Excerpt 2

"Just one kiss" #1

When Amy Spencer left the tiny branch of the bank, she was tired, frustrated, and hungry. To top it all off, the room hadn’t been air-conditioned, so the result of her fifty-minute wait in a small, stuffy room without any windows was not only the beginning of a headache and a latent queasiness, but also sweat patches on her new blouse, which she had put on this morning when she’d left for her part-time job.

One of three part-time jobs, to be precise. Unfortunately, waitressing in a café right in the center of a tourist hotspot was as little fun as selling museum tickets, and conducting walking tours for American visitors who wanted to see ancient Rome.

It was August, which meant not only that the air was thick enough to cut in the narrow streets and alleys of the Italian metropolis, but also that any sane inhabitant had fled the city for the beach. Meanwhile, Rome was crowded with tourists reckless enough to want to be steered across the Roman Forum, through the Colosseum, and into the Vatican in unbearable heat. Amy had a tale or two of how exhausting it was, climbing the stairs of the ancient amphitheater in these all but sub-tropical temps while droning on about the Romans to a panting horde in shorts and flip-flops, explaining how the ancient people had even staged water battles in the giant oval 2,000 years ago. Ever since school had let out in the U.S., new wannabe cultural enthusiasts and their offspring came flying into Rome every day, parents determined to combine vacation and education for their kids. Most of the annoyed, pouting sons and daughters would have preferred to spend their time on the beach, instead of getting blisters amongst the antiquities of the Roman Empire. Amy saw it every day.

And she could relate to the teenagers.

Granted, she loved the ancient ruins, the time-honored sites, and adored the antique art of the Eternal City, but that didn’t mean she wouldn’t have preferred to hit the beach in this weather. She didn’t have a choice, however. She had to earn money for her room and board. That was the only reason she spent most mornings waitressing, sat for interminable hours in a tiny kiosk selling museum tickets, and marched through the streets with a brightly painted stick in her hand, steering endless groups of tourists through the many passageways of Rome, making sure she didn’t lose a single sheep in her many flocks.

When she’d arrived in Rome almost a year ago, she’d been so much more optimistic and couldn’t wait to actually live in this fascinating city. Her daydreams had shown her a life filled with painting, eating gelato, and philosophizing about life. She’d expected to sit at the beautiful Tiber with her easel, painting one masterpiece after another.

For a small-town girl from North Carolina who had studied art and never had anything exciting happen in her life before, moving to Rome had been a dream come true.

It hadn’t taken her very long to realize that life in Rome was much more expensive than she’d thought, and that the Tiber was actually sludgy and smelled like a giant cesspool come summer. So, instead of spending her time sitting in picturesque spots and painting, Amy had looked for a part-time job. She didn’t mean to complain, either, for she loved life in Rome, and, most days, she even enjoyed telling tourists about the fascinating buildings of the ancient Romans and showing them the splendor of the city.

But, at the moment, her mood was a little sour.

The hot weather made her feel sluggish, she hadn’t painted in a while, and to make matters worse, the banks were on strike again, which meant her account was as good as empty, with no transfers being processed.

She’s been warned about Roman bureaucracy, but she hadn’t thought it could really be that bad. This was the second day in a row she’d spent her lunch break marching to the bank, hoping to find money in her account. She only had forty euros left in her purse, and rent was due by the end of the week. The thought of not being able to give her landlord the money made her break out in another sweat. Signor Giordano was an older gentleman of the affectionate and understanding, grandfatherly type, and he rented her the two rooms in his ancient house in Trastevere for an absolute bargain price. She even called a tiny roof terrace her own. She didn’t want to owe money to Signor Giordano, of all people. He received only a meager pension himself and lived rather frugally.

She was frustrated when the bank teller had fobbed her off with a mere “maybe tomorrow,” and only after she’d waited for an eternity in the stuffy and overheated branch office. It meant she had no idea whether she’d be able to pay her rent that weekend.

The money she had saved so painstakingly back home was long gone. It was nothing short of a miracle that she’d had even enough savings to fly to Europe after graduating from college. No person with half a brain would major in art. At least, according to Amy’s great-aunt Hazel, who had raised her.

But for Amy, art had been the only possible career. She didn’t need a lot of money to be happy, no fancy apartment or pompous car. Instead of slaving away in an office, asking herself whether that was really the life she wished to live, she simply pursued the one thing that made her happy. Period.

She’d always dreamed of going to Europe to paint. Working in the places where the other great artists of history had worked before her.

