Alessandro Romeo was sipping his Negroni on the rocks, enjoying a beautiful sunset on the terrace of his winery’s palazzo that overlooked his family’s vast estate, when he noticed a fat curl of dark smoke trailing skyward on the other side of the sprawling Tuscan manor home. Quickly setting his drink aside, he raced down the terrace steps, rushed through a gauntlet of tall, narrow cypress trees, and across the Italian garden in front of the palazzo as the acrid smell of smoke grew stronger and black clouds of it enveloped more of the once-melon-colored, late-day sky.
In the distance, he spotted a tiny white sports car racing down the estate’s long, cypress-lined driveway just as he finally came upon the source of the now-choking smoke: his beloved Lamborghini Aventador Superveloce—a cool half million dollars of premier driving pleasure—sizzling away with the crackle of fire and lick of flames that were embracing his dream car and turning it into a veritable conflagration.
“Aiuto!” Sandro shouted, calling for the farmhands to help, if not to salvage his burning car, then at least to keep the vehicle from exploding and injuring someone. “Help! Bring water, prontissimo!”
The Cantine dei Marchesi Romeo was a vineyard with many employees still working into late afternoon in the fields, so within a minute several workers had arrived, directing hoses and buckets of water to douse the fire until all that was left were the charred remains of his beloved sports car. Sandro felt grateful that at least they’d stopped the fire before it spread.
“Vaffanculo, si strega,” Sandro said, shaking his fist in rage toward the now-long-departed car he’d seen racing away from the scene. Fuck off, you witch. It didn’t take much to deduce who’d torched the thing: he’d just seen the taillights of his hot-tempered, on-again/off-again girlfriend Gia Sandretti’s convertible trailing down the long drive. The woman had already resorted to plenty of other extreme ways to express her irrational jealous rages, including recently impaling him with the heel of one of her Manolo Blahniks—which resulted in five stitches to his arm—so he knew immediately that this bore her telltale fingerprints.
He’d tried to extricate himself from the relationship more times than he could count at this point; it hadn’t been but a few months into dating her that he knew she had a streak of green running through her like a river of toxic waste. Alessandro couldn’t so much as inadvertently glance at another woman, even in a magazine, without Gia flipping out on him, which meant the usual stream of foul language spewed at him alongside crazed accusations and the occasional hurled glass object or other breakable.
By nature a genial and fun-loving guy, he’d put up with it, thinking that eventually she’d find her way to another man to harass, but as much as he’d tried to let her go gently so as not to trigger her impetuous fury, she simple wasn’t getting the hint.
Sure Gia, a stunningly statuesque brunette, was gorgeous, but he hadn’t taken to calling her Crazy Gia for nothing. And the last thing Sandro needed in his life was a drama-queen fashion model with no self-control who acted more like a secret police interrogator than a lover.
Sandro had met Gia at one of the many social functions he normally attended as principle of the world-famous Cantine dei Marchesi Romeo winemakers. His was an Italian family with a history of six hundred years of wine-making and roots that reached back to the days of Italian nobility and the famed house of Savoy. His family had immediate ties to the royals of neighboring Monaforte as well, as his uncle Enrico, Duke of Santo Miele, was married to that country’s Queen Ariana.
Officially Alessandro’s title was Marchese Alessandro Romeo, but he tended to downplay that archaic terminology except when necessary at official events where the cachet of the royal title helped with his family business. Or as was more often the case in the past, when it helped him pick up beautiful women.
No doubt it’s what had drawn Gia to him in the first place, aside from his handsome good looks. He wore his thick, wavy dark hair to near his shoulders, often pulled back in a ponytail, and sported a neatly trimmed goatee and moustache that proved irresistible to many women. His sincere brown eyes caused them to swoon even more. Throw in a royal title, a famous family name, and plenty of wealth, and Sandro was delicious catnip that most women simply couldn’t resist. Except when it came to nutters like Gia, who seemed to want to push him away, all while clinging desperately to him as if he were a gangrenous appendage. But this was the last straw with her; this time he would file a police complaint and ensure that she was no longer allowed anywhere near him nor could she have anything to do with him. Enough was enough.
Six weeks later…
Sandro dusted off his hands and placed them on his hips, beaming as he gazed at the object of his near-undivided attention for the past six years: the design and building of a massive new headquarters, a place that would house the offices of Marchesi Romeo wines but also become a tourist destination for wine lovers the world over. It had been Sandro’s dream to create this destination venue, something he’d imagined for several years prior to actually implementing the plan.
He and his family had collaborated with one of the top Italian architects to envision the one-of-a-kind design of the building, constructed with local materials, intended to keep in harmony with the landscape while remaining environmentally friendly, energy efficient, and ultimately to serve as a veritable work of art in the Tuscan countryside. And in a few days, others would finally be able to share in Sandro’s dream come true at the grand-opening gala. Guests who would attend included celebrities, political leaders, prominent local officials, and of course family and friends.
Sandro had reached out to his favorite cousin, Luca, the youngest of the Monaforte princes, to ensure his attendance. Monaforte was a small European principality on the Mediterranean with strong ties to Italy.
“You know I’ll disown you if you don’t show up,” Sandro said, teasing his dearest friend. “I’ll cut off your vino supply—hit you where it’ll hurt most.”
Luca had for a long time been Sandro’s social sidekick but last year had settled into a relationship with a European-based American reporter named Larkin Mallory, and now it was as if he barely left the comfort of his living room. Sandro hated how complacent men became once they got “whipped”: always at the woman’s beck and call, never free to do as they pleased.
Now that Gia was out of the picture, he was going to make sure he didn’t allow a woman to cloud his judgment and create hassles for him ever again. No thank you. The loss of his expensive sports car was a small price to pay to learn that lesson.
