Lucy Gordon.

The Venetian Playboy's Bride






Harlequin Romance presents a brand-new trilogy from bestselling author

LUCY GORDON

The Counts of Calvani


These proud Italian aristrocrats are about to propose!

The Calvani family is a prosperous, aristocratic Italian family headed by Count Francesco Calvani.

He has three nephews:

Guidocharming, easygoing and wealthy in his own right, Guido is based in Venice. Hes heir to the Calvani title, but he doesnt want it.

Marcoaristocratic, sophisticated and very good-looking, Marco is every womans dream, managing the familys banking and investments in Rome.

Leoproud, rugged and athletic, Leo is a reluctant tycoon, running the familys prosperous farms in Tuscany.

The pressure is mounting on all three Calvani brothers to marry and produce the next heirs in the Calvani dynasty. Each will find a wifebut will it be out of love or duty?

Find out in this emotional, exciting and dramatic trilogy:

The Venetian Playboys Bride #3744

The Italian Millionaires Marriage #3751

The Tuscan Tycoons Wife #3760

Dont miss it!

Dear Reader,

I always love the chance to write about Venice, because that city has been my second home since I married a Venetian. Perhaps thats why I think Venetians are the most romantic of men (although all other Italians come a close second). They combine emotional intensity with lightheartedness in a way that makes them irresistible.

Guido Calvani, the hero of The Venetian Playboys Bride, is like that. He approaches life with a laugh and a conviction that he can make things happen the way he wants. But then, hes never met anyone like Dulcie, a private detective whos one step ahead, and its only when its too late that he discovers shes tied him in knots.

Their story is played out against Venice with its dark corners and mysterious alleys. In the city on the water nothing is ever quite what it seems, including Guido and Dulcie, who start by hiding their true selves, then learn, through love, to cast their masks aside.

After Guido comes Marco from Rome, cool and self-sufficient. Then Leo, the countryman from Tuscany. And always in the background is their uncle Francesco, Count Calvani, whose colorful life hides a romantic secret that takes them all by surprise.


The Venetian Playboys Bride
Lucy Gordon


www.millsandboon.co.uk

CONTENTS

CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTER TWO

CHAPTER THREE

CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FIVE

CHAPTER SIX

CHAPTER SEVEN

CHAPTER EIGHT

CHAPTER NINE

CHAPTER TEN

CHAPTER ELEVEN

CHAPTER TWELVE

CHAPTER ONE

GUIDO CALVANI took another turn along the hospital corridor, trying not to think of his uncle, lying behind the closed door, desperately ill.

He was high up on the top floor.

At one end of the corridor the window looked out over the heart of Venice, red roofs, canals, little bridges. At the other end was the Grand Canal. Guido stopped and regarded the flashing water, snaking its way through the heart of the little city to where it would reach the Palazzo Calvani, home of the Calvani counts for centuries. By tonight he might have inherited the title, and the thought appalled him.

His mercurial spirits werent often depressed. He approached life with an optimism that was reflected in his appearance. His blue eyes might have been born gleaming, and a smile seemed to be his natural expression. At thirty-two, rich, handsome, free, he had no cares, save for the one that now threatened him.

Guido was a man of warm affections. He loved his uncle. But he also loved his freedom, and within a few hours he might have lost them both.

He turned swiftly as two young men appeared from the staircase below.

Thank heavens! he said, embracing his half-brother Leo, who clasped him back unselfconsciously. With his cousin Marco he merely clapped him on the shoulder. There was a proud reserve about Marco that even the open-hearted Guido had to respect.

How bad is Uncle Francesco? Marco demanded tersely.

Very bad, I think. I called you last night because hed started to have pains in his chest, but he wouldnt be sensible and see a doctor. Then early this morning he collapsed in agony, and I sent for an ambulance. Weve been here ever since. Theyre still doing tests.

It surely cant be a heart attack, Leo said. Hes never had one before, and the life hes led

Was enough to give any normal man a dozen heart attacks, Marco supplied. Women, wine, fast cars

Women! Guido echoed.

Three speedboats smashed up, Leo recalled.

Gambling!

Women!

Skiing!

Mountaineering!

Women! They spoke with one voice.

A footstep on the stairs reduced them all to silence as Lizabetta, the counts housekeeper, appeared among them like doom. She was thin, sharp-faced, elderly, and they greeted her with more respect than they ever showed their uncle. This grim creature was the power in the Palazzo Calvani.

She acknowledged them with a nod that managed to combine respect for their aristocratic status with contempt for the male sex, sat down and took out her knitting.

