Former navy SEAL Connor Benson is in beautiful Tuscany, but he can't forget his time on the frontline. Meeting beautiful Isabella Rossi reminds him of everything he once fought for and everything he can't have.
Isabella understands what it's like to be stuck in the pastsince becoming a widow she's been sleepwalking through life. But handsome Connor's delicious kisses are waking her up, and his courage inspires her: she must fight for the love they both deserve!The Vineyards of Calanetti
Saying "I do" under the Tuscan sun
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Connor Benson awoke with a start. It was dark. And it was hot. Where was he? Somalia? Iraq? Afghanistan? Wherever he was, it was so secret, even his mother didn't know.
That feeling tickled along his spine, a sense of imminent danger. It brought him to red alert. Still not knowing exactly where he was, he was suddenly extremely focused, on nothing and everything. Each of his senses was so wide-open it was almost painful.
The tick of a clock somewhere in the room seemed explosively loud. Connor could feel the faint prickliness of the bedclothes against his naked skin, and he could feel a single bead of sweat slide down his temple. He could smell the residue of his own sweat and aftershave, and farther away, coffee.
Another sound rose above the ticking of the clock and the deliberate steadiness of his own breathing. It was a whispery noise just beyond this room, and as unobtrusive as it was, Connor knew it was that sound that had woken him. It was the sneaky sound of someone trying to be very quiet.
Connor tossed off the thin blanket and was out of the bed in one smooth movement, from dead asleep to warrior alert in the time it took to draw a single breath. The floor was stone under his bare feet and he moved across it soundlessly. His nickname on his SEAL team had been "the Cat."
At six foot five, every inch of that honed muscle, his comrades didn't mean a friendly house cat, either.
They meant the kind of cat that lived like a shadow on the edge of the mountains, or in the deepest forests and the darkest jungles, where men were afraid to go. They meant the kind of cat that was big and strong and silent. They meant the kind of cat that could go from relaxed to ready to pounce in the blink of an eye. They meant the kind of cat that had deadly and killing instincts.
Those instincts guided Connor across the room on silent feet to the door that had a faint sliver of light slipping under it. His movement was seemingly unhurried, but his muscles were tensing with lethal purpose.
Though most people would have detected no scent at all, when he paused on his side of the door, just under the aroma of coffee, Connor could taste the air. He knew someone was on the other side of that door. He also knew they were not directly in front of ita hint of a shadow told him someone was to the left of the door. It was not a guess. His muscles tautened even more. His heart began to pick up the tempo. Not with fear. No, there was no fear at all. What he felt was anticipation.
Adrenaline coursed through his veins as Connor flung open the door.
He was nearly blinded by sunlight in the hallway, but it didn't stop his momentum. He hurled himself left, at the figure, back to him, rising from a crouch beside his door well. His hands closed around slender shoulders.
A scent he had not noticed before tickled his nostrils.
His mind screamed, Abort! It was too late not to touch, but not too late to temper his considerable strength. Instead of taking the culprit to the ground, he used the existing momentum to spin the person skulking outside his door toward him. The force of the spin caused a stumble, and as luscious curves came in full contact with him, Connor recognized the truth. Her.
Connor stared down into the eyes of the woman he had just attacked, stunned. It wasn't that women couldn't be bad guys, but this woman so obviously was not. He cursed under his breath, and her eyes, already wide, widened more.
She seemed to realize she was still pressed, full length, against him, and she pushed herself away.
"Ma sei pazzo!" she said. Her voice was gorgeous, husky and rich, a note of astonishment in it that matched the astonishment in her huge, wide eyes. She definitely had the most beautiful eyes he had ever seen.
Eyes that, at the moment, were wide with shock. Now that she had pushed away from him, her hand went to the sweet swell of her breast, and he could see where her pulse beat wildly in the delicate column of her throat.
Connor, ever the soldier, and still in that place of heightened awareness, took in every exquisite detail of her. She had long, dark I I hair, luxuriously thick and straight, that was capturing the incredible morning light that poured in through the arched windows of the hallway they were in. Her hair fell in a shimmering waterfall of dark chocolate past slender bare shoulders.
At least a foot shorter than he was, the woman had on a bright, flower-patterned dress. It was sleeveless and accentuated the lovely litheness of her figure. The dress was pinched by a narrow belt at a tiny waist and then the skirt flared out in a way that made him able to picture her dancing, that skirt flying around her. She had sandals on her delicate feet, her toenails painted a soft shade of pink.
Her coloring looked as if it was naturally pale, but golden from the sun. Her skin was flawless. Ma sei pazzo. It occurred to Connor he was not in Iraq. Or Somalia. Not Afghanistan, either.
He cringed inwardly at his mistake. "Jeez," he said, out loud. "I'm in Italy."
It all came back to him. He was in a small town in Tuscany on a puffball mission for Itus Security, the company he and his friend Justin had started after Justin's injury had made them both leave the US Navy SEALs, though for different reasons. "Si, Italia."
