An Engagement of Convenience

By: Catherine George


WHEN THE BORROWED SUITCASE came trundling into view Harriet felt a sudden, wild desire to snatch it from the carousel and fly straight back from Pisa to Heathrow. But as the bag drew near a male hand reached out for it and thwarted any rash idea of escape.

‘Rosa,’ said a deep, unmistakably Italian voice.

Harriet turned, resigned, to confront a man whose face had become as familiar as her own. But the photographs she’d pored over had failed to do him justice. Leonardo Fortinari, dressed in a casually elegant suit, was taller than expected. His eyes and hair were as dark as her own, and in the photographs taken several years back he’d been striking rather than handsome. But older, with the gloss and arrogance of maturity, he was formidable.

‘Why, Leo, I’m honoured,’ she returned, her smile deliberately mocking to cover her panic. ‘I was about to catch a train. I didn’t expect anyone to meet me.’ Leo Fortinari least of all.

He shrugged negligently. ‘I had business in Piza.’ Ignoring the crowds jostling them, he stood still, looking her up and down with a frowning gaze so intent she felt it, tactile, on her skin. ‘You have grown into a beautiful woman, Rosa.’

Harriet’s heart thumped under her expensive borrowed jacket. ‘Thank you,’ she returned with determined composure. ‘How is Nonna?’

‘Delighted, naturally, by her prodigal’s return. Come. I will drive you to the Villa Castiglione. She is impatient to see you.’

They were speeding along the autostrada before Leo Fortinari resorted to anything personal. ‘I trust you have recovered, Rosa?’

Harriet shot a startled glance at him.

‘From the tragedy of losing your parents,’ he said gravely.

She bit her lip, taking refuge in silence.

His face softened slightly. ‘I was sorry to miss the funeral.’

‘Thank you for your letter,’ she said. ‘It was very kind.’ And very stilted. As though he’d felt forced to write it.

The rest of the journey continued in far from comfortable silence. Leo Fortinari was courteous but distant, and by his manner obviously not of a mind to forgive the youthful Rosa. Good! In the present circumstances this disturbing man was best kept at a distance. It had never occurred to Harriet that she would have to face him so soon, that the great man himself would meet her at the airport. His younger brother Dante, possibly, or one of the Fortinari minions, never the great Leonardo himself. But on the plus side, it was a relief to get the encounter over with right away. Because as far as Harriet could tell she’d cleared one of the two most difficult hurdles. Now there was only Nonna, otherwise Signora Vittoria Fortinari, tonight. The meeting with the rest of the family, including Rosa’s other cousins Dante and Mirella, was to be at the family party next day. If she survived that long. Harriet’s tension mounted as the car bore her nearer and nearer the acid test of meeting Signora Fortinari. The journey led through undulating countryside dotted with ancient farms and grand country houses, with churches and bell towers here and there against a backdrop of vines and silver olive trees and dark, pointing figures of cypress. But Harriet had no eyes for it. As the car ate up the kilometres her sole thought was how to get through the weekend with no harm done to anyone. Herself included. She had always longed to return to Italy, it was true. But not desperately enough to embark on this present harebrained escapade. At least not until an offer had been made she was powerless, in the end, to refuse.

Harriet cast a look at her companion’s forceful profile, relieved that Leo Fortinari had no inclination to talk to the passenger he believed was his cousin Rosa. Harriet sank lower in her seat as she thought of the moment at the Chesterton Hotel when Rosa Mostyn had sauntered into a private room full of women talking at the tops of their voices about the careers and husbands acquired since they’d left Roedale, the prestigious school for girls situated in beautiful Cotswold surroundings a few miles outside Pennington.

Harriet was an Old Rœdalian herself. She’d won a scholarship at the age of ten, for one of the handful of day places in a school largely given over to boarders. A few days earlier the headmistress had rung Harriet to ask her to attend the reunion   to praise the school’s modern improvements to the contemporaries who had young daughters. And because Harriet was returning to Roedale to teach Modern Languages the following term she’d agreed. After a round of greetings and chitchat she’d been sipping a spritzer, wondering how soon she could get away, when Rosa Mostyn appeared, the very last person Harriet had expected to see.

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