Italy had to be the most beautiful place in the world.
Daniella Tate glanced around in awe at the cobblestone streets and blue skies of Florence. She’d taken a train here, but now had to board a bus for the village of Monte Calanetti.
After purchasing her ticket, she strolled to a wooden bench. But as she sat, she noticed a woman a few rows over. Stunning with her white-blonde hair and slim build, the woman stared out into space. The faraway look in her eyes triggered Daniella’s empathy. Having grown up a foster child, she knew what it felt like to be alone, sometimes scared, usually confused. And she saw all three of those emotions in the woman’s pretty blue eyes.
An announcement for boarding the next bus came over the public address system. An older woman sitting beside the blonde rose and slid her fingers around the bag sitting at her feet. The pretty blonde rose too.
“Excuse me. That’s my bag.”
The older woman spoke in angry, rapid-fire Italian and the blonde, speaking American English, said, “I’m sorry. I don’t understand a word of what you’re saying.”
But the older woman clutched the bag to her and very clearly told the American that it was her carryon.
Daniella bounced from her seat and scurried over. She faced the American. “I speak Italian.” Then she turned to the older woman. In flawless Italian, she asked if she was sure the black bag was hers, because there was a similar bag on the floor on the other side.
The older woman flushed with embarrassment. She apologetically gave the bag to the American, grabbed her carryon and scampered off to catch her bus.
The pretty blonde sighed with relief and turned her blue eyes to Daniella. “Thank you.”
“No problem. When you responded in English it wasn’t a great leap to assume you didn’t speak the language.”
The woman’s eyes clouded. “I don’t.”
“Do you have an interpreter? A friend coming to meet you?”
Dani winced. “Then I hope you have a good English-to-Italian dictionary.”
The American pointed to a small listening device. “I’ve downloaded the “best” language system.” She smiled slightly. “It promises I’ll be fluent in five weeks.”
Dani laughed. “It could be a long five weeks.” She smiled and offered her hand. “I’m Daniella, by the way.”
The pretty American hesitated, but finally shook Daniella’s hand and said, “Louisa.”
“It’s my first trip to Italy. I’ve been teaching English in Rome, but my foster mother was from Tuscany. I’m going to use this final month of my trip to find her home.”
Louisa tilted her head. “Your foster mother?”
Dani winced. “Sorry. I’m oversharing.”
“It’s just that I’m so excited to be here. I’ve always wanted to visit Italy.” She didn’t mention that her longtime boyfriend had proposed the day before she left for her teaching post in Rome. That truly would be oversharing, but also she hadn’t known what to make of Paul’s request to marry him. Had he proposed before her trip to tie her to him? Or had they hit the place in their relationship where marriage really was the next step? Were they ready? Was marriage right for them?
Too many questions came with his offer of marriage. So she hadn’t accepted. She’d told him she would answer him when she returned from Italy the first of March. She’d planned this February side-trip to be a nice, uncomplicated space of time before she settled down to life as a teacher in the New York City school system. Paul had ruined it with a proposal she should have eagerly accepted, but had stumbled over. So her best option was not to think about it until she had to.
“I extended my trip so I could have some time to bum around. See the village my foster mother came from, and hopefully meet her family.”
To Daniella’s surprise, Louisa laughed. “That sounds like fun.”
The understanding in Louisa’s voice caused Danielle to brighten again, thinking they had something in common. “So you’re a tourist too?”
Dani frowned. Louisa’s tone in the one simple word suddenly made her feel as if she’d crossed a line. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to pry.”
Louisa sighed. “It’s okay. I’m just a bit nervous. You were kind to come to my rescue. I don’t mean to be such a ninny. I’m on my way to Monte Calanetti.”
Daniella’s mouth fell open. “So am I.”
The announcement that their bus was boarding came over the loudspeaker. Danielle faced the gate. Louisa did too.
Dani smiled. “Looks like we’re off.”
“Yes.” Louisa’s mysterious smile formed again.
They boarded the bus and Daniella chose a spot in the middle, believing that was the best place to see the sights on the drive to the quaint village. After tucking her backpack away, she took her seat.
To her surprise, Louisa paused beside her. “Do you mind if I sit with you?”
Daniella happily said, “Of course, I don’t mind! That would be great.”
But as Louisa sat, Daniella took note again that something seemed off about her. Everything Louisa did had a sense of hesitancy about it. Everything she said seemed incomplete.
“So you have a month before you go home?”
“All of February.” Daniella took a deep breath. “And I intend to enjoy every minute of it. Even if I do have to find work.”
“A waitressing job. Or maybe part-time shop clerk. That kind of thing. New York is a very expensive place to live. I don’t want to blow every cent I made teaching on a vacation. I’ll need that money when I get back home. So I intend to earn my spending money while I see the sights.”
As the bus eased out of the station, Louisa said, “That’s smart.”
Dani sat up, not wanting to miss anything. Louisa laughed. “Your foster mother should have come with you.”
