Gisele Hornsby kept pinching herself, even as she brushed on a third application of mascara, hoping a bit more makeup might distract from her bloodshot, hungover eyes. She still couldn’t believe she was here, in Monaforte, a guest at a romantic Christmastime royal wedding, headed to her first “royal engagement” as her brother Parker’s plus-one for the event of the season. It was enough to make even the most hungover of girls swoon.
She’d arrived in the fairy-tale country of Monaforte, a small European principality nestled between Italy and Switzerland, with her brother—a college friend of the groom, Prince Luca—in time to attend the many scheduled prenuptial events. They even got to stay as royal guests in an apartment in the palace —where all the royal people lived! Life could not get any cooler.
Gisele had spent her first full day in the country touring Porto Castello, the charming and historic capital of Monaforte, with her new friend Valentina Romeo, a royal cousin of Luca’s, and for some undisclosed reason, her brother’s adversary. Gisele was determined to get to the bottom of the mystery: Why had Valentina thrown daggers at Parker whenever he looked her way? And why had her normally chill brother suddenly turned surly.
She mistakenly thought tequila would unlock the answer, and proceeded to get both Valentina and herself sloppy drunk in the middle of the afternoon at a quaint little seaside pub, though she never did get to the root of the problem before Valentina’s superhot brother Tomasso stopped them from making complete fools of themselves in public.
He was at an advantage, what with his jaw-dropping good looks: tall with wavy, dark hair, the most expressive amber eyes, broad shoulders and chest, and a truly perfect tight butt tucked into a sexy pair of jeans. What self-respecting girl who hadn’t been laid in a long while wouldn’t capitulate to the guy? So although the two women were having far too much fun for a weekday afternoon, they relented, paid the bar bill, and returned to the palace at his insistence, where Gisele promptly passed out for a few hours before the evening’s royal bash was to start.
Her alarm went off with just enough time to get ready for the party, to be held at the country home of Luca’s brother and heir apparent to the throne, Prince Adrian and his wife Emma. As soon as the phone blared its reveille, she made a mental note to switch her alarm from the preprogrammed “marimba” tone to something with a little less sensory overload for her throbbing brain next time. Though there wouldn’t be a next time—she’d also made a mental note to remember that tequila only led to pain and suffering after the fun wore off. For that very reason, she popped a couple of Advil to tamp down the headache that threatened to ruin her evening, slapped on some face paint, and hoped no one would be the wiser to her flagging state of mind.
After slinking into an above-the-knee, black, tiered tulle cocktail dress with spaghetti straps and a sexy open back, she twisted her long, blond waves into a loose side-braid, then slid on a pair of black Stuart Weitzman strappy sandals with heels that showed off her runner’s legs perfectly. She turned to her side in front of the mirror, smoothing down her gown at the waistline, then applied a coat of dark pink lipstick, fluttered her lashes over her bright blue eyes, pressed her lips together, and nodded to herself.
“Perfect,” she said. “No one will be the wiser that I feel like complete crap.”
She grabbed her jacket from the closet and stepped into the living room to join Parker, who stood by the door, coat already on and buttoned up, arms crossed, eyes fixed on his watch, and tapping his toe impatiently.
“What?” Gisele said, grinning. “I’m like thirty seconds late.”
Parker threw her the side-eye. “Thirty seconds give or take five minutes. Besides, if you hadn’t been preoccupied with invoking my good name in conversation with your equally drunk friend this afternoon, just think—you could have actually been early. Now we’ll probably not even get a seat on the bus.” The palace was providing transportation for all of the guests to Luca’s country estate.
Gisele rolled her eyes. “I love you, Parks, but you can be a little fastidious sometimes. Relax, sweet brother,” she said. “It’s all good. There will definitely be a seat on the bus. Plus, I didn’t make anything worse for you and I got to meet Valentina’s cute brother. I’d say it’s a win-win.”
