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