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"Oh, my God, isn't that your husband?"
Claire Brady stiffened at the urgent whisper. An instant before, she'd been basking in the afterglow of a deal that, now struck, concluded her business for the next weekmostly. The gallery was too much a part of who she was to ever truly be put aside, even for a single day. But in that moment, her phone had been quiet, her mind at peace, her senses drifting with the gentle breeze as she'd absorbed the bustle and beauty of Rome's Piazza Navona while light circles, courtesy of a dishy Italian seated to her right, stroked over her palm.
It felt good. She felt good. And she'd wondered if maybe this time
Well, so much for that.
She shook her head apologetically at Paulo, the dishy Italian under consideration, and then shot Sally, her best friend, assistant and perpetual alarmist, an emphatic no.
She'd known sharing the secret of her ex would come back to bite her, but balanced against the isolation of holding herself apart for so many years, Sally's occasional false alarm was a price she'd been more than willing to pay. Still, this was the third "Ryan sighting" this month alone.
"The man lives in California. The United States. Besides, if he were traveling abroad, we'd already know it," she promised with a nod toward the newsstand at the corner of the piazza.
When all else failed, fell short or slipped away, there was one thing in her marriage to Ryan Brady that Claire could count on. And that was the media keeping her abreast of every sordid detail of his liaisons, financial conquests and daily adventures. No waiting by the door with a cocktail at five for her. She had the world news to tell her how his day had been and with whom he'd spent the night. And in this case, she had it on reliable authority that as of fifteen hours ago, Ryan Brady had been meeting with his lawyer in downtown L.A.
Sally's mouth pulled into a sideways twist that suggested she wasn't convinced. Her gaze darted between the newsstand and the fountain across the way. "Hmm. But this guy really looked like him."
Sure he did. "Like the homeless guy at the station looked like that actor Gerard Bu"
"Hey, he could have been in disguise."
"Eating out of a Dumpster?" Claire tried to stifle her laughter, but then simply gave herself over to it. At the stubborn jut of Sally's jaw, she pulled her in for a quick hug, earning herself a good-natured pinch in the process. "Ouch!"
"Hey, maybe he's a method actor or something."
Laughter subsiding, she grinned at her friend and conceded, "Maybe."
She sipped her espresso, enjoying the rich flavor rolling over her tongue, and set the shot-glass-size cup back on the paper-covered table.
Their trip couldn't be shaping up better. Getting away was good for both of them. Sally, because she needed more of a life outside the gallery than she'd allowed herself over the last year, and Claire.well, the timing had worked out providing a convenient excuse when she'd rather desperately needed one.
Claire cast a quick glance over her shoulder toward Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi where its Egyptian obelisk needled the washed-blue sky abovenot so much looking for Ryan in the crush of milling tourists, as perhaps hoping to catch a glimpse of this stranger who resembled him. Though as quickly as the thought processed, she pushed it back.
Seated in the shadow of the church of Sant'Agnese in Agone, amid the splendor of baroque Roman sculpture and architecture, the last thing she should have been looking for was a man who reminded her of her estranged husband. It wasn't a healthy pastime. In fact, it fell only one rung below "looking for men who resembled Ryan and were toting babies with them" on the ladder of exceptionally bad and self-destructive ideas.
She'd moved on. Long ago. Really.
And yet she couldn't resist one last sweeping glance across the piazza. Chalk it up to morbid curiosity, but she wanted a look.
Her gaze tripped from one lacking male physique to another without need to stopnot one of them could even remotely pass for Ryan.
Sally's brow smoothed as she shrugged back into her chair, snuggling beneath the outstretched arm of her date, Massimo. "Okay, maybe I was wrong. I don't even see him now. Sorry."
"No problem," Claire assured with a dismissive wave.
Only, there was a problem. The damage had already been done. Whatever mood had been set mere moments before seemed to have evaporated beneath the reminder of a life Claire had put behind her. As if to illustrate the point, Paulo's seductive caress moved from her palm to the pulse point at her wrist.eliciting zero response. Not that he'd exactly had her enraptured before. But there'd been potential. Hope that this tall, dark, Roman stranger would spark something long dead within her to life.
