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Aiden Williams buried his chin deeper into his wool scarf as he shifted from one foot to the other on the cobblestones in front of Forno Leoncini. Cursing himself for leaving his gloves in the car, he blew into his cupped hands before shoving them into the pockets of his corduroys.
What had previously been a light snowfall had gained strength over the past few minutes, the thick flakes swirling around him as the wind kicked up. He knew he couldn't stand out here forever, but he wasn't ready to make his presence known. Not yet.
Despite the cold, his skin grew hot as he peered through the bakery's garland-framed windowpane. His eyes focused on the woman standing before a rectangular stone table, her flour-covered fist punching a ball of dough. The last time he'd seen her in the flesh, she was standing in a church vestibule, wearing a wedding gown, preparing to marry his older brother, Cameron.
Three years later, Aiden was still conflicted over how he felt about Cameron being a no-show for his own wedding. On the one hand, he was grateful he had not been forced to endure years of seeing Nyla and his brother living as man and wife. Aiden doubted he would have been able to stomach it, knowing that she was only pretending.
Yet Cameron's decision to stand her up at the altar had been the catalyst that prompted Nyla's hasty move to Europe. She'd left Atlanta a week after the aborted nuptials and had not been back since.
But here she was, a mere twenty feet away. And she was as sexy as ever. More gorgeous than he remembered, if that was even possible.
Aiden turned up his coat collar as the snow began to fall in earnest. Uncertainty, entwined with a heavy dose of nervousness, kept him rooted where he stood, just outside the warm glow cast by the bakery's interior lights. He was unsure how Nyla would react to him tracking her down to this small town tucked away in the hills of the Siena region in Tuscany.
He'd debated the entire drive here whether to contact her but decided against giving Nyla any notice. Aiden was convinced she'd make an excuse for why he shouldn't come, just as she had done the previous three times he'd suggested they meet in the month since he'd been in Zurich, Switzerland, consulting on an IT project for a worldwide banking gianta job he only accepted because it brought him to Europe.
No, he wasn't giving her a chance to back out this time. He'd come too far to find herhe'd crossed a damn ocean.
Yet Aiden still couldn't bring himself to take these last few steps. Because worse than having Nyla make excuses about why she couldn't see him would be to have her flat-out reject him to his face.
His gut clenched with a sharp ache. Nyla wouldn't do that.
Even though she had.
Aiden mentally blocked the words she'd spoken the last time he saw her face-to-face, as he had more times than he could count over the past three years. He never believed them anyway. Guilt and fear had forced her to say the things she'd said that day. He knew what was in Nyla's heart.
Which was why, when she mentioned on Facebook that she would be spending Christmas alone, he canceled his nonstop flight to Atlanta and rented a car instead. He'd made the six-and-a-half-hour drive from Zurich to San Gimignano, Italy, in just under eight hours. If not for the snow, which he'd never driven in before, and the road signs written in a language he didn't understand, he would have been here much sooner.
Once he'd made the decision to finally go to her, Aiden couldn't get here fast enough. Now he just needed to take this final step.
His eyes remained focused on Nyla as she labored over the dough, punching it down, flipping it over and reshaping it. Memories of the countless hours he'd spent perched on the kitchen counter at his parents' home, orlater, as they became closerat Nyla's house in Kirkwood, watching her do this very same thing, had his chest tightening with a mercifully sweet ache.
His favorite fantasy of all time was imagining Nyla coming to him, sweaty from the kitchen heat, with that sexy smile that used to curve up the corner of her mouth. She would crook her finger and he would obey. He would take her then and there, on the kitchen table, up against the counter. Anywhere he damn well pleased.
Aiden shut his eyes against the onslaught of wanting that crashed through him.
Why had he let her pretend that the attraction between them was one-sided? Why had he let her get away without fighting for her?
None of that mattered anymore. She was here now, and Aiden wasn't letting her get away.
He straightened his spine.
He hadn't come all this way to stare at Nyla through a window. He'd come with one goal in mind, to convince her that he was the Williams brother she should have been with all along.
"You can do this," he whispered.
He had to do this. He was tired of living without her.
