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Italian Kisses: A Billionaire Love Story

By:Lucy Lambert

Chapter 1

As soon as I arrived at the party, I wanted to leave. I smiled politely at the slick-haired doorman as he waved me in with one white-gloved hand contrasting so sharply with his olive-skinned face. The skirt of my red dress swished around my legs while I shuffled in.

At the same time, a cool ball of anxiety started somewhere in the area of my lungs and began rising up through my chest and throat like some slow, agonizing elevator.

I hadn’t been this far away from the university since... I tried to think of such a time, frowning while a waiter conveying a tray of champagne flutes weaved around me.

Two months, I thought. It had been two months since I’d done more than go from my flat to the campus and from the campus to my flat.

You’ve fallen into a rut, came an admonishing voice. My voice.

An older man wearing a tuxedo jacket on his shoulders and a severe-faced Italian matriarch on his arm cleared his throat behind me.

“Pardon me,” I said, stepping out of the way. I’d been standing just a few steps from the doorway, apparently unable to keep myself from sliding back into said rut and drifting away in a daydream.

The man smiled at my use of English and led the severe-faced woman down through the front foyer in which we stood. As he passed, I found I could see myself in the reflection cast by his shiny head, which was lined with the white horseshoe of his remaining hair.

Just go inside, I thought, mentally prodding myself. He’s in there, waiting. But then again, maybe he was why I didn’t want to go inside.

He, you ask? One of my professors of art history at the Sapienza University here in Rome. Giuseppe Aretino. My escort by night and my teacher by day. Or at least that’s how he’d like to style himself.

I wonder if he knew I was seriously considering leaving Rome.

Stuck in a rut, I thought again. And apparently in more ways than one. From the large set of ornate doors that, by their iconography, appeared to have originated sometime in the 16th Century, the sound of a string quartet wafted to my spot.

I couldn’t recognize the particular piece, but then again, my interest lay more in art than in classical music.

There was also the soft murmur of dozens of conversations. Dozens of people. Dozens of strangers. And one particular black-haired (which he always kept slicked back with shiny oil) Italian professor with the power to make or break my grades this semester.

I looked down at the floor, the action of bending my neck forward like that jamming the elevator car of anxiety somewhere just below my larynx. The floor was marble, so perfectly polished and smooth I could easily make out the individuals ringlets of my hair as they shifted on my bare shoulders.

A head of curly blonde hair in a sea of shaggy black (in the case of younger Italians) or thinning grey-white (in the case of older Italians).

Professor Aretino... Giuseppe, as he always asked me to call him, liked to call me Golden Girl (Ragazza D’oro in Italiono) because of my hair. It had been cute at first, almost endearingly so when I made a Betty White joke about it and he didn’t get it, but now it grated on me.

In fact, I almost left right then and there, an angry pressure building behind my eyes while I stared down at the floor that looked like it might have been preserved since Antiquity but had probably been installed by one of Mussolini’s cronies back in the 1930s in an attempt to return Rome to some of its former Imperial splendor (God, even at times like that I couldn’t get my head out of the textbooks).

I even turned toward the door, which happened to open at the same time, sending a burst of sweet-smelling evening air into that glossy marble foyer.

I couldn’t leave, I knew then. If I left without putting in some sort of token appearance with Dr. Aretino, he’d corner me after our next lecture and he’d flail his arms about in that animated Italian way and I’d be roped into attending another function at another time.

That was it, I realized. I could put in my appearance and then go catch a taxi back to my flat and start looking into flights back to the States.

That thought really twisted in my stomach, the pressure forcing that elevator car jammed in my throat up another few inches. If I left now, my grades would be incomplete. In essence, thousands of dollars wasted. Thousands of dollars I’d promised not to waste.

I guess it goes to show that nothing turns out like you expect. Not even Rome. The place that wasn’t built in a day. All the roads may have lead here, but maybe an airplane could take me away.

So I swallowed against the cold lump and turned back. Rather, I turned my face right back into an expensive suit. I got a whiff of tastefully expensive cologne and a sense of hard muscle beneath the tailored jacket before rebounding.

