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'SUPERSTITIOUS old Enrica saw a black cat this morning.
She told me it means there are pirates in town. You had better put on something sexier than that black shroud and try to catch yourself a rich one, Sienna!' Imelda Basso jeered out of an upstairs window. Down in the courtyard, her stepdaughter Sienna gritted her teeth and smiled. She said nothing. Sometimes, silence was her only weapon against Imelda.
Sienna loaded a last box into the local Co-operative's van and escaped to market. Working on the stall got her out of the house, but freedom was a mixed blessing. It made her feel like a hen released from a broody coop. The noise and dazzling colour of Portofino always came as a shock to her. It was such a contrast with her daily life that all Sienna wanted to do when she got there was to retreat back into herself, to concentrate on her knitting and take up as little space as possible. But that was no good. Nobody would buy from a mouse. The Piccia Co-operative needed sales. Its members relied on this stall. They intended to increase their contribution to local charities this year, too. That meant everyone had to do their bitSienna included. She had to push herself.
She was developing a coping strategy. She kept her head down, and made sure she always looked busy. It was the perfect way to avoid having to talk to anybody until the exact moment they were ready to buy.
Sienna recognised a lot of familiar faces around the market, although she had never been brave enough to strike up a conversation with any of them. Yet today was different. Someone new caught her eyeand held it. A tall stranger was moving through the chaos of deliveries and conversations on the other side of the square. Sienna had to look away, fast. He was so different from the market men that her stomach contracted. A single glance was enough to tell her that this was someone special. He was really well dressed, and the quiet confidence of his movements set him apart from the brash, swaggering pitchers around him. Sienna risked a couple of direct looks at the stranger, as well as more covert glances from beneath her lashes. She reassured herself that no one would suspect a shy widow of anything more than curiosity.
The new arrival was certainly worth examining. His determined attitude, coupled with that neat dark hair and the clean, strong lines of his jaw, marked him out as someone very special indeed. He moved from stall to stall with all the style of a Roman emperor on a tour of inspection. Sienna wondered what it was like to be so self-assured. This man obviously expected to go anywhere and do anything. She watched as he sampled olives, tasted walnuts, or accepted a spoonful of goats' cheese spread on a biscuit. He did not stop anywhere long enough to buy, but moved on in a restless search for the next novelty. Sienna would never have dared to try something at a stall and then leave without purchasing. She wondered how he could have the nerve. His easy manner showed it was not a problem for him.
Hypnotised by watching him idle along from place to place, she suddenly realised it was almost time for her stall to come under his scrutiny. Her mind dissolved in horror. What would she say? Here was a gorgeous manwith plenty of money to spend, judging by his appearance. He would be an ideal customer. If only she could succeed in getting him to buy where everyone else in the market had failed
With difficulty, she kept her gaze away from the approaching stranger. If she didn't look at him directly, he might pass on by. She screwed her hands into balls of nerves. Why did this have to happen when she was working alone? Anna Maria or any one of the other co-op members would have leapt forward and made a sale. All Sienna could do was blush and shrink and turn aside, hoping that the handsome newcomer would pass straight by.
She counted the change in the pouch at her waist. Then she switched her attention back to her table, making sure the goods were still neatly displayed, touching everything as though for luck. She repeated her little rituals until she was sure he must have passed by. Even so, it was quite a while before she felt brave enough to glance around the market again.
There was no sign of the stranger. With a huge sigh of relief Sienna relaxed. It was all too much for her. She hadn't wanted to be seen blushing, as she knew she would have done if she'd spoken to the handsome stranger. In Piccia, where she lived, good reputations took a lifetime to forge. And people expected to see a certain standard of behaviour from a widow. One word or action out of place could destroy her reputation in an instant. Sienna thought of the local woman whose husband had divorced her in order to marry his mistress. The wife had been the innocent party, but looks and whispers had followed her everywhere. Eventually she had been hounded out of her birthplace.
Sienna could not bear to think of being the subject of gossip. Her stepmother, Imelda, would never forgive her. And her anger frightened Sienna. Just the thought of Imelda's displeasure was enough to keep Sienna on the straight and narrowbut then virtue was an easy path in Piccia. There was no temptation. All the boys left as soon as they could. Only men with private incomes or those too old to escape lived in Piccia now.