Aiden sucked in a deep breath of the frigid air, opened the bakery's front door and walked inside.
Nyla Thompson held the crayon drawing she'd received in the mail yesterday close to her face while she held her phone out in front of her with the other hand.
"I love the Christmas card you made for me, Angelique. It's the most beautiful drawing I've ever seen in my entire life," she told her niece through her phone's web-chat app.
"It's me, Mommy, Daddy, Landon and the Christmas tree," the four-year-old said. "Jack is behind me," she tacked on, referring to the old beagle Nyla's sister Rae had owned long before she became a wife and the mother of two.
"Your aunt Nyla needs to get back to work," Nyla heard just before Rae came back into view. Her sister took the electronic tablet from her daughter and smiled at Nyla. "I don't want to keep you too long, but she demanded to talk to you before we left for the cabin," Rae said. "She was so afraid her Christmas card wouldn't arrive before Christmas."
Nyla's heart melted. "She's such a sweetie. You have to bring both her and Landon the next time you come here."
"A four-year-old and a two-year-old on a nine-hour flight across the Atlantic? You must be delusional," Rae said. "I think it's high time you made it back to Atlanta for a visit. Patrick and Lana will soon have another niece for you to meet. I'm hoping for a New Year's Day baby."
Their brother's wife was due with their first child in just a matter of days. The desire to be there to welcome her newest niece into the world was so overwhelming that Nyla had seriously contemplated doing something she had not done in almost three yearsreturn to the United States.
"I'll think about it," Nyla said.
The sarcastic look on her sister's face spoke volumes. "Sure you will," Rae said. "We have to get on the road, so I'll talk to you later."
"Drive safely," Nyla said. "And tell everyone I said hello when you get to the cabin. I'll call you all Christmas morning."
"Make sure it's Christmas morning our time, not yours."
"Yes, I know," Nyla said with a laugh. She waved goodbye to her sister and ended the face-to-face Web chat.
Pocketing her phone, Nyla pushed back at the wave of melancholy that threatened to wash over her. She had become an expert at battling homesickness, but it was always worse during the holidays. That was the one time of the year that her scattered family came together. The tradition had started when they were kids, when her parents would take them to a cabin in the Smoky Mountains to enjoy the holiday. For the third year in a row, she was missing it.
She thought about the legal pad sitting next to her computer, upstairs in the apartment over the bakery that she sublet from Murano Leoncini, the bakery owner's eldest son. The pad had a list of properties that could possibly house a highend bakery. She'd started her search for available retail space in the Atlanta area the same day Murano emailed to say that he planned to return to San Gimignano and finally fulfill his father's dream for him to take over the family business.
Maybe it was time she started thinking about her dreams again. But was she ready to take that next step? To go back home to Atlanta?
Dread coiled within her belly just at the thought.
"Stop it." She punched the bread dough with more force than it warranted before flipping it over and kneading it. She worked the dough for another minute, then transferred it to a bowl.
The bell above the bakery's front entrance clanged.
"Dammit," Nyla whispered. She'd been meaning to turn the sign to closed for the past twenty minutes.
"Solo un minuto," she called. She draped a moistened linen cloth over the bowl of dough and set it on the ledge of the wood-fired stone oven so the heat could help the dough rise. Wiping her hands on the apron tied around her waist, she walked over to the old CD player boom box Guido Leoncini kept in the kitchen and turned the volume down on her favorite holiday album, A Motown Christmas. Then she walked over to the retail area of Leoncini's.
"Posso aiutarlo? " she asked the gentleman who stood with his hands in his pockets, his eyes fixed on the few loaves that remained on the shelves that lined the bakery's right wall.
He turned and Nyla gasped.
She tried to close her mouth, but her slacked jaw wouldn't cooperate. It was as if the pathway between her brain and the rest of her body was blocked, because despite telling herself to move, or at least say something else, for God's sake, all she could do was openly stare.
An apprehensive smile lifted one corner of his mouth.
"Hey," he said.
"Hey," she replied.
Hey? After three years, that's all two highly intelligent people could come up with? The absurdity of it nearly drew a hysterical laugh from her, or maybe it was just anxiety over the fact that he was actually standing here in front of her.
