Second chance love has never been so alluring … or dangerous.
When Sofia returns to the small town of Sant’Agosto in Central Italy to take care of her sick aunt, she doesn’t expect to find Antonio, her childhood sweetheart, there. He’s back from Rome, has turned into the sexiest man alive – and he carries a gun. That’s because, as Vice-Commander of a special operations group, he fights the Mafia on a daily basis.
Can Antonio be trusted with Sofia’s heart? Or will he disappoint her as he did when they were teens?
For Antonio, the situation is even more fraught: should he push Sofia away to protect her from his dangerous world, or let her love him although it could cost her life?
Death was a distinct possibility. Was that why Nella was sweating profusely, or was it the heat of the Italian summer? Sofia wiped the brow of the woman who’d been a mother to her with a cloth dampened in icy water and smiled, clinging to hope against all odds the way she always did.
‘Better?’ She carefully perched at the end of the chunky velvet couch, mindful not to sit on Nella’s emaciated feet. Since the latest round of chemotherapy, the sofa was where the frail woman spent most of her time, lying in front of the television that she left on as a distraction but never watched.
‘Si, much better, cara mia.’ Nella tucked a strand of her sparse hair behind her ear, a pure white lock when before she contracted leukaemia it had been as thick and dark as Sofia’s curls.
‘You’re not comfortable, are you, zia?’
‘I’ll be fine. You sit down.’
Sofia performed a little dance. ‘These legs are itching to move around. Come on. How can I help? Just tell me and I’m yours.’
Nella giggled. ‘You’re an angel. Stupid old body, shivering one minute and too hot the next. Do you think you could open that window over there for me?’
‘Sure.’ It would let in some air, although probably not cool. The choice was more often than not between hot and stinking hot in central Italy on a summer afternoon.
Nella sighed. ‘I wish you didn’t have to do all this for me.’
‘It’s nothing at all. What else do I have on my plate?’ She had a whole year off teaching and no husband to worry about. Not since she’d managed to free herself from that control freak two years ago. ‘Besides, you looked after me when I had no one, remember?’
Nella groaned with discomfort as she turned on her side, shifting the embroidered sheet that hid her legs. ‘Your mother never should have let that rotten scoundrel talk his way into her pants. Your father wouldn’t have lost the plot if she’d behaved the way a wife should.’
Sofia wasn’t so sure. Her father, Nella’s brother, had been mentally fragile for as long as she remembered, but it wasn’t worth arguing about. ‘Nothing can change the past, zia Nella. I, for one, make a point of never looking back.’ She swung open the window panes hoping for a cool breeze to make its way down from the surrounding mountains and into the valley, rustling in the olive trees before whipping past the spicy-scented red geraniums and through the roughly rendered white house, but today the air was still. She sighed, about to sit back down, when a car pulled up in front of the country property. ‘Someone’s here. A black hatchback. A Lancia, I think.’
An impressive man stepped out of it, broad shouldered, dark-haired, an elegant silhouette that stood ramrod straight on the dusty dirt road in front of their ornate wrought iron gate. ‘A very tall man. He’s just standing there, talking on the phone. Shall I let him in?’
‘Dio mio. What day is it today?’
Nella covered her face with her hands. ‘My memory’s letting me down.’
‘That’s normal, zia. They told you that you might get chemo fog.’
‘He phoned yesterday while you were watering the eggplant and tomatoes. I was so happy to hear he was coming over and then it went and slipped my mind. Quick, pass me that hairbrush, bella mia.’
Sofia smiled. She hadn’t seen her aunt panic like that before. Was it a man Nella wanted to impress? Why else would she want to do her hair? ‘Who is it, zia?’
Sofia’s eyebrows shot up. A General? How did her simple, country aunt know such a high-ranking official?
‘Is he on his own, Sofia? There was a rumour circulating about him getting divorced.’ ‘Well, it’s just him today.’
‘Hurry up, come closer and sit.’ Nella grabbed the tarnished gold hairbrush off her as she approached.
Sofia let out a cry when she felt the bristles against her own scalp. ‘Zia! What are you doing? I thought you wanted to tidy your hair, not mine!’
‘There, you’re beautiful.’
‘I have to look good because you have a General friend with a row of medals on his jacket?’
