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Gianluca Benedetti appraised the shapeless suit and then the woman in it. She had potential, if she ditched the floppy large-brimmed hat, took down her hair, stepped out of the suit and started all over again from scratch. She had the essentials. She was tall, her legs were good from what he could tell, and there was a liveliness to her that she seemed to be repressing as she went to stamp her foot but then arrested the gesture.
Which drew his attention to her shoes. They didn't quite fit the image of the woman wearing them. Elegant low heels, graceful arch, red leather slingback, with a complicated knot of red silk flowers running over the toes. The shoes were fussy and feminine. The woman in them was not.
'Give me back my money!' Her voice was clear, crisp and no-nonsense, for all she was obviously angry. Gianluca could tell by her accent she was Australian, which accounted for the plain speaking.
The guy was giving her the runaround. In the crowded domain of the arcade people were making a detour around the brunette standing in front of the kiosk. She looked like a ticking time bomb ready to go off.
The foot trembling with indecision above the pavement came down with a decided stamp.
'I am not going anywhere until you refund me that money. I gave your company forty-eight hours' notice. It says clearly on your website that refunds are possible with twenty-four hours' notice.'
Gianluca shut down the European markets, pocketed his personal device, and strolled away from the doorway of the coffee bar he'd been frequenting all his adult life in Rome.
Impeccable manners towards women instilled in him by a Sicilian grandmother had him approach her.
'Signora, may I be of some service to you?'
She didn't even bother to turn around. 'I am not a signora, I am a signorina. And no, you may not help me. I'm perfectly capable of helping myself. Go and ply your trade with some other idiot tourist.'
Gianluca leaned closer. She emitted a light fragrance, something floral, definitely too feminine for this dragon of a woman.
'Gigolo. Escort. Servicer of women. Go away. I don't want you.'
Gianluca stilled. This dragon thought he was a male prostitute?
He looked her up and down. She hadn't even bothered to turn around. Common sense told him to shrug and walk away.
'So, signorina ' he laid on the emphasis ' maybe you're hard up, yes? You need to remember what it is to be a woman?'
'Excuse me?' She turned around, angling up her face, and in a single stroke Gianluca lost every preconception he had built around her.
The shapeless clothes, her tonehe'd taken her to be older, harder certainly less attractive thanthis. She had creamy skin, wide brows, amazing cheekbones andwhat was most intriguingsoft, lush lips. A veritable ripe strawberry of a mouth. But her face was dominated by a pair of ugly white-rimmed sunglasses, and he had to resist the urge to tug them away and get the full effect.
Although he definitely got a sense of her eyes widening.
'It's you!' she said.
He raised a brow. 'Have we met?'
This wasn't an unknown scenario over the years. His past football careertwo years of kicking a ball around professionally for Italycombined with his title had given him something of a public profile beyond the usual roaming grounds of Roman society. He made sure his tone offered no encouragement.
The dragon-who-wasn't took a step back.
'No,' she said fast, as if warding him off.
He became aware that she was looking around as if searching for an escape route, and for some reason his own body tensed. He recognised he was readying himself to give chase.
Madre di Dio, what was going on?
A pulse pounded like a tiny drum at the base of her throat, and he couldn't have said why but it held his attention. She made a soft sound of panic. His eyes flicked up to catch hers and sexual awareness erupted between them. It was so fast, so strong, it took him entirely off guard.
He stepped towards her, but she didn't shift an inch. Her chin tipped up and her eyes flared wide, as if she was waiting for something.
Something from him.
Something he couldn't quite put his finger on.
Basta! This was getting him nowhere.
Irritated by his own unprecedented behaviourgetting involved with a strange woman on the street, allowing his libido to get away from him, lingering as if he had the day to while away when he had a meeting lined up across townhe did what he should have done when he'd emerged from the coffee bar five minutes ago.
'In that case, enjoy your stay in Rome, signorina.'
He'd only gone a few steps when he found himself turning around.
She was still standing there, swamped by that god-awful jacket and wearing those trousers which did nothing for her, and yet.
