The Sicilian's Bride. Carol Grace
here. If Dario hadn’t been right on her heels, Isabel might have allowed herself a moment of respect for the man who’d left her this place, but with Dario around, she pretended she wasn’t affected by the depressing sight.
“Needs a little cleaning up,” she said matter-of-factly. After all, no house was exactly the way you wanted it. There were always improvements to be made.
“It needs more than that,” he said. “You haven’t got running water or electricity or heat.”
“I don’t need heat, not in this climate.”
“You will. If you stay.”
“I will stay,” she assured him.
As if he’d orchestrated it, a huge rat ran out from under the sink. She screamed, slammed the ice box door shut and jumped up onto an old wobbly wooden kitchen chair.
He shook his head, as if the skittish behavior of women was no surprise to him at all. To him she was just another woman over her head and unable to cope with hardship. Was it so strange she was frightened of rats? It didn’t mean she was a defective person.
After a pause he said, “I thought you wanted to see the cellar.” He held out a hand to help her off the chair. He might despise her and dismiss her as unfit to live here, but she had to admit he had manners.
Isabel took a deep breath. “Of course.” No rat would keep her from her goal. No single-minded Italian would either, no matter how gorgeous he was, how blue his eyes were or how irresistible his accent was. He had no idea how many people had told her she was crazy to quit her job and go to Italy. Everyone she knew advised her to sell the place sight unseen, buy a house in California with the money and keep her job.
That was the sensible thing to do, but for once in her life Isabel didn’t do the sensible thing. She needed to make a move. Get away from everyone who knew what a fool she’d been. A big move that would force her to be more self-reliant, to face new challenges with a new strength of purpose. To turn her back on her past and friends who treated her with concern and the sympathy she didn’t want. She’d come five thousand miles and nothing would keep her from doing what she’d set out to do. And finally, she’d never give her heart away again, not when it was finally healed and whole.
This man had no idea how humiliating it would be to give up, to go home and admit she’d made another mistake. If she had a home, which she didn’t. It would take more than a rat in the kitchen, more than a hole in the roof, more than a hostile neighbor. Much more.
She took his hand and gingerly got down off the chair, then walked with all the dignity she could summon down the stairs to the damp, cool basement. Again he was right behind her, his warm breath on her neck, though she would have preferred to explore alone, to find some hidden treasure like an old bottle of some fabulous vintage on her own.
The walls were lined with racks and racks of wine in dusty bottles. Some were empty, their corks lying on the floor, but others looked well-aged but possibly still good. How would she know? He pulled a bottle off the wall and held it up so she could see it from the light that filtered through the small dusty windows. “Nineteen ninety-two,” he said. “My grandfather’s Bianco Soave. Sealed with wax. That was a good year, a gold-medal year.” He pointed to the seal affixed to the label.
“I guess some years are not so good?”
“With grapes as well as life,” he said, as a cloud passed across his handsome features. “Some years are best forgotten.” He wasn’t looking at her. For all she knew he was talking to himself. Even in the dank semi-dark cellar she could tell from his expression he wasn’t just being philosophical. He meant something had happened to him, and whatever it was, he had not forgotten it. She wanted to ask him how someone like him, surrounded by a big supportive family and acres of productive grapes would have even one bad year? How bad could it be? Bad enough to sell the place to her uncle, but it couldn’t have been as bad as last year was for her.
“Was it a drought or a fungus?” She’d read either could devastate a vineyard.
“Yes,” he said, but he didn’t elaborate.
She could understand if they’d had losses due to a disaster out of his control. But maybe it was something more personal. If it was, she’d never find out any more. Not from him.
She could understand his not wanting to talk about it. Last year had been a nightmare for her, the worst of her life, and she’d done her best to hide her shame and embarrassment from the world.
Then she’d got the letter from the lawyer and her life had turned around. Coming to Sicily to claim her inheritance was the easiest decision she’d ever made. This would be her good year. She would make it happen. And one of these days she too would win a prize for her wine. Her lips curved in a half smile as she pictured the gold labels on the bottles, labels she would design herself.
She sent a sideways glance in his direction. His hand was wrapped around the wine bottle and he was watching her as if he knew she was dreaming a dream that wouldn’t come true. But it would. As if he was waiting for her to give up. Give up? On her first day? He didn’t know her.
After a long pause he broke the silence. “Not discouraged?”
She shook her head. “Of course not. The wine is yours,” she said waving her arm at the racks that lined the stone walls. “All of it. Take the bottles with you.”
“Legally it’s yours,” he said coolly. “But I’m curious to see how this one has held up.”
He scraped away the wax with a knife hanging on the wall and popped the cork with a rusty opener, then he tilted his head back and held the bottle to his mouth. Fascinated, she watched the muscles in his throat move while he drank it. Her mouth was dry. He handed the bottle to her. His fingers brushed her hand and goose bumps broke out on her bare arms. It was the cool damp basement that made her shiver, not this tall, dark Sicilian stranger.
“Try it,” he ordered. “Tell me what you think of it.” She knew what he thought. She could have no educated opinion. So why did he even ask?
She put her lips where his had been and tasted the wine and him at the same time. She felt a quiver of excitement. Maybe it was second-hand contact with his lips, maybe it was the old fermented wine. It wasn’t fair to put her on the spot this way, testing her to see if she knew anything about wine.
Unnerved by the way he stood there, arms crossed, way too close in that small space, his eyes glittering in the dim light and brimming over with self-confidence, she couldn’t think of a single original thing to say.
“Ciao,” came a voice from somewhere above them. “Chiunque nel paese?”
“My brother,” he muttered. Then he swore in Italian. At least it sounded like swearing.
So much for the bonds of Italian brotherhood, she thought as he brushed by her on his way up the stairs.
DARIO took the stone steps two at a time leaving the American heiress behind. That’s all he needed—his brother interfering just when he was finally making progress. At least he thought he was. It was hard to tell when she kept insisting she wasn’t discouraged. But no woman in her right mind would take on a run-down operation like this. Most women he knew wanted a beautiful house, land, money, excitement and more.
Naturally the woman he compared all others to was his ex-fiancée, Magdalena, who’d made it clear the life he’d offered her was not enough. Surely this woman would have to agree, sooner rather than later, that this run-down dump of a place was not enough for her, no matter what the long-term possibilities were, and run back to where she came from, which was where she belonged.
“What are you doing here?” he asked Cosmo, who was standing in the stone patio, his car parked in front of the house.
“I heard from Delfino the American woman might be on the property. I wanted to say hello and welcome her on behalf of the family.”