Excellent, Marcella. Grazie. Everything looks perfetto." Guillermo rubbed his hands together. Marcella could always be counted on to set a good table, and when he had asked her to serve a romantic breakfast for two on the portico, she did so enthusiastically, while assessing him with her squinty x-ray eyes and shaking her head.
It might be a bit obvious, to have breakfast in the place they had shared their first kiss, but it was all in the way it was handled.
"Bibi got her breakfast in bed?" he asked, suddenly concerned she would frustrate his plans.
"She will, when she shows some sign of living," Marcella replied, giving the table setting one last polish and tweak.
Thankfully, his little sister was not an early riser. Whether in the city or the country, she always found ways to entertain herself until the wee hours, and could always be counted on to skip a civilized breakfast table, in favor of cioccolato calda e pane in bed followed by he-knew-not-what kind of elaborate spa ritual that usually took several hours. The perfect chaperone.
He bounced on the balls of his feet, anticipating the morning alone with Clio. He checked his watch again.
He closed his eyes, letting the remembered sensations shimmer through his blood. He was still buzzing with the effect of their hot kiss. Who knew? He thought to tease, to plant the idea of an embrace, a kiss in her mind, with the romantic evening setting, always one of his favorite spots at the villa, and a little strategic intimacy. He had not expected her to melt like honey in the sun.
"You look very handsome today," muttered Marcella. He glanced up, but she looked away.
Guillermo blinked and ran his hands over his torso and hips. "You think so?" He smiled. He knew he looked good, but he wanted to be irresistible to the young scholar, so he'd dressed and groomed with extra care this morning, keeping her background and tastes in mind. He thought with satisfaction that he looked a little like a young professor away for the weekend.
"Eh. You are always easy on the eyes, Memmo. But today you try harder. Why? What's up with this one?"
His chest filled, his heart tripping, and he sighed. He placed an open hand over his chest "Ah, Marcella. I believe I am in love."
"Pah! You are always in love, you young fool. But this one is…" She shook her head, pulled a face and shrugged.
"What?" He frowned at her. What had she seen? How could she not like the straight-laced, ladylike Clio? Was she not forever scolding him about his loose-moralled, glitzy models and actresses?
Another face, indecipherable. Her eyebrows raised, a pursed mouth, another head shake, a tsk, but no words of wisdom. Hmph. He dismissed it. Marcella had good instincts, but she was always worried about him, always giving him unwanted advice. Never mind. He plucked a fresh cut pink rose from the vase Marcella had arranged on the table.
"Well," he said as he stepped out the door, "this one requires a bit more effort, eh?"
Martino's voice from below. "Ah, ah, ah, I take for you, Signorina Clio. Where you want it?"
"Grazie, Martino. You can put it by the front door, per favore."
"You are leaving us? So soon?"
"An unexpected change of plans, yes. I'm sorry for the inconvenience. As soon as I have a quick coffee, Signor Guillermo will be taking me back to town, or at least to Stazione Montepulchiano."
"Oh, that's not right," mumbled Martino.
Guillermo's stomach tightened. He strode out onto the landing. Martino was half way down the stairs with Clio's weekend bag, while she stood on the landing, rummaging in her shoulder bag.
"Clio? What's going on?"
She started and looked up. "Oh, Guillermo. I can't stay, I'm sorry to make you drive back so soon. This was a terrible idea."
"No, no. Martino, stop, bring her bag back, per favore." Guillermo turned to Clio, searching her eyes. "Please stay." He realized his grip on the rose was crushing it. He extended his hand to her.
She paused, looking down at the rose, not taking it from him.
Martino paused on the stairs, turned and started up again.
Her head gave a tiny shake, then reluctantly she took the rose, holding it loosely at her side like a pencil, flicking its stem back and forth. "I can't stay, Guillermo. And you know why. I came here only to see the villa. You gave me your word." Her movements were choppy and she slashed her hand through the air, almost knocking her bag off of her shoulder, fumbling to hang on to the rose. "Martino, please take my bag down."
The old man stopped, his eyes scanning from her to him, from him to her. His chest heaved, and he started down again.
Guillermo reached out both hands, palms up. "I'm sorry. Scusami, ho sbagliato. I made a mistake last night, Clio. It was an accident. The night, the air, your eyes, your lips–"
"Stop. Stop it. That's what I mean. You can't control yourself. And I know why you think I am here, but you are mistaken. I came only out of curiosity and concern for your villa. I wished to see it. You mistake me if you think I am not a serious scholar, Guillermo. I am very passionate about my studies!"
As if she realized the double-entendre of her word choice, she looked away and her face suffused with color.
"It won't happen again. I promise."
"Your promises are worthless. I don't believe you anymore."
"Bella." Guillermo reached for her hand, hesitated. Then he dropped to his knee, his hand still poised in the air, imploring.
Clio's eyes widened at his gesture. He could see her reacting, judging, deliberating by the fleeting expression in her eyes. Her face was so readable, so open.
"Scusami, scusami. I am most sincere this time. I have been a terrible host. At least stay until I have had a chance to show you the villa. Per favore, have a little breakfast, and I will give you a proper tour, an academic tour. I have a great deal knowledge about the villa and garden that I can share with you."
She hesitated, fiddling with the stem of the rose. His heart surged with hope. Why was he was so motivated to keep this woman near him? He couldn't let her go. Not yet. "Martino, bring the lady's bag back up, please."
Martino rolled his eyes, hesitated and turned up the stairs again.
"No, Martino. Please. I will be leaving today."
"After the tour." Guillermo stood up, nodding encouragement. There was still time to change her mind. The tour could take a while.
Clio turned to Martino, about to speak. Martino froze.
Guillermo's chest squeezed, and he jerked forward, patting the air with his hands. "Okay, okay. I will take you back later today if that is what you really want, but first, the tour. A proper thorough tour. We will have a nice breakfast, and then I will show you the study. We have drawings, books, antiques, records–"
He'd said the magic word. Her eyes lit up. Hooked.
The last thing Guillermo needed was to revisit and reflect on the beauty and history of his ancestral home detail by detail. It would be like salt in his wounds. She would kill him, this woman. But he had her. He set the hook a little deeper to make sure she was invested in all that he could show her. "In fact, let us quickly go to the study now, and make a plan. Then we can discuss the details over a leisurely breakfast. Marcella has set a table for us on the portico." He gestured to the door.
Clio slanted a skeptical look in his direction.
He lightly touched her back, guiding her down the stairs. Martino raised his salt and pepper brows in question. "Just set Signorina Clio's bag there in the hall, Martino. Out of the way. We will be a while yet."
Marcella came out onto the landing, scowling, hands akimbo. "Where are you going? Breakfast is ready."
"We'll be right back, Marcella. In un momento."
"A quick breakfast only. I want to get started so we can head out early," Clio said, back straight as a pike, chin high. "Perhaps I can identify something to help you save the villa. I have some ideas–"
"Si, si." Guillermo humored her. He'd bought a little time, that was all that mattered. "It's possible."
Martino shook his head, sighed and preceded them down the stairs with Clio's bag, muttering, "There are no quick meals in this house."
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