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Excerpt: The Bride’s Awakening

Vittorio smiled easily. ‘I thought after dinner we could have a friendly game of cards—and discuss this business proposition.’

She arched her eyebrows higher. ‘Are you intending to wager?’

Vittorio shrugged. ‘Most business is discussed over some time of sport or leisure—whether it is golf, cards, or something else entirely.’

‘How about billiards?’

Vittorio’s own eyebrows rose, and Ana felt a fierce little dart of pleasure at his obvious surprise. ‘You play billiards?’

‘Stecca, yes.’

‘Stecca,’ Vittorio repeated. ‘As a matter of fact, the castle has a five pins table. My father put it in when he became Count.’ He paused. ‘I played with him when I was a boy.’

Ana didn’t know if she was imagining the brief look of sorrow that flashed across Vittorio’s face. She remembered hearing, vaguely, that he’d been very close to his father.

It’s all right to cry, rondinella.

She pushed the memory away and smiled now with bright determination. ‘Good. Then you know how to play.’

Vittorio chuckled. ‘Yes, I do. And I have to warn you, I’m quite good.’

Ana met his dark gaze with a steely one of her own. ‘So am I.’

He led her from the cozy little room with the discarded remains of their meal, down another narrow corridor into the stone heart of the castle and then out again, until he came to a large, airy room in a more recent addition to the castle, with long, sashed windows that looked out onto a darkened expanse of formal gardens. In the twilit shadows Ana could only discern the bulky shapes of box hedges and marble fountains. The room looked as if it hadn’t been used in years; the billiards table was covered in dustsheets, and the air smelled musty.

‘I suppose you haven’t played in awhile,’ she said, and Vittorio flashed a quick grin that once more caused her insides to fizz and flare. She did her best to ignore the dizzying sensation, pleasant as it was.

‘Not here, anyway.’ He pulled the sheet off the table and balled it up, tossing it in a corner, then opened the windows so the fresh, fragrant air wafted in from the gardens. ‘The cues are over there. Do you want something to drink?’

Ana felt reckless and a little bit dangerous; she knew why Vittorio had asked her if she played cards, why they were here about to play billiards instead of back in that candlelit room. This was business. She was business. He could not have made it plainer. And that was fine; she could handle this. Any disappointment she’d felt—unreasonably so—gave way to a cool determination. ‘I’ll have a whisky.’

Vittorio gazed at her for a moment, his expression thoughtful and perhaps even pleased, his mouth curling upwards into a little smile, before he nodded and went to push a button hidden discreetly by the door. Within minutes another servant—this time a man, some kind of butler—appeared at the doorway, silent and waiting.

‘Mario, two whiskys please.’

‘Yes, my lord.’

Ana selected her cue and carefully chalked the end. She studied the table with its three balls: two cueballs, one white, one yellow, and a red object ball. Vittorio was setting up the castle in the middle of the table: five skittles, four white, one red, made into a cross. The object of the game was simple; you wanted to knock your opponent’s ball into the skittles for points, or have it hit the red object ball. Her father liked to say it was a grownup game of marbles.

‘So where did you learn to play stecca?’ Vittorio asked as he stepped back from the table.

‘My father. After my mother died, it was a way for us to spend time together.’

‘How touching,’ he murmured, and Ana knew he meant it. He sounded almost sad.

‘And I suppose your father taught you?’ she asked. ‘Or did you play with your brother?’ She leaned over the table and practiced a shot, the cue stick smooth and supple under her hands.

‘Just my father.’

Ana stepped back, letting the cue stick rest on the floor. ‘Would you like to go first?’

Vittorio widened his eyes in mock horror. ‘Would a gentleman ever go first? I think not!’

Ana gave a little laugh and shrugged. ‘I just wanted to give you the advantage. I warned you I was good.’

