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SALVATORE stood outside the small family-owned jeweler's, feeling a wholly unfamiliar wariness.
It wasn't normal for him to hang back from a confrontation. He thrived on the head-to-head combat in the world of big business or the hand-to-hand combat sometimes necessary in his line of work, but this was something entirely different.
It would be a confrontation all right, but it wouldn't be related to business.
He didn't fool himself into believing Elisa would thank him for his interference in her life, even at the instigation of her worried papa. She'd spent a whole year avoiding Salvatore as if he had a particularly deadly communicable disease. She hated him with the same passion she had once given herself to him.
And he could not blame her. She had more reason than most to despise her ex-lover, but that did not mean he would accept his dismissal from her life. He couldn't. His Sicilian soul would not let such a debt remain outstanding. Even if she did not currently believe it, the di Vitale family was one of honor and he would not bring shame to the name.
He pushed open the door to Adamo Jewelers and frowned when he did not hear the faint buzz that should have accompanied his entry into the store. It was a minimum security measure to alert store employees to a customer's presence.
He took two steps inside and stopped. She was bending over one of the cases with a young couple. Her soft voice floated toward him even though he could not distinguish her words. Glossy brown hair he remembered best spread across white silk sheets had been pulled into a neat French twist. The conservative style exposed the delicate line of her neck and the faint pulse there that became very visible when she was sexually excited.
She was dressed with her usual flair in a sleeveless button-up blouse, the color of her moss-green eyes. Her straight skirt in a darker shade outlined her slender hips and small waist without showing more than a couple of inches of skin above the ankle. However, if she moved just a little bit, the slit in the back would give him a delicious view of legs he longed to have wrapped around his body in the throes of passion once again.
He gritted his teeth at the predictable reaction to his thoughts occurring below his belt.
He wanted her. Still. He doubted the physical compulsion to merge his flesh with hers would ever diminish. It hadn't in a year of absence. A year in which he had not even been tempted to touch another woman. Such physical desire could make up for a lot...even marriage.
The only course left open to him. The one way he could make reparation for his sins.
She said something to the couple and walked around to the back of the case to pull out a tray of diamond rings.
And saw him.
All the color drained from her face and her eyes, leaving them a bleak winter gray. It was opposite to the reaction she'd once had to his presence, when her eyes had lit up with affection and welcome. There was no welcome now.
No. Horror described her expression best. The tray tumbled from her hand and landed with a dull thud on the top of the glass case.
"Are you all right?"
Elisa forced her gaze to focus on the man who had just spoken instead of the phantom standing just inside the jewelry store's doorway. She managed to bare her teeth in a semblance of a smile. "Yes. I'm fine."
She straightened the ring tray. "You wanted to look at the marquis-cut solitaire?"
The young woman's eyes lit up and she nodded, turning to her new fiancé with such a look of love, it hurt Elisa to see it. She'd felt that way once.
But Salvatore had destroyed her love as surely as misfortune had destroyed their baby.
Pulling the ring under discussion out of its slot, she made herself smile more genuinely at the couple. It was a good thing to love and be loved in return. The fact that her own life had little hope of such an outcome was no reason to diminish the joy these two were so obviously feeling.
"Why don't you try this on?"
The young man, named David, took the ring and slid it onto his fiancée's finger, his expression tender.
"It fits perfectly," she breathed.
Elisa's smile was not nearly so hard to come by now. That would be another sale. Adamo Jewelers needed it. Desperately.
"It looks beautiful."
She'd almost convinced herself he wasn't there. That he'd been a figment of her imagination—a waking dream...or, rather, a nightmare.
The girl's head came up and she beamed at Salvatore as if he was some sort of benevolent benefactor, when Elisa knew he was anything but.
"Thank you, signor.""
"From the look of the ring, congratulations are in order, are they not?"
It was David's turn to smile. "Oh, yes. We're going to be married as soon as we get back home."
"Isn't that romantic?" gushed the girl. She looked warmly at her soon-to-be husband. "We met while we were on a European tour. We loved Italy so much, we decided to stay an extra couple of weeks."
"And then we decided to get married." David sounded very satisfied by that state of affairs, his Texas drawl putting emphasis on the word "married."