Yes, he was in Italy. And it was not a secret. Everyone in his world, including his mother, knew exactly where he was. In fact, his mother had been thrilled for him when he had told her the Tuscan village of Monte Calanetti was on his itinerary.
Italy? she had said breathlessly. She had looked at him with ridiculously hope-filled eyes and said softly, The land of amore.
If anybody had a right to be soured by love, it was his mom, who'd had him when she was barely sixteen and had suffered through all it meant to be a single mother at that age.
In addition, Connor knew exactly what his years of service in the world's trouble spots and danger zones had made him. He knew only a mother could look at a battle-hardened and emotionally bereft specimen like Connor and hope love was in his future.
"Do you speak English?" he asked the young woman. He kept his voice deliberately quiet, threading it with calm. The woman was still watching him silently, with those doe-like eyes, and just like a doe, was ready to bolt at one more wrong move from him.
She nodded warily.
He deserved her wariness. "Sorry, ma'am," he muttered. "I seem to have a bit of jet lag. I was disoriented."
"You came out of that room as if you expected an assassin!" she said accusingly, finding her voice.
No point sharing with her that was exactly what he had been expecting. There was something sweetly angelic in her face that suggested that would be entirely foreign to her world.
Looking at her, it did occur to Connor that if a man was not completely hardened to life, the woman in front of himbeautiful and angelic, yet still sensual in an understated waymight have made his thoughts go to amore.
"I said I was sorry. I hope I didn't hurt you." Connor had tempered his strength, but even so, she was right. He had come out of that room expecting trouble of one variety or another, and his force had been substantial.
"No. No, I'm not hurt," she insisted hastily, but then she folded her hands over her shoulders and rubbed them.
He stepped in close to her again, aware of her scent intensifying. He carefully pried her hands off her shoulders. She stopped breathing, staring up at him, her hands drifting to her sides.
If he was not mistaken, he stopped breathing, too, as he leaned in close and inspected the golden surface of her shoulders for damage. He stepped back and started to breathe again.
"There are no marks on your shoulders," he said quietly. "You won't be bruised."
"I told you I was fine."
He shrugged, looked away from her, ran a hand through his hair and then looked back. "I just thought I should make sure. What does that mean? What you said to me? Ma sei pazzo?'"
"It's an exclamation of surprise," she said.
It was her eyes sliding away from him that alerted him to the fact there might be more to it than that, so he lifted an eyebrow at her, waiting.
"Specifically," she said, looking back at him, "it means are you crazy?" She was unrepentant, tilting her chin at him.
"Ah. Well. I can't really argue with that, or blame you for thinking it."
His senses were beginning to stand down, but even so, the woman's scent tickled his nostrils. Her perfume was very distinctiveit had an exotic, spicy scent that was headier than any perfume he had ever smelled. He looked once more into the liquid pools of green and gold that were her eyes and recognized a weak inclination to fall toward those pools of light and grace, calm and decency.
Instead, he reminded himself who he really was. He let his thoughts travel away from her and down the road to the sense of failure that traveled with him these days, around the globe, like a shadow.
What had just happened was precisely why he'd had to leave the only world he had known for nearly two decades. He'd started making mistakes. It was why he had left the SEALs when Justin had. In his line of work, mistakes demanded a price be paid. Often it was a huge price. Sometimes it was an irrevocable one.
And he knew, from firsthand experience, it was even harder when it was someone other than yourself who paid the price for your mistakes.
"It's all right," she stammered, and he realized she had seen something in his face that he would have preferred she hadn't seen.
And of course it was not all right to be attacking innocent civilians. Now that the initial shock had worn off, Connor could see she was trembling slightly, like a leaf in a breeze, and her eyes were wide on him. Her gaze flitted down the length of him, and then flew back to his face, shocked.
He glanced down at himself.
"Sheesh," he muttered. "Would that be adding insult to injury?"
"I told you I wasn't injured," she stammered. "And I'm not sure what you mean by insulted."
"It's an expression," he clarified, "just like your ma sei pazzo. It means on top of giving you a good scare, I've embarrassed you with my state of undress."
Her eyes flew to his state of undress, again, and then back up to his face. She confirmed that she was indeed embarrassed when her blush deepened to crimson.
He would probably be blushing himself if he had any scrap of modesty remaining in himself, but he did not. He'd lived in the rough company of men his entire adult life and guys had a tendency to be very comfortable in their underwear.
Still, he was very aware that he was standing in this beautiful woman's presence outfitted only in army-green boxer briefs that covered only the essential parts of himself.
Despite the circumstances he found himself in, he was reluctantly charmed that she was blushing so profusely it looked as if she had been standing with her face too close to a robust fire.
"Sorry, I'm disoriented," he said again, by way of explanation. "I've been on an insane schedule. I was in" he had to think about it for a second "Azerbaijan yesterday putting a security team in place for the World Food Conference. And the day before that ah, never mind."
She struggled to regain her composure. "You're Signor Benson, of course."
"I'm sorry I was not here to greet you last night. Nico told me you would arrive late." Her English, he noted, was perfect, the accent lilting and lovely in the background of the precisely formed words. Her voice itself was enchanting, husky and unconsciously sensual. Or maybe it was that accent that just made everything she said seem insanely pleasing. Connor was willing to bet she could read a grocery list and sound sexy. He felt, crazily, as if he could listen to her all day.
