Chapter Nine

Simo had been lying stretched out on an old iron framed four-poster bed pushed against the far wall. Emerald green velvet curtains were half drawn but as Evie entered he rolled over and pushed himself into a seating position, long legs dangling over the edge.

"You came back!"

He sounded as surprised as he had when he answered her before and her stomach gave an odd squirm. Maybe she had misjudged matters and returning had been a mistake. She stood uncertainly in the beams of light that flared through the slatted wooden shutters casting light onto the stacks of old paintings and photograph frames.

"I can go," she said warily, tensing to leave.

"No. Don't!"

He jumped from the bed, crossed the room and stood in front of her as if he intended to prevent her if necessary.

"Why are you here? I thought you were going to Murano."

"I am. I was. I got as far as the square then I stopped to get my head sorted out. Then Miles found me."

"Miles!" Simo's face darkened. He took a step towards Evie, putting his hand out to find hers as if she needed comforting. Perhaps she did. "What did he want?"

"He said he wanted to see inside the palazzo. He definitely suspects we're not really engaged. I thought I should warn you."

Simo clenched his teeth. He returned to the bed and sat on the edge. "This is why you came back?" he asked.

"Yes. Partly," she said. She followed and sat beside him, running her fingers across the silk covering of the feather-filled counterpane. The bed was high and the mattress thick and soft enough to sink into. Her feet dangled and she let them swing.

"But also I wanted to say I'm sorry. I mean for how I reacted when you showed me round."

"You have nothing to apologise for, but I'm glad you came back," Simo said. His eyes became soft. He leaned in towards Evie as if he was about to hug her then stopped and drew away. Disappointment flowed through Evie and at the same time she became acutely conscious where they were. It had been a long time since she had shared a bed with Simo and the direction her imagination had rapidly been taking was not anywhere it should lead. She forced her mind back to the reason she had returned.

"It was rude of me. You've done all this work and all I did was criticise. At the very least I should have pretended I liked it."

"Your pretence would not have worked," Simo said, grinning suddenly. "You have never been able to hide your thoughts. Your eyes give them away every time."

Evie looked away, hoping it wasn't true, because if Simo could see the thoughts that were running through her head now she'd curl up and die. Beside her Simo shifted slightly. His arm brushed against hers and Evie felt a tremor of desire pass through her, causing her stomach to flip over.

"I'm glad you were honest," Simo said. "I needed to hear it and in truth I would be lying if I told you I had complete confidence in what I am doing. Today you brought the reservation I have been feeling to my attention and I could no longer deny it to myself. I was unfair to take that out on you."

"You don't feel confident?" Evie asked. "You always sound so certain that you'll succeed."

Simo sat back beside her and as he did his arm brushed against hers once again. She did not move away. Instead she drew her feet up and crossed her legs, leaning slightly towards him so their bodies were supporting each other. She tried to ignore the urge to wrap her arms round him.

"Of course I sound confident, but partly it is an act," Simo admitted. He gestured across the room to an open box that Evie could see contained brightly painted masks. "Like a Carnivale mask I can hide behind with a grinning face to do my smiling for me. If I was sure I would succeed do you think I would have resorted to subterfuge?"

He turned to look at her, his eyes piercing and sending further tremors of desire through her but his expression was filled with sorrow.

"Does no one else know how you feel? What about Dina?"

"Her least of all. Dina has no time for failure. If she thought I was less than certain of succeeding she would be unable to resist telling her father. That is one of the reasons I have not let her in on our secret. I should not need to fabricate an engagement to be sure. It was the wrong thing to do. I dislike deception but I felt forced into it."

A sudden worry gripped Evie that he had decided to end their engagement and she would be no longer necessary. Leaving him now would be unbearable when she had found herself growing closer to him as the days went by. Her stomach plummeted and she felt almost as sad as she would if he was really breaking up with her. Perhaps that was a warning in itself and she should give him the option to back out.

"We don't have to keep pretending."

"What?" His eyes widened then narrowed almost immediately and he jerked slightly, his arm tensing. "I don't think I understand what you're saying."

