is like ice cream on a hot day. Enjoy it before it melts.’
Rosie’s Little Book of Ice Cream
It was late
and throwing down a sleety rain when Geli emerged from the Metro at
Porta Garibaldi into the Milan night. Her plan had been to take a taxi
for the last short leg of her journey but it was par for the course, on
a day when everything had conspired to keep her from her destination,
that there wasn’t one in sight.
The weather had been mild
with a promise of spring in the air when she’d left Longbourne and,
optimistically, she’d assumed Italy would be warmer; something to do
with all those sun-soaked travel programmes on the television, no doubt.
If she’d had the sense to check the local weather she’d have been
wearing thermals instead of lace beneath her dress, leggings over her
ultra-sheer black tights and a lot more than a lace choker around her
Not the most practical
outfit for travelling but she was going to Milan, style capital of
Europe, where the inhabitants didn’t wear joggers unless they were
jogging and policewomen wore high heels.
In her determination to
make a fashionable impression she had overlooked the fact that Milan was
in the north of Italy. Where there were mountains. And, apparently,
According to the details
she’d downloaded from the Internet, her apartment was no more than a
ten-minute stroll from the Metro. She could handle a bit of sleet. In
She checked her map and,
having orientated herself, she pulled the wide hood of her coat over
ears that were beginning to tingle, shouldered her roomy leather tote
and, hauling her suitcase behind her, set off.
New country, new start, new
Unlike her sisters, who
were married, raising families and, with their rapidly expanding ice
cream events business, had life all sewn up and sorted, she was throwing
herself into the dark—literally.
With little more than an
Italian phrasebook and a head full of ideas, she was setting out to grab
every experience that life offered her. If, as she crossed the railway
bridge into the unknown, the thrill of nervous excitement that shot
through her was edged with a ripple of apprehension, a shiver of
fear—well, that was perfectly natural. She was the baby of the family.
She might be the one with
the weird clothes, the ‘attitude’, but they knew it was all front; that
this was her first time out in the world. Okay, she’d been to Italy
before, but that was on a student study trip and she’d been with a group
of people she knew. This time she was on her own, without the family
safety net of loving hands reaching out to steady her if she stumbled.
To catch her if she fell. Testing herself…
She steered her case to one side to let someone in a hurry pass her and
then, as she looked up, she saw the colourful street art gleaming under
the street lights—bright tropical scenes that lit up dull concrete—and
caught her breath.
Despite the icy stuff
stinging her face, excitement won out as she remembered why she had
chosen Italy, Milan…Isola.
The minute she’d opened a
magazine, seen the photographs, read about this enclave of artists,
musicians, designers all doing their own thing, she’d been hooked. This
was a place where she could spread her wings, explore her love of
fashion, seek new ways of making art and maybe, just maybe fall in love.
Nothing serious, not for keeps, but for fun.
Twenty minutes later, her
face stiff with cold, the freezing stuff finding its way into a hood
designed more for glamour than protection, and totally lost, the bounce
had left her step.
She could almost see her
oldest sister, Elle, shaking her head and saying,
You’re so impatient, Geli! Why
didn’t you wait for a taxi?
Because it was an
And the directions had been simple enough. She’d counted the turnings,
checked the name of the street, turned right and her apartment should be
there, right in front of her, on the corner.
Except it wasn’t.
Instead of the pink-painted
five-storey house on the corner of a street of equally pretty houses
that overlooked the twice-weekly market, she was faced with eight-feet
high wooden barriers surrounding a construction site.
No need to panic. Obviously
she’d missed a turning. There had been a couple of narrow openings—more
alleys than streets—that she’d thought were too small to be the turnings
on her map. Obviously she was wrong.
She backtracked, recounted
and headed down one just about wide enough to take a Fiat 500. It ended
in a tiny courtyard piled up with crates and lit by a dim lamp over what
looked like the back entrance to a shop. In the dark something moved, a
box fell, and she beat a hasty retreat.
The few people about had
their heads down and her, ‘Scusi…’
was blown away on wind that was driving the sleet, thicker now, into her
It was time to take another
look at the map.
Ducking into the shelter of
the doorway of a shuttered shop, she searched her tote for the powerful
mini torch given to her by her explorer brother-in-law as a parting
She’d reminded him that she
was going to one of the world’s great cities rather than venturing into
the jungle. His response was that in his experience there was little
difference and as something wet and hairy brushed against her leg she
let out a nervous shriek.
