Honeymoon with a prince (royal scandals) (page 6)

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He blotted his mouth with his napkin and reached for his wineglass, grateful his hand didn’t shake at the same time he thought,what the hell is wrong with me?

A fight-or-flight urge had gripped him as he’d neared the bottom of the cellar stairs. He’d flipped on the light, expecting the bizarre sensation to dissipate, but it hadn’t. In fact, seeing the thick walls around him while he’d breathed in the deep, earthy scent of the cave increased the disturbing sensation to such an extent he couldn’t force it from his mind. And he was very good at forcing things from his mind if he didn’t want them there. Years of military training provided him that useful skill. But this…this was different than the mind-over-matter methods he’d used to get through the physical punishment of basic training or sweltering days spent navigating bug-infested African jungles.

In his memory, Giulia's wine cellar was cozy, warm, seductive. A hidden corner of the world he could explore at leisure and the perfect spot to bring a date in hopes of enjoying a romantic first kiss. Tonight, however, the room seemed claustrophobic. Almost as if the ceiling were coming down on top of him and the walls forcing the air from his lungs. It’d taken all his military training to remain calm and remind himself that he was in no danger. He was in the safest of all safe havens.

What in the world caused his body to rebel that way? If there was one thing he prided himself on, it was his control. He resented holding it by such a narrow thread.

“This is phenomenal,” Kelly murmured as she savored a bite of her ravioli. “Giulia is incredibly talented.”

“Says the woman who hesitated before accepting my invitation.” He leaned back in his chair and swirled his wine, then took a long, satisfying sip.   

“I’ve always been told to be careful around strangers,” she replied, “but this is exactly what I wanted to see here in Sarcaccia. Not only the touristy stuff. Thank you.”

“It’s my pleasure.” The answer came by rote as he studied the woman across the table. There was something different about Kelly. She might not know his identity as a member of the royal family, but she seemed to knowhim. She’d noticed his discomfort in the wine cellar when even Giulia and Guillermo, who’d known him from birth, had not. 

Of course, now he wondered if others noticed the last time he’d experienced that same sensation. 

As with the visit to the cellar, the deep-seated feeling of dread had caught him off-guard. In fact, he’d been in a fantastic mood when it’d occurred. He’d just deplaned, having arrived home from Africa with his unit, and was waiting in the massive line at immigration, passport in hand. The guys around him were quietly discussing what they planned to do first when they exited the airport. Some only wanted to sleep in their own beds, others waxed poetic about wives and girlfriends, and more than a few wanted to hit up Sarcaccia’s bars and nightclubs for a night of celebration. Massimo was explaining to one of his friends that he was obligated to attend a family dinner—and that he’d much prefer meeting the men at a bar—when the line began to move. He bent to shift his duffel bag forward and, predictably, was bumped from behind. Without warning, the overwhelming sensation of being crushed to death made his stomach heave and his lungs squeeze in protest. He’d swallowed hard and looked side to side at the snaking line in an effort to quash the sudden wave of nausea that enveloped him, but that only made the sensation worse.

The line ceased its forward movement, yet the noise around him increased as passengers from another flight crowded into the immigration hall. A few rows behind him, a child began whining in Spanish about the wait while an infant started to cry. The sound became palpable, pushing against his temples. He sucked a deep breath through his nostrils, schooling himself to keep his expression as neutral as possible, acutely aware he was the only one experiencing the horror of suffocation. 

It’s in your imagination, he’d repeated to himself over and over. It’s not real.

Then, dear God, he felt his breath catch. Once, twice. He knew that within minutes he’d vomit. Between the security threat and the medical threat, there’d be a scene, one likely to be reported once his identity became known to those outside his unit. His breath caught a third time and he swallowed back a wave of nausea even as cold sweat pricked the surface of his skin.

He’d been ready to jump the line and claim a bathroom emergency when a uniformed agent came through the room and called for the military personnel to move to a separate line. Disregarding his friends, he snagged his duffel and bolted after the agent. Once free of the immigration hall’s confines, he’d waited on a bench for his buddies while he calmed his breathing. When they emerged into the terminal, he told them to go ahead to baggage claim while he made a restroom stop. After splashing his face with cold water, he’d stared at himself in the mirror, wondering what would’ve happened if that agent hadn’t pulled him from the crowd.

By the time he’d reached baggage claim, he’d felt like himself again. The car ride home relaxed him, leaving him convinced he’d merely eaten something that disagreed with him or needed sleep more desperately than he thought.

He took a long sip of his wine and smiled at Kelly across the table.

More worrisome than the idea that one of his buddies might’ve taken note of his odd behavior was the thought that what occurred at the airport wasn’t a fluke. One occurrence he could explain away. But multiple occurrences…not likely. Especially if the sensation came over him in public, say, at a palace function or media event where there’d be multiple witnesses and cameras. 

Such a scenario was too disturbing to contemplate. He could not—would not—allow it to happen. 

“I’m glad you decided to trust me,” Massimo said, forcing his thoughts in a more pleasant direction. “Otherwise I’d have missed Guillermo’s sea bass.”