Even though she could hardly remember anything about her mother, she recalled quite clearly how they had gone to a museum once, her mother showing her all of the paintings, the pair of them trailing through the halls for hours on end. Her mother’s enthusiasm for art had been tangible and contagious, and Amy had listened to her animated voice transfixed, clutching her mother’s warm hand and taking in a painting by Monet. Whenever she saw a Monet today, she could still hear her mother’s voice, could still feel a warm embrace and a kiss on her forehead.

Art was a connection, a lifeline to the mother she knew so little about. Painting meant everything to the girl who had lost her mom in a car accident right after starting elementary school. The girl who’s been sent to live with her great-aunt soon after, because her father couldn’t cope with the death of his wife and had taken to the bottle.

Most of the time, Amy expressed herself much more easily in her paintings than she could have in words. And they made her feel close to her mother, much closer than she’d ever been with her great-aunt. It wasn’t that she hadn’t gotten along with Hazel, for Amy was grateful the woman had taken in her great-niece. But their relationship had never been particularly affectionate. Aunt Hazel happened to be an extremely conservative lady. She never married and had been happy to devote her life to church work instead. Had she been born Catholic, she’d have become a nun, there was no doubt about that.

Hazel had not really understood or appreciated a child prone to daydreaming, one who, in turn, hadn’t found much solace in church and didn’t yearn to become a God-fearing housewife. Amy’s choice of career had irritated the hell out of the older woman, and the fact that she’d spent her entire life in the narrow circle of her small town had not helped either. After graduating from high school, Hazel had opposed Amy’s wish to go to college in another state. But Amy had gone anyway, and their relationship had been cool and distant ever since.

During her rare visits over the last few years, Amy had never been able to shake the feeling that Hazel looked at her now as if she were a Satanist ready to tear the wooden cross from the wall at any moment. Amy had even accompanied Aunt Hazel to church to show her good will, and had ignored the shocked look with which Hazel had scrutinized her pierced ears. If pierced ears were an indication of someone’s pact with the devil, her great-aunt had better never meet Amy’s tattooed art professor, who posed as a nude model for his students each semester.

Of course, that wasn’t entirely normal for Amy, either. She remembered quite vividly how, the first time, she had stared at her sketchbook with flaming cheeks, not knowing how to act. She’d taken art classes in high school, of course, but Mr. Camden, who’d also been her math teacher and who couldn’t distinguish between watercolors and crayons, would never have presented himself to his class in the nude, even if it was for practicing purposes. Not to mention if he had exposed his weak physique to the students, he would have been chased out of town by an outraged mob of righteous townspeople, probably complete with torches and pitchforks. After all, even teaching evolution was a sore spot in Garrington, and Amy guessed a naked art teacher would have been burned at the stake, right along with Darwin.

After living in Garrington for twelve years, it had been quite the adjustment for Amy to get used to naked, tattooed art professors, rollicking campus parties, and roommates who bought pregnancy tests every other month while pondering who might be the father of the possible baby. Amy might have been an artist, but she did not fit the stereotype—you know, advocating free love, drinking copious amounts of alcohol from noon to night, and trying to solve painter’s block with an assortment of drugs. In fact, Amy thought of herself as something of a prude. After all, she hadn’t had a boyfriend in high school.

The problem was, she was a hopeless romantic.

Even though it was considered old-fashioned and sometimes downright embarrassing for an emancipated twenty-first century woman, Amy was still of the opinion that you shouldn’t have indiscriminate sex or pick up every guy who crossed your path. Of course, she was no expert in human relationships. Once she began dating in college, she had only every slept with two men, and both had turned out to be total flops. Thus, it was no wonder Amy had decided she would only allow another guy into her life if she really fell in love.

At the moment, however, it did not seem likely. Not that it caused her sleepless nights or anything. She was no party animal and didn’t go out a lot. She wouldn’t have called herself a hermit, either, she just didn’t need a lot of people around all the time. After all, that’s what she had all day in each of her jobs. And since she didn’t go clubbing every night, like a lot of women her age, she rarely ever met men who interested her.

Unfortunately, the men already in her circle of friends were all artists as well, which meant they were quite the flirts. However much Amy might admire their artwork, she would never consider hooking up with one of them.

That would have seemed cheap.

Not wanting to focus on the sweltering heat any longer, nor her lack of funds or the depressing outlook on suitable men, she grabbed her backpack, put on her sunglasses, and headed for her favorite spot.

She was done for the day—finished guiding a herd of tourists through the Pantheon, selling tickets, and zigzagging through the café with a tray in her hands. She was free to go sit in the Garden of Oranges, the park beside Saint Sabina church, to enjoy the cloudless sky for a while and read a book. She’d also packed her drawing pad, but she was in a dry spell. She didn’t feel like tracing a single line on paper right now, so she assumed she would end up with the book anyway.