Make that one for the
A plaintive mew reassured
her and the bright beam of her torch picked out a tiny kitten, wet fur
sticking to its skin, cowering in the doorway.
‘Hey, sweetie,’ she said
softly, reaching out to it, but it backed away nervously. She knew how
it felt. ‘You’re much too little to be out by yourself on a night like
The poor creature, wetter
and certainly colder than she was, mewed pitifully in agreement. She’d
bought a cheese sandwich on the plane but had been too churned up with
nerves and excitement to eat it and she opened it up, broke a piece off
and offered it to the kitten. Hunger beat fear and it snatched the food
from her fingers, desperately licking at the butter.
Geli broke off another
piece and then turned her attention to the simple street map. Clearly
she’d taken a wrong turn and wandered into the commercial district, now
closed for the night, but for the life of her couldn’t see where she’d
Phoning Signora Franco, her
landlady, was not an option. The
English was about on a par with her own Italian—enthusiastic, but short
on delivery. What she needed was one of Isola’s famous cafés or bars,
somewhere warm and dry with people who would know the area and, bracing
herself to face to what was now whiter, more solid than mere sleet, she
peered along the street.
Behind her, the kitten
mewed and she sighed. There were a few lights on in upper floors but
down here everything was shut up. The tiny creature was on its own and
was too small to survive the night
without shelter. The location might be new, but some things never
Inevitably, having begged
for help, the kitten panicked when she bent and scooped it up but she
eased it into one of the concealed seam pockets hidden amongst the full
layers of her coat.
She’d come back tomorrow
and see if she could find someone who’d take responsibility for it but
right now it was time to put her Italian to the test. She’d memorised
the question and could rattle off ‘Dov’è
without a second thought. Understanding the answers might be more of a
She stuffed her torch,
along with the useless map, in her bag and began to retrace her steps
back to the road from the station, this time carrying straight on
instead of turning off.
In the photographs she’d
seen it had been summer; there were open-air jazz concerts, the communal
garden and collective ‘bring a dish’ lunches where every Tuesday the
local people gathered to share food and reinforce the community ties.
People sitting outside trendy cafés. Perfect.
This was the wrong time of
day, the wrong time of year. Even the famous Milan ‘promenade’ was on
hold but, encouraged by a sudden snatch of music—as if someone had
opened a door very briefly—she hurried to the corner and there, on the
far side of a piazza, lights shone through a steamy window.
It was Café Rosa, famous
for jazz, cocktails and being a hangout of local artists who used the
walls as a gallery. More relieved than she cared to admit, she slithered
across the cobbles and pushed open the door.
She was immediately swathed
in warmth, the rich scent of luscious food and cool music from a combo
on a tiny stage in the corner mingling with bursts of steam from the
expresso machine. Tables of all shapes and sizes were filled with people
eating, drinking, gossiping, and a tall dark-haired man was leaning
against the counter talking to the barista.
If the scene had been posed
by the Italian Tourist Board it couldn’t have been more perfect and,
despite the cold, she felt a happy little rush of anticipation.
A few people had turned
when the door opened and the chatter died away until the only sound was
the low thrum of a double bass.
The man standing at the
bar, curious about what had caught everyone’s attention, half turned and
anticipation whooshed off the scale in an atavistic charge of raw
desire; instant, bone-deep need for a man before you heard his voice,
felt his touch, knew his name.
For a moment, while she
remembered how to breathe, it felt as if someone had pressed the pause
button on the scene, freezing the moment in soft focus. Muted colours
reflected in polished steel, lights shimmering off the bottles and
glasses behind the bar, her face reflected, ghost-like, behind the
advertisement on a mirror. And Mr Italy with his kiss-me mouth and
Forget the thick dark hair
and cheekbones sharp enough to write their own modelling contract, it
was those chocolate-dark eyes that held her transfixed. If they had been
looking out of a tourist poster there would be a stampede to book
holidays in Italy.
He straightened, drawing
attention to the way his hair curled onto his neck, a pair of
scandalously broad shoulders, strong wrists emerging from folded-back
he murmured as he moved back a little to make room for her at the
counter and, oh, joy, his voice matched the face, the body.
She might have passed out
for lack of oxygen at that moment but a tall, athletic-looking blonde
placed a tiny cup of espresso in front of him before—apparently unaware
that she was serving a god—turning to her.
E brutto tempo.’