Pain squeezed Daniella’s heart. Just when she thought she was adjusted to her loss, the reality would swoop in and remind her that the sweet, loving woman who’d saved her was gone. She swallowed hard. “She passed a few months ago. She left me the money for my plane ticket to Italy in her will.”
Louisa’s beautiful face blossomed with sympathy. “I’m so sorry. That was careless of me.”
Daniella shook her head. “No. You had no way of knowing.”
Louisa studied her. “So you have no set plans? No schedule of things you want to see and do? No places you’ve already scouted out to potentially get a job?”
“No schedule. I want to wing it. I’ve done a bit of research about Rosa’s family and I know the language. So I think I’ll be okay.”
Louisa laughed. “Better off than I’ll be since I don’t know the language.” She held up her listening device. “At least not for another five weeks.”
The bus made several slow turns, getting them out of the station and onto the street.
Taking a final look at Florence, Dani breathed, “Isn’t this whole country gorgeous?” Even in winter with barren trees, the scene was idyllic. Blue skies. Rolling hills.
“Yes.” Louisa bit her lip, then hesitantly said, “I’m here because I inherited something too.”
“Yes.” She paused, studied Daniella’s face, as if assessing if she could trust her before she said, “A villa.”
“Oh, my God! A villa!”
Louisa glanced away. “I know. It’s pretty amazing. The place is called Palazzo di Comparino.”
“Do you have pictures?”
“Yes.” She pulled out a picture of a tall, graceful house. Rich green vines grew in rows in the background beneath a blue sky.
It was everything Dani could do not to gape in awe. “It’s beautiful.”
Louisa laughed. “Yes. But so far I haven’t seen anything in Italy that isn’t gorgeous.” She winced. “I hate to admit it, but I’m excited.”
“I’d be beyond excited.”
“I’m told Monte Calanetti grew up around Palaazzo Chianti because of the vineyard which is part of the villa I inherited. Back then, they would have needed lots of help picking grapes, making the wine. Those people are the ancestors of the people who live there now.”
“That is so cool.”
“Yes, except I know nothing about running a vineyard.”
Daniella batted a hand. “With the Internet these days, you can learn anything.”
Louisa sucked in a breath. “I hope so.”
Daniella laid her hand on Louisa’s in a show of encouragement. “You’ll be fine.”
Louise’s face formed another of her enigmatic smiles and Daniella’s sixth sense perked up again. Louisa appeared to want to be happy, but behind her smile was something…
Louisa brought her gaze back to Daniella’s. “You know, I could probably use a little help when I get there.”
“I don’t think I’m just going to move into a villa without somebody coming to question me.”
“And if it’s soon, I’m going to be at a loss if they’re speaking Italian.”
Dani winced. “Especially if it’s the sheriff.”
Louisa laughed. “I don’t even know if they have sheriffs here. My letter is in English, but the officials are probably Italian. It could turn out to be a mess. So, I’d be happy to put you up for a while.” She caught Dani’s gaze. “Even all four weeks you’re looking for your foster-mom’s relatives – if you’d be my translator.”
Overwhelmed by the generous offer, Daniella said, “That would be fantastic. But I wouldn’t want to put you out.”
“You’ll certainly earn your keep if somebody comes to check my story.”
Daniella grinned. “I’d be staying in a villa.”
Louisa laughed. “I own a villa.”
“Okay, then. I’d be happy to be your translator while I’m here.”
Glad for the friendship forming between them, Daniella engaged Louisa in conversation as miles of hills and blue, blue sky rolled past them. Then suddenly a walled village appeared to the right. The bus turned in.
Aged, but well-maintained stucco, brick and stone buildings greeted them. Cobblestone streets were filled with happy, chatting people. Through the large front windows of the establishments, Dani could see the coffee drinkers or diners inside while outdoor dining areas sat empty because of chilly first of February temperatures.
The center circle of the town came into view. The bus made the wide turn but Dani suddenly saw a sign that read Palazzo Di Comparino. The old, worn wood planks had a thick black line painted through them as if to cancel out the offer of vineyard tours.
Daniella grabbed Louisa’s arm and pointed out the window. “Look!”
“Oh, my gosh!” Louisa jumped out of her seat and yelled, “Stop!”
Daniella rose too. She said, “Fermi qui, per favore.”
It took a minute for the bus driver to hear and finally halt the bus. After gathering their belongings, Louisa and Daniella faced the lane that led to Louisa’s villa. Because Dani had only a backpack and Louisa had two suitcases and a carry-on bag, Daniella said, “Let me take your suitcase.”
Louisa smiled. “Having you around is turning out to be very handy.”
Daniella laughed as they walked down the long lane that took them to the villa. The pale brown brick house soon became visible. The closer they got, the bigger it seemed to be.
Louisa reverently whispered, “Holy cow.”
Daniella licked her suddenly dry lips. “It’s huge.”