He shook his head. “You were never good at keeping score, G.” He reached for her hand and pulled her out the door. “Sticking your nose into my business means I lose. Now, come on, or I’m going to get stuck sitting on that Valentina woman’s lap and at this rate, Lord knows what sort of torture she’d impose on me for that transgression.”
Parker didn’t exactly have to sit on Valentina’s lap but did have to tuck into the next row up from her, the only seats left on the bus thanks to Gisele’s timing. After a little shuffling at the behest of the girls, Gisele wedged in next to Valentina, which meant Parker ended up sitting next to Tomasso. Gisele threw a hard glare at her brother.
“What?” he said, squinting his eyes at her.
She knit her brows and nudged her head in the direction of his seatmate, trying to convey that she wanted to sit next to Tomasso. But her dense brother simply frowned, his lips pursed to send her a silent message to leave him the hell alone.
Grrrr. Can’t a girl get a little one-on-one time in a dark bus with a gorgeous Italian man? She’d have to work on that one a bit.
Gisele’s eyes opened wide in amazement as the bus approached the estate, which was surrounded by a tall brick wall and draped with holly and pine roping entwined with white lights for the holiday season. The bus passed a large, brick guardhouse flanked by stone-faced men with bright red uniforms and tall furry hats—what was with royals and those hats?—then continued along a tree-lined driveway for a mile or so before finally stopping in the pebbled parking area of the palatial Georgian country estate.
As they lined up to leave the bus, Gisele couldn’t help but lean gently against Tomasso. After all, people were clamoring to get out; there was no room to move. That was her excuse, anyhow, and she enjoyed feeling his solid body pressed to hers in the dark, even if she did have a heavy coat as a niggling barricade. At least it let her fantasize for a minute about what being body-to-body horizontally with the man, rather than vertically, would be like as she waited to step down from the damned bus.
They followed one another up the slate walkway, entering through massive oversized doors hung with giant Christmas wreaths. As two butlers greeted guests and collected coats, she tried to stick close to Parker so she wouldn’t feel too out of place, but no sooner did he hand off his coat than he disappeared, no doubt fleeing Valentina’s presence and leaving Gisele to stand by the doorway. Not knowing a soul, she felt like a complete idiot standing there like a girl lost in the woods in a fairy tale. She even pretended to wave to a couple of strangers who responded by looking at her as if she was daft.
“I’d offer you a drink, but that’s probably the last thing you want right about now,” she heard a deep voice from behind say.
She turned to see Tomasso, stylish in a dark blue Ermenegildo Zegna suit she recognized as similar to one her brother had tried on when they’d gone shopping for the wedding back home in New York. Gisele had persuaded Parker to spend big bucks to be well clothed for this week of festivities. Staring a beat too long at Tomasso only reminded her how much she loved a man in a well-fitted, sexy Italian suit.
She rolled her eyes. “I’m not sure if I should reprimand you for spoiling our good fun or thank you for it.” She rubbed her temples against the throb of the headache that even ibuprofen didn’t seem to touch. “But, I think my only choice tonight is to double down against that evil tequila. Maybe temper it with some more genteel champagne?”
Tomasso reached for two glasses of champagne from a passing waiter and handed her a flute.
“In that case, here’s to the hair of a somewhat softer dog,” he said, clinking glasses with her.
“Ugh. I prefer my canines to be of the four-legged variety, thanks,” she said. “Not the kind that somehow mysteriously penetrate your brain and bark and scratch to get out while you feel as if your eyeballs are going to pop right out of their sockets.”
“You make drinking shots sound so pleasant.”
“Shots are never pleasant after the fact. They only seem like a great idea while you’re in the middle of doing them.”
“You could say the same thing about relationships,” he said with a grimace.
She lifted an eyebrow. “Well, if that’s not the most cynical comment du jour, especially considering you’re here for a romantic wedding.”
He rolled his eyes. “You don’t buy into that happily ever after nonsense, do you?” he said. “These things are little more than mergers. Sort of like two businesses that think they can work together, but when it comes down to it, one of the two ends up suffering for it.”
