Dante Moretti, Texas-born goalie of an Italian World Cup champion team, expects Starlight, Iowa will be only a blip on the radar of his life. Grabbing a quick meal at Barney’s Diner during the holidays, Dante meets two women who capture his heart in very different ways. Then his rental car won’t start and leaves him stranded. Does the Lord have a plan for bringing him—and keeping him—in Starlight?
Amanda Marston is excited to be home for her brother’s wedding. When she drops in for a cup of coffee at Barney’s, she’s charmed by the mysterious, Italian-spouting cowboy. Before she can blink, the handsome stranger is helping with projects all over town and working his way into her heart. Does God have a plan for Dante in her beloved little Starlight or will he take her heart with him when he returns to Italy?
The look. Dante had seen it enough to recognize the telltale signs.
The woman’s blue eyes widened, and her jaw slacked before the bell on the door stopped jingling. Wearing an apron embroidered with Barney’s Diner across the front, she paused in the middle of cleaning the counter. The gleam in the eye he’d nicknamed “the dawn of understanding” should surface next. Followed by the inevitable question, “Excuse me, but aren’t you…?”
If he could put off her questions long enough, he’d have time to gulp down a cup of something hot and caffeinated and eat a decent meal before blowing back out of town on a breeze as blustery as the one that carried him into tiny Starlight, Iowa. Dante shivered. Would he ever be warm again?
“Welcome to Barney’s.” A grin creased the woman’s lips.
He removed his Stetson, clasping it with near-frozen fingers. “Buona sera.”
“Menu’s on the counter. I’ll be over in a couple of minutes to take your order.”
“Grazie, signora.” He dropped onto a counter stool, parked the dark brown hat on the adjacent seat, and rubbed his hands together to coax them back to life. If he'd possessed the gift of foresight, he’d have stopped somewhere and bought a pair of thermal gloves. Living in Italy must have numbed his brain.
After opening the menu, he perused the offerings. The names of the specialties were plenty interesting: Jake’s Jumpin’ (or Julia’s Tame) Chili, Ben’s Boatload of Beef Burger (Antacids on the Side), Hannah’s Broccoli’s-Really-Good-For-You Soup, Pastor Ted’s Heavenly Ham & Swiss Sandwich, Angie and Harry’s (No Bones) Chicken Soup and Dylan’s Where’s-The-Fire? Burrito. With names like that, there had to be some fun stories and people behind them. That kind of thing made small-town living special.
Dante closed the menu and stacked it with the others on the counter, resolved to order whatever was available and quick. He surveyed the place. Nice little diner, well-maintained and quiet. The black and white checkerboard floor was accented by red vinyl seats on the chairs, booths, and counter stools. A handful of customers spoke in low tones and darted curious glances his way. Although he turned aside, he sensed the eyes on his back, the speculative whispers.
The better option might have been a fast food drive-thru, but the billboard advertising Barney’s Diner a few miles back on the highway had captured his attention. Good thing, since he’d been distracted by aching muscles. Hunching over the steering wheel for hours could do that to a guy. Otherwise, he might have missed Starlight altogether. He did have a reason to stop at Barney’s, after all. The letter. Dante patted the inner pocket of his jacket and breathed a sigh of relief. Still there.
“No one’s a stranger in Starlight,” the woman said, coming back around the counter. “I’m Caroline Picasso.”
“Nice to meet you. Picasso?” He hoped the question might distract her.
“Yes, sir. You can’t make this stuff up. No relation that I know of, if that’s what you’re thinking. Ben—that’s my husband—does like to paint. They’re not masterpieces, mind you, but I happen to think they’re pretty good. At least you can tell a nose from a chin or a hand from an elbow.” The way she gestured with her hands and twisted her face to illustrate her point made him laugh. “So, tell me, what might your name be, and what brings you to our little town?”
“Just passing through, signora.” His mistake was drumming the fingers of his right hand on the counter.
Those blue eyes lit, and she surprised him by grabbing hold of his hand, rotating it, studying his World Cup ring. “Real nice ring. Impressive.”
The ring was a bit ostentatious, but it was a personal badge of honor. Among his most prized possessions, it reminded him how far he’d come and symbolized a hard-fought battle in his third year with the Italian Soccer League.
Releasing his hand, Caroline brought his thoughts back to the present. “I’ll call you Italian Cowboy for now.” Her grin resurfaced. “Sounds better than Mr. Passing-through-Town. Where were you a second ago?”