“Oh, I didn’t say I trusted you.” At his raised eyebrow, she said, “I trusted Gaspare.”

“I’ll keep that in mind as I’m driving you back down the mountain in the dark and he’s snoring in the back.”

That drew a refreshing bubble of laughter from her. It gladdened him to see her at ease rather than guarded, as when she’d first climbed into his Jeep. A bit of unspoken tension with a woman was always good for the libido, but laughter was better. Hers could light a room.

He topped off her wine glass, but didn’t add any to his own. As he’d said, he eventually needed to drive down the mountain and Kelly could prove enough of a distraction.

“Tell you what,” she said as she speared a piece of ravioli on her fork and held it aloft, “as a peace offering, I’ll let you try my ravioli. And I’m not sacrificing this bite easily.”

She leaned closer, extending the fork in such a way that it’d be equally easy to take it from her or to lower his head and simply allow her to feed him. It was cliché, sharing one’s food as flirtation, but effective. He shifted forward in his seat and took the bite into his mouth. The texture was heaven to his taste buds, but not as heavenly as the fire he could see banked in her soft brown eyes. As he slid his lips from the tines of her fork, he knew she was imagining what it’d be like to share a kiss.

Good. 

“Fantastic, isn’t it?” she asked.

“That’s why I love this place.” He’d never brought a woman to Giulia’s—not one outside his family—but he’d known the atmosphere would work magic. Carefully, he lifted a bite of sea bass toward her. “Care to compare?”

“Thought you’d never ask.” She wrapped her long, lean fingers around his hand to keep from spilling the fish onto the table, then murmured in pleasure as she sampled the bite. Once she released his hand and sat back, she said, “I love fish, but I’ve never tasted one that light and flavorful. I wonder if Giulia would share her secret?”

“Not on her life. Believe me, I’ve tried to convince her. I’ve been coming here since I was little and all I’ve managed to learn is her tiramisu, and then only because she was about to publish the recipe in a local paper as part of an interview.”

Kelly’s lush mouth perked in amusement. “She said you’ve cooked in her kitchen.”

“She saidpreparing, and believe me, it was a deliberate word choice. Calling what I do anything more than that is an exaggeration. She runs the place like a military commander organizing a top secret mission. Her soldiers are on a need-to-know basis. When I’m in her kitchen, I only do what she tells me. Chop vegetables, slice meats, that type of thing. She guards her recipes and methods as the family treasures that they are. She says they’re what keep her in business.”

“Between the wine cellar and this view, I imagine Giulia could stay in business even if the whole planet had her recipes.” Kelly turned toward the sea, where the sun now dipped low enough to brush the horizon and send bright orange rays skimming across the surface of the water. The breeze caught the loose strands of hair at her temples, lifting them away from her face. “But I understand. I’ll consider this special occasion vacation dining, something to reminisce about when I get home.”

He watched Kelly’s expression as she caught sight of a fisherman coming in to shore far below them. The man waved to a friend fishing from the rocks alongside the tiny harbor and the friend waved back as if they’d done this every night for decades. Massimo smiled to himself, realizing that they probably had. 

Life in Sarcaccia didn’t change. Only he seemed to have changed in the last six years. 

“Is it always this peaceful here?” she asked, her gaze still on the fisherman.

“Most of the time. It gets crowded when there’s a large convention in Cateri or during certain festivals, but even those are low key compared to what you see over on the mainland, in Italy or France.” He polished off the last of his sea bass and set down his fork. As if on cue, Giulia came bustling through the door at the end of the patio, wiping her hands on her apron.

“How are you two? Need to come inside yet?”

“Not yet, I don’t think,” Massimo replied, looking to Kelly for confirmation. The overwhelming need for fresh air had passed, but he had no desire to move. “Unless you’re cold?”

“Not at all. I don’t want to miss a moment of this sunset.” 

“In that case, you will want dessert. I have chestnut ice cream with homemade toffee sauce. Shall I bring one, or two?”

He was about to say she could bring a dessert for them to share when Kelly said, “Two, please. I’m not letting him have a single bite of mine.”

“Wonderful!” Giulia beamed. “Now if only I could enjoy a bowl and stay as lean and beautiful as you, I’d join you.”

“You’re perfectly beautiful, but we both know you likely have more customers coming,” Massimo added, shooting her a discreet look asking for confirmation of how long he could expect to keep his dinner with Kelly private. Once the sun set, Giulia would be compelled to turn on the outdoor lights, highlighting his presence to anyone who entered the main dining room.

“True, true. The first reservation is due to arrive in about twenty minutes.”

“Next time, then?”

“Next time.”

Giulia took off to fulfill their dessert orders, balancing their dirty plates on her arm as she went. Massimo was surprised to see that Kelly had finished her entire meal. Years of palace life and fancy soirees gave him the impression that women rarely ate much when out to dinner. More than once he’d heard his mother admonish his sister for eating too much, too fast, in public, saying it “wasn’t ladylike.” It’d galled his sister, who’d complained endlessly about double standards.

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