The main house sprawled before them. Several stories, and long and deep, like a house with suites not bedrooms, Louisa’s new home could only be described as a mansion.
They silently walked up the stone path to the front door. When they reached it, Louisa pulled out a key and manipulated the lock. As the door opened, the stale, musty scent of a building that had been locked up for years assaulted them. Dust and cobwebs covered the crystal chandelier in the huge marble-floored foyer, as well as the paintings on the walls and the curved stairway.
Daniella cautiously stepped inside. “Is your family royalty?”
Louisa gazed around in awe. “I didn’t think so.”
“Meaning they could be?”
“I don’t know.” Louisa turned to the right and walked into a sitting room. Again, dust covered everything. A tea cup sat on a table by a dusty chair. Passing through that room, they entered a room that appeared to be a library or study. From there, they found a dining room.
Watermarks on the ceiling spoke of damage from a second-floor bathroom or maybe even the roof. The kitchen was old and in need of remodeling. The first floor bathrooms were outdated, as was every bathroom in the suites upstairs.
After only getting as far as the second floor, Louisa turned to Daniella with tears in her eyes. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t realize the house would be in such disrepair. From the picture, it looked perfect. If you want to get a hotel room in town, I’ll understand.”
“Are you kidding!” Daniella rolled Louisa’s big suitcase to a stop and walked into the incredibly dusty, cob-web covered bedroom. She spun around and faced Louisa. “I love it. With a dust rag, some cleanser for the bathroom and a window washing, this room will be perfect.”
Louisa hesitantly followed Daniella into the bedroom. “You’re an optimist.”
Daniella laughed. “I didn’t say you wouldn’t need to call a contractor about a few things. But we can clean our rooms and the kitchen.”
Raffaele Mancini stared at Gino Scarpetti, a tall, stiff man, who worked as the Maître D for Mancini’s, Rafe’s very exclusive, upscale, Michelin-star restaurant located in the heart of wine country.
Mancini’s had been carefully crafted to charm customers. The stone and wood walls of the renovated farm house gave the place the feel of days long gone. Shutters on the windows blocked the light of the evening sun, but also added to the old world charisma. Rows of bottles of merlot and Chianti reminded diners that this area was the home of the best vineyards, the finest wines.
Gino ripped off the Mancini’s name tag pinned to his white shirt. “You, sir, are now without a Maître D.”
A hush fell over the dining room. Even the usual clink and clatter of silverware and the tinkle of good crystal wine glasses halted.
Gino slapped the name tag into Rafe’s hand. Before Rafe could comment or argue, the man was out the door.
Someone began to clap. Then another person. And another. Within seconds the sophisticated Tuscany restaurant dining room filled with the sounds of applause and laughter.
They were enjoying his misery!
He looked at the line of customers forming beside the podium just inside the door, then the chattering diners laughing about his temper and his inability to keep good help. He tossed his hands in the air before he marched back to the big ultra-modern, stainless steel restaurant kitchen.
He pointed at the thin boy who’d begun apprenticing at Mancini’s the week before. “Take off your smock and get to the Maître D stand. You are seating people.”
The boy’s brown eyes grew round with fear. “I…I…”
Rafe raised a brow. “You can’t take names and seat customers?”
“But you don’t want to.” Rafe didn’t have to say anything beyond that. He didn’t need to say, “If you can’t obey orders, you’re fired.” He didn’t need to remind anyone in his kitchen that he was boss or that anyone working in the restaurant needed to be able to do anything that needed to be done to assure the absolute best dining experience for the customers. Everyone knew he was not a chef to be trifled with.
Except right now, in the dining room, they were laughing at him.
The boy whipped off his smock, walked it to a laundry bin and headed out to the dining room.
Seeing the white-smocked staff gaping at him, Rafe shook his head. “Get to work!”
Knives instantly rose. The clatter of chopping and the sizzle of sautéing filled the kitchen.
He sucked in a breath. Not only was his poor restaurant plagued by troubles, but now it seemed the diners had no sympathy.
“You shouldn’t have fired Gino.” Emory Danoto, Rafe’s sous chef spoke as he worked. Short and bald with a happy face and nearly as much talent as Rafe in the kitchen, Emory was also Rafe’s mentor.
Rafe glanced around, inspecting the food prep, pretending he was fine. Damn it. He was fine. He did not want a frightened rabbit working for him. Not even outside the kitchen. And the response of the diners? That was a fluke. Somebody apparently believed it funny to see a world-renowned chef tortured by incompetents.
“I didn’t fire Gino. He quit.”
Emory cast him a condemning look. “You yelled at him.”
Rafe yelled, “I yell at everybody.” Then he calmed himself and shook his head. “I am the chef. I am Mancini’s.”
“And you must be obeyed.”
“Don’t make me sound like a prima donna. I am doing what’s best for the restaurant.”