Sienna sighed. She liked the quiet village life, but it came at a huge price. Imelda was determined to marry her off to a rich man again as soon as it was decent. Sienna's late husband had had only one blood relative, a distant cousin called Claudio di Imperia, and Imelda had him in mind as Sienna's next suitor. One look at Claudio's pinched, pale face had told Sienna that 'fun'was not a word with any meaning for him. If I have to be married, why can't I choose who it's going to be? she thought angrily.
The good-looking stranger was now bending over a stand on the far side of the market. He was concentrating on a display of everything imaginable that could be made from chestnuts. While he was busy, Sienna took the chance to study him againbut only while the other stallholders weren't looking.
The visitor was dressed in Armani, she noticed, and his thick dark hair was neatly trimmed. What a contrast he made with her unwanted future husband. Claudio wore his frayed cuffs and bad haircut like medals for economy. But Imelda always said it didn't matter what a man looked like as long as he had plenty of money in the bank. In Sienna's house, Imelda Basso's word was law. The only thing that woman feared was public opinionwhich was why Sienna was determined to wear black for as long as possible. It was protection. No one in the village would forgive Imelda if she tried to marry off her stepdaughter when the 'poor girl' was still in mourning.
Snared away from her thoughts, Sienna realised in a panic that he was coming in her direction again. She looked down quickly, already worrying about what to say if he spoke to her. Then she remembered her stepmother's mocking laughter. Who is going to be interested in Piccia's homespun rubbish?
Sienna's shoulders sagged. Was there no escape from the echo of that woman's voice? It was even invading her daydreams.
Was Imelda right? Would anybody as rich as him be interested in her stall? The gorgeous stranger would probably buy some of those dark handmade chocolates wrapped in crackling cellophane and ribbon for his equally shrink-wrapped and sophisticated girlfriend. He's bound to have one, Sienna thought, and I'll bet she never wears black.
'Excuse me, missI wonder if you could direct me to the Church of San Gregorio?'
A loud, cultured voice made her flush with confusion. She looked upbut it was not the person she had hoped it would be. Instead of her dashing hero, she found herself staring at the expectant faces of a couple of tourists.
All Sienna's tension dissolved in a self-conscious giggle. She gave the directions, and even managed to exchange a few cheerful words. Then a cloud blotted out her relief. While she had been busy chatting, a presence had arrived beside her. That was the only way she could describe it. The tall, well-dressed stranger had materialised at her elbow.
All her worries flooded back, stifling her voice as soon as the tourists said goodbye. She was alone with him. Sienna had no option but to look up and smile. Straight away she made sure she could not be accused of flirting. It didn't matter that she was twenty kilometres from home, Sienna knew that the moment she showed the slightest interest in any male over the age of ten, the news would reach her stepmother before you could say 'torrid affair'.
The vision smiled back. Sienna gazed at him, at a loss. And then he spoke.
'I heard you speaking English to that couple.' He came straight to the point in a distinctive accent. It matched his frank, typically American expression.
'I wondercould you please direct me to the best restaurant around here?'
Was that all he needed? Sienna wanted to feel relief rush through her, but it didn't happen. His steady gaze was too intense for that. His dark brown eyes mesmerised her, in the split second she allowed herself to look up into his face. Quickly, she looked down again. The very best place to eat was about twenty kilometres away, up in the hills. No one in Piccia could afford to eat in Il Pettirosso, where Anna Maria's husband Angelo worked, but it was the restaurant Sienna always visited in her daydreams. As all the staff were local, and this visitor had chosen her for her ability to speak English, it might not be for him. But his confident yet relaxed stance told Sienna that this man would fit in anywhere. And he is exactly the sort who might try and turn my simplest reply into a conversation, she thought nervously.
Conversation was a risk Sienna could not take. She had enough grief in her life already, and didn't want any more. This would never have happened if the man had bought something when he'd first walked into the market, she reflected. The other stallholders always spoke English when a customer showed real signs of spending money. She glanced sideways at the walnut-faced market men squinting through smoke from their roll-ups, and the nonnas sitting in judgement like black toads.
'There are lots of good restaurants down by the sea, signor. Many of them have menus printed in French or English,' she added helpfully.
'I've heard that some places on the coast take advantage of the tourist dollar, and as I can actually speak a little Italian, signorina, the language won't necessarily be a problem for me.'
He smiled, and Sienna could believe it.
'In which case, the best place is twenty or thirty minutes' drive out of town. And it's quite a walk to the cab rank from here.'
Especially in shoes like those, she thought, her gaze firmly fixed on his Guccis.
'That won't necessarily matter. I was going to hire a car and invite some old friends out for lunch while I'm in their neighbourhood.'