She'd put it clumsily and winced as she realised how her words might have sounded. As if she wanted to make it real. Did he think she was proposing! She twisted round on the bed until she was facing Simo who was studying her with an intensity that was alarming.

"I mean, do you want to admit what we did and try get the backing without me, or do you want to carry on as we have been?"

"Ah. I understand now." He reached a hand to her shoulder, his body relaxing once more.

"I want to carry on with what we are doing, tesoro. It may not be the honest way to behave but now we have started, I want to very much indeed. We are friends again?"

"Of course," Evie answered, her heart sinking a little as the realisation stuck her that she was craving much more than that. "We're friends."

Simo opened his arms. Evie leaned into him, slipping hers around his strong back and they hugged. Evie's heart began to race. She hugged male friends all the time at home without a second thought but taking this step with Simo pushed her into disturbing territory. It was not a brief embrace that was over in an instant but carried on for what felt like eternity. Simo's arms were tight around her and his body was warm. The scent of his aftershave prickled in her nose, firing sparks of desire directly into her brain as she rested her cheek against his chest, closing her eyes to focus on the confusing sensations that assailed her. She glanced upwards as she heard Simo exhale and met his eyes.

His mouth softened into a smile, so temptingly kissable that Evie found her hand beginning to reach for his head to draw him towards her before she got a grip on herself and pulled it back. She reminded herself that he'd almost turned to stone at the thought she might have really wanted to marry him. Whatever she was starting to feel towards him, for Simo it was a business relationship and nothing more. She needed to remember that. In just over a week she would be back in England.

Reluctantly she disentangled herself.

"What are you going to do?"

Simo's forehead creased with worry once more and he stared moodily into the corner for the room saying nothing for minutes. She wondered if he was even aware of her presence any longer.

"The palazzo should speak for itself and it does not. If you did not fall in love with it there is no reason anyone else would. Somehow between now and next weekend I need to make sure it does but I do not know how. Tell me exactly what you think is wrong with what I have done."

Evie folded her arms, gazing at him warily. "Are you sure?"

"Yes. I promise I will listen this time and not behave like a child." He climbed from the bed and crossed the attic to the farthest corner. "First I shall make us some coffee. It will have to be black, I'm afraid."

He began clattering about on an old dressing table and before long a coffee machine that looked as old as the table it stood on began to chug and slurp into life. While she waited Evie walked to the centre of the attic and looked around properly as Simo unearthed cups. A toothbrush and razor sat in a glass on the small sink. Along with the ready facility to make coffee it gave the impression he spent nights here. She glanced back at the high bed and wondered if he was always alone. Feeling sudden warmth begin to creep over her throat she turned away to see what else she would discover.

Most of the floor was covered in wooden or cardboard boxes, along with a pair of impressive wooden chests with iron bindings and heavy brass locks. The guitar case that had once stood in pride of place in Simo's room was pushed in between piles of paper bags and laid haphazardly on a shelf beneath one of the small windows was a dusty stack of books that Evie recognised from her studies years ago. Pulling one out, she opened it to discover the ticket for a concert that they had attended years before being used as a bookmark. She turned it over in her hand, memories flooding back of a long night dancing and laughing with Simo.

Still shaken by their earlier argument she felt overcome by the sense of loss and felt unutterably sad. For the second time that day she felt tears begin to well in her eyes. She had been curious what she would discover if she entered Simo's room in the apartment and now she suspected it would be as empty of his personality as the rest of the rooms. And what of her? Still single and sharing a flat. Not a single tie to prevent her extending a three-night stay for two weeks. The independence should have cheered her but now she felt like a balloon about to drift off with nothing to prevent her.

When she put the book back again she discovered Simo had come behind her and was looking over her shoulder.

"I haven't looked at these for so long. What have you found?" She passed him at the ticket she still held and he gave a delighted laugh. "I still remember that night. Our throats were so sore the following day from singing along."

He began to whistle the melody from one of the songs but stopped as Evie gave a soft gulp, her eyes brimming over. He reached a hand to her cheek, his thumb brushing over her cheekbone. At any other time she would have called it a gross invasion of privacy but the intimate gesture felt comforting and she covered his hand with hers.