“Yeah, well, Mr. I’m-doing-what’s-best-for-the-restaurant, have you forgotten about our upcoming visit from the Michelin people?”
Emory sniffed a laugh. “Since when have we ever ignored a rumor that we were to be visited? Your star rating could be in jeopardy. You’re the one who says chefs who ignore rumors get caught with their pants down. If we want to keep our stars, we have to be ready for this visit.”
Rafe stifled a sigh. Emory was right, of course. His trusted friend only reminded him of what he already knew. Having located his business in the countryside, instead of in town, he’d made it even more exclusive. But that also meant he didn’t get street traffic. He needed word of mouth. He needed every diner to recommend him to their friends. He needed to be in travel brochures. To be a stop for tour buses. To be recommended by travel agents. He couldn’t lose a star.
The lunch crowd left. Day quickly became night. Before Rafe could draw a steady breath the restaurant filled again. Wasn’t that the way of it when everything was falling apart around you? With work to be done, there was no time to think things through. When the last patron finally departed, and the staff dispersed after the kitchen cleaning, Rafe walked behind the shiny wood bar, pulled a bottle of whiskey from the shelf, along with a glass, and slid onto a tall black rot iron stool.
Hearing the sound of the door opening, he yelled, “We’re closed.” Then grimaced. Was he trying to get a reputation for being grouchy rather than exacting?
“Good thing I’m not a customer then.”
He swiveled around at the sound of his friend Nico Amatucci’s voice.
Tall, dark-haired Nico glanced at the whiskey bottle, then sat on a stool beside Rafe. “Is there a reason you’re drinking alone?”
Rafe rose, got another glass and set it on the bar in front of Nico. He poured whiskey into the glass and slid it to him. “I’m not drinking alone.”
“But you were going to.”
“I lost my Maître D.”
Nico raised his glass in salute and drank the shot. “You’re surprised?”
“I’m an artist.”
“You’re a pain in the ass.”
“That too.” He sighed. “But I don’t want to be. I just want things done correctly. I’ll spread the word tomorrow that I’m looking for someone. Not a big deal.” He made the statement casually, but deep down he knew he was wrong. It was a big deal. “Oh, who am I kidding? I don’t have the week or two it’ll take to collect resumes and interview people. I need somebody tomorrow.”
Nico raised his glass to toast. “Then, you, my friend, are in trouble.”
Didn’t Rafe know it.
The next morning, Daniella and Louisa found a tin of tea and some frozen waffles in a freezer. “We’re so lucky no one had the electricity shut off.”
“Not lucky. The place runs off a generator. We turn it on in winter to keep the pipes from freezing.”
Daniella and Louisa gasped and spun around at the male voice behind them.
A handsome dark-haired man stood in the kitchen doorway, frowning at them. Though he appeared to be Italian, he spoke flawless English. “I’m going to have to ask you to leave. I’ll let you finish your breakfast, but this is private property.”
Louisa’s chin lifted. “I know it’s private property. I’m Louisa Harrison. I inherited this villa.”
The man’s dark eyes narrowed. “I don’t suppose you have proof of that?”
“Actually, I do. A letter from my solicitor.” She straightened her shoulders. “I think the better question is who are you?”
“I’m Nico Amatucci.” He pointed behind him. “I live next door. I’ve been watching over this place.” He smiled thinly. “I’d like to see the letter from your solicitor. Or…” He pulled out his cell phone. “Should I call the police?”
Louisa brushed her hands down her blue jeans to remove the dust they’d collected when she and Daniella had searched for tea. “No need.”
Not wanting any part of the discussion, Daniella began preparing the tea.
“And who are you?”
She shrugged. “Just a friend of Louisa’s.”
He sniffed as if he didn’t believe her. Not accustomed to being under such scrutiny, Daniella focused all her attention on getting water into the tea pot.
Louisa returned with the letter. When Nico reached for it, she held it back. “Not so fast. I’ll need the key you used to get in.”
He held Louisa’s gaze. Even from across the room, Daniella felt the heat of it.
“Only if your papers check out.” His frosty smile could have frozen water. “Palazzo Di Comparino has been empty for years. Yet, suddenly here you are.”
“With a letter,” she said, handing it to Nico.
He didn’t release her gaze as he took the letter from her hands, then he scanned it and peered at Louisa again. “Welcome, to Palazzo Di Comparino.”
Daniella let out her pent up breath.
Louisa held his gaze. “Just like that? How do you know I didn’t fake this letter?”
Giving the paper back to her, he said, “First, I knew the name of the solicitor handling the estate. Second, there are a couple of details in the letter that an outsider wouldn’t know. You’re legit.”
Though Daniella would have loved to have known the details, Louisa didn’t even seem slightly curious. She tucked the sheet of paper into her jeans pocket.
Nico handed his key to Louisa as he glanced around the kitchen. “Being empty so long, the place is in disrepair. So if there’s anything I can do to help--”
Louisa cut him off with a curt, “I’m fine.”