Only now, the whole interactionthem seated beneath the open Italian sky, surrounded by the throngs of tourists populating Piazza Navona, with Paulo doing his best to seduce her across a small outdoor table while his friend did the same with Sallyit seemed so contrived.
Obviously of another opinion, Sally giggled and leaned over to Claire, her fingers cupped around her mouth as she whispered in her ear, "Since we've officially transitioned from gallery business to pleasure, do you mind if Massimo and I take off?"
Claire pulled back, searching her friend's eyes for any doubt and, finding none, gave a quick shake of her head.
Massimo stood behind her, straightening his jacket as he issued a few words to Paulo before stepping away from the table with Sally's hand secured in his. Sally laughed delightedly, and peered back, "You'll be okay?"
Claire's smile broadened in response. "Of course! Go, have fun."
At Sally and Massimo's retreat, Paulo's voice rolled across the table between them. "Ora bella, avete solo."
To any normal woman on the planet his pleasure at having her alone would have sounded like sin on a plate. A temptation too tasty to ignore. But then, Claire didn't exactly fit the norm. Not anymore.
Meeting his smoky gaze with the clarity of her own, she sighed and pulled out the smile reserved for situations such as this one. It was cool and remote. Subtly off-putting without being overtly hostile. Just enough for a suitor to recognize the futility of his efforts, without actually insulting him.
It was a time-tested dismissal that workedexcept Paulo remained undeterred.
Well, she'd warned him. And honestly, the stroke of his thumb over her captive limb wasn't anything she couldn't ignore. Eventually he'd get the picture. And in the meantime, Claire had plenty to occupy her mind with the coup she'd just pulled off for the gallery. Faye Lansing had been a hunch. A bit of instinct and a lot of luck. The painting Claire discovered hanging on a bathroom wallof all places!in a client's home in Connecticut had been spectacular, leading her to track down the as-yet-undiscovered artist here in Rome. But that work had been nothing compared to what she'd seen at the studio this morning. Claire had scored Faye's first U.S. exhibitand more than that, she'd secured her commitment to participate in the gallery's Young Artist Program as well. The kids were going to love her, and the way she spoke about her craft.it was pure passion.
She was so excited, and already sketching out a plan for an exhibit in the West Hall. With the interplay of light and color, that space would complement the work
Suddenly Claire's attention snapped back to the present. To Paulo. And a touch that couldn't be ignored after all. What began at her palm had migrated to her wrist, and was now on the move again, stealthily advancing toward the crook of her elbow and, no doubt, beyond.
Distaste turned within her at the sight of his fingers slipping over skin numb to his appeal.
Hurt feelings or damaged pride weren't her intent, but if subtle didn't do the trick then she wouldn't be subtle. Resigned, she closed her eyes and braced for a blunt no-nonsense dismissal.
Only, in the next instant, the air around her changed. Charged with an electric current that rolled over her skin, bringing every fine hair and nerve to attention. Paulo's fingers stilled where they were, and Claire's eyes burst open as a strong, wide hand closed over her shoulder and smoothed into a possessive caress toward her neck.
"Hey, kitten. Remember me?"
Oh, God. Sally hadn't been wrong at all.
The air leaked from her chest in a groan, pushing the name poised at her lips free. "Ryan."
"Try to contain your excitement. You're making me blush." His gruff laugh, deep and darkly confident, sounded at her ear an instant before his lips brushed the tender skin beneath.
Claire jolted at the affrontdefinitely not from the tingling sensation skirting her skinand instinctively grabbed for Paulo's hand as her defenses slapped up around her.
Where did he get off?
Twisting around in her chairtoo uncertain of her legs' ability to support her to risk standing, she gasped, "What are you doing here?"
"I'm not letting you blow me off like you've been doing for the past nine years."
Claire's mouth dropped open, first from the aggressive edge to Ryan's words and then further as Paulo, taking her death grip as some kind of call to action, shot from his seat.
Oh, no. Not a good idea.
