Honeymoon with a prince (royal scandals) (page 5)

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She met his smile with one of her own. “Sort of. I came to experience life in a way I haven’t before. Seeing new places, meeting new people…it gives a person perspective.” 

If there was anything she needed after her Ted fiasco, it was perspective. 

“That it does, for better or worse.” She thought there was a note of regret in his tone, but it disappeared as he pushed the platter toward her. “The square crackers on this side of the tray are from a local bakery. Can’t find them anywhere but Sarcaccia. Try one. They make a great palate cleanser.”

She plucked one of the crackers from the tray, then watched as Massimo did the same. As they each bit into the thick, wheaty crackers, an unexpected frisson of heat passed between them, as if the breaking of bread constituted foreplay to a more intimate encounter.

A palate cleanser, as it were.

“So tell me,” he said, swishing the last of his Prosecco, “how is it that I found a beautiful woman like you alone on the beach? Did your friends abandon you to the surf while they went to party back in your villa? Or had they already been whisked away by strange men and their wandering dogs?”

“All very mysterious, isn’t it?” she teased, not quite ready to admit she had no friends in the country, let alone back at her villa. “I mean, how is it that a good-looking man like you came to be alone on the beach?”

“I wasn’t alone. I had Gaspare.”

“Actually,Ihad Gaspare. So let me rephrase.” She cleared her throat, then made a show of leaning across the table to interrogate him. “How is it that a good-looking man like you came to the beach with only your dog? Or had your friends already left with strange women?”

He seemed amused by that. “I see your point. I was out on my boat enjoying the sunshine and fresh air. I had spent the day…gaining perspective.”

“And Gaspare?”

“Gaspare could care less about perspective. He only wanted to swim to shore. Though perhaps he thought I could use a dinner companion and decided to find one for me.” He gathered their empty Prosecco glasses, holding them by the stems in one hand, then stood and rounded the table. “Come on. You said you wanted to see new places. Let’s explore Giulia’s wine cellar.”

Before she could say a word, he grabbed her by the hand and helped her from her chair. Not that it mattered. She suspected Massimo would lead her on an adventure whether she agreed to it or not.

Right now, she was definitely in the mood to agree.


* * *


The wooden stairs leading from the main dining room to Giulia’s wine cellar creaked with age as Kelly descended behind Massimo. Only the tiny antique chandelier hanging near the top kept the narrow space between the stone walls from delving into creepiness. 

“This is like a movie set,” Kelly told him, straining to see to the bottom. “How old is it?”

“Very.” His voice was matter of fact. “The lower level of the house was built beside the entrance to a cave that’s been used as cold storage for centuries. Eventually, Giulia’s ancestors converted the cave to a wine cellar. They enclosed the area around the entrance and added the staircase to connect it to the main level about two hundred years ago.” 

She ran a hand along the wooden railing, which was shiny and worn smooth from use. “I suspect these are the original stairs, then. The centers of the treads even dip. I love that she’s kept them. They suit the house.” If this had been a cellar in the States, the stairs inevitably would’ve been replaced with something light, bright, and new that would pass safety inspections, but kill the romantic atmosphere.

When they reached the bottom of the stairs, Massimo flipped a switch to illuminate the room. She drew in a sharp breath at the sight. To their right, in the direction of the cliff’s edge, stood three rows of wooden shelves containing hundreds of wines. Stone walls extended from the house’s lower level to surround the shelves and seal off the room from the elements. To their left was the opening to a shallow cavern. It had been left in its natural state, with freestanding wooden wine racks placed in front of the rough rock walls. She imagined the temperature stayed cool and constant, summer and winter, making it the perfect location for the trattoria’s wine collection. Beyond the wines, at the back of the small cavern, a large wooden shelf held several wax-encased wheels of cheese.

The cellar was exactly the type of romantic spot Kelly had hoped to explore when Ted mentioned Sarcaccia as a possible honeymoon location. Granted, as the CEO of a global communications company, Ted had been invited to attend a glitzy charity ball on the island. While he’d liked the idea of combining business with pleasure, Kelly had wanted to see the island for its history, its cuisine, and its gorgeous beaches and architecture. Having Massimo show her this ancient cellar felt like being given a precious gift.

“If there’s ever an apocalypse, this is where I want to be,” Kelly said as she admired the unique space.

“As long as it’s not today. I want dinner first.” Massimo gestured to the bottles filling the shelves. “You have a preference? Whatever you like, Giulia is bound to have it.”

Intrigued by the cavern area, she turned to the left and bent to glance at the bottles, being careful not to brush against them. 

“Afraid you’ll break them?”

“A bit.” Cautiously, she used her index finger to wipe a light layer of dust off the nearest bottle. Her eyes widened fractionally as she scanned the label. “I’ve never heard of this winery, but judging from the date, the bottle’s been stored here awhile.”

He moved closer to look over her shoulder. “A twenty-year-old Barolo. If you like reds, this is a very good one. It’s one of my father’s favorites.”