Gisele shook her hand as if she’d touched something hot. “Wow,” she said. “I’m surprised you even bothered to show for this. Why on earth are you celebrating something you clearly don’t see worthy of any such joy?”
He crossed his arms and scratched his chin as if lost in contemplation over her question. “Let’s see… Because my mother made me?” he said. “Besides, it’s more like a family reunion, and who doesn’t like a family reunion?”
Gisele pursed her lips. She and Parker had never had the chance to indulge in things like family get-togethers, what with their very broken family.
“I wouldn’t know,” she said, throwing back a gulp of champagne.
“Thirsty?” he said, cocking his eyebrow and grinning.
“I’d rather tamp down my hangover with good champagne than draw attention to the fact that I don’t exactly have a family with whom I can commune.”
“Homeless, are you?”
“More like orphaned.”
“I’m sorry.” He scrunched his nose. “I was only joking. Didn’t mean to poke fun at you.”
“Poke away,” she said. “Families come in all shapes and sizes. Mine happens to be minuscule and made up of me and my brother Parker.”
“Funny, Parker practically seems like family to us,” he said. “After spending so many holidays with him I feel like he’s my brother from another mother.”
She shrugged. “Great for Parker. Now he’s got an extended family. Where does that leave me?”
“I’m sure we can throw you in as an honorary family member. You’ll be the twofer.”
“Gee, that’s flattering,” she said. “Sort of like, ‘well, we don’t know you, and we have no reason to do this but for maybe a hint of pity, but sure, why don’t you pretend you’re one of us for the hell of it.’”
“Now who’s the cynic?” He winked at her.
“I guess we’re a great pair, aren’t we?” Gisele swirled her finger over the rim of her champagne flute, a nervous habit that was clearly an extension of her usual beer bottle label-peeling tic. “So when you’re not protecting your sister’s honor, what do you do?”
“By that do you mean what do I actually do, or what do I want to do?”
She toed the ground with the front of her sandals. “I didn’t realize I was asking such a loaded question. Why don’t you humor me? How about what do you want to do?”
“I’m not sure what you know about my family—”
“Being that we’re practically related, obviously I’m completely in the know.” She grinned.
“Yeah, that. In which case, you’ve heard that my brothers and sister and I are carrying on the tradition of Romeos from as far back as the Middle Ages in producing fine Italian wines. And because of that tradition, there is an expectation that all Romeos must follow in these footsteps and help run the family business.”
“But you’re like that elf who wanted to be a dentist instead of making toys.”
Tomasso cocked his head and knit his brows. “Huh?”
“You know, from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, that Christmas special. The song”—she held out her hands to prepare him for it, then started singing—“Why am I such a misfit?”
She placed her hand on his shoulder. “No, I’m serious. Clearly you missed the show so I’ll give you the brief rundown. Rudolph has a red nose, which means he’s an outcast. He meets Hermey, an elf who hates making toys and wants to be a dentist. They set off on an epic adventure, yada yada, and they all live happily ever after once they tame the Abominable Snow Monster.”
One side of Tomasso’s mouth curved up into a grin. “There goes that happily ever after nonsense again.”
“Of course. You can’t have a Christmas special without a happy ending. Same goes for a Christmas wedding.” She cocked her head. “So did you want to be a dentist, then?” She burst out laughing at her own joke.
“Um, no,” he said. “Should I?”
“I’m so sorry.” She shook her head. “Sometimes Parker gets mad at me because I have no filter. Which means I can be the life of the party but sometimes I blather on a bit longer than I should. Go ahead. Tell me what it is you want to do.”
Tomasso glanced to either side. “I’m wondering if there is someplace we can sit down because, at this rate, it’ll be midnight before I actually get a chance to speak.”