He was noticing other things about herthe pink of her nose, the slightly hectic expression on her face. She'd been crying.
It stirred something in him. A memory.
A weeping woman usually left him cold. He knew all about female manipulation. He'd grown up observing it with his mother and sisters. Tears were usually a woman's go-to device for getting her own way. It never ceased to amaze him how a pretty bauble or a promise could dry them up.
But instead of walking away he strode over to the kiosk, read the sign that told him this was Fenice Tours, which was run by a subsidiary of the travel conglomerate Benedetti International had business with, and took out his phone. As he thumbed in the number he told the guy he had sixty seconds to refund the turista for her ticket or he'd close the place down.
With a few more well-placed instructions he handed over his phone. The man took it with a sceptical look that faded as his employer's angry voice buzzed like a blowfly on the other end.
'Mi scusi, Principe. It was aa misunderstanding,' the guy stammered.
Gianluca shrugged. 'Apologise to the lady, not to me.'
'Si, siscusa tanto, signora.'
With gritted teeth she accepted the euros. For all the fuss she had made, Gianluca noticed she didn't bother to check them, just folded them silently into her baga large leather affair that, like her clothes, seemed to be part of an attempt to weigh herself down.
'Grazie,' she said, as if it were torn from her.
There was no reason to linger. Gianluca was at the kerb opening up his low-slung Lamborghini Jota when he looked back.
She had followed him and was watching him, her expression almost comical in its war between curiosity and resentmentand something else.
It was the something else that kept him from jumping into the car.
She seemed to gird herself before walking over.
'Excuse me.' Her voice was as stiff as her manner, but it didn't take away from the rather lovely combination of her full mouth and dramatic cheekbones, or the way her caution made her seem oddly prim. It was the stiff formality that had his eyes locked to hers.
'I'm curious,' she said.
He could feel her gaze searching his face as if hunting for something. Curious, but not thankful, he noted, amused despite the wariness that told him something about this wasn't right.
'Could you really have shut it down?'
She angled up a stubborn chin made somewhat less forthright by the soft press of a dimple and hard suspicion narrowed his gaze.
Where had he seen that gesture before?
Yet he gave her a tight smile, a smile that didn't reach his eyesthe one he handed out to women as a courtesy, telling them he recognised that they were female, and as a man he appreciated it, but alas it could go no further.
'Signorina,' he drawled, 'this is Rome. I'm a Benedetti. Anything's possible.'
He was pushing through the mess that was Rome's mid-morning traffic when her reaction registered. She hadn't looked flattered. She hadn't even looked shocked. She had looked furiously angry.
And against his better judgement it had him turning the car around.
* * *
Ava stood at the kerb as the low-slung sports machine vanished into the traffic and let shock reverberate through her body until the only thing left was the burn.
All she could think was that this wasn't how it was supposed to happen.
Over the years she'd had a few false alarmsmoments when a deep voice, an Italian accent, a pair of broad shoulders had brought her head snapping around, her senses suddenly firing. But reality would always intervene.
Clearly reality had decided to slap her in the face.
It came over her in a rush. The flick of a broad tanned wrist at the ignition of a growling Ducati motorcycle. The tightening of her arms around his muscle-packed waist as they made their getaway from a wedding he'd had no interest in and she'd been cut up about. The memory of a flight into a summer's night seven long years ago that she still couldn't shake.
It was all Ava could do as she stood in the street to keep the imagesthose highly sexual imagesat bay.
Finding herself in the early hours of a summer morning lying in the grass on the Palatine Hill, her dress rucked up around her waist, under the lean, muscular weight of a young Roman god come to life was not something a woman forgot in a hurry.
Finding herself repeating it an hour later, in a bed that had once belonged to a king, in a palazzo built literally for a princess, on a beautiful piazza in the centre of the city, and again and again into the first flush of dawn, was also something that had stayed with her. And all the while he had lavished her with praise in broken English, making her feel like a goddess he had every right to plunder.
In the glare of a new morning she had slipped from the palace unnoticed and, Cinderella-fashion, left her shoes behind in her haste to flee what had promised to be an awkward aftermath.
