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Passion was the last thing on Pia Renfern's mind when she approached the row of car-hire booths at Rome's Fiumicino airport preparing to take a massive risk and drive on the wrong side of the road. But sometimes, in a foreign land, things happened beyond the control of the most careful people.
Da Vinci Auto looked the most likely of the hire places. Parking her baggage trolley by the counter, Pia assumed a bright, breezy smile for the clerk. 'Mi scusi, signora, can you tell me the cost of hiring a car for the day?'
The woman's shrewd gaze appraised Pia right through to her tender Australian conscience, which had only known the left hand side of any road it had ever travelled.
'For one day, signorina?'
'Yes, I only need it for the one. Just to get me to Positano.' The clerk's eyebrows arched high, and Pia felt obliged to explain. 'You see, my flight was late and I've missed the bus I was booked on. I'd have caught a train, but with the train strike ' She made a rueful gesture. She tried a smile, but after the stresses of a twenty-four-hour flight, it was a little wobbly. 'I've tried taxis but none of the drivers will agree to take me that far.'
The woman examined all five feet four of Pia from her blonde short cut, down to her blue suede jacket, travel-weary jeans and ankle boots.
'May I see your passport, signorina? And your driving authority?'
Pia sensed a presence loom up behind her like a brooding shadow. As she handed over her documents she noticed the clerk's glance flit to somewhere above and beyond her head. For the first time the woman's face burst into beaming smiles. Ah, signore. Saro con Lei frapoco.'
Pia glanced behind. An Italian man was standing there, leaning negligently on the towing handle of his suitcase. He was at least six feet tall, probably seven, with thick brows and intelligent dark eyes that connected at once with hers and gleamed with a disturbing boldness that zinged through her like a chemical infusion.
Pia turned sharply back to the woman. She shouldn't have looked. If there was one thing she wasn't ready for, it was big, lean and hungry and packed with testosterone, however handsome it might appear.
Valentino Silvestri, on the other hand, just flown in from Tunis after coordinating Interpol's latest gruelling assault on the narcotics trade, felt a strange frisson prickle the nape of his neck and shiver down his spine.
He willed the pretty blonde to turn around again for another glimpse of her arresting blue eyes. Deprived of the face, he allowed his appreciative gaze to wander further.
Below the hem of her jacket, her blue jeans cupped a luscious little behind as sweetly rounded as an apricot. His mouth watered. Dio, how he yearned for a woman.
Pia held her breath while the clerk perused the passport with a frown while at the same time assaulting her keyboard with swift staccato fingers.
The woman glanced up. 'Were you hoping for a large car, signorina, or small?'
Relieved the woman was unconcerned about sides of roads, Pia ignored the dark eyes burning through the back of her neck. 'Oh, small. Small will be fine. Grazie.'
Her optimism rose. With a bit of luck she could reach her safe haven well before nightfall. Things were starting to look promising, though she had to admit to a few qualms about actually taking the car on the roads once she had it in her possession. Lucky she'd had the forethought to obtain an international licence before she left home just in case of emergencies like this, though her mother had pleaded with her never to use it.
But she was no longer the bundle of nerves she'd been a few months ago when she'd had the post-traumatic stress disorder. If there was one affliction Pia Renfern was now officially free and clear of, it was PTSD in all its insidious, debilitating, creepy manifestations. She was over it, and courage was now her middle name. Just let anyone try to contradict her.
Anyway, driving on the other side of the road couldn't be so hard. Other people did it. Lauren, her cousin, drove all over Italy without mishap. Pia was certain she could manage it if she avoided the super highways and used less popular byways.
Her driving record was pretty good, apart from a few minor parking violations. There was that time she'd had her licence suspended for frequent and incorrigible speeding, but that was ages ago when she'd just passed her test. Lucky the international licence showed nothing of her reckless past.
The woman looked up. 'Where are you wishing to return the car, Miss Renfern?'
'Do you have an office in Positano?'
'No, signorina.' The woman's face grew serious. 'Positano has very few spaces for cars. You may perhaps drive to our office in Sorrento then take the bus. Are you familiar with the area?'
'Not exactly. Won't the car have sat nav?' There was a sudden movement behind her. 'Scusi, signorina.'
Pia glanced around in surprise. 'Sorry?'
The man stepped forward, his dark eyes glinting with an intent light. Pia's throat dried and a fluttery sensation inhabited her chest. He really was handsome, with cheekbones and shadow on his firm, chiselled jaw. His eyebrows bristled with purpose. They were the most stirring she'd ever laid eyes on, while the casual elegance of his black leather jacket, white open-necked shirt and jeans did nothing to diminish the pleasing athleticism of his lean, powerful build.
He was at least a millimetre too close, bearing down on her and sending all her alarm sensors into total chaos. She took a step backwards from those compelling dark eyes and found herself pressed up against the counter.
'I couldn't help overhearing, signorina. You are travelling to Positano?' His voice was deep and appealingly accented, despite the seriousness of his tone.
'Are you aware that the roads near Sorrento are very narrow and built on the edges of cliffs?' His dark eyes scanned her face like a searchlight.