“And expensive, if I had to guess.” Kelly stepped back, nearly bumping into him. “I hate to admit it, but I’m not enough of a wine connoisseur to tell the difference between a twenty-year-old wine and a five-year-old wine or if it even matters. As tempting as it might be to try, I don’t need fancy.”

“Perhaps you could try the other side of the cellar?” He angled his chin toward the area opposite the cave. “Those are all good, but not as ‘fancy,’ as you say.”

“You don’t mind?”

“Not at all. Everything Giulia stocks is of the best quality, so you can’t go wrong.”

She scanned the shelves while he waited near the bottom of the staircase and ran a hand along the old wooden railing. Though his stance was casual, there was something almost too casual about it. As if being in the cellar made him nervous. She wondered what brought it on, especially given that selecting a wine was his suggestion. Was it her? The tight space? A fear of offending Giulia if their dinner arrived while they were exploring the cellar?

She put it out of her mind and scanned the shelves, unsure what she sought. She withdrew a bottle at random from hip level, then slowly turned it to show Massimo the beige label with black lettering. “How about this? Would a Spanish wine offend your Sarcaccian sensibilities?”

He approached and wrapped his hands around hers as she cradled the bottle so he could better see the label. “Torre Muga, La Rioja,” he read aloud as she tried not to think about the feel of his hands on hers. “No, this wouldn’t offend my sensibilities at all. It’s a great choice.”

“Then we’re set.” Desire ripped through her as she raised her face to his. The man had the most sensuous eyes, even—perhaps especially—in the dim light. Though the flicker of attraction in his gaze was unmistakable, she still sensed he didn’t care to linger in the cellar.

Just as he indicated that she should lead the way upstairs, footsteps thudded overhead and the door creaked open. Giulia descended and clapped her hands together and said, “Ah, I thought I might find you here. Tell me, what have you discovered?”

Kelly turned the bottle so that Giulia, who now stood on the bottom step, could read it. “Good, good. Did you make the selection or did Massimo?”

“I did, but he assured me this will be wonderful.”

“And he is right. I have no bad wine in my cellar.” She beamed at them even as another set of footsteps sounded on the staircase behind her. Without turning she said, “Dinner is ready, but I can serve you only if this man behind me moves out of my way.”

A squat man with a close-clipped gray beard, brown slacks and a dark brown vest worn over a long-sleeved cream-colored shirt descended. Clunky leather shoes, the type reserved for those whose gait wasn’t entirely stable, encased his feet. He deliberately ignored Giulia—though not without a mischievous lift to his lips meant for her to see—and greeted them. “My dear wife said you were home again, Massimo. Should I be jealous that she is hiding you in our cellar?”

“I asked her to run away with me, but she only has eyes for you.” Massimo put one hand on the railing and leaned past Giulia to give the older man a warm hug and slap on the back. “It’s good to see you again, Guillermo. I understand you provided tonight’s dinner. Brought in some good sea bass today?”

“Don’t I always?”

“And he’s more than willing to brag about it,” Giulia said at the same time.

Massimo smiled at the pair, but his hand gripped the railing tighter. Giulia introduced her husband to Kelly, but while Kelly made the appropriate greetings, Massimo’s strained body language distracted her. As Guillermo descended, crowding into the small space to comment on the wine Kelly selected, Massimo moved to the far wall, his spine stiff and smile increasingly forced…at least to her mind. 

“Are you all right?” Kelly asked him quietly as Guillermo made a playful comment to his wife in Italian.

“Of course,” he replied, but didn’t meet her gaze. “Just getting out of the way. Are you all right?”

“Fine.” There was a disturbing brusqueness to his tone that made her realize he wasn’t all right, despite what he claimed. To Giulia, she said, “I’m dying to try that homemade ravioli. Please tell me you weren’t teasing us when you said that it’s ready.”

“I never tease about my food. Come, come.” She waved for everyone to follow her upstairs. “Here, I will take the wine and bring it to the table for you. Do you want one of the window tables, or by the fireplace?”

Without looking to Kelly for her opinion, Massimo said, “We’ll stay on the patio. It’s warm out and there’s a nice sea breeze.”

Surprise registered on Giulia’s softly lined face at his authoritative tone, but her response was easy. “Then I will bring the dishes outside. I promise, you are in for a treat.”

Chapter Four

Dinner was every bit as decadent as Giulia promised. The sea bass practically melted in Massimo’s mouth, the freshly steamed asparagus and mushrooms had been seasoned to perfection, and Kelly’s wine choice was superb. Still, it had taken several minutes for his heartbeat to slow enough for him to appreciate the melding of flavors that danced across his tongue.

Much as he’d like to attribute his pounding pulse solely to the voluptuous woman before him, he knew better. He’d experienced the same sense of horror and sickening disorientation once before. He’d brushed off the event as an oddity then, but now…now he was as disturbed by the fact it happened a second time as he was by the event itself.