"Welcome to heaven. Care for a Cabernet?"
Holly Elliott spun in the direction of the familiar voice. In her hurry to photograph the sunset view from the Famiglia Barrali winery's second floor patio, she'd completely missed her brother's fiancée, Chelsea Davis, sitting in a low-slung wooden chair just outside the door. Two clean glasses, a corkscrew, and a bottle of wine occupied the table beside the petite brunette, who looked at Holly with a smirk on her face.
"I saw you walking up from the bed and breakfast and figured I could persuade you to help me taste test before the rehearsal dinner. But if you'd rather take pictures...."
"Hey, you!" A wide smile lifted Holly's face at Chelsea's invitation. She crossed the patio to hug her future sister-in-law. "I wasn't sure you'd be back from the church. I'm so sorry I missed the rehearsal. But yes, I'd be happy to taste test."
Chelsea laughed, then leaned over the table to uncork the wine. "Planes are late all the time. No big deal. Besides, all you have to do is stand beside me in front of the altar. I can talk you through it before the ceremony."
"Either you're the most calm bride in history or you've already had the wine." Whereas Holly had spent most of the three hours her plane was delayed chastising herself for not taking an earlier flight.
One of Chelsea's shoulders lifted, then fell as she set the cork to the side. "It's a small wedding and Ben planned everything. Makes my life easy."
"If you say so." Holly wasn't sure she'd be so calm at her own wedding. Then again, Chelsea's unflappability was one of many reasons Ben had fallen hard for the vivacious flight attendant.
Unable to resist the pull of the gorgeous scenery, Holly moved to the patio's railing to survey the landscape while Chelsea poured. Nestled in the center of the Mediterranean island of Sarcaccia, the winery truly constituted a slice of heaven. Neatly pruned vineyards climbed the hillsides surrounding the cluster of ancient stone buildings that housed winemaking equipment, storage rooms, event spaces, and a bed and breakfast. Tall, narrow cypress trees lining the entrance to the main building sparkled with white Christmas lights. Throughout the valley, birds ignored the calendar, twittering away under the crisp blue sky as if it were summer rather than the last third of December.
To top it off, the romantic scent of wood smoke permeated the air, likely from the fire pit Holly had noticed alongside the main building when she'd arrived at the winery from Rome less than a half-hour ago. She'd checked into her room, been handed a heavy, antique iron key—given that the B & B had been built in the eighteenth century—left her bags in her room, then hustled so she could take photos before sunset. She couldn't imagine a more charming location for a wedding.
"I can't believe Ben actually works here now," Holly said as she set down her camera on a table near the patio railing. "This is the kind of job he's dreamed of his whole life."
"It's the kind of place I've dreamed of living my whole life. Getting married here is a nice bonus." Chelsea came to stand beside Holly and handed her a glass of the winery's prized Cabernet, then pointed over a low hill to their right. "Our house is just over there, a half-mile from the village. I'll give you a tour tomorrow if there's time. It's old and it's tiny, and the pipes rattle when we turn on the water, but it's surrounded by vineyards and we can just see the Mediterranean from the top floor. Assuming I ever finish unpacking the boxes so we can get to the windows, that is."
"Make Ben help you. He's perfectly capable of unpacking, you know."
Chelsea arched a dark eyebrow. "You ever meet your brother? He can't be made to do anything."
"I figured you're more persuasive than I am where he's concerned."
A wicked glint lit Chelsea's eyes. "Well, there is that."
Holly tucked a wayward strand of hair behind her ear, then raised her glass in a toast. "Here's to having you join the family. Twenty-four hours from now, you'll be an Elliott, you poor thing. Then we can work on Ben together."
Chelsea clinked her glass against Holly's before taking a leisurely sip. She pulled her sweater tighter around her shoulders and said, "Actually, Ben and I plan to work on you. Now that you're in Europe, too, we figure it's high time to find you a—"
"Stop right there." Holly waved a hand between them. "No matchmaking. Not that I don't appreciate the thought, but I'm too busy and too far away."
After Ben left their hometown of Boston to accept a position managing the Famiglia Barrali winery's dining operations, Holly decided there was nothing holding her in Boston, either. She'd taken a leap of faith and nabbed a spectacular job with a tour company in Rome. Though she was only two weeks into the job, she knew it was the perfect fit for her. Helping American tourists make the most of their time abroad gave her a sense of satisfaction, and exploring the deep history, rich culture, and eclectic neighborhoods of the city appealed to her personal sense of adventure.
More than that, Rome provided the new start she desperately needed.
Chelsea curled her mouth into a mock pout. "Oh, come on, Holly. Sarcaccia's only an hour away by plane. And you haven't seen Ben's best man yet. When you two are partnered up, believe me, you'll want to be partnered up."
