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Clara Rossetti had started to descend the steep, narrow steps between the ancient buildings of the hillside town when she heard a deep male voice behind her say, "Hey, Bella—how many men have told you you're a remarkably beautiful woman?"
His seductive delivery had been spoken in the local Italian dialect and had a slightly familiar ring. But Clara assumed he had to be talking to some other female making her way down to the Piazza Gaspare below.
Picking up her pace, she moved across the busy square to the bus stop where she would catch her bus. It would be the last one of the day. Timing was everything when she felt this tired. Once back at the farm she would eat a light dinner and go to bed. Tomorrow she'd feel better.
Footsteps were gaining on her. "Clarissima—surely you haven't forgotten!"
A quiet gasp escaped her throat followed by a burst of joy.
After nine years' absence her best friend from childhood was back? Valentino Casali was the only person in the world who'd ever called her Clarissima—a combination of Clara and bellis-sima. Clara had often thought it a joke since from adolescence she had been a chubby girl who'd grown into a heavy young woman. That was the curse of all the Rossettis.
She turned around to stare into the flashing dark brown eyes of Europe's most eligible playboy, but to Clara he represented her exclusive partner in all the craziness of their years growing up. When they'd both turned eighteen and he'd left Monta Correnti, his departure had left a void no one else had ever filled.
Since then he'd become Italy's poster boy, a wealthy, world-renowned adventurer and playboy whose photos appeared in the tabloids on a regular basis. He was constantly on the cover of Italy's hottest celebrity gossip magazine.
"No, I haven't forgotten," she said in a husky voice. Clara had seen him through every stage of his youth, from incorrigible rascal to outrageously handsome teen. His intelligence and daring had distinguished him from all the other guys in the region, leaving an indelible mark. To her he'd always been the picture of precious life itself. Her heart groaned in response to that undeniable reality. "How are you, Valentino?"
Her question seemed to bring him up short, as if he were expecting something else from her while he stared into her eyes. "Better now that I've caught up with my oldest friend."
Delight filled her system to hear him acknowledge it. He might belong to the world now, but those early years she could claim for herself.
After he had kissed her on both cheeks, his narrowed gaze traveled over her classic features as if trying to reconcile the changes that had taken place since she'd grown up and become the slender, five-foot-four woman who'd shed the excess weight she had carried when younger.
"Friend, you say?" she teased. "Whatever happened to the postcards and gifts from the four corners of the world you were going to send me? I don't recall your carrying out any of those periodic visits you once promised to make."
He gave an elegant shrug of his broad shoulders clothed in an expensive-looking open-necked cream sport shirt and jeans. His index finger trailed across her lips, a gesture that appeared as automatic to him as breathing, but he'd never touched her like that in their lives. A shock wave traveled through her body.
"I meant to do it all. You know that," he whispered, always the charmer. The man oozed a sensuality that would be lethal for the many women clamoring for his exclusive attention.
She flashed him a wan smile, struggling to recover from her reaction to his touch. "I do know. Your good intentions could pave the road to heaven." Their history went back too far for there to be misunderstandings. In truth Clara could never be angry with the Valentino she remembered—the one who'd always been kind and caring despite his devil-may-care attitude.
From an early age on, the local ragazzi had made their typical remarks about her and her younger sister Bianca for being fat, but Valentino had never joined the chorus. That was probably because he'd never looked at her in the man/woman way. They might have been joined at the hip, but he'd had far more important things on his mind than Clara Rossetti.
Having been born in this quiet little mountain village between Rome and Naples, he'd put Monta Correnti on the map. His fame had brought the tourists, as well as a few celebrities from various parts of the world who'd chosen to live here, but there was no question that the heartthrob Formula 1 race-car driver who made his home in Monaco was the most famous celebrity of all.
Valentino cocked his attractive head. She noted he needed a shave, yet it only added to his virility. In the last nine years, he'd become a man in every sense of the word and so gorgeous she could hardly breathe.
"Are you aware you bear a superficial resemblance to Catherine Zeta-Jones? Only younger, of course."
Clara preferred not to look like anyone else, but since film stars made up part of his world she had to assume he'd just bestowed a serious compliment on her. "No. I had no idea. Have you met her?"
He gave a slight nod. "You're much more beautiful." His white smile faded and he stared at her with increasing intensity. "What happened to your long hair?"
The hair she'd foolishly hoped would hide the rest of her?
Surprised he'd noticed, let alone changed the subject so fast, she said, "This April has been warmer than usual. Besides, I was due for a change." Her silky hair, more black than brown, had become too difficult to deal with recently so she'd had it cut in a jaw-length style that fell straight from a center part.
"I liked it long, not that I don't like it the way you're wearing it now, of course."
"Of course," she teased, wishing she felt better, stronger. "I notice you're wearing your hair shorter these days." His midnight-brown hair was now wavy rather than curly. "Remember when you let it grow out to your shoulders? Signor Cavallo thought you'd be perfect for the role of Prince Valiant in the school play."
A rumble of laughter came out of him. "Are you talking about the time you denuded me?"
"That was your fault. You're the one who made me cut your hair off so you wouldn't have to be in King Arthur. Can I help it if I made a mess of it? Those poultry shears from your father's restaurant kitchen weren't supposed to be used on humans. I thought Signor Cavallo was going to strangle you when you walked in class the next day."
His grin broadened. "With your help, I got out of the part. What would I have done without you always helping me squeeze out of trouble?"
"Aminta almost strangled me when you told her I was the culprit. She had the most terrible crush on you. Even back then you could have your choice of every maiden in the land."
"Tonight I choose you," he said in a voice of deep velvet. "For old times' sake, come to the restaurant with me and we'll celebrate my return."
"To sneak some bruschetta when the chef isn't looking?" She kept up the banter. There was no one more exciting in this world than Valentino. "Those were the days, but we can't get them back."