Flustered at being
confronted with phrases that hadn’t featured so far on the Italian
course she’d downloaded onto her iPod, she took the safe option and,
having sucked in a snowflake that was clinging to her lip, she lowered
her hood. The chatter gradually resumed and, finally getting a
message through to her legs, she parked her suitcase and crossed to the
‘Cosa prendi, signora?’
Oh, whew, something she
Vorrai un espresso…s’il
Her answer emerged in a mangled mixture of English, Italian and French.
The blonde grinned. ‘Don’t
worry. I got the gist,’ she replied, her English spiced with an
‘Oh, thank goodness you’re
English. No! Sorry, Australian—’ Achingly conscious of the man leaning
against the counter, an impressive thigh stretching the cloth of his
jeans just inches from her hip, she attempted to recover the cool,
sophisticated woman of the world image with which she’d intended to
storm Milan. ‘Shall I go out, walk around the block and try that again?’
The woman grinned. ‘Stay
right where you are. I’ll get that espresso. You’ve just arrived in
Isola?’ she asked as she measured the coffee.
‘In Isola, in Milan, in
Italy. I’ve been working on my Italian—I picked some up when I spent a
month in Tuscany as a student—but I learned French at school and it
seems to be my brain’s foreign language default setting when I panic.’
Her brain was too busy
drooling over Mr Italy to give a toot.
‘Give it a week,’ the woman
said. ‘Can I get you anything else?’
‘A side order of
directions?’ she asked hopefully, doing her best to ignore the fact that
it wasn’t just her brain; her entire body was responding on a visceral
level to the overdose of pheromones wafting in her direction. It was
like being bombarded by butterflies. Naked…
She was doing her level
best not to stare at him.
Was he looking at her?
‘You are lost,
In Italian, his voice was
just about the sexiest thing she’d ever heard, but his perfect,
lusciously accented English sent a shiver rippling down her spine that
had nothing to do with the snow dripping from her hair. That was
trickling between her breasts and turning to steam.
She took a breath and,
doing her best to remember why she was there, said, ‘Not lost exactly…’
Retrieving the apartment details from her tote, she placed it, map side
up, on the counter and turned to him, intending to explain what had
happened. He was definitely looking and, confronted with those eyes, the
questioning kink of his brow, language of any description deserted her.
‘No?’ he prompted.
Clearly he was used to
women losing the power of speech in his presence. From the relaxed way
he was leaning against the bar, to eyes that, with one look made her
feel as if he owned her, everything about him screamed danger.
First day in Isola and she
could imagine having a lot of fun with Mr Italy and, from the way he was
looking at her, he was thinking much the same thing about her.
Was that how it had been
for her mother that first time? One look from some brawny roustabout at
the annual village fair and she’d been toast?
‘I know exactly where I am,
she said, looking into those lusciously dark eyes. To emphasise the
point she eased off the fine leather glove that had done little to keep
her hand warm and tapped the piazza with the tip of a crimson nail.
‘No,’ he repeated, and this
time it wasn’t a question as, never taking his eyes from hers, he
wrapped long fingers around her hand and moved her finger two inches to
the right. ‘You are here.’
His hand was warm against
her cold skin. On the surface everything was deceptively still but
inside, like a volcano on the point of blowing, she was liquid heat.
She fought the urge to
swallow. ‘I am?’
She was used to people
staring at her. From the age of nine she had been the focus of raised
eyebrows and she’d revelled in it.
This man’s look was
different. It sizzled through her and, afraid that the puddle of snow
melting at her feet was about to turn to steam, she turned to the map.
It didn’t help. Not one
bit. His hand was still covering hers, long ringless fingers darkly
masculine against her own pale skin, and she found herself wondering how
they would look against her breast. How they would feel…
Under the layers of
black—coat, dress, the lace of her bra—her nipples hardened in response
to her imagination, sending touch-me messages to all parts south and she
bit on her lower lip to stop herself from whimpering.
She cleared the cobwebs
from her throat and, hoping she sounded a lot more in control than she
was, said, ‘One piazza looks very much like another on a map.
Unfortunately, neither of them is where I was going.’
‘And yet here you are.’
And yet here she was,
falling into eyes as dark as the espresso in his cup.