“Mentally thanking you for not asking any questions.”
“Everybody’s got a story to tell,” she said. “I’m sure you’ve got a real good one, but it’s yours to tell. Before you head out in the cold again, you’ve gotta have a cup of my hot coffee. It’ll keep you alert for wherever you’re going tonight.”
“Sounds great. Grazie mille.” His stomach growled, reminding him it’d been seven hours since he’d ingested weak minestrone soup and a half-wilted salad in a no-name roadside diner a couple of states back.
A gust of cold December air blasted him as the front door flew open, the bell jingling away. Dressed in a light blue knit hat, jeans, a white parka, and snow boots, a young woman stepped over the threshold of the diner. With effort, she leaned against the door while the wind howled outside.
Dante jumped from his seat, moved around her, and gave the door a firm push.
She graced him with a bright smile. “Thanks.” Eyes the color of dark chocolate—with a hint of warm, melting caramel—met his. With her cheeks flushed pink and snowflakes dancing on dark lashes, she was lovely.
They both turned as Caroline rushed forward, moving faster than he’d have thought possible as she enfolded Amanda in a warm embrace. “Oh, honey, what a wonderful surprise. I knew you were coming for Jake and Julia’s wedding, of course, but I didn’t expect you so soon. Sure is great to see you. We’ve all missed you around here.”
When Amanda pulled off her hat, a mass of loose, honey-blonde curls tumbled past her shoulders. “Molto bella,” Dante said under his breath. The last rays of sunshine shone through the picture window behind her, forming a sort of golden halo around her glowing face. Wow. Christmas season or not, all the driving must be getting to him. Next he’d be seeing Santa, flying reindeer, and elves.
“I decided to combine vacation time with the Christmas break and come home early. If Julia needs any help with last-minute details, I wanted to be here. Besides,” Amanda said with a grin, “palm trees and flip flops at Christmas somehow seem…wrong. You can’t beat Starlight during the holidays.”
“You got that right,” Caroline said. “Sit yourself down and I’ll get you a cup of coffee.”
“Actually, I called ahead, and Martha’s holding a box of frosted sugar cookies for Jake. I parked out front, and when I saw you through the window, I couldn’t resist stopping in to say hi. I’m going to run over to the bakery before Martha closes for the night, and then I’ll be back.”
Amanda slanted a curious gaze to where he stood beside her as if rooted to the floor like a teenager with a silly crush. She tugged off one glove and held out her hand. “Hi. I’m Amanda Marston. Thanks again for your help.”
“Buona sera, signorina.” Slipping into Italian came naturally but he hoped this gorgeous woman wouldn’t misconstrue his words and think he was some kind of Romeo trying to impress her. Based on her expression, she’d formed no early judgments. He reached for her hand, pale in contrast to his own, which was bronzed from the unrelenting Italian sun. The fact she wore no engagement ring or wedding band filled him with an unexpected sense of satisfaction. “I’m Dante. Very nice to meet you.”
“You, too.” Amanda tilted her head.
Her movement drew his attention to her hair. Those blonde curls fascinated him. “Italian or American?”
He released her hand, ignoring Caroline’s smug grin. “Both. It’s sort of a long story.”
“Aren’t they all?” Her lips creased into an inviting smile. “I’d like to hear it sometime.” This woman was no shy wallflower, but her comment came across as simple curiosity rather than overt flirtation. Although he liked assertive women, he’d encountered far too many fawning, aggressive fans in the past few years. But Amanda seemed genuine, unassuming, and friendly.
Caroline elbowed him as she rounded the counter. “I would have introduced you, Amanda, but I hadn’t been able to get a name out of him. Until you came along, I’d decided to call him Italian Cowboy. After all, how many Italian-spouting cowboys do we get traveling through Starlight on the second Tuesday in December?”
Amanda laughed. “Not many, I’m sure. I’m going to run over to Martha’s, and I’ll be back in a few minutes for that promised cup of coffee.” With a quick wave, she tugged on her hat and opened the door, setting that bell to its infernal jingling.
“Was she a figment of my overactive imagination?” The question slipped out as Dante sank back onto his seat. He hadn’t intended to say it out loud, and he needed to leave before Amanda returned. His brain told him one thing, but why did everything else in him urge him to stay? Something about Amanda was different. Very special different. Need-her-in-your-life different.