“I’d be crazy not to show up at this one,” Luca said. “It’s the event of the season, I hear. Even homebodies like me will be there.”
“Homebodies,” his cousin said with a grumble. “Whatever happened to the man I knew who partied till dawn and couldn’t be bothered with such things as commitment?”
Luca laughed. “You know that was ninety percent urban legend anyhow. It’s not like I really caroused that much.”
“Yeah, well, sometimes the legend is as true as fact.”
“That’s what’s wrong with this world.”
“You’ve become a grumpy old man.”
“Not grumpy. Happily settled is all,” Luca said. “You should give it a try sometime. No more out on the prowl, hoping to get laid without catching any communicable diseases. It’s a good thing.”
“Hell no,” Sandro said. “You do know about Gia’s latest—and final—batshit-crazy maneuver?”
“Of course,” Luca said. “I always suspected there was something off about that one. Even when you first started dating, she was irrationally demanding. Like when you dragged me to that godforsaken fashion show she was in just so she would have an audience.”
“Tell me about it,” he said. “Yet one more reason I will never cross paths with a fashion model again. Ever. Those women are the worst. I think they get hangry from lack of food and go totally pazzo.”
“It’s a combination of hungry and angry,” he said. “All the worse for Gia because she’s an Italian girl who can’t eat pasta. Mamma mia, what kind of life is that? Who wouldn’t be crazy-like?”
“Well, in that case I’d better apologize in advance because Larkin is bringing along her friend Taylor to your gala and, well…” He lowered his voice to a whisper. “She’s a fashion model.”
Sandro shook his head even though Luca couldn’t see him. “No, thank you. I’ll take a pass. You can have her all to yourself. If that’s your thing.”
“If what’s my thing?”
“If you want to hook up with her.”
“Are you crazy? I’m perfectly happy with Larkin. Not looking to add anyone into the relationship,” he said. “I was thinking maybe you’d like Taylor. She’s beautiful, of course. But she’s really sweet as well. Completely down-to-earth.”
“No. Models. Ever, dude,” he said. “Ever.”
“Be my guest. Go ahead and punish yourself,” Luca said. “But I think you’ll regret it. You’d be lucky if she’d have anything to do with you anyhow.”
“No doubt,” Sandro said. “But do me a favor, just keep her far, far from me. I want no part of any of those crazy women, and this is a night I intend to completely avoid erratic females with bad tempers. So whatever you do, spare me.”
“Fine,” he said. “I’ll respect your wishes. But don’t get mad at me when I say I told you so.”
“To the contrary, mio cugino, it’s for the best,” Sandro said even though his curiosity was already getting the best of him as he Googled supermodels named Taylor to see exactly what she looked like. Old habits, after all, were hard to break.
Nothing like a good black-tie party, Taylor McFarland thought, taking a final sip of champagne as her plane made its final approach in Florence. She’d get to dress in yet another amazing designer gown, and hot men in tuxedos would be plentiful. It was so up her alley. It was why she was on her way to Italy, and this one promised to be particularly fabulous—a spectacular venue in an architecturally creative structure built into the hillside at some Italian guy’s vineyard. And the wine would be flowing freely.
What’s not to love? Plus she was joining her good friend Larkin and Larkin’s boyfriend Luca, and she always had fun with the two of them. Talk about opposites attracting: Larkin had been such a quiet little mouse of a woman when they first met, and Luca, well, he was a prince, a bit of a bon vivant, and used to the limelight. It was lovely that the two of them had found each other, albeit after some struggles. Taylor had helped to spruce up Larkin’s appearance a bit, steering her away from the clothing-as-camouflage manner of dress, and Larkin had taken to it with a vengeance, had now practically achieved Taylor’s level of clothing obsession.
Luca had invited Taylor to join them and to stay at the palazzo owned by his winemaker cousin whose vineyard supposedly made one of the most famous wines in Tuscany. Luca had promised her he was a lot of fun, but Taylor wasn’t on the prowl anyhow. She was over dealing with men who were nothing but a pain in her butt, thank you. She was perfectly happy to just go and browse the merchandise without making a purchase. Besides, she didn’t have time for dalliances right now; she had much more important things to do than have to tag-team a long-distance relationship.
Taylor had recently started a charitable organization called Rags to Riches to help children who couldn’t afford to buy clothes piece together outfits that would allow them to not feel like outsiders. Having grown up in a household with a single mother who struggled to pay the bills each month, Taylor knew what it was like to show up to school in the same threadbare outfits all the time: it was demoralizing, and kids loved to taunt the ones who looked like they’d just come in off the streets.
If she had a dollar for every time kids called her white trash, she’d have had plenty of money to clothe herself as she was able to now that she had become a famous fashionista. So it was particularly gratifying to be able to help out other children. It might seem like a superficial thing, providing decent clothes to a kid, but having come from those very circumstances of lacking, she totally got what it meant to them and knew that even a little bit of window dressing could make a difference.
She figured a lot of powerful people with money would be in attendance at this event, and they were her favorite type to strong-arm into making fabulous donations. A Christie Brinkley look-alike with gentle, sun-bleached blond waves and soft blue eyes, the American supermodel was not beyond using her looks and stature to get what she wanted if it helped others in need. She knew wealthy men in particular would never turn down a gorgeous woman in a slinky evening gown soliciting them for funds. Which made her happy just as long as they didn’t presume she was soliciting anything else.
After a smooth landing, Taylor was off the plane quickly and through customs in no time at all. As she exited the security area with her luggage, she saw Larkin and Luca practically entwined on a bench near the entryway, oblivious to her existence while they made out like a couple of horny teenagers.
She wheeled her bag up to them and cleared her throat. “Ahem,” she said, crossing her arms and tapping her toe, staring at them both, her brow arched.