"Why are you sad?"

She gulped and blinked away the tears, shaking her head at her own foolishness.

"I've been curious about where the Simo I knew had gone ever since I met you again. Now I know. You've been hiding him up here in the attic."

Simo's mouth twisted into a grimace. He turned away abruptly and Evie thought she had offended him again but he merely strode back to the coffee machine and poured two mugs. He returned, handing one to Evie

"Do you think I am so changed?" he asked. The mugs both bore pictures of characters from an old TV series they had both loved: yet another example of the contrast.

"Very much," she answered, lifting the mug to her lips and tasting the bitter coffee. She ignored the look of dismay that flashed in his eyes and continued. "Everything about you is different, from your clothes to where you live and what you do. It's like you're from a parallel universe where the man I knew never existed."

Simo's shoulders sagged. He took a sip of coffee and sat on the floor, leaning back against one of the crates and stretching his legs out. Evie joined him, mirroring his posture.

"I'm not saying it's a bad thing. You look great, you've taken me to wonderful places that you never would have gone to when we knew each other, and you're clearly successful in what you do." She paused, biting her lip. "Well, I thought you were until you told me how you're feeling."

He acknowledged her words with a tilt of the head and a wry smile.

"Simo, are you happy?" she ventured.

"At this moment, sitting here with you I am, but that is not what you are asking, is it?"

He bowed his head, his hair flopping forward slightly but no longer long enough to hide his face. Evie wished it was, the expression on his face being enough to crack her heart and giving her the answer she needed. Eventually he raised his head and when he spoke his voice was heavy with weariness.

"No. When I think about it too deeply, I am not. I am not unhappy, it would take supreme ingratitude to view my life as anything other than privileged, but I am not content. This is not the life I wanted. It is not what I intended it to be but the choice was taken out of my hands."

He looked more despairing than she had seen him; as if he was about to break down. Evie put the mug on the floor beside her and held her arms out. He wrapped his arms around her, a giant bear-hug that enfolded her.

"Tell me," she prompted. Her face was buried against his chest and her voice was muffled so when he did not answer immediately she thought he may not have heard but he loosened his a arms a little and cleared his throat.

"After I left Manchester I returned home for what I believed would be my summer vacation. I did not intend to remain in Venice but my father's health had deteriorated. It was not easy but I managed to use a few connections and began working in the Art History department at the Venice campus of Warwick University," Simo said. "Four years after I was granted my doctorate my father died and my older brother Beneditto reluctantly took over his business. Unfortunately when Ben died a short while afterwards it became my responsibility."

"Oh, I'm so sorry," Evie murmured. "Two losses in a short time must have been hard to bear."

Simo dipped his head in acknowledgement and she fell silent to let him continue. His voice lost all emotion as he spoke.

"The company deals in exporting metalwork. It is extremely uninteresting and unfortunately no longer vastly profitable. I will not bore you with the details." Despite saying that, he talked a little more about exports and contracts. It sounded tedious and from his tone and expression it was clearly not what he wanted to be doing.

"Ben was not interested and as a result he neglected matters that should not have been ignored. Even before he died I found myself drawn into helping him arrange matters with our creditors but it was not until it fell for me to take over that I discovered exactly how bad circumstances were. I had no option but to sell our shares to the remaining shareholders. Now I am director but in name only and draw a salary."

His voice hardened and Evie wondered what pride he must have sacrificed to accept a lesser role.

"I wear the suits I am expected to wear but it might as well be a costume," Simo continued. His face became animated once again. "If I succeed in getting the investment I need I shall resign and devote my time to the palazzo."

"Won't you be sorry to see your business go?" Evie asked.

He shook his head. "No. It was never something I loved and I have no emotional attachment to it. The palazzo is what counts. This is where my family's history lies and where I intend to build my future."

He had been sprawling back against the chest but as he spoke of the palazzo his bearing changed, becoming more upright and his eye took on the look of determination Evie had seen so many times before.

