Please find the links to previous chapters here:
Leila breakfasted on the terrace an hour later. Idly forking about bits of egg and sausage, she hardly noticed the stranger walk up the low marble steps that led from the pool area. Mira had just left her a short while ago, and she thought she was alone, when the heavy accented voice broke through her reverie. “Excusie, Princess, Your highness, … I’m sorry I know not the correct… mmm… word, Mrs Vincenzi?” Her eyes lifted to the speaker. Eyes the colour of the Mediterranean under sunny skies measured her shyly and then fell to the plate in front of her. “Do you not like the food?” His tone was disbelieving. “Mama, no, Calina, the cook will be very disappointed.”
Leila understood the gist of concern instantly. “Oh, no the food is delicious. I’m just not hungry.” When he still seemed unconvinced, she continued, “It’s been a long journey, I guess I’m still a little tired, but your mother, Calina, is a fantastic cook.”
There was something endearing in the look of the young man who stood before her. His earnest expression and the way his nut-brown skin tightened over a well-built body that looked like it relished hard work under hot Tuscan suns, instantly won her over. “You know who I am, but I’m afraid I don’t know who you are, except that you’re Calina’s son.”
A smile quickly beamed from his handsome face. “Excusie, my manners are as bad as my English.” And he laughed at himself. “Luca Giacomo, your highness. I am the estate… manager.” He started to bow, then decided to step forward and stopped, fumbling with the cap he had removed from his head when he first greeted her, then moved forward and reached for her hand which he took tentatively and shook vigorously. Leila could not think of another word but adorable to describe Luca Giacomo. She smiled and insisted he call her Leila, which he eventually agreed to do.
“Mr Vincenzi called first thing this morning. He…”
“Marco called?” Leila interrupted Luca. He looked at her uncertainly for a moment.
Leila had been trying to call Marco most of the morning. And all she ever got was his voicemail. Reluctant to leave a message, she had cut the call. The realization that he did not want to speak to her, that hindsight had not provided clarity of thought or forgiveness, was a stab in her gut. Almost bent over with the pain it unleashed, she felt her world suddenly spin around her. She was sure she was going to be sick.
“Princess, Mrs Vincenzi …Leila, are you okay?” Luca was at her side, gently leaning her back on the terrace chair. He poured a glass of cool water from the pitcher and offered it to her. “You have turned pale, I should call someone.” But she pulled at his sleeve, and told him she was fine.
“Just a little light-headed, nothing more.” She sipped the water and straightened herself.
She was loath to ask Luca what Marco had to say, but she was curious. However, Luca beat her to it. “Marco was hoping I take you on a tour of the estate, but I think it is best you should rest.”
“No, I’m fine.” She smiled weakly. “I think after I get some of that breakfast in me, I would love to see this beautiful place.” The concern still lingered in those blue eyes. “You have done a great job as a manager, it is clear to see.” At that he smiled shyly and then insisted she eat.
Villa Almanacarra was immense. The vineyards stretched as far as the eye could see but when they had driven to the end of that, there were orchards of lemon and olive trees that stretched further up the valley bowl. They walked among the vines, where clusters of purple jewels hung low. Luca picked a bunch and handed her a few of the lush fruit. “These have to be properly ripe before it is hand-picked. If it is too ripe or not ripe enough then your wine will not be good. Now is not the right time.” He popped a few in his mouth. “Soon, just a little more time. Then the pickers will come and the grapes will be carefully collected at night.” She too tasted the sweet sangiovese grapes that had a hint of strawberry and later when they passed the citrus grove, smelled the enormous lemons that dangled like golden baubles on fat trees.
When they drove to a complex of buildings on a small rise of land, Luca proclaimed it the winery. Leila was charmed by the stone walls, towers and cellars – that were surrounded by the blue hills that sloped to touch the skies. Roman pots were a striking feature at the entrance that led one from the ancient exterior to a modern interior. The stone walls were the only prelude to an era bygone for within the walls were a feat of modern decor and technology. There was a busy quietness that she intruded upon when curious eyes turned toward her. Greetings exchanged and good wishes were bestowed by a group of young men and women whose designations she’d forgotten due to them being so diverse, she continued through the long building, with its glossy tiled floors upon which long leather seats sat opposite each other. A door took them to a larger cooler room where wine racks stood with bottles and bottles of wine that bore the famous Almanacarra label.
Another room contained large steel vats, long turnbelts, troughs and an assortment of other inconceivable machinery. She found herself listening intently as Luca explained the process. There was an undeniable passion in the young man’s voice, and she was caught up in it as he took her from machine to machine. She could almost forget about Marco in the silent cavity below ground that housed rows and rows of wooden barrels which held the finest wines to be aged until it is deemed perfect. Almost.
Marco had arrived at Villa Almanacarra exactly at the time he predicted. He wore his weariness in a slightly crumpled suit and a day’s stubble. He could have gone to the house first, he could have taken a shower, had a fresh change of clothes and regained some semblance of himself, but he needed to see her. He found her in the winery, glass in hand, her head thrown back in laughter while strands of her dark hair glinted in the low lights of the cellar. She was laughing at young Luca who was sucking at a glass of wine, rolling the wine about in his mouth along his tongue and then swallowing it. Explaining the wine tasting technique connoisseurs favour, Luca asked her to emulate his actions, only to have her laugh again. In that moment Marco felt the weight of the last few days lift and all he wanted to do was take her in his arms and let that joyous sound ripple through his body until he knew for sure she was his. “Why can’t I just sip it and swallow it like a normal person,” she asked Luca, who couldn’t resist laughing along with her.
“You can do that too, the wine made here tastes perfect any which way you drink it.” Marco walked the last few steps down the staircase into the cellar. Both turned toward him. But it was Luca who stepped toward him first. “Marco!” A brief exchange in Italian ensued. But Marco’s attention stayed on Leila. She was being cautious. He recognised that immediately and his heart sank. “Will you give me a moment with my wife, please?” Luca smiled knowingly as he departed.
“So, what do you think?” Marco pushed his hands in his pockets in attempt to stop himself from reaching out to touch her. Her gaze held his steadily and he noticed the faint shadows under her eyes.
“What do I think? Does it matter what I think?” He studied her carefully. Her eyes sparked with a cold fire. And he found himself smiling. He needn’t be afraid that she harboured no feelings for him. Leila was every bit a woman of feeling and although he’d hoped for love, he could do with the anger, for now.
“Yes. Because you do matter.” He watched the large brown eyes flicker with uncertainty and then suspicion.
His voice softened, “Don’t look at me like that cara.” To her now questioning gaze he said, “Like you’re wounded and furious at the same time.”
“Wounded, no. But furious… How could you not call or even message me. Was this your way of punishing me? I told you I had nothing to do with that ridiculous article.”
“But you have to admit there was compelling evidence.” He regretted the words as soon as they slipped out.
But her reaction was not what he expected.
It wasn’t an action she had consciously thought of, more of a spontaneous response. But her arm jerked forward with a pent-up force and the contents of her wine glass, which Luca had told her was a special blend especially formulated for the new season, hit Marco in the face. For a rather long moment they both looked at each other in frozen shock. Marco with wine dripping off his unshaven face while Leila’s interchanged between regret and satisfaction.
Then Marco tipped his head back and laughed. “Leila. What am I to do with you.” In a swift move he pulled her to him and kissed her with wine drenched lips. She hungrily returned his kiss and matched it passion for passion.
“I missed you cara,”he murmured when she broke the kiss abruptly.
“What are we doing Marco?” She was breathless but determined. “Is this how we’re to continue? Seems I have no choice but to play along, do I?