Authors: Kira Ward
!” Rachel muttered under her breath.
She tripped over the bottom edge of her dress bag when she looked down at her smartphone, trying to figure out where she was supposed to meet her ride. Samantha had told her—more than once—that there would be a car waiting for her when she arrived in Tuscany.
“I’m sorry, babe,”
she had said,
“but we’ve got to meet with the wedding planner first-thing Friday morning. I won’t be able to get away, but Josh can send the driver that he’s using to pick up Franco’s family…”
Well, if it was good enough for the groom’s family, how could Rachel argue?
Besides, she didn’t care how she got there. She just wanted to see her friend again.
It had been six years since they’d been in the same room together. Thanks to Facebook, Twitter, and Skype, they had managed to keep in touch—even planned a huge chunk of the wedding that way—but it wasn’t the same.
Rachel missed her best friend. She missed her smile, the feel of her hugs, the little things that words can never express. And she was thrilled to death that she was getting married.
She turned a corner, thinking she might ask someone for directions, but it seemed that everyone spoke Italian. Everyone. Even the people coming off the same flight as Rachel.
She hefted her purse higher up on her shoulder, hooked the dress bag over her other, and continued her walk toward baggage claim. She hadn’t checked anything; she had managed to pack most of her stuff in her carryon, but she vaguely remembered Sam saying the car would meet her outside one of the doors near the baggage carousels.
Funny how a couple of small town, Texas girls found themselves in Italy. Rachel could remember lying across her bed, Sam beside her, giggling as they dreamed of their future lives. They would get married at the same time and have their children at the same time so they would always have each other to play with. In their childhood fantasies they assumed they would always be together, would always do everything together.
Reality was never as perfect as dreams.
Rachel took an internship at a small newspaper in Oregon after graduation before starting school at Northwestern in the fall. She promised Sam that she would be back, but by the time she was able to fulfill that promise Sam was already gone. Always an amazing artist, she was on her way to Paris to practice her craft by the time Rachel could join her in the Big Apple.
It had been that way ever since. Each time one of them was in New York, Chicago, or Paris, the other had just left for one reason or another. Their busy schedules just never seemed to synch up.
That was what made this wedding so special.
And it wasn’t just the two of them. There was a whole group: Sam and Rachel, Frankie and Elena, Georgia and Jessie. Best friends since kindergarten. They would all be here.
And then there was Josh.
Just the thought of him made Rachel misstep.
Josh was Sam’s older brother. It was cliché, Rachel knew that. Half the girls in their small high school had a crush on him—heck, half the girls in the junior high, too. Rachel remembered Sam complaining about it, about how the other girls befriended her just so they could get close to him.
The thing was…Rachel had been in love with him since she was fourteen.
She tried to pretend that it wasn’t true. She hid her feelings, even though each time she saw him her heart would beat a little bit faster and her brain worked a little slower. Rachel occasionally—well, maybe more often than occasionally—went over to Sam’s house just so that she could be near Josh, so they could have long conversations about everything from music to popular movies to gossip about the teachers at their school. He was handsome, dark hair and amazing green eyes, charming and athletic and… amazingly successful now.
Josh was worth billions. At least, that’s how Sam explained it, and Rachel had no reason to doubt her.
Rachel did know, thanks to social media, that he ran a massive corporation that had its fingers in a dozen different pies. He bought and sold struggling businesses. He bought all kinds of real estate. He built businesses, usually technology-based, but he owned a chain of restaurants and the rights to a software program that was used extensively on the internet. He did so many things, even Sam couldn’t keep it all straight. It was like his touch was golden; everything he did was highly successful.
Rachel had always known he would do well, but she hadn’t expected that it would happen quite this fast. He was only twenty-eight, after all. It made her feel less than successful in her own career. Her only accomplishment was publishing a couple of books. Who cared about that in the long run?
Well, beside her million or so readers.
Rachel stopped as she approached the half dozen baggage claim carousels and checked her smartphone again. Door 5. Of course, door 5 was a dozen yards further down the concourse.
How could an airport be so crowded this early in the morning?
It was then she realized it was closer to lunch time. She’d forgotten about the six hour time difference, but when she stepped out the door and the sun burned light into her retina, she suddenly remembered.
She paused for a moment, her muscles tense and her breathing a little rough from her long walk, and waited for her eyes to adjust to the sudden light. When they did, she realized a man had come to stand in front of her.
A familiar man.
,” he said, his Texas drawl still so thick she could cut it with a knife. “Look at you.”
“The one and only.” He grabbed the strap of her bag and lifted it off her shoulder. “Were you expecting someone else?”
“Sam said you would just send a driver.”
“I could have done that,” he said as he gestured toward a Mercedes sedan parked at the curb, “but then I would have missed that look of gratitude in your brilliant blue eyes.”
He held out his keys and pushed a button that made the trunk open with a slow, mechanical movement. “You want the dress back there, or in the backseat?”
