The Hidden Heart of Rico Rossi

He never reacted to anyone like this. Ever.

But there was something about Ella Chandler, and he really had to make an effort to stop himself twining his fingers through hers, bringing her hand up to his mouth and tasting her skin, brushing each knuckle with his lips.

Especially as she looked completely unaffected by their brief contact. No way was he going to make a fool of himself.

‘Wow. This is fabulous,’ she said when she’d eaten her first bite of bread.

God, her mouth was beautiful. A perfect rosebud. Again, he had to hold himself back from leaning forward and touching his mouth to hers, brushing his lips against hers until they parted.

And it wasn’t just sexual attraction. There was more to it than that. Spending time with someone who enjoyed such simple pleasures … it had been way too long since he’d done that, Rico thought. His last few girlfriends had been more interested in the lifestyle he could give them. Tickets to exclusive events, the finest champagne, designer jewellery. Ella seemed very different. He wasn’t sure whether she fascinated him or unnerved him. He didn’t have a clue what made her tick—or why she was affecting him like this. This wasn’t supposed to be happening …

About the Author

KATE HARDY
lives in Norwich, in the east of England, with her husband, two young children, one bouncy spaniel, and too many books to count! When she’s not busy writing romance or researching local history she helps out at her children’s schools. She also loves cooking—spot the recipes sneaked into her books! (They’re also on her website, along with extracts and stories behind the books.) Writing for Mills & Boon has been a dream come true for Kate—something she wanted to do ever since she was twelve. She says it’s the best of both worlds, because she gets to learn lots of new things when she’s researching the background to a book: add a touch of passion, drama and danger, a new gorgeous hero every time, and it’s the perfect job!

Kate’s always delighted to hear from readers, so do drop in to her website at www.katehardy.com

Recent titles by the same author:

THE EX WHO HIRED HER
A MOMENT ON THE LIPS

Kate also writes for Mills & Boon
®
Medical™ Romances. Her titles include:

ITALIAN DOCTOR, NO STRINGS ATTACHED
ST PIRAN’S: THE FIREMAN AND NURSE LOVEDAY
   
(St Piran’s Hospital)

Did you know these are also available as eBooks?
Visit www.millsandboon.co.uk

The
Hidden Heart
of Rico Rossi
Kate Hardy

www.millsandboon.co.uk

I dedicate my fiftieth romance to Gerard—
who always believed in me—with all my love.

CHAPTER ONE

‘U
M,
MI
scusi?’ Ella dredged up the little Italian she’d learned from the phrasebook as she stood at the hotel’s reception desk. ‘I think I have a sightseeing tour booked this morning?’



, Signora Chandler. With me.’

Ella’s jaw almost dropped as she turned around to see who’d spoken. This couldn’t be her tour guide, surely? The man looked more like a model for a perfume ad. He was tall, with slightly dishevelled dark hair held back from his eyes by a pair of sunglasses, dark eyes with unfairly long lashes, and the most sinful mouth she’d ever seen.

He spoke perfect English, with the slightest, sexiest hint of an accent. And she was going to have to keep her libido on an extremely tight leash. No doubt the man was used to English tourists who were too full of hormones melting at his feet and he knew how to deal with them kindly; all the same, Ella didn’t want to make a fool of herself. She’d already done that quite enough, this past year.

‘I, um,
buongiorno
’ She held out her hand.

When he took it, it felt as if her temperature had just gone up five degrees.

This was crazy. How could she possibly react like this to a complete stranger—a man she’d only just met and
knew nothing about, other than that he was an employee of the hotel where she was staying?

Not that he was wearing a uniform like the other staff. Instead, he wore a crisp white shirt, the neck unbuttoned far enough to show that there was a light sprinkling of hair on his chest and the sleeves rolled up to just below his elbows, teamed with stone-coloured chinos and boat shoes that would be comfortable for a long day’s walking tour of the city. Casual, and yet utterly, utterly stylish, as only the Italians could be.

Ella’s best friend Julia would immediately dub him ‘sex on legs’. And she’d be right on the money. He was
gorgeous
.

‘Are you ready, Signora Chandler?’ he asked politely.

No, not in a million years. ‘Of course,’ she fibbed, forcing herself to sound as professional as she would to one of her clients.

‘I’m Rico,’ he said.

Why did her tongue feel as if someone had glued it to the roof of her mouth? ‘Uh—Ella,’ she responded, hating the fact that she sounded so pathetic and gauche.

‘Ella.’ Her name sounded like a caress, the way he said it.

Help. She really needed to remind herself that she was twenty-eight, not seventeen. And she knew only too well that charm like his was all surface and no substance. Been there, done that and worn the T-shirt to shreds.

‘Shall we go?’

‘Sure.’ She gave him her best attempt at a sensible smile.

‘So this is your first time in Rome, and you want a tour of the major sights,
sì?

‘Ancient Rome, the Spanish Steps and the Trevi Fountain,’ she confirmed.


Bene
. Then we’ll start with the Colosseum. Apart from
the fact that it’s the nearest site to the hotel, the queues are relatively short at this time of day.’

She followed him out of the hotel and resisted the urge to pinch herself. She, Ella Chandler, was actually in Rome—The Eternal City. The place she’d wanted to visit for years, though they’d never been able to afford a holiday when she was small; by the time she was earning enough to pay her way, her friends had talked her into going somewhere else with them. This time, she was pleasing herself. Visiting the place that had captured her imagination as a child, far more than tales of princesses and castles.