As she made her way to the other side of the Tiber, she almost lost heart and turned around. Each and every alleyway and sidewalk was crowded with tourists, who stopped every three steps to take pictures of old buildings. Amy was normally an incredibly patient person, but today she couldn’t muster her usual indulgent smile for the gawping crowd of international visitors. Her own frustration was too all-encompassing for that.

When she finally reached the peaceful garden tucked away from the street, she breathed a sigh of relief, closed her eyes, and inhaled the spicy scent of the orange trees. The garden was considered an insider’s tip, and thankfully, it was accordingly deserted. The August heat made the air shimmer here as well, but since the garden was located on the Aventine Hill, a light breeze promised a little fresh air and made sitting very comfortable.

Amy smiled as she felt herself become enveloped in that peaceful quiet that was so rare in a city like Rome. She slipped out of her sandals and crossed the grass to sit in the shade of one of the trees and lean against the ancient trunk.

She simply sat there for a few moments, enjoying the twitter of the birds and stretching out her legs. Just when she was about to reach into her backpack for her book, her gaze discovered a man sitting on a bench, his face in profile, seemingly enjoying the view over Rome.

Her heart skittered a bit, which was very strange, since she’d never seen the man before. Maybe her fright was simply a reaction to the fact that she had thought herself quite alone in the garden. Or maybe her heart was suddenly beating such an erratic, wild tattoo because he possessed the most classical features she had ever encountered in real life. Maybe she couldn’t help studying him with such breathless wonder because she had never met such a good-looking man before. Straight-backed yet casual, he was leaning against the wooden bench, his long legs stuck out in front of him, giving the impression he felt very much at home here.

The self-assured posture might have exuded arrogance in other people, but strangely enough, it didn’t in him.

Slowly, Amy’s gaze moved to his face, which seemed utterly relaxed. She could make out a strong chin, hollow cheeks, a straight nose, and dark eyebrows. Combine that with raven-black hair and broad shoulders underneath his blue polo shirt, and his countenance drew her eyes like a spell.

Before she really knew what she was doing, Amy pulled out her sketchbook and began to draw him. Her fingertips tingled as she put his profile on paper with practiced lines and strokes, looking up to memorize his features and then, pursing her lips in concentration, hurrying back to her paper to continue. Over the past few weeks, she hadn’t been able to find her passion, but now she felt a piercing need to draw this man. As though, if she didn’t yield to this urge, she would burst into a million pieces.

When she was in the midst of correcting the contours of his forehead, a shadow fell across her drawing pad.

She gave a start, and her head jerked up, only to meet a pair of bright green eyes studying her with curiosity. She blushed when she realized her model had discovered her drawing him.

“That is a very flattering drawing,” the man said, sounding amused. “Are you sure that’s supposed to be me?”

Amy blushed violently, her heart racing like crazy. The man didn’t just study her drawing with interest, but also lingered on her face, her body.

“I … I’m sorry,” she stuttered, searching for the appropriate words. “I just wanted …”

“It’s okay.” He waved her fumbling apology aside, his lips curving into a wide grin. “To be honest, this is the first time I’ve seen a drawing of myself.”

Amy stared at him without replying, her tongue stuck in her throat, as his gaze moved back and forth between the drawing and her face.

Finally, he lowered his head. “Please excuse my intrusion. I was curious what you were drawing with such concentration. I didn’t mean to interrupt you.”

“You didn’t,” she replied with a nervous little smile, unable to take her eyes off his handsome face. Close up, he really was as good-looking as she’d thought from afar. His bright green eyes were framed by thick, dark lashes that any woman would have killed for.

“Patrick,” he said, holding out his hand.

She swallowed sheepishly, offered him a hesitant smile, and shook his hand. “Amy.”

When his skin touched hers, she felt a sudden heat spread through her body, which made her blush even harder. She was embarrassed by the force of her visceral reaction to the casual skin contact and the captivating smile of this stranger, who didn’t seem to be in a hurry to leave again. Instead, he let go of her hand and pushed his hands into the pockets of his jeans.

His lips curved into an amused smile as he confessed, “I actually assumed I’d be the only American up here. I was told this place is a secret haven for locals.”

She blinked. “How … How did you know I’m American?”

“Apart from your accent, you mean?” He chuckled. “The button on your backpack.” He pointed at the emblem of her university, which had been pinned to the side pocket forever.

“Oh.” She smiled sheepishly up at him. “I’ve been found out.”

He laughed and shifted his weight. “Given my investigative skills, I should have gotten into Langley. The CIA.”

His humor made her a bit more comfortable. She lifted a finger to her lips and gave a stage whisper in mock seriousness. “If that’s really your plan, you shouldn’t shout it so openly.”