"You're here," she said, shifting from one foot to the other. She folded her arms over her chest and then quickly dropped her hands to her sides. Her nerves were so jumbled she didn't know what to do with herself. "What are you doing here?"
With that trace of nervousness still evident in his eyes, he lifted one shoulder in an easy shrug. "I asked a couple of people on the street where I could find a good loaf of bread. Everyone pointed me to this place."
A sharp, shocked laugh shot out of Nyla's mouth, and, just like that, the trepidation that had caused her muscles to tense upon seeing him began to ease.
"I see your sense of humor is as healthy as ever," Nyla said.
"You always said it was my best asset."
She nodded. It was. Though he rarely let others see it. It was when he'd gradually started to reveal that side of himself to her that Nyla realized he saw her differently, as someone he could trust enough to share the real Aiden with. Her downfall had come when she began to reciprocate those feelings.
"So?" He tilted his head to the side and rubbed his jaw. "Do I at least get a hug?"
She hesitated for the briefest second before she closed the short distance between them and wrapped her arms around the man who, in what seemed like a lifetime ago, nearly became her brother-in-law.
If only he had not started to become so much more
Nyla quickly released him and took a step back. She struggled to maintain her composure under his direct gaze, her hand self-consciously brushing a wayward strand of hair off her forehead.
"So, really, what are you doing here? Didn't you mention that you were going back home for the holidays?"
A knowing grin eased up the corner of his lips. "So you do check out my Facebook page more often than you've been letting on."
She cursed the heat that instantly rushed to her cheeks.
"Occasionally," she admitted. "How else am I supposed to keep up with your asinine Doctor Who commentary?"
His smile broadened and Nyla's lungs suddenly had the hardest time functioning. That smile had come to mean so much to her in such a short amount of time. And she'd missed it. She'd missed it so much more than she'd allowed herself to admit.
"I considered going home," he said. "But I decided it didn't make much sense to fly all the way to Atlanta when I have to be back in Zurich just after New Year's Day. I figured I'd take these few days off to see a bit more of the continent." His shrug was casual, but his deep brown eyes held a hint of uncertainty. "Is it okay that I'm here?"
Nyla considered his inquiry for a moment. He'd contacted her on several occasions over the past few weeks, asking if she would be willing to meet with him. She'd given the idea lip service, even going so far as to suggest lunch at her favorite café in Milan, halfway between Zurich and San Gimignano. But she'd already had excuses waiting in the wings for if and when he ever brought it up again.
There were no excuses to buy her any more time. Aiden was here.
"Of course it's okay that you came," Nyla finally said.
But even as the words left her mouth, a prickle of unease traveled along her nerve endings.
Since fleeing Atlanta three years ago she had worked to maintain a certain distance from anything that reminded her of the single most painful part of her past. Other than Rae, who had visited once since Nyla moved to Europe, she had not been near anyone else who had witnessed the humiliation she'd suffered on what should have been the happiest day of her life, her wedding day.
Her stomach clutched with the pain that never failed to strike whenever she thought about that day.
Her wedding day should have been the happiest of her life, but it wasn't, and unlike what many probably suspected, it had nothing to do with her groom deciding not to show up. It was because, for months before her wedding day ever arrived, she had been living a lie.
It had taken Nyla a long time to acknowledge the feelings she'd denied for so long, feelings she'd started to have toward Aiden months before she'd fled from Georgia. While she was still engaged to his brother.
But that was a long time ago. She had worked through those issues and had come to terms with the mistakes she'd made. She could handle seeing Aiden again.
Reaching for his hands, Nyla captured them both and gave them a gentle but firm squeeze. "It really is good to see you again," she said.
And she meant it. The price she'd paid for falling in love with him had been steepit had upended her entire life. But she could not deny that the feelings had been real.
"It's good to see you, too, Nyla."
The earnestness in his voice, the sincerity in his eyes, the way he tightened his hold on her handsit confirmed the one thing she feared she would find if they ever came face-to-face again. After three long years, nothing had changed. They were both still caught up in this forbidden love that had caused so much pain for so many.
Nyla dragged in a steadying breath as she extracted her hands from his hold.