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Annabelle Marsh stood at the bathroom sink while she began removing her makeup. She didn't recognize the blond woman in the mirror staring back at her. There was an unnatural gleam to her shoulder-length hair she could never have achieved on her own. Her eyes really weren't that violet. Nor were her brows and lashes quite as dark.
Artificially flawless skin highlighted by a subtle bloom brought out her high cheekbones. The makeup artist had defined her mouth to make it look more voluptuous. Her fingernails and toenails possessed their own polished sheen.
She'd had a bevy of fairy godmothers doing what they did best as they'd transformed her. Marcella of Marcella's Italian haute couture salon in Rome chose all the designer clothes that Annabelle would wear throughout her photo shoots in Italy. She'd added jewels as the final touch for the shoot that had started four days ago at an air force base outside Rome in front of an MB-Viper fighter jet.
It had been a lark so farloads of fun.
"Three weeks of being the Amalfi Girl," Guilio told her. "My wife and I will see to your every comfort. Thensince you insistyou can go back to being Ms. Marsh."
"You mean the forgettable Ms. Marsh." She'd had long enough to stop grieving over a failed marriage and divorce two years earlier, and had taken back her maiden name. But a lack of self confidence, remained as one of its by-products.
His brown brows lifted. "If you were forgettable, I wouldn't have picked you for the most important project of my life."
Annabelle shook her head in disbelief. "I still don't know what you see in me."
"My brothers and I, the whole Cavezzali family, have been in the business of designing cars since World War Two. But I was the one who dreamed up the Amalfi sports car. It's been my life's work. I saw the lines of it in my sleep years ago and lines, Annabelle, are like the bones of a beautiful woman. What lies beneath determines what will eventually become a masterpiece."
She flashed him a teasing smile. "You saw my bones?"
"Right away. They spoke to me. They said, 'Guilio? At last you have found what you've been looking for.'" The charm and exuberance of the attractive sixtysome-thing Italian couldn't be denied. "I am going to form a marriage that will show a whole new face of the elegant world of the Italian sports car."
Annabelle would never forget that day two months ago when the dynamic car designer had come to the Amalfi dealership in Los Angeles, California. He and her boss, Mel Jardine, the owner of the complex who sold the most Amalfi cars in the States, had business to talk over. Guilio was launching a spectacular new sports car.
Being Mel's personal assistant, Annabelle had taken care of all the arrangements to make Guilio comfortable, including catering their meals. He'd insisted she remain for the day-long meetings and he was so attentive, she feared the married man might be interested in her in a nonprofessional way. But he soon dispelled that worry by bringing on another one. He told her in front of Mel he wanted Annabelle to be the model to advertise his new car.
She laughed at the absurd notion, but he kept right on talking while Mel shot her a glance that said she should listen to this Italian genius.
"I'm perfectly serious. For the last year I've been searching for the right woman. I had no exact face or figure in mind. I only knew one day she would come along and I would know her." He stared at her. "And here you are. You have that Amalfi Girl look. You're unique, just like the car. Mel will tell you I've never used a female model before."
Annabelle knew he spoke the truth. She was familiar with the brochures around the shop. They only featured prosperous Italian men in ads with his cars, like a businessman from Milan, or a socialite from Florence.
"I'm so flattered I don't know what to say, Mr. Cavezzali."
"Guilio, then. But why bring in a woman now?" She was filled with curiosity. "Out of the whole car industry, your ads are the most appealing just as they are," she assured him and meant it.
He tapped his fingertips together. "That's gratifying to hear, but I want this campaign to be sensational. It's in honor of my brilliant boy." The hushed quality in his tone told Annabelle how very deeply he loved his son.
"Lucca went to military school at eighteen and has distinguished himself as a fighter pilot with many decorations to his credit." His eyes moistened. "He's my pride and joy. I've named my latest creation the Amalfi MB-Viper to let him know how much I admire what he has accomplished."
Ah Now she understood. He'd named his new sports car after the fighter jet his son flew.
He gazed at her for a long time. "I want your picture to adorn the brochures, the media ads, the video and the calendar I'm having made up to commemorate the launch. Every Amalfi dealership around the world will be sent posters and calendars ahead of shipment to create excitement about a whole new market of future Amalfi sports-car owners. Be assured I'll have security with you at every shoot for your safety."
When Annabelle got over being speechless, she said, "I'd be honored to play a part in its launch."
Someone else, like her ex-husband Ryan, would be speechless, too, when he saw her picture on the calendar. He'd dreamed about owning a flashy sports car when he'd finished his medical residency. One look at the new Amalfi MB-Viper and he would covet it. That is until he saw his boring, predictable ex-wife draped over it, swathed in silk and diamonds.
After their marriage, his affair with another nurse at the hospital where Annabelle had been finishing up her nursing degree had left her feeling like her soul had been murdered.
A chance meeting with Mel, who'd been one of the heart patients on her floor at the time, had resulted in her going to work for him. His job offer had spirited her away from a world of pain she'd wanted to put behind her and hopefully forget.