'Well, yes, I suppose. So ?' She could feel her resistance rising to this intrusion. So the roads were narrow. Was he suggesting she wasn't capable? She felt her neck grow hot, conscious of the car-hire woman listening to every word with close attention. A stillness seemed to fall on the neighbouring booths, as if their staff, their customers, the entire airport had all paused to listen.
In an effort to dampen the guy's damned cheek, Pia zapped him with a cool smile. 'What's your point, signore?'
'The traffic along those roads is heavy and dangerous. Even very experienced drivers from the locality find it so.' His intelligent dark eyes were serious, his hands eloquent. 'Permit me, signorina, but I notice that you speak like an Australian. Have you ever before driven a car in a right-hand-traffic situation?'
Guilt crept up Pia's spine. Her entire body warmed, then blazed with it as she felt the car-hire woman's eyes drill a hole through the side of her head. If only she could have lied, but she'd never been good at it, not even to save her life.
'Well, no, maybe I haven't,' she blustered. 'But I know I can, and I'm not sure what it has to do with you.'
He shook his head in stern disapproval. 'This is not good. You mustn't try to drive on these roads, especially with the traffic as it will be today with the trains not running. This is what I think would be best. I will'
Before he could go on with his astonishing impertinence, the car-hire woman interjected. 'Scusi, Miss Renfern. Our apologies, but Da Vinci Auto find we do not have a car for you today.'
'What?' Pia spun about and stared at the woman in outrage. 'Oh, but that's so unfair. You've seen my licence I'm a qualified driver. This man is a stranger. Don't listen to him. What is he to do with me?'
'I am sorry, signorina.' Briskly, the woman handed back Pia's credentials. 'Perhaps another car company will help you. However, Da Vinci Auto says no.'
'No, and no and no.' The woman folded her arms and sealed her lips with implacable firmness.
Simmering, Pia replaced her documents and gathered her baggage, pausing to cast a glowering glance at the man before she moved off. 'Thanks a lot, signore.' She did her best to lace the word with purest strychnine.
His eyes gleamed. 'Prego. Your safety is important to every Italian.'
She rarely argued with men these days, especially strangers, but some men needed to be argued with. 'I would be much safer if I could hire a car.'
Her indignation seemed to amuse the guy. He leaned back against the counter, allowing his thick black lashes to flicker down while his sensual gaze drifted over her with frank appreciation. 'So, so soft and yet so fierce.' His lean hands demonstrated her softness in the air. She had little doubt it had more to do with her breasts than anything. 'It is a pity,' he continued with phoney sympathy, 'but the signora here has made the decision, no doubt for her own reasons.' He shrugged and spread his hands as if he were absolutely innocent in the matter.
This distortion of reality was too much for Pia, confused as it was with messages from his hot smiling eyes, sexy mouth and tanned, elegant hands that were anything but innocent. Soft, was she?
She said hotly, 'She made the decision because you sowed seeds of doubt in her mind.'
'You think?' His gorgeous brows lifted quizzically. 'She may have been influenced by some weird desire to save lives. But as it happens I'm driving to Positano. I might be able to fit you in. I'm guessing you won't take too much room.' His beautiful hands illustrated just how much room she might take, this time managing to encompass the shape of her hips with what felt to Pia almost like a tangible caress.
She could imagine what he had in mind. He wanted to get her alone in a confined space and run those hard, lean hands all over her body.
If only his voice didn't seep into her veins like a dark intoxicant. At the same time there was that smile in his eyes inviting her to acknowledge an undertow, a distinctly sexual vibration tugging at her like the moon to the tide.
In spite of herself Pia felt a dangerous stir in her blood, then her heart skittered. Whoa there, girl. Don't be sucked in by midnight eyes and a lazy smile.
Regrouping her feminine forces, she cast him a crushing look. 'You wish.'
She strode coolly away, as coolly as it was possible to pushing a trolley laden with a suitcase and a heavy canvas bag stuffed with easels and painting supplies while feeling his scorching-hot gaze follow her every step of the way.
She walked past the other car-hire booths without wasting her time humbling herself before them. Her reputation was shot with them all now, and there was no way she'd give the guy the satisfaction of watching her being turned away yet again.
The nerve of him. He had to be one of the most intrusive, irritating, interfering, annoying people she'd ever met. Just because he knew he was attractive Of course he knew. A man that sophisticated always knew.
She was seething all over. He should never have looked at her like that, making her feel sofemale. In fact, it was amazing he'd triggered those responses. She'd been numb in that department for so long she couldn't quite believe the sensations were real. It must have been as the doctor had warned. Now that her emotions had come back in full force, every sensation was bound to be stronger, sharper. Sweeter, though she squashed that thought. Nothing she felt about him was sweet.
Just before she turned the corner into the next mall though, she couldn't resist sneaking a glance back. He was still there, but to her surprise no longer alone. A middle-aged couple with a teenager had joined him and were exclaiming over him, reaching up to kiss and embrace him like long-lost relatives. She saw him bend to kiss the woman on both cheeks.
Whew. How must that feel?