Rachel just shook her head and watched as he dropped her heavy bag into the trunk as though it weighed nothing and laid her dress bag carefully across it. He slammed the lid down and gestured for her to follow him to the passenger side door.
“We’ve got quite a ride,” he said, gesturing toward a bottle of water and a brown paper bag beside it in the console. “I took the liberty of getting a few snacks.”
Rachel climbed into the car, her head still spinning a little from his underhanded compliment. She must have been more tired than she had thought. Josh had never complimented her before; it wasn’t his style. He was charming, but it was a biting sort of charm, a charm that made it clear that he didn’t care if you liked him or not. He didn’t flirt, and he certainly didn’t hand out flippant compliments.
At least he didn’t used to. Maybe things had changed.
She picked up the paper bag as he pulled the luxury sedan out into traffic. From inside she pulled out a bag of Cheetos and a can of bean dip.
“Oh, wow,” she laughed. “I haven’t had this in a long time.”
“It used to be your favorite.”
“Yeah, before my sedentary job made it necessary to cut most of my favorites from my diet. I don’t want to suffer the same heart problems that my dad has.”
“This is a special occasion,” he said, leaning over slightly so that that their shoulders rubbed together. “Indulge yourself. It’s not every day Sam gets married.”
“Well, let’s hope not.” She looked at the snack she still held in her hand and then glanced at him. “I can’t believe you remembered this.”
“Who do you think was always cleaning up the empty cans and cheese smeared sheets after you spent the night?”
He tilted his head slightly, a little bit of color coming into his cheeks. “Not after she got sick.”
Rachel wanted to bite her tongue. “Sorry,” she said quietly.
For a moment he didn’t acknowledge her, only studied the road that was unfolding in front of them. The tension in his jaw reminded Rachel of the morning they buried his mother a full year after the cancer destroyed everything she once was. He stood in front of that casket with the same rigidity in his jaw, the same lack of expression on his face, as his father cursed the world and his sister cried silently. It was the saddest thing Rachel had ever seen.
He left soon after that, took off late one night without saying goodbye to anyone. He texted Sam from time to time, but the funeral was pretty much the last time Rachel saw him.
And the first thing she does is remind him of the darkest moment of his childhood?
Way to go, Rachel!
“So, Franco,” she said in an obvious attempt to change the subject. “What’s he like?”
A slow smile softened the angles of Josh’s face. “Italian.”
Rachel laughed. That she knew. She’d spoken to him a time or two over Skype. “Do you like him?”
“I like that he adores my sister.”
Rachel nodded. “He does seem to do that.”
He glanced over at her. “I think you’ll like him. He’s quite charming, but not in a bad sort of way.”
“Not like the guy who gets engaged and a week later is photographed at some gala with another woman?”
His eyebrows rose. “Someone’s been reading too much into the gossip on the internet.”
“That was on Sam’s Facebook page.”
“Well, the gala picture, anyway.”
“Sam likes to post those. She said it reminds her of prom.”
A memory filled Rachel’s mind at the mention of prom. When she was a junior, she went to Josh’s senior prom with one of the boys from the football team. Josh was there with Kylie Johnson, the captain of the cheerleading squad that year. Everyone knew they would be crowned king and queen, but it was still fun voting and gossiping about the possibilities. Even though they were the center of attention, and Kylie didn’t appreciate it much, Josh invited Rachel to dance during a song that evening. She remembered how gentle his hands were on her back, the way he seemed almost afraid to look her in the eye as they swayed gently to a melody that she would never again be able to listen to the same.
“Then the engagement was, what, a hoax?”
“It was more like wishful thinking on the part of the young woman.” Josh gripped the steering wheel a little tighter than necessary, his knuckles turning white for a moment. “She misunderstood something I said and posted it on Twitter.”
“Then you weren’t engaged?”
“We weren’t even dating, technically.”
“Hmm, that must have been some fantastic misunderstanding.”
He inclined his head slightly and laughed. “Very.”
Rachel chuckled and looked over at Josh. She was struck by how familiar he suddenly seemed to her, the same familiarity that sometimes overcame her when she went home for a visit and found her mother working a crossword puzzle at the kitchen table early in the morning. He was home to her. Home and so many other things that she couldn’t even begin to describe.
“The rehearsal dinner is tonight,” he said after a while, bringing her thoughts back to the present. “Then, of course, the wedding tomorrow afternoon. Sam is so excited that she’s driving everyone insane. I’m hoping that having you there will calm her down a bit.”
“Maybe. Or it’ll make things worse.”
Josh chuckled. “You’re right. Some things never change…”
s they turned
up the drive of the villa where the wedding was taking place, Rachel thought her jaw would permanently come unhinged by the surprise and awe that overwhelmed her. There were no words for how beautiful the grounds were. Trees and terraces, flowers and grass, rocks and retaining walls; it was so perfectly Tuscan.