Larkin detached quickly and blushed. “Oh, Taylor! So sorry! Luca and I were just, uh, getting reacquainted after being apart for a few minutes while I ran to the restroom.”
Larkin grinned as her boyfriend swiped his finger along her lips to remove some excess saliva. Gross. Her friend stood up and gave Taylor a warm embrace.
“Please,” Taylor said, shaking her head as she hugged her friend. “I’m totally used to PDA when I’m around you two. I would have expected nothing less. I’m just impressed you kept your clothes on.”
Larkin gave her a playful smack.
It did make her laugh how Larkin had gone from such a wallflower to a bit of a wild child. It was nice to see her come into her own.
“I was merely expressing my affection for Luca like any true Italian would.”
“Only you’re not Italian.”
“When in Rome then?” Larkin grinned.
“We’re in Florence. Duh,” Taylor said.
“It doesn’t matter,” Luca reached for Larkin’s hand. “Soon she’ll be an official member of the Monaforte royal family. And that means she’ll technically even have some Italian ties, being that my father is one hundred percent hot-blooded Italian. She’ll practically be Italian herself.” He winked.
“Oh my God!” Taylor said with a squeal, pulling Larkin into a hug. “You two are getting married? What? When? How? And I won’t ask why, because, well, that’s obvious.” She grabbed Larkin’s left hand and lifted it up to inspect the three-stone crown-set ring with a center ruby surrounded by old European-cut diamonds.
“It’s from Monaforte’s crown jewel collection,” Luca said. “I consulted with my mother before choosing it, but it belonged to the only other blond member of the royal family, a very distant great-great-great-grandmother or something. Mum thought it would be fitting for Larkin to have this ring.”
“It’s stunning, Larks,” Taylor said, holding her hands up to her face in surprise. “I’m just so overwhelmed about this! But I want to know all the details!”
“So we’d just spent a few days in Venice,” she said. “On the last evening, before a breathtaking sunset on the Grand Canal in front of the Piazza San Marco, we were being serenaded by our gondolier when Luca got down on one knee and asked for my hand!”
“I can’t even believe it,” Taylor said. “Fairy-tale perfect. Wow. I’m so glad there are still romantic men in the world. I was starting to think they all died in the Pleistocene era.”
Luca laughed, scrubbing his hands in his hair. “Were there humans back then? Or were we still mollusks?”
Taylor rolled her eyes. “I think humans were just getting started then. Nothing personal, but men are still mollusks if you ask me.”
He gave her two thumbs-up. “Thanks for that vote of confidence.”
“Aww, poor Taylor has plenty of reason to be sour on men,” Larkin said, squeezing her friend’s hand. “What’s it been, like five guys in a row who ended up only wanting to be with you because you’re a model? And when they found out you actually did things with your life other than look beautiful and decorate their arms, they walked away? I think the problem is you’ve got to find the right man and not the troglodytes you’ve been dating.”
“Yeah, no more men who want to drag me by the hair back to the cave so I can prepare a fat brontosaurus steak for him.”
“I don’t know about you, but all this talk of prehistory is making me hungry,” Luca said, rubbing his stomach. “In fact, a good, bloody Florentine steak sounds awesome.”
“I’m with you,” Taylor said. “I had just enough champagne on the plane to remind me I haven’t eaten since my measly croissant at breakfast.”
“Perfect,” Larkin said. “We’ve got reservations for dinner in Florence, and we’ll drive down to Sandro’s afterward.”
Taylor scrunched her nose. “Speaking of troglodytes. I know you guys want to fix me up with him, but really, I am so not interested.”
“Oh stop,” Larkin said, waving her hand dismissively. “He’s a really sweet guy once you get to know him. I thought he was a jerk at first too, but honestly, I think you’ll like him.”
“Wow. There’s a ringing endorsement,” Taylor said, arching her brow. “At any rate, you’re sure it’s okay with my tagging along? I mean I’m happy to come to this big fête, but I don’t want to be an imposition.”
“First off, you, my dear, would never be an imposition,” Luca said. “Secondly, my cousin Alessandro won’t even know you’re there, the place is that big. It’s a palace, literally. A gigantic Renaissance palazzo. It could be days until he knows if any of us are there. Plus I’m sure he’s going to be at the new building overseeing the finishing touches. So no worries.”
Taylor shrugged. “Okay, if you’re sure. I’d just hate to have the man be mad that I’m invading his space.”
Luca shook his head. “Not at all. Besides, he’s always had a thing for models.”
Taylor shook her head. Yet one more reason she would have exactly nothing to do with him.
It was well after midnight when Sandro heard the crunch of tires on the pebbled driveway. That was the thing about living in the rural countryside: you inevitably picked up the slightest sounds late at night, so not much got past Sandro. It’s why he still kicked himself that he hadn’t heard Crazy Gia barreling up the driveway when she came to destroy his beloved car.
Ahhh… Gia… The only good thing about what happened with her was finally casting the woman from his life once and for all. That at least afforded him the chance to focus on important things, like overseeing the many finishing touches on his baby, his labor of love; the time was finally upon him to share it with the world, so it was essential he not be distracted with her nonsense.
The bad news of course was his car was a total loss. As was their relationship, though victory was perhaps a more appropriate description of the fallout: he was more than happy to have a restraining order taken out against the woman, which meant finally he could be done with her hotheaded reprisals, most of which were rooted in her own fantasy world of unfounded mistrust. The security guards had changed the passcode on the entrance gate to the palazzo, and unless Gia wanted to trek through the dense woods in the steep Chianti hillside surrounding his property to try to get back at him again, she was out of luck. Hopefully she’d move on to haunt some other poor sucker. And now, with his lesson well learned, Sandro had called it quits on women for a while; they weren’t worth the hassle, and he had the stiletto scar and the charred vehicle to prove it.
