Honeymoon with a prince (royal scandals) (page 3)

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Maybe he’d hit his head while he’d been in Africa, because nothing else could explain the urge that’d caused the worddinnerto escape his lips. He knew nothing about her, other than the fact she was American—judging from her accent—and that his dog reacted to her as he’d never before reacted to a stranger. He supposed that alone caused the invitation to pop out of his mouth before he had a chance to reconsider it, though her incredible figure and unassuming smile hadn’t hurt.

That and she apparently had no idea who he was, which was as compelling as Gaspare’s interest in her. When she’d pushed herself to a seated position, there’d been no, “Oh, you’re…” or “Has anyone told you that you look like…?” Not even the usual spark of recognition followed by an attempt to play it cool, as he was used to seeing whenever people connected his face with the island’s famous royal family. Nor did she display the fakery he’d come to expect from tabloid reporters hoping to trick him into sharing personal information. Instead, she’d spoken to him as if he were her equal. As if she weredeigningto consider him her equal.

However, as Massimo had waited by his Jeep, using the time to pour a bowl of water for Gaspare and to duck into one of the changing huts to don more appropriate clothing, he found he didn’t regret the invitation. Spending the evening with the mysterious Kelly Chase meant skipping his family’s regular Sunday dinner, which was no great loss. A so-called family dinner was never simply family where the Barralis were concerned; rather, the tradition offered foreign dignitaries the chance to wine and dine with the royals amidst the splendor of the palace, all in the hopes that political and economic partnerships could be formed.

The last topics he cared to discuss tonight were politics or economics. When dining with dignitaries, he had to project a certain persona. He wasn’t simply Massimo, but Prince Massimo Barrali, a representative of his entire country. Every word he uttered, expression on his face, or gesture he made became magnified in importance, to be dissected by the news media—and on occasion, the paparazzi—on the evening news.

Spending his Sunday night with a woman who knew nothing of his heritage, his money, or his social connections should prove refreshing. Besides, it’d been months since his libido made so much as a momentary appearance. Even if he didn’t get laid tonight—and he got the impression Kelly-from-the-beach wasn’t even first-date-kiss easy, despite the fact she’d agreed to a date without knowing a thing about him—it was reassuring to know his body still functioned on all cylinders. He’d been starting to wonder.

“You changed clothes,” Kelly said as she approached his red Jeep. She swept a hand to indicate her own outfit. “I hope this is appropriate for whatever you have in mind? I forgot to ask before I went to change.”

“Perfectly appropriate,” he assured her, though the first word that came to mind wasstunning. He’d thought the bikini suited her. The light blue sundress she now wore made her expressive, almond-shaped brown eyes stand out almost as much as it highlighted an absolutely perfect set of breasts. Never in a million years would he imagine a dress improving on what a bikini could display, but this one did. Better yet, she’d left her auburn hair twisted atop her head, which was probably for the best, given their transportation.

“Hop in,” he urged, opening the passenger door of his Jeep. Gaspare leapt in ahead of her, accustomed to his spot on the passenger seat, but gamely moved to the back when Massimo shooed him. Once she was seated, he closed her door and then walked around to take his own seat. Before starting the vehicle, though, he grabbed Gaspare’s collar from between the front seats and snapped it around the dog’s neck.

“In case he runs away again?” she asked, eyeing the tag bearing a phone number, but no name.

“That and it’s the law here. It’s a good thing you found him, rather than animal control.” Lucky dog. He’d taken off the collar in case Gaspare went for a swim, not imagining that a swim would take the dog out of his sight.

Wouldn’t make that mistake again.

“I hope you don’t mind having your hair blown in the wind,” he said as he fastened his seat belt. “I didn’t plan on company when I left home this morning, so I didn’t bother putting on the hard top.”

“I already have beach hair going. An open-air ride is more likely to improve it than not.”

Once they were out of the parking lot, Kelly turned to him and asked where they were heading. “Town’s back there,” she said, gesturing behind them. “Even I know that much.”

Her casual tone contrasted with her stiff posture in an unspoken acknowledgement of the tension sizzling between them as they roared uphill, away from the beach and along the cliffside road overlooking the Mediterranean. As if they each knew they were doing something dangerous, unpredictable and out of their everyday routines by taking off with a stranger. He gave her a one-shouldered shrug. “Since you can walk to town from your villa, I thought you might appreciate a change, something different from the usual places that cater to tourists.”

“Iama tourist.”

“Would you prefer to go back?” He hoped not. Though he was generally left alone by locals used to seeing the royal family out and about, he didn’t want to deal with any tourists who might identify him, particularly the types who’d whip out their cameras and ask him to pose with them.

“No. Different is good.”

They rounded a hairpin curve that afforded a panoramic view of the sea. Kelly spun in her seat to take in the sight. “Speaking of different, this is amazing. You’re probably used to it, but I could stare at this view for hours.”

“Wait until the sun goes down. The sunset from the top of the hill is spectacular.”

“It doesn’t get old to you?”