Gisele frowned. “Seriously, I’ll shut up.” She pretended to zip her mouth shut and swallow the key, then reconsidered the gesture. “You know that never made much sense to me, swallowing the key, because your mouth is already zipped shut, right? So how would you open it to swallow the key? And then once it’s swallowed, how can you ever open it again?”
Tomasso grabbed two more flutes of champagne as another tray passed them by.
“As I was saying,” he said, dipping his head and looking at her as though she was nuts. “I’d rather be working with my hands. In fact, I’ve become quite a passionate woodworker. Before, I sort of hated every day I was stuck living a proscribed life over which I had no true control. Once I discovered the joy of this type of manual labor, I became hooked. Don’t get me wrong, I have a great life. And I’m fortunate for my ancestors who built up this successful business as they have, given me the life that most would envy. The thing is, it’s not that I don’t like wine. Obviously I love it. I’m just sort of bored with the idea of working exclusively at Cantine dei Marchesi Romeo for the rest of my life. Instead I’m looking for something that ignites a fire in me.”
Gisele eyed him from head to toe. Speaking of igniting a fire… This man was awfully easy on the eyes. And he seemed like he had a heart—at least to the extent that he wanted to honor his own wishes and desires and not simply capitulate to expectations.
“Wow,” she said. “I respect you for that. Oh, wait—” She pretended to unzip her mouth and pull out the key. “Sorry, that was a joke Parker and I shared when we were kids. I am so in the habit of doing that. Okay, my mouth is unlocked now and I can go on. As I was saying, good for you, doing what speaks to your soul. You only get one life—you have to live it the way you want to.”
“I’m glad you understand.” He nodded. “Because the rest of my family doesn’t seem to grasp it so much.”
“Yeah, well, now that I’m honorary family and all, leave it to me to smooth over the ruffled feathers. At our next family gathering.”
“They’ll get over it.” He laughed. “I know my mamma already understands. I worked so hard on the woodwork when we built our new corporate headquarters, finally she could see the fruits of my labor.”
“So tell me about this passion of yours,” she said, placing her hand on his. “I’d like to hear all about it.”
He reached for her elbow and guided her, his hand at her back, toward an alcove with a small love seat. He motioned for her to sit down, then took the spot next to her.
“I want to be sure I’m not boring you too much,” he said with a grin. “This way if you start to nod off, you won’t have far to fall.”
Gisele waved her hand at him. “Nonsense. I can’t wait to hear about it.”
“So my eldest brother Sandro, who became our surrogate father after Papà passed, had ambitious plans to build a grand headquarters for Cantine dei Marchesi Romeo wines, one that would attract tourists, a destination venue. As the plans progressed, it became even more grandiose, and the final outcome was a collaboration with the premier architects and building specialists the world over, who helped to create this gorgeous building. It’s environmentally friendly, designed to blend in harmony with the landscape. Whenever possible, we used natural local resources in the building and decorating of it. It’s truly a work of art in the Tuscan countryside, and the inside, mamma mia, it’s breathtaking.” He kissed his fingertips in emphasis.
Gisele had leaned forward to listen more closely. She could barely concentrate on his words, transfixed as she was with his looks, not to mention the feel of his hard legs practically pressed up next to hers. This man was so interesting, and so, well, sensual, the way his hands moved as he spoke as if they were speaking a whole different language. She tried to picture those strong, rough hands roaming her body and found herself stifling a groan.
“I’d love to see your contributions to the project,” she said.
“Really?” he said. “If you’re serious, my laptop is back at the palace. Maybe I can bring it over to your apartment and show you some images.”
Gisele arched her brow. If this was anything like bringing his “etchings” to show her… well, she’d be totally on board. And maybe she could show him some of her own “etchings.” After all, it had been far too long since she’d been up close and personal with a man.
She reached into her small clutch and found a breath mint, which she discreetly slipped into her mouth.
“I’d say now’s as good a time as any.” She winked, stood up, and held out her hand. It was time to see some of those images. Or better yet, make some of their own.