As the tires on gravel came to a stop, he heard the chatter of voices out front and then car doors slamming and knew it had to be Luca and company, so he shut down his computer at his desk, closed off the lights in his office, and hastened down the hall to greet his houseguests. The staff was off at this hour, and the rest of the household had long since retreated to bed; each of his brothers occupied a wing of the palazzo. They had complete autonomy and could choose whether to be together or on their own throughout the course of the day. Each of them took on different duties in the running of the company, so there was little stepping on toes since they all enjoyed complete independence over day-to-day issues.
Sandro stepped onto the open-air loggia at the front of the house just as his guests arrived.
“Ciao, Luca,” he said, reaching his arms out and embracing his friend as he kissed his cheeks and asked how he was doing. “Come va?”
“Benissimo, grazie,” Luca said. “I’m great, thank you. And you remember Larkin?” He extended his arm toward her.
“Of course,” Sandro said. “The most beautiful Larkin, looking stellar as usual.” They exchanged a two-cheek kiss.
“And this is Larkin’s good friend Taylor,” Luca said. “Taylor, I’d like you to meet my cousin Alessandro.”
“Piacere,” Taylor said, telling him she was pleased to meet him. “Thank you so much for your hospitality.”
Sandro extended his hand to shake hers just as she reached out to kiss his cheeks, and what resulted was a completely awkward greeting that left her blushing and him wondering what it was with American women that they couldn’t read up on protocol when in a different country.
Luca and Larkin laughed to offset the awkwardness of the moment, but they then all stood in silence for a moment.
Taylor broke the uncomfortable quiet by reaching for a gift she’d forgotten to hand to him when they were introduced. “I was just in France, and well, when in Paris…”
Sandro untied the large silver bow and pulled a bottle of Bordeaux from the package. He looked at the bottle for a minute, not sure if it was a serious gift or a joke of some sort. Because who would bring a gift of wine to a man who oversaw one of Tuscany’s premier wine empires? No doubt it was a perfectly fine bottle of wine, but still… It wasn’t anywhere near as good as his own, of that he felt certain.
“Ahhh. Vino. Grazie mille,” he said, staring at the label. “I’m sure we’ll enjoy this.” He cocked his brow, and Luca threw him the side eye.
“I’m sure Taylor thought a wine connoisseur such as yourself always likes to sample the competition.”
“But of course,” Sandro said, rubbing his beard as a distraction. He was a little tripped up with the arrival of Larkin’s friend because it was as if a strong wind had momentarily blown away his bad feelings toward the fairer sex, ushering in a gentle and soothing sea breeze; she was that breathtakingly beautiful. She was tall, with endless legs he couldn’t stop staring at, and soft, wavy blond hair. Her eyes were the shade of azure you might encounter along the shores of the Amalfi Coast—the type of water that lures you against your better judgment to take just a tiny dip. She was like no woman he’d ever encountered before. Yet he knew even then the chances of the water being an agreeable temperature were not so great, and beneath the surface, who knew what dangerous creatures loomed? His gut reminded him he was far wiser to avoid the potential risk to life and limb. Worse yet take a chance of diving into too-shallow water and breaking his neck.
Beauty was no longer going to be that demanding football coach that would bark commands at his subservient cock. No way. Beauty had gotten him into deep trouble with Crazy Gia, so he was going to hang up his figurative cleats, which meant ignoring the siren call of a gorgeous woman for his own sanity, not to mention the sake of his replacement car.
“So,” Luca said, rubbing his hands together as Taylor strolled along the loggia, inspecting the ancient statues that graced the terrace-like area. “We had a great meal in Firenze, just me and my fiancée and her best friend.” His face broke into a large grin as Larkin held up her left hand, wiggling her ring finger so that Sandro would notice.
His cousin knit his brow. “Surely I didn’t hear what I thought I just heard.”
Luca nodded. “It’s true, my friend. Your cousin has fallen hard. Looks like it’s your turn next.”
Sandro held his hands up in false surrender. “Are you completely pazzo? You must be crazy to think I would ever fall prey to such a disease.”
Larkin frowned. “Wait a minute. I’m not sure if I should be insulted by that comment.”
“I think the polite thing to do would be to extend your heartfelt congratulations and then keep your mouth shut,” Taylor said, throwing Sandro some shade as she stood up for her friend.
Sandro’s brow furrowed deep enough to plant a row of grapevines in. “I beg your pardon?”
“As well you should,” she said, half glaring at him.
“My comments had nothing to do with these two lovebirds,” he said, placing a hand on each of their shoulders. “But rather are simply a reflection of my own wishes.”
“That’s fine if you aren’t interested in being married,” Taylor said. “But you came across as disapproving of them, and I don’t want you creating a rift between ‘these two lovebirds’ with your insensitivity.”
“If the shoe fits.”
Luca raised his hands. “Children,” he said, clapping his hands to get them in line. “We’re going to have to break up this schoolyard brawl. It’s late, and I know if I don’t get eight hours of sleep, well, I’m going to be a bear in the morning.”
“It’s okay, you can be my cozy bear,” Larkin said as she reached for his hand, which made Sandro about gag.
“Mio cugino,” Sandro said. “My cousin. I didn’t mean to insult anyone. Let’s first toast your wonderful news with our private cellar reserve grappa. I don’t take this out for just anyone.”
He led them inside to a private study with a small bar, then pulled out four glasses and poured the light amber liquid. He handed a glass to each of his guests.
“Salute e benessere,” he said, nodding to Luca and Larkin. “To the happy couple: to health and wellness.”
“Cin cin,” Luca said, tipping his glass to Larkin’s, then Taylor’s.