Nico’s eyes narrowed. Daniella didn’t know if he was unaccustomed to his offers of assistance being ignored, or if something else was happening here, but the kitchen became awkwardly quiet.
When Daniella’s teapot whistled, her heart jumped. Always polite, she asked, “Can I get anyone tea?”
Watching Louisa warily, Nico said, “I’d love a cup.”
Drat. He was staying. Darned the sense of etiquette her foster mother had drilled into her.
“I’ll make some later.” Louisa said as she turned and walked out of the kitchen, presumably to put the letter and the key away.
As the door swung closed behind her, Nico said, “She’s a friendly one.”
Daniella winced. She’d like to point out to Mr. Nico Amatucci that he’d been a tad rude when he’d demanded to see the letter from the solicitor, but she held her tongue. This argument wasn’t any of her business. She had enough troubles of her own.
“Have you known Ms. Harrison long?”
“We just met. I saw someone mistakenly take her bag and helped because Louisa doesn’t speak Italian. Then we were on the same bus.”
“Oh, so you hit the jackpot when you could find someone to stay with.”
Daniella’s eyes widened. The man was insufferable. “I’m not taking advantage of her! I just finished a teaching job in Rome. Louisa needs an interpreter for a few weeks.” She put her shoulders back. “And today I intend to go into town to look for temporary work to finance a few weeks of sightseeing.”
He took the cup of tea from her hands. “What kind of work?”
His softened voice took some of the wind out of her sails. She shrugged. “Anything really. Temp jobs are temp jobs.”
“Would you be willing to be a hostess at a restaurant?”
Confused, she said, “Sure.”
“I have a friend who needs someone to fill in while he hires a permanent replacement for a Maître D who just quit.”
Her feelings for the mysterious Nico warmed a bit. Maybe he wasn’t so bad after all? “Sounds perfect.”
“Do you have a pen?”
She nodded, pulling one from her purse.
He scribbled down the address on a business card he took from his pocket. “Go here. Don’t call. Just go at lunchtime and tell Rafe that Nico sent you.” He nodded at the card he’d handed to her. “Show him that and he’ll know you’re not lying.”
He set his tea on the table. “Tell Ms. Harrison goodbye for me.”
With that he left.
Glad he was gone, Daniella happily glanced at the card in her hands. How could a guy who’d so easily helped her have such a difficult time getting along with Louisa?
She blew her breath out on a long sigh. She supposed it didn’t matter. Eventually they’d become friends. They were neighbors.
Daniella finished her tea, but Louisa never returned to the kitchen. Excited to tell Louisa of her job prospect, Dani searched the downstairs for her, but didn’t find her.
The night before they’d tidied two bedrooms enough that they could sleep in them, so she climbed the stairs and headed for the room Louisa had chosen. She found her new friend wrestling with some bedding.
“What are you doing?”
“I saw a washer and dryer. I thought I’d wash the bed clothes so our rooms really will be habitable tonight.”
She raced to help Louisa with the huge comforter. “Our rooms were fine. We don’t need these comforters, and the sheets had been protected from the dust by the comforters so they were clean. Besides, these won’t fit in a typical washer.”
Louisa dropped the comforter. “I know.” Her face fell in dismay. “I just need to do something to make the place more livable.” Her gaze met Daniella’s. “You saw the outside. It’s grown over. Inside, there’s dust and clutter…and watermarks that mean some of the bathrooms and maybe even the roof need to be repaired.” She sat on the bed. “What am I going to do?”
Dani sat beside her. “We’re going to take things one step at a time.” She tucked Nico’s business card into her pocket. “This morning, we’ll clean the kitchen and finish our bedrooms. Tomorrow, we’ll pick a room and clean it, and every day after that we’ll just keep cleaning one room at a time.”
“What about the roof?”
“We’ll hope it doesn’t rain?”
Louisa laughed. “I’m serious.”
“Well, I have a chance for a job at a restaurant.”
She winced. “Yes. Nico knew someone who needs a hostess.”
She ignored the dislike in her friend’s voice. “What better way to find a good contractor than by chit chatting with the locals?”
Louisa smiled and shook her head. “If anybody can chit chat her way into finding a good contractor, it’s you.”
“Which is also going to make me a good hostess.”
“What time’s your appointment?”
“Lunchtime.” She winced. “From the address on this card, I think we’re going to have to hope there’s a car in that big, fancy garage out back.”
Standing behind the podium in the entry to Mancini’s, Rafe struggled with the urge to throw his hands in the air and storm off. On his left, two American couples spoke broken, ill-attempted Italian in an effort to make reservations for that night. In front of him, a businessman demanded to be seated immediately. To his right, a couple kissed. And behind them, what seemed to be a sea of diners groused and grumbled as he tried to figure out a computer system with a seating chart, superimposed with reservations.
How could no one in his kitchen staff be familiar with this computer software?
“Everybody just give me a minute!”