"No, but there's something we can do. Tonight's your lucky night. For a change we'll walk through the front door and I'll buy you dinner. Everything up front and aboveboard."
His invitation sounded heavenly, but she was growing weaker by the minute. "That would be a change all right, but, much as I'd love to, I can't. Thank you anyway. It's been wonderful to see you, Valentino."
Over his shoulder she saw the bus pull to a stop. She was thankful it had come to her rescue. Seeing Valentino after all these years had brought back the past and drained her of any reserves she had left. Several people started to board the bus and she moved to get in line behind them.
He put a hand on her arm to detain her. "Wait—where are you going?" She discovered a strange tension coming from him she'd never experienced before. Something was troubling him to produce that slight grimace, but she had to admit the years had been kind to him. Despite the lines of experience in a sun-bronzed face—or perhaps because of them—he was more dashing than ever. No other man came close.
"Home. The family's waiting for me."
"But I just got into town. We have years to catch up on. Is this evening an important occasion? I know it's not your birthday."
He might have forgotten her for nine years, but his razor-sharp memory had an amazing capacity for trivia. Valentino would keep it up until she capitulated. He never did know when to quit, but this was one time Clara couldn't stay around while he managed to talk her into it. She was embarrassed to admit he'd always been able to get her to do what he wanted.
"Mamma has planned a special dinner for my grandmother. I promised to be on time to help."
Again he looked mystified. "Then let me drive you. It will only take me five minutes to go for my Ferrari."
That was too far away. Clara needed to sit down on that bus or she was going to faint from exhaustion. "Thanks for the offer, but my ride is here now. If you're going to be in town for a few days, maybe I'll see you whizzing around and we'll grab a bite together. What color is your car?"
"Black," he muttered.
"You once wanted a red one."
"I did buy one, fire-engine red, but discovered I was somewhat a target for the police."
"Well, you will insist on driving too fast. As I recall, you had the police chasing us on your scooter on a weekly basis at least! Sorry, but I have to run now. Ciao, Valentino."
She eased away from him and climbed on board, grateful he'd finally let her go without saying anything else. Knowing him, he'd be gone from Monta Correnti by morning to make his next car rally here in Italy or England, probably accompanied by his latest girlfriend.
Clara had seen a clip of him and the newest young French starlet Giselle Artois on the ten o'clock news last month. The journalist had asked him if it was true about the rumors they were planning to marry and settle down in a small palace along one of the fashionable faubourgs of Paris.
He had made a noncommittal remark with his breathtaking half-smile, but Clara had noticed the French vedette wore a mysterious smile on her face. They looked good together.
Maybe this was the woman who'd finally snagged Valentino. Up until now he seemed to try new adventures and change girlfriends with the seasons, but whatever had caused him to run from himself all these years, it was nothing to do with Clara.
Taking a fortifying breath, she worked her way to the back of the bus. Every seat was taken and she finally squeezed in the last row between a stout man and a nun in her habit.
Out of the window on the right she watched Valentino watching her beneath his dark, furrowed brows, his expression devoid of all animation. After the bus pulled away, his brooding image remained. His lean, six-foot body had made millions for the companies that produced posters of him doing a solo trip across the Indian Ocean in a one-man catamaran, or flying around the track in Dubai testing out his latest Formula 1 car.
From childhood he'd been a fascinating adventurer who'd had an obsession with speed and breaking records. Though the Casali family had lived on the shores of Lake Clarissa, fifty kilometers from Monta Correnti, he'd actually spent most of his time in town after school working on his motor scooter.
One of his friends, Luigi, had let him tinker with it in the back of his dad's garage. To hear Valentino speak, none of the existing models were fast enough. Clara had spent many hours in that garage listening to him talk about his dreams of building one that would outperform all existing models.
After he'd left for Monaco to break into the racing world, he'd taken his innovative motor-scooter design with him and it had become the prototype for future scooters. By his twenty-first birthday he'd formed Violetta Rapidita, the Italian scooter company that had catapulted him to international financial success.
Long ago Clara had thought of him as a Renaissance man, pitting himself against the clock, against nature, against anything that would give him a thrill. By listening to him she'd experienced vicarious thrills herself, but there were times when she wondered if his fast living served as camouflage for unexplained demons driving him.
Though she didn't know what they were, she suspected their roots originated from within the complicated Casali family and that they still continued to haunt him. It was interesting that his elder brother Cristiano didn't come home to Monta Correnti very often either.
Only their sister Isabella had been the constant, spending most of her time at Rosa's helping her father run the restaurant. How different was Valentino's family from the huge, hardworking Rossetti clan who always rallied around each other!
She had countless aunts, uncles, cousins and second cousins who helped run the farm, so many in fact you couldn't count them all. Though they lived hand to mouth, even her own four married siblings showed no signs of leaving the farm that had been the hub of the Rossettis' existence for generations.
Clara was no different. As hard as life had been lately, she loved Monta Correnti and couldn't imagine living anywhere else. But fate had been cruel to have allowed her to lay eyes on Valentino today.
Until he'd called out to her, she'd been holding her own, dealing with her challenges on a day-to-day basis, determined not to let them defeat her. But he was like this overpowering force field, a super-bright constellation in the heavens whose magnetic pull drew the world to him.
His appearance had managed to shatter the fragile shell of her existence. She rested her head against the back of the seat and closed her eyes, tortured by her own inner demons that seemed to have magnified a hundredfold by running into him without warning.
* * *
The second the bus rounded the corner and was out of sight, a troubled Valentino moved swiftly toward the hub of the village where his father's restaurant was located. Right next to it—in fact adjoining it by a back terrace—sat his aunt's restaurant. The courtyard in front of both opened up into the bustling center square.