“No.” He surprised himself by adding, “I was in the military for the last six years and was out of the country. It’s not the same elsewhere.”

She absorbed that for a moment before asking, “Where were you?”

“Three months in Antarctica. Here and there in the Middle East. Mostly Central Africa, though.” He left it at that. Even mentioning the place left him hollow inside. “What about you? Where are you from?”

“Dallas.” Then she clarified, “It’s in the United States.”

The grin she brought to his face pushed thoughts of jungle heat and famine aside. “I know where Dallas is.”

“I didn’t want to assume.” She shot him a sideways glance. “Though if you’re from here, I’ll take a wild guess that Italian is your first language. Your English is amazing. Did you study in the U.S.?”

“I was educated here. But I had an American” —he caught himself before sayingnanny— “teacher when I was younger. My parents insisted I become fluent in at least two other languages and wanted me to learn from native speakers.”

“Wow. Parents weren’t ambitious for you at all, were they?”

“Not at all.” They only wanted him to attend the best schools, then find the best possible wife and have amazingly brilliant, perfect children, all while working to strengthen Sarcaccia’s governmental interests. “What about yours?”

“Same, I suppose.” He could swear her voice caught, but she covered it by adding, “They weren’t as adamant I learn foreign languages, though. Probably would’ve been better if they were. I only have high school Spanish.”

“You speak dog. I’ve never seen Gaspare like he was with you.” 

“Lucky for me.” She caught Massimo’s eye before twisting in her seat to give Gaspare a quick rub under the chin. The flicker of amusement and attraction embodied in that quick look sent another hard jolt of desire through him. He turned his focus to the road, hoping she hadn’t noticed how easily she’d captured his attention. 

He drove over a high stone bridge, then around one more jaw-dropping turn to enter a small village. Centuries-old tile-roofed houses clung to the steep hill on both sides of the road. Glorious though the setting was, the stone and stucco structures weren’t at all glamorous. The buildings showed signs of practical rural living, the type of home-and-family-centered existence Sarcaccians outside the bustling capital city of Cateri believed contributed to their long, healthy life spans. Laundry fluttered from lines strung under windows, children’s toys and potted plants littered tiny patios, and old men chatted about sports, politics, and the weather while sitting roadside in rickety chairs. The rhythm of life here was as predictable as the sun rising in the east and setting in the west, and it made Massimo’s heart glad to see it.

Perched on the cliff side of the road stood the unassuming stone building he’d daydreamed about every time he opened a pack of sun-baked rations during his time in Africa. He slowed the Jeep and eased into its tiny parking area. Simply looking at the place made his mouth water.

“This looks more like someone’s home than a restaurant,” Kelly observed as he helped her out of the Jeep and they approached the narrow path leading to the front door. She seemed to take it all in at once—the moss peeking through the walkway, the painted tile mailbox attached to the corner of the building, even the scent of garlic and lemon that permeated the air—as her gaze swept the structure and the small roadside sign declaring it to be the location of Trattoria Giulia.

“It’s both. The family who owns the place lives downstairs, on a lower level overlooking the water. They run a four-room bed-and-breakfast on the top floor and the restaurant is here on the main floor.” 

As they entered with Gaspare at their heels, Kelly paused to finger the pink and purple vinca that spilled from weathered terracotta pots on either side of the iron-hinged wooden door. “I like it already.”

“Wait until you try Giulia’s food. This is the real deal, not the tourists’ Sarcaccia.”

The restaurant was empty, which wasn’t surprising given the early hour. Most diners didn’t make their way here until seven or eight, sometimes later during the summer months, and a quick check of his watch told Massimo it was only five-thirty. 

Gaspare plodded to a spot near one of the windows, then lay down on the stone floor and rested his chin on his front paws. 

“He looks comfortable,” Kelly commented. “Does this mean he’s been here before?”

 “Giulia allows him so long as he stays under the window. He knows the rules.” At least when water wasn’t accessible. “Have a seat,” he suggested, pulling out a chair at the table nearest Gaspare. “Enjoy the view. I’ll let her know we’re here.”

He crossed the dining room and pushed open the kitchen door even as he heard footsteps approaching from the other side. 

“Anyone here who can feed me?” he called out in teasing Italian.

“Prince Massimo!” Giulia brushed her hands against her apron, then pulled him into a hug, stretching on her tiptoes to kiss him on both cheeks before stepping back to give him a top-to-bottom inspection, just as he’d expected she would. The wrinkles at the corners of her eyes deepened as she met his gaze once more. “I heard you were back. I hoped you would find time to visit your old friends.”

“How could I not?” He surveyed the familiar kitchen. Freshly-made ravioli covered one countertop, while hand-cut noodles hung to dry on a rack above them. A hunk of Romano cheese and a giant bowl of lemons sat nearby. The opposite countertop was stacked with fresh zucchini and tomatoes while the cutting board alongside it held a half-sliced zucchini and a chef’s knife. Diced onions and garlic cloves filled bowls near the stove. The scent of warm bread filled the air. “This place is heaven.”

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