Holly resisted the urge to plant her elbow in Chelsea's ribs. "You're awful. And besides, I thought Ben didn't have a best man with Gabe gone."
In fact, Holly'd counted on Ben's lack of a best man.
"Not Gabe. Prince Stefano. The Prince Stefano." Chelsea's voice came out in a squeak. "Can you believe it?"
Holly felt her mouth go slack. The Barralis behind the Famiglia Barrali winery happened to be Sarcaccia's famous royal family. While Holly knew the Barralis kept involved in the winery operations, she never in a million years expected to meet one of them in person, let alone Prince Stefano, who was a darling of the tabloid media thanks to his good looks and the string of catwalk models, actresses, and aristocratic women he'd dated over the years.
If ever a man could make her forget her obsession with Gabriel Maddox, it'd be the larger-than-life Prince Stefano Barrali.
"But how...how did that happen?" Holly asked once she'd recovered enough to speak.
"He was planning to spend a few days here to inspect the property and review the changes Ben's implemented with the menus, and said he'd love to attend our wedding. When Ben mentioned that his best man couldn't make it due to a business commitment, Stefano offered to step in, and...voila!" She flipped her hand in the air. "You're now partnered with a prince! And you know the man's a shameless flirt. If I wasn't the bride, I'd be insanely jealous."
Holly made a show of rolling her eyes. She didn't have a mouse's chance in a lion's den with a man like that. Didn't want a man like that, even if, as the maid of honor, she'd have plenty of opportunity to enjoy the man's company for the weekend.
"I haven't met him yet, but Ben says Prince Stefano's fantastic," Chelsea continued, her words tumbling over one another. "Smart about the business and a total gentleman, despite his reputation with the press. If Prince Stefano doesn't fit your standards, no one will."
For years, Chelsea, Ben, and nearly all of Holly's friends accused her of holding impossible standards when it came to men, standards that meant she'd either suffered through dates that left her feeling hollow at the end of the night or—more often than not—turned down offers completely. She'd shrugged and gone along with her friends' assessment, figuring it was far safer than telling them the truth: For nearly a decade, she'd been obsessed with her brother's best friend, Gabe Maddox. None of the guys she met had Gabe's charisma or the sharp mind that enabled him to graduate near the top of his law school class. Nor did they possess the subtle attributes that made Gabe so...Gabe. The sparkle that lit his face when he told a joke or won a hand of cards. The smooth cadence of his walk. The sweet way he interacted with kids, treating them as if they were his peers. The deep, rolling laugh that emerged from him when he and Ben swapped stories of their college antics. The strong, capable hands and muscle-corded arms that came from hours upon hours of hard, physical work taking care of his mother's home and yard when she was too ill to do so herself.
On the other hand, none of those men held a candle to Gabe when it came to loving and leaving women. Given what he'd seen of his parents' relationship, Gabe made no bones about the fact he wasn't wired for long-term relationships. And that was why, no matter how deep her attraction, Holly would never, ever let anyone know how she truly felt. If Gabe didn't possess the need for a singular, passionate romance, then neither should she. At least not with him.
She savored a mouthful of rich, red wine before telling Chelsea, "I'm honored you think I'm a good match for a man like Prince Stefano. But I'm not looking for...that...right now."
"You've got to be kidding me." Chelsea turned her face skyward, as if pleading with the heavens. "Christmas with a prince and she says no."
Familiar male laughter came from behind them. The women turned to see Ben crossing the patio. "I see you two found each other."
"And the Cabernet!" Chelsea raised her glass, then stood on tiptoe to give Ben a quick kiss before Ben turned and pulled Holly into a welcoming hug.
"You look phenomenal," Holly told her older brother once she stepped back from his embrace. Living in Sarcaccia agreed with him, but she suspected Chelsea was the real reason for her brother's cheerful expression and the buoyancy in his step.
"So do you," he said, though after a few polite questions about her flight, his attention quickly went back to Chelsea. "Do you have enough time to get ready for the rehearsal dinner?"
"Plenty," she assured him. "I was just telling Holly about Prince Stefano."
"And I was pretending I didn't overhear you playing Cupid." He waved them toward the doors. "Leave your drinks here and follow me. Prince Stefano's downstairs and I want to introduce you."
"Now?" Chelsea's hand flew to her hair. "I'm in jeans and I've been out in the breeze—"
"You look spectacular. Besides, I thought you wanted the prince to be impressed with my sister?" He winked, then led them through the second floor of the winery and down the stairs to the main room.
Though the building was centuries old, it had been remodeled to let in more light and serve modern entertainment needs. Wide-planked oak floors and stone walls kept the feeling of old Sarcaccia, while long, broad tables provided a place for guests to enjoy wine tastings and savor freshly-made dinners from the kitchen. A massive stone fireplace, its mantel decorated with Christmas greenery and topped with a carved and painted wooden angel, served as the room's focal point. The atmosphere breathed romance and family tradition.
