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Her knight next door!
After a horribly public divorce, Louisa Harrison has escaped to Tuscany craving peace and quiet. But gorgeous local tycoon Nico Amatucci sends her heart into overdrive...especially when he kisses her!
Nico comes to Louisa's rescue when their romance makes headlines, but Louisa's determined to prove she's no damsel in distress! Being in Nico's arms makes her feel stronger than she's ever felt before, but is she brave enough to entrust him with her just-healed heart?
The Vineyards of Calanetti
Saying "I do" under the Tuscan sun...
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Barbara Wallace can’t remember when she wasn’t dreaming up love stories in her head, so writing romances for Harlequin is a dream come true. Happily married to her own Prince Charming, she lives in New England with a house full of empty-nest animals. Readers can catch up with Barbara through her newsletter. SIgn up at www.barbarawallace.comExcerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
"I think I'm in love."
Louisa Harrison bit off a piece of cornetto, moaning as the sweet cake-like pastry melted like butter on her tongue. Crumbs dotted her chin. She caught them with her finger, not wanting to waste a drop. "Seriously, Dani, how do you not weigh a thousand pounds living with this man?" If she were married to a chef as wonderful as Rafe Mancini, she'd be the size of her palazzo, the grounds and the vineyards combined.
Her best friend laughed. "Trust me, it's not easy. Fortunately, running around the restaurant all day keeps me in shape. Especially now. Ever since the royal wedding, we've been slammed with requests for reservations. Everyone wants to eat at the restaurant that fed Prince Antonio and his bride."
"As well they should." Danielle's husband, Rafe, entered the restaurant dining room brandishing a coffeepot. "You make it sound as though Mancini's is some ordinary royal wedding caterer."
"I'm not sure there is such a thing as an ordinary royal wedding caterer," Dani replied, kissing him on the cheek, "but you're right, Mancini's is anything but ordinary. Once people taste Rafe's food, they are desperate to come back."
"Only they can't for at least eight weeks. My beautiful bride is right—we are booked solid through the harvest festival."
"That's fantastic," Louisa replied helping herself to a cup of coffee. Rafe Mancini not only created wonderful food, he made the best American coffee in Tuscany. That was Dani's doing. She'd insisted Rafe add a few New World touches to his traditionally Italian menu to placate US tourists. One of many small changes she'd implemented over the past few months. It hadn't taken long for her friend to establish herself as an equal partner both in the relationship and the business. But then, Louisa had heard there were men in this world who actually liked when their wives had minds of their own. Not to mention lives.
She just hadn't married one.
"Mancini's isn't the only place that's doing well," Dani continued. "Business has been up all around the village. Donatella told me sales at the boutique are up over 40 percent from last year."
Louisa wasn't surprised. Over the past nine months, Monte Calanetti had gone from sleepy Tuscan village to must-see tourist destination. Not only had they been selected to host Halencia's royal wedding—considered the wedding of the year in most circles—but art experts had recently discovered an unknown fresco masterpiece hidden in the local chapel. Now it felt as if every person in Italy, tourist or resident, made a point of driving through the town. That they arrived to discover a picture-perfect village and an Italian Good Food rated restaurant owned by one of Europe's premier chefs only enhanced the town's allure.
"Quite a change from when you and I arrived here, huh?" she noted. It'd been an early spring day when the two of them had met on the bus from Florence. Two expatriates, each on her own quest to the Tuscan Valley. For Dani, the tiny village represented a last adventure before deciding on her future. Louisa, on the other hand, had taken one look at the terracotta roofs rising from the valley and decided luck had granted her the perfect place to escape her past. A place where she could heal.
"I knew as soon as I stepped off the bus that Monte Calanetti was special," Dani said. "There's something magical about this town. You can feel it."
More like her friend felt the attraction between her and the man she eventually married; there'd been sparks from the second Dani and Rafe had laid eyes on each other. Louisa kept the thought to herself. "The royal wedding planner certainly thought so," she said instead.
"Unfortunately, we can't ride the wedding momentum forever. Once harvest season ends, people will be more interested in the ski resorts." Rafe said.
"People will still seek out Mancini's," Louisa said.
"Some, yes, but certainly not the numbers we've been enjoying. And they certainly won't spend time visiting other businesses."
True. So much of Monte Calanetti's appeal revolved around being able to stroll its cobblestone streets during the warm weather. It would be hard to make a wish in the plaza fountain if the water was frozen. There was a part of Louisa that wouldn't mind the crowds thinning. She missed the early days when she could walk the streets without worrying that some American tourist would recognize her. Another part, however—the practical part—knew the village needed more than a seasonal income. Prior to the wedding, several of the smaller businesses had been on shaky ground.
