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Last of the Summer Vines: Escape to Italy with this heartwarming, feel good summer read! Romy Sommer ‘A gorgeous love letter to Italy’ Kat French‘All I can picture is myself in Tuscany…A book that will sweep you away’ Jo Watson, bestselling author of Love to Hate YouLove grows where you least expect to find it…When ambitious workaholic Sarah Wells discovers she has inherited her estranged father’s vineyard near Montalcino in Tuscany, the last thing she wants is to take time away from her busy schedule to sort out a crumbling mess of a palazzo. But, of course, life never runs smoothly and when she makes a rare error, her bosses decide a holiday is just what she needs.When Sarah arrives in Italy, she learns that she is not her father’s sole heir. In fact, she only has a partial stake in Castel Sant’ Angelo because of a loophole in Italian law. Her father has left the vineyard instead to his business partner, the gorgeous and infuriating Tommaso Di Biasi – and Tomasso doesn’t want to sell.At first, Sarah wants the deal done as quickly as possible so she can get back to her life in London, but it seems Italy has other plans for her. Under the warmth of the Tuscan sun, with a glass or two of the local vino rosso, and brooding Tommaso challenging her all the way , Sarah starts to realise that that there might just be something to la dolce vita… A division of HarperCollins Publishers www.harpercollins.co.uk (http://www.harpercollins.co.uk) HarperImpulse an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd 1 London Bridge Street London SE1 9GF www.harpercollins.co.uk (http://www.harpercollins.co.uk) First published in Great Britain by HarperCollinsPublishers 2018 Copyright © Romy Sommer 2018 Cover design © HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd 2018 Cover illustrations © Shutterstock.com (http://Shutterstock.com) Romy Sommer asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work. A catalogue copy of this book is available from the British Library. This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the non-exclusive, non-transferable right to access and read the text of this e-book on screen. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, down-loaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of HarperCollins. Source ISBN: 9780008301149 Ebook Edition © June 2018 ISBN: 9780008301132 Version: 2018-06-06 Table of Contents Cover (#ue363a03b-bc57-5dc0-a671-29265b893955) Title Page (#ud5fc08c8-00cf-57a1-82a6-bd03838fb0af) Copyright (#u2de8f22f-9d56-50e3-817c-1011d5051f49) Dedication (#uef758c01-878e-526b-9982-23221d81c24d) Epigraph (#uc9187ab4-44af-5e58-b3c9-731986812589) Chapter 1 (#u2fdbaec8-4efa-5bce-93ff-ab17683ab8eb) Chapter 2 (#u6888af52-133b-5de8-b2ac-ab6c9e932f2f) Chapter 3 (#u64f12722-4221-5a12-a26b-ab1df9690c83) Chapter 4 (#u70af17cf-8cd2-5173-ae10-a336fc0c30d2) Chapter 5 (#ub6ab07ee-afce-5cac-b2ea-1139c71ffd13) Chapter 6 (#uec674a57-2339-5460-844d-fa01c4a39e44) Chapter 7 (#uebb2a368-73a6-5192-ba6b-ddf98404e789) Chapter 8 (#uccc2cd76-7223-50e1-9f01-2fbbb3970bee) Chapter 9 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 10 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 11 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 12 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 13 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 14 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 15 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 16 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 17 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 18 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 19 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 20 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 21 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 22 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 23 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 24 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 25 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 26 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 27 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 28 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 29 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 30 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 31 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 32 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 33 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 34 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 35 (#litres_trial_promo) Epilogue (#litres_trial_promo) Acknowledgments (#litres_trial_promo) About the Author (#litres_trial_promo) Keep Reading … (#litres_trial_promo) About HarperImpulse (#litres_trial_promo) About the Publisher (#litres_trial_promo) This book is dedicated to my mother, who contributed hugely to this novel by keeping the household fed and clean, and who helped me research by sharing with me many bottles (and boxes) of wine. Also to my daughters, for giving me time and space to write, and for understanding when I am grumpy from lack of sleep – and for telling me that I should ‘volow my hart’. Finally, I dedicate this book to all those people who devote their lives to making wine: you often make life worth living. What is the fatal charm of Italy? What do we find there that can be found nowhere else? I believe it’s a certain permission to be human, which other places, other countries, lost long ago. – Erica Jong Chapter 1 (#ub473b70d-7760-58f7-a67a-a852e57f29ea) Chi lascia la via vecchia per la nuova sa quel che lascia ma non sa quel che trova (Those who leave the old ways behind know what they’re leaving, but not what they’ll find) I closed my eyes and breathed in deeply. Heavy, warm air filled my lungs, tasting of full-blown summer though back in England spring had barely sprung. After the crisp chill of London, the rich scents carried on the breeze were strangely soporific. ‘You don’t want air con?’ the taxi driver asked, his deeply offended tone suggesting he’d prefer air con to fresh farm air. Reluctantly, I opened my eyes again. But I didn’t close the car window. Since I was paying premium price for this trip halfway across Tuscany, I’d darn well keep the window open if I wanted. I breathed in deeply again, this time not to smell the figurative roses but to calm myself. Breathe in. Count to three. Relax. It was unbelievable that I was only now learning to recognise the signs of stress in my body and how to deal with it. Too many years driving myself to achieve. Too many years of not taking the time to listen to my own body. All those years focused on a single target, and where did it get me? Exile. If only I’d gone a little easier on myself. If only I’d taken a holiday once a year like everyone else, instead of clapping myself on the back for my dedication. If only I’d made a priority of a few more hours’ sleep each night, maybe now I wouldn’t be forced to cool my heels here in the middle of nowhere. Already bored of ‘if onlys’, I slid my mobile out my handbag and glanced at the screen. No missed calls. Not even a text message. Surely someone at the office would have tried to reach me by now. They’d had the big meeting with the CFO of the Delta Corporation this morning. Wouldn’t Cleo at least have let me know how it went? Breathe in. Count to three. Relax. On the plus side, I was really lucky I hadn’t been fired. I’d made such a stupid mistake. A stupid, expensive mistake, the kind that required a great deal of grovelling to fix. I’d done all the grovelling I could, but the rest of my team were still having to pick up the slack. I pinched the bridge of my nose. I was lucky to still have a job, a house, a life waiting back in England for me, but enforced ‘holiday leave’ didn’t feel lucky. It felt like a punishment. Once the legalities of John’s estate were wrapped up, and I’d put his property on the market, what was I supposed to do with myself for another four whole months? ‘It’s not a punishment,’ Kevin had said. ‘It’s every bit of holiday leave you’ve never taken.’ And then he’d given me that look, the one that said, ‘and maybe if you’d taken some of that leave earlier, we’d still be together.’ As if I might actually miss him and want him back. Huh! I only realised I’d snorted out loud when I spotted the taxi driver’s raised eyebrows in the rear-view mirror. I turned to look out the car window. We were circling Montalcino now. The medieval hilltop town caught the afternoon sun like a golden jewel, then the wide, provincial road wound away south, carrying us away from the town between undulating hills covered in the verdant green of early summer. The Delta meeting had to be over by now. No longer able to control my fingers, I dialled Cleo’s number. ‘Did Delta’s CFO yank their business, or has he agreed to let you re-structure the loan?’ I asked, the moment my BFF answered. Cleo sighed. ‘You’re on leave, Sarah. You’re not supposed to be thinking about work. Doctor’s orders, remember?’ I huffed out an exasperated breath. ‘An actuarial doctorate does not give Kevin the right to tell me what to do.’ ‘No. But his being your boss gives him the right.’ Cleo’s voice softened. ‘He cares about you, Sar. We all do. You’ve been working yourself into an early grave. You really need to rest.’ ‘I am resting. But do I really need to rest for the entire summer? One week is enough. Two tops.’ Cleo sighed. ‘You’re burned out. You may not appreciate how dangerous that is, but those of us who love you do. You need to find yourself a healthy work-life balance, and you’re not going to rediscover that in a week. Go read a book, or be a tourist, or get a hobby. Better yet, get back on the dating horse.’ She barked a laugh. ‘Not that you ever were on that horse! The only reason you dated Kevin was because you didn’t have to leave work to meet him.’ ‘I don’t need a man to have a healthy work-life balance. I’ll sign up for yoga classes. Hell, I’ll even take up meditation if it means I can come back to work sooner.’ Cleo laughed again. She had a fun laugh, easy and bubbly. I wondered what my own laugh sounded like. It’d been so long since I’d laughed at anything. ‘You know what works quicker than meditation? Getting laid! Find yourself a sexy Italian stud and have your way with him. You’ll feel so much better!’ Not. Going. To. Happen. The taxi driver’s gaze met mine in the rear-view mirror, his one heavy brow rising in a lewd grin. Oh God, he hadn’t heard that, had he? Not in your dreams, dude. I frowned fiercely at the mirror, and he looked quickly away. ‘I’m burned out, not braindead.’ I dropped my voice so the driver couldn’t eavesdrop. ‘Holiday romances are more trouble than they’re worth.’ ‘Oh, I don’t know. That guy I hooked up with in Spain was definitely worth it.’ Cleo’s voice turned heavy with suggestion. ‘Yeah, so worth it you can’t even remember his name!’ She giggled. ‘It wasn’t his name that made the impression.’ I shook my head, though I knew she couldn’t see. No one knew better than I where wild and thoughtless holiday romances could lead – to relationships that didn’t last, to unexpected and unwanted pregnancies, to a mother who flitted around the world trying to recapture her lost youth, and a father I’d barely known. Nope. Growing up the product of a holiday fling, no way would I ever be stupid enough to indulge in one. One-night stands, brief flings, passionate affairs … they just weren’t my thing. But the sudden and unwanted memory of serious grey eyes made my stomach contract in a way I’d almost forgotten. I pushed the memory aside. ‘Not. Going. To. Happen.’ ‘I know how you feel about holiday romances, but you’re not some impetuous teenager,’ Cleo continued. ‘You’re a sensible woman, and you know all about birth control. You can’t keep letting what your mother did—’ ‘Geraldine,’ I corrected automatically. My ‘mother’ didn’t deserve that title. Cleo sighed. ‘Okay, so no holiday romance, then. But when you get back you could—’ ‘If you suggest online dating again, I will have to kill you. Those three days I spent on that app were just too depressing.’ ‘We could try speed dating?’ Cleo asked hopefully. She really was a sucker for punishment. ‘Absolutely not! Dating of any kind when you’re over 35 is the most demoralising experience any woman can have. All the decent single guys our age are either taken or gay. No thanks! If I can’t meet someone organically, I’d rather be alone.’ Cleo sighed. ‘You are not over 35. You are 35. And that is far too young to give up on sex.’ I glanced at the taxi driver, but this time his eyes stayed on the road. ‘So did Delta’s CFO agree to the compromise deal?’ ‘He did. He’s allocating one of his most senior finance people to work with us to re-analyse their financials and re-structure the loan. Kevin’s put me on it. Everything will be fine.’ I let out a breath I hadn’t even realised I’d been holding. ‘I can’t thank you enough. I know my mistake has put everyone else under terrible pressure.’ Guilt burned a bitter taste in my mouth. How could I not have factored in something as obvious as the client’s cash flow situation? My incorrect calculations had put one of our most valued clients at risk of bankruptcy. If one of my own underlings had made a mistake like that, I’d have fired them on the spot, none of this ‘shame, you’ve been working too hard’ molly-coddling everyone was doing with me. I really was luckier than I deserved to be. Cleo’s voice softened. ‘We don’t mind. We care about you, and we understand that mistakes happen, especially when someone’s as sleep deprived as you’ve been. Just promise me you’ll catch up on some sleep while you’re there. Enjoy the sun and breathe a little. Work will still be here when you get back.’ I sighed. ‘Okay, I promise.’ ‘So have you met your father’s lawyer yet? What’s the castle like?’ I glanced out the window again. After an hour of the same view, of vineyards giving way to patches of dark forest, and then yet more vineyards, the beauty had started to pall. But now the taxi swung off the main provincial road, onto a bumpy, dusty farm road that had once been tarred. It was so rutted the sedan had to slow to navigate the bumps. ‘Not yet, but we’re nearly there.’ ‘I’m sorry I can’t be there with you. You sure you’re going to be okay sorting through your father’s things on your own?’ ‘Of course I’ll be fine.’ It would be hypocritical to get choked up over someone I hadn’t seen in years, someone I hardly spoke to. After all, it wasn’t as if I’d lost a father. Aside from a handful of summers in my childhood, I’d never really had a father. He hadn’t been involved in my life in any meaningful way; he hadn’t attended any of my school concerts, or netball games, or even my graduation. All his love had been reserved for his vines, with nothing left to spare for people. Yet when I thought of him, I could still smell red wine, lemons and sunshine. He’d taught me how to drink wine – though he’d hardly approve of the way Cleo and I sloshed down the cheap stuff. I said goodbye to Cleo and hung up, stuck my mobile back into my bag, and turned to the view again. The road climbed now between the rolling hills, and I recognised the landmarks – a tiny stone chapel in the fold of a valley to the left, the long low wall of a neighbour’s property, then the shrine at the crossroads with its faded painting of an angel. Just around that next bend, the castello’s gates would appear. I leaned forward excitedly in my seat. There had been a time, another lifetime ago, when I’d loved this place. Back in those innocent days when the vineyard hadn’t seemed like a rival, but an adventure. And now I was the proud owner of sixty hectares of Tuscan vineyard, and my very own castle – the only thing John had ever given me, aside from unwittingly donating the sperm that gave me life. My memories of this place had faded with the years, but I remembered the castello as a magical building, complete with turrets and frescoes, and rooms filled with treasure. It was always cool, even on the hottest summer’s day, and the gardens were a paradise too, with banks of lavender and sweet roses surrounded by neatly trimmed boxwood hedges. The driver turned the car between a pair of high, ornate iron gates, overhung by a sign that read Castel Sant’Angelo. Castle of the Holy Angel. The gates looked rusted, and the sign creaked ominously, but the grand entrance remained just as impressive as the first time my mother had driven me through these gates when I was five. The long drive was even bumpier and more rutted than the farm road, and the car sent up a billowing cloud of white dust behind us. Tall cypresses lined the road, casting long, dark blue stripes across our path and blocking the view of the house. Then at last, the trees fell away to reveal the front approach to the castello, and the building rose up before us, its familiar façade warm in the slanting afternoon light. The umbrella pines that dotted the slope above the castello had been kept at bay from the front of the house, allowing the building to bask in sunshine. For a moment, the building seemed bright with colour: from the red-tiled roof, to the mellow apricot-coloured walls, to the powder-blue shutters. At the end of the drive the road split, the left fork circling behind the house to the back yard then continuing on to the winery, and the right forming a square forecourt in front of the house’s main entrance. A fancy, low-slung silver sports car stood in the forecourt. John’s lawyer was already here. This side of the house faced west towards Montalcino, and the late afternoon sun washed the walls in golden light. But when the taxi pulled up in front of the entrance and I opened the car door, I realised the sunlight was deceptive. The house looked faded and tired. Nothing a coat of paint can’t fix. A man waited on the front steps of the house, beneath the porticoed entrance. He stepped forward into the light, and my heart caught suddenly in my throat. Not in that panic attack way I’d started to feel lately, but in a good way. He was the kind of man who gave Italian men their reputation for studliness. Not any older than mid-thirties, with a face that was all golden planes and sharp angles. He wore a casual polo shirt and jeans, which fit his lean figure well enough that I could appreciate the toned muscle beneath the fabric. Oh my word. This was my father’s lawyer? He descended the low flight of stairs, approaching with a welcoming smile, and my heart picked up its pace in a silly pitter-patter I hadn’t felt in years. Kevin certainly never made my heart go pitter-patter like that. The lawyer’s eyes were dark and smiling, the colour of chocolate, warm and rich, and just as tempting. I couldn’t help myself. I sighed. ‘Signor Fioravanti?’ My voice sounded breathless. Oh please. Get a hold of yourself, Sarah. ‘Benvenuta in Toscana, signora Wells. Please, call me Luca.’ His voice matched the face, deep, golden, and deliciously accented. Then he smiled, and dimples appeared in his cheeks. Dimples! As far back as I could remember, I’d never experienced actual weak knees over a man. Until now. Maybe Kevin and Cleo were right: I must be seriously burned out. I reached out a tentative hand, and Luca wrapped both his around it. ‘I am so sorry for your loss.’ ‘Thank you. And thank you for arranging the cremation and everything.’ ‘Of course. John Langdon was well respected here in our little community. He was a good man.’ I blinked away an unexpected blur in my eyes and focused on the man still holding my hand. A man this hot had to be married. I sneaked a look at his left hand. No wedding ring. Okay, so probably gay then. I retrieved my hand and turned away to pay the driver, then while Luca carried my cases from the car, I wandered around the corner of the building to look at the long front side of the house that faced south over the valley. It was more than just peeling paint that made the house seem tired. The stucco plaster was coming loose in great chunks, revealing streaky grey travertine blocks beneath. Some of the shutters hung skew on their rusty hinges. Rapidly, I revised my hopeful estimate of the asking price down by half a million euros. The buyer would need to do a great deal of cosmetic work. The house also seemed smaller and less impressive than I remembered. There were still towers on either side, topped with the crenelated turrets of my childhood memory, but now I could see they were mere decorations, pretentious additions to make an ordinary villa look more like a castle. With a sigh, I turned away. The taxi was already halfway down the drive, taking all my childhood illusions away with it, and leaving me stranded in cold, hard reality. At least I had the really hot lawyer to soothe the transition. I rejoined Luca on the front steps. He held a large ring of ancient-looking keys, and with a flourish, he slid the largest key into the lock, turned it, and gave the big brass handle a twist. The door stuck. I had to lean on it beside him to get it to finally open, and when it swung suddenly open, squealing on its old hinges, we both fell inside. Oh, great. Trust me to be clumsy and ungraceful in front of the most gorgeous man I’d ever stood within breathing distance of. ‘The wood has swollen a little,’ Luca observed, sounding inordinately cheerful considering the grim welcome. The hall inside was dark and gloomy, the effect no doubt of all the house’s shutters being closed. Luca set down my cases on the bottommost step of the stone staircase, then followed as I wandered through the downstairs rooms. Dust sheets covered the furniture, which loomed up out of the shadows, filling almost all the floor space. As a child, I used to play hide and seek in these rooms, and searched for treasure, but viewed though adult eyes it was simply cluttered, as if several hundred years’ worth of inhabitants had collected furniture as a hobby – and never threw out a single item. ‘The house is about a thousand square metres in size,’ Luca said as he trailed me through the rooms. When I turned a bewildered expression on him, he laughed. ‘That’s over ten thousand English square feet.’ He wrinkled his nose. ‘Feet! Not a very attractive language, your English. But the real jewel, of course, is the land. More than two thirds of the property is arable. There’s a fruit orchard, olive trees, and at least half the land is covered in vines. Mostly Sangiovese, but some Malvasia and Vernaccia grapes too.’ ‘Do you know a lot about wine?’ ‘Everyone in this region knows at least a little about wine.’ He smiled, and his dark eyes lit up. ‘And you?’ ‘I know absolutely nothing about wine – except how to drink it.’ ‘That is a good place to start.’ I didn’t plan to get started. I had zero interest in learning anything about wine farming, and was just as happy drinking wine out of a box as out of a bottle with a real cork. I suspected if I admitted that out loud here in Tuscany, I might be deported immediately, inheritance or not. In the drawing room, the long room which faced down over the valley, I threw open the windows and shutters. The afternoon light streaming in did nothing to dispel the gloom, because now I could see the layer of dust and grime on everything, the threadbare carpet, the peeling burgundy wallpaper, and the dust motes stirred up and set dancing by the inflow of fresh, warm air. ‘How long ago did my father die?’ ‘A little over two weeks ago.’ This kind of neglect had taken a great deal longer than two weeks to accumulate. ‘Was he sick for a long time?’ I didn’t really want to know the answer. I felt guilty enough already. I should have known. I should have called. I should have made more of an effort to keep in touch with my own father, even though he made very little attempt to keep in touch with me. ‘No, he died very suddenly. He was in the winery when he had the heart attack. Tommaso found him there.’ He spoke the name as if it should mean something to me, but I only shrugged and turned away. I hadn’t been here in nearly two decades – I could hardly be expected to remember the names and faces of my father’s employees. The only person I remembered was Elisa, John’s housekeeper. Nonna, I used to call her. Grandmother, though she was no blood relation. But Elisa died a few years ago. That much my father had told me in one of our rare phone calls. ‘He didn’t have any help in the house?’ I asked. Luca shrugged. ‘After Elisa died, your father never replaced her. He was an old man who didn’t like too much change, and he didn’t like strangers. He only lived in a handful of rooms these last few years.’ That would explain the dirt and general shabbiness. Thank heavens the property still had all those acres of vines to attract potential buyers, or I’d be screwed. ‘I’d like to put this place on the market as soon as possible. Can you handle that for me?’ ‘Si.’ He drew the word out, as if doubtful. ‘What price do you think I can get?’ He studied the bubbling wallpaper as if fascinated. Now, I most certainly was not imagining his hesitance. ‘It is a little complicated,’ he said. ‘Your father having been a resident here for so long, naturally he chose to have his will drawn up under Italian law, so the rule of legittima applies. It will take some time to resolve.’ What needed to be resolved? I was John’s only living relative. ‘How long?’ ‘That will depend on the circumstances of the successione necessaria, the statutory shares.’ I’d had enough experience with corporate speak to recognise when someone was deliberately hedging. ‘I need a cup of tea.’ I turned away from the scene of neglect and headed down the terracotta-tiled passage to the kitchen. Luca’s soft chuckle followed me. ‘So like your father. The one part of his English heritage he clung to was his tea.’ The high-vaulted kitchen was at the back of the house, opening onto the back yard which almost seemed cut out of the hillside. The kitchen featured the same terracotta floor tiles as the rest of the ground floor rooms, and the same deep windows. Dusty Delft plates decorated one wall. At least this room looked cleaner and more lived in than the other rooms, though it still felt more like a museum than a home. In the two decades since I’d last been here, the only new appliance to find its way into this kitchen was an electric kettle. And thank God for that. Dismayed, I eyed the antique wood stove, with its blackened top and grimy porcelain façade. It had been my lifelong dream to own a home with a great big old-fashioned Aga. This vintage stove was nothing like that Aga of my dreams. Surely this couldn’t be the same stove Nonna taught me to bake in? Beside the kettle, I found a tin of loose leaf tea that still smelled fresh, and a china teapot decorated with delicate pink roses. Setting the kettle to boil, I rinsed out the teapot at the enormous sink, noting the deep crack in the side of the marble, then brewed a strong pot of tea. The comforting, familiar smell in this alien place calmed me. Though I’d been fully prepared to drink the tea black, I discovered fresh milk in the fridge. Someone had anticipated my arrival. Luca? I poured out two steaming cups, then sat across from Luca at the big wooden kitchen table. ‘Okay. I’m ready to hear it. What haven’t you told me?’ He looked distinctly uncomfortable. ‘Under English law anyone making a will has the “testamentary freedom” to choose whoever they would like to inherit their estate.’ I nodded. That was easy enough to follow. ‘However, here in Italy we have the rule of legittima, of forced heirship. This means that in Italy, the person making the will cannot freely determine who gets what. Italian law is set up to protect the inheritance of family members who might have been … overlooked.’ He smiled wryly. ‘Here in Italy we cannot threaten to disinherit a family member who has displeased us, since everyone knows the law will decide who inherits and who will not, to ensure that all heirs receive a fair share.’ I sipped my tea. Could he just get to the point, already? I didn’t see how any of this was relevant, since I was John’s only child. Luca’s expression turned serious. ‘You see, under Italian law it is obligatory for certain immediate family members to inherit a proportion of the estate, regardless of what it says in the will.’ It finally occurred to me where this conversation was headed. ‘You’re saying there’s another heir? Someone else with a claim who might want to contest the will?’ He nodded, relieved I’d got there ahead of him. ‘You are that someone.’ It took a moment for his words to sink in. And an even longer moment for me to shut my mouth again. Slowly, I drained the last of the tea from my cup and poured another, careful to keep my hand from shaking. Only when I’d added milk and stirred, did I risk looking back at Luca, my emotions once again under firm control. ‘You are telling me that my father did not leave me any part of his estate. He left it to someone else. And it is only because of this law of legittima that I have any claim at all?’ ‘Si.’ ‘Who did he leave it to?’ My voice sounded astonishingly steady, considering my entire world had suddenly shifted beneath my feet. Sure, we were never close, but whose fault was it that my father and I were as good as strangers? I was the only child he’d ever had, and this was how little he’d cared for me? ‘He left it to Tommaso.’ That name again. At my blank expression, Luca added: ‘John’s business partner.’ I didn’t even know my father had a business partner. The last time we’d spoken, at Christmas on one of our semi-annual phone calls, we hadn’t talked about anything consequential. I’d asked after the vineyard, and John told me one of his wines had won some award. He’d asked about my work, and I told him everything was fine, as I always did. I cleared my throat. ‘So what are my chances of inheriting anything?’ ‘The chances are good that you will receive at least half the value of the property. The courts are very fair that way, but Italian court cases can drag on for years, so we should try to settle. Tommaso is a reasonable man and we will talk to him. If we can persuade him to buy you out of your share straight away, then everything can be resolved amicably. Alternatively, the property could be sold, and you and Tommaso can split the profits equally between you once the debts are paid.’ Of course there were debts. There always were. And no one knew better than I how to finance them, re-structure them, and turn them to good use. ‘How much debt?’ ‘Several loans, and your father re-mortgaged a few years ago to finance new equipment for the farm. The balance still owing stands at nearly three million euros.’ My breath whistled out. According to my research, properties this size sold for anywhere between three and five million. But they had fully renovated villas. So not only would I have to share the proceeds of John’s estate, I’d be lucky if there were any proceeds. I sipped my tea. It tasted bitter. Or maybe that was just the bad taste in my mouth. For so many years I’d resented this land because it was the only thing John ever loved. That it had so little value only made it worse. I’d been worth less to him than a crumbling building with grand pretensions and a heavily mortgaged farm. ‘I guess I need to call the taxi back then. If this property doesn’t belong to me, I can hardly stay here.’ ‘Tommaso is happy for you to treat the castello as your own until this is settled.’ How magnanimous. ‘So what do we do now?’ ‘You sound like your father. Always so practical.’ What else could I be under the circumstances but practical? Luca pushed away his cup of only partially-drunk tea. ‘We will need to complete the paperwork to prove who you are, and to confirm that you will contest the will. But since it is now nearly five o’clock on a Friday afternoon, there is not much more we can do today. Tomorrow morning at ten, you and Tommaso will meet at my office, and we will discuss how to proceed.’ I walked Luca to the front door, where he handed me the massive set of keys. I took them, feeling like a fraud. This wasn’t my house. My father had chosen to leave everything to someone else, someone he valued more highly than his own daughter. Luca had to help shut the front door, him pulling and me pushing. It was not the most dignified of farewells, and with the door shut between us I couldn’t even say a proper goodbye. Instead, as his little sports car revved to life and roared off down the drive, I sank back against the big warped wooden door, energy spent. Perhaps I was more tired than I realised. I was glad I’d only have to face my father’s mysterious business partner tomorrow, because right now all I wanted was to curl up in a ball, with a duvet pulled over my head, and hide from the world. Chapter 2 (#ub473b70d-7760-58f7-a67a-a852e57f29ea) Chi cerca, trova, e talor quel che non vorrebbe (He who seeks, finds, and sometimes finds what he would rather not) I wrestled my cases upstairs. The stairs, made of stone, seemed solid enough, but the wrought iron hand railing wobbled at my touch. The house needed a lot of work. Maybe this Tommaso guy would be just as happy as I to be shot of the place? I couldn’t remember how many bedrooms the house had. Lots, it had seemed to my kid self. But considering how impressed I’d been by a few decorative crenellations, maybe not as many as I’d thought. I started with my father’s room, peeking inside, then shutting the door quickly. I wasn’t yet ready to face the tumbled emotions evoked by his personal space. Instead, I chose the guest room at the opposite end of the long corridor, the same one I’d used as a child. Both the shutters and the curtains were closed. I set my smallest bag down on the bench at the foot of the wooden four-poster bed, dropped the big wheelie bag in the middle of the floor, and hurried to open the windows. Dust motes danced in the light when I gingerly opened the drapes, but the room appeared reasonably clean, and the bed was freshly made, with new bedding; grey and masculine-looking pillows and duvet. Kicking off my shoes, I climbed under the duvet, pulled it up over my head, and let sleep take me away – away from the strangeness of Italy, this silent house and its memories, back to the only place I’d ever felt truly at home: that sixth floor corner office in Cheapside from which I’d been banned for four interminable months. When I woke, disoriented, and with my empty stomach complaining, reminding me I hadn’t eaten anything since the quickie pain au chocolat and coffee in the airport that morning, the room was in pitch darkness. Silence reverberated in my ears. No distant hum of traffic, no muted sounds of the neighbours’ telly, none of the small, comforting sounds of my housemates moving in the house. I couldn’t remember when last I’d felt so utterly alone. Probably not since the last time I was in this house. Somewhere in the house something creaked, and I shot up off the bed. The castello felt very big and very empty. How far away were the nearest neighbours? Was there anyone else on the property at night, any workers, or a night watchman? Would anyone hear if I screamed for help? I hadn’t thought to ask Luca. Barefoot, I tiptoed to the bedroom door and pressed my ear against it, but there were no other sounds. The door squeaked as I opened it, making me jump. This is stupid. You’re a grown woman. You’re a competent, successful, twenty-first-century woman who can take care of herself. And I was hungry. The kitchen hadn’t seemed so far away when I was a kid. I made my way down through the darkened house, not switching on any lights. Even if I could remember where the switches were, I didn’t want to turn myself into a target on the off-chance there was an intruder. The vast kitchen with its high-beamed ceiling was eerily full of looming shadows, and the yellow lamplight spilling from the single overhead lamp did nothing to dispel the gloom. I filled the electric kettle, then rinsed out the teapot to brew a fresh pot. But tea wasn’t going to be enough to silence my grumbling stomach. Had the considerate person who’d left milk and made up my bed also left food? There was nothing in the kitchen itself, but John always loved biscuits with his tea. That would be better than nothing. So I headed into the pantry, and was still groping for the light switch when I heard a sound that turned my veins to ice. I froze. The outer kitchen door creaked open. The wind blowing open an unlatched door? Ghosts? But it was worse than ghosts. The high-pitched creak turned into an ominously final bang as the door shut again, and then there were heavy, booted footsteps across the kitchen floor. My heart leapt into my throat. It was beating so hard, I was sure I was at serious risk of a coronary. Forget the stress of a corporate job. This was a million times worse. With my heart thudding loudly enough against my ribs that the intruder could probably hear it on the other side of the pantry door, I clung to the door handle, steadying myself, relieved to be hidden here in the pitch dark. With my free hand, I groped behind me, and my fingers hit cold iron, rounding on a solid, heavy handle. The door handle twisted unexpectedly beneath my fingers and I squealed, louder even than the handle had, giving myself away. The pantry door swung open, and all my blood drained to my toes. ‘Sarah?’ He was a big man, tall, broad-shouldered, and built like a bouncer. He reached past me, and I flinched back, swinging with all my might just as the tiny pantry flooded with cold white light. In the moment before my weapon connected with solid flesh, I glimpsed the intruder. He was dark-haired, bearded, and terrifying. He grunted and staggered back, clutching his head. ‘What the hell?!’ His accent was thick, not immediately traceable, but he spoke in English without even thinking, I noted, as I gripped the heavy metal object close to my chest. And he knew my name. Oh heavens. Probably not a burglar after all. The man glowered at me, still holding his head. ‘Why are you hiding in here?’ ‘I wasn’t hiding. I was looking for biscuits.’ ‘In the dark?’ He removed his hand from his forehead and there was a streak of blood on his fingers, and even more on his brow where a long gash oozed. ‘You’re bleeding!’ He scowled. ‘Of course I am. You’re lucky I’m not bloody unconscious, or worse.’ I glanced at the weapon in my hand. I held an old-fashioned iron for pressing clothes, one of those solid antique cast-iron types that opened up to place hot coals inside. A formidable weapon indeed. ‘I am so sorry! I thought you were a burglar.’ He moved to lean against the scarred Formica kitchen counter, as if unable to stand without help, and I hurried to his side to offer support, even though I still felt as shaky as a budding spring leaf. He brushed me away, irritable. ‘How can I be a burglar when I live here?’ ‘You live here?’ Oops. Luca hadn’t mentioned anyone living here. I took a wild guess. ‘You’re Tommaso?’ ‘Of course. Who else would I be?’ he snapped. I could hardly blame him for his surliness. The blood was trickling now down his temple, and his face was paler than it had been when he’d loomed over me in the pantry door. I felt a tad pale too. The bedding upstairs was masculine. Had I pulled a Goldilocks and slept in Baby Bear’s bed? Not that this man could be remotely confused with a baby bear. More like a great big, angry Papa Grizzly. Until he swayed on his feet. ‘You need to sit.’ I set down the old iron and pulled out a chair from the kitchen table. Casting me another annoyed glance, he slid into it. Satisfied that at least he wasn’t likely to collapse on the floor, I hurried to the cracked sink and wet a tea towel, which I used to dab at his forehead until the blood stopped trickling and the wound looked relatively clean. Thankfully it was a shallow cut and shouldn’t need stitches. I just hoped the iron wasn’t rusty enough to cause an infection. ‘You’ll need antiseptic and a band aid, to keep the cut clean. Where will I find them?’ ‘Under the kitchen sink.’ I found a first aid box under the sink and set it on the kitchen table, rooting through its jumbled contents for band aids and antiseptic. He flinched when I dabbed iodine on the cut but didn’t make a sound. Done at last, I moved back to the kettle and set it going again. I needed tea more than ever. In fact, I could do with a shot of brandy, but I wasn’t brave – or stupid – enough to ask my host where to find his liquor cabinet. ‘Tea?’ I offered, bringing the filled teapot and two mismatched cups to the table. ‘Yes, please.’ While I poured, I sneaked a surreptitious look. He wasn’t as old as the beard had at first made him appear, nor quite as rough and threatening as he’d first seemed. His thick hair was long, almost to his shoulders, though not as shaggy as I’d first thought. But even if he wasn’t a terrifying burglar, he still wasn’t Baby Bear. He was the rightful owner of this castello, I was his guest, and probably a very unwelcome one at that – now more than ever. ‘Shall we start over?’ I infused as much good cheer into my voice as my still jittery nerves could manage. ‘I’m Sarah Wells, John’s daughter, and I’m very grateful you’re letting me stay in the house.’ He said nothing, just eyed me with a cool, grey gaze that was more than a little hostile. Okay, so I wasn’t going to get the red carpet rolled out for me any time soon. I cleared my throat and tried again. ‘Luca didn’t tell me you were living in the house.’ He gave me an odd look. ‘I don’t. I live in the cottage.’ The cottage was across the back yard. It had been converted from the old stable block back in the Fifties and was where the housekeeper Elisa had lived. ‘Okay. So what are you doing here in the kitchen?’ ‘I saw the light on and came over to say hello. I thought you might want dinner.’ He waved, and I turned to look behind me at the tray he must have set down on top of the old wood stove before coming to find me in the pantry. Only now did I become aware of the aromatic smell filling the kitchen. My stomach pulled tight, and not just from hunger. He’d been nothing more than neighbourly, and I’d bashed him over the head with the nearest weapon I could find. Not a great way to open negotiations. I forced a polite smile I didn’t feel. ‘Thank you. That’s very kind.’ His eyes narrowed. An uncomfortable silence filled the room but I refused to show any weakness to this intimidating man, so I ignored it and returned his hard gaze. There was something oddly familiar about his light eyes, blue-grey, with an emphasis on the grey. Then realisation struck. ‘Tommy?!’ The discovery that this tall, broad-shouldered, bearded man was my old childhood friend rocked me even more than the fear that a complete stranger was breaking into the castello. ‘You were my father’s business partner?’ His eyes narrowed further. I didn’t even think that was possible. ‘No one’s called me that since my mother died. You didn’t know?’ The mental adjustment took me a long moment. I couldn’t help myself – I stared openly at him now. If I looked hard enough, past the long hair and scraggly beard, I could just about see a glimmer of Elisa’s grandson, the boy I used to play with when he’d come to visit during those never-ending summers so long ago. I only ever knew him as Tommy, the English-speaking kid from Edinburgh, not as Tommaso, but of course he was half-Italian from his father’s side. His accent, always a convoluted mash-up of Scottish and Italian, certainly leaned more heavily now toward his Italian side. How long had he been living here? ‘I’m sorry about your mother. And Nonna.’ He shrugged, a simple gesture that managed to convey a great deal, a uniquely Italian ability. I’ve never met an English person able to say so much with nothing but body language. ‘My grandmother was old, and it wasn’t unexpected, but my mother … it was nearly nine years ago now. She had cancer, and in the end her death was a mercy.’ I’d never met his parents, but still felt a pang for his loss. Like me, Tommy was sent to Italy alone as a child. In my case, Geraldine had been eager to get rid of me, but for Tommy it had been out of necessity. His parents had both worked, and they hadn’t had time to entertain an energetic youth all summer. And his grandmother had been delighted to have him. He’d been wanted. His visits to his Nonna Elisa had been the highlight of my summers. Even at the age when most boys would have been horrified to have a younger girl tagging along wherever they went, we’d been friends. We’d explored this big house together, run wild on the farm, gone fishing and truffle hunting and blackberry picking together. And then there’d been that last summer… Involuntarily, my gaze dropped to his mouth. Tommy always had the most sensuous mouth for a boy, with full lips that tasted of … I blushed, and averted my gaze, but not before he noticed. His eyes narrowed again as he studied me. ‘Your hair has grown since I last saw you.’ ‘Well, it has been twenty years.’ I touched the end of my long braid. I’d been growing it out for years, mostly because I hadn’t had time for anything but hurried trims. ‘Nearly twenty. I like your hair long.’ ‘Well, I liked your hair shorter.’ The amused gleam in his eyes was very much the young man I remembered from that last summer. Always full of mischief, needling me, pushing my boundaries. ‘The last I heard, you were still living in Edinburgh,’ I said to fill the sudden, awkward silence. ‘That was a long time ago. I moved here soon after my mother died. Nonna was getting old, and I didn’t want her to be alone.’ Nearly nine years. ‘My father never told me.’ I bit my lip, a habit I thought I’d grown out of. There were so many things John and I never discussed, and now we never would. ‘We have a meeting tomorrow with Luca at ten.’ Tommaso lifted the teapot, offering to re-fill my cup, but I shook my head. ‘We’ll drive together. We should leave at about nine-thirty.’ I nodded, though the thought of spending even half an hour in a car with this man I once knew so well, who was now a stranger, only made me more anxious. I rose to clear away the teapot and cups. ‘In that case, I’m going to bed. It’s been a long day.’ A shattering day. Half an hour ago, I’d dreaded being alone, now I craved it. Tommaso rose. ‘You can leave the iron when you go to bed. This is a very safe district. You can sleep peacefully.’ The wicked glint was back in his eyes. ‘Thank you for the food,’ I said, as he stepped out into the back yard. He merely nodded. I didn’t wait to watch him cross the yard to the cottage. I shut the door, flicked the latch, and heaved a sigh. Then, grabbing the tray, I bolted back upstairs, not pausing to see what was under the cloth covering, not even pausing to catch my breath, until I was safely in my room with the door shut and my wheelie case pushed up under the door handle, creating a barrier between me and the rest of the empty, echoing house. Chapter 3 (#ub473b70d-7760-58f7-a67a-a852e57f29ea) Non tutto il male vien per nuocere (Not everything bad that happens is wasted) I slept in later than I had in … well, at least since my uni days. I’d been wary the night before of closing the curtains, in case they released another tornado of dust, but even with bright light creeping into the room, I only woke when it reached the bed. I must have been more exhausted than I realised. Not that I’d admit it. I didn’t want to give Cleo the chance to say, ‘I told you so’. Broad daylight only marginally brightened the house’s gloom as I tramped downstairs to the kitchen. In daylight, the pantry appeared bigger – and barer. There were indeed biscuits, a packet of factory-made shortbread biscuits, but no bread or cereal or anything else remotely breakfasty. And only instant coffee. I groaned. I didn’t fancy facing Tommaso again on an empty stomach. Though to give the devil his due, that beef stew he’d brought over last night had been really good. As good as Nonna’s stews used to be. Once I’d fortified myself with coffee and biscuits, the next thing on my agenda was to phone home. Sure, it was Saturday morning so Cleo wouldn’t have anything new to tell me about work, but I needed to hear her ever-optimistic voice telling me things weren’t as bad as they seemed. But the mobile signal was so weak I couldn’t dial out. I wandered from room to room, waving my phone in the air. Nothing. Not even on the terrace or in the deserted back yard, or along the drive, though I walked all the way to the gate. Shit. As I reached the wrought iron gates a small canary-yellow Fiat, brimming over with young men, sped past. The whistles trailing behind the little car made me suddenly and excruciatingly aware that I was still dressed in nothing more than sleep shorts and a camisole top. So I trudged back up the drive, hesitating for a long moment at the door of Tommaso’s cottage, which nestled into the slope behind the castello. Thankfully, the place appeared empty, and when I knocked, almost afraid he would answer, there was no response. John must have had access to the outside world. I’d phoned him a few times here at the villa, so there had to be a landline at least. The castello may not yet have joined the twenty-first century, but it was certainly part of the twentieth. There’d been a library, hadn’t there? One of those rooms that was shrouded in dust cloths even in my distant youth. Opening doors on rooms that clearly hadn’t seen daylight in years – a billiard room that was only used for storage these days, and a morning room with faded tapestries on its walls – I ripped off dust cloths to reveal rickety chairs, rotting upholstery, paintings caked in grime. I finally reached a room lined with books and smelling as if it has died and gone to a watery grave. The library. It had damp patches in the ceiling and the patterned parquet floor was warped from water damage. Someone should have dumped the entire contents of this room in a skip a long time ago. There, at last, was a phone jack in the wall, and a cable clinging to flaking plaster, up through the driest part of the ceiling, up to … where? With a groan, I headed back upstairs, counting out my paces, not entirely surprised when I realised the rooms above the library were my father’s. I pushed open the door and peered into the murky darkness. Throwing open the shutters, I raised a sash window to let in a little light and fresh air. The bed loomed large, a massive four-poster covered with the same crocheted blanket John used even when I was young. It came with the house, he’d told me once. How was it that the guest room had new bedding, but this one, the one that was lived in, remained frozen in time? The phone I’d been searching for sat on the bedside table, a black thing with a rotary dial that belonged in a museum. Did those things even work in this day and age? I lifted the receiver and heard the familiar sound of a dial tone. Hallelujah! Cleo answered on the second ring, sounding sleepy. ‘You must have had a really good date last night,’ I said brightly. She moaned. ‘I wish!’ Down the phone, I heard her stretch. ‘I think I’m officially ready to give up dating.’ Wow, that was a first. In the dictionary, under ‘eternal optimist’ you’d find Cleo’s name. She was a glass half-full person, especially when it came to men. Or maybe that was even when it came to men. ‘It couldn’t have been that bad…’ ‘Worst. Date. Ever.’ Cleo’s dating history could fill an encyclopaedia. She’d been on more first dates than anyone I’ve ever met. I quit dating after Kevin (though as Cleo so kindly pointed out, I wasn’t exactly dating much before Kevin), but even though some of the guys she dated made Kevin look like a real keeper, she refused to give up hope that her One was out there. She moaned again. ‘He was bald. And not in that sexy Vin Diesel way. More like a 40-year-old accountant who’s losing all his hair kind of way. His ear hairs were longer than the hairs on his head. The picture on his dating profile must have been at least ten years out of date. But that wasn’t even the worst of it. I could overlook the fact that he lied about his looks. But he spent the entire meal talking about his ex.’ I winced. Dating really did get harder with every passing year. ‘I told you online dating was soul destroying. Perhaps you should come to Italy. The men here are definitely better looking.’ And charming, with one grumpy, bearded exception. ‘I wish. But I haven’t accrued several years’ worth of leave like you have. Hang on a moment – are you referring to someone in particular? Have you met someone?’ ‘My lawyer looks like he stepped out of GQ.’ I perched on the edge of the bed. ‘All slick, sexy and metrosexual. It’s just as well there’s eye candy, since the news isn’t good.’ ‘What happened?’ Cleo was wide awake now. She listened as I filled her in, groaning in all the right places, laughing when I told her about hitting Tommaso over the head. ‘Don’t laugh, it wasn’t funny. I might have killed him!’ ‘On the plus side, if you’d killed him, you would inherit everything, wouldn’t you?’ ‘Yeah, but I might also have been calling you from jail this morning.’ ‘That’s okay. You have your sexy lawyer to get you free. And then you and he could live happily ever after in your castle and make GQ-worthy babies.’ I glanced around my father’s shabby bedroom. There was the door to the en-suite. How many times had the bathroom flooded to cause all that damage downstairs in the library? ‘It’s not much of a castle, and this inheritance may be more trouble than it’s worth.’ ‘Nonsense. Half a vineyard is better than nothing.’ And there was that injection of optimism I’d been looking for. Cleo yawned. ‘Besides, I’ve never known you to back down from a challenge. You’re the most level-headed analyst I’ve ever met. If there’s an advantage to be found in this situation, you’ll find it.’ Yes, but that was before I’d over-estimated the repayment capabilities of one of the firm’s most valuable clients and risked their biggest investment to date. I rubbed my face, glad Cleo couldn’t see me now. When it came to work, I never showed weakness, not even to my BFF. ‘You are not going to get back on a plane without a big fat cheque in your back pocket. You hear me?’ she said, on another yawn. ‘I hear you.’ I sighed. ‘Besides, it’s not like I have anything better to do with my time. Of course, I can do this. Piece of cake.’ Though if the metaphor was going to fit my life right now, it would have to be a very heavy fruitcake. The kind where you couldn’t quite identify all the bits baked into it. ‘I am not selling.’ Tommaso leaned across the little boardroom table in Luca’s office, his arms crossed over his chest, his face set in a scowl. ‘Your father left this vineyard to me because he wanted me to run it, not so it could be sold to strangers.’ I bristled. He was being unnecessarily stubborn, since Luca had already explained that it was inevitable the courts would split the inheritance 50/50 between us – eventually. ‘There are other farms you could buy once we sell and split the proceeds. Why does it have to be this one?’ Tommaso’s eyes turned flinty. ‘How can you even ask me that?’ I shrugged. What did he expect of me? I had no ties to this land. Even my father had no ties here. He was just another foreigner who’d decided to buy a farm in Tuscany, like a less glamorous Sting. ‘Then buy me out if you want to keep it so badly.’ Tommaso’s scowl deepened. What had happened to that light-hearted boy I remembered, to turn him into this sullen, surly man who’d barely said a word to me the entire drive here? His pig-headedness hadn’t abated any but what had been mildly irritating in a playmate was downright annoying in a man I needed to reach a compromise with. ‘I can’t afford to buy you out right now. All my capital is tied up in the business.’ ‘Then you don’t have a choice. If this goes to court, you’re still going to have to sell to pay me out my share.’ Not that I wanted to drag this out in court any more than he did, but Tommaso didn’t need to know that. We glared at each other across the boardroom table. ‘You need to be reasonable,’ Luca pleaded, spreading his hands wide to encompass us both. He turned to Tommaso. ‘She’s right. If you can’t afford to buy her out, the courts will inevitably force a sale.’ ‘It’ll take months, if not years, for the court to hear this case, and that’s all the time I need. Once the next bottling goes to market, I’ll be in a better position to buy Ms Wells out.’ I leaned forward, arms on the table. ‘Great. When’s the next bottling?’ ‘After the harvest.’ I might not know much about wine farming, but I knew enough. ‘But that’s months away!’ ‘You can sell whatever is of value in the castello. Consider it a down payment against your share of the property.’ Tommaso shrugged, as if to say, ‘take it or leave it’. I glared at him, and he glared right back, unflinching, his cold gaze challenging. ‘That’s my final offer. If you don’t like it, we let the courts decide.’ He’d clearly forgotten that I never backed down from a challenge. I wasn’t going to start now. ‘You could raise a loan to buy me out.’ Tommaso’s eyes narrowed. ‘Before you make any more suggestions, perhaps you should actually learn something about this business you so badly want to dispose of. The property is mortgaged to the hilt. It’s coming around, but these things don’t happen overnight. The next bottling was supposed to make a substantial dent in our debts, but with John’s death…’ He shrugged. ‘Once our next bottling goes on sale, we’ll be in a much better financial position, but you can’t hurry wine.’ My hackles rose, but I refused to rise to the bait. I was known for being cool and level-headed. Not that I felt particularly cool right now. Really – whose fault was it that I knew nothing of the wine business? And it certainly wasn’t my fault that John chose to make his housekeeper’s grandson his partner and heir instead of me. If John had ever asked me to join him in the business … would I have accepted? I nibbled my lower lip. Who knew what my younger self would have done? There’d been a time I’d have done anything for John’s love and approval. But he was gone. Whatever I’d hoped to get from him, those dreams were ashes now. ‘You could split the property?’ Luca suggested. ‘Tommaso could keep the winery, and Sarah could sell the castello.’ Tommaso smiled, leaning back in his chair, arms still crossed over his chest. It wasn’t a pleasant smile. ‘That works for me.’ Of course it would work for him. He probably couldn’t wait to unload that millstone from around his neck. And what was I going to do with a building in desperate need of repair? It didn’t take a genius to work out that the value of the property was in the land and the crop, not a ramshackle farmhouse with noble pretensions. Who would pay decent money for a rundown castello with no land? And what little I’d make would no doubt be swallowed up by my inherited share of the debt. I shook my head slowly, and Tommaso threw his hands in the air in an angry, despairing gesture that was entirely Italian. ‘Then we are at an impasse. I will not sell the vineyard that meant everything to your father, even if you would, and I cannot buy you out until after the harvest. Go back home, and we can talk again when the harvest is in. Or we go to court.’ Go back home. I thought of my pride and joy, that terrace house in a crescent lined with cherry trees in Wanstead, thought of sitting there alone all day while my housemates went off to work. I thought of the four months that stretched out before me like a life sentence. The thought occurred so blindingly quickly, and with such force, it almost took my breath away. I rested my elbows on the table. ‘When is the harvest?’ Tommaso’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. ‘Usually September, weather dependent. Why?’ Four months away, and about the time I would be able to return to work. Take up a hobby, Cleo had suggested. Renovating a broken-down house in Tuscany was a hobby, right? And she’d said I shouldn’t come home until I had a big fat cheque in my pocket. But that didn’t have to be today. ‘I’ll stay.’ ‘You’ll what?’ Tommaso leaned forward, his expression incredulous. Luca, on the other hand, looked pleased. I was glad someone was. ‘You told Luca I could treat the castello as my own until this is settled. So I’ll stay until the harvest, and I’ll fix up the castello. If I can sell the house at a decent price before your next bottling, we’ll call it even. And if I don’t—’ I gave a shrug that was nowhere near as expressive as Tommaso’s. ‘Then you buy me out after the bottling.’ Either way, he’d get to keep his precious vines, and we wouldn’t have to drag this out in court. And the cherry on top: I’d have something to keep me occupied during my enforced exile from the office. But Tommaso didn’t look happy. ‘Don’t you have a job to get back to?’ Breathe in. Count to three. Relax. ‘I have a lot of holiday leave due.’ He huffed out a sigh. ‘Go or stay, it makes no difference to me. The castello is unoccupied, and as long as I get to work the vineyard, you can do what you like.’ Luca beamed. ‘That’s settled then. I will draw up papers in which you agree to be equal partners until such time as either the castello sells, or Tommaso can buy you out.’ Tommaso still didn’t look much happier, but he nodded. Luca walked us to the door, shook hands with Tommaso, and leaned in to kiss me on both cheeks, his hands resting lightly on my upper arms. ‘Ogni cosa ha la sua ragione. Everything has a reason. I am glad you are not going so soon.’ His hands caressed my arms, a touch that could have been casual and meant nothing, or not casual at all. My skin tingled all the way down to my toes at the unaccustomed touch. Tommaso, halfway down the narrow corridor, paused to look back at us, his face set in that perpetual scowl again. ‘I have errands to run. I’ll meet you at the car in a couple of hours.’ Without waiting for my response, he turned and walked away. ‘I have errands too!’ I called after him. He waved a hand in the air, without even looking back. I frowned after him, until a light touch on my arm brought me back to the much more pleasant present. ‘Your father’s death was a big shock to Tommaso. He’ll come around.’ My frown turned to a smile. ‘That’s sweet of you, but you don’t need to make excuses for him.’ Luca’s dimple flashed. ‘That is more like it. You have a beautiful smile.’ He brushed my cheek with his fingers, tucking a stray wisp of hair back behind my ear, and I shivered. There was no mistaking that touch for casual – not when it was accompanied by such a burning look in his eyes. Definitely not gay then. Just too good to be true. No man had looked at me like that in years, and that included Kevin. My ex had many good qualities, but passion was not among them. Luca’s expression made me feel oddly floaty and dizzy. Cleo would have a field day if she could see me now. ‘Since you have time now, perhaps I could show you around our little town?’ Luca offered me his arm, and I looped mine through it, smiling up at him. ‘If your tour includes something to eat, I’m in!’ Chapter 4 (#ub473b70d-7760-58f7-a67a-a852e57f29ea) Mangia bene, ridi spesso, ama molto (Eat well, laugh often, love much) Luca’s office was in the wide road that circled around the old part of town, but behind it lay a maze of twisting, narrow streets that rose to the town centre on the crown of the hill. As we climbed uphill, Luca’s hand lingered against my lower back to guide me, infusing my body with unaccustomed warmth. Hello, Dorothy. We’re not in Kansas anymore. My gaze was everywhere, absorbing the myriad details that reminded me that I was indeed in a foreign land – the ornate door knockers, the flower boxes at the windows, the Madonnina shrines high up on the walls of the old houses. ‘I doubt Montalcino has changed much since you were last here,’ Luca observed. Since the town hadn’t changed much in five hundred years, that was pretty much guaranteed, but still I shook my head. ‘I don’t remember much of the town. I was only a girl last time I was here, and John didn’t leave the farm very often. I remember Elisa bringing me to the market, though.’ Luca showed me the Palazzo Pieri, the civic museum, the Chiesa di Sant’Agostino with its high rose window, and then we circled around to the Piazza Garibaldi, which was not much wider than a street, and nothing at all like the big piazzas of Rome I remembered from a long ago trip, back in the days when I’d still taken holidays. At one end of the piazza lay the austere, smaller church of Sant’Egidio, and on the other the tall, slender clock tower of the palazzo. The subtle touch of Luca’s hand on my back, neither intrusive nor casual, sent waves of warmth through me as we wandered the narrow, cobbled streets. It had been a very long time since a man had touched me like this, with such care and attention. So long, I couldn’t even remember. Kevin hadn’t been touchy-feely, and even in those rare moments when we’d been intimate, his touch had never thrilled me as Luca’s now did. The piazza was busy with tourists and shoppers, with laughing, talking people, and with music. ‘But watch,’ Luca whispered. ‘Here more than anywhere in the town you can see that there are two Montalcinos. There’s the tourist hotspot that outsiders see, and then there’s our little village, where everyone knows everyone else.’ He was right. While the tourists and locals walked side by side in the same streets, it was as if they existed in two separate worlds, brushing against each other, but not merging. Neither local nor tourist, where did I belong? He led me to a restaurant on the square, where he was welcomed effusively by the staff who clearly knew him well, and we were seated at a prime table on the pavement, sheltered by a white awning and a hedge of potted shrubs. Luca ordered a bottle of local wine, the Brunello di Montalcino, for me to try, and we both ordered the house specials. ‘You are sure you don’t want to keep the vineyard?’ Luca asked, as the restaurant’s owner himself poured our wine. ‘Even when you go back to London you could be a partner in the winery, if you wanted.’ I shook my head. ‘Absolutely sure. What would I do with half a vineyard?’ ‘You do not want to be a part of your father’s vineyard?’ There was that old pain, making me feel like a wounded child again. ‘There was a time I’d have done anything for John’s approval, but it’s too late for that now.’ Luca’s eyes filled with sympathy, as if he understood the feeling. ‘Then as purely a business proposition? If Tommaso is right, the vineyard will be profitable soon. Half those profits could be yours.’ I shook my head even more emphatically and reached for my wine glass. It was a deep-flavoured red, heavier and less sweet than what I usually drank. ‘If you are quite sure, I can arrange a real estate agent to give you a valuation on the castello,’ Luca offered. ‘I have a friend who is with one of the best agencies in the province.’ ‘Thank you. I’d appreciate that.’ Then, because it was too beautiful a day to waste thinking about the castello, I changed the subject. ‘Tell me about this wine.’ Luca’s face lit up with boyish enthusiasm, as if I’d asked him to show off his favourite toy. Oh, please don’t let him be one of those bores who can’t shut up once they start talking about their favourite sport. ‘The Brunello is made from the local clone of the Sangiovese grapes, the same that grow in your own vineyard.’ My chest did an excited flutter at the words ‘your vineyard’, and I quickly squashed it. I wanted no part of this vineyard, remember? ‘The Brunello grape has a higher alcohol level than the average Sangiovese, so our wines have ripe, full-bodied, concentrated flavours, and a rich lingering after-taste.’ He swirled his glass delicately and breathed in the aroma deeply before taking a sip. ‘The Brunello di Montalcino is a mature wine, well-aged, which makes it expensive, both to make and to buy, but it is worth every cent.’ I took another sip, more slowly this time, breathing it in as he had done, then savouring the wine on my tongue before swallowing. He grinned. ‘Can you taste the Montalcino air in the wine? The hazelnuts, the dried fig, the anise? Younger vintages are much fruitier, but this wine is not so bold.’ Long ago, my father taught me to taste wine, explaining the flavours and encouraging me to name them. But those memories were as fleeting as the time we’d spent together. I took another sip, rolling the wine around on my tongue before swallowing, surprised when I identified the flavours Luca described. ‘Wow!’ He laughed, throwing his head back, an open and infectious laugh. ‘We will send you home a wine connoisseur. Do you have a man waiting for you back in England?’ Wow, he certainly wasn’t shy! ‘Only if you count my boss.’ ‘And your job – what is it you do?’ ‘I’m a financial analyst with an investment banking firm in the City of London.’ ‘They don’t need you back?’ I looked down at the tablecloth, tracing the silver threaded pattern in the white cloth with my finger. ‘They tell me I’ve been working so hard that I need to take a really long holiday.’ I rolled my eyes. ‘Apparently I need to find a healthy work-life balance.’ Luca took my hand in his. ‘È perfetto. Italy is the place for that. We work hard, but we also play hard.’ His thumb stroked my palm suggestively, and I pulled my hand free, fighting a blush. Geez. I was too old for a schoolgirl crush, and too young for hot flashes, so what was going on with me? I covered my awkwardness with a flirtatious smile. ‘I’d much rather talk about you. Tell me about Luciano Fioravanti.’ Like any man, once given the opportunity to talk about himself, he did. But I needn’t have worried he’d turn into a bore. Luca had the legendary Italian charm, and our conversation flowed almost as easily as the wine. Too easily. I felt none of the usual constraint I felt when out on a date. But this wasn’t a date. Just a lawyer taking out his client for a business lunch, right? We nibbled at the platter of bruschetta and fiori di zucca, fried zucchini flowers, which the owner himself brought to our table, and I soon felt lighter than I had in months. I had the undivided attention of a gorgeous man, the heady taste of a rich wine, the divine flavours of Italy, and sultry June air on my skin. See, I can relax. I know how to have fun. After the antipasti, came an asparagus risotto. I’d clearly had too much wine already, because the flavours hit my tongue like an explosion, and I closed my eyes, sighing, making Luca laugh again. I liked his laugh, so open and uninhibited. ‘Everything tastes better in Italy,’ he said, a teasing spark in his eyes. Oh no. There was that hot flash thing again. Thirty-five was too young for menopause, wasn’t it? I basked in the golden glow of the envious glances sent my way by the other women in the restaurant, including our Polish waitress. Or maybe it was the golden glow of the wine. I didn’t care which it was. I was more relaxed than I’d been in forever. Cleo would be so proud of me. After lunch, Luca walked me to the co-op and pushed my trolley as I shopped for groceries. He even waited patiently as I scoured the shelves for baking ingredients. Since I had all this time on my hands, it wouldn’t hurt to use some of it making something sweet and decadent … something to sate my suddenly rampant hormones. When we finally strolled back to Luca’s office, Tommaso was already leaning up against his car, a compact vintage Alfa Romeo Giulietta Sprint that didn’t suit the big bear-like man at all. At our approach, his perpetual scowl deepened. Like Papa Bear finding his porridge bowl empty. ‘I take it your errands didn’t go well?’ I asked brightly. ‘Or is that scowl permanent?’ He huffed out his breath as he pushed away from the car. ‘I was waiting. I feel like some part of me will always be waiting for you. Like if I’m old and blue-haired, and I turn a corner in Istanbul, and there you are, I won’t be surprised.’ Luca’s confusion was comical, but that wasn’t the reason I laughed. The laughter bubbled up, a sudden and unfamiliar sensation, and Luca’s confusion turned to concern. ‘You’re quoting Buffy at me?’ I managed. Though Tommaso’s expression didn’t change at all, I caught the flash of amusement in his eyes, gone so quickly I’d have missed it if I blinked. ‘Strictly speaking, I’m quoting Willow. I’m glad to see you haven’t forgotten.’ Luca looked even more lost, and I smiled reassuringly. ‘It’s from a TV show we used to watch, about vampires.’ Luca pulled a face, as if he couldn’t imagine anything worse than vampires. Tommaso took the shopping bags and placed them in the tiny boot of his car. ‘Thank you for showing me around,’ I said politely to Luca, burningly aware of Tommaso listening to every word. ‘It was my pleasure.’ Luca raised my hand to his lips and pressed a kiss to my knuckles in an old-fashioned gesture that made my legs go weak again. I really should channel Buffy and behave more like a kickass vampire slayer than a silly schoolgirl. Tommaso held the car door open for me, and I had to resist behaving even more childishly and sticking my tongue out at him. Really, could he be any more obvious trying to hurry me away from Luca? What was the man so afraid of? But Luca took no notice of Tommaso’s rudeness. With a cheerful wave, he headed into his office building, and Tommaso climbed into the car beside me. The interior suddenly felt three times smaller with him in it. As he eased out into the street and down the hill, taking the winding corners a little too fast for my comfort, I faced him. If there’d been any space in the small car, I would have set my arms on my hips. ‘You don’t have to act like a dog with a bone. It was just lunch, not a conspiracy to steal away your precious vineyard.’ ‘It’s not the vineyard I’m worried about.’ Tommaso’s voice was almost a growl. ‘Don’t put too much faith in Luciano Fioravanti.’ ‘John must have trusted him since he chose Luca as his executor. Or are you suggesting my father wasn’t a particularly good judge of character?’ Tommaso pressed his lips together. ‘Luca might have to abide by a code of ethics as a lawyer, but he’s still a lawyer, and he’s still a Fioravanti.’ What did that mean? I crossed my arms over my chest and turned away to look out the window. Tommaso was just jealous because Luca was everything he wasn’t: personable, charming, easy-going. The roar of the 1960s engine was hardly conducive to conversation, or at least that was my excuse for maintaining radio silence the rest of the way back to the castello. That and Tommaso’s grim expression. He parked in the back yard, carried my bags of groceries into the kitchen, then took off along the dusty drive that circled behind the house. ‘And goodbye to you too,’ I shouted after the little blue car as it shot off towards the wine cellar in a cloud of dust. With a sigh, I returned to the kitchen and looked around. If I was going to be staying here a while longer, I needed a usable kitchen – a clean kitchen, with uncluttered surfaces and clean utensils – so I set to work, starting with the walls, the windows, the floor. It was well into the afternoon before I moved onto the pots and pans hanging from racks on the walls. I left the ancient wood stove for last. On hands and knees, I scrubbed away years of accumulated grime, unable to suppress a pang for the beautiful, modern cooker in the house I shared with Cleo and Moira, another of our uni friends. It took a couple of hours of elbow grease to get the stove clean, but beneath the layers of dirt, it was a thing of beauty, its green and ivory porcelain undamaged. It would make some antique dealer very happy. The hard labour, while not as therapeutic as yoga or meditation, or whatever other faddy hobby Cleo had in mind for me, at least kept my thoughts occupied, and by the time the shadows through the tall windows started lengthening, the kitchen looked almost cheerful. In the overgrown patch behind the house that had once been Elisa’s herb garden, I rescued some terracotta pots, re-planted into them a few of the smaller rosemary, basil and arugula plants which hadn’t yet grown woody, and set them on the kitchen window so their aroma could fill the room. I found a bright blue and yellow cloth that might once have been a rug, and once I’d beaten the dust from it, and washed it, it made the perfect tablecloth to brighten up the room. The kitchen might not pass a food hygiene inspection, but it was liveable. And I’d hardly thought about work all day. Well, okay, two or three times, but considering my Saturdays were usually spent at the office, that was an achievement worth celebrating. Not that there was anyone to celebrate with. I sat alone at the kitchen table to eat a simple dinner of grilled cheese sandwiches and tea, and wondered where Cleo and Moira were right now. Down at the pub? Out at the movies? On dates? The castello was deathly quiet once again, and I hadn’t heard the car return. Tommaso couldn’t still be working at the cellar, could he? I was tempted to knock on the cottage door to see if he was in, just to have company, but then I remembered his forbidding expression. An empty and echoing castello was infinitely preferable to re-opening hostilities. It was only as I lazed in the big, ugly avocado-coloured plastic bath tub, up to my chin in water which had gurgled so slowly out of the pipes I’d managed to make another cup of tea while waiting for the tub to fill, that I allowed myself to remember the Tommy I’d known and played with so long ago. Like me, he’d been a serious child, shy, and too much on his own, yet he’d smiled a lot too. He’d had a dry sense of humour, and we’d laughed a lot together. Not only had he been a Buffy fan, but he’d collected trivia, which probably made him a nerd back in school, just like me. He’d been Xander to my Willow. These days, though, he was more like the brooding vampire Angel. Did that make me Buffy? I didn’t feel particularly kickass right now. Somehow the two pictures, the one of the laughing boy and the other of the grim man, would not fit together. What had happened to replace his laughter with that furrowed brow and brooding expression? And was my old friend still buried beneath all those layers, or was he gone forever? Chapter 5 (#ub473b70d-7760-58f7-a67a-a852e57f29ea) Siccome la casa brucia, riscaldiamoci (Since the house is on fire, let us warm ourselves) I woke with the soft pink light of dawn filtering into the room, rolled over in bed, and reached for my watch on the nightstand. It was early still, the usual time I’d be waking to check my emails. There weren’t any. Damn signal. Rubbing my eyes, I rose and moved to open the French doors, letting in a warm rush of air. The doors opened onto a narrow, wrought iron balcony. Leaning on the railing, I looked out over the valley, at the cross-hatched patterns of the fields of vines. The morning air was still cool, and without the sun’s heat to draw out the usual heavy fragrance of the garden, the air smelled clean and fresh. The dawn sky was streaked with lilac and pink, and to the south, where the blue hills met the paler blue of the sky, I could just make out the russet and ochre rooftops of a village, catching the early morning light as a thin mist burned away. Across the valley, the nearest hills were furred with the dark green of forest, dipping down into the brighter green of rows and rows of vines in full leaf. The public road that served the farms snaked through this valley and away into the next, striped by the early morning light falling between the double row of dark cypresses marking its path. Closer, among the rows of vines washed green and gold by the early morning sun, a red tractor chugged, kicking up white dust. I shaded my eyes against the sun. It might have been Tommaso, but I couldn’t tell from this distance. I breathed in another lungful of warm, heavy air, enjoying this strange sensation of being in a foreign place. After a childhood of constant movement and change, I wasn’t a frequent traveller, preferring to enjoy my own back yard, but looking out at this view I could almost understand the allure travel held for Geraldine. There was something about being in a new place, in strange surroundings, that gave the illusion of sweeping away one’s troubles. I turned my back to the view. The one thing Geraldine hadn’t learnt was that you couldn’t run away from your troubles. They would still be waiting at home when you returned. Having learnt from my experience the day before, I pulled on a lightweight silk dressing gown over my sleep shorts and camisole, and headed downstairs for coffee and breakfast. The gown was one of the last gifts Kevin gave me. Jade to match your eyes, he’d said, unexpectedly poetic for a statistician. Then he’d stripped it off me to kiss his way down my body. Barely a week later he’d been kissing down someone’s else’s body … I shut down that thought so quickly my head spun. To keep both my hands and my thoughts occupied, I catalogued the contents of the restocked pantry. Flour, sugar, eggs, milk, olive oil, and the oranges I’d bought on a whim at the co-op because they looked so fresh and appealing. Out of practice as I was, I hadn’t thought to buy yeast or baking powder, but there was baking soda and I’d seen lemons on the tree in the back yard… It might be rather pleasant to try my hand at baking again. Like riding a bike, right? Squeezing out a couple of lemons, I made a paste with the baking soda, then mixed in the flour, sugar and oil, grated in the orange zest and juice, and finally beat in the eggs. There was something so satisfying, so deliciously primal, about being elbow deep in a bowl, with dough squelching between my fingers. It was every bit as satisfying as I remembered. Once I’d beaten the mix into a smooth consistency, I spooned it into a rectangular baking