J.T. Merriam hated having to hold tight on the romance reins. He couldn’t wait to start the new chapter of his life, and he already knew he wanted to start it with the captivating Caroline Hale.
“I can’t believe you rented out the whole restaurant!” she was exclaiming, standing at the edge of the rooftop terrace boasting one of Rome’s most brilliant views of the Vatican. “It’s the Hotel Raphael, for heaven’s sake.”
The candlelight cast a warm glow on her glossy brown hair, the waves as beautifully defined as if created by an oil painter’s brush. Watching Caroline in a setting like this was akin to seeing a masterpiece come to life. He took a moment to soak in the sight of her, then came up behind her, wishing he could put his arms around her and smell the citrus and flowers always present on her skin.
Not yet. You’re not free yet.
“It was your last night in town,” he said. “Like I told you when we first met again at your art gallery, ‘welcome to my world.’”
“I thought you were crazy then and I still do.” She looked over her shoulder and flashed him a bright smile. “But I love it.”
It wouldn’t be the first time someone had thought him crazy for following one of his impulses. Caroline had brought out the long-dormant romantic in him.
He hadn’t walked into the famed Leggett Art Gallery in Denver weeks ago expecting to be bowled over by her beauty and wit. He certainly hadn’t expected to fall so hard or so quickly for someone he hoped to work with on his new venture—an art museum at the university his great-grandfather Emmits Merriam had founded in Dare Valley. But her professionalism and taste had impressed him, and something about her had reached in and grabbed his heart, giving it a healthy shake. He’d flown Caroline to Rome for the weekend because he wanted her help evaluating the family art collection, but if he was being entirely honest with himself, he had also wanted to see her.
It felt appropriate for them to work on this venture together. Caroline was the great-niece of Emmits’ best friend, Arthur Hale, a man J.T. called Uncle Arthur. Indeed, it was Uncle Arthur who had suggested he talk with Caroline about the museum, and he suspected his honorary uncle had played matchmaker, though the older man would likely never admit it.
Now, watching her hair whip in the wind and her eyes widen in delight, he couldn’t be happier things had worked out the way they had. There was only one thing left to settle…
“Are you cold?” he asked. “I made sure they brought out patio heaters for our dinner.”
“After living in Denver, this feels refreshing,” she said, grinning at him. “You’re the one who’s going to have the wake-up call once you move to Dare Valley. You’re going to freeze your butt off.”
“I’m eager for a new challenge,” he said, staring down at the city he loved. “And some butt freezing.”
She chuckled, looking down at the view with him. Taking in the gold-lit Santa Maria della Pace and the Church of St. Mary of the Soul. Then she turned serious. “You’ll miss it, though. How could you not?”
How indeed. And yet, he’d meant every word. He would miss the golden city, but it was time to start over.
His old life had ended. He’d just resigned from his position as head of Merriam Oil & Gas’ Africa and Middle East division, something he’d done to prevent his shares of the family company from falling into the hands of Cynthia Newhouse. He’d lost three years of his life fighting her for a divorce from a marriage that had only lasted two years.
J.T.’s older brothers, Connor and Quinn, had bought his shares in the Merriam conglomerate, something they’d arranged with his other siblings. All of them had shared in his regret.
He was the first of his six siblings to strike out on a solo venture, but to his mind, the museum was still a family enterprise. Opening it—something he’d gotten the university’s board of trustees to approve in complete secrecy two months ago—would be his second chance at life. The fresh start he’d fought so hard for.
Caroline Hale would be a part of that new life too, in his museum and hopefully in his arms.
“Maybe I’ll buy some long underwear to keep me warm,” he joked, signaling to the waiter to bring forward the champagne he’d requested. “When I was a kid, we only visited Dare Valley in the summers, but the mountaintops were still snowy some years.”
Those summers had been precious to him. He and his siblings had played with the Hale children, including Caroline. One day he’d accidentally slung dirt on her pretty dress, earning himself the nickname of Mud Slinger.