The café retreated. The
bright labels on bottles behind the bar, the clatter of cutlery, the low
thrum of a double bass became no more than a blur of colour, sound. All
her senses were focused on the touch of his fingers curling about her
hand, his molten eyes reflecting back her own image. For a moment
nothing moved until, abruptly, he turned away and used the hand that had
been covering hers to pick up his espresso and drain it in one swallow.
He’d looked away first and
she waited for the rush of power that always gave her but it didn’t
come. For the first time in her life it didn’t feel like a victory.
‘Where are you going,
He carefully replaced the tiny cup on its saucer.
‘Here…’ She looked down but
the ink had run, leaving a dirty splodge where the name of the street
‘Tell him the address and
Dante will point you in the right direction,’ the barista said, putting
an espresso in front of her. ‘He knows every inch of Isola.’
‘Dante?’ Geli repeated. ‘As
No wonder he was so hot… Catching the barista’s knowing grin, she
quickly added, ‘Or perhaps your mother is an admirer of the
‘Are you visiting someone?’
he asked, ignoring the question.
‘No.’ Mentally kicking
herself for speaking before her brain was in gear—he must have heard
that one a thousand times—she shook her head. ‘I’m here to work. I’ve
leased an apartment for a year. Geli Amery,’ she added, offering him her
hand without a thought for the consequences.
He wrapped his hand around
hers and held it.
‘Dante Vettori.’ Rolled out
in that sexy Italian accent, his name was a symphony of seduction. ‘Your
name is Jelly?’ He lifted an eyebrow, but not like the disapproving old
biddies in the village shop. Not at all. ‘Like the wobbly stuff the
British inflict on small children at birthday parties?’
Okay, so she’d probably
asked for that with her stupid ‘Inferno’
remark, but he wasn’t the only one to have heard it all before.
‘Or add to peanut butter in
a sandwich if you’re American?’ She lifted an eyebrow right back at him,
which was asking for trouble but who knew if he’d ever lift his eyebrow
at her like that again? This was definitely one of those ‘live for the
day’ moments she had vowed to grab with both hands and she was going for
he said, the lines bracketing his mouth deepening into a smile. ‘But I
He could call her what he
liked as long as he kept smiling like that…
‘You suspect right. Geli is
short for Angelica—as in
which I’m told is a very handsome plant.’ And she smiled back. ‘You may
be more familiar with its crystallised stem. The British use it to
decorate the cakes and trifles that they inflict on small children at
His laugh was rich and
warm, creating a fan of creases around his eyes, emphasising those
amazing cheekbones, widening his mouth and drawing attention to a lower
lip that she wanted to lick…
Make that burnt toast…
In an attempt to regain
control of her vital organs, Geli picked up her espresso and downed it
in a single swallow, Italian style. It was hotter than she expected,
shocking her out of the lusty mist.
‘I had intended to take a
taxi—’ Her vocal cords were still screaming from the hot coffee and the
words came out as little more than a squeak. She cleared her throat and
tried again. ‘Unfortunately, there were none at the Porta Garibaldi and
on the apartment details it said that Via Pepone was only a ten-minute
‘Taxis are always in short
supply when the weather’s bad,’ the barista said, as Dante, frowning
now, turned the details over to look at the picture of the pretty pink
house where she’d be living for the next year. ‘Welcome to Isola, Geli.
Lisa Vettori—I’m from the Australian branch of the family. Dante’s my
cousin and, although you wouldn’t know it from the way he’s lounging
around on the wrong side of the counter, Café Rosa is his bar.’
‘I pay you handsomely so
that I can stay on this side of the bar,’ he reminded her, without
‘Make the most of it, mate.
I have a fitting for a bridesmaid dress in Melbourne on Tuesday. Unless
you get your backside in gear and find a temp to take my place, come
Sunday you’ll be the one getting up close and personal with the Gaggia.’
She took a swipe at the marble counter top with a cloth to remove an
invisible mark. ‘Have you got a job lined up, Geli?’ she asked.
‘You said you were here to
work. Have you ever worked in a bar? Only there’s a temporary—’
‘If you’ve been travelling
all day you must be hungry,’ Dante said, cutting his cousin off in
mid-sentence. ‘We’ll have the risotto, Lisa.’ And, holding onto the
details of her apartment and, more importantly, the map, he headed for a
table for two that was tucked away in a quiet corner.
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From the book
VITTORI'S DAMSEL IN DISTRESS by Liz Fielding
Text Copyright © 2013
by Liz Fielding
Cover Art Copyright ©
2013 by Harlequin Enterprises Limited
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