Now Guilio's faith in her being attractive enough to grace his ads gave her another shot of confidence her damaged self-esteem had been needing.
"You will stay at my home with my wife, Maria, and me. I'm eager to introduce you to my brothers and my two married stepsons, who work for me. They and their families live nearby."
"I'd love to meet all of them, but I couldn't impose on you and your wife that way."
"Hmm. I can see you're stubborn like my son. All right. I'll put you up in Ravello's finest hotel."
"No hotel. If I'm going to be in Italy, I want to stay in some quaint, modest bed-and-breakfast where it's quiet, away from people and I can soak in the atmosphere. Here in Los Angeles we're constantly hemmed in by each other."
He turned to Mel. "You won't mind loaning her to me? This is business."
Mel smiled. "Not if you send her back soon. I couldn't get along without her. She's the reason I haven't had another heart attack."
Guilio smacked his own head. "Cielo! We don't want that."
All three of them had laughed.
Eight weeks ago she'd agreed to model for him and now, having completed her first four days of work in Rome, she found herself transported to Ravello, home to the Cavezzali family and the Amalfi car, a design as spectacular as the Amalfi coast itself.
Perched high above the water, Ravello was more like a giant garden than a town. Guilio, who had his own villas here, called it the crown jewel of the Sorrentine Peninsula. Princes, movies stars and sheikhs, among others, were drawn to the cluster of colorful cliff side villages and sparkling harbors dotting the world-famous stretch of Italian coastline.
This was her first vacation since her honeymoon to Mexico four years ago. After telling Guilio she wanted to stay in one of those charming little Italian farmhouses like she'd seen in films and on television, the kind that made you dream about the countryside, he'd installed her here.
She'd learned this house sat on the little farm his first wife had left to his son Lucca. It had stood vacant for fifteen years. She was welcome to stay here.
The exterior was orangy-pink with jade shutters. The only door to the house was on the side and led into the kitchen. Pure enchantment. Since leaving the bustle of Rome earlier in the day, nothing could have delighted her more.
While its terrace overlooked the brilliant blue Tyrrhenian Sea, an explosion of white daisies reached for the sky and pushed their way through the bars of the railing. It was as if the house had been planted inside a basket of blossoms. She couldn't wait to go exploring the area in the morning, before her driver came by for her at eleven.
After taking off her clothes, she stepped in the shower. It felt good to wash her hair and emerge later feeling fresh and clean after traveling most of the day.
She threw on her well-worn navy robe and plugged in the adaptor before turning on the blow dryer. When the strands weren't quite as damp, she pinned them to the top of her head. Tomorrow the hairdresser would decide what he wanted to do with her shoulder-length hair for the photo shoot.
Another glance in the mirror proved that the Amalfi Girl was gone for the night.
Was twenty-six still young enough for her to be called a girl? Did her daily makeover at the hands of experts hide the traces of the betrayed widow? The camera would tell the truth, but Guilio believed in what he was doing. He believed in her. She already cared for him so much, she wanted this campaign to be a huge success and was determined to cooperate every way she could.
When Lucca learned what his father had done in his honor, he'd be touched beyond belief. It was very sweet really. Guilio was about as excited as a father who'd put his child's most wanted gift under the Christmas tree and couldn't wait for him to open it.
Unfortunately it was only June. Annabelle wondered how he was going to be able to wait until August when the car was finally out in the showrooms. The timing would coincide with his son's next leave and the grand unveiling would take place in Milan.
Guilio intended to fly her back over for the special event, which would be covered by Italian television and other media sources. "We'll do a blitz!" Guilio proclaimed with excitement. "Nothing's too good for my Lucca."
Annabelle imagined his bachelor son had the same Cavezzali drive and charm. She admitted to a growing curiosity about him. Guilio had told her the den at his villa was full of pictures showing his son at every stage of his life. The latest ones showed Lucca receiving commendations and ribbons. She was eager to see them along with everything else.
After stretching her arms, she smiled wryly to herself, still unable to believe that she was in the most glorious place on earth, enjoying a free vacation while she modeled, and having the time of her life. In a few weeks she would have to go home, but she refused to think about that right now.
Once she'd brushed her teeth, she turned out the light and padded down the beamed hall to the larger of the two bedrooms made ready for her. The cozy feel of the old house, which was filled with old family pictures and furnishings, enveloped her. So many stories these fieldstone walls would tell if they could speak.
Annabelle climbed under the covers of the double bed. With a sigh she sank back against the pillow and closed her eyes, more tired than she realized. On such a beautiful June night, she wished she could leave the windows open, but Guilio had warned her against it.
"You can't ever be too careful."
Annabelle knew he was right.
"Tomorrow after the shoot, I'll give you a car so you can come and go as you please."
"Thank you for everything, Guilio. I guess you know you've brought me to heaven."
"Ravello is the closest thing to it. Call me if you need anything. Sleep well, Annabelle. Ciao."
She didn't know why, but as she nestled into a more comfortable position, she had a feeling that love and laughter had filled this house years ago. Some marriages lasted. Her eyes misted. How nice for those lucky people