It was funny to think of them then, young children with no idea their lives might one day lead them to each other. He rather liked that thought.
She turned and looked at him, her mouth twitching. “I’m trying to imagine you wearing winter underwear under a Fendi suit. Nope. Can’t see it.”
The thought of her imagining what was under his suit made him feel things better left buried for the moment. He cleared his throat. She stilled, seeming to sense the change in his mood, something she’d excelled at all weekend.
They’d acknowledged the attraction between them but agreed to put the romance on hold. He hadn’t yet told her his primary reason for making that request, fearing she’d step away if she knew about Cynthia and the divorce drama that had driven his life for years. Early on, he’d discovered that people who learned about his protracted divorce fell into two categories: the flight or fight types. His twin brother, Trevor, was the fight type. He’d stood by his side for the entire divorce, working with him and the lawyers to block Cynthia’s every money-grubbing move. But some of his siblings had opted to stay out of the fray. He couldn’t blame them, but he’d grown careful about telling people, something made easier by the fact that they’d kept it quiet. He and Caroline needed more time to grow, and with the divorce’s end finally in sight, he’d concluded he wasn’t in the morally wrong department. That mattered to him.
Call him old-fashioned, but he wanted to be completely free and clear before dating again. He just hadn’t thought it would take this long.
God, he needed it to be over. He couldn’t take any more.
“Is that Armand de Brignac Brut Rose?” she asked as the waiter opened the bottle. “J.T., seriously, doesn’t that vintage cost ten thousand dollars?”
She would flip if she knew what he’d paid to rent out the restaurant.
“We’re here to celebrate our new venture. Let’s drink some bubbly and watch the sunset,” he said, handing her a glass. “To new horizons.”
When their glasses clinked, he felt the charge shoot all the way to his heart.
“Is it terrible to say this?” she asked, lowering her voice. “I can’t tell why this should cost ten thousand dollars. Not that I’m not grateful, J.T., but you need to stop being so…grand with me.”
“That’s like telling the stars to stop shining.” He loved that money didn’t motivate her, and it was another reason he was so affected by her. Not only was she beautiful and interesting, but she had integrity, something more valuable than any fortune.
“Caroline, you make me want to be grand again. I’m excited about the museum. I have been since the idea first came to me. But working alongside you—being with you—is going to make it spectacular.”
“I like you too,” she said, ducking her head. “Why else would I come to Rome like this?”
“Why else?” He raised his eyebrows theatrically. “Because Rome is awesome. Come, let’s feast. I took the liberty of ordering the chef’s tasting menu. I hope that’s okay.”
“Okay?” She made a face. “I’m still full from lunch, but I’ll find a way to do it justice. I wouldn’t want the chef’s feelings to be hurt.”
Yet another sign of the goodness in her heart. He couldn’t help smiling. After spending years being circled by vultures, it was nice to socialize with someone sweet…like a koala. He wasn’t going to share that compliment, though. What woman liked being compared to a marsupial?
“You’re saving him from complete culinary depression, no doubt,” he said, pulling out her chair and waving off the waiter who’d stepped forward to attend to them.
Rather than sit, she put her hand on his shoulder. Even through his clothes, he could feel the heat of her fingertips somehow, each perfect oval searing into him. Their eyes met, and he held his breath. Then she was sitting down and looking at the view. He took a moment to sip his champagne and calm his racing heart.
Tonight the only view he was interested in was her.
They talked of art and family as they supped on a golden beet salad with fresh peas, the finest carpaccio this side of heaven, a mushroom and leek risotto, monkfish stewed in fennel, and then figs sautéed in cinnamon and red wine. They shared their dreams as the sunset turned to twilight. In the candlelight, her eyes seemed to wink out at him, and all he wanted to do was kiss her hand.
He told himself to wait. She deserved to know the truth before they deepened their relationship, and he still wasn’t ready to tell her.
The candles were sputtering by the time he finally stood. “We should get you back to your hotel so you can sleep for a few hours.”
