you. But for someone who’s never been outside of his own country, it’s not nothing.”

  Juliette didn’t know how to respond to that. It made her feel uncomfortable and a little like she was a stranger here, for the first time.

  “You’ve never been outside of Italy?” she asked, awkwardly. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean… God, I feel like such an ass…”

  He turned to her, and cupped her face in his hand. “No, I didn’t mean to make you feel that way. I mean that you’re brave, and I don’t think you know it. Yes, I’ve never left Italy, but I want to change that. I’ve always dreamed of changing that. I would consider it an honor to be a little more like you.”

  All the awkwardness that she had felt a moment before melted away into confusion and disbelief. He wanted to be more like her? How could a man like Nico ever want to be anything like her? She was a two-bit girl from a two-bit town. There were five stoplights, and that’s counting the one that was constantly going in and out because the council couldn’t decide on what model to replace it with.

  He was worldly in a way she could never be, even if he’d never left Italy. He was refined. When he walked into a room, he owned that room. She’d seen it when he came into the square in front of the fountain, and she’d seen other people—the bartender, the cab driver, others wandering around—see it too.

  The idea that he should think that any part of him was inferior seemed laughable, but his gaze on her was too intense to allow any laughter to slip past her lips.

  She didn’t know what unnerved her more: the fact that he was serious about what he was saying, or the fact that she wanted his lips to stop talking and start kissing her.

  He drew closer to her, bringing his lips close to hers, and spurring a sudden wave of panic through her body. She shouldn’t be here. She should be at home. She should be packing. No one knew she was here.

  And then she felt the softness of his kiss, and all of her doubts were silenced.

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