"Everything I have ever cared about or wanted is in this attic. I don't know what is in half the boxes but it has been used to store my family's leftover possessions since we first built it." He gestured around him then drew her attention to the stack of photo frames.

"My ancestors are there, from my grandmother back across centuries. I am doing this for them."

Evie crawled across to look at them, kneeling before the frames and examining them one by one. The outermost was a large, sepia portrait of a severe looking woman around Simo's age with a child in her lap. Evie studied the woman, seeing the man beside her in the shape of the jaw and eyes. There was a little of Miles Archer too, though she would never admit such a thing to Simo. She glanced over her shoulder to where Simo was finishing his coffee. He looked more at peace now, how she would imagine a man to look after leaving the confessional box. She cocked her head and he joined her.

"Who are the people?"

Simo reached for a small daguerreotype of a smiling man in uniform with a luxuriant moustache. "That would be my great, great grandfather. He was Cosimo also," he explained. He laughed. "He was reputed to have fallen in love with the daughter of his neighbour when he was seventeen and broke an arm trying to climb to her bedroom."

Beneath the daring ancestor were other photographs of a similar age and older before a twin pair of dust covered oil paintings showing a couple who must have been a husband and wife dressed in the fashions of over a century ago. Behind them were others, the fashions and hairstyles getting gradually more archaic. For a student of art history they were a treasure trove and Evie sat back on her heels, her mind whirring.

"Now this is something that should not be left around!" Simo exclaimed.

He had opened the wooden chest they had been leaning against and when she turned back to see what he meant he was holding a sword aloft. The blade was dulled with rust spots but the edge still looked sharp. He gave it a flourish and took up the en garde position. With the top button of his shirt open and his hair flopping forward he looked like a dashing duke from the past and Evie's mouth fell open.

"Shall I defend you, my lady?" Simo asked, fixing her with a serious gaze that all but pinned her to the floor. "If Miles Archer accosts you again I could run him through."

"Perhaps not," she said, blushing. "I'd rather not have to visit you in prison."

Simo re-sheathed the weapon with what looked like reluctance and put it back in the chest.

The sombre mood had changed to one of excitement and together they fell on the old boxes, unearthing wrapped glass, old dolls with dead, staring eyes that Evie quickly re-wrapped, and other long forgotten possessions. One wooden case contained a jumble of keys and mismatched spoons. It's twin held a twisted silver tiara that Simo swore contained genuine rubies. Another box contained yards of folded velvet curtains wrapped in brown paper. Laughing, they wrapped them around each other like togas and Simo fixed the tiara to Evie's head, his fingers brushing against her temple leaving traces of heat on her skin, awakening every nerve in her body. He put a battered bowler hat on his own head and they fell back onto the bed in hysterics, staring at the ceiling.

"Simo, why aren't you using these?" Evie asked when she could catch her breath.

"What for?" He raised himself onto his elbow and rolled over to stare at her with a slight frown. "Do you mean sell everything? Even if I could bear to part with everything I doubt it would raise the capital I need.

Evie pushed herself to her feet and walked around the room. She picked up the top mask - a blue skinned cat with an alarming grin - from the box Simo had indicated earlier and held it to her face. She lowered it seeing the expression of surprise in Simo's eyes and instead turned back to the iron bed frame, running her hands across the twisted posts that rose upwards. In her imagination she pictured a room decorated for the period with this as centre stage. She looked down at Simo, lying there stretched out and looking back up at her with an expression of what could only be described as desire in his eyes. If she climbed back onto the bed beside him she had no doubt what it would lead to and as much as she craved his touch, that was a sure fire way of getting her heart broken again.

"I don't mean sell things. This is what you care about. History and family and art. You said yourself that everything important is here so why not use it?"

Excited now at the ideas that were developing she continued speaking in a rush.

"You asked me what I didn't like about the renovation but I already told you. It isn't Venice. Marble tables and leather sofas could be anywhere but you've got centuries of real history here. Not just any old stuff either, but from a family stretching back over centuries. I bet half the furniture covered over with dust-sheets is antique too."

Simo's face lit up. He reached out a hand and she pulled him to his feet. He did not let go as they stood opposite each other.