“As you know, to be a winemaker is to be a risk taker, yet also to know great patience,” Sandro said. “It sounds much like the role of a husband.” He laughed, and Luca joined with him. Larkin smiled a tepid smile, the type women make if someone asks when the due date is when they’re actually just overweight. Not a smile with sincerity behind it but rather more of a cringe. Taylor, on the other hand, grimaced.
Larkin leaned over and whispered in her friend’s ear. “So maybe I was wrong that you and Alessandro would hit it off,” she said. “But you’re here now, so please don’t worry about defending my honor. I’m totally fine, and I really don’t want to make waves. Just roll with it, okay?”
Taylor heaved a sigh. “Fine. But if he keeps up with the insults, he might just find himself on the receiving end of my wrath. And I’m pretty sure he would live to regret that.”
Luca leaned in to speak in hushed tones with his cousin. “I see you’ve not gotten past the whole Gia episode then?”
He growled. “Gotten past? It’s hardly been two months. I haven’t even had a chance to tackle my insurance claims on the car, let alone deal with the emotional fallout.”
Luca lifted an eyebrow. “Emotional fallout? Who are you fooling? You didn’t care much for Gia for a long time. I’m pretty sure the emotional fallout ends in a Euro sign and is all about your car.”
He shrugged. “Yeah, so, okay. I wasn’t all that bereft when it ended. Finally.” One side of his mouth lifted in an impish grin.
“So then why the cranky behavior?” Luca said. “You’re not making a good first impression on our guest.”
Sandro shook his head. “I want to make it abundantly clear that I am off-limits to your guest and to any other female who might happen into my little space in the world. I don’t want her—or any woman, for that matter—to mistake me for someone who cares.”
“Ouch,” Luca said. “You’re sounding a bit bitter.”
Sandro rubbed his hands together, then lifted them into the air as if in defeat. “Maybe,” he said, running his hands through his hair. “More like weary. Weary of all the nonsense I went through with Gia, but also just tired. I suppose I’ve been so bowled over with this big project. I’m working too hard, not sleeping enough—”
“Not getting laid,” Luca said. “I know you, Sandro. You’re cranky because you’re not getting any.”
“Oh stop,” he said. “It’s why God gave us hands.”
Luca laughed out loud, causing both the women to look at him. “A poor substitute, as you well know.”
“Maybe so, but my motto is any port in a storm,” Sandro said. “For now I’ll settle for a poor substitute, which at least won’t make me poor by destroying the next four-hundred-thousand-euro car I get.”
Luca playfully shoved his cousin. “Fine,” he said, waving his hands to dismiss him. “Be stubborn. But I sure don’t know why you’d settle for a box of dried raisins when you have a bunch of lush, lovely grapes hanging right in front of you, ripe for the picking if you played your cards right.”
Sandro rolled his eyes. “By that I assume you’re not suggesting I go make love to my grapevines but rather pursue her?” He nodded his head toward Taylor.
“Uh, that might get pretty uncomfortable, what with all those sharp stick things poking off them,” Luca said. “But if I were you, I’d pluck the low-hanging fruit that’s dangling right before your eyes. And maybe then the two of you could make love amidst your grapevines if you really wanted to incorporate that into your sexual experience. After all, you’re an Italian man. Hardly one to shy away from a little fun. Try it, you might like it.”
“I might like to have my balls waxed bare with hot paraffin too, but I highly doubt it,” he said, turning to the women. “On that note, I think it’s time to retire, my friends. I’ll show you to your rooms and wish you a buona notte.”
Taylor had been looking forward to arriving at Luca’s cousin’s vineyard. After all, a weekend at a beautiful retreat in the heart of Italy’s wine country sounded like the perfect way to spend some downtime.
After a long stroll through Florence and an amazing four-course meal on a small rooftop terrace overlooking the Arno River, she enjoyed the scenic ride to Sandro’s in Luca’s charcoal-gray Alfa Romeo Giulia, fighting sleep the whole way. It had been a long day, and she was ready to settle down for the night. After arriving at Sandro’s palatial estate, they got out of the car and Taylor just stood for a moment, her senses alive with the sights and sounds of this beautiful countryside. She’d traveled the world enough to know that Tuscany was one of her happy places. Aside from the food, the wine, and the people, the inherent beauty and serenity of the countryside really spoke to her and soothed her soul.
Cooler night air had slipped in unannounced, and she rubbed her bare arms against the slight chill as she focused her attention on the chorus of emerging cicadas, the croak of tree frogs, the call of blackbirds, and the rustle of leaves in the night breeze as if transfixed by a beautiful symphony. The inky sky was aglow with twinkling fireflies, and the place felt downright magical.
“So this is it,” Luca said, spreading his arms. “Not a bad place to spend the weekend, right?”
Taylor shrugged. “Beats sleeping on the streets.” She smiled to herself, considering that during her childhood there had been times when she was a little too close to that reality for comfort. “It’s absolutely perfect, Luca. Thanks so much for inviting me. I think it will be an amazing weekend.”
The perfume of roses hung heavy in the air, and as she passed several rosebushes, Taylor bent down to breathe in the aroma, aware of the lone hoot of an owl in the distance. “I think I’m going to love this place.”
She’d taken her shoes off in the car and carried them as she climbed the staircase toward the open-air loggia. The warmth of the terra-cotta tile warmed her feet, and she felt as one with the place, as if she belonged there. It was a shame the feeling didn’t last long, because once she met Luca’s arrogant cousin, she couldn’t help but think she wanted to get far, far away from him and anything to do with him. She’d have been in the first Uber out of the place were that an option. Unfortunately, she didn’t think she even had a cell signal, let alone Uber service, out here.