‘He isn’t actually a General. But everybody’s sure it will happen soon. Such a brilliant man. I bet he’ll have all those medals before he’s even forty. He’s already an important man and if I remember correctly he’s only two years older than you, so that means he’s …’
‘Thirty-seven. You don’t remember how old I am, do you?’
‘He’s even on TV sometimes. Very high up in the carabinieri.’
‘What does he do exactly?’ asked Sofia as the bell rang. ‘His job title, I mean.’
‘Get the remote, cara mia, and let him in.’
Sofia found the button and pressed it, and the automatic gate opened with a clunk. ‘Me and titles …’ Nella shrugged. ‘He’s second in charge of some special unit in Rome. He fights the really bad criminals, the Mafia and the like.’
‘That’s impressive.’ And dangerous, but why worry Nella by pointing that out about her friend?
‘You hadn’t heard that’s what he’d become? He’ll be happy to see you again.’
‘Excuse me?’ Happy to see her? Again? Sofia didn’t know anyone on his way to being a General. Who was this man? Before she had a chance to ask, confident footsteps had reached their door.
‘Permesso?’ His voice was deep and mellow as he asked for permission to enter, the kind you longed to hear on a star-filled night.
‘Vieni, my angel!’ called Nella, as he stood in the doorway, his neck slightly bent to accommodate his tall frame. ‘Come on in.’
The man entered and Sofia studied his face. There was something familiar about that square jaw of his. Familiar and very attractive.
He kissed Nella on both cheeks. ‘I heard the news. I’m so sorry, Nella. How are you holding up?’
‘I’m feeling weak but OK. It’s fine, really, whatever happens. I’ve lived seventy-three wonderful years. And I’m still here. They said it could take a turn for the worst, but they’re not always good at predicting things, and you know me. I don’t give up that easily. I’ve been fighting this with everything I’ve got.’
‘I’m glad you’re in good spirits.’
She patted his back before turning to Sofia. ‘You remember my niece, Sofia, I’m sure. She’s put her teaching career on hold and come all the way from Australia to take care of her old zia.’
He glanced at Sofia sideways with his grey-green eyes and the electricity in them sent a jolt down her spine. But a certain darkness in his gaze told her that she wasn’t a good memory for him. He grunted out a greeting. ‘Buongiorno.’
Nella waved her hands about. ‘Oh, come on, you two. You’re acting like you don’t know each other.’
Sofia stared at her aunt and shrugged.
‘It’s Antonio. Surely you remember him. Before moving to Rome he and his family lived up in the mountains and sometimes spent holidays down here in the house next door to cousin Mario. He was here the two years you lived with us. Our little Nino. Of course he’s changed a bit. We all have. That was over twenty years ago.’
Nino. The memory hit Sofia like a tornado, lifting her into the sky, spinning her around, stealing her breath until she thought she would suffocate. So much for never looking back.
Unbelievable. The teen who followed me everywhere on his Vespa that summer. He even crashed it once because he couldn’t take his eyes off me instead of watching where he was going.
And it was the same for me.
She’d spent so many days, so many nights, dreaming of him, longing for his touch and a taste of his lips. She’d written his initials next to hers on the inside of her make-up case, and whispered his name before falling asleep. But then there’d been that evening on the balcony. He’d made her feel like she didn’t matter, like she’d never mattered. Perhaps she’d overreacted after that. She’d regretted how she’d behaved, even if he’d deserved it.
Antonio De Santis. Oh, boy.
He was broader, much more muscular than before and time had chiselled his jaw, but when she studied his grey-green eyes a little longer she found the magnetic gaze of the seventeen-year-old she once knew. It really was him. How she’d wanted to press her lips against his all those years ago! Who’d have thought she’d ever bump into him again?
Now she was expected to kiss him politely on the cheeks, Italian style, by way of greeting. It would be terribly rude not to. She took a couple of steps towards him and leaned closer. His spiced citrus scent opened her lungs and made her want to take the deepest of breaths, as if she were about to plunge into the sparkling Mediterranean sea, diving into a deep and distant past, unable to resurface for so long that she was bound to lack oxygen. Instead, she hid her reaction as the light perfume mixed with the ever so enticing scent of his skin went to her head.