"Do you think people would be interested in being surrounded with old furniture and paintings?"

Evie gripped his hands tightly. "Not everyone, but yes, I do. There are plenty of hotels with reproduction or fake antiques but I think a lot of people would give anything to stay somewhere that was genuinely old. You couldn't fail to understand the love that had gone into it."

Simo's face took on a faraway dreamy expression. He dropped Evie's hands and sat back on the edge of the bed. On the small table beside it was a modern photograph in a plain frame. He picked it up. Evie followed, feeling slightly that she was intruding onto something private but Simo turned the frame so she could see it.

Three men stood on a beach, side by side, arms around each others shoulders, casual shirts open at the neck. They wore sunglasses pushed back onto hair of exactly the same shade. A younger Simo from before Evie had first known him. The man with an unkempt beard a few years older must have been Beneditto, and the older man bore such a similarity he could only have been their father.

"My father always wanted to restore Palazzo Zafoni but he died before he had the opportunity or finances to support the renovation. Now I will do it for him. You're right, Evie. The future of my home isn't in impersonal suites but in the past. I'll try what I can."

Seeing the generations of Zafoni men in the picture, the other reason she had come back flashed through Evie's mind.

"Miles called you something."

"I have no doubt he did!" Simo growled. "I can think of plenty of things to call him too."

Evie looked at him reproachfully.

"Not that sort of thing. He called you Conte. It's a title isn't it?"

"Yes." He put the photo-frame back on the table. "I am the Conte di Zafoni."

"Seriously? You're not winding me up?"

His eyebrows knotted.

"You aren't joking," she clarified.

"Why would I joke about something like that?" Simo asked. "Besides, it was not I who used my title but Miles."

"I didn't know," Evie said. She studied him intently, which was a silly thing to do. His nobility wasn't going to shine on his face like in a fairytale, even if he had looked a little like a Disney prince with his sword. "You never mentioned it when we were together."

She paused, swallowing. This was the first time either of them had brought up their previous relationship. It had gone unmentioned before. She glanced at him sideways to see if he had reacted and was surprised to see his face was solemn.

"The title was not mine then," he said quietly. "I did not inherit it until after the deaths of my father and brother."

Of course it would have been passed down through the line. She felt silly for having to ask. She touched his arm gently and he smiled down at her.

"I suppose Archer thinks you are marrying me for the title of Contessa," he said.

Evie smiled. "Next time I see him I'll make a point of telling him he's wrong."

"How so?" Simo asked keenly.

She gave a devilish grin and glanced around. "I'll tell him I'm marrying you for your house. He'd understand that as a motive."

His eyes tightened briefly then he smiled. "Then I had better ensure it is worth your time."

Evie could barely suppress her excitement further. The desire to begin exploring was irresistible. She waited patiently while Simo was lost in his memories then after what she considered an appropriate interval clapped her hands briskly.

"Where shall we begin?"

"We?" Simo grinned at Evie. "I thought you were going to Murano today."

She glanced at her watch. Half the morning was gone already. "I'll go another day. This is more important."

Simo wrinkled his brow.

"I don't expect you to spend your holiday moving furniture. Besides, I can't just begin to change everything at such short notice."

He had a point. Evie drew her enthusiasm under control. They didn't have long after all.

"So what we need to do is put our heads together and think what we're going to do! You've started the decorating. Perhaps we can continue without Dina's help, or without the backing?"

Simo shook his head and ran his fingers through his hair then sighed.

"Without Dina's help, perhaps, but the building does not just require decorating otherwise I would have done it. It is very old." He pointed to the corner of the window frame where white plaster had begun to break away. "The renovation requires structural changed, rewiring, new windows. So much needs doing. It fell into disrepair after my grandfather died and my grandmother moved into a smaller apartment."

His enthusiasm was in danger of ebbing once again. Evie folded her arms and fixed him with a determined look.

"We don't have to change everything. One or two rooms will do. That's all Dina has done so it will be enough to show what you mean." She grabbed his hand and began to pull him to the door.

"Come on, let's get started. I want you to show me everything."