"I think it was close to three in the morning when I arrived."
She nodded. "Nico told me your arrival would be very late. That's why I closed the shutters when I prepared your room. To block out the light so you could sleep in. I was just leaving you something to eat this morning. I have to be at work in a few minutes."
"Schoolteacher?" he guessed.
She frowned at him. "Nico told you that?"
"No, I guessed."
"You just have that look about you."
"Is this a good thing or a bad thing to have this look about me?"
He shrugged, realizing he shouldn't have said anything. It was part of what he did. He was very, very good at reading people. He could almost always tell, within seconds, what kind of lifestyle someone had, the general direction of their career paths and pursuits, if not the specifics. Sometimes his life and the lives of others depended on that ability to accurately read and sort details. This was something she, living here in her sheltered little village in Italy, did not have to know.
"I still do not understand if it is a good thing or a bad thing to have this schoolteacher look about me," she pressed.
"A good thing," he assured her.
She looked skeptical.
"You're very tidy. And organized." He gestured at the tray beside his door. "And thoughtful, closing the shutters so I could sleep in. So, I figured some profession that required compassion. A teacher. Or a nurse. But the dress made me lean toward teacher. Your students probably like bright colors."
He was talking way too much, which he put down as another aftereffect of jet lag. She was nibbling her lip, which was plump as a plum, and frowning at him.
"It's like a magician's trick," she said, not approvingly.
"No, really, it's something everyone can do. It's just observing details."
She looked as if she was considering having another long, hard look at all of him, as if he had invited her to play a parlor game. But then, wisely, she decided against it.
Connor glanced at the tray set so carefully by his door, more proof of a tidy, organized, caring personality. It was loaded with a carafe of coffee and rolls still steaming from the oven. There was a small glass jar of homemade preserves and a large orange.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Sweet and intensely emotional story. It all starts when Connor awakens in the dark, disoriented because he can't remember where he is. As a former SEAL he is used to life on the edge, and before he is fully awake he has catapulted through the door and grabbed the person he heard sneaking around. He's embarrassed when he realizes that he is in a house in Italy and has just accosted his landlady. After some heartfelt apologies, they part ways, both of them more affected by the encounter than they want to admit. Connor left the SEALs after his actions during his last mission resulted in his best friend being badly injured and confined to a wheelchair. The memories of the things he has done have him convinced that love and family are something that will never be his. Isabella has been a widow for six years. Her husband had been her best friend from the time they were children. He had always been ill and she had married him knowing that he was dying. She has been grieving for him and her dreams ever since, and has resigned herself to living her life alone. From the moment they met, Connor and Isabella were drawn to each other. Isabella saw past the shell that Connor shows everyone else, to the lonely man inside. She wants to show him that he's a better man than he believes, and that he has much to offer a woman. At the same time, Connor can't stand to see Isabella locked away in her grief, never having experienced the joy possible in a relationship between a man and a woman. I loved the way that Connor and Isabella's relationship developed. Each is wary of risking their heart, taking two steps forward, then one step back, as the intensity of feeling gets to be too much. I loved seeing each of them use what they know best to reach out to the other. My favorite part was the swimming lessons that Connor gave to Isabella. He thought he would be safe from his attraction to her by concentrating on the lessons, only to be confronted by her determination to get his attention the best way she knew - with very tiny bathing suits. Oh, the battles he fought with himself! There were also walks, moonlit picnics, and dancing under the stars. Mixed in were also moments of pain shared. And just when it looks like Connor finally believes in a future with Isabella, his past rises up to ruin it all. Fortunately for him, Isabella has learned her lessons in living well, and refuses to let him go. I loved seeing the lengths she went to in order to find him and the effect that she had on him when she did. "So love could be this, too. Not just gentle and sweet and quiet and compliant. But this: as strong as steel forged in a fire." I loved the sense of wonder and healing as the two lonely and hurting people found their second chance at love. The descriptions of the setting, from the river to the quality of the light to the recently discovered fresco were so vivid that I felt as though I was there.
Beautiful, poetic love story, that is filled with light, joy, healing of heart, and love. Both Connor and Isabella have wounds they try to hide from the rest of the world. Isabella has buried her dreams and hopes with her young husband, the love they had was always troubled and timed, since his illness was known from his childhood. Connor had faced the unthinkable several times over during his service. He was weary, just wanted to leave love and romance for the rest. That is until Isabella comes into his life. Under the beautiful Tuscan sun, a Texan and Tuscan temperament and passion matches up, and takes it into a battle. The story is filled with romantic scenes, from swimming lessons, to picnic, and dancing under the stars. There's humor and laughter, there's pain and sorrow, but most of all, there's a love that heals the broken hearts, and brings these two lonely souls together. This might be one of the most beautiful love stories I have read for a while, the cinematic scenery, the romance, the poetry of it all, put together in a lovely, adorable story ~ Five Spoons