“I’ve been found out,” he said, echoing her words. Then he raised his eyebrows inquisitively. “Between an American woman and an American man—I mean between you and me—let me ask you this, Amy: What made you as crazy as I was, coming to Rome during the hottest weeks of the year?”

Her heart was beating in her throat by now. She brushed a stray curl of blond hair from her forehead and licked her lips. “I’ve actually lived in Rome for almost a year now,” she explained, before taking a deep breath and nervously rushing on, “But considering I led a twenty-head group from the States through the Roman Forum yesterday, I’d say that a great deal of our fellow Americans are crazy enough to visit Rome in August.”

“Wow.” He gave her a wink. “That was quite a lot of information at once.”

She blushed and pulled a tuft of grass from the lawn. “Well, I …”

He made a dismissive gesture with his hand. “Don’t mind me. I’m still jetlagged, probably not making sense anyway. So, Amy, what are you doing in Rome?”

His obvious interest left her confused. “I-I’m a painter,” she stammered.

“I see. So you’ve come to Rome to draw unsuspecting tourists in orange gardens?”

“Sort of,” she said with a soft smile. His answering smile gave her confidence, so she said mischievously, “There are too many street artists at places like the Pantheon and Piazza Navona already, pressuring harmless tourists into letting them draw them. I figured my chances were better up here.”

He smirked and let out a gleeful laugh. “And I’ve walked right into your pretty trap.”

Amy couldn’t suppress the smile that spread across her face when she looked up at him. His own smile and the happy twinkle in his eyes were too contagious, she just couldn’t remain cool and composed. “Usually it’s only priests who stumble into this place, so my trap hasn’t been working that well.”

“Interesting,” he murmured. “An American in Rome who doesn’t just draw unsuspecting tourists but also ambushes clergymen. Something tells me I should run away. Quickly.”

She giggled and shook her head. “I’m completely harmless! Just wait until you get to the areas where you can’t walk three steps without being accosted to buy a selfie stick or a fake purse. Then you’ll know what ambushing really means.”

“Thanks for the warning.” He knits his brow above his wondrous green eyes. “Although I wonder why anyone would try to sell me a fake purse.”

She shrugged and leaned back a little so she could look up at him from a more comfortable angle. “You could be holding ten selfie sticks already, and they’d still insist you want another one.”

He snorted. “You’re really getting my hopes up. Now I can’t shake the feeling that my sightseeing will be nothing more than a sales show.”

She laughed. “You’ll get used to it. A tourist in one of my groups recently told me he bought a selfie stick from a vendor just to use it to beat him up afterward, to stop the constant sales pitch. I’m not sure if he was kidding or not.”

“There’s an idea!”

“And what are you doing in Rome, Patrick?” Amy asked, much to her own surprise.

“You mean besides sneaking into deserted gardens hoping to be drawn by blond artists?” He flashed her a wide grin. “I thought I could use a vacation, and that there’d be great pizza in Rome. So here I am.”

“And you can’t find pizza where you live?” she asked playfully.

He groaned theatrically. “I’m from Connecticut, and I work in New York, which means there’s pizza on every corner. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good.”

“Oh my,” she laughed. “A week ago, I had a group of New Yorkers. You’d be mauled by those people for what you just said!”

“I’ll take the risk.” He cocked his head to one side and looked straight at her. “So you’re really a tour guide?”

Amy shrugged. “Several times a week. When it’s not as hot as today, it’s actually a lot of fun.”

His green eyes sparkled as he nodded. “Now I know who to ask for a tour of the city.”

Speechless, she returned his frank gaze with puzzlement. If she wasn’t completely wrong, he was flirting with her. The realization caused her to lower her head, and she felt a stirring of butterflies in her stomach.

He ran a hand through his hair and turned his head to let his eyes roam the garden. It afforded her the opportunity to study him covertly. Her heart was still galloping wildly, and the butterflies in her stomach were testing their wings, though she didn’t understand where they’d come from so suddenly. She wasn’t the type to fall head over heels for a man she had met a mere ten minutes ago. Nor did she see herself as one of those naïve little girls who fell for flattering phrases and started giggling when a man paid them a compliment.

So why was she reacting like that now?

“Since you know your way around Rome, you probably know of a nice café around here,” he said, turning back to her.

“Of course,” she replied obligingly. “Go left when you step out of the garden, then follow the street down. If I’m not mistaken, it’s about ten minutes …”

His hoarse laugh interrupted her explanation. “How about if you accompany me there, Amy.”

Surprised, she asked, “Pardon?”

“Would you come with me?” he asked cheerfully. “Sitting alone in a café is even more depressing than sitting alone in an orange garden.”

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