VETTORI'S DAMSEL IN DISTRESS                                          Harlequin Romance July 2015

 

 

 

 
 

 

Her Italian knight? 

 

Angelica Amery has come to Milan for a fresh start, only to find that the bijou apartment she'd rented doesn't exist! Taking refuge in a nearby café, she meets enigmatic but darkly handsome Dante Vettori, who comes to her rescue.

 

What else could Dante do? He feels responsible for Geli, and that's before he kisses her! But soon this unconventional English girl is playing havoc with his complicated life and emotions, throwing into stark relief just how much Dante needs rescuing right back!

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taste test...

‘Life is like ice cream on a hot day. Enjoy it before it melts.’

from 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.

Terrific.

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 neck.

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, sleet.

Okaaay…

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 style.

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 life.

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…

Scusi!

‘Sorry…um…scusi…’ 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 adventure! 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 face.

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 gift.

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 explorer.

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 this.’

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 gone wrong.

Phoning Signora Franco, her landlady, was not an option. The signora’s 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 changed.

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 Via Pepone? without a second thought. Understanding the answers might be more of a problem.

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 come-to-bed eyes.

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 cuffs.

Signora…’ 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.

Sta nevicando? E brutto tempo.’

What?

Oh…

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 move it message through to her legs, she parked her suitcase and crossed to the bar.

‘Cosa prendi, signora?

Oh, whew, something she understood. ‘Um… Vorrai un espresso…s’il vous plait…’ Her answer emerged in a mangled mixture of English, Italian and French. ‘No…I mean…’ Oh, heck.

The blonde grinned. ‘Don’t worry. I got the gist,’ she replied, her English spiced with an Australian accent.

‘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, signora?’ he asked.

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, signor,’ 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.

Breathe, breathe…

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.

Toast…

‘Where are you going, signora?’ 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 had been.

‘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 in the Inferno?’ No wonder he was so hot… Catching the barista’s knowing grin, she quickly added, ‘Or perhaps your mother is an admirer of the Pre-Raphaelites?’

‘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 it.

É possįbile,’ he said, the lines bracketing his mouth deepening into a smile. ‘But I suspect not.’

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 angelica archangelica, 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 birthday parties.’

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 walk.’

‘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 looking up.

‘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.

‘A job?’

‘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

Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A. Cover art used by

arrangement with Harlequin Enterprises Limited. All rights reserved.

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