The plane he’d chartered for her was supposed to take off at eight. Of course he could delay it, but she wanted to arrive back in Denver with enough time to prepare for work the next day, something he respected.
“I can sleep on the plane,” she said softly, standing as well. “Can’t we…”
She gestured toward the view, and he waited as she found her words.
“J.T., I want to walk the streets with you and talk about art and life and…well, everything. I don’t want to waste a moment.”
This time he felt it was safe to take her hand. “Neither do I. Prepare yourself, Caroline. I plan to lay Rome at night at your feet.”
And he did.
Sure, they didn’t continue to hold hands as he took her down streets lit with golden light or coaxed her into throwing a coin and making a wish in one of the many fountains. But they found frequent excuses to brush against each other. He told himself it was enough. For now.
As the sun rose, he surprised her with hazelnut gelato, a flavor he’d discovered was her favorite.
“I never want this trip to end,” she said, leaning her head against his shoulder as they studied the view of the Colosseum from Palatine Hill.
“Me either, but we’ll have more trips. Remember, you still need to see the rest of the Merriam collection in Napa.” He planned to ask his parents to clear out of the house for their visit. It was way too early for them to meet her again in this new context. Knowing his mom, he’d probably get teased, but he could take it.
Caroline laughed as she spooned up the last of her gelato. “Oh, Napa. I don’t know how I’ll manage it.”
“I’m glad I won’t have to work so hard to convince you this time.”
Leaning back, she plopped the spoon in her mouth and made a humming sound, one he found very arousing. “I’ll pretty much go anywhere with you. Not only are you interesting, J.T. Merriam, but you’re fun. Who else would stay up all night and have gelato for breakfast with a view like this? I thought being a responsible adult was the thing to do, you know. Have a great career. A nice place to live. You’re opening up all sorts of new possibilities. I like being in your world.”
“Music to my ears,” he said, savoring it all. “You’re opening up my world too, you know.”
She was quiet for a moment. “I like hearing that.”
He planned to tell her much more—when he was free.
The drive to the airport was pure torture, every mile punctuating the distance that was about to open up between them. In the car, he told himself he would be able to take her in his arms soon. At the plane, he fought the urge to cup her face and tell her how important she’d become to him in such a short time. Instead, he took her hand again and squeezed it, the safest gesture he could make.
“I’ll see you soon,” he said. “I’m not sure exactly when, but time will go by in a blink. Trust me.”
“I do,” she said, forcing a smile. “Well, I’d better go. Can’t have them waiting for me.”
He loved that she cared about that. His soon-to-be ex-wife never had. Suddenly, holding her hand wasn’t nearly enough for him. “I’m going to send you off like a good Italian,” he said softly.
“Two kisses on each cheek,” she said, a red flush staining her cheeks. “Just like you greeted me.”
He stepped forward, feeling the heat of her body. Lowering his head, he kissed one cheek and then the other, inhaling her perfume, fighting the instinct to gather her up in his arms. He realized she wasn’t breathing, and he stepped back.
“Well… Thank you for one of the best weekends of my life.”
“That was my line,” he said. “This is only the beginning, Caroline.”
She nodded and reluctantly walked off while he stood there, watching. His heart dipped a little as she waved to him from the plane. All he could think about was starting his new life with her free and clear of the past.
After she took off, he turned his phone on. Trevor had texted him, and the message sent shockwaves through him.
Her lawyers say you resigning from Merriam isn’t going to make them back down. They still want the lion’s share of your money. They’re pushing the community property bullshit big-time. Same song, different day. What do you want to do?
He looked up in the blue sky, searching for Caroline’s plane, and thought of the endless blue sky awaiting him in Dare Valley. Nothing was going to stop him from taking the next step of his new journey.
There was only one more play available to him if he wanted the judge to give him the freedom he craved more than anything.
He was going to have to give away the majority of his fortune to finalize his three-year-long divorce.
Welcome to his world, indeed.