He might have Ryan matched in height, but something about the Italian's body told her his muscle was machine made. Gym buff. As opposed to Ryan's, which was all hard-hewn man. Rock climbing. Rugby. Water polo. Swimming, surfing, hockey and track. She'd seen the double-page spread of him in that magazine on men's fitness. And she remembered all too clearly how capable of defending himselfor anything else he felt possessive ofRyan was. Only, Ryan shouldn't be standing there feeling possessive of anything. He should have been tucked securely away in L.A., watching the returns on his latest biotech-investment breed.
With one hand still resting at the crook of her neck, the other stuffed casually into the pocket of his charcoal trousers, Ryan cocked his head and addressed Paulo. "Take a hike. I need to speak with my wife."
Claire coughed, choking on his brass.
It had been years since they'd so much as laid eyes on one another. Who the hell did he think he was? "That's enough,
All she needed was word getting out about the little legal matter that bound the two of them in unholy matrimony, and this quiet existence outside of Ryan's long cast shadow would be gone.
She wouldn't let that happen. Not now.
Paulo made a move to draw Claire to his side, but, sensing the tension building behind her, she gave a quick shake of her head then glanced over her shoulder. "No need for a public scene, Ryan."
In silent plea she stroked her fingers across Paulo's forearm. It was an intimate gesture, intended as much to appease her date as it was to send a message to Ryan.
Look at me. See how well I'm doing? See my handsome Italian lover?
Though as soon as Ryan left, she'd be working double time to worm her way out of the unspoken promise she'd just made
Or maybe not.
What if she didn't shut Paulo down? What if she just forced herself to give in? Do it. Allow this man to seduce her. Would it be the hurdle she needed to get over in order to finally feel again? To be whole? Complete. She was so close to having everything she'd lost Some days she couldn't even feel the cracks in this life she'd forged from the shattered remains of the one she'd had.
Her gaze shot the length of Paulo and back. Good looking by any sane woman's standards.
Could she ask him to make it fast, like taking off a Band-Aid? Probably not. But maybe once they got going, she wouldn't mind so much. And it couldn't last forever
Decided, she extracted herself from Ryan's hold with an irritated brush of her hand at her shoulder and pushed to her feet. Peering up into the dark Italian features in what she hoped was an approximation of adoration, she rested her palm at the center of his chest.
"Please, Paulo," she murmured. "Give us ten minutes to talk."
The smoky intensity drained from Paulo's face, leaving his expression flat. Hardly the sensual promise of a moment before.
"Pietro, Claire," he answered. "Il mio nome non e Paulo." With a cool indifference that put her dismissive smile to shame, he plucked her hand from his chest, brushed a kiss across her knuckles and let it drop limp at her side before walking away.
Not Paulo? Oh. Hell.
Claire stood immobile, watching her childish stunt stride off in true backfiring fashion, keenly aware that the man who'd crossed an ocean to see her wouldn't simply evaporate and allow her shame to be swallowed in private.
No. Not a chance. Not Ryan.
"Wow, Claire. That was worth the flight over, right there."
Hostility welled fast within her. It was unreasonable. Intense. And directed at the man who'd barely had the decency to cover his laughter with a cough. She spun on him, fists clenched at her sides, ready to lay in. "Ryan! You jacka"
Only she stalled barely out of the gate, stunned by her first full on view of the man who'd once been her whole world. Ryan. Tall, broad and tapered in all the right proportions. Strong chiseled features and firm wide lips. Sharp brown eyes that could be as unyielding as frozen earth or as warm as melted chocolate, glinting amusement beneath a fall of straight dark strands incapable of laying flat.
He was all easy confidence, smooth charm and gorgeous maneverything she didn't need, standing there before her in the middle of Piazza Navona.
He shouldn't look so much the same. Not after all this time.
"Sorry about your boyfriend," he offered with a wry twist of his lips that was anything but apologetic. Another day, around any other man, she would have been laughing at her own stupidity in trying to manufacture a relationship for what purpose she couldn't even say. But around Ryan, she didn't want to laugh. She didn't want to revisit any common ground or shared entertainments. She didn't want to think about what it had been like once upon a time.
She just wanted to move on. Which was why she'd had the petition to divorce drawn up.
Shaking her head, she asked him, "What are you doing here?"
The amusement faded from his features and Ryan met her with a level stare. "Isn't it obvious? I'm here to bring you home."