Then the building, built in local greystone. It stood like a majestic cat snoozing in the sunlight. There was a wide porch along the front entrance, a stone driveway that led to an old carriage house that had been turned into a garage. It must have stood three stories tall with long, wide windows that stared down onto the front garden. The door was taller than anything Rachel had ever seen, almost medieval in its design. It was like something out of an old movie, a building that must have seen more history than Rachel would ever hope to learn her in her lifetime.
“Wow,” she whispered, feeling like a child who couldn’t think of a word adequate enough to express all she wanted to say.
“It was abandoned some time ago by the former owners, something about the cost of the upkeep, but it’s been completely restored, inside and out.”
“It’s amazing. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.”
“Come on. I’ll give you a quick tour.”
Rachel climbed out of the car and stretched, her body sore from both the long flight and the car ride. When she turned, Josh already had her things out of the trunk and was waiting for her at the bottom step of the porch.
He threw open the massive front doors without knocking or otherwise asking for entrance. There was marble on the floor and amazing tapestries on the walls. She stepped inside and he led her into a room that could have fit three of her New York apartments inside of it, decorated in an understated, modern style that was both so wrong and perfectly right for the historic feel of the place. Through wide glass doors at the back of the room she could see another lush garden whose terraces led the way down to a pale stretch of beach and water that couldn’t have been a purer blue if it came out of her filtered water jug back home.
“Beautiful,” she sighed.
“The wedding will be held there,” he said, gesturing with his elbow toward a section of sand a few yards from the water. “And the rehearsal dinner will be held out here on the loggia.”
She was beginning to feel like an idiot with all these one word answers, but even as a writer she felt at a loss for what to say.
Josh led the way to a stone stairwell that was clearly restored, but just as beautiful as it must have been when the house was originally built. At the top, he led her down a long hallway, making a few turns here and there before stopping in front of a double set of doors that were set in their own small corridor across from another set of double doors.
“This is you here,” he said, “and that’s Sam’s room.” He kicked the door open with the toe of his shoe.
A king sized bed with a canopy and expensive-looking down comforter. A high dresser that was painted white, a clear antique that matched the antiquity of the rest of the house. An oriental rug on the floor. An en suite bathroom. It was so much more than she expected.
Rachel walked over to the bed and ran the silky material of the draping canopy between her fingers.
“Reminds me of my bed when I was a kid.”
“That’s why I thought of you when I first saw it,” Josh said, coming up behind her. “I knew you would appreciate it.”
She turned, surprised to find him so close. Their lips were just a breath apart, his hands close enough to her hips that she could almost feel the heat of his skin. It wouldn’t take much for her to reach up and run her fingers over the rough stubble already dotting his jaw, even though his morning shave was likely only a few hours ago. How many times had she imagined doing just that? How many times when they were kids did she imagine touching him, of stealing a kiss or just letting her fingers brush his? And since? How many times has she looked at a photograph of him at some gala, some ten thousand dollars a plate charity event, wanted to know the scent of his cologne, the feel of his skin, to know if he still used Colgate because of the cheesy commercials they used to run on the television?
She bit her bottom lip, afraid he could read everything that was going through her mind. He raised his hand, almost as though he intended to touch her chin, as though he wanted to replace her lip with his own, as though he wanted almost as much as she did.
But before she could find out what it was he wanted to do with that raised hand, Sam burst into the room. “Rachel! I can’t believe you’re here!”
Josh stepped back just as Sam rushed into Rachel’s arms and knocked her onto the bed, both of them bursting into a gale of giggles as they found themselves tangled in each other’s arms.
“I think I shall leave you ladies to your reunion,” Josh said, a slight grin thinning that beautifully full bottom lip. “Enjoy.”
“I am so glad you’re here!” Sam announced. “There has been so much going on, and you should be enjoying this with me!”
“And you brought the dress!”
Sam jumped off the bed and rushed to the closet door where Josh had thoughtfully hung her dress bag on a hook. Sam grabbed the zipper and pulled it down, exposing the pale pink gown hidden inside.
“Wow!” she said as she carefully dragged the skirt out of the bag so that she could get the full effect. “The pictures you sent did not do justice. The color is absolutely perfect!”
“Is it?” Rachel crossed the room to stand behind her very tall friend, slipping her arm around Sam’s waist so that she could look around her side. “I was a little worried it was too light.”
“No. It’s exactly what I wanted.” Sam ran her fingers delicately over the lace that set the waist apart from the sweetheart bodice. “I couldn’t have picked out anything better if I tried.”
Rachel tightened her hold on Sam’s waist just as the door opened again, and familiar voices insisted on joining the party. The others had arrived, and Rachel was suddenly transported back to high school- High school if it had had lots of free alcohol, a real life Prince Charming, a language barrier, and a ton of handsome waiters.