The urge to look up at him grew too strong, so Sienna gave in. A change had come over his expression. It was as though a cloud had passed in front of the sun, and she realised he disliked giving out information about himself.
Sienna nervously passed the tip of her tongue over her lips.
'The only thing is the restaurant I recommended really needs somebody in your party who has an ear for the local dialect. Perhaps your friends are fluent, signor? Il Pettirosso is remote, and very much a haunt of those "in the know", as I think the saying goes. Are you sure you wouldn't be better off going to one of the fashionable places down by the sea after all? They get so much business from tourists that it's accepted all their staff will speak English. All sorts of famous people go there,'she finished lamely, in case he was famous, too, and she simply hadn't recognised him. With those expectant eyes and resolute mouth, he looked as though he should have an international fan club.
'I loathe watching money being thrown around solely in the hope of making an impression,' he announced.
'I prefer good food and service in excellent company. In which of your suggested places would you choose to eat?'
'If I could go anywhere?' Sienna could hardly imagine such luxury.
'Go anywhere, spend anythingI don't care what it costs as long as it's value for money.'
'Oh, then that's easy!' Sienna warmed with the thought of it.
'Il Pettirossoeven if it means buying a phrasebook to help with the ordering. It's a wonderful place with smoked glass windows so passers-by can't see inside. They specialise in local dishes, and everything is freshly prepared from the finest ingredients. Regional food is cooked there to the highest possible standard.'
His smile returned.
'That sounds just my sort of place. Authentic cuisine and an authentic name!'
'It's actually a sort of bird, signor. They live in the woodlands, and I shouldn't think you would ever see one inside Il Pettirosso. Unless they have pictures of them on the menu, of course.'
Putting his head on one side, he looked at her acutely.
'Are you telling me you've never actually eaten there?'
Sienna shook her head. The thought of trying to get her late husband Aldo over the threshold of a place like that made her smile.
The stranger reached inside his jacket and pulled out a small mobile phone. Flipping it open, he handed it to Sienna. She looked at him in bewilderment.
'Go on, thenthe choice is made. Would you mind booking it for me, please, signorina? I might have a problem making myself understood if I can't give them some visual clues. I'll need a table for four at midday. That will give me plenty of time to make all the other arrangements.'
'I shall need a name, signor.'
'Oh, just tell them it is for Garett Lazlo,' he said, as though giving her the answer to everything.
Sienna's eyes widened at this, but she rang the restaurant as instructed. To her amazement, the booking was accepted straight away. Within seconds the formalities were complete. Next moment, the receptionist at Il Pettirosso was thanking her for the call with a warm goodbye. For a few precious seconds Sienna could fool herself that she was his glamorous personal assistant, making an official business call.
The phone was warmed by a faint fragrance of handsome Mr Lazlo. Sienna savoured it for as long as she could, until she had to hand it back.
'And now, signorinacan you achieve a double triumph, and point me in the direction of a decent car?'
Garett Lazlo tucked the phone back inside his jacket, all set to go. The part of Sienna that was not still under the influence of his masculine aroma almost managed to feel relieved.
'If you go straight through the market, then turn right and carry on across town, there is a prestige hire firm within a kilometre. Keep your back to the harbour and you can't miss it,' she said quickly.
It sounded as though there was a smile in his voice, but Sienna did not trust herself to check. When she eventually raised her head her visitor was strolling away, his jacket slung over one shoulder. With an unfamiliar pang of excitement she realised she could stare at him openly now, because everyone else in the market was doing exactly the same thing. Among that gallery, one more person admiring the tall, slim stranger would go unnoticed. Even if that person was 'poor, downtrodden Sienna', as everyone called her when they thought she could not hear.
She dared herself to take in his appearance for a few more minutes. There were always plenty of foreigners in Portofino, but this one was definitely something special. As she watched him walk away, Sienna was reliving every word he had spoken to her. Their conversation ran through her mind on an endless loophis self-confidence, and her hesitancy. Butterflies were dancing in her stomach, although he had probably forgotten her almost instantly. He was looking over the other stalls again, and with genuine interest. The morning sunlight glowed against the dazzling white of his shirt. In contrast, his hair was gypsy-dark. Only a slight natural curl softened the depths of its carelessly expensive cut. Sienna found herself wondering what it would be like to trail her fingers through its luxuriance. The thought alarmed her, and she tried to look away. But it was hopeless. She had no choice but to watch him furtively until he was right out of sight, around the corner.
He never looked back. In contrast, Sienna spent the next hour glancing around for him.