“Oh!” I said, my reflexes making me stumble back, my shoes unable to find purchase on that slick marble floor. A cold, hard marble floor that definitely wasn’t going to be kind to my behind. My teeth clicked together and my eyes squeezed shut in anticipation of the jarring pain about to shoot up my spine.

Except it didn’t. Instead, two hands grabbed my out flung wrists and steadied me.

“Are you all right?” the man asked, his Italian flawless if accented. It was an American accent.

That startled me. Normally I wasn’t one to fall prey to stereotypes, but I’d definitely seen my fair share of American tourists speaking slowly and loudly in English or fumbling their way through an English-Italian dictionary to start believing there was some truth to it.

“Fine. Clumsy, but fine,” I said, giving my head a shake that sent those blonde curls of mine tumbling back and forth against my skin. Those hands of his still held my wrists, and I could feel the heat from his palms radiating against my skin.

“You speak English!”

“So do you, apparently...” I had a witty remark on the tip of my tongue, but it died there when I lifted my eyes to get a look at the face of my savior.

Dark hair, like an Italian. Black and glossy and so soft looking my fingers curled even as my stomach tightened with the desire to feel just how soft. It was tousled just enough to give that bed-head look without actually being bed-head.

Below that hairline, two baby-blues twinkled back at me with amusement. The barest hint of a five-o’clock-shadow graced sculpted cheeks and a dimpled chin. He wore a perfectly tailored suit that tapered to show his build without being flamboyant.

It was an Armani suit, too. Which brought to mind yet another old saw: When in Rome...

But what caught my eyes the most was the smile. The barest uptick at the corners of his thin lips, which parted just enough to offer a glimpse of the pearly-whites they curtained, confirmed the amusement I’d detected in those baby-blues.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” he said, giving my wrists a squeeze and glancing down in a gesture meant to draw my attention.

I followed his look and discovered what he’d been trying to get at. I’d twisted my hands in his grip without realizing it so that I could hold onto his wrists as well. Now that I saw what I’d done, I couldn’t help but think about what I felt.

The sleeves of his jacket and the cuffs of his shirt had ridden up, allowing bare, skin-to-skin contact. His pulse thumped strong and steady beneath the softness of his wrists. My own heart chattered against my ribs, and I realized that if I could feel his pulse, he must feel mine, too.

I jerked my hands back out of his grip so hard I nearly lost my balance again. “Fine, I’m fine!”

“That’s good to hear,” he said. And then he stuffed those saving hands of his into his pockets, hooking his thumbs in a way that invited my eyes to explore that fine body of his further. Did he do that on purpose, or did he just like standing that way?

He didn’t leave. Why isn’t he leaving? Still, that coy, boyish grin of his wasn’t the worst thing I’d seen that day. And it wasn’t an oily smile like Dr. Aretino’s.

“You know, it’s rather unusual to find another American at an event like this,” Mr. Baby-Blues, as I began calling him in my mind, said.

I crossed my arms. “Who said I was an American? I could be Canadian.” I didn’t know why I flirted with him like that. Moments, heartbeats earlier I’d wanted nothing more than to give Dr. Aretino a quick hello and beat a hasty retreat back to my flat.

It was the eyes, I decided. Or rather the way they crinkled at me in amusement. And those saving hands of his. It took no effort at all to recall how warm those fingers felt against my bared wrists.

Then he squinted those eyes at me, appraising. That small smile of his curved a little tighter. Something very low in my stomach tightened in response to that smile. I resisted the involuntary response, choosing instead to bristle in indignation.

“No, you’re definitely not Canadian,” he said.

I flicked my head to the side, tossing a few blonde curls off my forehead. “You can’t know that.”

“Actually, I can,” he said, leaning in conspiratorially. The movement wafted more of that light, expensive cologne my way.

“Are you psychic, then? Because there’s no way you know anything aboot me, eh?” My lips, so used to a neutral expression, began a slow, creaking uptick into a smile.

My Canadian caricature drew a raised eyebrow in response, once more drawing my attention to the laughing twinkle behind his eyes. I liked the way they met mine so calmly and confidently. This was a man used to flirting with women. Not the sort of man I normally liked to flirt with (I was more into the quiet, artsy type of guy, or so I thought).