A lifetime of fabulous privilege had given Riccardo a keen disregard for what other people thought of him, and he shrugged.
‘Honestly, Riccardo. You can be so infuriating at times!’
‘Hmm. Does that mean you won’t miss me when I’m gone?’
‘Stop trying to change the subject!’
‘I’ve never seen you hot and bothered before. Cute. Anyway, it doesn’t matter what we’re wearing. Who cares? Certainly not the proprietor. Competition is stiff. He’ll be very grateful for our contribution to his kitty, whatever our attire happens to be.’
Charlie gazed at him, half impressed by his easy self-confidence, half determined not to be swept out of her reality zone.
‘Come on.’ Riccardo cupped her elbow and guided her to the front. ‘And, before you start telling me about your financial situation, this is on me.’ He didn’t give her time to reply. He spoke rapidly in Italian to the head waiter, so rapidly that she couldn’t keep up with the translation in her head, and whatever he said must have been funny because the stiff, proper Italian actually cracked a smile.
It was the first proper restaurant Charlie had been into since she had come to Italy. The clientele was mostly over fifty, and she could feel their eyes on her, which made her self-consciously twiddle her fingers under the table until Riccardo raised his eyebrows.
To further disconcert her, he ordered wine, shooting her a quelling look just in case she interrupted.
This, he had discovered, was one of the more boring aspects of being a so-called wanderer. He was supposed to be penniless. Or at least conserving all his money for some mysterious sensible future that lurked around the fictitious corner. Despite his relief that he didn’t have to be on his guard with her, there was still a part of him that would have liked to spend money on her. After all, it wasn’t as though he didn’t have an endless reserve of the stuff. He supposed it all came down to a pretty human desire to quite simply show off. Strange.
‘You’ll regret this,’ Charlie said, stifling her awkwardness by very quickly downing a glass of cold, white Italian wine. ‘When you’re backpacking your way through some bit of Europe and you haven’t got enough cash to get the train…’
‘That will never be the case,’ Riccardo said truthfully. Persuaded by him, she had stopped wearing a bra, and his eyes drifted to her ample breasts pushing against her tee-shirt.
He prided himself on his sophistication, but there was nothing sophisticated about what his body was doing right now. He hurriedly focused his attention on her face. Safer.
‘Because I will…make sure I always have sufficient to get by.’
‘That’s fine to say, but you don’t know what’s around the corner.’ Her friend Pete’s dad had, quite suddenly, been made redundant at the age of sixty-two. They had been forced to sell the family home and move into a tiny terraced house. Life never quite worked out the way you thought it was going to.
‘No, but you can hazard a pretty good guess. God, as they say, helps those who help themselves.’ He lazed back in his chair and looked at her with hooded eyes. Without turning, he snapped his fingers and a waiter came charging over. Charlie marvelled at his air of command. Where on earth did he get that from?
‘And where would you like God to help you get?’ she asked, smiling, relaxed, blossoming under his languorous gaze.
‘Oh, all the usual places. To a sprawling house with the sprawling lawns and the fleet of fast cars…’
‘You don’t really mean that, do you?’
‘Why not?’ Riccardo shrugged. ‘When you strip away all the nuts and bolts, isn’t that what everyone wants, whether they care to admit it or not?’
‘I don’t think so.’
‘You’re telling me that you wouldn’t want all the things that money can buy?’
‘You don’t need money to enjoy life.’ Charlie thought that she had never been happier than she had been over the past few weeks and money hadn’t been involved. Since when had money been able to buy the beauty of the Tuscan hills with a man you loved right there by your side?
‘But it enables one to eat…like this.’ On cue, their starters were brought for them, a bowl of massive tiger prawns smothered in butter and garlic.
‘You talk like someone who has oodles of it, Riccardo,’ Charlie laughed.
‘And you, cara, talk like an idealistic young kid who’s never sampled the reality of life.’
Which abruptly reminded her that he was probably right. She needed to edit her opinions just a fraction, because really, as a woman in her mid-twenties about to strike out in a brand-new career, she would be looking towards a future that involved making money, as much as she could, so that she could enjoy all the things money could buy. Nice house with a cosy mortgage, a small house but with a bigger one on the horizon just as soon as she had settled into her imaginary job and started climbing the imaginary ladder. She nearly grimaced at the dreary prospect of it all.
‘I’m trying to hang on to my inner child,’ she teased. ‘And so should you. I mean, you’re not exactly the old man of the sea as yet. You have plenty of time to start thinking about making money.’
If only you knew. He felt a twinge of discomfort at his deception.
‘I mean…’ she licked her fingers before dipping them into the bowl of water with the lemon bobbing in it ‘…you’re a free spirit. Somehow it’s hard to picture you behind a desk with a mound of paperwork in front of you, and the telephone ringing and the boss yapping at you to bring him that report you should have done three days ago.’
Riccardo couldn’t help it. He laughed at the comical picture she presented.
‘Maybe,’ he said smoothly, lowering his eyes. ‘I will be the boss yapping orders.’
‘Oh no, please don’t be one of those boring office people. Promise me!’
‘Okay. I promise. Now, shall we enjoy this meal? The last before I head off to visit my dear mother.’
Charlie wondered about his mother. He had let slip precious little about his personal life. Oh yes, she knew what turned him on, she knew his thoughts on politics and politicians and what his favourite foods were, and all the places he had been to, but his family background was a dark area.
‘Tell me about her.’ Their second course was brought and, as Charlie watched the waiter deposit large white plates laden with their heavenly dishes, she missed the sudden shutter that snapped down over Riccardo’s eyes. When she next looked across at him, he was back to his normal, teasing self.
‘She is a typical Italian mama, very protective of her little boy.’ That much was true. Riccardo dug into his piece of rare steak, a pleasant change from his recent diet of pasta and pizzas, and told her just enough to sate her curiosity without having to indulge in any out-and-out lying. Only when she asked where exactly his mother lived did he grow more circumspect.
Charlie knew why. There was no shame in having to admit to a parent living in reduced circumstances, but sometimes it could hit hard. Hadn’t she once felt that very same thing herself? She had won an assisted scholarship to a private girls’ school when she was eleven, and between the ages of eleven and sixteen, before she had left for a sixth form college, she too had sometimes found herself ashamed about her own comparative lack of money, loath to draw attention to the fact that she wasn’t a member of the ‘two-car, three-times-a-year-holiday-abroad’ club. She tactfully and sympathetically changed the subject but it gnawed away at her, that little window into a wealth of information that would make their relationship so much deeper, that would set it on a course she was so desperate for it to follow.
Much later she was to think that love and desperation were a fatal combination.
For now, though, bitterness was an emotion with which she had never had contact. For now, she just appreciated the exquisite food and drank the exquisite wine, and wondered how she could manoeuvre the conversation back to the more fertile ground about him.
But he was an adept conversationalist. He didn’t want to talk about himself, and so he didn’t. He only had a couple more hours in her delectable company, he thought, and he wasn’t going to waste it trying to dodge questions about himself. In fact, he could think of something far more profitable they could be doing…