She resolved to accept her fate for the next few days as she was to be a guest of a man clearly taken by his own self-importance, one she’d rather give a swift kick in the shins than a kiss on the lips. And when he’d started making acerbic remarks about Luca and Larkin’s engagement, she had to clench her fists to her sides to not reach out and smack him one just to shut him up. She worried maybe he’d poisoned the grappa he shared with them in the celebratory toast to the happy couple just to keep them from marrying, he was so cynical about women and relationships in general. What a buzzkill. Oh well, she wasn’t going to let his bad mood impact her temperament.
The jovial little drinks celebration couldn’t have ended soon enough, so she was thrilled when he announced he was going to show them all to their rooms.
“If you just point the way, I’m sure I can find it,” Taylor said, hoping to get away from Sandro before she was forced to feed him more of her mind.
“That won’t be possible,” he said.
She knit her brows. “Anything’s possible. Try me. I’ve got a good sense of direction. I promise you won’t have to send out a search party.”
“Why don’t Sandro and I grab the bags and you girls wait here for us,” Luca said, his idea a little pickax breaking the ice in the room.
“Don’t worry, Luca. I’m perfectly happy to get my own suitcase,” Taylor said. “You don’t need to do that.”
Sandro frowned and held his hand out as she tried to follow them down the steps to Luca’s car. “Stay there. I’ve got it.”
Taylor rolled her eyes behind his back. “Where’d you find that loser?” she asked her friend.
“Stop,” Larkin said. “He’s really not usually like this. I don’t know what’s gotten into him.”
“I think a bloated ego is it.”
“Really, he’s normally very nice.”
“If this is nice, I’d hate to see him behaving badly.”
“Well,” Larkin said. “Looks like you two are destined for happiness together.” She laughed.
“Honestly,” Taylor said. “What a crank he is. I’d no sooner consider even a brief fling with him than I’d contemplate a one-way ticket to Mars.”
“Nothing personal, but I think the feeling might be mutual,” a deep voice behind her said.
Taylor looked over her shoulder to see her host standing there, her suitcase in one of his hands, her garment bag in the other. He had a half grin on his face, and she wasn’t sure if that meant he was trying to be funny or he was just enjoying busting her making a rude remark about him.
“Oh, um, uh,” Taylor said. As much as she was unimpressed with the man, she didn’t want him to know she thought he was a rude git.
“Luca,” Sandro said, not dwelling on their unpleasant exchange. “You two will stay in the usual place. I’ll show your friend Princess Charming to her room.” He smirked at her.
Great. Now not only was the man a complete jerk, but on top of it all he also knew that she thought he was. She was just going to have to resign herself to making the most of this weekend and at least trying to leverage this party to raise funds for her charity. At least then something good would come of it.
What a sassy thing she was, Sandro thought as he overheard her busting his balls. Here he thought he’d figured that one out already, pegging her as the typical clothes-obsessed, status-oriented me! me! me! fashion-model type. And maybe she was that. But she had a little spark to her—albeit a combustible one—which was, he really hated to admit it, intriguing as hell. He sort of liked it when someone gave him shit, especially when he deserved it.
He knew he’d been a complete prick tonight; he somehow just couldn’t help himself. What was he thinking, embarrassing poor Larkin like that? Just because his relationships had led to trouble didn’t mean that Luca and Larkin wouldn’t be perfectly happy together. Statistically unlikely, but, well, stranger things had happened in the world.
He wasn’t sure why the idea of them pairing up for all eternity bothered him so much. Was it because she was taking his playmate away from him for good? Even he knew that was completely childish. He was a grown man—he couldn’t carouse like a twenty-year-old forever. Not that he even got to carouse when he was twenty—maybe that was the real issue with him. But wasn’t he allowed to be at least a little bit possessive about this? He and Luca had been friends far longer than Luca had been in love with Larkin. And yet here he’d been instantly supplanted by the woman. It sort of sucked.
Damn, it was downright surprising what a good shagging could lead to. At least he assumed that was what was behind his engagement—why else would the man give up his freedom if it weren’t for an amazing lay? Though even Sandro wouldn’t yield in that regard. He’d had plenty of mind-blowing sex before, yet never was it worth abandoning your freedom forever. Hell no! Life was too short for that sacrifice. He might as well skewer himself on a spit and be left on the altar as a sacrifice to the gods.
In the meantime, he was stuck being a polite host to this feisty thing he couldn’t help but be a little bit curious about, even as he wished he could send her back to wherever she came from before he did something really stupid like listen to his damned libido that was telling him to take advantage of her proximity. Christ, it had been too long since he’d had proper sex. He was going to have to take matters into his own hands as it were, just as soon as he showed her to her room. Otherwise, he was going to be on tenterhooks the whole bloody weekend.
They walked down a long, dark corridor overflowing with antique busts, statues, and paintings. Sandro always felt reassured when wandering the hallways of this vast palazzo: these were his people surrounding him, his history embracing him every waking moment. His successes rested on the shoulders of so many generations before him, and he felt enormous pressure not just to maintain but to exceed his ancestors’ impressive achievements in order to ensure that Romeo wines remained the best in all of Italy.
“I’m really perfectly capable of carrying my own things,” Taylor said, trying to relieve him of her garment bag, but Sandro pulled it out of her reach.
“Wouldn’t hear of it,” he said. “What sort of gentleman would I be then?”
She threw him a sidelong glance. “Uh, maybe you didn’t get the memo.”
He let out a laugh. “Right. So far you’ve been unimpressed with my manners. That’s okay. I get that. You need to understand that Luca and I go way back, and I can say things to him that perhaps are inappropriate for the tender ears of outsiders.”
She remained silent, but he could see she was glaring again.
“What?” he said. “What did I say now?”
“It’s sort of rude to suggest that I’m not a friend of Luca and Larkin’s,” she said. “I might not be the almighty BFF to Luca that you are, but I’m hardly an ‘outsider.’” She made demonstrative air quotes to drive home her point.