He hit a button and the screen disappeared. After a second of shock, he cursed. He expected the crowd to groan. Instead they laughed. Laughed. Again laughter!
How was it that everybody seemed to be happy that he was suffering? These people – customers – were the people he loved, the people he worked so hard to please. How could they laugh at him?
He tried to get the screen to reappear, but it stayed dark.
“Excuse me. Excuse me. Excuse me.”
He glanced up to see an American, clearly forgetting she was in Italy because she spoke English, as she made her way through the crowd. Cut in an angled, modern style, her pretty blond hair stopped at her chin. Her blue eyes were determined. The buttons of her black coat had been left open, revealing jeans and pale blue sweater were neat, but worn.
When she reached the podium, she didn’t even look at Rafe. She addressed the gathered crowd.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” she said in flawless Italian. “Give me two minutes and everyone will be seated.”
His eyebrows rose. She was a cheeky little thing.
When she finally faced him, her blue eyes locked on his. Rich with color and bright with enthusiasm, they didn’t merely display her confidence; they caused his heart to give a little bounce.
She smiled and stuck out her hand. “Daniella Tate. Your friend Nico sent me.” When he didn’t take her hand, her smile drooped as she tucked a strand of yellow hair behind her ear. But her face brightened again. She rifled in her jeans pocket, pulled out a business card and offered it to him. “See?”
He glanced at Nico’s card. “So he believes you are right to be my hostess?”
“Temporarily.” She winced. “I just finished a teaching position in Rome. For the next four weeks I’m sightseeing, but I’m trying to supplement my extended stay with a temp job. I think he thinks we can help each other – at least while you interview candidates.”
The sweet, melodious tone of her voice caused something warm and soft to thrum through Rafe, something he’d never felt before – undoubtedly relief that his friend had solved his problem.
“Hey, buddy, come on. We’re hungry! If you’re not going to seat us we’ll go somewhere else.”
Not waiting for him to reply, Daniella nudged Rafe out of the way, stooped down to find a tablet on the Maître D stand shelf and faced the dining area. She quickly drew squares and circles representing all the tables and wrote the number of chairs around each one. She put x’s over the tables that were taken.
Had he thought she was cheeky? Apparently, that was just the tip of the iceberg.
She faced the Americans. “How many in your party?”
“Four. We want reservations for tonight.”
Flipping the tablet page, she wrote their name and the time on the next piece of paper. As the Americans walked out, she said, “Next?”
Awestruck at her audacity, Rafe almost yelled.
He could easily give her the boot, but he needed a hostess. He had a growing suspicion about the customers laughing when he lost his temper, as if he was becoming some sort of sideshow. He didn’t want his temper to be the reason people came to his restaurant. He wanted his food, the fantastic aromas, the succulent tastes to be the draw. Nico had all but recommended this girl by giving her his card as an introduction. Wouldn’t he be a fool to toss her out?
The businessman pushed his way over to her. “I have an appointment in an hour. I need to be served first.”
Daniella Tate smiled at Rafe as if asking permission to seat the businessman, and his brain emptied. She really was as pretty as she was cheeky. Luckily, she took his blank stare as approval. She turned to the businessman and said, “Of course, we’ll seat you.”
She led the man to the back of the dining room, to a table for two, seated him with a smile and returned to the podium.
Forget about how cheeky she was. Forget about his brain that stalled when he looked at her. She was a very good hostess.
Rafe cleared his throat. “Talk to the waitresses and find out whose turn it is before you seat anyone else.” He cleared his throat again. “They have a system.”
She smiled at him. “Sure.”
His heart did something funny in his chest, forcing his gaze to her pretty blue eyes again. Warmth whooshed through him.
Confused, he turned and marched away. With so much at stake in his restaurant, including, it seemed, his reputation, his funny feelings for an employee were irrelevant. Nothing. Whatever trickled through his bloodstream, it had to have more annoyance than attraction. After all, recommendation from Nico or not, she’d sort of walked in and taken over his restaurant.
Dani stared after the chef as he left. She wasn’t expecting someone so young…or so gorgeous. At least six feet tall, with wavy brown hair so long he had it tied off his face, and gray eyes, the guy could be a celebrity chef on television back home. Just looking at him had caused her breathing to stutter. She actually felt a rush of heat careen through her veins. He was that good looking.
But it was also clear that he was in over his head without a Maître D. As she’d stood in the back of the long line to get into the restaurant, her good old fashioned American common sense had kicked in, and she’d simply done what needed to be done: pushed her way to the front, grabbed some menus and seated customers. And he’d hired her.
Behind her someone said, “You’d better keep your hair behind your ears. He’ll yell about it being in your face and potentially in his food once he gets over being happy you’re here.”
She turned to see one of the waitresses. Dressed in black trousers and a white blouse, she looked slim and professional.
“That was happy?”
Her pretty black ponytail bobbed as she nodded. “Si. That was happy.”