"Congratulations. I'm sure you'll be very happy," said the man for whom the word "commitment" was considered equivalent to a four-letter word of the worst order.
Elisa ignored him while the couple thanked him for his good wishes, bought the ring and the matching wedding bands that went with it and then left.
After they were gone, she busied herself arranging the jewelry in the case to disguise the hole left by the sold merchandise. She didn't have anything else to put there and wouldn't until after the auction. There were no funds to buy more stones, much less the gold to set them.
"Pretending I'm not here will not make me go away."
She turned and faced him, despising the physical impact his presence even now had on her body.
Her nipples tightened and she felt a reaction in her inmost being she had not had in twelve long months. It was the reaction of her body to its natural mate. Even if her mind and her heart detested him, her body insisted on behaving as if they had been created one for the other.
Not likely. "Why are you here?" As if she couldn't guess. She'd lived in Italy most of her adult life and her father was Sicilian. One thing she'd come to realize: Italian guilt was a heavy burden, but Sicilian guilt was even heavier.
And Salvatore had a lot to feel guilty about. More than he knew. More than she would willingly tell him.
Did he want absolution? He shifted his six-foot-four-inch frame into a leaning position against one of the cases. "Your father sent me."
"Papa?" Her heart contracted. "Is something wrong?"
Dark eyes probed hers and she wanted to close the lids, to protect her inmost thoughts from a man who saw too much while at the same time seeing far too little. He had seen her desire for him, but had not recognized the love. He had seen her reticence about becoming involved, but had been blind to the innocence that had spawned it.
In the end, he had seen her pregnancy, but not his own imminent fatherhood in it.
He sighed now, as if what he saw in her eyes bothered him. "Other than the fact you have not come home in over a year?"
"Sicily is not my home."
"It is where your father lives."
"And his wife."
"Your sister also."
Yes, Annemarie lived with her parents still. Only three years younger than Elisa's twenty-five years, Annemarie showed no signs of wanting to move out and make it on her own in the world. Shawna, Elisa's mother, would be appalled, just as she had been by even the slightest inclination to cling shown by her own daughter.
Elisa had been raised to be fiercely independent. Her sister had been cosseted in true Sicilian tradition. "Annemarie will probably live at home until she marries."
"This is not a bad thing."
Elisa shrugged. "To each her own." She was pleased with her life in the small town outside of Rome. Her job allowed her to travel, at least when there were the funds to do so, and she had no one to dictate to her. No one at all.
"The announcement buzzer did not go off when I entered the store."
Trust a security expert to notice. "It's broken."
"It must be fixed."
"It will be." After the auction. "You have not asked why your father asked me to come."
"I assumed you'd tell me when you were ready. You implied there was nothing wrong with him."
"There is not. If you discount the fear he has for your safety."
Had her father told Salvatore about the crown jewels? She wouldn't put it past him. Francesco Guiliano was a traditional man. Elisa was the result of his one ride on the wild side, an affair with film star Shawna Tyler. He'd wanted marriage when the pregnancy was discovered. Her mother had said no, and meant it. She hadn't wanted a husband to tie her down and had never allowed having a daughter to do so either.
"Why is Papa afraid for me?" She'd been living on her own for seven years.
"He does not believe Signor di Adamo has sufficient security to take possession of something as valuable and controversial as the crown jewels of Mukar."
"That's ridiculous. This is a jewelry store. Of course we can handle having possession of the jewels."
Salvatore moved an impatient hand. "They are worth ten times the entire stock in this place. There is more than one faction in Mukar that is unhappy with the dissolution of the monarchy and the sale of the jewels."
"Mukar needs the working capital. The former crown prince understands that and was willing to make whatever sacrifices were necessary to help his country survive."
"Nevertheless, you are at risk." He sounded so solemn, as if he actually cared.
She almost snorted. Right. Salvatore might feel guilty about the way he'd treated her, but he didn't care about her and she'd be a fool to allow herself the luxury of that fantasy.
"I'm perfectly fine."
"With a broken security buzzer?" He looked around the small jewelry store with a contemptuous eye. "The other security measures here are old and out of date. Even a second-rate thief would have no problem robbing Adamo Jewelers."
"That's not going to happen. There hasn't been a robbery at Adamo's since before Signor di Adamo took over the store and he's in his sixties."