A broad-shouldered man with dark, wavy hair sat at one of the tables, a sheaf of papers spread before him. He looked up as the trio approached, then stood. After warmly greeting Chelsea and wishing her the best on her upcoming wedding, he turned to Holly and extended a hand.
"You must be Ben's sister."
His handshake was as warm and friendly as his voice was seductive. Holly couldn't help but beam. "It's an honor to meet you, Your Highness."
"Please, call me Stefano. And I'm the one who's honored to participate in your family's big event." His eyes crinkled at the corners when he smiled down at her. They were intelligent, unusual eyes—green irises outlined in black, flecked with gold—which, when combined with his smooth olive skin and strong physique, made her suspect women would flock to this man even if he didn't hold a title or come from one of Europe's wealthiest families. "I understand that you're the maid of honor?"
"Then we'll have to work together to ensure Ben and Chelsea have a memorable wedding." His hand tightened fractionally around hers. "Perhaps we can come up with something during the rehearsal dinner?"
The question was left hanging as the main door to the winery opened. A gust of cool air blew through the room as a man entered carrying an overnight bag.
"Gabe!" Incredulity filled Ben's voice as he crossed the room in long strides to greet his best friend. "How in the world did you get here?"
"Airplane," Gabe replied, humor lacing his voice. "They have several flights a day connecting through Paris, as it turns out."
Holly froze in place as her brother and Gabe exchanged a back-slapping hug. Despite the fact Gabe sported an uncharacteristic five o'clock shadow, he looked as breathtakingly handsome as ever. Perhaps, if such a thing were possible, he looked better. His perpetually sunkissed hair had been cropped shorter than when she'd last seen him, giving him the appearance of a tough, take-no-prisoners military man.
"I can't believe this. Weren't you supposed to report yesterday?" Ben asked. What he didn't add was, "to Quantico." After two years practicing law in the Manhattan district attorney's office, Gabe decided to follow his dream and apply to become an FBI agent. He'd undergone rigorous physical training, a series of interviews, and had taken a battery of written and psychological tests after submitting his application. Despite clearing every hurdle, he still wasn't sure he'd be accepted. Receiving the notification that he'd been selected for agent training was a cause for celebration. Unfortunately, his scheduled report date at the FBI Academy was the day of Ben's wedding, and missing it meant missing out on his dream.
"Last minute change in the schedule," Gabe said. "I hope it's all right that I decided to surprise you."
"We're thrilled!" Chelsea assured him as she threw her arms around Gabe's neck. "It didn't feel right getting married without you here. There's even an empty room on the third floor of the bed and breakfast with your name on it."
Gabe spun Chelsea around, making her squeal with delight, but as he did so, his rich, golden brown eyes locked with Holly's. A frisson of heat surged through her, igniting her clear to her core. The impact of it caused her to take a half-step backward.
A subtle pull made her realize she was still holding Stefano's hand.
She glanced up at the prince and extracted her fingers from his. "Um, sorry. Distracted," she mumbled.
A curious smile curved his lips. "Entirely my pleasure."
Before Holly could respond, the prince moved to introduce himself to Gabe. "And this must be the missing best man. I'm glad you could make it."
"About that," Ben said, "Gabe, I asked Stefano to step in for you—"
"No problem," Gabe said at the same time Stefano shook his head.
"No, please. I'm more than happy to remain a guest and hand the duties back to you." Stefano glanced over his shoulder at Holly and added, "As long as I still get a dance with the maid of honor."
"I'm sure you can twist Holly's arm," Ben replied, his relief at avoiding a potentially awkward situation apparent. "Thanks."
"Speaking of whom"—once more, Gabe's piercing gaze landed on her—"I haven't gotten a hello. Long time, no see, Holly."
Chelsea glanced from Holly to Gabe, a confused frown creasing her forehead. "You saw her in Boston three weeks ago, didn't you? She told me you were there wrapping up the sale of your mother's house."
Gabe nodded. His mother passed away from cancer the previous year. It had taken Gabe and his siblings a while to sort through her belongings, put her home on the market, and find a buyer. "I did. She took me out to all my favorite places. Much as I've liked living in New York, it's not Boston. I doubt even Sarcaccia can compete with the restaurants in the North End."
He skirted around Chelsea to lean in and kissed Holly's cheek. Holly forced a polite smile to her face as his lips brushed her skin and she caught a breath of his scent. How could a man smell so amazing after spending an entire day on an airplane?
And why, oh why, did it make her want to close her eyes and kiss him full on the mouth, when she knew from experience exactly what a mistake that would be?
She managed a chipper, "Hello, Gabe. Glad you're here."
At the same time, he lingered near her ear long enough to whisper, "We need to talk."
© Nicole Burnham