‘I’ve always wanted to come to Rome, ever since I saw a picture of the Colosseum in a book as a little girl,’ she said to Rico. ‘I mean, I know it’s not one of the official Seven Wonders of the World, but to me it was.’

‘It’s the largest surviving ancient Roman building,’ he said. ‘It’s not quite as well preserved as somewhere else I’ll take you to see today, but it’s still pretty spectacular.’

He told her about the history of the place as they walked down the street, and Ella found herself relaxing with him. Then, as they reached the bottom of the street, she stopped dead and just stared.

‘Wow. I can’t believe we were just walking down a modern street with cool shops and houses—and here it is. Right in the middle of things.’ The ruin was huge and just …
awesome
. There was no other word for it. Up close, the Colosseum was exactly what she’d always thought it would be like, really living up to her dream.

‘That’s one of the things about Rome,’ he said with a shrug. ‘A building might look modern, but beneath it there’s likely to be the foundations of something like this.’

Clearly he was used to it; didn’t they say that familiarity bred contempt? He didn’t seem anywhere near as impressed by it as Ella was. But she was entranced by the
sheer majesty of the ruin; and she was glad that Rico was sensitive enough to let her absorb the atmosphere rather than breaking it up with chatter.

She was gorgeous, Rico thought as he looked at Ella. Very much an English rose with that pale skin, golden-brown hair tied back at the nape of her neck, and blue-grey eyes. An old quote floated into Rico’s head:
non Angli, sed angeli
. Not English, but angels.

Ella Chandler was as beautiful as any Botticelli angel. Particularly as she didn’t seem to be the slightest bit aware of how lovely she was. And she had a natural beauty—not like half the guests in his hotels, who were manicured and spray-tanned and coiffured to within an inch of their lives.

Why was she on her own in Rome? He knew that she was booked into the honeymoon suite, but he also knew that she’d signed in as Ms Chandler rather than Mrs. So had this trip to Rome originally been planned as a honeymoon? Maybe her fiancé had let her down at the last minute, and she’d decided not to waste the booking and had come to Rome on her own. Or was there some other reason?

Rico reminded himself that it was nothing to do with him. He was her tour guide today simply as part of his ongoing review of the Rossi hotel chain, checking that they were meeting their customers’ needs with every single service they offered. Right now, that meant taking Ella Chandler through the fast-track queue to a place she’d wanted to visit for years and years and years, and making her dreams come alive.

‘I never expected to see gladiators and emperors everywhere,’ she said, smiling as she saw the characters wandering round.

‘It’s fun and adds to the atmosphere,’ he agreed. ‘But
I’d say just enjoy the view, unless you want to pay through the nose for having your photograph taken with them.’

‘Oh. So they’re not official—not part of the Colosseum itself?’ She looked disappointed, and then slightly wary.

‘They’re freelance. And sometimes they can be a bit pushy. But they won’t be pushy with you, because you’re with me.’ He smiled. ‘And I’m happy to take as many photographs for you as you wish. It’s all part of the tour service.’

‘Thank you.’

Once they were through the entrance and he’d paid for the tickets, Rico took Ella through into the building, showing her where the different classes of people would have sat to enjoy the shows. He took photographs of her with the iconic arches of the Colosseum behind her and a view over the arena and the basement; even though she was wearing sunglasses in the bright Roman sunlight, he could tell that her smile reached her eyes. And her pleasure in the place was infectious. He’d grown used to thinking of it as just one of the buildings near his hotel. But seeing Ella’s reaction made him look at the building again. And he could see what she saw: a truly spectacular place, more than just the iconic symbol of the city. This was the epicentre, where emperors had held processions and entertained the entire city. Where ordinary people had seen lions and bears and elephants, creatures they would never see in their daily lives.

On the second floor, he took her through to the temporary exhibition. ‘Apart from the written sources we have, the graffiti gives us a pretty good idea of the kind of spectacles people saw here.’ He showed her a leaping wolf scratched into the stone, and a gladiator fighting with a net. Ella pushed her sunglasses up to rest on the top of her head so she could take a closer look, and the expression of
sheer wonder in her eyes fascinated him. How long had it been since something had enthralled him like that? Too many years to count …

At thirty, Rico was jaded way beyond his years—and he knew it.

Not that he was going to beat himself up about it. He didn’t have time. He had an empire to run.

When they left the Colosseum, Rico took Ella past Constantine’s triumphal arch. ‘This is my favourite view of the building,’ he said, stopping to give her time to turn round and admire it.

‘It’s spectacular. Everything I thought it would be,’ she said softly. ‘Thank you so much.’

‘Hey, it’s my job,’ he said. Mainly to remind himself that she was a client, and that made her off limits. And even if she wasn’t off limits, she wasn’t his type. He always dated tall, slender, sophisticated women who knew the rules and didn’t make any emotional demands on him. In return, he gave them the lifestyle they wanted. Temporarily. Nobody had ever tempted him to make it permanent.

He forced his thoughts back to the job in hand. ‘Let me show you through the Forum next.’

‘Is this the place where Marc Antony did the speech—well, according to Shakespeare?’ she asked.

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