A third part reminded her she needed income, too. Till now she'd been surviving on the money the royal family had paid her to use her property, and that was almost gone.
"It won't matter if Mancini's is the best restaurant in the world, if it's surrounded by empty buildings,"
Rafe was saying. "We need something that will encourage people to spend time here year-round."
Funny he should say that. Louisa sipped her coffee thoughtfully. The practical part of her had also been kicking around an idea lately. It was only a germ at the moment, but it might help the cause. "It would be nice to see the village continue to prosper," she had to admit. Even though she, like Dani, was a relative newcomer, she'd already come to consider the place home, and nobody wanted to see their home suffer economically.
"What do you have in mind?" she asked him. He obviously had something up his sleeve or he wouldn't have put on this breakfast.
Pushing up his sleeves, the chef rested his forearms against the edge of the table and leaned close. "I was thinking we could start some kind of committee."
"Like a chamber of commerce?" Did they even have those in Italy? They must.
"Nothing so formal. I'm picturing local business leaders brainstorming ideas like the harvest festival that we can put on to attract traffic."
"And since the palazzo is such a big part of the village..." Dani started.
"You'd like me to be on the committee." That made sense, especially if she carried through with her own idea. "Count me in. What?"
Her friend and her husband had suddenly become very interested in their breakfast plates. "There's one problem," Dani said.
"Problem?" Louisa's fingers gripped her fork. "What kind of problem?" As if she didn't know what the problem would be. Question was, how had they found out?
"I want Nico Amatucci on the committee, as well," Rafe answered bluntly.
Oh. Her fear vanished in a rush, replaced by a completely different type of tension. One that started low in her stomach and moved in waves through her. "Why would that be a problem?"
"Well," Dani said, "we know the two of you haven't always gotten along..."
Memories of wine-tinged kisses flashed to life. "That's in the past," she replied. "We worked together on cleaning up the plaza, remember?"
"I know, but."
The couple exchanged a look. "At the wedding, you two looked like you'd had a falling-out."
Louisa would have called it a momentary loss of her senses. "It's no big deal." And it wasn't. Beneath the table, her fingers tapped out a rhythm on her thigh. In comparison to what she thought they were going to say, her "falling-out" with Nico amounted to nothing.
She barely remembered, she thought, tongue running over her lower lip.
"Working together won't be awkward, then?" Rafe asked.
"Don't be silly—Nico and I are adults. I'm sure we can handle sitting on a committee together."
As if waiting for his cue, Nico Amatucci strolled into the dining room. If he were someone else, Louisa would accuse him of waiting to make a dramatic entrance, but in his case dramatic entrances came naturally.
"Sorry I'm late," he said. "We've been working around the clock since the wedding. It appears people can't get enough of Amatucci Red." The last part was said looking straight at her. As Louisa met his gaze, she forced herself to keep as cool an expression as possible and prayed he couldn't see how fast her heart was racing. This was the first time she'd seen him since the wedding. The vintner looked as gorgeous as ever.
He'd come straight from the fields. The ring of dampness around his collar signaled hours of hard work, as did the dirt streaking his jeans and T-shirt. Louisa spied a couple smudges on his neck, too, left behind after wiping the sweat from his skin. She'd say this about the man: he worked as hard as his employees. Something he, as the owner of one of Tuscany's finest boutique wineries, didn't have to do. Probably did it to make up for the fact he was arrogant and presumptuous.
A frown marred his Romanesque features as he pointed to the coffeepot. "American?"
"That a problem?" Rafe asked.
"No." His sigh was long and exaggerated.
Rafe rolled his eyes. "There's no need to be dramatic. If you want espresso, just say so."
"Make it a double," Nico called after him with a grin. "I've been up since sunrise."
Despite there being three empty seats on the other side of the table, he chose to sit in the one his friend had just vacated, which positioned him directly next to Louisa. "I trust I didn't keep you waiting too long," he said to her. His crooked smile made the comment sound more like a dirty secret. But then, that's what Nico Amatucci did. He used his charm to lure people into bending to his will. When they didn't bend to his authority, that is. His sensual mouth and sparkling dark eyes could worm their way past a person's defenses, trapping them in his spell before they knew what was happening.
He reached for a cornetto, his shoulder brushing against Louisa's as he moved. The hours of hard work had left him smelling of fresh-tilled dirt and exertion. It was a primal, masculine scent, and though Louisa tried her best not to react, her own basic instincts betrayed her and she shivered anyway. To cover, she ignored his question and took a long sip of coffee.