dish, then covered it with a checkered tea towel. Now what? I had the perfect batter for schiacciata alla Fiorentina, the traditional Florentine orange flat-cake Nonna had taught me to bake, but no way to bake it except in the terrifying wood oven. It might be clean and gleaming now, but I didn’t have the faintest clue how to even get the wretched thing started. How hard could it be to start a fire and get it warm enough to bake the cake? What was the worst that could happen – that the oven would either heat too fast or not enough? I might end up with a cake that was either burnt or undercooked, but so what? Who would know but me that for once in my life I’d created something less than perfect? There was a wood pile in the back yard. I hefted a few of the smaller logs into the kitchen and piled them inside the stove’s firebox, then set them alight with the gas lighter I found in the pantry. Instead of bursting into the kind of merry blaze Nonna used to make, the wood began to smoke. Perhaps there was too much air? I hurriedly shut the firebox door, but that only made the smoke billow thicker. It oozed around the edges of the door, slowly filling the room with an eye-burning fog. So I opened the door again. Oh no. That was even worse. Now, clouds of smoke pumped back into the kitchen. I choked on the smoke, covering my nose and mouth with the crook of my arm. My eyes watered from the burn as I ran for the half-full electric kettle, grabbed it off its heating pad, and returned to the oven. Hastily pouring the water from the kettle over the meagre flames, I stood back, throat burning, eyes burning. The logs sizzled, belching out even more acrid smoke, and the fire inside the stove died. That didn’t stop the smoke, though. It poured down still from the chimney. Oh heavens – had I somehow set the chimney on fire? I had no clue how chimneys worked. Half-blinded and coughing, I was doubled up, and struggling for breath. The kitchen, vast as it had seemed before, was now so filled with smoke I could barely see a foot around me. Only the brighter patch of the door was visible, so I stumbled towards it, and straight into a wall of human. Hard, male human. Strong arms gathered me up, sweeping me off my feet, and I was carried out into blinding sunlight. While my eyes still streamed, he sat, cradling me in his lap, one large hand rubbing soothing circles on my back while with the other he wiped away the stinging tears from my eyes. ‘There’s no point burning the house down,’ Tommaso said. ‘It’s way under-insured.’ His voice was hard and unsympathetic, completely at odds with the gentle hand stroking circles on my back. ‘I wasn’t trying to burn the house down!’ The protest was weak, my voice scratchy and still choked from the smoke. Now that my eyes had stopped streaming, I could see we sat on the low stone wall edging Nonna’s herb garden, and he’d used the hem of his T-shirt to mop my eyes. Where the shirt lifted, tanned hard muscle was visible. A six-pack. An honest-to-goodness six-pack. I’d never been within groping distance of one of those before. I swallowed. The arms that had held me and carried me were well muscled too, and the chest I leaned against… I should get out of his lap. I really should. Yet somehow my body refused to obey. ‘I wanted to bake,’ I said weakly, ending on a hiccoughing cough. ‘The stove hasn’t been used in years. It needs a good cleaning.’ His face wasn’t any more sympathetic than before, but his voice was a little gentler. ‘I cleaned it out yesterday.’ ‘The chimney too?’ That was a real thing? ‘If there’s a build-up of creosote inside the chimney, you could have started a serious chimney fire. What wood did you use?’ I glanced towards the sheltered wood pile stacked up against the yard wall. ‘That figures! That’s the wood I’m seasoning for winter. It’s still very green, which means it creates more smoke than fire. And if the flue is blocked, you’d just make it worse.’ And I was just as green. Mortification swept through me, swift and furious. I hated being at a disadvantage, never let anyone suspect I was anything less than competent and in control, and yet I’d given Tommaso ringside seats to my ignorance. That made twice in less than a week. First, the Delta Corporation, and now this. My eyes burned, and it wasn’t just the after effects of the smoke, but anger at myself for failing. I never failed at anything I set my mind to. I didn’t know how to cope with failure. Tommaso pushed back the hair falling loose from the chignon I’d tied it up into. ‘You’re welcome to use my oven until we can check out the chimney.’ At the sound of an engine, we both turned to look as a familiar silver sports car appeared around the corner of the house and pulled up in the yard. Luca Fioravanti. And though I was a little more dressed than yesterday, I most certainly wasn’t dressed for visitors. If I hadn’t been aware before of how the silk gown only reached mid-thigh, or the proximity of Tommaso’s body, I certainly was now. A furious blush burned my face and I wriggled to get out of his lap. But he held me fast. This was turning into one of those scenes in a really bad farce. ‘Making house calls on a Sunday?’ Tommaso called out as Luca stepped from the car. With an extra hard shove at his chest, I scrambled out of his lap, burningly aware that not only was I scantily clad and dishevelled, but I no doubt also reeked of smoke. While Luca looked impeccably, impossibly perfect. Not a hair mussed, shoes polished, trousers crisply pressed, as if he had indeed just stepped from the pages of GQ. Exactly the kind of man I would choose if ever I were in the market for one. He held a bouquet of pink roses. My stomach did a strange somersault thing. ‘I brought the partnership agreement for you to sign.’ Luca smiled his usual smooth, charming grin. ‘I hope I’m not interrupting anything?’ My blush deepened. ‘No, of course not.’ Sure, I always entertained sexy men at home on a Sunday morning in my pyjamas. Not. ‘Would you like to come inside?’ Luca looked at Tommaso, and though his polite expression held steady, it no longer seemed amused or friendly. ‘I think perhaps not. I have a pen, and you can sign right here.’ He whipped out a pen from his lightweight summer jacket and held it out to Tommaso. It almost seemed like a challenge. We signed the agreement on the hood of the car, first Tommaso then me, then Luca turned his smile up a notch for me. ‘I also came to invite you to lunch.’ This was no business invitation. It was definitely a date. No holiday romance, no holiday romance. But as much as I chanted the mantra, my body was shouting ‘yes, please!’ As I opened my mouth to accept, Tommaso spoke for me. ‘That’s very kind of you, but we already have plans today. We’re going to lunch with the Rossis.’ I opened my mouth again, this time to protest, but Tommaso continued without pause. ‘Alberto Rossi was one of your father’s oldest friends. He’d be offended if you turned down his invitation.’ I pressed my lips tight, to stop myself from doing yet another fish impression, shot Tommaso a glance that threatened all sorts of retribution, then turned to Luca with a smile. ‘Thank you for the invitation. Another day, perhaps?’ ‘Si, bella. Another day.’ He reached for my hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. I half-hoped he’d do that courtly knuckle kiss thing again. Though he didn’t need to for me to shiver at his touch. His dimpling smile flashed as he let go of my hand. ‘I will call you next time.’ He handed me the flowers and I cradled them to my chest, breathing in their sweet fragrance. Luca was already backing out of the yard when my brain finally kicked in, and I remembered he couldn’t call because my mobile didn’t get signal here. Hand on my hip, I rounded on Tommaso. ‘What is it with you? I’m not a kid, and I don’t need you to play big brother watching over me.’ He merely shrugged. ‘Aren’t you pleased I came to tell you about the lunch invitation? If it weren’t for that, I wouldn’t have been here to rescue you.’ ‘I don’t need rescuing. I am perfectly capable of rescuing myself.’ The fact that he had indeed rescued me only made me more irritable. I was no damsel in distress, and I didn’t ever plan to be. That was Geraldine’s game. I stomped back into the house, with Tommaso’s amused voice trailing after. ‘It was my pleasure!’ There were vases in the pantry. I filled a crystal vase at the tap and set the roses into it. They were as perfect as Luca himself; pale pink, duskier at the tips of the petals, and so breathtakingly sweet. The kitchen was less smoky now, reassuring me that the fire was indeed out, and I hadn’t set the house alight after all. Though burning the place to the ground might not be a bad place to start, even if it was under-insured. I threw open all the windows, and the smoke began to dissipate. No harm done, except to my bruised ego. But I was going to need Tommaso’s oven. If we were invited to lunch, I didn’t plan to go empty-handed. And I needed more clothes on. Especially if I was having lunch with some old friend of John’s rather than a sexy lawyer who was the first man to show an interest in me in way too long. No holiday romance, I reminded myself. But I was smiling. Chapter 6 (#ulink_4e986bf7-dc7e-55fc-b945-f22db7d57a7f) Una cena senza vino è come un giorno senza sole (A meal without wine is a day without sunshine) Our destination wasn’t a house, as I’d expected, but a trattoria up on a hill, reached along a winding dirt road edged by trees. As Tommaso parked in the lot behind the restaurant, I cast a mortified glance down at the plastic container in my lap, containing the schiacciata cake I’d finally managed to bake in his far more modern oven. ‘I thought we were having lunch at their home?’ ‘We are. This is the Rossi family farm. The land all the way down to the river has been in the family for over four hundred years. Alberto’s father still owns the land, but these days it’s Alberto who runs the farm, together with his sons. His daughter, Beatrice, runs the trattoria. It’s sort of an extension of the farmhouse.’ I had to squint to see the river, a distant gleam across the wide valley. Four hundred years? The eight years I’d lived in Wanstead were the longest I’d ever stayed in one postcode. Tommaso guided me towards the trattoria’s entrance, his hand hovering in the curve of my back, not touching, but close enough to feel the heat of his proximity through the thin fabric of my lightweight crepe blouse. We rounded the low redbrick building onto a terrace. The restaurant was rustic, with simple pine tables and benches, plain tablecloths, a bougainvillea-covered trellis over the terrace, and an amazing view. My breath caught. The trattoria overlooked rolling fields, broken by patches of dark green woodland. In the sloping field beneath the terrace, sheep grazed, their soft bleating drifting up on the breeze and mingling with the sounds of human voices closer by. From here, the river cut a silver swathe across the valley, marking the border between the fields of tawny wheat dotted with red poppies, and the wilder meadows beyond. Across the valley, nestled in a fold of hill, I could see the earthen sand-coloured walls of an abbey, its bell tower standing proud over the low-sloping russet roofs. A tall, round man with dark hair greying at his temples hurried to greet us, a welcoming smile on his weather-beaten face. ‘John’s daughter!’ he exclaimed, wrapping me in an embrace. ‘It is such a pleasure to meet you. I have heard so much of you!’ Unused to being hugged by complete strangers, I had to force myself to relax and not flinch away. ‘Sarah, this is Alberto Rossi.’ Tommaso made the introductions, his habitually grim expression warming as he clapped Alberto on the back. ‘It’s a pleasure to meet you too.’ My voice sounded as formal as if I were meeting a new client, but I couldn’t help myself. Where I came from, this kind of exuberance was reserved for people who’d known each other for years. Awkwardly, I handed Alberto the plastic cake container. ‘I brought dessert.’ He passed it to someone else, who passed it to someone else, so he could take both my hands in his large, rough ones. ‘I am so sorry for your loss.’ I heard that over and over again as I was introduced to Alberto’s wife, his parents, his sons, his daughter Beatrice, and then an extended family of brothers and sisters and cousins. I tried to look like a grief-stricken daughter should, but I wasn’t really sure what that felt like. ‘Is this a party?’ I whispered to Tommaso, as we squeezed in on one of the long benches lining the main table. The schiacciata I’d made was large, but hardly enough to feed this crowd. Tommaso’s chuckle was low and almost inaudible. ‘No, just a regular Rossi Sunday family lunch.’ Beatrice set out platters of antipasti and thick slices of bread – mass-produced and store-bought bread, I suspected – and one of Alberto’s sons poured the wine, a Brunello from one of the neighbouring vineyards. The chatter and noise around the big table was overwhelming, and the Italian so quick I had no hope of keeping up. But in true Italian style, they all spoke with their bodies, keeping me hugely entertained trying to discern the topics of conversation from the body language. I also didn’t need to understand the words to see that this was a warm and affectionate family, despite the teasing between the cousins. They were a good-looking family too. Perhaps it was in the genes. Or the local water. I should bottle some and take it home with me in case I ever did decide to start dating again. Tommaso moved away to sit beside Daniele, Alberto’s younger son. From the gestures that accompanied the animated conversation, I decided they were discussing wine. I wasn’t alone for long. Beatrice slipped onto the bench beside me. She was a pretty woman, perhaps only just thirty, with warm, smiling eyes and thick, dark hair that she wore tied back in a long and intricate braid. Though she’d just stepped from the kitchen, she looked fresh as a daisy, and effortlessly classy in her simple but stylish linen dress. My insecurities had faded along with my twenties, but beside Beatrice’s bold colouring and curves, I couldn’t help but feel plain. My pale skin, with its tendency to freckle, and fine, straight hair, weren’t exactly head-turners. The one thing I had going for me was the colour of my hair, a rich chestnut that was still completely natural. Beatrice dipped a wedge of the bread into a bowl of herb-scented olive oil. ‘Are the men still talking wine? Daniele wants so badly for us to plant grapes so he can make his own.’ ‘Why doesn’t he?’ I dipped a slice of the bread too, though with less enthusiasm. The ciabatta’s crust was too thin, and the ratio of air holes to bread not on the favourable side. I’d been looking forward to eating the real deal here in Tuscany, but honestly I’d baked better ciabatta bread. Once upon a time, at least two promotions back, baking had been my Sunday morning ritual. Other people slept in, or went to church, or played golf. I baked. ‘Like most farms in Tuscany, this is a family farm,’ Beatrice explained. ‘The traditions are passed down from generation to generation, and our family have always farmed wheat and dairy. Not as glamorous as wine, sadly.’ ‘Not as glamorous, but definitely more essential.’ Beatrice giggled. ‘Sh! Don’t let Tommaso hear you say that!’ A shout of laughter rang out from the far end of the table. At my unintentional flinch, Beatrice pulled a wry face. ‘We’re a noisy lot, but you get used to it after a while.’ ‘I live in London. I’m used to crowds.’ Or I should be. But I didn’t like crowds. It was why I loved Wanstead so much, with its quiet, village-y feel. And it was part of the reason I worked such long hours. I caught the tube to work before the morning rush hour and left the office long after the evening rush hour. ‘You have a big family?’ Beatrice asked. ‘No. It was always just me and my mother.’ Belatedly, I realised I’d had a father too, but Beatrice didn’t appear to notice my blunder. She shook her head as she looked down the long table crowded with people. ‘I envy you. Here, there is always someone around, always someone getting up in your business.’ She frowned. ‘I think that is the right way to say it?’ I laughed. ‘Yes, that’s the right way to say it. But it must be wonderful to have so many people care about you.’ ‘You wouldn’t say that if you had two brothers.’ She threw her hands up in the air. ‘Italian brothers! Even if they are younger than me, they treat me like a child.’ Beatrice cast a dark glance at Daniele then leaned closer, dropping her voice. ‘They think if a woman isn’t married and doesn’t yet have children of her own, they can tell her what to do. But if I try to find myself a man, they think no one is good enough. It drives me pazzo! You have it easier, I think?’ I cast a glance across the table towards Tommaso. At the ripe old age of thirty-five I was only just discovering what it was like to have a big brother hovering protectively. Beatrice had all my sympathy. I leaned closer too. ‘I’ll let you in on a secret: it’s even more difficult to find a man in London, because there aren’t any decent, single, straight men left. I’ve seen more attractive men in the two days I’ve been here than in the entire last year in London.’ My thoughts flashed to Luca, and heat spread through me. Fortunately, Beatrice didn’t seem to find it odd that I had a sudden need to fan myself. ‘I spent a few years in London when I was in my early twenties.’ Beatrice looked down at the bread she was picking apart with her fingers. ‘I remember some very attractive men.’ Her blush was unmistakable. Interesting. But before I could probe, she asked, ‘your mother – she never re-married?’ I filled my mouth with the pimento-stuffed olives from the bowl between us, so I wouldn’t have to answer. Didn’t they know that Geraldine and John had never married? How did I explain to someone so clearly rooted in her big, solid family and traditional heritage, that I was born out of wedlock? Or that my mother had spent her entire adult life flitting from man to man almost as frequently as she’d flitted from place to place? Somehow, I didn’t think that would go down well in the present company. Thank heavens Beatrice was called back to the kitchen, saving me from answering. Instead, a cousin slid into her place. But my relief was short-lived. The cousin subjected me to another round of grilling about my mother, my job, my life in London – and my single status. The antipasti was followed by a hearty bean and vegetable soup, the ribollita, and then a dish of pappardelle pasta, a broad, flat pasta, in a simple but flavourful sauce of tomato and garlic. With each course, and in the long spaces between, the seating arrangements shifted with the fluidity of flowing water. Only I kept my place through this game of musical chairs, as a succession of cousins and aunts and uncles moved to sit beside me and engage me in conversation, in their careful, heavily-accented English. Eventually, my initial discomfort at the repeated questions faded as I realised there was no judgement in the questions, simply an interest in getting to know me, and my mother, who they all seemed to regard as John’s estranged wife, rather than the young tourist he knocked up. Had John been the one to spread that illusion, or was it just an assumption by a family that couldn’t conceive of anything else? The only person who didn’t try to talk to me was Tommaso. He as good as ignored me as he moved about the table, chatting to different members of the family in voluble Italian. He seemed very much at home with the family, more ‘Italian’ than I ever remembered him being, though of course he’d spoken the language fluently as a child. He seemed lighter and more relaxed too. Maybe it was just me who brought out the worst in him? There was more wine with each course. ‘I don’t suppose there’s ever an Italian meal without wine?’ I joked with Daniele, as he moved to top up my glass once more. He placed a friendly hand on my shoulder as he leaned over to reach my glass. ‘Of course not! We have a saying here: una cena senza vino è come un giorno senza sole. A meal without wine is like a day without sunshine. And we don’t get too many days without sunshine.’ As abstemious as I tried to be, sipping carefully, the wine had its effect. A relaxed laziness flowed through my veins, dulling the edges of my awkwardness. The family might be loud and intimidating, but they were also friendly and welcoming. There’d been a time long ago I’d dreamed of being part of a big family like this, of having brothers and sisters, and parents close by who would get ‘all up in my business’. But that was a long time ago, and I’d outgrown it. We lingered over each course, an unhurried meal accompanied by a steady flow of wine and lively banter, taking time to savour the food. In the periphery, I was aware of other diners coming and going on the terrace, and the wait staff moving to attend to them. Mostly tourists travelling from vineyard to vineyard, I guessed, but also a few locals who stopped by to greet Alberto or stay for a glass of wine before moving on. The pièce-de-résistance of the meal was cutlets of fried wild hare, seasoned with fennel. ‘I can’t possibly eat any more!’ I protested, as Alberto’s wife Franca ladled yet more food onto my plate, but Franca only shook her head and tutted. ‘If you don’t eat enough, we are very poor hosts.’ By the time the meal was done, Tommaso had made his way back to the seat beside me, though he immediately – and rudely – launched into a conversation in Italian with Alberto who sat on his other side. With the meal served, Beatrice also returned, sliding into the empty space to my left, forcing me to edge up against Tommaso on my right. Our thighs pressed against each other, but he seemed not to notice, and I didn’t want to call attention to my discomfort by moving away. So instead I had to contend with a very unexpected and searing awareness shooting through me. It’s just the summer heat, and the unaccustomed crowd. Nothing more. ‘That was a wonderful meal,’ I thanked Beatrice. ‘I’ve never tasted such amazing flavours. I’d love to know your secret.’ ‘The trick is to use only fresh, local ingredients. I never shop at the supermarket, and we don’t use processed foods. If I can’t get it fresh from our own farm, or from the local markets, then I don’t cook with it.’ ‘I remember a market Nonna used to take us to…’ ‘That would be the market in Montalcino. Market day is Friday, so you just missed it, but there’s also a market in Torrenieri on Tuesdays.’ Beatrice waved her arm, proudly taking in the land stretched around them. ‘Here, we make our own olive oil, my mother makes all the preserves, and we make cheeses with milk from our own goats and cows. We even make our own honey. If you ever need milk or butter or cream or eggs, you come to us, okay?’ ‘Thank you. It would be wonderful to bake with farm-fresh ingredients.’ ‘Of course, I remember now – your father told us you were a baker.’ Odd that he’d remembered that. I shook my head. ‘Not really. I baked for fun, but that was ages ago.’ When last had I done anything for fun? But work was fun, right? ‘There’s something so satisfying about making desserts and pastries, the joy they bring to people. It’s like Christmas every day.’ Beatrice laughed. ‘While I have grown up on a wheat farm, and this ciabatta is the only kind of bread I can make. And I know it’s not even that good.’ ‘As long as you serve food like this, you hardly need anything else.’ When Beatrice turned to answer a comment from her grandfather, who sat on her other side, I looked down the long table, at the smiles, the laughter, the easy comfort the family shared with one another. The feeling it gave me, all warm and fuzzy, was an alien sensation. I’d never experienced anything like it before, even visiting Cleo’s family. It was rather nice. Behind me, Tommaso and Alberto were engrossed in an increasingly heated discussion. I was about to give up even trying to understand the conversation, when my attention was snagged by the name Fioravanti. My nice warm bubble burst. Could Tommaso have the audacity to sit right beside me and discuss our legal issues with someone else, in a language I was so rusty in that I couldn’t follow? ‘Are you talking about Luca?’ I asked, leaning forward to butt into their conversation. Tommaso scowled at the intrusion, but Alberto shook his head. ‘His father. His is the farm next to yours. He has released a new blend.’ All this heated conversation was about a wine? I turned away, but the warm-and-fuzzies had been replaced by a niggling feeling. Luca hadn’t mentioned we were neighbours. I frowned. Perhaps it wasn’t important to him. The sun began to dip across the western hills when wooden boards of cheeses and more of the plain, store-bought sliced bread were carried out, and Franca brought out my orange-flavoured schiacciata cake. I’d decorated the cake with a thin spread of lemon curd and a dusting of icing sugar, and it glistened temptingly. Slices were handed around on plain white plates, with generous dollops of fresh farm cream. There was only just enough for everyone to have a small piece, and for a moment the noise levels around the table dipped as they all tucked in. Just like I’d told Beatrice: it was that Christmas feeling. ‘Aah,’ Alberto sighed, his voice a satisfied rumble. He turned to Tommaso. ‘This is just like the cake your Nonna used to bake.’ ‘She’s the one who taught me to make it,’ I said. Tommaso shifted to look at me, as if he’d forgotten I was there, and the pressure of his leg suddenly disappeared. Not that the absence of his touch brought any relief, because now I found myself pinned by his grey, inscrutable gaze. Feeling oddly flustered, I was grateful when Beatrice pushed her empty plate aside and touched my arm to catch my attention. ‘This is so good! How did you get the texture so light and moist at the same time? I tried making this cake once, and it didn’t rise. It was solid as cement.’ I smiled. ‘After the meal you’ve just served, that’s the highest compliment I could receive.’ ‘Food yes, pastries no.’ Beatrice shrugged. ‘Other than bread, baking isn’t a big thing in Tuscany. Here, cheese and fruit are all we need for dessert, but the tourists, they want more. We have reviews on TripAdvisor complaining about our lack of desserts.’ She rolled her eyes. ‘But my cousin Matteo is the cook, and he’s so good at everything else I could never replace him – even for a cook who can make pastries.’ ‘You could hire a pastry chef.’ ‘That would mean a full-time salary I can’t afford.’ ‘And there isn’t someone in the neighbourhood who bakes that you could buy from? Surely that would still count as being locally sourced?’ Beatrice’s eyes glittered. ‘There is now! Would you consider it?’ ‘Me?’ Though my first impulse was to say no, I paused. There’d been a time when baking had been a joy, almost a therapy, but it would be a challenge. I hadn’t really baked in so long. My mouth kicked up at the corners. I did love a challenge. ‘Please?’ Beatrice begged, her eyes big and round and pleading. ‘Everyone I know who can bake even halfway decently already has their own commitments. I would really appreciate it!’ My heart picked up its pace, not in that anxious way that had grown so familiar I hardly noticed it anymore, but with a thrill of excitement. The thrill I used to feel when I delivered on a really big deal at work. ‘What sort of quantities would you need, and what type of desserts?’ Beatrice shrugged. ‘Whatever you want, and however much you can provide. For us, anything will be better than nothing, and our menu changes every day, depending on what is in season, so you can make whatever you like.’ I really shouldn’t say yes. I was supposed to be resting, and Cleo would have a fit if she found out I’d taken a job, even a job baking. But what Cleo didn’t know, wouldn’t hurt her… ‘Okay, but on three conditions.’ Beatrice waited for me to continue, her dark eyes alight. ‘First, I want to use my own kitchen.’ That way I could still oversee house renovations and keep up a semblance of being on holiday. Beatrice nodded. ‘Second, I don’t have a car, so you’ll need to send someone to collect from me each day.’ She nodded again. ‘And third, it’ll only be for the summer. I have a job in London I must get back to at the end of September.’ ‘You have a deal!’ We shook hands on it, and I laughed, Beatrice’s delight infusing me with sudden warmth. As we lingered over the cheese board and frothy cups of cappuccino, we chatted about breads and cakes and quantities, and I’d never been happier – and it wasn’t entirely the effect of the mellowing wine. This enforced holiday no longer seemed as bleak and terrifying as it had a couple of days ago. Now I wouldn’t have to sit idly and count down the days of my exile. All I needed was a stove that didn’t have it in for me. Chapter 7 (#ulink_7e09612b-1bdb-59ad-a417-1630fca1d328) L’uomo giusto arriva al momento giusto (The right man comes at the right time) The next morning I was in the pantry, purging the shelves of expired tinned foods, spider webs and grime, when I heard the familiar throaty roar of Tommaso’s vintage car pull up in the yard behind the house, then a few minutes later a quick knock at the open back door. ‘You can come in,’ I called. ‘I’m in the pantry, but I’m unarmed.’ He was dressed for work, in jeans and a plain grey T-shirt, with heavy work boots on his feet. He loomed so large in the low entryway that he blocked out most of the light. ‘If you’re going to be baking for the trattoria, we should get that chimney cleaned.’ ‘I was kind of hoping I could carry on using your oven.’ His mouth ticked up at the corner. ‘Coward! You used to be more kickass than that. But seriously, bread baked in a wood oven tastes better than that baked in an electric one.’ He was right, much as it galled me to admit it. I followed him back into the kitchen and eyed the old stove with trepidation. My initial wariness of it had morphed into full-on distrust since what I referred to as The Smoke Incident. ‘What do you suggest I do?’ ‘I don’t suggest you do anything. I suggest we check the chimney first.’ How chivalrous that he was offering to help, but it still didn’t answer my question. Tommaso held out his mobile phone. ‘Old-fashioned trick passed down through the generations.’ He unhooked a wooden pizza paddle from the wall beside the stove and laid his mobile face-up on it. Then he slid open the hatch in the side of the stove. I bent forward, curious, as he switched on the phone’s camera, set it on video mode, and slid the board into the hatch. When he slid the phone back out, I leaned even closer, my head almost touching his, to watch in fascination as he replayed the shaky video. On the screen, a full moon shaped ball of light was visible at the end of the flue. ‘No nests or any other obstructions blocking the flue, so it’s probably just old residue lining the chimney walls that needs to be cleaned out.’ He shut the hatch, then looked up, and my breath stuck in my throat. Our eyes were nearly level, our faces so close that if either one of us moved an inch, our mouths would meet … I jumped back. ‘Old family trick, huh? Where did you really learn to do that?’ ‘From television.’ When my eyebrows arched in incredulity, he laughed. ‘Yes, I still have a dark side.’ I clearly watched the wrong kinds of TV shows. The Great British Bake-off hadn’t taught me how to light a fire or check a chimney for obstructions. ‘I suppose that means I’ll need to get a chimney sweep in.’ Was there even such a thing these days? Probably just an expensive contractor who’d charge me the equivalent of a limb for ten minutes’ work. ‘Or we can do it ourselves,’ Tommaso offered. ‘If you don’t mind getting a little dirty?’ He’d already seen me in my pyjamas, choking on smoke. How much worse could a bit of dirt be? ‘I don’t mind.’ ‘Lay a few dust cloths around the stove. I’m going up on the roof.’ Dust cloths were the one thing there was no shortage of in the house, with the exception of spider webs, so I hurried off to collect an armful. When I returned to the kitchen, the reverberation of Tommaso’s footsteps sounded extra-loud on the tiled roof above. I laid the cloths over the floor, table and counters, then hurried outside, anxious to check on his safety. Standing far back in the yard so I could see up on the roof, I shielded my eyes against the morning light to watch as Tommaso bent over the square, redbrick chimney. He had already removed the chimney cap and was now screwing a square-shaped chimney brush onto the end of what looked like a very long, stiff hose. Had he learned to clean chimneys from television too? He twisted the brush down the chimney, pumping hard to extend the brush all the way down the chimney. As he brought the brush back up, he coughed on the cloud of sooty black dust that billowed up. Just as well it was him up on that roof and not me. I’d already swallowed enough smoke and ash for one week. Partially silhouetted against the rising sun, his body was clearly outlined. Tommaso might be built bigger than Luca, but there was no spare fat on him. He was all lean muscle and sinewy strength. As he worked the long brush up and down the chimney, his arm muscles bulged beneath the taut fabric of his shirt. I’d always liked a man with strong arms. I swallowed a very inappropriate sigh and looked away. When he’d removed the brush and its hose attachments, and replaced the chimney cap, I moved to the base of the ladder leaning up against the wall to hold it steady. Tommaso came down the ladder rung by rung, his boots coming first into my line of view, then his denim-clad calves and thighs. The soft denim was worn into the shape of his body, hugging the lean thighs and firm backside that drew level with my gaze. I coughed and averted my gaze. This was Tommy, the boy I’d played with as a kid. I didn’t want to think of him in any other way. Especially in any way that would make me go weak-kneed or lose my head. Until the castello sold, or he bought me out, we were rivals for this property. Luca’s contract might call us partners, but we still had to negotiate the terms for divvying up my father’s inheritance between us. I couldn’t afford to forget that or go soft on him – which was most likely the only reason he was being so helpful, anyway. Either that or to make sure I wasn’t in his space any more than necessary. I wasn’t sure which of those reasons was most offensive. ‘Thank you,’ I said gruffly when he’d jumped from the bottom rung to stand back on solid ground. ‘Shall we get a fire going, and see if it’s working now? I brought some well-seasoned wood.’ As much as I wanted to say ‘thanks, I can take it from here’, and as much as I didn’t want to owe him any more than I already did, I couldn’t refuse the offer. Reluctantly, I led him back into the kitchen. The dust cloths had done their job, though there wasn’t as much soot in the kitchen as I’d expected. The oven was thankfully well-insulated and would need little more than a wipe down, but the firebox inside needed a good brush out. I used the brushes from the big copper pot beside the oven to clean out the soot, while Tommaso carried in armfuls of piney-smelling wood from his car. He showed me how to build and start the fire, using kindling and air for an effective blaze, rather than simply piling in the wood. Then, once he was satisfied, he stood back, wiping his hands on the back of his jeans. ‘No smoke! That should sort you out now.’ The scent of the burning wood smoke definitely added a homelier feel to the kitchen. A way homelier scent than clouds of acrid smoke. ‘Thank you,’ I said again, meaning it, but clearly my tone didn’t carry as much gratitude as I intended, because Tommaso frowned. ‘Are you always this grumpy about accepting help?’ Pots and kettles. I turned away to collect the armful of dust cloths. ‘Just out of practice. I don’t usually need anyone’s help.’ And two times in as many days was about as much as I could handle. Tommaso shrugged, his expression back to its usual surly look. ‘Well, that’s okay then, because I didn’t do it for you. I did it for Beatrice. True Tuscan breads and desserts should be baked in a wood oven for authentic flavour.’ For Beatrice. Of course. The sudden spike of jealousy was completely irrational. I knew that, but it didn’t stop me from feeling it. I dumped the dust cloths beside the big sink and washed my hands. ‘I hope I haven’t kept you from your work for too long.’ And why on earth was he still hanging around, when his expression so clearly showed he didn’t want to be here? Instead, he hovered just a few feet away, his presence so dominating he might just as well have been standing right beside me. I dried my hands on a tea towel and turned back to him, eyebrow arched enquiringly. He didn’t look at me as he ran a hand through his thick hair. ‘You should come up to the cellar. Take a look at the improvements we’ve made. Your father cared very deeply about the winery.’ If my back hadn’t already been up, now it was. I didn’t want to see the winery, and I didn’t need to be reminded that my father loved the winery more than he’d loved anything else. And if Tommaso thought for even one moment that mentioning the winery or John was going to make me soft and sentimental so I’d cut him a good deal, then he clearly didn’t know me. I was practical and efficient, and never let sentiment get in the way of the numbers. ‘Thanks for the invitation, but I have a busy day planned.’ ‘Suit yourself.’ He slammed the kitchen door as he left, and the shutter outside the kitchen window fell to the ground with a heavy clunk. I rolled my eyes heavenwards. Now what had gotten into him? I didn’t watch as he strode back to his car. I had bread to make, and bread wasn’t complicated like people. Bread didn’t have a hidden agenda, didn’t have an attitude, and didn’t get grumpy just because a woman didn’t fall for emotional manipulation. ‘So what exciting adventures did you get up to today? I could do with some light entertainment,’ Cleo asked. There’d been a tube strike, it had taken her hours to get home, and she sounded exasperated. I had to rack my brain for something to say. ‘I checked out my old playmate’s butt, and he’s actually kind of hot’ didn’t sound appropriate, much though it would cheer Cleo up. ‘Tommaso cleaned out the chimney, and I unblocked a bathroom drain. It was riveting stuff. Want to hear about it?’ ‘God no! Not until I’ve had at least two glasses of wine. Have you heard from that sexy lawyer of yours?’ ‘Nothing. Not even a text.’ Though to be fair, since the castello didn’t have signal maybe he had tried. I hoped. And then hated myself for hoping. ‘What’s been happening at the office?’ ‘This and that.’ Uh-oh. Cleo was hedging. ‘That bad?’ ‘I met the guy from the Delta Corporation today. The one I’ll be working with for the next few months.’ ‘Please don’t tell me he’s twelve and still has acne.’ ‘Worse.’ ‘Balding, paunchy and single, and already asked you out on a date?’ ‘Nope. He has a full head of hair.’ ‘So married or gay then. Oh well, that’s just typical.’ ‘No…’ Cleo was definitely hedging now. ‘So…?’ I prompted. ‘He’s the most arrogant, annoying…’ She sucked in a breath, as if she’d said too much. I bit my lip. ‘I am so, so sorry. It’s my fault you’re in this position and having to work with the man.’ ‘Bullshit. It’s not your fault he’s an arse.’ ‘What did he do? Try to feel you up in the break room?’ ‘Worse. He asked me to make his coffee. As if I’m some twenty-year-old Girl Friday!’ ‘And did you?’ ‘Well, yes, but that’s beside the point. Even if I survive the week working with this man, I think I might need to join you on “garden leave”.’ ‘Great idea. You can help unblock the drains.’ ‘On second thoughts, maybe I’ll hang in here a little longer. But if I get arrested for murdering him, would you put up bail for me?’ ‘Of course. And I promise I’ll find you a very sexy lawyer.’ At last Cleo laughed. Job done. Chapter 8 (#ulink_f1597c47-ac30-5a34-9775-d6afb2c5c7c5) Chi ha la sua casa, poco gli manca (He who owns his own house, lacks for nothing) I was up early the next morning, though not as early as Tommaso. His car was already gone from the yard when I wandered into the kitchen and switched on the kettle for tea. The driver who’d collected the bread loaves and desserts yesterday had brought a box of goodies from Beatrice, including a glass bottle of milk with a layer of cream floating on top. I surveyed the ingredients I’d spread across the kitchen table, feeling like a contestant in a cooking show. A jar of raspberry jam with the Rossi farm logo, which would take care of the ‘locally sourced’ requirement, almonds, creamed cheese, and precious, blessed yeast… I heaved out a breath. Baking in a big old kitchen a half hour drive from the nearest store required a whole lot more creativity than baking in my high-tech kitchen in Wanstead with a Tesco’s in walking distance. What could I make with what I had? Et voilà! Okay, wrong language, but right sentiment – I would make mini raspberry bakewell tarts, with a sweetened cream cheese filling. Mary Berry, eat your heart out! With a smile worthy of any on-air contestant about to annihilate the competition, I washed my hands, and set about creating the tart dough, sifting flour, sugar and salt together, digging my fingers in to rub in the butter until the mix formed a pastry of fine crumbs. Then I added eggs and milk to create a firm but soft dough, careful to ensure the dough became neither too warm nor too sticky. Wrapping the dough in cling film, I set it aside in the pantry to chill, and took a fresh cup of tea and a plate of toast out to the terrace. The sun had risen to its zenith, filling the valley with warm, bright light. The trellis that covered the paved terrace sagged beneath the weight of a massive wisteria, its vivid purple blossoms turning towards the sun. It was the largest wisteria I’d ever seen, easily triple the size it had been when I was last here. I sat on the wooden bench, which was set at the optimum angle to take in the view, and propped my feet up on the sun-warmed balustrade, breathing in the fresh air. A tractor hummed in the distance, birds sang, and cicadas buzzed loudly in the still, heavy air. For the first time since I’d woken, I thought of the office, wondering how Cleo was coping with The Arse. It was probably raining in London. I lifted my face to the sun. A little sunshine could fix almost anything. Maybe Cleo should come out for a few days before the summer was over. I breathed in deeply, tasted the rosemary, lavender, and dark earth. How long had it been since I’d done nothing but sit idly in a patch of sun? When last had a day stretched out before me, with no To Do list, a day where I didn’t have to be responsible to anyone? Not since I was a teen, for sure. Maybe I really did need this holiday. My eyes fluttered closed, and I let out a long sigh. The sun’s glare battered against my eyelids. The distant tractor sound choked and cut off, and I frowned at the rude interruption of my reverie, reminding me this wasn’t a holiday, and that I was still here, in a decrepit castello in need of some serious TLC. But at least I had dough rising in the kitchen. As long as there is dough, there is hope, Nonna used to say. Back in the warm kitchen, the dough had risen faster than it would have in the cooler English climate. I rolled it out, lined Nonna’s sturdy muffin pan with it, then added baking paper and baking beans, before setting the pan in the oven to bake. While the pastry cases baked, I whisked up the creamed cheese, adding butter and caster sugar, and beat the mix until it was light and fluffy. Then I added yet more eggs (I’d need to buy a whole lot more of those soon), ground the almonds and folded them into the mix, and finally added a touch of lemon zest – also locally sourced, right off the lemon tree in the back yard. I’d never baked with ingredients I’d actually picked myself before. The kitchen filled with the warm, satisfying aroma of baking pastry, and I hummed as I worked. When the pastry cases were done, I removed the beans and paper from the tart pans, spread a thick layer of raspberry jam over the pastry crusts, spooned in the sweet filling, then slid the tarts back into the oven. I was raiding the overflowing patch in the herb garden for fresh strawberries to use as garnish, when a car turned into the castello’s long drive. I shielded my eyes against the sun, and my heart did a silly little skip as I recognised the silver sports car. Luca wasn’t alone, though. He’d brought the real estate agent to value the house. The realtor was a woman – a curvy woman with lustrous dark hair swept up in a loose tumble of curls, and wearing a figure-hugging dress in fire engine red, and heels I wouldn’t be able to walk in. Beside the realtor, with floury hands stained pink with sticky strawberry juice, and dressed in the ridiculous floral apron I’d found in an upstairs closet, I felt woefully plain. The estate agent wandered from room to room, tut-tutting, and making copious notes on her clipboard. I trailed after them but, since they spoke mostly in Italian, I was only able to understand every other word. And Luca was no fun today. He was all business – no sidelong smiles, no casual touches, no flirting. I was pleased when the mobile in my apron pocket buzzed to warn me the tarts were done, giving me an excuse to escape back to the kitchen. Alone, I admitted my disappointment. What the hell are you thinking?No holiday romances, remember? This is for the best. Except it didn’t feel like it was for the best. This was why I hated dating. That up and down, ‘Does he like me? Doesn’t he like me?’ nonsense. My friends might have thought Kevin was dull, but at least I’d never had any doubt about his interest in me. Right up until I realised I wasn’t the only one he’d been interested in. Half an hour later, when the tarts were cooling on the kitchen table, Luca and the statuesque estate agent traipsed back into the kitchen. She handed me a list that was several pages long. ‘You fix these, then we take pictures and put the house on our website. But the way the castello is now, no di certo! No chance! There are already too many rundown farmhouses on the market.’ I glanced at the list, and my mouth fell open. Some seemed easy enough: fix the front door, re-paint the interiors, clear the clutter, but the rest…! Plumbing, wiring, plastering, the access road to be re-tarred – I might as well re-build the castello from the ground up to make it sellable. Maybe a fire would have been a blessing. I would certainly need a contractor to tick off at least half the items on this list. I walked them out to the car, the list still clutched in my floury, sticky hand. For one brief moment as we said goodbye, with the estate agent already seated in the car, I caught a glimpse of the Luca who’d taken me to lunch and charmed me with his attention. ‘You need help hiring a contractor?’ he asked. The mischievous spark was back in his eyes, but it didn’t have its intended effect. What was it with all these men treating me like a delicate flower? I needed Luca’s help even less than I’d needed Tommaso’s. ‘I’ll be fine.’ Making a few phone calls and getting quotes was hardly up there with brain surgery. Or with structuring private equity deals. A day later, I no longer felt quite so confident. I cradled the old rotary phone in my lap and resisted the urge to smack it violently against the bedpost. How was it possible there wasn’t a single building contractor in the whole of Siena province willing to look at the house before Christmas? I was in the kitchen, pounding out my stress on a fresh ball of bread dough, this time for my own consumption, when Daniele arrived in the farm’s battered pick-up truck to fetch the daily delivery for the trattoria. He carried in a basket of brown eggs and set them on the counter beside the kitchen sink. ‘What’s got into you?’ ‘Nothing.’ He chuckled. ‘When a woman says “nothing” it definitely means “something”.’ He leaned against the doorjamb. He wore work-stained cargo pants, scuffed boots, and a checked shirt, and looked as if he’d just stepped off a tractor. I’d never before thought a farmer could be sexy, but I was rapidly changing my mind. If I were ten years younger, I’d be salivating about now. Instead, I simply felt old beyond my years beside his youth and vitality. Конец ознакомительного фрагмента. Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес». Прочитайте эту книгу целиком, купив полную легальную версию (https://www.litres.ru/romy-sommer/last-of-the-summer-vines-escape-to-italy-with-this-heartwarmin/?lfrom=334617187) на ЛитРес. Безопасно оплатить книгу можно банковской картой Visa, MasterCard, Maestro, со счета мобильного телефона, с платежного терминала, в салоне МТС или Связной, через PayPal, WebMoney, Яндекс.Деньги, QIWI Кошелек, бонусными картами или другим удобным Вам способом.
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