Im afraid theres no news yet, Guido told her gently.

He looked up as the ward door opened and the doctor emerged. He was an elderly man and had been the counts friend for years. His grave expression could mean only one thing, and their hearts sank.

The doctor pronounced. Get the silly old fool out of here and stop wasting my time.

Buthis heart attack? Guido protested.

Heart attack, my foot! Indigestion! Liza, you shouldnt let him eat prawns in butter.

Liza glared. Much notice he takes of me, she snapped.

Can we see him now? Guido asked.

A roar from within answered him. In his prime Count Francesco had been known as The Lion of Venice, and now that he was in his seventies nothing much had changed.

The three young men entered their uncles room and stood regarding him wryly. He was sitting up in bed, his face framed by his white hair, his blue eyes gleaming.

Gave you a fright, didnt I? he bawled.

Enough of a fright to bring me all the way from Rome and Leo from Tuscany, Marco remarked. All because youve been stuffing yourself.

Dont talk to the head of the family like that, Francesco growled. And blame Liza. Her cooking is irresistible.

So you have to gobble it like a greedy schoolboy, Marco observed, not noticeably intimidated by addressing the head of the family. Uncle, when are you going to act your age?

I didnt get to be seventy-two by acting my age! Francesco remarked with perfect truth. He pointed at Marco. When youre seventy-two youll be a dried-up stick without a heart.

Marco shrugged.

The old man indicated Leo. When youre seventy-two youll be more of a country bumpkin than you are already.

Thats cool, Leo observed, unruffled.

What will I be at seventy-two? Guido asked.

You wont. An outraged husband will have shot you long before then.

Guido grinned. You should know all about outraged husbands, uncle. I heard that only last

Clear off all of you. Liza will bring me home.

As soon as theyd escaped the building they leaned against the honey-coloured stone wall and breathed out long sighs of relief.

I need a drink, Guido said, making a beeline for a small bar beside the water. The others followed him and seated themselves at a table in the sun.

Since Guido lived in Venice, Leo in Tuscany and Marco in Rome they saw each other only rarely, and the next few minutes were occupied by taking stock. Leo was the least altered. As his uncle had said, he was a countryman, lean, hard-bodied, with a candid face and clear eyes. He wasnt a subtle man. Life reached him directly, through his senses, and he read books only when necessary.

Marco was the same as always, but more so: a little more tense, a little more focused, a little more heedless of ordinary mortals. He existed in a rarefied world of high finance, and it seemed to his cousins that he was happiest there. He lived expensively, buying only the best, which he could well afford. But he did so, less because it gave him pleasure than because it would never have occurred to him to do otherwise.

Guidos mercurial nature had been born for a double life. Officially he resided at the palazzo, but he also had a discreet bachelor flat where he could come and go, free of critical eyes. He too had intensified, becoming more charming, and more elusive in his determination to remain his own man. He possessed a mulish stubbornness which he hid behind laughter and a sweet temper. His dark hair was a shade too long, curving over his collar with a slight shagginess that made him look younger than his thirty-two years.

Nobody spoke until they were on their second beer.

I cant stand this, Guido said at last. Being brought to the brink and then let off is going to finish me. And let off for how long?

What are you raving about? Marco demanded.

Ignore him, Leo grinned. A man whos just been reprieved is bound to be light-headed.

Thats right, mock me! Guido said. By rights it should be you in this mess.

Leo was his elder brother, but by a trick of fate it was Guido who was the heir. Bertrando, their father, had married a widow whose late husband had subsequently turned up alive. By then she had already died giving birth to Leo, leaving him illegitimate. Two years later Bertrando had married again, and his second wife had presented him with Guido.

Nobody had worried about it then. It was a technicality that would cease to matter when Count Francesco married and had a son. But as the years passed with no sign of his marriage the anomaly began to glare. Although the younger son, Guido was legally the only son, and heir to the title.

He hated the prospect. It was a trap waiting to imprison his free spirit. He longed for a miracle to restore Leos rights, but Leo didnt want them either. Only the earth interested him: growing wine, wheat and olives, breeding cattle and horses. He cared for the title no more than Guido.

The only discord between them had come when Guido tried to tempt his brother into legal action to legitimatise himself and stop shirking his duty. Leo had bluntly replied that if Guido thought he was going to tie himself down to a load of pointless flapdoodle he was even more cretino than he looked. Guido had responded with equal robustness and it had taken Marco to stop an undignified brawl. As the son of Silvio, younger brother to Francesco and Bertrando, he had little chance of the title, and could afford to regard the shenanigans of the other two with lofty amusement.