Nico countered by taking a bite of pastry. "Has everyone recovered from the wedding?" he asked, licking the crumbs off his thumb. Louisa narrowed her eyes. She swore he was purposely trying to make the action erotic. Especially when he added, "I know I'm still feeling the aftereffects. Are you?"
Again, he looked straight at her. Louisa lifted her chin. "Not at all," she replied with a crispness that made her proud.
Apparently it wasn't crisp enough, since he reacted with little more than an arched brow. "Are you sure?"
Dani jumped to her feet. "I'm going to go see if Rafe needs help. Marcello rearranged the pantry yesterday, and you know how he gets when he can't find things."
Who did she think she was fooling? Rafe wouldn't allow anyone to rearrange his pantry without supervision.
"Subtle," Nico remarked when Dani was out of earshot. "One would think she was trying to give us time alone."
"One would think," Louisa muttered in return. "Though I don't know why."
"Perhaps she thinks we need to talk."
"Well, she would be wrong. We don't need to talk about anything."
"I see. Is that why you're avoiding me, bella miaV
His beauty indeed. I'm not your anything, she wanted to snap. She didn't belong to anyone. Not anymore. And especially not to someone like him. Bad enough she let herself fall under his spell at the wedding. "Who says I've been avoiding anyone? Maybe I've been busy. You're not the only one who's had a lot to do since the wedding."
"My apologies. You're right." His chair made a scratching noise on the floor as he angled it so they were facing one another. Taking the last cornetto from the center of the table, he tore the pastry in two and divided the pieces between their plates. "So tell me, what have you been up to that has kept you so busy?"
Louisa glared at the fluffy delicacy in front of her. "Things," she replied.
"Things?" His chuckle was smooth like syrup. "That's a very broad category."
"I'm a very broad person."
"Ah, bella mia. 'Broad' is definitely not what I would call you." His hand moved forward. Thinking he was about to brush the bangs from her eyes, Louisa jerked back, only to turn red when he picked up his half of the pastry. "I wanted to talk about what happened at the wedding."
"I told you, there's nothing to talk about. We made a mistake, that's all. Why don't we forget it ever happened?"
Sounds from the kitchen drifted into the restaurant as Nico chewed his pastry. Louisa listened, trying to determine how far away she was from rescue. There was an uneasy familiarity to the way they sat with Nico's leg close but not touching hers.
Slowly his eyes lifted to meet hers. "What if I don't want to forget?"
"One double espresso as ordered!" Rafe announced. The chef returned to the dining room carrying a gold-rimmed demitasse. Behind him trailed Dani, who shot Nico a look. From their mutually taut expressions, Louisa wondered if there hadn't been a disagreement over interrupting the conversation. She offered a silent thank-you to whichever one of them had won.
First thing Dani did when she sat down was to try to catch Louisa's eye, but Louisa continued to stare at the tablecloth and prayed that the floor might swallow her up. She hated scrutiny. Hated the feel of people's eyes upon her. Trying to look inside her. Thinking they could read her thoughts. Her fingers crept to her neckline to tug the suddenly too-tight collar.
"Will there be anything else, your highness?" Thank God for Rafe. Again. He set the cup on the table with a flourish, forcing Nico's attention back to the business at hand.
The vintner's bronze fingers wrapped around the handle. "This will do for now," he replied.
"You do know that when I said 'your highness,' I meant it sarcastically, right?"
"Yes, but you wait on me all the same." Nevertheless, Nico saluted his friend with the cup before taking a sip. "So," he said after he swallowed, "you said something about a committee?"
"You were listening," Rafe replied. "Yes, I want to create a committee for developing tourism."
"Monte Calanetti already has a person in charge of tourism." Nico explained. "Vincenzo Alberti."
"Tell me you're joking. Everyone knows Vincenzo did nothing and that the only reason we hosted the wedding was because your brother was in town to write the proposal. It could have just as easily gone to some place in Umbria."
"True. Vincenzo is rather useless."
"What I'm talking about is something independent and more grassroots. I'm certain if the local businesspeople put their heads together, we can come up with a host of ideas to increase tourism. Not to mention run them better."
"I certainly won't complain about increased business, especially during the dormant months," Nico said. Leaning back, he hooked an arm over the back of his chair. "Who else do you have in mind besides the four of us? I assume it is the four of us, since we're all sitting here."
The two men began tossing names back and forth, some of whom Louis...
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