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Dario Vitez crawled from the brink of poverty and made a name for himself as a wealthy, successful restaurateur. Love is the only thing missing from his life. He’s never found a woman who could compare to his childhood sweetheart, Irena Novak—who was forced into a marriage of convenience and lives half a world away.
Irena has secrets—dangerous secrets. She reappears in Dario’s life, on the run from her murderous husband, who will do anything to silence his wife. When Dario discovers the danger she’s in, he vows to protect her. But her psychotic husband is drawing closer by the day. If Dario loses Irena again, this time it might be forever.
Page Count: 306
Word Count: 80563
The lovers at the secluded table of Mezzaluna, holding hands, gazing into each other’s eyes re-opened Dario’s barely healed wounds and forced him to seek solace in his office. The full-length mirror he passed in the foyer reflected a well-dressed, successful restaurateur, but he knew better than to believe the illusion. The clanging of dishes and murmurs of the restaurant staff muffled through the wall.
He dropped into the leather chair. The unopened bottle of the Frangelico on his desk taunted him. Combing his hand through his hair a few times, he tried to remember the sweet, nutty taste of the liquor on his tongue. His mouth salivated at the thought. If he popped the corked and took a sip, he wouldn’t be able to stop until he consumed the last drop. He shifted his focus on the gypsy stone on the table. Fourteen years later and he still couldn’t part with the damn thing. Now it was nothing but a paperweight for the restaurant’s stack of bills, and a constant reminder of his pain. The only keepsake him and Irena had shared…or half of it. Did she still have the other half? So much for the gypsy’s prediction.
If there was a rewind button on the life he would’ve pressed it long ago. He straightened, leaning against the backrest, the coldness of the leather seeping through his thin cotton shirt. Better get his thoughts back on the job. Damn bills won’t pay themselves.
He grabbed the yellow purchase order from the top of the stack and scanned over the page. Why did he bother? His accountant had warned him of the declining sales over the years due to the bad economy. Many businesses around his restaurant folded, he struggled to keep the prices low to attract patrons, but people’s disposable income shrunk and they rarely dined out.
The door to his office flew open and Ante stepped in, two uncapped beer bottles in his hand. He kicked the door shut behind him.“I knew you’d be hiding in your cave.”
Annoyance replaced Dario’s brooding “Your only saving grace is that we’re family or I’d fire you for bursting into my office without knocking. You think I put that sticker on the door saying keep nuts out because I’m allergic?”
“Ha-ha.” Ante approached the desk. He plopped one beer in front of him and lowered to the chair facing Dario. “Never drink alone.” After taking a long swig from his bottle, Ante pointed at the tall bottle on the table. “Going back to hard liquor? You know what that shit does to you.”
Dario tilted the brown glass. Last time he had fooled his younger brother was in grade school, not likely he’d buy the lie now, but it was worth a try. “Wasn’t gonna drink it.”
Ante arched an eyebrow, looking at him with that who-are-you-kidding-bro look. “You enjoy torturing yourself by staring at it?” He gulped a few more long pulls from his bottle and swiped the back of his hand over his mouth. “We did great tonight. Wait staff is happy with tips they got and we’re ready to close. Mom must be proud.”
Ante raised his bottle and Dario clicked his beer with his brother’s in a toast to their parents, their nightly ritual at closing.
Ante nodded fast a few times, drained his beer, licked his lips, and then deposited the empty bottle on the table. “So, coming to the party?”
Dario thumped his beer on the desk and pressed his finger at the stack of bills. “I suppose you’ll take care of these?”
“Oh come on. Leave the work for one night. It’ll still be here in the morning.” His brother tapped his foot against the desk, annoyance filled his tone.
“Exactly.” Dario leaned over, his finger still on the top bill. “And doubled if this stack doesn’t get taken care of tonight. We receive deliveries every day.” He flashed one bill in his outstretched hand. “This one’s for bread.” Picked up another and waved it in the air. “Beer.” Then another. “I don’t know what this one’s for, but it’s for something. Some days it feels like everyone wants our money and all I do is write checks.”
“Okay, you proved your point.” Ante pointed at the stacks of papers on Dario’s desk. “This is just an excuse. You think I don’t know you. Ana’s been asking about you.”
Dario turned to the computer screen, guilt brewing in the pit of his gut. Whenever he thought of Ana that night came to mind…the night he preferred to forget. “I can’t imagine why.”
“The two of you made a good couple, everyone thought—”
“Well, try paying your bills with everyone’s opinions.” Dario dismissed him with a wave of his hand. People and their ideas. Who asked them for the advice? The assumption that they knew what was best for him irked him no matter how hard he tried to ignore the rumors.
Ante loosened up his tie. “You dated Ana because she kind of resembles Irena, but what happened? One minute you two were kissing and the next, zilch. The break up was so sudden.”
Dario scrubbed his hand over his face. So the bitch had not told, yet. Surprising. He pushed the beer bottle across the desk. “Too much booze and with her fake blonde hair close to Irena’s, I cried the wrong girl’s name in bed.”
Dumb mistake. Anna’s bleached hair could not compare to Irena’s tresses—rays of sunshine reflecting off the surface of the water. Neither could be captured in a bottle of hair dye. God, learning to live without her had been harder than saying goodbye. He’d tried to stop comparing every girl to Irena to no avail, for fourteen years he was left to grapple with their split-up.
“Aw man, that stings.” Ante got on his feet and took the empty bottle. “Still, you should get out instead of living in this office, like some hermit. I hear Irena’s parents aren’t doing well. Maybe she’ll come home to see them one last time.”
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