Of course its bound to happen one day, he mused now, maliciously. Count Guido, father of ten, a man of distinction, fat, sedate, middle-aged, with a wife to match.

That shirt looks like its worth a thousand dollars, Guido mused, fingering his half-full glass significantly.

Only a joke, Marco placated him.

Not funny. Guido took another swallow and sighed mournfully. Not funny at all.

Roscoe Harrisons London home was no palace, but it had had as much money lavished on it as the Calvani abode. The difference was that he was a man without taste. He believed in display, and the crude power of cash, and it showed.

I buy only the best, he was saying now to the fair-haired young woman sitting in his office at the back of the house. Thats why Im buying you.

You arent buying me, Mr Harrison, Dulcie said coolly. Youre hiring my skill as a private detective. Theres a big difference.

Well your skill will do me just fine. Take a look at this.

He thrust a photograph across the desk. It showed Roscoes daughter, Jenny Harrison, her dark hair streaming over her shoulders in the Venetian sunlight, listening ardently to a young gondolier playing a mandolin, while another gondolier, with curly hair and a baby face, looked on.

Thats the character who thinks hes going to marry Jenny for her fortune, Roscoe snapped, jabbing at the mandolin player with his finger. Hes told her he isnt really a gondolier, but heir to a countCalvani, or some such namebut I say its a big, fat lie.

Im not an unreasonable man. If he really were a posh nob that would be different. His title, my money. Fair enough. But a posh nob rowing a gondola? I dont think so. I want you to go to Venice, find out whats going on. Then, when youve proved hes no aristocrat

Perhaps he is, Dulcie murmured.

Roscoe snorted. Your job is to prove he isnt.

Dulcie winced. I cant prove he isnt if he is, she pointed out.

Well, youll be able to tell, cos youre top drawer yourself. Youre Lady Dulcie Maddox, arent you?

In my private life, yes. But when Im working Im simply, Dulcie Maddox, PI.

She guessed that Roscoe didnt like that. He was impressed by her titled connections, and when she brushed them aside he felt cheated.

Last night hed invited her to dinner in order to meet his daughter, Jenny. Dulcie had been charmed by the young girls freshness and na?vety. It was easy to believe that she needed protection from a fortune hunter.

I want you because youre the best, Roscoe returned to his theme. Youre posh. You act posh. You look poshnot your clothes because theyre

Cheap, she supplied. The jeans and denim jacket had been the cheapest thing on the market stall. Luckily she had the kind of tall, slender figure that brought out the best in anything, and her mane of fair hair and strange green eyes drew admiration wherever she went.

Inexpensive, Roscoe said in one of his rare ventures into tact. But you look posh, in yourself. You can tell aristocrats because theyre so tall and slim. Probably comes from eating proper food while the peasants had to make do with stodge.

Maybe with the others, Dulcie said. But with me it came from not having enough to eat because all the family money was blown on the horses. Thats why Im working as a private investigator. Im as poor as a church mouse.

Then youll need a load of new gear to be convincing. I keep an account at Felthams for Jenny. Ill call and tell them to do you proud at my expense. When you reach the Hotel Vittorio youve got to look the part.

The Vittorio? She looked quickly out of the window, lest he guess that this particular hotel had a special meaning for her. It was only a few weeks ago that she had been planning her honeymoon in that very hotel, with a man whod sworn eternal love.

But that was then. This was now. Love had vanished with brutal suddenness. She would have given anything to avoid the Vittorio, but there was no help for it.

Most expensive hotel in Venice, Roscoe said. So buy the clothes, then get out there fast. Fly first class. No cheap economy flights in case he checks up on you.

You mean he might employ a private detective too?

No knowing. Some people are devious enough for anything.

Dulcie maintained a diplomatic silence.

Heres a cheque for expenses. Its not enough to look rich. Youve got to splash it around a bit.

Splash it around a bit, Dulcie recited, glassy eyed at the size of the cheque.

Find this gondolier, make him think youre rolling in money, so hell make up to you. When youve got him hooked let me know. Ill send Jenny out there, and shell see the kind of man he really is. She wont believe it, but the world is full of jerks on the look out for a rich girl.

Yes, Dulcie murmured with feeling. It is.

On the night of Count Francescos return, supper at the palazzo was formal. The four men sat around an ornate table while a maid served dish after dish, under the eagle eyes of Liza. To the count this was normal, and Marco was comfortable with it. But the other two found it suffocating, and they were glad when the meal was over.

As they prepared for escape the count signalled for Guido to join him in his ornate study.