“Well, I’m going to hate seeing him upset.”
“Prepare yourself for it. Because he gets upset every day. Several times a day. That’s why Gino quit. I’m Allegra by the way. The other two waitresses are Zola and Giovanna. And the chef is Chef Mancini. Everyone calls him Chef Rafe.”
“He said you have a system of how you want people seated.”
Allegra took Daniella’s seating chart and drew two lines dividing the tables into three sections. “Those are our stations. You seat one person in mine, one person in Zola’s and one person in Gio’s, then start all over again.”
Daniella smiled. “Easy, peasy.”
“That means no problem.”
“Ah. Si.” Allegra smiled and walked away. Daniella took two more menus and seated another couple.
The lunchtime crowd that had assembled at the door of Mancini’s settled quickly. Dani easily found a rhythm of dividing the customers up between the three waitresses. Zola and Gio introduced themselves, and she actually had a good time being hostess of the restaurant that looked like an old world farm house and smelled like pure heaven. The aromas of onions and garlic, sweet peppers and spicy meats rolled through the air, making her confident she could talk up the food and promise diners a wonderful meal, even without having tasted it.
During the lull after lunch, Zola and Gio went home. The dining room grew quiet. Not sure if she should stay or leave, since Allegra remained to be available for the occasional tourist who ambled in, Daniella stayed too.
In between customers, she helped clear and reset tables, checked silverware to make sure it sparkled, arranged chairs so that everything in the dining room was picture perfect.
But soon even the stragglers stopped. Daniella stood by the podium, her elbow leaning against it, her chin on her closed fist, wondering what Louisa was doing.
“Why are you still here?”
The sound of Rafe’s voice sent a surge of electricity through her.
She turned with a gasp. Her voice wobbled when she said, “I thought you’d need me for dinner.”
“You were supposed to go home for the break. Or are you sneakily trying to get paid for hours you really don’t work?”
Her eyes widened. Anger punched through her. What the hell was wrong with this guy? She’d done him a favor and he was questioning her motives?
Without thinking, she stormed over to him. Putting herself in his personal space, she looked up and caught his gaze. “And how was I supposed to know that, since you didn’t tell me?”
She expected him to back down. At the very least to realize his mistake. Instead, he scoffed. “It’s common sense.”
“Well, in America--”
He cut her off with a harsh laugh. “You Americans. Think you know everything. But you’re not in America now. You are in Italy.” He pointed a finger at her nose. “You will do what I say.”
“Well, I’ll be happy to do what you say as soon as you say something!”
Allegra stopped dropping silverware to linen-covered tables. The empty, quiet restaurant grew stone cold silent. Time seemed to crawl to a stop. The vein in Rafe’s temple pulsed.
Dani’s body tingled. Every employee in the world knew it wasn’t wise to yell at the boss, but, technically, she wasn’t yelling. She was standing up to him. As a foster child, she’d had to learn how to protect herself, when to stay quiet and when to demand her rights. If she let him push her around now, he’d push her around the entire month she worked for him.
He threw his hands in the air, pivoted away from her and headed to the kitchen. “Go the hell home and come back for dinner.”
Daniella blew out the breath she’d been holding. Her heart pounded so hard it hurt, but the tingling in her blood became a surge of power. He might not have said the words, but she’d won that little battle of wills.
Still, she felt odd that their communication had come down to a sort of yelling match and knew she had to get the heck out of here.
She grabbed her purse and headed for the old green car she and Louisa had found in the garage.
Ten minutes later, she was back in the kitchen of Palazzo di Comparino.
Though Louisa had sympathetically made her a cup of tea, she laughed when Daniella told her the story.
“It’s not funny,” Dani insisted, but her lips rose into a smile when she thought about how she must have looked standing up to the big, bad chef everybody seemed to be afraid of. She wouldn’t tell her new friend that standing up to him had put fire in her blood and made her heart gallop like a prize stallion. She didn’t know what that was all about, but she did know part of it, at least, stemmed from how good looking he was.
“Okay. It was a little funny. But I like this job. It would be great to keep it for the four weeks I’m here. But he didn’t tell me what time I was supposed to go back. So we’re probably going to get into another fight.”
“Or you could just go back at six. If he yells that you’re late, calmly remind him that he didn’t give you the time you were to return. Make it his fault.”
“It is his fault.”
Louisa beamed. “Exactly. If you don’t stand up to him now, you’ll either lose the job or spend the weeks you work for him under his thumb. You have to do this.”
Dani sighed. “That’s what I thought.”
Taking Louisa’s advice, she returned to the restaurant at six. A very small crowd had built by the Maître D podium, and when she entered, she noticed that most of the tables weren’t filled. Rafe shoved a stack of menus at her and walked away.
She shook her head, but smiled at the next customers in line. He might have left without a word, but he hadn’t engaged her in a fight, and it appeared she still had her job.
Maybe the answer to this was to just stay out of his way?