Her feet bare, her frothy blue dress hiked up around her knees to allow her to run, she had been in equal measure elated and a little triste, her body pleasurably aching from all the unfamiliar clenching of muscles she hadn't known she had.
She'd flagged down a taxi and driven away, and if she had looked back it had been only to fix the memory, because she'd known it would never happen again.
It had been a moment out of time.
She'd flown back to Sydney the next day, resumed her climb up the corporate ladder and assumed she would never see him again.
Clearly she had assumed wrongly.
Pulling herself together, Ava stepped away from the kerb and told herself she most definitely wasn't going to allow the memory of one night with a Ducati-straddling, over-sexed soccer player to wreak havoc with her plans. She'd been handling everything so well up until this point.
Perhaps too well, niggled her conscience as she battled her way along the pavement. Wasn't she supposed to be heartbroken?
Most women would be. Being dumped on the eve of expecting a proposal from your long-time boyfriend in a foreign city and then travelling on in that city on your own would unsettle anybody.
Fortunately she was made of sterner stuff.
Which was why she was on her way to the Spanish Steps, to join a tour of literary sites in Rome.
Ava pulled her hat down hard on top of her head. She certainly wasn't going to allow a freak sighting of one of Italy's natural wonders in a city street to derail her from her purpose.
So what if that puffy pale blue bridesmaid's dress was buried deep in the back of her closet at home? So she'd kept the dress? So she was in Rome?
It had nothing to do with that long-ago night when everything she'd believed about herself had been turned on its head.
Well, not this time. Nowadays she had it all under controlwhen she wasn't careering hot-headedly around the streets of Rome looking for the what was it ? She consulted her map. The Piazza di Spagna.
She ignored the racing of her heart, told herself there was no way she was going to fumble through an Italian phone directory searching for the address of the Palazzo Benedetti. She mustn't even think that! Rome had definitely been a mistake. The sooner she picked up that hire car tomorrow and headed north the better.
NowAva looked around in confusion, discovering she had walked into a square she didn't recognisewhere on earth was she?
'This is pazzoj Gianluca muttered under his breath as he idled his car across from the little piazza. He'd followed her. He'd put the Jota into a screaming U-turn and cruised after that flapping hat, those flashing red shoes.
Inferno, what was he doing? He was Gianluca Benedetti. He didn't kerb-crawl a woman. And not this kind of femaleone who wore men's trousers and a silk shirt buttoned up to her chin and seemed to have no conception of what it was to be a woman.
Many women had creamy skin, long legs, and if they did not have quite the drama of her bone structure they certainly did a lot more with it.
She wasn't his type. Yet here he was.
He could see her pacing backwards and forwards over the cobblestones, holding something aloft. He got the impression it was a map from the way she was positioning it.
His phone vibrated. He palmed it.
'Where are you?' Gemma's voice was faintly exasperated.
Stalking a turista.
'Stuck in traffic.'
He glanced at the piece of Swiss design on his arm. He was extremely late. What in the hell was he doing?
'What do I tell the clients?'
'Let them cool their heels. I'm on my way.'
He pocketed the phone and made up his mind. As he strode across the piazza he wondered at the complication he was inviting into his life.
She was walking slowly backwards, clearly trying to get the name of the square from a plaque on the wall above her. He could have saved her the effort and told her she'd have no luck there. It was the name of the building.
She careened into him.
'Oh, I do beg your pardon,' she trotted out politely, reeling around.
The good manners, he noted, were for other people.
It was his last half-amused thought as he collided with her eyes. One part of his brain wondered if they were coloured contact lensesexcept judging by the rest of her attire he doubted she'd go to the trouble.
No, the eye colour was hers, all right. An extraordinary sea-green. One of those colours that changed with the light or her mood. Eyes that shoved the rock out of the mouth of the cave inside him he'd had sealed up for many years. Eyes and a mouth, and a soft, yielding body which she had taken away from him when he had needed it most.
Her features coalesced around those unusual eyes and the impact fairly slammed into him. The other part of his brain was free-falling.
His sentiments exactly.