Well be at Luigis Bar, Marco called back from the front door.

Couldnt this wait? Guido pleaded, following his uncle into the study.

No, it cant wait, Francesco growled. There are things to be said. I wont bother to ask if the stories Ive heard about you are true.

They probably are, Guido agreed with a grin.

Its time it stopped. After all the trouble Ive taken, making sure you met every woman in society.

Im nervous with society women. Theyre all after just one thing!

What!

My future title. Half of them never look at me properly. Their gaze is fixed on the Calvani honours.

If you mean that theyre prepared to overlook your disgraceful way of life out of respect for your dignity

Dignity be blowed. Besides, maybe I dont want a woman wholl overlook my disgraceful life. It might be more fun if she was ready to join in.

Marriage is not supposed to be fun! Francesco thundered.

I was afraid of that.

Its time you started acting like a man of distinction instead of spending your time with the Lucci family, fooling about in gondolas

I like rowing a gondola.

The Luccis are fine hard-working people but their lives take one path and yours another

In a flash Guidos face lost its good humour and hardened. The Luccis are my friends, and youll oblige me by remembering that.

You can be friendsbut you cant live Fedes life. Youve got to make your own way. Perhaps I shouldnt have allowed you to see so much of them.

You didnt allow me, Guido said quietly. I didnt ask your permission. Nor would I. Ever. Uncle, I have the greatest respect for you, but I wont allow you to run my life.

When Guido spoke in that tone the merry charmer vanished, and there was something in his eyes that made even the count wary. He saw it now and fell silent. Guido was instantly contrite.

Theres no harm in it, he said gently. I just like to row. It keeps me fit after my other excesses.

If it were just rowing, Francesco snorted, recovering lost ground. But Ive heard you even sing O sole mio for tourists.

They expect it. Especially the British. Its something to do with ice cream cornets.

And you pose with them for photographs. The count took out a snapshot showing Guido in gondoliering costume, serenading a pretty, dark-haired girl, while another gondolier, with curly hair and a baby face, sat just behind them.

My nephew, he growled, the future Count Calvani, poses in a straw hat.

Its disgraceful, Guido agreed. Im a blot on the family name. Youll just have to marry quickly, have a son, and cut me out. Rumour says youre still as vigorous as ever, so it shouldnt be

Get out of here if you know whats good for you!

Guido fled with relief, leaving the building and slipping away down tiny, darkened streets. As he reached the Grand Canal he saw a collection of seven gondolas, moving side by side. It was a serenade, a show put on to please the tourists. In the central boat the baby-faced young man from the photograph stood singing in a sweet tenor that drifted across the water. As the song came to an end there was applause, and the boats drifted in to their moorings.

Guido waited until his friend, Federico Lucci, had assisted his last passenger to disembark before hailing him.

Hey there, Fede! If the English signorina could hear you sing like that she would follow you to the ends of the earth, he said. Whats the matter? for Fede had groaned. Doesnt she love you any more?

Jenny loves me, Fede declared. But her Poppa will kill me before he lets us marry. He thinks Im only after her money, but it isnt true. I love her. That time you met, didnt you think she was wonderful?

Wonderful, Guido said, diplomatically concealing his opinion that Jenny was a pretty doll who lacked spice in her character. His own taste was for a woman who could offer a challenge, lead him a merry dance and give as good as she got. But he was too kind a friend to say so.

You know Ill help in any way I can, he said warmly.

Youve already helped us so much, Fede said, letting us meet in your apartment, covering for me on the gondola

Thats nothing. I enjoy it. Let me know when you want me to do it again.

My Jenny has returned to England. She says she will reason with her Poppa, but Im afraid she may never return.

If its true love, shell come back, Guido insisted.

Fede gave a shout of laughter and thumped him on the shoulder. What do you know about true love? With you its here-today-and-gone-tomorrow. If they mention marriage you dive for cover.

Sssh! Guido looked hunted. My uncle has ears everywhere. Now come on, lets join Leo and Marco at Luigis, and we can all get drunk in peace.

Two days later Dulcie flew to Venice, landing at Marco Polo Airport and waiting, with an air of aloof grandeur, while her luggage was loaded onto the Vittorios private motor launch.

It was early June, and as the boatman started the trip across the lagoon the sun was high in the sky and the light glinted on the water. Surrounded by so much bright beauty Dulcie briefly forgot her sadness.

To her right she could see the causeway linking Venice to the mainland. A train was making its way across. On the other side the lagoon stretched far away to the horizon.

There, signorina, the boatman said, speaking with the pride all Venetians feel in their city.





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