They kissed quickly in the most formal way, cheeks barely touching, but it was enough to awaken all of Sofia’s senses, enough to make her shiver the way she once had when she was near Antonio. Did he remember the moment they’d shared behind the church? She’d been on her way to her cousin Oxana’s house and had bumped into him as she’d cut through the jasmine-scented church gardens late that afternoon. She’d rested against the ancient stone wall, and he had leaned forward and gently removed an oleander petal from her hair. To the song of the cicadas, in over thirty degree heat, she’d shivered.
Oh, how she’d shivered!
‘I had no idea you were here, Sofia, or …’ His deep, warm voice had an edge to it now. Or what? He wouldn’t have come?
Nella waved her arms about. ‘Bring those two chairs over here, Sofia love, so you can both sit down next to me.’
Sofia carried a carved ladder back chair to the couch.
‘Would you mind fetching that bottle of apricot juice and some glasses, please? Some biscotti, too, bella mia. You’ll have juice, right, Nino? Or coffee?’
‘Coffee with two sugars. If it’s no trouble.’
Sofia forced a smile. ‘No trouble at all.’ It would get her out of the living room and away from him for a few minutes and she desperately needed that.
She entered the kitchen, breathing in the vague but comforting smell of spaghetti and thyme, and rested her back against the cupboards for an instant to give her heart, that was beating fast enough to fuel a rocket into space, a chance to slow down. She made an espresso, the scent of the ground beans now filling the air, poured a glass of apricot juice for Nella, placed the star aniseed biscuits onto a fancy plate and lay everything out on a silver tray.
One more minute. I just have to get through one minute and I’m out of here.
She returned to the living room and slid the tray onto the small table next to Nella. ‘Here you are: coffee, apricot juice and biscotti. I have to pick up a few things in town.’ She grabbed her handbag and her keys. ‘So I’ll leave you two in peace.’
Nella’s eyes rounded with surprise. ‘Sorry? What do you need so badly that you have to go right now? And the car’s being fixed, remember? Paolo won’t bring it back until tomorrow or the end of the week if he hasn’t got the right part.’
Sofia couldn’t help but chuckle at the exaggerated outrage on her aunt’s face. ‘I’ll walk, zia. It’s not that far.’
‘Antonio can take you into town,’ suggested Nella quickly. ‘He’ll be heading back that way. Isn’t that so, Antonio? Or are you going straight back to Rome?’
‘I’ll be staying in town for a while.’
Nella grinned. ‘Bravo! That’s good to hear. How long are you here for?’
‘I don’t know exactly. Maybe a month.’
‘You’ll come and see me, then?’
‘I certainly will.’
‘As often as you want.’
‘Every day, in that case?’
He let out a surprised laugh.
Sofia took a deep breath. ‘Every day is a lot to ask of anyone. I’m here for everything you need, zia.’ She certainly didn’t want to see Antonio De Santis every day. Not anymore. Not like when she used to sit in the garden, picking at grapes under the patio, in the hope that he’d ride by on his Vespa, her heart beating faster every time the sound of an engine resonated through the peaceful countryside. Seeing him every day had been her greatest desire then.
‘I know you’re here, Sofia, and I really appreciate it, but a few minutes with someone else would be nice. For you, too, cara. It can’t be healthy for you to be with nobody but me. And I haven’t caught up with Antonio for such a long time. It’ll be like back in the old days when you and your family visited all summer, hey, Nino mio.’
The General cleared his throat. ‘I should be able to fit that in.’
‘Grazie,’ said Nella, beaming. ‘You can call in any time that suits you, day or night. After all, I’m always here.’ She chuckled. ‘Seriously, I don’t sleep like I used to. I catch half an hour here and there, so even pop in late if you want to. You’ll definitely come?’
‘Sure. You can count on it.’
‘How nice! Something to look forward to every day! So, do you want to take Sofia to the shops now?’
‘Well, um …’ He let out his breath. ‘I wasn’t planning on leaving straight away. I thought we’d have a chat, Nella, but I suppose if you want me to drive Sofia, you and I can catch up tomorrow.’ He threw Sofia an uneasy glance.
Sofia held up her hand. ‘No, you stay right there. I insist. The walk will do me good.’ She could tell he wasn’t keen to give her a lift, and she could imagine how uncomfortable she would feel next to him in the car. She smiled politely as she donned a straw hat.
Nella lifted her gaze to the ceiling. ‘There’s no need to run away. Mamma mia. Look at this niece of mine behaving like an embarrassed teenager!’