The evening went smoothly. Again, the wonderful scents that filled the air prompted her to talk up the food, the wait staff and the wine.
After an hour or so, Rafe called her into the kitchen. Absolutely positive he had nothing to yell at her about, she straightened her shoulders and walked into the stainless steel room and over to the stove where he stood.
“You wanted to see me?”
He presented a fork filled with pasta to her. “This is my signature ravioli. I hear you talking about my dishes, so I want you to taste so you can honestly tell customers it is the best food you have ever eaten.”
She swallowed back a laugh at his confidence, but when her lips wrapped around the fork and the flavor of the sweet sauce exploded on her tongue, she pulled the ravioli off the fork and into her mouth with a groan. “Oh, my God.”
“It is perfect, si?”
“You’re right. It is probably the best food I’ve ever eaten.”
Emory, the short, bald sous chef, scrambled over. “Try this.” He raised a fork full of meat to her lips. She took the bite and again, she groaned. “What is that?”
“Oh my God, that’s good.”
A younger chef suddenly appeared before her with a spoon of soup. “Minestrone,” he said, holding the spoon out to her.
She drank the soup and closed her eyes to savor. “You guys are the best cooks in the world.”
Everyone in the kitchen stopped. The room fell silent.
But Emory laughed. “Chef Rafe is one of the best chefs in the world. These are his recipes.”
She turned and smiled at Rafe. “You’re amazing.”
She’d meant his cooking was amazing. His recipes were amazing. Or maybe the way he could get the best out of his staff was amazing. But saying the words while looking into his silver-gray eyes, the simple sentence took on a totally different meaning.
The room grew quiet again. She felt her face reddening. Rafe held her gaze for a good twenty seconds before he finally pointed at the door. “Go tell that to customers.”
She walked out of the kitchen, licking the remains of the fantastic food off her lips as she headed for the podium. With the exception of that crazy little minute of eye contact, tasting the food had been fun. She loved how proud the entire kitchen staff seemed to be of the delicious dishes they prepared. And she saw the respect they had for their boss. Chef Rafe. Clearly a very talented man.
With two groups waiting to be seated, she grabbed menus and walked the first couple to a table. “Right this way.”
“Any specialties tonight?”
She faced the man and woman behind her, saying, “I can honestly recommend the chef’s signature ravioli.” With the taste of the food still on her tongue, she smiled. “And the minestrone soup is to die for. But if you’re in the mood for beef, there’s a beef brasato that you’ll never forget.”
She said the words casually, but having sampled the food had the oddest effect on her. Suddenly she felt part of it. She didn’t merely feel like a good hostess who could recommend the delicious dishes because she’d tasted them. She got an overwhelming sense that she was meant to be here. The feeling of destiny was so strong it nearly overwhelmed her. But she drew in a quiet breath, smiled at the couple and seated them.
Sense of destiny? That was almost funny. Children who grew up in foster care gave up on destiny early, and contented themselves with a sense of worth, confidence. It was better to educate yourself to be employable, than to dally in day dreams.
As the night went on, Rafe and his staff continued to give her bites and tastes of the dishes they prepared. As she became familiar with the items on the menu, she tempted guests to try things. But she also listened to stories of the sights the tourists had seen that day, and soothed the egos of those who spoke broken Italian by telling stories of teaching English as a second language in Rome.
And the feeling that she was meant to be here grew, until her heart swelled with it.
Rafe watched her from the kitchen door. Behind him, Emory laughed. “She’s pretty, right?”
Rafe faced him, concerned that his friend had seen their thirty seconds of eye contact over the ravioli, and recognized that Rafe was having trouble seeing Daniella Tate as an employee because she was so beautiful. When she’d called him amazing, he’d struggled to keep his gaze on hers and off her lips, but that didn’t stop the urge to kiss her. It blossomed to life in his chest and clutched the air going into and out of his lungs making it stutter. He’d needed all of those thirty seconds to get ahold of himself.
But Emory’s round face wore his usual smile. Nothing out of the ordinary. No light of recognition in his eyes. Rafe’s unexpected reactions hadn’t been noticed.
Rafe turned back to the crack between the doors again. “She’s chatty.”
“You did tell her to talk up the food.” Emory sidled up to the slim opening. “Besides, the customers seem to love her.”
“Bah!” He spun away from the door. “We don’t need for customers to love her. They come here for the food.”
Emory shrugged. “Maybe. But we’re both aware Mancini’s was getting to be a little more known for your temper than for its meals. A little attention from a pretty girl, talking up your dishes, might just cure your reputation problem. Put the food back in the spotlight instead of your temper.”
“I still think she talks too much.”
Emory shook his head. “Suit yourself.”
Rafe crossed his arms on his chest. He would suit himself. He was famous for suiting himself. That was how he’d gotten to be a great chef. By learning and testing until he created great meals. And he wanted the focus on those meals.
The first chance he got, he intended to have a talk with Daniella Tate.