He stopped for a moment and held up his hands in surrender. “Fine,” he said. “No harm meant. I was just speaking off the cuff. I didn’t realize I had to have my speech vetted before you could hear any of it.”
Her eyes grew wide. “I think you’d better just quit before you do something crazy, like put your foot in your mouth. Oh, too late. You already did that.” She snatched her garment bag from his hands and quickly walked ahead of him.
“Feel free to lead the way, but you haven’t a clue where you’re headed.”
She slowed down and let him pass her with a grimace on her face. Clearly she had no plans to walk alongside him.
“I hope you don’t mind your room not being near your friend. Luca always stays in the same room when he visits—he even keeps spare supplies there so he doesn’t have to carry them with him,” he said. “Besides, I thought I’d put you up in a room that overlooks the valley below. The sunrise is spectacular here—if you can get up early enough to witness it.”
“I’ll be sure to set my alarm.”
Damn, she sure sounded like she was being a smart-ass there.
“The only downside is you’re across the hall from me. Which I’m sure won’t be a problem for you as I can assure you I won’t bother you at all. At any rate, breakfast is served on the terrace until nine,” he said. “And no doubt with your innate tracking skills, you’ll be able to find your way there without any problems.”
She smirked at him. “I think I can follow the smell, thanks.”
“In that case, we’ve arrived at your room. I hope you have a comfortable night’s sleep.”
He opened the door, set her suitcase on an antique luggage rack, and dipped in a sarcastic bow as he left the room without another word. The last thing he wanted to do was spend even a minute more in that woman’s presence considering the state of sexual desperation he was currently in and the fact that he found her far more intriguing on so many levels than he’d ever care to admit.
TEN YEARS AGO
Valentina Romeo learned early in life that in order to survive you had to be tough. As the only girl surrounded by six testosterone-laden brothers, she had to be loud to be heard, and—no shrinking violet—believe her, she wanted to be heard.
But it wasn’t easy, because her brothers were mostly bigger and stronger and liked to put her in her place, which meant Valentina was too often left itching for a fight. How dare those boys tell her she couldn’t climb those ancient olive trees with them? And who were they to insist that she couldn’t descend into the damp caves on the family estate and go exploring where it was rumored German soldiers hid at the end of World War II? Time and again those boys left her in their dust and feeling bitter that no matter how hard she tried to be one of them, they fought her every inch of the way.
Of course in their defense they had some competing interests: regular threats from their parents to take care of their “delicate” sister and protect her not only from outside forces but also from her overly ambitious, tomboyish self meant they were constantly conflicted. They knew if they brought Valentina with them when they went off to pursue their near-daily explorations and investigations on the vast tracts of farm and forested hills of Cantine dei Marchesi Romeo, on which the Romeo family had been growing and harvesting grapes and olives for six hundred years, they’d be responsible for anything that could go wrong. And what boy in his right mind wanted to carry that burden?
For a respite from this frustrating daily conflict, Valentina looked forward to summertime, when her family joined with their cousins, the royal family from neighboring Monaforte, at a huge seaside compound on the Ligurian sea in Northern Italy. There the many cousins spent their days on the beach building sand forts and castles—castles being something they were intimately familiar with—and digging for shells and fossils and swimming until they could swim no longer. It was a paradise for children, and while Valentina certainly enjoyed keeping company with her only female cousin, Princess Isabella, it was her older cousin Prince Luca who immediately dazzled her.
Luca, who treated her like an equal even though she was six years younger. Luca who made certain to include his young cousin when the kids hiked up high into the Ligurian hills to capture the view of the sea for miles around them. Luca who caught a salamander and named it Valentina in his cousin’s honor. That was all it took for Valentina to be smitten for life: if she could harbor a crush on a blood relative, well she would have. Instead, she just adored him and cherished the time they got to spend together.
And then Luca showed up the summer of her fourteenth birthday with a new friend—a roommate from university. It was only then that Valentina truly understood how a girl could swoon over a handsome man. Because Parker Hornsby, with his sandy blond hair, twinkly blue eyes, dimpled cheeks and brilliant white smile, was indeed swoon-worthy.
“Valentina,” Luca said as he swooped to hug his cousin and kiss both her cheeks as was customary, brushing her head of embarrassingly bushy brown hair back off her face. “I missed you so much.” He squeezed her nose affectionately. “I want you to meet my friend Parker Hornsby. He’s from America. I told him what a magical place Cieli di Zaffiro was.” Sapphire Skies: it would then become known as the place where she first fell in love.
Valentina took one look at her cousin’s new friend and was thunderstruck. Something deep in her gut roiled to life, something she’d yet to recognize, a feeling so powerful it made her scared and happy and nervous and worried, all wrapped up into one untidy heap of swirling emotions that about did her in, they terrified her so.
“Nice to meet you,” Parker said, extending his hand to Valentina, which completely threw her off. She’d expected the usual greeting, a kiss on one cheek and then a kiss on the other. So instead of reaching her arm out to shake his hand, she leaned in as if to field his courteous side kisses, and instead his hand jammed into her barely-there breasts and she about died from embarrassment as everyone standing nearby laughed at the mix-up, and so immediately she fled the room, mortified.
When Luca came up to her bedroom to check on her later, her tear-stained cheeks thoroughly betrayed her lackluster attempt at feigning indifference.
“Valentina ballerina,” he said, scruffing her long dark hair with his fingers. It was her favorite nickname, one only he used with her. It didn’t even make sense, because she was so far removed from being a delicate ballerina, he should have called her out for the tomboy she was. Give her a soccer ball and she’d kick pretty much anyone’s ass. A pair of ballet slippers? She’d probably slide them on her hands thinking they were mittens. “Why the long face, my friend?”