Before the well-intentioned older woman could inadvertently add anything more humiliating, Sofia slipped out the door, hurried up the driveway to the gate and escaped, heading to Sant’Agosto as fast as she could, even if there was nothing pressing on her shopping list and, on a day like today, when it was neither market day nor a ‘festa’, a religious celebration when every street came alive with music, laughter, and stalls laden with small knick-knacks, treats and cheap souvenirs, there was little to do in the sleepy country town nestled in the valley about halfway between Rome and Naples.
That didn’t matter to Sofia. The only thing she desperately needed in town right now was to get away from Nino.
Antonio sat in the driver’s seat, unsure of what had shaken him more: the sight of kind Nella, white-haired, thin, and completely helpless on the couch, or having to stand so close to Sofia again. Having to smell Sofia’s scent without being able to touch her, having to talk to her without saying what was in his heart. Still. After all these years.
He whispered her name, Sofia Conti.
To have to come here every single day! Why on earth had he agreed to that? Because Nella has cancer and at her age the prognosis isn’t good. How do you say ‘no’ to the dying?
He closed his car door and tooted the horn gently before driving off, another goodbye to the woman who had been such a good friend to his family, in case she … He took a deep breath. Well, just in case.
If his own parents had been able to, they would have come to visit Nella, would have shown her all the love and respect they had for her. But they had left the country, acquired new identities and been in hiding since the ‘accident’ that nearly killed them. They were tucked away in an overseas place Antonio didn’t even dare think about, as if the Mafia could get into his head and find his mother and father in the corners of his imagination.
And now he too had been forced into disappearing for a while, keeping a low profile when he’d had enough of hiding—but his boss had ordered him away, applying work policies to the letter. At least Antonio was in his own car, not an imposing bullet-proof, bomb-proof State vehicle with the latest safety gizmos, which he’d flat out refused to drive and thankfully wasn’t mentioned in the internal document that ruled his life. While an armoured car would have offered protection, it was hardly ever enough to stop the Mafia. Look at Judge Falcone. His armoured four-wheel drive had been blown to smithereens, and half the freeway with it. Besides, was there anything more noticeable than a big imposing vehicle? Sometimes Antonio wondered about the thinking behind all these office policies.
He took the last bend before town, passing the house with the distinctive balcony and its succession of columns that he always glanced at whenever he drove by. He shook his head. That damn balcony! The memories … His only hope was that they’d demolish the horrid palazzo one day to build something else in its place, something that wouldn’t make him bite the inside of his lip every time he went by.
A few instants later he reached the paved town square, the heart of Sant’Agosto marked on one side by a stately fountain in front of the white shire building, on the other by the thirteenth-century stone church flanked by cypress trees where people gathered to exchange town gossip on balmy summer evenings. Between the two points, a handful of soft-pink and beige rendered shops and a couple of bars with terracotta roofs, their round tables spilling onto the footpath like waterlilies on a pond, provided the necessities of life and daily entertainment for the Sant’Agostians.
Antonio parked closest to the small cluster of shops and climbed out, relieved he hadn’t come across Sofia on her way back home while he was driving into town. It was a good thing he hadn’t had to give her a lift, a very good thing that she’d made her own way into Sant’Agosto. He didn’t know how he’d have managed beside her in the car.
He needed something to steady his nerves and ease the knots in his shoulders. He entered the bar that faced the church, the one with the burgundy awnings above its windows, and the scent of coffee mixed with Strega liqueur filled his lungs. It was here that Antonio used to sit outside with his parents on a warm summer evening and eat gelato while watching the comings and goings of the whole town and the memory brought a smile to his face. Ice-cream wasn’t what he had in mind today, though.
‘Buongiorno. A glass of Chianti, please.’ Normally he would have called the person behind the bar by their first name, would have known exactly who it was. ‘Actually, make that a Campari.’
Today, he didn’t recognise the adolescent who poured the alcohol, but he was certain the kid was related to someone whose roots were firmly anchored in this valley. No one new ever came to Sant’Agosto and everyone would be on their guard if a true outsider suddenly turned up. That’s what made it safe for Antonio here. Relatively speaking. And it wasn’t the village his family came from, only the place where they used to spend their summers when he was a teenager, so the hope was that it had gone unnoticed by the Mafia. It certainly wouldn’t be the very first place they looked for him.
