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Saved by the CEO

By:Barbara Wallace

Saved by the CEO
Barbara Wallace

       CHAPTER ONE

"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..."

"But what?"

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."

"What committee?"

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.

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