Vittorio threw his head back and let out a loud laugh; the sight of the long, browned column of his throat, the muscles working, made something plunge deep inside Ana, and then flare up again in need. Suddenly her hands were slippery on the cue stick, and her mouth was dry. She was conscious of the way her heart had started beating with slow, deliberate thuds that seemed to rock her whole body. ‘And I told you I was good too, as I remember.’

‘Then we’ll just have to see who is better,’ Ana returned pertly, smiling a little bit, as if she was relaxed, as if her body wasn’t thrumming like a violin Vittorio had just played with a few words and a laugh.

The servant entered quietly with a tray carrying two tumblers, a bottle of Pellegrino, and another bottle of very good, very old single malt whisky. Ana swallowed dryly. She’d only said she wanted whisky because she’d known what Vittorio was up to; she’d felt reckless and defiant and whisky seemed like the kind of drink men drank when they were playing a business games of billiards.

She, however, didn’t drink it. She had a few sips with her father every now and then, but the thought of taking a whole tumbler with Vittorio made her nervous. She was a notorious lightweight—especially for a winemaker—and she didn’t want to make a fool of herself in front of him. Especially not with this desire—so treacherous, so overwhelming, so new—still warring within her, making her feel languorous and anxious at varying turns.

‘So,’ Vittorio said as he reached for the whisky, ‘do you take yours neat or with a little water?’

Water sounded like a good idea, a way to weaken the alcohol. ‘Pellegrino, please.’

‘As you wish.’ He took his neat, Ana saw, accepting her tumbler with numb fingers. Vittorio smiled and raised his glass, and she did likewise. They both sipped, and Ana managed not to choke as the whisky—barely diluted by water—burned down her throat.

‘Now, please,’ Vittorio said, sweeping his arm in an elegant arc. ‘Ladies first.’

Ana nodded and set her glass aside. She lined up her first shot, leaning over the table, nervous and shy as Vittorio watched blandly. Focus, she told herself. Focus on the game, focus on the business. Yet that thought—and its following one, marriage—made her hands turn shaky and the shot went wide.

Vittorio clucked his tongue. ‘Pity.’

He was teasing her, Ana knew, but she ground her teeth anyway. She hated to lose. It was one of the reasons she was so good at stecca; she’d spent hours practicing so she could best her father at the game, which she hadn’t done until she was fifteen. It had been five years of practice and waiting.

She stepped back from the table and took another sip of whisky as Vittorio lined up his shot. ‘So why do you want to marry me?’ she asked, her tone one of casual interest, just as he prepared to shoot. His shot went as wide as her own.

He swung around to face her, his eyes narrowed, and Ana smiled sweetly. ‘I think you’d make an appropriate wife.’

‘Appropriate. What a romantic word.’

‘As I said,’ Vittorio said softly, ‘this is a matter of business.’

Ana lined up her own shot; before Vittorio could say anything else, she could took it, banking his ball and missing the skittle by a centimeter. She’d been a fool to mention romance. ‘Indeed. And you see marriage as a matter of business?’

He paused. ‘Yes.’

‘And what about me is so appropriate?’ Ana asked. ‘Out of curiosity.’ Vittorio took his shot and knocked her ball cleanly into a skittle. Ana stifled a curse.

‘Everything.’

She let out an incredulous laugh. ‘Really, Vittorio, I am not such a paragon.’

‘You are from a well-known, respected family in this region, you have worked hard at your own winery business these last ten years, and you are loyal.’

‘And that is what you are looking for in a wife?’ Ana asked, her tone sharpening. ‘That is quite a list. Did you draw it up yourself?’ She took another shot, grateful that this time she knocked his ball into a skittle. They were even, at least in billiards.

Vittorio hesitated for only a fraction of a second. ‘I know what I want.’

Excerpt From: THE BRIDE'S AWAKENING by Kate Hewitt
Copyright © 2010 by Kate Hewitt
Permission granted by Harlequin Books S.A. All rights reserved.

January 2008