Valentina sat on the edge of the bed, swinging her legs and kicking the side of the bed in rhythmic motion, staring out the window, lips pursed, not making eye contact with her cousin.
“What happened that made you run off like you did?” Luca said, pressing her for more details.
Valentina hung her head, so embarrassed. “Nothing,” she said.
“Nothing?” He frowned and arched his brow, his bright blue eyes twinkling.
“All right. Fine,” she said with a huff. “I thought he was going to kiss my cheeks like everybody always does and instead he reached out his arm and his hand hit my chest and God, Luca, I mean, really—”
“Oh, sweetie,” he said. “Nobody even saw that.”
“Of course they did. They all laughed.”
“They just laughed at the confusion of the thing. No one was laughing at you, and no one noticed if his hand even touched you.”
She crossed her arms over said chest, about which she’d become acutely self-conscious, what with all of the other girls her age having blossomed into B-cup babes by then, while Valentina was still about as flat as the field of sunflowers her parents had planted for her brother Matteo near their manor home. The last thing she wanted was anyone making cracks about that virtual concavity resting atop her chest.
“Hey,” he said, leaning forward and coaxing her chin with his pointer finger so she was facing him. “It’s okay, Valentina. Believe me, we all adore you to the moon and back.”
She frowned. “It’s just that, well, Luca, I’m a teenager, and look at me.” She swept her hands along her t-shirt clad chest, which was sporting a bra out of pure youthful desire, certainly not need. The giant poof of out-of-control hair didn’t help matters, nor did the splotches of acne plaguing her face.
Her cousin reached around and wrapped her in a bear hug. “Oh, sweetie. Trust me, you are perfect just the way you are. And believe me, before you know it, this is going to be the least of your problems. Pretty soon we’ll be beating the boys away, they’re going to be pounding down the doors just to get to you. Don’t you worry your pretty little head any more, okay? Besides, you’ll always be my Valentina ballerina.”
It took Valentina a few days but eventually she started actually speaking to Parker Hornsby, and that swirling mess of confusing feelings soon crystallized into what was irrefutable in her young mind: love. She was indeed convinced she was in love with Luca’s good friend, who was handsome and athletic and oh, the timbre of his voice was like hearing the very church bells she’d imagined would peal on their wedding day.
Besides, he always picked her for his side when they played pick-up soccer on the beach, so she knew the feelings were mutual. But as the summer days progressed, she yearned desperately to somehow advance beyond the stage of goal assists and into something more intimate, like a first kiss. She even practiced her nascent kissing skills on a stuffed monkey she slept with, for the day it would come in handy. She had no idea how she would drum up the nerve to act, but she knew she had to; she’d never forgive herself if she let him get away.
One night the cousins built a huge bonfire on the beach. They sat around talking and laughing, the older ones drinking wine and eventually, some even went swimming. Valentina sat along the shore, her chin to her knees, her arms wrapped tight around her legs, not particularly interested in going into the dark ocean water. Until Parker reached out his hand to her.
“Let’s go, short stuff,” he said to her, clasping her hand in his as he pulled her toward the water. At first she shook her head, refusing, but, hey, he was holding her hand! How could she say no? She lifted herself off the cold sand and followed him into the surf, laughing and splashing and thoroughly elated because she knew this must the sign she was waiting for.
She tripped and fell in the shallows, and he leaned forward to help her up. Just as he reached for her, she wrapped her arms around his neck, and blurted out those three fateful words—I love you—while awkwardly angling her mouth to his and planting her lips on his as if she was administering mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a training dummy.
Parker, instead of embracing her advances, pushed her away.
“Valentina, no!” he said, raking his hand through his hair, clearly put off by her declaration and unwanted advances.
She looked at him with querying eyes, her brow wrinkled, confused at his rejection. “But I thought you liked me,” she said.
He shook his head, looking around, which she took to mean he was embarrassed if anyone had just seen what had transpired. “Of course I like you as my friend’s cousin,” he said. “But you’re just a young girl. This,” he said, pointing back and forth between the two of them, “will never happen, Valentina. I’m a grown-up and you’re a child.” With that, he turned and raced toward the older boys, leaving her dazed and heartbroken in the cold nighttime tide pool, her eyes filled with tears.
He was right, she thought, stewing over his insensitivity. That would never happen. Because she had too much self-respect to moon over that jerk. But she vowed that day she would no longer be the tomboy buddy to all the guys; she was going to show people like that rotten Parker Hornsby. One day men like him would be swooning over her. That she was going to make good and sure of.
Valentina Romeo was a hopeless romantic. And nothing screamed romance more to her than a good old-fashioned royal wedding. So when the much-anticipated invitation arrived for the nuptials of her favorite cousin, Prince Luca of Monaforte, she was beside herself with excitement.
The only thing that made her a bit sad was that she would be attending this wedding minus a plus-one, since she’d been plunged into a seriously dry spell in the man department for far longer than she cared to admit. It would have been more enjoyable to share in this excitement with someone she loved. Although at least she’d be surrounded by many people she loved at this union of their families, and she was stoked. But that wasn’t the same as showing up in a gorgeous ball gown with the man of your dreams in white tie beside you, your gloved arm entwined in his tuxedo-clad one. It had been over a year since Valentina had ended a relationship with Roberto Agnese, whose family owned a vineyard not far from Romeo Wines.
The two families had competed on a friendly basis for hundreds of years, and it seemed a good enough fit. Until Valentina finally admitted to herself that she didn’t want to spend the rest of her life with a man with whom the most they had in common was a bunch of grapes. Sure Roberto was handsome in that classically Italian way, with wavy, near-black hair and warm brown eyes, but if she were to be truthful with herse