In any event it was much safer here for Antonio than Rome at the moment and a lot easier than being banished to some lost foreign country thousands of kilometres away or even a forgotten Italian village where he knew no one and had no idea who he could trust. If it had been entirely up to him, if he hadn’t had orders to follow, Antonio would have stayed at work as if nothing had happened.
He didn’t fear for his life. Not like he feared for the lives of those around him. The young barman placed a small dish of olives next to his drink. ‘Enjoying being in town?’
‘Sure. I’m Antonio De Santis. My family holidayed here from time to time, the house on the other side of the church.’ The home that belonged to a friend of his mother’s, someone the Mafia wouldn’t track down quite as easily or as fast as a relative. And if they did, so be it. He’d be waiting for them. He’d already had to ship his parents out of the country and have everyone believe they were dead. He’d had enough. He wasn’t going to let the Mafia manipulate him into changing his life anymore.
A smile lit up the young barman’s face. ‘Yes, I know who you are, signore. My mamma mentioned you were in town.’
‘You’re Marina’s son! Wow, you’ve grown!’ The boy had certainly changed a lot. ‘The last time I bumped into you, you must have been half your size. You’re working now?’
‘Just helping out over summer. Our family has the greatest respect for what you do for Italy, sir.’
I only do what’s necessary. ‘Thank you. It’s nice of you to say. Give your parents my regards.’
Suddenly laughter floated through the air, a laugh Antonio would have recognised anywhere. A sound that had haunted his dreams for years, at times playful and seductive, at others cruel and cold. He closed his eyes. Of all the places in town, she had to be here, in this bar, at the same time as him.
Hopefully, Sofia hadn’t seen him. He drank, guzzling down the entire contents of the glass of bittersweet ruby red aperitivo, and left the price of the drink and a few more Euros on the bar, before making his way to the main door, head down, sure he’d be able to slip through it unnoticed. And that’s exactly where he found Sofia as the brass church bells marked noon, impossible to ignore as they clanged nearby. She was standing right in front of the glass entrance with another brunette in her early thirties and an older woman. There was no avoiding her now, and no escaping a polite exchange or else he and Sofia would be the talk of the town. Not that he cared, but she might.
She took a sharp breath when her gaze settled on him. ‘Antonio.’
He nodded dutifully to acknowledge her in front of anyone who was, discreetly or not so discreetly, watching. ‘Sofia. I left your aunt’s side about twenty minutes ago. Maybe you should be heading home.’
He could have kicked himself. Like a teenager, he’d said the first thing that had sprung to mind, the absolutely stupid first thing, as if he’d learned nothing over the past twenty years. Bossing her around in front of everyone in town could only hinder their relationship.
His lip twisted.
Relationship? Do we have any such thing? Did we ever?
Sofia clicked her tongue with disapproval. ‘I know how long I can leave Nella on her own, and she has my number.’ She pulled her mobile phone out of her pocket and held it up. ‘I’m contactable at all times and I don’t need any big shot to tell me what to do or how to keep my aunt comfortable. But thank you, Nino, for your concern.’
‘Right.’ He swallowed his pride and walked by her, looking straight ahead. Regardless of how hard he’d worked to become who he was, it was clear that he wasn’t a big shot in her eyes.
And hers were the only eyes that had mattered to him when he’d started this career. She was the only one who’d meant anything for so long. Years.
Everything he’d done, everything he’d sacrificed to prove his worth, had made no difference. He was still the young boy she’d thrown away like a dirty rag.
He steeled himself and made his way past the outside tables, the large round fountain of the piazza and up the cobblestone road, conscious of each step he took. When he reached the car, he curled his fingers around the handle of the vehicle’s door and froze.
Just get in. Don’t look at her. Don’t look back.
The need to see her, to catch a glimpse of her dark curls, for their eyes to meet once more, was stronger than anything. Had she watched him walk away? Did she regret what she’d said to him, the way he’d immediately regretted his own words?
He turned around and glanced in her direction, his heart beating stronger than ever, before it suddenly sank.
Sofia wasn’t looking at him with longing in her eyes.
She wasn’t looking at him at all.
She was gone.
He let out a moan. He’d thought coming to the town where he’d spent his holidays as a kid would be better than running to an unknown place, thought it would be straightforward. That was before he knew Sofia was here.
It was patently clear to him now that his stay in Sant’Agosto was going to be anything but easy.