Natasha Austin was done.
Sixty-five and her life had come to a standstill.
She’d done her bit, been a loving wife for forty-five years. Brought up four children, whom she loved dearly, worried about greatly and couldn’t escape their concern in return. Her daughter Simone’s, especially.
And so, she’d fled.
Escaped to Europe for what she hoped would be the vacation of her widowhood. Because who could be sad when there was so much beauty in the world? Beauty she was forcing herself to enjoy as she sat in St Mark’s Square, Venice, sipping the finest Italian coffee, tearing pieces off a delicious custard cornetto—at least she assumed it was delicious.
Truth was, she couldn’t really taste it.
Her senses were muted, dulled by Jack’s passing. Colours, flavours, sounds. The highs and lows of life.
Four years he’d been gone and she was still stuck in this weird state of limbo, trying to find her way again…
Maybe a holiday hadn’t been the best idea, but Simone had been so keen on it the relief in her daughter’s face enough to see her booking the tickets there and then. But now that Natasha was here, she had too much time to think, too much time alone, and she realised that putting more hours in at the charity she’d fronted would have been a much better use of her time.
The perfect distraction while doing something worthwhile, but there was only so much she could do there before she got underfoot. Or worse, provoked the team’s concern on top of that of her children…
So a holiday it would be.
Lifting the teeny coffee cup to her nose, she closed her eyes and breathed in the aroma, trying to find the soothing enjoyment from something old and familiar, when above the busy bustle of the café terrace, a voice permeated her senses.
‘Un caffè, per favore.’
The rich deep baritone had an inexplicable flutter rising up within her, the force of which had her eyes shooting open. To feel something, anything, but over a voice…a voice belonging to…
She watched as the man took a seat at the table across the way. Dark eyes, dark hair greying at the temples, strong nose, full mouth, a subtle tan to his weathered skin and clothes that looked to be cut just for him. He exuded grace and power and her artistic eye had him painted on a canvas before he’d even flicked open the newspaper in his hand and settled back to read.
And who read the paper these days? It was all electronic tablets, phones… Said eyes glanced up, collided with hers and heat streaked right through her middle and burned at her cheeks.
Oh no. He was talking to her. And she had no voice. No words. Only a smile so small it was barely there. She gave a swift nod and went back to her own business. He didn’t though. She could sense his eyes were still on her—bemused or amused—and oh my, oh why, did she feel sixteen again? Sixteen and tongue-tied by a boy.
A boy who was very much a man and had a voice capable of making her feel more than she had in years.
Maybe her children were right to worry about her, after all.
Or maybe you’re afraid that you’re not as done as you first thought…
Arthur Nolan was accustomed to beautiful women.
Beautiful women with a confident air that saw them striking out from the crowd and catching the eye of every passerby. Owning their surroundings as much as themselves.
Not this one though.
This one was shrinking.
Like a delicate wallflower, she visibly retreated into herself. The flush to her cheeks, the most subtle of smiles and blue eyes that went a fraction too wide before she went back to her coffee. A self-conscious hand smoothing through her blond hair as she dipped her head and turned away.
Her behaviour so incongruous to her poise and the expensive cut of her clothing that he had the ridiculous urge to step up and coax her out of the shadows.
Dangerous talk for someone supposed to be taking a break, not just from work but women too. His daughter having made her thoughts on both abundantly clear. And though he’d left Anya at the helm of his company, their company, soon to be her company, he couldn’t quit the daily check-ins with his number two while he forced himself to enjoy the sights of cities he’d visited many a time over but work had prevented him from seeing much of.
‘Your coffee, sir.’
The server placed his drink before him and he returned his gaze to the paper and the financial headlines…and not the woman across the way whom he had the strangest sense of knowing. A business function perhaps, a friend of a friend, a wife…
Some commotion to his left interrupted his pondering and he looked up to see something of a cartoon scene unfolding. A dog on the run, sausages trailing from his mouth as a man in a butcher’s apron hollered after him. The dog was heading straight for his table but at the last second sprang off his forelegs and did an about turn, colliding with the server instead. The petite women pirouetted on the spot, her eyes widening, her scream high-pitched as the tray of drinks in her hand upended onto the table of the wallflower.
There was no shrinking away now.
She leapt back with a surprised squeak, a spray of coffee just reaching her pink-polished and sandal-clad toes.
The server hurried out her apologies, the butcher did the same but kept up the chase and the beautiful woman shook her head at the scene of devastation that was once her pristine table.
‘I am so sorry, signora.’ The server fussed over her. ‘Are you hurt?’
‘No, not at all.’
‘One moment, please. I will get this cleaned.’
The server hurried away, presumably to get whatever supplies she needed, and the woman was stranded. Her height already put her head and shoulders above most, but now she was towering over the other seated guests and standing out more than she clearly wished. No free table available and judging by her lip chewing, getting edgier by the second.
He gave a sigh. Agreeing to be sworn off women for the foreseeable and rescuing a damsel in distress weren’t mutually exclusive, were they?
He stood and gestured to the chair opposite. ‘Excuse me, would you care to join me while your table is cleaned?’
She started, those striking blue eyes meeting his and calling to mind a deer caught in the headlights. Was she going to…run?
No, surely not, but it took her a second longer that he’d have liked for her shoulders to ease, her expression with them. ‘That’s very kind, so long as you’re sure you don’t mind.’
‘Not in the slightest.’ In fact, he’d be more offended if she ran, but he wasn’t about to say so. Even in jest.
She stepped forward and he held out his hand, his smile polite and careful. He didn’t want to spook her further. ‘Arthur Nolan at your service.’
She slipped her hand in his and the warmth of her touch, the feel of her delicate fingers taking hold, caught at something deep inside his chest. Something he hadn’t felt in too many years to count…
And then came the spark of recognition, of distant memories and a sea of faces at various functions over the years, of her standing out in the crowd. Confident. Composed. Captivating the entire room.
‘Natasha. Natasha Austin.’
‘Austin,’ he said with her. ‘We’ve met before.’
Only then she’d been no wallflower – she’d also been no widow.
The darkness of love lost…
The descriptor came from nowhere, poking at a long-buried wound…as did the desire to bring back the light. In her, in him…though the thought was as unwelcome as it was profound.
Can you just go a week without thinking of work or women?
The former, impossible. The latter, no problem.
But then, no one could have prepared him for Natasha Austin…
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